Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Christmas is A State of Mind, Charlie Boone!

© 2020 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.

This story is written NOT to include the present Covid situation. The author knows that most people have more than enough of that to deal with on a daily basis, and feels that readers wouldn't mind missing it here in the Charlie Boone universe.

"Christmas comes but twice a year," Kippy Lawson said brightly, snuggling up against his boyfriend, Charlie Boone.

Charlie laughed, and gave Kip a squeeze. "I guess it does, if you spend the first one in an elf-made bubble of artificial time."

Kippy's smile faded to a pout at that. "Oh, Charlie. Stop being so scientific. That takes some of the wonder away from it, describing it that way." He sighed. "Can't you just go with it as it is?"

Charlie frowned, realizing he'd disrupted the pleasant feel of the moment. "Sure I can. I'm sorry."

He gave his boyfriend another fond squeeze. Going anywhere and doing anything with Kippy was a magic all its own. Just being where they were, together, was enough.

He turned back to the scene outside the window again, and smiled. "I'm definitely feeling the wonder."

Kippy's smile returned, and he leaned his head against Charlie's and turned to look through the glass, too. "I'm so happy to be here again," he whispered.

They were standing at the window of their room at the lodge, gazing out at the wintry day embracing the town beyond. The recent snowfall had been considerable, covering the land in cottony white to a depth of over ten inches; yet the fall had only served to bring the last needed trappings of the holiday to this small town in the mountains of Vermont. Twombly was now dressed in Christmas attire, and formed a picture that might have graced the front of the most magical Christmas card ever made.

From this particular room - located in a different wing of the inn than they had occupied on their previous visit - they could see much of main street, which consisted of a line of buildings down each side of the widened country road that ran through the center of the town. All were built in the same Swiss-chalet style as the homes circling the outskirts of the village, and each was endowed with a rustic northern charm that was impossible not to love. In front of each shop was a decorated Christmas tree, taller than a tall man, dressed in colored lights and baubles, aglow even during this early part of the day. More strings of lights crisscrossed the road above, hung between the buildings, twinkling in colors of red, blue, green, and amber. Wish lights, as Kiley and Kiri Snorkum called them, each expressing the hopes of one resident for something better for someone else.

Snow had been plowed from the road, driveways, and tiny parking lots, and deposited in cheery little mountains in out of the way places. The buildings were lit with warm glows, and illuminated signs above the covered front porches announced that Argwan's General Store, Flynnt's Hardware, Ms. Cubely's Clothing Shop, and the US mail were all open for business. Another building had a small island out front with two gas pumps, and a roll-up bay door to one side, and a sign above the island that revealed it to be Knirkle's Service Center, 'never closed when you need us'. A much larger building, set well back on a snow-covered lawn and boasting a small cupola atop it draped in colored lights, wore an ornate sign that proclaimed it to be the Twombly Town Hall. A smaller building nestled up against it called itself the Twombly Public Library. All seemed quite impervious to the whims of nature, all were open and ready to welcome visitors.

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

If anything, the snowfall had energized the town. People were everywhere: on the front porches of the shops, in the street, and on the lawn in front of the town hall, all dressed in eye-catching Christmas colors, all calling good cheer to their neighbors as they moved about on their business. It was almost Christmas, and the town was joyfully waiting. A sea of smiles and twinkling eyes greeted anyone that ventured forth into the day; delightful faces, doing their very best to radiate a sense of peace and goodwill into all the world around them.

The effect was as real to the senses as the snow-covered peaks arching gracefully above the town. You could feel the power of it, even from afar.

"I know what you mean," Charlie agreed quietly, squeezing Kip a little closer. He sighed within, feeling the same special sense about the town that Kippy did. "There's no other place quite like it."

Kippy leaned over and deposited a soft kiss to Charlie's cheek. "It's not even Christmas yet, and I feel like a little kid again."

Charlie turned and smiled at his boyfriend. "It's magic, Kip. Their magic, and...and our magic. The magic of us being together. It's all we need, really."

Kippy sighed, looking dreamy-eyed. "Oh, Charlie. You say the most romantic things."

"You make it so easy, Kip," Charlie whispered. They put their faces together and shared the warmth of the moment.

There was a knock on the door of their room then, and it inched open enough for Ricky Travers to look in. "Nobody's nekkid, are they?"

Kippy gave a little sigh at the interrupted moment, and smiled at Charlie one last time before turning towards the door to greet their best friends. "Not with the door unlocked," he said brightly. "Were you hoping?"

The door opened further, and Ricky and his boyfriend, Adrian Whitacre, came in. Ricky pushed the door shut again, and made a show of locking it. "There's still time."

Adrian laughed, and gave Ricky a little push. "Oh, stop teasing. You know Max is waiting for us down in the restaurant."

Ricky sighed, and smiled at Charlie and Kip. "Uh, yeah. Max is here. He sent us up to see if you two were decent."

Kippy looked tickled at that. "Too chicken to come himself, huh?"

"He's been embarrassed a few times," Adrian offered, smiling. "I think he's just being careful."

"Yeah." Charlie laughed. "You do tend to tease him a little bit, Kip. Admit it!"

Kippy grinned. "'s because I love him!"

"And he's always a good sport about it all, too," Charlie continued, smiling. "So let's not keep him waiting."

He turned and offered a hand to his boyfriend, and Kippy looked delighted as he accepted it in his own. They smiled at each other one more time, and then moved across the room to face their friends.

Adrian cocked his head to one side and gave a little sigh as he watched them come. "Romance is in the air, I see."

"It's impossible not to feel romantic here," Kippy returned, with a happy toss of one shoulder. "It's wonderful!"

Ricky simply smiled, and put an arm around his boyfriend. "That's for sure. I can't think of a better time of year for it, either." He briefly rubbed his cheek against Adrian's, and gave a short sigh of his own. "Shall we?"

They exited the room, and Charlie patted his pocket to make sure his key was there before closing the door. He looked over at Ricky then. "Should we get your Uncle Bob and Horace?"

The other boy rolled his eyes, and emitted a little amused puff of air. "Are you kidding? They went out a while ago. Uncle Bob wanted to show Horace the town. And then they were going to the town hall to talk magic stuff."

"They were giggling like a couple of kids," Adrian confirmed, smiling.

Charlie felt a great satisfaction at hearing that. He had felt certain that they would get along, and the two older men had indeed hit it off immediately upon meeting. Uncle Bob, with his love for and experience with illusion, and their new friend, Horace Wingspanner, with his lifelong passion for poking holes into illusion to see what lurked behind, had found immediate ground to stand on together between the two extremes. They had found their shared interests right away, and were good friends before they'd even arrived at Twombly.

In the intervening weeks since they had first met the ghost hunter at the home of Ricky's cousin, Annie, they had slowly been introducing the man to the world in which they lived, beginning with their meeting with Max several Christmases before, and then taking Horace through some of their later adventures, both on Earth and off. Horace had absorbed the things they had told him with an air of amazed acceptance, saying that his 'sight' - a term he used to describe the same sense that the boys knew as the semi-magical skwish - was telling him that they were being truthful. His astonishment was plain, however, and had only slowly been tempered by a growing sense of excitement at what he was learning. By the time they had reached Twombly, the ghost hunter had been glowing with anticipation at the things he hoped to discover.

Horace had left his Buick Roadmaster woodie in Bob Traver's driveway, and taken a seat in the illusionist's big Ford Expedition SUV for the drive to Twombly. That had been a simple matter of common sense. The old Buick was in perfect condition, and lovingly maintained, but it was simply not a good match for the possibly snow-covered mountain roads they would need to travel to reach the elf village. Bob's big SUV was sure-footed even in the worst of conditions, and he would need that ability to get the big black box trailer containing his 'magical' gear up the mountain to Twombly's waiting town hall.

The two men had talked all the way to Vermont, while the boys had mostly listened, and smiled at each other, fascinated by the topics the two had managed to dredge up. It was plain that both men were widely read in the areas of science and history, especially when it pertained to the edges of known experience. That each of them had a love for things mysterious and unknown was apparent, and that they had each found someone new to share those ideas with exciting and satisfying for the boys to consider. Friendship was, after all, one of their own most cherished of gifts.

"I love it when a plan comes together," Charlie said, grinning.

They headed down the wide staircase from the second floor and turned left in the lobby, to enter the cozy restaurant with its large windows on the town beyond. Max was seated at one of the longer tables reading a menu, and looked up as they entered. He smiled warmly then, put down the menu, and got to his feet.

"Hey, fellas!"

"Oh, me first!" Kippy called, pulling from Charlie's encircling arm with a quick, conspiratorial wink, and charging at the elf, his arms outstretched. "I wanna hug!"

Max blinked and leaned slightly backwards, but managed to hold his ground, and even extend his arms as Kippy rushed into them. Kippy wrapped his arms around Max and planted a huge kiss on his cheek, to which the elf reddened noticeably, yet somehow seemed to enjoy. "Aw!"

"It's so good to see you," Kippy said, pulling back now, the game over. He genuinely loved Max, and while he was not above teasing him now and then, he really didn't want to embarrass the elf deeply.

Charlie and the others crowded around and gave Max squeezes of their own, before the elf gave a little sniff, rubbed at his nose, and gestured for everyone to take a seat. "It's good to see you fellas, too!"

Kippy looked around the room then, and frowned. "You came alone?"

"Aren't Frit and Pip coming?" Adrian added, sitting forward in his seat and leaning on an arm. "It won't be the same without them."

"Sure. They'll be along. They were workin' on some kinda surprise for you guys." Max made a show of raising a hand to cover his mouth, but his eyes were bright. "Oops."

Charlie joined the others in laughing. "We'll act surprised, don't worry."

The elf nodded. "I just didn't want you guys to be too surprised, if you know what I mean. Those two sure get up to some stuff, I'll tell ya."

"I hope everyone can get here," Kippy fretted. "I don't want anyone left out."

Max patted his shoulder reassuringly. "Everybody said they'd come, so relax, huh? It's just gonna be a matter of them coordinating with the time bubble I have around Twombly."

Ricky looked fascinated by the mention of time control. "So it's already going?"

"Yep. It's four days until Christmas, you know? Everybody at home is really busy right now. What they're gonna each do is a find a moment between doing things when they can take a rest, and then they'll join us. Then we can all spend the next five days or so right here, and not get behind in any of the places everybody is coming from."

Kippy looked enchanted. "So we can spend Christmas day in Twombly, and go home the day after, and it will still be four days before Christmas?"

"More or less. I had to make the bubble stretchable a little, so that everyone could join it. But you'll get your Christmas at home, too, so relax."

"I'm sure you have it covered," Charlie said, nodding. "This will be a wonderful holiday for everyone."

Max chuckled. "It was actually fun makin' it all work. Just gettin' the time bubble flexible enough that everyone could join it was a new experience for me. Plus, I needed a moment when there were no human visitors to Twombly from outside. This here ski lodge is almost always jumpin' right before the holiday. We were lucky that there was like two hours today when no one was here."

Charlie's eyebrows went up at that. "There's no one from the outside world here in Twombly right now?"

"Just you fellas and your guests." The elf smiled. "And those yet to come."

Ricky waved a hand at the walls of the lodge. "The road runs right through town. What if someone on the outside comes driving in?"

"They can't. They'll just stop at the edge of the bubble and stay there until I remove it. For them, no time will be lost at all, and they won't even notice. But they can't get in here unless I let them in."

Charlie frowned at that. "What about when everything is over, and you remove the bubble? Won't Twombly be a few days out of time with everything else?"

"Nope. That's the beauty of time, guys. It doesn't hold no grudges. Once I remove the bubble, Twombly synchs back with the rest of the world, and they get to do Christmas again, too."

"What about the others?" Charlie asked. He automatically patted his other front pocket, feeling the communicator within. "We talked to Pacha and the guys. They said they were coming. Pacha's people gave him a new ship after his other one got smashed. And Murcha and Onglet were heading to Engris to pick up Ragal and Casper."

"They can get in okay," Max supplied. "They're on the list."

"List?" Adrian echoed, curiously.

The elf laughed. "Aw, it's complicated, fellas. Just trust me that it's all taken care of, okay?"

"You're the master of time," Charlie said, grinning. "We've come to trust you with every moment of it."

Kippy clapped his hands together happily. "Is this going to be a party, or what?"

Max laughed. "Well, I know the Mayor said the town was lookin' forward to another magic show. So between that and everything else, I'd say there's going to be somethin' for everybody."

"We're all set up at the town hall," Ricky told him. "And Uncle Bob is debuting two new acts he's been working on. He's hoping they'll work as planned."

"Your uncle's good people. Everything will be okay."

Max turned to Charlie then. "So, you told me about this new friend of yours. Horace. I see you brought him along."

"Uh huh. You said it would be okay."

"Yeah, it is. I did a background check on him, and he came up five snowballs. He's almost too honest to be a human!" Max winked, and his smiled broadened. "Oops."

The boys laughed, and Kippy pulled his chair closer to Charlie so that he could lean up against him. "What about Nicholaas?"

That was the question that had been uppermost in the boy's minds. Nicholaas and Ronja had also been invited, but they had not yet heard whether the two could make it.

"The big guy said they were coming. You know how he is when he's working on the delivery lists. But I know he'll just need an extra minute, and then he and Ronja will come."

"Great," Charlie said, relaxing a little in his chair. "It really wouldn't have seemed quite like Christmas without them being here."

"Mayor Snorkum was pretty hot on the idea, too. The townsfolk love the notion of having an ancient legend here again for the holiday."

"It's how traditions start!" Kippy offered brightly.

"Yeah." Max looked around the dining room, and nodded. "These people deserve to be back in the fold. You guys did a wonderful thing finding them."

"It was my uncle that did it," Ricky protested. And then he smiled. "Or, maybe it was the mayor here. I think they just sort of found each other."

"Well, it all worked out for the best." The elf sighed, looking happy. "I sure like this time of the year."

The server, one Margee, appeared from the kitchen then and waved at them from the counter. "Hi, everyone. You guys want to order?"

Max laid a hand on the menu before him, and then patted his belly. "I ate before I got here. I was just lookin' at the offerings."

"We had breakfast an hour ago," Charlie agreed. "It's too early for lunch."

Max stood and waved at them to rise. Margee smiled at them, as if she had already known the answer. The elves took good care of human visitors to Twombly, but Max and the boys were well-known here, and so enjoyed the more informal treatment that the locals employed among themselves. Family.

"Come on back for lunch," the server called. "I'll save you a table."

Max grinned at that. With the bubble of time around the village, it was pretty certain that no one would arrive between now and the time the bubble was lifted. Other than their own crowd, the restaurant was likely to be pretty slow for the next five relative days.

"Thanks!" Max turned towards the lobby. "Come on outside, fellas. Let's walk and talk and enjoy the sights."

But they had scarcely made it halfway across the lobby when a singing sound filled the air, rising in an instant from a low hum to a melodic keening, and a distinct vibration could be felt through the floor. The group drew a halt, looking around questioningly, only Max placing his hands on his hips and narrowing his eyes at the other side of the spacious room. There was a popping sound then, and two figures appeared right where Max was looking, running full out. They ran straight towards Max and the boys, and then skidded to a halt before them.

"He's after us!" Frit said, looking panicked.

"We didn't mean anything!" Pip added, his eyes huge with anxiety.

The singing sound increased in volume, and then the far wall blurred, distended outward, and then seemed to burst as another figure came bounding into the room. It looked at first glance like a large cat, as big as a mountain lion, but its face had a winsome, teddy bear-like quality to it that belied anything fearsome. The bearcat's fur was a warm honey-gold, with deep red bands that circled the body. A black mane surrounded his head, the tips of the fur also red, looking almost like a ring of fire that waved in the air as the creature bounded after the two young elves.

"We didn't mean it!" Pip reiterated, as both elf boys scrambled around behind Max and turned to peek over his shoulders.

"We didn't!" Frit agreed, looking pensive.

Kippy laughed and dropped to his knees. "Auggie! Here, kitty!"

The cat had seen the boys standing with Max, and changed course towards them immediately. He bounded right up to Kip and nearly bowled him over. "Mrowf!"

And then Kippy was laughing, and he and the foobear were rolling on the floor, wrestling together. Auggie bounced around happily for a moment, gave Kippy a big lick on the forehead, and then jumped clean over the boy and nearly landed in Charlie's arms. "Mrowf!"

"Hi, Auggie!" The ritual wrestling was repeated, and then Adrian and Ricky were set upon. Soon, all the boys were sprawled on the floor in a circle, with the big foobear in the middle.

"Just what was it you didn't mean?" Max asked, dragging the two younger elves out in front of him. "And what's he doing here? He's not supposed to come to the human world."

Frit withered slightly under his great, great, great grandfather's gaze. "Well, we talked to Zora, and she said that within the bubble of time here, there'd be no one but elves and humans we knew. She said Auggie couldn't leave unless you let him out--"

"That we know of," Max interrupted. "But we don't know what he's capable of doing just yet." He grunted, looking slightly upset. "He got into the bubble okay, for someone that wasn't on the list!"

"--so we thought it would be a nice surprise for Kippy and Charlie and Adrian and Ricky if we brought him along," Frit finished, meekly.

Max frowned. "Who's this Zora?"

"Zora Puntachamblee. She's in my dimensional matrix mechanics class at school," Frit said. "She's getting really good with time."

"She might even be another Keerby," Pip added. "A prodigy!"

The elder elf frowned at his grandson. "You risked a possible exposure incident in the human world based on somethin' your high school friend said?"

"We just wanted to surprise the guys!" Pip cried, coming to his boyfriend's defense. "It's Christmas!"

Max visibly softened at that, and smiled. "It is, isn't it? But I wish I'd known what you two were up to. Now that Auggie's here, he knows the way and can come back on his own whenever he wants."

Frit licked his lips. "Um...we didn't think of that."

"We didn't!" Pip echoed.

"I figured that much." Max turned to the foobear, who was watching him with interest. "Auggie?"

"Oogie," the big bearcat said plainly.

"Yeah, I know. You're happy to see the boys." Max leaned forward then. "You got to promise me you won't leave the bubble of time, okay? If you do, Nicholaas will have to come find you, and you know he's too busy for that."

The foobear's tail, which had been lazily twitching side to side, froze. Auggie gazed at Max, looking very serious now. "Stay," he said, quite plainly.

Kippy's jaw dropped. "He talked! I mean, he said more than just his name!"

"Oh, he's been sayin' stuff for a while now," Max said, smiling. "He learns pretty quickly, that one." He nodded at the foobear. "Your word of honor, right?"

"Word," Auggie agreed, nodding his head. His expression relaxed, and his tail went back to a contented twitch.

Max turned to Frit again. "Why was he chasing you?"

Frit made a face, and turned uncertainly to his boyfriend. "Well..."

"We wanted him to come here with us," Pip said. "To surprise the guys."

"But we wanted to surprise Auggie, too," Frit added.

"So we didn't tell him where we wanted him to come," Pip continued.

"But he wouldn't go with us," Frit finished.

Max's eyebrows raised, and he looked from one boy to the other. "And?"

Frit smiled weakly. "So we finally said, 'Okay, be stubborn and stay here! See if we care! We're going to see Kippy, and Charlie, and Adrian, and Ricky, and now you can't come with us!"

"So we went to leave without him," Pip added.

"And he chased us!" Frit said then, eying the foobear with surprise. "All the way here!"

Charlie, who had been listening to the exchange with a smile, glanced back at the wall where the foobear had come through. It was unblemished, and looked just as it always had. Whatever manner the foobear employed to travel about, it was akin to elf teleportation, but not quite the same thing.

Max raised his eyes to the ceiling briefly before returning his gaze to the two younger elves. "Nicholaas asked him to please not go roaming about the different dimensions. He told Auggie that it could have unfortunate consequences for folk in other places. Auggie understands that. He don't want to cause anyone harm. So him refusing to go with you was just him going' along with the idea that Nicholaas put into his head. See?"

"Oh," Frit said.

"Oh," Pip echoed.

But then both boys smiled. "But it worked!" Frit said happily. "He's here!"

"Yeah!" Pip agreed.

Both elves spun to where Charlie and the others lay around the foobear, and smiled. "Surprise!" they said, in unison. "Merry Christmas!"

"Aw, geez!" Max groaned, placing a hand to his forehead. "This grandparent stuff's enough to make a guy crazy!"

Charlie and the others laughed, and climbed to their feet. Frit and Pip happily received the hugs offered all around, and soon everyone was chatting happily, all at one time.

Max listened to the excited exchanges and laughter for several minutes, and then sighed to himself. He tugged at Charlie's sleeve and moved towards the doors, and Charlie automatically followed him. Kippy followed Charlie, and soon all the boys were moving towards the exit to the street beyond, still talking away at each other, with a contented Auggie bringing up the rear.

They emerged into the chill of the day, and Kippy immediately stopped talking and halted. "Oh, wait! We can't go out without our--"

Max pointed a finger in the air, and Charlie felt a strange crawling sensation about his torso as his warm winter coat, which had been hanging in the closet of their room, seemed to grow around his arms and middle. He started in surprise and looked around, and in the same blink of an eye, all the boys had their coats on.

"--coats," Kippy finished, with a sigh. He grinned at Max, who gave a tiny shrug and a smile of his own.

"You oughtta know by now I got you fellas covered."

"Literally!" Kippy squeezed the elf's arm, and they continued out into the street before the lodge.

The people of the town, moving past on their holiday business, slowed as they spied the group on the sidewalk, and then stopped to peer in astonishment at Auggie. A crowd quickly developed, the big cat the center of attention. The elves were wonderfully curious, and not in the least hesitant to show it.

"What is he?" a little girl in a pink parka breathed, her eyes bright with curiosity.

"Ah, you know he's a he, do you?" Max returned, smiling.

"Well, of course," the little girl replied, as if it was as plain as the nose on Max's face. "He looks like a he!"

"Oogie," Auggie said.

The little girl's mouth dropped open, and she gave a little squeal of delight. "Oh, he talks!"

"Talk," Auggie agreed, conversationally.

"He's a foobear," Max told the enchanted crowd. "Or, he was one. Now he's the cat of all cats, come to visit Twombly to bring you good cheer." Max's eyes widened emphatically. "He's people like us, so be nice."

The crowd raised their hands and clapped, and Auggie, after looking slightly bewildered at the sudden attention, positively glowed with the sense of acceptance he could feel.

"He's beautiful," a woman said, extending her hand. "Might I pet him?"

"You'll have to ask Auggie that," Max answered, smiling.

"Pet," Auggie agreed, bobbing his head up and down.

Soon, the bearcat was at the center of a crowd of all ages, each member just wanting a gentle touch of his soft fur. Max and the boys watched with wonder at the smiles they were wearing.

"They sense he's magical," Max whispered, behind a hand. "This is the first time they've met anyone that was seriously magical but that wasn't an elf like them." Max laughed. "Well, except the big guy, of course!"

"Ooh, a first," Kippy echoed, quietly. "Oh, they must be so excited!"

Charlie sighed and leaned his head against his boyfriend's, and they watched in silence as everyone took turns getting at least one rub. Auggie bore the attention patiently, seeming to realize that it was a special moment, even if not sure why. The crowd slowly dwindled, the people understanding that they were holding Max's group in place, and content with their one touch of new magic. They walked away smiling and laughing, and talking happily among themselves.

It was a moment Charlie would file away as a special memory.

Charlie became aware of someone else approaching from behind the remaining onlookers, and stretched his neck a little to see over the last few heads. He smiled then, immediately recognizing the tall black top hat as it bobbed up and down behind the last line of onlookers.

"Here comes the mayor," Charlie said to Max. "Probably to see what all the fuss is about."

The remaining few townsfolk ran their hands through Auggie's fur, and then stepped aside to make room for the mayor to join them.

Brin Snorkum's top hat made him the tallest elf present, if you allowed for such things, which still made him only an inch or two taller than Charlie himself. The man had his two teen children in tow, Kiley and Kiri, and both of them clapped their hands together as they spied Auggie.

"Oh, look, daddy!" Kiri said softly, her eyes shining with the same wonder that Charlie had already witnessed countless times from the crowd. "A magic cat!"

"Awesome," Kiley said, moving to stand near Charlie and Kip. "You guys have some amazing friends!"

The mayor seemed to understand instantly that he was not looking at an animal. He smiled, whipped off his top hat, and made a small bow over it in the direction of Auggie. "I welcome you, sir, on behalf of our fair town. I am Brin Snorkum, the mayor here."

Auggie's face pulled into something resembling a smile of his own, and he bobbed his head twice in the direction of the mayor. "Oogie."

