Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

Hang THIS On Your Christmas Tree, Charlie Boone! - Epiogue

"What do you think they're doing?" Kippy asked. "We haven't heard anything in a while now."

They were back in the activity room at Third Planet Inquiries. It was Thursday now, the last day at work before they took off for the holiday. Pacha and the others were due down from their ship shortly. Uncle Bob and Kiernan, still staying with Horace, would be along soon, too. It took them longer because they had to drive, as Frit and Pip had yet to return, either.

Charlie shrugged. "Robin is with Nicholaas and Ronja. They're giving him the tour. Max said he'd pop over as soon as he could with some news."

Kippy sighed. "I've come to like Robin. I hope he decides to stay around."

"Me, too." Charlie leaned over and kissed his boyfriend.

Kippy smiled. "What was that for?"

"Just catching up some."

Ricky and Adrian, seated on the sofa across from them, both laughed.

Charlie smiled at them. "I have noticed very little talking from you two, and very much smooching. I don't feel like that gives you a right to comment."

"Hey, relax," Ricky called back. "We're on your side."

They heard the intercom then, and Amy's voice filled the room. "Charlie? Bob, Horace, and Kiernan are here. Shall I send them back?"

"Yes, please. Thank you, Amy!"

In a moment the others arrived, and closed the hallway door behind them.

"Any news?" Bob Travers asked, as he dropped onto the sofa with Charlie and Kip.

"Not yet." Charlie shrugged. "I have no idea at all how they're working this. Nicholaas can't just drop his delivery equation. But I'm pretty sure that he and Robin will need to talk. I figure Nicholaas will finagle time somehow, and get it all done." He sighed. "Must be nice to be able to twist time around any way you like it."

Kiernan walked around them, smiling, and went to the refrigerator for a drink.

Horace sat on the other side of them, and leaned close to Charlie. "I think Gretchen has a crush on Kiernan."

Charlie blinked at that. "How on earth could you tell?"

The older man laughed. "Well, he has the guest room in back of mine. There's a trellis that runs up the back of the house outside the window, which has always had some half-hearted Trumpets and Black-eyed Susan as climbers." He snorted. "You should see it now! It looks like the house is being taken over back there!"

Keirnan returned with a bottled water and sank onto the opposing sofa. "You talking about the flowers?"

Horace nodded, his eyes bright. "I was just telling them that I thought they were presents for you from Gretchen."

Kiernan grinned. "Aw. She's so sweet."

Kippy raised an eyebrow. "She's not the only one!"

Kiernan looked faintly embarrassed. "She and I hit it off, is all. She's like Pyewacket, but much gentler."

Kippy feigned surprise. "Better not let Pyewacket hear that!"

The witch boy sighed. "Pyewacket is a guy. And not the jealous type. Protective, yes. Jealous, no." He shook his head. "Cut it out, Kip."

Kippy nodded. "Sorry. You have a way with dark energy critters. And now light energy ones, too, it seems."

"Genius loci," Horace corrected. "Gretchen is not a creature of any sort!"

Kippy nodded. "Sorry."

Charlie turned to his boyfriend. "You're sort of up in the air today. What gives?"

Kippy frowned. "Well, tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and we still don't know what we're doing. Max isn't here, Frit and Pip aren't here, and we haven't heard from Nicholaas, either." He pouted. "We've been forgotten!"

Charlie smiled, and put an arm around his boyfriend. "You're kidding me, right?"

Kippy managed to hold the pout another few seconds, and then he lost it and a smile popped out. "Well, I do feel like someone has forgotten to let us know what is happening."

As if on cue, there was an especially large pop in the room, and Max appeared with Frit and Pip...and Auggie!

The bearcat immediately charged them, and climbed up onto Kippy's lap. Since he now outweighed Kippy, that was no small deal!

"Ouch! Oh! Careful!" But Kippy threw his arms around Auggie and hugged him, and only let go as the cat turned to Charlie, licked his cheek, and insisted on a similar hug.

"Watch it!" Charlie called then, as Auggie turned again, leaped completely over the coffee table, and landed on the opposite couch between Keirnan and Ricky, causing both boys to bounce up into the air.

"Mrowf!" Ricky and Adrian got their licks, and then the cat slid to the floor, circled back around, and laid his head on Bob Traver's knee. "Mahjeek."

"He wants a magic trick!" Kippy said.

