Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

You're the Star Atop My Christmas Tree, Charlie Boone!

© 2019 by Geron Kees. All rights reserved.

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

The Charlie Boone stories are a series. Each new tale assumes to some extent that you have read the previous tales. If you haven't, you really should.

Bob Travers put down the drill and stepped back to survey his handiwork. The box was taking shape nicely, really starting to look like something he'd be proud to use in his act. He'd come to enjoy designing and constructing his own props, basing them upon ideas he'd obtained from his immense library of magic, but always adding his own touches to make them special. It was much more fun than buying props and just customizing them, as he had mostly done when he'd first started performing. To his very great surprise he was constantly thinking of ways to improve upon the work of those that had come before him, and the props he used in his magic act now were about as good as anyone else had in the field.

It was a chilly day, but only average for December. The weather had been weird all year, and winter seemed no different. After some early cold snaps and a couple of bouts of weak snow, it had warmed again to something a little more comfortable, at least for upstate New York. There was talk of possible snow by Christmas, but he'd have to see it coming down to believe it. Only two days remained before the holiday, and while the sky was filled with clouds and the air outside held the nip that might herald a change to snow, it had been like that for three days now without the slightest sign of a wintry gift from above.

This particular day was gray and the afternoon dim, and forbidding enough to keep most people indoors before a fire. For Bob it was just an excuse to turn on the lights in front of the house a little early. A pair of dwarf spruce trees on either side of the drive were laced with colorful Christmas lights, which winked cheerfully and insistently enough to push away the dull gray overcast that hung about the house. He'd learned from a certain group of wonderfully friendly people in a small Vermont village named Twombly that Christmas was as cheerful as you kept it, and that lights were one way to ensure that that cheer was visible to everyone who looked.

Bob was working in the garage, the door raised, his big brown Ford Expedition backed out into the driveway to provide enough room before the workbench. His black box trailer, which he used to haul his magic act from gig to gig, was stowed off to the side of the drive, the holographic sprinkle of stars on its side aglow in the aura from the two lit trees nearby. The long driveway ran off among the pines and red oaks to the distant road beyond, far enough away that it was tough to hear the occasional car as it meandered past.

That was just the way Bob liked it, quiet and serene. The house sat among virgin forest, with just enough trees removed by the builder to construct a house and plant a tiny yard around it. Upstate New York was beautiful in December, the ground still brown and red with fallen leaves, and the evergreens liberally sprinkled among the oaks giving the woods enough color to keep them looking pleasantly fresh and alive.

Bob loved the season. Christmas! Most years he had a gig of some sort or another that went off right around the holiday, but this year nothing much had come up. The popularity of magic acts ebbed and flowed, and this year the ebb had hit right around the holiday season. Bob was going to miss having the fun of a performance at Christmastime, which was always somehow a little extra special. The magic of that holiday seemed to give an added glow to the illusions he performed, and people always seemed more open, and ready to have themselves pleasantly amazed. But this year it just hadn't been in the cards.

At least there was a very welcome alternative. He and Susan had been invited to his brother's house for the holiday, a Christmas tradition now, and one that was always enjoyable. The Travers family was a close one, and in the busy days of their lives there was simply not enough time that could be spent together. Christmas was where they often had time to get caught up with each other, and Bob and Susan had not missed a Christmas visit with his brother and family in nearly twenty years.

Bob's nephew, Rick, who had been assisting Bob in his act on and off for some years, was a lot of fun, as were his friends, Adrian, Charlie, and Kip, who had all shown a lively interest in performing. Their last Christmas together had been the most incredible adventure that Bob had ever experienced, and he still smiled when he thought of Twombly and the people that lived there.The very special people that lived there.

Elves. Who would have figured that such fairytale creatures were real? Not that the elves he had met in Twombly had been anything like any elves he'd ever read about before. They were just like people, except smaller in stature, and very easy on the eyes.

He smiled at that thought. No, they were downright cute, even the elders. What a great trick that was!

They were also very decent folk, and Bob had been amazed and saddened to learn of the plight of the ones that lived in Twombly. Cut off from their own kind for a thousand years, outcasts forgotten by time, it had taken the chance meeting with Rick and his friends to set things right. Yet the people of Twombly had flourished even in their solitude, happy in their new world while still missing the old one. Bob still smiled whenever he thought of his small role in those events, and how he had become a part of things he never would have dreamed possible.

And all because of Charlie, Kippy, Ricky, and Adrian, and the wonderfully mysterious friends they had somehow acquired. Even Santa himself, in the form of Nicholaas, a human being with magical powers even more potent than those of the elves. Bob still shook his head every time he imagined the strange things that Ricky must know, the things he had learned and seen in the nearly three years he and his friends had been aware of the elves. They were all things that Bob's brother and sister in law, Ricky's parents, couldn't begin to imagine let alone suspect that their son and his friends were doing. It was almost too wild to believe at all, and only the fact that Bob Travers trusted his own eyes and ears that had allowed him to accept these things as true. Magicians were astute observers, and a tough bunch of people to fool.

And, well, there were also the tiny lights that swirled about in the back of Bob's mind, mostly beneath his notice, but sometimes popping up when he least expected it, or even in his dreams. A gift from Kiley and Kiri Snorkum, the children of the Mayor of Twombly, each one of these lights was the germ of a wish. All Bob had to do was select one, and put it into a wishful thought in his mind, and let it loose into the world. Or, so he'd been told. He and Rick had discussed the wish lights more than once, and Bob knew that Kippy and Charlie had both used wishes in the pursuit of their adventures.

But Bob had not quite dared to use any of his. You'd think the idea of doing real magic would thrill a magician, and be too tempting to ignore. But the events with the elves of Twombly had instilled in Bob a certain regard for powers that he did not understand, and a deep respect for those that did use them, and used them only for noble ends. These wish lights were supposed to be used only for good things - for things that mattered - as they were born of the affection that Kiley and Kiri had developed for Charlie Boone and all of his friends. To misuse even one out of ignorance or foolishness was not something Bob thought he could tolerate.

So he had never tried to use any of his wishes. That the lights were still there in his mind one year later told him that they were there forever, and that they were patient, willing to wait for the time when they were really needed. Bob had meant to talk to Ricky about them some more, but the past year had been a busy one, and Bob never seemed to get by his brother's house as often as he would have liked. But he'd remedy that soon, and Christmas was the perfect time to talk about such magical things, anyway.

And he had to smile now at that word, too. Magic. The term had always been synonymous in Bob's mind with illusion, and only in the last year had he come to see the difference between the two. Illusion was what human magicians performed, doing one thing while causing their audience to see or otherwise perceive another. Magic was what the elves did, and it was an entirely different thing altogether. What happened there was real, and yet it still wasn't the magic that humans had always associated with the word, where you basically got something for nothing with a simple wave of a wand or the speaking of a spell.

What the elves could do was a science according to Ricky and Charlie, and Ricky even went so far as to call it a brain science, because what happened in the real world originated in each elf brain. There was real energy involved, and there were concrete rules for its use, and physics of one sort or another that explained it all, even if humans were not quite there yet. That it was complex was obvious, but that Ricky and his friends believed in it wholeheartedly as a force for good was just as plain. And after what Bob had seen of the people in Twombly, he had also become a believer.

It was just that simple. Illusions were for people, and magic was for elves. He still referred to himself as a magician, and the things he did as magic, because that was what people expected and knew. But that he was an illusionist rather than a true practitioner of the arts he was now well aware.

But it was still nice to know that the magic lights were there, within his mind, if ever the time came that he would actually need one. He figured he would know, if that time arrived. Hopefully!

He sighed, and stepped back from the workbench and stretched a bit. The gas heater suspended from the rafters above him hummed softly, filling the garage with a pleasant sound that was good company, and the heat from which allowed him to work with the garage door up while keeping the cooler air outside at bay. It was a little bit wasteful of energy, but it was worth that to be able to tinker at the bench and still enjoy the day just a few feet away. The afternoon was still and beautiful despite its solemn tones, and he paused a moment by Susan's car to smile out at the world beyond.

And so he was looking when the little truck came up the drive. He stared a moment, not recognizing the vehicle at all. It wasn't the mail truck, which would be about the only vehicle he'd be expecting to show up that day. The strange truck was white, but it seemed to have some red and gold trim, and as it drew nearer Bob was amused to see that it seemed hung with silvery tinsel of some kind. Someone's idea of Christmas decoration, no doubt, carried just a little too far.

The sound of the engine came to him then, a sort of bubbly purr just audible over the hum of the garage heater. He frowned at that, wondering what the heck kind of engine the thing had. Maybe it was one of those hybrids, part gas powered, part electric? Or one that ran off propane, or something like that? It certainly was an odd sound, no doubt about it.

The vehicle drew up to the garage door and stopped, gave a last bubbly grunt, and then went silent. Bob stared hard now, not even able to recognize the make of the little truck, let alone its purpose in coming there. His eyes roved over the length of the odd vehicle, finally coming to rest on something printed on the side of the boxy rear. It was a large logo in a vibrant blue against the white background, of two hands extended towards each other, one clasping what looked like a sheet of paper, clearly ready to be passed to the other. Above that, in letters arranged in an arch, were the words, Western Onion.

The driver's door slid back then, and a young man in a white uniform and a white cap with a black bill slid out. first glance he seemed to be young. His diminutive size and youthful features gave that first impression, certainly. He looked up, saw Bob standing there in the garage, and came forward, smiling. It was only then that Bob noticed the whiskers along the sides of the newcomer's cheeks, belying the first impression of youth.

"Hi there!" The man reached into a brown pouch at his belt, pulled out a sheet of paper, and headed straight for Bob. "Western Onion telegram for Mr. Bob Travers!"

Bob simply stared as the man entered the garage and came right up to him, and held out the sheet of paper.

He found his voice then. "You mean Western Union, don't you?"

Despite his whiskers, the man in the uniform still looked like a youngster. His features were arranged just so that the word cute came unbidden, and Bob was immediately put in mind of the last time he had seen such a truly appealing face. Elves.

The man looked down at the paper he held, frowned, and squinted more closely at it. "It's supposed to be Union?"

Bob nodded his head slowly, but couldn't help smiling. "Well...yeah. I mean, it once was. I don't think anyone delivers telegrams anymore, but certainly not them."

A bemused expression arrived on the newcomer's face. "My, my. I should have worn my reading glasses, I guess."

The man waved a finger at the sheet of paper he carried, and then raised his arm and pointed the same finger over his shoulder at the truck. Bob looked up just in time to see the 'O' in Onion start to crawl, and then quickly rearrange itself into a 'U'. He laughed. No question about it now! Magic had arrived!

"That's better." The delivery man smiled again, and held out the sheet to Bob. He took it automatically, and stared down at the header, which also said Western Union.

The message printed below was in a squarish sans-serif, stopped from being completely utilitarian by being offered in a bright and charming Christmas tree green:

'Hi Bob Travers. stop. You are cordially invited to spend Christmas with us here at our place. stop. Grandpa Max said he would fix the clocks so that you could be here for Christmas and over at Ricky's, too. stop. Charlie, Kippy, Ricky, and Adrian will be here. stop. And Pip and me! stop. Please come! stop.



don't stop!'

Bob read the telegram twice, and then laughed again. He knew from conversations with Ricky and his friends that Frit was a many times great grandson of Max, and that Pip was his boyfriend. The two were supposed to be a lively and colorful pair.

A slow but welcome smile spread across his face. Christmas with the elves! It was just what he felt like he needed this year, too. Without an illusion show of his own to perform, a magic show with the elves would be just what the doctor ordered. And if Max could fix it so that he could be there with them to celebrate, and also with Susan and Ricky's family to celebrate the day there...what was there to lose?

The delivery man looked pleased at his reaction. "Is there a reply?"

Bob sighed, and nodded his head. "Yes. Just four words: I'd love to come!"

"Excellent!" The man whipped out a small pad of paper and a pen with a white feather at the end of it, and hastily jotted down Bob's reply. "I'll get this off as soon as I get back to the office."

Bob shook his head. " guys really use telegrams among yourselves?"

"Well, no. Not like you're thinking." The man looked down and patted his uniform fondly, and then returned Bob's smile. "This is just for fun." He gave a secretive glance both ways, then leaned forward and whispered, "It's really all just an illusion, you know."

Bob laughed at that, and the man grinned, tipped his hat, and turned to go.

"Oh...wait." Suddenly, Bob didn't want the magic moment to end. He fished around in the pocket of his jeans, looking for change, and then reached for his wallet. "I want to give you something for your trouble."

The deliveryman immediately held up a hand. "No, no. That's fine." He winked. "That won't spend where I'm going, anyway."

"Well, then thank you so much for coming all the way out here." Bob followed the deliveryman outside, and stood near the truck as that one climbed inside again. The tinsel along the edges of the vehicle swayed back and forth merrily, even though the air was still; and somewhere, far off, Bob was sure he heard the cheerful tinkle of sleigh bells.

"It's never as far as you think," the elf said, waving a hand around at Bob's driveway. "It was well worth the trip to see the very nice place you have here. It's so cheerful!"

"Thanks." Bob smiled. "Uh...Merry Christmas."

The elf looked pleased at that. "Thank you. And the same to you." He waved, and then slid the door closed. The engine of the truck started again, sounding even more bubbly close up, and then the vehicle backed away and then turned to head back down the drive. Bob watched it go, wondering where it was off to next, and if any of his neighbors had spotted the Western Onion on the vehicle's side and speculated on what the heck was going on.

But that question was quickly answered. The truck dwindled among the trees, but was only halfway back to the main road before it suddenly became transparent, then faded away and was gone. Bob stared after it a moment longer, and then laughed. "Now...that's magic!"

And then he pulled his cell phone out of his back pocket, and hit the speed dial icon that would call his nephew.

"And that's what he said," Ricky finished, sitting down on the edge of the cot in Charlie's bedroom. Adrian, seated by his side, nodded.

"That's wonderful!" Kippy exclaimed from underneath Charlie Boone's arm, his voice sounding just a touch dreamy. They were sitting side by side on the edge of Charlie's bed, facing the other two boys. Charlie had his arm around Kippy's shoulders, a place that had become a second home for the appendage.

"It will be great to have your uncle along with us when we visit with Frit and Pip," Kip went on. "He's so much fun." He winked then. "And he's soo handsome, too!"

Ricky and Adrian both laughed at that. Ricky's eyes especially glowed with humor, perhaps the idea of his uncle being someone's idea of a dreamboat just a little too much for the moment. "He's old enough to be your dad, Kip!"

Kippy tsked, and waved a hand at Ricky. "He looks a lot like you, only sensible and mature."

Adrian smiled at that, and then put his hand up to cover his mouth. Ricky made a rude noise, frowned at Kippy, and then turned and arched an eyebrow at his boyfriend. "Don't encourage him."

Adrian lowered his hand, but the smile wouldn't go away. "You're the one that poked the bear."

"Yeah, well." Ricky smiled again. "It will be fun to have my uncle along."

"I get a good feel from my skwish on it," Kippy continued. He smiled at Adrian. "What about you?"

Adrian was still a little uncomfortable with his new ability, which seemed to have grown considerably during their last adventure together. "Well...I don't feel anything bad."

Kippy laughed. "Sometimes that's the exact same as a good feeling!"

"I guess. It's just so strange to sense these things now."

Ricky leaned a little harder against his boyfriend's shoulder and smiled at him. "I can't think of a better person to figure it all out." He quickly let his eyes slide to Kippy. "And I'm sure you'll have help, if you get stuck."

Kippy smiled at that, and nodded. "Anyway I can. But he'll be fine."

"Did Uncle Bob mention taking the magic act?" Charlie asked Ricky. "It would be fun to do that again."

"No. But you know how that goes. We could decide we need it at any time, and Max could just wave a finger and the trailer would be right there in the room with us."

They all laughed at that.

"The magic act was fun," Charlie said, recalling their adventure in Twombly the previous Christmas. "It's cool to make people smile and laugh like we did."

Kippy leaned his head against Charlie and made a small purring sound. "If it's magic you want, there's always later tonight. I can make you smile and laugh, I guarantee it."

Charlie laid his cheek over into his boyfriend's hair and gave him a little squeeze. "I love you, but you're totally breaking my concentration. So be nice and shut up."

"I know I'm looking forward to this whole thing with the elves," Adrian said. "Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and the weather guy said there might be some snow. A white Christmas would be extra fun."

"There's always snow at the north pole," Kippy reminded.

Charlie laughed. "Or at an undisclosed location nearby."

Kippy looked at him and grinned. "Oh, yeah. I forgot that's where Max said Santa had his workshop, and all the elves lived." He gave a little shake of his head. "You go to the North Pole, take four left turns, and then you're there."

Ricky snorted at that. "Take four left turns and you wind up where you started."

"And your point? I'm not the one that drew that particular magical map."

"It's one of those side dimensions," Adrian offered. "One we'd never find on our own."

"We've been invited, so we don't have to find it on our own," Kippy returned. "All Frit said was that tomorrow, on Christmas Eve, we were all supposed to be here at Charlie's at one o'clock in the afternoon."

Ricky frowned. "I'm glad they didn't make it any earlier or any later. Uncle Bob said he and Aunt Susan would be at our place around noon. I already told my dad I was bringing Uncle Bob over here so you guys could say hi, and he said to come right back after that, because my mom is making a big dinner and they want to eat early."

"You will be right back," Charlie told him. "Only a few seconds will go by here while we visit with Frit and Pip and Max all day."

"And all night, if need be," Kippy added.

Adrian sighed. "Be nice to see Max again, too."

"And Nicholaas," Ricky put in. "He's supposed to be there, right?"

Charlie nodded. "And Nicholaas."

Briefly, he let his eyes wander to the carved piece of wood that had been given to him several years back. It was of Nicholaas leading his horse Kirka through the snow, their footprints visible trailing behind, even the smile on the face of Nicholaas rendered in amazing detail. The piece was created from a single length of dark red wood of some kind, and had held a place of honor atop Charlie's desk for two years now.

There was some potent magic in that piece of wood, in the scene it displayed, and in the figures of the two travelers upon the road at Christmastime. A force well beyond the magic of the delicate beauty it offered to the eye. Charlie could talk to the piece, and the head of Nicholaas would turn to look at him, and the man would wave; and Kirka would lift his head and give out a soft chuff in welcome. The piece also acted as a communications device of some sort, and Charlie always knew that if he really needed help, he could simply ask the little statues, and Nicholaas would hear.

Having Santa on your side was certainly a reassuring thing!

Each of the boys had a piece like Charlie's in his bedroom, similar but not identical, each ready to offer help and reassurance. These were true gifts, given with the heart, and always there if they needed them. So far they had used one of the scenes just once for something really serious - Kippy's little statues, to inform Nicholaas of the plight of the elves of Twombly. And, true to his word, Nicholaas had put in an appearance, and righted some old wrongs. Just thinking about it made Charlie smile.

"It will be wonderful to see Nicholaas again," he reiterated, nodding.

"It'll be great, you mean," Ricky returned. "Especially now that he has a girlfriend. Frit said he smiles all the time."

Charlie gave Kip another little squeeze. "He's feeling the love. I sure know what that's like."

Kippy sighed, and nuzzled him with his head. "Oh, Charlie, you say the sweetest things sometimes."

Adrian grinned at that, and snuggled against Ricky. "Can you say something sweet to me?"

Ricky looked uncomfortable. "Aww. You know I love you. What more can I add to that?"

Adrian nodded, and looked happy. "It's just nice to hear it now and then."

Ricky frowned. "I tell you I love you all the time."

"Oh, I know. But one more never hurts." Adrian turned his head and smiled at his boyfriend. "Does it?"

Ricky sighed, and smiled back. "Nope. I love you, and I want you to know it."

"I do know it. And I love you, too, Rick."

Kippy gave out a little sigh, and Charlie smiled at that. Kip was always made happy by seeing others happy. It was one of the things that Charlie loved about his boyfriend, that he had such a capacity to share good feelings. A little more of that in the world wouldn't hurt at all, he thought. Especially at Christmas.

"What did Frit say the lady's name was again?" Ricky asked. "It was something weird."

"Ronja," Kippy supplied. "And there's nothing weird about it if you're from Switzerland."

"I'm not, in case you never noticed," Ricky tossed back. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean weird. I meant unusual." He smiled. "But it's pretty, really."

Adrian nodded. "I like it, too. I can't wait to meet her. If she can land Nicholaas, she must be special."

Charlie had to agree with that. "Frit said she was very sweet. And I trust Nicholaas to choose wisely. He has more experience than most people at finding a special someone."

Kippy grinned. "He has more experience than everybody. As old as he is, he should!"

Ricky sagged against Adrian and sighed. "What are we gonna do until tomorrow?" His eyes found Charlie's, and Charlie smiled at the warmth he saw in them. "I'm kinda excited," Ricky admitted. "I haven't felt this way since I was ten."

"I know how you feel," Charlie agreed. "Nothing to be embarrassed about there."

Kippy gave out a soft sigh. "Waiting for some things can be a real pain. Having ten days off school for winter break is cool and all, but I never thought there wouldn't be enough to do to keep us busy."

"We're having a nice time talking," Charlie pointed out. He smiled. "You love to talk, don't you?"

Ricky snickered, and Adrian gently slapped his boyfriend's arm.

Kippy turned his head and narrowed his eyes, but the action couldn't disguise the affection in them as he pretended to glare at Charlie. "Don't you start. I get enough of that from Rick."

Ricky and Adrian both laughed. "I only tease you because I love you, Kip," Ricky said. He was smiling, and even Charlie could see that the other boy was serious..

Adrian sighed and leaned his head on his boyfriend's shoulder. "You're forgiven."

It was Charlie's and Kippy's turn to laugh. Kippy reached across the gap between couples and patted Ricky's knee. "I love you guys, too." For emphasis, he gave Ricky's knee an extra fond squeeze.

Ricky looked down at Kip's hand and laughed. "Well, I'm horny! Anybody else?"

Adrian gave Ricky a gentle poke in his ribs with his elbow and then patted the blanket covering the cot. "We could, um, take a short nap right here."

Kippy turned and grinned at Charlie. "I'm kinda sleepy, too. Maybe a little under the blanket time would be fun!"

Charlie turned and looked across the room, making sure the door was locked, and then sat forward and began untying his shoes.

"I'll take that as a 'yes'," Kippy said delightedly, and bent over to get at his own laces.

