Charlie Boone

by Geron Kees

There's A Strange Partridge in My Pear Tree, Charlie Boone! - Chapter 4

"It was quite a shock when it happened," Nicklus told them, his eyes looking pained now as he considered the past. "I did everything I could to mitigate the crisis, but I have not been able to change things."

Nicholaas sat on the edge of his seat, staring at his counterpart in disbelief. "The portal to the elf world collapsed?"

"Yes. There one day, as it had been for millennia of time, and then simply gone the next."

Nicholaas looked over at Max a moment, and then back to Nicklus. "Why? Why did it collapse?"

The bearded man shrugged. "The intricacies of the universe are many. My intuitions on things of this sort are somewhat limited, I'm afraid. But my investigation of the matter suggested to me that it was the result of natural phenomena exerting sufficient tensions along gravitational lines over time to collapse the weakness between the borders of the two realities, that had allowed the portal to be there to begin with."

Nicholaas looked amazed. "And your elves were all at home at the time? How did that happen?"

Nicklus allowed his gaze to stray to Max, and he sighed wistfully before turning back to Nicholaas. "Yes. My staff was all at home when the event occurred. Without them, my operations here have become severely limited. Had I not figured out a way to, um, borrow items from myself in three alternate realities, there would be no Christmas at all here for many people. As it is, I still don't have enough to meet the needs."

Max raised a hand. "You mean none of your elves lived on-site? Why was that?"

Nicklus frowned. "It's just the way we've always done things. My elves were commuters."

Charlie was amazed at what he was hearing. He had long known that alternate realities could be very similar to their own, or almost unrecognizably different. In this reality, the local version of Nicholaas was apparently less adept with skwish than their own version, especially with reference to time and space. Not to mention appearing older, and looking far more like the Santa Claus of popular culture than Nicholaas would allow for himself. And, unlike in their own reality, where the elves that worked with Nicholaas lived close to the shops they worked in, and only returned to their own world occasionally, the elves here had gone back and forth each day between realities, like commuters on a subway.

"How was it there were no elves here when this happened?" Charlie asked.

Nicklus looked over at him. "It occurred at the start of spring, which is a slow time here at the shop. I'm running all the diagnostics on my production lines then, as we all know that small variations occur over time that reduce the efficiency of some processes. The elves had all gone home for the spring Gribbitz celebration. I was even supposed to join them later in the day for the banquet...but the portal collapsed." He sighed. "A fortunate bit of timing, actually, or I would have been stranded in the elf world, away from my shop."

"Gribbitz Day?" Rick asked, unable to hide a smile. "What's that?"

Max chuckled. "Aw, that's a traditional holiday among my folks. It's a lot of fun. There's a heap of eating and singing and dancing, and a juicy, baked Gribbitz on every table."

Kippy rolled his eyes. "That being?"

Max's own eyes twinkled. "Think turkey, but about three times the size. We got 'em in our world, but they seem to be missing in yours."

Charlie's mind boggled at the notion of a 75-pound Thanksgiving turkey!

Nicholaas nodded. "I think I see. My operations are automated by skwish, but our production has grown amazingly in the past several centuries. Without the elves to nudge things here and there, keep things orderly, oversee the many processes, and keep track of all the requests, I doubt my own operation would run very long before it became too much for me to handle. I would have to scale down operations considerably, and that would mean providing for far fewer people than I do now."

Kippy looked amazed. "I thought skwish procedures were, like, eternal?"

Both iterations of Santa smiled. "Not hardly," Nicklus said, chuckling.

Nicholaas nodded. "Nothing is eternal, Kip. Skwish is an energy source, and all energy sources are subject to losses over time. And the more complex a system is, the more variables enter into sustaining that system. There is an inevitable degradation over time, a tendency towards disorder, that simply needs to be addressed periodically in order to keep everything humming along."

"Right." Nicklus gazed wistfully at Max again. "This has sure made me appreciate my elf friends all over again! I can still produce quite a number of items on my own, but without my elves, I can only do so much." He lifted a hand towards Nicholaas. "Without the additional items I have been getting from you and the two others, things here would have become quite gloomy. The human population of the world I serve has already been noticing that Christmas isn't what it used to be." The bearded man looked pained. "Too many wishes are going unfulfilled!"

Nicholaas sighed. "That's even a problem in my own reality. Too many people, too many problems, too little belief in tradition."