"Oh, does he, now?" Bob lay back in his seat and fished a silver dollar out of his pocket. He held it up before Auggie, displayed it in his hand, passed the other hand over it, and then opened both. The dollar was gone!

Auggie growled out a laugh, and used his nose to prod Bob's hands. "Where?"

"You didn't teleport it," Ricky complained. "That's just the old trick."

"Of course I didn't," his uncle returned. "Auggie would sense a teleport in a second. Sleight of hand on the other, um, hand..."

Auggie gave out a great big laugh, and bounced up and down on his feet. "Mahjeek!"

Charlie turned then, and grinned at the elves. "Hi, Max! Hi, guys! Merry Christmas!"

Max, who had watched the entire proceedings with a big grin, sighed and came around to sit near Charlie. "Thanks, Charlie. I wasn't sure about bringin' Auggie here, because now he knows the way. But the Big Guy said to do it, so here we are."

Charlie stared at that. "Nicholaas said to bring Auggie here?"

"Sure. He said he wanted him to know the way, just in case. I asked him in case of what, and he just laughed and said to do it."

Kippy leaned towards Max and eyed him. "How's Robin?"

"Wow." Max shook his head. "You guys sure did good findin' that guy! I ain't seen the boss looking so happy in a long time!"

"Really?" Charlie was pleased to hear that. "Nicholaas likes him?"

"Sure does. And Robin seems pretty taken with the boss, too. Neither of them have ever met another human that's in their league with magic. It's like runnin' into a guy that collects the same kind of snerfels that you do."

Kippy squeaked out a laugh at that. "What are snerfels?"

"Everybody collects them!" Frit said.

"No two are alike!" Pip added.

"But what are they?" Kippy repeated.

Max looked distressed. "Aw, geez, fellas. If you don't collect them, nobody can tell you what they are!"

Charlie gently jabbed his boyfriend with an elbow. "Leave it alone, Kip." He smiled at Max. "How is Ronja taking all this?"

"She's happy as a clam. The Big Guy has been a little overworked this year, you know? Biggest batch of gifts we've ever sent out. But you know what? Robin can do transdimensional point calculations almost as good as the boss. The two of them have kicked out this year's delivery equation already, and it's still two days to go!"

"I guess that's good," Charlie replied, not certain at all.

"Are you kiddin'? It's affected the entire shop! We ain't gotta move all sorts of stuff around at the last minute, trying to fill in gaps in the equation. It's all set. Everything's ready to go, in place, and the equation is fired up. The whole crew is gettin' some down time right at Christmas! It's unheard of!"

Irving came online then, and announced a com call from Pacha. They were ready to teleport down. Charlie gave them the go ahead, and in a moment the four had joined them. Auggie immediately marched around, renewing old acquaintances, and getting petted and hugged at each turn.

Max shook hands, too, and finally sat again beside Charlie. "Couldn't get Ragal and Casper here this year?"

Charlie shrugged. "They were invited. Durapar roped them into some project on Engris, and we haven't heard back from them. They may still get here."

The elf closed his eyes and sighed. "Man. We work all year for this time, and we're used to it bein' tight right up to the last second. Havin' this time of the year off is kinda creepy.'

Charlie laughed at that. "You ever heard the one about not looking the gift horse in the mouth?"

Max laughed. "Sure. I wasn't checkin' teeth. I was just sayin'." He suddenly sat up straight. "The boss!"

Nicholaas appeared in the room then, with Ronja and Robin in tow. This precipitated another round of handshakes, backslaps, and hugs. Everybody seemed to be talking at once, and it took several minutes for the room to quiet down.

Frit and Pip jumped up then, and waved their hands for silence. "Time for presents!"

Charlie glanced at the clock, and shook his head. "Awfully early in the day, Frit. We were planning to do that in the last hour before closing."

The elf came over and leaned down to whisper to Charlie. "Just ours, then? The one Pip and I got you guys?" He smiled. "We want Nicholaas and Ronja to see it, and you know how fast they can be off somewhere else. My grandpa, too!"

"Oh, the refrigerator," Kippy said, grinning.

Frit stuck his tongue out in response, and then grinned at Charlie. "Please? If they don't see it now, there's no telling when they will!"

Charlie started to get to his feet, and the elf stepped back. Charlie held up his hands until everyone turned his way again. "Um, guys? Frit and Pip want us to open their gift now, so that all of you can see it. He seems to think you'll all be running off somewhere any second."

