Star of Wonder

An Encounter Series Festive Short Story.

Timeline: takes place in between Contact and Equinox.

Unedited and just for fun!

Warning – Contains spoilers for Contact.

Eliza

Something not a lot of people know about me is how much I love Christmas.

Perhaps because my father died (or so I thought) you would assume Christmas was a sad time but, in fact, it was quite the opposite. I loved the magic and warmth of the festive season and with my seven-year-old sister Daisy in the house, the excitement level was high.

This year my mood was extra bright because it was my first Christmas with Jack. After all the drama that had gone on with Dray, Jack’s injuries had finally healed, and we were making the most of the non-alien peace and quiet to spend some alone time alone at Ridgewood.

“Glad to see you two have finally come up for air,” Freddie said with a grin one evening when we joined him in the front room. “Meanwhile, in the real world, there’s still no sign of Dray on Earth or on Aether.”

“What about Callan?” Jack asked, as he switched on the TV.

Freddie and I exchanged a glance. Neither of us were comfortable with Jack’s desire to find Callan.

“Nothing,” Freddie mumbled.

Keen to change the subject, I looked around the front room. “So when are you guys putting up your decorations? You’re cutting it a bit close, aren’t you? It’s only a week until Christmas.”

“We’re not,” Jack said, flicking through the channels. Stopping on a football match, he curled his fingers around my waist as he settled back on the sofa, pulling me with him. “Seriously?” I said, pointing to the TV. If he thought I was spending my day off sitting here watching men kick a ball around he was mistaken. Grumbling under his breath, he carried on flicking and I smiled. Freddie sat down in the armchair, with an amused smile playing on his lips.

“So, why aren’t you decorating?” I continued.

Freddie chuckled. “You had to ask.”

Jack drew a breath. “Because Christmas is just commercialised hype. Annoying Christmas trees getting in the way and dropping pine needles everywhere, everything covered in flashing lights, inflatable Santa’s and bloody Rudolph’s everywhere you turn. And the irritating songs over and over, oh and don’t get me started on the Christmas sweaters.”

Leaning back, I asked, “Worse than Halloween and Valentine’s Day?”

“It is worse than Halloween but nothing is worse than Valentine’s Day.”

I wrinkled my nose. “I’ll look forward to February then. So, you don’t do Christmas? Like at all?”

Jack shot me the “duh” expression he did so well. “Is it really a surprise to you that aliens don’t celebrate Christmas?”

I tilted my head to the side. “No I suppose not. I just thought…well you could at least decorate. This place would look fabulous. The tree could go here and you could hang fairy lights on the bushes outside-”

“Stop,” Jack said, holding a hand up in protest. “We are not decorating.”

“Oh I don’t know, I think it might be nice,” Freddie said flashing me a cheeky grin.

“Yes!” I said clapping my hands.

Jack shook his head with disbelief and I smiled sweetly. By the time I’d finished with him he’d be wearing a Christmas jumper and singing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.

***

“Are you serious? You want me to go to a Christmas carol service?” From the way Jack spat out the words, you would think I had asked him to attend a public execution.

“Please?” I asked, fluttering my eyelashes. The past week had flown by. I had been busy working, and Christmas shopping for Daisy, Ruby and Len. Every year Ruby cooked a Christmas feast fit for a king. I helped her as much as I could, but she enjoyed fussing over everyone so wouldn’t accept any assistance most of the time.

With Freddie’s help, I had decorated Ridgewood with some old decorations and a tree I found in the back of the storeroom at Ruby’s, and it looked beautiful. Even Jack had begrudgingly admitted it looked great. Converting him was more difficult than I first thought though and I think asking him to go to the Christmas Eve carol service at the church might be a step too far.

“Please?” I tried a pout.

Jack smiled. “Don’t give me that look.”

“What look?” I asked, giving him my best innocent face.

“I told you I don’t do Christmassy stuff. Aliens and Christmas don’t mix.”

“You don’t have to be religious, or even that into Christmas. It’s just about being with the people you care about.”

Jack narrowed his eyes but didn’t reply. I was getting somewhere. “Come on, please?”

He blew out a breath. “All right fine. But I am not singing.”

***

As we followed the winding path up to Burnt Oak Methodist Church, I couldn’t help but look on in awe. Tall steeples rose from the roof of the huge ancient stone building. The colourful stained glass windows, on every wall, were lit from the inside.

