Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

There's A Strange Partridge in My Pear Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 2

"A little higher," Adrian called, to where Kip stood just inside the front door, in touch with Lugh.

It was after dark now, and they were tweaking the outdoor lighting. After some experimentation, they had decided against outlining all the windows with lights, opting instead to create gently-illuminated wreaths in each window. These showed through the glass from the inside, or so it seemed, and were pleasant and cheerful. They tried them first in the lower halves of the windows, and then the upper halves, and decided they looked better higher, than lower.

They had outlined the roof and turrets with tiny colored lights, and the roof of the front porch, as well. Kippy had asked Lugh to place electrical outlets on the outside of the house at each end of the front porch. They had tried them, and they worked. So, while Lugh could not place things beyond his own perimeter, he could supply power beyond his own perimeter, after all, through such fixtures. After the trees were planted, they would put real lights on them, which would complete the outdoor decorations.

Rick nodded at his boyfriend. "Looks good, Ad." His head swung back to face Charlie. "Don't you think?"

"Yeah. It manages to look big and cozy at the same time, if that means anything."

"It does." Rick came over to stand next to Charlie. "This is going to be a really special Christmas."

Charlie looked to where Kip stood in the doorway, and smiled. "I hope so. I don't want anyone to be disappointed."

"Oh, it's super duper!" Browbeat decided, smiling at the house from atop Charlie's shoulder. "Splendiferous! Who ever thought of putting lights on a house?"

Charlie laughed. "Everybody here does it at his time of the year."

The flyer tittered merrily. "That's why I like your world, Charlie. It's fun!"

"Relax, Charlie," Rick said, patting Charlie's arm. "No one will be disappointed."

They heard a popping sound behind them, and then a comment from a new voice: "Geez! How could anyone be disappointed with this?"

Charlie and Rick both swung around. "Max!" Charlie exclaimed, spreading his arms as the elf came to meet him. "You're here!"

Browbeat took to the air with a laugh as Charlie rushed to meet the elf. They thumped each other on the back and laughed, and then it was Rick's turn. Adrian came at a run for some of the same, and then they heard Kip squeak in delight, and he was barreling down the steps towards them.


Charlie and the others stepped back as Kip came up and almost took the elf off his feet in a huge hug. Max looked startled, but went with it, and returned as good as he got, his eyes widening, though, as Kippy planted a big kiss on his cheek. "Aw, geez!"

Everyone laughed as Kippy leaned back and grinned at the new arrival. "You look great, Max, even in the crummy light! Just as cute and sweet as ever!'

The elf sighed. "I might remind you, I am over six-hundred years old, son."

Kippy shook his head gently. "Maybe. But you could pass for eighteen, anywhere!"

Charlie joined in laughing at that. Max was just as cute now in middle age as he had been as a teenager. Being an elf had perks like that!

Kippy sighed, and leaned up against the man. "It's so good to see you. How are things at the shop?"

"Oh, great! Having Robin help the boss with the delivery equation has been wonderful for everyone. It means there's time for The Big Guy to participate in every phase of the operation again, like the packaging and bow-tying and label printing stuff he used to look at years ago. It's like we all took a step back a hundred years or so. Everybody loves the new atmosphere."

"It feels like Christmas, huh?" Kippy asked, smiling. "I know that feeling!"

"Uh huh. You guys did a great thing, finding Robin like that." Max smiled around at them. "It's made my life a lot easier, I sure know that. Once the boss told me you guys were in the book, I didn't even have trouble finding time to run over here to see the new place!" He leaned forward then and lowered his voice. "But I had to sneak out of the shop, or Auggie would have followed me!"

"What's wrong with that?" Kippy asked. "He's coming to the party, anyway."

"Yeah, but that's not for a week or so yet. What with you fellas movin' in, and all, I wasn't sure he wouldn't get in the way."

"He'd never be in the way," Charlie answered. "We'd have loved to--" He squinted then, as a humming sound started just at the range of his hearing, and slowly crept upwards, getting louder and louder. Charlie laughed then. "Um, in fact--"

Max turned, wide-eyed, as the humming sound grew, and then sighed as a circle of light appeared in the air to one side, and the bearcat stepped through. The circle contracted behind him then, and was gone, along with the sound.

"Auggie!" Kippy called, spreading his arms again in joy.

"Keepy!" the bearcat called back, starting forward.

