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It was cold at the Ministry Headquarters, particularly in the bowels of the building, where the weak January sunlight failed to find a window to look in. Gorth had slipped his leash (metaphorically speaking) and had gone down to the new nursery floor to watch his valuable charges.
The four hermaphrodite children were housed in a large glass room in the centre of the basement, heavily guarded by security. A walkway ran round the outside of the room, and Gorth would often find himself standing there, gazing through the two-way mirror at the children.
In spite of a plethora of nurses to watch over them anxiously, the children were heavily reliant on each other for company, and Gorth supposed that this was how it would always be for them. They were unique. Alone in a world of men. The only hope for the future.
At the moment they all got on astonishingly well. There were few fights and tantrums, and they were very affectionate and protective towards one another. Gorth hoped for their sake that they always would be. Otherwise they faced a very lonely future indeed.
They were fast developers, already hobbling around at breakneck speed and gabbling to one another in baby-speak. Their powers of private communication were strong, and Gorth wondered if they were capable of telepathy. It was too soon to say for sure, likewise it was far too soon to tell which sex which predominant in any of them. They all wore identical all-encasing baby suits, particularly after Gorth had learned that one extraordinarily tasteless newspaper had put out a large sum of money for a photograph of them naked, to establish they were really hermaphrodites. If that kind of thing was happening now, when they were small infants, Gorth dreaded to think what would happen when they got into their teens and young adulthood.
"You're always skulking down here!" Tamaz roared, hoving into view.
"I just came down to look at the children".
"Because I find peace when I'm watching them".
On the other side of the glass the babies had retreated to their little day-beds. One was already asleep, and another was blowing noisy kisses at the other two. Gorth laughed. He found he only laughed these days when he was watching them.
"Well I'm glad someone's showing an interest in them", said Tamaz, tartly.
Gorth's heart sank. He knew all too well what that barbed comment meant. Tamaz had been considerably put out on Christmas Day when the media had given a lot of coverage to Kieran's departure. Tamaz had felt it distracted from the children's first birthday celebrations.
"Look, Kieran's left the City", Gorth sighed "I should imagine he's going to be gone some time. I think you're getting a touch paranoid".
"Paranoid?" Tamaz barked "He arrives in Lixix today, the media will become a circus. Well I'll bet he doesn't get as smooth a ride as he bargained for".
"What do you mean?" said Gorth, sharply.
"Nothing you need concern yourself with", said Tamaz.
"If you're hatching some plot ..."
"If I am it's nothing to do with you", said Tamaz "You stay out of everything, Gorth. Nothing concerns you. You make nothing your concern or else ..."
Tamaz nodded poignantly towards the children and then left.
It had been several years since they were last in Lixix, but the place was still as noisy and complex as ever. Leaving Adam and Julian on the Indigo, the others had gone ashore, and re-visited the drinking club that they had last seen during their circus days, when they had been full of anticipation prior to returning to the City and Kieran's inauguration. It was now incredible to believe that they had been through all that and come out the other side, and yet still peace was elusive. Still they were fleeing from some unseen force, wanting desperately to be left alone. They were still running, and it seemed increasingly likely that they would keep on doing so until they ran out of places to run to.
Joby sat at one of the alcove tables with Lonts, and watched sullenly as Hillyard and Kieran stood at the bar, ordering more drinks. Hillyard slipped his arm round Kieran's waist.
"Ransey's a long time in the loo", said Lonts.
"Yeah", said Joby, staring intently as Hillyard began to stroke Kieran's back.
"You shouldn't get jealous, Joby", said Lonts, when he realised what Joby was staring at.
"Oh what do you know!" Joby sneered.
"Adam says that now you've had Hillyard too, you can't afford to get jealous", said Lonts.
"Oh he does does he!" Joby exclaimed "A right pair of gasbags you two are. What else do you talk about when you get alone together?"
"We can't talk at the moment because we're sharing a cabin with you and Kieran", said Lonts, angrily "I miss our late-night chats".
"I don't know why it stops you talking", said Joby "It doesn't stop you doing anything else!"
A shadow fell across the table, and Joby was appalled to find the man from Magnolia Cove facing them. He had been so conspicuous by his absence these past few months that Joby had stopped looking over his shoulder for him. He certainly wouldn't have expected to find him here. But Laser Eyes was bearing down on them again now, and he had another knife in his hand.
"What the hell do you want?!" Joby asked, in horror "Why can't you leave Lonts alone? He hasn't done anything to you!"
Joby rammed the table at him, and the man was temporarily winded, although he didn't drop the knife, which was what Joby had hoped.
