The Homecoming


Part 3 of the Adagio series, followed by Plain Sailing. Parts 1 and 2 are Adagio and Catharsis.

Bodie brought the car to a rest by the roadside, easing it in behind the similar one Doyle had left there that morning when he'd arrived at Bodie's flat; lifting his hands off the wheel in a little gesture of relief. They were both tired; it had been a long fruitless day, driving almost non-stop in pursuit of a tip- off which had eventually proved false. Not the kind of day to bring out the best in two action-ready CI5 agents; but for all of that, Bodie thought as he looked over at his unshaven, tousle- headed partner leaning idly back, one white-booted foot up on the map shelf, Doyle had stayed sweet-tempered throughout, calming Bodie down with easy words when that volatile gentleman's frustrations threatened to explode.

"Here you are then, sunshine. Not quite door to door transport, but not bad eh?"

"Me stomach's still somewhere back on the MI; otherwise, yeah, not bad..."

Doyle didn't seem inclined to move. A tiny spark of hope kindled itself in Bodie's mind but he did nothing, didn't allow it to grow. He looked out into the dark, himself reluctant to leave the warmth of the car. It was icy cold, and no stars could be seen; that would have been all they needed, he mused, recognising the signs: snow hurtling against the windscreen to compound the numerous annoyances of the day.

Six months, half a year ago...then he'd have reached out a hand to Doyle now without a second thought, and Doyle would have looked up, tilting that wide slow smile at him, half shy; and they would have gone in together side by side. Different flat now from the one they had briefly shared. Different every thing.

Doyle studied the lacing of his ankle boot. "Got any beer up there?"

Not a muscle of Bodie's face showed his sudden tension as he said easily, "For you? Always, sunshine. C'mon up."

Doyle paced around the new flat slowly, taking it in. He hadn't been in before, not for a proper look around. It was pleasant enough, furnished rather more luxuriously than the last, and was slightly larger. All very tidy. Not very lived-in, yet. He wound up in the living-room, crouched on his heels and flipped through the rack of LPs, coming across one he recognised as his own which had clearly been overlooked when he'd moved out. He dusted it off, set on the turntable and laid on the stylus. The gentle strains of Albinoni filtered into the room.

Bodie, entering with two pints of lager, twisted his face into a comical grimace. "Bit funereal, isn't it?"

"Nah, just needs someone sensitive to appreciate it," answered Doyle, reaching out a hand for the proffered glass. "Cheers, mate."

"Cheers." Bodie remained standing. "You fancy something to eat? Me, I'm famished." Also, he had reasoned to himself, an unfed Doyle might take off for his own place the minute he finished his drink.

"You would be." Doyle checked his watch. Nearly ten. Hours since they'd eaten, and then it had only been a hurried sandwich bought from a roadside caf and put down in the car. "Yeah, wouldn't mind."

"Like what?"

Doyle stretched out, kicking off his boots with relief, curling and uncurling his toes. He placed his hands behind his head and considered. "Rice," he said dreamily, "...and prawns. Rice, prawns and nice chilled glass of Montrachet."

Behind him, Albinoni reached dizzying heights of stereo mournfulness. He was waiting for Bodie to snort some sarky comment about having beans and liking it; but the silence finally got through. He opened his eyes to find Bodie gone.

He was in the kitchen, squatting, busily unearthing half- forgotten packets from a box he hadn't got around to sorting out yet. A bedraggled bag of rice with an incongruous peg on top was in one hand; the other was in the process of extricating a rusty- looking can. He heard Doyle's entrance and sat back on his heels, triumphant. "Knew I had some somewhere. Shrimps; they're just the same. But smaller," he explained.

Doyle stared down, hands on hips, about to throw his head back and let fly a rip-snorting blast of laughter. Bodie looked so ridiculously pleased with himself.

He stopped himself instantly; gave himself a severe mental shake, because he suddenly knew it was not funny, not funny at all, this big hard fighting man squatting on his heels seriously trying to do something which would please him, Ray Doyle. And he had only been going to respond with a jeer, a self-satisfied smirk to have successfully got Bodie going, that was all.

He had been quick enough to accuse Bodie, during the disastrous storm they had shakily ridden, and come through into a tenuous calm, of not trying hard enough in the difficult field of learning to adapt, to be supportive and positive towards the person one loved and was trying to learn to live with. And here he himself had been about to tread heartlessly on one of Bodie's hopeful, almost pathetic gestures of reconciliation. He knew Bodie was crazy about him, hopelessly in love though God alone knew why and he knew how hard Bodie had been trying these past weeks not to push, clinging on tightly to his self-control so as not to demand of Doyle too much too soon. He knew too, about Bodie's continual battle not to be resentful, not to burst out with accusations that Doyle didn't feel the same about him as he did about Doyle. What he most definitely didn't need was Doyle fuelling that feeling of imbalance by mocking his generosity.

So he grinned, cheerfully enough, and said, "Nice thought. But save it for a celebration, shall we mate? Sure to be something to celebrate soon enough. I make a great rice a la Milanese. This time of night I'll settle for cheese on toast."

"Cheese give you bad dreams," said Bodie, scowling, not sure whether or not he'd been sent up. At least he was now sure he'd been sent up; it was Doyle's gentle reaction causing his unease. The last thing he wanted was Doyle's pity. If that ever happened, Doyle pitying him, he'd get out, he swore fiercely to himself. Once and for all. His moody dark gaze passed over Doyle, taking him in: Doyle was standing there, asking for it as usual with the aggressively masculine stance that Bodie found so startlingly sensual, the light casting shadows on the flawed beauty of his features, picking out bronze highlights in the curly hair.

"Not tonight, it won't," said Doyle softly, holding his eyes.

After a breath, Bodie nodded and stashed the bag and tin away. He began cutting slices of bread, Doyle took over the cheese, and ten minutes later they were sitting down to a plateful of bubbling golden cheese-on-toast.

Doyle pushed his plate aside at last, brushing the crumbs from his shirt and leaning back. "Better," he acknowledged; and took a long draught of his beer.

Bodie was up in a bound, collecting his plate. Albinoni had long since concluded his haunting strains, and when he returned from the kitchen he took it off the turn table, replaced it carefully in its sleeve and held it out. "Yours, isn't it? Want to take it with you?"

Dangerous question, although very simple at face value. Apparently Bodie was still brooding. "Nope, it's OK. You're hardly bloody likely to wear it out anyway judgin' by your reaction to it," he said with an easy grin, rising to his feet. He had spotted on the carved white mantelpiece beneath the mirror one Christmas card, a jolly red Santa cheerily waving a bunch of mistletoe and clearly on the verge of uttering the immortal line "Ho, ho, ho." It was only ten days till Christmas, and the card stood out merely because it was the solitary concession to the festive season around. Still, looking at Bodie hard and smooth and dark, one could see that he wasn't the sort many people would put top of their lists as susceptible to the fripperies of the season. He picked it up, idly. The message read: 'Thinking of you fondly at this time of year, Hope your Xmas is a good one with lots and lots of cheer,' and it was signed 'Marie, xx.'

"You had many yet?" he said rather awkwardly because he hadn't meant to pry. "Cards, that is," he added.

"Nah," said Bodie. "Never get any, as a rule."

He seemed not at all nonplussed, so Doyle replaced the card and sat down.

"You make any plans for Christmas yet?" he asked, casually.

"Christmas; what's that?" snorted Bodie, turning the album over in his hand. "The ol' man'll see to it we never find out."

"Oh, I dunno. He told me we were gettin' five days off."

Bodie stared, amazed. "He actually categorically stated that -- ?"

Doyle confirmed it with a nod.

" -- in writing?" pressed Bodie.

Doyle smiled, shook his head. He watched his partner, smooth-haired and unsmiling, in the wrinkled brown shirt that always looked as if he'd slept in it, and made a mental note to urge Bodie to use it up as a duster.

"Presumin', then that Cowley doesn't need us on hand to save the civilised-world-as-we-know-it from some impending disaster, what are you planning on doing?"

Bodie reached for another can, snapped the ring-pull. He got up and poured some into Doyle's lazily proffered glass. "Stick around here, see a few shows maybe. I dunno. Nothing special."

"I thought I might move in on you over Christmas," said Doyle, lightly. "What d'you think?"

Bodie was flopping back down into the plush velvet armchair across from Doyle's, clearly a little tense, though he met Doyle's eyes. "Yeah. OK. Why not?"

Suddenly the tension was gone; it was easy, like it had been before, for too short a time. That was all they needed, Doyle thought as they smiled at each other; just time... "Bring mine with me," he said, indicating the cards. "Brighten the place up a bit."

"More Santas?" said Bodie gently, because he was happy.

"Pine trees and drunk reindeer as variation. Who is Marie, anyway? Or shouldn't I ask?"

Bodie's mouth turned down at the corners. He looked inscrutable. Well, Doyle thought with a surprising pang; he'd hardly expected Bodie to be celibate over the weeks of their semi-separation. Or had he expected just that? He smiled, anyway, because it didn't matter. "S'OK. Whoever she is --" he glanced up suddenly, from beneath his eyelashes with a little, mysterious smile -- "let's see if I make you forget her. Give me the chance to try."

Bodie looked frowning and uncertain. Lying back Doyle let his arms fall away from his sides, relaxed and sensuous as a cat, the sexual invitation clear.

"Don't play with me, Doyle," said Bodie, very low, a husky warning.

Doyle allowed one eyebrow to rise, slowly; refusing to go Bodie's obdurate way. "O..K...Then you play -- with me." He smiled; provocative and mischievous.

Bodie was there at his side, kneeling; the hunger in his eyes undisguised, his weariness forgotten. He slid his hands under Doyle; and stopped.

"Go on," said Doyle, watching him through half-closed eyes.


"I thought you were going to try carryin' me off to bed."

"Think I couldn't?" growled Bodie, deep in his throat.

"Believe it when I see it."

But for all that, he made himself very pliant, very amenable as Bodie lifted him, swung him off the chair in strong arms; and as his own arms went around Bodie's neck, he tipped his head back on his partner's shoulder, exposing the long hollows of his throat, the chain that glinted there. Unable to help himself, halfway to the bedroom Bodie stopped.

"Whassa matter, tiring?" murmured Doyle; but he didn't open his eyes, shivering a little when Bodie's mouth touched the sensitive skin of his throat, tracing a delicate pattern there with gentle lips. "Mmmn -- don't stop that, it's nice --"

Bodie found he was beginning to lose his balance. Lifting his head with reluctance, he completed the journey to the bedroom and threw his precious burden unceremoniously onto the bed.

Doyle whooshed in surprise, his eyes flying open as he thudded unexpectedly down. "Be gentle, mate."

Bodie stilled his harsh breathing instantly, slamming a hold on his emotions; on the strong urge to rip the clothes off his maddeningly provocative, smaller mate; wrap him in his arms, and fuck him rigid.

"Or not," backtracked Doyle quickly, not having intended his light remark to cramp Bodie's style. "Be rough, if that's what you want." He smiled up wickedly; and punched the air with mock- heavy scowl on his face, right hook, left, right again --

"Don't tempt me," Bodie let out from between clenched teeth. He meant it. had been so long; he was pent-up with tension and seriously afraid of what he might do if he lost control; and he could not bear the thought of hurting Doyle, losing his fragile new trust once again, because he would surely get no more chances if he blew this one. He began to undo his shirt, keeping his back to the bed; buying time.

Doyle sat up, swung his legs over the edge of the bed and also began to undress, thoughtful. He was at a loss to know how to play this; he knew instinctively that Bodie needed, wanted to be more aggressive in bed at least some of the time, and yet for some conflicting reason he was reluctant, even unable to be. Doyle didn't have the experience to deal with it; there were no such problems with a woman, at least not the ones Doyle had known -- there, who played which role was written in the rules from the start. But in any case, he didn't want that for himself and Bodie; he wanted them to share everything, to try everything without any inhibitions; no secret fantasy left unexplored. And here was Bodie falling at the first fence. Not that he was a disappointment -- he was, as Doyle had expected, as passionate and sensual as Doyle himself, and Doyle found his love-making exciting, more exciting than anything he'd ever known. But it was always the same -- whenever Doyle made gentle hints with his body, his attitude, even his words, that indicated he was receptive, submissive, it seemed to freeze Bodie up.

I don't know, Doyle thought in exasperation, staring at Bodie's back, I could sit here all night and try to rationalise it by spouting guff about him doubtin' his own self-image and all that psycho-analytical claptrap, and I still wouldn't be any nearer findin' out what makes him tick...

I want him to have what he wants. But how can I give it to him if he's too scared by it to let go? Plenty of time, he soothed himself; don't push. Don't push -- he'd said that often enough to Bodie, about other things. Made no difference that Bodie's personal hang-up seemed to be a sexual one while Doyle's was an inner reluctance to abandon his hard-won, carefully built-up independence.

You'd think it would be the other way round, he thought to himself; bet that's what Cowley thinks... The thought amused him and he gave a little chuckle. Bodie turned, startled, and Doyle realised that Bodie hadn't heard one word of the things on his mind; was still out on a limb alone fighting whatever devil it was he had conjured into being. He finished undressing, quickly, and rose, reaching out for Bodie, sliding cool arms around warm flesh, hugging Bodie tight in a loving, protective gesture, regretful of the long silence; wanting to make it good for him, wanting him to know there was nothing to be afraid of --

"Whatever you want," he said softly, close to Bodie's ear. "Don't worry about it. Just relax; ease up. It'll all come right..."

"Will it?" said Bodie, low.

"Yeah," said Doyle with absolute, final conviction. "I've got this feelin'."

Doyle grinned. He studied Bodie's face very deliberately, sweeping a provocative eye over every inch of it; and he locked his wrists behind Bodie's neck, arching his spine and leaning back on the support of Bodie's hands around his waist. The tip of hard upthrusting maleness was revealed, captured there between their close-pressed bellies.

"This one," Doyle told him lazily, "can't go wrong."

Doyle backheeled the door to the flat shut, his arms loaded with overflowing carrier bags, and hefted them into the kitchen, dropping them on to the table with a sigh. One drooped to one side instantly and he rescued it, pulling out the precious bottle of Dom Perignon and setting it carefully to one side; likewise the two bottles of scotch. The rest could wait; it was cold outside, he'd had a long tiring trail around the shops and he was desperate for a cup of tea. He put the kettle on and while he was waiting for it to boil, he took from his pocket the sheaf of letters he'd collected without inspecting on a brief mail stop at his presently unoccupied apartment. He flipped through them quickly, whistling; bill, publicity Christmas card from the leatherwear shop, leaflet from the milkman --

He stared at the next, startled silent as he saw the postmark of a London suburb; recognised the handwriting. The kettle was beginning to whistle, at first a plaintive whine, then really getting up steam, a loud anguished howl demanding his attention. He got up absently, still staring at the cheap white envelope he held, turned off the gas; and ripped it open.

He was still holding the letter when he heard the door open, and a moment later Bodie came in, grumbling vociferously and noisily about the crowds and the cold, dropping the laundry bags onto the floor.

"Reckon you got the easy option, mate. The woman wasn't there so I 'ad to do it myself, two bloody machines of it, and somebody's towel ran --" he rummaged in the bag, mournfully held up a pair of streaked roseate underpants for Doyle's inspection.

"Too hot a wash," responded Doyle absently. "You should use a cool one for a mixed load like that..."

Bodie had noticed his abstraction and had forgotten the laundry. He was then behind him, his hands on Doyle's shoulders, his head bent over him. "What's up, mate?"

Bodie still had the scent of the crisp night on him; and his hands were cold. Doyle reached up to cover them with his own, not really conscious of what he was doing. "Nothing much." He met Bodie's frowning dark gaze and shrugged indicating the letter he had thrown onto the table.

"Bad news?" said Bodie from between compressed lips.

"Read it. I'm gettin' a drink." He pulled away from Bodie and took off for the living room.

Bodie watched him go. Then he picked up the letter from among the various groceries spilling out onto the table and stared at the hand-written sheet. After the first few words, his eyes scanned quickly down to the signature; then returned to the top and read on.

Dear Ray,

It's been such a long time since I heard anything from you. I expect you lead a busy life. It would be nice to know that you're all right and happy. I have been in the hospital lately for an operation. It was then I began thinking that life is short and whatever the past I would like us to forget it, if you were willing. I'm having Karen and Stan for Christmas and if you could possibly find the time to come and stay for a few days we'd all be glad to see you. It would make me very happy. It's never seemed really Christmas without you.

If you're too busy to manage that, then please just find time to drop me a card or telephone. I would like to know that you're all right.

We are all well dear except as I say I have had some troubles but hopefully they are all behind me now.

Best wishes from your ever-loving mother.

Bodie read it through again, no expression visible on his face. Finally he put it down and went into the living room.

Doyle was standing by the window, a glass in his hand, staring out. Chillingly, it reminded Bodie --

He put his hands on Doyle's waist, got him away from the window and settled beside him on the couch. "Well?" he asked.

"Well, what?" Doyle turned a maddeningly cool eye on him.

Bodie was not best placed to deal with this; he didn't understand families, nor mother-son ties, but he could see well enough from the way this was affecting Doyle that it had stirred one of his guilt complexes. "When d'you last see her?"

Doyle dropped his head, fiddling with his glass, elbows on his knees. Bodie stared at the nape of his neck; he reached out and touched it with one finger as Doyle answered, "Not since I joined CI5."

"She didn't like it?"

Doyle glanced up, angrily. "She thinks I'm hooked on violence. She thinks CI5 is the way I've found to carry it out legally. She's always thought that..."

Bodie didn't ask any stupid questions, like whether Doyle had tried to explain or not. Right enough, he didn't understand families, but he knew all too well the problems one faced trying to bring it home to ordinary god-fearing, violence-abhorring citizens that like it or not, there were times, too many of them, when men were needed who could kill, seeing the necessity of it; could use merciless violence to stop more of the same.

"Well," he said quietly, "Isn't true, is it."

Bodie slid an arm around him, reassuring, his fingers curling gently around the hard shoulder. "I know you better than anyone. Better than she does. I know it isn't true. Christ, mate; if your bleedin' guilt complex didn't exist, you'd have joined the bloody pacifists. But it does, and that's why you're the right man for the job, and one of you's more use in CI5 than ten of you wearing a CND badge and brandishing a fuckin' truncheon: OK?"

After a tense moment, Doyle nodded. He didn't say anything more, but he relaxed against Bodie. Bodie took the glass from his fingers, had a sip from it and set it aside. He pulled Doyle closer against him, and ran his fingers through the wavy hair, smoothing it away from his forehead. "So what do you want to do?"

"I dunno."

"You could give her a ring. Now. She's practically begging you to."