That actually brought some smiles, and made Charlie wonder how accurate Frit's intuition might be.

Frit turned to Kippy then, and reached down and took his hand. "Come on!"

Charlie's boyfriend displayed a surrpised look, but allowed himself to be pulled to his feet, and then across the room to the large gift-wrapped package by the Christmas tree. Pip came over then, and both elves looked terribly excited. "Come on over, everybody!"

Charlie moved to stand by Kippy, and Rick and Adrian followed. Presently, the entire group had formed a semicircle with the package at the center.

Frit took Kippy's hands and placed it on the big bow on the front of the package. "All you have to do is pull it."

Ricky opened his mouth to make a comment on that, but immediately snapped it shut as Charlie hissed and sent him a warning look. His friend turned, saw Ronja smiling beside Nicholaas, and immediately turned bright red.

Charlie laughed. "Aren't you glad now you didn't?"

Kippy turned his head and shushed them over his shoulder, now caught up in the excitement of the package. He gave the bow a small tug, and it popped off in his hand.

Nothing else happened.

"What?" Frit turned to Pip. "Did you set the magic?"

Pip looked anxious. "I thought you did!"

Frit smacked the side of his own head, turned back, and waved a hand at the package.

The wrapping parted then, pulling away from the front of the gift and disappearing around all four side, and then was gone.

"Always recycle!" Pip said brightly.

But Charlie was too busy staring at what had been revealed.

It was a wooden case, resembling a piece of furniture, about as tall and wide as the refrigerator that Kippy had kidded the elves about. The case was mildly ornate, the wood beautifully finished, and yet just as obviously quite old. The lower half of the cabinet was entirely enclosed in the rose-colored wood, with a large red pull handle that protruded from the right side. The upper half of the cabinet had framed corners, with large sheets of glass fitted into the front and sides, while the top was again more ornate, a squared wooden cap with finials at the corners.

Behind the glass, basking beneath a tiny spotlight, the figure of a cat easily three feet in height sat on a small hassock. But it was a cat with a human body, with the booted feet planted firmly on the floor in front of the hassock. The cat wore brown velvet trousers above the golden boots, and a golden tunic above the trousers, with a wide, old-fashioned belt with a large buckle around its middle. The collar of the tunic was the same brown as the trousers, with a gold trim at the bottom, and a black bow tie in the front.

Perched upon the cat's head was a brown tricorn hat, with a golden feather tucked into the silver hatband, that just fit snugly between the upright ears. The cat's face was animated in a smile, mouth open, teeth exposed, which immediately reminded Charlie of the grin of the Cheshire cat from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The cat's whiskers were elegantly long, as were its eyebrows, and the face furred in a pattern that suggested a Tabby.The yellow eyes were wide and focused directly at anyone standing in front of the case, and the effect was eerily realistic.

The cat held what looked very much like a magic wand in one hand, and a small golden tray in the other. Just beneath the tray was a small wooden box with a hinged top, and beneath that, on the wooden front of the lower cabinet, a golden slot large enough to put a hand into.

"Well, Ronja said, sounding slightly puzzled. "It's quite...different."

Robin leaned forward to inspect the thing, and then grinned. "Oh, I have seen the like of this before! It's a mechanical fortune-telling machine, isn't it?"

Frit and Pip jumped up and down in delight, looking briefly far younger than their age.

"It is!" Pip agreed, grinning at Kippy.

"Pull the handle!" Frit instructed, clasping his hands before himself in anticipation.

Kippy looked briefly back at Charlie, his expression plainly stating that he wasn't sure about this at all. But then he turned back to the machine, sighed, and reached out to pull the handle back towards him. When it stopped he let it go, and the cabinet immediately hummed as if to the sound of some large clockwork mechanism inside.

The cat's hand holding the wand moved then, came around and used the tip of the wand to lift the lid of the small box set in front of the cat's booted feet. The other hand, the one holding the small tray, swung on its arm to the back of the cabinet and paused briefly before a slot Charlie had not noticed before. As it did so a card dropped out of the slot onto the the tray. The motion of the arm was scarcely broken by the pause, and it swung directly back to the front of the cabinet, paused over the now open box, and the hand turned so that the card slid off the tray and into the box, dropping into the slot in the front of the cabinet below. The tip of the wand then flipped the box's lid shut again, and the cat resumed its original position.