"People grow up," Adrian pointed out. "It gets harder to believe, with time."

Nicholaas smiled at him. "Do you believe in Santa?"

Adrian blinked in surprise at the question, but then laughed. "Of course, I do. I know him personally! How could I not?"

The older man nodded. "You'd be surprised how many adults still have the notion that Santa is out there, somewhere. There are more people that at least want to believe than you realize."

Nicklus chuckled. "That's very much true. There is some sort of low-level awareness among humans that the beliefs of their youth are not always as ridiculous as they might think. Finding those gifts under the tree from Santa that no one remembers buying gets to them, every time."

"It's a great tradition," Browbeat offered. "We didn't have anything like that on my world."

Nicklus smiled at the little flyer. "I don't believe I know your kind."

"I'm a Pintuckin," Browbeat said proudly, in just such a way that Charlie imagined him sticking his chest out. "I'm a friend of all these guys."

"All friends!" Auggie agreed, offering his very distinctive smile.

Nicklus laughed at that. "You, my furry fellow, I sense all sorts of amazing things from!"

"His origins are somewhat otherworldly, too," Charlie offered, smiling and patting the bearcat's head.

Nicklus nodded, his eyes going to Ragal and Casper next. "You are also visitors from other worlds in your reality?"

"We are," Ragal agreed. "That reality would seem to be quite different from this one."

"Yes. I have never met anyone from another world here. I suspect I've been missing a lot, in comparison to your own reality."

"They're all different," Nicholaas said quietly. "But each has its own charms, I think."

For a moment they were all quiet, considering the myriad of expressions the world they knew had managed to make for itself just around the corner in other realities.

"You don't know any offworlders at all?" Kippy asked. He leaned closer to Nicklus then. "Do you recognize me?" He indicated Charlie at his side. "Or him?" He sighed. "Or any of us?"

Nicklus frowned. "I'm sorry. I can't say that I do."

Kippy looked devastated. He turned to Charlie. "We don't exist here!"

Nicholaas shook his head. "That's not necessarily the case, Kip. More likely, the sequence of events that led you to meet Max just didn't occur here. You boys are here, you just never met any of us."

Kippy's gaze quickly circled the group. He swung back to Nicholaas then. "That's just as bad! It means none of what we know ever happened here! All our wonderful friends! We've never met them here!"

Charlie put an arm around his boyfriend's shoulders. "It's okay, Kip. It's just the way things are." Charlie gave him a fond squeeze. "We have our friends in our reality. That's what matters."

Kippy sniffed, but nodded. "I love you all," he said softly.

Auggie nuzzled Kip's hand. "Love you, too, Keepy. Friends!"

"I'm sorry, son," Nicklus said quietly. "But the reason that realities differ is because so many event timelines are different. Just be happy you live in the one you love, rather than some other one." He frowned. "I certainly understand your feelings of gloom, though. I've felt exactly the same, since I lost my elf friends."

Max cleared his throat. "I might be able to help you."

Nicholaas suddenly smiled. "I was just thinking that. Esmerelda?"

"Sure. As good as she is with all these universes, she might be able to link this one back to the elf reality it once connected to."

Nicklus squinted at them. "Esmerelda?"

"She's a hernacki," Max supplied. At the confused look that appeared on the bearded man's face, he smiled. "A skwish entity."

Nicklus looked surprised; but then a spark of hope appeared in his eyes. "No kidding? I'm aware of the existence of these creatures, but I certainly don't know any personally!"

"It's how we got here," Max revealed. "The, Nicholaas, could have come here on his own, but we have a pretty big crowd with us. It's easy for Esmerelda to move a bunch like us from one reality to another. Hernacki's are always exploring across the borders, you know?"

"Actually, I don't," Nicklus replied. "But I would like to. I don't even know if the hernacki-type of entity you refer to exists here."

"Sure they do." Max grinned. "They exist everywhere, because they can go anywhere."

Nicklus pursed his lips at that. "How do we know this friend of yours can link this reality back to the same elf reality?"

Max shrugged. "I think she can find the one that used to be connected to here. It will be the only reality with an echo that matches this one."

The bearded man's eyes widened. "Ah. You mean the two realities will resonate, because they were once attuned by the join?"

Max looked delighted. "There you go. If anyone can do it, it will be Esmerelda."