They ran at each other, and Kippy fell to his knees in front of Auggie, his arms outstretched, while the bearcat slowed, grunted happily, and sat down directly in front of Charlie's boyfriend and allowed Kip to wrap his arms around him. They hugged and laughed and snuggled a moment, before Auggie looked past Kip at the others. "Char-lee! Reek! A-dree-an!"

Browbeat floated over by Max, and smiled at him. "Mind if I land on your shoulder while all this is going on?"

Max smiled back. "You might as well. If I know these guys, this huggin' stuff'll go on for a bit. We might as well relax and get comfortable."

Everyone got a chance to hug Auggie, whose fiery-red mane seemed to almost glow in the light from their Christmas decorations. Charlie looked around with that realization, briefly surveying the darkened woods around the house. It probably would not be a good habit to start entertaining their magical friends outside like this. They had a fair amount of acreage around them that normally would ensure their privacy, but they had found paths in the woods that suggested hikers, and maybe even dirt bikers, had used the property regularly before it was sold. They had considered erecting a fence around the perimeter of the property, and gotten a few estimates, but nothing had been done yet, and they had satisfied themselves thus far with placing Private Property signs where the paths crossed onto their lot.


"How about we go inside?" Charlie suggested, with a small laugh. "I know we're secluded here, but I'll bet Auggie would still be a little bit of a shock to the neighbors, if someone saw him."

"Not to mention this little guy," Max said, pointing to where Browbeat perched upon his shoulder.

Kippy jumped to his feet. "Come on, Max! You and Auggie come see the house!"

Browbeat leaped into the air from Max's shoulder, and arrowed towards the still open front door. "Charge!"

Auggie turned his head to look at the house then, and briefly sniffed the air in that direction before adopting a quizzical look. "Mah-jeek."

Max laughed. "He can smell magic a mile away." But the elf also examined the house then, and nodded. "Seems like pretty good stuff to me."

Auggie grunted out a laugh. "Smell old."

"Older than Nicholaas, even," Rick agreed.

Max nodded at that. "Skwish has been around a long time."

As they went up the steps to the front porch, Charlie fell in beside the elf. "This isn't skwish, though."

Max smiled at him, but didn't say anything else until they had gone into the foyer and closed the front door behind them.

"Well?" Charlie asked.

"No," Max agreed. "Not exactly."

Kippy turned back to them. "Mildred called it itch."

Max gave a nod at that. "Might be."

Charlie sighed. "You're being obtuse, Max."

The elf laughed. "I don't mean to be. Why don't we go have a seat someplace and talk?"

The went through to the parlor, where Lugh's magical fire was still happily not consuming the logs in the fireplace.

Max eyed the room appreciatively. "Wow. This looks really comfortable. Even with the square walls and all these corners."

Charlie smiled at that. Elf rooms were notoriously rounded.

Max headed for Mildred's wingback chair, which Kippy had adopted as his own, stopped, squinted at it a moment, and then turned to the side and sat down on the sofa. Kip laughed and headed for his seat, and Charlie and the others joined Max on the sofa. Browbeat landed on a wing of Kip's chair, his face alight with anticipation. Fun!

Auggie went to the oval rug before the fireplace, walked around it once, then settled onto it and sighed contentedly, his eyes on Charlie and the others.

"So, what about it?" Charlie asked Max again. "This house uses the same sort of magic that Mildred did. And Akeeri, the Simisant we met on our last job."

Max nodded. "Otherwordly stuff."

Kippy shook his head. "Mildred said it was a sort of counterbalance to skwish."

"Maybe. I'd call that a simplification. It sorta suggests that it's a balancing force in our own world. It's not."

Charlie and Kip exchanged glances.

"You're being mysterious, Max," Kippy accused.

The elf frowned. He waved a hand around the room. "This stuff is skwish. It's just not our kind of skwish."

Charlie sat back against the cushions. "I don't know what that means."

Max nodded. "I know you don't." He scratched at an ear. "You know the elf world exists on another earth, right? Our people moved there from here a long time ago. And, you guys met humans from an alternate reality when you and Robin investigated that place in Switzerland."

Kippy smiled then. "And we went to their reality, and we met an alternate reality Max there, too!"

"Right. There are a lot of alternate earths. Well, some of the people that live on them have a habit of not staying there. They move around, to other earths."

Charlie felt surprise crawl up the back of his neck. "Are you saying that Mildred is from an alternate Earth?"