"The card!" Frit urged to Kippy.

"Grab it!" Pip said.

Kippy nodded, bent, and retrieved the card, and held it up to look at it. Charlie leaned closer so he could see it, too:

You're the life of the party! Dress accordingly!

Kippy gave out a short laugh. "Well, I always knew that!"

Frit sighed. "It's real, Kip. Take the advice."

Kippy tsked. "Oh, please. I'm not even invited to a party!"

"Yet!" Pip called.

"Wanna try it, Charlie?" Frit asked, swinging now in his direction. Charlie was unable to resist the sweet plea in the elf boy's eyes, and nodded. "Sure."

He took Kip's place and pulled on the handle, released it. Again came the clockwork purr, and the cat moved through its motions and dropped a card into the slot. Charlie bent to take it, and held it up so that he and the others could see it:

Your friendships are your treasures. A new treasure is coming your way!

Charlie stared at that, several interpretations immediately flashing through his mind.

"Everybody try!" Frit said, waving his hand in delight. "Line up!"

Nicholaas came over to where Charlie was standing, and took him by the arm. "Can we speak a moment, my friend? While the others play?"

"Sure." Charlie let the man lead him away.

"This was a wonderful thing you did, Charlie. Placing Robin in contact with me may lead to some great things."

Charlie shook his head. "It wasn't just me. It was a group effort, like always."

"I know. But you are somehow the catalyst by which these things happen. It's that unique spark in you that most often leads your team on to good things."

Charlie smiled at that. "My team?"

"Certainly. You are the nucleus of the atom, Charlie. The others are as important in the makeup of that atom, but you are the center around which they revolve. Are you denying it?"

"Um, well--"

Nicholaas laughed. "Someone has to be the center, Charlie. In this case, it's you. It does not raise your importance above that of the others, nor lower the importance of the others in respect to you. Every one of you has a part to play, a role to fill. Everything you do is very much a team effort. But you are somehow the guiding spirit. I sense it in your skwish."

"If you say so."

Nicholaas chuckled. "I do. Anyway, thank you again." He squeezed Charlie's wrist. "Coming to the Christmas party?"

Charlie stopped, and turned to look at the older man. "Christmas party?"

Nicholaas winced, and tapped his head with a finger. "Oops. Maybe I'd better wait until you've been asked."

Charlie grinned at that. "Did you just make a mistake?"

"No. I was simply ahead of you in time. Just a little." But the sparkle in the man's eyes told the tale.

"I won't tell anyone," Charlie promised.

"You're a good lad, Charlie." Nicholaas smiled. "And a good friend."

Charlie was touched. "I feel the same way. About you as a friend, I mean."


Ronja came to them then, to take Nicholaas aside to show him her fortune card. But that proved a ruse so that Robin could get him alone. He appeared just as the other two walked away, and took Charlie by the arm just as Nicholaas had done before him.

"Thank you, Charlie. I can never repay you for bringing me to Nicholaas."

Charlie sighed. "If I remember right, it was Frit and Pip that did that."

"And I already thanked them. But you were the one that I somehow linked with, right from the start. You were the one I felt was somehow sympathetic to my cause."

Charlie shook his head. "I don't agree with stealing."

Robin laughed. "I don't mean that at all. I am referring to all those out in the world that need help, Charlie. Assistance. You feel the same way about them as I do. You care."

Charlie could not deny that. "Okay. You're right about that."

Robin stopped and smiled at him. "Charlie, there's a very old saying, to the effect that, the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Charlie nodded, "I've heard it."

"I'm not surprised. What I am saying is that our goals are the same, only our methods are different."

Charlie could see where that argument got some traction, and nodded. "Somewhat."

Robin laughed. "You're not making this easy."

Charlie smiled. "Sorry. Maybe just say what you want to say?"

"Okay. Charlie, I have a lot of resources. I have some fair talent with the gift. Um, with skwish. Nicholaas and Ronja have invited me into a sort of agreement to assist with Nick's duties as Santa each year, and I have agreed. But that will not be an year-round assignment. If I am to stop twisting the tails of the mighty, I will need something else to do with my time."

Charlie stopped short. "You're going to stop stealing from the rich and giving to the poor?"

The older man sighed. "Not exactly. I have agreed to stop stealing from the rich, but I have not agreed to stop giving to the poor. Or, at least, I still want to assist those in need. So, I was thinking--"

"Yes," Charlie said. "We'd be glad to have you."

