A Texas Carol
a Houston Knights Christmas story
by Wolfling and James Walkswithwind


  It was a nice, humid, warm night.  Not too humid, not too warm -- it
  was December, after all, and this was Texas. The house was finally
  cleaned to Joe's specifications. One thing his mother and aunts had
  drilled into him was -- clean first. It makes things easier.
  
  Levon had looked at him oddly, but when Joe said they were going to
  do it, Levon nodded and did.  It wasn't the dominance thing this
  time, Joe knew.  It was the fact that for the first time in a very
  long time Levon was going to have Christmas at home.
  
  Joe had pulled out all his decorations that he'd dragged down from
  Chicago and bought several dozens boxes more, and now they were ready
  to put everything -- well, everywhere.

  He'd bought a lot.

  Levon wasn't complaining. In fact he was already starting to dig into
  the boxes of decorations. "You do know what to do with that don't
  you?" Joe asked with a grin as he watched his lover pull out the
  mistletoe.

  Levon smiled innocently.  "What, this?  It's just a fungus ain't it?"
  His words were belied by the way he carried it over to Joe, and the
  way he smiled as he got close enough to wield said fungus. Joe leaned
  in for the proffered kiss, returning as good as he got. When he
  backed off, he couldn't help but smile at the glint in Levon's eye.
   
   "You know," he said softly, wrapping one arm around Levon's waist,
   "I got enough of that 'fungus' for every doorway in the house..."
  
  They both turned suddenly at a distinct, and by now familiar,
  crashing sound.  Fortunately there were no accompanying tinkling
  sounds, but Levon dove for the small ball of fur crawling its way
  inside a box. It mewed in protest as it was denied access to its new
  box of toys.  "Trouble, you've been doing your best to live up to
  your name, all day.  Why don't you go sleep on Joe's favorite sweater
  while we get the house decorated?"  Levon looked into the kitten's
  eyes, and the kitten stared seriously back at him.
  
  Only to seriously sink its sharp little teeth into Levon's hand where
  it was being held. Levon handed the kitten over to Joe.  "He's
  yours."
  
  Joe managed to smother his laughter only with great effort as he
   carried Trouble to the kitchen and put him down, shutting the door
   behind him as he returned to the living room. "You know, Levon," he
   began conversationally, "you can't reason with a kitten like you do
   with Fooler."
  
  "Why not?  It worked, didn't it?"  Levon gave him another innocent
  smile and went back to the box he'd pulled the mistletoe from.
  
  "Remind me again, which one of us is supposed to be the dominant
   one?" Joe muttered, as he turned back to his own unpacking of the
   family ornaments that his aunt had given him while they were in Chicago.
  
  "Joe, love, it ain't *my* fault you don't assert yourself.  I *do*
  what I'm told."  Levon pulled a smaller box from the larger one and
  began opening it.
  
  "And somehow that always seems to end up being what you want," Joe
   pointed out. He picked up and unwrapped one ornament, then froze when
   he saw what it was. "Oh..." he breathed out softly, as he looked
   down at something he had long ago thought destroyed.
  
  "What is it?"  Levon was at his side, teasing tone gone from his
  voice.
  
  "My grandmother gave me this the last Christmas before my father
   died. I'd given it up for lost years ago." He held up the delicately
   wrought glass centaur for Levon to see.
  
  Levon's shocked eyes met his, then his lover reached up and touched
  the shining ornament lightly.  "Where.. Joe, where did she...?"  He
  shook his head, unable to actually state his question.
  
  "She never said. Just gave it to me Christmas Eve." He smiled fondly.
   "She used to tell me a lot of old stories, Greek myths and all,
   about centaurs." He paused as he reflected on those stories and what
   he now knew to be the truth. "At least I *thought* they were just
   stories," he said uncertainly.
  
  "Did she?"  Levon looked interested.  "What sort?  I mean, just the
  same thing you read in Barton's?"
  
  "She told me those, but she told me others too, stuff I've never seen
   written down anywhere. Those were always my favourites."
  
  Levon's eyes grew even wider, and he was obviously *pleased*.  "She
  tell you about Aborus the Brave?  Or Ascelytius?"
  
  Joe nodded slowly. "I remember the names because when she first told
   me I couldn't pronounce Ascelytius. Kept calling him 'Silly.'"
  
  Levon laughed, and it was a sound of surprise and delight.  Joe found
  himself grinning, and he suspected he knew why.  Levon shook his
  head, as if amazed.  No doubt he was.
  
