Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

It's Time For Christmas Wishes, 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.

This story is part of a series. To understand it well, you really should read the others first.

"Christmas comes but once a year," Kippy said brightly, smiling.

Charlie Boone sighed softly, knowing his boyfriend well enough by now to know that this was just the opening volley in a much bigger battle to come."I have heard that, I think. What's your point?"

Kippy gave a little pout, but then smiled again. "Oh, Charlie, it's such a special time for us." He snuggled a little closer, and ran his hand slowly over the warm flesh of Charlie's belly. "I want it to be incredible this year, just like it was last year."

Charlie laughed, but drew his arm just a little tighter about his boyfriend. "We spent last Christmas walking around the inside of Santa's dream world. I don't know what we can do that will improve on that."

They were in Charlie's bed, in his bedroom, just another Friday evening with a weekend coming on. It would have been like many other Friday nights, now that both Charlie's and Kippy's parents had gotten used to the two of them being together all the time, but for one thing: the following Tuesday was Christmas, just four days away. And this year, despite their best efforts, they had yet to find anything wonderfully Christmasy to do for the holiday.

Max was busy with his pre-Christmas labors at the shop, and Frit and Pip were apprentices in-training this year. All three elves had apologized for their lack of attention this season; but the boys understood completely, and were not pressing them. Kippy had dragged Charlie to just about every store at the mall, and they had carefully selected gifts for both Ricky and Adrian, and their elf friends. Charlie had already purchased gifts for his parents online and had them shipped; but Kippy curled his lip at such ventures, and insisted on shopping in person.

"What does some warehouse on the other coast know about our friends?" he asked, shaking his head. "We have to pick out gifts in person, Charlie. See them. Touch them. That's what makes them special."

At Charlie's patient look, Kippy had just sighed. "Honestly, Charlie, if it wasn't for me, all tradition would just be out the window."

Charlie had smiled then, and kissed his boyfriend, and let it go at that. Arguing with Kippy was often as pointless as arguing with the wind.

So now here they were, just relaxing, a Friday evening with nothing to do. It was cold outside, there was the possibility of snow in the forecast, and Christmas was coming whether they did something special or not. Charlie had to admit that it didn't quite feel like Christmas yet; but he also knew that that feeling tended to lessen - just a tiny bit - each year, as he got older. It was starting to look like Christmas was a holiday for little kids and parents, and when you were in the middle years of that, there seemed a lot less to look forward to.

Even Ricky and Adrian had begged off their usual Friday night sleepover, which lessened even more the feeling that special days were at hand. Ricky's Uncle Bob had been visiting, and was leaving in the morning. Ricky didn't want to miss spending this last evening with him; and of course, wherever Ricky was, Adrian was, too.

Other than his family, Charlie's greatest joy in life were his friends. His boyfriend, Kippy, first, with Ricky and Adrian close behind. The four of them shared a bond unlike any other, forged in the fires of their many experiences together, and the knowledge that each could trust the others with his very life. Best friends were like that, Charlie figured. Family, in everything but name.

"I have a feeling," Kippy suddenly said, pulling back and staring at Charlie.

Charlie couldn't help but to smile at the serious look on his boyfriend's face. "A feeling, like a cramp in your leg? Or a skwishy feeling, like something good is going to happen?"

Kippy rolled his eyes, but gave Charlie a fond squeeze. "Oh, you. A good feeling, of course." He suddenly blinked. "Oh...get your phone."

Charlie looked over at his cell on the nightstand, just as it rang and the screen lit. He laughed, but reached for it and examined the caller ID displayed there. "Hey, it's Ricky."

He tapped the answer icon, and drew the phone to his ear. "Charlie here. What's up, Rick?""

"Hi, Charlie. Adrian and I are just sitting here with my Uncle Bob."

Charlie smiled. "Hi, Adrian! Hi, Uncle Bob!" Charlie put his cell on speakerphone so that Kip could hear.

They heard Ricky's voice, a little distantly now, as he pulled back from the phone. "Charlie says hi. I'll put the speakerphone on, so everyone can hear."

"So, what're you guys doing?," Charlie continued. "Having a good visit?"

"Oh, definitely. My Uncle Bob's a riot. He's the one I told you about that does magic. I used to help him when I was a kid."

Kippy sat up suddenly, grinning. "He's the one that taught you how to do make-up? And made you up as something you never did tell us about?"

They heard Adrian's distinctive laugh in the background, and then Ricky's sigh. "Oh, hi, Kip. Yeah. He's the one that made me up when I helped him do his shows."

Kippy nodded. "You were going to show us a picture of you made up, too."

"Was I? Must have forgotten. Anyway, I called to ask you if you guys would like to go to Twombly with us tomorrow morning?"

"What's a 'Twombly'?" Kippy asked.

"It's not a 'what', Kippy. It's a 'where'."

Kippy grinned, and Charlie gave his head a little shake. Kippy's eyes were bright, as if he had been expecting this very answer. "Ohhh...Twombly," he said, playing along now. "Of course. Isn't that right down the road from Possumfart Falls?"

Charlie laughed silently, and squeezed Kippy's wrist. They could hear Ricky and Adrian laughing, too.

"No, Kippy," Ricky continued. "Twombly's a little town in Vermont, just across the border. My uncle is doing a benefit magic show there on Sunday, and he's invited Adrian and me to go along. Naturally, I asked if you guys could go, too."

Kippy took in a short breath, and gasped it back out. Then he nodded his head emphatically.

Charlie frowned, but nodded. "Kip's on board already. But I have to ask you this: your uncle will be able to bring us back by Monday afternoon, right? That's Christmas Eve, in case you've forgotten."

"Duh. No, I haven't forgotten. It's about a two-hour drive to get there, but my uncle's coming back here to spend Christmas with us, so we'll definitely be back in time. You guys wanna go? You'll get to see a pretty good magic show, in addition to having a great road trip. Twombly's in the mountains, and it's just amazing there."

Again, Kippy nodded, his eyes widening a little and focusing squarely on Charlie's, to emphasize that he did want to go.

Charlie nodded, as much to Kip as to the phone. "Sure, Rick. Thanks for asking us. We have to talk to our parents; but I don't see them not letting us go."

Ricky gave a soft laugh over the phone. "Now that we're all seventeen, they're starting to treat us like we have some sense."

Kippy rolled his eyes and grinned. "That's because they don't know we've been out roaming around the universe, and all those magic dimensions, with our alien friends and elf buddies."

Ricky laughed, but it sounded strained. "Oh, that's funny, Kip. My Uncle Bob is looking at me like you're nuts."

Kippy made a face, and briefly covered his mouth with a hand, and then dropped it and grinned. "Oops," he mouthed at Charlie.

Charlie just shook his head. "Tell your Uncle Bob that Kip's a clown, and will fit right in with a magic show. He won't even need any make up!"

Kippy feigned an indignant look, but Charlie could see that he was having fun. They heard an unfamiliar voice speaking in the background, and Ricky sounded relieved when he returned. "My uncle says he knows his share of cut-ups, too."

Charlie blinked at the unfamiliar expression, but inferred its meaning immediately. "That's our Kip, always cutting things up."

"So ask your folks, and call me back, okay?"

"Okay, Rick. Might take half an hour or so to find them all. When are you guys leaving?"

"About seven o'clock tomorrow morning. We'll drop by to pick you two up."

"I'd need to go home now and ask, then," Kippy whispered. "And pack a few things to take along."

Charlie looked over at the clock on his nightstand. It wasn't yet nine, so they still had time to tend to things.

"Okay, Rick. We'll see our folks, and I'll call you back as a soon as I can and let you know."

"Great. Talk to you then."

Charlie shut off his phone and laid it back on the nightstand. Then he pulled Kippy closer and kissed him. "You and your skwish. I'm assuming that's why you were suddenly all fired up to take this trip?"

"Uh huh. I felt like it was important that we go with them."

"Then we will." Charlie rubbed his face against Kippy's, and kissed him again.

Kippy grinned beneath the kiss, and squeezed Charlie closer. "I should get dressed and go and ask my parents if I can go."

Charlie nodded. "Think they'll let you?"

"Yes. I'm a big boy now. They've accepted who I am, Charlie, and we get along fine these days. And they like you. They think that if I'm with you, you'll curb my outrageous tendencies."

Charlie laughed at that. "They do, do they? They don't know you very well, then."

Kippy tsked, gave him a gentle slap on the arm, and tossed back the covers. "I'd better go."

Charlie sighed, and got up, too. "I'll go with you. We can ask my folks if I can go on the way out. I'm sure they'll be okay with it, just as long as they know I'll be home for Christmas."

He circled the bed and walked right up to his boyfriend, and took him into his arms. Kippy smiled at him, but didn't pull away. "I thought we were going."

"We are. I was just ready to love you a little before Rick called, and now we have to get out of this nice warm bed and go outside in the cold and the dark. I want one more good, warm hug, and a kiss, to keep me going until we get back."

Kippy smiled, and pushed his face against Charlie's, and kissed him. "Oh, Charlie. You say the nicest things."

Charlie nodded, and kissed his boyfriend another time. "You make it easy, Kip. You really, really do."

Charlie was still sleepy when he and Kippy filed into the kitchen the next morning and took seats at the table. Charlie's mom and dad got up early during the work week, and while his dad liked to sleep an extra hour or so on his days off, Mrs. Boone was an early riser always, and had offered to make them some breakfast before they hit the road. Charlie, never one to trade his own limited cooking skills for his mom's, had agreed.

"Thanks, mom, for helping to get us going. If I had to cook for Kip, he'd be grumpy all the way to Twombly."

Kippy grunted, still not fully awake himself. "You're the only guy I know that can burn water."

Charlie's mom laughed, and broke another egg in the frying pan. "I don't mind. I'd rather see you guys get a good start, anyway." She eyed Kippy pointedly then. "And you know that Charlie has learned his cooking skills from me, and I have never burned water even once."

Kippy smiled then, and cast a fond glance Charlie's way. "I know. I was just kidding. You're both much better with a stove than I am."

Charlie got up and got them plates, silverware, and juice glasses, and poured some orange juice into each glass.

Mrs. Boone went to the toaster and dropped English muffin halves into the slots. "Charlie, I looked up this little town online you're going to, and it really is in the middle of nowhere. I hope that Rick's uncle will keep an eye on the weather, because if you get snowed in there, you'll be stuck." She made a little sad face. "It wouldn't feel like Christmas without you here."

Charlie had meant to look up the place himself the night before; but after walking with Kippy and his travel bag back to Charlie's, they had been chilled, and had gotten back into bed, and well, one thing had led to another. He smiled at the memory. "Uh, rural, huh? I had an idea that it was, just because I'd never heard of the place, and Vermont is not exactly far away."

His mom laughed. "Charlie, there were pictures, and it's barely a town. There's a gas station and a couple of stores, a town hall, a library, and about two hundred people living in homes scattered in the woods around them. Their biggest enterprise is a little motel and lodge at the edge of town. I think the only reason there is even a listing for Twombly at all is that it's considered a 'best kept secret' for good skiing. The seem to have some very good slopes around the town.

Kippy laughed. "Ooh. A ski resort, huh?"

Mrs. Boone made a surprised noise. "'s a ski resort of the most minimal kind, if you want to call it that. You can ski there, but you'd better bring your own skis, and already know how to use them."

Charlie grimaced at that. "Sounds kind of out of the way. I wonder how Rick's uncle got a job doing a benefit there?"

His mom shrugged. "Well, he has to perform somewhere, I guess. I'll bet he's just glad to accept whatever is offered. I mean, he only does this in his spare time, for fun, you said."

That was true. Ricky claimed that his uncle was a pretty good magician; but because he was just an amateur, the opportunities to perform were probably very limited.

They had their fried eggs with cheese and Canadian bacon on muffins, and juice, and Mrs. Boone sat with them and they talked. Charlie's mom was a reader like Charlie, and always fun to talk with. Kippy read as well, but Charlie almost never saw him at it, and was often left wondering how his boyfriend knew some of the things he knew.

"Did you happen to see where this town is located, Mrs. Boone?" Kippy asked, shooting Charlie a smile.

"Um...I think I read that it was in the Green Mountains. It's pretty much a straight shot east, about ninety or a hundred miles from here."

Kippy nodded. "I've been to that area. It's gorgeous."

Charlie just sighed. Much of Vermont looked like the northern part of their own state, which was also very beautiful. There were far worse places to take a trip to.

He looked up at the clock on the wall, and then reached over and tapped Kippy's hand. "They'll be here to pick us up in about ten minutes. Just time to brush our teeth."

The boys stood and grabbed their plates and glasses and took them to the sink.

"Leave them, guys," Mrs. Boone said. "I'll get them."

Charlie grinned, went to his mom, and gave her a big hug. "Thanks, mom. Say bye to dad for me?" He kissed her cheek, felt her return the hug.

"Have a good time, Charlie. Kippy, you keep him out of trouble, okay?"

Charlie tried not to laugh at that, and Kippy just grinned. "I'll do my best."

Mrs. Boone nodded, and released Charlie. "I'll see you Christmas Eve, you hear?"

Charlie nodded. "Like the man said: 'I'll be back'."

His mom rolled her eyes. "Leave Sylvester Stallone out of this."

"It's Schwarzenegger, mom. Before he was a governor and all that."

"Whatever." She waved her hands at him. "Go. Have a good time."

They beat it back upstairs, brushed their teeth and donned their coats, and Charlie tucked a few last things into his overnight bag. Kippy grabbed his bag from the floor, and they were on their way back down the steps when the doorbell rang.

Charlie snatched the door open, and there was Ricky on the front stoop. The boy's eyes took in their coats and bags, and he grinned. "What, you're not ready?"

Kippy leaned forward and gave the other boy a peck on the cheek, and smiled gloriously at him. "I'm always ready for you, tiger."

Charlie laughed at the red stain that rose quickly up Ricky's neck to his face and spread across his cheeks. But Ricky was a good sport, and simply nodded. "I asked for that, I guess." He grinned. "Ready to hit the road?"

Ricky stepped back as Charlie and Kippy emerged onto the stoop. Charlie closed the door behind them, and looked to the driveway, where a big, brown Ford Expedition SUV stood behind his mom's car. There was a black box-trailer attached to a hitch on the rear, which had a sprinkle of holographic stars on the side of it, but no lettering. Adrian was in the front passenger seat of the SUV, and waved to them.

"Come and meet my Uncle Bob," Ricky said, grinning. "He's heard a lot about you guys, and is looking forward to meeting you." He winked. "Even you, Kip."

"Sticks and stones," Kippy said, hefting his bag. He started off towards the SUV. "Come on, Charlie. Bring your dog, too."

Charlie and Ricky grinned at each other; but then Charlie gave his head a brief shake. "I hope you're not going to antagonize Kip the whole trip."

Ricky made a small, almost hurt face. "Aw, you know how much I love Kippy, Charlie. We're just playing, like we always do."

"Okay. But, just so you know, Kippy had a skwish feeling about us going with you. That might mean something interesting is in the wind."

Ricky looked surprised, and then stared after Charlie's boyfriend. "Huh? It's just a couple of days in Vermont. My uncle will do his show on Sunday, and then we'll come back." He turned back to Charlie. "What could be special about that?"

"I don't know. But you know Kip and skwish."

Ricky frowned. "Do I." But then he sighed. "Man. I don't want any weird magic shit happening in front of my Uncle Bob. I hope whatever Kip is feeling, it's just that it means we'll all have a good time."

"Let's hope so," Charlie said, smiling.

They started toward the SUV together. "So...what's this benefit that the show is for?" Charlie asked.

"Oh, it's for something called The Eustace T. Phernackertiban Fund."

Charlie stopped in his tracks. "The what?"

Ricky laughed, and pulled Charlie back into motion. "You know, I reacted the same way when I heard it from Uncle Bob?"

"But what is it? It's a new one on me."

Ricky shrugged. "Even Uncle Bob isn't sure. Mayor Snorkum of Twombly simply offered the job to him, said they'd pay his travel expenses and lodging, but that the show itself was for charity. Uncle Bob feels like it's good exposure - more or less."

Charlie raised his eyebrow at that one. "I thought this place was kind of out-of-the-way."

Ricky leaned closer. "I had to look twice to find it on the map. It's tiny, Charlie." He straightened. "But my uncle loves to perform, and he doesn't get nearly enough opportunities to do that these days. we go."

Kippy had reached the SUV, and Adrian climbed out and offered him a hug. Both boys turned towards them then, and Charlie picked up the pace. He set is bag down in front of Adrian, and gave him a hug. "Fancy meeting you here," Charlie said, grinning.

Adrian's smile went deeply into his eyes. "Oh, you know me. Wherever Rick goes, someone has to go along to clean up the mess."

Ricky snorted, but smiled, and threw an arm around his boyfriend. "We won't say what kind of mess he likes to clean up," Ricky whispered.

Adrian gave a little gasp, and landed a gentle slap on his boyfriend's shoulder. "Mind your manners in front of your uncle," he whispered back.

Ricky just shrugged. "He knows about us. He's grown up."

Still, Ricky's face reddened slightly once again, and he turned back to indicate the SUV with a wave of his hand. "This is a big truck, so Ad and I were both up front. But if you guys want to see better, we'll switch with you."

Kippy immediately shook his head. "No, that's okay. Charlie and I don't mind taking a back seat to you two."

Charlie grinned. "Okay by me."

They crowded inside, and Charlie and Kippy thrust their bags over the back seat into the cargo area beyond. Several other small bags were already stowed there.

The man in the driver's seat was on his cell phone. He smiled at them in the rear view mirror, and waved a hand. "Be right with you, guys."

Charlie examined what he could see of him, without obviously staring. He seemed to be tall and a little rugged-looking, and his face in profile had a distinct likeness to Ricky's. As Charlie recalled, Uncle Bob was Ricky's father's brother, and so some resemblance could be expected. There was a pleasant sparkle in the man's eyes, and he smiled as he talked on the phone. Charlie smiled, too. He's handsome, just like Rick.

"Well, we're leaving now, so expect us in about two hours," Uncle Bob said into his cell. "Yes, I am bringing that act, as promised." He looked up, smiled at his nephew and his nephew's boyfriend, and then allowed his eyes to turn briefly over the back of the seat. "Oh, I have plenty of help, so you needn't worry about that. You were expecting two guys, but you're getting a troupe of five instead. So relax."

Charlie felt surprise at that, as Ricky had made no mention of the fact that they might be assisting with the act.

Ricky turned around in his seat and grinned at them. "Oh, yeah. I forgot to say that everyone gets to be in the act."

Kippy laughed, and gently dug an elbow into Charlie's side. "Do we get to be made up?"

Ricky scratched his temple, trying not to laugh. "Maybe."

Kippy nodded. 'Do we get to see you made up?"


Kippy sighed. "I'm having fun already."

Uncle Bob finished on the phone with a pleasant, "See you soon," and slid the cell into a shirt pocket. "Hi, guys. I'm Bob Travers. Great to have you along." He grinned. "Ricky here has told me all sorts of things about you."

"Should we be embarrassed?" Kippy asked.

Uncle Bob laughed. "No. Ricky speaks highly of you both."

Kippy's right eyebrow raised, and he looked pointedly at Ricky. "There's a new experience."

Uncle Bob laughed again. "You have to be the cut up. Kippy, right?" He stuck a hand across the back of the seat.

Kippy smiled. "That's me. A laugh a minute, never serious about anything." He took the offered hand, and shook it warmly.

"And you must be Charlie." Kippy released Uncle Bob's hand, and it was then offered to Charlie.

Charlie nodded. "Hi. As you might have guessed, I'm the peacekeeper around here." He shook the man's hand, felt the strength in it. Uncle Bob was as strong as he looked, no doubt there. It was obvious now from which side of the family Ricky had inherited is physique.

Uncle Bob started the SUV, and backed it carefully from the driveway, watching the trailer in his mirrors. He was evidently experienced with such maneuvers, and soon they were headed off up the street.

"What time we got, Rick?" Uncle Bob asked.

Ricky checked his cell, and smiled. "Seven oh-five. Right on time."

Uncle Bob's eyes sought out the boys in the back seat via the mirror. "So...Rick says you guys love magic, and want to be part of the act."

Charlie and Kippy grinned at each other. Ricky turned and gave them a big, toothy smile over the back of the seat. "Oh, yeah. These guys and magic go together like milk and breakfast cereal."

"Uh...sure," Charlie agreed. "Kip and I love magic."

Uncle Bob smiled. "Well, you've come to the right place. You guys can be a part of this and have fun in the process. I'm sure there will be at least one act that will intrigue each of you enough to be the victim...I mean, the participant...for the audience."

Down low, out of sight, Kippy's hand found Charlie's, and squeezed it. Is this going to be fun, or what? he seemed to telegraph.

Charlie squeezed his boyfriend's hand in return, and nodded. The truck paused at a stop sign, and then proceeded, and Uncle Bob talked all the while as they headed for the interstate.

Magic is about doing one thing while having the audience seeing something else entirely. It's illusion, and craft. Magic isn't just for kids, it's a serious pursuit. Magic is an art, and you boys are about to learn just how much fun doing magic can be...

Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand another time, and Charlie couldn't help feeling a sweet sense of satisfaction. He could feel Kippy's excitement. Going anywhere and doing anything with Kip was a magic all its own, one that disappearing man chests and knife throws just couldn't compete with. But...they would have to see. Uncle Bob was enthusiastic about his hobby, that was for sure.

Charlie smiled. Skwish never lies. Perhaps something special was in the offing here, after all.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Uncle Bob asked, as the Expedition wound its way up the flanks of the mountain. They had reached a height now where snow covered much of the landscape, though a couple of days of sun and some warmer temperatures had knocked it back a little, and the roads were clear.

The boys nodded, taking in the tall stands of maple, beech, and birch trees dominating the roadsides, yet co-existing peacefully with the white pines, white cedars, and red oaks among them. Forests were natural peacekeepers, Charlie knew, tending to their own no matter the species of tree that lived there, competing only for sunlight and a little space in which to grow and prosper. People could certainly learn from them, he thought.

The forests of Vermont were much like their own back home, just as were the mountains they covered. These were not the Rockies, tall and often austere, their peaks so far removed from the lands below that they often stood naked in the sunlight. The Green Mountains, like those back home, were rounded and gentle by comparison, forested and full of life, places where people could easily go and enjoy themselves. And places where people could live, apparently, and prosper, just as the trees around them did.

"I think this peak tops out around four thousand feet," Uncle Bob continued, adjusting his visor against the morning sun, which was peeking through a gathering skywall of gray clouds. "We'll only be going about three-quarters of the way up, if I read that map right."

"You haven't been to Twombly before, have you?" Adrian asked.

"" Uncle Bob laughed. "I've been through here many times going east, so I probably drove right by the place more than once, and didn't even know it was there." He nodded. "Lots of small, out-of-the-way places in these mountains."

The center display in the dash showed a GPS map of their route, with their destination highlighted by a red dot. They were close now, if the map could be believed.

"We're looking for a turnoff on the left," Uncle Bob said, slowing the truck and peering at the road ahead. "Although I honestly don't recall there being any along this straightaway stretch."

"Maybe there?" Ricky said, pointing.

They slowed even more, and came abreast of a hole in the forest to the left. Uncle Bob checked the mirrors for traffic - there was none at the moment - and let the Ford roll to a stop. "Is that even a road?"

It didn't really look like one. There was a space in the greenery there, certainly wide enough for a road, yet no road was visible. They could see clearly through the hole, and off into the valley below. Yet...the sun had melted the snow back on each side of the road, and something about the edge there looked off. Charlie squinted at the shoulder again, and, underneath the spray of gravel at the edge, was the unmistakable paved look of a roadhead, even if the road itself was not visible. "It looks paved there," he said.

"Pull over on the shoulder and I'll run across and look," Ricky offered.

Uncle Bob nodded, and pulled the Ford and its trailer onto the gravel at the edge of the highway. Ricky hopped out, went around the nose of the truck, leaned out and looked both ways, and then loped across the two-lane blacktop to the other side. Charlie and the others watched as he entered the hole in the scenery and stopped. He looked back over his shoulder at them and grinned, and then turned and proceeded into the space...and slowly sank out of sight. But in only a moment he reappeared, rising up almost as if out of the ground itself, and ran across the road to the truck.

"It's a road," he said, hopping back in next to Adrian and closing the door. "And there's a sign there that says 'Twombly - 2 miles'. Just be careful when you turn in. The road drops off, and then it goes off to the right along the ridge."

Uncle Bob nodded, and backed them slowly down the shoulder, then turned across the road and into the space in the greenery. "It's no wonder the place is so hard to find. You'd think the sign announcing the town would be out here, where you could see it."

But Charlie wasn't really listening. For a second he just held his breath - it looked like they were about to drive off a cliff. But then the nose of the Ford eased over the dip onto a grade, and the road appeared magically before them, turning off to the right and disappearing among the trees. It was a single paved lane, scarcely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, but smooth and obviously well-kept.

"It's magic!" Uncle Bob said, the delight in his voice apparent. "Talk about a vanishing act."

The Ford reached the bottom of the short grade and the road turned to the right and leveled out. They drove now beneath an overarching canopy of barren branches, though the woods on each side of the road were sprinkled with enough evergreens to remove any sense of winter desolation. They looked hale and hearty against the snow-covered ground, and some even still had snow in the branches on their shaded sides.

"We're surrounded by Christmas trees!" Kippy said, smiling at the distinctive shapes of the firs that stood companionably among the pines. It did look like a forest of Christmas trees, and Charlie had to smile at the idea of it.

"Those are balsams," Uncle Bob said, waving a hand at his side window. "They're a lot bigger than they look from here - they're father away than you think." He laughed. "Does look like Santa Claus would be right at home here, though, doesn't it?"

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other, and Kippy grinned and pointed a finger skyward. "Be careful, or he'll hear you," he said softly.

But Uncle Bob was focused on the GPS map again, and nodding to himself. "Right on the money. We'll be there in a minute or so."

Charlie spotted a mailbox by the road ahead, and a gravel driveway that meandered off into the woods. His eyes followed the drive back from the road, and then he raised a hand and pointed. "There's a house, way back in there."

The truck drew up to the drive and slowed to a crawl. They all peered at the distant house, no one saying anything.

It was a cheerful little structure, reminiscent of a Swiss chalet, built with what certainly looked like logs from where they were, with a heavy, sloping roof and wide, well-supported eaves set at right angles to the front of the house. A broad, covered porch ran across the front of the structure, bounded on three sides ornate by rails of wood, which had little lines of snow on them where the sun could not reach. The panes of the windows beneath the porch roof overhang danced with the lights of candles on the sills within. Small firs at each end of the porch twinkled with multicolored lights, forming a picture good enough to grace the front of any Christmas card.

"Wow," Uncle Bob said, shaking his head. "Can't get much Christmas-ier than that!"

Charlie looked at Kippy, who wore a smile as he stared at the house, and then leaned against his boyfriend and whispered in his ear," Reminds me of some of the houses we saw in Nicholaas's dreams last year."

Kippy nodded. "I was just thinking the same thing."

They drove on, and more of the little houses appeared in the woods on both sides of the road, no two alike, yet each sharing the same basic design ethic. There was a feeling of comfort and tranquility to the cluster of homes, almost as if these neighbors shared some same sense of purpose in life. All the homes had little, dancing candle flames in the windows.

The town appeared suddenly before them as they rounded a bend in the road, and Uncle Bob braked them to a halt. They couldn't help staring, even though they should have been prepared for just about anything by the feeling given them by the homes they had already seen. Charlie just let his eyes roam, taking it all in.

This was main street, obviously, with a short line of buildings on each side, all built in the same style as the homes they had seen, though much larger. In front of each was a decorated Christmas tree, taller than a tall man, dressed in colored lights and baubles even during this early part of the day. More strings of lights crisscrossed the road above, strung between the buildings, twinkling in colors of red, blue, green, and amber. Snow had been plowed from the roads, driveways, and parking lots, and stood in cheery little mounds about the edges of the road.

Several buildings wore signs above the covered front porches, announcing Argwan's General Store, Flynnt's Hardware, Ms. Cubely's Clothing Shop, and the US mail. Another building had a small island out front, with two gas pumps, and a roll-up bay door to one side, and a sign above the island that revealed it to be Knirkle's Service Center. A much larger building with a small cupola atop it wore an ornate sign that proclaimed it to be the Twombly Town Hall, and a smaller building nestled up against it called itself the Twombly Public Library. Further down the road, there were several other buildings, the signs on which they could not quite make out from where they were.

Green and red streamers with little bells on them hung down the fronts of most of the buildings. The doors had wreaths and candy canes on them, and the second-floor windows of all the structures also held candle lights, which added their warm glows to the twinkly colors on the lines above the street. The overcast sky made the light show oddly cheery, and the brightly dressed citizens only added to that effect.

People were everywhere - on the front porches of the shops, in the street, and on the small lawn in front of the town hall. Uncle Bob let the Expedition ease forward. The people smiled, and waved, and the boys waved back as Uncle Bob pulled the truck into the small parking next to the building and shut off the engine. "Friendly bunch, at least." He grinned. "Always prefer a smiling audience to a grumpy one."

"Where are we going to set up?" Ricky asked, looking every which way at once.

Uncle Bob pointed at the town hall building. "Mayor Snorkum said they have a big meeting room here, and that it's as close as they can get to a theater."

There was a small group of people sitting on the front steps of the town hall, and Charlie felt their eyes as they turned to look at the new arrival. One of the people turned to the others, pointed at the Ford and the trailer, and jumped to his feet and started towards them at a run.

Kippy grinned. "Looks like we're being met."

The fellow raced up to the driver's door, tossed back the hood on his coat, and grinned in at Uncle Bob. "You're the magic people?"

"Sure are." Uncle Bob smiled. "Is this where we're going to set up?"

Charlie found himself staring, and was dimly aware that the other boys were staring, too.

The fellow at the window was young, and looked to be about their own age. He had dark curls and vivid blue eyes, and he was about as cute a guy as Charlie had ever seen. He was so cute, in fact, that he pulled to mind another very cute face, a face that had made Charlie smile and sigh - just a little - more than once in the past, but which he had become used to over time, and now simply accepted as normal.

Normal, that is, for an elf.

The boy at the window could have been brother to Frit, Max's great, great, great grandson. For that matter, he could have been a younger version of Max himself, who was no slouch in the looks department, either, even with the more than six hundred years of age he carried about with him. The boy at the window - to all appearances - was an elf.

Kippy, who still had Charlie's hand in his, squeezed it spasmodically, and Charlie looked over at his boyfriend. Kippy's eyes were wide, and the question there was plain: are you seeing what I'm seeing?

Charlie squeezed his boyfriend's hand back, and gave a small shake of his head, a warning not to say anything yet.

"Charlie..." Ricky began, but stopped when Charlie turned and gave him a small shake of his head as well. Adrian, looking, caught it, too, and closed his mouth before anything could come out of it. The boy at the window and Uncle Bob seemed oblivious to the byplay, and went on with their conversation.

"Yeah. This is the town hall. We have a stage set up for you, and everything." The boy grinned, and Charlie's breath caught. Next to him, Kippy just sighed. "The whole town's looking forward to your show," the boy finished.

Uncle Bob nodded. "I'm Bob Travers, and these fellas here are part of my troupe. We're really glad to be here. I talked to your mayor, Brin Snorkum, and he said the show tomorrow was sold out."

The boy's face lit again in another kilowatt-strength smile. "Oh, that's my dad. I'm Kiley Snorkum. Yeah, we sold every ticket we had. The whole town will be there."

A girl, who had been standing with the group on the town hall steps, detached herself from the crowd and walked over. She, too, had a cute elfin face, and appeared to be young. "Is it them, Kiley?"

"Yeah." The boy nodded at her, then turned back to Uncle Bob. "This is my sister, Kiri."

"Hi, Kiri. I'm Bob Travers. And these are Rick, Adrian, Charlie, and Kippy. We're looking forward to putting on a good show for you."

The girl smiled, just as beautifully as her brother. "It's exciting. I can't wait to see what you have for us." Her eyes lifted then, and she looked beyond the truck. "Oh, there's our dad, now."

A man was striding across the street towards them. He was a little taller than the two at the window, and dressed much the same, in a gray parka with a hood. He tossed the hood back as he came around the truck, and again Charlie was almost struck dumb. The man, even though a little taller, and broader in the shoulders than Kiley, still gave every appearance of being an elf like Max. He looked like Kiley's older brother, not his father. He had the same dark curls, the same bright, intelligent blue eyes. He was smiling, and as he reached the window of the Ford, he extended a hand towards Uncle Bob.

"Hi. You must be Bob Travers. I'm Brin Snorkum, Mayor of Twombly."

Uncle Bob stuck his hand up and grasped the mayor's. This time there was a slightly surprised look in Ricky's uncle's eyes, as if he couldn't quite believe that someone that looked so young was actually the mayor here. "Uh...great to meet you. I was just talking to, here, and they said you were set up for us with a stage. If that's correct, the boys here and I will start carrying some things inside. The more we get done today, the easier it will be on us tomorrow."

"That's fine," Mayor Snorkum agreed. "I can get a few others to help move things, if you need a hand."

Uncle Bob relaxed, and this time his smile had less of an astonished look about it. "I think we can manage. Don't want anyone getting a sneak look at things before the magic starts."

The mayor of Twombly offered a pretty nice smile of his own. "We're looking forward to the show. You have a whole town here full of people that love magic, Bob."

That I can believe, Charlie thought to himself. Looks like they could do some magic on their own, too.

Uncle Bob pushed open his door, and the mayor stepped back as the man climbed out of the truck. Kippy gave Charlie's hand a last squeeze, released it, and slid over to his own door and opened it. That seemed to be the signal for the rest of the boys to follow him. They climbed out and looked around at the town, and the people drawing near. Charlie could not help but to examine the faces of the other townsfolk as they gathered around, and he found himself less than surprised to see that every one of them had the cute, distinctive features that seemed ageless and wonderfully sweet, the hallmark of those who worked in another place, another moment, creating the many special things to be gifted to the people of the world by the symbol of Christmas himself, Santa Claus.

Ricky and Adrian were doing their best not to stare, smiling and waving at the people that were streaming across the street and drawing into a large circle about the Ford and the newcomers. They all wore looks of curiosity and interest, and smiles that made Charlie's heart beam, and his own face to stretch into a broad grin. That these people were unaccountably glad to see them seemed less of note than their obvious desire to make Uncle Bob and the boys welcome.

Charlie and Ricky and Adrian circled the Ford, and went to stand beside Kippy and Uncle Bob. That man was looking about with a little bit of wonder in his eyes, almost as if he could not quite believe the kind of reception they were getting. Charlie certainly understood that. This was quite a greeting for one amateur magician and four mostly unmagical teen boys.

Mayor Snorkum smiled as the circle of happy faces grew, and raised his arms, and let his eyes travel over the crowd. "Friends! These are the people that we have invited to bring a little magic into our Christmas celebrations. I want to introduce you to Mr. Bob Travers, töframaður ótrúlega, who will stun you with his feats of legerdemain. And these are his assistants in the mystical arts, Rick, Adrian, Charlie, and Kippy, whose talents will delight and amaze you."

The crowd laughed and clapped, and everyone looked excited and happy. Charlie could not remove the grin from his face, but nor could he pull his gaze from the sea of charmed and delighted elfin faces. Nobody, none of them, looked any older than Mayor Snorkum. The entire town was made up of sweet, absolutely beautiful faces.

Mayor Snorkum seemed happy to see all the smiles. He turned in a slow circle, his arms still raised, smiling at everyone, looking as happy as he could be.

Uncle Bob just looked stunned now, totally taken by surprise by the warmth of their welcome. He leaned closer to the mayor, and whispered, "What did you tell them I was? A...toofrom...a what?"

The mayor laughed. "A magician extraordinaire. I'm sorry. It's the language of the old country, and I still occasionally use it to reinforce something more strongly. Most of the people here know what I mean, even though many of the youngers have grown lax with the old tongue."

"Ah." Uncle Bob nodded. "Sounded, um, Scandinavian."

"It's Icelandic, actually," the mayor said, grinning even more widely.

"Oh." Uncle Bob looked impressed. "You mean, like...uh, Reykjavik?"

"Um, we're originally from a little north of there, actually."

"I see." Uncle Bob looked around at the crowd, all of whom were still smiling, but were now talking away with each other, excitedly discussing the coming show. "This is a very...very nice looking crowd." He laughed. "I hope we can live up to the word you've put out on us."

The mayor nodded, and briefly gave Uncle Bob's shoulder a squeeze. "You will. I was very careful in choosing someone for the show."

He stepped away then, and raised his hands to the crowd for silence. The response was immediate, and the excited conversations trailed off almost in mid sentence.

"As you all know, the proceeds from the show will go to the Eustace T. Phernackertiban Fund for the betterment of Christmas everywhere. Suggestions are welcome, as they are every year. I want all of you to be considering where your hearts lie this Christmas, and where we can give where it will do the most good."

The crowd immediately started talking again, and the mayor lowered his hands. He gave a little sigh, and allowed his smile to take in all five visitors. "You'd probably like to take a small break after that long drive. We have rooms for you at the ski lodge down the street. I hope you boys don't mind bunking two and two, as we only could get three rooms."

Kippy grinned. "Charlie and I don't mind that at all."

"We're good, too," Ricky said, bumping his shoulder playfully against Adrian's.

"That's a relief." Mayor Snorkum looked pleased. "I know we're all looking forward to the show. Now...what can we do to help?"

Uncle Bob looked startled, and then gave a short laugh. "Oh, believe me, the less your people see before the show, the better. If you can point us at the way into wherever you have the stage set up, I'll just back the trailer up to the door, and the five of us can unload the...magical devices."

"Excellent. Um -" The mayor scratched the side of his head. "I have a few things to do yet before the day is done. Would you mind terribly if my son, Kiley, showed you the way?"

"And me, too," Kiri, said, waving a hand.

"And my daughter," Mayor Snorkum added, almost seamlessly.

Uncle Bob laughed now, and nodded. "That would be fine."

Kiley and Kiri looked at each other, and they each grinned and nodded, as if giving a silent little yes!

The mayor turned, and handed a key on a ring to his son. "Let our guests into the building, help them if they need it, and then give this key to Mr. Travers so that they can come and go."

"Right, dad."

"Go on, dad," Kiri said. "We'll take good care of them."

"Then I'll be off, and get back to you later." The mayor smiled. "Work is never done, it seems, even in a small town like this one." He opened his coat, fished around inside of it as if seeking an inner pocket, and produced a flat, black pancake. This he slapped gently against his arm with a flourish, and the boys all laughed as the pancake gave a little pop and immediately expanded into a tall top hat. The mayor placed it upon his head, arranged it just so, and gave them all a wink. "You will find that we do love magic here, gentlemen. In every way, shape and form. So don't be surprised if others try out a few of their tricks upon you, too!"

Uncle Bob laughed, and shook his head, but nodded as Mayor Snorkum gave a grin, a little wave, and started off into the surrounding crowd, which at first parted, and then closed in around him, and then streamed after him as he crossed the street again.

"What have we gotten ourselves into here?" Ricky's uncle said softly, as he watched them go.

"I think you're gonna have the best audience of your career, Uncle Bob," Ricky said, grinning after the retreating crowd. "That's what."

The man nodded. "I think this is going to be a lot of fun, at the very least." He turned then, as if just remembering that Kiley and Kiri were still standing there with them. "Well...if you two would like to show us where to go, we can start getting set up."

The two teens grinned, and turned as one to point at the town hall. "There's a door at the side there," Kiley said.

"Where you can pull up and unload your truck," Kiri finished.

If Charlie had had any doubts before now about the people that lived in this town, it vanished at that moment. He was used to the way Frit and Pip talked sometimes, as if they were one mind with two mouths, and seeing the same trait in Kiley and Kiri slammed the door on any ideas that he might be having that he could be imagining things here. The people of Twombly were elves, of that he had no doubt.

But...what were they doing here? That they did not expect their visitors to know anything about them seemed plain. As far as most humans visiting Twombly would be able to see, the town was comprised of friendly, enthusiastic, and quite handsome people, that all shared some obvious genetic link in their origins. Charlie had seen nothing that would do more than give the impression that the people here were a little odd - but people everywhere were a little odd. Every neighborhood was its own world, with the next neighborhood yonder a new and different place.

Uncle Bob laughed, and opened the door on the Ford. "If you'll point the way, we'll follow."

Kiley and Kiri immediately laughed, and started off across the lawn of the town hall towards the side of the building. Uncle Bob climbed back into the SUV, and started the engine.

For a moment, Charlie and the others merged into a huddle. "What the hell?" Ricky whispered. "These guys are elves!"

Adrian nodded. "It's like being with Max, and Frit and Pip."

Kippy looked at Charlie. "What do you think is happening?"

"I don't know," Charlie whispered back. "But I think it's important that we don't let on that we know. Not yet, anyway."

"I agree," Kippy returned, flatly. "We need to know more, and my skwish is telling me to be patient."

Charlie grinned, and took his boyfriend's hand and squeezed it. "You and your skwish. It's why we're here in the first place."

Kippy nodded. "Uh huh. You see?" He turned his head and looked after Kiley and Kiri. "We're here for a reason, Charlie."

"Something's going on," Adrian agreed. "Even I feel something."

"That's my hand on your butt," Ricky whispered.

Adrian laughed. "I mean, I feel something besides that."

"I do know one thing," Charlie said. "The mayor introduced the four of us to the crowd by name. But he wasn't standing here when Uncle Bob introduced us to Kiley and Kiri. He was still coming across the street." Charlie nodded. "Either the mayor has the hearing of a cat, or..."

"Or he knew our names some other way," Kippy finished.

Charlie nodded. "Yeah."

Uncle Bob stuck his head out of the window of the truck. "You guys coming? They're waiting for us."

"Let's go," Ricky said quietly. "But everyone keeps their mouth shut on this for now, right?"

"Right," Kippy agreed.

They got into the SUV, and Uncle Bob started it around to the side of the town hall. Kiley and Kiri, standing at the corner of the building, saw them coming now, and literally scampered around to the side of the building and almost jumped up onto a small landing with four steps and wrought iron handrails, that serviced a double-doored entry into the building.