Jack, Daisy and I met Ruby and Len outside and we all entered the enormous heavy wooden doors together. Inside, the candles flickered in the draft which swept throughout the chilly church.

From the expression on Jack’s face, I think he expected to burst into flames as soon as he crossed the threshold. Now he looked around with curiosity.

The service lasted a little over an hour and while Jack stuck to his word and didn’t sing (although I’m sure I heard him humming along to Silent Night), he didn’t complain and I suspected he might even have enjoyed himself a tiny bit.

Our breath came out in puffs of fog as we stepped outside into the crisp, chilly night air. I helped Daisy with her gloves and bobble hat, as we waited for Ruby and Len to say goodbye to their friends.

“Thank you for coming,” I told Jack as I snuggled up to him. “You didn’t want to, so it really means a lot to me that you did.”

“Ahh, it wasn’t so bad.” He hugged me tighter and I beamed up at him. “And if it makes you smile like that, then it was absolutely worth it.”

I felt my cheeks warm and Jack chuckled. Yep, this Christmas was shaping up to be the best.

“Eliza.” Daisy tugged on my sleeve. “Eliza, look.”

I glanced up to where she was pointing in the sky. It was a clear night and the sky was filled with stars – and one of them was moving.

“Oh my gosh,” I whispered. Jack cursed under his breath.

“A shooting star,” Daisy said her voice filled with wonder. “Do you think it’s Santa Claus?”

“Maybe.” I squeezed her hand. The knot in my stomach grew, as we watched the star fall from the sky, plummeting lower and lower until it disappeared behind the trees in the distance.

I glanced around but thankfully the remaining guests were too busy chatting and well-wishing to have noticed.

“We should check it out,” Jack said, his expression giving nothing away.

“What do you think it was? A ship?”

We guided Daisy towards Ruby and Len. “That’s about the spot where the wormhole is. But something wasn’t right,” he said.

“Apart from it shooting through the sky you mean?”

He met my gaze and I saw a trace of concern flickering in his grey eyes. “I’m not sure, it looked like it was going too fast.”

“Do you think it crashed?” I asked him in alarm.

“I don’t know, but I think we should have a look. What if…”

I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat. “What if what?” I asked.

He looked back out to the forest. “What if it’s Scarlett?”

***

We left Daisy with Ruby and Len, jumped in Jack’s car and headed towards Silver Leaf Forest. Jack called Freddie on the way. They both seemed to know the spot and Freddie said he’d meet us there.

“What about Rick? Shouldn’t you call him?”

Jack shook his head. “Not yet, I want to suss out the situation first.”

I could tell he was worried from the way he was white-knuckling the steering wheel.

It grew darker as the forest thickened. My heart thundered in my ears. We were heading into the unknown. This could be dangerous. All my instincts were screaming at me to turn back. We should be running in the opposite direction not driving straight towards it.

“Do you really think it could be Scarlett? I thought you said she wasn’t likely to be back for a few weeks.”

“I have no idea, but it was the first thing I thought when I saw the light. And we know she’s coming back. It might seem like coming to Earth is as easy as catching the number sixty-seven bus but, believe me, it’s not.”

Jack parked in a clearing and, as we followed the footpath into the trees, a shadow stepped out of the darkness.

My pulse skyrocketed. Jack’s hand clamped over my mouth just before I screamed.

“It’s me,” the figure said in a familiar voice.

“Freddie,” I softly hissed as soon as Jack let go of me. “I almost died of fright!”

Freddie smiled apologetically. “Sorry.”

“Have you found anything?” Jack asked, his face illuminated by the glow of his phone as he checked what looked like a GPS signal.

“No, I just got here,” Freddie replied.

“Do you think it’s Scarlett?” Jack asked Freddie. My heart squeezed as for a split-second he looked like a worried little boy.

Freddie shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said quietly.

We walked further into the forest with me clinging onto Jack’s arm like a scared cat to a jumper. I trusted they knew where we were going because I had lost my bearings the moment we walked into the pitch black.

“There,” Jack said suddenly.

I looked to where he pointed. As I strained my eyes, my stomach lurched. A dark lump of metal about the size of a car was lodged into the ground at a thirty-five degree angle. It was a smaller version of Dray’s ship, completely smooth but this mini-version had a windscreen running across the front. A smashed windscreen. Steam rose from the entire thing like a New York City drain.