Robin raised an eyebrow at that.

Charlie grinned. "I'm sorry. I thought you were offering to help us out if we needed you."

"I was."

Charlie nodded. "We'd be glad to have you."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that."

Robin nodded. "Give me your hand."

They clasped hands, and Charlie felt a strange warmth in the grip, which seemed to transfer from Robin to himself. The other man nodded, and released him. "Done. Now I will know when you need me."

Charlie looked at his hand. "Great. " He smiled. "You know your way here now, too. You never have to wait to be called to drop in. We'll be happy to see you anytime."

Robin bit at his lip a moment, and nodded. "Thank you, Charlie. You know...I have encountered others with the gift over the years. With skwish. The sad thing is that people with the gift are just the same as people without it. They come in all varieties, good and bad. It has been my misfortune to meet several of the bad ones, with whom I have had bad experiences. You and your friends are the first gifted folk I have met that I wanted to know better."

"Thank you. I'll tell you now that you haven't even met all of us yet. We have more friends, out there." He pointed towards the ceiling.

Robin Hood grinned. "This is going to be fun." His eyes widened then. "Oh! I almost forgot! I'm throwing a Christmas party. I wanted to invite all of you."

Charlie blinked at that, the faux pas Nicholaas had made, and Kip's fortune card suddenly coming together in his mind.

"When is it?"

"Christmas day, of course."

Charlie frowned, disappointment arriving then. "Well, we usually spend that day with our families."

"I know. Nicholaas said he could do one of those time tricks of his so that you can do both. Will you come?"

Charlie good feeling returned. "Oh, in that case, I'd love to come. I can't speak for the others, though. You'll need to ask them yourself."

Robin smiled. "I'll go do that now. You'll like my place, Charlie. It's different."

" will I get there?"

"Frit and Pip have promised to collect all of you that wish to go and to bring you to Bavaria."

Charlie blinked at that. "Bavaria?"

"Yes. I own a castle there. It's 700 years old. Not even as old as I am."

"Bavaria," Charlie repeated.

"Yes. It's winter in the Alps, so dress accordingly."

Charlie laughed. "It sounds like fun."

"It is." Robin stuck out his hand and they shook once again."Thank you, Charlie. For everything." He smiled. "We'll be seeing a lot of each other, I hope."

They parted, Robin heading back to Nicholaas, and Charlie standing a moment alone. A party. Dress accordingly. Treasures, old and new.

He smiled over at Frit and Pip, who were even then moving the fortune-telling cat back against a wall, where it would become his permanent home. What a wonderful gift!

Charlie wandered back to the couch via the refrigerator, where he got himself a bottled water. He was feeling slightly dazed. Robin was just leaving Kippy when he got back to the couch, and Charlie thought his boyfriend looked a little out of it, too.

Charlie plopped down next to him. "Robin invite you to the party?"

"Uh huh. I'm going, if you are."

"I'm going if you are."

Charlie looked around the room, at all the different people - well, and some elves, and a bearcat - and gave a brief shake of his head. "Does this feel like Christmas to you,Kip?"

Kippy sighed. "Yes, it does. It's been an odd one, but it does feel like a good one. And it will get better yet."

Charlie smiled. "Good. I was hoping it wasn't just me." He looked around, but no one was looking at them just then. He realized it wouldn't matter, anyway. He leaned his face closer to Kippy's, who smiled at him and puckered up. They kissed.

"Merry Christmas, Kip."

"Merry Christmas, Charlie. It sure is fun being with you."

Charlie smiled. "That goes both ways." He looked around at the crowded room, and smiled. "You know, there's one thing missing here?"

Kippy laid his head on Charlie's shoulder. "What's that?"

Charlie turned his head and smiled at his boyfriend. "Amy. I haven't given her her Christmas present yet."

Kippy giggled, and sat up straighter. "We could call her back and give it to her now."

"We could, couldn't we? You think she'd like Auggie?"

Kippy nodded. "Yes. Yes, I do."

Charlie was torn over the idea. "Do we dare? Would it be too much, all at once?"

Kippy sighed. "She's got to know at some point, if she's going to stay. Max said she would adjust to just about anything. I say we give her a chance to do that."

Charlie nodded. "Okay. But...I think we need some help with this." He got to his feet. "Come on."