"They're so cute," Kippy sighed, in a whisper.

Charlie laughed softly, and leaned against his boyfriend. "Especially Kiley?"

Kippy closed his eyes and gave a soft groan. "Shut up, Charlie."

Charlie laughed, and gave Kippy a quick kiss on the cheek. Kippy smiled, but didn't open his eyes immediately, so Charlie kissed him again.

"Relax, Charlie," Kippy whispered. He sighed again, opened his eyes, and turned and pointed at them with a finger. "I see them with these." He reached out and took Charlie's hand, and laid Charlie's palm on his breast. "I see you with my heart, Charlie. Nothing will ever change that."

Charlie felt a brief sting come to his eyes, and closed them, and pushed his face against Kippy's cheek. "I love you," he whispered.

He felt a small nod of his boyfriend's head. "I love you, too, Charlie Boone."

The SUV drew up to the double doors, and a little beyond, so that the trailer was even with the steps. Uncle Bob shut off the engine, and opened his door and climbed out.

Charlie gave Kip another quick kiss, and pulled away from him. "Tonight," he whispered.

Kippy smiled at him, his eyes dancing with light. "Oh, no doubt about it."

They got out of the SUV, and followed Uncle Bob around to the trailer, where they found him standing with a hand on the t-handle that opened the trailer's twin doors. The man smiled at the brother and sister, and used his chin to indicate the doors into the town hall. "Are they unlocked?"

In answer, Kiley turned and opened the right hand door, pulled it back to the hand rail, and used a small chain with a hook at the end to latch the door back. He did the same for the left hand door, and then pointed within. "This takes you right to the backstage area behind the curtains we set up for you."

"Great." Uncle Bob smiled at them both. "We can take it from here, okay?"

Brother and sister both looked disappointed. "You don't need our help?" Kiri asked.

Uncle Bob adopted a secretive look, and cast a glance both ways before waving the two town kids to his side. Kiley and Kiri looked at each other a moment, but then moved closer.

"There's magic about," Uncle Bob whispered to them. "And secrets, too. You wouldn't want to spoil the show for yourselves by accidentally seeing any secrets, would you?"

Both teens gave little gasps, and then shook their heads. "No," Kiley agreed, seriously.

"We don't want to spoil the show," Kiri added, a little wide-eyed.

"Good." Uncle Bob smiled. "You can help by making sure that no one comes in while we're setting up, okay? That will keep the magic from slipping away."

"We got it," Kiley said, handing the door key to Uncle Bob. Kiley grabbed his sister's arm and started pulling her towards the exit. "We'll cover the doors, okay?"

"No one will get in," Kiri assured, pulling right back at her brother.

Uncle Bob nodded. "Great. It will only take us about twenty or thirty minutes to move our stuff inside. After that, we just want to make sure that no one comes in and sees any...secrets."

Kiley grinned. "This is gonna be fun!" This time, when he pulled at Kiri, she allowed herself to be hustled towards the door.

Uncle Bob grinned after them, shaking his head. "Sweet kids. I'd hate to see the show be spoiled for them because they saw something they shouldn't." He turned to gaze at the boys. "Set up is often when a magician's secrets get exposed. I've had to set up places where a dozen people were wandering around backstage. Nothing ruins a performance more than some wiseass who was backstage, sitting in the audience and whispering during the whole act that he saw the trapdoor, or that the rabbits were all in jail."

Charlie blinked at that, and grinned. "The rabbits were all in jail?"

Uncle Bob laughed. "It just means that the rabbits were caged. I'm supposed to produce them out of thin air."


The man turned and looked around them. They were in a wide area, to the right of which were large blue curtains that ran from the floor to the high ceiling, and stretched the entire width of the room. Currently, the middle sections were open, and they could see into a large room beyond, where row after row of folding metal chairs had been set up. There actually was a stage before the curtains, with steps to either side of it that ran down several feet to the floor of the main room.

Above their heads was a grid of iron crossbars, from which several pulleys hung, with ropes that dropped to the floor. The railing that held the curtains, and the ropes that ran up to a small system of pulleys that opened and closed them, all looked recently installed, the bright and shiny heads of new screws peeking out at them from the places where everything was attached to the walls and ceiling.

Uncle Bob looked surprised at what he saw, and then pleased. "Hey, this is great. Real curtains that work, and it looks like we can use these overhead pulleys in a couple of the acts, too. This might actually come off pretty well."

"You didn't think it would?" Ricky asked.

"Well, these small towns can be problematic. I've performed in churches, schools, and rec centers, where there was just no way to screen things well from the audience. For a magician, having everything out in plain sight is tough." He nodded. "But this looks good, like a real stage. We can give these people a really nice show, I think."

Somehow, that made Charlie smile. A really nice show was what he felt these people somehow needed, too.

Uncle Bob nodded again. "I need to check out the electrical connections and see what they have. If you guys wouldn't mind starting to brings things in, I'll be out in a few minutes. Rick knows what goes where." He reached into a pocket and withdrew a small ring of keys, and tossed them to his nephew.

Ricky gave Charlie a fond poke, and pointed at the open doors. "Help a fella carry some stuff in?"

Adrian rolled his eyes, and then looked over at Kippy, feigning indignity. "Is this what being dumped feels like?"

Ricky made light of the question. "Never happen. I just want to ask Charlie a thing or two while we walk."

Adrian immediately looked like he understood. "Oh. Well, lead on. Kip and I are right behind you."

"Where the view is quite nice, I may add," Kippy said, winking at Adrian as they fell in behind Ricky and Charlie.

Uncle Bob smiled after them, and just shook his head. "Kids."

"You wanted to ask me something?" Charlie asked Rick, in a low voice, once they were outside. They paused a moment on the landing at the top of the steps, and Charlie let his eyes go back and forth, but no one was anywhere close to the truck.

"Yeah." Ricky also looked about, and then let his eyes come back to touch Charlie's. "Are we still in our world, or have we somehow gone over to" -- he waved a hand around at the town -- "theirs?"

Charlie considered that, but the answer seemed plain to him. "I think we're still in ours. I think these people are here, in our world. Why? I have no idea."

"So we just wait and see if we can figure this out, huh?"

"I would say so."

"What if the answer doesn't come?"

Charlie had briefly considered that. The possibility existed that they could perform their act and then leave Twombly, and never know the answer to why these people - these elves - were here. Somehow...some way, Charlie felt that something else would happen. He didn't know what, but...what had Kippy said his skwish had told him? That patience was in order? That seemed the best answer.

"Then we go home," Charlie decided then. "And we ask Max about it when we see him again." He shook his head. "If something does not happen while we are here to bring this issue out into the open, then I think we should leave without letting these people know that we know who they are."

Ricky nodded. "Okay." He grinned. "You're usually right about this stuff, Britannica Brain."

Charlie laughed, took Ricky by the arm, and started down the steps.

They arrived back at the trailer, and Ricky took the keys, found a certain one, and unlocked the back doors. Kippy chose that moment to step closer to Charlie and whisper in his ear. "I love to watch you walk. I think I'm in love with your butt cheek."

Charlie laughed. "Only one? Which is that?"

Kippy sighed. "Oh, whichever one happens to be rising at the moment when you walk. I really can't choose, they're both so beautiful."

Adrian laughed, and clapped Kippy fondly on the shoulder, and Ricky turned and grinned at them all, pulling open one of the trailers doors as he did so. "What? What'd I miss?"

Adrian stepped closer to him, and leaned in and kissed his cheek. "Kippy and I were just admiring the way that you and Charlie walk. Like a couple of gunfighters."

Ricky leaned closer. "Wanna see my pistol?"

Kippy laughed...and then frowned. " it me, or do we all seem unusually horny just now?"

Charlie also laughed. "Maybe. I think we're just feeling happy."

"And romantic," Adrian added, sighing. He let his gaze wander out among the trees, and to the rounded, snowy peak of the mountain above them. "It's so beautiful here. And mysterious, what with what we've seen and heard. It doesn't feel like Vermont at all. It feels like somewhere...special." He ran his hand gently up Ricky's arm, and leaned against him. "Just the kind of place you want to be at Christmas with someone you love."

Ricky nodded, and for once looked totally serious. "I feel that, too." He leaned in and kissed his boyfriend.

Charlie understood, for he felt the same way. He and Kip smiled at each other, and Kip reached out and took his hand. "We're keeping Uncle Bob waiting."

"Mustn't do that." But Charlie took a moment to trade kisses with Kippy again, and then the four boys turned to the trailer.

Inside there was a variety of things, with closed cardboard boxes at the rear of the trailer, and the larger shapes of magical equipment - parts of the different acts - to the front. Some of them were quite bulky, too.

"Wow," Charlie said, approvingly. "There's a lot of things here."

Ricky beamed. "Oh, my uncle knows his stuff. He'll give these people a good show, no doubt."

Charlie nodded. "I'm a little worried about our part in all this. We haven't had time to rehearse, or anything."

"You don't need to, Charlie. I already know how everything works, and I'll do the tough stuff. The other things, you guys just do what my uncle says, act natural, and it'll all be cool."

Charlie grinned. "Okay. That makes me feel better."

Ricky patted him on the arm. "Just relax and have fun. That's what this is all about."

They started carrying boxes in first, and then larger items, either stored within lightweight cases made to hide them from view, or draped in black velvet wraps, which had the same effect. The trailer was sizable, and there was a lot of stuff inside. It took them more than half an hour to get everything unloaded and moved within the town hall, after which they closed up the trailer, went back into the building, and closed and locked the side doors.

Uncle Bob called them into a semicircle, and smiled at them. "Now, then. We'll start setting up, and I'll explain some things as we go along. It takes about two hours to get everything ready. I checked the electrical here, and there are a dozen outlets along the back wall. I have plenty of extension cords for the stuff that needs juice, okay? So we'll get it all ready, and then close up and go get something to eat, and then look in at the ski lodge and see what the rooms look like."

Charlie and Kippy exchanged glances, and Charlie was starting to feel a trace of the same excitement that he could see in his boyfriend's eyes. That sentiment seemed mirrored on the faces of Rick and Adrian, and that also delighted Charlie, that his friends looked so happy to be a part of the proceedings. Right then, it was beginning to look a lot like they had found that one thing that Kippy had been seeking to make their Christmas special this year. This looked like it was going to be fun!

It was mid-afternoon when they seated themselves at Myrna's, the small restaurant attached to the ski lodge, and looked over the menu for something to eat. The show was pretty much set up and ready to go on the stage at the town hall, and Uncle Bob wanted them to return there after their meal so that they could run through the act one time together. Charlie was sure now that they were going to have a fascinating experience, from just what he had seen of Uncle Bob's equipment while they had been setting things up.

Until then, in the back of his mind, he had somehow equated Rick's uncle's amateur status as a magician with low-budget - like card tricks and stuff - and so he had been surprised to see the quality and professional nature of the equipment the man had. That his magic was a passion he had invested in considerably was obvious now. The devices they had put together and made ready were of high-quality, and Charlie had been amazed at the ingenuity of almost all of them. Most were tried-and-true examples of the magician's art; but there was also some equipment that Uncle Bob had designed and built on his own, and which was therefore unique. That the illusions they were going to provide for Twombly's residents would be memorable, Charlie was certain.

"Hey, this is a pretty good menu," Ricky said, poring over the offerings. "They even have pizza here."

Adrian rolled his eyes, and Kippy laughed. "Don't you get enough pizza back home?" Adrian asked.

Ricky grinned. "I always have room for pizza."

"Maybe something a little more mountain-y," Uncle Bob said. "I think the chicken pot pie looks good. And the chili dogs. And...mmm! I love lake perch."

Ricky nodded. "Okay, I'm game. And...oh, look at the pies they have for dessert!"

Charlie was feeling experimental, and had Tourtiere, a Quebecois meat pie; a small bowl of maple baked beans; and apple pie with cheddar for dessert. Uncle Bob did get the lake perch; some pickled eggs; and sugar on snow - maple syrup over flaked ice - and apple cider doughnuts for dessert. Ricky opted for the chili dogs, Adrian for the lamb served with a mint and Vermont feta salad; and a huge platter of gravy fries was set in the center of the table for all of them to share. After a brief bout of indecision, both Ricky and Adrian selected maple cream pie under freshly whipped cream for dessert. The drinks were Switchel, a native concoction of cider vinegar, maple, molasses, and ginger.

"We're all gonna be too fat to do the show," Kippy said, between mouthfuls. "We'll just waddle around the stage and fall over."

Charlie laughed. The food was simply wonderful, and they were all hungry, not having eaten since breakfast. "I don't think I could eat like this every day," he agreed. "Looks like a heart-attack waiting to happen."

"What a way to go, though," Ricky mumbled, around a dog.

Uncle Bob smiled, but nodded. "The food here is some of the best I've ever had over this way. How they keep this place a secret is beyond me."

"Have you seen any skiers?" Adrian asked. "The lodge looked empty."

"I talked to Mili, the lady at the front desk," Uncle Bob said. "They have a half dozen rooms reserved, but the guests aren't arriving until Christmas eve."

"That's kind of an odd time to go skiing, isn't it?" Charlie asked. "You'd think they'd want to come earlier or later than the holiday."

Kippy patted his hand. "You just don't know skiers, Charlie."

Charlie laughed. "And you do?"

Kippy shook his head. "No, I don't, either. I was just saying that, since none of us ski, we don't really know what appeals to people that do."

Charlie paused and looked over at Ricky, who just shrugged. "Man has a point."

"I wasn't thinking of them as skiers, so much," Charlie countered, "but just as people. If you want to spend Christmas somewhere, you usually get there early, right?"

Kippy paused in his eating and eyed Charlie. "Is it that important to you?"

Charlie opened his mouth to add something else; but then he saw the look in Kippy's eye, and realized that it was pointless to go on. Kip was right: it just didn't matter how others spent their holidays. "Nope. I'm good."

Kippy nodded, and went back to eating. Ricky tossed Charlie a thumbs up, and Adrian grinned at him. "You're getting wise in your old age, Charlie."

Kippy smiled, but didn't add to the conversation on that point. Charlie just laughed, and went back to assaulting his plate.

They finished eating, and got up to leave. But when they approached the counter to pay their bill, the smiling woman there waved them off. "Mayor Snorkum has taken care of it already. You fellows just go right on back to the town hall and practice now. We're all very excited about the show!"

"That was odd," Uncle Bob said, as they walked back to the town hall. "I knew the town was going to cover our lodgings, but I didn't know that extended to food as well."

Rick smiled at him. "Are you complaining?"

" I guess I'm not." Uncle Bob sighed, and they walked on.

People smiled and waved at them, and said hello if they passed by closely enough; but otherwise, everyone seemed intent on giving them their space. Uncle Bob seemed to find this natural enough, but Charlie felt that only the word going out to leave the newcomers alone would have kept a legion of curious and friendly elves at bay. The simple idea that too much scrutiny of them might somehow spoil the magic seemed to have traveled very quickly, and Charlie could almost imagine Kiley and Kiri norking all their friends and telling them hands off.

For the next several hours they ran through the act, and Charlie was even more impressed with Uncle Bob when they were done. The man had a showman's heart, and while he loved what he did, and liked to have fun, his most ardent desire was to give his audience the best performance that he could. This focus on pleasing and amazing others would forever endear the man to Charlie's heart. And, again, he was totally unsurprised to find such a trait running in Ricky's line.

"I love your uncle," he told the boy, in a quiet moment between acts.

Ricky grinned, and nodded. "I do, too." He sighed, and looked over at the man, who was patiently explaining how Kippy needed to stand within the enclosure of a certain device.

This one was a tall cabinet, with a center section that could be pulled to one side. There was an oval hole above where Kip's face could be seen, but nothing else. Uncle Bob was telling him how to stand with his back to the left side of the cabinet, while keeping his face in the hole, so that, when the center section was pulled back, it would look as if Kippy's body was split in three. Actually, Kippy would bend at the waist with the section, which had more room in it than it appeared to the audience, due to the borders at each side of the front of the cabinet. Once the section was pulled out, Kip would reach behind himself and wave a hand at the audience through a hole in the extended section, to make it obvious that a part of him was actually in there. It was a neat trick, yet very simple, once Charlie had seen how it was done.

"I loved doing this when I was kid," Ricky said. "Even though I always knew these were illusions, I always felt they had some magic in them, anyway."

"They do," Charlie agreed. "Anything that inspires wonder in people, and makes them happy, has magic in it."

Ricky smiled, and leaned forward and kissed Charlie's cheek. "Thanks."

Charlie nodded. "Thanks for asking Kip and me along. He had just been saying that it didn't feel like Christmas to him, and that we needed to do something special, and this was just what the doctor ordered. Seeing him smile and have fun is all I need to know that we are right where we are supposed to be, with you and Adrian. And your uncle."

Ricky looked over at Kippy and Uncle Bob, and nodded. Adrian was standing next to them, watching and smiling, and Charlie could plainly see the affection Ricky had for his boyfriend, reflected clearly in his eyes.

Ricky sighed. "We've come a long way, Charlie."

"I know. And the trip is far from over."

They smiled at each other, and went back to the others to watch.

It was after five o'clock by the time that they felt they had things down pat, and Uncle Bob pronounced them as ready as they ever would be. Charlie, Kippy, and Adrian had found their parts in the show to be quite simple, and were confident that they could pull them off without a hitch. Ricky, who really knew the act well, had the more difficult roles that called for experience, and he had that experience in spades. They were all going to do well, of that Charlie was certain.

They left the town hall, and Uncle Bob locked the side doors behind them. "I'm not terribly hungry after that huge lunch, but something small might be in order," he said. "You guys want to go back to the restaurant, and then maybe walk about the town a little?" He waved a hand towards the street, grinning.

Charlie could see what he meant. Darkness had fallen, and Twombly was brilliant with wonder. Lights were everywhere, both the ones they had seen on their arrival, and others that they had either missed, or which had been absent earlier. The town glowed like a Christmas jewel, everywhere expressing an absolute joy that the holiday was at hand.

Kippy gave a little sigh, and pulled his cell phone from his pocket. "I have to get some pictures of this to keep."

It seemed that everyone agreed, and soon they all had their phones out, and were snapping away. They paused in front of one of the brightly-lit trees, and snapped shots of each other smiling, with their arms linked together. Uncle Bob was right in there with them, seeming to have succumbed to the same sense of wonder that had overtaken the others. By the time they were done, they had taken pictures of every building in town, and of themselves laughing and smiling in front of each of them.

There were still people everywhere, couples and families and the occasional group, with a complete lack of lone travelers anywhere to be seen. This fit in well with what Charlie knew of elves, who were a gregarious and companionable people, always together, always participating. The people waved and smiled at them, asked how they were in passing; but again, no one really stopped to talk.

Until they saw four people coming along the street, who spied them, and then turned towards them. The tall top hat immediately declared them to be the mayor and his two kids, and a small, bronze-haired woman with startlingly beautiful green eyes, who proved to be Mayor Snorkum's wife, Cawra.

"I've heard so much about you," she said, on introduction. "We're all looking forward to the show tomorrow."

"We're looking forward to giving it," Uncle Bob said. "I don't think I've ever given a show in a place quite like this before."

Cawra smiled. "It's a nice little town, yes. We're pleased to call it home."

"I keep expecting Santa to land in his sleigh, pulled by eight tiny reindeer."

Uncle Bob looked up and swept a hand across the sky as he said this, and so missed the reaction among the mayor and his family. All four of them gave a little start, and shrank down almost imperceptibly, and their smiles faltered for just a second. Both Kiley's and Kiri's turned up to scan the night above.

Mayor Snorkum, his arm around his wife's shoulders, gave her a squeeze, and forced the smile back onto his face. "We do love Christmas here, that's for sure."

Uncle Bob smiled. "Never once crossed my mind that you didn't."

That seemed to restore some cheer to the family, and their eyes once again matched the smiles on their faces.

"We were just strolling about, taking in the sights," Mayor Snorkum said then. "We'd be pleased to have your company."

"As long as we eventually wind up at the lodge, sure," Uncle Bob returned. He turned to look at the boys. "Okay with you?"

It was. The five of them fell into a group with the Snorkums, and headed slowly up the street.

"How old a place is Twombly?" Adrian asked, as they walked along.

"Oh, my." The mayor smiled at him. "We've been here for a long time. The town was started the year the British burned the capital of the country."

"Eighteen-fourteen, daddy," Kiri said, grinning.

The man smiled at her. "Just so. Quite a stressful year for our young nation."

Something in the way the mayor said that almost made Charlie believe that Snorkum had been there to witness the events first hand. That would not be surprising at all. Max looked twenty, but he was six-hundred years old.

"That's a long time," Uncle Bob said. "These buildings certainly aren't that old." It sounded like a statement, but Charlie heard the question buried within the words.

"No." Mayor Snorkum smiled, and waved a hand around them. "What you see here all came about just after World War Two, actually. The original structures had become dated, and were in need of replacement. Most of the homes around town are also from the same era. Our founding fathers began here because they wanted peace and isolation, and for many years, we had that. But after that awful war, this nation took some very big steps forward, and we found our isolation fading away. We needed a new face to deal with a new world." The man smiled, and waved a hand. "And here it is."

