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Something to Share

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To all concerned:

24.12.12

Meet: Studio Office. 19:00 hours prompt.

Please bring something to share.

A. Freeman

Lt. Johnson

Ayshea looked at the neat card again, and frowned. Tomorrow night. Something to share. She wasn’t that good at baking, and besides, her small flat didn’t have much in the way of a decent kitchen even if she felt capable of making anything extravagant. She ran through numerous options in her mind before rejecting them all for one reason or another. The worry gnawed at her all evening, tainting her dreams and leaving her tired and jaded. She felt thick and muzzy-headed in the morning and still had no answer to her problem.

‘Good morning Ayshea.’ Miss Ealand, as immaculate as ever, tilted her head as she regarded the young communications officer. ‘Are you coming down with something? You look a little tired today. Not like you at all.’

Ayshea sighed. ‘I haven’t any idea what to bring tonight. Everything is either too difficult or I don’t have the right stuff and I really wanted to make something instead of buying it. It seems like cheating really to just get something from Marks and Spencers. I suppose I'll end up doing that in the end.’ .

‘Why didn’t you say something? Just give me a moment.’ Commander Straker’s elegant secretary tapped her pen on the notepad in front of her then smiled. ‘Right. Leave it to me. I have time today to get everything you need. And don’t worry. These are easy, and I happen to know that Colonel Freeman is particularly partial to them.’

Ayshea picked up the carrier bag from Miss Ealand’s office late that afternoon. Lt Johnson had always held the Commander’s secretary in something akin to awe, and it was something of a shock to the young officer that the super efficient and perfect woman who organised Ed Straker’s dual life with such precision actually needed to shop at such a prosaic place as Waitrose.

She placed the bag on the seat of her small Citroen. Time enough to explore the contents when she got home.

Miss Ealand had typed out the detailed instructions; more evidence, if needed, of her competence. Ayshea tipped the contents out onto the small work surface in her tidy kitchen. Chocolate, sugar, butter, and so on, even a box of small paper sweet cases in Christmas colours.

She made herself a mug of coffee and sat down to read through the concise and yet perfectly adequate instructions.


Fudgy Chocolate Cups (this is my mother’s recipe so it is in Imperial measures)

(oh, and Alec really likes these, so the recipe is for twice the usual amount)

10 oz of plain chocolate

4 oz butter

Six drops of vanilla essence ( you can add one dessertspoon of whisky instead if you have any )

12oz can of condensed milk

8oz of icing sugar

2 level tablespoons of cocoa.


It was warm in the kitchen and she put some music on while she worked, hating the silence of the flat. The chocolate was chopped into chunks and placed in a bowl over hot water to melt along with the butter. Then, once that was melted and she had removed it from the bowl of hot water, she added the vanilla essence, remembering how she had once used her mother’s vanilla essence as a cheap perfume, when she was younger. Her boyfriend had nuzzled her neck and told her she smelled good enough to eat. But that was a long time ago, or so it seemed and nowadays she wore much more expensive perfumes. She was hoping for some of that new Chanel Noir this year from Alec. But she sniffed the essence, smiling at the memories it brought to her.

The condensed milk was another old favourite, especially poured onto ice-cream, but she resisted the temptation to eat it straight from the tin. Instead she stood there, stirring it into the chocolate and butter, then sifting the icing sugar and cocoa powder into the creamy mixture. It was satisfying beating the mixture together, watching the icing sugar and cocoa turn the mixture into a thick, velvety consistency.

She took her time filling the small paper cases with the mixture, and it had begun to stiffen before she had finished, so, with the memory of making chocolate truffles when she was younger, she scooped up the remains of the stiffening mixture in small spoonfuls and rolled it into balls between her slender hands, before placing each one into a paper case. A dusting of icing sugar and they were done.

She would have to get Miss Ealand something special as a thank you for helping her out. Perhaps a bottle of wine, or flowers might be better.

She slipped the tray of sweets into the fridge to chill while she went to get ready.



Miss Ealand

Mince Pies. He had always appreciated her mince pies, even though he never made any comment when she brought some in. He would sit there in the studio office and eat a couple with his coffee. So, mince pies it would be. She hadn’t made any so far this year, hadn’t actually felt in the right mood, but, well, she had to do it sometime.

Hands washed and apron on, she set about clearing the marble worktop in her kitchen to make the shortcrust pastry.