The four of them got undressed, and then Adrian and Rick got into the cot while Charlie and Kippy pulled down the covers on Charlie's bed and crawled beneath them. The house was warm enough with the heat going, but winter always seemed to add a hint of chilly sparkle to the air even in a heated house, and snuggling under the covers with Kippy was just the thing to take the cool edge off the day.

They pulled the covers up, and Kippy wiggled close and kissed Charlie, then pulled back and smiled at him. "Feels like Christmas to me right now."

Charlie smiled and nodded. He let one hand slide down the warmth of Kippy's flank, to what waited below. "Me, too. Now, let's see...which present do I want to open first?"

Bob looked around Charlie's bedroom, and gave a little sigh. "So, this is where the magic happens?"

Kippy smiled at that, and gave Charlie's bedspread a fond pat. "I always thought so."

Bob's eyes widened, and his face turned a light shade of red. "Uh...I know, this is where you guys hatch your plans with the elves and all?"

Charlie smiled sideways at Kippy, and nodded to Uncle Bob. "Yeah. We do kind of think of my room as control central." He pointed at the laptop on his desk. "That was how we first contacted Max. And all because Kip couldn't type."

Kippy laughed at that. "I'm better now. But I was doing a Google search and wound up on Goggle, instead."

Bob frowned. "Never heard of it."

"We hadn't, either," Charlie admitted. "It's the elf search engine, I guess. We think Kip's skwish located it, somehow." He smiled at Ricky and Adrian. "All I know is that we sure needed it when it happened. Anyway, that's what started the whole thing."

"It's an amazing story. And now you four travel all, everywhere, helping the elves and doing good things." Bob let his gaze wander slowly around the circle of faces. "I have to say I can't imagine a better group of boys for the task."

No one said anything about being called a boy, as they all knew what Uncle Bob meant. All of them were seniors in school now, and eighteen, and thought of themselves as adults, even if their parents still had a little trouble recognizing that fact.

But they'll grow up to it, Charlie thought, smiling.

Bob slowly clapped his hands together, and gave out a little puff of air. "So...we just wait?"

"Uh huh." Kippy nodded, and looked over at the clock on Charlie's nightstand. "Still five minutes until one."

Charlie heard a sound from the hallway, and then his mom called up the flight of steps. "Charlie? Would Mr. Travers like anything to drink? How about your friends?"

Charlie got up and went to the door and looked down the staircase. His mom smiled up at him, a glass of ice tea in her hand. She took a sip and then held up the glass to him. "Just made a whole pitcher. Not bad, if I do say so, myself."

Charlie smiled back at her. "Well...thanks, mom, but I don't think so. They just came by to visit for a minute, and then they have to run. They're having a big dinner at Rick's house, and they'll be eating shortly." He shrugged, letting his smile turn into a grin. "But Kip and I will be down for a glass when they go. Meet you in the kitchen?"

"Okay. I'm making a bread pudding for dessert tonight. Your dad should be home from the mall soon. Can you help him carry stuff in?"

Charlie laughed at that. "Last minute shopping again?"

"Well, you know your dad."

Charlie nodded. "Yeah. Kip and I will be down soon, when these guys leave. Just a few minutes, okay?"

"Okay, honey." His mom held up the glass again, took another sip, grinned, and headed back to the kitchen.

Charlie returned to sit by Kippy. "We'll go have our visit with Frit and Pip and Max, and come back in time to still have ice tea with my mom."

"And help your dad carry stuff in," Kippy added, smiling.

"Just one more minute," Adrian said then, pointing at the alarm clock on Charlie's nightstand.

Charlie felt an anticipatory tingle make its way up his spine, and turned with the rest to stare at the clock. It was a new one, with a digital display at the base, but with conventional analog hands set into a small dial above. The digital clock said 12:59:21, and no one said anything as it continued to count forward to one o'clock.

Kippy put a hand on Charlie's arm and squeezed it gently, and Charlie laid his hand atop his boyfriend's and squeezed back.

The last seconds ticked down, the numbers flowed into new patterns, and the clock hit one PM.

Nothing happened.

Charlie looked around the room, but there was no movement in the air, no feeling that an elf or two was about to pop into the room.

"What the hell?" Ricky asked, frowning.

Kippy suddenly took a startled breath, and a second later, so did Adrian. "You feel that?" Adrian asked.

"Wait --" Kippy began, but broke off as a strange sound suddenly filled the room. It made Charlie's skin crawl a little, sounding something like a squeaky wheel as it rolled across the floor. On the other side of the room, on a stretch of solid, white-painted wall, a luminous dot appeared at the floor and began to crawl upwards, forming a line, which gained speed as it climbed across the baseboard and soared ever higher. A little more than a foot from the ceiling it suddenly made a right turn, traveled another three feet or so, and then made another right turn and started back towards the floor.

All eyes were on the wall. Charlie just stared along with the rest of them, knowing magic when he saw it, but not yet knowing what kind of magic it was. But he felt he knew what was in the making here...knew how this particular magic would wind up.

The line reached the baseboard and went on to the floor, made another turn there, and suddenly zipped across to connect with its point of origin. There was a soft whoosh, and the inside of the rectangle filled with color, a dark and lustrous brown. More strange sounds accompanied a further definition of the rectangle, as the rails, mullions, stiles, and inset panels of an ornate door appeared, followed at the end by a cute little ping as a great brass door latch winked into existence on the left stile.

Charlie laughed, even as the sounds of the door's making whispered away. "That's gotta be them."

He was going to add to that pronouncement, but he never got the rest of the words out. The metallic rapping sounds of a doorknocker located on the other side of the door filled the room, echoing and a little eerie, as if the door was the entry to a great hall instead of just to Charlie's bedroom. Charlie laughed again as the others suddenly whooshed out their breaths.

Kippy bounded to his feet and literally danced himself over to the door, made a show of placing an ear to it, and grinned. "Who is it?"

A muffled voice came from the other side. "Aw, geez! Come on, fellas, open up!"

Kippy turned to the group, his eyes filled with a merry light, and grasped the door latch and pushed his thumb down on the lever, and stepped back, opening the door.

Max stood on the other side.

Charlie heard a chorus of gasps from the others, and a stifled laugh from Kippy. Charlie had to sit on an impulse of his own to laugh, and just stared, right along with everyone else. Max was dressed in a red and green jacket and green tights, with a tall, pointed green hat on his head, with a fluffy red ball of fur at the tip of it. His feet were encased in green boots with points at the end of them, that stuck up in the air and curled backwards a bit. A black belt circled his waist, bearing several dark leather pouches, and little bells dangled from the ends of his jacket cuffs.

He looked every bit the classic Christmas elf. But it was the expression on Max's face that was the most humorous. His cheeks were rosy with embarrassment, and it was obvious that he'd much rather be just about anywhere else at that moment. Or, at least, dressed any other way!

Charlie gaped for several more seconds, the urge to howl almost overwhelming. Ricky choked and pretended to have a coughing fit, while Adrian covered his mouth and looked away. Uncle Bob simply gaped, too astonished to even laugh. Kippy's eyes were huge, but he clamped his jaw tightly and turned to look at Charlie as if for help. But Charlie was unable to help anybody, doing everything he could already just to keep from falling to the floor and rolling about, laughing.

Max nodded, looking from one human face to another, but not believing any of it. A trace of humor crept into his eyes, and then he smiled. "Aw. That's sweet, guys. But you can laugh. I know I look ridiculous. It's just for fun, anyway."

Kippy let his smile run free then, and chuckled softly at Max. "You are soo cute!"

Max nodded again, visibly fortified himself, and returned the smile. "Yeah, yeah. Even the missus said so. But let's not go on too long with this staring stuff, huh?"

Charlie noticed motion beyond Max then, and realized that it was snowing behind the elf. Great, fat flakes, too, that took their time coming down, sashaying gently side to side on the journey. He heard a strange sound then, a sort of coughing grunt like the sound a horse might make, only somehow different, and opened his mouth to ask if anyone else had heard it.

But just then, Frit and Pip, who had been hiding to either side of the door, leaned in and grinned at everyone. "Surprise!" They were dressed like Max, and if possible, even more appealing to the eye. They stepped into the room on either side of the older elf, and waved at the humans.

"Hi!" Frit added then, sounding happy and excited. "Merry Christmas, everybody!"

"Merry Christmas!" Pip echoed, and waved. "And a happy new year, when it gets here!"

Kippy clasped a hand to his chest, looked back at Charlie, rolled his eyes, and mouthed the words, "!

The two elf teens were beyond plain cuteness. Charlie grinned, and got to his feet. That was the signal for everyone to rise, and soon hugs were being exchanged all around. Uncle Bob looked surprised when Frit and Pip, whom he had never actually met, each hugged him mightily.

"We heard all about you!" Frit explained, laughing.

"You're a legend in Twombly!" Pip added. "My cousin, six times removed, Lera, lives there. She told me all about your magic act!"

Charlie took the opportunity to move next to Max, to whisper at him. "You had us worried for just a second. When one o'clock came and nothing happened, I mean."

Max laughed. "You should know that time is a little different from clock to clock, Charlie. You set your new alarm clock from your watch when you bought it, din'cha?"

"Well...yeah, I think I did."

"And you set your watch from your laptop time, right?"

"Yes. "Charlie smiled. "What's your point?"

Max sighed. "You set the minutes both times, but not the seconds. That left you about thirty-six seconds off true time."

Charlie stared a moment, then gently clapped his palm to the side of his head. "How could I be so stupid?"

The elf laughed. "It ain't stupid, but it is imprecise. You guys expected something to happen right when your clock changed to one, but it wasn't actually one yet. That's all." Max leaned forward, a smile in his eyes. "We elfs run on true time, Charlie. You humans carry your own time around with you, and everybody's is a little different. That's why the heroes always synchronize their watches in the adventures movies."

Charlie smiled at that. "Since when have you been watching human movies?"

Max shrugged. "Oh, a long time. Ever since we got cable at the house."

Ricky turned at hearing that. "You have cable? At the North Pole?"

" an undisclosed location nearby. Sure, we got it."

Ricky grinned. "Betcha got the king of all flat screen TVs, too!"

Max winked quickly at Charlie, but frowned at Rick. "TV? Why would I need a TV?"

Ricky stared at the elf, then at Charlie, then back at Max. " else would you watch cable?"

Max grinned. "Easy. Just plug it in one ear, and off we go!"

Charlie and Max both started laughing. Ricky watched them a moment, and then rolled his eyes. "Funny."

Max stepped forward and clapped Ricky on the shoulder. "I really don't have a TV, Rick. Not even a cable coming into the house, like you're imagining. We can watch that stuff without all that tech gear you guys use. It's just electromagnetic waves, digitally encoded."

Ricky brightened. "Really? You watch it, free?"

Max looked surprised. "You guys hafta pay?"

Charlie started laughing again, and Rick just sighed. Max smiled at them both, and then stepped into the center of the crowd and raised his hands."Listen up, folks!"

Frit and Pip immediately jumped to each side of Max, their faces wrapped in delighted grins. "Hear ye, hear ye!" Pip intoned.

"My grandpa is about to speak!" Frit finished.

The boys and Uncle Bob gathered around the elves, and Charlie felt the same sense of anticipation that he could see on the faces of the others. Christmas at the North Pole, with Santa and the elves! Or at an undisclosed location nearby, that is. Either way it was exciting, and Charlie's glee was only heightened when Kip came and nuzzled against him.

"This is going to be so fun!" his boyfriend whispered.

Charlie put an arm around him and pulled him close, and nodded.

Max gave out a big sigh. "Well, it's that time of year again, guys. The past two Christmases have been pretty wonderful, and some of that is because of you." He looked around at the humans watching him. "All of you. Two Christmases in a row now, you guys have helped to make the holiday bigger and brighter for someone. Or a lot of someones." He smiled. "Time to get a little of that back now."

"It'll be super merry!" Frit said.

"Extra super merry!" Pip added.

The two elves grinned at each other, and chorused, "Very merry, merry!" and broke into laughter.

Max rolled his eyes, but couldn't help smiling. "Uh, yeah."

Kippy waved a hand. "But we love being involved in all this stuff. You don't have to do anything special for us."

Pip hooted. "Too late!"

"Can't turn back now!" Frit followed up, laughing.

Max shook his head. "No, it's no big deal, guys. This Christmas looks like it's gonna be smooth sailing, and we just wanna share a little of that with you." He turned then, and waved at the door and the snowy world beyond it. "If you guys wanna come on out, we can get started."

Kippy moved towards the door, and Charlie followed. "Where is that, um, out there?" Kippy asked, pointing through the door.

Max laughed. "Oh, just someplace. Sorta between hither and yon, you might say."

Kippy laughed, and moved to stand in the doorway to look outside. He immediately gasped, and then waved a hand in Charlie's direction without turning. "Oh! Come see!"

Charlie stepped quickly to the door to stand beside his boyfriend.

Outside, a stone staircase descended a snowy hillside to a narrow plateau, also snow-covered, beyond which was a dramatic fall off into a vast valley cloaked in winter white. A stubble of evergreen trees, laden with fresh snow, crowded along the steep inclines to either side of the divide, probably much larger and farther away than at first appeared. At the other end of the valley, just above the distant mountains, a break in the cloud cover framed the waning crescent of the moon, just a tiny arc of light in the sky, yet somehow bright through the falling snow. It would have been almost eerie had it not been so beautiful.

It seemed to be late afternoon beyond the door, and most of the sky was heavy and gray with snow. Other than the small window through which the moon gazed at them, the only light was from what filtered through the dense clouds above. There were no habitations visible, anywhere, and the valley looked untouched by human - or even elf - hands. The impression of wilderness was strong, and Charlie realized then that stepping through the doorway would take them to a land somehow more distant than even he could imagine.

But it was what stood at the bottom of the stone staircase that now held Kippy's attention. A magnificent red sleigh was parked there, with ornate white runners, and two rows of plush, red seating within. At the fore of the sleigh, eight reindeer stood in their harnesses, several with their heads together almost as if conversing. One of the ones in the front looked up their way and spied them, and immediately let out a coughing grunt just like the one that Charlie had heard earlier. The other reindeer turned their heads, and gazed up at the elves and humans, and several more made the coughing sounds - except that they sounded very much like laughter!

"Freakin' awesome!" Ricky breathed, over Charlie's shoulder. "Is that Rudolph up front?"

Max laughed. "Naw, that's Pasquale. Rudolph - that's just for the kids, you know?"

Kippy looked astonished, and then disappointed. "There's no Rudolph?"

Frit shrugged. "One of your people came up with that."

"Sorry," Pip said. "No Rudolph."

Max looked sympathetic. "Everything can't be like you expect it, guys. That was a cute story, but Mr. May kinda made it all up."

Kippy sighed resignedly. "Oh, well."

Max smiled. "Pasquale's nose don't glow, but he's a heck of a flier."

Kippy immediately looked delighted again. "So the sled still flies?"

"Oh, sure. Wouldn't be any fun if it didn't, now would it?"

"I'll say," Adrian put in, the same delight that Kippy wore now written upon his features. "Is that our transportation?"

All three elves laughed. "We could walk, but it would take a while," Pip said.

Frit nodded. "A long while, even with the clocks stopped. You want to get there soon, don't you?"

Kippy propelled his head up and down. "Yes! Uh...where are we going?"

"I just told you," Frit said. "There."

Max sighed. "Just...let's get down to the sleigh and get goin', huh? I'll explain once we get airborne."

Kippy stepped out the door, and immediately clapped his arms together across his chest. "It's cold!"

"It's winter!" Frit said, laughing.

But there was a popping sound, and a handsome brown parka with white fur trim appeared at Kippy's feet. He immediately picked it up, shook off the snow, and shrugged into it. Then he turned, grinned back at Charlie, and pulled up the hood. "That's better!"

As each of the humans stepped out through the doorway, a similar parka appeared at his feet. Presently, they were all so clad. Max stepped back as they buttoned up, and looked them up and down, and then frowned and shook his head. "No, that won't do." He smiled. "Mind the tickle, fellas."

He waved his fingers at the group, and Charlie felt a tickling sensation in his legs and feet. He looked down, and his jeans were now tucked into brown-furred leather boots, the uppers of which were cinched snugly against his lower legs by two leather straps. He grinned, and looked over at Ricky, who was gazing down at his own boots in astonishment.

"Admiral Byrd, I presume?" Charlie said, laughing.

Ricky also laughed, his eyes bright. "Whoever that is, Britannica Brain."

Charlie sighed, and shook his head. "You really should look at your history book once in a while."

Adrian made an exasperated sound, and bumped against his boyfriend. "He's kidding, Charlie." But then he frowned. "I think."

Ricky laughed, but didn't clarify his understanding of the topic, instead turning and waving his hand at the snowy mountain vista before them. "Who cares what we're called, standing here in front of all this...this...coolness?" He shook his head, but his enchantment was plain to see. "It looks like the top of the world to me. And I'll bet it's really far away from your bedroom, Charlie!"

"A little bit!" Frit exclaimed, smiling.

"More than a little bit!" Pip elaborated.

"I'll bet." Ricky pointed at Frit. "Have any other humans been here before us?"

The elf scratched his ear, and threw a questioning look at his grandpa.

"Not in a very long time," Max decided, after some thought. "We kinda keep the doors to this place locked these days. No offense."

Charlie laughed at that. "None taken. In case you never noticed, we all have locks on our doors, too."

Max nodded, and indicated the staircase. "After you, guys."

Kippy emitted a delighted hoot, and started down the steps at a run. Charlie sighed and plunged after him, hearing the others following on his heels. They descended the stairs with much less caution than their snowy condition deserved, and all of them scrambled at one point or another to keep from falling. But they all wound up laughing at the challenge, even Uncle Bob, who was grinning just like the rest of them when they finally arrived at the base of the staircase.

"That was thrilling!" The older man said, his eyes bright. "Didn't know I still had it in me!"

Ricky laughed. "I'd have been surprised if you didn't. I mean, you're a Travers, right? Even if you're not a kid anymore."

Uncle Bob seemed to take some delight in the remark, and patted his nephew's shoulder fondly. "I'll take that in the spirit you meant it, Rick."

Max and the younger elves arrived beside them. They appeared not to have had any problem with the slippery stairs, and Charlie was not surprised when they seemed amused at the human's efforts. But it was a good-natured and fond amusement, the type to be expected between friends, and Charlie found no reason to do anything but smile back at them.

"Ooh!" Kippy breathed, gazing at the harnessed reindeer. "They're beautiful!"

He again took the lead, walking along the length of the sleigh towards the animals in their harnesses. One of the rear reindeer looked over its shoulder at Kip's approach, then turned and leaned over towards its neighbor. There was a faint buzz almost like whispering, and then the other reindeer emitted a coughing grunt that again struck Charlie as laughter. The first reindeer looked back at Kippy again, and then Charlie was amazed to see it crouch a little, and muscles flow along the beast's flanks...

And then the stubby tail lifted.

Kippy had just reached the front of the sleigh when a tremendous fart issued forth from beneath the tail of the reindeer, and then all eight of the animals broke into the coughing sounds of laughter.

"Hey, hey!" Max said, coming forward then, and trying not to laugh. "Knock it off, you guys! These are our guests, you get me? Behave!"

Kippy gasped, and immediately held his nose. He turned to look at Charlie, and then started back towards him. "Okay, maybe they're better viewed from a distance."

"They're just foolin' around," Frit said, hiding a smile with his hand.

"Playing games!" Pip agreed, shaking his head. But the elf couldn't quite hide the laughter he was feeling inside.

"They don't mean no harm, fellas," Max said, waving a hand in the air. The stench, just reaching Charlie's nostrils at that moment, instantly dissipated. Charlie was grateful for that, as the one whiff he did get was enough to make him want to be elsewhere.

"What the heck do those guys eat?" Ricky said, blinking his eyes. He also had gotten a whiff of the fart.

Max laughed. "Oh, birch bark, moss, sedge. Grass and mushrooms. The usual vegan stuff."

Adrian smiled. "I've smelled horse farts before, and they're about the same. It's the sheer quantity that gets to you."

Max passed Kippy and paused at the offending reindeer. "Okay, Norville, you've had your fun. Now be nice to our guests."

The reindeer looked at Max, then hung its head a moment. The elf turned and waved to Kippy, who took a hesitant step back in that direction.

"Come on," Max prompted, when the boy paused. "He was just having a little fun. He'll be polite now."

Kippy smiled over his shoulder at Charlie, and then stepped forward to stand alongside the reindeer. Norville turned his head and gazed at Kippy, and offered up a gentle sound that seemed a welcome. Kippy reached out and laid his hand in the animal's fur, and Charlie smiled at the delight that returned to his boyfriend's eyes. "Oh, Charlie, you need to feel this!"

Charlie nodded, steeled himself against a possible second assault on his nose, and moved up to stand beside his boyfriend. Kippy was actively petting the reindeer now, and the animal looked quite happy with the effort. Charlie reached out and patted Norville's flank, and marveled at the pleasing downy quality that the apparently coarse fur seemed to possess.

In a moment all the humans had found a reindeer to pet, while the animals stood patiently and enjoyed it.

Max sighed, and patted Norville's back. "They're young. Kids. You know how kids are, right?"

Charlie smiled. "Haven't got a clue."

Max grinned at him. "They're good sorts, all of them. They just get bored easily." He turned and gazed briefly at Frit and Pip, who were petting another of the reindeer, and laughing happily together. "Just kids."

Kippy was enjoying himself, and Charlie smiled as his boyfriend gave Norville a little hug around the neck. "You are so cute!" Kippy whispered. Norville responded by gently prodding Kippy with the tip of his nose, as if returning the compliment in the only way that he could. Kippy looked pleased at that, and grinned happily at Charlie.

"There." Max also looked pleased. "Now we're all friends." He pointed back at the sleigh. "Ready to go?"

Kippy bent close to Norville's ear a last time, and whispered, "Thanks for being nice!", and then turned to join the group as they proceeded to board the sleigh. Norville turned to gaze back at Kippy, seeming much happier than he had been only moments before.