Nicklus nodded. "What do I need to do?"

"Not a thing. Not much I can do, either. I've let Esmerelda know what we want. She's going to hunt up the echo that matches yours, and see what she can do."

Nicholaas smiled, and reached out to pat Max's shoulder. "Max is my shop supervisor. He gets things done!"

Nicklus looked at Max with a sudden new interest, and smiled. "Aha! I knew there was something familiar about you! My own shop supervisor goes by the name Max, too."

Max looked pleased to hear that. "I guess we get around."

"Ready to try something?" Nicholaas asked.

"Sure, boss. Tell ya what...if we all touch, you fellas can see what I see when I talk to Esmerelda."

Nicklus looked excited at that. "Oh, I'd love to be in on this!"

"Me, too," Robin admitted, dropping a hand on Max's shoulder. "This sort of stuff is way above my pay grade!"

"You're not kidding!" Casper added. "Come on, Ragal!"

Everyone managed to touch, so that they were in the circuit with Max.

"Okay, fellas, hold on!"

Charlie tightened his arm around Kip's shoulders as their surroundings faded. In an instant they were standing upon an utterly flat, utterly smooth, and utterly dark plain, that seemed to stretch away infinitely in all directions. Before them was a giant, dark figure, looking like a cumulonimbus thunderhead cloud, except that when Charlie tilted his head back and looked up, way up, he was certain he could see two huge, somewhat reddish eyes, looking down at them.

"Go to it, Esemerelda!" Max said, from close by.

Around them, the dark plain suddenly lit with images torn from the human history books, stretching from the beginnings of the race to the present day. Here a large man in furs swung a huge stick at a giant crouching cat, while others around him threw rocks or swung sticks of their own. Beyond them, dark-skinned humans working together patiently fashioned structures of adobe along a stretch of mountain cliff. Nearby, armies of soldiers carrying spears and swords charged at each other across desert sands. In another location, a sleek Viking longboat under full sail battled huge waves as lightning danced in the skies above. And in another place, a steam-powered tractor slowly plowed a field under a magnificent blue sky with a touch of orange along the horizon. The images came and went in a flood, gradually speeding up, until there were so many flying by around them that they became mere impressions, barely registering before they were gone.

But the sense of history passing was enormous. Charlie felt a sense of time descend upon them, weighty beyond all reason, as all the event lines that made up this reality and others were searched, categorized, and labeled with astonishing speed.

Nicklus gasped in amazement. "It's so beautiful!"

It was. Charlie had never considered history as a painting, or a movie, or any other collection of images such as those flying around them. But he understood now that every single thing that happened in any reality led to a flowering of other things that followed, and that each one of these new events birthed others, and that the process was so utterly complex as to appear random, but still organized in a way that led with great certainty into the individual futures that marked each reality as unique, no matter how closely they progressed. Somewhere, somewhen, there were small divergences that built over time, each resulting in the birth of yet another alternate reality.

"So many!" Kippy breathed, his voice filled with wonder.

"One small difference is all it takes," Max said quietly. "Just one, and you have a totally separate world."

Time seem absent as the myriad images flashed by in every direction, but still Charlie was getting a sense of the immensity of the search that Esmerelda was undertaking. Somewhere, in all the realities that had birthed from the original one, was a reality with an earth only inhabited by elves, that had once been linked by a portal to the world that Nicklus loved and cared for.

It was dizzying, almost. The images became a haze around them, passing too quickly to discern now, and just when Charlie felt he might be getting a little queasy at the effect, everything suddenly vanished, and darkness descended upon the infinite plain once again. A powerful, clear tone rang out, like a giant gong, that echoed out across the plains of eternity and back again in a single, timeless moment.

"She found it!" Max said, sounding almost as if he couldn't believe it. "Esmerelda!"

A new image formed now. A group of what could only be elves, seated at a long table, their handsome faces now looking upset and tired. They spoke together quietly, and Charlie had to concentrate to pick out the individual conversations.

"We are approaching the second Christmas since the split," one was saying gravely. "And still our researchers have not found a way to find the old human reality we once joined with."

"We have to do something about this!" her neighbor said, looking upset. "We have to get back! Nicklus needs us!"

"The portal is no more!" said another. "How can we get back without it?"

"There must be something we can do!" called another. "We've been searching, but to no avail!"

