Holly liked to get to her office early; before the station became the den of chaos it usually reached by about nine o'clock. On the way she almost always picked up a coffee from the stand on the high street, and today the instant heat was particularly welcoming. She could see her breath hovering in the air, and she pulled her hat down further, to properly cover her ears. Frank, the desk sergeant, greeted her cheerily when she came in. He was using the slack time to decorate his workstation with an assortment of un-matching Christmas decorations. On the stairs, Holly passed two men in overalls trying to manoeuvre a huge fir tree up to the first floor. The season was upon them already.
When she reached the office, a scattering of employees were starting to drift in and settle themselves at their desks. No sign yet of Slade, but that was hardly surprising given his record for punctuality, or lack of it. Holly had been trying not to let her mind dwell on him so much; it was becoming a very bad habit and one that exasperated her.
As she made her way to her office, she noticed someone waiting outside the door. She recognised him as Sam Sherman, one of the leading technicians from the central labs.
"Dr Sherman, what can I do for you?" she asked, smiling, as she fumbled in her pocket for the keys.
"Holly. I thought I'd come and collect those samples you wanted a second opinion on," he said.
"I was going to have them sent across to you," she told him, puzzled. "You didn't have to come all the way over."
"It's not a problem," he continued, following her into the room. As she removed her coat and hat, he seemed to be surveying the small lab, silently appraising it.
"Forgotten what it's like to be a humble Science Officer?" she asked, smiling.
"No, I was just thinking that it must seem a bit constraining for you. I mean, I know your background, your academic achievements, the papers you've published. It's all impressive stuff. You didn't ever consider doing a doctorate?"
"Money," Holly smiled. "Plus, there were other factors too. My father, for one."
"Aah, the great Professor Frederick Turner!" Sherman laughed. "I wish I'd met him. His jet propulsion theories were a revelation to me as a student. He must have been quite something to work with."
"He was," she agreed. "He was one of a kind."
She sealed the box of samples and held them out to Dr Sherman, who took them from her. There was a momentary pause, and Holly wasn't sure if she was missing something.
"Actually," Sherman said, smiling slightly. "I had another motive for coming over here."
"Yes.I know it's short notice, and I'm sure I'm not the first to ask this, but I wondered whether you might like to come to the Christmas ball with me? I assume you're planning to go?"
Holly was caught entirely by surprise, and it took a moment to react. Before she could respond, Sherman nodded knowingly.
"Look, I'd heard rumours about you and one of the detectives here, and that's fine. I just thought there was no harm in asking."
Holly thought about the offer, and was reminded that, in fact, Slade hadn't even mentioned the ball. It was taking place that night, and he hadn't asked about her plans. Everything about him was frustrating. The night he brought her the replacement crystal for the machine, it looked as though things between them were about to change. They had eaten dinner together, talked for hours into the night and she was briefly reminded why it was that she was attracted to him. Slavishly, illogically attracted to him. He had stayed over that night, and as she went into her bedroom he had stood there in the doorway facing her; they were both waiting, it seemed, for something to happen. The wine and fatigue had put them both into a slow, dreamy state, and the irrational part of her brain was screaming at her to drag him into the room and close the door.
But since then, although they had continued to work closely, things had almost returned to the same mundane routine. He took her for granted, she decided. He would probably just assume that she would go to the ball with him, as though she was his personal property, the ultimate ego-boosting detective accessory. But Sam Sherman? She had known him vaguely for a couple of years; they had attended conferences together, and collaborated on cases every now and then. He was handsome, charming and intelligent; she would be an idiot to turn him down.
"Dr Sherman!" she called after him, as he was making his way out. "I'd love to go with you."
He turned around, smiling. "Great! Write down your address and I'll pick you up at six-thirty."
"Sounds good!" she replied brightly, scribbling her address onto a piece of notepaper.
"Oh, and Holly? You should probably call me Sam. I think they allow that kind of thing at Christmas parties." He smiled at her and, with an awkward wave from underneath the box of samples, he headed out of the office.
Holly sighed contentedly. She had done the only sensible thing, the thing that she would have advised any woman in that position to do. Sam Sherman, she knew, had his fair share of admirers, and why shouldn't she live a little?
Slade sauntered into the office, keeping an eye out for Grisham, whom he knew was now keeping a record of his tardy arrivals. It was freezing outside and not much better in the office, but he was in high spirits and nothing was going to dampen them - even the sight of Morris blowing his nose over Slade's desk.
"Tell me something, Morris," Slade said, slinging his coat over the back of his seat.
"Is it fatal?"
Slade glanced over to Holly's office and could see her on the telephone, reading from a file balanced in the crook of her arm. He needed to talk to her; it had been the only thing on his mind since waking up. Life was good, the halls were being decked and the Christmas ball was going to be a fitting end to a year he would never forget. He usually approached police social functions with the same attitude reserved for major dental surgery, but this year was going to be different. This time, he had plans, and they involved Holly.
"Nicky!" he called, cheerily, as the younger man returned to the room. "Ordered your tux for tonight?"
Nicky smiled shyly. "Actually, I've just picked it up from the cleaner."
"You own one?"
"Well, yes; debating society, May Balls, and all that."
That's right, Slade remembered, Nicky had been to Oxford University and was therefore an authority on overdressing. Slade hated shoe-horning himself into stiff, restrictive monkey-suits, but he was sure the sight of Holly in whatever she was wearing would more than compensate.
He knocked on the door of her office and walked in without waiting to be asked. Holly was finishing up on the phone, and he idly toyed with various objects on her desk while he waited. She frowned, confiscating a small electrical device and firing him a look. Slade could barely contain his impatience, and had to stop himself from hanging up the phone. He was already starting to picture the dress; black, maybe, or red, with thin straps and a teasingly low back.
"Hi," she said, finally, setting the receiver down. "What is it?"
"I.just came to talk to you," he said, offering her his most enigmatic smile.
"About what?" she asked, suspiciously.
"About tonight. I can come round, we could have something to eat and then head off to this Christmas shindig. What do you think?" The second the words left his lips Slade knew things were not going to plan; she was looking at him uncomfortably.
"Actually, Slade," she began, "I have other plans."
"What's the lecture about this time?" he asked, teasingly. "Why toast always falls butter-side down? Where those odd socks disappear to when they go missing from the dryer?"
"The answers to those questions are gravity and carelessness, and the reason I can't go with you to the ball tonight is that I'm already going with somebody else."
Slade felt his heart drop like a dumbbell. He swallowed hard, reeling as though he'd been punched.
"Oh. Right. Anyone I know?"
"I don't think so. His name is Sam Sherman, and he works at central labs."
"This been going on long?" Slade said, trying to control his voice.
"Nothing's going on, Slade - he asked me this morning. It's just the Christmas ball."
"Which we were going to go to together."
"I don't remember you asking me."
"No, but I assumed."
There lay the fatal flaw in his argument: he had assumed. Recently, he had been assuming a lot of things when it came to Holly, and now it seemed he had got it wrong. Their friendship, Slade believed, had been shifting gradually since the incident with Stephen Marlowe. That very night, after a good meal, they had ended up lying on the sofa, practically in each other's arms. At her bedroom door he had come within a second or two of kissing her, and who knows where that might have led, but something had told him to stop. In the past he would have known exactly what to do, but never in his past had he met a woman like Holly Turner. One wrong move could jeopardise everything between them; their relationship sometimes seemed as delicate as the crystal in the heart of the time machine. The machine was an added complication too - when he did try to move their relationship forward, he wanted Holly to know that it was because of her and not because she gave him access to the world's first operational time machine. He had to know that she felt the same way, and now it looked like he had his answer. And who was this lab monkey anyway?
"Fine," he told her, eventually snapping out of his reverie. "That's fine. I might see you there, then."
"Slade!" Holly called, as he left the room, but he wasn't in the mood to be placated or reasoned with.
He needed a drink, or something else to restore his Christmas spirit. Having your ego trampled on first thing on a Friday morning was not Slade's idea of a good start to the day. He slumped into his swivel-chair with a theatrical sigh.
"What's your problem?" Morris asked, looking up from the strange sellotape sculpture he appeared to be constructing. "A minute ago you were so happy I thought I was going to be sick."
"A minute ago I thought I had a date for the Christmas ball," Slade replied, before he had a chance to think about what he was saying. Since when did he share anything remotely personal with Morris?
"Holly?" Nicky asked, tentatively. "Well, never mind, Slade. You're welcome to come with us."
"Where are your girlfriends?" he asked, puzzled.
"Lucy's playing in a recital of 'The Messiah' at the Royal Festival Hall," Nicky said, pride evident in his voice.
"Carol dumped me," Morris replied, morosely.
"What, she finally kissed you and you didn't turn into a prince?" Slade said.
Morris gave a short, sarcastic laugh, and turned his attention to his ringing phone.
"Cheer up, Slade. We can still have a good time," Nicky tried to assure him.
Strange, but when Slade thought about the Christmas ball, he'd imagined a certain beautiful woman on his arm. He didn't think he'd be sloping in with a pair of male colleagues; the last rejects of the London Metropolitan Police. He was about to open his mouth to cast doubt on Nicky's optimism, when an idea blazed into his mind. Leaning back on his chair, he could see that Grisham was away from her desk; in fact, he had yet to see her at all. Slade hesitated momentarily - was it worth the risk?
"Hey, Nicky," he said, leaning conspiratorially across his desk. "Do you know how to access the personnel files?"
Nicky looked up at him, his brow furrowed. "Er, yes, but I can't get into them via my computer. The database is only accessible via Grisham's machine."
"Well, come on then," Slade replied, nodding in the direction of the office.
Nicky followed him, helplessly.
"Wait!" he said, as Slade crossed the threshold into their boss' domain. "This isn't.illegal, is it?"
"Would I do something illegal?" Slade replied, throwing an arm around the younger man's shoulder. "It's all above board. In fact, she asked me to do this."
Nicky leaned over Grisham's desk and began to go to work on the computer. Slade knew Nicky would never presume to sit in his boss' chair; it wouldn't be proper procedure. Slade tried to keep a look-out without drawing Nicky's suspicion.
"This is the main database," Nicky said eventually. "You just need to input the name, surname first."
Slade sat down and flexed his fingers over the keyboard. He typed the name he needed and hit the 'enter' key. One file came up on screen, with the option to view the contents; he didn't need asking twice.
<SHERMAN, DR SAMUEL J.>
Great, so he's a doctor too, Slade sighed. He refused to accept that educated people gave him an inferiority complex, but there was no denying that there was a pattern to the men Holly showed an interest in.
"Dr Sherman?" Nicky asked, peering over Slade's shoulder.
"You know him?"
"Yes. Well, no, not personally, but he used to lecture at the training college," Nicky expanded. "He's terribly clever."
Slade's reaction to that was enough to convey to Nicky that his contribution was unwanted.
"So why do you need Dr Sherman's personal file?" he said, changing the subject.
Slade hit the 'print' button and scooted over to the machine to retrieve his take-away copy.
"Oh, it's an ongoing investigation," Slade replied vaguely. "Something Grisham's having me look into."
Holly was finding it difficult to concentrate on her work. She was supposed to be testing out the prototype of a new bugging device, but the tiny components kept getting the better of her. That wasn't the whole explanation, she knew.
Sighing, she set the remote timer back on the counter and looked out of the window onto the open-plan office. She could see Slade in conversation with Morris and Nicky. He had stormed out in a temper worthy of a five-year old child, and her instinct had been to get him back and to try and sort things out. But that same rational voice reared its head again, and she had opted to return to her work. How often did he make the move to repair their friendship? It always came down to her, regardless of whether she was at fault. If he was jealous, she thought, well, that was a good thing. Not that making him jealous had been her intention. Not entirely anyway. Part of her couldn't help be both flattered and strangely reassured by the way he had acted, but the sensible part remembered what she thought of his behaviour. She was going to the ball with a perfectly agreeable and very eligible man, and she was going to enjoy herself for once.
When she looked up again, she was just in time to see Slade striding out of the office, folding a piece of paper into his jacket pocket. She frowned to herself, and picked up the screwdriver again.
Slade was still digesting the information from Dr Sherman's file when he arrived at the front of Sundown Court. To his dismay, there didn't seem to be any catches with this man, nothing he could use to his advantage - no wife he failed to mention, no dodgy past dealing lab chemicals for recreational use. Slade didn't have any choice, which was why he was outside Holly's building. Quietly, surreptitiously, he stole in through the front door, creeping past Danny's cubby-hole.
Danny never missed a trick.
"Oh, Danny, hi," Slade replied, feigning surprise. "I was just.er.Holly left some work at her place. She's busy, so I said I'd fetch it for her."
Despite the fact that Danny saw Slade at Holly's flat almost every day - and duly misinterpreted their relationship for something it wasn't - he was still reluctant to let him past.
"Could you ask her to phone ahead the next time?" Danny asked. "It's nothing personal, Jeff; I just have to think about the welfare of the tenants."
"And you do it so well, Danny," Slade told him, as he began to walk away. "Keep up the good work!"
Slade let himself in with the set of 'emergency' keys Holly had trusted him with, and headed straight for the living room. She obviously didn't go in for Christmas decorations - if it wasn't for the cold, it could have been any time of year in her flat.
The machine blinked benignly in the half-light, as though it had been expecting him. He switched on the main circuits and carefully closed the door and shutters. A low hum rumbled throughout the room, and the machine started to go to work. Slade smiled to himself - okay, it wasn't the way he'd wanted to do things, but he'd been left with no choice. He flipped the switches, set the dial and pressed the initiation control. He attached the watch to his wrist, squinting as the white lights revolved pulsed through the room; when the process was complete, he picked up the timer. Three hours - it had only given him three hours. Maybe Holly was right and Time knew when he was up to no good.
Three hours meant that it was now seven o'clock, an hour Slade usually devoted to deep sleep. Turning the door handle silently, he edged out into the hallway. He was about to make a line for the door, when he heard footsteps. Flattening himself against the doorframe, he was able to see Holly sleepily leave her bedroom, wearing a bathrobe and carrying a towel. Slade sucked in his breath; ordinarily, he would have taken more time to appreciate this sight, but right now he couldn't afford to be caught. Once he could hear the shower chug into life, he made an exit.
Out on the street, Danny was sweeping the front steps, and as Slade hurried past, he spun around.
"Jeff?" he said, nonplussed.
"I'm in a bit of a hurry, Danny," Slade replied, offering his most apologetic smiles.
"Yeah.it's just that.I didn't see you go in last night."
"I know," Slade replied. "It was late, I was feeling spontaneous, what can I say?"
Danny laughed. "I always knew you were an old romantic!"
Slade gave him a conspiratorial wink and jumped down the steps, two at a time. It was only when he reached the bottom that he remembered that his car wouldn't be there; it was at home outside his own flat. Public transport it was, then.
A very unexpected sight greeted Holly when she rounded the corner into the office with her cup of coffee. There, leaning in her doorway, was Slade, a smile on his face and a bouquet of flowers dangling by his side. The smile was infectious, but she tried to give the impression that everything was normal.
"Good morning," Slade said, moving to allow her to open the door.
"Hi," Holly replied, evenly. "Who are those for?"
"These?" he said, innocently. "Well, it was my mum's birthday last month, soooo.I suppose they must be for you."
"Okay, what did you do?"
"What?" Slade perched on the edge of the desk.
"When was the last time you bought me flowers and you weren't trying to apologise for something?"
Now he was trying his most injured expression on her and, to Holly's irritation, it was working on her. She took the flowers he was holding out to her and smiled appreciatively.
"They're lovely," she admitted.
"So, this evening, the Christmas ball," he began, trying to recall the content of their previous conversation. "I just wanted to ask you - formally - if you would like to go with me? I'll cook dinner beforehand, we can have some good wine, and then."
"Then we can go to this thing," he continued and, lowering his voice, added "What do you say?"
Holly felt her face flush and there was no hiding the fact that she was now beaming from ear to ear. Could it really be happening? Had Slade actually located his romantic side? When he'd failed to make a move after the 'Stephen' incident, she had decided not to get her hopes up any longer; if something happened, good, but if not then she could cope with their being friends.
"Slade, I don't know what to say.," she said, truthfully.
"Well, that makes a change at least," he grinned. "Just say yes, and I'll go away and leave you alone."
She opened her mouth to respond, but was interrupted by an insistent beeping sound. She frowned at the noise, and then a terrible feeling of recognition dawned on her. It was confirmed when Slade clamped his hand over his wrist, trying to silence the alarm. Despite the fact that he was an accomplished liar, his sheepish expression gave him away instantly. Holly felt a crushing sensation in her chest.
"Holly, I can explain," Slade said weakly.
"Don't," she replied, tears pricking her eyes. "I don't want you to explain, I don't want to hear your excuses. I don't even want to know why you've done this. Please, just get out."
"But, Holly -"
"Didn't you understand me? I don't want you here. After the last time, I thought you understood; I thought you were genuinely sorry. I thought you had some respect for me!"
"I do respect you, of course I do!"
"Well, you've got a funny way of showing it!" she glared. "How can I ever trust you again? How can I believe that you mean anything you say to me?"
She knew that this went way beyond anger; anger would be easy. If there was someone she was angry with it was herself - for telling Slade about the machine in the first place, for trusting him, for letting him get his way so often, for allowing him to walk all over her. The depressing thing was that she knew why she did it, and the last thing she would ever do was admit that to him.
In the unbearable silence that followed, they were interrupted by a knock on the door. The only way she would stop herself from losing it completely was to take her eyes off Slade, so the distraction was welcome.
"Come in!" she called, her voice barely under control.
"Holly, please, " Slade asked, pleading in his voice.
When the door opened, Holly was surprised to see Dr Sam Sherman there. He looked from her to Slade and back again.
"I'm sorry.was I interrupting something?" Sherman asked.
Holly saw Slade sizing the other man up, saw him watching her.
"Don't worry," he said, not taking his eyes off Holly. "I was just leaving."
Holly flinched as he slammed the door shut behind him, but she was quick to recompose herself. A personal visit from the senior technician at the central police laboratories usually meant something serious. But now it presented her with an opportunity. "I.I came to collect those samples you wanted a second opinion on," he began, evidently still distracted by Slade's dramatic exit.
"I'm pleased you came," Holly said, still looking at the space left by Slade. "There was something else I wanted to ask you ."
Slade didn't know what to do with himself. He didn't want to stray far from Holly's office, not while Dr Wonderful was in there, but at the same time he didn't really want to sink any lower in her estimation. If that was technically possible.
He felt like he'd been kicked in the head, though the pain was situated somewhere nearer the left side of his chest. If he was physically capable of kicking himself in the head, though, he would have done it. Of course she was going to find out - but was it Time asserting its authority, or the fact that Holly was getting to know him too well? Either way, his attempts were almost certainly doomed to failure now. Slade had sized Sherman up in a split second; a charismatic overachiever who also happened to be good-looking - well, if you liked that sort of thing.
Slade remembered the reason why it had all gone so badly wrong, and checked the watch. Fifty minutes, and he needed all of them. He picked up his jacket to leave.
He recognised the voice of his boss, and turned around slowly.
"My office - now," Grisham ordered, arms akimbo.
"But Chief -"
"But nothing, Slade. Nicky and Morris are waiting, and I need to talk to all of you about a very important matter the Commissioner has brought to my attention."
Slade felt a flash of panic grip him, and he had to make a quick decision. In the end it was easy - first priority had to be avoiding the loop of infinity; he would think of something to tell Grisham later.
"Chief, is that the Commissioner now?" he said, nodding in the direction of the back stairs. In the split second that it took Grisham to turn around and check, he bolted through the main entrance.
Slade arrived back at the station with a feeling of disenchantment. He had travelled back in time and come back again, and had achieved absolutely nothing - except that he had now fallen out with Holly in two time zones. He was trying to work out what would be going on when he walked through the door of the office again, and he didn't have long to wait to find out.
"Slade!!" Grisham yelled, loud enough to turn the head of everyone in the room. "If you're not in front of my desk in exactly three seconds, the next thing you'll find on yours will be a P45!"
Slade was genuinely confused, and looked across to Nicky, hopeful of an explanation. Instead, Nicky cleared this throat, looking incredibly self-conscious, his eyes firmly on the carpet.
"Don't think I'm joking, Slade!" Grisham continued. "Get in here - now!"
"What's going on, Chief?" he asked, trying to keep his tone the right side of the innocent-or-clearly-lying divide. He'd travelled back to his real time zone, so how could Grisham be furious at him for doing a runner?
"I don't know what you're up to, Slade, but this time you've gone too far. Not only do you use my office and my computer to access confidential personnel files, but you enlist the help of a highly impressionable graduate trainee to help you do it!"
Slade sighed. Of course - that was the last thing he had done before time-travelling.
"Nicky had nothing to do with it. He was just helping me."
"I don't care what he was doing! What I want to know is what you were up to?"
"Just something I was looking into," he protested, weakly.
"You were already skating on very thin ice, Slade," his boss warned him, shaking her finger inches from his face. "And this utter violation of staff privacy laws is enough to have you out of here on your ear."
She leant across her desk, and Slade recoiled slightly. Bad things seemed to happen in threes, so he should perhaps have guessed that losing his job was on the cards too.
"However, I think we can come to some sort of arrangement; I think perhaps you can made amends."
Slade didn't like the vaguely sadistic smile that was playing on her lips.
"I had a meeting with the Commissioner this morning, and it seems that there has been a credible security threat made against the Met. We don't know much more about it at the moment, but the Commissioner is adamant that security is stepped up across the board. He has charged me with finding some volunteers to be on security detail at the ball tonight. And you know what, I have a feeling that your diary just cleared."
Slade's heart sunk.
"Not another word, Slade. If you want to still have a job this afternoon, you will thank me and report to the front entrance of the Riverbank Park Plaza at six o'clock."
He knew when he was beaten. Giving Grisham a grudging but courteous nod of thanks, he swung his jacket over his shoulder and went back to his desk.
When Holly arrived back at Sundown Court late that afternoon, she was so distracted that she almost stumbled into Danny, who was perched on a stepladder, hanging tinsel.
"Oh Danny, I'm sorry. Are you all right?"
The caretaker had regained his balance, and remained good-natured as usual.
"You seem preoccupied, Holly, if you don't mind me saying so. Is everything okay?"
"Fine," she nodded. "It's the annual ball tonight, and I'm running late, that's all. Actually, Danny, I'm expecting someone around six-thirty - could you give me a buzz when he gets here?"
"Mr Slade has his own set of keys, doesn't he?" Danny asked, clearly confused.
"Actually, Danny, it's not Slade." She shouldn't be surprised that Danny assumed what he assumed about them; after all, Slade was in her flat at all times of the day and night. But it still irritated her that somehow this man had insinuated himself into her life, made her care about him against her better judgement, and given those around her the impression that he was something he actually wasn't.
"Oh," Danny said, a little embarrassed. "Right. I'll give you a ring, of course."
Holly opened her wardrobe and took out the dress, laying it gently on the bed alongside the shoes and jewellery, and giving the whole ensemble another careful appraisal. How long was it since she went to something like this? Five years at least. Even at university she had usually been reluctant to turn up to big formal occasions - God, the last ball she had been to was with Stephen. In her mind, all this went some way towards justifying buying a new outfit. It had nothing to do with Slade, it didn't; she was doing it for herself. Almost all of her salary was ploughed straight into the machine, and when was the last time she had spent it frivolously? When did she actually spend money on herself? Okay, so when she stood in the changing room of the store, examining her appearance from every conceivable angle, thoughts of Slade did keep creeping up on her. Well, if he saw her wearing the dress and happened to like what he saw, then that was fine, but it certainly wasn't for his benefit.
Anyway, she was furious with him, and that was what she had to focus on. Not only had he used the machine without her permission, and in doing so violated her personal space and property, but then there was what he'd been doing with Grisham's computer. It hadn't taken much needling to get the details from Nicky, who always felt duty-bound to tell the truth. It just reinforced what he Slade was like - when he didn't get what he wanted, he cheated; and if that didn't work he resorted to sabotage. It served him right that he had to work the evening instead.
She was just putting in her earrings when the intercom buzzed. Grabbing her new clutch bag and overcoat, she pulled the front door behind her and made her way to the foyer. She liked Dr Sherman, but there was no way that she would risk him accidentally stumbling into her living room.
When she got down to the ground floor, Sherman and Danny were trying to make conversation, but it wasn't flowing very easily. Danny looked relieved to see Holly arrive.
"May I say, Miss Turner, that you certainly do look very lovely this evening," Danny said, smiling broadly.
Sherman moved a step towards her. "I'll second that, Davy."
"Danny, yes, of course."
"Shall we go?" Holly smiled, trying to rescue the situation.
Sherman offered her his arm, and they walked together to his car on the other side of the road. He certainly looked dashing in black tie, Holly had to admit; any objective eye would have declared them to make a very handsome couple. As a pairing, they made sense - the same background and field of work, similar interests and no ties to keep them from being together.
People had been arriving for the last half an hour, and Slade moved around the ballroom with all the enthusiasm of a student kept back in detention. He was one of a small task-force of middle-ranking detectives charged with patrolling the ballroom and the surrounding areas, and his mood was only getting worse as the evening wore on. He was wearing his holster under the rented tuxedo, with a radio-mic trailing down the inside of his dress-shirt and out of his cuff. He'd remarked to the officer at the door that it ruined the line of his suit, but the joke - much like his intended evening - had fallen flat.
"Here, Slade!" one of the detectives called over. "Your turn on the welcome desk!"
He scowled, and sloped over to the entrance, where the Riverbank Park Plaza staff were taking tickets and issuing programmes for the evening. The detective he was taking over from handed him the x-ray wand and left him to it. When he next looked up, he found himself face to face with Holly and Dr Sherman.
"Good evening," he said, trying to sound both neutral and professional. "This won't take a second. Could I ask you to remove your coats?"
"What's all this for?" Sherman asked, as Slade passed the wand over his body.
"Security. We wouldn't want you to feel unsafe now, would we?" Slade said, taking great pleasure in manhandling him a little more roughly than he should.
Holly stepped forward, and took off her coat. When she did so, Slade felt his heart perform a complicated gymnastics move; he knew that his dopey expression was betraying his reaction to the way she looked. She always looked good to him, but now.And what was this, was she blushing under his gaze?
"Slade," she said, reminding him of what he was supposed to be doing.
"Don't worry. I'm not going to pat you down."
He gave the wand a perfunctory swish and indicated that they were free to go.
"Enjoy your evening," Slade said, swallowing the lump in his throat.
Two hours later, he was slumped at a table with Morris and Nicky, both of whom had been drinking, to wildly different effect. Nicky had become more animated and was proceeding to tell Slade about all of his favourite theories on inner-city policing; Morris seemed to have slipped into some near-comatose state, responding to questions with monosyllabic grunts.
"Put a glass in front of its mouth, see if it's still breathing," Slade told Nicky, indicating to their colleague.
Slade was trying his very best to keep his eyes away from the table where Holly was sitting with Sherman and his colleagues from central labs, but at the same time he couldn't keep his gaze away off her. He knew, as well, that she was avoiding meeting his glance, but every so often he caught her.
"Have you spoken to Holly this evening?" Nicky asked. If Nicky, who had consumed the best part of a bottle of Bordeaux, noticed his preoccupation then his yearning must have been glaringly obvious.
"I'm working, Nicky," Slade said, trying to cover himself.
"Well, she looks stunning. I mean, she always looks beautiful, but this evening she looks exquisite. That dress, those earrings."
"You notice a woman's earrings?" Slade asked, with an amused frown.
"The little details are important, Slade."
At that moment, they were interrupted by Grisham, who swept over to them in a long black ball-gown.
"Mr Robson!" she began. "My husband has been propping up the bar for the past hour, and you look like a man who can dance."
"What?" Nicky looked genuinely terrified.
"Well, these two look about as fleet-footed as a pair of water-buffalo," she told him, nodding at Slade and then at Morris, who had once again slumped into a catatonic condition. Slade watched, amused, as Grisham seized Nicky by the hand. "Come on!" she ordered.
Nicky looked to Slade for salvation, but Slade merely offered him a little wave. If he was going to have a lousy night, then it was only fair that others suffered along with him. As he watched Grisham and Nicky, his eye was caught by the sight of Holly and Dr Sherman, also on the dance-floor. How long had they been there?
The last notes of the song came to an end and the couples on the dance-floor stopped to applaud the band. Holly took her hand from Sherman's arm and joined in.
"I'm going to get a drink. Do you want one?" Sherman asked.
"I'm fine, thank you," Holly replied. "I'll go back to the table."
She was turning to go when she felt a hand catch her elbow, spinning her around again; the next thing she knew she was face to chest with Slade. He held her in a dancer's embrace and was wearing his most arrogant smile.
"Enjoying yourself?" he asked, sarcastically.
"I was. I thought you were on duty tonight - or does harassing the guests come under that description?" she said. The music has started again, and she was surprised that Slade actually seemed to be a capable dancer. He held her comfortably, assuredly, and for some reason that only reignited her anger.
"He seems very nice," Slade commented, fixing Holly's eyes with his.
"That's why I asked him." she replied, smiling her most potent smile. She noticed a wave of puzzlement flash across Slade's face, and it was then clear to her.
".but that's not how it happened the first time around, was it? You may have changed how it happened, Slade, but Time still prevented you from changing the end result."
"You were angry with me, so you decided to ask him instead?"
"Not everything is about you, Slade."
"Why don't you just admit that you wanted to make me jealous?"
"Are you saying you're jealous?"
"No," Slade said, defensively. "I just don't appreciate plans being changed at the last minute."
"And which plans were those?" Holly said, with an exasperated laugh. He could be impossibly stubborn sometimes.
"The ones in your head? The ones written in invisible ink? I'm not a mind-reader, Slade, and sometimes if you want something you have to ask and not assume that you can just take."
"Fine. I get it; I was stupid to assume."
Holly understood that his words were loaded with subtext; he was trying to test the waters, determine how she felt without having to ask the question. She, however, was not willing to play the game - if he had something he wanted to express to her then he would have to learn to articulate it like an adult. Holly realised that she and Slade were just standing there, facing off against each other. They had stopped dancing, but were still holding each other; although Holly knew intellectually she was right, she would still feel the physical loss the second he let her go.
"We can talk about this tomorrow," she said, more softly. "But - "
"You have a date to get back to, I know," Slade said, reclaiming his hand from hers. "Enjoy the rest of your evening."
When Holly arrived back at Sundown Court later that night, the building was quiet save for the soft hum of the electrics. She passed the doors of her neighbours, hung with wreaths and tinsel.
She reached into her clutch bag for her keys, and as she rounded the corner there was something in her doorway she wasn't expecting. There, still dressed in his tuxedo, sat Slade - and beside him was a four-foot fir tree. She recognised the tentative smile he gave her as a peace offering, and she folded her arms and smiled back at him.
"I told him you wouldn't want to see anyone, but he insisted on staying," Slade said, indicating to his arboreal companion.
"What are you going here, Slade?" she said.
"He thinks I've got some apologising to do," he replied, getting to his feet.
"The tree can come in, but I'm not sure about the man it brought with it."
Holly saw Slade's mind ticking over as he tried to work out whether or not she meant it.
"Come on," she told him, opening the front door.
Once inside, Slade set the tree down in the corner of the living room, raising it off the floor with some weighty-looking scientific textbooks. Somehow, he persuaded her to dig out the box of Christmas decorations, which she hadn't used since her father's accident, and together they hung the tinsel, baubles and assorted trinkets.
"Did you travel back to 1972 to buy these?" Slade asked.
Holly elbowed him in the ribs, trying to prevent a smile creeping across her face. "Oh, and I suppose your tree is furnished by Harrod's?"
"I don't have a tree," he replied. "I thought I'd share yours."
She looked across at him but he wasn't giving much away, busying himself with the decorations instead. There was a small enigmatic smile playing on his lips. Every man at the ball had been wearing a tuxedo, so how was it that only Slade had looked good to her - and continued to look good? Never underestimate the powers of a good house red, Holly told herself.
"Is the dress new?" he asked, taking her by surprise. "It looks great. You look.great. The shoes too - and your earrings."
"My earrings?" Holly asked, doubtfully.
"The little details are important," he replied.
Feeling the intensity of his gaze, Holly looked to change the subject.
"Where's the star for the top?" she asked, rummaging in the last remaining shoebox. Eventually, she unearthed a striking silver decorative star.
"I think it's the job of the tallest person," Slade told her, reaching for the star. "It's my tree," Holly protested, backing away from him, a tight grip on the decoration.
"Yes, but I gave it to you," he continued, pursuing her and making sporadic grabs for the decoration.
"But the star's mine," Holly said, holding the star as far away from him as she could.
It was at that moment that she realised that her back was against the living room wall; there was nowhere else to retreat to. But Slade kept moving towards her, and now his demeanour had changed; he was no longer pursuing the tree decoration. He stopped in front of her, reaching out to touch a loose strand of her hair.
"Slade.what are you doing?"
"Trying to get you under the mistletoe."
Holly looked above her, and then back to him. "There isn't any mistletoe."
He didn't look up to check.
"Must've left it in my other tuxedo," he said quietly. "Oh well." And with that, he leaned towards Holly, finally closing the space between them.