"You think that's the best thing?" Doyle asked; then continued with a snarl of anguish that spoke of shadows Bodie, who was totally unacquainted with Doyle's background, knew nothing of. "Christ, she's asked me home for Christmas! They make a big thing of Christmas, always have done. It'd be like a bloody slap in the face if I turned her down flat, rang up: Hi mum, yeah I'm fine, how've the last x years bin for you, have a jolly Christmas, cheerio till next year --"

Bodie realised where Doyle's conscience was leading him, and his first reaction was anger, and hurt. After a brief battle with himself, however; he pushed it down. He could take it. It was just another time of year, that was all; just a few wintry days. He'd be here, when Doyle came back.

He said firmly: "Course you have to go. If she's been ill and all... Go Christmas Eve, come back Boxing Day. Should be enough time to straighten out the differences over a few mince pies, eh sunshine? I'll save a turkey sandwich for you, OK?"

Doyle twisted to look at him, incredulous and exasperated as he realised that Bodie was moving along a totally different line of thought. He grabbed his partner between iron-hard hands. "Not just me, idiot. Think I'd go without you? Need you there, wouldn't I. I've needed you there all my life..."

He crushed Bodie's mouth beneath his, until the world belonged to them both again, the only reality a shared one.

"Did you really think," said Doyle, releasing him and getting his breath back, "I was plannin' on leaving you here?"

"Yeah," muttered Bodie, slanting a dark look at Doyle from under his lashes.

Doyle gave him a disgusted look. "You're daft. Mad. Can't you get it into your head even now?" But he didn't say it with any heat, his mind already sliding off onto other things as he settled back against the reassuring solidity of his mate.

Bodie looked down at the head on his shoulder, a new thought striking him. "You're mad," he grunted. "I'd fit in just beautiful with your family, wouldn't I?" He slid his hand slowly down Doyle's arm to his waist, pulling the warm cotton shirt free of Doyle's waistband.

"Why not?"

"Oh, c'mon, mate." Bodie moved his head, in half-amused exasperation. He wasn't sure he like the way things were going, and the idea of living through a traditional family Christmas filled him with distant horror. "They won't want me there."

"I want you there," said Doyle flatly.

Bodie grinned. "'Hi, mum, a lot's changed since I last saw you and by the way this is the man I love'?" he drawled. "Not you, Doyle. Not you at all."

Doyle didn't respond to the heavy-handed humour. "It's my life. They've never accepted me the way I am. One more kink in my nature isn't gonna come as a hell of a surprise, is it?"

"Oh," growled Bodie between his teeth, "A kink in your nature, it that what I am?" He slid both hands around Doyle, who was lying half on top of him, and under the loosened shirt to touch his warm skin.

Doyle, who knew how Bodie retreated swiftly into kidding around when faced with something he wasn't happy about confronting, shelved his own bitter, far-off concerns. Bodie came first, and that was that. He shifted his hips automatically as Bodie stroked him, abstractly waiting for Bodie's cool hands to slide under the waistband of his jeans; and said, "OK, mate. Scratch the idea. I'll drive down Christmas Day, and after lunch, spend an hour or two there distributin' cheer, be back with you by dinner time. That be better?"

He sounded unresentful, perfectly grudgeless. But Bodie snapped instantly into thoughtfulness, staring out over Doyle's tipped-back head, his hands stilling. Doyle was offering him a generous proof of where his allegiance lay, and yes, it was true that for a moment back there Bodie had felt doubt, threatened by the unknown family tie pulling at Doyle. But even more generous had been Doyle's first idea of taking him with him, making him part of it. If that was what Ray wanted --

He withdrew his hands from his partner's waist and gave him a friendly upward push. "Go, mate," he said amiably. "Get on the phone and warn Mama she'll need a bigger turkey this year."

After a moment, Doyle nodded. "Thanks." He rose and went to the phone, squaring his shoulders. No point in putting it off.

Bodie went into the kitchen and began to unpack the shopping; but he left the door to the living room open. If this was going to shake Doyle up he wanted to be right on hand. Damn, damn, damn, he cursed silently. They'd needed this leave so badly. A thousand curses on whatever bloody fate had thrown this in their path.


"Yeah, it's me."

"Yeah, I know, only got it today, an hour or so ago --"

"Yeah. Yeah, fine. You? Yeah, I know. Been busy --"

"Yeah, that's why I was ringing...gettin' a few days off. Could come down on Christmas Eve, get back on Boxing Day, if you --"

"Yeah good, listen: I'll be bringing a mate with me, OK?"

"Nah, that's OK, we're used to sharing --"

"He can go on the floor then, bring a bag --"

"Yeah. Well, I dunno. Shouldn't be. We've bin promised five days off, and we'll kick up one helluva stink if it's called off --"

"Yeah, OK then. See you Christmas Eve."

When Doyle put down the phone, he stood by it for a moment, remembering. In one way, he'd rather forget: just leave it out of the rest of his life, he didn't need it. But in another, the gap of incomprehension was something that had often bothered him, made him feel bitter, and guilty. It was the same old story: they said they loved you, then they tore you apart; because of the way you were made, the job you did.

Restless, his steps took him to the kitchen, for there was someone who loved him the way he was. He leant against the door, watching. Bodie was there, stashing the last of the perishable provisions into the freezer, speedy and efficient as in everything he did. Domestic life didn't really suit him, Doyle thought, watching the big dark man: he should be out running, or taking a punchbag apart with vicious, controlled energy; or in action on a front line, shooting with that deadly accurate ease of his, teeth gritted, resolute in his determination to come out on top; not piddling around a kitchen stuffing sausages into a freezer...

A man of action, Bodie.

But action could mean death. He shivered involuntarily, remembering Bodie shot, lying bleeding at his feet, and shut his eyes. He felt arms go around him, warm lips on his; Bodie whispering against his mouth, gentle, and humorous: "All right, sunshine?"

Doyle held him tight, pressing Bodie against him, his eyes still shut. At least Bodie would be safe; whether here or with his family they would be together, have five days when he need not fear for Bodie, nor Bodie for him.

Then he let Bodie go.

"Want to talk about it?" said Bodie, hands still on his hips, very serious.

"Not now," Doyle answered pulling away. He looked around for the champagne, saw it on a shelf, fetched it down and put it in the fridge. "Drink it later tonight," he explained. "Right now --"

"Right now, what you need is something to eat," decided Bodie, practical.

Doyle caught him as he passed determinedly en route for the chopping board, pulled him towards himself. "No. Right now, what I need is you."

"I'm sorry, 3.7, 4.5."

"Sir, it isn't fair," protested Bodie.

Cowley was hard, brittle, and absolutely unmovable. "Life never is, 3.7."

Bodie bent a bitter eye on his boss. "I'm beginning to notice that. At least, it never is if you work for CI5."

Doyle drew a sharp breath from where he stood, arms folded, leaning against the wall. Cowley was in a bleak mood today, and Bodie was pushing it a bit. It always surprised Doyle, what Cowley would take from Bodie. Anyone else, he'd have chewed up and spat out as a mangled bleeding mess by now. He wondered briefly if Cowley ever realised he had a weakness for the dark, solid ex-para moodily examining the floor in an attitude of absolute insubordination. But he could see that even Bodie wasn't going to win through today.

" -- no need to change your plans," Cowley was continuing. "Quiet Christmas at home, I think you said."

"Yeah, only now Doyle's going to have to tell his mother sorry, we can't make it after all, we're baby-sitting." Bodie cast a dark, evil glance at the slight fair girl sitting composedly across the room; absently registering surprise: to look at her, you'd think 'nursery nurse', 'typist', and look away. You'd never guess that that same milk-and-water type was responsible for the death of seven soldiers and two civilians in a Beirut bar. Now she'd apparently had a change of heart; lost her nerve and run screaming for protection right into the arms of CI5.

"I can't see why you don't just hand her over to the boys in blue and get her behind bars," he growled, flicking a glance at Doyle, who was cool, unreadable: had himself very much in hand. "She'd be safe enough there."

"CI5's holding her under special powers, Bodie, because there are some questions I want her to answer; and I have no intention of letting her out of our hands until they are. And before you ask; she's not top of my priority and I haven't time nor manpower to spare to deal with her at present."

"It's always us," muttered Bodie; then he made one final appeal. "Look, sir; you know we've made plans. Couldn't you find someone else? We'll work double time after Christmas..."

Cowley remained unfazed by the resentful glances trading back and forth between his two top operatives. "There's no reason for you to change your plans, as I thought I said. This lady's friends have disbanded temporarily; and they aren't as yet aware of her defection, let alone do they know that CI5 has her. Doyle's family will make as good cover as anywhere; though you'll need to keep her with you at all times, and keep her out of sight, of course. You know your jobs, gentlemen. I leave it up to you." He picked up his briefcase. "Keep me informed of your whereabouts," he said and paused, as if there was something he'd forgotten to mention. "By the way --"

"Yeah?" drawled Doyle, shooting a glance at Bodie. The old man had the nerve of a bloody politician; you had to give him that.

"Merry Christmas, gentlemen," said Cowley smoothly, putting his collar firmly straight; and he left.

Bodie and Doyle were now alone with the thin blonde girl whose bodyguards they now were, and who so far had not said a word, sitting straight-backed on Bodie's blue velvet armchair. They exchanged disgusted glances.

"Unwanted," said Doyle, "Christmas present."

Bodie let his eyes glint murder. He hated terrorists. "Watch out before you unwrap it mate, it's probably rigged to explode." They both stared at her provocatively; but she didn't respond.

"Bloody Cowley," said Doyle moodily, turning away.

"Yeah. Look mate, s'hardly bloody fair to unload her on your family, is it? You go, an' I'll stay on the job." It almost seemed preferable, to the package he'd get if he went -- Doyle's family, Christmas, and a terrorist to nursemaid all at one go. Terrific.

"Nah, it'll be OK. Cowley's right, it won't make no difference where we have her. She'll have to lie low in any case. Very low. Like in the attic, locked-up low," he said, jettisoning a cold glance towards the girl.

"And just in case," said Bodie aggressively, planting himself in front of the girl and staring viciously down, "We stop off on the way and stock up on a few extra -- Christmas decorations. Just in case someone comes looking for our pretty maid."

"Can't hurt," shrugged Doyle. He moved in next to Bodie, alert. Cowley would have made sure she wasn't armed; and seemed sure she wasn't dangerous, but one could never be too careful.

"Haven't heard much from you," growled Bodie. "On your feet."

The pinched white face looked up. She had a little pointed chin, pale skin; a childish waif of a girl. Only her eyes gave some hint of what she had been, what she had willingly done in the name of one group's non-conformist view of freedom; they were cold, hard grey.

"I said, on your feet," Bodie deadlined, and one smooth hand shot out and yanked her off the chair, the other frisking her with hard efficiency.

"Go easy, mate," said Doyle. He despised terrorism no less than Bodie did for possibly more moral reasons; but this slight elfin female in jeans and sweatshirt could pose them no threat, and he saw no reason for unnecessary brutality. He even felt sorry for her: what kind of bloody Christmas was she going to have? Or life, come to that. Spent her formative years blowing people up; and all she had to look forward to now was a grilling from Cowley in the New Year and years behind bars after that.

"What's your name, love?" he asked.

She stared at him without replying, standing passive in Bodie's hard grip. Then she shook her head, and said in a small, clear voice, "Signome," then "Milao anglika."

The two CI5 men stared at each other. The Doyle threw his head back and laughed, harshly, "Happy Christmas, mate," he said, and thumped Bodie on the shoulder, going to get their bags.

Bodie opened the back, threw in the suitcase, shut and locked it again and got in the passenger seat beside Doyle. The weight of the case had made the car sink towards the rear.

"Bloody hell, mate," said Doyle as he slid the Capri into gear, "You got enough, didn't you? We're not takin' on the Magnificent Seven."

"Can take it all back," said Bodie with dignity, "If you're lying awake worrying about CI5's finances." More seriously, he added, staring out of the window, "Put rifles in. And smg's. Might need 'em if her friends show up intent on a quick assassination. They don't like it when one of their number turns yellow and runs. Or, should I say, has a change of ideals."

He jerked an eye over into the back seat. No movement from beneath the rug and the wrapped presents on top of it; she was scared for her life, all right, and co-operating beautifully.

"You think I'd land her on my mother if I thought there was the least chance of it?"

"You never know," quoted Bodie, very serious, "Sunshine, you never know."

They forgot about the passenger after that, Bodie being more interested in the other opposition. Which was how he thought of Doyle's family.

" -- father?"

"Dead," said Doyle shortly. "Died when I was 18. Heart."

"Mmm," grunted Bodie, not sure whether or not to commiserate. The decision was taken out of his hands when Doyle said, out of a brooding silence, "Christ, I hated him."

"Oh," said Bodie after a pause. Then, "Mine was an old bastard too," he offered. That was true. At the tender age of six, little William Bodie had made a solemn vow one stormy, painful night to himself; that one day he'd kill the man he hated so much. The fantasy had kept him going for years. He wondered idly sometimes why he hadn't kept the vow; hadn't sought the vicious drunken old sod out and blasted his balls off. Because he didn't care any more, that was why.

"He 'ad nothin' on mine. Believe me," said Doyle, with intense, dark feeling; and changed the subject.

Bodie had to head it back, or arrive totally unprepared. There couldn't be far to go now; he knew the Doyle family house was in East London and they were well out that way. The area was getting seedier by the moment; run-down buildings sporting broken glass patched over with boards; red paint graffiti scrawled on crumbling walls, gasworks looming ugly; and rows and rows of tiny identical houses bisected by rigid grey streets; litter everywhere and scruffy kids playing about in the clogged gutters. So this was where Doyle grew up.

"Just your mother then, is it?" he said, and a hopeful vision crept into his mind of little apple-cheeked lady wearing a flour-smudged apron and a wide smile.

"Sister too. Nosy piece. And her husband." said Doyle shortly, concentrating on the heavy pre-Christmas traffic. Momentarily diverted, Bodie scanned the following cars, for about the hundredth unconscious time since leaving the office where he'd picked up the rifles and ammo; but all was normal, no sign of the tail they searched for unceasingly and automatically even on an innocuous trip to the cinema, or the pub, so deep was their CI5 grounding. Satisfied, he turned from the mirror.

"Brother-in-law? What's he like?"

Doyle swung around a corner. "Only met him once."


"Didn't hit it off," came Doyle's laconic reply.

Bodie sat back, grimly. He had the definite feeling he didn't want hear any more. How the hell did I get into this, he thought with feeling; what I needed was a nice few days relaxing, no sweat, no hassle...

Instead, here he was in a car loaded down with a terrorist under his protection, a suitcase full of deadly weaponry, Doyle in a mood; and a hostile family of nutters to face at the end of the journey. Some bloody relaxation. Why the hell was he here...?

He was here because he belonged here; at Doyle's side.

"For better or worse --" he said, aloud.

"Uh?" Doyle queried, darting a quick glance.

Bodie smiled enigmatically, sliding down in his seat, hands behind his head. "Better or worse. Richer or poorer. Sickness and in health --"

The sombre weight of tension that had been assailing Doyle all the way here lifted, suddenly, and he smiled in return joining in: "With my body I thee worship, and all my worldly goods I thee endow. Which includes my family. Put your party smile on, sunshine; we're here."

Rita Doyle had a lot to do; a fridge full of food needing preparation, a hundred and one things to time right and fit into a busy Christmas schedule; she was on edge and uncharacteristically snappy; and she was at the window every five minutes, looking out.

"Waiting for the prodigal, mum?" said the pretty dark girl, entering the kitchen and catching her at it.

Rita jumped, left the unproductive vista of the street, and went back to the fridge. "You could make yourself useful, Karen. Where's Stan? If he's still asleep you might as well put the telly off. It's a waste of electricity."

"He's tired," said her daughter, unperturbed. "If you turn it off he'll wake up, and he needs his sleep. He's had ever such a busy run-up to Christmas."

Rita snorted. A thin woman in late fifties, with mousy brown hair beginning to grey, she knew the Stans of the world well, without necessarily disliking them. "I'm sure he has. Busy in the pub." She checked the wipe-clean board on the wall. "There's still the potatoes to do. They're in the bag under the sink." She glanced again out of the window. Nothing.

"What time did he say?"

"He just said Christmas Eve. He didn't give a time."

Karen was not inclined to give the return of her brother more attention than in her opinion it merited; they'd never had much in common. He was, after all, six years older, and of very uncomplimentary temperament. She'd been quite glad when he'd left home; but it would be -- well, interesting to see him again. "You know Ray. Could be midnight. If he shows up at all." She pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and bent to extract potatoes from the paper sack.

"He'll come."

"Like he did to our wedding, I suppose." It was still a sore point, especially with Stan. Their father being dead, Ray had been the obvious choice to perform the duty of giving Karen away. But at the last possible moment they'd had a message saying he was detained in London and couldn't make it. They hadn't seen him since; there had been some sort of row between him and their mother, which Karen had never heard the details of, despite intense curiosity. Stan, who'd taken an instant dislike to him, calling him a "scruffy young tearaway" -- but behind his back, since he'd been warned about Ray's volatile temper -- had been none too pleased to hear he was coming for Christmas, but was determined to make the best of it. Rita Doyle, however, was pink around the cheeks with suppressed excitement and was barely able to concentrate, to Karen's amusement.

"Women are funny about their sons, aren't they," she said, after a brief pause furiously scrubbing the muddy potato skins so the peeler wouldn't snag.

"I don't know how you'd know," returned her mother, shortly.

"Everyone knows. Oedipus, and all that."

"I think you mean Jocasta, dear," said Rita Doyle, and began to wipe over the joint of beef with Kitchen paper.

Karen wasn't to be put off. "They are, though. My friend Chris; she's all over Damien, you should see her. She practically necks with the kid. Her Mandy, though; she's lucky if she gets a goodnight peck on the cheek."

Rita Doyle was used to her daughter, and did not reply.

"Who'd he say he was bringing with him?"

"He didn't give his name."

"Funny thing to do. Bring a bloke home at Christmas with him. Now a girl, I could understand." She snickered. "You remember our Ray."

Yes, Rita did remember. Her enigmatic, hot-tempered young son; whom she'd adored and protected though it had meant the final death of her dying marriage; she remembered the cold pale beauty of his changeling features: the violence of his temper; the warmth of his love. But there had always been depths to Ray she couldn't reach, couldn't come close to understanding: and finally those differences had driven them apart.

Now he was coming home.

Surely that was the sound of a car. She was at the window in an instant; and saw it, a low metallic Capri slowly cruising along the line of parked vehicles on the road. She watched it, slowly pulling off her apron and running a hand through her hair.

Totally unexpectedly, the side door to the kitchen opened and smooth dark head popped around it. "Anything in the garage?" it enquired, politely.

