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 made things easier.
Levon had looked at him a little oddly, but when Joe said they were going to do it, Levon nodded and did. It wasn't even 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 this time 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 all 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 with you getting 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. "It's gorgeous. 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 Mythology? 'Cause I should warn you, most of those ain't accurate." He gave Joe a cheerful wink.
"She told me those, but she told me others too, stuff I've never seen written down anywhere. Those were always my favourites. You know, centaur heros and adventurers and stuff."
Levon's eyes grew even wider, and he was obviously pleased. "Did 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 had gone wide with pleasure, 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 really 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 collection of LaFiamma 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 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.
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.
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 -- Joey's Gramma -- joined them. Joey was jumping up and down, unable to contain his excitement.
His 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..."
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 just that the older Levon still looked like a colt, especially when he was grinning mischeviously.
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."
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, Joe knew, 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, from Levon's childhood, 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 dramatically.
"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.
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, but 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."
"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?"
"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.
"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 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."