Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Hang THIS On Your Christmas Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 4

Charlie was frozen, unable to believe that they had been caught. Second presence was by its nature fully immaterial. Charlie knew that others could be aware of his presence in this form, but he thought that was due to him seeking them out, like when Pacha and Mike and Bobby and Kontus had been trapped in their crushed ship beneath the ice of a distant alien planet. That someone else could discern them when he wanted to remain hidden was a revelation!

The shock seemed not to be just his. He could feel the others within him, and their sense of agitation. Only Pacha seemed cool and calm, and Charlie sensed the little koala's intensity as he reached out to sense and try to learn about the intruder.

The dark figure walked slowly around them, plainly able to locate them, if not see them directly.

"My, my. How many of you are in there? And...such a unique form, too! How original! How fascinating!"

The dialog seemed as much the other thinking out loud as it was directed at them. Charlie detected no hostility, no alarm, no fear at their encounter. It wasn't what he was expecting at all!

The companionable chuckle came to them once more as the figure leaned closer to them "A bit shy are we? There's no need for that! Please introduce yourselves!"

"You're one of the Christmas Bandits?" Charlie heard himself say. His shock was lessening now, but his own words still sounded distant to him.

Again the chuckle. "My dear fellow, I am the only Christmas Bandit." The figure gestured at them. "Who do I have the pleasure of speaking with just now?"

Charlie felt a brief, comforting sensation - the reassuring warmth of Kippy beside him - and unfroze a bit more. "I'm called Charlie."

"Charlie. So plain a name for such an extraordinary presence!" The figure leaned even closer. "And...I sense many of you in there. Wherever there might be."

"What are you?" Ricky asked.

Apparently, the dark figure heard Ricky just as if Charlie had spoken himself. But he drew back a bit, obviously put off by the question. "You mean who, don't you? There's no need to be offensive!"

Ricky grunted. "Okay, who then?"

Again came the pleasant little laugh. "I am...oh, consider me a wanderer."

"A wanderer," Ricky repeated flatly. "Sure."

"I am quite serious. You would be amazed to know the places I have wandered to and from in my time."

"And you just wandered into this place, huh?" Kippy asked, sounding not at all as if he believed it.

"Of course. I just happened to be strolling by, and saw all this wealth, sitting in one place, being of no use at all. Naturally it seemed very unfair to me, that so many have so little, while others have so much that they can just stack it about in this fashion. I thought I'd make some changes to that little equation, and here we are!"

"You're a thief," Kontus said, sounding uncompromising. "It is a pitiful profession."

Charlie could have sworn that the dark figure tensed, suddenly much more alert. "Oh, my! Such a different feel you have, the one who just spoke. Non-human? In fact...I sense several of you there who feel quite unusual. Perhaps it is more right that I ask what you are!"

"He has a variety of very unusual sensory talents," Pacha said then. "Most interesting."

"Are you a human being?" Adrian asked.

"As human as you," came the reply. "Or, as human as some of you. It is hard to sort you all out. But...amazing! I believe there are a dozen of you in there, at the least!"

"You seem not very afraid of the police," Charlie said, not wanting to discuss their present state. "They're all around this place, you know."

"I do know. I sensed them there, even before I entered. They would never have known I was here at all until after the fact, had it not been for you. Quite unsportsmanlike of you, to tip them off so. They are on their way inside even as we speak." The chuckle repeated. "But they can't get at me, anymore than you can. I am not to be caught by the likes of them, nor by the likes of you!"

"What makes you think we want to catch you?" Charlie asked.

"Now who is the playful one? You just happened to be walking through this place tonight, did you? Are you saying you are not here hoping to catch me?"

Charlie considered that, but knew the truth was otherwise. "Actually, we didn't come here to catch you. We just hoped to determine who you were...and what your capabilities happened to be."

"Ah. I see."

"I don't believe we caught your name," Horace said then.

The figure walked around them again, and then stopped once more directly before them. To Charlie's surprise, the figure offered them a bow. "Fair enough. I am Robin Hood, friend to the poor, righter of wrongs, jack of many trades, and your service."