Rita Doyle and her daughter stared at the intruder. Then, turning her head Rita looked out of the window again, saw the waiting Capri and its driver, his cap of curls identical to her own; and she answered before Karen, who was drawing an angry breath to blast the stranger out.

"No, there's room."

"Keys?" asked the man, the rest of him coming around the door. He had an engaging smile, an attractive face, a powerful body -- and hard, appraising dark eyes that were totally at odds with his relaxed manner, and his charming smile.

She reached them down and held them out.

"Thank you," he said as he took them, tipping them another warm, courteous smile; and then he was gone.

Karen joined her mother at the window, looking out to the tall dark man in a leather jacket, loping down the path to the Capri. "So that's Ray's friend, then. Good-looking so and so, don't you think?"

"It depends what you're looking for, dear," said Mrs. Doyle.

The Capri turned off the road and drew into the garage. Rita Doyle opened the side-door to the covered passage-way onto which the garage joined; she heard the care door slamming, quiet voices, and tensed. But the door into the garage didn't open.

Karen said, from the kitchen window, "Come and look at this." Her mother joined her there, and had her first good look at her son, the eldest child; and the best loved.

He was standing in the front garden, one hand on his hip, the other making gesticulations to his dark friend. They were both looking upwards, surveying the house.

"Whatever are they up to?" said Karen, perplexed.

The dark good-looking friend was turning, looking first at the neighbouring semi; then the next pair along. He disappeared momentarily around the side of the house, returned swiftly and they exchanged a few words.

"Really showing him around, isn't he?" said Karen, mockingly. "You'd think our Ray was trying to sell him the place. Probably is," she added.

At last Ray was swinging his way up the path, making for the front door; and Rita Doyle went to let him in, noting distractedly that her hands were shaking and her mouth dry.

He gave her a brief glance and nodded. "Hello. You look well."

He looked older, little lines of stress on his forehead and around his eyes, threads of silver glinting in the bronze hair, which she hadn't expected; but the lean hungry look, the measuring green slant of his eyes, the rough quiet voice were all the same.

"Scuse me just a moment, OK?" he was saying, and going past her. Gathering her wits, she followed him to the kitchen. "Hi, you," he was saying briefly to Karen, but all his attention was on the side door. "OK. Window to the right," he said to it.

The dark man edged around the door once more; only this time he was carrying a suitcase in one hand, and the other was holding the shoulder of a young, thin girl. "Not in front of the window, love," he said pleasantly to her. "Head down, OK. And you keep it down, all the time you're here." To emphasise his point, he pushed on her shoulder, and she crouched suddenly, her head twisting around.

Rita Doyle wondered, fleetingly, if she were imagining all this.

"Get her upstairs," her son said to his friend, irritably. "Two flights, it's on the right. It's got a lock. Better make a bathroom stop, too."

"Cuffs on her?" the dark man wondered, aloud.

Her son shook his head. "Not unless she turns awkward. It is Christmas."

His friend's lip curled, emitting the muttered words: "Not for her. They don't have it till Easter, mate."

And then he was gone, pulling the girl against him through the door and up the stairs.

Karen's "Who the hell is that?" clashed with her mother's "Whatever is going on, Ray?"

"Sorry, mother. Got landed with a last minute baby-sitting job. She'll have my room and we'll kip down in the lounge." He was by the sink, pouring himself a glass of water, as cool and collected as if he'd never been away; as if all this was perfectly unremarkable.

She took a deep breath. The job; always the job. "Ray. You aren't telling me you've brought a criminal here? Into my house? At Christmas?"

He deflected it, calmly "She's no criminal. Not -- exactly. No, we're just lookin' after her for a friend you might say. Just forget she's here." He took another long draught of the water, leaning on the draining board and surveying his mother and sister with inexpressive eyes. "Happy Christmas, by the way."

There was noise from the hall. Karen recognised her husband's voice, loud and aggressive. A moment later he burst through the door, red-faced and irascible, ahead of a cool unsmiling Bodie who was in no mood to treat peripherals with anything other than the utmost disdain. Stan Howard said; "There's a man in the house with a girl, and he's locked her in the floodin' bedroom --"

Bodie's grave eye met Doyle's. Neither of them moved a facial muscle.

"Well, hello Stan," said Doyle coolly, pushing himself away from the sink and coming upright.

The big balding man breathed heavily; he'd been rudely awakened from a peaceful nap to find the house had gone mad. Might have guessed his brother-in-law, the pixie-faced, arrogant, violent son of a twister was at the bottom of it. About to speak, he caught his wife's quelling eye and thought better of it. "Hello there, uh -- Ray. Nice to meet you again."

Doyle acknowledged it. "Got a few things to get straight. Let's have everyone in the lounge for five minutes." Recognising the note of authority, they began to go ahead of him. "Oh, and - -" he reached out a hand, and the dark watchful-eyed one at his side turned -- "this is Bodie. You'll like 'im mum; he eats a lot."

And Bodie gave everyone an encompassing, cheerful smile.

Doyle checked that the door was closed, that there was no sound from upstairs and took a look through the living-room window. Bodie was at the other side squinting that way, out towards the back. Mrs. Doyle and the Howards took seats, recognising with varying degrees of bemusement and indignance that they'd been taken in hand; that these two young men were making the rules right now; and the return home of the rebellious only son was not going at all how any of them had expected.

"Shutter," said the man called Bodie briefly to his partner, and pulled them, fastening them securely, reclosing the window and pulling the curtain across. "There's a sheet or two of bpg in the car; fix it later."

Doyle at his window answered over his shoulder: "Yeah, leave this one. This one's going to be the weakest point, right, need a firing point here. Kitchen entry we can block off; there's a window on the landing but nothing overlooks it. Two more possibilities next floor, our girl's room, that'll have to be shuttered and bpg'd too. The other's her room --" he jerked a thumb at his bewildered mother -- "that'll be our other station, I'll take that one if it comes and this one's yours."

"Garage, access door. Front, sites, back; all secure then," checked off Bodie.

"Yeah, but we'll 'ave to make another check. Boost some of the locks, and there's too much glass around that side complex to make me happy," decreed Doyle.

The two CI5 men were totally ignoring the silent family. Rita Doyle, who knew more than the other two, was feeling a spark of anger; a resentment she'd hoped to be able to shelve for this reunion. Stan and Karen were exchanging expressive glances.

" -- check?"

"Yeah, subject to refinements, all OK."

And, like the snapping off a switch, the two CI5 men came smoothly off the job and returned to normal function.

Ray Doyle crossed the room and sat down. "Well then, how's things?" he asked, crossing one ankle over his knee and looking around.

The others, however, were unable to make such a sudden change.

"You an' him playing at spies or something, Ray?" demanded Karen, inclined to mock. "And who is that girl, anyway? Don't tell me she's married and her husband's looking for you with a shotgun."

"Look, just don't even think about her. I told you," said Doyle, trying not to be impatient, "She's nothing to do with you, or us. She's just in need of place to stay. Me an' Bodie'll look after her; you won't even need to see her." Bodie said nothing, his dark eyes watching everyone.

"All the same, son; I think you might have warned Mother you were landing with an extra guest. And what's all this bolting shutters in the middle of the day?" rumbled Stan, portentiously.

Watching them, Bodie saw that spark of unvoiced contention leap between them again. "Stan's right," chipped in Karen. "We don't see hide nor hair of you for years and then the minute you walk in there's trouble."

Never far from the surface in this house, Doyle's tension snapped; he jumped to his feet, eyes flashing cold temper. "Look, I got landed with a last minute job and it was either bring her or not come. I didn't want to let you down an' we're doing all we can to make sure it doesn't affect you; but if it isn't enough you just say and we'll go somewhere else, right now, OK?" His eyes sought out Bodie's, and found reassurance, support there, for whatever decision he might make.

"No! don't," said his mother with more force than she'd intended; and she looked across at her daughter and son-in-law. "Leave him alone, he's only just got here. It's all right, Ray; just -- a bit of a surprise, that's all."

After a second, he nodded, and sat down again. "Yeah, OK." He thrust his hands into his pockets and glowered at his feet. Not half an hour in the house, and already they were at it. God: two more days of it.

"Telephone," Bodie reminded him out of the side of his mouth.

"Oh yeah. Get this out of the way once and for all, OK, and then we can drop the subject. No-one uses the telephone --"

"What? God, Ray, you really are too much." This from his sister.

"There's a coinbox down the road, love, if you can't live without it till Monday. We need the line clear all the time. And no-one answers it, or the door, except him --" he jerked an eye at his partner -- "or me. Clear? None of you mentions the girl to anyone, that vital that is. And if you leave the house for any reason you use the front door. Got all that?"

There was a silence.

"Are you in some sort of trouble, son?" enquired Stan in an unctuous tone. He was forty; and had once been in Personnel.

Doyle took a deep breath to reply; but Bodie was in there first, coming away from the wall where he'd been leaning, watching the dangerous signs of impending explosion building up in his volatile mate. "Nah, he's fine," he said easily. "He's had a long day. He just needs a cup of tea, right, sunshine? I'll get it. If someone shows me where everything is."

"I will," said Rita, and got to her feet. Bodie bent a smile towards her, and like a true gentleman held the door open for her to pass through, closing it behind him with a backwards grin at his uptight mate.

"What --" began Karen, with a hard stare at her surly brother.

"Drop it," growled Doyle, meaning it.

She looked at him a moment longer, and shook her dark head. "You really take the biscuit, you do our Ray." Stan gave the sorrowful headshake of a man who has expected no more, from the man who let his sister down on the most important day in her life.

"Yeah, well... Any kids yet, you two?" Silly question. But he was determined to change the subject; and it worked.

"Not likely," said his sister. "Not going to be either. Me and Stan, we're not keen. Looks like mum's grandchildren are up to you."

Terrific. That wasn't the way he wanted the conversation to go, either. He made a non-committal noise, looking Karen over. She was so unlike him, this sister of his; dark haired, pretty in a long-faced way; sharp as nails. She was his father's child, he his mother's; they'd never had much to say to each other and now didn't look like being any different. Instead of trying he looked around the room, seeing it for the first time since his arrival; there was a large, real Christmas tree in one corner decorated with tinsel, fairy lights, cotton wool, and there were wrapped presents lying beneath it. It was the same heavy mahogany furniture he remembered; but the dark patterned carpet was new, as was the large colour TV; and that relieved him of one worry: at least Rita Doyle seemed to be financially secure.

Stan got up, switched on the television. A troupe of fur- clad dancers expanded into view, singing. Karen Howard reached for a handful of crisps, her eyes fixed on the screen. Doyle slid down further in his chair and shut his eyes, giving up on the threesome.

Things were going rather better in the kitchen, where Bodie was finding it surprisingly easy to talk to Ray's small mother. He found her resemblance to his mate touching; it was just the hair, and the wide-set eyes, really; but nonetheless it was a reminder that here was the person who had brought Ray Doyle into the world, someone else who loved him; and it caused him to make a deliberate social effort to win her liking.

She was also quite taken by him, this smoothly capable man whom Ray had chosen to bring along. "Bodie, did Ray say? Nickname, I expect."

"Surname. Where d'you keep the cups?"

He wasn't exactly wasteful of words; clearly not a man much given to small talk. But to his credit he was making the effort; and he had, after all, diverted the impending conflict between her son and his brother-in-law. "Top cupboard, love. Thanks. The milk's in the fridge. Have you known Ray long?"

"Yeah, ever since he --" Bodie stopped, remembering; and carried on smoothly, "A few years, yeah."

She gave him a quick glance. "You don't need to avoid mentioning CI5, love. If you were. I suppose you work for them too?"

He handed her the milk. "That's right. We're partners. Have been from the start."

She spooned tea from the caddy into the pot. "It must be an exciting job."

"Yeah," Bodie agreed, soberly. "Too exciting, sometimes." Her son had been shot through the heart less than a year ago, in one particularly exciting experience.

"Do you know Ray well?"

The question caught Bodie unawares; he glanced at her with caution, a totally unreadable expression smoothing over his features. "We're good mates, yeah."

"He looks very tense."

He was doing fine until he got your letter, thought Bodie viciously: then he caught the thought back and killed it. "Yeah, well he's only just got here. Give 'im a chance to unwind a bit."

"It must be a hard job. Not everyone could do it..."

Hooked on violence... Bodie had Doyle's stark, bleak words engraved on his heart, and this at least he'd come prepared to deal with, if he'd got the chance. "Yeah, well: he's got too soft a heart, our Raymond has. It all gets on top of him, sometimes," he said firmly, and met her eyes -- hazel, not green -- as she turned to face him holding a spoon in uncaring fingers.

"And you? Doesn't it get on top of you? Killing people, guns?"

Bodie shrugged, his face hard. He'd heard this too many times before. "It's a job. Someone has to do it. Would you rather we let 'em get away with it? Jesus, you don't know 'em." He turned away, aware that he'd probably blown it; but she had made him angry, even though he'd liked her on sight. She made him angry because she'd tortured Ray with her guilt. Just as if he needed any help.

She said, behind him, quiet and distant, "Ray's a grown man and it's up to him what he does. No; I'm long past the mood to try and change him. Some of the things you see on television nowadays -- there are times when I even understand."

"Yeah, well make sure he knows that, will you?" was all Bodie said. They completed the tea-making operation in a not unfriendly silence.

In the living room, Stan and Karen watched TV.

"What the hell are they doing out there," muttered Doyle, jerking an edgy eye at the door. "When they said tea, I didn't know the leaves needed curin' first."

Stan and Karen turned to look at him. He met their curious eyes with a scowl, eyes drawn together, mouth set in a narrow line, his thumbs hooked defiantly in his belt.

Karen began to laugh. "Oh lord..." She doubled up, shaking, watched by the two surprised men. Eventually she lifted her head, just as Bodie burst through the door with a tray; and explained, still laughing: "Mother always used to call you a little ray of sunshine when you looked like that, and god, you 'aven't changed..."

Her laughter was infectious, and Bodie's lips quirked upwards as he set the tray down, surveying his truculent mate. Rita Doyle chuckled, remembering; and Stan Howard let go a snort or two of amusement.

Everyone was laughing at him. Doyle's scowl deepened; he hunched his shoulders further into his jacket; then, he too, suddenly saw the funny side of it and he had to smile, feeling his tension slacken at long last.

The first hurdle had been passed. The conversation settled quite naturally over the practicalities of distributing the tea with the right amount of milk, sugar per cup. Bodie brought Doyle his, and smiled at him.

" -- ray of sunshine..." he murmured, under cover of the extraneous chatter, and on impulse reached out and ruffled the curly hair with a quick hand.

Doyle tilted his head back to smile in return. Bodie was here. He'd known everything would be all right; if Bodie was here. He had someone of his own, at last. "You havin' a cup?"

"Better take something upstairs, first." Bodie lifted an expressive eye upwards.

"Christ, I'd nearly forgotten her."

"Good job one of us had his mind on the job," sniffed Bodie and tugged Doyle's hair one last time before leaving the room.

It was all much more relaxed, suddenly; they'd found markers in the give and take of conversation. Stan talked football in a solemn, man to man way; he seem to take it for granted that it was an essential masculine duty. Doyle was comfortable enough on that tack; it was easy enough to avoid contention, and when it petered out there was something equally unthreatening to take its place.

Karen asked: "Where's your friend gone?" but he was able to turn it aside without once more sparking off a heated discussion about the girl upstairs; he'd known that side of things would be all right once the first surprise was over. He and Bodie were perfectly capable of ensuring that a -- guest -- remained invisible. Karen, however, seemed fascinated by Bodie and returned to him again.

"Does he work with you?"


"How old is he?"

"Younger'n me."

"Is he married?"


"Why not?"

"Same reason I'm not," growled Doyle in an attempt to halt the line of questioning; but no such luck. He remembered Karen's tenacity of old -- "Can I have it? No. Why not? Because it's mine. Will you lend it to me? No. Why not? Because I don't want to. Why not?" Until he'd give in, and throw it at her. Hard.

"He's very good looking," she said, darting a sidelong glance at Stan; no harm in getting him going a bit.

Stan snorted, on cue. "Like a floodin' gorilla. Wouldn't like to meet him on a dark night."

"Well, I wouldn't mind." She giggled.

"You would," said Doyle, cryptically.


He bared his teeth at her. "He's very unstable. Needs careful handlin'."

His mother interposed, for the first time. "I rather like him."

"Yeah?" It pleased Doyle, that. He hadn't considered before that it might matter to him, what his mother thought of Bodie, but he discovered that it did. He wondered what would happen if he said, "That's good, because he's in love with me," and whether she'd guess even if he didn't. He let his tired mind dwell, idly, on some vision of the future; he'd be the black sheep of the family, the one no-one talked about and who was not to be left alone with any of nephews; the one with the roommate nobody was allowed to mention...

Or he'd be the one who'd died young, in some hushed-up, mystery-clouded incident, buried in a closed coffin so that no- one could see the bullet wounds...

He realised with a jerk that he'd been falling asleep, and that Bodie was back in the room.

" -- line of work, exactly?" That from Karen, still snooping.

"Roadsweepers," Doyle said loudly, without opening his eyes.

"Uh?" She turned to look at him. "Thought you'd dropped off. Roadsweepers?"

"We clean up the streets. Right, mate?"

"Yeah," Bodie confirmed.

She laughed. "Bit of come down, that, isn't it? Thought you were the smart-alec, clever one in the family."

"I am," said Doyle with an edge of bitterness. "Oh, I am."

"Didn't drink your tea, mate." Bodie was there, giving him a tiny smile, dark eyes serious and tender. Doyle held his eyes. He wanted to reach out and touch him. And he did. Laying his hand on Bodie's shoulder, gripping him.

"All right upstairs?" He took a casual glance around, no- one was listening.

"Yeah." Bodie's mouth turned down. "Doesn't drink tea. Only coffee. Eats though. Like a horse." He rolled his eyes, thinking of the hurried sandwich he'd had to put together in an unfamiliar kitchen; and then another when the first disappeared in record time, leaving her still looking half-starved.

"Said anything?"

"Not much. Understands a few simple phrases. She's terrified out of her wits." Bodie was thoughtful.

"They'll never trace her here."

"Bodie snorted. "Don't you believe it. Easy. You and I could do it, no sweat," he offered, as confirmation.

"Not a fair parallel." But Doyle, too, was thoughtful.

"It's not a bad one to go by. If you want a safety margin." Their eyes met.

"Hey, you two. Want to play cards?"

Bodie roused himself. "Not me, ta. I always lose. Got a few things to take care of." He exited, distributing an all- purpose smile around.