"Lonts, run!" Joby yelled.
"I can't leave you", Lonts protested.
"Do as I say, you little scrote!"
Lonts bolted, and the man regained his breath. He grabbed at Joby and smashed his fist into his eye. Stunned, Joby slumped to the floor.
"Leave him!" Kieran screamed, as he finally realised what was happening.
Ransey had emerged from the toilets, and was drawing out his revolver from the holster under his t-shirt. He fired it at the ceiling, which caused the entire room to erupt into yelling and shouting.
"Drop the knife!" he said "Just do it!"
The man dropped it with a loud clatter onto the tiled floor. Joby tried to sit up, but his head was swimming, and he found he was lying in a pool of beer and blood. Kieran picked up the knife.
"Are you o.k?" he asked Joby.
"He was after Lonts again", Joby shook his head vigorously, frustrated by the bleariness that was threatening to envelop him "That's all that fucking well concerns him, getting Lonts".
"Bastard!" Kieran lunged at the man with the knife and succeeded in taking off half of his bottom lip.
Ransey grabbed his arm and hooked him back, just as a couple of the town guards came in through the door. The man's mouth and chin was awash with blood.
"It's none of our fault", said Lonts, latching onto the sleeve of one of the guards "He was going to kill me, the others were only trying to protect me. Don't put Kieran away, please!"
The Casualty department of the Lixix Hospital was more like a cattle market at this late hour. Joby had to be stitched up, surrounded by just about every noise and smell known to man. He felt that by now he could write a definitive guide-book on Casualty departments of the world.
"What did you go and attack him for?" he said to Kieran, once the sewing job had been completed on his eye "They could've done you for GBH. Any ordinary mortal and they would've done".
"Me temper got the better of me", said Kieran "How are you now?"
"He got me in me blind eye, fortunately", said Joby "Or you'd be buying me a guide-dog first thing tomorrow".
"I'm proud of you", said Kieran, kissing his hair "Looking out for Lonts like that".
"Wish I could say the same for you", said Joby "You pillock".
"I couldn't stand by and watch him lay you out on your back, could I!"
"Fine. Being calmed by his handler", Kieran nodded at Hillyard, who was stroking Lonts's back soothingly.
"Still I suppose that nutter's finally in custody", said Joby "I hope we don't have to stay here and testify against him".
"We'll make a run for it instead", Kieran laughed "Take to the high seas".
"Oh great, fugitives from justice now".
"Finia!" Kieran gasped "What the hell's happened to you?"
"I heard you were here", said Finia tearfully, as he picked his way across the motley gathering. He looked in a terrible state. His mascara was running, and the bodice of his dress had been torn, exposing one of his nipples.
"What happened?" said Ransey, leaping up from his chair and grabbing Finia in his arms.
"N-Nothing", Finia wiped his nose with the back of his hand "I just ran into someone who didn't like eunuchs. It looks worse than it is. He was drunk. He just lunged at me and tore my dress. I'm more shaken than hurt".
"I told you, didn't I?" said Ransey "I said it wasn't safe for you to go off on your own, but you would insist. Well you needn't think I'm going to let you again".
"Julian's going to go wild when he sees the state of you", said Kieran.
"Finia attacked, Lonts nearly assassinated", said Joby "This'll really give Hinge and Bracket something to complain about!"
"We must do something about the record", Adam murmured "The needle's been scratching on the end for ages".
"I couldn't hear it above your groaning, my sensational old biddy", Julian stretched himself on the saloon sofa luxuriously.
Adam laughed. He had been rogered over the back of the chair, and Julian had squeezed and tantalised his penis until Adam felt as though his brain and all his senses would explode.
"Hadn't you better turn the record over?" said Julian, drowsily.
"Yes, but it'd be more fun if you did it".
Adam sat up and looked across at the wind-up gramophone on the table in the corner.
"I'm not sure I can trust you", he said.
"Of course you can't", said Julian "What a strange thing to say!"
Adam leaned across him and Julian tickled his balls.
"Bastard", Adam collapsed onto him in fits of giggles.
"No ball tickling?" said Julian "Alright, try this".
He blindly groped for Adam's penis and flicked it roughly. Adam squirmed and jokingly cried for mercy. Julian smacked his bottom roughly a few times until a pink glow began to spread over his flesh.
"Useless!" Adam shouted "Like being thrashed with a scented bootlace".
"Oh really?" said Julian, sarcastically "I can't help it if you've got a hide like a rhinoceros".