"Oh, please," Kippy said, disbelievingly. "So you steal from the rich, to give to the poor?"

"I do exactly that, in fact." The figure waved a hand at the racks of merchandise. "Surely you don't think I have need of all this junk? Not at all. But there are many others that could use the handout, especially at this time of the year. I simply remove this largess to another location, and arrange for it to be donated to those that do need it, or to be sold so that the profits can go to help others." The rich laugh came again. "I'm a charity, you see."

"A pretty unusual one then," Horace returned "You can't find a better way to help others than by stealing?"

"It all works out, my friend. The culture of this land is based on theft. I see it everywhere I look, from the wealthiest at the top down to the poorest at the bottom. From the heads of government down to the man on the street. Thievery everywhere you look. Should my methods be any different?"

"You're referring to capitalism?" Charlie asked, confused now. "It's not thievery."

"That is a matter of opinion. I have no problem with honest men making honest profits. But the way this society is structured, every bit of wealth there is flows from the bottom to the top. And those at the top lie, cheat, and connive to keep it that way, while those at the bottom are forced to ever increasingly dishonest means to survive. It's disgusting, and I am not going to be a party to it."

"Not everyone is a thief," Bobby countered.

"I did not say that everyone was. I just said that this country runs on thievery, and that I am just going along with the approved plan. I am taking wealth from those that have it, and redistributing it to those that do not."

"Hell of a plan," Uncle Bob said. "Does it include going to jail?"

The dark figure leaned backwards and barked out a rapid laugh this time. "No, it doesn't. My, but you are naive folk. Do you think the laws of this place have any influence over me?"

"The laws are for everyone," Kippy pointed out, with determination.

"A quaint notion, offered by someone not aware of the reality around him. Laws come and laws go, as do the lands that make them. But greed is eternal, and the only way to deal with it is to take by force what the greedy will not share."

"Robin Hood, huh?" Charlie repeated. "Is that what you really want to be called?"

"Surely it's better than The Christmas Bandit, don't you think? Another bland appellation applied by a media anxious to dispense angst to the population, but having no interest in sharing the good things that happen in this world."

Charlie couldn't help it; he laughed. "You certainly have a dim view of the world!"

"And why not? It's a rather dim place, it seems to me."

"But you say you are helping people," Kiernan spoke up then. "That's being nice, not being evil."

Robin Hood canted his head to one side and sighed. "Such innocence! I have trouble believing it, yet it charms me just the same!" Again, the dark figure walked completely around them, as if probing their nature, before stopping again and nodding.

"I do not believe that inaction solves problems. I must do something to lessen the wrongs I see everywhere in this world, and I prefer to do it peacefully. I am not a violent man by nature, but I do possess great power, and only a rather annoying respect for and liking of my fellow humans keeps me from reacting to their stupidity in a more forceful way." He raised a dark fist to them. "But I do grow impatient at times. Would you have me raze this city to the ground to show my disapproval, rather than simply move some wealth from one place to another?"

The idea was frightening, but they were not given time to consider it. A door banged open somewhere to their right, and they could hear running feet now, many of them. The lights above them suddenly came up, and the fire alarm cut off.

The dark figure sighed. "Ah, well. And the conversation was just becoming meaningful, too."

The police arrived then, two dozen strong, appearing at both ends of the long aisle, apparently homing in on the fire alarm switch that had been pulled. They were dressed in dark helmets and wore armor about their torsos, and the number of guns present was nothing short of alarming. The forces quickly dissolved into groups and fanned out, some moving on to the next aisle, while others found positions of concealment among the pallets of boxes on the floor, and aimed their guns into the aisle...and at each other, incidentally, as the aisle had to seem completely empty to them. If anything, the forces at each end were more in danger of shooting each other!

"I have no time for this." The dark figure of Robin Hood suddenly straightened, and threw up a hand.

The concrete floor seemed to jump then, and the very building shook around them. The racks of the warehouse rattled alarmingly, and dust rained down from the ceiling above. Robin Hood whipped his hand in a small circle, and the tremor increased in power, and the warehouse racks all swayed then, and a dozen or more loaded pallets weighing at least a ton dislodged from their racks and came crashing to the aisle floor. They heard the deafening crashes extend all around the warehouse then, as merchandise the value of which they could only guess spilled to the floor.