Max shrugged. "I haven't met her. But I'd say she's a visitor here. Or, even, a permanent resident now. But if she has this itch sorta skwish, she's not native to this Earth."

Rick frowned at that. "Are you saying that skwish varies from reality to reality?"

"Sure. Because each Earth in each reality is slightly different. Skwish pervades the entire universe, and all the other universes we've found so far. But where you learn to use it matters. Pacha's powers, for instance, are like ours, and they direct the same forces. But how he senses skwish, and how he uses skwish, are not exactly the same way as we do. The two work the same way, but how he has learned to use skwish is different from how we have learned to use it. Those Moth folk are the same way. We all use skwish, but it's just a tiny bit different for each race. And it's also just slightly different between universes, and realities."

Kippy shook his head, looking amazed. " you use skwish, and how I use skwish, are...different?"

The elf laughed. "Not so much between us, because even though most elves now live on an alternate earth, they all came from this one, originally. We continue to teach our kids to use skwish the way we learned it from our elders, and the way they learned it from their elders before them, and so on. But someone that comes from an alternate earth took a different path to get to skwish, because each alternate reality is slightly different. That's why it is an alternate reality, you know?"

"So why did Mildred talk about this counterbalancing stuff?" Adrian asked.

Max frowned. "She may have meant that our magic here was balanced out by magics everywhere else. She may have just been explaining that what she knew was different from what you knew, in the best way she could." He smiled. "Without having to mention that she is from another reality."

Charlie squinted at that. "So, is this house really a manifestation of some old Irish god?"

Max looked around the parlor. He took a sniff of the air, then held up a hand and jiggled it up and down as if he was somehow getting the heft of that same air. "I'd say the fella that did this isn't from our reality, either."

"He was supposed to have been a supernatural being in old Irish mythology," Charlie stated, slightly alarmed now that perhaps Mildred had not been exactly forthright about the house or its origins.

"He probably was," Max agreed. "I mean, he probably really was. A visitor from another reality that could really use skwish would seem like a god to those folk back then."

Kippy huffed out an annoyed sigh. " two. Is this house safe for us to live in, or not?"

Max smiled. "Oh. Sorry. I'd say it's perfectly safe. What I get from this Lugh is that he likes you guys and cares about you. This ain't a terribly complex matrix running this house. Someone made it, gave it enough smarts to look out for itself and anyone living in it, and turned it loose. But it's not a whole person like one of us would be. It's a recreation of enough of the original guy to do what it needs to do, and that's about it."

Charlie thought that over, and nodded. "I may want to call Mildred and have a chat with her."

Max held up a warning finger. "Don't stir the pot, Charlie. Malice leaves an aftertaste, and there ain't a bit of it here. This Mildred really wanted you guys to enjoy the house." He leaned closer then, and smiled. "The boss was here, remember? Believe me, he checked this place out, but good. If he had found any reason you guys shouldn't be here, you wouldn't be here now." Max nodded. "The Big Guy looks out for his friends."

"I like him!" Browbeat called, laughing. "He's got class!"

"Santa," Auggie mumbled, dreamily. He seemed to find his place before the fire more than just a little comfortable!

Charlie smiled at the drowsing bearcat, but did relax then. Yes, Nicholaas had visited the house, and had given every indication of liking the place. There could scarcely be a better recommendation that that!

"Why would Mildred not be up front about this?" Rick asked. "We treated her honestly."

Max sighed. "I don't think she wanted to just lie to you guys. Like I say, bad intents leave an aftertaste, and this place tastes fine. I think she was dealing with you guys in a way that her experience with people on our earth had taught her. Skwish ain't terribly active here among you humans. She was just being careful."

"But she knew we had magical powers," Kippy complained. "She knew I could teleport, and stuff."

"She also said she was born in this state in 1940," Adrian added, snapping his fingers. "How could she be from another earth?"

Charlie frowned at that, as new ideas came to him. "Wait a second...another reality could have a New York state, too, couldn't it? And a city named Albany?"

Max grinned. "Absolutely!"

"Whoa," Rick said then. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Charlie nodded. "I'm thinking that Mildred comes from another earth very similar to our own, but where their form of skwish is much more common among the people. They're used to it. I also think it's possible the timeline on her earth is different from ours. In her world, 1940 is not 83 years in the past! That's why she looks like she's only in her early fifties. It's probably like 1993 there, instead of 2023, like here." Charlie smiled at Rick. "Is that what you were thinking?"