Nicklus emitted a soft sound, one of absolute disbelief, yet full of longing, too. "Jarva! Rillian!"

One of the female elves at the table suddenly looked shocked. She shot to her feet and threw up her hands. "Hold!"

The conversations died so quickly that even Charlie was stunned by the discipline it implied.

"What is it, Jarva?" asked one of the men then.

"I heard...I sensed..." She looked around the room. "Nicklus?"

"Can I speak to them?" Nicklus quickly asked Max.

"I would say so."

"Jarva, it's Nicklus! We're trying to restore the portal! Be patient!"

There was a rumbling from above, and Charlie gazed skyward, to again see the two huge eyes looking down at them. Somewhere, something stretched then. It was a totally amazing feeling, as if the ground beneath their feet, and the very air around them, pulled at them with tiny fingers.

Max gasped then. "She's going to relink them!"

The stretching feeling increased, but rather than be painful, it was elating and momentous, a breathtaking thing to welcome. For a moment Charlie felt absolutely giddy as the feeling persisted; and then, just as suddenly, it relaxed and was gone. The plain and Esmerelda vanished, and once again they were in the meeting room where Nicklus had taken them.

But they were scarcely there again before there were a dozen pops in the air, and an equal number of elves appeared in the room. Nicklus shot to his feet, and rushed toward them, his arms outstretched. "Jarva! Rillian! Max!"

Charlie turned towards Nicholaas then, saw the man put a hand over his mouth, while his eyes filled with joy. Nicholaas turned to Max then, and clamped a hand on his shoulder warmly, the emotion in the move utterly clear. "Well done, my friend!"

Max grinned. "It was Esmerelda that done it, boss."

Nicklus stood in the middle of a circle of elves, who all seemed to be trying to hug him at the same time, while he made every effort to return the gestures. Kippy pushed himself up against Charlie then, and Charlie turned to hug his boyfriend, too.

"Wow," Browbeat said softly, from atop Auggie's shoulders. "This is just wonderful stuff!"

"Mah-jeek," Auggie agreed with a happy sigh, his red mane waving as if with joy.

Across the room, the group of elves drew back, allowing Nicklus to breathe again.

"The guys are already back in the shop," one elf said, smiling. "There's a lot of clean up to do!"

"We'll get right on it," a woman said. "Christmas is only a few days off!"

"You got a lot of stuff appearing in the warehouse, boss," another woman said. "It feels like it's coming across a weird skwish boundary of some sort. You gonna keep that coming in, or what?"

Nicklus raised his hands and waved them gently. "Thank you, everyone. Thank you. But I have to admit to being a little overwhelmed just now. If everyone would look into what needs doing, we can gather again later and discuss how to proceed next."

One of the men grinned. "Gonna be a Christmas to remember!"

The elves all smiled, and headed for the door.

Save one. Nicklus took her by the arm, and brought her towards them. She was cute, just like every elf, dressed in comfortable clothing that somewhat accentuated her fine figure, and was of indeterminate age, also like every elf. She had long, dark hair, and rosy red lips, and as she accompanied Nicklus towards them, Charlie had to admit that she would be considered killer gorgeous in almost any world.

And, amazingly, she was familiar!

"Woo, woo," Rick said, under his breath.

Adrian bumped his shoulder against his boyfriend's. "Shh!"

Nicklus brought the elf to them, and pointed at Max. "This is the fellow that brought us back together!"

The woman stepped froward, wrapped her arms around Max, and deposited a huge kiss on his cheek. "Thank you, you wonderful, wonderful man!"

Max's face colored immediately, and he gasped for air as the woman stepped back. "Oh, uh, well, sure, uh, no problem!"

Kippy laughed softly at Max's discomfort, and Charlie couldn't help smiling, himself. Everyone smiled, in fact.

Nicklus gave a little sigh, and placed an arm around the woman's shoulders, in a decidedly fatherly fashion. "Everyone, I want you to meet my shop supervisor, Maxine. Max, to her friends!"

She beamed around at them, while their own Max's jaw dropped, and he turned stunned eyes on Charlie.

"Aw, geez!"

"You think the portal will be stable now?" Nicklus asked, looking around his shop as it once again bustled with activity. There were elves everywhere, watching items moving on the belts, pointing out things that seemed not to be going as they should, and scrambling between the lines to attend to small disasters in the making. The look of satisfaction that Nicklus wore could almost be termed sublime. "I am so happy to have them back. I couldn't do this without them."