He spanked Adam until the pink turned red. Adam felt his genitals come alive again, and he screamed for more.
"Why have you stopped?" he asked, when no more smacks came.
"We've got an audience", said Julian, quietly.
Adam sat up and was appalled to find Uddle standing in the doorway. Julian strode across to him, imperiously. He pushed the stoker up onto the deck. Adam limped after them.
"Just leave him, Jules", he said, fearing that Julian was about to push Uddle overboard.
"Get back below", Julian ordered him, and Adam obeyed.
"I only came to tell you I was back from the shore", said Uddle, his eyes sparkling in his grimy face.
Julian slapped him twice across each side of the face. Uddle made no attempt to retaliate. Instead he seemed to relish it, and stood there as though waiting for more.
"Get back to your furnace", Julian whispered, in a leaden voice.
He watched until Uddle had disappeared down the steps to the quarterdeck, and then he returned to the saloon. Adam had turned the record over and was now pacing about the room, shivering as though the temperature had suddenly plummeted.
"Calm down", said Julian, closing the door behind him "I've banished him back to his hole, that's the last we'll see of him tonight".
"Oh God Jules, that was so embarrassing", Adam cried.
"Nonsense", said Julian, calmly.
"It's all very well for you to say nonsense, you weren't the one he was watching being spanked!"
"It wouldn't have bothered me if I was", said Julian, pouring himself a whisky "Anyway, Uddle was very turned on at the sight of your arse being walloped. He'll probably be a life-long member of the Adam fan-club from now on".
"Jules, you're impossible!"
"I simply refuse to let him ruin our evening. And I'm a good judge of character. We obtained a very useful insight into his inner psyche this evening, one that may well come in vital if he ever gives us any trouble in the future".
"He enjoys a bit of dominance, as the submissive partner".
"Oh Jules, I hope you're not suggesting ..."
"Me?!" Julian exclaimed "With THAT? Not if he was the last man on earth! All I'm saying is it should make it easy to keep him in line. He'll probably be our devoted slave, now he knows what kind of games we like to play".
"He might start wanting to join in!"
"Never", Julian shuddered "We'll keelhaul him first".
"I still don't know how I'm going to face him tomorrow".
"Oh stop blithering. You're beginning to sound quite middle-class".
"Jules", said Adam, in a shocked voice "That's a terrible thing to say!"
Julian pulled the belt out of his trousers and handed it to Adam.
"Then I should be punished for my insolence", he said "And if it'll make you feel better, you can invite Lurch in to watch".
"That won't be necessary", Adam coiled up the belt "Show me your butt, Jules".
Julian kicked up his foot suggestively, and then leaned over the back of the chair, which was still damp from where Adam had sprayed it with spunk earlier. Adam whacked him with the belt frenziedly.
"Superb, heavenly, divine", said Julian, as they lolled on the floor afterwards "Exciting, enchanting, gorgeous, brutal, sensual. It must be too late at night, I'm running out of superlatives for you".
"Did you let me thrash you so that I wouldn't brood about Uddle?" said Adam, pinching his nipple.
"Hadn't occurred to me actually", said Julian "I just felt like being thrashed. But of course if you are going to brood over Uddle, I can see we shall to moderate our behaviour somewhat in the future, just in case he sees anything he shouldn't".
"Don't you dare!" said Adam.
"Good, I was hoping you'd say that. It wouldn't do you any good at all to go without being tamed. You need spanking regularly and often".
Adam nuzzled his ear and licked it. They were disturbed by the sound of footsteps and muffled voices on the deck.
"This boat's like Piccadilly Circus", Julian groaned.
"The others are back", said Adam, sitting up stiffly.
They all came in babbling at once. Joby's cut eye, and Finia's torn dress illustrated perfectly that the evening hadn't been uneventful for them either. Adam got so agitated on hearing about the knife-attack that Julian had to push his head between his knees to stop him wheezing.
"He's in custody, Addy", said Kieran "Even if they don't charge him, we should be gone from here by the time all the rigmarole of beaurocracy has let him out".
"But how did he get here?" said Adam.
"On a boat like we did I expect", said Joby "Practically everyone in the City has known this would be our first port of call".
"Joby, you got the worst of it again", said Adam.
"Yep, more stitches and visits to Casualty", said Joby "Getting to be a habit isn't it? You haven't heard the best bit though. The Killarney bruiser hacked half his mouth off. There was blood everywhere".
"Patsy, you could have been arrested", said Adam, reprovingly.
"Well I wasn't going to stand by whilst he attacked Joby again", said Kieran "Anyway, they won't arrest the Vanquisher of Evil. You'll probably find I'm licensed to kill!!"