Doyle played cards for while with his sister and brother-in- law, for 10p a round. The telly blared on in the background, some holly-festooned quiz show; Rita Doyle was in the kitchen, getting dinner.

She was thinking about the strange actions of Doyle's dark friend; he'd been to the car for a suitcase, been running all over the house as if he owned it, fiddling with things; and now he was around the side, very close, banging. She took time off from the roasting meat and went to see what he was doing.

He was attaching a sheet of tinted glass to the garage access door.

"What are you doing?"

He turned, unenthusiastic about the interruption but making the best of it. He had to keep reminding himself that he wasn't on an ordinary job; that he was in Doyle's family home, and that the conventions he usually dispensed with had to be observed.

So he smiled, good-temperedly. "Making this a safe house..."

"Do you mean," she said, "it wasn't a safe house before?"

"No harm in a few extra precautions. It'll soon come off."


He turned, at the name she hadn't used before. "Yes?"

"That girl --"


"This is all about her, isn't it... Who is she?"

He drew a deep breath. "Doyle told you. No-one you'd even think about."

Her eyes flicked around; there was a new, solid-looking lock on the front door. "There's someone after her, isn't there."

"Not that we know," he hedged.

"But someone might be?"

He conceded that, seeing she was determined. "But we're very nervous in CI5," he told her with a wry smile. "When we're staying in hotels on holiday, we make Room Service go through all kinds of rituals before we're finally happy enough to open the door. Plays hell with the bacon and eggs."

Her mouth lifted, despite her doubts, and he smiled, relieved. "You don't want to worry about it, love. Doyle's not worried; and he's probably right. He'd never have brought her here otherwise. No; I'm just making sure, that's all."

I mean, I'm trying to reduce the odds. 'Make sure' isn't ever possible. It just sounds better.

He thrust his pessimism aside. He was probably being unnecessarily edgy; and not at all in the Christmas spirit. He slanted a thoughtful eye up at the slight, curly-headed woman, and wondered how she was enjoying her Christmas, her reunion with her son; not much, so far, the mood Doyle was in.

There was a light swinging above her head, and the plastic shade had hanging from it a lopsided bunch of mistletoe. He rose, a mischievous twinkle in his eyes; grabbed her in strong, gentle hands, pushing her beneath the green leaves and milky- white berries; and kissed her.

"Well, that's more than my son's managed do to me yet," she said when he released her, breathless and laughing.

The evening meal was going well. There was roast sirloin, thick juicy slices of it; Yorkshire pudding, crisp and brown and golden; roast potatoes, creamy mashed ones; carrots and aromatic gravy. Bodie had done more than justice to it, which had gratified Mrs. Doyle no end. There was plenty of wine too; everyone had enough to make them talkative, though Bodie kept an unobtrusive eye on his and Doyle's intake. You're crazy, he told himself; he's right, there's no way they could trace you here. At least, not this fast... All the same, he wanted them to stay sober. Damn Cowley; he'd far rather be drunk. Bet the old man was on his fifth double malt by now...

They were eating by candlelight and the table was loaded; silver cutlery red-foiled crackers, shininf0crystal glasses, the curly sculpted silver candelabra the centrepiece of the table, bearing three tall red candles aloft. Bodie was beginning to see what Doyle meant about his family making a lot of Christmas, and enjoying it if only for the sight of Ray Doyle beside him, the lines on his face softened by the aura of the candles, his hair glinting occasionally gold as he moved in the flickering light, his green eyes glowing. Bodie was frequently amazed by his own romanticism concerning Doyle; but Doyle didn't seem to mind it so he supposed it didn't matter.

Karen was flirting with him outrageously; but that didn't matter either, he was fending her off with perfect parries. The conversation was going well; Bodie and Doyle fell into their old double act; Stan rumbled out a rugby anecdote or two that had the two CI5 men chuckling, Karen sniggering and Rita Doyle briefly smiling. An apple pie was brought in; Bodie smothered his portion happily with thick yellow custard, watched approvingly by Mrs. Doyle, who'd never been able to feed up her two slender children to her satisfaction.

"You'll get fat you will," came a low voice near his ear; and he turned to look into the smiling, gentle eyes of his partner.

"Not with you around as an example, sunshine," he answered in the same soft tone, and they watched each other for a moment longer, amused by the strangeness of life, the odd twist of fate that had made them fall in love. Breaking free with an effort, Bodie turned at last to his pie.

He nearly dropped his spoon.

Everyone was watching them silent and surprised. It seemed to him that he was facing three pairs of identical, accusing eyes. "I beg your pardon?" he said to no-one in particular, and began to eat to cover his sudden confusion.

Ray Doyle took it in his stride, gazing coolly around. "Something the matter?" he observed, and he too began to eat.

"Do you live together?" asked Karen, alight with curiosity, her brown-button eyes direct and inquisitive.

"No," said Bodie, just as his partner avowed the opposite.

"I see," said Karen, and she sent an expressive glance to one side of her. Deciding there might be more mileage left in it, she continued, "Or maybe I don't. It can't be no and yes, can it?"

Bodie would have snapped "Mind your own bloody business," at anyone else. Doyle, unperturbed, finished his pie in a few speedy spoonfuls and looked measuringly at his sister. "What he meant was, we tried living together but it didn't work out. I expect we'll get there again sometime."

Bodie had the feeling he was flushing, but it wouldn't show in this light. He didn't want to meet Mrs. Doyle's eyes but he forced himself to because he liked her the best of them, and because it was Ray's family, not his, and it was up to Ray how they played this. "I was hell to live with," he told her, apologetically.

"Ray's never been the easiest person to have around the house, either." She rose. "I'll make some coffee."

Doyle was leaning towards him, holding something out. "Pull my cracker with me," he said. with perfect, soulful innocence.

Over coffee, Stan lit a huge, fat cigar and puffed out clouds of evil-smelling smoke. The television was on again; some celebrity's Christmas special. When Rita Doyle began to clear the table, her son jumped to his feet. "Leave it, we'll see to it." He reached out, pulled Bodie up without looking.

"Don't be silly," she protested; but he was adamant. "It's OK. You sit down love. Me and him; we'll soon get it done."

"Well, if you're sure --" She cast a glance towards her daughter, who was pretending not to hear.

"We're sure," said Bodie, smiling down at the small woman, his dark eyes warily friendly.

"In that case, I might have a quick bath. There's a lot to do tomorrow."

j=Q!IIIj$)u+ast of the dishes carried in, Bodie shut the door, and let out a long whoosh of only partly-mock relief.

"You're doing fine," Doyle told him from the sink. "Behavin' beautifully."

"Yeah, I might be," Bodie said, darkly. He crossed the room and grabbed Doyle around the waist: and his partner laughed, and tried unsuccessfully to wriggle free. "But you?"

"What did I say?" Doyle asked, mildly.

Bodie just shook his head, and kissed him. Quick as a flash, even as he opened his mouth, hungry for Bodie's searching tongue, Doyle reached around behind his mate and dropped the wet dishcloth down the back of Bodie's shirt. Bodie yelped and jumped back. He wrenched around and managed to extract it. Doyle, chuckling, was switching on the radio; watching Bodie cautiously.

Bodie weighed the dripping object in his hand, staring at his partner, looking dangerous. "You're so beautiful when you're heavy," said Doyle, and ducked as the cloth hurled safely past him.

The washing-up was seriously under way when Doyle made a noise of surprise, reached out and turned the radio up, loud. It was a track well-known to them; one that had often blasted through their flats on late-night drinking jags; they knew every word. When the kitchen door opened they were in full swing, too far gone to stop. Doyle was playing an imaginary piano, really pounding it out; Bodie was on the drums, an expression of concentrated ecstasy on his face. "Every night you're out there darling," yelled Doyle; "You're always out there running --" Bodie bellowed. "And I see that lost look in your eyes!" Doyle completed, lustily: and bent to wring the most from his instrument. "Dark is the road you wander --" they caterwauled in unison, and Doyle grinned over at his mother, playing it out to the last, receding note.

"Are you two drunk?" she said, eventually, as the drummer finally halted his sticks, and came down to earth.

"Too drunk for what? Try us..." said Doyle instantly.

"Definitely drunk," she decided, shaking her head.

"Nah, we're not drunk," said her son. "Just crazy." He threw his arm around Bodie, hugged him once, and then went unconcernedly back to his chores.

"That'll do now, love," she said, gathering her wits. "The rest can wait. You two go and relax, you've done a lot. There's some beer in the fridge; take one for Stan, he likes one around this time of night --"

"Oh, I'll just bet he floodin' does," snorted Doyle. He wiped his hands on a towel and went to the fridge, singing "Confusion!" to himself, the tune still ringing through his mind.

His mother watched him silently. In their whole experience, in all his too often explosive life at home, she could only remember a handful of occasions when her highly strung son had been as relaxed, as happy as he was right now; and even those had been when he was much younger. Why? she wondered. What had changed?

Bodie, very solemn now, moved round to face her. "All right if I requisition a few things?" he asked, and looked meaningfully upwards.

She'd almost forgotten... "Just help yourself, love."

"You'll get reimbursed," he assured her, quite serious. "What's the rate, Ray?"

"Eight quid a day," his mate answered from where he squatted, shoving a few cans at him. "Might even get a bit more out of Cowley, since it's Christmas, what d'you think?"

"Some hope," sniffed Bodie, and winced as the ice-cold metal bit into his warm hands. "Shit --"

"Oh Bodie, Bodie," reproved Doyle, rising and putting his hands on his hips, surveying him sorrowfully. "You mustn't swear, not here. I used to get my mouth washed out with carbolic, and when I was too big for that, it was a shillin' in the swear box --"

"Christ, I forgot." He looked at Mrs. Doyle as he set the cans hurriedly down, rubbing his hands. "Sorry --"

"That's all right. At least it's more honest than 'floodin','" she said, and they were all grinning suddenly, sharing a moment of malicious unity.

Bodie was filling a tray with cold meat, pie, bread, and milk. "You want me to do it?" Doyle asked. Bodie'd had to do everything so far, he belatedly realised.

"S'all right, sunshine. You're on holiday. Besides, I'm getting quite attached to her..."

"I'm definitely goin', then."

"Not likely," tossed back Bodie, exiting. "She's too small for you, sweetheart."

Doyle looked after him, with a grin. He took the beer, ready to leave for the battleground of the living room once more -- and stopped.

His mother had her back to him, at the sink; and he hadn't spoken more than the most cursory of words to her since his arrival.

Coming to a decision, he perched on the kitchen table, opened a can of beer and took a long pull at it, swallowed. "You keeping all right?" he asked.

She dried her hands and turned to face him. "Fine thanks, love." Even in the fluffy pink dressing gown she had donned after the bath, he could see she was thinner.

"You said you'd been in hospital," he said, frowning. "How long ago was that?"

"A month or so."

"What for?"

"A small operation. Nothing to worry about."

"You should have let me know."

She took off her apron, folding it placidly. "You couldn't have done anything, love."

"Yeah, but you should still have told me."

The awkward conversation came to a halt. Neither of them knew what to say. Ray Doyle raised the can of beer to her. "Well, I'll take Stan's in, shall I? He's probably floodin' wonderin' where it's got to."

The weak joke didn't make her smile. "Don't go -- not for a moment, Ray --" and put out an impulsive hand.

He halted, and looked at her, green eyes wary. She knew too well his dislike of overt emotion, of anything tasting of sentimentality; and his determined shunning of physical contact had always hurt her, especially since it seemed to be more pronounced in him even than in other off-hand young boys of is own age. Another, closer memory touched her, and she made herself smile. "Don't worry, I'm not going to try and hug you. Your friend, though; d'you know what he did? Gave me a thumping kiss."

After a moment he smiled, and relaxed. "Well, he would. Bodie; he's all over everyone." He paced around the kitchen, restless as a wild animal, and she followed him with her eyes, unable to get enough of the sight of him, after so long. He had been a strange-looking child, green-eyed, curly-headed and wild; all that had settled down now. He had a trim athletic body that moved with careless, feral grace; his face had an aloof, unusual kind of beauty; he was self-assured: an extremely attractive man.

"I thought you might be married by now," she said.

He picked up his can of beer and drank, looking at her over it. "It's not my job."

"I'm sure you're right," she said, with a hint of bitterness.

Ray Doyle tensed inside, because he did not want, now or ever, to thrash out again the rights and wrongs of CI5 with his mother. The last time he had seen her they'd said it all, thrashing it out over and over until it was done and they were further apart than they'd ever been. He'd been proud of having been selected for CI5, was inwardly hurt that she was not, and that she would not listen to his justifications, even as a voice whispered to him that he was not all sure that he believed in them himself...

He thrust that thought aside, hard, and concentrated on the task in hand; a difficult one even if his mother did appear ready for reconciliation to the to the fact that her eldest child was a paid assassin, a professional killer.

"I do it because I have to," he said, aloud.

She had been remembering that night, too. "Don't let's talk about your job. You know how I feel about it. But -- you're still my son. You're still you. That's all that needs to be said."

He nodded, and took a deep breath; relieved by the compromise.

"Are you happy, love?" she asked, gently. "I'd like to know you were."

Bodie slid into his mind; Bodie who'd be here at his side in moment, snarling and snapping at the world, fighting them off if he let out one whimper of need for help. "Happy," he said thoughtfully, "Yeah, I suppose I am."

She went on stumbling a little over the words because at any moment he might freeze up, withdraw into himself, "That was why I hoped you'd meet someone; because you always seem very much alone Ray, and no-one can live that way and be happy. You're young and you always were one to be alone, and maybe you don't realise it yet, but it's true and I couldn't bear to think it would always be that way..."

He hesitated for several heartbeats, wondering. She was neither as hard nor as blatant as Karen, who'd ask right out and probably would before much more time passed; maybe it would be better not to tell her too much; even if she guessed as the years went on she could pretend to herself what she liked. Even as he thought all this, another part of himself was registering surprise even to be considering telling his mother about Bodie must mean that he was surer of himself; surer of Bodie and their future together than he had ever been.

He didn't feel guilty about what there was between himself and Bodie; he never had done, not one twinge of shame even right at the beginning when he realised he was sexually attracted to his heavily masculine partner. That very fact meant something to him; but it might mean something altogether different to someone who already saw him a moralless killer, even if she did think she no longer saw him that way.

"I'm not alone," he said clearly. "Not now. So don't worry about that."

She was startled, he could see that; and still uncomprehending. Damn, he cursed to himself much too late: I shouldn't have told her. Half the truth wasn't going to be enough. He hadn't been trying to hide anything and he supposed he'd been somewhat idealistically hoping that she already knew, had already accepted it, with no more words needed.

Instead of that, it was going to be 'Who?" and "When can I meet her?"

The kitchen door opened and they both jumped; Doyle's right hand making the customary, unconscious slide up towards the inside of his jacket. It was Bodie, hard faced and serious, his mouth aggressively out, very much on the job, totally unaware of anything else right now.

"Christ, she's tense," he growled at Doyle. "I've tried to get over that she's got the flower of CI5 on her side but it's fuckin' difficult with a twenty-word vocabulary. "You don't happen to have Nembutal about, barbiturates, that sort of thing? Or Valium?" This last, in a slightly softer tone of voice was addressed to Doyle's mother, but she was looking only at Doyle himself, the spark of sudden understanding leaping into her eyes as she watched her son, her mind tracing back over the day, the little things --

"Yes; yes I have," she said slowly. "In the bathroom cabinet."

"Thanks, love." Bodie was about to leave when he suddenly saw Doyle's face. He stopped, putting a hand on his mate's shoulder. "All right sunshine?" he said quietly, puzzled and concerned, suddenly oblivious to anything else.

Doyle flinched from the touch as if burned, shrugging Bodie angrily off.

Bodie's face changed; his eyes black and unreadable. "All right," he answered himself cynically; and left, heroically without slamming the door.

They could hear him taking the stairs, one, two, three -- Doyle remembered leaping up those stairs, hurt and angry, making it in three strides to the sanctuary of his bedroom, slamming the door and locking out the bitter world that didn't understand him. Above, the same door opened and shut; but there was no sanctuary for Bodie here, none at all save himself and he had just pushed Bodie away.

Sick with himself and his instinctive reaction, he said a cool "Excuse me," to his mother, and went to follow Bodie, to make it up.


Arrested by her unusually forceful tone, he turned at the door, not knowing what to expect, braced for anything.

You had dreams. When they never came true, you lived your life through your children, you wished on them all the things you had never achieved, all the happiness and contentment you had never known.

They never made it either, and you had a choice. To turn them away, rejecting them openly because they had failed you, and their own potential; because the object of your own creation turned out, after all, to be no better than yourself --

Or you accepted the reality, made the most of it: Karen living childless in a semi with an insensitive boor, spending her time chatting with girlfriends of scandals in the street: Ray -- as he was --

She loved her son.

"You know," she said as if nothing had happened, although her voice was shaking, "Your Bodie. I like him a lot. You always needed someone to look after you, and he seems a capable sort."

There was silence of several moments while he took it in. Then, "Bodie? Can't boil an egg," he said absently; and then he smiled at her, a wide smile of relief. On impulse he reached out and hugged her; for the first time in years.

Then he let her go. "I think I'll turn in now," she said, suddenly awkward.

He checked his watch. "It's only ten."

"I'm tired. All right, love? See you in the morning."

He listened as she went up the stairs, thinking that yes, she would need time to think. She'd been generous; met him halfway, or more than halfway; and he felt better, somehow; more at ease. He could hear laughter coming from the living room, Karen's brassy giggles, Stan's barks and hoots, and winced inwardly. He badly needed to be alone with Bodie, just quiet and at peace; he ached for it. Where the hell was he? Not sulking, he pleaded inwardly; he just couldn't deal with it.

He went quietly up the stairs. His mother's bedroom door was shut, a thread of light shining beneath it. He went to the landing window and looked out, his professional instincts momentarily taking over: no access, that way, no footholds beneath and nothing to overlook it. He heard a door opening behind him and a key turning, and he glanced over his shoulder.

"Got a sleeping pill down her anyway," said Bodie succinctly, "and I left a bucket in there. I reckon we can forget about her till the morning." It would be Christmas Day. He came and stood beside Doyle, looking out with him, his face closed and tight.

Doyle slipped an arm around his waist, leaned his head on Bodie's shoulder.

Bodie was tense. He wasn't even quite sure what he'd done wrong. "Sorry," he muttered, anyway.

"Wasn't you, was it? Listen mate, if I do anything like that again, you just fetch me one, OK?" He was quite serious.

"Hit you?" said Bodie, looking away unseeingly, "Nah, I couldn't."

Doyle grinned at him. "Yeah, you could. You'd just love to thump me sometime; I can see it in your eyes."