The sleigh was longer and wider than Charlie had ever imagined Santa's sleigh would be, and he decided then that this was not a toy delivery sleigh, but a people transport. Not Santa's main sleigh at all. The two rows of seats took up the entire interior, with no platform to the rear for a loaded toy bag. He smiled at his own summation, as he really had no idea how Nicholaas delivered his goodies on Christmas Eve, and he was just basing his thoughts on assumptions from Santa Claus lore. And he was starting to see that much of what he'd learned about Santa and elves growing up just wasn't the real deal. That they might get more insight into the whole Santa experience was really kind of exciting!

Max climbed into the front seat and took the reins, and Frit and Pip seated themselves to either side of the older elf. The back seat was more than wide enough for all five humans to sit abreast comfortably, and Charlie and Kip paired off, and Ricky and Adrian, while Uncle Bob sat outboard of his nephew. There were little half-moon doors in the side of the sleigh by each seat, which allowed them easy access to the interior, and which closed firmly behind them, giving at least a small sense of enclosure.

Max looked over his shoulder to make sure all the humans were seated, then gently flipped the reins in his hands and made a soft sound inside his cheek. "Ho, Pasquale, and Solly, and Nestor, and Orville! Aloft, Wally, and Jolly, and Jester, and Norville!"

Kippy and Adrian giggled, and Charlie grinned. Max turned and smiled at them, looking a little embarrassed. "Union rules, you know."

Charlie was surprised. "You guys are in a union?"

Max laughed. "Not us." He pointed at the team ahead of the sleigh. "Them!"

The reindeer started forward, and the sleigh moved easily in their wake. They gathered speed startlingly quickly, and soon were flying across the snows of the narrow plateau. Charlie craned his neck to see past the elves, and was shocked to see them barreling towards the sharp edge of a sheer drop off!

"Um!" was all he got out, though, before the fast moving sleigh reached the cliff. He had just a part of a second to tighten his arm around Kippy before the sleigh rocketed past the end of the plateau and soared into the air, the reindeer rising slightly ahead of them as they hauled the sleigh high into the snow-filled sky. Charlie had tensed at the take-off, but as the sleigh gained altitude he felt himself relaxing. There were no seat belts for restraint like in his Mom's car, and probably no air bags, either. But there also seemed to be some gentle force holding them in place, negating any tendency to slide about - or fall out - as the sled moved. Of course elf magic would have thought of that!

"Whoa!" Ricky yelled, but he was grinning. He had his arm around Adrian, who was snuggled up against his boyfriend and looking happy as could be. "Is this cool, or what?" Ricky added, laughing and waving his free arm.

The elves laughed, too, and Frit turned to smile at them. "Did it scare ya?"

"Even a little?" Pip added.

"Scared me, the first time I did it!" Frit continued, as if to answer his own question.

"Made me wonder, just a little," Uncle Bob admitted, following it up with an obvious sigh of relief. He patted the top edge of the half-moon door next to him, and then smiled. "But I trust the magic, so I wasn't too worried!"

Charlie also trusted Max and his magic, but was also feeling a sense of relief at being aloft now. The matter-of-fact take off had definitely been a surprise!

"I wasn't worried," Kip said. "My skwish would have warned me if we were gonna be in trouble, I think."

Adrian nodded. "I didn't feel scared, either. I felt like we'd be fine."

Ricky leaned over and kissed his boyfriend. "That's okay. I was nervous enough for both of us!"

"You guys warm enough back there?" Max called.

Only then did Charlie realize that there was no wind in their faces, even though they were crossing the sky at a considerable pace. They were quite comfortable as a result, and Charlie said so.

"I can adjust the airflow, if you want a little more action," Max informed. "Some of the guys at the shop like the wind in their face when they drive these things." He laughed. "Most guys with beards, that is. Me, I prefer not to feel like an icicle, myself."

"We're good," Kippy called, the idea of being buffeted about by frigid air not even remotely appealing.

Uncle Bob was seated on the right side of the sleigh, just as Charlie was on the left, with Kip, Adrian and Ricky between them. The older man leaned his head over the door and looked down, and immediately let loose a sharp whistle of appreciation. "Hell of a view!"

Charlie looked over his own door, and marveled at the rugged, snow-covered forest that was passing beneath them as they flew down the length of the valley. He'd been right that the trees were far larger than they had seemed from the little plateau outside the door from his bedroom. Giant spruce trees towered among only slightly shorter stands of poplars and cedars, with hemlock, alder, and pine liberally sprinkled between. All of them were hung with snow and glistened with ice. It was a Christmas scene like no other he had ever experienced before!

He knew that they couldn't really be near the pole, because trees just didn't grow that far north. The terrain below looked like videos he had seen of Alaska, or Canada, or other northern lands. The one trip they had made to Max's house before, several Christmases ago, they had seen snow and distant mountains through the large window in Max's den, but no trees at all. The aurora had played in green and rose above their heads, and there had been every evidence of being close to the pole...or at an undisclosed location nearby.

From somewhere in his memory, Charlie pulled up the fact that the nearest true land to the north pole was some four hundred miles away from the actual ninety-degree mark. The true pole was in the Arctic Ocean, covered in ice, and not really a spot someone would choose to live. The fact that mountains could bee seen in the distance from Max's home indicated to Charlie that the 'undisclosed location nearby' the pole was actually not as close to the pole as he had originally imagined. But what was a few hundred miles to an elf, who could 'be there' in an instant if he wanted to do so?

Like size to these magical folk, distance was also relative. That Santa's workshop might not actually be situated at the true north pole did not bother Charlie in the least. The original legend had likely chosen that particular spot for Santa's origin because at that time it was an inaccessible place, a no man's land beyond the reach of mortal men, and so a perfect place for a myth to resist being tampered with by curious explorers. That humans had since been to that area of the world had miraculously done little to tarnish the image of Santa and his elves as denizens of the far north. Charlie had to smile at that. People love a good story, even if it has holes in it!

The landscape directly beneath them was almost blurring now as the reindeer got up to speed. They had to be doing several hundred miles per hour, and Charlie lifted his gaze and settled back in his seat, quite content to view the vista ahead of them, which was much easier on the eyes.

"This thing really moves!" Ricky said appreciatively, leaning forward and patting Max on the shoulder. "How fast are we going?"

Max smiled over his shoulder. "Fast enough. You don't really want to know."

Uncle Bob laughed at that, and nodded. "Yeah, I don't think I'd like to know that we were moving at jet airliner speeds in an open sleigh."

"It's supposed to be fun," Frit said, turning around to smile at them. "We could've just zipped straight to the shop from your room, but this seemed like it would be better."

"It is," Uncle Bob reassured. "I'm having a great time!"

That seemed to make Frit happy, and he reached across his granddad's shoulders and patted Pip, who grinned at him.

Charlie smiled at that, and leaned a little more closely against Kippy, who immediately noticed and snuggled even closer.

They crossed the mountains they had seen from the doorway, and seemed headed straight into the crescent moon. The snow parted around them and vanished from view at the sides of the sleigh, leaving them a clear look at the terrain below. After crossing the mountains, the forests thinned and soon disappeared, replaced with tundra under a cover of trackless snow. Even as they watched, the snow in the skies ahead of them diminished, and soon disappeared altogether, leaving the way ahead of them sparklingly clear. The cloud cover above lessened, and a few stray rays of late afternoon sun peeked through.

It was an amazing view, not to be missed, and Charlie absorbed every stray photon of light, determined to fix a permanent record of the wondrous vista in his memory. Kippy sighed, took Charlie's hand and squeezed it. "It's so amazing."

Charlie nodded, turned his head, pushed their hoods back a bit, and kissed his boyfriend's cheek. "Sharing it with you makes it even more special," he whispered.

Kippy sighed again, turned his head, and found Charlie's lips. There was something special about the kiss that followed, too, and Charlie also fixed this moment in his memory for all time to come.

Then they relaxed, and let the experience soak in as it willed. Kippy squeezed Charlie's hand, and Charlie squeezed back, and the two of them scanned the sky around them and the lands below, fully caught up now in the trip they were taking. Rick and Adrian seemed similarly enthralled, and Uncle Bob also was quiet as his eyes tried to look everywhere at once. The older man wore a small smile, and Charlie knew it was born of the same delight he was feeling himself. Some people would view the world around them and simply see a harsh and unforgiving land; but from the magic perch of the sleigh, it was an amazing and most wonderful place.

They traveled onward for a period of time, one that Charlie could only guess at. It was an unimportant measurement, for they were in no hurry for the experience to end. The reindeer ahead of them flexed their legs in a powerful run, yet they grabbed at empty air, and the speedy pace of the sleigh seemed almost unreal.

It began to darken, the cloud-hidden sun obviously finding its way to the horizon. The crescent of the moon had traveled some distance across the sky, but had risen a bit higher, and still cast an unnaturally bright light upon the land. Charlie wasn't sure, but it seemed to him that that moon should not be there. He had a small interest in the phases of the moon, its rising and setting, and he was pretty sure that it should not still be visible at this time of the day. But it was so enchanting that he didn't question it further, deciding that it was all part of the magic, and accepting it for what it was. Beautiful.

The sky darkened further, until only the sliver of moon lit the land. The sleigh made a slow turn towards that satellite then, and the antlers of the reindeer seemed to play tag with the distant, glowing crescent. They charged onward across the sky, the white tundra beneath them so uniform now that it seemed the sleigh scarcely moved at all.

Charlie soon noticed a glow on the horizon ahead of them, and watched it slowly brighten, until he saw an actual light there, which only grew brighter as they traveled onward. The boys and Uncle Bob all sat up tall in their seats now, trying to see what lay ahead,and Charlie's mouth dropped open as a structure began to emerge from the light.

A pile of snowballs...

That was his first impression. Just as Max's house had seemed to have been made from one giant snowball, the structure ahead of them was similarly constructed. Only on a gargantuan scale, it seemed.

The base seemed made up of a circle of immense snowballs, and by the windows that glowed from the curved sides, each snowball was six stories tall. Charlie could see three of the huge snowballs from where he sat, so he guessed that there were six in all in the circle of the base. Atop that circle, another circle of slightly smaller snowballs sat, this with four tiers of glowing windows. Atop that, a slightly smaller circle, each with three floors of windows, and then a smaller circle, each with two windows. At the very top of the structure sat one great snowball, this one with tall, narrow windows that suggested there was but one floor inside, but one with a very high ceiling, perhaps. And, finally, atop this uppermost snowball, a slender white pylon arose, one that glowed at its uppermost end with a single blue-white light so bright it could have been one of the stars in the night sky.

All about the building, the forms of tall spruce trees jutted up from the land, seeming quite happy there, even in the extreme climate. Each tree was laced with lights of all colors, some that twinkled, some that didn't. Each tree bore a radiant star at the top, each one a slightly different color than the next one, with no two exactly alike. Small forms moved about among the trees, some looking up at them now, and Charlie realized he was seeing more reindeer - hundreds, perhaps - all contentedly grazing upon the low brush and grasses that seemed to sprout everywhere from a ground magically free of snow. Charlie laughed at that idea, sure that magic was really involved, after all.

The building - for Charlie was certain now that it was a building - was easily several hundred feet tall, and the immense base certainly covered many acres of land. And for all that, the place looked as if it belonged right where it was, in the middle of a vast and otherwise frozen land, one dotted with small mounds and hillocks of wind-blown snow, the occasional outcropping of frost-covered rock, and not much else to recommend it.

An oasis, there among the cold snows.

"It's incredible," Adrian breathed, his eyes filled with the light from below.

"Awesome," Ricky agreed, in a voice barely above a whisper.

Uncle Bob sniffed, and wiped at his eyes a moment, and smiled. "Wow."

The sleigh circled the structure a few times, settling lower on each pass, until they slowed enough to touch down upon the ground. The grazing reindeer parted with just enough speed to let them through, and a chorus of coughing calls reached their ears, to which their own reindeer immediately responded.

Ricky laughed at that. "Honey! We're home!"

They drew up before a large set of double doors in the side of one of the huge snowballs, and Max gently pulled back on the reins, and the sleigh came to a stop. The reindeer continued to chatter a moment longer, and some of their fellows came over to tap antlers with them, and even nuzzle them with their noses.

They heard footsteps on the hard ground, and two young elves came out from between the lit trees and approached the harnessed reindeer.

"Hi!" said the first one, waving a hand. "Nice to see you!"

The second also waved, and the two stopped at the lead pair of the sleigh's reindeer team and gently rubbed the animal's noses. "We'll take the sleigh, if you're done with it," the second elf added then. "These guys need something to eat and drink." He grinned at the lead reindeer before him, and gave its nose a fond rub. "Hi, Pasquale!"

The reindeer made a friendly sound and bobbed its head up and down in response.

Frit opened the door at his side and slid out, and Max and Pip followed. Charlie took that as a cue, and opened his own door and slid out. Kippy and the others followed, and soon the eight of them had formed a group.

The two young elves each took hold of the nose straps of the two leads, and turned as if to lead them off. Norville looked back then, sought out Kippy, and threw what was plainly a farewell grunt his way. Kippy grinned and waved, and the two parted as friends.

"What a sweetie," Kippy said, as the team and sleigh were lead away. "Well, as long as you don't get behind him!"

That brought a few laughs, but they faded quickly as Max turned them towards the great double doors. "Here we are!"

"Am I right in assuming that this is Santa's...well, Nicholaas, I mean...that this is his workshop?" Uncle Bob asked.

"Yep." Max gazed up at the incredible structure with unmistakable fondness. "This is where it all happens."

"You're the supervisor here, right?" Charlie asked.

He smiled as Max's chest expanded just a bit, and a grin covered his face. "Well, if I don't mind sayin', I do have a little to do with the way things get done here, yes."

"He's a big cheese!" Pip said, laughing and patting the older elf on the back.

"The Big Guy's right hand!" Frit put in, looking at Max with pride.

"Aw, now...let's just go on in." Max looked slightly annoyed at the attention, but the smile he wore said he wasn't taking it to heart.

There were three steps up to a stone platform before the double doors, and Max led the way. A sound came from behind the doors then, as if a latch or lock of considerable size had been thrown, and the two doors opened inward, revealing a surprisingly large room tastefully decked out in red, green, and gold Christmas colors. Charlie gawked about with all the others, taking in the total absence of straight lines and corners, and remembering from their visit to Max's house that rooms were generally round in shape and that the walls curved into the floors and ceilings.

A large Christmas tree, easily twice their own height, stood before them, lit with what looked like a hundred candles, and hung just right with ornaments that were pleasing to the eye. Behind the tree and to one side, a great hearth threw dancing fingers of light about the room as several huge logs burned on the grate. To one side of the hearth, and facing the Christmas tree, two long sofas upholstered in green and red and gold provided a restful place for visitors to admire the tree, and perhaps to wait to be received.

But it was the window behind the sofas that really captured everyone's attention. It was wide and tall, with a single vast stretch of glass in the center, and a vertical column to either side of the central pane that was segmented into smaller panes of glass by grill work. Beyond the window a wide, tree-covered valley was laid out, stretching away from them, dotted here and there with the cheerful lights of individual homes and small collections of homes, over which hung a wonderfully illuminated gray sky, an incredible mix of daylight and night, from which snowflakes ambled slowly and peacefully towards the ground. It was captivating and breathtaking all at once, and all conversation among the humans momentarily ceased as the five of them turned to gape at it.

"Ooh!" Kippy finally breathed, clasping his hands together before his chin. "Is that awesome, or what?"

"I'll say!" Adrian whispered, with similar feeling in his voice.

Ricky nodded. "Man! That is really something!"

Charlie looked over at Uncle Bob, who was smiling and slowly shaking his head at the same time. The man felt his eyes, and turned the smile on Charlie. "That's gorgeous," he said softly. "Like a Christmas card come to life!"

Charlie smiled and nodded. The view was simply stunning, but not unexpected at all, given where they were. He looked over at Max and the two younger elves, who were watching the humans with pleased expressions.

"You like it?" Frit asked.

"We made it up special, just for you!" Pip added.

"Is it a real place?" Charlie wondered. "I didn't see anything like that around before we came inside."

Max nodded. "It's real, more or less." He laughed. "Put together from a few places we know, and maybe jazzed up a bit to make it just so. But you're right, it's not just outside. That window can look at a lot of different places. "

"Nice," Charlie returned. "I wouldn't mind having something like that in my room."

"It can be arranged!" Frit called, smiling.

Charlie laughed at that. "Yeah, I can see my mom and dad getting a look at that, and pulling me up to demand an answer. Thanks, but maybe not right now."

Frit turned and whispered into Pip's ear, and both elves erupted into laughter. Charlie blinked at that, hoping he had not just given them an idea that might come back on him somewhere down the road.

"Why don't you guys sit a minute?" Max said, flinging out a hand at the sofas. "Enjoy the tree. I'll let The Big Guy know you're here."

Kippy laughed. "You mean he doesn't already know?"

Max smiled. "Probably. But it's just polite to tell him. And I'm sure he'll want you to meet Ronja, who I'm sure doesn't know you guys are here."

Kippy looked pleased. "I can't wait to meet her!"

"She knows about you guys," Max said. "She knows that the Boss is fond of you. I think she wants to meet all of you, too." He turned to Frit and Pip, and motioned them to go with him, and then the three of them left the room through another doorway.

The five humans arranged themselves on one of the long sofas and sat back. The upholstery was enormously comfortable, but Charlie would have been surprised if it had been any other way. He inspected the tree, his eyes moving among the candles and the ornaments. It was really well done, and he had to salute whoever had done the decorating. Everything seemed perfectly positioned, and the gentle flickering of the candles made the entire tree twinkle as the light bounded here and there among the ornaments.

"It's so nice here," Kippy said, grasping Charlie's hand and interlacing their fingers together. He squeezed gently, causing Charlie to smile. They leaned their heads together, and Charlie closed his eyes, just savoring the moment.

Kippy suddenly gasped, and leaned forward, and Charlie jacked his eyes open in amazement. "What? What happened?"

Kippy was staring at the tree. He looked at Charlie then, and rose to his feet, pulling Charlie up and along with him.

"What are we doing?" Charlie asked.

"Look," Kippy said.

They were before the tree now, and Kippy reached out and put his hand behind a large golden ball hanging from a branch, and turned it slightly towards Charlie. An image leaped out at him then, and he gasped himself and leaned forward to look more closely. The golden ball had a picture on it...a picture of them!

It was an image of Charlie's bedroom - near his desk, to be exact. Kippy was sitting in the chair before Charlie's laptop, and Charlie was bent over his shoulder, staring at the screen. On the screen was Max, staring back at them. But...Charlie and Kippy were much younger in the picture, which looked so real he expected them to move at any instant.

"That's us!" Kippy declared.

"I remember that," Charlie said, shaking his head. "It's when we first met Max."

"What's going on?" Ricky said, coming to stand beside them. He peered closer, and then grunted. "What the hell?"

Adrian and Uncle Bob appeared, and also inspected the ornament.

"Hey!" Adrian said, frowning. "I remember that, too!"

"Here's another one," Uncle Bob said suddenly, turning a large red ball to face them. On this one, Charlie, Kip, Rick, and Adrian were sitting on a log before a campfire, each with a small steaming bowl in hand. Across from them sat Nicholaas, smiling and looking interested, while Kirka looked over his shoulder curiously.

"Here's one more," Adrian said. This ball was green, and the picture it held was one of Charlie and Kippy sailing through the air together, holding hands, with Ricky and Adrian visible just behind them, also flying.

"That was at Frit's and Pip's school dance!" Rick said. He smiled then, and patted his boyfriend's arm. "What a great night that was!"

They started walking about the tree, examining the ornaments, and found many more that each held a scene from the past three years. The boys at the old house in the woods where they had met Will and Billy, the ghostly lovers; a picture of them all aboard Lollipop, with their faces dyed green and deer antlers projecting from their temples; a scene of them and Uncle Bob onstage in Twombly, performing their magic act before the entire town; another of them in the caves of the forza, with Will and Billy in the person of the robot Gort, the robot's arms upraised, the new light that filled the cavern stunning the little gargoyle people into immobility.

Each was a scene from one of their adventures, and the more they looked, the more they discovered. Charlie noted that not all the scenes were from times where Max had been present, nor even any of the elves at all. Yet here they were, each bauble a memory of some past moment that had occurred since that magic day, three Christmases past now, when they had first become aware of the elf world next to their own.

Kippy smiled, and rubbed up against Charlie, who instinctively put an arm around him. "These are for us," Kippy said. "We were meant to see them."

Charlie nodded. "I think so, too." He grinned and looked around the room. "Max, you old schemer! I see your hand in this!"

At that moment the door through which the elves had left opened again, and Max came out, accompanied by a lady - a human one - in a red dress and red shoes. Her hair was a golden blonde, with hints of red in it, and the smile she wore was one of delight. Her green eyes fastened on the five guests, and she immediately came forward, her arms open in welcome.

"Hello! I have waited so long to meet you! I am Ronja Von Gunten, a friend of Nicholaas." She arrived beside them, looked from face to face, her pleasure obvious and sincere. "This is a wonderful event! I know you don't know me, but I hope to soon remedy that." She gave a sigh. "It is nice to see people from the world again!" She leaned forward, just a bit conspiratorially. "How is it doing? I lose track, when I am here."

The boys and Uncle Bob all laughed, and Charlie extended his hand. "Hi. I'm Charlie Boone. This is my boyfriend, Kip Lawson, and our best friends, Rick Travers, and Adrian Whitaker." Charlie grinned. "And this gentleman with the big smile is Bob Travers, Rick's uncle." Charlie also leaned forward, making an attempt of his own at a conspiratorial flavor. "Watch out for him. He knows magic!"

Uncle Bob squeezed his eyes shut a moment, but his smile didn't falter one bit. "Oh, Charlie."

Ronja took Charlie's hand and shook it warmly, and then gazed at him questioningly. "And the world?"

"It's doing fine," Charlie said. "At least, it was when we left it."

Ronja proceeded around the circle, shaking hands, while Max stood back and smiled, obviously enjoying the whole show. When Ronja got to Uncle Bob, she grasped his hand and stepped back a bit, and eyed him up and down. "Magic, you say?" She turned and winked at Charlie. "Is there such a thing?"

Uncle Bob laughed, and shook Ronja's hand. "Hey, I'm a believer, although I don't really know any of that stuff myself. Charlie's kidding you. I'm an illusionist, really."

"Ah." Ronja nodded. "I thought that magic and illusion were much the same. Please pardon my English. It is a second language to me, and while I have used it for years, I do not know all it's secrets." She smiled again. "You're the one from Twombly. I have heard that story. It was wonderful, what you all did there."