The police reacted instinctively, some crouching low, some dancing backwards; but none of them got far in either reaction. An angry bellow of sound reverberated down the aisle, and the men in uniform were suddenly swept away from their positions, as if by a tornado of wind, which lifted them off their feet and ripped their weapons from their hands, and sent all flying backwards into the next aisle, there to land on the concrete floor and roll into tangled piles on either end. The building shook harder, and more pallets came crashing down.

And then Robin Hood dropped his hand, and it all simply stopped. Some further dust drifted down from overhead, and then silence settled over them.

The dark figure released a sigh. "See now? They pissed me off. I hate when that happens."

Charlie stared at the piles of police, amazed and stunned at the suddenness and violence of the act. "Are they dead?"

Robin Hood emitted a dismissive hiss. "What do you take me for? Despite the rapidity of the action, the impetus was blunted for them. They are simply stunned, and pinned to the floor, but not hurt at all. It will keep them away while we speak further."

"I don't know what we have left to say," Charlie stated. None of this had gone as he had expected. The Christmas Bandit...or Robin Hood, as he wished to be called, was a power user of a sort that Charlie could not fathom. His apparently great abilities brought to mind an elf with the capabilities of Max, not some newbie like Charlie and the others, just learning what it was all about.

They were out of their league here, and Charlie knew it!

Robin Hood turned around and examined the racks again, seemed to focus on a number of pallets that had not fallen, and waved a hand at them. They vanished, just as the others had before them. He turned to other side of the aisle, and a half dozen more pallets disappeared.

"You interrupted me before I was finished." He turned back to face them again, and came even closer. "I cannot determine where you actually are. But not here before me, as you seem. But, no matter. Let me try one more thing..." Again, the dark figured raised a hand to them. Charlie felt an odd tingling then, as if his second presence was being pushed, was being forced to withdraw from the warehouse. He focused on it, pushed it back into place, and the dark figure before him grunted and lowered his hand.

"I don't know what talent you're using, but you are far too good at it for me to break it." Robin Hood placed his hands on his hips. "So since you will not go, I guess I will!"

"Wait!" Charlie called, thinking fast. Pacha and the elves had been strangely silent during the encounter, but Charlie knew that they had to be using their every sense to learn about this unusual being. He wanted to give them as much time as he could to try to complete their analysis. "You plan to keep doing what you're doing?"

Robin Hood laughed. "Certainly. And I do not think you can stop me. Still, I have the feeling we will meet again, young Charlie. I look forward to it!"

He turned and lifted a hand, and Charlie felt another sense of tension in the air as a teleport was initiated. But this time no more pallets loaded with goods vanished. Instead, there was a faint pop, and a Christmas tree appeared, complete with lights and colored baubles on the branches. Another pop, and a figure appeared beside it - a mannequin, artfully dressed in red with white trim as Santa Claus, replete with white beard, jolly belly, and rosy cheeks. A sign hung on the front of the figure read, in large red glittery letters, Merry Christmas! Beneath those words, in far smaller letters, the words Your donation is greatly appreciated were printed in black.

"And a happy new year to you, as well," Robin Hood added, bowing once more at them. He chuckled...and then vanished. The odd feeling of tension again accompanied the disappearance, and something in its signature suggested that the dark figure had gone some distance away from them, indeed.

For a moment no one said anything. Charlie could feel the thoughts of his friends, awhirl all around him. Within him. The meeting with Robin Hood had stunned them all.

"Can we help them?" Adrian asked, meaning the downed police.

"Not in this state," Charlie said, regretfully. "I hope this character was telling us the truth, and they weren't hurt."

"They seem unharmed, from what I can determine," Pacha said quietly. "But I think they will be angry when they revive. They cannot sense us, but I would be away from here, just the same. I think you can return us to my ship now, Charlie."

Charlie nodded, took a last look at the piles of policemen, who did seem to be stirring now, and turned his presence away from the warehouse, and returned himself and the others to the control center on Pacha's ship.