Bodie only shook his head, staring out at the night. A little twinge of alertness stirred in Doyle; maybe...? He pushed at Bodie, gently, making Bodie look at him. "Wish you would, sometimes. Be fun..."

He felt Bodie's resistance, in every line of his rigidly tensed body; saw it in his set face, his flared nostrils as he sucked in a breath. Now we're getting there...

"You're not into those games, Doyle," muttered Bodie, looking away again, out at the silent dark street.

They were keeping their voices very low. "Nah," said Doyle easily, "S&M, no way, I'm not talking about that. But I'm a big strong boy now, Bodie; I'm not a girl an' I'm not frightened of you. And I just think it would be exciting --" He paused.

"What would." Bodie, truculent.

Doyle leant very near him, his lips close to Bodie's ear. "If you got rough with me."

He meant, as well, "If you fucked me," but it didn't seem the right time or place to say it; and besides, he knew Bodie would see exactly what he was getting at.

Bodie turned away, letting out a long sigh of angry frustration, tension. "I can't."

It was so quiet, his partner only just caught it. "Why not? You said right at the beginning, you said --"

"Leave it out Doyle, will you"!" Bodie snarled at him, finally snapping. He wanted to get away; go anywhere so long as Doyle and his blasted questions weren't there; but Doyle's hand shot out and kept him there, with a grip of steel.

"OK," he said quietly, eyes gleaming in the darkness, "Don't go off the deep end. I'm not forcing you into it. Couldn't, could I?" he said, with a flash of humour. "Come with me a minute."

He tugged Bodie along with him. "Where --"

"SSssh," Doyle admonished him, and pulled him into the bathroom, shutting the door.

"What are you doing?"

Doyle gave him an angelic smile. "Need to pee."

"And you need me along?" growled Bodie. He perched himself on the edge of the bath and watched Doyle.

Doyle rearranged his clothing, came over and hauled Bodie to his feet, hands under his armpits, looking into his face. Then he brought his mouth down on Bodie's warm lips, closing his eyes.

It was a long, gentle kiss; Doyle making no attempt to force any sexual response. He simply needed this, and this was the only safe place in the house. He kept his hands under his partner's arms, even when they rose to hold him. When the pressure of Bodie's mouth became harder, more urgent, he opened his eyes, and pulled back a little. He took a deep breath. "I needed that..."

"Me too," said Bodie shortly.

Doyle squeezed him once and let him go, with regret. "Let's go get that beer."

Bodie's eyes were suddenly gentle. "Been a tough day for you, eh sunshine?"

"Not over yet," came Doyle's cryptic reply as he went down the stairs.

"Where've you two been? You've been ages, you've missed the start of the film." Karen twisted round from where she was sitting on the floor, against Stan's knees, and gave them a hard stare.

"Takes time, love," said Doyle, settling himself beside Bodie on the settee. "Didn't hear you offering to help." He snapped open a beer, passed it to Bodie and rolled a can along the floor in Stan's direction. "Beer, Stan." Karen was drinking wine, and didn't reply as he'd known she wouldn't. Lazy little piece his sister, always had been. His sister. Sometimes he found it hard to believe.

The film was a Hammer horror; dark misty streets, gas lights, strange robed figures with big teeth slinking about graveyards, brooding. Bodie and Doyle found it hilarious, and showed it. Karen and Stan, however, were the types who took their late-night thrills seriously, and resented heartily the snorts of laughter, the howls of mock agony, the audible shivers of fear coming from the settee.

"Just knock it off, Ray," said Karen irritably, at last. "You're ruining it. Might as well turn it off, the way you two are carrying on."

"Oh, sorry," said Doyle with a pseudo-scared look at Bodie; then he rolled against his partner and shut his eyes.

After a while, Bodie knew from the relaxed, heavy warmth of his partner that he had genuinely fallen into a doze. He made him more comfortable, sliding down so Doyle's head rested on his shoulder where he could support him easily, staring out over the disordered head to the flickering images on the TV screen, half concentrating on the film, whose plot he had long since lost, half soaking up the pleasurable feeling of Doyle, trustful in sleep, close against him.

"Ray?" Karen's quiet voice filtered through; she had turned to look at them.

"He's asleep," answered Bodie shortly. He met her eyes with cold equanimity; he wasn't playing. In fact, he hoped he'd been making it clear all evening he wasn't playing; but apparently not.

"So's Stan. Boring, isn't it."

Bodie wasn't bored. He liked it; Ray Doyle asleep, nestling close to him. It was sentimental and ridiculous; and he'd sell his soul for it.

She rose, moving lightly as a cat, and came to sit on the floor near his feet, looking up. "Shall we wake them up? Play cards or something."

"No," he said. He didn't want Doyle disturbed; he badly needed to relax. Unfortunately, she arrived at a rather less innocuous conclusion concerning his rebuttal; and threw one arm up, across his knees.

It was quite a casual gesture; you could just about get away with it after an evening of free-flowing drink and Christmas camaraderie. She tipped her head back and looked up at him, appraising. Bodie began to think maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea to rouse Doyle after all.

"Cards?" he said, as if suddenly waking up to the idea, "What sort of cards?"

She seemed to have gone off the idea, herself. She was looking at her brother, sprawled across the big dark man's body, kept close with an arm around him. "Look at him. He'll give you a cramp. Bet he's not your idea of the greatest thing to cuddle up to this time of night." She giggled, softly; and dancing brown eyes met his.

"He's all right," muttered Bodie.

"Look, I've got a good idea --"

She let her fingers walk up his leg, over his knee.

He was getting decidedly uneasy, though he knew he was being ridiculous. All right, she was flirting, enjoying a bit of fun: he'd met her type before, the type who liked this game, an inconsequential flutter of excitement. The moment you started taking them seriously, played back, and harder, they turned tail and retreated, casting reproachful glances over their shoulders at you for having spoilt the fun.

"Yeah," he said deliberately, "Yeah, I just bet you have."

She looked into his hard dark eyes and felt a shiver of excitement. He was a beauty. "Let's go for a walk."

"A walk? It's nearly midnight." He knew it must, because the late mass had started on the television; angelic rows of white-frilled choirboys pacing down the aisle, their mouths identical O's as they sang the old, old story.

She tossed her head, looking mysterious. For a moment, he caught a flash of Ray about her, in the curve of the lips, the provocative slant of her eyes. "Couldn't be better. I love midnight; it's the best hour."

What a conquest, he thought with grim amusement; the brother on one arm the sister across his lap.

"Oh yeah love, and how am I gonna explain it to him?" He glanced over at the burly man asleep in front of the fire. Wake up, mate, your wife's trying to seduce me...

She leaned in closer, dropped her chin onto his knee, ran her tongue around her parted lips. "He won't know. All that beer in him; sleeps like a log, our Stan does."

He began to wonder, after all, if she was merely playing. In any case, he felt it had gone quite far enough. Doyle murmured something on his shoulder, restless, and Bodie shook him, leaning forward to dislodge Karen at the same time. "Wakin' up are you, sunshine?" he said, loudly and pointedly.

Doyle came awake fast, eyes snapping open, limbs tense, his hand snaking inside his jacket as he looked around.

"Christ, you're jumpy, Ray," said Karen, getting her breath back. "Having an exciting dream, were you? Bet you were back with the police puttin' the heavies on some poor member of the public." She(g|t to her feet, not displeased with what had passed. There was plenty of time yet for a little amusement when the circumstances were right. She winked at Bodie and moved off. "Let's play cards."

Doyle was smiling at him, stretching. "Must've been tired."

"It's getting late," murmured Bodie, casting a glance at the Howards. "What time --"

"Won't be a minute, boys, just popping upstairs. We can play whist when I get back," Karen called, and left the room.

Doyle grinned, and answered Bodie's unfinished question. "Not a hope, mate. They won't turn in before the telly ends; no chance."

Bodie checked that Stan was still asleep. "Look, your sister --"

Doyle understood in a moment, and chuckled. "Try it on, did she?" He didn't seem surprised. "She 'asn't changed."

Bodie stared. "Bit blatant though, isn't it mate? Husband only ten feet away. Mind you --" he cast a disdainful eye over the snoring, open-mouthed form, "You can see why she fancies a change of scenery every now and then."

Doyle snorted. "If she were married to Clint Eastwood she'd still be lookin' around."

"Yeah? Brazen," decided Bodie; and his arm closed tight around Doyle suddenly. "Both of you. Utterly brazen."

"She used to try it on with me."

Bodie looked down at him with disbelief. "You?"

Doyle nodded. He appeared quite unconcerned. "Wouldn't leave me alone when she was sixteen, seventeen."

"You're puttin' me on?" demanded Bodie.


"And -- ?" prodded Bodie cautiously.

Doyle snorted. "Oh c'mon mate, I was never that desperate."

Bodie shook his head, and gave up. Jesus, families. He'd never missed being part of one, at least not since he was very small; but he'd never guessed, either, just what it could be like. Doyle's interesting revelations made him resolve to be very careful, very careful indeed of Karen Howard.

Doyle was feeling refreshed, relaxed and lively after his doze. He jumped to his feet, roaring "Come on Stan!" and thumped him on the shoulder.

Personally, Bodie would have been quite happy to leave him asleep.

"Karen wants to play cards," Doyle said breezily, staring relentlessly down into the screwed-up, drowsy face of his brother-in-law. "And you don't want to disappoint her, do you? I'll bet she's hell when she's disappointed. Get the cards, Bodie; they're in the kitchen, left hand drawer."

Bodie found them and made a quick check on the outside doors.

He turned from an inspection of the front door panelling to see Karen there; she had shut the kitchen door behind her and they were alone and shut off in the narrow passage-way. She was advancing on him, self-assured and inquisitive.

He threw caution to the winds, and growled at her, "Don't be so bloody nosy."

"Oh, forceful," she said in a way which reminded him of her brother; the ensuing glance from heavy-lidded brown eyes, too. There was no doubt about it. The Doyle children had been handed out more than their fair share of voracious sensuality. The difference was, Ray Doyle's strong sexual appeal was softened by a dreamy side to it, that called forth gentleness, and an intense desire to protect him. Looking at Karen's gleaming, wordly eyes, Bodie imagined that no-one could ever feel anything for her but lust. Or hatred.

She was standing right underneath the mistletoe, under the light, and it picked out mellow glints in her shining dark hair, the pink flush of her cheeks; and he could see the aureoles of her nipples clearly through her thin, silky blouse. He was beginning to feel hot, and trapped.

"Come on, kiss me, then," she said softly, and it was Ray's voice only lighter; he felt sickened and lustful at the same time. She was a gypsy; dark-eyed, wanton and abandoned.

"Don't be shy," she said, beginning to be amused. "Mistletoe's magic; everyone forgets what they've done under it after, and no harm done."

"Stan keepin' you short by any chance, love?" he asked, not even trying to keep the vicious edge off his voice. She came closer; he could smell her pleasant, light scent; the warm sweet wine on her breath. Her bright, sensual eyes peered into his face. "You're scared," she accused, softly.

Exasperated beyond good sense he grabbed her; and she relaxed against him straight away, staring curiously up at his aggressive chin, not hurrying. "That's more like it." He could feel the warmth of her small breasts, pushing into his chest. A smile curved across her full lips, suddenly. "Bet you wouldn't be slow if it was our Ray standin' here, would you? I'm not daft, I've seen the way you look at him. Cuddlin' him." Then a thought occurred to her, and her eyes widened with certainty as she stared at him. "I bet you do, don't you? You make it with Ray."

"Are you drunk, love?" he parried, hard-eyed. "You were tipping it back like water out there."

She smiled again, knowing she was right; it all added up. She shook her head gently, so all her dark hair flew about. "Well, well. You make it -- with my brother. What -- a -- lovely -- thought," she said, spacing the words out, dreamily; tip0igg her head back, considering. "He's a beautiful creature, isn't he? You an' him: now there's something I'd like to see."

All of a sudden, he was in command again; she had tipped him over the edge. With one hard, swift movement he twisted her arms behind her back, staring down at the flushed face below him, his own face cynical, cruel. "You're a bitch," he told her, dispassionately. "A whoring bitch. Don't play with me, poppet. It wouldn't be a pretty game."

He was hurting her but she forced a smile, her tongue between her lips. "I'd like it. Any time."

He stared down, his eyes jet-black, and hard; his mouth twisting. "No, sunshine," he said with black humour, "You wouldn't like it all."

And beneath the mistletoe, he brought his mouth down on hers in a savage travesty of a kiss.

Doyle was lying on the settee, arms behind his head, feet up, when he heard his sister scream.

"What the --" began Stan, and he was just on his feet as Doyle disappeared through the door.

Karen was breathing hard, the back of her hand pressed against her cheek; Bodie stood some way apart in the narrow passageway. "What the hell?" demanded Doyle, and Bodie shrugged, meeting his eyes with a faint humorous twist of his mouth. Doyle took everything in; the fact that Bodie looked hard, self- contained, well in control -- nothing serious, he decided instantly, not the bloody terrorists this time -- and that his sister's lips looked bruised, her expression defiant, but scared. Definitely scared. That was odd; Karen was many things, and most of them objectionable, but she wasn't a coward. And if she'd been playing around with Bodie, well, she might have got her fingers burned, but Bodie wasn't a rapist. He raised a puzzled eyebrow at his partner, but Bodie only shrugged again.

Stan was there now, grabbing his wife, glaring around at everyone else. "What is it, lover?"

She shook herself impatiently free, staring coldly and accusingly at Bodie.

"Did he touch you?" demanded Stan furiously, glowering in rising fury at the smooth dark bastard who'd been trying it on with his wife. Incensed into red heat, he swung back his arm, ready to land one right in the centre of the arrogant features. Karen caught it, just as Doyle was about to step in, Bodie about to move smoothly out of the way to let Stan's fist thump harmlessly into the wall. Harmlessly for Bodie, that was.

"Don't be a bloody idiot, Stan," she said irritably, an edge of fine tension in her voice. "It's nothing like that... He's got a gun."

Stan stared. "A gun?"

"That's what I said, isn't it? He's wearing a fucking gun." It had terrified her, the heavy cool metal her exploring fingers had unexpectedly come across, beneath the arm of the exciting man who was kissing her with cold, unloving violence.

The situation defused somewhat, at least for Stan. "Of course he's not," he said bracingly. Karen was a strange girl; it was why he had married her.

Karen's voice was like chilled ice; again, unnervingly, it reminded Bodie of Doyle at his worst. "Ask him. He won't deny it." Her eyes met Bodie's, cool and resigned.

Stan turned to him, bewildered. "This a joke?"

"No," said Bodie, tight-lipped, cold-eyed.

"You've really got a gun?" Stan had never seen a gun. He knew one thing -- the people who carried them were usually criminals, and never afraid to use them. He cleared his throat, cautiously, eyeing Bodie warily. "Er -- you got a license for it, son?"

Karen turned her head away, in absolute disgust at his ignorance. "Of course he hasn't. And he's a bloody maniac too; I'll tell you that. Don't go near him!" she yelled as Stan moved.

Doyle began to feel it was time he took a hand in all this. He stepped away from the wall, uncrossing his arms. "All right," he said coolly, "Panic over --"

His sister turned on him, wild and furious. "It's bloody well not over! You an' him -- you're in this together, aren't you, you've kidnapped that girl upstairs and gone into hiding with her here, in my mother's house, and you'll shoot any of us without a second thought, won't you, if we try to get on the phone or get help --"

Doyle began to laugh. He couldn't help it; Karen's angry, fatalistic conclusions, her utter distrust of himself; Stan's open-mouthed, dawning comprehension; Bodie's cold dignity as he watched the little scene with a faintly bored expression -- it all struck his perverse sense of humour as decidedly funny. Watching his partner, Bodie too gave a quick grin, and relaxed.

"Oh yeah, it's bloody funny," said Stan, goaded into a bona fide swear word at long last. "It's bloody funny, isn't it." He stared at each of them suspiciously, not fancying tackling either.

"Yeah," said Doyle with a final chuckle. "I suppose it is. You heard of CI5?"

"Of course I floodin' well have --"

"And you?" Bodie interposed, giving Karen a hard stare. She didn't deign to answer. "Yeah, believe it or not --" he extracted his ID, tossed it to her -- "me and him, we're the good guys."

And they played cards, all four of them in the small hours, drinking beer and at first carried along by a kind of mad euphoria, fuelled by the release from tension, and the mercurial, quirky humour of three of them.

They were playing whist, and Radio two was droning Christmas records and soft small talk in the background and Doyle had been aware for about the last three hands that tensions were building up again, between his partner and Karen's husband. Bodie was very good at cards, way out of the class of the other three but a one-and-a-half dimensional game like whist left little room for skilled manoeuvre if the cards ran against you. And the cards were going against them. Doyle was sick of staring at hands of twos and threes, fattened out with a lone suit of valueless non- trumps, one reasonable trump he'd be forced into wasting on a thrown trick; and a line of kings someone else usually trumped in on. They were losing nearly every hand; and it was just as well, Doyle decided, the way Stan was going on.

The older man was playing this game like his reputation depended on it, his head bowed and furiously concentrating; whining in a tone that was less and less humorous as the game went on at Karen after each hand about the wrong leads she'd supposedly made. It was obvious to Doyle that Bodie and Karen had been fooling around out there before she took fright and yelled; it was probably obvious to Stan, too, now he'd had the time to think about it; and getting back at Bodie, now revealed to be a top-shot in a kind of glamorous secret service, which was how Karen would probably see it, seemed to be desperately important to him, even if it was only in this shallow medium. And he was cheating. Doyle was sure of it; and he willed Bodie silently to let it go.

Some chance of that. Bodie had nothing against cheating, if it was properly done, and if you could get away with it unobserved; it just ranked as another skill, like good bidding, in Bodie's mind. But this was probably the most amateurish attempt at it he'd ever seen, and it rankled at his pride. He'd scarcely been able to believe it when Stan made the first heavy- handed hint to his partner over which suit to lead -- "Take heart, love" -- and it was followed by others, thick and fast: "girl's best friend"; digging references, of course, for spades. Bodie had contented himself with a single, cutting comment addressed to Karen, and a dark look from narrowed eyes at Stan: "Your partner seems to be trying to hint to you that he's out of hearts. I should try leading the king, love; then you're covered both ways."

The comments dropped off after that but a little later Stan dropped his box of matches, bent to pick them up -- and got in a quick eyeful of Doyle's fanned out hand.

But it was when Stan, talking loudly, made some obvious fumbles while shuffling that Bodie decided enough was enough. It was the silliest, most feeble piece of cheating he'd ever set eyes on; it would insure nothing more than that the top card was poor, the bottommost one good and Bodie was exasperated into infuriation. Stan was about to deal.

"I'll cut those, sunshine," Bodie growled, and removed the pack with a smooth flick of his wrist.