8 ounces of plain flour, 4 ounces of butter, and a sprinkle of sugar for sweet pastry. She wondered if she should write the recipe out one day in metric, but her scales were old-fashioned and had brass Imperial weights. Well, not her scales really. She still thought of them as her mother’s property. Reaching for the cornflour, a trick that she had learned so many years ago, she put a large tablespoon into the pan of the scales before making up the rest of the weight in plain flour. ‘Shortcrust pastry.’ She could hear her mother saying. ‘Always better with some cornflour in it.’ And it was she had to admit. Much shorter and flakier. Perhaps that was what he liked about her mince pies. The pastry. She was making more than a dozen so she would need to weigh out enough before setting to work.

It was almost like an exercise in meditation, weighing out the flour, then sifting it in soft drifts into the glass mixing bowl. She had bought the bowl for her mother just three years ago; was it really only three years, but it had never been used and she had found it hidden away afterwards when she was clearing out the house.

There was no need to rush, and so she took her time; enjoying the gentle action of rubbing the butter into the flour, lifting it, letting it trickle down again in fine crumbs, her fingers moving almost sensually through the soft mixture, letting the monotonous rhythm soothe her thoughts and memories.

Childhood, and standing in the family kitchen helping to sift flour and cut butter into chunks, rolling out pastry and cutting shapes. And then the delight of sifting icing sugar over hot mince pies as they cooled on the old wire racks. She had one of her mother’s racks here, in her kitchen, but it was too ingrained with years of neglect and disuse to use. There had been very little that she had brought with her from the family home once it had been sold and needed emptying. The scales and the mixing bowl that she had bought for her mother. The furniture was old and shabby and the few mementoes that had remained had gone with her mother to the nursing home. The dinner service, once her mother’s pride and joy, was cracked and chipped, the few glasses that remained were mismatched and had…. memories, so Miss Ealand had been content to simply have the bowl and the rack and the scales. They were happy memories of a childhood long over.

She added water to the fine crumbs of flour and butter, just a tablespoon at a time, until it had made a soft dough, then she put it in to the fridge to chill while she had a quick shower and washed her hair.

Coming downstairs afterwards she picked up the phone to call the nursing home and see how her mother was doing today. A coward’s way really. She should have made the effort to go but the sight of the shambling old woman who didn’t recognise her was always painful.

But something made her hesitate. Some last vestige of sympathy that was hiding there in the dark recess of her past, that had survived despite all that had happened to her. And with a sudden rush of love that had eluded her for so long she went into the kitchen to pull the chilled pastry from the fridge. Yes, there would be enough, and she had time to spare.

Smiling to herself she rolled the pastry out on her marble workboard, flouring it and turning it with that expertise that can only be gained from years of practise. When it was thin enough she cut out neat rounds, placing them into the patty tins, glad that she had sufficient to make thirty-six, then spooning the rich fruit mixture into the pastry cases and resisting the temptation to lick her fingers. At last they were ready; small pastry lids on top, a quick brush of beaten egg and then into the oven. Time to get ready.

The nursing home Doug had recommended last year was brightly lit and welcoming, decorated and cheerful, and the staff were pleased to see her, even though she hadn’t been for some time. But it didn’t matter. She was here now. And somehow she thought that her mother, despite not recognising her and despite her confusion, was glad to have a visitor and Miss Ealand smiled as she chatted to the old lady who had taught her how to make shortcrust pastry so many years ago, and they shared the half-dozen, still warm, mince pies that she had brought with her.


Doug Jackson

Doug pulled up outside the row of delicatessens, and glanced around, looking out for any traffic wardens prowling the small side street. He had forgotten about tonight until Colonel Freeman reminded him at lunch time, an unusual oversight, although he could put the error down to the volume of work the Psycho-analytical department had been tasked with after recent UFO activity. Whatever, he was here now and he pushed open the door of the shop, relieved to see that there were no other customers. He might get away before someone noticed his car parked on the restricted zone.

He emerged from the shop a few minutes later, dropped the carrier bag on the passenger seat and drove away, hoping Chris would finish work in time to join him. If not, he would enjoy himself anyway. These events were always fascinating to attend. The psychologist in him enjoyed analysing the behaviour of the staff when out of their normal environment, and it was also a chance to relax and unwind, to forget work for a while, although he would be monitoring stress levels closely over the coming days. Christmas was difficult on some people, particularly the single men.