"Neither could I, in my world," Nicholaas agreed, smiling at Max before turning back to the bearded man. "I think this was good for both of us, Nicklus. It's...critical, I think is the word, to now and then be reminded of just how important the people in our lives are to us."

Max sighed happily. "Esmerelda is good at what she does, boss. She insulated this new portal from the sort of forces that collapsed the other one. She seems to think it will outlast the planet."

Nicklus nodded. "Please thank your friend for me, again, Max. I am eternally grateful for her assistance in this. For the assistance of all of you, as well."

"It was fun!" Browbeat said, from his new perch on Robin's shoulder. "We had a blast!"

Robin nodded at that. "I am always up for some new instruction, especially when the results are as rewarding as this instance was." He looked at Nicholaas then. "Any chance these are permanent friends now?"

Nicholaas nodded. "I'm sure I can get back here. And I am still mulling over what I learned by watching Esmerelda bring us here. I don't think I'll ever be as good at inter-reality travel as she is, but I think I could bring us all back here now if I wanted to do it."

Nicklus stuck out a hand to Nicholaas. "You'll be welcome, anytime."

Nicholaas grasped the hand of his alternate self, and the two shook warmly.

"By the way," Nicholaas said, smiling. "I'm going to keep the items coming to your reality from mine. At least, for this Christmas."

Nicklus smiled. "Thank you. Every little bit will help. I'm hoping there is still time to make the Christmas that this world has this year something people will remember!"

"Every Christmas is one to remember," Kippy said. "And, they seem to be just getting better!"

Casper gave a little sigh. "Some worlds are certainly nicer than others."

Ragal smiled at that, and dropped a hand to pat his friend's conical head. "It's the people that are in them that make them memorable, I think."

Nicklus frowned then. "Do you have to leave so soon?"

"We should," Nicholaas agreed. "You have a lot of clean up to do here. And I have my own Christmas to get out." He smiled. "But we're family now. We'll be back."

The bearded man nodded, and smiled around at his new friends. "Merry Christmas, to everyone."

"Merry Christmas!" Charlie offered, along with the others.

"We'll be back, friends!" Browbeat added, with a titter of happiness.

Nicholaas looked around his own shop, which was running as smoothly as it always seemed to run. "It's nice to be home. And, it's nice to see everyone here." He turned to Max. "Would it be possible to have Esmerelda check the portal between your elf world and here, to make sure a similar collapse cannot happen?"

"Sure, boss. She seems to like to do stuff like this. I think she finds the people world interesting."

"Don't we all?" Robin asked, smiling.

Kippy, who had been unable not to keep grinning at Max, now moved closer to him. "Your alternate self was a real knockout, Max."

Max smiled at him, and leaned closer. "You wanna to get your presents this year, young fella?"

Kippy beamed, and nodded.

Max's smile broadened. "Then maybe we should be done talking about this, okay?"

Everyone laughed. Kippy moved closer, and gave the elf a big hug. "I love you in any reality, Max."

" too, Kip. Me, too." Max looked around at the others. "All you guys. You know?"

Nicholaas gave a little sigh. "This experience was an eye-opener for me. I have come to look at this time of year from a production and delivery perspective. I really need to remember what it's all about."

"I liked your alternate self," Charlie told him. "Um, ever consider growing a beard?"

Nicholaas laughed. "Not lately. I mean, I'm old enough, without having to look it!"

"This sure was fun!" Browbeat announced. "You guys are coming to the Christmas party at our house, right?"

"Ronja and I will be there," Nicholaas answered. He turned to smile at Robin. "Can we pry you away from your castle in Bavaria long enough to attend?"

History's favorite thief laughed. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't miss it for the world! Look how interesting just the week before the holiday has become for these guys!"

"I'm glad we came early," Casper agreed, looking up at Ragal. "Aren't you?"

"I am." The lanky alien's eyes twinkled. "I have come to expect to be entertained when I visit with our friends here."

Kippy bowed. "We aim to please!"

Rick looked around the workshop, and nodded. "It's a neat trick you pulled, Nicholaas, the way you created a route for us to be able to come here anytime. I hope we won't be bugging you too much if we drop in unannounced from time to time."