"That didn't go well," Kippy said bluntly. They had opened out the circle of sofas in the ship's control center and repositioned themselves while Illia supplied drinks and a bite to eat. Kippy had moved back beside Charlie, and the way he pressed up against him signaled his boyfriend's unease. Charlie took Kip's hand and held it firmly, and smiled when his boyfriend turned to look at him.

"Creep you out?" Charlie asked.

"Are you kidding? That guy was scary, Charlie! All I could think of was that he could do a lot more than he was showing us!"

"He was a master!" Frit put in, shaking his head. "As good as any elf!"

"Any older elf, you mean," Pip corrected. "I couldn't even get through the screen he was wearing!"

Kippy nodded. "He seemed to me to know exactly what he was doing."

"The impression is not an incorrect one," Pacha agreed. "We faced a power user of surprising ability." The Kift seemed to think about that, and gave a little nod to himself. "And a very old one, as well."

Ricky and Adrian exchanged glances, and then Ricky leaned forward. "How do you mean?"

Pacha arranged himself more comfortably on Mike's lap, picked up the boy's hand, and laid it on his shoulder. Mike smiled, and obligingly began to gently stroke the Kift's fur. The fondness between the two was so apparent that Charlie and many of the others had to smile.

But Pacha seemed lost in thought, and didn't notice. "Every species has a different standard for measuring time. Many, like your own, and also my kind, base it upon rotations of their home world about its axis, and revolutions of their planet about their sun. But because these units vary so widely depending upon the constructions of each planetary system, time and age often do not convey well from one species to another."

"There's galactic time," Bobby put in. "It's a standard in the empire."

"Yes, but unknown here on earth," Pacha reminded. He gave a tiny grunt. "The lifespans of all species vary as well. I am just entering middle-age by the standards of my people, but I am older than most of your race will ever live."

Charlie blinked at the statement. "I don't think we ever knew that."

Mike laughed. "He doesn't look it, does he?"

"Or act it!" Bobby added, under his breath.

"I heard that!" Pacha smiled a crooked smile, and waved a small hand. "It's irrelevant, really. The lifespan of your own kind has increased considerably as your science and medicine improves, and will continue to do so."

"Elves live longer than humans," Frit pointed out. "My grandpa Max is over six-hundred."

"I know. It is your ka - your skwish - that lends to your longevity. It would seem to do the same for the humans that have it, too." The Kift turned to Charlie. "Nicholaas is the oldest human I have ever encountered. His age is in excess of one thousand of your years."

Charlie had known that, but the idea was still breathtaking. It was hard to relate to a life so long. What incredible experiences could one cram into so many years? The learning, the was almost unimaginable!

"Robin Hood would seem to be of a similar nature," Pacha added, quietly.

Kippy gaped. "As old as Nicholaas?"

"" The Kift seemed undecided. "Max has been teaching me the elements of time. I sense the temporal signature that Nicholaas possesses, and the one that Max possesses. Robin Hood struck me as being somewhere between the two."

Charlie shook his head slowly at the revelation. "You're saying this thief is older than Max? Older than six-hundred years?"

"Yes. I would say midway between Max and Nicholaas. Perhaps eight hundred of your years?"

Older than Max.

Charlie already was in awe of the things that Nicholaas could do, and Max was simply incredibly capable. To think there was yet another human out there that might be of the same caliber when it came to using magic...

"And this guy is not a good guy, either," he finished the thought.

"I did not get that impression," Pacha said, surprising all of them. "He told the truth about the law officers. They were not hurt. Each was cushioned within a cocoon of air, moved uniformly, and despite the apparent violence in them being swept aside into piles, they were not subjected to extreme inertial changes or impacts, and were merely stunned by the experience. Had Robin Hood wished to kill them, it seems clear to me he could have done so easily."

"But he's a criminal," Kippy complained. "He was looting that warehouse!"

Pacha held up a small hand. "May I suggest that his ethics are subject to interpretation? By his own words, he is older than the laws we accused him of flouting. A life lived over such a period on your world's history would have been tumultuous, indeed. I suggest that our adversary is more disillusioned than evil."