Kippy rose and followed him, and Charlie walked around to where Horace was sitting, and they plopped down next to him, one on each side.

"Hi, Horace," Charlie said. "What'cha doing?"

"Yeah," Kippy said, nodding. "What'cha doing?"

"Just sitting here. Why do you ask?"

"Oh, no reason. Horace? Does it feel like Christmas to you?"

The man laughed. "Well, I was just thinking what an odd one it was...but yes, I think so. It does feel like Christmas."

"Good." Charlie leaned closer. "We need your help with something."

"Of course. What do you need?"

Charlie grinned across at Kippy, and then leaned closer to Horace and started whispering into his ear.

First the man's eyes got bigger.

And then his jaw dropped.

And then he closed his mouth.

And then he smiled.

And then he laughed. "Are you kidding? Of course I'll help with that!"

They bounced to their feet, and Charlie quickly got everyone's attention, and told them what they planned. Ronja detached herself from Nicholaas and came to stand with them. She smiled at Charlie. "The poor woman may need a friend of her own gender!"

Charlie grinned at her. "Thanks!"

Horace went to the door, opened it, and disappeared up the hallway.

"Wait until she's in the room," Kippy reminded everyone. "I'll stick my hand up when it's time."

They heard Horace then, coming back with Amy.

"--we just wanted a woman's opinion. You know how us men can be!"

And then Amy's friendly laugh. "I'll do my best."

The rounded the doorway and came into the room.

Kippy's arm leaped upwards.

"Surprise!" everyone yelled. "Merry Christmas, Amy!"

Amy stopped, absolutely stunned. Horace held onto her arm gently, the moral support clearly flowing. Charlie could see Amy's eyes moving around the crowd in the room, and the questions within those eye at what she was seeing: How on earth did all these people get back here?

And then she spied Kontus...and Auggie, and her mouth just dropped open so fast that Charlie was worried she might pass out. He and Kip rushed over, and helped Horace lead the woman to a seat on the sofa. Ronja immediately sat beside her and placed a hand on her wrist. "It's okay, Amy. These are all your friends. Just be patient, and everything will be explained."

Horace sat on her other side, still holding her hand. "Everything will be fine, my dear.'

Amy shook her head, Ronja's words still seeping in. "Friends? I don't even know know most of you!"

"You will," Charlie said, smiling.

Amy looked up at him then. "Charlie? What's going on?"

The crowd parted, and Nicholaas stepped through. He bowed gracefully, and extended his hand. "I am Nicholaas. It's my very great pleasure to meet you."

Amy looked up into the man's eyes, and for a moment everyone seemed to be holding their breaths as they watched. Nicholaas never stopped smiling, and his eyes never left Amy's. And then, slowly, she smiled. "Have we met before?"

Nicholaas nodded. "I think we have. When you were ten years old, you very much wanted a pair of skating rink dancing skates. But they were expensive - sixty dollars - and your father was still looking for a job and had yet to find the accounting position he occupied for the next thirty years. Your parents very much wanted you to have those skates...but they just couldn't afford them."

Amy squinted. "I remember that. I did get the skates that year. I found them later, under the tree, in a box that said it was from Santa."

Nicholaas smiled. "Yes, you did. And you became quite good on them, too."

Amy stared. "How could you know that?"

Nicholaas only smiled. "When you were eleven years old, your friend Terry lost his cat, the cat he adored so much. When he told you about it, tearfully, you had a vision, of the cat trapped beneath an old cabinet on a vacant lot. The cat had jumped onto the shelf inside, and caused the cabinet to fall over on its face, trapping the animal within. You led Terry straight to the place, and the cat was rescued. Without your vision, the poor animal would have perished."

Amy nodded.

"When you were a young woman in college, you had a vision of a friend of yours being held at knife point by a man that had picked her up in an off-campus club. You were able to direct the police right to her aid, and the man was arrested without incident. But he proved to have a history of violence against women. Without your aid, the result might have been different."


"You have had visions your entire life."

"Yes." Amy smiled then. "I had one about taking this job, as a matter of fact."

Nicholaas smiled. "This one was a good vision."

"Yes. It was."

"And now you are here." Nicholaas straightened, releasing Amy's hand. "Among your own kind."

Amy's eyes widened. "My kind?"

"Yes. Everyone in this room has some sort of talent, just like your vision. It is either a talent slowly coming into existence, or one already fully formed. But everyone here is like you, Amy."