"I am pleased to meet you, Oogie."

"It's actually Auggie," Max said pleasantly. "He just has a little trouble wrapping his tongue around it."

"Ah. The pleasure is still the same, I assure you." The mayor returned his hat to his head, and then beamed at all of them. "You promised us some interesting guests, and we said how pleased we would be to meet them." He smiled at Auggie again. "You certainly don't disappoint."

"Mrowf," Auggie decided, his yellow eyes twinkling happily now.

The last of the crowd melted away, aware now that there would be more time later to spend with their new guest. Mayor Snorkum tilted his head back and examined the overcast sky, and gave a contented sigh.

"Such a beautiful gray day. It promises some more snow, I think. I hope that won't provide a hardship for your other guests. We keep our little town tidy, but the state is not quite so fast to clean up their own roads sometimes."

Charlie smiled at that. "Oh, believe me, a little snow won't hold up these guys at all."

The mayor turned to Ricky. "I was just over at the town hall, talking with your uncle and his friend, Horace. They seem quite enthused about the magic show. I told them that the town had not forgotten the first one at all, and that we were all looking forward to this new one." He smiled. "It's wonderful to see such enthusiasm. It only bodes well for this holiday season."

"Uncle Bob's a big kid," Ricky said, smiling. "He'll have at least as much fun as the town, if not more."

"I know every last soul will be in attendance. We'll get a maximum donation to the Eustace T. Phernackertiban Fund for the Betterment of Christmas!" The mayor looked very satisfied at that. "A sterling giving year will be the result."

"Someone in need, somewhere, will be very happy about that," Kippy said, smiling. "Rick's uncle knows the show is for charity."

"The gift of giving enriches all the world," the mayor said, happily. He smiled then, and leaned closer and lowered his voice. "I noticed that Bob's friend is well-endowed with skwish. Um, for a human, I mean. Is he aware of it?"

"Yes," Charlie answered. "We expect good things from him."

"I sense that, too." The mayor brought his hands up and clasped them together. "They did say to send you boys over if I saw you, so consider that message delivered."

Ricky laughed at that. "Probably wants to rehearse something new."

"Well, I gathered he would like to see you." The mayor smiled again. He patted the waist of his jacket then, drew forth an enormous pocket watch from within, and frowned at it. "Oh! I have to see a man about a horse. If you'll excuse me? I'll see you all later."

He bowed one more time at them all, added an extra bow for Auggie and then turned and hastened away.

Kiley and Kiri watched him go, and then turned back to Charlie. "Can we go with you?"

"I don't see why not. Unless Rick's uncle wants to rehearse some magic. Then we may ask you to step outside again."

Kiri's face lit up. "Oh, we wouldn't want to spoil the show for ourselves."

"That's for sure," Kiley agreed. "We'll leave if you guys have to do some magic stuff."

Charlie looked over at Max, who just smiled. Charlie took that to mean it was okay, and nodded. "Sure. Let's go."

The group headed across the street towards the town hall, while the people of the town watched them go with smiles on their faces, talking and laughing excitedly together, and the feeling quickly spreading that this was a Christmas that would not soon be forgotten.


Bob Travers peered into the case of the new act, the flashlight beam illuminating the various cables and electronics within. "It shouldn't be doing that."

Horace Wingspanner, pointing the flash, peered along with him, a frown on his face. "What should it be doing?"

"Well, when I hit that button on the remote, the case is supposed to open. It doesn't."

Horace nodded. "Do it another time?"

Bob grunted, but picked up the little remote and pushed the designated button. There was a whirring sound, and a small green light lit up deep within the cases innards, but no movement resulted.

Horace leaned closer and squinted. "I think there's something not right with that servo. When you activate the remote, the light comes on, and it looks like the shaft turns, but the gear seems not to be turning with it."

Bob frowned. "Yeah? Better let me take a look at that."

Horace aimed the light while Bob dropped his face closer to the gear, and felt around on the case next to him again for the remote. He picked it up, found the right pre-programmed button, and pushed it. A tiny green LED lit on the servomechanism, and it hummed faintly, but the gear attached to the motor did not turn. Bob peered at it more closely, and gave a sigh. "You're right." He hit the switch to stop the motor, and suddenly smiled to himself. "Now I remember."

He turned to his friend and laughed. "When I was putting this thing together in the garage, my wife, Susan, came in from a walk with the dog, and the dog wanted to see me. I put down what I was doing, and I don't think I got back to it."

Horace nodded, his eyes crinkling in good humor. "Interruptions can do that. Set screw?"

Bob nodded. "I'd just put that gear on the shaft after mounting the chain. I didn't tighten the set screw to lock the gear in place."

"That's a simple enough fix."

"Yep. Hand me that pack of Allen wrenches, will you?"

Horace complied, and then aimed the light again as Bob pulled one of the smallest wrenches from the pack. The illusionist leaned as close as he could, found the tiny hole in the hub of the gear, and inserted the end of the Allen wrench. He turned it slowly until he felt it mesh with and then sink into the hex-head screw inside, and then turned the gear train by hand until the set screw aligned with the keyway on the shaft. He tightened the Allen screw, and then pulled out the wrench.

"That should do it." Bob picked up the remote and found the pre-programmed button and pushed it. This time, when the servo lit, the gear turned and the chain drive moved, and a section of the outer case of the act slid to one side. Bob grinned happily. "That's more like it. Always the little stuff, isn't it?"

They heard a door open then, followed by a commotion at the back of the stage where they'd set up, and Max came in, along with Ricky and his friends, the young elves, Frit and Pip, the two mayor's kids, and ---

Bob straightened. "Holy crap." He said softly.

Horace, picking up on the tone of his friend's voice, turned around to take in the newcomers.

"Indeed," he said, delightedly, as he spied the beautiful cat - well, it looked like a cat, sort of - that brought up the rear of the troupe. And a very big cat it was, too!

The two men put down what they were holding and smiled.

Max took note of their expressions and beamed at them. "Surprised?"

"That would be one way of putting it," Horace agreed. "Hello Charlie...and all."

"Hi," Bob said, waving at the group. "Fancy meeting you all here." He then turned his smile on the furry member of the crowd. "Hi, Auggie. Nice to see you again."

"Mrowf," Auggie returned, looking pleased, himself. He crossed the floor to rub up against Bob, who dropped a hand carefully to gently rub the cat's fur.

"He's happy to see you," Kippy offered. "After all, you named him."

Horace turned to Bob, a look of surprise on his face. "You know this...gentleman?"

The other man laughed and moved his hand carefully to pat Auggie's head. "Sure. I met him at...well, I met him somewhere last year. We did some magic together. He's very good."

"Bub," Auggie said plainly. "Mahjeek."

Everyone stared a moment, and then broke into laughter.

"He knows your name, too," Kip said, delighted.

"Keepy," Auggie went on, offering a smile to the boy. Kippy's jaw dropped, and he emitted an enchanted awww! that made Charlie laugh.

"That's pretty close," Charlie managed, trying not to be too obviously amused at the way his boyfriend looked.

Auggie appeared to be enjoying himself. His big eyes moved from one boy to the next. "Chuhlee, Reeky, Oodrian." His gaze moved next to the elves. "Mux. Freet. Peep."

His eyes landed on Horace, and then he turned back to Kippy. "Who?"

Kippy indicated the ghost hunter with a gallant wave of his hand. "We want you to meet a friend of ours. This is Horace. Horace, this is Auggie."

"Hooreece," Auggie said, trying to get the hang of the new name.

For his part, the ghost hunter looked delighted. He immediately bowed towards the cat, and the smile on his face could not have been more pleased. "Auggie. It's wonderful to meet you, sir."

"Wunnerfool," Auggie mimicked, looking equally happy.

Bob leaned closer to Charlie then, and smiled over at Auggie. "Everything's...okay, right?"

Charlie laughed. "Sure. He's okay. He's just here to have fun, like the rest of us."

Uncle Bob smiled, and visibly relaxed. "Just checking!"

Charlie felt a vibration in his pocket then, and the faint sound of the communicator signaling for his attention. He pulled it out and activated it, and a holo popped into being above it, displaying yet another furry face that looked very much like that of a koala.

Charlie felt an immediate warm sense of pleasure. "Pacha! Where are you?"

The small face smiled at him. Gone was the crooked effort the alien had managed in the past. Pacha had gotten much better at mimicking the human expression of pleasure, being around humans for several years now obviously having given him a lot of practice. This smile was quite straight, and went deep into the Kift's bright eyes. "Above your earth, in orbit. How are you, Charlie?"

"Great! Are you guys coming down?"

"Well --" The small alien emitted a tchick-tchick-tchick of laughter. "There is a slight problem. Is Max there?"

"Right here," Max said, stepping forward. "What's up, Pach?"

" you can see, we have arrived. We planned to leave the ship in orbit behind its scat field, there to remain invisible to your planet's watching eyes. I was going to teleport us down. But that plan seems to have a catch to it."

Max squinted a moment in thought, and then smiled. "I think I see. You ain't never been here to Twombly, so you can't teleport yourself and the others down." The elf's smile widened. "And I ain't never been on your new ship, so I can't teleport up to get you."

Pacha's eyes sparkled with obvious merriment at the predicament. "That is it, exactly."

Frit stepped forward, looking confused. "Twombly's in the location guide, Grandpa Max."

"Yeah, it is. But the guide's not working right for Pacha, remember? In case you hadn't noticed, he isn't an elf."

Pip hooted, and wrapped an arm around his boyfriend and squeezed him merrily. "Pacha's not an elf!"

Frit looked slightly embarrassed, but nodded. "I forgot."

"I'll take that as a compliment, actually," Pacha's image said from above the communicator. "That you forgot I was not one of you, I mean."

Max turned to Charlie and shrugged. "We made the location guide available to Pacha, but he's having some trouble reading it. He's learned to teleport like an elf, just not read like one yet. So he can get places he's been before okay, but he's still having trouble with places you can only get to from the manual."

"Sounds complicated," Charlie said, having no real idea what was involved. "But I'm sure there's a way to do this."

Max frowned a moment longer, and then smiled at Pacha's image. "Is Murcha there with Lollipop yet?"

Charlie smiled at the name they had given the small scout ship they had liberated from the alien Moth. Murcha and Onglet were the two Moth artificial minds they had also liberated from Moth servitude. Those two had a pretty good transport business in operation now using the ship, and had been busily piling up interstellar credits in a bank on the dark world of Engris for Charlie's group to use if needed. Other than maintenance for the vessel, the two minds had little use for money themselves.

Charlie had wondered more than once what his parents would think if they knew he was already a millionaire, at least by galactic standards.

"He is due briefly, I believe. I spoke with Ragal and Casper, and they are anxious to be here. Or, there, rather." Tchick-tchick-tchick.

Kippy sighed happily. "I can't wait to see them all again!" he whispered.

Charlie nodded, and gently squeezed his boyfriend's hand. "Me, too."

"That'll work, then," Max went on. "You've been aboard Lollipop, and so have I. When they get here, you can transport your group to Lollipop, and then give me a call, and I'll come and get everyone."

Pacha immediately laughed again. "I should have thought of that myself." His tiny image gave an exaggerated wink, and he looked briefly back over his shoulder. "I guess I've been hanging around humans too long!"

"I heard that!" a voice called over the link - someone in the same room aboard ship as Pacha. Charlie grinned, recognizing the voice of their friend Mike.

The little Kift laughed again. "Oh, dear, I'm caught!"

Charlie smiled. "You guys all sound like you're in a good mood."

"That seems to be the case, yes. Mike and Bobby have been regaling us with glowing accounts of Christmas festivities for a week now, and even Kontus seems enthralled. We are all fresh from a buying spree at the pirate market of Engris, as Mike and Bobby said that gift-giving was part of this celebration of yours. The sooner we get down there, the happier everyone will be." The Kift chuckled again, his gaze landing on Max. "Some of the gifts are getting restless."

Max looked briefly alarmed at that, but then laughed. "I know your common sense prevailed in the selection of gifts."

The koala's smile this time seemed studiously neutral. "Well, I did try!"

"Aw, geez!"

Kippy leaned towards the communicator. "Hi, Pacha. If you leave the ships in orbit, what about Illia, Murcha, and Onglet? They were invited to come down, too."

"Hello, Kip. Well, it's safer for all concerned to leave the vessels in orbit behind their scat fields, and we need the minds aboard in order to do that. We will each wear tiny viewers that will allow the three of them to see and hear everything we do, and for them to communicate with us. For them, the experience will be the same as if they were physically present on the ground."

Kippy frowned, but nodded. "I guess it will have to do."

Charlie patted his boyfriend's wrist. "There, there."

Kippy stuck his tongue out, but couldn't completely hide his smile. Max couldn't quite hide his, either. "They'll be okay, you'll see." He turned back to Pacha's tiny image. "Call us back when Murcha arrives, okay?"


A brief chorus of background laughter came to them over the communicator, and Pacha briefly turned his head again. "It seems I am missing some of the festivities. I'll call you back as soon as Murcha arrives." The Kift flashed another brief smile at them, and then signed off.

"Sounds like they're revved up a little," Rick said, grinning. "Even Pacha seems ready to party. I hope that means we'll all have fun!"

Max rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. "I just hope Pach was kiddin' us about those gifts. Last thing I want to do today is chase some weird alien whatsits all over the countryside to keep 'em from escapin' into the world when we lift the time bubble. Sheesh!"

Charlie patted the elf on the shoulder. "I'm sure everything will be fine."

Horace, who had been listening quietly, moved closer to Charlie and smiled at him. "Thank you so much for inviting me." He looked around the room, and gave a brief sigh of happiness. "My inner sight is tingling right down to my shoes. There is just so much going on here!"

"We haven't even gotten started yet," Adrian put in, using his elbow to give his boyfriend a playful jab. "Tell him, Rick."

"Sure. Wait until you meet Pacha and Kontus." Ricky laughed. "And Ragal and Casper."

"These are the ones you said were from other worlds?" Horace cast a brief look towards the ceiling. "Oh, my. I still cannot imagine people from...out there."

"You couldn't really imagine elves, either, and yet here you are," Kippy reminded. "You've been handling that pretty well."

"You'll like them, I think," Charlie told him. "And they are people, just like us." He leaned a little closer to the man. "Just relax. This is supposed to be fun."

"Oh, it's that, definitely," the older man returned. He looked briefly embarrassed, but then laughed. "I feel quite like a child again."

Kippy looked happy at hearing that. "Join the crowd!"

Max waved a hand then. "I can already see this whole affair is gonna be a little crazy. I just want everyone to have fun. So all I ask is that you fellas be reasonable, okay?"

Kippy feigned innocence. "Why, Max! Whatever do you mean?"

The elf closed one eye and pointed the other at him. "Do I really have to explain?"

The boys all laughed. Charlie put an arm around his boyfriend's waist and drew him closer. "Stop being mean to Max. There's my good Kippy."

Adrian and Ricky chuckled at that, and Kippy leaned closer to Charlie and kissed his cheek. "Stop worrying. I really think everyone will be on their best behavior. After all, it's Christmas."

Uncle Bob smiled at his nephew, and patted the cabinet of the act he'd been working on. "Got the last bug out of the show just before you got here. We'll be ready for Christmas Eve now, I think."

Ricky nodded. "The mayor said you wanted to see us."

"Oh. I just wanted some help diagnosing a problem. But it turns out that Horace is good with stuff like this. He showed me something that was right in front of my face."

The ghost hunter looked embarrassed. "Just a little thing anyone could overlook." He smiled. "I work with a lot of gadgets in my field. Sometimes, it's like they have minds of their own."

"Like they're haunted?" Kippy asked, straight-faced.

"You could say that, yes." Horace's eyes twinkled with good humor. "Oh, you boys are so much fun to be around!"

Uncle Bob laughed at that. "They'll keep you on your toes, that's for sure."

Max looked thoughtful a moment, and then smiled at Bob. "So you don't need us all here right now?"

"I think we have everything ready for the show. And still a couple of days to get out any further bugs we may find."

The elf nodded, and turned to Frit and Pip. "I want to talk to you two, okay?"

"What's up, Grandpa?" Frit asked, excitement obviously taking him over. "You need our help?"

"Yeah," Pip echoed. "Our help?"

"Sure. Come on outside with me, and let's talk a minute, huh?" Max turned and smiled at Auggie. "You, too, if you don't mind."

The bearcat gave the boys a brief, regretful glance, uttered what sounded like a genuine sigh, and moved closer to Max, obviously intending to go along.

Max laughed at that. "You'll be back soon, so stop worrying." He smiled at Charlie. "I'll be back shortly, guys." The elf winked at the remaining group, and then put an arm around each of the teen elf's shoulders and started herding them back to the door. "Now, what had in mind, see, is this..." Auggie fell in with the elves, and the four of them left.

Kippy chuckled, smiling after them. "Max has something devious in mind. I could tell by the way he was acting."

"Devious is rather a strong word, isn't it?" Uncle Bob asked. "Max doesn't strike me as the devious type."

"He's not," Charlie agreed. "But I agree with Kip that he had something definite in mind for Frit and Pip. Probably just wants to give them something to do to keep them out of trouble."

Ricky snorted at that. "Not that they make trouble on purpose, or anything."

"No," Adrian agreed. "They do seem to have a knack for finding it, though."

"They're precocious, you mean?" Horace asked, smiling. "And perhaps a bit impulsive?"

That elicited a group laugh, but it was full of fondness for the two younger elves. The tendency the two had to find just the right thing to cause a blow up of some sort was well known by now. Their curiosity often got the better of them, and their daring was not always restrained by a lot of thought for what might happen next. Charlie had known a number of guys back in school for which commonsense seemed an afterthought, and there was never any malicious intent involved.

Frit and Pip were both proficient with magic, and their hearts were always in the right place. That they were a little wild was something Charlie actually loved about them. Their occasional missteps were far outweighed by the good things they did, and that they could always be counted upon in a crunch to do the right thing was a far more reliable measure of their character than any occasional trip they made over the often rumpled carpet flooring the larger world around them.

"They're sweet," Kippy said, settling the issue once and for all. "I love both of them."

Charlie found himself nodding in agreement, along with Rick and Adrian.

"So are we ready, Uncle?" Rick asked, swinging around again to face Bob. "We'll need to do a little practicing, won't we?"

"Yes. We have two days to do that before the show, though." He turned and grinned at Horace. "You're in this, too."

The other man looked surprised. "Me? I don't know anything about performing magic."

Bob laughed. "Neither do I. So we'll do illusion, instead."

"I...well..." Horace wavered a moment, and then offered a helpless smile to the boys, and nodded. "Very well. I know when I'm hooked."

"It'll be fun!" Kippy said, grinning. "You'll love it, just like we do!"

"It is a lot of fun," Adrian agreed. "Might as well join the party."

"It's Christmas," Charlie reminded. "And it will be a new experience."

"And it's for the town," Ricky added. "And for charity."

Horace smiled again, looking far less undecided about it this time around. "It is, isn't it? I shall be happy to be involved."

There was a popping sound then, and Max appeared beside Charlie. "Got your communicator thingie handy? Murcha's here with Lollipop."

Charlie opened his mouth to ask how Max knew that, when he felt the vibration in his pocket, and heard the chirping of the communicator as it announced a call coming in. "Uh...yeah." He pulled the device from his pocket and opened it. Once again, a holo representation of Pacha'ka appeared above it, and looked around at the assembled humans.

"Is Max...oh, there you are." The little Kift smiled. "Murcha has arrived. We will be teleporting to his ship momentarily. Can you pick us up?"

"Sure," Max said, moving closer to the hologram. "Be right there."

The Kift nodded, and the image died. Charlie stared at the communicator a moment before closing it and returning it to his pocket. "Did you even need that? You seemed to know what was going on already."

The elf smiled at him. "Now, now. Sensing somethin' and talkin' to the people involved are two different things." He winked. "Be right back."

Max vanished then, but was scarcely gone a second before he reappeared, this time with a large group clustered around him, the members of which immediately called out to those present and then quickly were among them. Charlie and the others found themselves surrounded, and the beneficiaries of hugs and claps on the back, and even the occasional kiss, all of which they returned with equal pleasure. The ruckus was considerable, and Charlie couldn't stop laughing with delight as old friends crowded close.

But then he became aware of a group off to one side, just watching. Kiley and Kiri Snorkum, their eyes large with amazement, and Bob Travers and Horace, looking delighted, but also as if they felt just a little left out.

"Wait, wait!" Charlie called raising a hand for attention. "We're forgetting other friends!"

The sounds of their reunion softened, and all eyes turned to Charlie.

"Oh, we mustn't be remiss," Ragal said, a smile crossing his face. Charlie really focused on the lanky alien then, who had hugged him in passing, but with whom he had not yet had a chance to say more than hello. The tall alien, usually tending towards casual pastels for clothing, was looking vibrant in a cherry-colored outfit with pink trim, which tended to hug his somewhat skinny frame a little more tightly than normal.

Charlie blinked at that, and then smiled. "Well...don't you look nice."

Ragal beamed at him. "I've been feeling very feminine lately." He offered a very human wink. "It comes and goes."

"More coming than going!" Casper called, from Ragal's side. The small alien's face wore a smile which stretched from one side of his conical head to the other. "It's been like having a mom around again!"

Ragal looked down fondly at his companion, and dropped a hand to pat the back of Casper's head. "It's my pleasure to be both mother and father to you, as the mood strikes me."

Kippy caught Charlie's eye, and the smile he wore was instantly contagious. Charlie beamed, unable not to. "It's so nice to see all of you again. Kontus? Are you getting taller?"

"I believe I have reached my maximum height already, Charlie," the big Trichani returned, his ursine features offering a toothy smile. "My cub days were over years ago."

"Well, it's considerable," Charlie returned, laughing. "I forgot how small you make me feel."

"Hey," Adrian said then, sounding amazed. "I just noticed I can understand all of you, and I'm not wearing a translator!"

"None of us are," Charlie immediately agreed. "What's going on with that?"

"A trinket we picked up at the pirate market," Pacha'ka offered. "Instead of individually translating conversations for each person involved by way of a personal device, it produces a translation field that provides a common language for all those within. Since we are guests on your Earth, that common language is set for English, which all of you speak."

"I want one of them!" Ricky said, grinning.

"Perhaps Santa will bring you one," the Kift returned, following it with a laugh.

Charlie shook his head a moment, slightly overwhelmed; and then he remembered the others standing nearby. He turned to them and smiled, before glancing back over his shoulder at the newcomers. "Guys, I want you meet some of our other friends. That tall fella that looks a little bit like Ricky is Ricky's uncle, Bob Travers. The guy next to him is Horace Wingspanner, another explorer into the unknown. And the two cute kids next to them are Kiley and Kiri Snorkum, who live here in Twombly. Their dad is the mayor here."

"Line up, mates," Mike said, grinning, and taking Bobby by the arm and moving towards Bob and the others. "Let's offer a proper handshake!"

Kippy gave Charlie a happy grin, and moved to stand near Uncle Bob, and introduced each of the newcomers as they lined up to shake hands.

"This is Mike. He's our handsome adventurer friend from Australia. That cute little guy he's holding is Pacha, a Ka of the Kift. That's sort of like a wizard-scientist, but way cooler. He only looks like a koala now because he likes the shape. This next guy is Bobby Felsen, from Nebraska. He got kidnapped by a flying saucer in 1957. Don't worry about him looking so young - it's a time thing. And that's Ragal. He's from way, way back in time, and apparently he's not feeling like a he right now, so maybe I should say she."

"I think I'm still in a somewhat neutral phase at the moment," Ragal corrected. "I'm leaning female, but it hasn't fully taken yet."

Kippy smiled. "Just let us know if it happens."

"Oh, you'll know if it happens!"

Uncle Bob's eyes had widened with each introduction, and his head bobbed up and down, and he smiled as he exchanged handclasps with each of the newcomers. Next to him, Horace looked much the same, his features bathed in wonder and excitement; while Kiley and Kiri simply looked shocked and awed to be meeting such unique and mysterious new friends.

Kippy's smile grew as Casper's turn came to be introduced. "Casper's from a world way off somewhere that we've never been to. He seems to think that's best, so we haven't ever pressed him on it. He's about your age, Kiley and Kiri. You guys are a year younger than us, as I remember."

"Hi Casper!" Both elves spoke as one. Kiley looked pleased to meet someone else his own age, and Kiri giggled as she shook hands, looking a little overawed at the whole thing.

"And this big guy is Kontus, one of the Trichani," Kippy went on. "They have a big galactic empire on the other side of the Big Dipper, but Kontus was a little bored with it all, and decided to go exploring with Pacha and Mike and Bobby. They've been to some really cool places."