"Whaddya mean by that," said Stan, looking up.

"Exactly what I said." Bodie ran the cards together with expert thumbs.

Stan got heavily to his feet. "Are you saying there was somethin' not right with the way I shuffled? Well, are you?" He leaned over and glared at the smooth dark man who'd been kissing his wife.

Bodie looked up, suddenly deadly. He said nothing. He simply stared at Stan until the other man, uncomfortable, moved back. Then Bodie slapped the pack down on the table and waited grimly for the deal, his eyes on Stan's hands all the time, flipping back and forth, watching every card.

It made Stan nervous; and he was rather drunk. They played the hand out in silence. It was half past one. "Shall we call it a day, go up now?" said Karen.

"My deal," said Bodie, very deep in his throat, ignoring her; and he drew the cards together.

It had taken him months of practice to perfect this manoeuvre; but then he'd had months; periods of stultifying, steamy boredom out in Africa -- interspersed with brief bursts of terrifyingly bloody action, when there was not time to think, just shoot, and move, and shoot again until there was silence at last but for the pounding of your own heart, and you stood in the wreck of your thoughts, and realised you were soaked to the skin with the sweat of fear, and it was time to count the dead --

But the nights were long, and he'd had an ex-GI mate who was the biggest cardsharp in Texas, or so he'd assured Bodie as he riffled through the pack, the other hand on Bodie's thigh. Bodie had been a quick learner, and he had it all down perfect in his mind and his fingers; how to gather the tricks up from the previous hand, how to rearrange them, not too slowly, and so it looked just as if you were making a flashy, but innocuous shuffle; and then he began to deal.

You should have passed them to Karen to cut," put in Stan, nastily. "Since we're playing by the book."

"Why, don't you trust me?" challenged Bodie, without pausing in his swift deal.

Doyle knew his partner was up to something, but not what, exactly, and his cards provided little clue. His hand was rather better than most of previous, certainly; he had three high trumps and one other, but the rest of his cards were mostly clubs. He could see only three, possibly four, certain tricks in it; no whitewash coming up here... If this was Bodie's idea of sleight of hand, he'd have done better to stay honest...

Karen's lead: a low diamond. That probably meant she had the king and was hoping to flush out the ace; like himself she was a straightforward, guileless player. He only had one diamond, the eight, and played it. Stan risked a queen; then Bodie swiftly took the trick with the ace. He hadn't looked at Doyle at all, his head bent frowning over his cards. Not for Bodie the obvious message; the heavy-handed clue.

Bodie swiftly led a trump -- the five; still without looking up.

Unusual to lead trumps at this early stage; it unnerved Karen, who preferred them neatly left to the end. She played the three, disowning any challenge. Doyle's heart was beginning to race, for some reason, He played the ace of trumps, and the trick was his.

No obvious message, no. But Bodie had meant something, that was for sure, with that unusual opening-game lead. Doyle stared at his cards, his two remaining high trumps, his long run of clubs -- and suddenly it all fell into place; he could see the pattern as clearly and inevitable as if it were marked out.

He had a completely unbeatable hand. He could take nearly every remaining trick, if he played it right, now he had the lead. And he knew how to play it right, because Bodie had showed him the way to go. He led again, with the king of spades. Then the queen. Twelve trumps down then; and he had the last of them, the lowly seven. He began to trot out his long suit of clubs, and even the two was a winning card, his fellow players having long run out, jettisoning thrown cards onto the suit that had looked so unpromising until he had cleaned out the trumps, and were now as good as trumps themselves. The last but one trick he took with his seven of spades. The last, his sole heart, an unhopeful ten; but he knew what would happen and didn't even doubt it when Stan threw down the king he'd saved on top of it with a wheeze of frustrated temper; because Bodie, looking up at last, let the ace flutter down on it from above, and met Ray Doyle's eyes with a flicker of amused, cynical triumph, sweeping thirteen tricks to his side of the table.

Karen was the first to speak. Like her brother, she a good, ungrudging loser. "What a weird hand. Thought mine was quite good at first, lots of pictures. Funny the way things go, isn't it."

Stan had risen to his feet. He had drunk a fair bit that evening, and been sorely provoked; his face was flushed dark red as he glared at Bodie. "Funny?" he said. "Funny? This floodin' son of bitch dealt that hand --"

Karen began to laugh, suddenly getting the idea. "You mean he set it up? That really is too much. God, Ray --" she shook her head -- "Unstable; you were too bloody right. He's a right nutter..." She darted an amused, not unappreciative glance at the moody dark man who made it with her brother, and put a hand out to Stan, getting to her feet. "I'm off, then."

"He cheated," said Stan in a low voice. He looked down at an arrogantly sprawled Bodie, who didn't even bother to look up.

"Well, so did you. Come on for godsake. It's nearly morning as it is. Night you two. Oh and -- have fun --"

Stan's parting shot at Bodie was a level look. "I'll be watchin' out for you."

The door shut; they heard the low voices getting fainter as they went up the stairs and doors up there opening and shutting. Doyle chuckled, shaking his head as he got up, thumping Bodie between the shoulderblades. "Nice trick, mate."

It had been cheap and flashy, Bodie thought, the humiliation of the other man; but he didn't care. "He asked for it."

"Yeah." Doyle wandered to the sideboard, looked at the bottles. "You want another drink? Nightcap." Without waiting for an answer he poured two shots of whisky, brought one to his mate.

Bodie looked very uptight; dark and brooding. "What's the matter?" He rested his head on Bodie's lap, swung his legs up onto the settee, supporting his glass on his chest.

Bodie took a drink. The harsh liquid slid down his throat, and it matched his mood. "Your bloody sister..." He felt angry, tired yet too tense for sleep. He stared down into Doyle's upturned face and raised his free hand absently to trail in the soft, heavy curls.

"She gettin' to you? You'll get used to it."

"Rather not, thanks." Bodie, very bleak.

Doyle thought back. "What happened? Before she screamed?"

"She practically ate me alive," said Bodie without a trace of humour. He felt used, and unclean; not because he had kissed her, that was nothing, but because she had roused in him a sick response because of the perverse resemblance he had seen in her to Doyle. Doyle who was apparently dissatisfied with his performance in bed.

"I did warn you," said Doyle, breaking into Bodie's sombre thoughts.

Bodie didn't reply.

"Bodie -- ?" said Doyle, beginning to be puzzled, and worried.

Bodie moved his head to one side, restless. "She knows about us."

Doyle took it in, not surprised: Karen was sharp. "Well, so what? If she thinks you're gay, she won't waste her time on you, will she?"

"You must be joking," muttered Bodie glumly, "She's got a bloody threesome in mind."

Doyle was thoughtful. He twisted away from Bodie and sat up. "Come on, Bodie," he said harshly, "I don't give shit what she's got in mind, and nor do you. You can't seriously be expecting me to believe you're worried about Karen. You've met her type before and you know perfectly well how to handle 'em."

The scathing, down-to-earth tones relaxed Bodie a little. Doyle was right, he was overreacting. But the tension didn't all leave him, and his spirits refused to rise. Doyle was continuing. "Or if you want, we can just leave any time. Now, if you're tearin' yourself up about it. I'm not exactly havin' the biggest charge of my life either, you know."

"I know," muttered Bodie. "We'll stick it out. Just don't expect me to remember my manners if she tries it on again, will you?"

"I won't leave you alone for a moment," promised Doyle facetiously. "And if she wants to have her wicked way with you, she'll have to fight me for you, OK?"

Bodie thought of something. "Look mate, I'm not knocking her, you know? But it strikes me she's the malicious type. I wouldn't put it past her to land it on your mother."

"How did she find out? Did you tell her?" Doyle asked, idly. "Of course not," said Bodie, affronted. The he remembered, adding sheepishly, "Not exactly. You went to sleep all over me, and she said I looked at you --"

Doyle chuckled affectionately. "I just bet you did. You're a sloppy thing, you are."

He finished his drink, checked his watch. After two. He and Bodie; they never needed much sleep. Tensed up and alert for most of the day, they favoured a long unwind in the evening, drinking to relax them but seldom hard; music, talk, love; until they settled down for five or six hours oblivion.

"Your mother," reminded Bodie, who was getting edgy; they were all alone now and he could imagine the turn Doyle's thoughts would be taking soon. Before, he had only ever been pleased that Doyle's sexual drive was as strong as his own; but tonight the idea was somehow threatening, making all his insides curl up in a scared knot; it was funny, really, he thought viciously; a predatory lustful ex-para like himself incapable and anxious -- "Your charming sister is going to break the news to her over the cornflakes that her son is a raving queer."

"Yeah, probably," agreed Doyle. "First rule of self-defence though; get in the first move yourself. She already knows."

Bodie glanced across at him, startled. "You told her?"

Bodie frowned, suspicious. Doyle elucidated: "In the kitchen, earlier. She had been going on about the loneliness of my life, and I told her I had someone now, and she was just about to ask who when you came in right on cue and fussed over me like a mother hen --"

It was all clear now to Bodie, why Doyle had thrown him off. "Sorry, mate."

"Nah, it's best she knows."

"How'd she take it?" said Bodie cautiously.

"Well, I don't imagine she's exactly overjoyed," Doyle said dryly. "She'll have to get used to it, won't she?"

The room was very dark; just one standard lamp casting a yellow glow and the coloured kaleidoscope of the Christmas tree lights. Doyle looked over at Bodie, saw his dark eyes gleaming under down-cast lashes; Bodie was a bit subdued tonight. He'd done well today. "All right, mate?" he said quietly. He got up for another drink.

"Yeah." Bodie didn't sound convinced.

"Been a bit hairy at times, hasn't it. I'm sorry --"

"Sorry what?"

"Sorry you had to come, really. We could have been at home; that's how I planned it."

Bodie tipped back his head, drinking. "S'all right." He contemplated his glass, and admitted, moodily, "I'm so far gone I'd follow you if you took it into your head to spend Christmas on the moon."

Doyle laughed a little, but Bodie was in a reflective mood, watching him all the time. Every time he turned his head, or sniffed, or lifted his glass, he felt Bodie's brooding eyes on him. "What're you thinking," he asked, softly. He wanted to talk.

"That you're beautiful," responded Bodie instantly; he looked very enigmatic, almost melancholy.

"You really mean it, don't you," said Doyle, shaking his head.

"Yeah," said Bodie, twisting his glass between his palms.

"Know how you feel." Doyle let his gaze dwell lovingly on the dark hair, the smooth hard face; but Bodie didn't look up.

"Do you? No, sunshine; you don't know at all. And you want to know something else? If twenty bloody terrorists came through that door now looking for her, it wouldn't be her I was protecting. She could get shot to pieces; long as you were safe."

It was out; he'd said it. They were useless to CI5 as a team forever more, because he'd fallen out of line, abandoned all objectives save one.

Doyle's face twisted into a grimace as he took a sip of his drink. "Yeah, I know, it's a problem."

Bodie took a cautious glance at him. "Look, Ray, I'll try --"

"You'll try," repeated Doyle, faintly, wryly bitter.

Bodie didn't understand. "You still haven't taken it in, have you, you crazy bastard. What will it take, want me to write you a poem or something?" said Doyle sarkily, exasperated. "You keep on and on as if all this is just on your side; well, it isn't. And I think you're right -- we might have a bit of problem with the job. It's a fair bet that if you send out romantically involved teams into do-or-die situations, you're on a dead wicket. Heroism doesn't look so objective all of sudden when you're faced with a choice between your life-mate and some johnny you're under contract to save at all costs. We'll 'ave to see how it goes. May be different when we're actually faced with it. I'll tell you something, though."


"We'll only get one chance."

That was true all right. If Cowley knew they were even having these thoughts, ever got one whiff of this particular discussion, they'd be split without another thought. Or worse, Bodie thought. But was there ever a time, even before they'd become lovers, when he'd have sacrificed Doyle to successfully complete the job he was paid to do, if it had come to it? He didn't know; stashed it away for future consideration. Doyle touched him unexpectedly, and he flinched, violently.

"Hey," said Doyle softly, puzzled. "What's up?"

Bodie had been startled himself by his instinctive reaction, and it made him even more uneasy. Pulling back -- from Doyle? What the hell was the matter with him? "Look, don't start anything mate," he growled, looking away. "We can't do anything here so just don't get me all worked up, OK?"

Doyle was half amused, half concerned. "Can't? Why not?"

"Use your head, Doyle!" He waved a hand upwards, angrily. "S'gonna look good if her friends turn up and her bloody bodyguards are locked in a sweaty clinch, now isn't it."

"Aah. Well, I can see we can't get into anything heavy. But we could still have a little fun --"

He rolled against Bodie, experimentally, slipping one arm beneath him and the other over his stomach. Bodie shut his eyes, beginning to be aroused despite himself, by Doyle's nearness, the warm smell of him. Maybe this was what he needed, to relax him, to purge the restless anxiety...

Encouraged by the lack of opposition, Doyle parted Bodie's trousers and took Bodie in one gentle hand. "That's more like it," he murmured, smiling as Bodie's warm body began to swell and harden in his curled fingers.

Bodie forced himself to calm down, to concentrate on the gentle pleasure Doyle's slow, sure touch was giving him. Nothing threatening, nothing demanding; just a warm hand unhurriedly soothing him, squeezing him on towards a growing, insistent pleasure

"This more your style?" came an amused whisper near his ear. "Nice and gentle and slow; Bodie the big softie --"

He had only meant to be teasing and affectionate; to let Bodie know everything was all right. What came next, therefore, was totally unexpected.

Bodie threw Doyle off, hard, wrenching his hand away and leaping to his feet, adjusting his clothing with hurried, shaking fingers his back to the settee.

"You bastard," he said between clenched teeth. "You're determined to make me feel like a -- a bloody failure, aren't you?" He whirled round, staring angrily down at a startled Doyle. "Well, congratulations," he said, bitterly. "You've succeeded."

"Bodie --" said Doyle, his face screwed up with astonishment; but Bodie had gone, leaping up the stairs to the bathroom like a tornado.

When he came down, several minutes later, Doyle had laid out the sleeping bags on the floor and was already inside one, his face turned away. The house was very quiet; and the fire was dying.

"Should we take it in watches?" he said brusquely.

"If you think that's necessary," came Doyle's cool voice. "Just wake me up when you've had enough, then."

Bodie hesitated, decided it wasn't worth it, took off his shoes and slid into his bag. He could feel the hard floor beneath him, see the curly head of his partner a few feet away. He felt drained, and numb. "Doyle..."


"I think we ought to finish it." Was that what he'd meant to say? There was no visible reaction from his partner. He went on, struggling. "We've given it a try. I reckon it's time to call it a day. Before we end up hating each other, or something... We could stay partners --"

"OK. If that's what you want."

Bodie supposed it was. He wasn't sure about anything any more; he felt heavy and defeated and Doyle was a million years away from him. He sat up. "I'd better go back to the flat. Take her with me --"

"Not tonight, you won't," said Doyle's voice. He still wouldn't turn. "You're way over the limit an' I won't have you smashin' my car up. Besides, it'll look good, won't it -- CI5 agent gets done for drunken driving."

He wasn't that drunk, although Doyle was right, he'd certainly fail a breathalyser. It was more the prospect of pulling his weary body up again, loading Sleeping Beauty upstairs into the car and finding his way home that put him off.

"Tomorrow, then."

"Whatever you want."

All the same, it was a long time before Bodie dropped off to sleep. He woke after only a few hours to find the grey light filtering in through the drawn curtains, and checked his watch drowsily -- 7 AM. He was stiff and uncomfortable -- and cold. He looked over at the other sleeping bag, the curly head, the closed eyes, one had curled over the edge of the cover -- and it was then the sadness came, because he remembered; they'd agreed to finish it, it was over.

Why? he asked himself; he still loved Doyle, and Doyle, he thought, did love him. How could it be over when it had never really had a chance to begin? But Doyle had given him plenty of chances, and it was no good, he just couldn't match up. Best to finish it now, before Doyle grew to hate him. He supposed he'd been a bit hasty last night; OK, so Doyle had panicked him, made him feel ashamed and inadequate and a row was about to ensue; it had been in the cards anyway, !f}er the day they'd had. But sex wasn't everything, only one part of all the things that made them good together; surely they could have worked out something?

Funny, the way things went; he'd never had any trouble dealing with any of the relationships he'd had before, even the heavier ones; whereas this one which meant more to him than any of them, kept slipping like sand through his fingers.

He eased himself out of his sleeping bag, very quietly so as not to wake Doyle. The fire had burned itself out now; ashes in the grate wafting as he passed. Doyle was hell in the mornings; he'd at least make him some coffee before he left.

Before that he went quietly up the stairs to check on the girl; she was still fast asleep, fair head pillowed on one hand. Probably still knocked out by the pills he'd given her. Christ, but she was a nervous wreck. He wondered what her dreams were like.

Then he went down, and into the kitchen. He stopped short in surprise. Rita Doyle was there, fully dressed in sweater and skirt, busy doing something with a loaf of bread. He didn't know why he'd assumed he must be the only one awake; it was a reasonable hour, after all. And it was Christmas morning.

He looked down at his rumpled, sweaty shirt, his creased jeans and bare feet. No, he probably wasn't a very pretty sight; unshaven and unwashed to boot. "Sorry," he muttered, wondering if this was how mothers behaved. "I'd've changed if I'd known I was going to run into anyone."

"Don't worry," she said, and gave him a quick, awkward smile. It was then he remembered that he hadn't seen her since Doyle had admitted that Bodie was his lover. He needn't have bothered, whispered a bleak, ironic voice.

"What happened? Did you forget to bring pyjamas?" she was continuing.

"No," he muttered, "never wear 'em." He had slept in his clothes, as Doyle had, because they were technically on the job, and didn't fancy taking on any opposition bollocks-naked; but he didn't think it politic to mention the fact.

"You mean you always sleep in your clothes?" she asked, amazed at the habits of bachelors.

"No, I --" It was a daft conversation to be trapped in. He decided to get away from it. "I though I'd make Ray some coffee, would I be in your way?"

"Course not love, help yourself. Is he still like a bear with a sore head in the morning?" She tipped decrusted cubes of bread into the liquidiser.

Well, that was clear enough. She was being quite calm about the whole thing, he decided, surprised; and another twinge of sadness touched him, it would have been all right, but it was over. He forced a smile.

"Yeah, he's not too full of sunshine at this hour. Coffee usually does the trick."

"I'd get it for you, but Christmas Day, we eat around 12 and we don't usually bother with breakfast. There's some fruit juice in the fridge, too."