Rick blinked at that, but then laughed. "Sure! That's exactly what I was thinking!"

Adrian and Kippy both rolled their eyes and laughed.

"But Mildred said she'd be back in fifty or sixty years," Kip reminded. "That means she knows she'll live a long time, at least. Longer than a normal human would."

Max patted his chest. "Like me? And Robin? And the boss?"

"And other potent skwish users?" Charlie pointed out.

"Oh." Kip nodded, understanding. "Oops."

"Look, fellas," Max said gently. "You got a nice gift from this Mildred. And, I gotta add, a nice compliment, that she would trust you with her house like that. I say, go with it, and enjoy it, and don't go pokin' around backstage lookin' for the wires that make the fat lady fly."

Adrian stared at him. "You mean, 'It's not over until the fat lady sings'?"

"Or do you mean, 'Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain'?" Kippy added, his eyes twinkling with humor.

Max waved a hand dismissively. "Whatever." He looked around the parlor again. "You got this great house, and the matrix that runs it likes you guys, and will look out for you. That's a hard deal to beat!"

"I sure like it," Browbeat said, looking worriedly from face to face. "We're not leaving here, are we?"

Charlie looked into the little flyer's eyes, and smiled. "No. We're staying. We just wanted to make sure it was safe, and now we feel it is."

Browbeat tittered happily. "Great! Because I never had my own room before!" He leaped into the air and circled the parlor, happily chanting, "We're staying, we're staying, we've just started playing!"

Kippy sighed, and turned eyes brimming with happiness on Charlie. Charlie could only smile, as he looked around the room with some of his own good feelings. "There's no place like home!"

"It's for you, Kip," Charlie said, holding out his compact interstellar communicator to his boyfriend. "It's Ragal."

Kippy came at a run. "Ragal! Why didn't he call my--?" He patted his pockets then, and grinned sheepishly. "I left my communicator up in the bedroom."

Charlie smiled and waved the com, and Kip stepped forward to take it.

"Ragal? Sorry. I left my communicator in the other room. What? Oh--wait a minute."

Kippy pulled the com from his ear and squinted at it, and then pushed a tiny stud. "I put you on the speakerphone, Ragal, so that everyone can hear you."

"Hi, everyone!" Ragal called.

Ricky and Adrian and Max called hellos, while Browbeat sailed over to land on Kip's shoulder. "HI, Ragal!"

They could hear the tall alien chuckle. "Hi, Browbeat! It sounds like everyone is there already!"

"Just Charlie, me, Rick, Adrian, Max, Browbeat, and Auggie," Kip explained, glancing to where the bearcat now lay on his back on the rug, his paws up in the air. "Auggie's taking a nap in front of the fire."

"Hi, Kip!" came another voice over the com, one higher in pitch, and equipped with a bit of a squeak to it. "Hi, everyone!"

Kippy's face expanded in a smile. "Hi, Casper!" A chorus of greetings came from the others as Kippy held the com out towards them. "How's everything on Engris?" Kippy asked.

"Great! The Market here has been awesome lately! Plibin got in a whole new display of artifacts from the Muncshin people, who died out a hundred centuries ago. I got three matching autoglyphs, that each speak in the dead Muncshin language. Only, it's not really dead, because Ragal knows a little of it!"

Kippy sighed happily, his gaze on Charlie. "I'm glad you're having fun, Casper. You're coming to our Christmas party, aren't you?"

The little alien squeaked out a laugh that made everyone smile. "We're coming! In fact, that's why Ragal called. Here...I'll let him tell you."

Ragal came back on then. "We were wondering if we could come a little early, Kip? The party will be busy, and Casper and I would like to spend a little time with you in your new home with less of a crowd. Would that be possible?"

Kippy's eyebrows raised excitedly as he turned to Charlie. "When were you thinking of coming, Ragal?"

"Anytime between now and the party date would be fine. Whenever you feel it convenient, Kip."

Kippy looked expectantly at Charlie, who smiled and turned to the others. "Rick? Adrian? Browbeat? You guys live here, too."

"Are you kidding?" Adrian whispered. "They can come right now, as far as I'm concerned!"

"Hey, me, too," Rick offered. "The more, the merrier!"

Browbeat hooted happily. "I'm ready now, too!"