  "Those were real centaurs, Joe.  Not myths -- history.  She
   told you real stories... you know some of my history, Joe." From the
   way he said it, and the way his eyes were wide, staring (almost like
   Trouble's, in a way) Joe felt as if he'd just given Levon the best
   Christmas present he could have imagined.  It made sense -- suddenly
   their worlds were a little closer, a little less strangers to each
   other despite whatever they felt. And it explained the secret smile
   his grandmother had always gotten when she told those particular
   stories.
  
  "Wonder how she learned them in the first place." Levon touched the
  crystal ornament with a fingertip. "It's beautiful."  Then he
  started, and grinned in wonder. "That's why you believed it when you
  saw me change." Joe thought back to that moment of disbelief and
  wonder.
   
   "I believed it because it happened," he told his lover, reaching out
   and laying a hand against his cheek. "I accepted it because it was
   you. The stories just lessened the shock a bit."
  
  Levon rested his cheek in Joe's hand for a moment, then nodded
  towards the miniature centaur.  "We gonna start with the tree, then?"

  "Sounds good to me." He carefully laid the ornament back in its
   cushioned wrapping. A tremendous CRASH sounded from the corner where
   they had set up the tree they had gotten. Joe spun around in time to
   see the tail end of a little orange and white ball of fur running
   away from the now prone pine. They stared for a moment.  
   
   Then Levon said, "Boots started without us."

				  ***********

  It took them a while to get the tree upright and decorated.  Joe
  instructed Levon on the finer points of tree-decorating and the
  proper placing of ornaments.  He also explained the family history and
  emotional significance of each ornament that he pulled from the boxes.

  Finally it was done, standing securely in a corner (secured in fact
  by rope, and a few nails.  "What's the point of owning a house if you
  can't kitten-proof it?" Levon had asked.)

  They spent the rest of the evening spreading the remaining
  decorations around the house, filling the window sills and tables and
  mantle with Christmas cheer. Then, as tradition demanded, they cuddled
  on the couch with all the lights off, save those on the tree. Joe
  sighed, feeling his eyelids growing heavy.

   Levon had already drifted off in his arms. 'Should wake him up, get
   us both to bed,' he thought muzzily, but didn't move. He was just too
   comfortable where he was. With a sigh Joe allowed his eyes to drift
   shut. Just a quick nap and then he'd...

  "Hey! Joey!  What are you doing?" A sharp, loud voice woke him.  That
  is, it ought to have woken him -- except this was obviously a dream.

  He knew it was a dream because his former partner could not possibly
   be standing in front of the couch, head cocked to the side as he
   looked down curiously at Joe and his lover.

  It couldn't be because the man had been dead for years; had died
   right in front of Joe in the botched-up bust that had been the
   first of the series of events that had brought Joe to Houston in the
   first place.

  But it sure as hell looked like him. "Szabo?" Joe ventured
  tentatively.

  The spectre held its arms wide and grinned.  "In the protoplasm!
  Hey, Joey, nice digs you got here.  Very neo-modern, very you."  The
  Ought-Not-Be-Szabo turned slowly, surveying the room.

  "You're dead," Joe pointed out helpfully.

  "I am.  You always were a sharp detective, Joey. Hey, is that thing
  real?"  He headed towards something over by the far wall.  Joe
  couldn't tell what he was looking at.

  "What thing?" 'That's right LaFiamma,' Joe told himself. 'Humor the
  nice ghost.'

  "The rifle, is it real?  I mean, not a replica?" Szabo was staring
  intently into the dark corner. Apparently ghosts could see in the
  dark.  Well, why wouldn't they?

  "As far as I know, it's real. It's my partner's." Joe froze; Szabo had
   been his partner as well and it seemed... rude somehow to refer to
   someone else by that title while talking to him. Even if it was the
   person who meant more to him than anything.

  "Very nice.  Ask him if I can borrow it sometime?" Szabo went back to
  surveying the living room.

  Joe blinked. "Hate to keep pointing this out but you're dead."

  "Yeah?  You got something against dead guests?  I can understand you
  not offering me any of the cider," he indicated the two mugs Joe and
  Levon had left sitting on the floor by the couch.  "But you'd think
  I'd at least be welcome?"  Szabo shook his head, and stopped at the
  tree. "Hey!  This is the one I gave you."