"And then some," Kontus agreed, looking very pleased to be there. "I am most happy to make everyone's acquaintance."

Kippy sort of looked around then, and smiled. "Murcha? Can you guys hear me?"

"Yes, Kippy," the Moth mind in charge of Lollipop answered. "We're here on a combined channel."

"They're inserted within the translation field for audio," Mike whispered. He thumbed a small button on the front of his shirt, and indicated similar buttons on the other's clothing. "And they can see everything through these pick ups."

"We felt it would work best that way," Illia added. She was the artificial mind in charge of Pacha's ship. "For us, all audio and visual input is by device, anyway. So we feel like we're right there among you."

Kippy looked happy. "Well, that's better than I was thinking, then."

"So far it has worked just fine," Onglet, Murcha's partner added. "It's wonderful to see everybody again."

"Well, don't be shy," Ricky said then. "Speak up if you want. We're so glad you could all come."

Charlie reached over and patted Max on the shoulder. "That was a quick pick up. You weren't gone a second."

The elf laughed. "I was gone a half hour, I'll bet. Just sayin' hi to everyone when I got there took ten minutes." He smiled at Charlie's confused look. "It's because of the bubble of time around the town. Outside time don't matter, remember? I even had Pach take me over to his new ship, so I could add it to the location manual."

Charlie frowned. "If outside time doesn't matter, how come Murcha didn't show up with Lollipop at the same time as Pacha did in his ship?"

"That's part of the stretch I was tellin' you about. In the time bubble, I mean. See, them ships travel through the cooee, which don't have no time reference at all, at least around this part of space. So there's actually three or more time frames involved there. Once they all get here, they're both in the same outside reference frame, so anything I do with them outside the bubble seems to happen right away to you back here. But we have to get both ships into the same outside frame first for that to happen. That involved the stretch, and is why it seemed like Murcha got here later than Pach did. See?"

Charlie laughed. "Not really."

Max shrugged. "I got it covered, Charlie. Don't worry about it."

Charlie just nodded. "Time really is an incredible thing."

"It is when you get along with it," Max agreed. "Me and time got an understanding."

Mike walked over, carrying Pacha. The Aussie boy was all smiles. "Thanks for invitin' us. It was about time I got home for a good Chrissie party." He leaned a little closer. "You got a tree up someplace? We got a pile of prezzies back on the ship. Pacha didn't want to bring 'em until we had someplace to put 'em."

"We didn't want them arguing in public," Pacha added, following that with a laugh.

"Geez," Max said, trying to keep his voice low and a smile on his face at the same time. "Tell me you didn't bring some crazy space stuff I'm gonna have to chase all over the place!"

Mike and Pacha both laughed. "We're just kidding you, Max," Pacha said. "We brought a number of unique gifts, but I can assure you that all will be well-behaved and civilized."

"More or less," Mike added, his eyes twinkling.

"Yes," the Kift agreed. "Stop worrying. Max. Everything will be fine."

Bobby joined them, wrapping an arm around Mike's arm quite openly and giving it a little hug. Charlie smiled at that, seeing how far the boy had moved beyond his 20th century fears of homosexuality. Evidently, whizzing around the cosmos in a ship with a guy that loved you, and a bunch of totally non-judgmental alien friends, was good for the soul.

"You look happy," Charlie said, nodding at the other boy.

"It's nice to be home," Bobby agreed, pretending not to understand what Charlie meant. But his smile said it all.

Mike smiled, too, a broad one that indicated he'd picked up on the meaning of what Charlie meant. "Yeah, it is."

Max raised his hands then. "Listen up, folks. We got rooms for all you guys back at the lodge. Might as well stay inside the time bubble while you're visiting, right? So if you don't mind, I'd like to transport everyone over there and show you where you'll be stayin'."

"Can't we walk it?" Charlie asked. "It's not far."

Max shook his head. "You saw the way the Twomblies reacted to just Auggie. We walk this bunch across the street and it'll take us an hour to get there!"

There was something to be said for that. The Twomblies were incredibly curious and friendly, and would certainly want to meet these newcomers to their town. That would almost certainly create quite a mob of onlookers. Charlie nodded, realizing that Max's way was better. There would be time for introductions later.

Max waved a hand at the others. "So gather round and put a hand on me, okay?"

That was easier said than done. There were a lot of people, and they had to squeeze together around Max so that they could all get a hand on him. Kiley and Kiri begged off, saying they would give everyone time to get settled; but Charlie could tell by their expressions that the two elves wanted to seek out their friends and share everything they had seen thus far. That still left thirteen people to transport, and quite a crowd to surround one not particularly large elf.

"Okay," Max began, when they were ready. But then he cast a look over his shoulder. "Um...whoever has their hand on my butt, move it up a little, okay?"

"Oops!" Kippy said, grinning ear to ear, but moving his hand as asked.

Max rolled his eyes, but his good humor was plain to see. "Why ain't I surprised?"

And then they were off, leaving Kiley and Kiri to hasten outside to their friends.


"I guess I didn't think about it," Max said, scratching his head. "This town has a Christmas tree just about everywhere you look. I didn't think about one for just us."

Mike had again pulled up Charlie at the lodge and asked if they had a tree to put gifts under, and it was only then that Charlie realized they really didn't have anything like that set up. The new arrivals wanted to bring down their gifts from the ships, but had been waiting for a designated place to put them. Charlie and Kippy had sought out Max in the lobby of the lodge in order to rectify that omission.

"We need one to put our stuff under," Kippy reiterated. "Where just our group can get together Christmas morning and open things."

Max nodded. "I gotcha." He turned then, and walked across the lobby of the lodge to the office. "Reeza? You in there?"

An older female elf appeared in the doorway, a batch of papers clutched in one hand. "You call me, sweetie?"

"Yeah. I was wonderin' if you'd mind if we took that big bay window in the lobby and put a tree in it for the guys to put their presents under."

"Oh, we have a beautiful tree in the great room. Didn't you see it?"

"Yeah. But the guys need a tree just to put their gifts under, you know? So they got a place on Christmas mornin' to open 'em together."

Reeza smiled at that. "Oh, go ahead, then. No one else will be in here until you pop that time bubble. Have fun."

Max grinned, and returned to where Charlie and Kippy were standing. "All set."

"Now we just need a tree," Kippy said.

Max closed his eyes. "What kind?"

"Balsam?" Kippy smiled. "They're nice and full."

"Okay. How tall?"

Charlie looked back at the big bay window, which reached all the way up to the high timbered ceiling. "We don't want to get carried away. Seven feet?"

"That's good," Kippy agreed.

Ricky and Adrian appeared then from the direction of the dining room, munching on potato chips, and with Casper beside them.

"Whatc'ha doing?" Ricky asked

"Where is everybody?" Charlie returned, instead of answering.

"Getting their rooms the way they want them," Adrian said. "They'll be down in a bit."

"Whatc'ha doing?" Ricky repeated.

Kippy smiled. "We're putting a Christmas tree in that bay window, so we have a place to put our presents, and open them on Christmas morning."

"Ooh!" Adrian said, looking interested. "We'll need someplace to sit, too. And there's a lot of us. Maybe like a big, semicircular sofa in front of the tree, or something?"

"Gotta have lights on the tree, too," Ricky said, around a chip.

"And a galaxy at the very top," Casper said, looking up at them. "Bobby said that stars at the top of the tree were important."

"One thing at a time," Max said, patiently, smiling. "First the tree."

"Blue spruce, that's what we always get," Ricky said.

"Balsam" Kippy countered. "We have room here for a nice, full tree."

"Scotch pines are pretty, too," Adrian said. "And they smell nice."

Max looked exasperated. "How about I pick something?"

All the boys laughed, and nodded as one. "Go ahead," Charlie said, grinning. "We trust you."

Max sighed, and smiled as he concentrated. The floor in front of the window seemed to pucker slightly, and then a tree started to grow upwards from the very floorboards, blossomed into fullness, and quickly reached the requested height of seven feet. It was a big tree, green and lush, and the right shape for a Christmas tree, but of a type that none of them recognized. Their noses filled immediately with a pleasant evergreen scent, though, causing everyone to smile.

"I like it!" Kippy said, clasping his hands happily in front of himself. "I've never seen a tree quite like that one. What is it?"

"Icelandic pine," Max said. He sighed, smiling. "Gives you a real homey feel, huh?"

Ricky laughed at that, and put an arm around Adrian. "Now we just need a couple of reindeer, and things would be perfect."

Max gave a nod at that. "I'll bet Norville would volunteer to come hang out a little. Orville, too. They're real fond of you guys."

"Really?" Kippy looked delighted. "Really, seriously?"

"I can ask them, sure. Remind me, okay?"

"I will!"

Charlie smiled at the delighted expression on his boyfriend's face, and nodded at Max. "Thanks."

"Sure. Now, let's see about decorating this thing."

"I liked the way Nicholaas had that tree decorated at his place last year," Kippy said. "Lights that looked like candles, but weren't."

"And ornaments with picture memories on them," Adrian added. "That was pretty cool."

They heard footsteps on the wide staircase behind them, and Mike and Bobby appeared, arm in arm. They smiled at the assembly below, and quickly joined them.

Mike offered what could only be described as a contented smile. That he was enjoying himself seemed clear. "What's up, fellas?"

"We're decorating the tree," Kippy said, pointing at the big pine. "Any suggestions?"

"Tinsel, maybe?" Bobby put in. "We always had some on our tree."

Mike eyed the tree, clearly approving. "Hey, that's a big one! Bigger than anything we ever had at home, that's for sure."

Bobby smiled. "Christmas trees in Mike's country are harder to get than here at home. He was telling me about it."

"They're usually a little smaller, anyway," Mike agreed. "Never seen a tree like this one. My auntie used to get a Norfolk Island Pine. Our neighbors always did up a Geebung. They don't look like this kind of tree at all. You can buy a real Christmas-type tree like this at a tree farm now, and even a sort that comes from California." Mike eyed the tree another time. "Most aren't that big, though.

"Christmas is also in the summer there," Bobby added. "Can you imagine that?"

Kippy frowned at that. "Not really. It doesn't seem right, somehow."

"It's just about what you're used to, Kipper." Mike laughed. "It was okay. We had a six week summer break from school, and Christmas was right in the middle of it. What do you blokes get a few days off at the holiday?"

Charlie nodded. "Depends where the holiday falls, really."

Max, who had had his eyes closed, waiting for suggestions on how to decorate the tree, jacked one eye open and smiled. "Could we? I mean, like today?"

The boys laughed.

Kippy pointed quickly at Mike. "Any suggestions?"

The Aussie lad shrugged. "Coupla bows wouldn't hurt. Red ones are nice, on the ends of the branches." He sniffed the air and smiled again. "Sure smells good!"

Max made a grumbling sound, but closed his eye again. "Candles that ain't candles. Balls with memories. Tinsel. And bows! Sheesh!"

"And a galaxy at the top," Casper dared, looking over at Bobby, and then back to Max. "So we have lots of stars!"

The elf nodded. "I gotcha."

Max concentrated, and all eyes fixed on the pine tree. Lights appeared on it, looking like the dancing flames over candles, only the flames were a variety of colors, and Charlie knew that they had no power to burn. Colored baubles began to appear among the lights - ornaments of different sizes and colors - though if they had memories imprinted upon them, they were too far away to tell. Strands of golden tinsel wound their ways among the branches, and red bows of several sizes appeared at the ends of some branches. Small colored accents appeared here and there, followed by the glassy reflections of icicles, and then, with a final pop of sound, a miniature, whirling galaxy of stars appeared in the air above the top of the tree, tilted itself a little to give them the best view of its motion, and then settled down to a peaceful but somehow homey spin of colors.

Casper clasped his hands before himself and was the first to speak. "It's beautiful!"

It was. Kippy sighed, and leaned against Charlie, and laid his head on his shoulder. "Merry Christmas, Charlie."

Charlie nodded, feeling a slight catch in his own throat. "Merry Christmas, Kip. I love you."

"Oh, I love you, too." Kippy turned his head and kissed Charlie's cheek, and Charlie turned his own head so that their lips could meet.

There was a long moment of silence, and Charlie opened his eyes to see Rick and Adrian, and Mike and Bobby, also exchanging heartfelt emotions.

Kippy sighed. "Christmas is sooo romantic!"

Max sighed, and nodded. "Yeah." But then he smiled at the tree. "It looks okay, doesn't it?"

"It looks great!" Ricky offered. "Magical, even!"

That brought another round of laughter, and Max grinned and gave a little bow. "What good is having the art if you can't make pretty stuff now and then?"

"You outdid yourself," Kippy said sincerely. "It's wonderful."

"Now, how about seating?" Adrian asked. "A nice, huge sofa, in a semicircle, in front of the tree? So we can all see each other as we open gifts?"

"Coming right up, sir. Any choice for a color?"

Adrian looked tickled at that. "Why, green, to match the tree!"

Max nodded, and produced an impressive sofa, indeed: a semicircle affair of heroic proportions, framed in wood the color of the ceiling beams, and upholstered in a deep, Christmassy green slightly lighter than the tree. "That should do it!"

Ricky gaped a moment at the majestic size of the sofa, and then laughed. "I think everyone can sit there, yeah!"

They stood quietly for a moment longer and gazed at the tree, and the sofa, perhaps imagining Christmas morning, the silence fading only as Bob and Horace came down from upstairs, followed closely by Ragal, who carried Pacha'ka in the crook of one arm. The four paused at the bottom of the steps and gazed at the tree, smiles popping up on each face.

"Oh, guys, that's gorgeous!" Uncle Bob said, as he and Horace came over to join them. "That's the slickest Christmas tree I've ever seen, I believe."

"Certainly the largest seat I have ever seen!" Pacha added. His kind sat mostly on cushions on the floor, and he was always chuckling at the complexity of human seating.

Horace's eyes were bright with wonder. "It that an actual galaxy spinning there above?"

Max cleared his throat. "It's ours, actually. Barred spiral, viewed from the outside. Ain't never been there, myself, but know a guy that has." He smiled. "Elves get around these days, since we got Charlie and his boys in with us."

Ragal came up to stand beside Charlie. She - it was hard to view the alien as a he just now, the way that Ragal was dressed in bright yellows with little red glittery dots here and there - looked charmed.

"It's lovely, Charlie. Is it edible?"

Charlie squinted up at the tall alien, wondering if Ragal was playing with him. "Are you kidding?"

"Not really. The scent is just scrumptious!"

"It's quite appealing, I agree," Pacha said. "Reminds me of the scent of vreebink leaves in mussprus sauce. A true delicacy back at home."

"It's not edible," Charlie said, still not sure that the two weren't kidding him. "It's to look at and enjoy."

Ragal gave a long, theatrical sigh. "Well, at least that will be easy to do."

Kippy looked back and forth between the two, his eyes wide. "You're not going to be nibbling on our Christmas tree when no one is looking, are you?"

Ragal and Pacha both laughed. "Heaven's, no!" Ragal said. "It smells wonderful, but I'd never sample it without knowing the chemistry involved. It might smell good, and still be poisonous to our systems!"

"Give us some credit, Kip," Pacha said, his face trying hard to hide a smile."We never eat other people's ritual ornamentation."

Charlie decided that the two aliens were playing with them, and looked back at the stairs instead then, realizing who was missing. "Where's Kontus?"

"Still enjoying his bath, I would imagine," Ragal said. "Or, shower, as you call it. He is enamored of the idea of just being able to stand beneath a fall of actual water to relax."

"Though he had to duck a bit to get beneath the spray," Pacha added.

Charlie remembered then that both the Moth ship and Pacha's own offered a chamber where you stepped in, closed the door, and were wrapped in a mist that scrubbed you clean and then dried you in a minute. That seemed to be the way most galactic civilizations addressed bathing. There was no running water involved. It was an efficient process, but not really relaxing.

"He said he would be down shortly," Pacha continued. He laughed. "Getting dry is a chore for someone so large and furry."

That brought a stunned silence from the boys, followed immediately by laughter. "We didn't think about that," Charlie said. He looked over at Max, who gave a little sigh, nodded, and started again for the lodge office. "Reeza!"

Charlie watched him go with a grin. "I guess he's going to get Kontus some extra towels. Max is certainly being a good sport about all this."

Kippy nodded. "It's built into him, Charlie. He's a sweetie from way back."

The big double front doors of the lodge opened then, and Frit and Pip came in with Auggie. The foobear spied the crowd, and immediately bounded over and sandwiched himself between Kip and Adrian. "Keepy! Oodrian!"

Both boys laughed, and bent to hug the bearcat.

"What have you two been up to?" Charlie asked, as the teen elves came near.

"Setting up a few things for you guys," Frit said, smiling.

"Entertainment," Pip agreed.

"It'll be fun!" Frit added, showing his teeth in a smile.

Ricky laughed at that. "If you guys say it will be fun, I believe ya!"

Casper came over to them then. "Hi, Frit and Pip!"

"Hi, Casper!" the two elves said in unison. They had all met during an earlier adventure, and were old friends by now.

"How do you like Earth?" Frit asked.

"Or this part of it, anyway?" Pip added

"It's pretty, if a little cold." Casper laughed. "But everyone is so nice here!"

Kip and Adrian came over then, with Auggie between them. The big bearcat sniffed a moment at Casper, then moved closer and smiled at him "Mrowf!"

"This is Auggie," Adrian introduced, patting the cat's head. "Auggie, that's our friend, Casper."

The cat sniffed at Casper again, and then his head bobbed up and down. "Good!"

"He likes the way you smell," Kippy said, doing his best not to laugh.

Casper's eyes widened. "I hope that's a good thing!" But then he smiled shyly. "It's so nice to meet you, Auggie."

"It is a good thing," Adrian told him, nodding. "Auggie's good people. If he likes you, your good to go."

Casper's shyness faded, and he leaned closer to the cat, took a deep breath, and then smiled himself. "You smell pretty good, too!"

"Kesper," Auggie said, trying the name on for size.

Charlie smiled, just beginning to really appreciate the size of the group they had assembled here, and realizing that any sort of Christmas celebrations were bound to be a little, um, boisterous. He grinned at that, finding the idea not unpleasant at all. What could be better than having all their friends in one place for the holiday?

Kippy seemed to be having similar thoughts. "This is going to be sooo fun!"

"If we live through it!" Ricky tossed in, laughing.

Max came back then, looking satisfied. "Reeza said I could raid the linen closet upstairs, and I took Kontus a dozen big towels. He'll be down as soon as he's dry."

That was accomplished more quickly than they had supposed, apparently, as the big alien soon materialized at the head of the stairs and started down them.

Kippy suddenly leaned closer to Charlie, smiling. "Does he look a little...odd?"

Charlie examined Kontus as he stepped to the floor beneath the stairs and started towards them. The alien's fur, where not covered by clothing, looked a bit, um, fluffy was the word that came to mind. Apparently, getting it wet and then drying it with a towel was a new experience for it. In fact, the big Trichani looked uncomfortable, and kept trying to smooth the fur of his arms and face, which seemed to be standing out in all directions. He arrived among them, and silence fell as everyone took a good look and then tried very hard not to smile.

"What?" Kontus said, noticing their expressions, but grinning good-naturedly. "I forgot to bring a brush down from the ship with me."

Max, standing nearby, held out a hand, on which a large hairbrush rested. "This help?"

"It looks ideal, actually," Kontus said, taking it and immediately applying it to his face. But it looked as if some of the fur had actually coiled into curls now, and they resisted being straightened again. "But perhaps a bit late," the Trichani continued, sighing. "Ah, well. The natural look is quite popular among the cub crowd these days."

Charlie joined the others in laughing. "It looks good on you," he said, smiling.

Kontus barked out a laugh. "It feels as if hundreds of choi'acath were creeping all over my body!"

Charlie had no idea what that was, but suspected an insect, and not a welcome one.

Kontus leaned closer and grinned at them. "Is anyone hungry besides me?"

"I could eat something, actually," Mike said, to which Bobby nodded.

"Yeah," the other boy agreed. "Brekky was a while back now."

Kippy smiled at him. "You talking like an Aussie now?"

Bobby sighed happily, and leaned up against Mike's shoulder. "It kind of grows on you."

A quick canvass of those present suggested that perhaps some lunch was indeed in order. It was nearly noon now, and some hours since the boys had had breakfast.

Max nodded when asked. "I made sure that the restaurant here could serve stuff these guys could eat. So there should be something for everyone, 'kay? Come on."

He led the way from the lobby to the restaurant, where they had to take two tables and push them together to make one long one they could all sit at.

Margee appeared from the back, took one look at the noisy crowd seating themselves, and grinned. She turned back to the door she'd come through, cupped a hand to her mouth, and called, "Hey, Moe! More menus!"


The big hearth in the lobby crackled merrily as the fire burned, adding both a pleasant warmth to the room as well as a comfortably restful flicker of light to the pine plank walls. Charlie and Kip had found the new sofa Max had provided particularly relaxing, and had been sitting together in the hours after the evening meal, talking to their friends. No big events had been planned for this first evening, on the theory that everyone would be tired from their various journeys to reach Twombly, and that some pleasant time catching up with each other would be preferred.

The tree Max had provided earlier was now surrounded by gifts, an imposing array far too large in number to all go under the tree. Many had been stacked to either side of it, filling the bay window with color from an impressive variety of wrappings and adornments, some of which were almost baffling in complexity. The pirate vendors at the market on Engris normally did not gift wrap the items they sold, but had been good sports about the whole thing, and tried their best to fulfill the expectations of their buyers. Mike and the others had patiently explained the idea of gift wrapping to each vendor, and they had each complied to the limits of their understanding. The result ran the gamut, from items lightly clothed in colorful fabrics, plastics, and wispy mists, to several that appeared armored and capable of defending themselves against all comers. Pacha had assured them that all could be opened by the intended recipient, though he had added with a smile that a few would require the assistance of others.

To this amazing collection Charlie and the others had added the gifts they had brought with them, forming a much more conventional pile before the tree. Gifts wrapped in paper and foil, and bearing bows and labels and good wish cards for all, looking far more traditional than their otherworldly companions, and yet no more or no less fulfilling. Something for everyone, which was all that really mattered.

After all was said and done, it looked very much like Christmas morning was going to be a busy and exciting affair, and certainly one to remember.

"I've never seen so many presents!" Kippy whispered, for about the tenth time, the excitement plain in his voice. There had been a pause in the conversation while Margee had wheeled in a cart laden with steaming and iced beverages of all kinds. The humans had mostly selected the hot chocolate topped with melted marshmallow froth, but there was also coffee and tea, as well as warm inticka for Kontus, cold trymbi for Casper, old-fashioned poli'citatre for Ragal, and even a warm chumbee stick for Pacha to gnaw upon.

Charlie smiled at his boyfriend's eagerness, at the light of wonder in his eyes, and snuggled closer, just happy to be there. "Yep. It's gonna be a fun morning, when it gets here."

Kippy gave a little sigh, and turned his head to kiss Charlie. "Being with you is what matters the most."

"I happen to agree with you. Every holiday I spend with you just keeps getting better, Kip."

Charlie closed his eyes and just enjoyed the warm closeness of Kippy's face, taking a deep breath, as if drawing in the vibrant sense of life he felt emanating from his boyfriend. Kippy shared his world fully, and the delight he seemed to take in even the smallest things often made Charlie feel exhilarated. He had long ago decided that if he could just help to make one other person happy in life, it would satisfy his need to share love with the world. That Kippy had helped to expand that desire to include so many others, and so many other things, was even more satisfying. Kip cared, not just about people, but about everything that people deemed important. Since that pretty much took in the entire universe, it was a lot to consider.

Charlie had been surprised to learn that Kippy felt much the same about him. That Charlie was special, exactly in the way that Charlie saw Kip. That Charlie was about life, and caring for life.

That they might be two mirrors facing each other seemed a novel yet appropriate idea, the images each one contained dissimilar at first glance, but somehow joining into one picture, one life, as those images replicated into infinite distance. It gave credence to the feeling Charlie had that he and Kip were meant to be together, and that no force in existence could or would ever separate them. Not in life, anyway, and the alternative was one that Charlie would simply not consider...

"...our two lovebirds," someone said then.

Charlie pulled back from Kippy and looked around, and was surprised to see everyone smiling at them. "Um...what did we miss?"

It was Mike who had been talking, and he laughed now. "I was telling everyone about the Halzecki I bought one of the gifts from."

Charlie shook his head a moment to clear it, and Kippy gave a little shrug and smiled at him. "The Halzecki, Charlie," he said, as if it was perfectly obvious.

