Disclaimer: The characters you recognise aren't mine -- they're borrowed from BVE without permission but no harm, no foul, no money made. The ones you don't recognise are mine. You're welcome to borrow but please ask me first.

There is a story behind the title -- drop me an email and I'll explain.

Please note: Some of this is deliberately vague because I'm trying to avoid outright spoiling Almost Unreal. You're welcome to ask for clarification -- but at your own risk! Also, please note that while these are nominally seasonal stories, they should still hold up as a stories in the middle of June...

~*~

Flavoured Gravy

A Trio of Seasonal Shorts

Light Of Life

Jen watched with some amusement as Wes wrestled with recalcitrant lights.

"Is this some form of weird twenty-first century ritual?" she enquired.

Wes looked up wryly. "Not exactly, no. More like annoying fact of twenty-first century Christmases." He rolled his eyes. "Biolab are at the forefront of research and design in fields of electronics and genetics...and we STILL can't get the Christmas lights to work first time."

Jen giggled. "Maybe I should help?"

"You stay there," said Wes firmly. "I refuse to be beaten by ten feet of coloured lights and wire." He started methodically testing each bulb. "What's a thirty-first century Christmas like?"

"There isn't exactly one," Jen admitted. "Religion isn't that big of a deal and things like Christmas and Easter have kind of stopped being important. Plus," she added with a sigh, "what there is left of the holiday is purely for families. Not exactly like I had one of those."

Wes looked up again, looking contrite. "Sorry."

Jen offered him a smile. "It's OK -- it's really not like it's the huge deal there that it is here...and although it hurts to think of him like that because of what he did to me, Jack did look after me all right."

Sparing Wes from making any response, the lights chose that moment to flicker into life. "Ha!"

Jen laughed as Wes all but did a victory dance.

"Now I just need to get them on the tree," he said as he finally calmed down.

"Which is probably considerably easier said than done, based on the last hour," Jen finished, smirking. Wes poked his tongue out but said nothing. "I'd offer to help but..."

"I'll only tell you to stay there," Wes agreed. "Sit."

"I am not a dog."

Wes grinned and started to arrange the now working lights on the tree. Jen couldn't help but watch in amusement as the battle of the lights part two commenced. She shook her head; this was going to take all afternoon at this rate!

At that moment, the doorbell rang.

"That's probably dad," Wes observed. "Could you get it?"

Jen snickered. "I think I could manage that."

She slowly made her way to the front door and opened it to find, sure enough, Wes' father...Alexander, as she was slowly learning to call him, standing on the doorstep, but carrying a box from which were emanating some very strange noises. Jen looked from the box to her father-in-law and back.

"It's a long story," he said, smiling. "May I...?"

Jen smiled. "Of course." He entered and Jen closed the door behind him. "Wes' arguing with Christmas decorations in the living room."

He laughed. "That sounds familiar." The noises from the box got a little louder.

Jen shook her head. Someone would probably explain in due course.

"Dad!" Wes exclaimed as they entered the living room. "You made it."

"Of course," Alexander replied in a tone of voice that suggested he was mildly offended at the implication he wouldn't. "And before you ask, yes." And to Jen's complete confusion he waved his free hand at the box.

"Thanks dad," Wes replied, finally leaving the lights alone.

Jen looked from son to father and back. "I presume you know what's going on," she said, mildly irritated.

Alexander smiled. "You'll like it, trust me."

"What it is," Wes explained, leading Jen back towards the couch, "is I wanted to get you something really special for Christmas, partly because this is our first Christmas together and partly because...well...life hasn't exactly been easy in the last two years...and I know a gift doesn't exactly erase that but... Anyway..."

As Jen sat down on the couch, Alexander set the box on the floor and opened the lid. Out popped a shiny, black nose closely followed by a black, bewhiskered muzzle and hypnotic, amber eyes that fixed straight on Jen.

"This," said Alexander, lifting the rest of the puppy out of the box and setting him on the floor, "is Emperor Maximillian -- or Max." Max started snuffling across the carpet in Jen's direction. "He's a pedigree Labrador."

"And he's for you," Wes finished.

Jen didn't know what to say, but any qualms she might have had vanished as Max sat down beside her feet and looked up at her with his amber eyes for a moment before curling up and putting his head down on her foot.

"I think he likes you," said Alexander.

As if to prove that point, Max gave a satisfied sort of grunt. Jen reached down and patted the small dog on his head.

"What do you think?" Wes asked.

Jen looked up at him. "I think I'm probably the luckiest person around right now."

She had a home and family, and that was enough.

~*~

A Change Of Heart

Eric was eighteen before he had his first Christmas dinner.