"Not at all. You boys are always welcome. Besides, no one can enter the passage from your house to this place without me knowing about it, so you won't be unannounced."

Adrian smiled. "Do you think that other Nicklus will be okay for Christmas?"

Nicholaas closed his eyes for a moment. "I do. He has the spirit." He opened his eyes, and smiled. "He cares, which is really what counts."

"You have it, too," Casper pointed out. "You love Christmas!"

Nicholaas nodded. "Yes. Yes, I do!" He sighed. "It has certainly put me in a giving mood this year." He stroked his chin a moment, and then turned his smile on Charlie. "Are you going to stay a while, or will you be going back?"

Charlie looked at his watch, and then realized it didn't mean much where he was. "Um, I guess we should be getting back. We have plenty to do before everyone shows up for the party."

Nicholaas nodded. "I'm pleased you investigated your cellar, and found your way here. I was wondering how long it would take for you to notice it."

"Casper, Browbeat, and Auggie found it first," Rick said. "But I'm sure we would have seen the door the next time we went to the kitchen."

"It was good luck we found it!" Browbeat said. "This was sure a lot of fun!"

"Oh," Max said then, patting his forehead. " I almost forgot. Frit and Pip said they wanted to come by to see the house before the party, if you don't mind."

Kippy gasped and clutched his hands together in delight. "Are you serious! We'd love to see them!"

The elf nodded. "I'll let 'em know. Now that you're in the guide book, and all. Well, with reservations!"

Charlie sighed. "Well, we'll be heading back, I guess."

Nicholaas nodded. "Auggie? Will you stay? I need to consult with you about something."

The bearcat looked at Kippy and gave a little pout, but then turned back to Nicholaas. "Stay."

"Max? You too?"

The elf nodded,. "Sure, boss."

"Thank you." Nicholaas extended his hand to Charlie, and they shook, and then Nicholaas went around the group and everyone else had a turn.

"Merry Christmas," Nicholaas said then. "From Ronja and me, and all your friends here."

Robin smiled at Charlie. "Mind if I come along with you guys? Now that the big mystery is solved here?"

Charlie was surprised by that, and looked over at Nicholaas. "Your delivery equation is done?"

"Of course. We wouldn't have gone off hunting missing items if it wasn't."

Charlie smiled at Robin. "We'd love to have you visit."

More hugs and good wishes were exchanged, and then Charlie and his friends headed back towards the house.

Kippy looked out the front window, and smiled at the way the glow from the Christmas lights on the house lit the darkness outside. "I love the way that works with Nicholaas, where we can do stuff with him, and come home, and no real time has passed. It's still early evening here at the old homestead."

"The really old homestead," Rick added, laughing. "Twenty centuries old, to be exact."

Kippy nodded, and sighed. "It makes me wonder what this guy, Lugh, was like, that he created something as wonderful as the matrix of this house." He turned to Charlie. "And, I have to wonder if he's still around, somewhere."

Charlie considered that. "I suspect that, if he still exists - and, which I may say, is entirely probable - he is no longer here, in this reality. If there was a power-user of his ability here, I'd think Nicholaas would know of him."

"I think I'd at least suspect he was here," Robin added. "I have sensed some powerful users out there, but none quite on my own level, let alone the level Nicholaas has reached. So, I tend to agree with you."

Kippy sighed dreamily. "It must be a fascinating existence, to be able to go anywhere and anywhen. Think of all the wonderful people you could meet!"

Robin smiled at that. "And all the nasty ones!"

"Oh, you!" Kippy frowned at the man. "You're such a spoilsport!"

Robin shrugged. "I'm a realist, Kip. For every nice person out there in the world, there's probably at least one pure bastard. It's a trick of evolution that things like this balance out."

Kippy nodded. "I know. But it's Christmas, and I just want to focus on nice things."

Robin suddenly turned, and looked towards the front door. "Then I think you are about to be made happier."

The door knocker knocked, sounding quite insistent.

Kippy blinked that way. "Now, who could that be?" But he moved away from the window, and headed towards the foyer. Rick made a happy sound, and he and Adrian followed.

Browbeat exploded into laughter, and launched himself from the back of his chair to follow. "This is so fun!"

Ragal took Casper by the hand, and turned to offer an arm to Charlie. "Shall we?"

Charlie grinned, taking the proffered arm. "Yes, we shall."