"He's still a thief," Kippy insisted. "No matter how old he is!"

Kiernan waved a hand. "I can get that disillusioned thing. If I lived that long, and saw that people hadn't really gotten a lot better in so long a time, it might make me a little irritable, too!"

Charlie smiled at that. The witch boy had a way of cutting to the quick of things. And...he was right. Despite Charlie's initial impression of criminality, the dark man had not come across as evil. In retrospect, Robin Hood had seemed...annoyed would be the better word, though how that applied to the man looting warehouses was still in question.

"I have a weird thought," Adrian said, a little wondrously. "This guy says he's Robin Hood. As old as he is...what if he really is that guy?"

Kippy gave his head a little shake. "Wow!"

"Who is this Robin Hood?" Kontus demanded. "The name sounds like one a criminal would have!"

Charlie laughed at that. "Actually, the man is a folk hero on our world. If I remember rightly, there is no clear history to show he ever really existed at all. But some historians attribute him to various real people over several hundred years of English history. By about seven hundred years ago he was already a popular legend, and the name taken up by all sorts of men, from patriots fighting the overreach of royal authority to outright robbers just looking to line their own pockets." Charlie gave a little sigh. "But to most people, the name really does mean someone who takes from the rich and gives to the poor, just like our new friend said."

"You really think he does that?" Mike asked. "Guy like that could be up to anything."

"Yeah, but he did have a way about him," Bobby said, smiling. "Sort of like a rascal adventurer, actually. I could almost imagine Errol Flynn underneath that weird camouflage he had."

Both Horace and Uncle Bob laughed.

"Who's Errol Flynn?" Ricky asked.

Charlie smiled over at his friend. "The man was still around when Bobby was in his own time. He was sort of the Indiana Jones of the 1930s and 1940s."

"I loved his movies when I was little," Bobby agreed. "They used to run Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk on the local TV channel every year."

Mike smiled at his boyfriend. "I didn't know you had a thing for adventurers!"

Bobby laughed delightedly, and snuggled up to Mike. "Oh, I've found the adventurer I want to be with!"

Mike looked briefly embarrassed, but then leaned closer and gently kissed the other boy.

"But it's not gay!" Adrian and Kippy both called in unison. Everyone laughed.

"Hmm." Charlie said then. "I was impressed with this guy, despite my first impression of him as the enemy. I was thinking how we'd never be able to handle someone like that, and that we'd need Max to deal with him. Maybe even Nicholaas." He shook his head. "But...he didn't hurt the cops, and he didn't try to hurt us. He sort of tried to knock my second presence away, but I was able to hold it in place." He grunted, suddenly surprised at his one line of reasoning. "He really didn't do anything to us at all!"

"That doesn't mean he couldn't, or wouldn't," Horace pointed out. "If we get in his way again, I mean."

"I have to agree with that," Uncle Bob said. "The man acted like he knew exactly what he was doing. We surprised him, but he adjusted to our unexpected presence very quickly. I also got the impression the man could be dangerous in the wrong situation."

"I got that, too," Ricky agreed. "He had a temper, and sometimes it showed."

"He said he could raze the whole city!" Bobby reminded.

Kippy gave a dramatic shudder. "I'm not afraid to admit he scared me."

"You were in good company," Horace said gently, smiling.

"I am puzzled by the way you are all acting," Kontus said then. The big Trichani looked around at his friends. "On Roorapynta, such a thief would be dealt with promptly. His actions were dishonorable. I can admit that this one would not be easily apprehended there, because of his powers. But something would be done!"

"And we'll do something," Charlie replied, nodding. "Just as soon as we can figure out what!"

"I told Grandpa Max about this," Frit said. "He's busy getting things ready to be delivered, but he said he'd let Nicholaas know what happened, and he'd try to get back here as soon as he can."

"Is that all he said?" Kippy asked.

"No. He said to be careful, too!"