  "Course it is. What - you thought I'd throw it away? I *told* you I
   was going to add it to the LaFiamma traditional tree decorations..."
   Joe closed his mouth abruptly, as he remembered yet again he was
   talking to a ghost.

  Szabo smiled, obviously touched.  "That's nice, Joey. That's really
   nice.  I'm glad you put it up."  He looked wistful for a moment,
   then seemed to shake himself and changed mental gears.  Or the
   ghostly equivalent. "Right.  So.  You ready?"

  "For what?" Joe asked cautiously, feeling a tendril of anxiety run
   down his spine. He arms tightened around Levon's still sleeping
   form.

  "For what? Joe, don't you ever read?  I'm a ghost of your dead,
  former partner.  It's almost Christmas.  Sound familiar yet?"

  He frowned. "Szabo, I've never said 'Bah, humbug!' in my life."

  Szabo shrugged.  "Hey, I got my assignment.  'Go see your old
  partner,' they told me.  'Tell him about the spirits.'  So here I am.
  Joey, you will be visited by three spirits, tonight.  You know the
  drill - ten o'clock, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock.  Hey, can I have
  some of that fudge before I go?"

  "Can ghosts eat?"

  "Never tried.  But I always loved fudge and I can't see you having
  store-bought stuff on Christmas...."

  Joe resisted the urge to point out again the Szabo was dead and that
  dead people normally did not eat fudge. Instead he waved a hand
  toward the plate. "Help yourself."

  "Thanks."  Szabo took a couple pieces, and held them carefully in his
  hand.  "Nice seeing you, Joey.  Hope things turn out all right."

  Then the ghost faded -- as did the two pieces of fudge.
  
    For a long time after Szabo had disappeared, Joe laid there
      trying to convince himself it was all a dream. It *had* to be a
	dream. The alternative was just too unbelievable. He ignored the
	voice in his head that whispered, 'And centaurs aren't?'  He was
	still arguing with himself when he fell back asleep.
    
	Bells woke him.  Chiming bells.  As he raised his head -- Levon was
	still sound asleep in his arms -- he looked around.  Since when
	were there bells in the house? A young female ghost smiled back at
	him.
    
	Joe closed his eyes, counted to ten, and opened them again.
    
	Nope, still there.
    
	"Hi."  She waved from across the room.  She looked like.. well,
	like you'd expect the tooth fairy to look like.  Sort of a cross
	between a fairy and an angel -- wings, white gown, long curly brown
	hair. She was standing beside the tree, and the multi-coloured
	lights reflected off her wings and gown, making her sparkle.  It
	was a nice effect, actually. 
	
	Now if only she weren't transparent....
    
	She seemed to waiting for him to say something. "Uh, hi," he
	replied dubiously. "I take it you're a... uh..."
    
	"Spirit.  Of Christmas Past.  Szabo told you I was coming, didn't
	he?"  She looked a little uncertain.
    
	"Yeah, he did. I just thought..." He let his voice trail off.
	Somehow explaining that he had thought Szabo was just a figment of
	him imagination to what he was half sure was *another* figment of
	his imagination seemed a bit rude.
    
	"Good!  Let's go!" She grinned enthusiastically, holding out her
	hand.
    
	Joe didn't move to take it. "Go where?"
    
	She rolled her eyes slightly.  "Didn't he brief you at *all*?  We
	have to go visit the Christmases of the past.  We only have an hour
	-- Rupert will be here at eleven."
    
	"Rupert." Joe repeated slowly.
    
	"Spirit of Christmas Present.  Joe?  Aren't you coming?"  She
	frowned slightly, and looked worried.  Unfortunately for Joe, her
	frown was of the 'cute little girl' variety.  Put a kitten in her
	arms and she'd be deadly.
    
	Trouble meowed.
    
	He quickly reached out and took the spirit's hand. The last thing
	he needed was for the cat to get into the act. As soon as he
	touched her hand, the living room disappeared.  Hazy fog swirled
	around them, then re-formed into a house.  A very familiar-looking
	house. 
	
	Home.

    Not home as in the Chicago Levon and he had just got back from
	Visiting, but the home of his youth. The house he had grown up in.
	The house that no longer existed. 
	
	The Spirit, still holding his arm, walked towards the house.  The
	snow was piled up nearly a foot high in the yard.  Remnants of a
	small snowman could be seen near the sidewalk.  The wind was
	blowing, and in the streets headlights and taillights reflected off
	the windows. She took him up to a large window and peered inside.