"Well, it's beautiful," Uncle Bob said. "You have every right to be proud of what you have here. I have never seen a more cheerful, pleasing place in my entire life."

Mayor Snorkum positively glowed at the comment. "We like it," seemed all he could say.

Adrian smiled at Kiri. "Were you and your brother born near here?"

"Right here," the girl answered quickly. "In our house, as a matter of fact."

"Really?" Uncle Bob seemed impressed by that. "I didn't know that was done much anymore."

"It's still done in places like this," Cawra said, smiling at her daughter. "The nearest hospitals are in Bennington and Manchester Center, which is quite a drive. We prefer to do things locally, if at all possible."

Uncle Bob sighed, took a deep breath, and nodded his head slowly, gazing up at the strings of crisscrossing lights overhead. "It's beautiful here. I can't think of a nicer place to be born."

That seemed to please all the Snorkums, and they just glowed at the compliment. Charlie smiled, seeing the affection these people had for this place, and each other, and more than understanding it. Twombly had a sense about it of a town created to be a home. It made him wonder if the houses of these people were bigger on the inside than on the outside, had rooms with no corners or straight lines in them, and doors that went to any room one imagined he wished to go to. Twombly seemed a mix of human and elf, and Charlie knew that much of it was the way it was because human eyes would be seeing it. But the special stamp of another kind was there, on everything about them; if you knew where - and how - to look, it simply could not be missed.

"What about school?" Kippy asked. "You guys have to go to school, don't you?"

"I'll say," the mayor laughed, causing both Kiley and Kiri to smile. "Education is important in this day and age."

Kiley grinned. "We go to school at the town hall. There's only about forty students. Miss Cubely Two, who runs the clothing shop with her sister, is also our teacher."

Charlie grinned at that. "You call her Miss Cubely Two?"

Kiley shrugged, as if it should be readily apparent. "Well, there's two of them. We have to keep them separate, or no one would know which one we meant."

"She sounds fun," Kippy decided, nodding. "She has a sense of humor, if she doesn't mind being called that."

"She's great," Kiri agreed. "No one knows twisty math better."

Charlie just had to grin again. "Twisty math?"

Kiley gave his sister a poke with his elbow. "She means geometry and algebra - things like that. Anyone can add and multiply; but that other stuff takes a little thinking on. And Miss Cubely Two sure knows how to make us think!"

"Sounds great," Charlie said, thinking about his own high school, which was far from small-townish these days. "You'll probably get a better education than we will."

"Miss Cubely is quite worldly," Cawra supplied. "She's been teacher here for some time, in addition to her duties at her shop."

"She wears many hats," Mayor Snorkum agreed, smiling. "And she makes them all herself!"

"I was wondering," Uncle Bob said then, "about who this Eustace T. Phernackertiban is, or was. I never heard of this charity."

"Eustace was our town founder," the mayor said quietly.

"Ah. So he is no longer around."

"Oh, no. He...passed away...many years ago. He was very, very old."

Uncle Bob smiled. "So you have some sort of Christmas fund in his name? That's very nice of you to maintain his legacy."

Mayor Snorkum gave a little sigh. "Well...he had his ways, no doubt about that. He had some very particular ideas on the way the world should work, which got him into some, um, hot water at one point. He believed some things that were not very popular in our homeland, views which ran counter to what many others thought. It finally came to a head, and is the reason why our earliest citizens left the old country and came here."

"He had followers in his ideas? I know that many people who believed differently than the mainstream left Europe and came to this country when it was new, to start over."

Cawra shook her head. "Not necessarily followers. Eustace had family, who loved him, and who refused to see him and his wife go off into the world alone. So they accompanied him here, to start anew." She frowned. "I don't know if all of them understood what they were giving up. But they came, nonetheless."

Mayor Snorkum sighed. "But his experiences after leaving the old country slowly changed him. He mellowed, I guess you would say. He was quite a sweet old fellow in the end, and very much loved by the family."

"Wow," Charlie said softly. "So you guys have maintained a charity in his name?"

"Yes. Eustace came to love Christmas, which seemed to surprise even him, and it became a central part of his life in his last years. The town grew to love Christmas along with him." He waved a hand at the lights around them. "As I guess you can see pretty plainly."

Everyone laughed.

"What does the fund do?" Uncle Bob asked.

"It gives," the mayor said, simply.

"Every year we have some event to raise money," Kiley offered. "Everybody in town gives. And then there is a vote on what the money gets used for. Most of the time, everybody agrees on something good."

"How about this year?" Kippy asked.

"The vote hasn't been taken yet," Kiri said. "But we're leaning towards a hospital that serves children with cancer. By the time we get to the vote, everyone will be on board."

Uncle Bob laughed. "How do you know?"

"Oh, we all discuss it beforehand. Several ideas come up each year, and people talk about it, and slowly narrow it down, and by the time we actually vote, most everyone has already agreed on one thing." Kiri smiled. "It's pretty easy, really."

Uncle Bob looked surprised. "You mean that the sole basis for this fund are the gifts of the people of this small town?"

"Yes." Mayor Snorkum nodded. "I am always very careful to tell anyone secured for the yearly performance that it is for charity. We do not pay for the performance, but we do make the performers guests of the town, and all of us contribute to that. You will not need to pay for anything while you are here."

"We noticed that at the restaurant. That's very kind of you."

"Not at all. You are doing two favors for us. You are providing the means by which we can offer our charity, and you are providing the town with a show of wonder and amazement." The mayor grinned. "And we do so love to be amazed and filled with wonder."

A pair of headlights emerged from the other side of the town garage and turned their way. They proved to belong to a Jeep Wrangler, which came abreast of them and stopped. The driver's door opened, and a man leaned out. "There you are, Brin. I wonder if I might take you away from your walk?"

Charlie did everything he could not to grin like crazy at the sight of a cute elf in a thick hunting vest and billed cap with fuzzy earmuffs, driving a Jeep. The sight was so far removed from any past imagery he had of Max and his people that the sheer contrast made him want to laugh out loud. He was aware of the other boys also looking enchanted, with only Uncle Bob finding the sight to be nothing out of the ordinary.

Mayor Snorkum gave a small gasp. "Is it time?"

The man at the wheel of the jeep could not hide his glee. "It seems so."

Carwa clasped her hands before her and looked delighted. "Is Miss Cubely there already?"

"Yep. She said it was just a matter of time now."

Carwa turned to her husband. "We should be there, Brin."

He nodded. "Yes." The mayor turned to Uncle Bob. "My apologies, if you please. We're expecting a new addition to our population this evening. It's customary for the mayor to be present at the birth."

Kiley and Kiri grinned, and their eyes shown in the lights from overhead. "Oh, go right now!" Kiri said.

"We'll entertain our guests," Kiley added, smiling at the group.

The mayor and his wife locked eyes, and the joy they were both feeling bounced back and forth between them. "I'm terribly sorry to leave you," the mayor said, taking his wife's arm. "Can you excuse us?"

Uncle Bob laughed. "Go right ahead. Does anyone know if it's a boy or a girl?"

"It's both," Carwa said, smiling. "Twins!"

They circled the vehicle, and the mayor helped his wife inside, and then climbed in after her. The driver cast a happy grin at Uncle Bob and the boys, and then backed the Jeep around in a circle and headed back the way he'd come.

"Cool," Kippy said, grinning. "Twins for Christmas."

"We knew it would be close," Kiley said. He looked after the departing vehicle a moment longer, and then turned back to them. "Is there anything we can do for you?"

Uncle Bob raised a hand. "I don't know about the boys here, but I'm going to kind of saunter back to the lodge and eat a little something, and then give my wife a call. She'll think I disappeared into one of my own devices by now."

Everyone laughed. Uncle Bob smiled at them, and then headed off, digging his cell phone out of his pocket as he walked.

"Your uncle is sweet," Kiri said to Ricky.

He laughed. "Well, I'm pretty fond of him, but I wouldn't tell him he's sweet...not to his face, anyway."

Kiley gave a little sigh. "We don't want to keep you if you have plans...but..." he looked over at his sister, who nodded encouragingly at him. "...we don't get to talk to many people our own age from out of town."

Kippy grinned at Charlie, and then at the boy. "Oh, we love to talk. What do you have in mind?"

Kiri laughed. "Told ya."

Kiley gave her a look. "Well, I didn't know for sure."

"Know what?" Kippy asked.

"Well, whether or not you'd want to hang out with a couple of...yokels."

Kippy immediately frowned at that. "Really? Do we seem like that to you?"

"Not to me," Kiri said immediately.

Kiley sighed, tossing her an aggravated look. "You don't seem like that to me, either - but I wasn't sure. This is a small town. People from outside are sometimes pretty...different."

Charlie moved over beside Kippy, and put his arm around him. "We're nice guys," he said, smiling. "We're also gay."

"Told ya," Kiri said again.

Kiley gave out a sigh, and rolled his eyes. "Will you let me talk?"

Adrian looked at Kiri, his eyes full of interest. "You knew we were gay?"

"Sure. The way you are with each other? I can see the love."

Kippy sighed, and leaned against Charlie. "Hold me, Charlie, before I fall in love with her."

Charlie laughed, and gave his boyfriend another squeeze. "You're okay with that?" he directed at Kiri.

She smiled. "Who wouldn't love love?"

Charlie shrugged. "A lot of American small towns have issues with it. For that matter, some big towns, too."

"Well, not us," Kiley countered. "There's some gay couples here in Twombly. No one minds at all."

"That's good to know," Ricky said, moving closer to Adrian and putting an arm around him. "We were trying to be on the down-low about it while we were here."

"There's no need," Kiley insisted. "Our town likes everyone."

Charlie nodded, and pulled Kippy closer to the two elves. "So...what do you guys do around here on a Saturday night?"

Kiley suddenly relaxed, and grinned. "Wow. That was easier than I thought it would be."

Ricky coughed, and examined his fingernails dramatically. "Yeah, uh, we haven't eaten any strangers all week. We've been good."

Kiley tossed his head back and laughed, and it was so cute that Kippy sighed dramatically and feigned a swoon in Charlie's arms.

"You guys are..." Kiley began.

"... pretty funny," Kiri finished.

"We try," Kippy said, his eyes full of delight. "You guys are pretty awesome, too."

Both elves mouths dropped open. "Really?" Kiley asked, in just above a whisper.

All four humans laughed. Adrian gave a little sigh and leaned his head against Ricky's. "This can't be real."

"I think it is," Ricky countered, smiling at the two elves. "You guys are great."

"So...what do you guys do around here on a Saturday night?" Charlie repeated.

Kiley and Kiri looked at each other, and then Kiley shrugged. "Hang out with our friends, mostly."

Charlie waved at Kippy and the others. "Imagine that...the same thing we love to do."

That brought more smiles to both elf faces.

"We like to walk in the moonlight," Kiri said then.

Kippy looked up at the lights strung overhead. "There's no moon tonight, is there?"

"Oh, it's there," Kiley said. "Or, it will be. You can't see it from here though."

"Too much wish light," Kiri followed with.

"Wish light?" Adrian asked.

Both elves sighed, and Kiley pointed up at the strings of lights above them. "Those. Christmas lights. We sometimes call them wish lights, just because that's what they mean." He turned, and indicated the lights on the trees and buildings. "Those, too. Every one of them is someone's wish."

Charlie shook his head. "I'm not sure what you mean."

Kiley and Kiri exchanged glances.

"Could we?" Kiley asked.

"Should we?" Kiri countered.

"Yes, you should," Kippy answered. "We can keep a secret."

Kiley laughed. "Oh, it's not a secret." He frowned then. "I don't think." He looked at Kiri for guidance.

She frowned. "No one ever said it was a secret."

"Then it's not," Kiley decided, looking happy. "So we can show them."

Kiri nodded. "I feel good about them."

"Me, too."

Charlie laughed. "You want to let us in on the mystery?"

Kiri waved a hand. "Want to take a walk? You have to see, because we can't really tell you."

"Sure." Charlie gave Kip a squeeze. "You game?"

Kippy tsked. "Try to stop me."

"All of us?" Ricky asked.

"All of you," Kiri agreed.

They merged into a group with the two elves in the lead, and started for the end of town. People were still out everywhere, and the atmosphere of a close-knit community was almost palpable. Here were people that shared the world together, and each day in it, and were just as happy as could be that they could do it. It was an attitude and a way of seeing the world that Charlie knew from Max, and Frit and Pip, and which he had always wished that could in some way be imported out into the human world.

They passed the service station, and Charlie saw a gravel drive just beyond it that lead back into the woods, where the cheery lights of another of the small houses stood out in the darkness. This was where the jeep with the mayor and his wife had gone. Charlie wondered if the new twins had been born yet, or if the adults were still waiting.

"Not yet," Kiri said, noticing his gaze.

"The bells atop the town hall will ring," Kiley added, smiling at him.

Charlie just grinned, used to the way that elves could see into his heart and his mind. He didn't say anything, though, to let on that he knew. It seemed best to keep quiet about what they had learned about Twombly and its people, until they could talk to Max about it later.

They continued down the road, and out of the town. As they passed the last buildings, they emerged from beneath the strings of lights, and a clear, dark sky soared above them, sprinkled with the cold pinpoints of stars - but no moon.

"I don't see it," Ricky said, scanning the sky.

Charlie frowned, trying to recall the ephemeris for December, and remembered that the moon would be rising more than an hour after sunset this time of the month. He glanced at his watch, and nodded. "Moon's not due up until about five-thirty. Still a few minutes away."

Kiley laughed delightedly, and Rick just sighed. "Britannica Brain strikes again."

"My Britannica Brain," Kippy said defensively. He stroked Charlie's arm and smiled at him. "There, there. Just ignore him, Charlie."

Charlie laughed. "I'm going to ignore both of you, if you don't mind."

Ricky grinned, and Kippy just gave a small snort and pretended he wasn't trying not to laugh. "Well!"

They moved on, and Kiley and Kiri led them into a path that dived into the woods. The darkness closed in around them, and the boy's pace slowed to a crawl.

"Uh...I can't see shit," Ricky said.

There was a wink of light before them, and Kiley was revealed, light in hand. "I have a flash," he said, smiling.

Kippy laughed. "Why am I not surprised?"

They continued on the path, which began to angle downward. Kiley and Kiri moved as if they didn't need the light at all, and Charlie suspected that they didn't. Once an elf knew where things were located, they considered light a waste of energy. But the boys needed the light, and followed it carefully, picking their footing cautiously with each step. Kiley took his time, as if aware that his visitors were unsure of their trail.

So when he and Kiri stopped, Charlie and the others stopped with them.

"Come up next to us," Kiri whispered.

The boys moved forward carefully. Charlie could see a soft glow now, and as he and the others moved forward, Kiley and Kiri stepped out into it.

Charlie emerged into the light and stopped, struck dumb by the view. They were standing upon a wide ledge, beyond the edge of which was...nothing.

Ahead and below - far below - a valley stretched away into the distance, dotted with lights, some of them moving. Charlie stared at them, until he realized that the moving lights were cars, traveling some winding road perhaps miles away, which wound through the wooded landscape between larger, fixed points of light, which had to be habitations of some kind. People places.

The snow covered ground seems to reflect every bit of light available, and the landscape offered up a soft blue glow that was simply mesmerizing to behold.

"Oh," Kippy breathed, at his side, entranced by the view. "It's beautiful."

And it was. The dark canopy of stars above lightened as it approached the horizon, which was dotted with the rounded peaks of other mountains in the same range as theirs, and lit by the reflected scatter of the lights below, off a nearly invisible wisp of clouds. The glow Charlie had seen beyond the two elves was simply the light of other suns, bright by comparison with the darkness within the woods. The night sky, in all its comforting glory.

But...wait. Perhaps the glow at the horizon was not all reflected from the towns and traffic below. Even as they watched, the horizon brightened further, and a soft white halo appeared at the far end of the valley, and then a sudden brightness appeared atop one of the distant mountains.

Charlie gave a little laugh, understanding. "That's --"

"It's the moon," Kippy said softly, hugging Charlie's arm.

The six of them stood in silence, time forgotten, watching, as the upper limb of Earth's satellite appeared in the sky.

"Wow," Ricky said softly. "Hell of a view."

"It's one of our favorite places," Kiri told them.

"If not our most favorite place," Kiley added.

They stood for a while, watching, as the moon continued to rise, until the bright orb finally cleared the far peak. It was absolutely full, absolutely glorious, and Charlie simply stared at it. It seemed larger than normal against the distant mountains; larger, and somehow closer than usual.

Charlie felt movement against his face as a thin, almost imperceptible breeze crossed the ledge. It brought a faint purr of sound to his ears, one that made him pay immediate attention. It had the qualities of a voice, a whisper in the darkness, and Charlie turned his head, seeking it, trying to understand what it was saying.

I wish...

It was as distinct as if one of the others had whispered it. Charlie turned his head again, and heard it once more...

I wish...

Kippy's grip on Charlie's arm tightened, and he knew that his boyfriend was hearing the voice, too.

"What is that?" Adrian breathed, almost too softly to be heard.

"They're wishes," Kiri said, her own voice a whisper. "The wishes of the world."

For a moment no one said anything. Charlie strained his ears, and could hear the same two words, coming to him at irregular intervals. It was unbelievable, magical...and then he remembered who he was with.

"It's amazing," he said, smiling at Kiley.

The boy grinned, his teeth white in the moonlight. "It sounds like real words, doesn't it?"

"It's not?" Kippy asked, frowning.

"It's the wind," Kiri offered, waving a hand at the ledge before them. "The air moving over or through some hole or something, that makes a sound just like a human voice."

Charlie felt the untruth of that statement immediately, and didn't know how he knew it. Why? The two elves had brought them here to hear this...but they knew they could not tell their visitors what it was they were actually hearing. Charlie understood then that the elves of Twombly had not come alone to this small section of the Vermont woods, high stop this splendid peak. Some magic, in some form, had come with them. That magic would accompany this wonderful companion race to humankind was not an extraordinary idea at all. Truly, for these people to exist here safely, all these years, they must actually have been hiding their magic, limiting or even forbidding its use, so that the world around them would not discover who they actually were.

What were they hiding from? Was it just people? For Charlie suddenly understood with great clarity that Twombly was a refuge as much as a home - a refuge from something, or someone, that the citizens did not wish to find them. He turned to look at Kiley and Kiri, saw the wonder on their faces as they listened to the wind, and heard the voices of the world carried upon it, and knew it for what it was.

"Wish lights," he said suddenly. "I think I see now."

Kiley nodded, looking pleased. "It's a kind of a town thing, is all. People hear the wishes here, and count them, and for each one they hear a new Christmas light is added somewhere in town. Some people say that the wishes heard here influence our decisions at Christmas, on where our gift should go." He gave a light laugh, his eyes moving among the stars overhead. "I never really believed that."

"Didn't you?" Kippy asked quietly.

Both elves turned to stare at him. "It's just a story, Kip," Kiri said, looking at him curiously now.

Charlie nodded at his boyfriend. "Yeah, Kip. Lighten up."

But Kippy shook his head. "No, Charlie. Something needs to be said now."

"Kippy!" Charlie said softly, putting a warning into his voice. "We agreed, remember?"

Kiley shook his head slowly, surprise and amazement plain on his face. He looked at his sister. "You were right. They know."

"I told you," Kiri said, her face filled with delight. "I told you I sensed skwish in this one."

"I didn't believe it," Kiley said. "They're not our kind...they're people."

"Dad said that they were special. The name of Bob Travers jumped off the page at him when he found it, remember?"

Charlie stared, suddenly understanding. Kiley and Kiri knew that they had been found out!

"Okay," he said gently. "We do know. You guys are elves."

"How do you know?" Kiley asked. "It's impossible."

Charlie shook his head. "No. We recognized you because...because we know other elves."

Kiri's eyes widened. "What others? There's only...all the others."

"You don't understand, "Kippy said, softly. "They're our friends. Our good friends."

Something in his boyfriend's quiet voice - something powerful - caused even Charlie to stare at Kippy, wondering what had just passed through the air along with his words.

Kiri blinked, gave out a small breath of air, and then slowly smiled. "Your friends?"


The girl's eyes focused on Kippy, as if examining him from within. "I...believe you. Your skwish says it is true."

Kiley looked at his sister, the doubt he had been feeling even then fading from his gaze. "Kiri...they're people. Are you sure?"

The girl licked her lips. "Yes."

Kiley swallowed hard, and then let his eyes move to Kippy's, and then Charlie's. Charlie smiled, and nodded. Kiley's gaze moved to Ricky, and then Adrian. Both boys smiled in return.

Kiley turned to his sister. "What do we do now?"

Kiri rubbed her chin, and turned her gaze to Charlie. "What do you want from us?"

Charlie sighed, and shook his head. "Nothing at all."

Kiri watched him a moment, and then smiled. "That's the right answer."

Charlie laid a hand on Kippy's shoulder. "We came to your town with Rick's uncle, because Kip felt it was something we needed to do."

"You have the foresight," Kiri said, nodding at Kippy. "I felt it in you the moment I saw you." She smiled at Charlie. "All four of you hold something special. A bond that is strong. You have been many places, and seen many things." She sighed. "It's quite beautiful, actually."