He put the bag on the table in the kitchen, turned the oven on to heat up and went to shower. He had plenty of time to prepare his contribution for the evening. It was just a matter of rolling out the pastry and grating the cheese. Nothing to it.

The kitchen was warm by the time he returned, and he started work straight away, unwrapping the shop-bought ready rolled puff pastry, his fingers dusting the surface of the granite slab with flour before cutting the square into two neat rectangles. He took a moment to cover a baking tray with baking paper, easier than greasing he always found. Then it was a thick sprinkle of grated cheddar cheese and a thinner one of parmesan over the surface of the pastry. He peeled apart tissue-thin slices of parma ham purchased along with the rest of the ingredients, laying them in neat lines over the cheese, then rolling the strips of pastry from one long side to the other, making two rolls. He cut each roll into precise one centimetre slices and laid each spiral of pastry and ham and cheese on the baking trays. Into the oven. He checked the temperature. Gas Mark 6. Just under 20 minutes. His phone rang.

'Yesss.' He drawled the word, expecting bad news, an urgent call back to his office, especially after the last three days.

It was Chris on the other end, sounding frazzled. 'Sorry, not going to get home before midnight. Things happening. Straker's on his way back now so we'll be here till late.'

'No problem. I'll be waiting up for you. Be careful on the roads, it's treacherous out there.'

'Stop fussing.' The words were stern but Jackson could hear laughter in the voice. 'I'll see you later.'

Doug put the phone down, feeling a little guilty about the lie. Straker had given his approval to the relationship a couple of months ago and had not mentioned it since. Jackson wondered how many other people knew about Chris. If he was right about Straker, the answer would be none. It would be interesting to see the reactions tonight, very interesting. He let one finger slide over his lips, recalling the touch of Chris's lips on his. Tonight.

He went upstairs to get ready. Casual trousers, loose shirt, loafers. A splash of cologne. The one Chris had bought the other week despite his protests. And he had to admit, it was pleasant. A change from the smell of alcohol handwash that seemed to hang around even after a shower. And there was the face balm as well. Another new sensation. If he was not careful something might be said at work. He dressed with the same fastidiousness he used in all his tasks, fastening buttons with care, ensuring that the collar of his shirt was neat. The timer in the kitchen rang and he hurried down to take the pastries from the oven, sliding them onto a rack to cool for a few moments before putting them in a box to transport. He drank a glass of milk, lining his stomach as he always advised people, and then it was out to the car.

He hoped the evening would be successful, not just for him and Chris, but for Straker as well.


Ed Straker

No point in parking the car in the garage, he had only come back for a bath, a change of clothes and to get something to eat. It was going to be a long hard night: Moonbase on full alert with solar flares due later this evening and the medical department running the last tests on the alien corpse discovered three days ago. It was a relief to get away though, even for an hour. He was upstairs, about to run the water when he remembered. Damn. The garden was wreathed in snow, and it would be dusk in an hour. He hurried downstairs; there was still time, he would have a quick shower instead, even though he ached.

He took the knife down from its holder and then got out the bread from a couple of days ago. It was always better to use a loaf that was older for breadcrumbs. It would be a rush job but he knew how important it was, tonight. They were relying on him. Sometimes he felt the responsibility was overwhelming, the knowledge that yet more lives depended on his actions, his dependability. But he hadn’t let them down so far. They trusted him not to let them down.

He could have reduced the bread into crumbs far quicker in the food processor that was languishing at the back of a cupboard, under a slight layer of dust. But, looking at his watch he realised that there was time to do the job properly. He did not need to be back for another half-hour. Moonbase was as ready as it could be, and he could do nothing until the flares cut communications. The butcher’s board was a couple of inches thick and white with use. It was a soothing task, holding the heavy French knife, the steel blade a precise counter-balance to its thick handle. He laced his fingertips over the point, chopping down in brisk strokes over the chunks of bread, strong wrists moving the knife in even arcs until the bread was reduced to fine scraps.

Satisfied at last he swept the crumbs into a large earthenware bowl, before placing it to one side. He dusted the last shards of bread from his fingers and with deft movements lifted down a heavy saucepan from the rack, setting it on the smaller rings on the gas hob. The full size fridge, well-stocked and organised, yielded a recent purchase; a large block of suet, unopened.

He removed the grease-proof wrapper, tossing it into the bin, before slicing the block into cubes and tipping them into the waiting saucepan. Almost without looking he reached across to flick a wooden spoon from the caddy where he kept his most-used utensils and, as the suet melted into pools of clear warm fat, he stirred it, the tension in his body disappearing as the simple action relaxed his mind.