    Joe also looked through the window, not without a good deal of
	trepidation. The living room was decorated and brightly lit, just
	the same as he remembered it looking every Christmas. Currently
	the room was empty.

    "Come on," the spirit said, and tugged his hand again.  Suddenly
	they were inside. The living room was almost exactly as he
	remembered it.  He blinked.

    "Momma!  Momma! Gramma says I can open one gift!"  A young boy ran
	through the room towards the kitchen.

    Joe froze. "Th-that's me!"

    "Yes, Joe."  She sounded like a proud kindergarten teacher.  They
	heard young Joey call out again.

    "Momma! Momma, come on!"  Soon the boy had his mother by the hand,
	bringing her into the living room.  As they watched, a man and an
	older woman -- Gramma -- joined them.  Joey was jumping up and
	down, unable to contain his excitement.

    Gramma held out a small box.  "This is the one you can open, Joey."

    Joey ran forward, and as he grabbed for it she said, "Be careful
	with it." Immediately he was handling it with exaggerated care.

    Joe felt a lump form in his throat as he watched the three adults
	-- all of whom he'd loved and lost years ago -- watch his younger
	self open the gift. He knew what was in the package, remembered
	this moment vividly. What he hadn't remembered, because at the time
	he had been too caught up in the act of unwrapping, was the joy and
	love on his parents' and grandmother's faces as they watched him.
	That was the cause of the lump of emotion that was making it hard
	for him to speak or swallow.

    "Isn't it wonderful?"  The Spirit sounded as moved as he felt.
	They watched silently then, as Joey removed the gift from its box
	and held it up.  A clear, glass centaur.

    "Isn't that lovely?" his mother exclaimed.  Joey looked up at his
	mom, then his gramma.

    "It's a cen-aur, isn't it?" His eyes were wide, as he watched the
	ornament spin slowly.

    Joe watched as his grandmother smiled. "Yes, Joey, it is. Since you
	liked the stories I told you so much I thought you might like to
	have a centaur of your very own."

    Joey continued staring at the centaur for a moment, then looked up
	eagerly.  "Can I hang it on the tree?"

    "Of course, Joey."  His gramma answered.  Joey got to his feet and
	headed for the tree -- his father was behind him, and helped him
	find a spot to hang it so it would not fall. From where Joe and
	the Spirit were standing, they could hear what the younger Joey had
	not.

    "Mom, isn't that your grandmother's ornament?" The older woman
	nodded, smiling. "It's a rather special thing to give to a
	six-year-old boy, mom."
    
	The woman patted her daughter on the arm.  "It's all right. Joey'll
	take good care of it.  Grandad would have wanted him to have it,
	the way he takes after centaurs so.  Grandad would have loved to
	see how Joey likes his stories."
    
	Young Joey interrupted them then by running over and begging for
	"just one cen-aur story" before bed. Joe and the Spirit watched as
	Joey and his gramma went upstairs, leaving his parents alone by the
	fire.  They could hear Joey asking loudly for the story of the
	Silly centaur.
    
	The Spirit turned and gave him a smile.  "Now...."
	
	They vanished.
 
  Everything went black for a brief second, and when his vision cleared
  Joe found himself standing on the edge of a field. He blinked and
  looked closer. A very familiar field.
 
 He turned to the Spirit who was standing beside him with a small smile
 on her face. "This -this is Levon's home. The centaurs' land."
 
 "Why so it is.  Come on, they're over this way."  She giggled a bit,
  and led him around a small rise.  The centaurs were gathered more or
  less in a bunch -- spread out over quite an area, but Joe could tell
  they had gathered for something.  Among the legs of the adults he
  could see the children running around. They were laughing and yelling
  at each other, and the whole scene looked and sounded happy.
 
 A loud whoop drew Joe's attention to a small group of the youngest
 children racing down the length of the field. There, neck in neck
 for the lead with another youngster, was Levon.
 
 Joe found his eyes glued to the child who would grow up to be his
   partner. Without realizing it, he stepped forward, Levon's name on
   his lips. Even if he hadn't had the memory of meeting Levon that one
   summer, he would have recognised his partner.  Golden hair, tan
   coat, and, most of all, that gleeful grin of excitement all looked
   exactly the same.  With a grin, Joe realised it was that the older
   Levon merely still looked like a colt.
 