“Oh my God,” I whispered. “Be careful,” I called as Jack and Freddie approached it. Chewing on my thumb, I watched with wide eyes as Jack pressed the side of the smooth metal. His hand shimmered with white light, illuminating the forest, and a door appeared.

“What is this thing?” I asked edging closer.

“It’s a pod,” Jack said, sticking his head inside. “The Smart car of space travel. There’s nothing here. Freddie?”

“Nope,” Freddie said coming from around the other side. “No GPS signal. But I did find a footprint. It looks fresh. It could be something.”

We continued in silence for a couple of minutes, then a rustling noise came from up ahead.

“Someone’s there,” I whispered.

My breath caught in my throat as two glowing amber eyes peered out of the darkness. Jack moved me behind him and Freddie stood next to him, closing the gap.

“Show yourself,” Jack said, his voice dangerously low.

I gripped his coat and peeked through the narrow gap between their arms, as a man emerged from the shadows. Apart from the glowing eyes he appeared human. Tall, with pale skin and messy brown hair, he couldn’t be much older than us.

He didn’t look particularly threatening to me, in fact, he looked terrified. I felt Jack’s body go ridged underneath my fingers and Freddie gave a little gasp.

“Defoli.”

***

“Defoli?” Jack repeated. He stepped forwards, confusion clouding his face.

Drawing a blank, I looked at Freddie. “Who is Defoli?” I whispered.

“The guy we were chasing when I had the crash.”

My jaw dropped. “What?”

Jack had told me that before they came to Burnt Oak Freddie had been driving, while they chased a Syonian who was wanted in Aether, and they had crashed. It had affected Freddie badly and he had only recently managed to get behind the wheel again.

“So he’s Syonian?”

Freddie nodded.

“And he’s wanted?”

“Yes.”

I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. “What for?”

“Drug trafficking.” I nodded, not brilliant but I could handle that. “And killing a Syonian guard,” Freddie added.

Oh great.

Moving in a flash, Jack grabbed the guy by his shirt and slammed him against a tree.

“What are you doing here?” he growled.

Defoli wailed. “Please! Don’t hurt me!”

“We’ve been on your tail for a long time. How did you manage to escape Aether, for the second time?” Jack demanded.

“It’s all a mistake. I was set up. Please you have to believe me!” Defoli rushed out.

“Bull,” Jack said tightening his grip, causing another yelp from Defoli.

“It’s true, I swear. It was Drayton,” he spluttered.

Jack froze. “Come on then, I’ll bite – explain yourself.”

Defoli swallowed. “Drayton set me up. I had nothing to do with those shipments and I didn’t touch that guard. I wasn’t even in the area when it happened. It was all fabricated.”

“Why would Dray do that?”

“I have no idea, but I didn’t do it.” His voice was hardly a whisper.

Jack loosened his grip but didn’t let go completely. “If that’s true how come this is the first we’ve heard of it? Why haven’t you tried to tell us before?”

“I did!” Defoli cried. “I told your friend, the other guy you were with. I begged him to call you off. To explain. But he was in on it. I thought you all were.”

“Callan,” Jack said, throwing a glance over his shoulder at Freddie.

Oh boy, this really wasn’t good. Jack had wafer thin self-control when it came to Callan. The deeper we discovered his betrayal went, the more worried I was that Jack would do something stupid.

“See? You know I’m telling the truth. I can see it in your eyes.”

Jack slammed Defoli into the tree again and turned his head to away before letting him go.

Defoli staggered towards us. “Please, just help me get to Heeley.”

Jack stopped. “Heeley?”

“I made a deal with him. He’s going to get me to Scotland. Take me to him and I’ll disappear. You’ll never hear from me ever again.”

Jack looked to Freddie and me in a silent question. Freddie nodded. “Let’s just get this over with.”

“What about the pod? What if someone sees it?” I asked them as we headed back to the car. Jack and Freddie walked either side of me, keeping Defoli in front of them which was rather awkward considering he had about as much idea as I did about where we were going.

“It’ll be okay here for tonight. We’ll get it shifted tomorrow,” Jack said.