Charlie had to laugh that. "Oh! The Halzecki!" He turned back to Mike. "Which Halzecki, exactly?"

"At the pirate market." Mike nodded. "Doubt you ever saw one of her kind. They've only recently been allowed to visit Engris."

"Bad guys?" Charlie asked.

"Oh, no, not that. They only invented a star drive about fifty years ago. It's taken them that long to produce a few interstellar pirates, is all."

"They're fast learners," Bobby supplied, grinning.

"They're not too bright, is what they are," Pacha countered, a frown evident in his voice. "I noticed that some of the items that one was selling were of Moth manufacture. And we all know that the Moth do not allow their technology to be acquired by others. Obtaining items from the Moth without their permission is a dangerous profession. Especially for a race as technologically primitive as the Halzecki."

Ricky laughed at that. "Oh, I don't know about that. We have one of the Moth's scout ships, and they haven't gotten mad about that!"

"Only because they don't know you have it," Murcha suddenly said, over the link. "And because Onglet and I know their ways, and can stay one step ahead of them."

"And you're doing a very good job," Adrian said, sincerely. "We can't have Lollipop or her crew falling back in with such poor company."

"I'll agree with that," Onglet said, sounding firm. "I will never be treated as property again!"

"You won't have to be," Charlie said, just as firmly. "Your friends will not allow it."

A chorus of agreement arose around the sofa, causing Charlie to smile.

Mike waved a hand in the air. "Oh...anyway, about that Halzecki. She was selling...well, I can't say what she was selling, or that will spoil the gift. But she was telling me...oh....hell, I can't say that, either!"

Adrian laughed. "Well, what can you say?"

Mike looked around, and then just made an exasperated sound. "Ask me after all the presents are opened!"

That brought another round of laughter.

"The pirate market has grown since you were last there," Pacha offered to Charlie. "A downturn in some parts of the galactic economy has encouraged more profiteering in the area of antiquities. Even some of the formal archaeological community have been observed at Engris, selling small items to further finance their own explorations. Not that long ago, they would never have dared flout the law so."

"Really?" Charlie returned, a bit put off by the idea of respected scientists selling the things they dug up from history. "That doesn't seem good."

"Oh, it is not as bad as I made it sound," Pacha said, waving a small hand. "A necessity, in a time where funding for more exploration of the past is at a standstill. It's been done before in spare times, and will be done again. I have yet to see any items of major historical importance for sale at the market. Trinkets, mostly."

"Even trinkets have historical value," Charlie mused, but he also knew about the trials that hard science often had in getting funding. Even though civilizations ran on science, the citizens of those civilizations often couldn't be made to see the need to pay for more of it.

Kippy gave Charlie a gentle nudge. "Don't get sidetracked from Christmas, Charlie."

Charlie laughed, but gave his boyfriend a squeeze. "I won't."

"This is a most pleasant environment you have created here," Ragal put in, indicating the fire, the tree, and the comfortable sofa, and then smiling at the immediate side-to-side movement of Casper's head that signified agreement.

"It's wonderful," the little alien breathed, and Charlie and Kippy both smiled at the reverential tone of his voice.

"The difference between these surroundings and those you know are significant," Ragal told Casper. "I have to admit they have worked a certain charm over me, as well."

"So you like it, in other words?" Ricky asked.

"I believe I just said that," Ragal returned. He smiled at them. "There is a feeling of comfort and camaraderie here that cannot be missed."

"It's cheery," Casper said, looking up at his friend. "Very cheery."

Ragal gave a small nod of agreement. "But it has not quite captured my the same way as did your Halloween celebration. That was quite a lot of fun!"

"You liked the dressing up stuff," Kippy kidded. "You thought the costumes were fun!"

"Give it time," Adrian said. "We' haven't even gotten to the good stuff yet."

"Right," Bobby agreed. "Christmas Eve is tops!"

"Mrowf," Auggie agreed loudly. The bearcat was sprawled on the pine floor in front of the hearth, absorbing the warmth from the fire with a largely contented expression on his face. His yellow eyes observed them sleepily, and with a visible sense of humor that made them all laugh.

"See? Auggie knows a good thing when he sees it!" Ricky said. Adrian smiled at him in response, and Ricky sighed, and smiled back at his boyfriend. "Just like I know a good thing when I see it."

Adrian made a happy sound, and allowed his head to flop over onto Ricky's shoulder.

"Romance is a component of this celebration, I see," Ragal observed, smiling. "Although I have to say that romance...or at least, affection...seems much a component of everything your group does, Charlie."

"And that's a bad thing?" Kippy asked, feigning indignity.

Ragal saw right through the act. "Not at all. It is your affection for one another that gives your group its strength and special qualities. You are grand attractors for others with similar natures."

"Like you and Casper?" Charlie suggested.

"Um...yes." Ragal smiled at them. "Thank you for asking us to come."

Charlie gave a little sigh, and looked around at those seated on the sofa. "It wouldn't have been the same without all our friends here. We felt a need this Christmas to share it with all of you. Thank you all for coming."

The conversation resumed, everyone smiling and happy, and Charlie closed his eyes and leaned his head against Kippy's. "I love it when a plan comes together."

"All your plans come together, Charlie," Kippy said quietly. "It's one of the things that makes you special."

Charlie smiled at that. "It isn't just me, Kip. It's you, and all these guys. Everyone wants the things we do to succeed. So how can they not?"

"We've come close a few times," Kippy argued. But his heart wasn't really in it, Charlie could tell. "Oh, let's not talk about that," Kippy continued. "I want this Christmas to be nice."

Charlie nodded, looking around at their friends. "It already is."

Bobby stood up then, looking back at Mike, then turned and moved closer to the tree, holding out his hands as if measuring it by eye. He spun back to Mike then, spread his arms wide, and laughed. "It always seems bigger when you're a little kid!"

"You're not a kid now, though," Mike returned. "And this one still seems big to me."

"What are you guys talking about?" Kippy called.

Mike turned to grin at them. "Bobby was just telling me about the first Christmas tree he remembers, and how big it seemed to him. I was recalling the first one I remember, and that it seemed pretty big, too."

Kippy laughed. "This one isn't big enough for you?"

"Oh, no, it is," Bobby countered. "It's just, when you're little, it seems a lot bigger."

Kippy frowned at that. "I don't remember my first tree being huge or anything."

Max, seated nearby, laughed. "We can check that out for you, Kip."

Kippy turned to the elf, his eyebrows knitting together quizzically. "How?"

Max's smile grew and he got to his feet. "Remember, it's just time!"

The elf waved a hand, and a large circle of air between the sofa and the tree grew opaque. Colors blurred across the face of it, and quickly settled down to the image of a room in house.

"That's our living room!" Kippy said, leaning forward to stare. "Um...or, it was. Wow! We haven't had that furniture for a long time!"

A sofa was visible, beyond which burned a small fire in the fireplace behind a brass chain curtain. In the corner of the room, in front of the sofa, a Christmas tree stood, decked out in bright ornaments and laced with silvery strands of tinsel. Light bulbs of various colors were visible among the branches, but they weren't lit yet, just offering a red or green twinkle of color here and there as the dancing fire lit them at whim.

A man backed into the picture, a last golden ornament dangling from his fingers. He stopped, surveyed the tree carefully, nodded to himself, and stepped forward to hang the bauble on a branch.

"That's my dad," Kippy said, dumbfounded. "But...he looks so young!"

"That's because it's fifteen years ago," Max said pleasantly. "He was younger."

The man in the image turned and smiled. "What do you think?"

A woman appeared, blonde, petite, smiling and happy. "It's wonderful, Carl. Can you plug it in?"

The man smiled. "Well...I wanted to bring Kip in first, and then plug it in. He helped to decorate it...the lower branches, anyway...but this may be the first year he's old enough to really remember Christmas. I want him to be here when we plug it in."

The woman smiled. "Aw, that's a sweet idea. I'll get him."

The man smiled at the tree one more time, while the woman vanished from view.

Kippy, looking stunned, shook his head. "I don't remember this."

Max chuckled. "Well, you weren't there for that part. Hold on a second and watch."

The woman - Kippy's mom - returned a moment later, bent over slightly and leading a small child by the hand. The anticipation on her face was obvious as the boy moved forward. Charlie gasped, instantly recognizing Kippy's head of slightly wild blond curls, and the cute smile on his face, a smaller precursor to the often beautiful one he wore as part of his everyday expression now.

Ricky gave a short, amazed laugh, and Adrian, leaning forward beside him to stare at the image, made a soft, almost wistful sound. "Oh, you were so adorable!"

Kippy blinked. "That's me!"

Charlie laughed and squeezed his boyfriend closer. "I'd recognize that smile anywhere!"

In the circle of Christmas past, Kip's dad pointed at the tree. "See, Kip? It's all done. Isn't it a pretty tree?"

"Pwitty tree," little Kippy mimicked, looking delighted.

His dad nodded. "We're ready to go."

"Plug it in," Kippy's mom suggested, softly.

The man nodded, and moved to a wall socket, picked up a cord from the floor before it, and carefully plugged it in.

The tree lit then, the large colored bulbs blazing brilliantly. Little Kippy's eyes widened, and he threw up his hands and reared back slightly, his face aglow with amazement and joy. He squealed out his delight, waved his hands and stomped his feet, and made a sound that could only be described as happy.

"That seems pretty clear!" Ricky called, laughing.

Everyone joined him in laughter, enjoying young Kippy's reaction to the tree, while the current Kippy screwed his eyes shut a moment, and then smiled.

"I remember that!" he said, opening his eyes. He laughed. "Or, I think I do. I hope I do!"

Max waved a hand again, and the image slowly faded away. "See what things you don't know you remember? That tree was pretty impressive to you then."

Kippy gave a big sigh, and nodded. "It was. I didn't know my dad wanted me to be there for the lighting." He laughed. "Well, that's an extra hug for him when I get home!"

Max nodded. "Christmas is in the heart, guys. It goes back to our first memories, and it will be there with our last ones, when our time comes to go. It's about family, and friends, and all the things that really matter to us. Christmas is something we want to share, even when we feel we can't share anything else."

Frit and Pip jumped to their feet then, smiles on their faces. "Now, grandpa?" Frit asked.

Max blinked, and waved a shushing hand at them. "Um, not yet."

Charlie laughed as the two elves looked disappointed and sat down again. "What was that about?"

Max grinned. "Now, Charlie, you wouldn't want to spoil a surprise, would ya?"

"No. But it looked to me like you left a little bit of doubt with those two as to when that surprise could happen."

Max smiled at Frit and Pip, who were now trying to look innocent. "They'll know when, I think."

Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm, a gentle warning not to pursue the matter, not to spoil the surprise. Charlie smiled and laid a hand on his boyfriend's fingers and rubbed them gently, to say that he understood, that he knew the rewards of patience were usually more than worth the wait.


"That's right, Adrian. Walk over there and then pause on the mark, as if you're looking for something to happen. Good. I'll show you what to expect. Now...wait for it!"

Bob pushed one of the buttons on his little remote, and there was the faintest of hums...and then Adrian started as part of the black backdrop apparently moved. He laughed. "Even though I was expecting it, it still startled me."

Bob smiled understandingly. "The light will be a lot lower during the act, so you probably won't actually see that panel move. But you might hear it, and you can't act startled, okay? Now, when you see the flash of light, drop fast and get yourself through that slit in the backdrop. Okay?"

Adrian nodded. "I got it."

"Great. Let's run all the way through it this time."

Charlie yawned, covering his mouth. He and Kippy had stayed up a little too late the night before, and he was feeling it this morning. His boyfriend seemed perfectly fine, but then Kippy often had enough energy for two people, anyway. He grinned at that idea, and Kippy turned his head and saw it, and grinned back at him, without even knowing what it was about.

Adrian backed up to his first mark, and waited. Bob pressed another button, and the house lights went down. This was way better than the first time they had performed here, where one of the boys had had to run the stage lighting from a console, and the house lights from a row of switches on the wall. Bob had changed all that. Pre-programmed modules in the places of the light switches were so much better for timing things.

Bob looked out into the rows of seats, where Charlie, Horace, Kippy, and Ricky sat. "I need to get your impression on how this will look to the audience, okay? So watch carefully, please."

"Got it!" Charlie called back, waving.

Adrian had returned to his first mark, just a small white circle stuck to the floor. "I'm ready."

Bob nodded and turned again to those seated beyond the stage. He took a breath, steadied himself, and smiled. "Ladies and gentlemen, the act of teleportation, the ability to move from one place to another by the power of simple thought, has long been talked about in the human world. It has been the subject of myths and legends, and stories told by the fire at night. Obtaining the secret of such a power has long been perhaps one of the greatest goals of all magicians, pursued for centuries, tracked and hunted and sought after by many, but always remaining just out of reach." He shrugged. "The simple fact seems to be, that while it is a common mode of travel among elfkind, we humans are not particularly good at it."

He paused, and then grinned knowingly at the audience. "Ah, but that is about to change. After many years of traveling the world and searching out its hidden places, I chanced to land among a group of monks high in the mountains of Tibet, in a monastery hidden away from the world for many centuries of time. There I discovered a people who had not only mastered the secrets of longevity but who had, in the course of their very long lives, had the time to seek out and perfect the art of human teleportation."

Bob waited a moment for effect, to give the audience time to digest his words. In his pocket, he felt the remote, counted lines and rows of buttons by feel, and pushed one of them. An ethereal, almost otherworldly music sprang up, soft at first, and then rising somewhat in volume, though still far from loud. It was for background, designed to create an eerie effect, and to cover up any small sounds the act might produce as it operated. One thing most magicians who used machinery in their acts understood was that nothing ruined the magic more than the audience being able to hear the wheels turning.

Bob smiled once again. "What we have here this evening is a bold first attempt to harness the knowledge I learned from these ancient magicians. Tonight, on this stage, before your very eyes, I will perform the very first attempt at human teleportation in front of a live audience!"

Charlie and the others hooted and clapped, and Ricky stomped his feet a few times for good measure.

"Thank you, thank you," Bob said, giving a brief bow. "Now, I must ask for complete silence, please. Both I and my subject must concentrate deeply in order to attempt this minor miracle. Adrian, are you ready?"

Adrian, highlighted by a pinpoint spot at the end of a row of similar lights deployed to illuminate his walk across the darkened stage, nodded. "Yes, sir. I am ready to face the great unknown."

"Good, good. Now, on my mark, I would ask you to walk across the stage, while I attempt to focus the powers that will move you through the great beyond to another destination. Ready?"

Adrian made a show of taking a deep breath, and nodded. "Ready."

"Very well, begin."

Adrian had been schooled to walk slowly, and started off now, passing from one micro pool of light to another beneath the line of spots. As he neared his second mark, Bob brought his hand out of his pocket, the small remote hidden within the right one, his thumb already on the correct button for the next stage of the act. As Adrian reached his next mark, Bob raised his arms and waved them forward. "By the powers of Mahamatishra and Sudonommi, I command you to break the bounds that hold you here! Teleport!"

And then he pressed the correct button.

Adrian seemed to freeze in place. A sudden burst of illumination outlined his dark silhouette, and a strange glow appeared around it. And then, even as Charlie and the others watched, Adrian's outline melted away before their eyes. There was another burst of light, and Adrian was gone!

Even as their eyes readjusted to the change in lighting, a new glow appeared on the other side of the stage, beyond where Bob stood, and to his back. He turned that way then, and held a hand out towards the light. It suddenly brightened, and an image formed of Adrian's outline, which firmed; and then a brief flash of light all around it made Charlie and the others blink...and then there was Adrian, on the other side of the stage! He was clearly highlighted now by another pinpoint spot, and smiled and waved at the audience.

For a moment no one said anything. Bob watched them, trying to gauge their reactions, and then found and pushed the button that slowly brought up the house lights. "Well, what do you think?"

Charlie slowly brought up his hands, and started clapping. The others quickly followed, and Ricky stuck two fingers between his lips and blew out a couple of shrill whistles.

"That was awesome!" Kippy called.

Bob grinned, and gave a small bow. "It was Adrian's good timing, mostly."

"It was easy," Adrian countered. "Getting through the slit was the hardest part!"

The act, like many magic acts, was actually very simple.The introduction of modern technology to the art of illusion had really made some wonderful effects possible. And, once again, lighting and darkness were the magician's allies.

Adrian, though dressed in black, was highly visible, even in front of the black backdrop, because of the row of pinpoint spots focused downward upon him as he crossed the stage. They lit his hair, his face, and his head and shoulders very well, with his body fading more from view lower down, and his lower legs and feet in complete darkness. As he reached his second mark and Bob raised his hands and called for him to teleport, the magician pressed a pre-programmed button on his remote control. Behind Adrian's second mark, a large, flat screen LED monitor, turned up on end, was mounted on a swiveling base. The unit's case was already black, but a piece of flat-black 'break up' camouflage was fastened along one thin edge of the unit, the edge presented towards the audience, to keep even the line of the monitor's frame from being perceptible.

The large screen turned then so that the flat panel was behind Adrian. Mini spots mounted around the edges of the face flared and pulsed then, causing the audience to blink at the brightness, and disguising the monitor as it lit with a sharp, bright image of Adrian's profile, slightly larger than real-life, so that even people to the side of the audience could see it properly. At the initial flash of light, the pinpoint spots above Adrian went out, and he simply dropped prone and crawled quickly through a slit in the black back drop. It was dark down by the floor, and he was virtually invisible in his black clothing. The monitor view of his outline, wrapped in an unearthly glow, gave the impression that he still stood there, engulfed in the light, until it faded and blinked out.

Once through the slit, Adrian then got up and ran to the other side of the stage behind the backdrop, and was set to crawl through the slit there and jump to his feet as that monitor/spotlight set-up turned to face the audience and again projected an image of Adrian's outline surrounded by an eerie, pulsing glow. Adrian stood up within the outline as a last flash of light from the spots disguised the monitor behind him quickly rotating back so that it's thin, disguised edge faced the crowd again. A pinpoint spotlight above Adrian lit, revealing him standing there. It was actually an act based almost entirely on lighting, darkness, and simple timing.

When Bob had first conceived the idea, he thought there was no way it could work. And he hadn't really had the space or the conditions at the house to test the set-up. But the more he had considered it, the more appealing the idea had become. Darkness - a magician's best ally; the black backdrop; the disguised monitors; and the flashes of light that temporarily dazzled the audience's eyesight made it all possible.

"I'd say that one's a winner," Horace said, smiling up at Bob. "Very seamlessly performed, too. Even though I knew how it was done, I couldn't see the different parts in operation."

Bob sighed, pleased with himself. "It's great when something new actually works. Most teleportation acts use two raised platforms with cages atop them, and identical twins to do the teleporting. I needed to find a way I could get the same effect on a budget."

"I'd say you found it," Charlie returned, smiling.

Ricky climbed onstage and clapped his uncle on the shoulder. "And yet another win for the Travers Traveling Magic Act, I'd say."

Uncle Bob laughed at that. "Oh, yeah? Nice to know you have such confidence in me."

Ricky's smile softened, and he nodded. "I do. You know what you're doing, every single time. I'm really proud of you."

Bob canted his head to one side and smiled. "That's a nice thing to say, Rick."

Ricky looked around briefly at the others, gave a what the hell? little shrug, and stepped forward to give his uncle a hug. "It's Christmas. It's just awesome for you to share this stuff with the town, and for charity."

Uncle Bob looked briefly at a loss for words; but then he smiled and clapped his nephew fondly on the back. "I'm here because of all of you, Rick. We're in this together, remember?"

"Yeah." Ricky pulled back, blinked his eyes a couple of times, and turned to face his boyfriend. "You were stupendous. Amazing. Wonderful."

"It was the guy at my side that inspired me."

Ricky offered a sweet little pout at that, and then leaned close to kiss his boyfriend.

Kippy came over and snuggled up against Charlie. "This is soo much fun!"

Horace carefully climbed onstage and stood, brushing off his pants. "That was a great piece, Bob. Um...I was wondering what you had in mind for me?"

Uncle Bob grinned at Ricky a moment, and they both laughed. Charlie was struck then by the similarity in the way they both did that, and smiled. Ricky looked more like his dad than he did his uncle, though there was a plain family likeness between the two. But personality-wise, Rick and his uncle were a much closer match. Genes were wonderfully playful things!

Uncle Bob raised a hand to his chin and examined Horace speculatively. "Can you fly?"

Horace smiled. "Not on my own."

"Uh huh. Can you do card tricks?"

"Does winning at Old Maid count?"

"Not so you'd notice." Bob turned to Charlie. "Do you think Auggie might help us do an act?"

Charlie didn't know how to answer that. He turned to Kippy. "What do you think?"

"I'd say the best way to know would be to ask him."

Ricky offered a curious little smile to his uncle. "What have you got in mind?"

Uncle Bob nodded. "Well I brought two new acts along to try out. The teleportation act seems good." He cast a smile at Horace. "But I wanted to put Horace into something, and I don't think the second act is quite suitable for him. I was thinking of maybe coming up with something else. Something else new."

Ricky's eyebrows shot upwards. "This close to the performance? Can you even do that?"

"Maybe. If Auggie would help, it might just be done." Uncle Bob laughed. "And if Horace doesn't mind doing a little light comedy. I think it could be a fun act."

Horace rubbed his hands together. "I'm game. I'd love to work with Auggie."

Bob nodded. "Anyone know where he is?"

Kippy chuckled. "He was in front of the fire back in the lodge last time I saw him. I wouldn't be surprised if he's still there."

"Would you mind checking? And if he's there, ask him if he'll come here?"

"Sure." Kippy immediately went for his coat.

Adrian turned to follow. "I'll go with you." He paused, looking at Bob. "Unless you need me."

"Not just now. Go ahead."

The two boys left, and Ricky turned an appraising eye on his uncle. "You're up to something."

"Me?" Bob smiled.

Ricky laughed. "Oh, now I know you're up to something!"

Horace looked intrigued. "Are you going to let me in on this secret?"

Bob grinned, and walked to Horace, and laid a hand on his shoulder. "Ghost hunter, right?"

Horace's eyes briefly sought out Charlie's before the man nodded. "That's right."

"Uh huh. I was would you like to hunt up a spirit or two?"

Horace smiled. "Or two?"

Bob winked. "Maybe even three." He leaned closer. "How would you like to raise the spirit of Christmas?"

Charlie and Ricky looked at each other, and both boys broke out into smiles.

"Yeah," Rick said, turning his smile on Horace. "How would you like to raise some ghosts for the show?"

Several different emotions flitted across Horace's face before he settled on intrigued. "You mean like Dickens did, in A Christmas Carol?"

Bob laughed. "Actually, that's exactly what I mean."

Horace's eyes circled the group, taking in the smiles and the expectant gazes.

"Well...I guess if it's good enough for Dickens, it's good enough for me! "


After the evening meal, everyone gathered again in the lobby and sat or stood around talking. Kippy sat with Charlie for a while, the two of them just enjoying the ambience of the room, before Ricky and Adrian called Kip over to help settle some point they seemed to be debating with Mike and Bobby. It was obviously a friendly debate, but Kippy was still tickled to be invited to moderate. Charlie smiled after his boyfriend and called for him to hurry back, and then let his eyes circle the room, feeling a great satisfaction at having so many friends around at one time.

His eyes settled on Uncle Bob and Horace, who were engaged in an animated discussion with Pacha, Kontus, Ragal, and Casper, while Auggie sat beside them, listening. The four outworlder guests seemed highly interested in whatever was being discussed, often laughing or showing other positive signs that they were in agreement over something, and when they finally broke up and went their separate ways, Charlie couldn't resist walking over and pulling up Horace and trying to sort of indirectly determine what it had all been about.

The older man knew immediately what Charlie was asking, and clapped him heartily on the shoulder. "Ah, your curiosity never fails you, does it, young man?"

Charlie felt his face grow warm, and laughed. "I don't mean to pry. It's just...the conversation looked so interesting to everyone!"

"Indeed." Horace bent closer and lowered his voice. "No one said it was a secret. Bob has been developing this new act very quickly, and the man is a creative genius, I think. He has Auggie involved, and now he seeks to get your outer space friends involved, too."

Charlie blinked at that. "Kontus? Ragal and Casper? And Pacha?"

Horace feigned surprise, and leaned closer. "You have other outer space friends?"

Charlie gave a short laugh at that. "Well, now that you mention it, we do, actually."

Horace chuckled. "Well, I meant those four. And they have agreed to participate!"