They released hands, and Uncle Bob stepped back. "I was almost a bystander in all that. It was the boys that did all the work."

"Sometimes it is a group effort that takes the day. I have been learning much about that, myself."

"Maybe." Uncle Bob nodded. "We sure had fun with the show there. And I'm really happy that it worked out for the people of the town."

Charlie watched Ronja, marveling at how well she fit in here. She was not really what he had expected, having imagined an older woman, maybe even going to gray. But Nicholaas, despite his many years, looked only to be in his early thirties himself, and it stood to reason that he would attract someone from the same age group. Or at least, someone from the same apparent age group.

But it wasn't just that. Ronja was intelligent, had a sense of humor, and obviously loved her new role among the elves. That Max so obviously liked her was an important factor in all this - not that Max was hard to please, but he was intense when it came to the welfare of his boss, and if he liked Ronja it was a good sign that she was good for Nicholaas. That made Charlie happy, too. Nicholaas was important to all of them.

"But you wish to see what goes on here, certainly," Ronja told them, indicating the door through which they had entered. "As long as I have been here now, I still have not gotten used to these doorways. Sometimes, I think I am going one place, yet wind up in another! So perhaps Max should lead the way."

The elf smiled. "You'll get it eventually. It's just about keeping clear in your mind where you're going."

"Then I need to stop my thoughts from wandering so," Ronja said, laughing. "There is so much to see here, so much to do, I am always thinking of several places I need to go, each time I step through a doorway."

Max lead them back to the doorway and opened the door, and stood and held it while they all passed through. Kippy grabbed Charlie's hand and pulled him along, his excitement spilling out all over in a big grin that had Charlie laughing and smiling himself. Kippy would always see the world a certain way, and it was that special view of life that was one of the things Charlie most loved about his boyfriend. There would never be a dull moment, if Kippy had his way!

They entered a long hallway, at the end of which was a large arch, and through which came the muffled sounds of machinery of some sort - though Charlie was certain he had never heard anything quite like it. There were pops and groans and bubbly sounds, and hums that hummed a certain way, and squeaks that squeaked just so, that left no doubt in Charlie's mind that whatever was going on there would be totally new to their experience.

"We're gonna look at the distribution hall," Max said, smiling. "Well, one of 'em, anyway. It's where a lot of stuff gets moved around to the right place for delivery. We put stuff together in regions, so that it makes it easier to disperse. A lot of the space inside the shop is just there to hold stuff, and believe me, there's a lot of it, too."

"Have you ever run out of space?" Rick asked. "I mean, there are more people in the world every year."

"Nah. If we need more space, we just add it on. That's easy." Max shook his head. "But you know, everyone in the world doesn't believe in the Big guy, or even Christmas. So it's not like we have to deliver stuff to seven billion people."

Kippy frowned. "You mean not everyone gets presents?"

The elf laughed. "No, Kip. some people don't want them, and some people never even think of asking. A lot of folks in your world don't need presents, even." He winked then. "But some people get them anyway, whether they asked for them or not, or wanted them or not. It's kind of a complex process."

"It is that," Ronja agreed, smiling. "But Nicholaas handles it so well, he makes it seem easy."

"It's not...well, at least it wouldn't be for you or me." Max shrugged. "As long as I've worked for the boss, I still don't know how he does it."

Charlie licked his lips and nodded. "We've been wondering. I take it that Nicholaas doesn't just hop on a sleigh with a huge bag of presents and a couple of elves, and fly around dropping them down chimneys?"

A brief expression of horror at the idea crossed Max's face, and then he laughed. "Oh, no way! You know how long it would take to deliver stuff that way? And most chimneys these days are too small to get stuff down, and they're so dirty and" Max breathed a sigh of relief. "If we had to do it like you guys say it's done in your stories, it would take all year to deliver stuff!"

"I wouldn't mind it being Christmas all year!" Adrian said, leaning up against Ricky. "It's such a sweet and romantic time...what's not to like?"

Ricky grinned. "I gotta agree with that."

Ronja sighed, and looked like she was considering the idea. "I don't think it would be quite as special if every day was like Christmas. I think I like it the way it is now."

"Here, here," Uncle Bob agreed. He smiled. "Besides, it doesn't need to be Christmas every day to be romantic." He looked pointedly at his nephew, who gently reddened, as if just remembering that his uncle was even with them.

But Adrian just laughed and tightened his arm around Ricky's waist, and snuggled up against him. "Listen to your uncle, Rick. He's a smart man!"

Ricky sighed, and the rose tint began to fade from his cheeks. "Yeah. He is that." He winked at his uncle, and then kissed his boyfriend's cheek. "He's a Travers, after all."

Adrian laughed, but didn't argue the point, and the group reached the archway without more conversation on the matter.

Charlie could see things moving even before they paused at the arch, both across his field of view in both directions, as well as up and down. He was reminded of the first time they had seen Max on the screen of Charlie's laptop, and all the movement behind the elf at that time, as all sorts of objects had whizzed past behind him towards every direction of the compass. This had to be the same place, or one similar to, where Max had first met Charlie and his friends. He turned to the elf and asked him, and Max grinned and nodded.

"Oh, yeah, I remember that. I don't think it was this hall I was in, but I was in distribution when your computer got hold of me." His smile widened into a grin, and he leaned forward and lowered his voice. "That was back when I had PEE going full swing, and still thought the Big Guy didn't know about it." He shook his head. "I just do stuff out in the open these days, now that I know he don't have a problem with me helping folks."

Charlie laughed. "Oh, yeah. Planet Earth Enterprises. I remember that."

"We sure were happy you were doing that," Adrian said. "You helped keep me and Rick together, and showed me a thing or two about what was important in life. Thanks again for all that."

Max looked pleased. "Guys, it was meant to happen. It's a pretty amazing universe we live in, and some things happen because they just can't NOT happen and keep things running smoothly. I think you fellas have earned your keep. It's always my pleasure to do anything with you guys."

Kippy grinned at Charlie, then turned with a slightly evil twinkle in his eye back to Max. "Anything?"

Max looked startled, but grinned good-naturedly. "Almost anything. I'm six-hundred and fifteen years old, after all."

"You don't look a day over two-fifty, though," Ricky said, straight-faced. "You sure wear it well, Max."

Max's eyes flicked to Ronja, who seemed to be enjoying the back and forth. "Uh...yeah. Why don't we go ahead in and look the place over?"

Charlie let his gaze go back through the arch way. The motion beyond was accomplished with conveyor belts, rolling along, as if in a factory - but one designed by Dr. Seuss. The belts went up, they went down, they went back and forth; they curled in circles, they doubled back, and many exited the room for destinations unknown. All manner of things went by on the belts, from teddy bears and coloring books to drones and PlayStations. Other elves moved about between the belts, grabbing items off the line, looking them over, and then writing things on clipboards. They would then place the item back on the belt, where it stuck fast and was whisked away with its counterparts, without so much as a nod at inertia.

That there was magic here was plain to see. The objects on the belts seemed to adhere to them no matter what angle the belts took, even straight up through the high ceiling of the room. Nothing tumbled, or shifted, or fell off a single belt, anywhere. There was no waste, no accidents - nothing but order in the chaos that the belts presented to the eye, difficult to comprehend as that order seemed to be. It was industrial without any of the feel of it, charming in the way that every one of the inanimate objects whizzing past seemed happy to be doing just that.

The odd sounds they were hearing accompanied the movements of the belts, sounding like anything from cheese being grated on a grater to bubbles slowly expiring in a bathtub dense with suds. There were cheerful knocks and playful taps, hums that seemed happy, and whir-whirs that came and went like bees laughing in their hive. The scale of what was happening here was huge, and yet Charlie was certain that this was just one of many rooms where such actions were taking place.

"I see you guys are, um, busy," was all he could think to say, though that term seemed far too tame to describe what was happening here.

"Aw, yeah." Max waved a hand at the huge room. "We're well ahead of schedule, so the guys are taking it a little easy. Come on in and have a look."

They entered the immense room, and Max led them along the pathways between conveyor belts, which sometimes had abrupt loops upward in them to allow enough space to pass beneath them. The motion was incessant, and a little wearying, drawing at the eye constantly; yet nothing could quell the fascination they all felt at what they saw.

"I still cannot comprehend all of this," Ronja admitted, as they walked along. "It simply overwhelms."

Charlie smiled at that, and nodded. "It does do that."

They entered a new area, and no longer were toys passing them on the belts. These were household items and appliances. Further on they saw clothing and linens moving along, and then power tools, TVs, and stereo equipment. The farther they walked, the more was revealed, until Charlie began to wonder if there was not anything that Nicholaas could not provide.

"Oh, sure, we make everything," Max told him, when Charlie voiced his wonder. "And a whole lot of what we do here gets delivered by your own people. Amazon, UPS, FedEx, the good old mail service, and every delivery company on the face of the planet. We just send the stuff to their warehouses, add them to their tracking systems, and put a little moola in their accounts. These big delivery companies, they don't know where each dollar comes from, so long as the books balance at the end of the year and the tracking shows the stuff delivered."

Adrian and Kippy stared at each other. "That's kind of...well, unChristmassy," Kippy decided.

Max grinned. "Nah. A package arrives with a gift inside that says, 'From Santa', most people just smile and think that Aunt Gerta and Uncle Freidrich have struck again. You'd be surprised how many people get gifts from the Big Guy each year and think some relative or friend sent it."

Kippy looked amazed. "So you guys don't put everything under people's trees?"

"Naw, that would be impossible. It's so much easier to let a lot of people do that themselves." Max grinned. "Hey, it's the thought that counts."

Charlie shook his head. "So people don't even realize they're getting stuff from...from Nicholaas?"

"Nope. Everyone finds a present or two under the tree each year that says it's from 'Santa', and no one can remember buying it, but everyone just assumes that they forgot about it in the hustle." Max smiled. "It's the getting of the gift that is important to the boss, not that the receiver knows who sent it. The world ain't like it once was, where there were more people that had nothing than had something. There are still parts of the world where people have little, but those places are mostly in areas now where people don't do Christmas. The boss will give to anyone in need, or who asks for something reasonable, but a lot of you humans simply don't make the effort, because they don't know about, or even care about, Christmas."

Kippy frowned. "Well, that's kind of sad."

"It's evolution," Max returned. "It can be a little sad, but it's the way the world works."

"There are other gifts than material things," Ronja said then, prodding Max. "Tell them."

Max nodded. "That's true. Some of the things the boss gifts to people can't be put under a tree, anyway. Some of it is just a nudge to chance, to help things go well for someone. An assist to make sure that just the right surgeon for the job takes on a delicate operation for a child. The boss can't assure that any medical stuff goes a certain way, but he can increase the odds that it will. Or, say a person needs a job." Max smiled at Adrian. "The boss has a lot of business interests all over the world - your world, that is. It doesn't take much for all that activity to be extended to include someone who needs a hand. But he just doesn't provide jobs on demand. There has to be something the person can do that is needed. Every year the boss does stuff to help people help themselves, and it's a gift they never even know they've received. Most just feel they got lucky."

"How does Nicholaas know that people need things?" Kippy asked. "Or that they want something particular?"

"He listens," Max said, shrugging. "It's not a magic I can do, so I don't really know. But he listens all year long, to everyone on the Earth, and he keeps track of it all, somehow. And come Christmas, he gives what he can, to who he can."

"He gives a lot of things," Adrian pointed out.

"Yes, he does. He does a lot of listening, too."

Charlie looked around the big room again, and smiled. "What I see is that a lot of people are still getting gifts, even if they don't know where they came from."

"There you go," Max agreed, looking pleased. "Giving makes the boss happy. Getting gifts makes people happy. That's all that matter's to all of us here."

"Seems pretty one-sided to me," Ricky decided. "Nicholaas and the elves give, and people get."

Max shook his head. "We like what we do. That's our gift. And the boss...well, he's happy, too, believe me. It's not all about what people want. For the boss, it's about what some people need."

"Kind of like doing a magic act for a roomful of people," Uncle Bob said, nodding. "The payoff is in making the people happy."

Max smiled at that. "Exactly."

Kippy finally smiled, too. "I see. It's still Christmas, any way you look at it."

"Right." Max pointed to another path between belts. "Let's go this way."

"I'm still amazed at the volume of stuff here," Uncle Bob said, as they walked along. "Is it all going to the post office, or wherever?"

"Nah, not now," Max told him. "All that stuff went out last week, pretty much. This late, everything you see is gonna wind up under a tree somewhere. Or someplace similar. There are a lot of customs around the world."

They passed under a few more amazingly convoluted belts, and arrived at another archway.

"Anyone hungry or need a drink?" Max asked. He ushered them through the arch, and they emerged into what looked like a large cafeteria. The tables were draped in Christmas colors, and a faint hint of cheerful music filled the air, though Charlie couldn't put a name to anything he was hearing. It sounded like Christmas, and that was what mattered.

There were elves seated at a lot of the tables, talking and laughing as they ate. Many looked up and smiled at Max and Ronja, and waved in a way that included the entire group.

Uncle Bob sighed. "Friendliest people I ever met. Wouldn't it be great to export some of that into the world?"

"Can't have everything," Ricky said. He looked about the room, spied a handwritten menu of the day, and inspected it closely. "Hey...what the heck is Kjötsupa?"

Max grinned. "It's stew. Really good."

Kippy stared at the elf. "What's that language?"

Max strove to look innocent. "I believe it's Icelandic. What difference does it make? The stew's just as good."

Kippy laughed. "You use Icelandic here?"

Max nodded. "Well, today, anyway. See, the menu changes every day, to offer everyone food from all around the human world. The languages of the signs change appropriately, so that everyone gets a chance to use them. We're supposed to keep up with all languages, but it just happens that with some we don't use much, we get a little rusty. So this helps keeps all the guys on their toes, you know?"

They found a large table and sat. "Just say what you want out loud," Max said, smiling around at them. "And that's what you'll get."

They examined the large menu from where they sat, and found they had to ask Max to translate each entry.

"It looks complicated," Adrian said, sighing.

"Uh huh," Ricky agreed, looking at Max. "What's...uh, Hrútspungar?"

Max looked over at Ronja, who laughed. "I don't think you want that, even though it's very good. Being Americans, I mean."

Ricky looked stoic. "I'm brave. I'll try anything, once."

Ronja leaned over and whispered something into Ricky's ear, and the boy's eyes widened alarmingly. "Except that!"

Charlie looked at Max, who was seated next to him, and bent closer to whisper. "What is it? Something awful?"

Max grinned. "It's not bad. Just not the kind of food you guys are used to."

Charlie grinned. "Tell me. I want to know what I'm missing."

Max nodded, and leaned close enough to whisper: "Hrútspungar is sour ram's testicles."

Charlie sat back quickly and stared at the elf. "Seriously?"


Kippy patted Charlie's arm. "What did he say it was?"

Charlie leaned closer, and whispered into his boyfriend's ear.

Kippy's jaw dropped, and he sat back from Charlie, stunned. Then he thought about it, and gave a little smile. "Oh, no. No, no, no. Not for me." He leaned closer again and patted Charlie underneath the table, out of sight. The touch was alarmingly close to Charlie's crotch.

"Not for that sort of eating, anyway," Kippy finished, his eyes bright.

After the meal they resumed their tour. Frit and Pip rejoined them, looking happy to be back.

"Apprentice class," Frit said, when Adrian asked him what they'd been doing. "We have time off from skóli, but we couldn't get out of that one class. Lars Habibula is only here for the one presentation."

Kippy smiled at the name. "Who is that?"

"Oh, he's a master at stuffnothing," Pip said. "The best!"

Charlie joined the others in laughing.

"Stuffnothing?" Kippy repeated, tossing Charlie a smile. "And what might that be?"

"It's putting a lot in a little." Frit came back, grinning.

"Big into small," Pip agreed, laughing.

Max sighed. "It's about maximizing storage space, is all."

Frit made a face. "It's about putting stuff in a space too small to hold it, is what."

"Its about adjusting a space to fit what you want to store," Max corrected, looking stern. "Get your extra-dimensional processes in order, boy!"

Everyone laughed at the expression that came over Frit's face. "Yessir!"

But Max smiled then. "I remember when I was a youngun, we called it stuffnothing then, too. But you still need to get a handle on thinking about it in the right order. Otherwise you'll spend the rest of your life having your stuff squeezed."

Pip's eyes got larger, and he turned and grinned at his boyfriend. Frit bit at his lip, not quite daring to laugh. "Yeah, I definitely don't want my stuff to be squeezed."

Max blinked in surprise, then threw up his hands and turned to Ronja. "What do you do with kids these days!"

The woman smiled at Frit. "Be patient with them. Especially when they're so obviously worth the trouble."

Frit smiled at her, and Pip sighed happily.

Max frowned a moment, and then relented. "Yeah. You're right." He leaned closer to Frit and smiled. "It was a good class, anyway, wasn't it?"

The boy nodded. "Oh, yeah!"

"It was amazing!" Pip added, obviously glad that things had eased up.

"Perhaps we should move on?" Ronja asked, turning her smile on Max.

Max sighed, and started off. "Come on, then."

"Are we going to see Nicholaas today?" Kippy asked, as they turned into another hallway.

"He said he would be along as soon as he could," Ronja supplied, before Max could answer. "He is coordinating a few things just now."

Max laughed. "That's a nice way of putting it. He's getting the delivery line ready. That's a series of magical events that will deliver a heck of a lot of the stuff we have stored here to where it's supposed to wind up. Takes some concentration, you better believe it."

Kippy frowned. "So nothing is going to be delivered by sleigh?"

Max smiled, and both of the younger elves giggled. "I didn't say that," Max replied, a bit mysteriously.

Kippy grinned, and Charlie sighed. Leave it to Kip to get to the bottom of things!

The next room they entered was another huge one full of belts full of items racing about at furious speeds. Max didn't slow down for them to gawk, seemingly intent on just leading them through towards a rounded little building in the center of the huge room, one with windows all the way around it. They could see through the structure and out the other side, though there were obviously chairs and things within.

"Wanna show you where I do my job, mostly," Max said. "This was where I was when you first got hold of me on Goggle, Kip. I was certainly surprised to see you guys, I can sure say that!"

Kippy laughed, but then crossed his arms. "You asked if we were fairies."

Max looked embarrassed. "I meant the kind with wings. Some of them have been known to pull a joke here and there, and--" The elf suddenly slowed, his eyes moving to the many belts around them. Frit and Pip immediately noticed Max's distraction, and slowed as well.

Charlie and the others slowed, too, just in time to see something fly up into the air a couple of belts away, and crash into the floor. Max stopped suddenly. "Uh oh."

The belt they were standing beside suddenly made a horrifying noise, and boxes of ceramic dishes flew in every direction. Charlie ducked instinctively and pulled Kippy down just as a box flew over them, and several other boxes stopped in mid-air just before impacting others in the group, and settled smoothly to the ground nearby. Max had his hands up now, and so did Frit and Pip. Obviously, they had reacted to deflect the missiles.

"Batham's Seven Hells!" Max roared, staring about. The conveyor next to them continued to squawk like a stepped on cat and throw objects everywhere, but none of them could reach the group now. An invisible shield had sprung up between them and the belt, impervious to the flying items.

Several lines over, there was another horrendous sound, and garden tools sailed off that belt in every direction. Some of them were blurs, they were moving so fast; but they all bounced harmlessly off the shield the elves had erected. Frit and Pip were staring about in shock, yet maintaining their magic just as they had been trained to do.

And then the whole room went crazy. Things started flying everywhere as the belts they were riding on seemed to loose their magical grip on them. Charlie and the others stayed down, even though they were safe behind the shields, and Ricky and Adrian were right beside them. Uncle Bob had pulled Ronja down, too, and they seemed to be talking together, although Charlie couldn't hear anything over the clamor in the room.

The noise all about them suddenly moderated, and then all the belts stopped at once. More items went flying off them and crashed to the floor; but in a few seconds, silence descended on the room.

"Oh, Max!" Ronja said then. "What on earth happened?"

There was a faint popping sound nearby, and two elves appeared near them. They were dressed in white uniforms that had 'Quality Control' emblems on them, and their expressions were anything but happy. "There you are, boss!" the larger one said, a fellow a little taller than Max, but still short compared to the humans. "We gotta problem!"

Max nodded. "I can see that. Is it what I think it is?"

"Foobear," said the other elf, nodding his head. "Must be a big one, too, to cause all this mess with the controls in place."

Max grimaced, and shook his head. "Heck of a time for this to happen!" He pointed a finger fiercely at the two newcomers. "You call the keepers yet?"

"We did that right away," the taller elf replied. He closed his eyes a second, and then nodded. "Feels like they're already around, someplace."

Charlie stood, and helped Kip upright beside him. "What happened?"

He hadn't directed the question to anyone in particular, but it was Max that turned to face him. "A foobear got in, somehow."

"That's bad!" Frit said, shaking his head.

"Terrible!" Pip agreed.

Charlie couldn't help emitting a short laugh. The room was a shambles! "I can see the mess. But what made it happen?"

Max blinked, and then smiled at him, and held up a finger indicating he wait a second. He turned back to the two new elves, and indicated the taller one. "That's Merv, and the other guy is Caska. They're a couple of my boys, from my department."

Merv looked startled, but then smiled at the humans. "Oh, hiya. Sorry about the mess."

Caska looked slightly impatient at the change of subject, but also nodded. "Any friends of the boss are friends of mine." But then he turned his gaze back to Max. "What do we do next? I've never seen a foobear that could do all this!"

"Hold up a second." Max turned to Ronja. "It ain't safe here now, ma'am. I'd like one of the boys to take you back to the main house."

Ronja looked surprised, and then shook her head. "I'm fine. I just want to know what's going on."

Max winced, but then nodded again. "Okay, how about this? Frit and Pip will walk all of you back to the cafeteria, and you wait there a few minutes until we get a line on what's happening here. Then I'll come and fill you in."

Ronja looked around at the chaos of items on the floor, and nodded. "Okay. I don't want to be in the way. But I do want to know what happened!"

"I promise," Max said. Then he spun on Frit and Pip. "Take everyone back to the cafeteria. Wait there for me to come."

Frit and Pip both nodded. "Okay!" Frit said. He turned to Charlie."Let's go!"