Kiley smiled. "My sister has the eye of the world. The strongest to come along in many years. If she says you're good people, I believe her."

"There's a reason we're here," Kippy said. "I just don't know what it is yet."

They stood in silence a moment, watching the distant moon. Charlie's mind spun with questions, but only one of them seemed of paramount importance at this time. He looked back at the elves, and found both of them watching him. "Can I ask you something?"

Kiri nodded, as if expecting it. "Yes."

"Why...why are you guys here?"

Kiley's eye smiled in the moonlight. "You mean here, in this town? Not just here, on this ledge, right? There are actually answers to both questions."

"Start with the ledge," Ricky prompted.

"We brought you here to see what you would do when you heard the wish voices."

"We needed to know about you," Kiri added. "Even though daddy said not to."

Charlie frowned at that. "Your dad told you not to say anything to us?"

"Yes. He said that if you were meant to know of us, it would happen without us doing anything, or saying a word."

"It did," Kippy confirmed. "We knew who you were the moment we drove into town."

"But not your uncle," Kiri asked of Ricky.

"He doesn't know. And I don't really know how he would act if he did know."

"It doesn't matter," Kiley said. "He brought the four of you. That is what matters."

Charlie nodded. "Okay. How about the second question?"

Kiley and Kiri looked at each other.

"Don't stop now," Kippy urged.

"It's a long story..." Kiri began.

"But very simple, really," Kiley added.

Kippy looked at the ground, scuffed the rock surface with a shoe, and then sat down cross-legged, and made himself comfortable. He lifted a hand and indicated the moon, and grinned up at them. "Can't think of a better place to tell a story."

Charlie grinned, and sat down next to his boyfriend, and Rick and Adrian followed.

Kiley and Kiri smiled at each other, and took seats facing them.

"Where to start?" Kiri asked herself.

"At the beginning," Kiley prompted.

"At the very beginning," Kiri decided...

The world of elves and humans occupied the same planet, but not the same space upon it. It was that way for a long time. Elves were aware of humans, but wisely chose not to mix with them, for humans were not really to be trusted. They lacked the most basic of the civilizing factors that had long kept the world of elves peaceful and prosperous, the main one being an ability to get along with each other. Whereas elves placed great value upon each other's welfare, humans seemed not to, except within very small groups; and even these very small groups seemed unable to get along with each other.

But there did seem to be an upward trend over time, a slow movement towards unification, or at least a move towards a tolerance that allowed humans to congregate in ever larger groups. Their villages became towns, and then their towns became cities. Yet, still, every so often, some terrible conflict would break out, and the humans would promptly destroy everything they had built. The behavior was puzzling, and the council that governed elf society never could completely understand it. So the borders between the two peoples remained tightly drawn, with elves knowing of people, but people not knowing of elves.

Well, mostly. The elves had their own occasional rogue thinker or two, who saw no reason not to take a closer look at human affairs. These few elves, too often exposing themselves to the curious humans, allowed for a lore to build within human culture of this other human race, those who resembled humans, but were not of them, and who were possessed of magic that humans could never master. By this way, humans became aware of elves, even if most did not really believe in them.

The ruling council of elves varied in how they wanted to deal with these rogue thinkers, with the majority simply opting to withdraw the individual's movement rights, so that they could no longer cross from the world of elves to the world of humans. Elf magic was a communal affair, a shared ability overall, with individuals each expressing a talent for mastering different parts of the whole, but with the basic ability common to all elves. If the group decided to revoke an individual's rights to use certain portions of the group magic, then that was all it took to make it so. Those elves that crossed to the human world and made themselves known there simply had that ability removed from the magics they were allowed to access. And that was simply that.

Even so, there were a few on the council that wanted harsher remedies in place for what they perceived as threats to the safety of the elf world, although those few were always outvoted by the majority. Confining an elf to the elf world ended the problem of interaction with humans, so what more was needed? Yet the desire to further limit elf interaction with the human world refused to die among the few conservative members of the council, especially among the leaders of that group, one Eustace T. Phernakertiban, and his wife, Marly.

"They were cranky," Kiri said, smiling. "Olders can get that way, sometimes."

"They were afraid of people," Kiley added. "Your people, I mean."

"I'm not surprised," Kippy volunteered. "Some of our people scare me, too."

"They thought all contact should be disallowed. They wanted to close the portal between the two worlds."

"There's just one?" Charlie asked.

"Uh huh. But anyone can use it, any time. The council wouldn't close it because they said we're partly responsible for you, and have to look out for you."

"Why?" Adrian asked. "We take pretty good care of ourselves."

"You're terrible at it," Kiri countered. "By our standards, anyway. But your people and ours are of the same origin. We're family, even if we went down separate paths long ago. We felt it our duty to see that you did not completely erase yourselves from the face of the world."

"So what did your council want to do for us?" Kippy asked.

"Nothing." Kiley laughed. "They thought we should leave your people alone, and not bother you. Most felt that anything else would be interference, and that we had no right to interfere. But... the council also felt that we should look out for you, and if something came along that threatened your existence, to act then. It's only happened a few times, I think."

Charlie's eyebrows went up. "Really? What were those events?"

Kiri frowned. "One was a terrible plague, long ago. It might have wiped out all of you had not the council acted to evolve the germ into something else that no longer killed. The second was just a big rock, which was going to fall out of the sky and strike the planet. We didn't want that to happen to either of our peoples, so it was deflected into another course, and eventually fell into the sun."

Charlie was surprised. "Those are both natural events. They never did anything, not even once, to change something in human affairs?"

Kiley sighed. "It wasn't their right, Charlie. And, every time your people did something awful to each other, a lesson seemed to be learned. Slowly, you got better."

Charlie nodded. "And how do your people - and Twombly - figure into all of this?"

Apparently, Eustace and his wife Marly watched the precarious seesaw of human affairs for centuries, growing more alarmed as human knowledge grew. And then, one day, out of the blue, the final outrage occurred. A man appeared, there in the world of elves.

It was a human man.

"Nicholaas," Charlie said softly, guessing.

Both Kiley and Kiri looked startled. "You...know of him, too?" the girl asked.

"We've met," Charlie said, nodding. "We like him very much."

Kiley licked his lips, but gave a little nod. "Well, he was the most amazing thing: a human with the ability to do magic. And not just basic magic, but great and powerful magic. The council was alarmed by this, but Eustace and his wife were terrified by it. They thought that what one human could do, eventually many more could do. They saw it as a direct threat to the elf world."

"So he decided to stop it," Kiri added. "Forever."

"He tried to close the portal," Kiley went on. "Or, rather, he and Marly tried to destroy it."

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other, and Ricky and Adrian leaned their heads together.

"Obviously, that didn't happen," Charlie said.

"No. It was not as simple a task as Eustace imagined. Interestingly, it was Nicholaas that first detected the attempt, and stopped the Phernackertibans, before they could do any real damage."

"That must have been a great blow for them," Kippy said, and Charlie could hear the sadness in his boyfriend's voice.

Kiri nodded. "Yes. The council was outraged by the attempt. They told Eustace and his wife that they were guilty of the same sort of terror tactics that they themselves had accused humans of engaging in. Eustace and Marly were shamed beyond shame."

Charlie shook his head, unable to imagine such events happening in the pleasant and ordered world of the elves. "That' sad."

"What happened to them?" Ricky asked.

"They were banished," Kiri said quietly. "Never to return."

Charlie took a breath, and let it out slowly. He and Kippy traded glances, and Kippy's eyes showed the same pain that Charlie was feeling. That all of this could come about through worry and fear over what the human race would do next was sobering.

"Where?" Adrian asked. "Where did they send them to?"

Kiri raised a hand, and then moved it slowly to one side, indicating the valley below. "Here. They sent them here."

Kippy's mouth dropped open. "To our world?"

Kiley nodded. "Yes. They were selectively cut off from group magic by the elf population. Their health magic, and their simple magics, they were allowed to retain; but absolutely anything they might use to cause trouble here, or to attract attention to themselves here, was denied them. And then they were guided through the portal...and left."

Kippy moved closer to Charlie, and Charlie automatically put an arm around him. "I'm sorry," Charlie said.

Kiley smiled. "I'm not."

"Me, either," Kiri said.

The four humans gaped, and the two elves laughed. "We love it here," Kiri said.

"It's home," Kiley added.

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut a moment, reopened them. " said before that others came with them. Back when you were saying your people came from the 'old country'."

"They did come from the old country," Kiri agreed. "And others did come with them. Their immediate family - some sons and daughters, and some of their sons and daughters."

"And wives and husbands," Kiley explained. "And their youngers, too. The youngers were our great grandparents."

"How long ago did this happen?" Kippy asked.

"Oh..." Kiri frowned a moment. "A thousand years?" she asked Kiley.

He nodded. "About that."

Kippy shook his head. "You haven't been here all that time. In Vermont, I mean."

"Oh, no. Our people started in Europe. Iceland. They found themselves among a folk that had come from what is now Norway. They had a king there, Olaf Tryggvason, who ruled the land with civility. Those that settled Iceland brought this ethic along with them, applying it to a harsh and uncaring land. At first Eustace and Marly could not believe it. They had been expecting to be dropped among complete barbarians and savages, but what they found was a strong and civil people, with art and science, who lived peacefully, for the most part. Eustace and Marly and their family lived peacefully, too, and started to find a new reality."

"But something caused them to leave," Charlie stated.

Kiri nodded. "A time of war and chaos came, the time of the Sturlungs - the Sturlungaöld. Many of the once peaceful chieftains went to war with one another, inspired in part by Haakon Haakonsson, then king of Norway, who was trying to extend his power to ensnare Iceland, as well. Sadly, Eustace and Marly and the others found it wise to leave, and did so, crossing first to Norway, and then moving into Western Europe beyond."

"And they eventually wound up here, in Vermont?" Kippy asked. "That's amazing."

"It was not easy for them, at first," Kiley said. "Europe struggled under periods of darkness and destruction --"

"But always emerged later, for the better," Kiri continued. "Eustace began to see something he had never considered before."

"Yes," Kiley went on, eager now to tell the tale. "He realized that our kind had had it easy compared to humans. That our natures and our magical abilities had made it natural for us to progress in peace, while humans had to struggle with the pains and ills of the world. And that they did this, every single day, and yet still slowly worked their way forward against the odds. Eustace saw then that the world of humans had wonder in it, too, in its art, and its stories, and in the simple kindnesses that people often did for each other."

"It took some time," Kiri said. "A long time. But in that time, an amazing thing happened to Eustace and Marly, and all their clan. Despite their hardships, despite their fears...they grew to love this world, and its people."

Kippy smiled, and hugged Charlie close. "Yay!"

The elves laughed, and Kiri reached out and patted Kippy's hand. "Eustace and the others found that elves and humans were much more similar than they were different. They came to understand that magic was like oil, that smoothed the cogs of life, and made it so much easier. They learned that living without magic was hard, and that it took courage and strength. They came to admire that, and to...respect it."

"Amazing," Charlie said. "So they kind of adopted us?"

"Yes. And to adopt all the things they loved about their new home. And one of their most loved new traditions was Christmas."

"It was Christmas, the stories told, that made Eustace and Marly the happiest," Kiley said, smiling. "More than anything else, Eustace came to love Christmas."

"He loved to give, and he loved to care," Kiri agreed. "Christmas was made to order for him. This one time of peace and good cheer made up for the harshness he often saw about him during the rest of the year. He came to understand that humans lived in a harsh world, but that there was a goodness inside of many of them that needed an outlet - that needed a way to express itself. Christmas, it seemed, was the one time of the year where most men were willing to admit that they cared for the fate of their fellows."

Kiley sighed. "It was a simple longing, at first. But it grew in Eustace and Marly, both, and as each year ended they would grow excited, and ready the gifts they had prepared for family and friends all year long."

Kiri gave a tiny sigh. "And then, one day, there came stories of a man and a horse - their names varied with the teller of the tale - who moved about the land at the time of Christmas, leaving small gifts and necessities for those in need. For complete strangers, it seemed. Eustace was enthralled by the idea, and he and Marly adopted it as their own. So they began to spread Christmas to others, people they did not even know, and the idea took hold within the entire family and became a cherished part of their lives."

Kiley resumed the telling of the tale. "But over time - too long a time for a human to be behind the acts - the stories of the man and the horse continued to grow, until one day, Eustace understood, quite suddenly, that the man with the horse was Nicholaas. The same man who had found his way into the world on the other side - the same man that Eustace had so feared."

"He was devastated," Kiri went on, picking up the narrative. "He and Marly had reacted to Nicholaas out of fear and mistrust, the very same iniquities he had once thought he saw in all humans. And here was this same man, spreading kindness and compassion in their adopted world."

The elves went silent a moment, watching the four humans.

"Don't stop now," Charlie said. "What happened?"

Kiri smiled. "He went on with life. They all did. Here was one of the sort of harsh realities that humans dealt with every single day. Eustace and Marly had made a grave error in judgment, one which had cost their family great loss. But it had also changed them, and remade them. Humans would have taken such an error, dealt with it, and moved on. Eustace knew that they had to do the same thing." She shrugged. "So that's what they did."

Charlie shook his head, just amazed at the story. "You mean your family - the whole town - has been out of contact with the elf world for a thousand years?"

Kiley nodded. "But we're okay with it. We belong here now."

Kiri laughed. "This is home. We love it here. We have the traditions of our town, and we love our lives here."

"And Christmas, especially," Kiley finished.

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other, and Kippy gave a small sigh. "I think I know why we're here," he whispered.


Kippy bit his lip, and shook his head. "Not yet, Charlie."

Charlie nodded. He trusted Kippy absolutely, especially in his strengthening kinship with the spirit of skwish. If now was not the time, then they would wait until it was time.

"What happened to them?" Adrian asked then, sounding subdued.

"Yeah." Ricky nodded. "What happened to Eustace and Marly?"

"No one lives forever," Kiri said.

"They died?" Ricky asked.

Kiley shook his head. "It's...different for us. Elves reach the end of this existence and...move on. Your people do the same, but in a different manner. The effect is the same on those who remain, though. Those that were loved are no longer physically among us."

"We never actually knew them," Kiri explained. "They were gone well before we were born."

Kiley nodded. "But we know them as if we knew them."

Charlie grinned at the convoluted statement, but knew that is made perfect sense to the elves. "Thank you for sharing all of this with us."

Kiri smiled. "There's a reason. We just don't know what it is yet."

Kippy turned his head, watched the lights in the valley below. In the moment of silence, the wind delivered yet another soft voice. "I wish..."

Kip smiled, and turned back to Kiley and Kiri. "Do elves wish?"

Kiley and Kiri both nodded. "Yes," they said in unison.

"I had a feeling they did."

"Something?" Charlie asked him.

Kippy nodded. "Yes. Something."

They walked back to town, Kiley lighting the way with his tiny, bright light. Charlie examined that light as they walked. Kiley held his hand as if holding a small flashlight, but as they twisted and turned up the path, Charlie realized that he could never actually see the device itself. He smiled, suspecting then that there wasn't one, and that the light was one of the small magics that elves here in Twombly had been allowed to maintain.

How hard that must have been, for a people so used to being immersed in magic of all forms, to have to give most of them up and start life over without. Eustace and the other original family members that came to the human world must have had it hard at first. And maybe even for a very long time after. And yet...

Twombly was a warm and wonderful place, with its very own feeling of enchantment. Such an aura could only come from the people that lived there. And such an aura could only come from happiness. The elves of Twombly were not just making do; they were changed to fit their new circumstances, and they had embraced those new circumstances with a will.

Twombly loved its place within the human world.

Yet...ties of family and friends - kith and kin - are strong, and not easily dispensed with. On some level there must be a yearning for contact with those left behind...a wish, even if just an errant one. Charlie felt he knew the reason for their presence here now, but he also knew of no way to deal with it until they got back home, at the earliest.

They reached the edge of the forest, and main street once again spread before them, with the cheery lights of the town spreading away to their right. Kiley gave his hand a little wave, and the brilliant light disappeared.

Suddenly, a single, clear tone came to their ears - a call for attention in the silent night. And then other tones, different ones, followed; and a tune began. Charlie knew immediately what they were hearing - the bells atop the town hall, chiming an announcement.

Kiley and Kiri stopped, and jumped up and down, clasping hands. "They're here!"

Kippy laughed, and snuggled closer to Charlie. "It's twins! We're daddies!"

Ricky laughed. "I sure feel like one, anyway."

Kiley and Kiri danced around in a circle, clutching hands, laughing and smiling. Charlie watched them, moved by the joy they were expressing at the new additions to their town. In the small and mostly closed society of Twombly, each new birth must be an event of some importance.

The two elves hugged, and then released each other. "We should go and see," Kiri said, pointing at the nearby driveway. "Can we see you again later?"

Charlie nodded. "Sure. We'll be at the lodge."

The two elves laughed, and danced away towards the drive, and the four humans just stood and watched them go.

Others were approaching now, coming down the street from town. The boys stood back as a stream of cheerful people passed them, smiling and laughing, and turned up the driveway to the equally cheerful house beyond.

"This is an amazing place, Charlie," Kippy said, clutching his arm.

"I know." He turned, and started the four of them back to the lodge. They passed others on the way, standing about in little groups talking, all smiling, and Charlie could tell that they were waiting for a turn to go to the house where the new babies could be seen. That the whole town did not just rush the house was yet another demonstration of the discipline and order with which elves governed their lives.

We could learn so much from them, Charlie thought. But then he smiled, remembering the tale of Eustace Phernackertiban that Kiley and Kiri had shared with them. Elves could learn from humans as well, it seemed. It was a two-way street. That gave him a sense of satisfaction, and again he marveled at the idea that one planet had produced two such remarkable peoples.

They headed back to the lodge, waving at the people they passed, who all seemed possessed by the joy of new life.

They found Uncle Bob sitting in the great room of the lodge, before a glass-enclosed hearth in which a cheery fire burned. The man had his cell to his ear, and was laughing at something being said. His eyes came up as they entered the room, and he smiled at them, and waved.

The boys found seats of their own, took off their coats and sat down. It was warm in the room after being outside - warm, but very cheerful. The lodge was built of logs, but they were all handsomely finished, and it seemed apparent that a fair deal of money had been spent building the place. The elves had done well here, of that he had no doubt.

Uncle Bob laughed, and pulled the phone from his ear, turning to Ricky. "Your aunt says hi."

Ricky raised a hand, waved and grinned. "Hi, Aunt Susan!"

Uncle Bob put the phone back to his ear. "Yeah, they're all having a ball, if their expressions are anything to go by. Yep. Uh huh. I will. G'night, honey. I'll give you a call again before we leave." He stuck his cell in his shirt pocket and smiled at the boys. "What's all the commotion outside? I heard bells going. Hope that doesn't mean a fire or something."

Ricky laughed. "Nope. One of the families here just had twins."

Uncle Bob's eyebrows jacked up. "Really? And they ring the town bells for that?" He smiled. "Nice people here, I have to say." He stood up, and stretched. "Did you guys get anything more to eat?"

"Not yet." Ricky pointed across the room, to a hallway that lead to the restaurant. "Are they still open?"

"Yeah. I had a sandwich before I called home. The lady over in the restaurant said someone was always there, around the clock." He shrugged. "How a place like this makes money, I sure can't say."

Charlie stood, too. "Anyone else want something to eat?"

"I'm a growing boy," Ricky said, jumping up. He smiled down at Adrian. "Feel like something?"

Adrian laughed. "Are you asking me to dinner?"

Ricky immediately crooked his arm. "Yessir. Be my pleasure, sir."

Adrian sighed, got to his feet, and snaked an arm through Rick's. Then the two of them looked at Kippy. "Coming?"

Kippy expelled a little puff of air, and looked up at Charlie. "I'm waiting to be asked properly."

Charlie smiled, and extended a hand downward. "It would be my greatest pleasure to take you to dinner, Kip."

Kippy sighed, and took Charlie's hand. "Well, when you say it like that..."

Uncle Bob laughed. "I'm glad you guys are having fun." He gave a little sigh, and let his eyes move to the cheerful fire. "I think I could fall in love with this place, if I wasn't married, had a mortgage, and a business that needed me."

"There's always someday," Ricky offered.

"True. I can think of about a million places I would pick this town over, to retire to." He winced then, and looked down. "These new shoes are killing me. Hope you don't mind, but since I already ate, I think I'll go to my room and take these things off."

"You have to break them in, you know," Ricky said, patiently.

Uncle Bob snorted. "For what they cost, they should come out of the box broken in."

He waved, started off for the stairs, and the boys grinned after him.

"Did I say that I loved your uncle?" Charlie asked Ricky.

Ricky's eyes smiled at him. "Yes. I believe you did."

They went to the restaurant, and found a smiling woman there, who took their order with some small measure of excitement. "Did you boys hear the bells?" she asked.

Kippy nodded. "Yes. Congratulations on the twins."

The woman sighed, smiled even more broadly, and headed back to the kitchen.

When their food arrived, the boys talked and laughed as they ate. Charlie could not recall ever feeling so relaxed in a new place. That the feeling seemed shared by the others only made it even better. The idea was coming to him that Twombly was a place they could visit as often as they liked. That they would all want to come back was a given.