It was all Charlie could do not to ask for more details. The idea of his friends involved in some mysterious new act was tantalizing...but he knew that trying to get more in the way of details from Horace would be both unfair to the man and to the act that Uncle Bob was trying to pull together. If it was meant to be a surprise, Charlie certainly didn't want to spoil that!

By now, the townsfolk had had a chance to meet all their visitors, and had taken to their offworld guests just as readily as they had to Auggie. Charlie had already known that the elves would be welcoming, and felt now that they would also very much enjoy having their guests perform for them. But that Uncle Bob only had two days to really pull this all together also seemed quite a challenge. What on earth could he be planning?

Horace must have been watching the expressions at play on Charlie's face as he considered all he had heard. The man laughed, and patted Charlie's shoulder again. "It's only partly a magic act, Charlie. Um...consider it a play. Yes, that's it. A play. A Christmas play!"

"A play," Charlie repeated, frowning. But then he smiled. "Well, I'm sure it will be fun!"

"You were not meant to be excluded, Charlie. None of you boys were. Bob just came up with this expanded idea before dinner. There will be a general rehearsal the day after tomorrow for everyone, and you'll find out more then. I can't really tell you more now, because I don't know any more myself!"

Charlie shook his head. "That sounds like it isn't very far along yet."

Again, the older man laughed. "It's still mostly in Bob's head, I agree. But what he has suggested thus far sounds promising. So relax. All will become clear soon."

Charlie laughed at that, remembering a scene in some old movie where a mysterious fortuneteller at a carnival had said pretty much the same thing to the heroine, who was being stalked by a homicidal maniac. All will become clear soon...

Although Charlie was much more reassured by Horace's words than that poor girl had been!

"I can wait. And I'm sorry for prying."

"Not at all, son. Never be afraid to ask, I always say. Because if you don't ask, you don't learn."

Horace headed off then, and Kippy came back at about the same time. Charlie related to his boyfriend what he learned, and they both sat back on the sofa and talked about it.

"Stop worrying, Charlie," Kippy finally said. "Uncle Bob knows what he's doing."

"I know. It's just...he doesn't know Pacha and the others very well. I just hope it all works out okay."

"It will. Now shut up about it."

Charlie laughed then, and leaned up against his boyfriend. "What was going on with the guys?"

Kippy sighed. "You remember when we were at the auction on Roorapynta, and the Beltracian ship arrived overhead and sent those black creatures with all the octopus arms down to try to capture us?"

Charlie frowned at the memory, which seemed totally out of left field just then. "They were talking about that?"

"Uh huh. Well, Ricky said the black vortexes of the bilocation fields that were transporting the octopus guys down were spinning counterclockwise."

Charlie simply stared. "And?"

Kippy smiled. "Bobby said he remembers clearly that they were spinning clockwise."

Charlie shook his head in disbelief. "And you remembered which way they were spinning?"

Kippy made a scoffing sound. "Of course not."

"Well...then what did you tell them?"

"I said that some of the vortexes were spinning one way, and some were spinning the other. That way, they could both be right."

Charlie squeezed his eyes shut a moment, but couldn't help smiling.

"Was I wrong?" Kippy asked.

Charlie opened his eyes and smiled at his boyfriend. "No. Kiss me?"

"Oh, Charlie." But Kippy leaned forward eagerly, and they exchanged a quick but passionate kiss.

There was a pop nearby, and Frit appeared before them. "Oh. There you are."

"Right where we usually are in the evening," Charlie said, smiling. "What's up?"

The elf smiled eagerly. "Do you have any plans in the morning?"

Charlie looked at Kip, who shrugged. "I don't."

Charlie shook his head. "Me, either." He turned back to Frit. "What's up?"

"Oh...nothing. I just wondered." Frit plastered an innocent look across his features, which immediately made both Charlie and Kippy laugh.

"We might make some plans, though," Charlie added, teasingly.

"Oh, please don't! It will ruin the surprise!"

"What surprise?" Kippy asked.

Frit put his innocent look back on then. "The one I can't tell you about. Just say you'll be ready after breakfast, okay?"

"Okay," Charlie said. "We'll be here. Right, Kip?"

"Wouldn't miss it!"

The elf looked pleased, and turned to look around the room. He spotted Ricky and Adrian, now in conversation with Ragal and Casper, and let out an eager sound. He cast one more look at Charlie and Kip, and waved. "See you!"

The elf disappeared, and reappeared almost instantly beside the others. Charlie laughed as he heard the elf ask them, "Do you have any plans in the morning?"

"Wonder what he's up to," Kip asked, giving a happy little sigh. "All he needed to do was to get the room's attention, and say there was a surprise in the morning, and for everyone to be here."

"Frit doesn't do things that way," Charlie decided. He sighed. "And I don't think it would be as much fun if he did."

Mili, the other owner of the lodge, was there that evening, and had the duty of wheeling in a cart laden with hot drinks. Once again Charlie and Kip selected hot chocolate, while the others picked their favorite drinks. One noticeable thing about elf business owners was that there was never a boss so high up the chain of command that she didn't work like everyone else. Mili and Reeza had owned the lodge for many years, and had probably made a very good living with it. But both still worked there doing everyday things, and obviously loved what they did.

"Wonderful chocolate," Kippy said, taking a sip of his. "Even the food and drinks here taste special."

"Magic marshmallows, maybe," Charlie kidded, smiling.

Kippy smiled over his cup at him. "I wouldn't be at all surprised!"

Charlie looked up as Kontus arrived before him, carrying a herculean mug of inticka. The big Trichani smiled down at them, but seemed just a little nervous.

"What's up?" Charlie asked, returning the smile. He patted the empty cushion next to himself. "Sit and talk a little. Are you having a good time?"

Charlie and Kippy both laughed as the alien sat, and his weight caused their own cushions to sag to one side. Kontus seemed not to notice, and looked around the room again before offering them another toothy smile. "I am having a wonderful time, actually. I have never experienced anything quite like this before."

"That's always fun," Kippy offered. "New things, and stuff."

"Yes." Kontus leaned forward then. "I am embarrassed to say so, but I have a small problem."

Charlie looked over at Kip, who simply raised his eyebrows questioningly, and leaned forward just a little more to inspect the Trichani. "You look to be all in one piece."

Kontus barked out a laugh. "I am. Yet I still have just a...tiny problem."

"You can tell us," Charlie said. "We won't laugh."

Kontus nodded and leaned back in order to rummage around inside the vest of the outfit he was wearing. "I spoke to that very kind lady at the desk, Reeza, earlier, and discussed with her the problem I was having getting dry after my shower." He grinned then, showing sharp teeth. "A wonderful experience that is, I may add!"

"And a wet one, I know," Kippy inserted playfully.

The Trichani barked out another laugh. "Yes, well. I was telling her that I could not keep going through her drying cloths like I was, as the closet in the hallway was getting empty. She went back into the office, and brought me this."

He pulled his hand from his vest, producing what at first looked like a small pistol weapon of some sort...but with a cord wrapped into a bundle beneath the hand grip. It actually looked small within the alien's large hand, and Charlie had to look at it twice before he recognized it as a hand-held hair dryer. He laughed then. "That'll work!"

Kippy also looked amused. "Have you tried it?"

Kontus let his tongue hang out a second, an expression of exasperation among his kind. "I pride myself on being able to use alien technology of every kind...yet this one has defeated me. I have been unable to make it operate."

Kippy noted the still coiled cord under the handgrip, and smiled. "You did plug it in, right?"

The look of confusion on the big Trichani's face said it all, and Charlie and Kippy both laughed. Kippy bounced to his feet then, to stand before Kontus. "Come with me a moment."

Kontus hefted himself to his feet, returning the hairdryer to some internal pocket within his vest as he did so. Kippy led him towards the stairway, and Charlie realized then that he didn't want to miss this, and propelled himself to his feet and followed. They climbed the stairway together, and walked down the upper hallway until they got to the room Kontus occupied. He gingerly extracted the key from his vest and opened the door, and Kippy grabbed the big alien's hand and led him straight to the bathroom.

It was large, as were all the baths in the lodge. The tub was a corner unit, more than large enough for two people to bathe comfortably, and enclosed within glass panels. There were two shower heads above, one on each side of the tub, that were currently fixed so that their streams would meet somewhere in the middle.

"I am thinking about having one of these units custom crafted for me when I get back to Roorapynta," Kontus said, laughing. "Although I would have to use a water recycling system to reuse the water involved."

Kippy nodded, and led Kontus to the large counter, which contained two sinks, and which had a large mirror on the wall in front of it. "Here, let me have that dryer."

Kontus handed it over, and Kippy unraveled the cord, and pointed at the outlet on the wall. "See that?"

"Yes. I wondered what it was."

"Power source," Kippy explained. "See the end of this cord?"

Kontus examined that, and then his eyes jumped back to the outlet. "Ah, I see!"

"It only goes in one way," Kippy explained. "One of these lugs is bigger than the other." He inserted the plug into the outlet, and handed the dryer back to Kontus.

The Trichani stared at it. "This is the activator?" he asked, pointing to a lever switch at the top of the handle.

Kippy leaned closer to look. "Uh huh. Just be careful. This one has three settings: low, medium, and toast. They can get pretty hot."

"Hot," Kontus repeated, looking mystified. But he pushed the lever to the first stop, then nearly dropped the dryer when it whirred into action. "What?"

"You point it at your wet fur," Kippy explained, grinning.

Kontus turned the dryer against the fur of one arm, and immediately looked surprised. "Well! That feels very nice!"

"Yep." Charlie laughed. "You just play it over your fur until it's all dry."

"I see. Evaporation through the application of heat and atmospheric motion. How clever!"

Charlie and Kippy looked at each other, both of them trying not to laugh. "It's probably very primitive compared to what you're used to," Charlie suggested.

"I am not used to a water bath at all, so I am not used to being dried other than as a byproduct of chemical action. This is quite ingenious, actually."

Charlie shook his head, amazed to see a member of a powerful, star-traveling civilization apparently in awe of a hair dryer. "We aim to please!"

Kontus looked longingly at the bath tub. "Um...would you excuse me, guys? I feel a need for a bath coming on." He waved the hair dryer at them. "I can't wait to try this out."

"But you can't use it under the water," Kippy said pointedly. "Water and electricity don't mix."

"I understand." Kontus grinned happily, set the hair dryer on the counter, and went back to open the valves for the tub.

Charlie and Kippy left the Trichani humming happily, and that made them both feel even more cheerful than usual.

"It's the small things that often tickle us the most," Kippy said, wrapping his arm around Charlie's as they went back downstairs.

Casper met them at the bottom of the steps. "There you are! We hoped you had not gone to bed so early. Ragal and I would like to spend some time with you!"

Charlie gave a little bow, and smiled at their friend. "Your wish is our command, isn't it, Kip?"

"Absolutely. Lead on, Casper."

The little alien put on an expression of obvious glee, and spun back towards the semi-circular sofa, where Ragal was just turning to look at them. This evening, she was wearing a lime green robe-like affair with a pattern of what looked like yellow flowers of some sort - if flowers had pincers somewhere in the galaxy. Ragal's face brightened in a smile, and Casper waved to her. "I found them!"

Kippy took Charlie by the hand and started them after Casper. Both boys were smiling.


The sleigh turned high above the town, affording them a grand view of main street below. There, people pointed and waved, and Charlie could almost imagine he heard them calling out their good wishes. Beside him, Kippy looked over the other side of the sleigh, and waved to those below, his face certainly mirroring the same joy and elation that Charlie was feeling himself.

To soar among the clouds - for it was another gray yet not uncheerful day - without the restrictions of a human-made machine around them, was exhilarating. No glass to peer through, no noisy engines to distract, no crowds pressed closely around them. Nothing but a gentle and warmed wind in their faces - for effect Max had told them, smiling - and a free sense of movement as if soaring upon wings.

To the fore of the small sleigh, Norville and Orville pulled in their harnesses, turning their heads back occasionally as if to reassure themselves that their passengers were having a good time. The two reindeer pulled the sleigh easily, their movements deft and sure, their experience telling, despite their youthful age. Kippy and Charlie both grinned and waved at them when they did look, and the two reindeer grunted out their happiness and pulled even harder. The sleigh whipped through tight turns and seemed almost to bounce up and down in the sky; and yet the ride was smooth and the turns easy to take, for inertia seemed to have taken a vacation from these particular proceedings.

Other dots danced and turned in the sky around them: Rick and Adrian in their sleigh; Mike and Bobby in theirs; Ragal and Casper, looking amazed and thrilled every time their sleigh passed close by. All moving with an almost unearthly grace about the early afternoon sky. Even the sleigh containing Kontus and Pacha, the little Kift's face barely discernible above the rim of the sleigh from his perch upon the Trichani's lap, moved in graceful turns and sliding motions that sometimes seemed almost impossibly unreal. If the two reindeer pulling the not inconsiderable mass of the big Trichani were in any way daunted by the task, they certainly didn't show it.

Charlie tightened his arm around Kip's shoulders, and leaned closer and kissed his cheek. Despite the small motion of air past their faces, there was no noise to speak of, and it was easy enough to converse.

"Are you having fun?"

"Oh, Charlie, need you even ask?" Kippy smiled at him, and pecked him on the lips. "It was so nice of Max and the kids to arrange this for us."

As if on cue, there were twin pops in the air, and Frit and Pip were floating long to either side of them, outside the sleigh.

"Is it too fast?" Frit asked, looking concerned.

"Is it too high?" Pip added, looking equally attentive.

Charlie and Kippy both laughed. "Will you two relax!" Charlie called. "It's wonderful! Now stop worrying, will you?"

The two elves grinned at each other, and disappeared again. Norville looked back over his shoulder and rolled his eyes, as if amused that the two elves didn't trust him and Orville to do their jobs properly.

Kippy must have seen that, too. "You're doing great!" he called back to them, waving.

The sleigh containing Ricky and Adrian cruised past them, close enough for the two couples wave to each other. Their friends looked just as happy as Charlie was feeling himself. A moment later Ragal and Casper went by, their faces covered in smiles, waving their arms and looking elated.

Kippy laughed. "You'd think guys used to flitting around in anti-gravity floaters would be less thrilled by a simple sleigh ride!"

Charlie had to laugh, too. All their visitors seemed enchanted with Twombly and its people, and the many interesting things they'd been doing. That everyone was having a good time made Charlie happy. Max had been around enough for them to know that he was there and paying attention; but he was also obviously busy with other tasks, and it seemed he had trusted Frit and Pip to look after the guests for most things. Those two had been having a grand time of it, if overdoing the attentiveness part just a little. Charlie had to smile at that, because the two elf teens were so obviously sincere in their desire that all the visitors to Twombly go home later with fond memories of their time there.

Only Uncle Bob and Horace - and Auggie - were absent from the flight, the two men insisting that they needed to be getting things ready for the big show. The big cat seemed happy to have been invited to participate, and had promptly fallen in with the two as they headed out after breakfast. Horace had returned briefly to the restaurant to remind Kontus, Pacha, Casper, and Ragal that they were to attend a rehearsal that afternoon, and had grinned at Charlie when he'd called to the man in passing, asking how things were going.

"It's coming along!" Horace had returned, smiling. "All in good time!"

The boys had laughed, and finished their meals, and had emerged back into the lobby to find Frit and Pip waiting for them. "Surprise!"

And now the sleigh ride, another venture high within the gray dome of the daylit sky. There was something about Twombly that prevented the clouds from pressing lower, from completely enclosing the day. Their view of the town below, the mountains and forests for miles in every direction, and the other sleighs as they moved about the sky, had not been compromised. For a wintry Vermont day, the place was certainly cheery!

Norville looked back at them again, and the sleigh turned and started to lose altitude. Charlie looked around, and saw that the other sleighs were also heading in unhurried spirals for the ground.

He sighed. "Well, I guess it's over for now."

Kippy hugged him. "Actually, it was just the right amount of time. I never want this to get old, you know?"

Looked at that way, Charlie had to smile. "Yep, I think you're right."

Their sleigh turned in a slow circle, each circuit bringing them closer to earth, until the sleigh alit with a small shudder and glided across the snow to a stop. Both reindeer looked back at them then, and snorted, their eyes bright with pleasure at a job well done. Kippy gave Charlie a big grin, and then was squirming from the sleigh. Charlie climbed out after him, laughing, as Kippy marched around to the reindeer and gave each of them a hug.

"That was wonderful, you guys. Thank you!"

Charlie joined his boyfriend and nodded at the two deer. "Yeah. Thanks, guys. That was a wonderful Christmas flight."

The two reindeer nodded their heads and snorted, conveying their own pleasure that the ride had been enjoyed. Charlie heard someone call to him then, and turned to find Frit and Pip walking towards them in the company of several others, one a women whose height made her stand out among the elves.

"That's Ronja!" Kippy called delightedly, giving each of the reindeer a last fond pat on the nose, and then turning to run towards the approaching group.

Charlie gave each of the reindeer a quick hug then. "I'd love to do this again before we leave," he whispered to them. He smiled, patted their noses, and ran after his boyfriend.

Rick and Adrian were getting out of their sleigh and thanking their reindeer, too, and Charlie waved in passing and pointed to Ronja. Those two boys turned to look, and then were quickly following Charlie.

Besides Frit and Pip, Mayor Snorkum and his wife, Cawra, were among the group. But Kippy had run straight to the human woman in their midst, and was now exchanging hugs with her. Ronja, who had been the companion of Nicholaas for more than a year now, seemed just as delighted to see Kippy as he was to see her.

"Oh, you've grown so much!" she said, hugging Kippy and winking at Charlie as he came up.

Kippy pulled back and laughed. "I'm the same size I was last year!"

Ronja nodded, and leaned forward briefly to touch her cheek against Kip's. "I meant on the inside," she whispered. "It shows in your smile, you know."

Kippy looked like he thought he was being kidded, but then smiled. "Well, I'm glad someone can see it!"

Ronja nodded, and smiled around at all the boys. "You've all grown, I think. Come and get a hug!"

Rick and Adrian each received one, and came away looking happy. Ronja smiled, completely at ease, and Charlie had the notion that she had grown into her role as companion to Santa as well. Charlie could sense the honest pleasure the woman was feeling at seeing them again. "I guess we should visit more often, huh?"

Ronja raised her eyebrows at him, with just the right touch of admonition underneath. "Yes! It wouldn't hurt my feelings one bit."

"Sorry. We'll try to do better," Charlie said. "We just keep getting into things that keep us busy."

"Adventures," Ricky said, giving a little shrug. "Heroics and quests."

"Guy stuff," Adrian added, winking. "You know? Saving the universe, and all?"

"I believe I do!" Ronja returned, laughing.

"Did Nicholaas come with you?" Kippy asked.

"Or will he be along later?" Charlie added, grinning.

Ronja smiled. "You know him well, I see. This is his busiest time of the year. But he will be along as soon as he can, and well before Christmas Eve."

"Were you in the lodge?" Kippy asked. He leaned forward, smiling brightly. "Did you see our tree?"

"I did. And I sense Max's hand in that, and maybe a bit of each of you, and I thought the little galaxy at the top was as unique an addition as I have ever seen."

"Casper did that," Charlie said, turning to look behind them. The other sleighs had landed, and the rest of their group was coming to meet them. "You'll have to meet our other friends."

"You'll like them, "Adrian said, nodding. "And I know they'll like you."

The others came up then, and Charlie introduced their friends from the stars to this special friend of theirs from an undisclosed location near the North Pole.

"There's one more," Kippy added, after greetings had been exchanged. "Rick's Uncle Bob you know, and Auggie, but then there's our new friend, Horace. They're over at the town hall, um, working on the magic show."

"I've heard a lot about it from Max," Ronja said, nodding enthusiastically. "I'm looking forward to seeing it."

Her eyes landed on Ragal again, and she smiled at the clothing the alien was wearing. It was a dress of sorts, and it seemed very lacy somehow, almost dainty, yet was obviously much warmer than it looked. The colors were a pleasant rose on gray, and the pattern utterly unique, to say the least. Ragal had on knee-high gray boots beneath the dress, which made her look less like a string bean than usual. It was a rather striking outfit, actually, Charlie thought...or, at least, it would be, if he had never known Ragal as a guy. That little fact kept getting in the way of Charlie's new view of Ragal as feminine. He knew it shouldn't, but he just had been unable to help it yet.

Ronja positively glowed, "What a wonderful dress, my dear."

Kippy smiled at that, and Charlie had to raise a hand to his mouth to cover his own. Ronja noticed immediately, and squinted at them, obviously puzzled.

"Oh, just ignore them, dearie," Ragal said, stepping forward. She looked Ronja up and down, and sighed happily. "What a lovely snow suit. Where on earth...I'm assuming it was earth...did you get it?"

"It was made by an elf at the shop, actually," Ronja confided. "Though I did have some vigorous input into what it would look like."

"Naturally," Ragal returned, rolling her eyes and waving a hand. "I've never been an off the shelf gal, myself!" That last was said with a noticeable trace of humor in it, and the boys laughed, while Ronja looked around at them, obviously not getting the humor.

"I'm most often a male," Ragal said then.

Ronja's eyebrows went up, but she had the good grace to smile. "I see."

Ragal laughed. "Probably not." She leaned closer, and patted her pleasant attire. "My species has no set gender. I tend to lean male, but every now and then my feminine side asserts herself, and this is the result. Charlie and his friends have always known me as a male, and I think they have been very brave in adjusting to the change. But I do know it is not an easy concept for people set for life in one gender to grasp."

Ronja spent a moment digesting that, but then smiled. "You make a very lovely lady, Ragal." She leaned closer, and lowered her voice conspiratorially. "Welcome to the enlightened side!"

Ragal found that funny, and chortled happily.

"Anything planned for your afternoon?" Charlie asked.

"Not just yet." Ronja looked around at the town, and smiled. "It's wonderful to be here. It's even prettier in person."

There was a window in the place Nicholaas and Ronja called home, Charlie knew, that always showed a live view of Twombly. Ronja had often stood before it and watched the townsfolk go about their business. It was kind of surprising that she had never been here in person, actually, but Charlie certainly well understood how life got busy and events took over. None of the boys had been back to visit in a while, either.

Charlie smiled at the mayor and his wife, who had been listening patiently the entire time, looking pleased at the affection in the reunion they had witnessed. "How about you, Mayor?" Charlie asked. "Anything planned for the afternoon?"

Mayor Snorkum laughed, while his wife patted his arm cheerily. "There's always work to be done," she said. "It never seems to end."

"It seems so," the mayor agreed. He turned to look at his wife then. "But we do enjoy it, don't we?"

She gave a little sigh, and nodded. "It is the work of a lifetime, and we both love it."

"It shows in your town," Ronja told them, nodding. "I can feel the contentment here. "

The mayor smiled at that. "It has grown even more complete since we have been reunited with those on the other side of the portal."

"I think you'll find that they feel the same way," Ronja replied.

Kippy leaned up against Charlie and gave a little sigh, and Charlie nodded. "It is wonderful to be here again. Thank you for having us."

The mayor shook his head. "It is you and your friends that do us the honor. Christmas has been that much more magical for us since the first time you people arrived here. No price can be placed upon such a thing." He smiled. "The whole town is excited. A chance to enjoy your company again, a chance to witness another presentation of magic - it is a greater gift than we could have asked for this year."

Kippy squeezed Charlie's arm, and Charlie nodded. "I think we feel much the same way. We love this town, and its people."

Cawra reached across between them and patted his arm. "That is the greatest gift of all, Charlie. Thank you."

Charlie nodded, feeling a dampness at the corners of his eyes. Kippy unabashedly wiped at his, and Rick and Adrian both had a case of the sniffles.

Ragal looked around at them, and gave a slow nod. "I think I am starting to see, Charlie."

Charlie blinked at her, and then did wipe at his eyes. "See what?"

Ragal dropped a hand and placed it behind Casper's head, and patted the boy fondly. "Why you celebrate this holiday, of course."

"It does seem to be living up to your tales about it, Mike," Pacha said, kindly. "And yours, too, Bobby."

Mike nodded, and reached out his hands. Kontus leaned forward, and deposited the small Kift into them. Mike shifted Pacha to the crook of one arm, and gazed down at him, smiling. "Its a time to celebrate all the people in your life. Even the ones you gotta carry all the time." He winked.

Tchick-tchick-tchick. The Kift seemed to like that statement. "And you have not dropped me a single time yet!"

"I won't," Mike said, seriously. "Not ever." He turned to smile at Bobby. "You, either, love."

Bobby nodded, his expression softening noticeably. "Me, too."

Ragal put out a hand and dropped it on Bobby's shoulder, and gave it a reassuring rub.

Charlie rubbed his nose one more time, and looked at Frit and Pip, who were standing close together. "We loved the sleigh ride. Thanks."