He could have stayed there all evening, working in his kitchen, but it was getting late and he would have to hurry if it was going to be ready in time. With a slight sense of regret he poured the warm liquid over the breadcrumbs then paused, looking at the clear sky outside. It was going to be a bitterly cold night.

The corner cupboard surrendered its contents to his probing examination. Sultanas, oats, ground almonds, even a packet of sunflower seeds. He added generous handfuls of each to the breadcrumbs, stirring them in, one hand holding the edge of the chipped earthenware bowl. A frown crossed his brow. What else? He nodded and opened the fridge once more to raid the shelves. There was a small block of mild white cheddar, unused, behind fresh organic Brie and Cashel Blue. Excellent. He grated the bland cheese straight into the mixture, added a final couple of handfuls of flour and stirred it one last time.

Perfect. He couldn’t go out like this and so he headed into the utility room, changing his shoes and finding an old winter coat. The path to the end of his garden was well trodden despite the snow but now wearing thick boots he had no fear of slipping on hidden ice.

His hands, carrying the bowl, were bare and the winter frost ate its way inside the thick waxed jacket. At the bottom of the garden he stopped under the slight shelter of the oak tree, its skeletal branches edged with frozen snow.

Long fingers reached into the earthenware bowl and scooped up a handful of the contents. He rolled it into a neat ball before placing it on the bird table with a sigh of satisfaction. He was in time. In another twenty minutes it would start to darken, and then they would not feed. With slow, unthreatening movements he finished distributing the food in lower nooks of the lower tree branches, on the table, in the bird feeders that were scattered about at this end of his sanctuary and even crumbling a few handfuls to scatter at his feet.

His job done at last, apart from one small morsel left clinging to the bottom of the old earthenware bowl. He scraped it out, held it in his fingertips and, arm outstretched, waited, a statue under the tree. No-one watching him, wondering what he was doing out there in the snow and why he was not inside in the warmth of his house.

A movement. He would have smiled, but that was not part of the unwritten agreement. He had to remain still. So, arm stiff, eyes alert and body motionless. It had to be like this.

And then, with that almost inaudible flurry and rustle that enthralled him every time, it appeared. Black eyes stared at him, looked around checking for danger and then in one swift flutter of wings it darted across the gap between the hedge and where Straker waited and landed with faultless precision on his outstretched thumb. It was so light, so delicate that it was only the sight of it that convinced Straker that the bird was actually grasping his hand with its gossamer thin feet. He breathed slowly, relishing this moment and thrilling in the trust that had been placed in him.

A sharp beak pecked at the chunk of bird cake held between sensitive fingers. The robin was indifferent to the fact that these were the fingers of a man who had ordered the destruction of countless beings. All that concerned the creature was that here was food and survival. It ate its fill, tilted its head as if to thank its benefactor and then, ruffling its exquisite plumage it retreated to the safety of the hawthorn hedge.

Straker exhaled with a long sigh of contentment before going inside to watch for a moment as the rest of the birds came out to feed. He put the remains of last night's venison casserole in the microwave and went to shower. Tonight was going to be hard. He hoped the solar flares would ease up before morning; it was a rotten start to Christmas, necessitating a much larger presence in Headquarters than usual. He would send staff home as soon as possible, but it had put a dampener on the celebrations that were a normal part of the season.

He watched the birds finish the last scraps while he ate the casserole straight out of the bowl, then put on his overcoat and headed out to the car. Christmas Eve. With luck he might get back home before tomorrow evening, but one could never tell. At least Alec and Paul would get a decent break which was the main thing.



Paul Foster

He pulled her closer, one arm around her waist, enjoying her fragrance, her warmth. It was tempting to forget tonight, but he knew that Alec had worked hard to organise it at such short notice, and besides, Paul was looking forward to the evening. He just wondered what Straker would say.

‘Chocolate muffins? Not very Christmassy Paul.’

‘Pff. Everyone likes chocolate. And these should be easy enough.’ He buried his nose in her damp hair then nuzzled her neck.

‘Paul. Stop it. I can’t follow a recipe if you are distracting me.’

He let go and stepped back with obvious reluctance ‘Can I help at all?’

‘Yes. Keep out from under my feet,’ she turned to grin up at him, ‘and pour me a glass of red. You can drive tonight.’

‘Pff.’ But he kissed her neck again and went to find a bottle and the corkscrew..