He was thirsty, he realised, his mouth dry, and so he availed himself of the offer -- the tangy sourness of the grapefruit refreshing him somewhat. She was explaining the early dinner time to him as he spooned coffee powder into two mugs. " -- we never let them open their presents until after the dinner so it had to be early. Or we'd have gone mad; little devils they were, the pair of them --"

"I can imagine," said Bodie with feeling, picturing Ray and Karen as children.

"And the custom's just stuck. Time for the turkey to go in in another few minutes. I hope you're good at carving; Stan makes such thick slices and Ray with a knife in his hand is more than I can take, somehow, on Christmas Day."

He'd been accepted; more than that, she was trying to make him feel welcome. It was hard to take it in; he'd expected off- handedness at the very least. It was tempting to smile, and agree, and live out the nice fantasy for a little longer --

He said, "Actually, love, I'll have to get back to London sometime this morning. Sorry if it puts you out." He noticed, on the table, five gold-rimmed plates set out ready to be carried in for dinner; one had been intended for him.

"This morning?" She was staring at him. "I thought you were staying the weekend."

"Yeah, I thought so too. But as it turns out, I have to get back."

"I see," she said, coming to god knew what conclusion. "How will you get there?"

"I'll take Ray's car. Pick him up tomorrow, or send someone."

"You've been called back on the job, have you?"

Dammit. It would be much easier to lie. The kettle was boiling; he poured water onto the powder, adding milk and sugar for Doyle who didn't have to watch his weight.

"No," he heard himself say.

"Bodie --"


"I expect you've a family of your own to go to, is that it? Only, from the way Ray was talking, I thought --"

"It's not that." He decided, angrily, to be honest. Doyle had got him into this, and it wasn't her fault. He didn't want her thinking he didn't like it here, didn't like her. "Ray and I had a bit of a row last night and it'd be better if I went."

She digested it, thinking. "Look love --"


"I don't mean to interfere. But if you're planning on living with my son, you'd better resign yourself to a lot of rows. I know. I've lived with him for more years than you've been a grown man." She didn't know quite why she was doing this; part of her would have been glad to see the back of him, that particular door closed forever. She hardly knew him, and wasn't at all sure that she didn't hate him for what he had done to her son. But last night, lying alone in the big bed, even as words like 'Unnatural', 'Queer', 'Pansy' were floating through her head, one thing had stood steadfast: the remembrance of Ray, his certainty, his honesty, his self-possession as he had said 'I'm not alone any more'...

She went on: "Stay for dinner, eh love? If Ray's in one of his tempers, he'll get over it. You can go afterwards, if you're still of a mind to. But stay for dinner. It's Christmas."

He stared at her, totally nonplussed, not knowing what to say. It was all so different to what he'd expected. She was giving him a quick smile, a flash of humour from hazel eyes, his indecision telling her she was winning. "And if you don't stay, then who am I cooking all this lot for? Stan, he doesn't care what he eats so long as it's hot and plenty of it; and Ray now; however hard I work I get the feeling he'd be just as happy with a cheese sandwich --"

Bodie grinned, at that. He liked this woman; Ray's mother. "I'd like to stay. Thanks, love. But Doyle --" he realised the ridiculousness of using the surname to this woman who shared it -- "Ray, he's There was his partner, leaning on the doorjamb, arms folded, as unwashed, unshaven and barefooted as himself; he was wearing his shoulder holster and his eyes looked grey and hard.

"Happy Christmas, love," said his mother, unperturbed. "Bodie's not going anywhere till he's had dinner; that's settled." There was faint hint of challenge as she looked at him.

Doyle shrugged. "Fine by me. It was his idea to go."

Their eyes met; Bodie could read nothing Doyle's cool face at all, and wondered if he looked just as hard, just as unreachable to Doyle.

Then Doyle reached out a hand, closed it on Bodie's arm. His fingers bit. "Bring the coffee in the other room. I expect mum wants to get on."

Bodie brought the two mugs of coffee into the darkened room.

"Look," began Doyle without preamble, "I know what you said last night, but we were -- tired, a bit wrought-up. You couldn't have meant it." He took his coffee from Bodie's hand, stared at him over the rim of the mug as he sipped it.

A load fell away from Bodie's heart. "No."

"Well, why say it then!" Doyle snapped; then repented. "Look mate. You can't keep on making dramatic declarations about finishin' it every time we have a fight."

Bodie was abashed. "No, you're right. Sorry mate."

Doyle shot him a cool look from seagreen eyes. "That's why when all this started I was on about commitment. As much as married couples have. You an' me, we're always flyin' off the handle and I can't see us changin', and we'll have to learn to deal with it, not take off into the night every time we have a cross word."

"No," agreed Bodie. He drained the last of his coffee, set it down, and stepped towards Doyle, but Doyle fended him off, watching him hard.

"Yeah, well, look. I can see you're havin' some sort of problem with the sex thing, and I'm obviously not handlin' it right -- "

"It's not your fault," muttered Bodie, looking away.

"What the hell's it matter whose fault it is? I just think we ought to stop trying for a bit. Just cool it down. Till we can work out what's wrong."

Bodie saw the logic in this; but it made him perversely sad. "I still want you. That hasn't changed." he muttered, very low.

"Oh well, that's nice to know," Doyle snorted, hands on hips. "I was beginning to think you'd turned straight."

Bodie took it up, relieved at the lighter tone. He gave Doyle a curly leer. "Not me, sunshine. Benter than ever."

Bodie used the phone to call up control, but there were no messages, no news. He tidied up their sleeping bags, draping them back over the suitcase in the hall -- the locked suitcase that contained enough armoury to fend off an army. He could hear splashing from within the bathroom, and knocked.

"That you?"


"C'mon in, it's not locked."

He went in, locking the door behind him. His partner was in the bath, lying on his stomach; his crossed feet idly kicking together.

"Brave of you," commented Bodie. "Not locking it. I'm surprised your sister's not in here getting an eyeful." He deposited his pile of clean clothes on the laundry chest.

Doyle grinned. "I think she's transferred her interest. After your macho performance last night. Bodie the card- slinger."

Bodie looked disdainful. "Maybe I'll camp it up today in that case." He looked down at the naked, wet curve of his partner's back; came to perch on the edge of the bath. "No rubber duck, Doyle?"

"I had swans, sweetie." Doyle came back fast.

"Wash your back?" Bodie offered, tempted, and began to roll up his sleeves.

Doyle buried the heels of his palms into his eyes as Bodie's soaped hands began to move over him. "Any minute, are you going to rush out of the room yelling at me? I'd just like to know..."

"At this time of day, I'm entirely platonic," assured Bodie, with less than total honesty. He like the feel of Doyle's wet, firm-muscled body, the way his damp soapy skin moved over bone under the sweeps of his hands; liked the view the long tapering line of him, pale gold everywhere except for the whiteness of the lower back.

He said, frowning, "I'm sorry about last night --"

"Yeah, me too."

"You want me to try and explain?"

"Not right now."

Neither of them was particularly keen to continue that line of conversation; the hurt was still too close.

Bodie ran a slippery finger over the knobs of Doyle's spine; from the peachy nape of his neck where damp curls lay, right down to where it ended. The water closed and unclosed over Doyle's shining flesh; it was all curves and reflections, and beautiful skin: Doyle was smooth and firm and sweet all over.

Without knowing quite why he did it, Bodie continued the downward trail of his single-line exploration; over the hump of the aborted tail, remnant of a prehistoric ancestry, to where it disappeared between the rounded flesh of the buttocks; daringly he touched Doyle there.

He did no more; but it would be easy to go on, he knew how easy it would be, Doyle so soft, and easy, everything damp, slippery... He realised, suddenly, he was fiercely, strangely aroused.

"S'nice," murmured Doyle from behind closed eyes, his cheek pillowed in his hands. He was never shy to speak his reactions aloud; it was something that endeared him to Bodie and yet frightened him at the same time, because he could not do the same, not yet.

"Go on," said Doyle quietly, adding: "Please..."

The gentle, grave appeal moved him like nothing else could have done; his hand splayed out around Doyle's rounded white ass, and he slid one finger gently inside him, acknowledging the urgent thrust of uplifting need in his own groin with surprise; christ, he had to cool down or he'd --

Doyle's body closed tightly on the intruding finger and he shivered, the water suddenly cool on the flushed heat crowding his skin.

Bodie pulled out of the hot encasement but slowly, making it a sliding caress; he stroked Doyle there, between the cramping flesh, with gentle swirling rubbings of wet, soapy fingers, using the other hand to part him, tenderly; watching with bemusement his partner's body quiver, opening for him; he invaded him again, this time with two fingers. Easy, still. Doyle moved gently, rocking in the water, hands pressed into his eyes, lost. "That's beautiful," he whispered, "Don't stop..."

Bodie grinned, crookedly, over his own thundering heartbeats, the uneven tenor of his own hurried breathing; with one final swirl of his fingers, he withdrew them.

Doyle froze, abruptly spiralling down from the pleasure; and then he rolled over, making no attempt to hide the hard erection rising over his belly, line-taut. He stared at Bodie through half-closed eyes. "Jesus, Bodie," he whispered harshly, "I was nearly there..."

Bodie grinned at him, smug, happy. "You said -- no sex. Seemed to me it was getting a bit sexual."

Doyle looked as if he wanted to kill him. He was slightly disadvantaged in the matter, being flat on his back and very obviously naked. So he took a few deep breaths and forced himself to relax, scooping up handfuls of cooling water and letting it run over his eyes and face, letting it calm him.

"Told you I'd like it," he said, muffled. "Think how much better I'd like it, then, if --"

"All in good time, sunshine," Bodie assured him. He felt strangely triumphant. "It's not easy in a bathtub, you know."

"Yeah?" Bodie chuckled, fondly.

"Yeah. But it's not the kind of thing you can ask women to do --"

"Isn't it?" Bodie stared at him. He'd known one or two who hadn't waited to be asked.

"Well, not if you don't want them thinking you're queer, or something," said Doyle, and he grinned at his lover, showing sharp, uneven white teeth.

Clean, shaven and dashing in an air force-grey shirt and dark trousers, Bodie went downstairs to offer Rita Doyle help in the kitchen. It was his own idea. For one thing, he thought it might keep him out of the way of the Howards. He was quite happy pottering about doing small chores, and as he did so he regaled Mrs. Doyle with anything amusing he could pick out in the mainly murder-and-mayhem tale of his life with Ray in CI5; editing out the nasties, gently building Ray up as a kind of nice, friendly super-hero type.

" -- I had these cuffs on, so the fuzz take one look and march me off with the bad boys; Doyle was just standing there laughing like a drain, it really killed Doyle, that did. He'd come out of it all just fine; he'd got one over this inspector who'd been on his back all week, and seeing me arrested really was the icing on the cake --"

She was amused by him, but not fooled. "Doesn't it ever get dangerous?"

"Uh?" He was halted, in the action of slicing through the sprouts.

"You wear guns." He was wearing one now; like an extra article of clothing it banded his chest. "You must use them, sometimes."

He was guarded now. "Yeah, well, we try not to have to. Am I doing these right?" He held up a gutted sprout for her inspection.

"Fine. It's nice to have some help, I must say."

"What about your daughter?" he asked. "Doesn't she -- ?"

"They like to lie in. We'll be lucky if we see them much before it's time to eat."

Luckier if we don't, thought Bodie.

They could hear Doyle bounding down the stairs; he was whistling. When he appeared, he was dressed in his white T-shirt with the three horizontal bands, the sleeves pushed up; Bodie thought he must have first fallen for Ray Doyle in that shirt. He snorted when he saw Bodie, his arms up to the elbows in water, dealing with sprouts. "Suits you, mate. You ring Cowley yet?"

"Yeah, nothing."

Seeing that her pal of the morning was going to be spoken for from now on, Rita Doyle packed them off to the living room with orders to have sherry and relax; she could manage. The smell of roasting bird wafted through the house; soon the Howards arrived, passed Happy Christmases around, switched on the TV and made inroads into the Tio Pepe. From the first it was clear that Karen, hard and bright and pretty in cream wool, was going all out to needle her brother, now she'd had time to think about his unconventional liaison; but it was equally clear that Doyle was not going to be taken.

"Funny thing, Ray," she said thoughtfully at one stage, her legs tucked up under her on the settee, a glass of sherry in her hand, "is that you always used to be such a one for the girls. It was a different girl every week. Always girls..."

Doyle came back fast. "Yeah, funny that, must have been going through a phase --"

"And I've just remembered something else," she said, eyes alight with sudden recollection, "our dad, you remember, he always used to say you'd turn out queer --"

Doyle stared at her, without expression. "Yeah; well, I suppose you might say he wasn't wrong then, was he?" And, recognising the signs of impending murder building up at his side, he turned to thump Bodie on the knee. "Leave it out mate, she'll wear herself down in a while."

The day passed surprisingly quickly. After the long ritual of dinner the Howards and Mrs. Doyle went out for a breath of fresh air; it was a bright, sunny afternoon. Bodie and Doyle had some time to themselves. After a while, Doyle threw down the cards they'd half-heartedly been playing, lay back with his hands behind his head, watching his partner. "Bodie --"

"Yeah? I'm not cheating," averred Bodie, mock-affronted. "You're just losing because I'm better than you are."

Not listening to the rubbish, Doyle looked at him lazily, his eyes travelling over the ruffled short dark hair, the deep blue gaze and tender curved lips. Sunlight shafted through half- drawn curtains; a rainbow of dust trapped, twinkling, in it. "Love you," he said aloud.

Bodie's quirky eyebrows moved in a pattern of surprise. "You've never said that before."

"I'm always sayin' it." He couldn't remember whether he had or not. It did not seem important.

Bodie's quizzical gaze softened; "Why now?"

"Because it's true. And because everything's going to be all right..."

"Well, you've said that often enough before, that's for sure," drawled Bodie.

"I was right then, wasn't I?" said Doyle, and he gave Bodie a dazzling smile.

"Tomorrow, we go home," announced Bodie.

It was all over, one o'clock in the morning. Boxing Day. In less than 12 hours they'd be leaving.

Ray Doyle smiled rakishly at him, bringing him a drink. "We survived."

"Never had a better Christmas," said Bodie expansively. It really had gone remarkably well; although he'd been under a fine edge of tension all day, nothing had happened. Karen had been vivacious, almost pleasant; Stan, who appeared to have been poleaxed by the realisation that his brother-in-law and the tough CI5 agent were lovers, had ignored the conversation; Mrs. Doyle had been friendly -- and Ray had been relaxed, cheerful, and affectionate. Undeniably, open, affectionate.

Doyle perched on the arm of the settee, ran a finger down his arm. "Yeah, this time tomorrow night we'll be home."

"Your place or mine?" said Bodie, echoing a long ago discussion.

And -- "Yours," Doyle decided, again.

"You can invade me any time you like.'' Doyle was sitting up at last, and running a hand unhopefully through his hair, when a noise shattered the silence of the dark house.

It was the telephone. Doyle stared at Bodie for one second of disbelieving consternation, their minds jumping together to the same conclusion; then Doyle leapt to his feet and ran for the hall, wrenching the door back so it banged into the sideboard with a sickening thud, and grabbing the phone from the hall table.

Bodie stayed where he was, hoping against hope it was Auntie Doyle ringing from a different time zone to wish them a happy New Year --

Doyle was back in less than a minute, his face grim. "Trouble," he said tersely, his voice sharp with urgency as he shrugged into his holster. They ran together for the hall, unlocking the suitcase there with slick professional calm that belied the emotions racing beneath. Doyle filled him in concisely, as he worked -- "All calls for the local police were being relayed to CI5, a gunman in a big VW camper, heading this way -- and a policeman was shot half an hour ago investigating a suspicious-looking van --" Doyle was furiously digging smg's and rifles out of the case -- "You checked all these? Good, we're gonna need them. Goddamn Cowley!" he exploded, viciously. "There's two of us against a bloody terrorist army!"

"How long till reinforcements arrive, d'you reckon?" said Bodie through gritted teeth. He was rapidly sorting through magazines and cartridges, splitting them into two lots.

Doyle calculated, swiftly. "Took us an hour in traffic. Maybe forty minutes if they're really skating. An' they better be..."

Bodie had a vision of a bloody shoot-out; Doyle's family all dead for the life of one girl with the blood of nine people on her hands... "Try going to ground with her?"

"No time. They're close. Better to take 'em where we've got cover."

Doyle was running up the stairs with the two heavy long- barrelled guns; he burst in through the door of his mother's room, which was at present occupied by the Howards; dropped the guns by the window and raced out again, yelling at the bed. "We got trouble. Keep that bloody light off!" No time to lose, not one moment to waste; have to hope they'd obey the harsh authority in his voice.

Bodie was setting up position by the front room window; with him here and Doyle above they'd be covered front and back. He'd shifted half the ammunition with him, left the other in the hall for Doyle; they had fallen without difficulty into the smooth working of the good team they were, the effortless division of labour. Doyle grabbed the suitcase and pelted up the stairs with it. Karen was up at the top of the landing struggling into a dressing gown, her head outlined against the window panel. "What --"

Doyle seized hold of her, a furious wrench of his arm that brought her to her knees. "Keep your head down. I mean it," he said with forceful intensity. "Below window height. All the time, you and him. No lights, keep quiet, and you don't do a damn thing, d'you hear me?" Quickly assessing, he decided the best place for them; pushed Karen into an alcove on the landing well away from any window. He dashed into the bedroom next and manhandled Stan from the bed where he was struggling into slippers. "What the hell's going on...?"

"If you want to live, stay here, shut up, and keep still. Or I'll lay you out cold." Recognising the chill, almost insane purpose running through the other man's eyes, Stan sank weakly down beside his wife as he was released, and didn't move.

In a tearing desperate hurry, Doyle checked briefly on his mother; in the spare room. He was sure this was just about the safest place in the house, just one small window Bodie had reinforced with bullet-proof glass, and it was overlooked only by a blank wall of the neighbouring semi. It would be the last safe place in the house, if it came to it. She was peacefully asleep despite all the commotion; he knew her habits of old, she'd take two sleeping pills and never stir till dawn. He spared a quick prayer that her sleep would remain undisturbed this night; and that it was a sleep she'd wake from.

So little time...

He met Bodie, running. "Motor," explained his partner briefly, thrusting an R/T at him, then he was gone, flying down the stairs not in three strides but two, running hard for the firing point in the living room. Neither of them had spared a thought for the girl they were here to protect; they'd done all they could there, she was locked in a room as secure as they could make it, one they could prevent entry into until the last bullet ran out, or until they were both dead.

Doyle ran past the huddled figures of his sister and brother-in-law, who were dazed into silent inaction by the terrible wrongness of things, expecting, perhaps, bullets to start whining their way through the air TV-style at any second; on into the bedroom, past the rumpled bed, throwing himself down by the window. His R/T bleeped. He fitted a magazine into the smg before he replied, automatically: "4.5." Already they were back in their CI5 persona.