"We heard your wish," Frit said. "To do it one more time before you leave."

Charlie was stunned at that. "You heard me talking to the reindeer, all the way over here?"

Pip shook his head. "No. We didn't hear you, Charlie. We heard your wish!"

Charlie wasn't sure what the difference was, but laughed. "Oh, well."

"You can do it again," Frit said. "Norville and Orville and the others already agreed to come back before it's time for you to leave."

"It's fun for them, too!" Pip added.

"Told you wishing matters," Kippy said, smiling at Charlie.

Charlie closed his eyes and grinned. "Can anyone tell what I'm wishing for now?"

Frit hooted, and Pip smiled broadly at them. "That's a big sandwich!"

"A really big one!" Pip called.

Charlie offered one arm to Kip, and the other to Ronja, and smiled around at the others. "Anyone care to join me for lunch?"


"What a lovely view," Ragal said, looking off across the valley. "That looks like vehicle traffic down below."

Charlie squinted into the gray afternoon. They could just make out headlights, moving along a road far below.

"It is," Kiri Snorkum said, nodding. "The mist makes it look intriguing, doesn't it?"

"I would say, yes."

"It's amazing," Casper agreed, his eyes wide with wonder. "What a special place!"

"That's why we brought you here," Kiley Snorkum said. He smiled. "But not to look, so much as listen."

"I hear nothing but the wind," Kontus said, looking around them.

Kiri smiled. "Yes. But what is it saying?"

"Are we supposed to be listening for something, then?" Bobby asked.

Kippy held up a hand. "Everybody be quiet for a moment."

The group grew silent, all ears turned to the wind. It flowed among them, treading softly among the rocks of the ledge, a casual exploration rather than an invasion. Charlie felt its movement against his face, felt it intensify, and closed his eyes as a thin breeze danced across the ledge. It brought a faint purr of sound to his ears, one that made him pay immediate attention. It had the qualities of a voice, a whisper in the wan afternoon light, and Charlie turned his head, seeking it out, trying to understand what it was saying.

I wish...

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

I wish...

Charlie sighed. It was just the way they had heard it the first time. He smiled around at the others.

"It's like a voice," Kontus said, his own voice hushed now to a whisper.

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

"They're wishes," Kiri said, just as softly. "The wishes of the world."

Pacha held up a tiny hand. "I sense power here, a focus for many things." He smiled. "Good things. Is this why you brought us here, to experience this?"

"Yes." Kiley nodded. "This is a special place for us. Like you said, it's a focus for many great things. But, especially, for the needs of the world. The whole world."

"How did it come to be?" Ragal asked. "Places that hold power usually gain it from living things. Someone has caused this place to become what it is."

Kiri nodded. "Long ago, the founder of our town, Eustace Phernackertiban, and his wife, Marly, found this place and fell in love with it. The way we came in from the town road is just one way." She pointed to another path on the other side of the ledge. "Follow that trail, and it will lead you directly to the mayor's house. It's our house now. But long ago, the home that stood on that spot belonged to Eustace and Marly."

"They needed a place to meditate," Kiley explained. "To get away from town things a little. They loved the view from here, and so came often. Here is where Eustace and Marly liked to contemplate their new world - the human world. It is supposed that, by the very act of their contemplation, the world itself took notice. Took notice, and started directing the needs of the people here, carried on the wind."

"You speak of the world as an intelligent entity," Casper said. "Almost as if it is alive."

"It is," Kiley said. "The world is alive, and it takes notice of all things."

Pacha made a small sound, like a sigh. "There is a similar belief among my own people, that all life is part of the world which has birthed it. That all are actually one thing, a unit. You humans refer to it as nature. It is known that those that operate without regard for the world - without regard for nature - are often defeated by its complexities. The systems that define a world are of an order beyond the comprehension of most individual minds. Yet all of these systems are interlinked, all in balance. To disrespect even one part of the system can be to cause the failure of another part, or even all."

The little Kift looked over at Charlie. "The Arpathant were a prime example of a life form that operated with contempt for world systems. They were responsible for the destruction of many worlds, and the life that was a part of them."

"And we see what happened to them," Adrian said, with just a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

Kontus looked surprised, and let his gaze move from one human face to another. "It is known that the entire Arpathant empire has vanished. But not what became of them." He leaned closer to Adrian. "The implication of your words is that you know what happened to them."

"We do," Charlie said, nodding. "They were, uh, removed."

The big Trichani reared back, his eyes wide with surprise. "What does that mean?"

"It was not the humans that did it," Pacha said. "They are not to blame. It was my kind that performed the task."

Kontus blinked at that, and rubbed a large hand carefully down the side of his jaw. "May I ask what you did?"

"Yes. We created a...a device, if you will...part of which was the result of the science of the mind my people use." He indicated Kiley and Kiri. "Like the magic that these people use. Both are born of the same body of energy, which elfkind refers to as the allmagic."

"Ah." Kontus nodded. "Power use."

"Exactly. The Arpathant were an irresponsible people, who operated with complete disregard for the welfare of others. They threatened a number of worlds in this part of space, one of which was my own. We finally reached a point where we could tolerate them no more."

"You destroyed them?" Kontus asked, plainly having difficulty believing such in an act by Pacha, or by his kind.

"No. We removed them from our universe. Them, and all their works. The entire Arpathant race and everything they had created was shifted to an alternate universe, identical to our own, but one where intelligent life had never arisen. There they could romp about as irresponsibly as they wished, and never harm another people. And our space would be rid of them."

Kontus stared at the Kift for a long moment, and then slowly smiled. "Fearsome little fellow, aren't you?"

Charlie joined the others in laughing.

The Trichani looked thoughtful for a moment, but then nodded. "They were a nasty people, always testing the limits of other's patience. And yet, I would have been upset to learn that you destroyed them." He grinned, showing many sharp teeth. "The puzzle of their disappearance has unsettled many of the galactic powers, including the Moth, who have been noticeably easier to get along with since that event occurred. Not knowing who was responsible for the deed has redefined the manners of even those dark ones." He laughed. "So I believe it is my solemn duty never to reveal what you have told me. That no one knows what happened to the Arpathant is the key to keeping this uncertainty in place."

"There is no proof, anyway," Mike said. "Your empire doesn't even know about the Kift, does it?"

"That's true. This part of the galaxy has long been under Arpathant hegemony. The general opinion among other races is that the Arpathant encountered someone powerful that they offended, and the result was their termination."

"That's kind of what happened," Kippy said, smiling at Pacha. "I'm kind of surprised no other empire has rushed into the vacuum."

"And none will, most likely," Kontus confirmed. "Even though this entire area of space now seems, um, open and available for use by others, not knowing what force was responsible for destroying the Arpathant has kept the other empires from exploiting it. It's a big galaxy, and there is simply no need to occupy former Arpathant space. There is a general fear that the perpetrators of the act against the Arpathant reside here, and would again be intolerant of more, well, visitors."

"Wow." Ricky shook his head. "You mean these powerful galactic empires out there really think there are unknowns around with far greater powers than they have themselves?"

Kontus looked surprised at that." Certainly. The precursor races that once controlled this part of the galaxy were known to wield immense power, yet they are all vanished now. Not just that, but the evidence is there that they all vanished at much the same time in history. The cause of their demise has never been determined, but there are many who believe that whatever happened, the ones that were responsible may still be around. They think it would be unwise to act as if it were otherwise." The Trichani laughed, and indicated Pacha. "Besides, we have just determined that there are unknown peoples out there with vast and unknowable powers."

"Point," Charlie said, smiling.

Kiley and Kiri had been listening with wide eyes, and now they both stared at each other as if in amazement.

"Pretty awesome, huh?" Kippy asked, taking note. "It affects us the same way, believe me."

Kiley nodded. "I can't imagine what it would be like to travel to the stars." He smiled. "Your adventures sound like a movie or something."

Pacha leaned towards him, his arm outstretched, and Mike leaned forward, too, so that the little Kift could place a hand on Kiley's arm. "The very same forces that are at work out there can be found right here on your own world." Pacha lifted his hand and indicated the rocky ledge they all stood upon. "The stars have no lock on wonder, young man. I sense it right here, in this very special spot."

Both elf teens looked around, as if appreciating anew their secret place.

Kontus grunted, but it was one of acceptance. "Power users see a different universe than those of us that do not have those abilities. I once was alarmed by the idea of those that could manipulate such forces. But now I have seen that most races that have these abilities also tend to use them for good things."

"Except for the Moth," Ricky said pointedly.

"The Beltracians weren't exactly nice neighbors, either," Adrian added dryly.

Kontus waved a hand dismissively. "The Beltracians are gone now, too. And the Moth mostly use their abilities to argue among themselves, and rarely against other peoples. They prefer to cloak their powers in mystery, so that other races will fear their abilities, without having to show them off at all."

"Because they're not really very good at it," Mike said, laughing. "I mean, next to Pach and the elves, they're just amateurs."

"They will grow in ability with time," Pacha remarked. "But so will their temperance grow." He let his breath sigh out. "Hopefully."

Ragal gazed out again at the tiny lights moving on the far road, and smiled. "This is a very peaceful place. I feel relaxed, just standing here."

"I like it, too," Casper said. He smiled at Kiley and Kiri. "Thank you for sharing it with us."

"Agreed," Kontus offered. "It's a pleasant gift, to hear these small voices, and to imagine what prompts them to speak to us."

"Most speak of kindnesses for others," Kiri said.

"Many want for better things for the world," Kiley agreed.

Bobby sighed. "I never knew there were such wonderful places here on earth. I've been out in the galaxy, and thinking that was such a cool place, and all the time there were places right here at home that were just as special and wonderful. Thanks for showing me that."

That seemed to please both elves, and they nodded.

They grew silent then, and the group turned together to look out across the mist enshrouded land at the small lights on the distant road, while the wind whispered playfully about them, and spoke to them of wishes.


Charlie and Kip were just about ready to go down to the lobby that evening for the after dinner get-together when there was a knock at their door.

"Oh, Charlie, can you get that?" Kip called from the bathroom. "I'm still fixing my hair."

Charlie smiled at that. No matter what his boyfriend did to his hair, it would revert to its naturally wild state within minutes, as if nature laughed at the idea that anything else would do. Kippy's hair always looked good, the curls mild and tending to neatness on their own, yet sporting just enough disrespect to let you know that no brush or comb was ever going to quite tame them. Charlie had always loved the look, and seeing that it had been with Kippy since his early years - as evidenced by when Max had showed them Kippy's first Christmas tree - just made it seem all the more likely that Kip was fooling himself in front of the mirror.

"Okay. Probably just Rick and Adrian."

Charlie went to the door and opened it, and then laughed out loud with pleasure. "Nicholaas!"

"Hello, my friend," Nicholaas said, beaming. He stepped inside and opened his arms, and Charlie quickly stepped into them and gave the man a hearty hug.

"I was hoping you'd get here sooner than later," Charlie said, closing the door. "It's so good to see you!"

The bathroom door opened and Kippy came running out. "I knew I heard your voice!"

He crossed the room, and he and Nicholaas exchanged hugs, laughing.

Kippy smiled at the man, and sighed. "I was halfway expecting some last minute Christmas calamity to keep you from coming,"

"Not this year. After all, Auggie is here, right?"

Charlie and Kippy both laughed at that. "He's been on his best behavior, I swear," Charlie said.

"Yes, well." Nicholaas smiled. "Max's grandson and his friend may have done us a favor. Auggie has been moping a little of late. I think he was feeling a bit underutilized, if you know what I mean."

"He's going to be in the magic show this year," Kip said, smiling.

Nicholaas chuckled at that. "And not just him. Our Bob Travers and his new friend cornered me the moment I came in, and drafted me into the show, as well as Ronja."

Kippy gaped a moment, and then clapped his hands together. "That will be so much fun! We all have parts in the show." But then he paused, and frowned at Nicholaas. "What are you going to be doing?"

The man smiled. "Apparently, they needed someone to play Santa Claus. For some reason, they think I can handle the role."

Charlie and Kippy both started laughing.

There was another knock at the door, and Charlie grabbed the knob and pulled it open. Ricky and Adrian were there, with Ronja. The two boys saw Nicholaas, and immediately rushed forward.

"Surprise!" Ronja called, smiling.

Ricky and Adrian both beamed, and exchanged hugs with the man.

"Now we're ready to rock and roll!" Ricky said, excitedly.

Adrian nodded, turning back on Ronja. "Pretty sneaky, not telling us he was here!"

"Not at all," Ronja protested, her eyes twinkling with merriment. "You don't expect me to ruin the surprise, do you?"

"No," Adrian admitted. He laughed. "You have a great poker face, though. I never suspected for a minute!"

Nicholaas cupped his hand to his mouth, and offered in a loud stage whisper, "She keeps me guessing, too!"

Ronja tsked, and shook her head. "Oh. Be nice, now."

Nicholaas smiled, stepped up to Ronja, and kissed her. "Forgive me."

"I do." It was clear that Ronja was happy.

They heard footsteps in the hallway, and the door, still standing open, suddenly framed Max. "Oh. There you are, boss."

Nicholaas smiled. "Are they ready?"

"Yup. You guys wanna come on down?"

"What's going on?" Charlie asked.

Nicholaas indicated the door. "Why don't we go downstairs and see?"

Charlie and Kippy exchanged glances, each knowing that something was up. But they fell in behind Nicholaas and Ronja, and Rick and Adrian fell in behind them.

As he passed Max, Charlie squinted at him. "What are you up to?"

"Me? Not a thing." But the elf grinned as he closed the door to Charlie's room, and followed after them.

They descended the staircase to find the rest of their group waiting at the bottom, along with Frit and Pip.

"Come with us," Frit said, as he and Pip turned and started for the double doors from the lobby to the street.

"We don't have coats," Charlie said then, looking at Max.

"You won't need 'em. Trust me, Charlie."

Charlie did, and nodded.

Bob and Horace looked tired but happy, and Charlie knew the two had put in long hours getting the show ready. He smiled at them, and they smiled back. He could tell that both of them felt satisfied that things were ready for the performance the next evening, Christmas Eve.

Mike was carrying Pacha in one arm, and had the other around Bobby's arm. He smiled at Charlie, and nodded at Kontus, Ragal, and Casper. "Looks like we're going, gents."

They formed a group behind Max, and all of them followed Nicholaas and Ronja, who followed Frit and Pip to the lobby exit. The two elves pushed the double doors outward, and then stood to one side, holding them open. Nicholaas and Ronja, arm-in-arm, passed them, and Charlie and everyone else followed.

They exited onto the large covered porch that fronted the lodge, and into the night, with its cheery Christmas lights all about, and found a surprising warmth on the porch, which also seemed to have been completely cleared of residual snow. In the street before the lodge stood a large semicircle of Twomblies, and behind them stood what looked like the entire town. Everyone was dressed warmly, and as Charlie put his hands on the railing of the porch he felt a sudden chill on his fingertips, and realized that whatever barrier protected the porch from the evening cold, it ended at its perimeter.

Once everyone was outside, Frit and Pip closed the doors, and stood back against the wall.

"What's all this?" Kippy whispered to Charlie, standing beside him.

"Wait for it," Charlie said, already forming an idea.

The semicircle of smiling Twomblies before them parted, and Mayor Snorkum emerged from the crowd at their back. The townsfolk, until then talking softly among themselves, quickly grew quiet. Charlie looked around, and could see nothing but happy faces.

The Mayor smiled up at them, and tipped his tall top hat. "Friends. Friends of Twombly, welcome. At this time of the year, it is our custom to share our joy in song. We felt it only proper to invite you to join us."

Kippy clasped his hands in front of himself and smiled at Charlie. "Oh! Christmas carols!"

"What is this, Charlie?" Ragal asked quietly. "They plan to sing to us?"

"Yes. It's a custom here. Are you okay with that?"

"Yes, of course. Are we required to respond in any manner?'

Charlie smiled. "Just listen. When they're through, you can clap softly if you enjoyed the performance."

"We will!" Casper whispered. He reached up a hand and clasped Ragal's. Ragal smiled at Charlie and then returned his gaze to the Twomblies.

Mayor Snorkum revolved back to the semicircle of carolers and smiled. "Will you lead us, Anlee?"

A woman at the center of the formation smiled and nodded. "It would be my pleasure."

They made room for the mayor to return through their line, where he rejoined Cawra and Kiley and Kiri. Kiri waved at Charlie, who smiled and waved back.

The first song was Jingle Bells, and Charlie put his arm around Kip and they both joined in. The entire town sang, and the unified voice made Charlie tremble, though he wasn't cold at all. He turned to look at how their friends from offworld were taking the performance, and saw only surprised smiles and eyes shining with interest.

There followed other popular songs, like It's Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas, Have Yourself a Merry little Christmas, I'll Be Home For Christmas, and All I want For Christmas is You. More traditional carols came after that, including Do You Hear What I Hear?, Oh Holy Night, Silent Night, Joy to the World, Oh Come All Ye Faithful, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Charlie and the others didn't know all the words, but all of them did the best they could. The entire town sang with some of the songs, while the line of carolers performed others alone.

The mountain acoustics were surprisingly good, and the sounds found avenues everywhere to reverberate and enlarge themselves and add to the sheer wonder of a concert outdoors.

Kippy gave a little yip of happiness when Rudolph, the Red-Nose Reindeer came next, and everyone laughed when one of the elves stepped forward and sang I want a Hippopotamus For Christmas.

But finally, after a brief pause, the elves started into a song the boys didn't recognize, in a language they didn't understand. It was hauntingly beautiful, as were the three like it that followed, and Kippy laid his head on Charlie's shoulder and closed his eyes to listen. Above them the dark night sky had begun to drop scattered snowflakes to the ground, a fall that soon intensified, filling the air of the brightly-lit town with white motes that sashayed slowly back and forth as they fluttered earthward. The combined effect of what they could see and what they could hear was incredibly peaceful, and Charlie stood motionless, holding Kippy close, and thinking then that perhaps he was feeling some small sense of what it was like to view the world as an elf.

It was beautiful, and it made him want the feeling to last forever.

Alas, it did not. The last song ended, and a silence followed, and Charlie became aware that the elves were watching them, as if waiting for a response.

"That was beautiful," Ronja said, wiping at her eyes.

"Thank you," Horace said softly, as if to speak louder might shatter something.

Charlie cleared his throat quietly, and looked over at Nicholaas, who was smiling at him, as if to say, Go ahead. Say something.

"That was wonderful," Charlie heard himself say. He was surprised then at the strength in his voice. He felt humbled, not bold at all. "Incredible. I don't think any of us have ever enjoyed anything quite as much as that. Thank you all."

The Twomblies smiled, and started talking happily among themselves, and Charlie felt some measure of satisfaction that they had at least been thanked. A simple thank you really could scarcely cover what they had been given, but it seemed enough for the elves, who had been more than happy to share. Charlie was just remembering his own advice to Ragal earlier when the lanky alien raised his hands above his head and clapped gently, and Casper quickly joined in. Soon, everyone on the porch was clapping. The carolers all waved towards the porch, and as they dispersed, the mayor took off his hat and bowed their way briefly before collecting his family and also heading for home. The mass of Twomblies began to break up and move off in different directions, giving every indication that they had had a very good time, indeed.

"Now, grandpa?" Charlie heard Frit whisper behind them.

"Uh, not yet!"

The clapping faded as if by mutual agreement, and Charlie smiled at the group sigh that followed

"What a fantastic performance," Ragal said wistfully. "I wish I had thought to record it."

"I can provide you with a recording," Murcha said then, causing Charlie to jump. The artificial intelligences had mostly been silent since arriving, and Charlie had almost forgotten they were there. He felt badly about that now, wondering if they had been feeling left out.

"Not at all," Illia replied, when he decided to inquire about it. "The experiences have been extremely educational, and enjoyable. Murcha, Onglet, and I have been discussing much of what we see and hear among ourselves. If we feel we don't understand something, we will certainly ask."

"Just so you guys don't feel ignored," Kippy said.

"No, we don't," Onglet put in. "Observation and analysis is our primary mode of operation. We are enjoying that immensely."

Kippy looked at Charlie and shrugged. "Well, we tried."

"Please," Murcha said then. "Don't worry about us. We feel a part of everything that has been happening. We have enjoyed the visit to this place immensely. But we are not physical beings like you, and so we do not feel the need to socialize as much. That may come with time. You are all very good teachers!"

"Well, speak up anytime," Charlie reiterated. "Don't be shy!"

"Thank you, Charlie."

Adrian reached over and patted Kippy's shoulder, "Isn't it a beautiful night?"

The entire group turned as one and looked out into the falling snow. The voices of the elves were more muted now, sounding even more distant than they actually were as they called last minute goodnights to each other before heading for home. The shops and other buildings were still lit, the windows aglow with candles - magic ones, certainly, as they never seemed to burn down - and the colorful lights that the Twomblies so loved to decorate their town with twinkled everywhere in the falling snow. Charlie sighed, finding no flaws in the beauty of the night.

"It's perfect," Kippy said quietly.

The moment of silence that followed was the strongest agreement anyone could offer.

"Well," Nicholaas said then, smiling. "What can follow such a perfect night but a splendid and enchanting day?"

"It's almost Christmas Eve," Ronja agreed, nodding.

"And a busy one it will be," Uncle Bob added quickly. "Remember the morning rehearsal, everyone. After breakfast, of course!"

"Of course," Horace agreed, smiling. "I just hope I'll be able to sleep after that wonderful performance. The last songs in - what language was that, does anyone know?"

"Icelandic," Max supplied "Gamla tungan. The old tongue."

"We should add it to the language database of the translator," Pacha said. "I would have enjoyed knowing the words to those songs."

Charlie disagreed, but didn't say so. Part of the magic of those particular carols was that he did not know what was being said. It was what he felt when he heard them that seemed important. Somehow, the idea of knowing what the songs were about would actually lessen their impact for him. Their beauty was in their mystery, and the joy with which they were executed.

Horace sighed. "Well, they were beautiful. I've never heard anything quite like that before."

"I've never heard anything like any of this before!" Casper said, laughing.

"That's very true," Ragal agreed. "And yet, there would seem to be similar festivities in other cultures. Each unique, of course, but perhaps sharing an underlying theme. A special time set aside to celebrate life, and those we share each day of it with."

"We have it," Pacha said, tilting his head back in thought within the crook of Mike's arm. "N'skya, the day of peace and life. A time to renew vows, to rejoin family, and to celebrate friendships and alliances. The trappings are different, but the feelings involved seem much the same." He laughed, tchick-tchick-tchick. "I loved it so much as a child, but it has faded in its importance somewhat with age. I'll have to reconsider that, I think!"

"In my own culture, we have such a time, too," Kontus volunteered. "Grufnya'ruugh. It is a time of family and friends, much like this celebration is here." He barked out a laugh. "With differences, of course!"

Charlie was intrigued, and had to ask. "Um, like what?"

Kontus turned to smile at him. "Well, there is the Grrrrrmanna. The forgetting of lost trade. Every member of my species has, at one time or another, been bested in trade by another. Most are simply events that we take in stride, learning the lessons they have to offer, but bearing no grudges. But many, if not most, people also have that one trade deal that seemed theirs until the very last, and then which was snatched from them at the final moments by some adversary. A trade deal that counted dearly, and so the loss of which was painful." He sighed. "The natural urge to challenge still lies within us all. So we have laws regarding that now, and have mostly learned to sit on our urges."

The Trichani nodded. "But carrying these grudges is unhealthy for the spirit. So each year during Grufnya'ruugh we practice the Grrrrmanna, the ceremony of letting go. It is simply the dropping of all ill will for past losses. After the release, it is customary to call the one that burdened us, and leave them a simple message of 'Trade, Brother', to let them know all is forgiven."

Kippy smiled at that. "You guys play rough, but you're sweethearts underneath."

Kontus looked surprised, and made a small growling sound, but followed it with a laugh. "I will take that in the spirit in which it was offered."

"I remember such things, too," Casper acknowledged. "Pynti. A day of togetherness and the sharing of gifts. I was young then, but it was wonderful." He sighed. "That was before I had to make my escape from my world."

Ragal gave an almost menacing grunt, and placed a protective hand behind Casper's head. "No one should have to face what you did. A good thing you never showed us the location of your world!"

Charlie felt his eyes widen at that, but Ragal quickly smiled around at the others, and gave a small shake of her head. "Forgive me. That was out of touch with the spirit of the moment."

"Some things are not to be readily forgiven," Pacha countered. "There is nothing for you to apologize for here."