***

The drive to Heeley’s shop was tense. Freddie and I sat in the back while Jack fired questions at Defoli. If he really was innocent, then why did he run? Where had he been since Paris? What reason would Dray have to do this?

Defoli sat in the passenger seat stiff as a board, looking as if he was about to leapt from the moving vehicle at any moment. His answers drifted between Aethian and English but I managed to follow his story.

“After the accident, I escaped from you in Paris and I crossed the border into Germany. Then I hitchhiked to the wormhole in Romania. I found some Syonians who got me a seat on a ship and I returned to Syonia. When I arrived, I discovered the family of the guard I was accused of murdering had put a bounty on my head. They’re extremely well connected with the Aether underworld, not only in Syonia but Andronia. I’ve been running for my life at every turn.

“You think they won’t follow you here?”

“Heeley will get me to Scotland,” he murmured, like if he said it enough times he would believe it.

Freddie raised an eyebrow. “And you trust him?”

“I’m paying a high price.”

I grunted to myself. It figured. It wasn’t like Heeley would do anyone a favour out of the goodness of his heart.

“What’s in Scotland?” Jack asked.

“I have friends there. They’ll keep me safe.”

“What about the night of the accident? You were all over the place. What were you on?” Freddie chipped in.

“My head.” Defoli absentmindedly touched his fingers to his forehead as he spoke. “They were doing something to me. Getting onto my thoughts. Messing with me. I couldn’t think clearly. I just ran. I needed to get away.”

“Callan was in London when that happened,” Freddie said thoughtfully.

“He’s been getting stronger,” Jack said stonily. “The more he does it, the stronger he gets.”

“Or it could have been Dray,” I suggested.

Jack’s gaze flicked to mine in the rear-view mirror, and my heart pounded at the dark storm I saw raging behind his eyes.

“Maybe,” he said quietly.

We pulled up outside Heeley’s Pawn Shop. In the dark it looked even more shady than it had the last time I was here. Plus, one of the green neon letters had gone out, so that now instead of ‘Instant Cash’ it read ‘Instant ash.’

“Are you sure he’s telling the truth?” I whispered to Jack as Freddie and Defoli walked ahead to the shop.

“No, and I wouldn’t have believed it before, but knowing what we do now his story fits. Personally, I reckon Dray and Callan cooked up the whole thing to keep us distracted while they tried to get their hands on the Orb. If your dad hadn’t sent us here to protect you, then they might have pulled the whole thing off and we’d be none the wiser. Probably still be thinking Cal was a top bloke.” His voice was laced with such bitterness I slipped my hand into his.

“If my dad hadn’t sent you here a lot of things would be different.” I meant we wouldn’t have found each other, but from the cloud that passed over his face I realised Jack was thinking about the reason my dad had sent them to protect me in the first place. Cylania, an alien psychic, had had a premonition of me being shot by Dray during a hold-up at the bank. Instead, Jack had frightened the life out of me and dragged me out of there.

“Let’s not think about that tonight,” he said giving my hand a squeeze as we reached Freddie and Defoli who had paused on the step for us to catch up.

“You ready?” he asked a twitchy Defoli. Without waiting for an answer, Jack swung the door open.

***

The last time I met Heeley, when Jack and I had been searching for leads on the Orb, he had struck me as unsavoury, but I understood he was an asset to know. Jack had called him a go-to guy.

Heeley sat behind the counter, amongst the racks of pawned items, smoking a cigarette, leaning back in his chair with his feet up. His weathered face broke into a sinister grin when he saw us. “And there was me thinking Santa Claus wasn’t real when you go and bring me a present.”

Oh I bet he’s happy to see us, I thought to myself. It means payday.

“I’m including you in that Eliza,” he added, with an evil glint in his eye.

“It’s nice to see you getting into the Christmas spirit,” I said wryly, running my fingers along a threadbare piece of tinsel taped along the edge of the counter.

His smile grew bigger. “I knew I liked her,” he said to Jack. “But I must say I’m surprised to see the two of you here together. I thought you would be long gone now the Orb of Tealon is out of the picture.”

When I was here before I had suspected he was messing with me, and now the same feeling crept over me. It was like he had taken a peek inside my head and pulled out one of my fears. Jack and the others hadn’t given any indication they would be moving on but a new case was bound to come up soon, and when it did where would that leave us? I gritted my teeth and swept my doubts aside. Unnerving me was exactly what Heeley was hoping for, whatever his motives.

