"I thought you said this was a reunion," Nadiya says, looking around the tent. No one is there but her and Sue.
"Well, ah, you see," Sue says, looking shifty, "that's, well -- I'm sure Mel will be delighted to explain it to both of you!"
"Oh, thanks," says Mel, entering the tent with Tamal. "Put it on old Mel, why don't you?"
"As if you wouldn't have done the same to me if you'd thought of it first! Hi, Tamal, how are you?"
"I'm well, Sue," says Tamal, not even trying to hide his irrepressible grin. "How are you, and you, Nadiya?"
"I'm quite well," Nadiya says, "but I'd be better if someone told us what's going on." She levels pointed looks at Mel and Sue.
"The thing is," Mel says, "it's got to do with aliens."
"Aliens!" Nadiya laughs. "What, they've run off with the rest of our tentmates?"
"Not exactly," says Sue. "It's more like -- well -- you know how they say television waves just sort of keep going, into outer space?" She waves her arms to demonstrate.
"That does sound vaguely familiar," Tamal says. "What, are there aliens who're great fans of the Bake Off, then?"
"Well," Mel says, "in a nutshell -- yes."
"You're in a nutshell," Nadiya says. "Aliens, fans of the Bake Off! And I suppose they think Paul and Mary are the leaders of the free world?"
"Not Paul," Sue says quickly. "It seems they find his orange-and-silver coloration rather offensive."
"They've got a point," Mel puts in.
"You're not serious," says Tamal.
"For once," says Sue, "in fact, we're in deadly earnest. Don't get used to it."
"Aliens," Nadiya repeats. "Aliens who think -- wait, do they like us? Earth people?"
"They're trying to decide," Mel says. "They want you to collaborate in order to prove that Earthlings are -- well -- capable of it."
"For the greater good," Sue adds. "They want to know if we're worthy allies."
"So we've got to bake," Tamal says slowly, "and how is Mary involved?"
"She'll be helping to judge the final product on taste," Mel informs them.
"The aliens know they haven't got our tastebuds," Sue says, "so they'll be judging on appearance, as well as how well the two of you work together."
"But why us?" Nadiya wants to know.
"Well, they liked you best, of course, love!" Mel grins at her. "I think you'll do our planet proud."
"Well, we'll certainly do our best, won't we?" Tamal says, looking to Nadiya.
"Of course we will," Nadiya says firmly. After all, she's promised herself and her family that she'll never back down from a challenge again. "What do they want us to bake?"
"A layered cake," Sue says, "which represents something great about Earth."
"They're very much looking forward to tasting it, since they've never had Earth food," Mel says.
"I hope it isn't poisonous to them," Tamal says. "That'd be a bit of a downer."
"Oh, God," says Nadiya, "if we poison them, they'll probably destroy the planet!"
"I doubt it," says Sue.
"They seem quite nice, really," Mel agrees.
"Oh, well, good," Tamal says brightly. "A best-of-Earth cake it is!"
"You've got three hours," says Sue. "On your mark, get set --"
Mel and Sue go off to get a cup of tea, leaving Nadiya and Tamal to confer. "Obviously, it ought to be a lemon drizzle cake," Tamal says seriously.
"Well, obviously," she agrees with a laugh. "They're my favorite!"
"And they represent the best of British cooking, I think," Tamal says.
"Something great about Earth, then," Nadiya says, looking up at him. "What shall we do?"
"We could do sandwiches," Tamal muses.
"Sandwiches are what's great about Earth?"
"I quite like sandwiches! All right, then, how about puppies?"
"There's a thought!" Nadiya considers it. "If we cut out fondant ears and a tail, we could make the whole cake a puppy!"
"I love it! A lemon drizzle puppy. I think that's the ideal representation of Earth, to be quite honest," Tamal says. "I wouldn't destroy the kind of planet that had puppies."
"Neither would I," Nadiya says, then claps her hands. "All right! Let's get the oven preheating and line the pan."
"I'll do the oven, the drizzle, and the curd, if you'll do the cake and your marshmallow fondant," Tamal suggests. "Then we'll work on the decorations together."
"That sounds good," Nadiya says, grabbing the right-sized pan and the butter to start greasing it up. Once that's done, she sets the butter and sugar to creaming.
They work together like the proverbial well-oiled machine, moving around each other perfectly, passing the spoons and corn flour back and forth, fetching cups of tea that are sugared just right -- and the cake comes out of the oven hot and fragrant.
"You've got half an hour," Mel calls out.
"Thank you!" Nadiya replies. To Tamal, she says, "That should be good for getting this cooled and decorated."
"Excellent," says Tamal. "I was thinking we could do a sort of Golden Retriever puppy, all blond and shaggy."
"That should be easy to color," Nadiya agrees, "mostly yellow."
"That's what I thought," Tamal says, "with a bit of sugar work for the -- you know --" He waggles his fingers around his head. "Fringe-y bits."
"If you're up for it!" Nadiya adds a few drops of yellow and one of orange to the bowl of marshmallows for fondant. They melt down as Tamal layers the curd between the cake halves, and then Nadiya kneads the melted goo into proper fondant.
"I'm still so impressed with that technique," Tamal tells her, leaning over her shoulder to watch.
"Thank you!" Nadiya says; that never gets old. "Now, you and your artistic flair, help me figure out how to cut this."
The cake is shaped like a lying-down dog; Tamal makes short work of the fondant sheet, carving it into slightly ragged shapes that layer onto the sponge, making it look like fur.
"Oh, that's magnificent!" Nadiya says. "Really well done. Now she needs eyes and a nose."
"Here's the royal icing," Tamal says, handing her a bowl tinted black. "I thought dark chocolate, but that might not go with the lemon."
"It's bad for dogs, as well." Nadiya carefully paints the dog's features onto the golden fondant. "Can't have that."
"Good point!" Tamal starts on his caramel, which smells just wonderful.
"Five minutes!" calls Sue.
Nadiya and Tamal exchange a look. "I think we've got this," Nadiya says, half incredulous.
"We make a good team," says Tamal, dripping the caramel into a shaggy fringe. "Don't we, pup?"
"Please don't befriend our cake," Nadiya pleads. "We've got to feed it to Mary and the aliens!"
"Right, right. It's just you and me, then." He turns his bright grin on her with a flourish of the spoon. "What do you think?"
"I think it's brilliant," Nadiya says, smiling up at him.
"And... time! Put down that spoon, Tamal, unless you're going to feed me some of your caramel," Mel says. "Are you ready to face the judges?"
Nadiya and Tamal glance at each other, then back at Mel and Sue. "I think so," Nadiya says.
"Just a mo' while I fetch our distinguished guests, then," Sue says, vanishing around the corner of the tent. She returns with Mary, resplendent in a robin's-egg blue jacket. She might, Nadiya thinks, have chosen it to coordinate with the aliens; their carapaces and top two limbs are the same shade, deepening to teal at their tails and third set of limbs. Their faces are pointed and curious, rather like hedgehogs', and they have antennae, or perhaps tentacles, that wave gently in the breeze from the fans. "Allow me to introduce Kjvnda and Asiur; they're big fans."
"Pleased to meet you," Nadiya says, inclining her head.
"Cheers," says Tamal.
"We are delighted to make your acquaintance," says one of the aliens -- Kjvnda, Nadiya thinks -- in a voice a bit like Stephen Hawking's simulated one, "and much looking forward to your cake."
"We hope you like it," Nadiya says, moving aside so they can see the lemon drizzle puppy as Tamal brings it forward. "We've made it in the shape of a puppy."
"Tell us about 'puppy,'" says Asiur. "It is the best thing about Earth?"
"Absolutely," Tamal says. "They're, uh, non-sapient beings, very friendly and loyal, and nice to touch -- that's why I did the sugarwork here, to simulate the fur."
"We will meet a puppy?" requests Asiur, turning to face Mary.
"I'm sure that can be arranged," Mary says, unfazed as ever. "And what sort of cake have you made the puppy out of, Nadiya?"
"Lemon drizzle," Nadiya says. "It's a classic, and I certainly think it's one of the best things about England, which is one of the best things about Earth."
"Mmm," Kjvnda and Asiur say together, harmonizing oddly.
"They were hoping that was what you would make," Mary says confidentially. "May we try a piece?"
"Of course! May I cut it for you?" Tamal offers, being gracious.
"You may," Mary says. "Thank you, Tamal."
He cuts generous slices for Mary, as well as Mel and Sue, who have been hovering, then pauses, knife in midair. "You wanted to taste it, right?" he asks the aliens.
"Yes, please," says Kjvnda. "A small amount only, if you will."
Tamal cuts much smaller slices for Kjvnda and Asiur, but with just as much care. "I hope you enjoy it," he says.
The aliens make another dissonant "mmm" sound, then carefully mimic the way Mary holds her fork to bring small bites to their mouths. They lick every crumb from the fork, then look at one another. "We find it delicious!" Asiur announces.
"Oh, brilliant!" Nadiya says, clapping her hands.
"This is sure to be a long-lasting and beneficial partnership," Kjvnda says, placing their fork on the plate to shake Mary's hand. "Thank you, Queen Mary."
"You are most welcome," Mary says, a twinkle in her eye. Nadiya suspects that she's rather enjoying this whole leader-of-the-free-world bit. "Please, do have more cake, all of you."
Nadiya helps herself; it really is worth the friendship of an alien species, if she does say so herself. And she does.