Chocolate muffins. What on earth was Paul thinking about, expecting her to make muffins. At least she wouldn’t have to make anything herself to take. A dozen should be plenty from both of them.

‘Paul,’ she called to him, ‘where’s the sugar. I need light brown, not caster’ She read through the recipe again. Drat the man. If she didn't fancy him so much then she’d have gone home, probably via the local bakery and bought whatever that had to offer to take tonight. But Paul was, well, special. And it was nice to actually be able to talk about SHADO with a boyfriend for once.

Right, she thought, enough procrastination. Let’s get on with it. She muttered the instructions to herself . ‘Put all the ingredients together in a food mixer.’ Easy. She could do this, no problem.

Light brown sugar, 175 gms, butter, 175 gms. At least Paul had a decent kitchen, and, she thought as he handed her a glass of red, good taste in wine. A Chilean Merlot, dark and rich with just the right hints of earth. She took an appreciative slurp before turning back to the task in hand.

She frowned over the recipe again. Three eggs. Okay, that was easy as well. But that next part. That didn’t seem right. Only 150 gm of self-raising flour? Surely it should be the same as the butter? Oh well, it went in with the other stuff. Ah. Now she could see why. Drinking chocolate powder. 75 gms. And now..... what? Three tablespoons of boiling water and one tablespoon of treacle? What kind of mad recipe was this? Still, Paul had said it was his mother’s prize-winning one and who was she to argue.

A quick flick of the switch and the mixer started, blending the ingredients into a smooth rich texture.

Done. Now into the paper cases. ‘Paul. Stop that right now. I will get cake mix all over....’ and in the oven. She read the recipe again, checking the temperature; gas mark 4, 350F, 170 C. Twenty minutes. Time enough to make the fudge icing and that was simple enough. Just 50 gms each of butter, dark chocolate melted together and then two tablespoons of syrup added.

‘Paul. I said..’ she began, but his lips silenced her and then he had pulled her close once more.

‘Twenty minutes? Long enough don’ t you think?’ he murmured, fingers caressing her still damp hair before wiping away a smudge of flour from her cheek. ‘But remember, Alec wants us there on time.’

One hand moved behind her, easing over her spine inside the jeans, sliding tantalisingly down her firm roundness to squeeze in query and expectation. A soft giggle of acceptance, before he felt her fingers respond in their own exploration, lightly tracing under his sweater to tweak and play with indolent pleasure in the hair on his chest. She lifted her face to kiss him once more in a marriage of lips and tongues.

The rich smell of chocolate cake filled the kitchen, unheeded.


Alec Freeman


Alec put the boxes in the boot of his car. It was about time they had some luck. A rotten few months all considered, and everyone feeling the strain. He'd snapped at Ayshea the other day while waiting for reports from the mobile team. Stupid thing to do, but everyone was on edge, Straker no exception. Then there was the discovery of those aliens in a glacier in Norway. It had been a race to get the corpses back here before they deteriorated even more. Straker had hounded the medical team for answers, And the solar flares were the last straw. Nothing they could do about those, but it was annoying, as if even their own sun was trying to be as awkward as possible.

At least he'd managed to get this organised, though what Straker would say was anyone's guess. Knowing the man, he would frown and tell Alec it was a distraction. Which it might well be. But somehow Straker had managed to give everyone time off over Christmas even though it looked as if he would be there all night, and tomorrow if things didn't go to plan.

He parked the car and checked his watch. Ten to seven. No one else around and he began to worry, until the first headlights appeared, the vehicle moving slowly over rutted slush. He got out and stood by his own car, wondering who it was.

Miss Ealand parked next to him, and he relaxed and went to get the boxes.

'Colonel.' She had a couple of cake tins in her hands. He would have offered to carry them but his own hands were full.

'Miss Ealand.' They shared a conspiratorial smile. 'Mince pies?'

'Three dozen. I hope I've done enough.'

'So do I. Ed's a pig when it comes to your mince pies.' He pushed open the door to Reception. 'We can wait in the office for the others.'

'How many are you expecting?' She went through to Straker's studio office, empty and dark now, folders on his desk awaiting his signature, but the studio was closed for the holiday break and he had not spent any time here in recent days.

'Maybe ten if we're lucky. It's a bad night, and ..' He shrugged. Most people wanted to spend Christmas Eve with their families, although, having said that, a lot of his friends were like him, single.