The humans did not want to argue, and certainly didn't want to be obstinate when they had no idea what was happening. As curious as Charlie was about what had just occurred, he understood that they were guests here and that it was important for them to be out of the line of fire, so to speak. So he nodded, and tightened his hand on Kip's, and they turned as a group and followed Frit. Pip took up a position to the rear, his eyes moving everywhere, obviously watching for something. That only increased Charlie's curiosity, but he simply bit his tongue and followed Frit.

It did not take them long to get back to the cafeteria. The place was empty now, the elves apparently called back to duty. They went back to the table where they had eaten and took seats. Frit and Pip remained standing, though, their eyes moving about the room, obviously watching.

"So what's going on?" Ricky asked. "I can't believe what happened back there."

"It was pretty amazing," Uncle Bob concurred. "It seemed like the magic there broke somehow!"

Frit nodded vigorously. "That's exactly what happened."

"Went kapow!" Pip agreed.

"It's a foobear," Frit continued, still looking about the room. "They can be dangerous, sometimes."

"Very!" Pip agreed.

Charlie looked from one elf to the other, and then gave out an exasperated grunt. "What is a foobear!"

Frit blinked, and then smiled. "Rogue magic. A piece that broke off the allmagic."

Charlie shook his head briefly, not in any way enlightened. "You're not telling me anything I can understand."

Frit opened his mouth, then closed it and looked at Pip. "You're better at this. You tell 'em."

Pip gave his boyfriend a pleased smile, and turned to Charlie. "You know magic is all one thing, right? We call it the allmagic, and all of us can access it. Some people have talents for doing certain things with it, and other people have talents for doing others. It's common for one person to be good at more than one type of magic, too. We have to learn to use the allmagic, and we get better as we go along. But the magic itself is all one. The source is the same for all of us."

Charlie nodded. "I remember that the people of Twombly were selectively cut off from what they could access of that magic. I know that you can turn off any elf's use of parts of it, or even all of it, by group consensus."

"That's right!" Pip nodded vigorously. "The magic belongs to all of us, so we all have a say in how it gets used, and by who. Mostly we never interfere with anybody, because people are very good at using it wisely. But there have been exceptions, like the one you know about with Eustace and Marly. It was a shame it followed their descendants, but that's the way the sanction was set up back then." Pip grinned. "But that's fixed now, thanks to you guys!"

Kippy laughed. "We're happy about that, too. But that still doesn't tell us what a foobear is!"

Pip nodded. "Doing magic is a procedure. You open the call, define the process, and then you close the call when your magic is done. Closing the call is important. It stops the flow of the magic, because you have ended what you are doing with it. It's bad to forget to close when you're done."

Charlie nodded. "Oh. So it's like this allmagic is the energy that powers the magic you do?"

"That's right!" Frit said, nodding. "You're good at this, Charlie."

Pip grinned. "Told ya!"

Frit sighed, and nodded. "They're all good at it. They got the understanding. Especially Kippy."

Kippy looked from one elf to the other. "Me?" But then he blinked, and nodded. "Oh. You mean skwish."

"That's part of it," Frit agreed. "'s too early for us to say more. We promised we wouldn't!"

Charlie and Kippy exchanged a glance, wondering what that meant, but Charlie decided it couldn't be addressed just now. "And the foobear part?"

Pip frowned. "The allmagic isn't smart on its own. It's a wild force, and it has to be directed. Elves do that directing, and so do other power users...out there." He waved a hand at the high ceiling. "Users on other worlds. Some are better than others, as you've seen."

"And sometimes, someone messes up," Frit continued. "Someone forgets to do a proper close after they're done using the allmagic. And a little piece gets cut off from the main body, and gets free. That's a foobear."

"How can someone forget to turn the magic off?" Uncle Bob asked. "Wouldn't that be part of the spell?"

Frit smiled. "We don't use spells, like you're thinking. Well, mostly. There are some verbal concentrations that serve as foci, but most of what we do is inside our heads and not spoken."

Charlie smiled. He was so used to the energetic pursuit of fun that so often marked Frit's and Pip's lifestyles that he often forgot that they were also elves in training, and possessors of powers that would astonish just about any human. That the two never spoke about their studies easily made him forget that they did know a lot more about a lot of things than could be imagined. Elf magic was a science, and there were physics and mechanics involved in the processes they used, and the average elf certainly knew much more about the rules of the universe than any average human being.

Adrian raised his hand and laid it along his jaw in thought. "So a foobear is a piece of wild, undirected magic, cut off from the main body, and roaming free on it's own? What can it do then, if it's undirected?"

"Plenty!" Frit's face grew serious again. "Because it's undirected, it also has a potential to all magic. It can cross the lines of other magical processes in motion, and terminate them. That's what happened back in the distribution room. The attractor magic that kept everything on the belts got terminated, and stuff just went everywhere."

Charlie nodded. "I got ya. Those belts move way too fast, and in just crazy directions, for things to stay aboard unless they're held there."

"Right," Pip agreed. "It won't take long to clean up the mess and get stuff going again, but until we catch the foobear and nullify it, it might just happen again. Or, worse, something else even more important might get mucked up."

"So how do you catch the thing?" Ricky asked.

"Keepers come and hunt it down," Frit said.

"They're really good at it," Pip agreed.

Kippy frowned. "How do they nullify it?"

Pip looked at his boyfriend uncertainly. "Would it be safe to say it's like grounding it?"

Frit nodded vigorously. "Sure." He turned to Kippy. "Like a lightning rod in your world grounds bolts of static discharge between clouds and the earth. Keepers track down the foobear and kind of ground it back into the allmagic. You can't destroy magic, you can only change its form. So they just put it back where it came from, more or less."

"Wow." Kippy looked impressed. "you guys sure have some cool stuff going on here."

Frit and Pip both laughed. "Little foobears are more common. This is a whopping one, to do what it did. Someone messed up big time!"

"Any way to track down the culprit?" Charlie asked. "The elf who didn't close properly?"

"Might not have been one of us," Pip said. "Could have been any user, anywhere in the universe. The allmagic is everywhere. Foobears are attracted to points of high usage, like here. Could have been a Moth somewhere that messed up, or some other power user. Just because someone didn't close out right in Andromeda, doesn't mean the foobear will show up there."

Charlie was stunned. "So this thing could have had an origin anywhere in the universe?"

"Oh, sure." Frit shrugged. "That's just the way it goes."

Kippy gaped a moment, and then shook his head. "Wow. So with so many users all over creation, this must happen a lot."

"Not really," Pip countered. "It takes a major lapse of concentration to forget a close. And when it does happen, it's usually just a little piece of the allmagic - a little foobear - that escapes. Ones the size of this one are rare. Really rare!"

"Too big to summon," Frit said. "Small ones, the keepers just pull them in and return them to the allmagic. Big ones like this are too powerful, and the keepers have to hunt it down and nullify it. Good thing is that foobears stay near points of concentration, so even this big one won't just leave and go somewhere else to cause trouble."

"It almost sounds like it's alive," Kippy mused.

"It's not," Frit assured. "It's just magic force. It gets attracted to other magic processes and disrupts them just by being there. It's not deliberate."

Kippy looked at Charlie, and Charlie could see doubt in his boyfriend's eyes. "Problem, Kip?"

"I don't know. My skwish seems to be acting up a little."

"You might be feeling the foobear," Pip said, looking carefully around the cafeteria. "Keepers can sense them easily. Your skwish might be sensitive to them, too."

"It can't hurt us, can it?" Ronja asked.

Uncle Bob nodded. "I thought it just disrupted magical processes?"

Frit and Pip looked at each other uncertainly, and then Frit held out his hands to share that feeling with everyone. "There's a heap of magical processes going on here at the workshop at any given time. Even the way this place is built uses magic. A foobear isn't dangerous to us - it can't hurt us - but if it disrupts a magical process we are close to, we could get hurt as a result. Like back in the distribution room. All that stuff flying around could have hurt someone if we hadn't put up shields. And even shields are magical processes, so there is no guarantee we'd be safe behind them if we got near the foobear again."

Charlie blew out his breath. "I get it. Earthquakes don't kill people, buildings do."

Frit nodded. "Yeah, kind of like that."

Pip looked around the room again. "There's some big magic that went into making this place. Nicholaas did this. Foobears can't cancel magic that's bigger than they are, but this is a big foobear. I think the building is probably safe from disruption, but I don't know about all the stuff in it."

"Well, maybe Nicholaas needs to know about this," Ronja said.

"I'm sure he does," Pip returned. He grinned then. "He knows about everything."

The lady beamed at that, and Uncle Bob smiled. "Nothing like being top dog at the kennel."

Ronja turned her smile on Uncle Bob, and gently patted his arm. "I assure you, Nicholaas is quite a gentle dog."

Everyone laughed at that, and Charlie relaxed a little. So their situation probably wasn't dangerous, it just could be if they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"So I guess we just wait and see," he said.

Ronja emitted a small, distinctly feminine sigh. "I'm just so sorry this disrupted your visit. There are so many wonders here, I forget that things cannot be perfect. But I'm sure these..." she paused and looked over at Frit.

"Keepers," he supplied, smiling.

"..keepers will handle everything quickly, and then we can get back to our visit."

They ordered some beverages, and talked quietly, and time passed with no more fuss. Ronja, it seemed, had fallen in love with the workshop and all it contained, and the elves that managed to get everything done. She radiated happiness as she spoke, and Kippy kept smiling at Charlie, his eyes broadcasting how much he liked the woman that Nicholass had chosen as a companion. There could be no better review than that to Charlie's way of thinking, and he quickly found himself also very much in like with her.

"My background is so quiet," she said during the conversation. "Switzerland is not any sort of focus in the world, except financially, and even that is quiet and reserved. The troubles that other places seem submerged in daily are noticeably absent in my country. I very much enjoyed my work at the lodge, as I got to meet people from all over, and I do like that quite a bit." She smiled at Frit and Pip, and gave another little sigh. "And now I have met some of the most special people of all."

The two elves grinned, and Charlie was amazed at how shy they looked. As a companion to Nicholaas, Ronja could almost be considered like royalty here; and yet, Nicholaas himself would have been irritated at the notion of being considered a king of this realm, for he saw his relationship with the elf population as an equal partnership, and the elves themselves as his friends. This was a wholly different world here, and one that operated without much of the pressures that plagued the human world. But that Ronja was held in high esteem, at least by Frit and Pip, was readily apparent, and Charlie figured that the two elf teens were probably a pretty good weather vane for the elf population in general. Ronja had not only been accepted here, she was liked, and perhaps even loved.

Just as Nicholas surely was.

"I think they may see you in much the same light," he ventured, smiling.

"We do!" Frit dared, blushing.

"She's the best!" Pip added, his face also going to rose.

Ronja smiled at that, and a bit of red filtered into her own cheeks. "I feel so lucky to have met Nick, um--" Her blush deepened a shade. "I mean, Nicholaas. And all of you, in fact. It has truly changed my life for the better."

Kippy beamed at Charlie, and Adrian sighed and leaned against Rick, who also looked quite happy. Charlie couldn't help laughing, just a little. "I think this has been a great visit so far, and I think it will only get better from here."

Later he would look back on those words, and smile.

An hour passed - at least that much time - as they talked. No one came to enlighten them on the hunt for the foobear, but they had decided by then that this was not going to be a simple affair, and that they might as well relax and enjoy the company. Charlie was perfectly happy to let those that knew what they were doing handle the current problem. Surely, they would all learn the full story later.

They each had several things to drink, all delicious, but there is only so much storage for such things, and after a while Kip started to look uncomfortable. "I think I need to go," he whispered to Charlie.

Charlie was also feeling the urge by then, and nodded. He looked about the cafeteria, but all the signs today seemed to be printed in Icelandic, and he had no idea which designated the 'men's and ladies'.

"Is there a restroom handy?" he asked Frit.

The elf nodded, and turned to point to a small alcove across the room. "Right there."

Charlie laughed as pretty much the whole table stood up at once. "Thank you!" Adrian said, grinning at Charlie. "I was just getting ready to ask, myself."

They took care of business, and slowly filtered back to the table. Charlie was still standing when there was a series of small pops in the room, and six elves appeared in a circle. They immediately cast their eyes about the room, as if looking for something.

"See anything odd here?" asked one of the group, a woman.

"Hear anything odd here?" the man next to her asked.

"Feel anything odd here?" asked another.

Charlie was startled by their sudden appearance and simply shook his head.

"I haven't felt anything strange here," Frit said, coming up. "Is the foobear nearby?

"We don't know," said yet another of the group. "This one is like quicksilver, moving about rapidly. And it's very hard to sense, especially considering its apparently outrageous size."

"Never felt a foobear like this one," the woman said. "Weird."

Yet another of the group suddenly closed his eyes, and spun away from Charlie and Frit. "There!"

The entire group spun at amazing speed, and then sort of flowed into an arrow-like blue projectile that flashed across the room and vanished through a wall on the other side, leaving no trace of their visit. The transit was accompanied by a furious buzzing sound, like a swarm of angry bees, which terminated as the arrow disappeared through the wall.

"Wow!" Kippy said, coming to stand beside Charlie. "Who were they?"

"Keepers," Pip said, now next to his boyfriend. "They're a little different than most people."

"What'd we miss?" Ricky asked, he and Adrian returning from the bathroom at a run.

Uncle Bob was just behind them, and also looked about curiously. "Sounded like a crowd out here."

"We heard voices, too!" Adrian said, looking around the room. "Was someone else just here? I feel like someone else was just here."

"Me, too," Kippy said. "They left a presence behind them."

Frit laughed. "Keepers are like that."

Ronja was the last to return. "My, what was that commotion?"

"Keepers," Pip repeated. "They're hunting the foobear."

Ronja smiled at that. "And doing a very good job of it, by the sound of things!"

Kippy smiled, and turned to Adrian. "I love that name. Foobear. It sounds like a friend of Winnie the Pooh, or something."

Adrian laughed. "It sounds like something cute, I know that."

Kippy's smile suddenly disappeared, and he gave a small shiver. "Whoa! You feel that?"

"A little," the other boy admitted. "Like a tingle or something. But I don't know what it is."

Kippy nodded, looking carefully around the room. "That's what I feel, too, but it's really strong. And it comes from...from over there." He pointed to a different wall than the one the keepers had just vanished through.

Something erupted through the very spot Kip was pointing at. It didn't harm the wall at all, but still sent out a strange burst of power. Charlie had a brief impression of tawny legs pumping furiously, and then the thing suddenly stopped right before them. It was so sudden that everyone just froze, staring.

It looked like a large house cat. A very large house cat. Or maybe a small lion. It was covered in yellow fur, and had black streaks that banded about the body. There was a small, stiff mane of black fur circling the neck, and the face was a combination of feline and ursine, reminding Charlie, incredibly, of Kontus, their big Trichani friend. This creature's features were also pleasant, if a little rugged, and the great yellow eyes held the sure light of intelligence. A slim tail at the rear of the body flicked back and forth as the creature sat there, its eyes moving back and forth between Kippy and Adrian.

And then it was gone just as quickly. It spun and surged into an incredible motion, and bounded through the far wall of the room just as the blue arrow of the keepers burst through the first wall and shot across the room in hot pursuit, roaring this time like a hunting pack in sight of prey.

And then the room was quiet again, and Kippy suddenly unfroze.

"Did you see it?" he asked breathlessly, turning to face Charlie. "Did you?"

"Yes. It was incredible."

"I didn't expect it to look like that," Adrian said. "It was beautiful...and cute, in a dangerous sort of way."

"It was big, I know that," Ricky put in. "Like a lion cub or something. I wouldn't want to tangle with it in a dark room."

"Or even a brightly lit one," Uncle Bob said, shaking his head. "It was incredibly fast for an animal."

Frit and Pip were staring at them now in open bewilderment. "What are you talking about?" Frit asked. "It looked like a ball of energy. Nothing more."

"Free magic on the loose," Pip said, agreeing.

Kippy's eyes widened. "I saw a...a creature. A living thing. Not just some dumb ball of energy."

"Me, too," Charlie said, staring at the elves. "It looked like a really big cat, with a little bit of brown bear mixed in."

Adrian nodded. "That's what I saw. It was beautiful!"

"And a little scary, too," Uncle Bob said. "There was a definite sense of power there."

Kippy put his hand on his hips and glared at Frit and Pip. "Its eyes looked intelligent, too. It was checking us out."

Pip shook his head. "It wasn't alive. It's just energy."

Kippy stamped a foot. "Believe me, I know when I'm being checked out!"

Charlie raised his hand for silence, and turned to Ronja then. "What did you see?"

The woman had been watching the elves, but now she turned to gaze at Charlie. "What you did. A large and quite beautiful animal, with the eyes of something with a soul. Not just a bit of rogue magic."

Frit and Pip turned to stare at each other, as if they had thought they were being kidded somehow, but were stumped now that Ronja's final testimony had weighed in.

"I saw a ball of energy," Frit said.

"That's what I saw," Pip agreed. He turned to look at Kippy, and then his eyes moved among the others. "But the humans saw something else. There must be a reason for it."

Frit shook his head. "I don't know what. All we have ever seen with foobears are balls of energy. They all look the same, always. Different sizes, but all the same."

Pip gasped. "Oh!" He turned to stare at Kippy again. "No humans have ever been present when a foobear was loose! This is the first time anyone but one of us has seen one!"

Frit's mouth dropped open. "This is serious! There may be more to this than we know. I need to talk to my grandpa!"

"Go!" Pip said urgently. "I'll watch here!"

Frit nodded, and disappeared with a small pop of air rushing into a vacuum.

Kippy blinked, but looked placated. "I know what I saw."

"I agree," Charlie said. "Yet we all saw something that is different than what our elf friends experienced. We need to find out why."

Pip paced anxiously in a circle, his eyes roving the room. "A foobear is just loose energy. But why did you see something else? This is not good."

Kippy looked sympathetic now. "I didn't know it would be such a problem."

"It is. We deal with foobears as we know how, by returning them to the allmagic. This essentially extinguishes their uniqueness, and they become a part of the greater energy again." Pip stopped pacing, his eyes looking a little haunted. "What if we've been wrong to be doing this? What if there's more to foobears than we imagined? What you saw suggests life. Perhaps a life we have been unable to see, and so unable to understand. Don't you get it? We may have been killing something unique, and not even knowing it!"

Charlie stared at the elf, for the first time really seeing something more than the fun-loving teen he had always known. He did know that Frit and Pip were smart, and fairly far along in their training; but he was always put at ease by their playfulness and almost complete lack of will to be serious about anything. Here was a different side now, one he did not know as well. One that seemed new and almost strange to him.

He was reminded of an old saying then: you never really know someone until you visit them at home.

He smiled. "It's not your fault, Pip. Relax. We'll get this dealt with."

Adrian frowned, and pointed at Pip. "Didn't you say that most foobears are a lot smaller than this one?"

"Uh huh. Most are quite small."

"Well, then, maybe the size of this one makes the difference. Maybe smaller ones don't have what it takes to become more than a ball of energy." Adrian leaned forward. "Maybe this one is special."

Pip's eyes widened. "That could be it." He started pacing again. "I wish Frit would get back!"

But it was not Frit that returned. Kippy took in a sharp breath, and almost as one, he and Adrian turned to face yet a third wall, just as the blurry figure of the foobear burst through it. Again the creature stopped on a dime before them, it's eyes fastened on Kippy and Adrian, its tail lazily flicking this way and that. Charlie leaned closer this time, and the foobear's eyes shifted to connect with his.

The feeling he got at the contact was almost indescribable. A feeling that he was trading stares with something alive and intelligent was sure; but so was a sense of unbounded dimensions and fearsome power, like being suspended somehow just before the event horizon of a black hole might be. A glimpse of eternity, of trackless amounts of time too great to be comprehended, warred with a sense of playfulness, and a sense Joy at being chased, as if it was the most fun the creature had ever had.

And then it surged into motion again and was gone through another wall, just as the fire brigade arrow of the keepers burst into the room and shot across it in full roar.

Charlie stood still, stunned; and then he smiled...and then he laughed. "Holy crap! The thing is playing with the keepers! It's enjoying itself!"

Kippy turned and beamed at him. "Well, yeah! I thought you got that the last time it was here."

Charlie grinned. "I didn't. This time I made eye contact with it, and sure got a lot in return."

"I only saw a ball of energy," Pip said, woefully. "Something must be terribly wrong with me."

Ronja smiled sympathetically and went and put an arm around Pip's shoulders. "I am sure nothing is wrong with you, sweetheart. This is just something too new for you to understand yet. It will be fine, I'm sure."

Uncle Bob nodded, and moved closer to Charlie. "You say it's playing? That must mean it has a sense of humor." He smiled. "Maybe we can use that to hold it here next time."

"I don't think it wants to be held here, Uncle," Ricky said. "Maybe it knows what the keepers want to do to it."

"Then it won't stay," Uncle Bob countered. "But if it comes back, I want to get closer to it before it rolls out again."

But the foobear did not return. They waited what seemed like another hour - a much longer hour this time - but neither the foobear nor the keepers made an appearance.

But finally, there was a larger pop in the room, and Frit and Max appeared. The older elf immediately came over to Kippy and Adrian. "Tell me what you saw."

Both boys related their experiences with and feeling about the foobear, and then Kippy told Charlie to tell his. Max listened intently, and then looked about at the others when Charlie had finished. "You all saw the same thing?"

They nodded.

The elf's eyes sought out Ronja. "You, too?"

"Yes, Max. We are dealing with something more than just free energy."

Max nodded. "Okay, everybody come closer. Form a group around me."

They did as instructed, and Max raised his hands. Charlie felt the unmistakable blink in reality that went with elf travel, and then the lights went out.

"What happened?" Kippy called into the darkness. "Where are we?"

A light came on then, and Max raised it above his head, where it formed a circle of light on the floor around him.. "We're in the cellar of the shop."

Charlie nodded. "Oh, yeah. We've been here before." He looked around them. "It's full of stuff you can't see or feel until you shine a light on them."

"Right. The foobear is down here. Four squads of keepers have it cornered. We need to hurry, I think. Everybody hold hands."

They formed a line behind Max, and proceeded into the dark. The light stayed focused on the floor, and they could see where they were going. But every so often they caught a glimpse of something in passing, a toy or other item that had been relegated to the basement due to some slip up on the part of Nicholaas in the design process - some defect. Most of them seemed perfectly normal, but they didn't really get a good look at them, either. A few things they passed seemed noticeably dysfunctional, even with just a glimpse. Enough for them to see that it didn't pay to lose one's concentration during creation, no indeed!