Charlie turned back to Kip and nodded. "They can come now, if they want."

"I can come and get you now, if you're ready," Kippy said excitedly into the com.

They heard Casper let out a whoop of joy in the background, and Ragal laughed delightedly. "We're ready, whenever you are, Kip."

"You're at the villa now?" Kip asked.

"We'll meet you in the entryway," Ragal promised.

"See you soon!" Kippy called. "Bye!"


Kippy sighed happily and handed the com back to Charlie. "I'll go get them right away. But first--" He closed his eyes briefly, and then smiled and opened them. "I was just letting Lugh know we have guests coming and will need a couple of the empty rooms."

"It'll be great to see these guys again," Max said, smiling. "I'm glad I came when I did!" He turned to Kip. "You want me to go get them?"

Kippy sighed. "If you don't mind, Max...I want to do this."

The elf nodded knowingly. "I kinda thought you did. Just wanted to offer!"

Kip came over to Charlie and gave him a brief hug. "I'll be right back!" and then he stepped back, and vanished with a small popping sound.

Max laughed. "And he means he'll be right back, too!"

As if in response to the elf's words, there was a larger popping sound, and Kip, Ragal, and Casper appeared, all three laden with bags and containers. Kippy looked around quickly, seemed satisfied with what he saw, and set down the bags he was carrying. "I had to make sure everything came with us!"

Casper shrugged off his burdens and ran to Charlie, his small arms open wide. Charlie bent and scooped up the little alien in a big hug, and then set him down again, where he ran to each one of the others for a hug.

Auggie emitted a giant whoof then, rolled over, and sat up. "Cash-per! Rah-gal!"

Casper made a happy sound and ran to hug the bearcat. "Hi, Auggie!"

Ragal waved to Auggie, set down his bags and things and came over to Charlie. "I wasn't sure we could bring everything in one trip."

Charlie grinned, and gave the lanky alien a hug. "Glad to see you, old friend." He stepped back then, to examine Ragal's comfortable looking, but fairly average clothing. "In between extremes again, I see."

Ragal smiled. "I was decidedly female up until just a few weeks ago. I had the loveliest chartreuse wrap with red should have seen it!" At Charlie's wide-eyed look, the tall alien sighed. "Yes, I know. I actually thought the phase would go longer, but it faded rather suddenly and was gone." He sighed. "I can't say I miss it that much. It's more of a challenge being female than it is being a male."

Charlie nodded. "I believe you." He pointed to all the stuff they'd brought with them. "What's all this?"

Ragal laughed, and swept out a hand to encompass the many bags and containers. "Why, they're Christmas gifts! The finest the pirate market on Engris had to offer!"

Rick gave the pile an appreciative look. "You must have been standing there, bags in hands, when Kip showed up!"

Ragal shook his head. "We were quite patient loading up, actually." He grinned. "No-time, remember?"

Adrian playfully elbowed his boyfriend. "Yeah, no-time. Remember?"

"Right, right." Ricky nodded, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. "The pirate market has some really cool stuff!"

"No peeking!" Casper said, coming back with Auggie in tow. He wagged a finger at Rick. "They're supposed to be surprises!"

Ragal bent down to give Auggie a hug, and the bearcat sniffed and rumbled out a pleasant purr. "Smell good!"

Ragal and Casper both laughed. Casper turned to Kippy. "And I know why! We have a business in the market now!"

"Really?" Kip came to stand beside Casper, and smiled down at him. "What sort of business?'


Charlie blinked in surprise at that, and joined in the chorus from the others. "Pizza!"

"Uh huh. Durapar helped us to get a stand and set things up. We teamed up with Mertril at The Missing Ingredient to supply the right foods, because she knows what all the different races can safely eat. And you know what? Pizza is a big hit on Engris!"

"It's true," Ragal confirmed, looking slightly amazed by the idea. "The stand is busy at every hour. The profits are mounting, and we have been depositing your share in your bank account."

"Our share?" Charlie repeated, shaking his head. "You don't owe us anything for that!"

"Of course, we do," Ragal contradicted. "Not just for the idea of the food, itself, but that you have made the lives Casper and I have possible at all. You deserve something for that!"

Charlie frowned, not liking the idea that his friends felt like they had to share their profits.

But Ragal saw the complaint coming, and headed him off. "And, there is the fact that you have given us carte blanche to spend your money as we need to, to live on Engris. Consider this our way of helping with some of those expenses."