For a moment Charlie was stunned by that. But then he took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Max had to know what he was doing. But...just be careful? He hadn't said for them to wait, to do nothing, that they were in over their heads, that they would need assistance to deal with this. Neither had he dropped what he was doing and come running, or even sent some of his friends to help out. Max could easily finagle time, as he liked to put it, and create a moment for him to come to help, even if just to provide guidance. Likewise, many of his friends were pretty potent elves, themselves. Yet neither option seemed to be forthcoming.

Be careful? That sounded very much like the elf was telling them to proceed with their investigation, not shut it down. To do it on their own.

Is this a test? he wondered then.

"How did you inform him?" Mike asked curiously. "Like telepathy, or something?

"Memory sharing," Pip said. "Send copies of the memories. It's just like he was there with us!"

"Works great!" Frit agreed.

Kippy sighed, and leaned up against Charlie. "We still have so much skwish stuff to learn!"

Charlie pushed away his doubts for the moment, and smiled. "It just takes time. We'll get there, Kip. Be patient."

Kippy nodded. "I know about patience. I'm with you, aren't I?"

Ricky and Adrian burst out laughing, and Ricky quickly raised a placating hand to Charlie. "Sorry."

Kippy gaped a second, and then smiled at Charlie. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I meant that you have taught me patience, Charlie."

"I know, Kip. You worry too much."

Charlie turned back to Pacha. "I sensed you scoping this guy out the whole time. What else did you get from him?"

The Kift looked unhappy. "Not all that much. Whatever sort of art he used to hide himself, it works for more than just vision. I was able to sense his temporal signature, a very great sense of ka ability, and...not much more."

"That's not very much," Kiernan decided.

Pacha smiled at him. "Actually, I learned a great deal by what I was not able to sense about him. Primarily that he is extremely powerful with ka. More so than I am."

Mike stopped in the middle of stroking the Kift's fur and stared down at him. "Are you serious, Pach?"

"I am. Our new friend is more powerful than anyone I have ever met, with the exception of Nicholaas."

Frit gasped. "More powerful than my grandpa?"

"It can't be!" Pip added, looking alarmed.

Pacha immediately waved a small hand. "That was poorly stated on my part." He offered a crooked smile to the two teen elves. "Max is certainly more able at some of the things he does than is this gentleman in the dark disguise. It's poor judgment to base the power of a power user on the deftness of his abilities. Better to sample the overall ka, and use that as a guide. That will provide a glimpse of his ultimate potential, which is the true judge of his power." He sighed then. "In that respect, I am sorry to say that Robin Hood exceeds Max in ultimate potential. And everyone else I have ever met, except for Nicholaas. Nicholaas is quite unique, I think."

"That's something," Charlie murmured, unable to imagine a greater force than Nicholaas. And not wanting too, either!

"There is one positive note here," Pacha said then. "I sensed no intimacy with time at all. Our new friend does not count the manipulation of time among his many talents."

"That you could tell?" Charlie asked.

The Kift smiled. "Yes. That I could tell." His soft brown eyes regarded Charlie a moment, and then he nodded. "And, one more thing."

"Here we go!" Ricky said, tossing his hands up

Mike held up a hand in gentle reprimand. "Just relax, mate!"

The Kift gave a small shake of his furry head. "I still have not completely sorted this out."

No one said anything, waiting, and Pacha simply stared back at them.

"What is it?" Kippy finally blurted, unable to restrain himself further.

Mike and Bobby smiled, used to these sorts of pauses while Pacha mulled things over, and Mike waved a finger at Kippy, who stuck his tongue out as a reply.

"This human with ka is a most unusual power user. While his use of teleportation was precise and practiced, I had no feeling that his ability with it was anything special. What impressed me was the disguise he used to shield himself from view. A thin film of negative light, or more precisely, negative electromagnetism. I have not encountered this particular ability before. It is extremely effective, and was impenetrable to anything I was able to bring against it."

Charlie nodded. "You said that before."

"Just so. But my analysis of such a talent suggests it stems from the reverse end of the ka spectrum, much as your second presence ability does."

Charlie blinked, remembering how Max had once explained to them that most skwish abilities were grouped together on what he deemed the 'face' side of the coin, while rarer and much less understood abilities stemmed from the other side of that coin. "I get that. Max covered it once before."