It was after eight when they finished, and Charlie was starting to feel the length of the day. They'd gotten up early, and so much had happened. He remembered the soft comforter adorning the queen-sized bed in their room, and could almost feel it covering him now. "I'm tired, I think," he announced.

Kippy leaned against him, and Rick and Adrian smiled.

"I've been tired for a couple of hours," Adrian said. "Rick and I were a little late getting to bed last night."

Kippy laughed. "You'll learn. Charlie and I were like that when we first started sleeping together."

Ricky shook his head. "We didn't just start, Kip. It's been a while now."

"I know. But the magic never really wears off." He smiled at Charlie. "I guess we're still like that, too."

Charlie grinned, and tightened his arm around his boyfriend. "I've got some magic for you," he whispered, leaning close and kissing Kippy's ear.

Kippy enjoyed the nibble for a moment, and then turned his head and kissed Charlie's cheek. "I know. And I can't wait, either."

Ricky pushed back his chair and got to his feet. "So I'm thinking we're all heading off to bed?"

Kippy and Adrian stood, and Charlie followed. Kippy winked at Rick. "Bed, yes. Sleep, no," he whispered.

They waved to the woman at the counter, who smiled and waved back. She had a radio on behind the counter, turned down low, and Charlie could just barely hear the strains of a familiar carol, There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays. He grinned, nodding to himself. No place quite like home, except maybe for Twombly.

They ascended the stairs, and went down the wide hallway to their rooms.

"Show starts at eleven," Ricky said, as they paused outside the doors to their rooms. The room shared by Ricky and Adrian was just across the hall from Charlie's and Kippy's room. Both rooms had splendid views, and were roomy and comfortable.

"We'll be up by seven or eight," Charlie said. "We want time for a shower, and some breakfast."

Ricky nodded. "You guys nervous?"

Charlie considered that, and then shook his head. "I'm not. Are you, Kip?"

"No. I get cut into three sections every day."

Ricky laughed at that. "Well, I am. I always am before we do one of these things."

Adrian hugged his boyfriend's arm. "These people wouldn't boo you if you set the town hall on fire, Rick. Performing for them will be fun."

"Well...there is that." Ricky nodded. "We'll all do fine." He unlocked their door, and pushed it inwards. "Say goodnight, Adrian."

Adrian pretended to twirl an imaginary mustache, and grinned at Charlie and Kip. "Goodnight, Adrian!"

"Try to get some sleep," Kippy cautioned.

"Night, guys," Charlie added.

Ricky pushed his boyfriend into the room, and then closed the door behind him, grinning at Charlie and Kippy through the crack before it closed completely.

Kippy sighed, and snuggled close to Charlie. "I love them," he whispered.

Charlie kissed the end of Kippy's nose. "Me, too."

They went into their own room and closed the door.

Kippy headed right for the bed, but surprised Charlie by sitting on the edge and patting the comforter beside him. "Come and sit."

Charlie nodded, and did as requested. "What are we doing?"

"Making a decision. I can't do it alone."

"Okay. What decision?"

Kippy turned to gaze at him. "It isn't right that the people of this town should be cut off from their own kind because of something that two family members did - two family members that aren't even here any longer."

Charlie nodded. "I happen to fully agree with you. I planned to take this up with Max when we got home."

Kippy frowned. "It can't wait, Charlie."

"It has to, Kip. We can't just conjure Max out of thin air."

"He always seems to know when we need him," Kippy returned. "I'm surprised he isn't here already."

Charlie laughed. "Well, he is kind of busy. Tomorrow's Christmas Eve."

Kippy shrugged. "Time doesn't mean anything to Max. He can come and spend a week here, and still be back for Christmas Eve."

That was true. "Well, okay, I guess you're right, there. But I don't know what else to do."

"If we were in danger, I bet he'd be here," Kippy decided.

"Well, we're not in danger. And you are not going to burn this nice place down just to get him here."

Kippy laughed, and gently smacked Charlie's wrist. "I wasn't planning to endanger anyone." He frowned again. "Actually, what we need here is someone with even more kick than Max has."

Charlie squinted at his boyfriend. "Why are you so fired up about this? Can't it wait until we get home?"

Kippy pouted. " could. But if we wait until we get home, we can't give these people a nice Christmas present."

Charlie couldn't conceal his surprise. "Is that what you're thinking?"

"Yes. Is that such a surprise? I think the people of Twombly deserve something special this Christmas. I know just what to give them, too."

Charlie watched his boyfriend a moment in silence. "Is this some kind of skwish thing?" he finally asked.

Kippy grinned, and leaned closer to kiss him. "Very good, Charlie. This is why we're here. This is why it was so important that we come."

Charlie nodded, understanding now. "Okay. I'm with you, then. But I still don't know how to get Max here."

Kippy stood up, and went to where they had parked their bags on the floor. He picked up his, and brought it back to the bed. "I know how."

He set the bag on the bed, unzipped it, and started pulling out folded clothing. He made a neat pile on the bed, and then reached back into the bag for something else.

Charlie gasped as Kippy withdrew it.

The previous Christmas, Nicholas had given each of the boys a beautifully crafted scene, carved in dark wood, of Nicholaas and Kierka, his horse of long ago. Charlie's scene was of Nicholaas leading Kierka through the snow, their footprints visible behind each, even the smile on the face of Nicholaas rendered in amazing detail. When Charlie spoke to his statue, Kierka would give a little chuff, and Nicholaas would wave. If that was all Charlie did, that was all that happened.

Kippy's statue was similar, except that in his, Nicholaas was down on one knee by a fire, adding a tiny log to it, and Kierka was standing near, watching.

Nicholaas had told them that if they ever needed help, to simply ask their statues, and he would respond.

Kippy set the small figures on the bed, and looked at Charlie. "What do you think? Is this a good enough cause to bother Nicholaas?"

Charlie was silent a moment, letting his heart make the decision. It was not hard, nor long in coming. "Let's do it."

Kippy nodded, and looked at the small figures. "Nicholaas? It's Kippy."

Kierka's head turned to look upwards, and the horse gave a tiny but distinct chuff.

The figure of Nicholaas turned its head, and smiled at them.

Kippy smiled. "Nicholaas...there's something I want to tell you about..."

"You did what?" Adrian asked, his face set in an expression of surprise.

"We talked to Nicholaas," Kippy repeated.

Charlie and Kippy had walked across the hall and rapped on their friend's door. It was almost nine-thirty, but Kippy had figured that the two boys would still be up.

"We didn't want to have you blindsided tomorrow," Kippy continued. "By anything that might happen."

"What's going to happen?" Ricky asked immediately. "No magic shit in front of my uncle, I hope."

Kippy bit his lip. "I can't guarantee that won't happen."

Ricky gave a little splutter. "Oh, man!"

Charlie patted his shoulder, which was bare. Ricky and Adrian were dressed only in boxer briefs, and smelled wonderfully of soap and water. "Relax, Rick. Nicholaas won't do anything stupid. Anything he does do in the way of magic, he can fix with your uncle later, remember? So don't get upset."

Adrian poked his boyfriend. "Yeah. Don't get upset."

Ricky frowned at him. "It's not your uncle that might go home and tell my dad that I pal around with elves."

Adrian's eyebrows went up. "And what do you think your dad would do if he did?"

"Well --" Ricky suddenly grinned. "I think my dad would think his brother had a couple of screws loose."

"Then stop worrying."

Ricky digested that, and then shook his head. "It's not fair to Uncle Bob to suddenly have him see some real magic. What would I tell him?"

Kippy shrugged. "Why would you have to tell him anything? He won't know that you have anything to do with it."

"Oh. Well, still --"

"It's for the people of Twombly," Charlie interjected, quietly. "Isn't that enough?"

Ricky frowned again, and they could see him thinking about it. But slowly, the frown ebbed away, and was replaced with a smile. "Yeah. They're worth it."

Charlie nodded. "Good. Then go to sleep. and we'll see you in the morning."

Kippy smiled then, and let his eyes rove over their two friends. "I don't think they're quite ready to sleep, Charlie."

"Then do whatever you guys were going to do," Charlie added, taking Kip by the arm and pulling him towards the door.

"Have fun!" Kippy called.

Charlie grinned over his shoulder. "I know everything's free, but try not to break the furniture. And keep the noise down, okay?"

Adrian laughed, and pulled Ricky closer. The last thing they saw before Charlie pulled the door shut was Ricky sweeping Adrian into his arms, and heading for the bed.

"I hope Rick doesn't take out his worries on Adrian," Kippy said, grinning. "We don't want Adrian having any sore parts tomorrow that might interfere with the show."

Charlie opened the door to their room, and gently pushed Kippy inside. "Shut up and get naked."

Kippy laughed. "Now...that's romantic!"

Charlie grinned, and pulled Kippy back into an embrace. "Shower with me?"

Kippy opened his mouth, and then closed it again. And then he smiled. "Okay."

Charlie parted the curtains just enough to look out. "Jeez, we have a full house. Look at the crowd."

"The whole town is here, Mayor Snorkum told me," Uncle Bob said. "Except for the two newborns, and their parents. That's why there's two empty seats over there in the corner."

Kippy laughed. "Leave it to these folks to set up an exact number of chairs."

"It's magic," Charlie whispered, giving his boyfriend a nudge.

Because the town hall meeting room also served as a theater at times, the windows were equipped with blackout curtains. These had been drawn, and no hint of the daylight beyond could sneak within. When the house lights went down, the large room would be dark.

Charlie gave a last look at the seated elves. A human crowd of such proportions would have been a lot noisier, Charlie felt. The two-hundred-odd residents of Twombly sitting before the stage conversed mostly in quiet voices, waiting patiently for the show to start.

Uncle Bob glanced at his watch. "Just a couple of minutes now." He adjusted the tiny microphone, nearly invisible, which extended along his cheek to his mouth on an equally invisible boom. There were large speakers set to either side of the stage, and a full 100-watt amplifier to drive them. No one in the audience would miss even a whisper. The boys all had mics, too, for when their participation called for a speaking part.

Uncle Bob was dressed in classic magician, a black and white suit, yet with a nicely modern look to the tailoring. He cut a fine figure, and looked the part well, Charlie thought.

The rest of them were dressed in black tee-shirts and black slacks. Charlie had to admit that they all looked pretty good, too.

Kippy offered a little pout. "I wanted to see Ricky in make-up."

Uncle Bob grinned. "Oh, that's the rabbit act. We'll get to that."

Kippy looked interested. "Rick said he used to do that with you when he was young. He said he had a picture he wanted to show us of him in make-up, but I guess he forgot."

"Oh, I have that one," Uncle Bob said, reaching behind himself and pulling out his wallet. He opened it, and looked among the things inside.

Kippy grinned delightedly at Charlie, who could only smile.

"Here it is." Uncle Bob produced a small photo, and handed it over. "I guess he was about ten in that one."

Kippy took the photo, and Charlie moved over next to him so that he could see it, too. Kippy suddenly grinned. "Aw!"

In the photo, a young Ricky was visible from the waist up. He was clad in a brown fur top, which covered his torso, and his arms to his wrists. A hood-like affair - part of the top - covered his head and circled his face tightly around the edges. The hood was also covered with soft-looking brown fur. Atop the hood stood two long, velvety-looking rabbit ears, about as close to looking like the real thing as Charlie could imagine. The left one was gently bent outward about two-thirds of the way up, in a way that reminded Charlie of Bugs Bunny.

Ricky's face was covered with brown make up, except for white circles around his eyes, which served to make them look larger. His own nose was covered with a black, gently-protruding rabbit nose, from which sprang several delicate, white whiskers on each side. The boy in the photo wore a gigantic smile, and looked just about as happy as he could be.

"Aw," Kippy repeated softly. "!"

Charlie grinned. It definitely was that.

Uncle Bob looked past them, to where his nephew was standing by the cords that opened the curtains, talking to Adrian. "Hmm. I wonder now if he didn't show you that for a reason. Uh...don't say anything to him about it just yet, okay, guys?"

Kippy nodded, handing the photo back to Uncle Bob. "Okay."

The man hastily stuffed the photo back into his wallet, and then returned the wallet to his rear pocket. "Great. Almost time. Charlie, careful with the cues on the console, okay?"

"Oh...yeah. I got it." Charlie and Kippy hustled over to the little console that ran the electronic part of the show, including the lights they had hung from the iron grid work above the stage. As they passed Ricky and Adrian, Kippy paused, smiled at Ricky, and then gave him a big hug. Ricky smiled, and returned the hug, but looked a little puzzled as his eyes met Charlie's over Kip's shoulder.

Kippy finished the hug, sighed, and walked away.

"What was that for?" Ricky whispered.

Charlie just grinned. "Luck, I guess."

Adrian looked doubtful, and frowned a moment after Kip; but then he just shrugged, grinned, and nodded. "Good luck to us all."

"Places," Uncle Bob called softly.

Charlie stood over the little console, and put his finger on the button that would activate the lone spot above Uncle Bob's head. There was also a line of switches for the sound effects and the music that went with the show. The entire set up was wireless and computer controlled, and Uncle Bob had everything set. All Charlie had to do was push the right button at the right time. A list was taped to the right side of the panel, listing each button or sets of buttons to be activated for each act, and a cue as to when to do it. A tiny LED illuminated the console, the list, and the switches.

Uncle Bob raised a hand, and then pointed at Kippy, who was over by the bank of light switches on the wall that controlled the house lights. He began to flick them down, one at a time, in order. Just as he hit the last switch and the lights behind the curtains died, Ricky slowly opened the curtains, and Charlie hit the switch for the spot. The programmed, highly-focused LED spot came up slowly, forming first a soft glow, and then sharpening to a circle of light, in which stood Uncle Bob. He wore his top hat now, one much like the one that Mayor Snorkum had been wearing, and had his head leaned downward. As the light sharply set him off in the darkness all about, he raised his head, and smiled at the audience.

There was the softest of applause, and then a rapt silence.

"Greetings, all." Uncle Bob let his gaze move out into the crowd, even though only the front few rows were scarcely visible. "Come to see some magic, have you?"

More soft applause, and an almost uncharacteristic, excited purr of voices from the crowd...and then silence.

Uncle Bob nodded, and let his gaze move side to side. "There's magic here tonight," he said softly. "I feel it." He smiled again. "Magic has a life of its own, a will. You cannot capture it, you cannot force it. It comes as needed, or as it wants, and touches lives as it passes. Magic is capricious, and those of us that handle magic do so with the same caution as those who charm snakes manipulate and enthrall their serpents. It is a dangerous task, not for the uninitiated. So I ask all of you to just sit back, and I will be your guide to the forces that lurk all about us, just out of sight, just at the edge of our awareness."

At the word 'awareness', Charlie moved a finger to special effects button number one, and hovered it just above.

Uncle Bob raised his hands and spread them, and looked upwards into the darkened hall. When he spoke again, his voice seemed deep and mysterious. "Come, magic. Show yourself!"

Charlie dropped his finger on the button. There was an ominous note from the speakers, and then disconcerting, ghostly chirping sounds; and then a halo of strange light appeared briefly around Uncle Bob. It caressed his outline for just a moment, and then danced away from him, splitting into a crowd of tiny sparkles in the air, which wafted upwards and circled the man like a swarm of slightly demented fireflies. The audience gave a unified gasp, and Charlie smiled.

The little laser light show projectors, hidden backstage, followed their program to the letter. The swarm of lights circled Uncle Bob, who waved his hands gently at them. "Come! Come to me!"

In actuality, Uncle Bob was counting silently in his head, and called for the lights to come at just the proper moment in the laser show program. The swarm above him suddenly dived, as if intent on attacking the man, and what the audience saw was the swarm of lights funneling downwards behind Uncle Bob's top hat, as if into the man's head. From where Charlie stood, he could see the lasers playing across the rear of Uncle Bob's hat, head, and coat; but the audience could not see the back of the man, and to them it looked as if the lights dived straight into his body.

The program ended, the lasers went dark, and the spot above Uncle Bob dimmed, and then slowly brightened again.

Uncle Bob smiled at the audience. "Ah! Fully charged now!"

The audience gave forth a quiet laugh, and then Uncle Bob smiled at them, and waved a hand. "Let the show begin!"

Charlie hit another button, and several spots illuminated, revealing a large chest behind Uncle Bob, who looked amazed by its appearance. "Oh ho! What is this? I think I need some assistance!" The magician opened his jacket, and made a show of looking inside of it, first one side, and then the other, while all eyes were upon him.

Ricky stepped quickly to his mark, and Charlie lit the spot above him. To the audience, it was almost as if he had magically appeared onstage. Uncle Bob feigned surprise, and took a step back. "Ah. There you are!"

The audience laughed again as Ricky turned to them and gave a little bow, before turning back to face the magician. "What is your wish?"

"This large box," Uncle Bob said. "I want you to lock me inside it."

Ricky raised his hands to his face and looked horrified. "But you'll be trapped!" The audience laughed, following along.

Uncle Bob shook his head. "Oh, ye of little faith. Will you help me?"

Ricky nodded. "Okay. That's what you pay me for."

Uncle Bob feigned shock. "I'm paying you?"

Again the audience laughed. Charlie leaned forward and stole a peek at the front row. The faces there were turned upward, smiling, rapt. It was amazing how much the audience put into the show - there could be no magic without them, certainly.

Uncle Bob approached the large chest, which was closed and locked with an enormous padlock. The man patted his pockets, and then looked back at Ricky. "Do you have it?"

Ricky patted his own pockets, looked surprised, and dove a hand into one and drew forth a large skeleton key. "Well, I'll be!"

Uncle Bob took the key and opened the lock, and then pulled up the lid of the chest. Charlie touched another button, and quiet music began to issue from the speakers. It was so low that it was not immediately apparent to the audience; but it provided a dramatic background to what would come next.

Ricky felt in his back pocket and produced a small hammer. He used it to gently tap the front, and then the sides, of the chest, and then reached behind and tapped the back, just beneath the hinges. "Feels solid to me."

Uncle Bob nodded, and reached down into the chest. He pulled up a large cloth bag, which was tied by a drawstring at the top, and undid the knot. "Help me here, lad."

Ricky took the bag and lowered it a little, holding the top open, and Uncle Bob swung a leg over the side of the chest and into the bag. He stepped up and in, and put his other leg into the bag. Ricky drew it up around him. Uncle Bob grinned at the audience, and lowered himself into the bag. Ricky pulled it up, drew the drawstring, and then tied the rope around it in a knot. He helped Uncle Bob to get down inside the chest, and then he closed the lid.

Ricky closed the hasp...and then froze. "Uh...where's the lock?"

A muffled voice came from within the chest, and the audience laughed. Ricky clapped himself on the side of the head. "Uh oh. He has the lock!"

More indefinable sounds came from within the chest, and then the muffled voice again. Ricky leaned his head down and put an ear to the wood. "Do what? Hold out my hand?"

The boy shook his head, and held out his hand. There was a small pop, and the lock dropped into Ricky's hand, as if from thin air!

The audience gasped, and clapped again as Ricky put the padlock through the hasp and locked it. Then he looked at the audience. "I hope I remember how to do this. I'm just the assistant!"

Charlie grinned. Ricky was having a blast, and Charlie could see it in every nuance of his friend's movements. Kippy, standing beside Charlie, leaned in and put his lips to Charlie's ear. "What a ham!" he whispered, gleefully. Charlie nodded, but knew there was no spite in his boyfriend's words. Kippy was enjoying Ricky's performance just as much as Charlie was.

Rick stopped then, and scratched his head. "Uh..what do I do next?"

Adrian stepped quickly to his mark, and Charlie cut in the spot above him. Ricky jumped as it looked like Adrian appeared out of air beside him. Their black clothing made them nearly invisible in the dark, and the highly concentrated LED spots shed no light to speak of outside of their target circles. "You forgot this," Adrian said, and held up a long, thick shaft.

"Oh yeah. Thanks!"

Adrian nodded, Charlie cut the spot, and Adrian stepped back behind the curtain. The audience oohed, and Charlie smiled. This illusion stuff was fun!

Ricky stepped up onto the top of the chest, and held the rod crossways in front of him at waist height. He began to turn it in his hands, and a shiny golden curtain of material unrolled from the rod and dropped to the floor. Ricky continued to unroll the material until it was all out, after which he was left holding a black steel rod, out of sight behind the last turn of material. He looked down at the unrolled material, and frowned. "Uh...sir? What do I do next?"

The muffled voice came from within the chest again, and the audience laughed. Ricky bent down again, as if to hear better. "I can't quite understand you."

The voice came again, louder, and somehow managing to sound frustrated now. The audience laughed, and Charlie leaned forward again and smiled at the grins on their faces.

Ricky looked flustered, and leaned down a little further. "What did you say?"

For just a second - two at the most - he went out of sight behind the curtain. It dropped to the floor then, and Uncle Bob stood atop the chest. "I said not to worry, that I have it in hand!"

For second the audience was totally silent. And then a small roar came forth, and the most intense round of applause yet. Uncle Bob hopped down off the chest, and gave them a little bow.