Kippy tsked. "Oh, please. You look out for all our interests on Engris while we're here. We should be paying you!"

Casper and Ragal exchanged smiles. "It won't do to argue," Casper said. "It's a done deal!"

And Charlie could see that their two friends meant it. He raised a hand to Kip to hold his next comment. "We appreciate it, guys," he told their two friends. He smiled at Kip then. "But, it's Christmas, and we shouldn't be talking about money just now."

Kippy sighed, and made an effort to relax. "That's right. It's Christmas!"

Ragal looked from one boy to the other. "I thought that day was next week, local time. Have I lost track of the calendar here?"

"It's the Christmas season, they mean," Max said then. "Christmas isn't just one day. It's a feeling, and a way of acting, and we kinda like it to last more than one day!"

Charlie smiled. "Right. So, let's get your stuff up to your rooms, and then you can see the house!"

Ragal smiled, and nodded. "Just what I can see of it so far is charming. The decor reminds me of the cormin rooms at the Lord Calacar's palace on Borlon." He sighed then. "Though that was some many thousands of years past, I think!" He winked at Kippy. "I was a gay young blade then!"

Kip raised an eyebrow. "Oh, be careful how you use that word!"

Ragal chuckled along with the others.

"What's a cormin room?" Rick asked, eyeing Ragal curiously.

The tall alien smiled. "Well, it's where the female Balshai, and the male Balshear, meet to, um..." He stopped then, frowning around at the company. "Well, it's a very loving place, actually."

Charlie held up a hand, grinning. "We get it." He pointed at the bags and bundles on the floor, then looked over at his friends. "Let's help these guys get all this stuff up to their rooms."

They ported the many items upstairs, and laid them out in the two rooms reserved for their guests. Ragal's room was next to the one shared by Charlie and Kip, and Casper had the room across the hall, next to Browbeat's room. The little flyer was ecstatic over that. "We can visit! I've never entertained company before!"

Casper also seemed pleased. "This is going to be fun!"

They showed their guests around the second and third floors then, which was an interesting experience for all, as some of the third floor rooms seemed to have changed around again. Charlie explained to those that didn't know that Lugh got bored with unoccupied rooms, and apparently felt a need to constantly redecorate them.

Ragal nodded at that, looking around the hallway once again. "I sense the presence of the power that runs this house."

"Max calls it a matrix," Adrian informed.

Ragal nodded. "It is that. A pattern derived from a living being, equipped with the ability to manipulate the power -- skwish, that is -- and to interface with the occupants. A very unusual construct, I think. The creator of this place must have been quite an accomplished power-user."

Charlie frowned at his tall friend. "Do you sense anything unusual about the power that Lugh has?"

Ragal looked thoughtful. "If you mean, do I sense it is in some way not the same as the power you and your friends use, no. It is the same power, just utilized in a wholly novel fashion than how you do it."

"It's called itch," Kip said, looking less than happy about it. "Skwish, as used by someone from an alternate reality."

Ragal looked surprised. "Indeed? That would account for its unusual flavor, most certainly."

"I kinda told the guys this, already," Max said patiently. "It's different, but it seems very safe to me."

"To me, too," Ragal agreed. "This Lugh seems fond of you, if impressions can be believed. There is nothing malicious in this matrix that I can detect."

"Can we see the first floor?" Casper asked.

"I'll take you!" Browbeat called, hopping into the air and flying once around Casper. "Follow me!"

Casper looked over at Charlie and Kip, and Charlie nodded. "Go ahead with Browbeat. We'll all be down in a minute or two."

Casper laughed, and started after Browbeat at a run, hooting happily.

"Me go, too!" Auggie decided, taking off after the other two with a last happy look back at Kip.

Kip waved. "Have fun!"

He turned to Charlie then, and smiled. "It's great to have the kids here for the holiday!"

Charlie smiled at that, listening to Browbeat, Casper, and Auggie make delighted sounds as they descended the steps in each other's company. "Yeah, it is."

"Have you tested out the limits of what the matrix can do with this place?" Ragal asked, as Charlie turned back to him. "I mean, can it be made larger, for instance?"

"We were told it started out as a stone fort, a long time ago," Rick said. "That has the sound of something bigger than this house."

"Certainly more dense, anyway," Ragal agreed.