Robin sighed contentedly, and took up the rear.

They crowded into the foyer, where Kippy turned on the outside light and flipped open the peephole in the door. He leaned forward to look, and immediately took a step back. For a moment he looked surprised, and then turned to smile at Charlie. "Auggie's back. He had his eye to the peephole, looking in."

"Open the door!" Rick urged. "Let him in!"

Kip nodded and threw the bolts, and pulled the door inward. Auggie stood there...but he was not alone!

"Surprise!" Frit and Pip, crouched down behind the bearcat, popped to their feet, laughing.

Robin reached past Charlie to tap Kip's shoulder. "What'd I tell you?"

Kippy let out a cry of delight, and spread his arms wide. Auggie wisely squeezed past Kip into the house, while Frit and Pip jumped forward to be hugged.

"We came right away!" Frit said.

"To see the house!" Pip added. "We heard it was amazing!"

"And, it is!" Frit finished.

"Well, come on in!" Charlie called. "Kip, haul them inside and close the door. It's cold out there!"

Kippy did as asked, turning about to step between the two elves, where he linked an arm with each one. "Please come in and visit!"

Everyone stepped back to allow the three to enter, and Charlie pushed the door closed behind them as Kip led the two elves to the parlor.

Browbeat fluttered past Charlie and landed on Auggie's back. "Friend! You came back!"

Auggie turned his head and his mane waved happily as he and the flyer exchanged happy looks. "Just talk to Nicholaas," the bearcat explained. "Help him with something." His head turned then, and his golden eyes settled on Charlie, and Charlie was certain he could detect a secret held there.

Auggie's mane waved again, and a small scroll appeared, balanced on the bearcat's nose, which he offered to Charlie. "Take!"

Charlie took the scroll, which felt like vellum, and which was tied with a red bow. A small tag on the bow said: To our wonderful friends, Charlie, Kip, Rick, Adrian, and Browbeat, with love at Christmas, Nicholaas and Ronja.

"What is it?" Adrian asked, stepping closer to read the tag. "It's for all of us!"

"Something else from Nicholaas and Ronja. As if they haven't given us a wonderful gift already, with the new way to visit them."

"I see my name, too!" Browbeat called, tittering happily.

Charlie laughed at that. "You have some darn good eyesight, my friend!"

"Unroll the scroll," Rick prompted. "Let's see what it is!"

Charlie shook his head. "Everyone should see this. Let's go in with Kip and the others."

They did that, filing into the parlor and taking seats around Kip's wingback chair. Kippy was standing before the fireplace with Frit and Pip, just finishing an excited account of the new staircase that led to the workshop where Nicholaas and Ronja lived.

"Oh, we heard about that!" Frit said, grinning.

"Everybody did!" Pip agreed.

"My grandpa Max was telling everyone!" Pip continued. "He's so happy!"

Kippy, smiling at the two excited elves, noticed the scroll in Charlie's hand then. "What's that?"

Charlie held it up. "Something else from Nicholaas and Ronja."

Kippy gasped. "Another present! That's too much!"

Charlie looked at Frit and Pip then, who had exchanged quick glances at the appearance of the scroll. "You know about this?"

Frit's features immediately settled into the most exaggerated look of innocence that Charlie had ever seen. "Know about what?"

Charlie laughed. "You do!"

Pip gasped. "We can't tell! It's a surprise!"

Charlie held up the scroll. "Is this meant for Christmas, or to be opened now?"

But before either elf could answer, the scroll suddenly jumped in Charlie's hand. He looked down, now to find that something new had appeared on the rolled up document. The words, Open me!, in bright red letters.

Frit giggled. "You have your answer!"

"It's up to you now!" Pip added, joining his boyfriend in giggling.

Kippy came over to stand beside Charlie. "Open it."

Browbeat left Auggie's back and fluttered over to land on Charlie's shoulder. "I can't wait!"

Charlie nodded, and motioned for Kip and Rick and Adrian to come closer. "It's for all of us."

The others crowded close so that they could see, too. Browbeat let out an excited sigh, and Charlie carefully pulled off the red bow and unrolled the scroll.