"I've never had a Christmas like this one, either," Bobby said. "I thought we had the best ones in Nebraska, too. Sure goes to show that there is always something new to learn."

Mike nodded. "This is a bit beyond the Chrissies I had back home, too. It's not at all unwelcome, I'll say that!"

"We can make it a tradition," Kippy said, smiling. "I wouldn't mind that at all." He looked around at the others. "We don't always have to come to Twombly, but we could at least get together one day at this time of the year and share it. Anyone that wants to, anyway."

"I like that idea," Ragal said.

"I do, too!" Casper agreed. "I'm in!"

There was a quick round of excited comments, before Nicholaas raised a hand for attention.

"We have a whole year to consider it. But for now, I think some sleep is in order if we all want to be able to face the new day with a clear head. Shall we go inside?"

There was agreement to that, as everyone suddenly realized just how tired they really were. Frit and Pip opened the doors and let them back inside the lodge, and they headed up to their rooms, exchanged hugs and goodnights, and separated. Kippy closed the door of their room and put his back to it, smiling and closing his eyes. "What a wonderful evening."

Charlie, already heading for the bathroom, sensed the romance Kippy was feeling, and immediately turned around and went back. "It was."

Kippy's eyes fluttered open. "I love being with you, Charlie Boone."

Charlie sighed. "I love being with you, too, Kip."

Kippy pushed himself away from the door and into Charlie's arms. They kissed, and Charlie just sort of melted into it, letting it take him over, until it seemed to have - at least briefly - sated itself.

Kippy opened his eyes and smiled at him. "You're very good at that."

"I learned from a master," Charlie returned, smiling.

"Ricky?" Kippy asked, mischief in his eyes.

Charlie sighed. "Nope."

"Um, Adrian?"

"I don't think so."


"Uh uh."


"Wrong again."

Kippy laughed. "I guess Ragal is out of the question!"

Charlie smiled. "It was none of them, Kip."

"That just leaves me, Charlie."

"Yes, it does."

Kippy sighed, pushing closer. "Want to go again?"

Charlie nodded, allowing his face to move closer, too. Towards the warmth and life his boyfriend was offering. And the love.

Always, the love.

Some things, you can never learn enough about, ever.


"The place is packed!" Kippy said, staring through a part in the curtains. "It's a full house!"

"It was exactly the same the last time we did this," Ricky said patiently. "Relax, Kip. You did fine then, and you'll do fine now."

Kippy grinned. "Oh, I'm not nervous. These are all our friends. I just want to give them a good show."

"We will," Adrian said. "We had a perfect rehearsal this morning, and it's still fresh in our minds. Even the new stuff went well." He laughed. "Ragal and the others were spot-on."

"It's not like their parts are huge, though," Rick said. "They'll be fine. Uncle Bob has this in the bag."

Kippy looked briefly unhappy. "He and Horace have worked so hard on this, it's like they didn't have a minute to enjoy themselves since we got here."

Charlie laughed at that. "Are you kidding? I think they've been having a blast!"

Kippy pouted. "You know what I mean. Spend some time with us, and all."

Charlie shook his head. "They're fine. There's tomorrow, and the day after, before we head home. Plenty of time."

"I guess."

Horace came up behind them then, and smiled. "Everybody ready? Take your places, then,"

"Good luck, everyone!" Charlie called, moving back towards the side of the stage.

Uncle Bob came onstage then, dressed in his fine black suit, cape, and top hat. The red lining of the cape gave him a regal appearance, and Charlie smiled at the thought that some people are born to do certain things. As a magician, or illusionist, Uncle Bob looked the part. That went a long way towards creating an image of reality for the audience.

"The mayor will speak, and then we'll go," Uncle Bob said. "Break a leg, guys!" He smiled then. "And remember to turn on your microphones when your time comes!"

Charlie smiled at that. They each wore tiny, wireless microphones, tied into the sound system. They had been very good about remembering to turn them on and off when needed or not needed, and now was not the time to mess that up.

The curtains fronting the stage were the only item that Bob Travers had not been able to automate. Each of the boys had a role there, with basically whoever was not going to be in the act onstage assigned to operate the curtains when needed. Charlie was odd man out for the first act, and took his position at the ropes.

He heard the crowd beyond the curtains quiet, and peeked out between the folds. The mayor was mounting the front steps, also looking fine in a black suit with a white shirt and a red bow tie, and his trademark top hat, much like the one that Bob Travers wore for his act. The mayor faced the audience, waved his hands briefly, and then smiled at the instant silence he received.

"My friends. Once again we have the honor and delight of welcoming Bob Travers and his magic troupe to our town. At this very special time of the year, magic seems everywhere, and there can never be too much of it. But, as we all know, there is magic, and then there is magic. I don't know about all of you, but I am quite thrilled to once again be able to sit and enjoy magic of another kind...magic that thrills and mystifies, and which always seem to leave me wanting more. So it is my great pleasure to once again present to you our wonderful guest töframaður ótrúlega - our magician extraordinaire - Bob Travers, and his talented troupe of practitioners of the arts most mysterious!"

The crowd roared appreciatively and clapped hard, and the mayor hurried offstage as Uncle Bob nodded at Charlie and started walking towards the curtains. Charlie hauled down on the rope then, and parted the curtains as Bob reached them, just enough for the man to step through onto the front of the stage. Only the black backdrop showed to the audience through the part in the curtains, a formless black void that revealed nothing to the eye.

Bob waved at the audience, all smiles, and offered them a brief bow, while they clapped enthusiastically. The man raised his hands then, and it was amazing how quickly the room fell into silence.

"Thank you all for the warm welcome. It's a great pleasure to be here again. I did want to begin by thanking you all for the wonderful Christmas carols last evening, because we really didn't get a chance to do that individually at that time." Bob beamed around at the crowd. "I think you served up quite a beautiful offering of your own magic then, and that enough of it is still in the air that tonight's show should have plenty of fuel to operate on!"

The audience laughed, and a few people clapped.

Bob smiled, and waited a moment for things to quiet again. "It's been two years since our last performance here. In that period of time, I have searched the world over for new and exciting mysteries to share with you. For magic unheard of and unseen by the world ever before, to be presented here, tonight, for the first time."

Bob pressed a button on the remote concealed within his gloved hand, and the house lights dimmed slowly. He stepped carefully onto his mark as another press of a button brought up a pinpoint spot overhead, just as the theater settled into darkness. Charlie smiled at the transformative effect, which seemed to make the world diminish to just the spot Bob was standing upon. They had taken great pains to ensure the meeting room of the town hall would offer up no spurious lights, and the early winter sunset had done the rest of the work outside. Bob Travers stood now within his own tiny pool of illumination, while behind the curtains, the others were waiting in their places. A hint of mysterious, haunting music came from the speakers to either side of the room, adding just the right touch of mystery to the proceedings.

"For our first excursion into magic this evening, I will need the assistance of some of my, assistants!"

That was the cue for Charlie to open the curtains wide, and he hauled down on the rope again, parting them to their fullest extent. Two pinpoint spots came up behind Uncle Bob, revealing Rick and Adrian, both dressed in black. A trio of larger spots suddenly illuminated a large, circular table between the two boys, while soft accent lighting removed the shadows from the stage in front of it. To the audience, sitting in the dark, the stage now looked fairly well-lit, though the shadows behind the two boys and the table itself were still indistinguishable from the black backdrop.

"May I present Rick and Adrian, two of my very able assistants." The audience clapped lightly, and both boys took a bow.

"Is the table ready?"

Ricky nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Then, let us begin."

The three of them approached the table. Bob stood to one side of it, while Rick and Adrian each went to opposite sides of the table and tilted the top of it upward until it locked in place facing the audience. The music picked up in tempo, right on cue.

Bob smiled at the audience. "Escape magic is one of the oldest sorts of magic there is, whereby a magician places himself inside a seemingly inescapable container of some sort, and then proceeds to confound the locks and doors, and get himself out. Tonight we will be trying our own spin on that, right before your very eyes."

Now that the tabletop had been tilted upwards to face the house, it could be seen that there was a dark rectangle set into the center of the table, just large enough to hold a man laying down. At the base of the rectangle was a thin ledge. Adrian brought out a small staircase on wheels, just enough steps that Bob could mount them and reach the rectangle. He climbed them, turned so that he could step onto the small ledge, and turned his back to the tabletop. The steps were wheeled away.

"My assistants will now cover me with a crystalline shell, and lock it in place. I will then, by use of magic handed down from the Pharaohs of Egypt, make my way out of confinement." Bob grinned. "Or, one would hope."

The audience tittered, not sure if they were supposed to even laugh at this point, but amused enough to give it a try.

Rick and Adrian hefted the first part of the shell, made of tough acrylic plastic, tinted gray. It was not quite transparent, and when they covered Bob with it up to his breast, the dark form of his body could just be made out within. The edges of the shell fit into the edges of the rectangle, and there were four hasps on either side of the table, which flipped up and engaged locking loops fitted to the edge of the shell. Ricky walked away briefly and returned with a basket containing padlocks, and four were removed and locked through the hasps on either side, securing the first part of the shell to the tabletop.

Bob leaned forward a little and withdrew a hand from inside the shell and pointed down at the hasps. "As you can see, the locks have been fitted, and the bottom half of the shell is secured to the tabletop. We will now perform the same operation with a top part of the shell, which will be held in place by four more padlocks. The table top will then be returned to the horizontal and a light lit beneath it to show that there is no escape from the underside. The table will then be turned around its center for thirty full seconds, showing that no possible escape can be made from either end of the shell, during which time I will make just that very move to freedom."

"That's the way it's supposed to work, anyway," Ricky said, shrugging

"Um, yes." Bob agreed, smiling at the audience.

The top half of the shell was lifted into place and secured with locks. Bob's dark from was still visible inside, and the audience could see him moving.

Ricky looked at Adrian, and nodded. "You ready?"


Ricky raised a hand and rapped his knuckles on the acrylic shell. "Are you ready, sir?"

Again, movement could be seen through the smoky acrylic shell, and Bob's voice came to them, somewhat muffled. "Ready!"

"Okay, let's do this," Ricky said.

He and Adrian each took a side of the table, released the catches beneath the rim, and lowered the top down flat. The gray shell now stuck up about eighteen inches above the tabletop, with Bob's feet towards the audience. Adrian reached beneath the table and turned on a light there, so that it was plain to the audience that that no one would be sneaking out by that route. Then the boys grasped the table edge, and started to turn the table slowly in a circle on its wheeled base, every side of the acrylic shell coming into view as the table rotated. There were no holes of any kind, and movement could still be seen within. And as the boys circled, their legs came into view beneath the table as they reached the back side, clearly demonstrating that the area below concealed no surprises.

The boys rotated the table slowly three times, taking about a minute, and then stopped. This time, one of the long sides of the shell was facing the audience. It was still perfectly plain that it was sealed, and the audience could just as plainly see the dark movements of someone within.

"I don't understand," Adrian said. "He should be out by now."

Ricky rapped on the shell. "Are you okay in there?"

Bob's reply again sounded muffled. "Uh...there seems to be a problem."

Charlie turned to look at the audience, and noted how many of them sat forward in their seats.

"We'll let you out, sir," Ricky said then. "Adrian, give me the key."

Adrian looked surprised. "I thought you had it!"

"I don't!" Ricky patted his pockets frantically "You're supposed to have it!"

"That's part of the problem," Bob's muffled voice said. "I have the key!"

Adrian and Ricky both let their jaws drop in slightly exaggerated gapes, and turned to look at the audience. "Uh oh," Ricky said. Charlie grinned, knowing how much fun the guys were having with this act.

Adrian turned and called offstage, "Someone bring the spare key!"

By now the audience seemed torn between agitated and disappointed, sure something had gone wrong with the act. Charlie smiled as 'someone' pulled up his hood and walked out on stage, holding a shiny key up in one hand. "I have the key!"

The man was wearing a dark hooded top, and he marched up to Adrian and Ricky, the key held out before him.

"This is terrible!" Ricky said.

"Awful!" Adrian agreed.

And then the man with the key turned to the audience and threw the hood back, revealing...Bob Travers! He smiled then. "What a shame. It worked so well in practice, too!"

The audience took a moment to process what they were seeing, and then roared with laughter and started clapping.

Ricky and Adrian hammed it up just a little, gaping at Bob and shaking their heads, to which the audience laughed even more.

Ricky turned back to look at the acrylic shell, where it seemed plain that someone was still inside it. "Then who is that?"

Bob handed him the key. "Let's see, why don't we?"

Ricky walked around behind the table and unlocked the padlocks on the upper portion of the case, and handed the key across to Adrian, who quickly opened the locks on his side. Then the two boys lifted off the upper section and set it on the floor. No one was inside!

But...wait! There was still motion in the bottom part of the shell; and then a hand reached out and grabbed the front edge of the remaining shell, and then another hand grabbed the rear edge, and Casper hoisted himself into view. He sat up and blinked sleepily at the audience. "Oh, are we there? What a smooth flight! "

He was equipped with one of the wide-area translation fields, and everyone understood him perfectly. The crowd loved it, and laughed and clapped, while Ricky and Adrian scratched their heads and looked silly.

Bob bowed to the three of them, moved to the front of the stage, and Charlie drew the curtains behind him back down to just a narrow opening, while the lights dimmed in back.

The act had been a very simple procedure. Of course, the rectangle in the tabletop behind Bob was hinged, and the moment the upper shell had been put in place, he had released the catch and let himself out. Kippy and Horace, behind the backdrop, had pushed a long raised platform through a flap in the material, right up to the backside of the rectangular panel, so that Bob could scramble across it without his legs showing beneath the table. Casper had been right there, ready to scurry back to take his place. This all happened while the table was still upright, hiding what was going on behind it. Casper entered the shell, closed the rear panel, and when Ricky rapped on the shell to ask Bob if he was ready, the man had simply covered his mouth backstage and spoken into is microphone as if he was still inside.

So the exchange was made even before the table was lowered back to horizontal and the light turned on beneath it. One of the keys to the success of the act was the acrylic material the shell was made from. Tinted as it was, the audience could just see that someone was behind it. The special plastic was of a refractory nature, dispersing light through the enclosure, so that size really couldn't be determined. Casper looked just as big inside the shell as Bob had, and the brief lack of motion during the exchange was not noticeable because Rick and Adrian had the audience's attention.

Bob stood and waited for the audience to get over their laughter and become quiet again, and then smiled at them. "Isn't magic fun?"

The next act was Adrian's teleportation. The audience oohed and aahed in all the right places at the special effects, and then clapped and cheered when Adrian 'rematerialized' on the other side of the stage. It looked impressive even from where Charlie stood at stage-side, the darkness a perfect cover for Adrian to make his moves.

Kippy came and took Charlie's place at the curtain then, giving him a quick kiss and wishing him good luck, while Adrian and Rick quickly changed the acts behind the mostly closed curtain. Charlie was ready when the curtain opened again, and Bob once more addressed the audience.

"For our next bit of magic, we are going to look closer at the old admonition, 'Make yourself scarce'. Charlie?"

Charlie stepped out onto the stage and walked across to Bob. He was standing in front of a large cube now, sitting on a raised stand so that the audience could clearly see beneath it. The front and back of the cube was open, and Bob walked all the way around it so that the audience could see him through the opening and know that it was a fact.

The two ends of the cube were closed. One end just looked like a solid steel plate. The other end had a steel rod poked through the center of its steel plate, which was attached to another big steel plate inside the cube. Bob went around to the handle at the end of the rod and proceeded to push, causing the rod to slide through the hole, which slid the interior steel plate over until it looked to contact the steel plate of the other side of the cube, leaving no room at all between them.

Then he pulled the rod back, and smiled at Charlie. "Enter, please."

Charlie crawled inside the cube and lay down with his legs pulled up, filling the interior space fairly well. Bob pulled a curtain across the open face of the cube and attached the end of it to the movable plate at the other end. And then he walked around to the handle of the rod, and gave it a little push. The interior metal plate slid over several inches, the curtain going with it. It was now clear to the audience that the curtain would move with the plate as far as Bob could make the plate go.

"This might prove to be a deflating experience for Charlie," Bob said, smiling at the audience. And then he began to push the rod, which forced the metal plate inside to move, with the curtain going along with it. Bob leaned into it a little, as if effort was needed, and the interior plate slowly slid across the inside of the cube until it appeared to contact the steel wall on the other side of the cube!

There was nowhere for Charlie to go. If he got out the backside of the cube, the audience would be able to see his legs underneath. But there was no space left inside the cube, either.

Bob waited a moment for the audience to see, and then pulled the handle that moved the rod, and drew the metal plate back to the other side. He dropped the curtain then, and there was Charlie, unharmed!

The construction of the cube was key, especially the frame. The floor of the structure was in four pieces, hinged together, and didn't actually go all the way to the far wall. Although it looked to the audience like the floor was fairly thin, it was an illusion provided by the frame's construction, and there was actually a foot of space beneath the hinged sections. As soon as the curtain was closed, Charlie lifted the floor and sat down into the well underneath with his legs outstretched, and leaned back against the far wall of the cube. He was then able to close the floor right up to his chest.

The wall of the cube and the plate within the cube, while they looked like solid steel, were actually camouflaged spandex in a steel frame. So when Bob pushed the interior 'plate' across so it contacted the far wall, Charlie, from the waist up, was actually comfortably pressed between the two spandex panels, each of which bulged into disguised places where they could not be seen, and Charlie was not harmed at all. It was a trick designed to fool the eye, and a good one.

The audience clapped, and Charlie bowed and made his way offstage.

Next, Kippy got himself levitated, another older trick that still impressed. He had an obviously good time flying around the stage, and the audience loved it, even though many of them could probably do the same thing themselves. And then Ricky sat in a large wooden crate with a clear front, sipping a large paper cup of iced tea, while Bob thrust nine swords all the way through the thing . After it was over Ricky emerged unscathed, though his cup of tea had been holed all the way through and tea was shooting everywhere. Again, the audience was impressed, and showed their approval with applause.

Bob had decided not to deploy the second new act he'd brought along, instead using parts from it in the new addition to the show that he and Horace had designed. That last new act had morphed incredibly in its short existence to incorporate the offworld visitors to the town, and even Ronja and Nicholaas at the last moment. That act now took the place of the unused one, which was to have been the finish of the original show. They had arrived at that point now, and Charlie crossed his fingers and hoped it all worked out as they'd planned.

Again, Bob stepped out in front of the audience, and bowed, and smiled all around. "Ladies and gentlemen, at this point we would like to do something a little different..."

He trailed off as the curtain moved and Horace came out behind him, walking along and pointing a flashlight at the floor of the stage. Bob turned and looked surprised, and turned to follow the other man's movements a moment. Then he raised a hand and snapped his fingers to get Horace's attention. "Excuse me, sir? I am in the middle of a performance."

Horace looked over, and nodded, but kept walking "Well, go on, I won't bother you. I'm just looking for something."

Bob frowned, and cast a do you believe this? look at the audience, to which they laughed. "Um, sir? Really. We're doing a show here."

"I have to find it," Horace said. "It's around, somewhere."

Curious now, Bob walked over to the man and looked down at the circle of light on the floor. "What are you looking for?"

Horace stopped, and turned to Bob. "I had it just a while ago, but now it's gone. I'm just trying to retrace my steps, hoping I see where it went."

"Uh huh." Bob nodded. "Well, if you tell me what it is, maybe I can help you find it."

Horace looked doubtful. "Oh, I doubt you can do anything. It's quite lost, apparently."

Bob was starting to look exasperated now. "What is lost? And will you quit waving that flashlight around?"

Horace stopped and tapped a finger against his chin. "I had it with me when I left the house this morning, I know I did. And when I stopped for lunch. But after that...I don't know."

Bob looked at the audience, shook his head, and then waved a hand mysteriously at Horace, who suddenly seemed to freeze.

"Can you hear me, sir?" Bob asked.

"Yes, master."

"Good. Now tell me what you've lost."

"I seem to have misplaced my Christmas, master."

Bob reared back a bit, and then walked in a small circle around Horace, while that man gazed blankly at nothing.

"You've lost your Christmas? I've never heard of such a thing."

"Oh, it's definitely gone, master," Horace returned. "I walked past a Christmas tree earlier, and didn't even look. Someone called 'Merry Christmas', and I totally ignored them. And all my stockings are hung by the chimney with care, but I have quite forgotten what I'm supposed to put there."

Bob shook his head. "Your name's not Moore by any chance, is it?"

"Oh, no, master. Hubert Pumpernickel is my name."

The audience laughed, finally now certain that this was definitely more of the show.

Bob looked at the audience. "Can it be true? Can someone actually lose their Christmas?"

The audience discussed that among themselves, causing Bob to nod. "Well, we just can't have that! I see now I must help this poor man find what he is looking for."

The crowd agreed, clapping and laughing happily.

Bob scratched his own chin now. "The problem is...yes, it is a problem." He looked out at the audience. "What does this man's Christmas look like? No two are the same, right? Everybody's Christmas is different. Unique. Personal and subjective."

He turned back to Horace and snapped his fingers. "You there. Wake up!"

Horace blinked and looked around."Where was I?"

"We were about to go looking for your Christmas," Bob said. "But I need to know more about what it looks like."

"Looks like?" Horace smiled. "You're kidding, right? It looks like Christmas. What else could it look like?"

Bob crossed his arms and shook his head."Everyone's Christmas is different. Yours doesn't look like anyone else's, so how can I recognize it, even if I see it? There must be some way to do this." He thought a moment, and then smiled. "What we need is help. Someone with a better perspective on Christmas."

Horace looked uncertain. "I don't know who that would be."

"Well, I do." Bob laughed. "And we have our old friend Dickens to thank for it, too!"

Horace squinted at Bob. "Have you been drinking, sir?"

"What?" Bob laughed then. "No, I have not. I am quite serious when I say I intend to help you conjure up the three ghosts of Christmas that Dickens wrote about."

Horace turned and pointed his flashlight into the darkness, and tried to walk away. "Maybe if I look over here --"

Bob sighed, and waved a finger at the other man, whose hand holding the flashlight promptly dropped to his side as his eyes closed.

"Can you hear me?"

"Yes, master."

"Good. Come on back over here, and help me help you conjure up some Christmas ghosts."

Horace returned obediently, and Bob waved his hand in front of the man's face again.

"Now, are you going to be cooperative?"

Horace sighed. "I suppose."

Bob cocked his head to one side. "You sound like you don't believe in ghosts or something. What do you do for a living?"

"I'm a ghost hunter."

It was Bob's turn to look surprised. "And you don't believe in ghosts? What kind of job is that?"

Horace gave a little shrug. "I just said I hunt them, not that I find them."

The audience dissolved into laughter as Bob turned to them with a why me? expression on his face. This was replaced by a determined look as he turned back to Horace. "Well, we're going to do this, so stand right where you are. It's your Christmas that seems to be lost, so you can at least do some work to help us locate it."

"Very well. What do you want me to do?"

Bob shook his head. "Raising spirits is never easy. Raising three of them - I've never attempted anything like it before."

Horace blanched. "How reassuring. I hope there's nothing that can go wrong...right?"

Bob smiled, a bit evilly. "Well, we could accidentally raise the wrong spirits, I suppose. I once tried to raise the spirit of Kongqiu, otherwise known as Confucius. I wound up with an extremely large ape with a bad temper instead."

Bob cocked his head to one side. "I think I hear my mother calling me. I really should go."

"No you don't!" Bob countered. "Stand right there! You're going to help me help you if it's the last thing you do for you."

Horace actually smiled then. "Oh, well. When you put it that way..."

"Now you're being sensible." Bob approached Horace and clapped him on the shoulder. "I think it will be easy, anyway. You seem to be fairly full of it, if I do say so myself!"

Horace's eyes got big then. "Hey! Do I say things like that about you?"

Bob snorted. "I meant you were full of skwish. Now let's stop blathering and get to work. We're going to raise the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Got it?"

"I sure hope you know what you're doing."

"So do I. Now, are you ready?"

Horace took a deep breath and let it sigh out. "Yes. What do I do first?"

"Why, nothing. I have to do the first thing, actually." Bob suddenly leaned forward and clapped a hand to Horace's forehead. "Rabba Babba, the legends boast, you can help us find a Christmas ghost!"

Horace looked impressed. "A powerful magical incantation of some kind?"

Bob grinned. "Actually, I just always kinda wanted to say that out loud in front of an audience."