"I think it's time we called it a day", Hillyard yawned "First thing tomorrow me and Ransey are going to pick up some supplies".
"Then we should be pulling up anchor by lunchtime", said Ransey "Nobody'll know where we're going next, as we don't know ourselves".
"What a horrible mess it all is", said Adam "And so unfair".
"Stop bleating, Adam", said Julian, putting on his shirt "And take Lonts to bed".
He then picked up Finia and carried him out of the saloon.
"Why can't people just leave us alone?" said Adam.
"You heard Julian", said Kieran, taking his arm "Let's get some rest now".
Joby knew he would have trouble sleeping that night. There was no way he would feel safe until they were away from Lixix. He didn't share the others' confidence that the authorities would keep Laser Eyes in custody tonight. If they didn't there would be nothing to stop him making his way to the harbour and climbing up the gangplank of the Indigo. There was also the added worry that tomorrow the same authorities might come along and choose to arrest Kieran for assault. There were all far too many gruesome possibilities for Joby's liking.
For several hours he lay there, hearing strange noises. This bloody ship was like a ragbag of noises-off in the small hours. Waves lapping, wood groaning. And the harbour itself never slept. Voices could be heard at all times, plus carriage wheels, laughter and shouting.
When he heard footsteps from within the ship he felt as though he would freeze with terror. They were so nearby that at first he thought they were inside the same cabin. Joby slid off the bunk without disturbing Kieran, who characteristically was still asleep. He pulled on his robe and twitched back the blanket which divided the room. Both Adam and Lonts were asleep also. Lonts with his face to the wall, and Adam on his back with his left arm flung out.
The gangway outside was only dimly lit by a crack of moonlight, coming in through a gap in the small double doors at the top of the steps leading up to the forward deck, plus the faded light of an oil-lamp coming from the galley at the far end.
When Joby edged in there cautiously he found Hillyard frying bacon in a pan, with his robe open over his shorts.
"What the fuck are you playing at, Hillyard?" Joby hissed "I thought you were that bloody maniac again".
"Why?" said Hillyard "He's hardly likely to come on here and make himself a bacon sandwich is he! You should relax more, you're a nervous wreck".
"I'm not the only one by the looks of things", Joby picked up an open whisky bottle standing next to Hillyard's mug.
"Yeah well I'll admit I'll be happy when we're out on the high seas too", said Hillyard "Would you like brown sauce in your sandwich?"
"Gotta have brown sauce in a bacon butty", said Joby, sitting down at the table "You keep this up and I might marry you".
"You go saying rash things like that and I'll be marching you off to the registrar first thing tomorrow. Or perhaps since we're at sea, Julian'll be able to do it".
"Better not, one of us might end up marrying him by mistake".
"There you are, get that down you", Hillyard placed a mountainous sandwich in front of Joby, and poured some more whisky into his cup.
"Has Julian ever shown any interest in you in that way?" said Joby, with his mouth full.
"What, marrying me you mean?" said Hillyard, frying more bacon.
"No, you dork! I mean, has he ever made a pass at you?"
"Why do you wanna know?"
"No reason, just being nosey".
"For your information", Hillyard sighed, as though being made to confess to a board of inquiry "I've been with him loads of times".
"Seriously?" Joby sat with his mouth open.
"Do you think you could swallow that mouthful sometime?"
"When?" Joby exclaimed.
"Do you wanna list of dates and places?" Hillyard squirted brown sauce onto his own bacon.
"You kept that bloody quiet!"
"We decided to keep it that way, otherwise you lot would all start getting the wrong idea, and Adam's a jealous bloke, even when he's got no right to be".
"I just can't imagine you two in a relationship. He's such a snob, and you're so common".
"Cheers", said Hillyard "So are you, but it doesn't stop him letching after you either. Anyway, we're not in a relationship, it's just sex. That's all we ever do together. It's not as if we go on dates or anything! We've got bugger all to say to each other".
"But you must talk to each other sometimes. What about before and after?"
"We had a long conversation about Hirrid once. Julian told me I should hit him over the head with a blunt instrument".
"Was all this going on at the Castle, during that awful winter?"
"'Going on' gives it something it hasn't got", said Hillyard "Look, the lowdown is it started when we were all living at the Ministry, and occasionally it's happened since. Not everyone makes such a big deal about sex as you do, Joby. To some us it's just a big squelch".
"That all I was eh?" said Joby, angrily "A big squelch!"
"Bullshit!" Hillyard roared back.