“And Freddie,” Heeley said moving on. “It’s been a long time.”

Freddie, who was usually so mild mannered, wore a mask of steel. “Let’s get on with this, shall we?” he said frostily.

Heeley rubbed his chin, eyeing Freddie for a moment then stood up. “So you made it out then,” he said to Defoli.

Defoli raised his chin but I could see he was trembling. “Yes.” His voice was stronger than I expected. “We had a deal.”

Heeley cocked his head to the side and said, “All right kid, I’ll sort you out.” He nodded to Jack. “I’ll take it from here. Merry Christmas,” he said with a snide grin.

I glanced at Defoli, he still seemed agitated but I could see the relief in his eyes. From what he said he had been running for a long time. It had to be taking its toll. Dray and Callan had a lot to answer for.

We said goodbye to Defoli. Jack even wished him well and, considering he was pinning him against a tree an hour ago, that was a pretty amazing turnaround.

We had taken a few steps towards the door when I stopped. Something didn’t feel right. My skin prickled and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I looked at Jack, our eyes locked and I know he felt it too. For a moment, everything was still.

And then all hell broke loose.

***

“Get down!” Jack shouted, just as I saw a dot of red light move across the wall. He leapt forwards knocking me and Defoli to the floor at the same time the window behind us smashed. Jack ordered us to crawl behind the counter.

My head was spinning. Had someone thrown a brick through the window?

I looked up and saw the entire window hadn’t shattered like I had first thought. It was cracked and there was a small hole about the size of…a bullet.

It was a gunshot!

Freddie, who had commando crawled from the counter to underneath the window, slowly lifted his phone to the glass.

“Be careful,” I told him.

A green hologram appeared next to him. The outline of a map of the surrounding area with some sort of scan running in front of it.

“Who are they?” Jack yelled at Heeley, who had ducked behind a display cabinet. It was only then that I realised Jack’s insinuation. Heeley had sold Defoli out.

Heeley and Jack stared each other out, until Heeley finally broke eye contact, his nostrils flaring. “Andronian’s. Although a bullet through my window wasn’t part of the deal.”

Defoli began shouting at Heeley in their language. I had no idea what he was saying, of course, but if I had to guess I’d say he was telling Heeley what a lowdown, back-stabbing scumbag he was. As Defoli rose, ready to launch himself at Heeley, Jack grabbed his collar and shoved him back down.

“Focus,” he snapped, then turned to Heeley. “I should have known better than to think you were on the level.”

Heeley waved his hand. “It’s just business Jack, nothing personal.”

“It’s personal when someone’s trying to blow our heads off!” Jack shouted.

“The players are constantly switching sides. Weren’t you hunting him not even a year ago? Just hand him over and they’ll go away.”

My blood boiled in my veins. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “No!” I cried. “We can’t just hand him over. They’ll kill him.”

“If we don’t, they’ll kill all of us. Him included,” Jack pointed out.

I looked to Defoli, crouched in the corner like a wild animal, his amber eyes sparking and full of fear. He didn’t deserve to be punished for something he hadn’t done. We had to try.

“Jack, we have to help him.”

Jack rested his head back against the counter and closed his eyes. With a growl his eyes flew open and he pulled himself into a crouch.

“Heeley, what will it take for you to let this go?”

Heeley shrugged. “I made the call, my part is done.”

I bit my tongue to stop myself from asking how he could be so callous. Switching from one side to the other with no regard for right or wrong. Heeley was not someone I wanted to make an enemy of so I took a deep breath and shut up.

“Freddie? What’s going on out there?” Jack called.

“As far as I can tell there are three of them. One around the side and two covering the front.”

Jack raked a hand through his hair. “All right let’s get Defoli out of here. Do you have wheels?” he asked Heeley.

“Beamer out back,” he replied.

“Heeley and I will act as a decoy while you guys take Defoli out the back. We’ll meet at the train station.” Jack picked up a blanket from the back of a chair and threw it to Heeley. “Freddie?”

Freddie had driven in an emergency to get Daisy out of danger but he still wasn’t completely over his fear.

“I can do it,” Freddie replied firmly. Heeley handed a set of car keys to Freddie. “Not a scratch on her,” he warned. Freddie rolled his eyes.