"That last -- just a car. What's the strategy? Bluff it for a while? Buy time." Bodie, tinny and concise, knowing as he did exactly what the options were in this particular scenario.

"No. Can't risk 'em getting too close, this isn't Fort Knox by a long way. Just keep 'em off, far away as possible till Cowley gets here." A split second decision, might be right, might be wrong; they'd never know. Doyle scanned through the window, the dark yard undisturbed. Nothing. He reached again for his R/T. They were close. They had to be. Just time for this...

Bodie stared at the handset, hearing the gentle wry lilt of Ray Doyle's voice, saying: "Pity this had to happen. Just when we were gettin' it right..."

Tactically, Doyle had the better position, he'd be the last to go. The cowardly part of himself was gladdened by that; he didn't want to live even for a second with the knowledge that Ray Doyle was forever gone, wiped out. They had to face it; it could happen, here tonight. These maniacs were here to kill. Not them, not himself and Doyle and the blameless family trapped in their midst; that was the irony of it. But they were paid to do a job; and that job required that they stand steadfast in the firing line between victim and executioner, laying down their lives before she should be forced to surrender hers.

He made his own voice soft, affectionate. "Understood, sunshine. Understood."

Through the window, he saw nothing in the dark street, noiseless and lamp-lit; soon to be considerably livened up. He eyed the little mound of armoury with almost amused irony; toys, a few sparkling toys to set off a big bang. He heard --

His ears pricked at a noise; tyres squealing to a halt a few hundred yards off; the jerk of a handbrake. He took up the handset, told it quietly, "They're here."

It was going to be all action, from now on. He tossed the R/T aside, took up the big gun, peering through the window. Now he could see dark shapes, moving fast, checking along the line of houses, four, six, eight, Christ there were a lot of them...all approaching in an unerring line. How close should he let them get? Every second of delay might count in their favour. Now there was one nearly at the gate; logically the next step had to be the thump on the door. But Doyle, whose mother and sister were upstairs, had called off the idea of bluffing for more time. It had to be now, before they got inside the gate. His heart was thudding, and his mouth dry, but he was quite steady. He had a job to do.

Mouth set in a brutal pout of aggression, he thrust the butt of the smg through the shattering window, reversed it quickly, and sent a warning arc of fire chattering high through the night. Without any chance of misinterpretation, he had announced that they were here.

Iron filings, drawn to a magnet. The black figures formed and unformed, riding wide around the house they now knew to be the one they sought, ringing it. Answering fire burst towards it. All along the street lights were snapping on, drowsiness and deep sleep alike shocked into alertness. Stay inside, you bastards, Bodie thought grimly, you're no part of this. He could imagine the phone lines buzzing, the raised, scared voices.

There was one slipping over the gate, taking cover behind a bush; he watched, fired as it dared, watched it knocked back in an outspread motion, and fall. Instantly, there was another, to the right; he missed, but forced it to retreat. Above him and behind he heard the staccato stuttering of Doyle's gun; yes, they'd be taking the back simultaneously. Astounded, he saw five, six of them converging ahead, behind the hedge, and the window exploded around him. He ducked around the shards of glass, and grim-faced, let rip an ear-shattering blast of fire that pushed them back, scurrying for cover, keeping it up until the gun fell silent on him. Where the hell was Cowley... Or had all this been going on a mere matter of minutes? He had lost all track of time. He changed the magazine with speedy efficiency while they were still recovering, chucking the used one behind him. He was shivering, not just from the tension; the cold December air was rushing in through the destroyed window and he was only in shirtsleeves. Doyle had made the right decision; they'd rushed them, won a small advantage of surprise.

Doyle was crouched in the same pose above, picking them off like flies running helpless beneath the tread of a giant. He'd got two; he was sure of that, had almost been able to feel the solid backswinging crunch of high-velocity bullet meeting slow flesh. Carnage in the back yard... Christ, but there were too many. So many there was no time to think, just fire, and rearm, and fire, ducking erratically behind the window ledge. There was a noise, he risked an eye over his shoulder; it was his brother- in-law. "Keep down!" he yelled as another wave of bullets pounded into the abused window-frame. "You fuckin' idiot, I haven't time --"

"We ought to call the police," said Stan, white-faced, sick with fear, but persistent. Doyle, in position again, made a harsh sound that might even had been a bark of cynical laughter. "You must be joking, there's no way they'd come within a mile of this place. If they're anything like efficient they'll already have it cordoned off..."

Stan didn't get it. The police, he knew, were solid bastions of comfort who could cope with anything. The world had turned crazy, a noisy whine of chaos. Something hit the ceiling and Stan dropped to the floor, wanting only to get away.

One of the shadows detached itself and ran for the lower windows. Doyle took him and was narrowly missed by the covering fire of a colleague. Christ, it was like trying to fend off a creeping wall of water with a broom; sooner or later some would get through. There were just too many... Where the hell was Cowley? He could hear the lower-pitched rattle of Bodie's rifle; jesus if Bodie was out of ammo for the smg it must have been heavy down there... The heavy gun kicked back into his braced shoulder again and again, and he held on, grimly firing. The night rang with noise; he could hear screams among the wreckage of silence, and he hoped no innocent passers-by had got mixed up with this lot -- no, hell, they'd stay in and lock the doors, wouldn't they? He was on the last magazine for the smg himself now; one final burst and he ducked below the ledge, chucking the useless gun aside and reaching for the other. Bless Bodie, for setting them up... There was a pause from outside too; they must be rearming for the final assault, he could hear shouting. Doyle reckoned, grimly, they could last maybe ten minutes more. He hoisted the rifle to his shoulder, screwed up his eyes and went into battle once more.

Bodie could see less of what was going on outside. He knew so far they'd been successful keeping them at bay; they were lucky in that it was a reasonably defensible house with natural security on either side, the garage and the wall of the attached house. As long as he and Doyle stayed in touch, kept that cover going front and back, they could keep off even this small army. The moment one or the other of them exhausted their fire, it was curtains time and quick too, because nothing would stand in the way of their opposition taking the lower window, either his own or the one at Bodie's back that Doyle was defending above. He was crouched in a mess of spent cartridges and broken glass. Cowley's men couldn't be far off now. Had to be enough time...

Christ, it must be the bloodiest night this street would ever see, past or future. He had a bloody cheek from a splinter of flying glass; they'd be lucky to escape with nothing worse. Jesus but these fellows were determined -- no wonder she'd been scared out of her wits --

There was a puzzling silence outside. He took a deep breath, drew in to recharge the gun, working with speedy fingers. He heard a shout from the front, and looked cautiously out. There was a man standing there, near the front gate, hands raised in the classic position of surrender; he was calling "Hey you! With the gun!"

"We want the girl!" shouted the man, in a thick foreign accent. "You can't hold out much longer, you see that. Give us the girl and we go. We've no fight with you."

Love to, Bodie thought viciously. But not our job, mate. As if in reply, he fired a warning burst to either side of the man, and he scattered, pelting for the shrubbery.

It was true, they couldn't hold out much longer. Ten minutes, if they were lucky. There was some sort of commotion above, but no time to consider it, they were firing again. Come on, George. Come on...

It seemed only a few seconds later when he heard, unbelievably, the door to the living room open. He whirled, ready to draw his Magnum and fire, but it was only Karen Howard, her face stark white, her hair loose over her shoulders.

She said, in a voice that shook, "Ray's been shot."

It had never been so busy at Priory Street Police station. Lights were flashing constantly over the switchboard, and nearly every call was answered with the same stock reassuring reply, to the effect that the police knew all about it, the matter was being taken in hand, and that no actions should be taken other than locking all doors and staying inside. Policemen went about in varying states of excitement; young men who'd seen no more action than a pub brawl involving knives were sent off in squad cars to patrol the cordoned-off area of a nondescript residential street in a backwater of London, there to hear the sound of real bullets flying where the two hot-shot heroes from that powerful and mysterious organisation known as CI5 were fighting an all-out gun battle with desperadoes. Some wished they were in their place; some were glad they were not, happier to deal with ghoulish excited queries of those members of the public who had gathered on the outskirts of the fray.

Those higher up the ranking had different concerns. "Major Cowley's on his way with a dozen men. Also a gun squad from Special Branch, but Cowley reckons to be here first. No interference, he said."

The Chief Superintendent sniffed. "He didn't need to. We haven't the artillery to cope with that." He waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the noise. "There'll be questions asked after this little affair. Cowley refused to give the smallest details of just what whoever it is that whoever they are are trying to get is doing virtually loose among the civilian population. With just a couple of whiz-kid marksmen to fend off the total loss of law and order."

The other knew that questions had been asked about CI5's doings before. And that the contortionist, eel-like twistings of that department's evading of anything it wished to evade was well known. He knew the Chief Super knew it too, and so he didn't say it. Instead, they both watched quietly as the desperate rat and tat of a distant battle in which they had no part went on.

"Ray's been shot."

Bodie closed his eyes against the chilling dread that threatened to overwhelm him. His mind protested, no, it couldn't be true. Not Ray... But there were things to do.

He opened his eyes and said harshly, "Where?"

"His arm -- there's blood everywhere --"

She was near tears, though not hysteria; he could see that, even over the pounding relief that was as weakening as the earlier panic.

"Can he shoot?" he said with brutal conciseness.

She stared at him, disbelieving. "He's hurt. He needs a doctor. He's been shot, I tell you."

"If he can't shoot," Bodie said with bitter harshness, "If we lose his cover from that window, sweetheart, very shortly none of us will ever need a doctor again. So get up there. Is he unconscious?"

A wave of bullets suddenly hit wood and stone. He spun on his knees and replied with a vicious, explosive blast. They were slowing too, thank christ. "I asked you, is he out?" he snarled over his shoulder. "If he is, you'd bloody well better get him awake. Shake him, hit him, do anything but get him covering that bloody window fast, d'you hear?" He was yelling, by now.

She hated him, hated his callousness, his brutality. But the urgency got through. "I'm going."

"He's got a medical kit up there. And keep your fucking head down!"

Doyle felt sick, violently so, his stomach heaving. Gasping for breath, his skin cold and clammy, he knew he was going into shock. There was a sickening fiery pain spiralling up his arm to his neck and shoulder; his fingers were numb and dangling limply, and his mind was numb too as he stared at the jerking fountain of blood, the slick-edged hole in his forearm where the slug had passed seconds before. But seconds counted, in this game. Gotto keep shooting -- Bodie'd be gone -- got to fire... He knew what he had to do and struggled to do it.

It was difficult. His arm was slow to obey him. Concentrating furiously, trying to ignore the dizziness and the sickening pain that threatened to push its blessed relief, he began the long climb up to rationality, focusing his mind on the picture of Bodie alone and vulnerable with the window beneath Doyle exposed; forcing himself to concentrate on little things, easing the rifle up, using the elbow of his injured arm to prop it against, and began to fire again. There was one, ducking and weaving for the window. He shot and missed, shot again with more success as he brought his shaking muscles under control, and watched the retreat with relief. It was a weary effort, but the spray of bullets had to be respected, had to be...

He became aware that someone was at his side.

Karen was horrified at the way her brother looked; there was blood everywhere, bright red rivulets of it running down the sleeve of his shirt to the floor, spattered on his drained face; there was a line of white pain around his mouth and his eyes were hazy. "Ray. You'd better come and lie down --"

"Can't," he muttered, "Got to -- keep shooting -- you don't unnerstand, but got to --"

"That's what he says."

"He's right." He realised what she held, sluggishly took it in, even as he used his abused arm to steady the rifle once more, send another round out towards the ground, in a desperate attempt to show their strength unimpaired. A spasm of agony shot through him, and he quivered, cold.

"Ray." She was shaking him, gently. "You all right?"

"Bandage," he whispered between clenched teeth. "Stop the blood... Make it tight. Good and tight. And quick --"

She took the coil of linen in shaking fingers wrapped it round his forearm. "Tighter," he urged, jaw gritted. "Tight as you can, yeah, that's it kid..."

She knotted it, firm and quick. The blood showed through straight away, a sprawled red flower on stark white, but it felt better, number. He had lost a lot of blood; this would help. He lifted the arm, tested its strength. "Keep away, sweetheart. Soon be over. Well back, nice and clear --"

It had worked; he was able to fire, steady and accurate. He'd last. If he didn't pass out... He could barely see clearly, a dizzying lightness in his head from the loss of blood and shock; but the support of the tourniquet steadied his arm, kept it there. A confident arc of fire sprayed from his gun once more.

The rapid staccato above he had thankfully begun again. I love you, Doyle. And Doyle, sweet-faced, answering, 'I love you'... The thought rang on and on in Bodie's mind as he reacted with speed, running on pure instinct alone. Hold on. Hold on, mate. Cowley must be nearly here. He must be. Bodie felt as if he'd been in this mad defensive crouch forever, performing the same repetitive actions over and over. But they'd survived. Cowley must be just about to drive up and save them.

It was on this note of frail optimism that he heard the rifle above go dead, and fail to start up again. His R/T beeped but he knew what its message would be. He grabbed up the last remaining cartridges and ran for the stairs. His first priority was the girl. He spared a glance though at the room where Doyle was, saw his crouching form and Karen with him; yelling at her to "get him into the back bedroom --"

The girl was crouched behind the bed which she'd dragged against a wall, one white-knuckled fist pressed into her mouth; he dragged her to her feet and set off with her to the last retreat. Rita Doyle was awake, sitting on the edge of the bed in a dressing gown, begging to be told what was going on as Bodie slammed the door shut. Stan was just sitting helplessly in a chair with his face in his hands. Doyle was dragging furniture, with Karen's help. Bodie threw the girl down beside the bed and went to his mate, who was wrestling with a heavy wardrobe. Doyle's face was drained of blood and he was swaying; he could clearly barely manage the strength to stay on his feet, let alone do what he was attempting to do, his left arm limp and bloody. But from somewhere he found a little smile, for Bodie. Carefully, seriously, Bodie drew his handgun for him, placed it into the cold hand, closing his fingers around it. "Cover the door, sunshine."

Doyle nodded and fought to concentrate, frowning. Everyone else was in little better shape; Karen was the only one who looked even halfway steady. "Help," said Bodie to her tersely, and together they pushed the heavy oak wardrobe against the door, the bed on end in front of that; a makeshift barricade that might hold for just a few minutes more -- he could hear feet pounding up the stairs.

"Stay behind," he ordered everyone, and he dropped beside Doyle, in a ready-to-fire crouch. There was thudding on the door; shots. Then the pounding again; they were trying to burst through. And then, a shout.

"Give us the girl. You've lost. You'll all die. One chance. Send her out."

Bodie uttered a vicious 'fuck off' under his breath, risking a glance behind him. The girl had stiffened, a light of pure terror in her eyes. Turning again, he met Doyle's eyes; amazingly, there was a flash of wry humour there. "No problem -- after all --" Doyle wheezed.

Bodie understood; and was totally surprised. When it had come down to it, he hadn't even considered it; even when the chance had been offered him, he had turned it down without consideration. He was proud of them, for that. They were pounding on the door again, with rifle-butts; he could hear wood splintering. It couldn't be long now... He was sorry, in an abstract kind of way, for the innocent people behind him who were here to celebrate a birth, and were now trusting him and Doyle to keep away a bloody death. He felt nothing for the girl, not blaming her, for it was his choice as well that he was here, his and Doyle's. He felt only a moment of sorrow for the tomorrows they would never have, but he wasn't afraid. He and Doyle: they could face anything, so long as they were together.

In the ridiculous absence of time for gestures, he reached out one hand and tousled Ray Doyle's hair, his eyes gentle, a spark of affectionate humour in them "You were good, sunshine," he told him, soft. "All the way, you were good."

Their eyes met. They were ready.

"What's happening?" The inspector craned to see. The cars, five of them, had crashed through the wooden police barriers, splintering them. There had been no shots since, nor in fact for some minutes before.

"Dunno. We're to move in on their signal, that's the plan," said the Chief Super, impressed despite himself by the eerie cavalcade of fast motors that had streamed past them in a dead line for the action. "There's ambulances standing by -- if anyone's left alive to need 'em --"

In the cool of the night, everyone waited. And then the shots began again, with renewed force.

It was over. Fifteen CI5 agents had overwhelmed the five remaining terrorists with a disregard for life and limb that would have shocked the Inspector, unarmed and far out of it. The final count was five injured, two in custody, one dead and one likely to be before he reached the hospital; the girl was in the safe hand of 6.2 and 3.5; and one silent terrified family in the wreck of their home. Police were everywhere now it was too late, swarming over the place.

Cowley picked his precise way through the chaos of the living-room, avoiding the lurching Christmas tree, to where his brooding dark agent stood, one hand on the window frame, his face smeared with blood and dirt.

"Made a mess of the place," Bodie said, without turning.

"It'll be cleared up before they know it." Cowley cast a professional eye around: new glass, the woodwork repaired, a few items of new furniture and a little redecoration; it could be done in a day, well before they returned.

"Yeah," agreed Bodie bitterly. "As good as new. They'll hardly know we were here..."

Cowley understood. "How's Doyle?"

"He'll be all right. Day or two in hospital, nothing."

Cowley said, "You did well. Both of you."

"Yeah, didn't we? Doyle's family are never gonna talk to him again, he nearly died, but what's that? We did our jobs." The bitterness this time was very marked.

"You did your jobs," agreed Cowley, refusing to be drawn. "And did them well. Where are the Doyle family now?"

Bodie stirred, restless. "Been taken to hospital. They're all right, no injuries. Mild shock, be discharged tonight, or rather this morning." He'd checked just before Doyle was taken away, knowing that Doyle would need to know.

"We'll have them taken to a good hotel until we can restore the house for them. It should be a pleasant break for them," decided Cowley breezily, though he did not feel breezy, not at all. He had nearly lost Bodie and Doyle; and it was strongly against all his principles that Doyle's relatives, innocent lives, could have been killed through his own underestimation of the resources of the opposition.

"Yeah, they'll like that," said Bodie with no visible sarcasm. "Who's collecting them from the hospital?"

Cowley hesitated.

Bodie was desperately tired, and shaken; and he badly wanted to be with Doyle to reassure himself that he was all right. He made a decision.

"I'll go."

"Man you've done enough --" Cowley began.

"I'll go. They've had enough upheaval. And they know me."

And Bodie squared his shoulders, reached for the car keys, remembered that Mrs. Doyle and the Howards would need overnight things, and headed for the stairs.

"3.7 --"

Bodie didn't turn; didn't check his stride.

"You and Doyle. Two weeks' leave, unconditional. As from January 1st."

"Happy New Year to you too, sir," said Bodie.

-- THE END --

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