 The kids reached the end of the field and turned, racing pell-mell
  back towards their grown-ups. As Joe watched, Levon ran straight into
  a strange mare's arms.  Joe started.  Levon's mother. It was clear
  that that was who the woman was -- the resemblance between her and
  her son was uncanny. Same hair, same eyes, same warm smile. Joe found
  himself smiling as she lifted and swung her son around, Levon's
  laughter ringing like music across the field.
 
  "Momma! Momma! I almost won!" Levon shouted.
 
  Similiar cries were being echoed throughout the herd, as the children
  told their elders who won, who almost won, and who ran really fast
  anyhow.
 
  As they watched, a much younger Taylor moved through the groups,
  gathering everyone's attention.  Soon the herd had gathered into a
  tighter bunch, all facing Taylor.  The stallion smiled and raised a
  hand.

  "Today is the third day of the Yule.  The winter is mild this year
  and as such we have reason to be thankful. Tonight we will feast and
  celebrate! This year, as our children have requested, we will observe
  a new tradition -- rather, borrow an old one from our neighbors.  We
  will be celebrating Christmas.  So -- the story-telling will begin
  early tonight, so the young ones may be well asleep by the time their
  Santa comes!"
 
  Taylor looked over his herd fondly, smiling as the kids erupted into
  new chattering bursts of excitement.
 
  "His first Christmas," Joe murmured as he watched Levon babbling to
   his mother, trying to explain all he knew about the holiday and
   Santa to her.
 
  "Yes.  Aren't they cute at this age?"  She grinned at him.
 
   Joe continued to watch the interaction between mother and son. "He
   really did love her."
 
  "Of course he did." The Spirit answered, sounding a little puzzled.
  It was obvious, as Levon took his mother's hand and led her through
  the crowd to another mare's side, beside whom the young colt who'd
  won the race was standing.  The two young mothers listened as the
  boys retold the race -- complete with hand gestures, demonstrating
  the slope of the land in spots and the way each had jockeyed for the
  lead.
 
  Each time Levon looked up at his mother, Joe could see his eyes grow a
  little wider, and each time his mother spoke to him, he smiled.
 
  "He's always downplayed his feelings for her, said it didn't hurt when
   she died." Joe shrugged rather self consciously. "I guess somehow I
   translated that into not loving her -- at least not the way a human
   child loves his mother."
 
  "He loves her very much," the Spirit said unnecessarily.  "But his
  life here is filled with so much love, that when he loses her he will
  not be lost.  His heart will soon be filled, almost as much as it is
  now, with those around him."
 
  The Spirit waved her hand towards the two centaurs, and then she
  turned.  The fields vanished and were replaced with the living room.
 
  "Is that it?" Joe asked. He turned and looked down at the adult
  version of his lover sleeping peacefully, one arm outstretched as if
  searching for something. Or someone.
 
  "No.  Soon you will be visited by the Spirit of Christmas Present.
  I'd get in a cuddle before he comes, if I were you."
 
  With a small sparkle, she disappeared.
 
  Joe stood where he was for one moment, trying to convince himself that
   what he'd seen hadn't been real. Or that it had. He wasn't sure. But
   Levon's sleeping form soon distracted him, and with a sigh he took
   the Spirit's advice, joining his lover on the couch for a cuddle.
 
  He had barely closed his eyes when someone cleared his throat.  He
  opened one eye.

  A man stood behind the couch, staring down at them. A middle-aged man
  -- ghost, rather -- who looked like he ought to be selling something
  door-to-door. Joe groaned; it looked like this crazy dream wasn't
  over yet.

  "Oh, don't be that way!  You already got the hard one down.  What can
  be so bad about Spirit of Christmas Present?  You're already here!"
  Rupert reached out and jiggled Joe's arm.

  "Other than the fact that I seem to be losing my mind, talking to
   people who cannot possibly exist?"

  "What can't exist?  Since when do you know everything?  Get up
  already, we got things to do and people to walk through." The Spirit
  spoke with a New York accent -- which suburb, Joe didn't know.

   With a weary sigh, Joe gave in to the inevitable, gently disentangling
   himself from his lover and standing. The sooner this dream ran its
   course, the sooner he'd wake up back in the real world. With a
   satisfied grunt of approval, the Spirit took Joe by the arm and lead
   him through the living room wall.

  They emerged in the field again.

  'Didn't I just leave here?' Joe found himself thinking. At first
   glance the scene was the same as it had been when he'd visited with
   Spirit of Christmas Past. It was only when they got close enough to
   differeniate faces that the changes became apparent. The children
   from before were now the adults, the adults from before were now the
   elders.