The Kift grunted. "Those that express these much more rare abilities often have more than one of them in their repertoire. It suggests to me that our Robin Hood could possess other abilities we have not encountered before."

"That makes him dangerous?" Horace asked.

Tchk-tchk-tchk. Pacha seemed to find that funny. "All power users have the ability to become dangerous. I am simply saying that this one's possibly exotic abilities give him the potential to be even more dangerous than average."

"Nice," Mike said dryly. "That makes me feel better."

Charlie squeezed Kippy's hand one last time and stood up. "I'm tired. I think a lot of us are. This is too much to consider at this late hour. I suggest we all get a good night's sleep, and then meet tomorrow at the office." He smiled. "All those interested in continuing with this project, that is."

Laughter circled the group, and others climbed to their feet.

"Mind if I sleep on the sofa at your office?" Uncle Bob asked Charlie. "I hate to make that drive home and then come back in just a few hours."

"I have a spare bedroom you are welcome to use," Horace said. He turned to smile at Kiernan then. "Two spare bedrooms, actually. My place is much closer to the boy's office than either of you live. I'd be happy to have the company." He laughed. "And Gretchen would be thrilled!"

Uncle Bob nodded, looking pleased. "Oh, excellent, Horace. Thank you." He raised his wrist and checked his watch, and grimaced. "I'll need to call Susan and let her know I haven't vanished, but this is not the hour for such reminders."

Kiernan moved closer to the two men. "Thanks. I do want to stay with this thing." He glanced over at Charlie and Kip and smiled. "It's exciting!"

"There speaks the innocence of youth!" Adrian said, his eyes bright.

Kippy frowned at the witch boy. "Won't someone be worried about you?"

"Sure. I'll call my mom in the morning. But she knows I'm a big boy now."

Something mischievous briefly appeared in Kippy's eyes, but he smiled, deciding not to take the bait.

"I know what!" Frit said. "We've been to your house, Horace. We'll take you three there, and get you again in the morning. That will save you the drive."

Horace clapped his hand together. "Oh, that would be fine! That means almost an extra hour of sleep, which I, for one, would appreciate!"

Charlie turned to Mike and Pacha. "You guys should get some rest. I know you're on a different schedule than we are. We need to try to get them closer together."

"We'll be fine, mate." Mike grinned at Bobby. "I think I could use a nap about now, anyway."

Bobby sighed, and smiled at Kippy, who smiled right back at him, but only grasped Charlie's hand again and drew it closer rather than say what he was thinking.

Kontus looked around at everyone, and then crossed his arms. "I continue to be amazed at the way humans think! I would be attempting to locate this Robin Hood now, searching him out, and making every attempt to detain him for questioning. Sleep would be the farthest thing from my mind!"

"We can't do anything tonight, honey," Kip said, putting a hand before his mouth to hide a yawn. "We need some help with this one. So we'll need to wait on Max."

Charlie nodded, not ready to express his thoughts on Max just yet.

"We'll try to bring him with us tomorrow," Frit said, rubbing at his chin.

"Even if we have to drag him!" Pip added. The two elves looked at each other, and both broke up laughing at the idea of them dragging Max anywhere.

Charlie smiled. "Great. So let's all meet back at our offices at..." He looked over at Kip, then at Ricky and Adrian.

"Ten AM?" Kippy offered.

Ricky nodded. "Works for me."

"I'm good with that," Adrian agreed.

Charlie nodded. "Amy will think we're a bunch of sluggards, but that can't be helped."

"No she won't," Kippy said. "We already keep odd hours."

"That's because we're odd," Ricky said, grinning.

Charlie raised a hand. "Okay, okay. Frit and Pip? Can one of you drop off Horace, Bob, and Kiernan at Horace's place, and the other drop off Rick, Adrian, Kip and me at my place?"

Adrian looked over at him. "We're staying at your house?"

"If you don't mind the cot. There's a few things we might want to talk over before we go back to the office in the morning."

Ricky put out a hand and squeezed Adrian's wrist. "That'll be okay with us, huh, Ad?"