There was a message inside, done in exquisite calligraphy, that reminded Charlie instantly of the note he had received with his statue of Nicholaas and Kirka some Christmases ago. There was no doubt in his mind who had written it:

Dear Charlie, Kippy, Rick, Adrian, and Browbeat:

Time passes swiftly, doesn't it? I am remembering four boys I once met in a dream,

whose presence made such a difference in my life that today I am happier than

I have ever been at any time before. I have Ronja, and the elves, and I have met

many new and wonderful people, like you, Browbeat. You boys have come a long way

from the slightly undisciplined lads I first met that special Christmas, just a few years


You have matured into caring and responsible adults. Your business is prospering,

and you have a fine new home. A magical one! We wanted this to be a special

Christmas for all of you, and to officially welcome Browbeat to the family.

Ronja was the one who suggested I design a way for you to come visit us,

and the stairway and cable car were the result. I thought that a wonderful idea and

a well-deserved gift, but it was remiss of me not to consider this idea further. I viewed

it as a skwish project, when it should have been much more.

Our recent foray into the reality where Nicklus struggled so hard to keep Christmas going

has reminded me of the importance of people, not just to Christmas, but to everyday life,

and that the holiday is not about the gift, but about the person to which it is given.

Which comes to the heart of our message to all of you.

I have a gift, myself, of seeing talents in others, of recognizing when there is a special

magic in someone's heart. All of you have this special magic. One of the results of

your special blend of magic seems to be a gift for finding new friends and adding them

to your group. You have expanded your original small circle of friends into something

large and quite wonderful, I think. So large, and so varied, in fact, that distance and time

sometimes separates you when you least wish that to be the case.

After visiting with you in your new home, and discovering what a fine and agreeable fellow

your Lugh is, I have again endeavored to speak with him about expanding the gift I have

already given you. He has agreed, and with the assistance of Max and Auggie, it is now


Ronja and I will see you again at your Christmas party. In the meantime, please have a look

upstairs! If you liked the addition of your new cellar, wait until you see your new attic!

Much love and affection,

Ronja and Nicholaas

Charlie read the message twice, and shook his head. "We don't have an attic!"

Robin, standing to one side, laughed. "You didn't used to have a cellar, either!"

Kippy gasped, and dropped a hand on Charlie's arm. "Do you think...?"

Charlie nodded. "Yes. I guess we'd better look!"

"Whoosh!" Browbeat shot off Charlie's shoulder, heading for the staircase to the next floor.

"This will be good!" Frit said, squeezing Pip in glee.

"Better than good!" Pip agreed excitedly.

Charlie laughed, feeling a surge of high spirits as everyone rushed after the flyer, laughing and talking a mile a minute. They ascended the the staircase to the second floor, and then the next one to the third floor.

"Look for a door we haven't seen before!" Kip said, his gaze trying to go down both walls of the hallway at once.

They almost walked by it, even so.

"Wait!" It was Browbeat that called out. "That door is new!"

Kippy turned to look at it. "Isn't that just the door to the next bedroom? Lugh has moved it to this spot four times before!"

Charlie examined the door. "No. Look, the hinges are on this side. This door opens outward."

Robin chuckled. "You want a sign? This way to the attic?"

Charlie stepped forward, grasped the knob, and opened the door.

A very normal flight of steps went upwards just inside, looking to be of the same craftsmanship as the house. At the top was a dim open space, which shouldn't be there at all. The house as originally made by Mildred had some space between the ceilings of the upper floor rooms and the roof of the house, but it was a ventilated crawlspace, and not easily accessible. The space they could see above was obviously large enough to stand in!

Kippy dropped a hand on Charlie's arm. "You go first. I'll follow!"

Charlie smiled at the teasing look in his boyfriend's eyes. "Think I won't?" He turned, and started up the steps.

He heard the buzz of wings then, and browbeat settled onto his shoulder. "I'm with you, Charlie!"

This time, there were only as many steps as one would need to get to a next floor. Charlie arrived at the top, looked around the dimly-lit room, but really couldn't decide what he was seeing. The others finally arrived beside them, and everyone looked around.

"This looks like--" Ragal suddenly said, in a soft whisper. His voice firmed then. "Lights, please."

A glow sprang up, and the room quickly lit to full brilliance. Charlie stared around at the shelving, immediately recognizing where they were. "Wow!"

"Is this the storeroom at the villa?" Casper asked then, sounding shocked.

Charlie nodded, and thought he heard a satisfied sigh from Auggie, behind them.

They were on Engris.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead