The snow was swirling through the air and there was the indefinable scent of Christmas wafting through the halls, surprisingly even in the cinderblock and linoleum halls of UNIT.
“Ahhh,” Jo said happily, breathing it in. “Can’t you smell that? I think they’re baking cookies in the canteen.”
The Doctor glanced up from the microscope he’d been peering through as he prodded something with a tiny soldering iron. “What is that on your head?”
“A Christmas hat. Like Father Christmas wears.” She patted the fuzzy red and white fur cheerfully.
He went back to his microscope. “Is that appropriate, considering you most certainly are not a father? What does Mother Christmas wear?”
“There isn’t a Mother Christmas,” she said and laughing, took it off to stick it on his own head. “All right, there! Now are you happy?” He rolled his eyes up at the floppy end with its dangling white pom-pom bobbing over his forehead, making her laugh again.
“That does cause a few problems for the Christmas family, I suppose,” he noted.
“Here now, what’s all the joviality?” came Benton’s amiable voice from the doorway. He grinned widely as he glimpsed the Doctor’s new attire, just before it was snatched back off and dropped onto the worktable. “The Brigadier sent me to see if that whatsit you were making for him is ready yet. And I’ve something more.”
“Whatsit?” asked the Doctor with a bit of irritation.
Benton took a round tin he’d had tucked under one arm and put it on the end of the worktable, prying off the lid as he did so. “It’s a fruitcake!”
“Ew!” said Jo.
“I didn’t mean what was in the tin… what is that, again? Fruitcake?”
Benton looked slightly wounded. “You may not like other fruitcakes,” he defended to Jo, “but you’ll like this one. My own mum baked it.”
She edged closer and sniffed it, trying to be polite. It smelled like fruitcake. “That was very nice of her,” she said. “Very sweet of her to think of you.”
“Here, do you have a knife? You can each have a slice! You’ll love it.”
“Umm, no, thanks, I’m not hungry,” Jo hedged.
The Doctor was still peering at it quizzically, as if he expected it to suddenly come to life and climb out of the tin. “What are those green and yellow bits?”
“Candied fruit,” Benton replied. “And it has plenty of nuts too.” Undaunted, he pulled a folding pocket knife from his pocket and flicked it open, slicing two fat wedges of cake. Facing the inevitable, Jo fetched two napkins from the remainders of their tea and he plumped a slice onto each one. “Go on,” he urged, sliding them towards his friends. “Have a taste!”
Jo bravely pinched off as small of a crumble as she thought she could get away with. It was sticky, and a chunk of glaceed green-dyed pineapple stuck to it.
The Doctor had merely gone from curiously examining the cake in the tin to curiously examining the slice on the napkin. “What is that odd scent?”
“Citron, probably,” Jo said. “An acquired taste.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t call it that,” Benton said. “I’ve always liked it.” He sliced off a wedge for himself and lifted it straight from the tin, taking a big bite with obvious relish. “Mmmm,” he mumbled happily. “No one makes it like Mum. Go ahead! Eat!”
“Is your mother Spleeten?”
“What?” Jo and Benton both asked together.
“What’s a spleeten?” asked Jo.
“No, she’s from Ipswitch,” said Benton.
The Doctor smiled. “Spleeta is the fourth planet in the sixth sun of the constellation Ceres. They have a concoction remarkably like this ‘fruitcake’ of yours. Except the green and yellow bits wouldn’t be fruit, of course.”
“What would they be?” asked Benton, swallowing the last of his own slice.
“Insectoid eggs,” he replied amicably. “The goal is to consume the entire cake before they hatch, which they do with surprising rapidity. They have it as an annual competition, I believe. The brown mash that holds it all together has this same scent, though in that case it’s from the musk glands of a small predator.”
Benton blinked and looked slightly queasy. Jo quietly dropped the bit she’d pinched off back onto the napkin and wiped her fingers.
“Still,” the Doctor continued, apparently unaware of their reactions. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the flavour was nearly the same. The basic molecular components and mineral makeup of Spleeta is relatively comparable to that of Earth. Only warriors are permitted to eat it there, though, which could account for your own natural taste for it, Sergeant.” He poked it with the tip of his soldering iron and then stuck the crumb-covered tip under his microscope. “Hmm.”
“I don’t want to know what the nuts were,” Jo said.
“What?” He glanced back up at her. “What nuts?”
“The nuts in the fruitcake,” she said.
“Right,” Benton agreed. “Let’s just let them be nuts.”
“No matter what, they’re just nuts,” she nodded.
“Whatever are the two of you talking about?”
“The fruitcake,” Jo said as Benton put the lid back on the remainder. “It only has nuts. Not little dried alien brains or something.”
“Stop while you’re ahead. And never mind,” the Sergeant said, waving off the Doctor’s half-formed confused query. “Mum won’t know if anyone really ate it or not. I don’t really think I want it now anyway.”
“Doctor, you should apologize!” Jo said.
“For what? What have I done now?” he asked, baffled.
“You ruined poor Benton’s fruitcake, maybe his whole Christmas!”
The Sergeant held up a hand. “Now, it’s not all that bad…”
“Really,” she continued. “Comparing his mother’s special treat she made just for him to something…insectish and… and alien!”
“Though you’re the one who brought up the dried alien brains,” Benton pointed out.
“And what’s wrong with things being alien?” asked the Doctor. “Jo…”
“I’m sorry, but it just isn’t very Christmas-like!” she continued, shaking a finger at him in warning. “You’re supposed to be nice to people and give them presents and be cheerful, not tell them their mum’s cake is going to hatch things and can only be eaten by warriors.”
“Now, Jo …”
“Now, Jo, nothing!” she said. “Apologize!”
Benton and the Doctor looked at one another uncomfortably, both realizing that they’d have no peace until Jo was mollified, whether they agreed with it or not.
“My apologies, Sergeant,” the Doctor said in formal tones. “I had no wish to lessen your seasonal celebration. I do hope no permanent damage has been done in your emotional associations?”
Benton cleared his throat. “Er, accepted. Thank you. No harm done.” He looked at the tin in his hands. “Though I do admit, I haven’t much appetite for this now. You haven’t any whatchacallit, Spleeten warriors on hand who might want it?”
“That’s better,” said Jo with satisfaction. She picked up the fuzzy holiday hat where it still lay on the table and reached up to put it on Benton’s head. “Maybe you could give it to the Brigadier.”
“The Brig?” Benton said, a smile coming back as he adjusted the jaunty headgear.
“Certainly,” the Doctor said with approval. “I can’t think of a more war-like man than that. It would suit him admirably.”
“If you slice it up and put it on a tray, he’ll never know any is missing,” Jo advised.
Benton smiled. “I’ll do that!” He turned to leave the lab only to swivel on his heel. “Oh, what about the whatsit you were making for him? I almost forgot.”
The Doctor rolled his eyes and went back to his microscope. “Tell the warrior that his whatsit needs more time to be cobbled out of the rocks and bearskins I have available here. Nevertheless, I’ll have it working by this evening if he leaves me alone.”
“Right. Merry Christmas, Doc. Merry Christmas, Miss Grant. Don’t forget the party tonight!” He disappeared down the hallway, whistling.
“Party…another holiday…” grumbled the Doctor, wiping off his soldering iron and poking at the tiny mass of wires he was assembling, but Jo noticed the corners of his mouth were turning upwards.
“Are you going?” she asked, fetching the roll of solder he pointed towards.
He didn’t look up. “If you can find me another of those suitable hats.”
“I will.” She nodded and reached out to give his shoulder a pat. “You’ll like Christmas here, I’m sure of it.”
He smiled up at her. “It’s an acquired taste.”
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