"You shouldn't have come out with your chest", said Julian.
"Then what do you suggest?" Adam snapped "I leave it behind?"
"I can't believe what a stubborn old bitch you can be sometimes!" Julian exclaimed "You don't seem to have any sense of self-preservation at all".
"Just leave it Jules", said Adam "I wanted to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. Is there anything wrong with that?"
Julian declined to answer, and instead walked silently with his old friend through the fog-bound streets. Adam knew as well as he did that to come out in an icy pea-souper was about the worst thing he could do, but it still wouldn't stop him. Julian had long since been exasperated by Adam's refusal to accept that there was anything wrong with him, but of late that exasperation had turned to outright fear. Adam seemed to be incapable of facing up the truth.
"Well you've coughed all round the market, the chocolate shop and the tobacconists", Julian sighed "Now you can go and cough in the coffee-shop too. How about it?"
"As long as you promise not to nag anymore".
"I only nag because I don't want to lose you".
"I know", said Adam "But I can't spend the rest of the winter shut indoors at the Ministry, and I'm damned if I'm going to Lixix again. The events of last winter taught me to value people too much. I couldn't bear the thought of being sent into exile on my own this time".
"At least this new house in the country that Tinkerbell's bought might be a good place for you to relax".
"Quite", said Adam, as they entered the covered market and strolled down the narrow alleyways lined with dead feathered birds hanging up by their feet "I'm looking forward to going there very much. I think we all are. Patsy chose well when he bought it. Even if an old abbey-cum-castle isn't exactly Joby's idea of a cottage in the woods!"
It was bedlam in the coffee-bar, and they were lucky to find a couple of spare seats. Various charity-collectors milled around, noisily collecting last-minute Yule alms for the poor and needy. At the next table four burly men, incongruously dressed in purple jump-suits, seemed to be on the verge of civil war.
"It is ridiculous that I should be fired for being too tall", a bearded one boomed "I would say you three were too short actually, and how the fuck can you have the Four Dancing Fatties when there will only be three from now on!"
"The Three Dancing Fatties?" Julian murmured.
"I am the most inspirational member of the group", the bearded one went on "By comparison you all look tired and lacking in energy".
"I was the one who thought of our costumes though", said another.
"They're very popular on television these days", said Adam "Lonts thinks they're wonderful".
"He would", said Julian "When I see the likes of them I wish Tinkerbell hadn't given the go-ahead for a t.v charter, particularly as it only has one channel and is only on for about three hours a day. It hardly seems worth having!"
"It's extraordinary how popular it is though", said Adam, as their coffees were placed in front of them "Men are paying a fortune for sets, and no one's quibbled once about the waste of electricity".
"Television was always habit-forming", said Julian "I keep wondering when we're going to get the first soap-opera, or do we serve that purpose?"
"It is a bit like that at times", said Adam, smiling at some of the approving glances he was getting from the other customers "Particularly at this time of year. It seems everywhere I go I'm confronted by a magazine cover showing a member of the family. Even Joby's on the front of the 'Rose-Grower's Companion' this month".
"And your little darling's mug is particularly prolific", said Julian, unfolding a magazine from the pile he had been carrying under his arm. Lonts, looking more beautiful than ever, smiled out from under a banner headline proclaimed 'BABY LONTS SCORES AGAIN!'
"Oh doesn't he look gorgeous?" said Adam, gazing at the picture in wonder "That's the fourth consecutive time he's won the sexiest man at the Ministry award".
"Yes I know", said Julian "I've heard little else since it happened. Spoilt little brat".
"He doesn't let it go to his head", said Adam, flicking through the pages "Oh listen to this Jules. 'Lonts says a big thank-you to all who voted for him in our reader's poll'. Oh, isn't he sweet!"
"You're a prize fool Adam", said Julian "You'd go into raptures if that demented Eskimo started balancing a ball on his nose".
"You're just jealous because you've never won it", said Adam.
"In my day I would've given Lonts a run for his money", said Julian "Why doesn't Tinkerbell ever get it, that's what baffles me".