Under Jack’s instruction Defoli took off his hoodie and gave it to Heeley, who put it on and covered his head with the blanket.

“Eliza.” Jack’s eyes met mine with a heated look that stole my breath. I tried to burn it into my memory.

There was no time for words or anything else. I nodded and he left.

Which was good. It meant I didn’t need to lie to him.

I snatched the keys from Freddie’s hand, went around the counter and through the back.

“I’m driving,” I told Freddie as he and Defoli followed me.

“Eliza-”

“We don’t have time to argue,” I interrupted. We scurried down the narrow passageway towards the back door. “I’ve lived in Burnt Oak my entire life; I know the roads better than any of us.” I didn’t mention that until I came here with Jack I had never been to this part of town.

Freddie gave a frustrated grunt. He knew I wasn’t budging and we had no time for a debate. I heard shouting from out the front.

Please let Jack make it. Please let Jack make it, I chanted to myself.

Outside, a couple of shots rang out.

“They’re still moving,” Freddie said, checking his phone. “The guy who was watching the side has gone around the front. Now’s our chance.”

As quietly as I could, I opened the door and stepped out into the alleyway, half expecting to be shot at.

“Hurry up!” Defoli whispered from behind me.

I pressed the key fob and the lights of a blue BMW flashed.

“Stay down on the back seat,” Freddie told Defoli as we ran to the car.

Jumping in, I buckled my seat belt and looked around for the ignition.

“Are you sure about this?” Freddie asked. He pressed a button on the dashboard and the engine roared to life.

“Absolutely,” I said, sitting back in the plush leather seat, quickly finding reverse and backing out of the space. “Think of it this way. If I get myself killed, Jack can’t kill you.”

“I think Jack is going to kill me no matter what happens,” Freddie muttered.

***

We made it out of the alley and half way down the main road before a black Range Rover appeared in the rear-view mirror.

“We’re being followed.”

“It’s one of them,” Freddie confirmed.

“Stay down,” I warned Defoli, and put my foot down.

The roads were quiet. Most people were tucked up in bed eagerly awaiting Christmas morning. That meant fewer hazards on the road but at the same time we were less able to blend in.

Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to stay calm. I can do this. What did I tell Freddie? I’ve lived here all my life.

I pictured a map of Burnt Oak in my mind. I may not know this area but if I followed the main road to the end, then I would be near the public library. Not that far from where Tasha lived. Back to where I knew.

I sped up. I had never seen the streets this dead. Apart from the occasional drunk party-goer, no one was around.

The Range Rover closed in, and started to nudge the bumper.

“Will they run us off the road?” I cried, unable to prevent the panic coursing through me.

“Don’t think about that. Just stay focused on driving,” Freddie said, squeezing my arm.

Tightening my grip on the steering wheel, I steadied my breathing and did what he said.

Arriving at the end of the main road, I took a sharp right and then left, bringing me onto the same road as the library. Home territory.

Now I knew where I was, my confidence grew. I even managed to formulate a plan. Peeking in the mirror I accelerated, putting some distance between us.

Adrenaline pumping, I gave a little squeal.

“Eliza, watch out!” Freddie suddenly shouted.

A Toyota had pulled in front of us, as if it had materialised from nowhere. I screamed and braced myself as I swerved, narrowly missing the Toyota. The Range Rover also swerved, keeping on track but buying me precious seconds. Forcing myself to go against my instinct to slow down, I went faster.

I took a sharp left down a side road. There were three roads branching off to the right, the first was too obvious, the last led to a dead end, so I took the second and prayed the Range Rover didn’t choose the same one.

I kept going, unable to look behind me.

“We’ve lost him,” Freddie said after a few minutes.

I gasped for breath. “Are you certain?”

“Yes,” he said after checking his phone to be sure.

Relief washed through me. I slowed down a bit but continued to take a winding path towards the train station to be certain.

Freddie called Jack who informed him that he and Heeley had also managed to escape the other Andronians. It had been a close call, but luckily the only casualty had been Jack’s rear window.

“Won’t they be able to track us?” I asked Freddie.

Freddie waved his phone. “I was tracking them too and now they’re gone, so I guess we’re out of range. Hopefully, that’s it.”

Despite Freddie’s reassurance I couldn’t relax and drove around randomly for an extra fifteen minutes before going to the station.