"It can be lotsa things, I think," Max said. "It's size is probably only limited by the power that matrix can draw on. That would have been set by the guy that made it in the first place."

"Does it have to have a limit?" Adrian asked.

"I'd say it does," Max decided. "It's a very neat and orderly matrix. That only comes with defining all the parameters at the start."

Charlie smiled at that. "I always get a kick out of hearing skwish described in scientific terms."

Max laughed. "It is a science, Charlie. It's just magic to the uninitiated."

Kippy let out a small but expressive sound. "Well, it's still magic to me! You call it what you want, and I'll call it what I want!"

"That's one of the nice things about skwish," Max told him. "It can be what you want it to be."

"I find it interesting that your Lugh can change the decor of unused rooms at will," Ragal injected. "That implies that the creator of the matrix gave it a certain amount of decision making in its processes. Have you noticed any other interesting things of that sort?"

"Lugh is very amenable," Kippy replied. "He pretty much does as we ask him. But I haven't noticed any other independent actions beyond the rooms changing around a little. And he never bothers our rooms, either."

"We just see that as harmless playing," Rick said. "I mean, everyone gets bored!"

"It's not like Lugh can do crosswords puzzles in his free time," Adrian added, smiling.

"How much awareness does Lugh actually have?" Charlie asked Max. "I mean, we mostly just get feelings from him. Does that mean he isn't very...well, very bright?"

Max smiled. "It don't mean that, no. I have to give Lugh some credit for being pretty darn adaptable. I mean, when his matrix was created, there was none of these modern conveniences around. Cell phones, and wi-fi, and satellite interfaces - none of that stuff. But you said that Lugh has learned to use these things. Granted, these technologies are all electromagnetic in nature, which is like candy to skwish entities; but it would still take some fair level of creativity on Lugh's part to make them work as part of the house. So I'd say he's certainly not a dummy."

"I never though he was dumb," Kippy said. "More like the strong, silent type."

That brought smiles from the others.

"You like him," Ragal suggested, his eyes merry.

Kippy nodded. "I do. I sense he's a sweetie." He looked over at Charlie. "Is that wrong?"

Charlie didn't hesitate. "No. I think it's fine. I like Lugh, too."

They heard Casper, Browbeat, and Auggie laughing over something downstairs.

Rick grinned. "I think someone found the cookie jar!"

Kippy sighed. "I love their attitudes. Their sense of wonder. Everything is magical to those three!"

Charlie put an arm around Kip's shoulders and squeezed him. "It's no less magical for you. Don't grow up on me now, Kip."

Kippy looked into Charlie's eyes, and slowly smiled.

They heard a clatter then, and Browbeat sailed down the hallway, Casper and Auggie hot on his heels.

"This place is great!" Casper said, his eyes bright with excitement. "It's so large! It's as big as the villa on Engris!"

"Smells good!" Auggie added happily. "Mah-jeek everywhere!"

"I showed 'em around," Browbeat said proudly, landing lightly on Charlie's shoulder. "Have to keep the guests happy!"

Charlie turned to eye the little flyer. "Seems like that happiness worked on you, too!"

Browbeat tittered, his golden eyes aglow with delight. "Sure! There's a lot to show here. Some stuff, even I didn't know was here!"

"We went everywhere," Casper agreed. "Except the cellar. It was too dark on the stairs, and I couldn't find the light switch."

Charlie had been smiling at Casper's enthusiasm, but froze at his words then. "Cellar? This house doesn't have a cellar. It sits right on the ground."

Casper looked surprised, and turned to Browbeat. "That wasn't the cellar?"

Browbeat swung on Charlie's shoulder to stare at him. "We opened a door I hadn't noticed before, and there was a staircase going down. I just thought I'd missed seeing it somehow."

"Cellar," Auggie agreed, looking happy. "Mah-jeek!"

Charlie turned to look at Kip, and then Max. "We don't have a cellar."

Max almost smiled at that. "It seems you do now."

"Something new, perhaps?" Ragal asked. "Some redecorating on the part of your Lugh?"

Charlie rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That would be more than redecorating an existing room. That would be adding a part to the house that wasn't there before. And...something we didn't ask for, too."

Max sighed. "Maybe go and look?"

"Come on," Rick said, leading the way towards the stairs. Adrian grinned at Kip as he went by, following his boyfriend. Kippy grabbed Charlie's hand, and pulled him along towards the stairs.