Amy frowned at that. "Special, you mean?"

Nicholaas shook his head."No. All of humanity has the potential to someday have these talents. It just has not happened yet, except to a few. Someone has to be first."

Amy looked around the room at everyone. "What do you do with these talents?"

"Whatever needs doing," Charlie said. "We just seem to kind of run into most things we tackle. But in most cases, we help someone."

Amy frowned at that, too. "For money?"

Kippy laughed. "No. The only people we have charged are the ones that come into this office to hire us for research projects. That's business. But we help people for free."

Amy smiled, and relaxed. "I already knew that, somehow. You guys are too nice to hold people for ransom."

Kippy scratched his jaw curiously. "What sort of vision did you have about us?'

"I had two, actually," Amy answered, smiling. "The first one, I had the night after I applied for a job at the employment agency..."

She suddenly snapped her fingers and turned to Max. "That's where I've seen you before!"

Max grinned. "Sure. I sorta directed you at this place."

Amy smiled. "I liked you when we talked."

"I liked you, too. That's why you're here."

Amy thought about that, and nodded. "I felt the first day that I belonged here."

"It's not an uncommon thing for skwish sensitive people to sense others with the same talents," Ronja said. "I think that's what attracted me to Nicholaas."

Charlie turned to her. "You have skwish?"

"Certainly," Nicholas said, chuckling. "And it is slowly coming alive, too."

"What can you do?" Adrian asked.

Ronja looked slightly embarrassed. "Nothing yet, that I know of."

"She is amazingly good at putting people at ease," Nicholaas countered. "It is going to develop into an amazing talent for diplomacy and unification."

Ronja looked slightly flustered at that. "We'll see."

"You were going to tell us about your visions," Kippy reminded Amy patiently.

But Amy shook her head. "What's skwish?"

"It is the talent within your mind," Nicholaas said quickly. "It manifests itself differently in everyone."


"The visions?" Kippy persisted.

Amy nodded. "Well, the first night after I filled out the application, I had a vision of me sitting at a desk in an office. I was happy, and loved what I was doing. When the agency called a day later and told me I had gotten this job, and I came in and saw the was the office from my vision."

Charlie smiled. "And the other one?"

Amy smiled, and turned it on Horace. " were in it."

It was Horace's turn to look surprised. "Me?"

"Yes. You and I, together."

Horace digested that, and it was clear he was worried about the next question. "Uh...what were we doing?"

Amy gave a little sigh. "We were dancing together. I do love to dance."

Horace frowned. "Dancing? Where?'

Amy raised and lowered her shoulders. "I don;t know. A great room, somewhere. A beautiful room, like a ballroom." She suddenly looked up, and scanned the faces around here. "And...I think all of you were there!"

Robin gently pushed between Ricky and Frit. "Was I there?"

Amy looked him over, and smiled. "Yes."

"Uh huh. And was the room a large one, with stone pillars and a high ceiling, and great paned windows that looks out upon mountains?"

Amy looked surprised, and nodded. "You know it?"

But instead of answering directly, Robin moved closer and patted Horace's shoulder, smiling. "Ask her, why don't you?"

"Ask me what?"

Horace licked his lips, a bit of nerves appearing in his gaze. "Um, well...we're having a Christmas party. It's on Christmas day, but it's not. I mean, it will be Christmas, but you won't actually miss Christmas day if you come. See, Nicholaas can manipulate time, and, um..."

Horace broke off at the look of amazement in Amy's eyes.

He sighed, and smiled. "I would love for you to go with me as my guest. And dance with me."

Amy's eyes widened, and she looked around at all the eyes watching her. "Um, well--"

"I'll be a perfect gentleman," Horace promised.

Amy turned to him, searching his eyes. Whatever she saw there, she seemed to like. A slow smile spread over her face. "Okay. I'd love too."

Ricky put his fingers in his mouth and blew a short victory whistle, and Adrian clapped. Kippy joined him, and soon most everyone was clapping. Amy looked astonished, and her eyes only got bigger as Kontus appeared before her. "Good day, madam. I just wished to say that any friend of Horace is a friend of mine."

Amy's jaw dropped, but she realized it and immediately and closed her mouth. "Well...thank you."

Kontus nodded. "I am Kontus, of the Trichani. A visitor to your beautiful planet, and a friend to all you see here. I assure you, you have nothing to fear from me."