We walked a rather shell-shocked Defoli onto the platform where Jack and Heeley were waiting. We were just in time; the last train arrived in ten minutes.

I can’t say I was surprised when Heeley grabbed his keys and scarpered. It was all his fault in the first place. Jack pulled me into a hug. “Are you all right?” I glanced at Freddie over Jack’s shoulder. He didn’t know about my audition for Formula One yet. I didn’t think he’d be too pleased.

“Yes,” I said, kissing him, partly to distract him and partly because I was happy to see him.

Dialling back on the PDA before it went too far, I pulled away but stayed in Jack’s arms and turned to Defoli. He might be out of danger for now but while there was still a price on his head others would come.

“Will you be okay?”

Defoli nodded. “I know some people in London who will help me.” He glanced at Jack and then back to me. “Thank you for taking a chance on me.” I smiled at him. “But maybe next time let Freddie drive,” he added with a half-smile. Jack shot me a look.

“You’re welcome,” I said quickly, pretending not to notice.

Just then the train pulled into the station. A few people got off but it was mostly deserted

“Take care,” I told Defoli, giving him an awkward hug.

“Remember, this never happened,” Jack said, his voice filled with warning. “But we will see what we can do to clear your name.”

“Thank you,” Defoli said, his voice cracking slightly.

“It’s the least we can do.”

We watched Defoli board the train and didn’t leave until it pulled out of the station.

Jack sighed as we reached his car. “Maybe one day I’ll meet some Andronians who won’t smash my car up.”

The entire back window was smashed, only a few jagged pieces of glass remained. I zipped up my coat right to the top. It was going to be a cold drive home.

“We’ll drop you off at Ruby’s and then we might as well take care of the pod tonight,” he said as we got in. Freddie stretched out in the back and I got in next to Jack. He started the engine and turned to me. “Now, why don’t you two fill me in on what happened on the way over here?”

***

Straightening my skirt, I picked up the steaming jug of gravy and pushed open the door.

Ruby’s looked like a scene from a festive department store advert. She usually whipped up a feast, but this year she had truly out done herself.

The individual tables had been pushed together to make one large table in the centre of the cafe. It was decorated with a green and red table cloth and Christmas plates and cups with tinsel winding around each place setting, which Daisy proudly informed me had been her job this morning. Dishes of cranberry sauce and bowls of potatoes, sprouts, carrots and an array of other vegetables were scattered along the table, with a huge turkey with all the trimmings in the centre.

Jack and Freddie had arrived a few minutes ago, their eyes lighting up (literally) at the sight of all the food. To my surprise, and Daisy’s excitement, they had shown up with armfuls of presents for everyone. As tempting as it was to tease Jack about how Scrooge had changed his ways, I settled for a knowing grin.

As predicted, he had been less than pleased to discover that I took part in a James Bond style race across Burnt Oak last night but, as it had all worked out in the end, he got over it pretty quickly. I knew he was still gunning for Callan which sent tentacles of anxiety twisting through me, but today was Christmas day so everything else could wait.

I set the jug of gravy down on the table and took my place at the table in between Jack and Daisy.

“Tuck in everyone!” Ruby called, dishing some potatoes onto Daisy’s plate.

The bell above the door chimed as Rick and baby Lola arrived.

“Come in, come in, you’re just in time. There’s plenty to go around,” Len said. We made room for them at the table and took it in turns to coo over Lola.

Once we had finished eating Ruby brought out the board games, starting with Trivial Pursuit. I sat back in my chair, completely stuffed, replying to texts from Amy and Tasha about a Christmas drink at Evil Pete’s later tonight.

Looking around the room my heart swelled with love as I took in the chatter and laughter. Sure, my mum and Stan would probably show up later, once they had slept off their hangovers, looking to be fed, and it wouldn’t be long before some other alien drama unfolded. But right here, right now, I was with my favourite people in the universe, and I couldn’t be happier.

I shifted my chair closer to Jack and leaned into him. He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and pressed a kiss to my temple.

“I still draw the line at a Christmas jumper,” Jack whispered into my ear. Daisy had made him pull his cracker and wear his yellow paper hat. After a few drinks, we had even persuaded him to exchange it for a pair of reindeer ears for a while. I even had photographic evidence to prove it.

I grinned at him. “Don’t worry. There’s always next year.”

The End

Merry Christmas Everyone!