"But why does he want you when he's got Adam?"
"Because Adam's not always available for him is he? And Julian's only human like the rest of us. He calls me his substitute for a box of tissues".
"Oh very loving and caring that is!"
"Don't knock it. There's a lot to be said for sex without responsibility", said Hillyard "You wanted to know, Joby. But I haven't changed. I feel the same about you as I always did, but I can't have you, not in the way I want. So I have to get me comfort where I can".
"But it's all so sad".
"That's the way it is for some of us. Picture this. Back in your own time, if every woman you was nuts about was attached to someone else, but there was another woman who went to bed with you, no questions asked, and never expected anything else from you, wouldn't you be taking it too?"
"Sounds like the relationship I had with Amy", said Joby, quietly "I thought I loved her though".
"But it was nothing to how you felt about Kieran, right?" said Hillyard "Julian comes to me 'cos he can't have Adam as much as he wants to. Lonts is the love of Adam's life, and Julian knows it, and it hurts him".
"Has he said that to you?"
"He might've done", said Hillyard, evasively.
"We're a right bloody lot aren't we? Adam couldn't do without Julian though".
"If you or Kieran or Julian was to die tomorrow, horrible thought I know, but just suppose it happened, Adam would be devastated. Wretched. But somehow he'd live. Where if anything happened to Lonts, I don't think he could go on. You weren't there when Lonts had his operation, but I have never seen anyone in the state Adam was in. He couldn't live without Lonts".
By lunchtime the following day the supplies that Ransey had ordered in Lixix were being delivered to the ship, and the forward deck was swamped with crates, including a couple of hutches containing hens. Joby stood up by the wheel on the poop-deck and watched as Julian directed operations amongst the delivery-men.
"Are you alright, Jobe?" said Kieran, coming up the steps towards him "You've been in a funny mood all morning, are you not feeling well?"
"I'm fine", said Joby, not looking at him.
Kieran noticed he was staring very intently at Julian, who was now lighting a cheroot.
"What's so fascinating about him all of a sudden?" asked Kieran.
"I don't think he should be in charge", said Joby.
"He's not. This is a democracy", said Kieran "He shares being skipper with Adam, but that doesn't mean to say we're going to let them do whatever they want".
"Kiel", Joby turned to face him, looking stricken.
"What is it? I wish you'd tell me".
"I'm sorry I slept with Hillyard".
"Has Hillyard got something wrong with him then that I should know about?"
"Only bad taste", Joby grunted "This is between you and me, right? Don't tell Adam, he doesn't know".
"Hillyard's been sleeping with Julian all these years".
"I bet that's a match made in Heaven!"
"Why are you so cut up about it?" said Kieran "It shouldn't surprise us what either of those two get up to. Are you jealous?"
"I feel a fool. I felt sorry for Hillyard when he was going on about how lonely he was, and he got you with the same line if I remember rightly. Told you at the Castle that he'd been going without all winter, and all the time he was bonking Little Lord Fauntleroy!"
"Oh that's his business", said Kieran "Can't say I'm interested very much. I remember once hearing my Mam say to a friend that all men are liars. I thought at the time she was being a wee bit harsh, but perhaps she was right".
"I hate Julian", said Joby "I hate everything about him. His snobbery, his conceit, his grab everything he wants mentality, the way he's so bloody sure of himself all the time, doesn't care how anyone else thinks or feels ..."
"Oh he's a pussycat really", Adam appeared on the steps without any warning, causing Joby to jump out of his skin.
"How long have you been standing there?" he barked.
"I've only just appeared", said Adam "I take it you're worried about Jules being in charge? You mustn't be. I'll protect you. Anyway, he's really very vulnerable deep down".
"He's about as vulnerable as a Black Widow spider", Joby snapped, and he pushed his way past him down to the forward deck.
"What on earth's the matter with Joby?" said Adam.
"He's jealous", said Kieran, with great sadness.
"Oh who? Of What? Patsy, what's been going on, and what's Julian got to do with it?"
"It's nothing", Kieran put on an unconvincingly bright smile "We can't begin this trip in earnest in a mood of hatred and distrust".
"Well I wasn't planning to", said Adam "But I would like to know what's going on. Patsy, for God's sake tell me!"
"Joby's intensely jealous of who Hillyard has", said Kieran, a tear rolling down the side of his nose "I didn't realise it had got this far. I should've known, but Joby can play his cards close to his chest, even with me".
"I still don't understand what Julian's got to do with it".
"Then you should take it up with him", said Kieran, bluntly "I'm too busy trying to save my own relationship!"
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