  He spotted Shensen, running around various sets of legs to stop at
  his mother's side.  As they drew even closer, they could heard the
  young colt talking. "And they're gonna take me to the TOY STORE!"
  The colt said it with huge eyes, as if he had never before done such
  a thing.  Which, of course, he hadn't.

  Joe smiled as he realised the colt was talking about the visit he
  had spoken of -- coming to visit him and Levon, and celebrating an
  early Christmas with them. Taylor hadn't said yet whether it would be
  allowed, but apparently Shensen didn't know that.
  
   If the herd stallion vetoed the idea, Joe knew that wouldn't change
   much except the locale of the celebration. He grinned. If you can't
   bring the centaur to the toy store... The Jimmy would definitely
   hold a respectable amount of presents for Shensen and the other
   kids.
  
  Shensen's mother said much the same thing.  "If Taylor says it’s OK,
  sweetheart.  But if not, Joe and Levon will come out here."
  
  Shensen looked momentarily unhappy, then brightened. "But if he says
  yes I'll get to go to the toy store and help pick out stuff for
  everybody!  I wanna get a cowboy hat like Levon's."  The colt danced
  eagerly, and Joe made a mental note.
    
  'Got to be a Texas thing,' Joe thought with a fond smile, picturing
   just how Shensen would look in a cowboy hat. He had to admit that the
   mental picture that formed was cute though.

  "Well! That was fun.  Let's get outta this field and someplace more
  comfortable."  The Spirit looked at its wrist. The field disappeared
  -- again -- and they appeared someplace else.  A city street, one Joe
  didn't recognise.

  "Where are we now?" he asked looking around, searching for some
   familiar reference point.

  "Uh.. lemme see..." The Spirit looked around.  He pulled a small
  notebook out of a pocket, checked it, and looked around again.
  "Haven't the foggiest.  Hang on." The Spirit vanished, leaving Joe
  alone on the street.

  "Great," Joe muttered, staring out at the passing traffic. "Now I'm
   stranded. This dream just keeps getting weirder and weirder."

   It was only a few moments before the Spirit returned. "Sorry!  Got
   the right address now."

  The street faded out and was replaced by the police station.  They
  were standing between Beaumont's office and his and Levon's desks.
  Most of the other cops were gone, but Levon and the lieutenant were
  standing beside his desk.  Levon was handing over a stack of folders.
  "That's the last of them, Joanne.  Am I free to go now?"  He grinned.

  Joanne smiled back. "In a hurry, Levon?" she teased.

  His grin turned slightly shy, and he nodded.  "Joe's waitin' on me to
  help get the house decorated for Christmas.  He's been out buyin'
  stuff all morning."

  "Talked you into it, did he?"

  "Yeah.. our first year living together -- he wants to do it up big.
  Can't blame him, Christmas has been a big holiday for him all his
  life.  Sorta looking forward to celebrating it again, myself."

  "It's been... how long since you celebrated?" Joanne asked, frowning
   as she tried to count back.

  "Since I was four.  This'll be my third time celebrating."  He leaned
  back against the desk, looking partly non-chalant about it and partly
  impatient as a kid on December 23rd.

  "You never celebrated with Caroline?" The surprise in Joanne's voice
   was clear.

  Levon shook his head.  "She wasn't real religious, and she knew I
  hadn't celebrated as a kid.  So when the matter came up she said she
  didn't care...  so we never did."

   Joe recognized the expression on Levon's face when he said that; it
   was the devil-may-care one he always wore to hide how much certain
   things had hurt him.

   Joanne seemed to recognize it too. She reached out a hand and laid it
   on Levon's arm. "But you wanted to, didn't you?"

  Levon shrugged as if it truly didn't matter.  "It's just a holiday,
  Joanne.  Not even one of ours."  Again, his tone didn't quite hide
  how he felt -- not from someone who knew him.

  "But you still wanted to." She smiled and waved at him. "Go on, get
   out of here. Don't keep Joe waiting, or he might start decorating
   without you."

  "He wouldn't -- he wants me to help clean the house first."  He
  grinned, and pushed away from the desk.  As he headed out, Joe saw
  Joanne watching him leave.  The look on her face made him smile.

   A smile that widened when he heard her murmur, "Merry Christmas
   Levon. Finally."

  The Spirit clapped his hands.  "Well! Wasn't that wonderful?  Seen
  enough? We ready to go?"