Soon they saw light ahead, and arrived in a well-lit area that was empty of any objects. The foobear sat on its haunches in the center of the circle of light, while a cordon of elves stood around it at the limit of the light.

"Who's in charge here?" Max asked, as they stepped up to the circle of keepers.

"That would be me. Hi, Max." A man stepped out of the dark with a smile on his face, and stuck out his hand.

Max grinned in return, and shook the offered hand. "Oh, hi Murph. Long time, no see. What have you got?"

"Well, it's right there in the light. We've got the thing surrounded and are about to do a meld to return it to the allmagic."

Max looked out at the foobear, and then turned to look at Kippy and the others. "You sure about this? All I see is a ball of energy. Way bigger then what we normally get, but still just energy."

"I'm sure," Kippy said firmly. He turned to Adrian, who nodded, too.

Max licked his lips and turned to Charlie. "You, too?"


The elf nodded, and turned back to face the keeper. "I'm gonna have to ask you to hold off a minute, Murph. We may have more here than meets the eye."

The keeper did not look pleased. "Max, this is a slippery one. It's gotten away from us four times. This is the only time we've managed to encircle it, and we're still having trouble keeping it centered. It's got to be now, or we risk losing it."

Max looked adamant. "Nevertheless, I'm asking you to wait. I have a good reason."

"Do you?" The keeper's eyes examined Kippy and Adrian, and then Charlie and the others. A frustrated expression crept onto his face, but he nodded and turned to his people. "Keep it centered, everyone. We have to wait a minute before we can proceed."

"That's not a good idea," one of the keepers in the circle said, from nearby. "It's everything we can do now to keep it here. I don't know how long we can maintain the enclosure."

Kippy reached out and touched Max's arm. "He just said they were having trouble keeping it here, right? Have you ever had to chase these things so hard before?"

"I can answer that," Murph said. "Most of these things are small, and are attracted to higher concentrations of magical energy. That makes them pretty easy to nab. Even the bigger ones are not that tough to corner. But this one is so big, there isn't that much magic around that's more powerful than it is, all in one spot. So it's been bouncing all over the place like crazy. Really made it hard to catch."

"But not now," Kippy said. "You have it now, right?"

"Just barely, kid. It's everything we can do to hold onto it."

Kippy shook his head. "Why? If it was just random energy, why would it try to leave?"

Max looked patient. "It's not that it would try to leave, Kip. It's that these things are attracted to magic use. They zero in on magical processes, and when they interact they cancel the process for anything weaker than they are. That's mainly why they're so dangerous." He flicked a hand at the foobear. "This one is just being attracted to something else."

Kippy nodded. "Well, if the strain I see on these keeper's faces are any indication, they're using a lot of magic right now. Don't you think if the foobear was just a ball of energy attracted to other energy, it would be attracted here, instead of trying to leave?"

Max blinked, and then pulled his head back to stare at Kippy. "That's a good point." He stared a moment longer, and then nodded. "Holy crap, that's a very good point!"

Murph, who had also heard Kippy's argument, looked astounded, and turned to look at the foobear again. "Saint Scarpekki's bells! I don't know why we didn't see that, Max! What's going on here?"

Max shook his head. "I don't know. These fellas - and Miss Ronja - see an animal there, not a ball of energy."

"It's not an animal," Adrian insisted. "It's smart!"

Murph looked aghast. "That's even worse!" He turned to gaze into the circle of keepers again, and then clapped a hand to the back of his head. "What to do, what to do?"

"The Big Guy said he'd be down as soon as he could," Max informed. "But he's still assembling the delivery list, and you know how complicated that is. He can't just stop in the middle of it to come here. He said he'd come at the first completion interval, but I don't know when that will be."

Murph shook his head. "I don't think we can hold it here much longer, Max."

Uncle Bob stepped forward then. "You said these things couldn't hurt us except by canceling some magic and maybe having a building fall over on us, right?"

Max laughed, but nodded. "That's true, as far as we know."

Uncle Bob nodded. "Then I want to walk over there to see this thing."

"I'm going!" Kippy said, raising a hand.

"Me, too!"Adrian said, his tone brooking no argument.

"Not without me!" Ricky said, firmly.

Charlie turned to his boyfriend. "Are you sure, Kip?"

"Yes, Charlie. As sure as I have ever been about anything." Charlie nodded, able to read that in Kippy's eyes.

He turned back to Max. "We'll all go."

The older elf looked shocked. "Now wait just a minute, Charlie! I can't allow that! We have no idea how safe it is." He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "It'd break my heart if something happened to any of you. And the boss would kill me!"

Charlie smiled. "You just said it can't hurt us, right?"

"Yeah, but only if it's a ball of free magical energy on the loose. If it's a magical critter of some sort, with smarts and a will, there's no telling what it might be able to do to you."

"We're going," Kip said. "You can come or you can stay here, but we're going out there."

Max opened his mouth again, closed it, and then sighed. "Okay. Okay, but stay behind me, will ya?"

"So you're going?" Charlie asked, grinning.

Max rolled his eyes, and then turned suddenly as Frit and Pip surged forward. "You two stay here!"

"Aw!" Frit stamped his foot, and Pip grimaced horribly. Max stepped closer to Frit, and put a hand on the boy's arm. "Please, son. Stay here, at least until we know more. Okay?"

Frit's determination melted away, and he nodded. "Okay, grandpa. We'll stay here. Won't we, Pip?"

"Yeah." Pip looked like he wanted to cry, though. "Right here."

Max nodded, and turned towards the foobear. "Come on, then." He stepped past the keepers, and Charlie and Kip and the others fell in behind him.

"We'll be right here, Max!" Murph called after them. "Be careful!"

"Like I won't," Max mumbled to himself, but marched onward.

They stayed at Max's pace, a slow walk if there ever was one. The foobear saw them coming and turned to watch them approach, and Kippy lifted a hand and waved to the critter. Nothing happened to impede their advance, and shortly Max had arrived at a spot about ten feet from the beast, where he stopped.

"Is this close enough?"

"A little closer, please," Uncle Bob called.

Max grumbled, but halved the distance remaining to the foobear, where he stopped and held out his arms to keep anyone from passing him. "This is close enough."

Uncle Bob moved forward to stand on the same line as Max, and Kippy and Adrian took places on either side of them. Not to be left behind now, Charlie stepped up beside his boyfriend, and looked down the line to see Ricky doing the same next to Adrian.

"Okay," Uncle Bob said then. "Everybody relax, and be quiet."

He stepped forward slowly then, before Max could stop him, and positioned himself before the foobear, a scant two feet away. And then he held out his hands to the creature, palms up, and slowly turned them over so that the back sides came into view. And then he suddenly flipped them over again, and a deck of cards had appeared in his left hand!

The foobear's eyes got larger, and it leaned closer to look at first one of Bob's hands, and then the other.

Bob grinned. "Now, what I have here is an ordinary deck of cards." He flexed his fingers, and the entire deck fluttered over to his other hand, a card at a time, in a blur of motion. The foobear looked up at him, and leaned forward even more to stare at the transferred deck.

"Ah, no peeking now." Bob held up the deck, grinning, and with a deft flick of his wrist, fanned them out before the creature. "Now, pick a card." He waited just a second, and then laughed. "But you can't, so I'll do it for you." He used his thumb and forefinger to inch a card out of the spread, and held it up with the face towards the foobear.

"Now, I can't see that, but you can. Take a good look at it, because this is your card. Okay?"

Whether or not the beast understood was debatable, but the simple motion of Bob's fingers as he waved the card a little drew the foobear's eyes, and it certainly got a good look at the suit and number, at least as a picture.

"Great." Bob lowered the card again and pushed it back into the deck, and then casually shuffled the deck several times in his hands. Charlie grinned at the man's dexterity and fluid movements. He certainly was good at his game!

Bob then fanned out the deck again, and held it up to show the foobear that all the cards were different. "See? It's not a rigged deck. Perfectly ordinary, just like the one my mother uses to play rummy." He let out a happy sigh. "And now, I need a helper. Or, maybe two helpers. Kip? Adrian? Would you mind?"

Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm happily and grinned hugely, and he and Adrian stepped forward.

"No, no, it's not magic that these two wonderful lads appear beside me now," Uncle Bob went on, as Kippy and Adrian took a place on either side of him. "Just a happy circumstance, a fortuitous whim of fate. And as you can see, their hands are empty - hold up your hands, guys - and that I still have the deck right here."

Bob held up his hands again, showing the deck still prominent in his right hand. He held it out as if to give it to the foobear, flipped his hand quickly...and the deck had vanished!

The foobear moved closer with a small hop and inspected each of Bob's empty hands from mere inches away, and then looked up at him with what was surely a grin!

"Hey, Max!" Murph called softly. "The thing isn't trying to get away any longer!"

Max gave a little sigh. "Hear that, fellas? You've got its full attention."

"That's what any magician wants," Bob said happily, and then winked at the foobear. "Or any illusionist, I should say."

Max softly cleared his throat. "I think it might see what you're doing, but it doesn't feel any magic being used. So it has no idea what's happening. It's a new kind of magic to it."

Charlie grinned. "So you think it's a life form now, instead of just loose energy?"

"I'm seeing what you're seeing now, Charlie. A big cat-looking thing. Don't ask me why."

"Ah, ah, no talking in the cheap seats," Uncle Bob cautioned. "You'll spoil the, um, illusion!"

Charlie grinned. Uncle Bob was having himself a good old time, and the foobear seemed to be enjoying itself right along with him. Bob waved his hands a few more times, and the foobear's eyes tracked right along with them, as if hoping to catch the man in the act of sneaking something over.

Bob seemed to understand that. "Now, really, do you think I'm trying to trick you?" He extended his arms and laid his hands on Kip's and Adrian's shoulders. "Hear that, guys? This fellow things I'm a sham!"

But before either boy could even answer, Bob lifted his hand from Kippy's shoulder, flexed his fingers, and the deck of cards suddenly fanned out in his hand again. Bob made a show of looking astonished, and gaped at it. "Now, where did that come from!" He shook his head, and turned towards Adrian. "Now if it had been that hand, I could understand it --"

He lifted his left hand, flexed his fingers, and a second deck of cards fanned out in that hand. Bob also gaped at that, and took both fans of cards and waved them in front of the foobear. "Did you see that? I think something fishy's going on here!"

And then he shook both hands and then opened them, and the decks of cards had vanished.

The foobear jumped up and down, and poked its nose right at Bob's hands, first one, and then the other, and then actually nosed the hands over to inspect the other sides of them.

"I've got news for you," Bob whispered towards Max. "This critter feels warm and alive to the touch, too."

"I can see it!" Frit called, sounding delighted.

"Me, too!" Pip joined in. "It's cute!"

"Damned if I don't see the thing, too, Max, " Murph called in a hushed voice. "I'll be ding dang donged!"

"It's becoming more real," said a quiet voice, just over Charlie's shoulder.

He turned to find Ronja standing there, and blinked at her. "Have you been there all along?"

"Well, of course! You don't think I'm going to miss all the fun, do you?" Her eyes twinkled happily, and her smile was plain evidence that she was enjoying herself. Charlie grinned at her, and then turned back towards the foobear. Uncle Bob had made fists of his hands before the very eyes of the foobear now. "Let' see what happens if I do this..."

Uncle Bob jiggled his right fist, and a card appeared between his first and second fingers. "Is that your card? No, I don't think so." He next jiggled the left fist, and another card appeared between the first and second fingers there. "Nope, that's not your card, either. Rats!" He shook both fists, and the cards disappeared. "Now, where on earth can your card be?"

Bob made show of looking around on the floor, and Charlie smiled as the foobear looked with him.

"Nope, not there." Bob leaned forward then, right up to the foobear's face, and the critter's head bobbed backwards just a bit in surprise. "It's okay," Bob said softly. "It's okay, big fella. I think I see your card."

He straightened, and carefully, slowly, extended his left hand towards the foobear. The creature watched it come, a small bit of wariness present in its eyes, but also some measure of trust. Bob eased his hand up to the foobear's left ear, gently brushed it with his fingertips, and pulled his hand back. It now contained a single card, which he held up before the foobear's eyes. "Is this it?"

The creature stared at the card, and then suddenly reared its head back and let out an unmistakable howl of laughter! Bob grinned, and gave a sigh of relief. "Whew! Can't say I wasn't a little scared there!"

The foobear eased forward and pushed its nose against Bob's hand, and seemed to take a sniff of the card. Bob smiled, holding his hand very still. "You're a great audience," he said then. "I wish all my crowds were as fun as you."

Kippy slowly stepped forward, and bent and extended a hand towards the foobear. The beast moved it's head to take a whiff, and it's tail pounded the floor enthusiastically a couple of times. Kippy laughed, patted the creature on the head, and straightened, then tilted his head forward and looked over at Adrian. "Your turn!"

Ricky looked alarmed, but Adrian was already stepping forward, so Rick simply stepped forward with him. Adrian bent and held out a hand, and again it was sniffed, approved, and the floor tattooed a couple of times by the creature's tail.

Charlie laughed. "I think you guys have made a new friend."

The foobear turned it's head at Charlie's words, and again seemed to smile. Charlie again felt a very distinct presence in the eye contact, an awareness just too sharp to be that of just an animal. The creature grinned at him, and then looked back at Uncle Bob.

"I'm not sure, but I think he wants more!" Adrian said, laughing.

Ricky sighed. "Good thing you always carry cards with you, Uncle."

Uncle Bob nodded. "A good illusionist is always prepared for a new audience, Rick."

"I think more than an illusion has happened here," said a new voice. "I think some magic has been dealt with those cards."

Charlie heard Ronja's breath sigh out as Nicholaas came up behind them and put his arm around the woman. "Are you okay?"

"Yes. Especially now."

Nicholaas laughed, patted her arm, and moved slowly up to Charlie's side. "Hello, my friend. I see you're being entertained."

Charlie nodded. "By the best. But it's only what I'd expect, visiting you."

A twinkle of humor appeared in the man's eyes, and he laid a hand on Charlie's shoulder before taking another step forward. The foobear eyed him curiously, but seemed unworried by this new arrival.

Nicholaas looked over at Kippy. "What do you think about this?"

Kippy sighed. "It's not just energy. It's alive. It shouldn't be destroyed."

Nicholaas moved his gaze to Adrian. "Do you agree with that?"

"Yes. Very much."

Nicholaas nodded, and then looked around the circle of light. "Does anyone here disagree with that?"

It appeared that no one did. The keepers were all smiling now, or at least looking more relaxed than they had earlier. Nicholaas nodded, took another step towards the foobear, and slowly extended a hand. "Do you mind?"

The creature looked up at the hand as it slowly came down, but did not shy away, even as Nicholaas laid his hand atop its head. He flexed his fingers in the fur there, and closed his eyes. For a moment nothing else happened; and then Nicholaas opened his eyes and smiled. "Well, well. This is no animal. This is something quite new, I think."

The foobear tossed its head a bit, but it was obviously not an attempt to throw off the man's hand. In fact, the magical critter looked up at Nicholaas with apparent eagerness now, as if suddenly finding it had yet another new friend. Nicholaas laughed, and stroked the creature's fur, and looked quite happy himself. "I think he'll behave, now that he understands that canceling magical processes here might be harmful. I don't think there was any malice in what happened earlier, in fact. I think our new friend here simply got too close to the magic in the distribution room. He simply reeks of power, and that would be enough to cancel the processes there, which are actually quite small."

"He sure made us chase him around, though," Murph said. The man had moved closer now, as had most of the keepers. "Merriest chase I've ever been led on, actually."

Nicholaas laughed. "I actually think he thought it was a game of some kind. That you were playing. It was only when you cornered him here that he felt fear and tried to get away."

Murph smiled, and nodded his head. "So you won't be needing us anymore?"

"I don't think so. Thanks to you all."

The keepers looked pleased, nodded, and began to wink away with small pops of sound. Soon only the humans remained, along with Max and the two younger elves. Frit and Pip joined Max, and stared with wonder at the foobear. "What is it, grandpa Max?" Frit asked.

Max shook his head. "Magic, come to life, would be my guess."

Nicholaas nodded at that. "I think you're right. I've been trying to backtrack our friend's movements to see where he may have originated. It would appear he comes from right here, and that I may be the guilty party responsible for his formation."

Max simply stared. "You?"

Nicholaas shrugged. "Yes, me. An accident, but a quite interesting one."

Max grinned. "Gonna tell me about it?"

Nicholaas laughed. "Well, of course." His eyes twinkled, and his smile widened. "Someday."

That seemed to tickle Max no end.

Charlie smiled at Nicholaas, and titled his head at Ronja. "Your friend has been showing us a very wonderful time."

Nicholaas sighed. "She's very good at that."

Ronja looked pleased, and Charlie and Kippy exchange knowing looks. Kippy's eyes shown, and Charlie could almost read his thoughts: Love is in the air!

Nicholaas looked down at the foobear, and patted its head. "Would you like to get out of this dark place, my friend? You are welcome to stay upstairs. It's much more comfortable there."

The foobear grunted, and wagged its tail, and looked happily around at the circle of faces.

"What I want to know is, how come I can see it now, when I couldn't before?" Max asked.

"He has grown real now," Nicholaas explained. "Thanks to our friends here." He nodded at Charlie and the others.

Kippy looked surprised. "What did we do?"

Nicholaas looked pleased. "You believed in him, Kip. When he first materialized, he was still very much in an energetic state. It was your belief in him that made him real."

Kippy frowned. "But we saw him!"

"No. You saw his potential. What he had the power to become. It was your intent to treat him as real, as a living, breathing being, that finalized that." Nicholaas smiled around at all the boys, and especially at Uncle Bob. "You got his attention, and decided him to stay with us."

"So that's why I can see him now?" Frit asked. "Then he was just a ball of energy before?"

"Yes. But our friends here saw more than that. It is a peculiarly human trait to see life in things that are not necessarily alive. To see familiarity in the strange. To accept something as a friend, that elves might deal with with caution. Belief is a wonderful power. And now we see the results of that belief."

Pip let out a huge sigh of relief. "I thought I was defective or something!"

"Not any more than I am!" Frit called, smiling.

Max waved a hand at the both of them. "Just relax, you two."

Nicholaas smiled. "Shall we go upstairs?" He looked into the darkness around them, and gave a small shudder. "There's so much junk down here, it's oppressive."

Max gave a small bow. "After you."

Nicholaas shook his head. "I think we'll all go at once."

And then he waved his hand, and it was done.

"Awesome," Charlie said, looking about the big room. "You live here?"

"This is called the 'greeting room'," Ronja said, smiling. "But actually, it's reserved for special guests, as Nicholaas and I spend much time here ourselves. I know it's big, but we've tried to keep it down to earth."

The room itself was grand, but the furnishings were tasteful, and even a little homey. They sat about the polished hardwood floor before a grand hearth, big enough to park a car inside, which held the boles of a couple of fair-sized trees burning on the grate. The chimney face and the mantel were of natural stone, smoothed and polished and mortared together by a talented hand. The furniture that sat before it was upholstered in Christmas green, red, and gold, but a far more subtle use of those colors than the furniture down in the entry hall, and resulting in a look which was even more pleasing to the eye. A feminine touch, Charlie decided, smiling to himself.

Again there was a Christmas tree, tall and ornate, and somehow old-fashioned looking, and comforting in its cheerfulness. It stood to one side of the hearth, its ornamentation aglow and atwinkle in the light from the fire. Charlie squinted briefly at the oversize balls hanging from the branches, but saw no pictures on any of these.

The end tables, cabinets, and the huge coffee table were all of a dark brown wood, and looked handmade, and not by an amateur, either. There were bookcases full of books, and small things atop the cabinets and tables that had the look of personal effects - things that actually meant something to someone, rather than just there for decoration. Another of the great windows like the one downstairs occupied the back wall, only this one was looking down a brightly lit town street, one draped and crisscrossed with colored lights, which was full of people walking together, and was simply as cheerful as could be.

The effect of the room was that of a polished, very comfortable lodge, perhaps high in a mountain village somewhere, with a view of the small town beyond that was both charming and...and familiar.

Charlie stared at the scene beyond the window, and then laughed delightedly. "Is that Twombly?"

Kippy gasped and put his hands together, and also laughed. "It is!"

They crowded before the window, looking every which way. "There's the town hall!" Uncle Bob said, grinning.

"And the post office, and the library!" Kippy added, pointing.

Adrian laughed. "And Miss Cubely's dress shop!"

"It's great to see the town again," Charlie put forth, sighing. "What a wonderful place."

"And wonderful people," Kippy finished.

"It's a real-time view, too," Nicholaas said, smiling. "We wanted them with us for the holidays."

Kippy sighed. "That's so sweet of you."

They stood and watched the faraway elves as they moved about their business, waving to each other, and calling, 'Merry Christmas!' They couldn't hear them, but it was easy to see their lips move, easy to tell what they were saying. That these were all happy people was just so obvious that all Charlie could do was smile, even while feeling a pang that felt like homesickness to his heart. He would love to revisit Twombly, to see Kiley and Kiri and their father, and all the elves that lived there again.

It was almost overwhelming, almost too much, and Charlie backed away from the window and wandered over to the bookcases, trying to focus instead on what was there. They would revisit Twombly, that was certain. But on top of all they had already seen and experienced here, missing Twombly and its people was more than Charlie could manage in his mind all at one time.

The bookcases were tall and wide, and filled to capacity. Many of the volumes were leather bound, with no titles showing in the spine, though most were well-labeled as to their content. He scanned the rows, and was surprised to see that he recognized many of the titles, but that there were also a great many that he did not. The editions represented here ranged from the modern to the very ancient, and the ones that were old, he decided, were very old. There was literature from all over the world, and Charlie began to suspect that these were the original printings of the books. Nicholaas was immune to time, and he had lived his life through much of the common era. That his interests were represented here in books demonstrated a love and respect for the thoughts and ideas of others, and a desire to keep them at hand forever.

The man came over and stood next to Charlie. "I am not at all surprised to find you here, Charlie. You and I share a common interest in knowledge, and the tomes that keep it dear."

"Yes. I know some of these, but not others."

"Some are lost in your world; or at the least, forgotten. But most can be found in libraries even in your own land, though some have not been touched in a very long time." Nicholaas sighed. "In many cases they have been dated by the passage of time, and the wisdom they contain seems to no longer apply. But I recall each one when it was fresh and new, and the ideas exciting; or at the least, apt for the times."

Charlie waved a hand around at the decor of the room, and smiled. "I see a tendency towards the pastoral here."

Nicholaas also looked about, and laughed. "My origins are humble ones, Charlie. I tend to keep to that in my heart, even if I also have a need for space. You will find no small rooms in this place, but neither will you find a single one outfitted as if a lord were in residence. I like natural, and I like comfortable. And yes, I do love the pastoral."

Charlie nodded at the filled shelves in the large bookcases. "You've read all of these?"

"Every single one. Some, many times." Nicholaas sighed, and closed his eyes. "'And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.'"

Charlie nodded. "Shakespeare, I think. As You Like It?"

"Wonderful, Charlie!" Nicholaas exclaimed, opening his eyes and clapping the boy on the shoulder. "You are always so much more than I expect in one so young."

Charlie grinned. "Well, I try. Having a love of reading helps."

"Having a questing mind is at the bottom of it, though. You have the gift of curiosity, Charlie, and the need to know things, and to experience things." Nicholaas looked over at where Kippy and the others were still gazing at Twombly and talking with Ronja. "All of you have this gift, but in you it is most strong, shining like a light in the dark of night." Nicholaas leaned closer then, and dropped his voice to a whisper. "Would you like to hear one of my favorite quotes? I wonder if you can identify it?"

Charlie smiled, feeling a sudden thrill at the challenge. "I'll try."

Nicholaas sighed softly, and his eyes narrowed to slits, as if looking deeply inward: "'Nature that framed us of four elements, warring within our breasts for regiment, doth teach us all to have aspiring minds: Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend the wondrous architecture of the world, and measure every wandering planet's course, still climbing after knowledge infinite, and always moving as the restless spheres, wills us to wear ourselves, and never rest, until we reach the ripest fruit of all, that perfect bliss and sole felicity, the sweet fruition of an earthly crown.'"

Charlie closed his eyes, the passage familiar. "It has the ring of Shakespeare, too," he said. But then he opened his eyes and smiled at Nicholaas. "But it's not. Christopher Marlowe, right?"

Nicholaas looked as pleased as Charlie had ever seen him. "Yes. From his Tamburlane the Great." He dropped a hand on Charlie's shoulder and gave him a fond squeeze. "You and your friends put confidence in the world back into me, Charlie. Because I know that, for each one of you, there must be many other young people out there that have not lost touch with the world, nor the people it holds, nor the history it has learned."

Charlie was astonished at the praise, and felt his cheeks grow warm. "We just do the best that we can."

"I know that. It is as much what was born within you that I find so appealing, as it is what you have done with it. One cannot build lighthouses without bricks, Charlie."

Kippy turned from the window and came over to join them. "In all the excitement, I forgot about our new friend. Where'd he get to?"

Nicholaas laughed, gave Charlie a last pleased look, and then took each boy by an arm and led them around the Christmas tree. The foobear was sprawled on a rug there, looking blissfully happy in the warmth from the fire. "He is here, soaking up the local color."

Charlie and Kippy both stared, wide-eyed, for the creature laying there had indeed changed color! Its yellow pelt had deepened in color to a warm, honey gold, and the dark bands had turned from brown to a deep red. But what was most startling was that the black mane had developed dark red tips, looking like a ring of fire about the creature's neck.

"Oh!" Kippy breathed. "It's beautiful!"

"He," Nicholaas corrected. "Our friend is a he."

Kippy grinned. "Naturally!"

Charlie laughed at that, but shook his head. "What's happening to, um, him?"

Nicholaas smiled at his new guest. "He has become more real, Charlie. What you all originally saw was what you imagined he might be like, a group impression of a sort, employing bits from all your imaginations. He has become that, and more. And now he is developing his own unique traits, expressing his own individuality. He has become alive, and himself now."

Kippy looked amazed. "And we didn't even know we were doing that!"

Nicholaas nodded. "It is part of who you are - all of you - that you look for the best in everything. It was unconscious on your part, yet you took your combined mental image of what you thought a foobear would be - and you simply made one." The man laughed. "With his own help, of course. His own magic. Or mine, perhaps. It's all the same. Once again I am in your debt, it seems."

Charlie shook his head. "No. We're happy it turned out this way, but we didn't even know we were doing anything." He smiled. "It's this magical place that you created that is responsible for it."

"Thank you. But I know better, Charlie." Nicholaas indicated the big cat at his feet. "And so does he."

The cat - for Charlie felt certain that the foobear was actually some sort of feline, despite the extra bear-like features in its face - opened its yellow eyes and looked up happily at them. "Mrowf."

Kippy grinned at Charlie. "He spoke."

"Sounded more like a groan of happiness," Charlie said, smiling.

"It is both, I think," Nicholaas said. He smiled. "I know you are fond of him, but he needs to stay here with me. He is far too over brimming with magic to be allowed loose in your world."

Charlie laughed in amazement. "Believe me, I had no intention to take him home."

Nicholaas looked pointedly at Kippy, who shrugged. "Okay, I won't take him home. It was just a thought."

Ricky, Adrian, and Uncle Bob came around the tree in the wake of Ronja then, surely to see where the others had gotten off to, and again there were amazed stares, and again Nicholaas had to explain what had happened with the foobear.

"Then we can't call it a foobear anymore," Adrian said, shaking his head. "What is he?"

Nicholaas looked thoughtful, and then smiled. "He is the cat of all cats, of course."

Kippy looked delighted. "Well, of course!"

Nicholaas laughed. "I'm perfectly serious, I assure you. This fellow is of that breed, but only physically, as that soul which dwells within the body is much more like you or me than any true feline could ever be."

"So he's a smart cat," Ricky said, matter-of-factly.

Nicholaas looked pleased. "True."

"And he's a unique cat," Adrian added, laughing.

"Also true."

"And he's quite the magical cat, also, isn't he?" Uncle Bob put in, smiling.

"Most definitely true," Nicholaas agreed, nodding. "But fortunately for us, he has benefited in disposition from your expectations of him, and we need not fear his magic getting away from him, nor being used for ill purposes."

"Our expectations of him?" Ricky asked.

"Of course. Our friend here was very much the ball of loose magic that the elves first saw him as when he materialized here. We'll call his appearance a spillover from something I was working on earlier, and was apparently a little too careless with in creation." Nicholaas cleared his throat noisily, and grinned. "But that's a story for another time." He pointed at the foobear. "What happened next was that some gifted people saw potential in him, and very much forged that ball of energy into something more. And, once forged, that creation had the power on its own to finalize the journey into life, and has become what you see here now."

Nicholaas smiled at them. "Those talented people were you. All of you. You have helped to create this fellow, and he knows it. You will ever be close to his heart hereafter."

"We made this...this person?" Uncle Bob asked incredulously. "How can that be? I know that I, at least, don't have a magical bone in my body."

Nicholaas laughed. "Don't you? Magic is a term with dimension, Bob. It's meanings are many, even among your own kind. But that each of you is magical in nature I have known for quite some time now."

Kippy frowned. "I have some skwish. So does Adrian, I think."

"Yes. That's an elf term for many things, actually, that have a less concrete meaning in the elf world. It's like saying in the human world that an artist is creative. It's a catchall phrase to cover less easily named talents that combine to produce a unique overall quality. One that allows someone to be a painter, or a sculptor, or a poet, for instance. And among the artists of that community, the qualities of their talents range from the small to the extreme. So it is with skwish, and other magics."

Nicholaas smiled. "All of you have skwish, but how it manifests in each of you is different. Kip and Adrian are the closest in execution; or, should I say, that some of their apparent abilities are similar in nature. Yet even these two have very different talents that are not so noticeable. At least, not yet."

"I've never felt any skwish," Ricky protested. "I'm just a normal guy."

Charlie shook his head. "It sounds like you're warning us to look out for more to come."

Nicholaas looked surprised, and then laughed. "Not at all. I am not warning you. I am preparing you. There is a considerable difference."

"You mean we'll all get stronger?" Kippy asked.

"Yes. You see, humans and elves are not as different as you have imagined. The one tremendous difference between living in the elf world and the human world is that elves are exposed to magic around the clock, every day of the year, for their entire lives. Their natural talents are therefore expressed from birth. Humans, on the other hand, have no such igniter for their magical abilities. It takes a rare association with persons of magic to start the ball rolling. But, once in motion, it just keeps going. And growing."

Charlie cleared his throat. "I never asked you how you became a human that does magic."

Nicholaas nodded. "Good thing, because I don't really know how I came to be what I am."

"You don't know at all?"

"Not a clue."

"But you're a human, and not an elf." It was a statement, not a question.

"I'm as human as you. I didn't even become aware of the elf world until I stumbled into it one day while trying to do something completely different. And I was already quite magical by that time."

The idea that Nicholaas had ever fumbled his way through the dark was new thinking for Charlie. He was used to the guy being so proficient at everything! Pretty much like a certain elf Charlie knew!

Charlie looked around then, suddenly aware that Max was not with them. Nor Frit and Pip! "Huh? I thought we all came up from the cellar together? Where's Max and the kids?"

"Max and the two boys had errands to run. They'll be along." Nicholaas smiled, and Charlie got the distinct impression that the man was chuckling inside, as if he knew a secret that Charlie didn't. He had an urge to explore that...but didn't. If something was up, best to wait and see it come on its own.

He turned back to look at the big cat, which was lazily, and definitely fondly, looking back at him. "Should we give him a name? Or does he have one?"

Nicholaas also looked at their new arrival. "Have you a name, my friend?"

The cat's tail flicked back and forth contentedly, but it made no sound.

"That means we can give him one, right?" Kippy said, excitedly. "How about 'Kitty'?"

Nicholaas did laugh out loud then. "Rather generic, isn't it?"

"But it does fit," Adrian said. "More or less."

"He looks more like a hellcat to me," Ricky decided, grinning.

Adrian gasped. "We can't call him that!"

"Well, I didn't mean to call him by that name. I just mean that he needs something bigger than just 'kitty'."

"What about something to do with magic?" Charlie asked. "After all, he is magical."

"How about 'Voodoo'?" Ricky asked, grinning a little evilly.

"That's too dark," Adrian complained. "He seems like such a sweetie."

"I have a suggestion," Uncle Bob said. "How about 'Auggie'?" The boys turned to look at him, and the man smiled. "A variation on 'augury', which means a sign of something to come."

"An omen," Charlie said. "In this case, a good one. I like it."

"I think I do, too," Nicholaas said. He turned to the cat, and smiled. "What do you think, my friend?"

The cat flicked a paw at them, and grunted out what sounded like, "Oogie."

Nicholaas laughed. "I think he likes it."

The man that was Santa then turned to the other new addition to his life, and smiled at her. "You've been very quiet throughout all of this, my dear."

Ronja sighed, and made her way to Nicholaas. "Listening is also an art. To listen is to learn."

"Yes." Nicholaas drew her closer, and briefly kissed her. "And what have you learned?" he whispered.

She smiled, rubbing her nose against his. "That you made a wise decision in asking me to come here." She followed that with a small laugh, her eyes bright. "And that I made the wisest decision of all, in coming."

Ronja was a wonderful hostess as well, and set a fine table. They met in another great room, down a long dining table that immediately made Charlie think of Oliver Twist, though the setting here was much nicer than a poor house for children. The tablecloth was white, the dinnerware was blue, and the glasses all cut crystal in the finest of traditions. There were candelabras along the walls in which candles burned but never seemed to shorten, and a chandelier above the center of the table that Charlie was certain ran on gas of some type, by the merry but distinctly un-electric radiance it provided.

Yet none of it seemed out of place here. That the rooms all seemed imported from another time gave the place a lot of charm, and Charlie was certain that what they were seeing was a mix of the old world which Nicholaas had inhabited for so long now, and the somewhat more modern, yet still refined values that Ronja had brought along with her. There was no shortage of tasteful elegance, certainly.

Max and Frit and Pip returned to join them for the meal, and the soft strains of something classical yet Christmassy played in the background. Charlie was certain that it wasn't a recording, because the orchestra involved took periodic pauses during which the conversations of many people could be heard in the background. Heard, but not understood.

"Oh, it's live," Nicholaas said, when Charlie mentioned it. "Or, it once was. You're hearing the Christmas dinner celebration of the Duke Armand DeCord, from 1741. King Christian himself was in attendance that evening, as I recall."

Charlie and Kippy stared at each other. "Where was that?" Kippy asked.

"Copenhagen. I particularly enjoyed the music that evening, and like to hear it again every so often."

"But it's not a recording?" Charlie asked.

"No, Charlie. I simply open a window - an audio one - back to that evening, whenever I wish to hear the performance again."

"It's just time," Max reminded. "The boss is good with that stuff, remember?"

Charlie nodded, wondering what it would be like to carry the past of the entire world around with him.

"Would you like to hear something different?" Nicholaas asked.

"No." Charlie smiled. "I like this. I was just curious."

Nicholaas laughed. "One of the things I like about you, as you know."

The meal was the most unusual Christmas dinner that Charlie had ever had. There was something called Fondue Chinoise, comprised of thinly sliced beef cooked in bouillon. And Schinkli, a smoked ham with potato salad. Bread pudding with gingerbread men; and big, fat rolls that appeared to have been baked around a stick of cheese; a roasted flour soup topped with grated Gruyere cheese that was heaven on the tongue; and mangoes and passion fruit for dessert.

"It is a bit of home for me," Ronja told them cheerfully. "Dishes from my homeland. I know you will have a more traditional American Christmas dinner at home later, so I thought you might like something different here."

"It's wonderful!" Kippy managed, already on his second bowl of soup.

"It is amazingly good," Charlie agreed. "You're quite a cook, Ronja."

The woman laughed. "I wish I could take credit for it. But, alas, I simply supplied the recipes. All of this was cooked up by some of the workshop women."

"Be sure to thank them for us," Adrian said.

"Yes," Uncle Bob added, nodding. "I can't say when I have had a more unusual and tasty meal!"

Max looked happy at that. "The missus helped with this stuff. She'll be pleased that you guys liked it."

Ricky nodded. "If I ate like this all the time, I'd have trouble keeping my weight down."

Max patted his own belly. "I know what ya mean. It's a war, ain't it?"

Charlie laughed at that, as Max was as fit as Frit and Pip were, at 598 years his junior.

They talked on, and laughed, and told stories, and heard some pretty amazing ones themselves. Charlie had been thinking that he and the guys were actually becoming fairly worldly, what with their journeys in space and time; but the stories that both Nicholaas and Max could tell reminded him that he and his friends were just starting out in life. There was no shame in that, he knew. Both of the older men had simply lived such long and rich lives to this point that Charlie felt there could be no comparison to their own few trips out and around. Nothing told like experience!

But we'll get there, someday, he told himself.

They ate too much, and soon sat back in their chairs, completely satisfied. Max and the two teen elves excused themselves, saying they had a few things to do, but that they would be back shortly. Charlie lost track of the time, but it did seem like at least an hour had passed before Max returned.

He entered the room and went right to Nicholaas. "We're ready, boss."

Nicholaas smiled, and turned to his guests. "Shall we go? If you wish to see some of our presents being delivered, that is."

Adrian and Kippy both jumped to their feet. "Yes!"

They gathered into a group and were whisked to another room, this one simply gargantuan in proportions, and piled high with gift-wrapped packages of every size and shape. It looked almost laughably disorderly, yet there did seem to be some sort of pattern to it all. Still, it looked much more like the room had simply been stuffed with the stolen gifts from a few million million living rooms than it did a launching point for dispersing them.

"It's all in order, believe me," Max said, grinning. He looked around the room proudly. "There's just shy of sixty million gifts in here."

Charlie just stared. "And you know where each one is going?"

Max laughed. "Who, me? Not on your life, Charlie. But he does." The elf pointed at Nicholaas, who smiled.

"Oh, I can't tell you where or to whom each gift is going just by looking," the man said. "Each of these wrapped objects constitutes a spacial coordinate in a long equation - the delivery line, I call it - and when I set it into motion, every gift will be transported to another spacial coordinate, that falls somewhere within reach of the recipient." He smiled. "Under a tree, most of the time."

"But you must have known who wanted what at some point, or you couldn't do the math," Uncle Bob pointed out.

"Oh, I do.Or did." Nicholaas pointed at the towering piles of gifts. "But a skateboard and a PlayStation look much the same all wrapped up, and from this distance. But believe me, each gift will get where it is supposed to go."

Kippy simply shook his head. "I'm amazed the ones on the bottom of those huge piles don't get crushed!"

Max gave them a toothy grin. "Oh, they're not actually touching each other. It just looks that way from here."

Ricky stared around the room, and shook his head. "Sixty million sounds like a lot of presents, but not in a world of seven billion people."

Max sighed. "There's fifty other rooms, just like this one. Each room has about as many gifts. And they're all included in the delivery line equation."

Charlie whistled, impressed. "Three billion presents! Not quite half the people on the planet."

"Don't forget the ones that were delivered by your own people," Max reminded. "Your own delivery companies. That was another few hundred million there."

"Wow! So about half the people on the planet got something, then. Or will, I should say."

"Right." Max shrugged. "I already said that a lot of people don't participate in Christmas, or even think about asking for a gift. A few of those get them anyway. But there is still about half the planet that doesn't." He smiled then. "But the number of participants in Christmas is growing each year, though, so we are making some headway."

"So what happens next?" Kippy asked.

Nicholaas took a deep breath, and let it sigh out slowly. "The big moment. Everyone ready?"

They agreed that they were, and Kippy moved to Charlie's side and snuggled against him so that they could share the moment. Charlie put his arm around his boyfriend and kissed his cheek, and Kippy sighed happily. "Love you, Charlie."

"Love you right back, Kip."

Nicholaas closed his eyes, and smiled.

There was a sudden commotion among the stacked gifts, a sparkle of light, and then the wrapped presents began to disappear, first one, then another, and then in wholesale lots. Each disappearance was accompanied by a brief sparkle of multi-colored light, which soon became a virtual rainbow of color cascading about the room. There was also a miniscule pop! with each transference, and soon the room was bursting with sound, light, and color.

Charlie started laughing, unable to believe the wonder of it all. Kippy snuggled against him, also laughing in delight, and when Charlie turned to look, he saw that all the others were grinning and laughing, too. It was like nothing any of them had ever witnessed, almost like watching a city full of skyscrapers vanishing, one board room, one apartment at a time. Uncle Bob had his arms raised, just savoring the magic of the moment, a huge smile on his face, as the biggest disappearing act in history unfolded before him.

Despite the volume of the sound, it never became too loud, or annoying. Charlie turned to Kippy and hugged him, and kissed him, as the towers of gifts slowly disappeared around them. He saw Max smiling at him over Kip's shoulder, and smiled back. Adrian and Rick moved closer, grinning at them, and the four of them stood together and watched the show.

Charlie lost track of time. Sixty million is a big number, and Charlie was faintly aware that if only one package vanished each second, they would still be standing there in two year's time. So the volume of transfer had to be much higher than that, as the room had visibly cleared by now, perhaps as much as by half. And the rate of disappearance seemed to be accelerating, if the lights and sounds were any indicator.

Nicholaas simply stood there throughout, his eyes closed, a beautiful smile on his face. Charlie considered that, and had to smile himself. For Nicholaas this was not just magic, it was giving. Sixty million gifts, in fact; and so many more, if this same process was happening in each of the fifty rooms that Max had mentioned. Three billion gifts, materializing under trees, in stockings, in traditional shoes or baskets, or any of the myriad places that people placed the things they wished another to have at Christmas.

And of all those gifts, not one would garner thanks to the man who had actually gifted them, instead being attributed to moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandparents and kids, and friends and family everywhere. No one would know the reality. Know one would care one bit.

Except Nicholaas.

Charlie sighed, and kissed Kip again, just because he needed to share love with someone in that moment. Kippy nodded, perhaps their telepathic link working a little harder than usual, and kissed him back. And then they watched, as the towers of gifts grew smaller, the canyons and valleys between them larger, and the sounds of their passing dwindled from a soft roar to a last and pleasant chuckle.

And then it was done. A small pile of presents, far off on the other side of the room, was the last to go. It winked away, and then silence descended upon them. Nicholaas took a deep breath, sighed, and opened his eyes.

"Merry Christmas, Nicholaas," Kippy said. "You deserve to be told that more than anyone else right now."

The man smiled. "Ah. That's a good feeling, to have that done. Thank you for the kindness, Kip."

Charlie looked over at Max. "Are they all gone? Fifty roomfuls?"

"Yep. All gone. All delivered, just where they belong."

"Except for a very few," Nicholaas said.

Max nodded. "Except for a very few."

Kippy looked from man to elf, and then back again. "They're not all sent?"

Nicholaas shook his head. "Every now and then, there are a few gifts that deserve that special touch."

"That old-fashioned touch," Max said, nodding.

Nicholaas came forward to stand by them. "Sometimes, we feel that some few people deserve a real visit from Saint Nick." He laughed. "By sleigh."

Kip's jaw dropped. "By sleigh! You mean you actually go and land on the roofs, and go down the chimneys, and all that?"

Nicholaas laughed again. "I have never been down a chimney in my entire life. But we do make our visit by sleigh, yes." He leaned forward. "Would you all like to make the trip with us?"

Kippy looked at Charlie. "Would we?"

Charlie laughed. "Do you really have to ask?"

Kippy grinned. "No. I was just being polite."

Everyone was asked the same question, and no one said no.

Santa was about to make his rounds, albeit much abbreviated ones, and they had been asked to go long.

And going along they were!

"Stay warm," Ronja said, giving each of them a hug. "It was so wonderful to meet all of you. Please come back and see us."

"You don't have to ask twice," Kippy said, beaming.

"We had a wonderful time," Charlie told her. He smiled. "Nicholaas has done well with you, I think."

The woman laughed, obviously pleased. "We are good for each other. I will take care of him, and he will take care of me."

"I have no doubt of that."

Ronja had a small gift for each of them, wrapped in red paper, which she pressed into their hands as they hugged. "For Christmas day," she told them.

Auggie also came to see them off, letting himself be hugged and petted, and actually looking sad that they were leaving. The big cat had formed a special bond with Kippy and Adrian, it seemed, and while he nuzzled each of the boys in passing, he stayed longest at those two.