Then he bent to the padlock on the front of the chest, and then straightened and shook his head. He gave the chest a light rap. "You don't happen to have the key in there do you?"

A muffled voice came from within, and then a banging sound. Uncle Bob rolled his eyes, and held out his hand. "Well, hand it over."

The key was just suddenly there, in Uncle Bob's hand. He bent, opened the lock, and pulled up the lid of the chest. The bag inside immediately stood up, and squirmed most alarmingly.

"Hold still!" Uncle Bob commanded, and then he set to untying the knotted drawstring. It came loose, and the bag was opened, and there was Ricky inside!

He gave a theatrical sigh of relief, and drew his hand across his brow.

The audience laughed, and clapped some more.

It was a very simple trick, really. Even though Ricky had tapped all four sides of the chest with the hammer, only the front and sides were actually complete. The back was completely open from several inches beneath the hinges down to the floor. The audience could only see the top six inches or so of the interior of the back, and just assumed it was all there. The bag was actually tied shut as it appeared, but the bottom of the bag had a large zipper in it. The moment the lid had closed, Uncle Bob had unzipped the zipper and let himself out of the bag, and then out of the chest through the open back.

The trick with Ricky getting the lock sent to him by magical means from inside the chest was also simple. There was a dark 'mark' on the lid of the chest, over which Ricky was to hold his hand when Uncle Bob was supposed to send him the lock. The little pop was a special effects sound, used to cover up the tiny sound of the relay that opened when Charlie pushed a button that shut off the powerful electromagnet on the grid above, to which a second lock was attached. The lock, also black, simply dropped straight downward once the magnetic field went off, and the lock did not become visible until it entered the cone of focused light from the spot, making it appear to have come from thin air. As long as Ricky had his hand properly above the mark, catching it was easy.

The hardest part of the act was the switch. Charlie had been just amazed at how quickly Ricky and his uncle performed it. That had come from years of practice, and the considerable body strength each of them possessed. As Ricky hunched ever lower, calling to his uncle supposedly inside the chest, Uncle Bob was coming up behind the curtain. There was not enough room for both of them to squat atop the chest at the came time, so Uncle Bob had to remain low and extend a hand to take the rod holding the curtain from Ricky, and Ricky had to slide off the chest the moment he went out of sight behind the curtain, while Uncle Bob stepped up onto the chest to take his place.

The moment when Uncle Bob stood up, Ricky was getting himself into the bag through the zippered opening. The whole thing with the missing key was to ensure that Ricky had enough time to get both into the bag and then back into the chest. Obtaining the key was simple sleight of hand, which Uncle Bob was so good at that it appeared as if the key simply appeared within his hand.

By the time he opened the chest. Ricky simply had to be inside the bag. He didn't even need to close the zipper at the bottom, as the audience could not see the bottom of the bag down inside the chest. Ricky stood up when the lid was lifted, and Uncle Bob untied the drawstring and let him out of the bag.

It was a very simple act, but the audience loved it. They clapped and talked excitedly while Ricky took a bow and walked back offstage. Uncle Bob resumed talking to the audience, but Charlie knew there would be few minutes of that before the next act, and so took a moment to step away from the console and clap Rick on the back like the others were doing.

"You were great!" he whispered.

Ricky grinned ear-to ear. "Is this fun, or what?"

Charlie went back to the console, listening to Uncle Bob's words now. Adrian and Ricky were also listening, and when Uncle Bob stepped to the front of the stage and began to talk about the roots of magic, Charlie dropped a lone spot on him and killed the ones behind him. Adrian and Ricky went quietly onstage in the dark background, found the chest used in the last act, quietly released the brakes on it, and rolled it offstage. They had covered the stage with large rubber mats while setting up, and the whisper-quiet casters under every piece of equipment made no sound at all as they were moved about in the darkness.

Kippy had gone to the back of the stage. All the acts for the performance had been parked there, in the order in which they would be used. They were invisible in the dark, and when one act was completed and removed, they simply went to the next in line and rolled it forward and centered its position marker over the faintly glowing luminescent tape mark on the stage floor.

While Ricky and Adrian removed the chest, Kippy rolled the Man-in-half act forward. Ricky then went back to make sure it was on the mark, and then both boys stepped back out of sight.

Moments later, Uncle Bob began to back up, and Charlie faded in the spot behind the man, and then killed the forward one after he had left it. The effect on the audience was that Uncle Bob stayed illuminated as he moved around, while no real spotlight was detectable. It was a very eerie effect, only possible with the highly focused LED spots, and perfect for a magic show.

Uncle Bob stepped back even further, and Charlie faded in three spots behind him, and again killed the one out front. This time, the next act appeared just behind Uncle Bob: a tall black box with a door on the front that was in three equal sections. This was the act Kippy had rehearsed, where he stood with his back to the left inner wall of the box while keeping his face in an oval hole in the top section of the door. Uncle Bob would then take two metal plates and slide them into the slots in the front door, apparently dividing the box into three sections with Kippy still inside. Then the center section was pulled out to the left. The specially designed rim around the front of the box made it look smaller than it really was, and Kippy simply bent at the waist, which allowed him to stay in all three sections. As a final touch, he reached a hand behind himself and stuck a hand out through a hole and waved it. With his head obviously in the top section of the box, and his hand waving out the extended section, the illusion was that he had been cut into three sections. It was a good illusion, Charlie had to admit.

The audience loved it. The applause was generous, and Kippy bowed twice and then Charlie vanished him by fading out his spot.

Kippy rushed backstage, and right into Charlie's arms. "It was so exciting!" he whispered.

"You were great," Charlie whispered back. "I'm proud of you, Kip." They exchanged a quick kiss, and then Charlie moved back to the console.

The show progressed. Adrian was made to levitate in front of the audience, while Uncle Bob passed an apparently solid metal ring back and forth over him. This was also a simple illusion, involving a wonderfully compact lift that remained behind Uncle Bob while extending a boom underneath his arm. Adrian was actually laying on a steel panel that extended from his shoulders to his knees, and the giant rings were actually on the boom, and could be waved end to end of Adrian and around his head and feet without actually coming off the boom arm.

The audience stood at the end of that one, and clapped again. Charlie was a little bit amazed at the response, as if the population of Twombly had never seen a decent magic act of any kind before. These were cool tricks, but Charlie had been seeing their like for most of his life, and what magic they had originally held for him as a boy had faded. But the elves in the audience acted as if every one of them was sparkling new.

Even Uncle Bob seemed delighted at the response. Charlie could tell by the smile on the man's face that this kind of reaction was rare, even for an act with his kind of polish. He was used to wowing kids and retirement home types, but the reaction he was getting from Twombly was beyond that. It was almost as if those watching this particular show believed.

Several more acts followed, and then came the rabbit trick. Charlie had noticed Ricky hunched before a dimly-lit mirror in one corner of the backstage area, and knew that he was getting ready for this particular act. In their dry run practice had had not bothered with make up, but now it was needed. When he finally came to stand next to Charlie, it was all that Charlie could do not to burst out laughing.

Ricky was made up exactly as he had been in the picture that Uncle Bob had showed them. Adrian stood behind him, grinning like mad, and Ricky simply nodded his head at Charlie and rolled his cute rabbit eyes. "Go ahead and get the laughing over with."

Charlie couldn't stop smiling, but shook his head at his friend and leaned closer. "You are adorable," he whispered. "I could just kiss you, Rick."

"Don't smear my make up," Ricky replied. "It's not set yet." But he was trying hard not to smile himself now, and turned and nodded at Adrian. "Come help me get into the hat."

The 'hat' was actually a very clever balloon-like device in the shape of a top hat standing open-end-up on a small platform. An advanced air bladder that would inflate uniformly and perfectly maintain its shape, the hat was an ingenious invention of Uncle Bob's. He had had it custom made to order for his act when Ricky was young, and no one knew its workings better than Ricky. He had performed in it many times, and even as a grown young man he was still able to fold himself into an impossibly small space. As it was now it, the hat was barely large enough to contain Ricky folded up as small as he could make himself, and certainly looked too small to hide a human being.

Ricky stepped into it and dropped to his knees, and pushed his legs into a pocket in the back that would be out of sight of the audience. This allowed him to scrunch down inside, just over a small hatch that led into a compartment in the base below, and so was out of sight of the audience when the hat was placed onstage. Kippy and Adrian did that, removing the previous act under cover of darkness and then sliding the new one with the hat and Ricky inside into place on the mark and setting the brake.

Uncle Bob, who was just finishing a brief monologue, suddenly acted as if he had heard something, and turned around to look behind him. Charlie brought up two focused spots, and the hat appeared to the audience, which immediately went silent.

"What's this?" Uncle Bob asked, walking up to the hat. He put his hands on his hips and nodded. "Someone's idea of humor, perhaps? An indicator of my hat size after I complete the show for this wonderful audience?"

The elves laughed and clapped, delighted at the joke. Uncle Bob turned and smiled at them, opened his mouth...and then looked surprised. "Oh, my."

He briefly shook the sleeve of his coat, and a pair of long ears popped out. He took them in hand, and carefully withdrew a small brown rabbit from his sleeve. It kicked its legs and stared at the crowd, which took one look, and erupted into laughter.

"How did that get there?" Uncle Bob asked, grinning. "Well, we can't let it hold up the show. Now, where...ah." He acted like he had just had the thought, and went to the hat and dropped the rabbit inside. "There. That will hold it while we get on with things."

But the hat chose that moment to vibrate, and in tune to a rumbling special effects sound that Charlie set off, suddenly grew perceptibly in size. In reality, Charlie had set off the first of a series of air canisters hidden in the base, each of which would noticeably increase the size of the hat.

The audience laughed, and Uncle Bob looked stunned. He turned and stared at them. "Did you see that?"

That brought more laughter. Uncle Bob scratched his head, and opened his mouth again...and then once again looked surprised. He twitched, and then twitched again; and then he opened his coat and produced another rabbit from within. "What on earth?"

The audience loved it. Uncle Bob played at looking confused, shook his head, and went and placed the rabbit into the hat. Once again it rumbled menacingly, and grew another size in dimension. Charlie was grinning, imagining how the elves were taking all this, just from their laughter.

Uncle Bob then proceeded to twitch, look surprised, and produce more rabbits, shaking them from his pants legs, his sleeves, and finding them all over his clothing. Each time, he would place the rabbit in the hat, the hat would rumble, and then get bigger. Uncle Bob produced a dozen rabbits from within his clothing and beneath his top hat, all of which went into the hat. By the final one, the hat was much larger than it had started out, and the audience was doing its best to quiet itself, but not having much luck.

Inside the hat, Ricky would take each rabbit that was dropped inside, and place it into a cage underneath the trap door beneath him. After the first few, the hat's new size gave him enough room to move around, and things became easier. He was counting rabbits, and knew when the final one was dropped inside.

Uncle Bob shook himself, patted himself, lifted his hat, and then sighed. "I think that's all. My word! I have heard of magicians pulling rabbits out of hats, but I have never put so many into one." He gazed speculatively at the hat, and then grinned at the audience. "I wonder what they're all doing in there?"

He approached the hat again, but stopped when he saw motion there. Above the brim appeared two long shapes - Ricky's ears. The audience went immediately silent and leaned forward in their chairs, watching. The two shapes turned slowly, first this way, and then that; and then they raised up some more, and Ricky's eyes stared over the brim of the hat at the audience.

They erupted into laughter, and stamped their feet on the floor. Charlie laughed along with them, watching Ricky perform. Ricky raised himself a little higher, and his face appeared. He wiggled his nose, and his whiskers vibrated comically. The audience lost all discipline then, and simply went crazy, laughing.

Kippy leaned close and spoke into Charlie's ear. "Do you believe this? These are elves!"

Charlie just grinned. "Elves love to laugh, too!"

Uncle Bob, appearing flustered, went to stand in front of the hat. Ricky peered around him, causing the crowd to get even more out of control. Uncle Bob leaned over to hide Ricky, and Ricky leaned the other way and peered out again. After several rounds of this, Uncle Bob danced back, held up his hands, and waved his fingers at Ricky. "Begone!"

Ricky dropped low, and Charlie let the air out of the hat. It burst into an equalization chamber without a sound, and the hat was just suddenly its original size again.

Uncle Bob shook his head, and turned back to the crowd. He waved a hand over his shoulder, and Charlie cut the spots on the hat, causing it to fade from view.

"Note to self," Uncle Bob said. "Next time, pull rabbits out of hat!"

He gave a small bow, and the audience clapped enthusiastically.

"Thank you," Uncle Bob said, nodding. "Our final act is a big one, and we need a few minutes to get it in order." He came forward on the stage; at the same time, the curtains closed behind him, and the house lights winked on. The crowd was all smiles, and Mayor Snorkum launched himself from his front row seat and came up to the edge of the stage. Uncle Bob smiled, and bent dropped to a squat before him.

"You people are wonderful!" the mayor said, keeping his voice down. "We have not been so amazed in a long time."

"You guys are a great audience," Uncle Bob returned. "Almost like you've never seen a magic act before."

"We have had several here," Mayor Snorkum countered. "But you are the first in thirty years, I think, so the for the youngers, it is all brand new." He winked. "I must say that the art has progressed considerably since the last show I saw!"

"It has " Uncle Bob agreed. "Today's technology makes all the difference."

The mayor leaned closer. "The last act is the one I asked for?"

"Yes. It's one of my most popular illusions. I hope your people like it."

"They will be amazed, if what I have read is true." The mayor grinned. "This has been a wonderful Christmas gift for the town. Thank you, Bob."

Uncle Bob was touched by the mayor's sincerity. "I think this is one of the best places I've ever performed. If you ever want me again, feel free to call."

He stood, nodded to the audience, and then went backstage through the curtains.

Ricky and the other boys were standing there, waiting.

"Everything's ready," Ricky said. "I just have to get into my rig."

"Okay, let's do it."

The final act was the buzz saw. It consisted of a giant steel blade, three feet across, like the kind you saw in lumber mills in old movies. Except that this one was computer-controlled, with a low-torque drive and a number of sensors which would stop it immediately if it encountered any obstruction at all. As such, it was incredibly safe, while still looking incredibly lethal.

Quite simply, they intended to cut Uncle Bob in half in front of a live audience, and then put him together again. The buzz saw and its table had been placed at the mark, and was ready to go.

Ricky quickly got into his outfit, which consisted of a pair of pants and shoes identical to what Uncle Bob was wearing. The other boys helped him to get up on the saw table, and open his specially designed compartment. Ricky laid back into it, and then brought his legs up, grabbed them, and pulled them as close to his front as he could. The bottom of the compartment lowered until the backs of Ricky's legs came parallel with the top of the table, and then the boys closed the cover, concealing Ricky within.

"Places," Uncle Bob said.

This time, Adrian had the curtain. Kippy got the house lights, and Charlie returned to the control console.

Uncle Bob pointed at Kippy, and he began shutting down the house lights. When he got the last one, Adrian opened the curtains, and Charlie illuminated Uncle Bob in a spot. The audience, which had been talking quietly, went silent.

Uncle Bob raised his hand. "And now, for our finale, an act so dangerous that many magicians will not perform it. Don't try this at home folks, as it is not safe."

He waved a hand, and Charlie hit three spots behind Uncle Bob, illuminating the buzz saw. The audience took it in, and then gasped as they realized the purpose of the giant blade. The table was turned face-on to the audience, so that they were looking at the side of the blade. It's sharp-looking teeth glinted in the spots, looking very lethal, indeed.

"What I propose to do is cut myself in two, and then rejoin myself after. No more, no less. There is no more explanation needed, so let us get on with it." He waved a hand at nothing in particular. "Some help here, please."

Adrian and Kippy hit their marks, and Charlie illuminated them. They each waved a hand dramatically at the machine, and then to Uncle Bob. "Ready, sir."

Uncle Bob took a deep breath, and nodded.

It was important to keep the machine facing the crowd while they got Uncle Bob aboard. Kippy lifted the clamp, which was supposed to hold the magician down. In reality, there was a complete split between the front part of the saw table and the rear part holding Ricky. The clamp included a black shield, invisible to the audience when the machine faced them, but which would be visible to them when the machine was turned sideways. The black shield was there to create a continuation of Uncle Bob's backside underneath the blade, but it was all an illusion. As Uncle Bob climbed aboard the table and laid down on his belly, he lowered his rear half first, which allowed his head and shoulders to obscure the fact that he had in fact bent double and lowered his folded legs into a concealed compartment.

At the same time, the movable table beneath Ricky raised him, and his doubled-back legs rose above the tabletop, creating the illusion that Uncle Bob was laying full length on the table. None of this could be seen by the audience yet because the table was facing them. The front and rear concealed chambers were artfully hidden from the audience when the table was turned sideways by carefully placed supports underneath, that looked as though they simply supported the tabletop. The front and rear concealed chambers each had a steel back wall, and the saw blade would pass between the two, without actually touching anything. Again, it was all an illusion.

They helped Uncle Bob aboard, and he slid into the compartment and then laid his front half on the table. Ricky's legs came up, and Kippy lowered the clamp and locked it down. Then he and Adrian turned the table side-on to the audience. From the crowd, it looked like Uncle Bob was laid full-length upon the table, his midsection secured firmly in place by the clamp.

Adrian went to stand by a giant lever, and placed his hand upon it. "Ready, sir."


Adrian threw the lever, and jumped back.

There was a grunt, and a whirr, and then the giant blade begin to spin. It accelerated, becoming a blur, and a fierce hum filled the stage.

In reality, the low-torque motor that drove the blade was quiet, and the blade itself not really turning fast enough to make any sound. The sounds the audience heard came from the speakers, and originated in a digital sound bite stored within the special effects console. Charlie revved it up, making the entire place sound like a sawmill.

The audience gaped, and leaned back in their seats.

And then the blade began to move towards the table. It seemed to touch it, and the terrible shriek intensified as Charlie tuned the sound coming from the speakers. The blade appeared to bit into the table, and sparks flew everywhere. These were produced by a simple spark generator underneath the tabletop, but the effect was utterly convincing.

Uncle Bob reared back, and a grimace of pain covered his face. The audience simply watched, their mouths open, as the blade worked its way through the table and emerged from the other side.

Adrian stepped forward, and pulled the lever back. The blade withdrew slowly, obviously having cut through the entire table and the man upon it, wound down, and then stopped. The boys then each took one end of the table, and slowly pulled the halves a foot apart.

You could have heard a pin drop. For a moment nothing else happened. Uncle Bob did not move, and the boys simply stood silently, their heads down. The tension grew, and Charlie found himself holding his own breath...

"You know," Uncle Bob said, suddenly lifting his head, "that really itches."

Charlie heard the entire audience take a deep breath... and then they were laughing. The relief in the laughter was plain, and Uncle Bob smiled at them. It took a moment for the elves to quiet, and once they had, Uncle Bob shook his head. "My foot itches. Could one of you guys get my ankle, please?" Uncle Bob's legs were waving in the air, obviously quite alive.

Kippy moved forward, and gave Uncle Bob's left ankle a quick rub.

"Oh, not that one." The right foot suddenly waved. "That one."

The audience laughed again as Kippy moved to the other ankle and scratched it.

"Ah. Thank you." Uncle Bob turned his head back to the audience. "As I said, do not try this at home. It may lead to double vision and a split personality."

The audience went off again, and Uncle Bob had them in his hand from then on. He told several jokes, commented on the weather, and then finally stopped.

"Well, this has been fun, but I am starting to feel a cramp in my legs, and I think it's time to get back together with them. Guys?"

Adrian and Kippy pushed the table back together, and turned it back face-on to the audience. Uncle Bob looked out at the crowd, and suddenly frowned. "You know, I never got past this part before? How do you unsaw someone?"

He waited for the laughter to die, and then nodded. "This is where the real magic comes in, folks."

Kippy and Adrian stepped away from the table, and turned their backs to it and covered their eyes.

"Abracadabra simply won't do here," Uncle Bob said. "Nor, Shazam, Hocus Pocus, nor Alakazam. Something stronger is needed." He thought a moment, and then nodded. "I know!" he took a deep breath, and then said, in a portentous voice: "Sim, sim, sala bim!"

There was a flash, and fire burned its way across the tabletop. The audience reared back, and someone let out a cry of amazement. White smoke poured upwards, and then wafted away on some whim of the heating system

And then it was done. The boys stepped forward, opened the clamp, and Uncle Bob launched himself off the table onto his feet, and waved his hands. "Success!"

The crowd stood and clapped, and there were several cheers and whistles. It sounded so human that Charlie laughed. It sounded so happy, so pleased, that tears came to his eyes.

Kippy and Adrian took little bows, and Charlie cut off their spots. The boys hurried over, and stood next to him. Charlie cut the three act spots, and the giant saw faded from view. Only one spot remained on, with Uncle Bob standing in it, his hands raised, his face covered with a smile. He turned, nodded at the boys, and moved to the front of the stage. Adrian closed the curtains, and Kippy turned on the house lights.

Then all three boys ran to the saw table, and opened the rear compartment. Ricky's legs popped up, and he groaned. "Oh, crap, do I hurt!"

They helped him out, and stood him on his feet. He held onto Adrian, rubbing his back. "Hold me up a minute until my circulation comes back."