By now the silliness of the act had the audience going, and Charlie had a hard time not laughing along with them. But he also knew what was coming next, and so was ready when the lights suddenly dimmed, the curtains swept open, and an enormous roar of thunder reverberated throughout the hall. At the same time, a commercial Tesla coil array mounted on a black frame eight feet above the stage let loose a flurry of mini-lightning bolts in a semicircular pattern, and a pinpoint spot illuminated Auggie, sitting beneath the fiery array, atop a nearly invisible black pedestal.

Charlie literally felt the entire audience jump in their seats, the moment of surprise was so sudden and intense.

"Who calls Rabba Babba?" A thunderous voice called out. At the same time, Auggie leaned forward menacingly, arched his back, and somehow made his fur and mane stand literally on end, while his eyes swept the audience menacingly.

Auggie's own language skills were as yet too undeveloped for him to manage the script Bob and Horace had written, but his acting abilities and sense of timing were more than up to the task. He had trained with Ricky so that they could coordinate speech and movement together. Charlie felt his own heart seemingly skip a beat as the moment unfolded. It was literally awe-inspiring!

A few startled shouts in the audience and a sudden, absolute quiet confirmed that he was not the only one that had been impressed.

Now, Horace and Bob were only visible by the grace of the pinpoint spots above them. Horace cleared his voice in the new silence, and turned to look at Bob. "I thought you said it wasn't an incantation?" he said, in a perfectly audible stage whisper.

Bob gave an exaggerated shrug. "Oops."

The audience chanced a laugh then, even though Auggie still looked incredibly menacing and somehow twice his normal size. Having met the bearcat in the street, the townsfolk knew he was a sweetheart, and that this was all part of the show. Charlie smiled. Still, it was pretty impressive!

Bob took a step towards Auggie. "Good evening, sir."

Again the thunderous voice rang out: "I said, 'who calls Rabba Babba?"

Bob looked over his shoulder a moment at Horace, and motioned for the man to come stand beside him. Horace turned his head and looked back over his shoulder, and, finding no one there, turned back to the magician and brought a hand to his chest, as if to say, me?

Bob jabbed a finger insistently at the floor beside him, and Horace moved reluctantly to stand next to the magician.

"It's just I," Bob said then, trying to sound bold and confident. "Bob Travers, magician, and --" he broke off then and looked at Horace as if he had forgotten his name.

"Hubert Pumpernickel," Horace said timidly.

"Oh?" This time, Auggie's 'voice' sounded less threatening. "I've heard of you."

Bob swelled, and smiled. "Really?"

"Not you!" Auggie thundered. "I've heard of Hubert!"

The audience let out a huge group chuckle as Bob's shoulder sagged.

Horace looked astonished, and then shrugged. "What have you heard about me?"

"That you've misplaced your Christmas. Not a very wise move, I would say."

Horace looked triumphantly at Bob. "See! It is lost!"

"Misplaced," Auggie corrected. "Christmas can never be lost."

"We were hoping you could help with that," Bob chanced.

"Indeed? And what would you have me do about this matter?"

Bob cleared his throat. "Well, Hilbert here--"

"It's Hubert!" Horace inserted.

"--is a ghost hunter," Bob went on, unfazed. "We were hoping we could find a way to hunt up the three ghosts from the Dickens novel, A Christmas Carol."

Auggie emitted a ferocious grunt. "Those three? They're very busy at this time of the year, considering the number of Scrooges the world has today. What exactly do you wish from them?"

"Well..." Bob considered that. "The three of them span the entire age of Christmas, past, present, and future. If anyone can find Humbert's missing Christmas, it would be them."

"Hubert!" Horace corrected again, this time vehemently.

Bob waved a hand at him for silence. "So, what do you say? Can the great Rabba Babba assist in this?"

Auggie sat back on his haunches then, and his fur seemed to settle down again, making him look smaller. "Hmm. I'll have to see."

The big cat lifted a paw to one ear then, and the sounds of a phone being dialed echoed around the hall. The audience looked amazed, and then amused. Auggie listened a moment, cleared his throat then as if the call had been answered, and started to talk into his paw.

"Hi, Present? Rabba Babba here. Say...I have a guy standing in front of me with a problem that's up your alley. Misplaced his Christmas. Uh huh. Right out the window. I was wondering if you and Past and Yet to Come have a few spare moments where you might help with this? Right. You know, like the Dickens thing you guys did sometime back?"

Auggie seemed to listen then, while the audience was plainly holding their collective breath.

Then the bearcat chuckled. "Yeah? Say, that's really good of you. Uh huh. I'm sure the guy will appreciate it. I mean, it's Christmas eve, you know? What fun would it be to wake up tomorrow with no Christmas? Yeah, me, too. It would suck. Okay, we'll see you soon then? Great! Thanks Prez!"

Auggie hung up his paw and cleared his throat."They're on their way."

Bob nodded enthusiastically. "Say, that's great! Isn't it Huckbert?"


Auggie held up a wrist and looked at it. "My, my, where does the time go? And me, with all those challenges yet to solve. A Rabba Babba's work is never done! I'd better be going." He leaned forward and cracked a toothy smile at Horace. "Good luck with your quest, Hubert."

Horace nodded vigorously. "Thank you, oh great Rabba Babba!"

There was another crash of thunder, and the spots trained on Auggie blinked rapidly a few times, and then faded, allowing the big cat to vanish into darkness.

"Neat trick," Bob was heard to mumble. "I wish I could do that!"

Hardly were the words out of his mouth before three new spots blinked and rose in brightness, causing three new figures to apparently materialize out of thin air.

Charlie couldn't help smiling. Despite the fact that all three figures were draped in gray robes and hooded, he would have recognized them by their shapes anywhere. One was tall and broad, and quite imposing in stature. The next was almost as tall, but obviously famine thin; while the third was scarcely two feet high, its robes a little too long, and heaped in a small circle around its feet.

Kontus, Ragal, and Pacha. It was a very effective look, as it seemed plain that all three robe-wearers were alive - or at least animate - and yet their sizes and shapes within the robes could not possibly be human. The sense that Bob and Horace were dealing with beings from beyond the pale was extremely convincing.

"We are the ghosts of Christmas," intoned a fairly good stab at a creepy voice. Ragal, obviously having fun with the part.

Bob bowed. "It was so good of you to come. I am...well, it doesn't matter who I am." He indicated Horace. "This is Herbert Pumperdinkle, and the problem is that he seems to have misplaced his Christmas!"

Horace just rolled his eyes at the newest effort at mangling his name, and smiled.

The three figures were silent a moment, and then the Kontus figure stepped forward. "I am the ghost of Christmas past. You see by my size that I contain the most Christmases, every single one since the very first one. Yet I cannot help you, for your Christmas is not with me."

The Ragal figure stepped forward next. "I am the ghost of Christmas present. You see by my height that my reach is far, and yet I am slim with Christmases, because the present one has yet to happen. Your Christmas is not with me."

Pacha stepped forward next, and nearly stumbled over his robes. The audience smiled, but had the good grace not to laugh.

"I am the ghost of Christmas yet to come. I am small, for the future is not yet set, but know by my presence that Christmas will always be with us. Your Christmas, if it is to be found, is with me."

"You don't know?" Horace asked, plainly disappointed.

"Well, I actually haven't looked yet. Bear with me a bit, will you?"

"You haven't looked yet?" the Ragal figure said. "What were you doing on the flight over here?"

"I was occupied," the Pacha figure said. "Give it a rest, Present."

"Relax, you two," the Kontus figure hissed out, in a very large whisper. "Don't make me come over there!"

The Ragal figure mumbled something unintelligible, but relented. The audience snickered, but Charlie could see them sitting forward in their seats, utterly involved in the story now.

Horace and Bob looked at each other a moment, but didn't say anything. The robed figure of Pacha patted itself carefully, first on each breast, than at each hip, where pockets might be in human clothing. But then a hand shot up beneath the robe, pointing at the roof.

"Eureka! I remember now!"

"You found it!" Horace said excitedly. "Where is it? Can you let me have it back?"

Pacha's arm dropped slowly. "Actually...I can't."

Horace's face fell. "Why not?"

Pacha crossed his arms beneath the robe. "This is actually your own fault, sir. You have not been paying much attention to your Christmases of late. They were getting a little tattered, a little worn. I had to send yours out to be refurbished. It has not come back yet, I'm afraid."

"But tomorrow is Christmas!"

"Yeah, tomorrow is Christmas!" both the Kontus and Ragal figures chided in unison.

Mike and Bobby, seated in the front row of the audience, cupped their hands to their mouths and yelled. "Aw, give the kid a break!"

The audience made an affirmative noise, amidst a new round of laughter.

"Well..." The Pacha figure looked about, as if doubtfully. "I suppose I can call the contractor and see if he can get it back to you quickly. Hold on just a second." Pacha raised a hand under the robe, just high enough to emulate holding a phone near his mouth. Once again, the sound of a number being dialed echoed throughout the hall. Uncle Bob had hundreds of sound bytes on the laptop he used for sound effects, and Kippy and Adrian were in charge of running them as the script called for them.

"Come on...answer! Oh! Hi. Yeah, it's me, tomorrow calling about tonight. I said know...Christmas present? That's right. Say, listen, I have a little problem. It's in reference to Christmas number 173645299-455B. Hubert Pumpernickel."

Uncle Bob snickered then. "He got your name wrong!" he whispered to Horace.

Horace just closed his eyes and shook his head.

Pacha grunted. "That's right...P-U-M-P-E-R-N-I-C-K-E-L. Look, I sent that one over to be refurbished. By any chance, is it done yet? I'd really like to get it back tonight, if possible."

Pacha raised his other hand and covered the first one with a bit of robe, and whispered loudly, "He's checking his list."

He went back to listening while the hall grew completely quiet, the audience waiting with him.

"Oh...yeah, I'm here. What have you got for me? Hey...great! Listen, I know you're really busy with the holiday rush, but is there any way you could pop it over to me? I'd really appreciate it. You can? Great! Sure, just lock onto my beacon. We'll be waiting!"

Pacha lowered his arm and turned to Horace. "He said he'd bring it right over."

Horace brought his hands up and clasped them together in delight. "Oh, thank you! I'd have been lost without it!"

Ragal grunted. "Take better care of it, why don't you? Then this won't happen again."

Horace looked upset. "I thought I was taking good care of it."

Kontus reached out a robed arm and prodded Ragal with his hand. "You're awfully grumpy this year. What's up with that?"

"Are you kidding?" Ragal said. "This has been just an awful year! And now, the post office is backed up for weeks, and half the presents people ordered won't arrive in time. It's going to be tough being cheery for a lot of my customers this year."

"It's been that way before," Kontus returned, patting his belly. "Christmases past have occurred during all sorts of awful times. And yet, here we are, with both a present and a future, still in good health. That tells me that Christmas is around to stay, good or bad. People are resilient. They always come back, because they love Christmas."

Ragal harumphed, but could be seen nodding beneath his robe. "I guess you're right."

Another pinpoint spot lit then, revealing a door set in a frame. They heard the rap of knuckles against it, and then an excited crowd sound from the audience.

"Come on in!" Pacha called. "It's always open!"

And the door did open. And who came striding through it? A jolly looking fat man, dressed all in red, with a flowing white beard and a little cottony ball at the tip of his red, fleece trimmed stocking cap. He took three steps onto the stage before suddenly becoming aware of the audience, and then stopped in his tracks. "Whoa!"

Charlie couldn't help grinning. That it was Nicholaas was obvious to anyone who knew him, and that the crowd seemed to guess who it was caused a fierce round of cheering and laughter. Santa stood there as the audience roared, looking both amused and pleased beneath his beard, and held up a hand as if to quiet the house. That seemed to make them even louder, and Bob and Horace grinned at the reaction, knowing a good thing when they saw it.

Finally, Santa said something, and the audience had to force themselves back to silence in order to hear what happened next.

"I have a delivery for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, from an undisclosed location near the North Pole," Nicholaas repeated.

"Here!" Pacha raised a hand and waved it. "Would you mind bringing it here, please? My good robe is at the cleaners, and this one...well, you can see for yourself what the difficulty is."

"Sure." Santa crossed the stage, holding out his hand.

"Actually, it goes to him," Pacha added, pointing to Horace.

That man stepped forward with an obvious eagerness, his hands outstretched. Santa approached him, reached forward, and laid something completely invisible into Horace's cupped hands. And then Santa stepped back.

Horace stood quietly with his arms outstretched and his eyes closed, while the house again settled into silence. And then he breathed a sigh of relief. "There you are! I thought I'd lost you!"

"Christmas can never be lost," Santa said quietly. "There are too many people that guard it closely for that to happen. You simply lost track of yours for a moment. But it was always there, waiting. And now you see, it is back with you."

"I guess I wasn't paying enough attention," Horace whispered.

"Easy enough to do in this troubled world," Santa agreed. "Fortunately, it did not forget about you."

Pacha managed to pull up enough robe to stumble over to Santa. "I'd like a receipt for that, if you don't mind."

Santa felt in a pocket, produced a slip of paper. "Here it is."

Pacha took it and made as if he was examining it. "It's not signed."

Santa frowned, but then patted the front of his red coat. "Oh. Sorry. Let me get my pen--"

Nicholaas undid the three buttons and opened his coat. He went to reach to an inside pocket, when a large, overstuffed, satiny red pillow fell out from beneath the coat and hit the floor at his feet with a soft plop. He looked down, apparently stunned. The three Christmas spirits all looked too. And Bob and Horace. And the entire house.

"Oops," Santa said.

Ragal shambled forward than and peered over Santa's shoulder. "You're not really fat and jolly! It's a sham! Next you'll be telling me the beard isn't real, either!"

Nicholaas looked up at the audience, and the light of humor in his eyes was so sharp that they exploded into laughter, smacking their hands on their knees and clapping. This went on for a full minute before things quieted down enough for Nicholaas to deliver his next line.

"Well, now that you mention it --" he whipped off the beard and handed it to Ragal. "Darn thing scratches terribly!"

Ragal took the beard automatically, and then held it up at arm's length, as if it might bite him. "I'm going to complain about this!"

Nicholaas just shrugged. "I can have my boss here in a quick second."

Ragal gave every indication of being taken aback at that. "You have a boss?"

The man that was Santa laughed. "Son, everybody has a boss."

"Then I want to see him."

"Sure thing." Nicholaas turned and cupped a hand to his lips. "Hey, boss?"

The door he had arrived through opened again, and Ronja strode in, wearing a beautiful red dress trimmed in white and green. She strode purposefully over to Nicholaas, put a protective arm around him, and glared up at Ragal. "Problem?"

Ragal took one look at the expression on her face, lifted his hands appeasingly, and slowly backed away, shaking his head. "Not me!"

Charlie joined in the laughter that followed. The crowd was still at it when Kippy came up beside Charlie and put an arm around him. "I think it was a success."

Charlie kissed him. "I think it was, too."

Ricky and Adrian joined them, and the four of them watched the crowd through the curtain as the Twomblies smiled and laughed and conversed happily between themselves.

"This is what it's all about," Ricky whispered, looking satisfied.

Finally, Nicholaas held up his hands, and the hall grew quiet.

"My friends, this small farce was presented to you tonight as entertainment, in the hopes that it would do exactly what it seems to have done: make you smile. I wish to thank Mr. Bob Travers and Mr. Horace Wingspanner for their efforts here tonight, and compliment them on their success. The spreading of smiles and laughter is part of the magic that makes Christmas what it is."

Nicholaas turned and waved to Bob and Horace, who walked over, smiling.

"Take a bow, gentleman."

The two did, and received another thunderous ovation.

It took a minute to ebb, and then Bob held up his hands to bring the remainder under control. "Thank you. I know this was not quite what you expected for the finale of a magic show. It was more in the way of a small play, and a silly one at that. Our object was to have a little fun with the season. Nicholaas was absolutely right when he said that Christmas can never be lost. It truly is an experience of the heart, different for each one of us, yet shared by so many. We pass it on, from generation to generation, because we humans know a good thing when we see it. And so Christmas stays with us, always."

There was more applause, and then Bob reached out and dropped a hand on Horace's shoulder. "I want to thank my partner in this little crime. Inspiration is another thing we humans seem to like to share. This was a joint venture, and not just by the two of us. New ideas emerged as new opportunities presented themselves, and the act you just saw here tonight is a long way from the first germ of an idea I had only two days ago. Everyone that was a part of it deserves our thanks."

Bob turned again to the three spirits of Christmas, and waved them over. Kontus, Ragal, and Pacha threw off their robes, and joined with the others at the front of the stage.

The magician continued to look around, waving towards the back of the stage, and then to Charlie and the others where they stood. The four boys hurried across the stage, and met with Auggie and Casper as they arrived from the back. The group spread out into a line, and bowed to the audience, who stood then to return the compliment.

Uncle Bob had just one more thing to say to his audience. "And lastly, we wish to thank you, the people of Twombly, for having us as your guests. Our little play tonight was aimed at us, not you. Because we already know that you in the elf world are fully aware of the joy of Christmas, and need no reminders from us. If anything, we take our inspiration from you. Merry Christmas, and thank you!"

The audience roared their approval. The sound was simply deafening. Nicholaas turned to Charlie, and smiled at him amidst the furor. "Seems you have done it again, my friend."

Charlie shook his head. "It was a combined effort. Everyone here deserves the credit. But especially Bob and Horace."

Nicholaas nodded. "I agree. And yet, none of them would be here now if not for you."

Charlie refused to take the credit for that. "It's something we all did."

Nicholaas smiled. "Charlie, Christmas is a state of mind. We've sort of corralled it and herded it to this one day at the end of each year, and many people only seem able to recognize it when December rolls around. The truth is that it exists every day of every year, if we choose to allow it. It seems to me that you do."

"You listen to him, Charlie," Kip said.

Charlie frowned, unwilling to accept that he was any greater a part of the whole than any other member of their group. They were friends, and friends did things together. "This is about all of us," he said firmly.

Nicholaas patted Charlie's arm. "It doesn't matter. Just keep doing what you're doing, and everything will work out."

Charlie nodded, while Kippy hugged him, and the people of Twombly offered up their pleasure at being allowed to briefly share in a magic of imagination that existed outside the world of their own.

"It was a wonderful show, "Ronja said, smiling at the boys.

"And you were so good!" Nicholaas complimented her.

She laughed. "I had one line. It was hard to mess that up!"

Nicholaas smiled, and circled an arm about her waist. "I guess it's a matter of perspective."

Horace turned then, sought out Charlie in the line, and gave him the thumbs up. The man looked so happy that he might burst, and Charlie understood then that this moment would become a special memory for him. Charlie found that delightful, and returned the gesture, and the grin that accompanied it.

And in so doing, also made it a special memory of his own.


"I'm tired," Charlie said, sitting back on the sofa and putting his arm around Kip.

Christmas morning had come and gone. It was nearing noon now, and they were all sitting among the heaps and piles of opened packages and their contents, a formidable accumulation of the beautiful, the different, and the outright bizarre. Some of those contents refused to stay where they'd been put, and roamed about at will, usually in the wake of their new masters, but not always. Some, it seemed, had curiosity, which was surely going to make them a handful down the road.

"What a wonderful Christmas," Kippy said, sighing. "And just think: after we get home, we get to do it all over again with our families."

"Don't forget the extra hug for your dad," Charlie reminded.

"I won't."

Casper came by them then, and stopped to smile at them. "Merry Christmas!"

He was wearing a red tee-shirt bearing the likeness of Moe Howard from The Three stooges, mugging in a horrible grimace, with a caption beneath it that read, Enjoy your Christmas or I'll moidelate ya! It had been a gift from Ricky, who was a fan of the old comedy group. It was sized to fit a human child, but Ricky had guessed well, and it fit Casper properly enough to look good on him.

Behind the boy trailed his new Kamachal, a four-legged artificial life form with tall, fuzzy ears, lime-green fur, a spiked tail, and large, luminous yellow eyes that watched the world playfully from a fairly appealing otter-like face. The animal had been a gift from Ragal, who said that every boy should have a Kamachal to call his own.

"Hi, boy!" Kippy called, holding out a hand. "How's that good doggie?"

Casper grinned, knowing what a dog was, and perfectly willing to accept the moniker as a nick for his new companion. "I named him Tralfaz."

Charlie blinked uncertainly at a that. "Um...that's an interesting name."

"Yes. Horace gave it to me, and said it was a perfect name for a space dog."

Charlie and Kip exchanged glances, and Charlie made a mental note to ask Horace later what the name might signify.

Charlie smiled again. "You look like you've been having a good time."

"The best, Charlie. Thank you for inviting me."

Charlie sighed, leaned forward, and gave Casper a hug. "You're always welcome here."

Tralfaz snorted his peculiar signature sound, the equivalent of a terrestrial dog's bark, and wagged his tail furiously, endangering anyone that might walk by too closely.

Casper backed off then, smiling. "He's making sure I'm okay." He pointed at Charlie and looked over at the critter. "Friend."

Charlie smiled at that, feeling a pleasant sense of fulfillment.

Casper smiled again. "I have to go find Ragal. She promised me I could try out her new kaboflexer."

"Whatever that is," Kippy said, laughing. "Okay. We'll see you later, Casper."

The teen nodded, and waved a hand at his new companion. "Come on, boy." And then they were off.

A buzzing sound approached them, and a small swarm of golden things that looked like jelly beans zoomed close and hovered in front of them. "Greetings, earthlings!"

Charlie and Kippy both laughed, recognizing Ricky's voice instantly.

"What are you doing?" Kippy asked.

"Trying these guys out," Ricky returned. "They're amazing! I can move them around as a group, and watch and hear everything they see and hear, or I can separate them and send them in different directions, and see and hear everything each one of them does."

"Where are you?" Charlie asked.

"At the end of the sofa. To your left."

Charlie and Kip both turned to look, and had to lean forward to see the others. Kontus and Ragal sat between the two pairs of boys, talking animatedly, and looking at what looked like a pearl-covered football they held between them. Rick and Adrian also leaned forward, and waved to their friends.

"We were thinking about lunch soon," Charlie said. "Wanna join us?"

"Sure. Let me get these guys back to their nest and put them to sleep."

The humming swarm whipped about and headed off.

They were just about to get up when Max came from the other direction and plopped down on a cushion next to Kip. "Man, I'm tired!"

Kippy patted the elf's arm. "Max, I hardly saw you the whole time. Did you even get to enjoy the holiday?"

"Oh, sure. I was most places you were, Kip. It's just that the crowd was so big this time, you probably just missed me."

Kippy laughed at that, and looked around the lobby at their friends. "Yeah. Wasn't it great?"

"Actually, it was a lot of fun."

Charlie leaned forward to smile at the elf. "We were just thinking about lunch with Rick and Adrian. Wanna join us?"

The elf patted his belly and grinned. "Don't mind if I do!"

Again they started to rise, but sat back again as Frit and Pip charged up.

Max frowned at them. "What's the hurry, boys?"

Frit looked over at Pip, and then shrugged. "Well, we were just wondering, is all. Now?"

Max sighed, and settled back into his cushions. "Sure, guys. Now."

The two teen elves looked delighted, and both reared back in unison and threw their hands toward the ceiling.

Charlie looked up, and saw the ceiling appear to recede into the sky, a sky that was wintry gray, and full of slowly falling snow. A series of pops began then, winks and glares like fireworks going off, and quickly painted a palette of colors, which seemed to suck in the snowflakes and eject them again, in every shade of the rainbow.

Everyone in the room looked up, agape at what was happening above.

The colorful sparks grew in number, swirled about the sky, and began to coalesce together. Charlie recognized words forming, and laughed at what he saw. Merry Christma.

"Something's missing," Kippy said, smiling.

Frit and Pip both gasped, and threw their hands up again, and several more pops and glares formed, coalesced, and added an 's' to the final glorious picture.

"Merry Christmas!" the two elves called, looking up at their creation. "Yay!"

The others in the room laughed, and everyone clapped and whistled.

Kippy sighed, and settled closer to Charlie. "Kiss me?"

Charlie was more than willing to oblige. They put their lips together and traded some feelings, and then nuzzled their faces together a moment for good measure.

"I love you, Kip.

"Oh, Charlie. I love you, too."

They settled back then, and watched the luminous twinkles slowly drift above them, forming new color combinations even as they watched, as if the entire thing was made of tiny light bulbs glowing in the sky.

Max sighed, and smiled at the two elves. "Aw, geez. That's pretty."

Charlie squeezed Kippy a little closer, and nodded. "I love it when a plan comes together."

They watched until the words began to disperse, and the snow began to fall again, though no flakes touched them or the floor inside the lodge. They were magical things, not really there at all, designed simply to delight and enchant, to be shared between family and friends; one more memory among a pleasant host of many others, one more warm remembrance of the time we call Christmas.

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