Max smiled up at Ragal, who smiled back. "Shall we?"

"Yes, we shall."

Casper looked at Auggie, gave a little shrug to his narrow shoulders, and waved a hand. "Come on."

Auggie grinned happily, and his red mane stood out as he followed. "Maj-jeek!"

They descended the stairs, and when they reached the bottom, Browbeat launched himself off Charlie's shoulder and looped around past Rick and Adrian towards the parlor. "This way!"

They followed the little flyer through the parlor to the short hallway to the kitchen. What had once been a graceful, wide hallway lined with shelves and cabinets, now had a doorway between two of the cabinets. It looked like every other door in the house, with fine trim and a jeweled crystal doorknob. Except that Charlie had never seen it before now!

Everyone stopped to stare at it.

"That was not there before!" Kippy said with certainty. But then he frowned, and turned to look at Charlie. "Was it? It seems familiar, somehow."

Charlie examined the door, noted his boyfriend's sense of doubt, and nodded. "I have the same feeling, one of familiarity. But I'm certain that door was not there before."

"It wasn't," Adrian agreed. "Though it really feels like it was!"

"Spooky," Rick said, eyeing the door critically. "It has the feel of new skwish, but has a sort of projection about it that gives the sense that it has been there all along, like it's always been a part of the house."

"It seems to fit in," Max said, nodding. "That's a sign of well-done magic."

"Perhaps to look behind it?" Ragal suggested, smiling.

Charlie turned to Casper. "You opened the door before?"

"Sure. It wasn't locked. There's stairs going down on the other side. But they were dark after only a few steps, so we didn't go down. I couldn't find a light switch."

Charlie stepped forward and opened the door. And, just as Casper had said, there was a staircase on the other side. The steps appeared to be made of wood, and painted gray, and dropped a half-dozen steps before fading into darkness. Charlie felt along the wall to one side of the door, looking for a light switch, but the panel was blank. He tried the other wall, with the same result.

And then Ragal came up behind him, and leaned past him, and there was a click from above Charlie's head.

Below them, a light came on. Far below them. Charlie blinked in surprise, and then stared, amazed at how far away the light appeared to be.

"Looks like a mine tunnel," Rick said over Charlie's shoulder, sounding a little awed.

It did. The light looked to be hundreds of feet away from them, if not more. It was simply a glow, the distance too far to make out any details.

Charlie looked up along the shadows of the wall where Ragal had found the light switch. "Was that the only one?"

Ragal reached past him again, and Charlie heard his friend's hand rub along the wall overhead. Ragal grunted then, there was another click, and the entire staircase lit up with lamps spaced at regular intervals going down.

Kippy gasped over his shoulder. "It looks even farther away now!"

Charlie glanced up, and could see the light switches now. Why so high? He could reach them now that he knew where they were, but anyone much shorter would have a problem.

"I don't think this is a real staircase," Max said then.

Charlie swung around to stare at the elf. "What is it, then?"

Max gave a little smile, showing his perfect white teeth. "Dunno, without investigating. But I do feel it's safe to do that."

"Now?" Kippy asked, sounding doubtful.

"No time like the present," Ragal said cheerily.

Charlie looked up at the tall alien. "What do you know?"

"Nothing. Or, nothing for certain, I should say." Ragal pointed at the staircase. "Just a feeling I am getting, that this is something special meant for you, Kip, Rick, Adrian, and Browbeat."

"Me?" The little flyer squeaked, his delight plain. "Wow! Let's go now!"

Charlie held up a hand. "Wait. Max? You say this is safe?"

"I think so, Charlie."

"You think so?"

The elf sighed. "To my senses, it's safe. That's what I feel. That's all I can say." He gently pushed Charlie to one side, and moved to the top step. "Here. I'll go first, okay?"

Kippy laughed then, and rubbed up against Charlie. "That's like a battleship leading a bunch of those little patrol boats. How can we go wrong?"

The humor of the moment hit Charlie then, and he smiled. "Yeah."

Rick rubbed his hands together in anticipation, and then waved one at Max. "Lead on, McGruff!"

Adrian sighed, and patted his boyfriend's arm. "For the millionth time, McGruff is the crime dog. It's McDuff."

Rick grinned. "I know. I'd just rather take a bite out of crime, than sit through more Shakespeare!"

Charlie sighed, took Kip by the hand, and started down the steps after Max.

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