Adrian laughed, and kissed his boyfriend. "You were wonderful, even if it was just your sexy legs showing."

Ricky laughed. "My sexy legs want to soak in a hot tub for an hour, along with my hips and my back."

Adrian grinned. "Need any help?"

"I just may."

Charlie left the stage lights off, and the four of them moved up behind the curtain. Adrian took the ropes, and they waited for their cue.

"...a wonderful audience," Uncle Bob was saying. "I don't believe I have ever enjoyed a performance more than this one."

The elves were having fun now, hooting and calling and laughing, just as a human audience might do. It took a moment for them to quiet, before Uncle Bob's voice returned.

"A magician is only as good as his support staff, and I had the best for this one. Let me introduce Ricky, Charlie, Adrian, and Kippy."

Adrian opened the curtains, and the four boys stepped out. Uncle Bob waved them forward, then moved behind them and draped his arms over Charlie's and Kippy's shoulders on one side, and Ricky's and Adrian's on the other. "Take a bow, guys. You really deserve it."

The five of them gave a bow, and the audience clapped like mad.

Mayor Snorkum rose from his seat, and waved his hands for silence. It took a moment, but the others quickly calmed down.

"I want to thank our guests for a fine performance of magic." He grinned. "I don't think we will be forgetting this show for some time to come."

There was laughter, and a lot of the crowd nodded their heads.

"Before we go, I thought we would give our guests something in return. Something they might remember, too."

He waved a hand, and the audience began to stand up. In a moment they were all on their feet, and smiling. Mayor Snorkum raised a hand...and then dropped it.

The crowd began to sing. Charlie just stared, surprised, as the volume of the voices soared. Two things became immediately apparent: Charlie could not understand a single word of the song...and that it was utterly beautiful. He closed his eyes, feeling the voices wash over him.

That it was a Christmas carol he was sure of. But he had never heard it before, and knew he would probably never hear it again. The language held no meaning, but the sound was simply full of it. The five humans stood frozen as two hundred elf voices filled the air around them, singing of things that Charlie could only guess at, but which filled his heart with a warmth unlike any he had every felt before.

The song seemed long, but not long enough. It wound down, slowed, and ended. Charlie felt tears on his face, and wiped at them. The others were all doing the same thing.

Uncle Bob shook his head as Mayor Snorkum smiled at him. "That was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. Thank you so much."

The Mayor nodded. But then his eyes went past the five humans, and his smile widened again. "Oh, we are not done?"

Charlie turned with the others, and then stepped back as the Man-in-half cabinet rolled forward onto the stage. Uncle Bob's eyes narrowed, and he opened his mouth to say something...and then snapped it shut again as the cabinet began to bounce up and down on its casters. Charlie and the others stepped back even more as the box spun in a full circle, and then stopped again with the door facing the audience. And then the door opened, and a man stepped out.

Charlie gasped, and felt Kippy do the same beside him.

The newcomer was dressed in red, and his face looked like he could be related to any of the Twomblies in the room. His eyes immediately found Charlie's, and he grinned. "Hey, fellas."

Charlie jerked his head around to look at the elves. Their mouths were open, and looks of total surprise were written on every face. Mayor Snorkum also looked shocked...but also...somehow...amazingly...pleased beyond measure.

The first man stepped aside, and another man came out of the cabinet. He was taller, but also dressed in red. He had a young face - a human face - but ageless eyes, and those eyes swept over the room, and came back to rest upon those of Mayor Snorkum. He smiled. "Merry Christmas."

Mayor Snorkum took a breath, and for a moment Charlie thought he might cry. But then the man turned to face the others - turned to face his family - and raised his hands. "Friends, I want to welcome our new visitors. We have waited a long time for this - a very long time for this."

He turned back to the newcomers. "This is Nicholaas, about whom we have heard so much. And this is..." he smiled at the other man, who stepped forward.

"Maximillian Pribilownakowskif." He grinned. "But my friends just call me Max."

Charlie was tired. It had been a long day, and it still wasn't over. Some tables had been found, and brought into the town hall meeting room. At one of them, Mayor Snorkum and several other Twomblies sat with Nicholaas and Max, their heads bent forward in discussion. At another, several other Twomblies had brought in an urn of hot coffee, and were handing out steaming Styrofoam cups to all comers. Several trays of sandwiches stood nearby, and more were on the way.

The entire town, save for those going for supplies, was still present, with most of the elves sitting in the same seats in which they had enjoyed the show. There were smiles everywhere it seemed, and quiet conversations aplenty. Everyone had gotten over their initial shock, and Charlie thought the people looked relaxed and hopeful now.

Charlie and the other humans had a table of their own. They sat together, sipping coffee and nibbling on sandwiches, their eyes moving among the many faces. Uncle Bob had said scarcely a word since Nicholaas and Max had arrived, opting instead to simply watch and listen. But he looked far from distraught, his eyes bright, and his expression one of interest. Charlie had a feeling that no worrisome Max-magic would be needed to deal with Uncle Bob. There was a secret here, a stupendous one. But...somehow...Charlie felt that Bob Travers could be trusted with it.

Charlie became aware of someone standing near him - two someones, in fact - and looked up. Kiley and Kiri stood there, looking at them nervously.

Charlie grinned. "Hi."

Kiley gave a little smile. "Hi. Can we talk to you a minute?'

Kippy pushed out two empty chairs. "Sit."

The two elves sat. They looked at each other a moment, and then leaned forward excitedly. "What do you think will happen?"

Charlie shrugged. "I don't even know what they're talking about."

"Home," Kiri said. "I mean, our other home."

"They're talking about letting us go back," Kiley added.

"I thought you liked it here," Adrian reminded.

"We do," Kiri said. "We don't mean go back to stay." She leaned closer. "They're talking about letting us use the portal again. And...letting us have our magic back."

"There's no council anymore," Kiley said, wondrously. "Every elf is a council member, more or less. They have the true language now, and everyone can make decisions."

Charlie smiled. "I see no reason for your people to be apart. Whatever Eustace and Marly did, it's long over." He looked over at Max and Nicholaas. "In my experience, these people are not the type to hold a pointless grudge."

"So you think it will happen?" Kiri asked.

"I think something will happen, yes."

They heard chairs being pushed back, and turned to find those at the meeting table getting up. Mayor Snorkum looked elated, and Charlie's heart gave a tiny extra leap of happiness inside his chest. No one looked that way for bad news.

The mayor held up his hands, and all eyes turned towards him. "Friends, Nicholaas would like to speak to you."

Nicholaas nodded, and smiled at his audience. "You have a wonderful town here. Is there any of you that would want to leave it? Raise your hands, please."

Charlie looked around with all the others. Not a single hand went up.

Nicholaas smiled at that. "I thought not. So I want to tell you right off that none of you will be required to leave this place. This is your home, and you are welcome here."

That brought forth smiles, and some relieved looks as well.

"But you also cannot remain exactly as you are," Nicholaas continued. "Not now. Your families in your old world are now aware of where you are. You are going to have visitors, and you need to be ready for them."

"What do we need to do?" a woman two rows back asked. "What will they do when they come?"

"They will not do anything to change what you have, or who you are. They will simply want to see you. To...reconnect. They're excited about it."

"There is no harm in that," said a man in the same row. "We would love to see them."

Nicholaas laughed. "Um...I don't think you really understand how many relatives you actually have now." He turned to Max. "Any numbers yet?"

Max gave a little grunt, and rose to his feet. "Well, we're keeping it to bloodlines at the moment, and letting the census guys tabulate the relations by marriage. But it looks like about sixteen thousand-something so far."

Mouths dropped open everywhere.

"Sixteen thousand blood relatives?" Mayor Snorkum shook his head. "That's --"

"Oh, it's possible," Max said, grinning.

The mayor laughed. "I was going to say that it was incredible, but it's pretty hard to believe, too."

Nicholaas nodded. "Here's the bottom line. The vote has already been taken. You are all going to have all of your rights restored."

"The power?" someone said. "It will return to us?"

"Yes. I know you still have some of the basics, but you're going to wind up with the whole spectrum again. And none of you have been educated in its use. You will need to be very careful until you learn."

"Won't that cause trouble here?" asked someone else. "What if we're discovered? It would ruin everything."

"There's the main problem," Nicholaas agreed. "Magic users in this world will stick out like a sore thumb. You will need to be very careful what you do, and where you do it. You'll always need to be aware of strangers in town."

"Or," said Mayor Snorkum, " you can choose not to use magic at all. Or, at least, no more magic than we currently use now."

"I don't need it," someone in the back of the room called.

Nicholaas smiled. "To not use magic is also your right. The important thing here is that you - all of you - can choose to embrace as little or as much of this as you want. That is what I mean more than anything else by saying that your freedoms are restored. Use anything your people have to offer...or choose to remain exactly as you are. The choice is yours."

"The main thing," Mayor Snorkum said, "is that we are found again. Even if we use no magic, we are once again a part of our people."

"I don't think it will be that hard to regulate the flow of visitors you get," Max said then. "People will wanna see you, but they're patient, too. Once they know your situation, they'll cooperate."

Nicholaas smiled at that. "Probably."

The talk continued, but the Mayor came over and sat down at their table. "I want to thank you all before you go."

Uncle Bob leaned forward then. "You chose me for your magic show for a reason?"

The mayor smiled. "I was simply looking through the booking listings for a magician, and your name, um, stood out for me."

"It jumped off the page," Kiri said. "Kiley and I had to chase it across the kitchen floor."

Uncle Bob laughed. "They're kidding, right?"

Mayor Snorkum grinned. "No."

Uncle Bob blinked at that, but wisely chose not to pursue it. "But it wasn't me you needed? It was" -- he indicated Ricky and the other boys --"these guys?"

"It was all five of you. It would not have worked, otherwise. I didn't even know why it was important that you come here. Only that it was."

Uncle Bob frowned. "This is all incredible."

Mayor Snorkum winced. "We are...a little concerned...about what you will do with this knowledge."

Uncle Bob laughed. "Do with it? Nothing. Even if I wanted to tell someone, who would believe me?"

"Someone might. And it could endanger us all."

Uncle Bob shook his head. "This is not my business to tell. You have nothing to worry about from me. " He leaned forward. "Besides, my nephew is involved, and I won't do anything that might endanger him or his friends."

Mayor Snorkum smiled. "You will always be welcome here."

Uncle Bob smiled. "I may just take you up on that offer someday."

Max and Nicholaas came to the table. "I think you're wanted," Max said to the mayor.

Snorkum jumped to his feet, grinning. "A mayor's work is never done."

Kiri and Kiley followed, each throwing a last smile at the boys.

Nicholaas and Max sat down, and Nicholaas smiled at the boys. "Charlie, Kippy, Ricky, and Adrian. It is so nice to see you again."

Charlie nodded. "Thank you for coming."

"Not at all. You've done us all a great service by restoring these people's rights to them."

"Merry Christmas," Kippy said, smiling.

Nicholaas nodded. "You and skwish are becoming quite close, I see."

"It seems to make good calls for me, so I listen to it."

"As you should."

"You guys did good," Max added, grinning.

Someone came in from the outside with another tray of sandwiches, and Charlie sat up, drawn to something about the man's clothing. It...glistened. "Is it raining outside?" he called.

The man looked over. "Raining? It's snowing like crazy."

Kippy and the other boys sat up straighter, and turned to Uncle Bob. "It's snowing!"

"You guys are gonna get about a foot, I think," Max said.

Charlie jumped to his feet. "We have to get home! We can't get stuck here. We'll miss Christmas!"

Uncle Bob jumped up, too. "We should start loading the trailer."

Nicholaas raised a hand and waved it at them. "Sit down, please."

The words were simply spoken, without any sort of force to them...but Charlie sat down, feeling he had to. Uncle Bob also sat, looking surprised that he had done so.

Nicholaas smiled. "Your things have been loaded into you trailer. Your bags have been retrieved from your rooms and placed within your vehicle. You are ready to go."

Uncle Bob laughed. "Are you serious?"

Ricky gave a little laugh of his own. "You'd better believe it."

Uncle Bob frowned. "Okay. I just hope we can get down off this mountain in one piece."

Max laughed. "Even if you drive like a complete moron, nothing will happen to you." He pointed at Uncle Bob. "You'll get home without any trouble, you got me? Nothing...and I do mean nothing, will stop you."

Nicholaas looked at Charlie, and shook his head at him. "I'm surprised at you, Charlie."

"What did I do?"

"It wasn't anything you did, it was something you said."

"You said you would miss Christmas," Max reminded.

"Oh. I just meant we wouldn't be home with our families for it."

"That's the same as missing it," Adrian said.

"You will never miss Christmas, Charlie. None of you will ever miss it." Nicholaas looked around at them. "You will never miss it because it is with the four of you, always."

Charlie smiled. "That's a nice sentiment. I just want to be home with my folks to share it."

"And you will be." Nicholaas smiled. "I could have Max simply transport all of you and your things home...but I don't think I will."

Kippy looked surprised. "Why not?"

Nicholaas stood up. "Because this looks to be a case of the journey being important, too." He nodded. "Go home. You will arrive safely and without trouble. I promise you."

Max nodded at them, and also got up. "I'll get back to you guys as soon as I can. We still got some things to do here."

Charlie grinned. "Love you, Max."

The elf reddened slightly, but nodded. "Me, too. All you guys. Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas."

Max winked at them, and headed back to the other table.

Nicholaas gave a sigh, and looked over at the Twomblies. "Thank you, boys, once again. This is a wonderful thing for all of these people. I know they love it here, and I fully expect them to stay here. But I also expect them to be enriched by contact with their own kind again. You have given these people a wonderful gift."

"It's Christmas," Kippy said. " was important."

"Yes, it was. These people were still operating under the misapprehension that I was in some way angered at Eustace and Marly. That I was in some way still angry at them." He shook his head in disbelief. "They were afraid of what might happen if I found them here."

Charlie nodded. "We had a feeling they were hiding. We just weren't sure what they were hiding from."

"I feel better about all of this, knowing I have erased their worry of me. Thank you for that, too." Nicholaas leaned towards them. "Remember - the statues I gave to each of you will watch over you. Never fear to use them if you think the cause is just." He smiled. "Or if you feel you can right an injustice, too. Merry Christmas, my friends."

"Merry Christmas," the boys responded, smiling.

Nicholaas gave them a last smile, and a wave, and headed back to the others.

Kippy scooted his chair closer to Charlie, and leaned over and kissed him.

"What was that for?"

Kippy sighed. "Oh, Charlie. Do you really have to ask?"

Uncle Bob stood up. "Time to hit the road, I guess."

"Should we say goodbye?" Ricky asked.

Uncle Bob looked about the meeting room. The conversations had started anew, and Nicholaas and Max were looking pleased with the way things were going. The Twomblies also looked happy, and Mayor Snorkum was grinning ear-to-ear.

"Let's leave them to finish things, huh? The important things have been done."

The five of them slipped out, unnoticed, and headed around to the truck. It was snowing very hard, and there were already several inches on the ground. Uncle Bob unlocked the trailer and looked inside, seemed amazed to find all of his equipment neatly stowed.

"It looks just like I had it loaded to begin with." He grinned. "Man, these guys are good."

They climbed into the truck, and found their bags also loaded. Kippy looked inside his, made certain that the statue of Nicholaas and Kierka was present, and then snuggled up to Charlie in the back seat. "I feel good."

"I do, too," Charlie said. "I think this will all work out for the people of Twombly."

"I want to come back sometime," Adrian said. "Maybe rent a few rooms at the lodge, and just visit a little."

"We will," Ricky said. "I really like this place."

It was dark now, and normally they would have never started down the mountain in this sort of weather. They could have waited until morning, and still made it out. But Max's assurance that they would have no trouble on the road was enough, and there seemed no reason to wait until the snow got even deeper.

Uncle Bob maneuvered the truck out of the parking lot, and shook his head. "Feels like dry road under the tires. I can't feel any slippage at all."

They made it to the end of town, and Uncle Bob stopped the truck and they all looked back. The cheery lights of Twombly gazed back at them, and Kippy smiled. "There are enchanted places, after all."

He sat back against Charlie, and Charlie put an arm around him.

Ricky sighed. "And as we say our fond farewell to lovely Twombly..."

He and Adrian snuggled together, and the truck moved forward.

Uncle Bob watched the lights of the town recede in the rear view mirror, and gave a small sigh when they finally disappeared.

Kiri and Kiley stood upon the ledge, watching. "I feel terrible that no one saw them go," Kiley said. "After all they did for us, too."

"They'll be back, someday," Kiri said, watching the far lights of cars moving on the roads below. "I feel sure of that. They liked it here, same as we do."

Kiley smiled. "I hope they like what we have for them."

Kiri nodded. "They will, if we can just get it to them...wait."

She focused on the distant road down in the valley, on one particular set of faraway headlights, and became certain. "There. That one."

She extended her arm to her brother, and they clasped hands.

And then they closed their eyes.

Charlie was drowsing, Kippy against him, when he became aware of the new light. He opened his eyes, just as something red zipped past the end of his nose.

"What the hell?" Uncle Bob called from the front seat; and then he was pulling the SUV over onto the shoulder of the road.

Charlie looked up at the roof of the truck, where five little lights buzzed about like houseflies. They formed a knot, and pulsed and vibrated as if in a little huddle, and then separated. The lights were red, blue, green, yellow, and purple, and each color made for a different occupant of the truck, simply dropping slowly towards each of them. Charlie opened his hand, and the red light settled onto his palm. The green one chose Kippy, the blue one Rick, the yellow one dropped towards Adrian, and the purple one came down on Uncle Bob.

Charlie stared at the little light, suddenly feeling all sorts of things inside himself. Strange things. New things. Good things.

Kippy gasped. "Oh, Charlie. They're full of wishes for us!"

The things that Charlie sensed inside of him swirled about, found a place they seemed comfortable, and came to rest. "Wish lights," he said softly. "They're real, after all."

"What do I do with this thing?" Uncle Bob asked. "I can't drive with it in my hand..."

But even as they watched, the lights slowly faded from their palms, and were gone.

But not the things that had been left behind inside their minds. Those things remained, strange, or new, or good, as if waiting for a time when they would need them.

Kippy laughed. " I see Kiri and Kiley in this, I think."

"What is it?" Uncle Bob asked. "What do I feel inside my head?"

"A gift, I think." Charlie said. "From some special new friends."

The man shook his head. "It's...weird." He smiled then. "But it's pretty wild, too."

Uncle Bob started the truck again, and they drove on, talking about what had happened, and what they were now feeling within them.

"This is something we'll find useful at some point ahead," Kippy decided. "And I think we'll know when we need them." He snuggled back against Charlie. "So I'm not going to think about them anymore until that happens."

"If you say so," Uncle Bob agreed. The man began whistling Silver Bells softly to himself, looking quite happy, indeed.

Slightly more than two hours later, the SUV pulled into Charlie's driveway, and let them out. They exchanged hugs with the others, even giving one to Uncle Bob, and told Ricky and Adrian they would call them in the morning.

"It'll be Christmas Eve," Kippy reminded. "We'll do something together."

"Wouldn't be Christmas if we didn't," Adrian said, smiling.

Charlie's parents were delighted to see them.

"We were worried about the snow," his dad said. "It was smart of you to leave early."

Charlie's mom hugged him, seeming especially pleased to see him. "It wouldn't have been Christmas without you, sweetheart."

Charlie and Kippy sat and talked with Charlie's parents until nine, and then said they were tired, and headed upstairs. After a quick shower, they climbed into Charlie's bed, and Charlie felt that marvelous feeling come over him that came with settling beneath the covers of one's own bed. Kippy snuggled against him, and sighed.

"I'm so glad to be home, Charlie."

"Me, too."

"What will we do with these wishes?"

Charlie had not forgotten about the strange-new-good feelings inside his head, but he had grown comfortable with them. They seemed to have found a balance where they were now, and were far less noticeable than before.

"I don't know. I guess we'll have to think about it."

Kippy laughed. "I can always count on you to think for us, Charlie."

Charlie grinned. "Someone has to do it."

Kippy laughed, and squeezed him closer. "Oh, Charlie. I have my best wish already. I'm with you."

Charlie was touched, and offered Kippy a kiss. Kippy offered it back, and smiled. "You know, now it feels like Christmas to me, Charlie."

"Yeah. I feel that way, too." Charlie gave a little sigh. "I sure liked that little town. And those people. I'd like to think there's a little Twombly in everybody. Especially at Christmas."

"If there's not, there should be." Kippy suddenly grinned. "There's a great wish. That everyone could feel a little bit of Twombly for the holiday."

Charlie laughed, and kissed his boyfriend. "I like it."

Kippy sighed. "Merry Christmas, Charlie Boone."

"Merry Christmas, Kip. I love you."

"Oh, Charlie. I love you, too."

They settled together, and talked a moment longer. And then the day caught up with them, and their eyes grew heavy, and slowly, their breathing grew slow and quiet.

Outside, the snow came down, and covered the world.

The heat came on inside Charlie's house, and a tiny breath of air moved across the room from the register. The air curled and twisted, and finally passed over the boys, where a tiny voice, scarcely there at all, spoke out into the stillness of the night:

I wish...

In the bed, Kippy opened one eye, and smiled.

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