Amy turned to Horace, who smiled and nodded at her. "You can believe him. He's our good friend."

She nodded, and smiled at Kontus. "It's an honor to meet you, Kontus."

Kontus emitted a rough sigh, and turned to Horace. "I like her."

Horace smiled. "So do I."

Rick and Adrian moved aside then, as Auggie approached Amy. She sucked in her breath and leaned back in her seat, but Horace immediately tightened his grip on her arm. "It's okay. He's a friend, too."

Auggie came right up to Amy and sat down on his haunches. He eyed her carefully for a full ten seconds, while Amy stoically endured the examination. Then the bearcat leaned forward. "Hand?"

Amy stared.

Horace laughed. "It's okay, He just wants to sniff you. Like this." Horace extended his hand, and Auggie obligingly gave it a sniff before his eyes lit with good humor. "Know you, Hor-eece." he returned his gaze to Amy. "Hand?"

Amy swallowed, and slowly extended her hand. Auggie leaned forward carefully, gave it a deep, long sniff: and then the tip of his tongue darted out touched her fingertips. She pulled her hand back instinctively, but it had been enough.

Auggie looked up at Charlie. "Nice. What called?"

Horace chuckled. "This is Amy, Auggie."

The bearcat's fire-tipped mane waved briefly, and his eyes smiled at the woman. "Ay-mee. Like."

Amy gave a little shake of her head, and seemed to unfreeze. "What a beauty you are, Auggie."

The bearcat looked pleased, and his mane waved some more. "Han-sum, me."

Amy laughed. "You certainly are!"

Charlie sighed. "So there you have it. These are our friends, and this is what we do. We felt that it was important, if you were going to work here...if you were going to be a part of this, for you to know what we were about. You have skwish, and apparently a talent that hasn't shown itself among us. You may even be able to help us help someone else. What do you say?"

Amy looked around at the faces, and her smile intensified. "I said I had a vision, of me working in this office, and that I loved the job. I place great faith in the things I see in my mind's eye. That's enough for me." She turned to Horace. "And I can't wait for that dance."

Horace nodded, "Neither can I."

Ronja sighed, and stood up. "I wish everything in the world was this easy."

"It would be, with your aid, my dear," Nicholaas said, placing an arm gently around her.

Robin Hood smiled. "I think I'm going to like this place."

"How about a few more presents?" Frit asked then. "One each? There's something for everybody!"

"You'll be surprised!" Pip added, grinning.

Kippy sighed, and beamed at Charlie. "What a great day. And it's not even Christmas yet!"

Charlie offered his hand, and Kippy accepted it. "Come here a second, Kip. I want to get my fortune told again."

Kippy frowned at that. "Wasn't once enough?"

Charlie laughed. "Is once enough for anything?"

Kippy smiled at that, gave a little shrug, and they walked together over to the machine. Charlie grasped the handle, and pulled it back, and let it go. The machine purred, the cat inside went through his motions, and a card dropped into the slot.

Charlie picked it up, read it, and then gave a little laugh of disbelief.

"What does it say?" Kippy asked.

Charlie turned and held the card up so that his boyfriend could see it:

If you kiss behind the Christmas tree, no one will see.

Kippy's jaw dropped, and then he was smiling at Charlie. "I like that one! Let's try it out!"

Charlie tugged on Kip's arm, and they moved around the Christmas tree, and into each other's arms.

Kippy looked into Charlie's eyes, and sighed. "I love you, Charlie Boone."

Charlie searched his boyfriend's eyes, and just loved the things he saw there. "I love you, too, Kip."

Frit's voice came to them then: "Where did Charlie and Kip go? They have presents here."

"Shhh!" Pip said in return, and Charlie could hear the smile in their friend's voice. "They'll be back!"

Charlie sighed. "We're being paged."

Kippy moved his face closer, and nodded. "I heard. But not just yet. It isn't often I get you to myself anymore. Kiss me?"

Charlie nodded, and moved his face closer, relaxing as he realized that the tree really did block them from view. "It would be my pleasure."

He closed his eyes, and felt Kip's lips against his, and pressed his own closer. Whatever happened next, it would pass between just Charlie and his boyfriend. It would belong to just them.

Fortune never lied. The fates had spoken, and the moment been granted. No one could see them, and no one could draw them apart.

And no one did.

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