"We'll be back," Adrian told him, patting his head.

Kippy nodded, adding a few soft pats of his own. "Sure. You'll see us again."

Uncle Bob was the last to say goodbye to the cat. He bent down in front of Auggie, opened his hand, and there was the card he had shown Auggie down in the basement. "This is yours, I think."

Auggie's face broke into an unmistakable smile, and he leaned forward, and gently took the card from Bob with his teeth. He gave a snap of his head, and the card sailed upward and froze in mid-air, there to spin in a circle, end over end.

Bob nodded approvingly. "Not bad. But can you make it disappear?"

They left the big cat sitting happily and watching the card spin, and Uncle Bob grinned all the way to the door. "Wish all my audiences were that easy."

Nicholaas strode into the room and paused, his arms outstretched. "How do I look?"

The man was dressed in red pants tucked into black boots, and wore a red parka with white furry trim, drawn against his body by a black belt about his middle. A red stocking cap was perched jauntily upon his head, with a little white furry ball at the tip laying upon his shoulder. Nicholaas grinned, obviously enjoying the looks of surprise and delight on the their faces.


"Just like Santa should!" Adrian called.

"You look great!" Kippy said, clapping his hands three times.

"Got more balls than I'll ever have," Charlie heard Ricky mumble, behind them. He turned, and his friend grinned at him, and then waved at Nicholaas. "Great, great! You look great!"

Charlie shook his head at Rick, and then turned to Nicholaas. "You do look wonderful!"

Nicholaas winked at them. "Don't get used to it, is all I can say!"

They retrieved their parkas and shrugged into them, and then headed for the exit behind Nicholaas. The big double doors opened, and there were Frit and Pip, just outside. "Surprise!" they yelled in unison. Then they parted and turned, and swept their hands out.

Before them was the sleigh - or, rather, one very much like the one that had brought them there. It was also red with white runners, but this one had a small section behind the two rows of seats, in which sat a large white bag cinched closed with a red tie. A team of reindeer stood in their harnesses before the sleigh, looking expectantly at the door.

Behind the sleigh stood several lines of elves, and behind them, more reindeer, looking about curiously at all that was gong on. One elf out front, facing the others, was watching over his shoulder. As they all emerged, he raised his hands and waved them. "And a one, and a two!"

The elves broke into song, their voices rising in a beautiful harmony, and Charlie blinked, sure he had heard this particular song before. The words were unintelligible, obviously sung in another language, but the sound of it was unmistakably familiar --

"Oh," Kippy breathed, and turned to smile at him. "That's the carol they sang for us in Twombly last year!"

Charlie immediately knew it to be true.

"Yes, it is!" Uncle Bob agreed, smiling. "Wow. How wonderful to hear it again!"

"You like?" Max said, suddenly at Charlie's side. He looked startled then, snapped his fingers, and then pointed his index finger straight up. It began to snow, the flakes slow and gentle in their descent, and Charlie just shook his head and laughed.

Max grinned. "Oops. Almost forgot!"

They stood together and listened to the carol, remembering Twombly and their new friends there, and Charlie didn't think he could be much happier than this. He turned, saw the wonder and happiness in Kip's face, and the very same things in Rick's face, and Adrian's, and Uncle Bob's. Whatever the song was, it inspired, and touched all the right places inside to generate joy for the season.

Too soon, it was done. The elves completed, and all smiled and waved as they began to move off. Charlie softly applauded them; and then they were all clapping. The elves grinned and waved some more, and Charlie and the other didn't let up until the elves had vanished among the trees.

"I won't forget that in a hurry," Ricky said, looking supremely satisfied.

"I won't let you!" Adrian kidded, snuggling against him.

Nicholaas held out a hand, indicating the sleigh. "Shall we?"

They turned a last time and waved to Ronja at the door, and then made their way to the sleigh. The reindeer watched them come, and the last one on their side gave a coughing snort, and bobbed its head up and down.

"Is that Norville?" Kippy asked delightedly, running forward to pet the animal. Adrian grinned at Ricky, and then was off, too.

"Figured we'd use the same team we had coming in," Max said, smiling, as Kippy and Adrian patted Norville and spoke to the other animals.

"I think you know us all too well," Charlie returned, laughing.

They climbed into the sleigh, this time Nicholaas taking the reins. Max sat to one side of him, and cast an impatient look back towards the workshop. "Where's my bag boys?"

"We're coming!" Frit called, as he and Pip came running up.

"Sorry!" Pip said, as they climbed into the sleigh on the other side of Nicholaas.

"We're ready!" They said in unison, and turned to grin at Charlie and the others.

Nicholaas looked over his shoulder at them and nodded. "Here we go!"

He turned forward and gave the reins a gentle flip, and clicked softly in his cheek. "Ho, Pasquale, and Solly, and Nestor, and Orville! Aloft Wally, and Jolly, and Jester, and Norville!"

Max just shook his head. "It always sounds so much better when you do it, boss!"

The sleigh started moving, and soon was flying across the snow. Nicholaas pulled back on the reins, and they left the ground in a leap, the reindeer rising slightly in front of them as they scrambled for the sky. Charlie turned to look back, and watched the workshop diminish in size, and then become a bright spot on the horizon.

"I almost don't believe it all happened," Kip whispered, rubbing his head against Charlie's. "I don't want it to be over."

"I know," Charlie said softly. "It's been so much fun to be with all our friends again."

Kippy sighed. "It feels like Christmas, Charlie. It really does."

"Yeah. And we're not even actually there yet. We still get to go back and spend the day with our families."

"I'm looking forward to that." Kippy poked him. "And I'm looking forward to coming over to your house later on Christmas day so that we can exchange presents, too."

Charlie laughed. "Always something to look forward to!"

Adrian leaned over and patted Kippy. "Did you notice we're going a different way?"

Charlie sat up a little straighter, and looked over the side of the sleigh. Far below them, the illuminated grids of streets and homes stood out in the darkness, looking nothing like the frozen lands they had just left. That was fast!

"Well, I guess we have to go a different way if we're delivering stuff," he decided. He looked over his shoulder at the sack behind them, and frowned. "It's not a very big bag, is it?'

"Probably just a few things," Kip said. "I mean, they already delivered three billion presents. How much can be left?"

Charlie grinned at that. "Man! What an operation! And the world's best kept secret, too."

"We know. That's all that matters to me."


They continued to sail through the night. The lights of cities dotted the horizon, but they seemed to be traveling above the far suburbs, even rural areas, well away from the huge concentrations of light. The streets far below were drawn mostly in yellow dots of light, but Charlie fancied the idea that he could see some colored lights, too, suggesting Christmas lights here and there. The air was clear, and the night still.

They dropped lower, and Charlie, looking over the side of the sleigh, felt an eerie sense of warm intimacy come over him. "Hey --"

The sleigh turned, and sailed down the length of a dark block, one filled with comfortable homes, some lit with colorful lights. There were no street lights, yet even so, the darkness itself seemed familiar. Kippy, craning his neck, shook his head. "Isn't this--?"

The reindeer slowed, and the sleigh settled to the roof without so much as a jar.

Nicholaas turned and smiled at Charlie. "Welcome home." He handed the reins to Max, who was all smiles.

"My house?" Charlie asked, disbelievingly. "We're at my house?"

Frit laughed, and hopped out of the sleigh. Charlie could tell right away that the elf was not actually walking on the peaked roof, but above it, at the same level as the sleigh. He went around back to the bag of presents, looked inside, and pulled one forth.

He came back around the sleigh, and handed the wrapped present to Nicholaas, who extended a hand to Charlie. "Take hold."

Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm, and nodded. "Hurry back."

Charlie reached out, and grasped the proffered hand. He immediately felt the odd, dark shift that signaled a transport, and then he and Nicholaas were standing in Charlie's family room, just before the tree. Somehow, Charlie could tell the room was dark, yet the tree itself stood in a small pool of light. The lights that adorned it were also off, but Nicholaas extended his fingers, and they glowed into life.

"Your house, Charlie. Your tree." Nicholaas held up the colorful box. "And your gift, from Santa."

He bent down, and sat the box on the floor among the other gifts, waved a finger, and the box slid under the tree, out of sight. Nicholaas smiled. "It wouldn't do to have it found too soon. Remember to look well under that tree tomorrow, Charlie."

Charlie swallowed hard, and nodded. "I...I didn't get you anything. I'm sorry."

Nicholaas smiled, and shook his head. "That's not true at all. You've given me more than you can imagine, Charlie. You, and Kip, and Rick, and Adrian. And Bob. All of you.The gifts of friendship, which has come to mean so much to me. And even more than that."

Charlie nodded, words failing to come. He cleared his throat, and forced himself to speak. "Thank you."

Nicholaas nodded. "I had a horse once. You remember Kirka?"

"Of course."

"Charlie, there was a time in my life where I thought that Kirka would be my only friend. That I would never have another. And yet, now I find myself with many."

Charlie nodded.

"And there was a time in my life where I thought I would never have companionship again. The sort of intimate companionship that only a mate can provide. Again, I was wrong. Now I have Ronja."


"A great many people love and appreciate you, Charlie. You and Kip and Rick and Adrian. And Bob. People whose lives you have touched. People whose lives you have enriched. People here in your world, and people over in mine." The man laughed, and pointed towards the ceiling. "Even people...out there."

Nicholaas canted his head to one side. "Thank you, Charlie."

"I didn't..."

But Nicholaas held up a hand, smiling. "Ready to go?"

Charlie could only nod.

Nicholaas waved a hand, and the lights on the tree faded, and the tree itself returned to the darkness.

And then they were in the sleigh again. Kippy immediately threw an arm around Charlie, and hugged him. "Oh, Charlie, we saw everything!"

Charlie shook his head. "Huh? How?"

Max took a forefinger and held it up, and blew across the end of it, like blowing smoke from the barrel of a revolver. "That would be me that did that."

"It was like a movie screen in front of us," Ricky said. "We saw everything."

Adrian nodded, quickly wiping at his eyes. "Everything."

Nicholaas turned and smiled. "That message I gave Charlie is for all of you. So you will know how much you are loved and appreciated. How many friends you have, in more than one world."

And then Nicholaas turned and called to the reindeer, and once again they were aloft. It was a quick jump to Kip's house, and this time Charlie sat and watched the movie of what happened below, as Kippy and Nicholaas disappeared, and Kip's present was place beneath the tree. Adrian's house followed, and then Ricky's. There, both Ricky and Bob were transported below, and two gifts placed beneath the tree.

And that was all. The bag at the back of the sleigh was now empty, and their mission complete.

The sleigh took to the sky again, and they traveled in silence as everyone sat and thought about a few things. Kippy had kept his arm around Charlie, and Charlie smiled now, finding that reversal of roles strangely pleasant. He turned his head and kissed Kippy, who smiled at him, and returned the kiss. Rick and Adrian seemed to be doing much the same, while Uncle Bob sat beyond them, his eyes closed and a smile on his face. Charlie felt a brief flash of sympathy, as if Uncle Bob was odd man out; but then he remembered that he also had someone special waiting at Rick's house for him to return.

Frit and Pip turned and smiled at them now and then, and even Max. They all seemed to know that the silence was a good thing, and that it would soon wear off.

It did.

"Where are we going now?" Charlie finally asked.

Max pointed over the side. "Look below."

Charlie did that, and saw that they were sailing over dense forest hung with snow. Even as he watched, the plateau with the stone steps came into view, and the sleigh came in for a landing, and stopped at the base of the stairs.

Charlie sighed. Their visit was over.

Max laughed at the expression on his face. "It's okay, Charlie. We want all of you to come more often, okay? Auggie is going to miss you if you don't."

Nicholaas held up a hand. "And me."

Frit and Pip both laughed. "And us!"

"And me," Max said quietly. "We're friends, all of us. And friends share. Remember that, all of you."

"Well," Charlie said, smiling, "now that you mention that, we were thinking that, after the holiday, we'd call Murcha one weekend to pick us up, so that we could go to Engris to check to see how Ragal and Casper are doing."

"And Mike and Bobby," Kippy added.

Ricky nodded. "And Kontus."

"Don't forget Pacha'ka," Adrian added.

"And Billy and Will," Kippy blurted.

Charlie held up a hand. "No one will be forgotten." He let his gaze go back to Max. "We could always use the company of an elf friend." He smiled as Frit's and Pip's eyes widened." Or three," he finished.

"Maybe Nicholaas would like to go," Kippy suggested hopefully.

The man nodded. "Maybe. As many places as I have been, I have not been to many out there. Just remember that I am not alone anymore, and have someone else to consider."

"Ronja would love Engris!" Kippy said, smiling "There's shops galore!"

Nicholaas laughed. "That's for the future, then." He sighed, his eyes moving among them. "Merry Christmas, my friends."

"Merry Christmas!" All five in the back seat seemed to say it at the same time, and everyone laughed.

"I'll say my farewells here," Nicholaas said. "Come see us soon." He smiled at Uncle Bob. "I very much enjoyed the card tricks!"

Bob laughed. "It was one of my better showings."

Max hopped out of the sleigh on one side, and Frit and Pip on the other, and walked them up the steps to the door. It opened at a touch, and there was Charlie's bedroom, just beyond.

"Once you close the door, it will vanish," Max warned. "And once the door is gone, the clocks will start running."

"We want to see you off," Kippy said, adamantly. "Don't we, Charlie?"

"Yeah. But we'll be sure to close the door once you guys are gone."

Max looked at them sternly. "Just be on the other side of that door when it closes!"

Hugs were exchanged, and Charlie felt himself choking up. Kippy had tears on his face and was not worried in the least about them, so that gave Charlie the will to smile.

"Thanks for the look at the back side of magic," Uncle Bob said. "I'll never forget it."

Max nodded. "You're welcome to visit us anytime. Make the boys bring you!"

The two men exchanged handshakes, and then Max turned to go. "Come on, young'uns." And then, at a seeming afterthought, Max turned back to them and smiled. "You can keep the parkas and the boots. Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas!" they all returned together.

Frit and Pip both waved, on the edge of looking tearful themselves. And then the three elves descended the steps and climbed aboard the sleigh. All four occupants waved a last time, and then Nicholaas flipped the reins, and they heard his deep voice calling in the night: "Ho, Pasquale, and Solly, and Nestor, and Orville! Aloft Wally, and Jolly, and Jester, and Norville!"

Ricky laughed, and shook his head. "Must be a hell of a union those reindeer have!"

The sleigh started forward and quickly accelerated, and took to the sky. It circled, and turned toward the distant crescent of the moon, and slowly vanished into the night.

Kippy let out a sigh, and turned into Charlie's arms. Charlie held him a long moment, and then turned him towards the bedroom. "We'll see them again soon."

The five of them moved back, and Charlie took hold of the door. "Ready?"

The others nodded. Charlie looked outside a last time at a land somewhere far away, yet one full of people and ideas that he loved. There were, indeed, more things in heaven and earth than could be dreamt of, as the bard had once said. To be a part of that was stirring.

And then he closed the door, knowing they would soon return.

"Hi, mom," Charlie said, as he and Kippy entered the kitchen. "Ready for that iced tea."

His mom, working at the counter by the stove, pointed at the refrigerator. "In there. Did Mr. Travers and the boys leave?"

"Yeah. They had an early dinner. They said thanks for the offer of the drinks, though."

Mrs. Boone turned and smiled at them. "How'd you get such a nice bunch of friends, Charlie?"

He laughed. "Oh, Kip seems to attract them, I think."

His boyfriend tsked. "Oh, Charlie."

Charlie laughed, and put his arm around him. His mom smiled at them, and Charlie could see in her eyes that she was happy for them. Just one more gift, he thought.

They got glasses and filled them, and were just sitting down at the kitchen table when they heard a thunk, and the side door opened. Mr. Boone stuck his head in and waved. "A little help?"

The boys laughed, and got up and went out to the car to help carry things in. "Don't look in the bags unless you want your Christmas spoiled," Mr. Boone admonished them.

Charlie smiled, already knowing the drill. They made two trips and carried in the bags, and sat them in the den. "So much for the Christmas bonus, huh, dad?" Charlie said, grinning.

His dad made a face. "What, are you kidding? I stole all this stuff!!"

Charlie nodded. "Uh huh. And they happily gave you store bags to put it all in?"

"I said I would have a tantrum if they didn't."

Kippy laughed, and gave Charlie a nudge. "Now I see where you get your odd sense of humor."

Charlie made a face, and looked at his father. "Did you hear that? He said we were odd."

His dad laughed. "No, he said you were odd."

They finished up, and took their glasses of iced tea back up to Charlie's room. Kippy sat on the edge of the bed and frowned.

Charlie sat beside him, and put his arm around Kip's shoulders. "Now what?"

"I miss everybody. And Auggie. We were just getting to know him."

Charlie sighed. "There's all the time in the world, Kip. We'll see everyone soon enough."

"I guess." Kippy leaned against him. "Can I get a kiss?"


Kippy turned his head, and they pressed their lips together.

"I had a great time, Charlie," Kippy said, when they again parted. "I have so much fun with you."

"Well, it's because I love sharing everything with you, Kip."

Kippy sighed. "I'll have to be going soon. It's Christmas Eve, and my Dad's family is coming by. I need to be there."

"I know. You told me. There's tomorrow. And we can talk later. Call me when you're free this evening."

"I will."

Charlie sighed, and leaned their foreheads together. "I love you, Kip. Never forget that."

"I could never do that, Charlie. I love you too much for that to ever happen."

They leaned together and rocked back and forth slowly, and then Kip looked up, and laughed. "Oh! Look it's snowing!"

Charlie looked up at the bedroom window. "Really? It wasn't supposed to."

He stood up, and Kippy rose with him. They went to the window and looked out.

A small town street was just beyond, overhung with strings of colored lights, where people walked together, smiling. Snow drifted down around them, to add to the covering already on the ground. It was a street in a town that Charlie had just seen, and which he knew very well.


"Oh, man!" Charlie said. "I see Frit and Pip in this! I have to keep my folks out of here!" He turned, and was starting for the desk, when Kippy hauled him back.

"And where do you think you're going, Charlie Boone?"

Charlie looked frantically at the bedroom door. "I was getting my little statues of Nicholaas and Kirka off the desk. I have to call Nicholaas. I have to get rid of this!"

Kippy sighed, and held onto him tightly. "Charlie, you aren't thinking clearly. You don't really think Frit and Pip would do this without some kind of safeguard built in, do you?"

Charlie paused. "Safeguard? What do you mean?"

Kippy shrugged. "Well, maybe your mom and dad won't be able to see it.Or maybe they won't come in far enough to look out the window. Or something. But I don't think Frit and Pip would have put this here without providing some way to keep your mom and dad from seeing it."

Charlie looked back out at the street scene. "You think?"

"Yes. I think."

Charlie stared at Kippy searchingly, and then slowly relaxed. "Oh. You think. Like skwish think?"

"Yes. Now come here."

Kippy pulled him closer, and back before the window. He sighed. "I love Christmas."

Charlie smiled. "You love every holiday."

"Yes, I do. Because I get to spend them with you. Now shut up and let's enjoy the view."

Charlie laughed, put his arm back around Kippy, and happily shut up.

Bob Travers came down the steps slowly, so as not to make them creak. His stocking feet felt out each step slowly, and he put his weight down carefully. In this fashion he made it all the way down to the living room without any serious noise. The whole house was asleep, and he wanted it to stay that way.

The clock on the wall there said two-fifteen in the morning. He had been asleep, but had awakened from a dream, and somehow that dream had cast an uncertain light on the day's experiences, and made him doubt that they had been real. And so he had come down to check, in the only way he knew how.

Someone had left the lights on the tree in the living room turned on. Once that would have been a no-no, back in the days of regular light bulbs at one-hundred-twenty volts, which made them very hot. But these were LEDs that ran on nothing, and produced no heat to speak of. The only way to set a tree on fire wearing LED lighting was to strike a match and ignite the thing yourself.

He crept into the living room and stood before the tree. If someone discovered him here, he would just say that he was hungry, or thirsty. No one would ever suspect that someone his age would sneak down to peek at presents - no one except for maybe Ricky. He smiled at that, realizing that all he really needed to do was remember the last Christmas in Twombly to know that the recent events were real, too. He'd come out of a deep sleep confused, and hadn't stopped to think. All he could think to do was to come downstairs and look under the tree, to see if it was really there.

He got down on his hands and knees now, and circled around to where he remembered placing the box on the floor. Then he lowered himself, and peered under the tree. It was darker there, but enough light filtered down from above that he could see.

It was there. A small box, cheerfully wrapped, with a red ribbon around it tied into a bow. He inched forward under the tree, and peered at the label atop the box: To Bob, from Santa.

Once, as a boy, he had found a last box under the Christmas tree, after all the others had been opened, addressed to him in just this way. He had opened it to find the small pocket knife he had wished so hard for, but which he was certain his mom would not allow him to have. At that time he had thought that his dad had sneaked the box under the tree for him, but now he had to wonder. Back then, at the cynical age of twelve, he had been sure that Santa was just a story that adults used to keep kids in line. Now he knew better, and so had to wonder. Was this new gift the first he had received from Santa, or the second? He had to smile at the very idea.

He sighed, and inched backwards, and got to his feet. He had more patience now than he'd had as a boy, and more trust. And certainly more wonder, now that he had looked behind the curtain of the world and seen the magic that lay beyond.

He managed to get back to the guest room without making too much noise, and to crawl into bed next to Susan. She made a sound and turned over, but did not awaken. Bob turned onto his back, and stared up at the ceiling. He considered the day spent with Nicholaas, and Ronja, and Max, and the others. Certainly if Christmas was like this for real, then so could every day of the year be just as special. It was all in how you kept it.

Magic really was everywhere, if you just looked for it. And if you couldn't see it, there was always illusion, a good stand-in until the real thing showed itself. He knew the difference between the two now, and knew that he had been lucky enough to find both. And there would be more to come, surely.

His eyes grew heavy, and he started to fade away. The last thing he thought of before sleep came was the small box under the tree, addressed to him, from a man who knew real magic, and also how to share it with the entire world. Bob couldn't wait to open it, couldn't wait to see what it held. Something special, he suspected. Something perhaps magical, he could only hope for.

But that it would be something that held the true spirit of Christmas, of that he was certain.

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