It was in the mess of Camp Pendleton, as mass-cooked by the USMC and it tasted pretty much the same way any other mass-cooked meal did to him: tasteless. It certainly wasn't home cooking.

Christmas had always been a time of year that had passed him by. Sure, there had been the parties and stuff in elementary school; the end-of-term fun; the decorating of classrooms and so on. There had even been a few Christmas cards when he got older but he'd never been able to return the favour -- he'd never had the money for something that frivolous.

As for December twenty-fifth itself, that had never been a special day as far as he was concerned. It was just another day. Another day for his mother to pop another pill or down another bottle of cheap liquor -- or if there happened to be a boyfriend-of-the-week, another day for her to screw her brains out.

His time in the USMC had done little to change that outlook -- although it had acquainted him with the traditional meal of the day. During that eight-year stint, it had gone from being just another day to just another day to potentially get shot at. There was even one Christmas Day, he recalled, where the base he was stationed at had come under mortar fire.

Had to be the Balkans somewhere.

After that, there had been one Christmas in San Diego, spent in a fleapit hostel, alone...unless you counted the collection of Jack Daniels' bottles. Not exactly a stellar way to pass the day.

Last year, too, had started to revolve around getting very, very drunk to avoid noticing it but had ended up rather differently as Kimberly and Alice had turned up on his doorstep in the middle of the afternoon complete with a picnic of festive food. And he had thought that was likely to be as good as his experiences with Christmas got.

"Nice to be wrong every once in a while," he murmured softly, leaning against the doorpost of his living room and watching Kimberly and Alice playing Candyland. He wasn't sure of the rules but to hear Alice whoop every time she got one over her mother, he didn't mind. It just looked like so much fun.

Twenty-eight Christmases and he'd never dreamed the day could be like this. Never imagined that it was possible to have this much enjoyment just from one day. Never dared to believe he could have this much fun. He felt a pang of jealousy and regret that it had taken so long for him to find it out, but as Alice looked up and met his gaze, the jealousy died an instant death, the regret not too far behind it.

He'd seen some of the worst life could offer at this time of year and he was determined that Alice would have what he didn't.

"Daddy!" she exclaimed. The title was still a novelty to both of them, and there was definitely something special about hearing it on this day. "You've got to play this!"

"Please," Kimberly begged, turning to look at him. "She's beating me hollow!"

Eric couldn't help but grin. "All right." He entered the room properly and took up a seat on the floor beside Kimberly. "What do I need to do?"

As Alice babbled the rules, with a few asides from Kimberly, Eric smiled. It might have taken a while to get here, but he was here now; he was with his family and that was enough.

~*~

Home For the Holidays

He looked up at the house.

It was the same as it had ever been and yet there was something different -- and it wasn't just the seasonal display of lights and decorations.

He'd been welcome every single time he'd come here before. He smiled faintly in self-depreciation. At least, he'd been welcome for the first five minutes. He couldn't say he'd been welcome for the whole of his last visit...but wearing out his welcome had taken him at least five minutes to achieve.

This time...it would be different.

Either he'd be welcome or he wouldn't.

And if he wasn't...well he probably wouldn't have more than a second to notice before she killed him.

So simple. So easy. Just walk up the steps and take what fate hands out. Not difficult. Not when compared to some of the things he'd had to do. So why wasn't he moving? What was with this indecision?

He had wanted to be here now -- on this day -- because this was the day for family to be together. But he wasn't family -- at least, wasn't yet. Would she let him become that or had the last few weeks killed that prospect before it had a chance to be? It had been a physical hell for him and he had got through it by planning this day.

But now he was here...

What if she didn't want him?

She didn't know he'd survived. What if she'd mourned and moved on? It wouldn't be the first time it had happened. He swallowed, almost paralysed by fear.

He had to face this. Had to know. Had to...

The door opened and someone came to stand on the porch.

"I know you're down there," the person called. "Come out or I'll be forced to call Time Force."

He felt a flash of fear. It was her! He wasn't ready for this! He couldn't...

He found himself moving out of the shade of the big oak tree that loomed protectively over the front yard. She saw him and her hand flew to her mouth.

"Oh my God! I... You..."

Before he knew what had happened, she was in his arms, crying and laughing and hugging him.

"I thought I'd lost you," she murmured.

"I promised I'd be back," he answered, fears melting. "And this time, I'm not going anywhere...if you'll have me."

She looked at him, studying him. "You think I'm going to let you go again?" She tucked her head against his shoulder. "This is the only Christmas present I could want."

He smiled, returning her embrace. He was here, and she was here, and this was enough.