The other boy smiled. "Sure. I always say that sex is more fun with an audience, anyway."

Ricky did a double take, and then gaped at his boyfriend. "I never heard you say that!"

Kippy and Adrian both laughed. "Sure he did," Kippy offered. "Just now. I heard him clearly!"

Charlie rolled his eyes and shook his head. "We're tired, and we're getting silly. Frit? How about that ride?"

"Coming right up, Charlie!"

They said goodnight to those staying aboard the ship, and soon Charlie and his friends were standing in his bedroom, a promise in hand from Frit to be back shortly before ten the next morning.

Kippy looked over at Charlie's bed, and smiled. "All that stuff we just did with Robin Hood really took away from my Christmas feeling." He turned to Charlie, and pointed at the bed. "You could give that back to me very easily."

Charlie smiled. "What are you saying, Kip? I thought you were exhausted."

"I'm never too tired to get a present from you, Charlie."

Adrian sighed, and snuggled up against Ricky. "See? It's not just me that says stuff like that."

The other boy nodded, and smiled over at Charlie. "Can we use your shower?"

"Sure. Short or long?"

Ricky smiled at Adrian. "Well..."

Charlie sighed. "Then let me and Kip go first. We'll just be a few minutes."

It took them about ten minutes to get washed and dried, actually, and then they relinquished the bath to the others. Soon they lay together in Charlie's bed, arms around each other, kissing sleepily.

"I'm going to miss this room, when we get our own place," Charlie confided.

"There's no hurry," Kippy said, a noticeably drowsy tone in his voice now.

Charlie sighed and pulled Kippy closer. "This Robin Hood thing has me worried."

"I know. I can tell. I feel the same way."

"Uh huh. I'd love to go with Pacha's opinion that the guy is just disillusioned, but I can't get past my gut feeling that he was just entertaining himself playing with us."

"Maybe he was, Charlie. He said he'd never seen anything like your second presence before. But think how old he is, and how it must have been for him to suddenly discover other humans using powers he's never encountered."

Charlie did consider that, and brightened. "I didn't think of that. In a must have been just as startling to him, meeting us, as it was for us, meeting him."

"Sure. I was mad at first, because he was stealing all that stuff from that warehouse, and scared because he was doing it so well. But now I've had time to think about it, and I realize he could have done a lot worse to both us and the police. I mean, think of a Moth in his place, but with Robin Hood's kind of power."

Charlie cringed slightly at the idea. "Yeah. You're right." Any encounter with an enemy you can walk away from is a good one.

But was Robin Hood really an enemy?

Charlie tried to imagine what it would have been like to live through the past 800 years of human history. Or the past thousand and more, as Nicholaas had done. It was unimaginable, really.

I'm nineteen. What do I know about time?

"Things will get better when Max comes," Kippy said slowly. "You'll see."

Charlie frowned at that. "Kip? About Max coming--"

Kippy's breath sighed out slowly then, and his body relaxed, and Charlie realized he had gone to sleep. So much for reinvigorating his boyfriend's Christmas spirit!

He closed his own eyes, knowing he needed sleep, too, but unable to quite turn away from the idea that time meant less to those with skwish powers. Once, the man they had met tonight had been Charlie's age, with no idea of what the future would bring, or how long that future would contain him. Being a witness to 800 years of humankind's slow steps forward must have been as painful as it was exciting at times. Nicholaas seldom spoke about his past, and Charlie only had some small knowledge of what the man had experienced from his dreams, his books, and the few stories he had recounted.

Personality would play a tremendous role in such a long life. Nicholaas had embraced his existence, planned and refined it, and shared it with a world that knew him by his acts, and the myth and lore that had risen around his good deeds. Nicholaas was Santa, much beloved by the world, and just as much in love with it.

But what of Robin Hood? Could he be the real one, the genuine article, the folk hero around which so many stories were based? If so, they painted him as a good man, with the interests of others at heart. One who acted to assist those less fortunate, even if by questionable means

Could he possibly be another man like Nicholaas, perhaps a bit jaded, yet who might still have the welfare of all humans at heart?

Or was such a notion simply too good to be true?

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