'I think you might be surprised.' She put her hand on his arm. 'I'm sure the Commander will appreciate this. I know Lt Ford will. He was upset that there was nothing happening this evening.'

'I just hope Ed doesn't take it the wrong way. And we don't interrupt things.' Alec sounded worried now.

The door opened. letting Ayshea in, shaking snow flurries from her hair, Paul and his girlfriend behind her, and Alec could see other people coming. More than he had anticipated. The room filled up, people greeting each other, putting the boxes and containers they had brought with them down on any spare surface before undoing coats and pulling hats off while they waited, Doug Jackson arriving with a sense of urgency, as if he was concerned about something.

The green light on the intercom flashed. Anderson's signal that it was clear. 'Okay everyone. Time.' Alec's voice brought the soft chatter to a halt. There was a sense of expectancy, of anticipation and delight. He hoped it would last. Everything depended on the next couple of minutes.

He opened the larger of the boxes and pulled out the costume. Muffled laughter greeted his struggles to pull it over his head and then fasten the beard in place. Ayshea helped straighten the wig, then fastened the belt around his padded stomach whispering 'Suits you Colonel,' before picking up her plastic Tupperware container. Alec noticed what looked like his favourite chocolate sweets inside. He'd make sure he got to those before Ed did. He took a deep breath. Hell, what had he been thinking of when he planned this? Ed would have a fit, but it might be worth it just to see his face. He opened the cigarette box and grinning, spread one arm out and spoke in a deep sonorous voice. 'Come in, -- come in! and know me better, man! I am the Ghost of Christmas Present. Look upon me! You have never seen the like of me before!'

Paul's girlfriend snorted with laughter and Alec scowled at her in mock anger before leading the way along the corridors.

The Control room was busier than for a long time, Straker in the centre, watching everything, the constant buzz of data streams, the blips of sensors. Operatives engrossed in their work. Alec stood in the doorway and Straker turned and saw him. And froze. It all hung on this moment.
 
 Alec stepped forward, spitting strands of curly  nylon beard from his lips. 'Ho ho ho, Commander. Have you been a good boy this year?' The words echoed around the room, blotting out all other sounds.

Alec Freeman couldn't remember the last time he had seen Ed Straker struck dumb, or heard such a riot of laughter in the Control room. He stood there, waiting, half-afraid that Ed would walk away, or worse.

The laughter died down, everyone watching as well, the rest of the newcomers walking into the room to stand behind Alec.

'I... I...  Well.. .' There was a pause before Straker admitted defeat. 'Good evening Santa. Please join us.' One eyebrow lifted. 'And I hope those are mince pies in that box, Miss Ealand.'

Much later on in bed, Alec recalled the evening: the solar flares dying down to nothing soon after twenty hundred hours, Moonbase back in communication again, the Interceptors standing down from readiness, the slow sense of ease that filled the control room as food was shared, Straker relaxing for once. Alec poured non-alcoholic wine and beer, handed out  presents from his sack; nothing important, just tokens, snowstorm globes, carved jade ornaments, hand-made wooden bowls. Straker opened his parcel in silence, unwrapping the paper with as much care as if it was spun silk. He lifted out a box and opened it.

A small paperweight, nothing special, just clear glass with a lump of jagged black rock inside. Straker held it in his fingers, staring at the rock and then at Alec, a look of puzzlement on his face.

'Eleven. One of the pieces Armstrong brought back.' Alec grinned. 'I got hold of it a few months ago. Thought you'd appreciate it.'

'Damn.' Straker whispered to himself, wrapping his fingers around the weight. 'The first.' He looked up. 'Alec.'

Freeman put his hand out, clasping Straker's shoulder. 'Was going to get bourbon, but it would be wasted on you.' He nodded and walked away, leaving Straker staring down at the gift, speechless for the second time that night.

A good night, friends together, sharing the work and the pleasure. Doug disappeared at one stage, returning  with one of his lab assistants, holding her hand as if scared she might run away. Straker handed her a glass of something, ginger ale maybe, and they shared a few words before he nodded and went back to filch the last mince pie. Doug smiled and kissed the girl, Christine her name was, Alec remembered. From the Medical Department. A very attractive woman. Doug and her. Wonders would never cease, but they looked very happy.

Alec punched his pillow and tugged the duvet round his shoulders. Tomorrow was Christmas Day and it looked as if Ed would make it round for dinner. And even if he didn't, it had still been a good Christmas. The best. That was all that mattered.