  "Umm..." Before he could answer the station disappeared to be
   replaced once again with the living room.

  "Good, great, here we are safe and sound.  Been real, kid, glad to meet
  ya."  The Spirit grabbed Joe's hand, shook it once, and vanished
  in mid-shake.

   Joe stared at the spot where the Spirit had stood for a long moment.
   This time he didn't try to talk himself out of believing it had
   happened, he was too busy processing the conversation he had just
   overheard. Or imagined he overheard.

  He looked at his lover, still sleeping on the couch. Levon's third
  Christmas.  The first two he'd known about, but he'd always assumed
  his lover had celebrated the holiday when he'd gone to Mother
  Minnie's, or later with Caroline.  Third Christmas -- and the second
  had been just after his mother died.

  'And now he's celebrating it with me," Joe thought. He felt humbled
   by the thought. He made a vow to do everything in his power to make
   this Christmas as perfect for Levon as he could.

  "Am I late?"  A woman's voice came from behind him. Joe turned
  around.

  There stood an older woman, dressed rather sensibly in a wool skirt
  and thin sweater.  She looked a bit harried -- her hair was
  wind-mussed and she was checking through her pockets for something.
  She saw him watching, and asked again.  "I'm not late am I?  Spirit
  of Christmas Future -- oh! Darn, I'm not supposed to speak to you.
  Oh..."  She frowned, and clasped her hands together.

  "You're not exactly what I would've pictured..." Joe ventured
   cautiously, thinking of all the versions of A Christmas Carol he had
   seen or read over the years.

  "Oh, I-- oh dear.  I'm really not supposed to talk to you.  Would
  you..?"  She gestured for him to join her. Joe walked over, by this
  time totally bemused.

   "This isn't going to end with me staring at my own gravestone is
   it?" he ventured.

  "Oh, no, I don't think--"  She stopped herself, looked sternly at
  him and gestured again.

  Smothering a grin, he moved where he was pointed. She took him through
  the living room and towards the front door.  They went outside; she
  led him to the barn. She said nothing, merely pointed at the barn
  door.

  "In there?"

  She nodded.

   This time he did grin. Then he turned to face the barn door. The grin
   faded as he wondered what he would find on the other side. 'Only one
   way to find out,' he thought. Taking a deep breath, Joe pushed the
   door open and walked inside.

  He saw his own back.  He -- his other self -- was slowly sweeping hay
  from the middle of the barn.  The other Joe looked up, startled by
  something he'd seen, and Joe saw how old he was.  Must be nearly 60,
  he realised. 60.  That meant Levon was... He spun around and
  demanded, "Where's Levon?"

  The Spirit didn't answer.

   Joe closed his eyes. He didn't want to see this part of his future.
   He knew it was coming, had known since that first trip to the
   centaur ranch that the day would come when he'd lose Levon to time,
   but that didn't mean he liked or accepted it. And he most certainly
   didn't need a preview.

  "Levon..."  The older Joe chuckled.  Surprised, Joe opened his eyes
  and watched as his older self leaned over and picked up a box.  It
  was wrapped in Christmas paper and decorated with a large silver bow.
  Joe held it, glanced towards the house with a smile on his face, and
  leaned the broom against the stall.

  They watched as he opened the present.  Joe couldn't see what was
  inside, but whatever it was made him -- the other him -- laugh.  He
  pulled out a note and they heard him read it aloud.

  "Put this on, take everything else off and come back inside."

  The older Joe stared into the box.

   The younger Joe stared at his counterpart. Levon was still alive?
   And, considering the note, obviously not too infirmed. He felt a
   surge of relief at the knowledge.

   Not to mention a healthy dose of curiousity about what was in the
   box. He started to move forward, but the Spirit held him back.

  "What?" he asked it irritably. "I was just going to-"

  She held him firmly, and the older Joe left the barn, holding the box
  such that Joe couldn't see in it as he passed.  The look on the
  older man's face made Joe's mind whirl.  That look of expectation, and    
  arousal...

  Nope, not too infirmed at all.

  The Spirit saw his face, and smiled.  She nodded, and waved him to
  follow her again.

  With one last look at his older self's retreating form, he did so.

  She led him towards the house, and as they entered he saw it was the
  present-day living room again.

  "So what was that about?" he asked, turning to the Spirit. "What has
   any of this been about?"

  She looked surprised, then slightly guilty.  She smiled, and said
  nothing. A second woman appeared beside her, told her she could go,
  then faced Joe.

  "And you would be- who?" he asked. "Past, Present and Future have all
   been spoken for..." He let a little bit of his exasperation creep
   into his tone.

  "Hi, I'm Grace."  She held out her hand, her demeanour all-business.
  Friendly, but all-business. "I'm the Spirits' supervisor."

  "Supervisor," Joe repeated slowly, absently shaking her hand while he
   did so.

  "Yes.  I'd like to thank you for letting us practise on you.  It
  takes so much to get new Spirits trained--"

  "Practice?" Joe realized he was starting to sound like a parrot, but
   didn't seem to be able to help it.

  "Er, yes."  At this she looked a little apologetic. "They're rookies
  -- you didn't need the warnings we typically send Spirits for.
  Surely you noticed...?"

  "The lack of doom and gloom and dire consequences?"

  "Yes," she nodded briskly.  "You really were an excellent vic-  er,
  client.  We'd like to thank you."

  "Thank me?"

  "For letting us, well, use you as a guniea pig.  I'm authorized to
  offer you something in return." 
  
  Joe was silent for a moment as he absorbed that. "Like what?"

  "Information.  Save your money throughout the upcoming year.  You
  should be able to buy nearly ten acres of Turnstien's property next
  December."

  "You mean he's going to...?"

  "Yes.  His land will go up for sale.  I understand you were wanting
  some more space to run around in?"  She smiled.

  "Ummm, yeah," Joe answered, still more than a little stunned.

  "Thanks again, Joe.  You've been really great about all this.  Merry
  Christmas."  She began to fade.

  Joe thought of something. "Grace!" he called to the fading Spirit.

  She faded back in.  "Yes?"

  "Two questions."

  "All right.  I'll listen, but I can't guarantee I can answer."

  "Just what was in that box in the future?"

  She smiled.  "And your other question?"

  "You wouldn't happen to have any hot stock tips for the coming year
   would you?"

  This time she mock-glared at him.  When Joe smiled sheepishly, she
  smiled.  "I'll give you a hint on the first question.  Levon already
  has one."

  With that, she disappeared.

  "Big help that is," he muttered, then his eyes fell on his sleeping
   lover and all his annoyance disappeared. 'A centaur of my very own,'
   he thought, remembering his grandmother's words. 'Grandma you had no
   idea... Or did you?"

  He went over and gave Levon a gentle kiss.  The motion woke him, and
  he sat up, looking around sleepily.

  "Wha--?"

  "We fell asleep on the couch. Thought you'd might like to move to the
   bed." Joe smiled and ran a hand through Levon's blonde hair.

  Levon smiled.  "Sounds like a good idea.  Be nice to get some of
  these clothes off, too."  Levon stood up, swaying slightly.  He
  hadn't woken up fully, as there was obviously no reason to do so.

   Joe reached out and steadied him. "Try not to fall over," he teased
   as they made their way to the bedroom.

  "Try not to push me over," Levon teased back.  He walked more
  steadily to the bedroom, but fell over quickly onto the bed.  He
  rolled onto his back to watch Joe undress.

  For a long moment Joe didn't move, just stared down at his lover.

  "Well? Didn't you say we were going to bed?"

   He shook himself out of his reverie and began to undress. "Yeah." His
   eyes however never left Levon's face. "I love you," he said
   suddenly.

  "Love you too," Levon repeated, with a note of confusion in his
  voice.

   Joe smiled as he finished undressing and joined Levon on the bed. "I
   had a weird dream," he explained. "Reconfirmed some things for me.
   Like I've been looking for you my whole life. And I don't ever want
   to spend another Christmas without you. Oh, and that we should get
   Shensen a hat like yours."

  Levon grinned -- the perplexed look that had grown during Joe's
  recital vanished.  "Should we?  You saw this in your dream?"  He
  helped Joe start removing his own clothes.
  
    Joe's smile in return was a little self-conscious. "Well yeah. Among
	other things."

  "Like looking for me all your life?"  Levon's tone was soft, as he
  finished undressing.  He reached up and touched Joe's face.  "I love
  you, too."

  "I know," Joe whispered, then leaned over and kissed his lover
   gently.

  They crawled into bed and pulled the covers over them.  Outside, the
  night sky was filled with stars. Three, in particular, seemed to
  twinkle a little more brightly.

  That is, until a voice was heard saying, "OK, now we're going to
  review your performances."

  The End