"Because he's the president", said Adam "He's godlike, in a league of his own. The public barely want to acknowledge he's human. Patsy always says they probably don't believe he has any bodily functions".
"Who got the runner-up award this year?"
"Hillyard. He's off to the dinner this evening to collect it".
"You're not letting your little darling go with him to collect his then?"
"No chance", said Adam "Having his picture taken in private is one thing, but putting him in front of a roomful of exploding flashbulbs would be downright cruelty. He doesn't mind missing it. He knows he'd only get bored by it all, and then he'd get fractious".
"And start bawling for you no doubt".
"Mr Adam!" a little man in a belted raincoat ran up to their table "Mr Adam, I must talk to you".
"You have the President's ear".
"And a few other parts of him besides".
"Shut up Jules", said Adam, and turned back to the little man "What do you want me to tell him?"
"I have been trying for ages to get a message to him, but you've rarely been about, and Mr Joby isn't as accommodating as you. It's about the end of the world".
"I really don't think the President needs reminding of that", said Adam.
"There is a comet heading towards us", the little man gasped "It's impact will be cataclysmic, worse than when it caused the Warming 500 years ago. We are all doomed. If the President could just see his way to financing a short spot on television, so that I can warn everyone of what to expect".
"When's the comet due then?" said Julian.
"Oh", said Julian "We don't need to start getting supplies in over the next few days then?"
"But preparations must start soon", said the little man, and he whipped out a pair of dark glasses from his coat pocket "We will all need to be issued with these, to protect our eyes from its glare. The bishops must all convene a meeting at once, and think of ways to get people to repent their sins. Materialism must be renounced once and for all".
"No chance", said Julian "Men like you have been trying to get that to happen since the dawn of time".
"I'll pass your message on to the President", said Adam.
"I'm running a newspaper campaign in the New Year you know", said the man "To try and promote awareness of our imminent danger".
"Hardly imminent", said Julian "The ruddy thing's not due for another eighteen months".
"But the work must start now".
"I'll pass your message on to the President", Adam repeated, more firmly this time.
"I don't know how you keep your patience with his sort", said Julian, as the little man scuttled away "You'd never have managed it years ago".
"Patsy relies on me to keep them sweet", said Adam "And he's quite interested in what they have to say. Someone has to keep his ear to the ground. Joby just tells them to bog off. I'm afraid public relations aren't his strong point. Mind you, he's very popular. I think a lot of men appreciate his plain-speaking".
"Something repellent has just walked in", said Julian.
Adam turned slightly in his seat to find Angel clearing a path through the crush. Men stepped instinctively out of his way. His legendary status was simply too much for even the most hardened of freak collectors to appreciate. No one could forget that Angel had once been a vampire, that he had once eaten people, torn out their throats and hearts for his own nourishment. His extraordinary past-life made rehabilitating to a normal existence nigh-on impossible. No one trusted him, and his close proximity could make men recoil in horror. As a consequence Angel was lonelier than he had ever been.
"He looks terrible", Adam whispered "He's lost so much weight that his head seems too big for his body. All that beauty, just gone".
Angel had noticed them and came straight over. His blue eyes were out of focus, and his skin and clothes looked decidedly grubby.
"Got any money?" he grunted at Adam.
"He's like some old tramp", Julian muttered.
"Are you broke again Angel?" said Adam "Patsy gives you a very generous monthly allowance".
"Generous!" Angel spat "Barely lasts me a coupla days sometimes".
"Then you'll have to find yourself a less expensive habit", Adam peeled off a few notes and slapped them in Angel's unwashed paw. Angel grunted his thanks and headed out again.
"I don't know why you bother", said Julian "Such a waste of money. He'll only shove it straight it into his arm!"
"Have some compassion Jules", said Adam "Would you want his life?"
At the Ministry Headquarters Joby was watching television. A screen the size of a small soup-bowl showed a black-and-white flickering image of a game-show in progress. The compere had so far managed to get his star contestant's name, age and occupation completely wrong, and was now apologising so much it was doubtful he'd ever get round to asking the final questions.
"This is boring Joby", said Lonts, who was lolling next to him on the sofa. He was sucking his thumb and scratching his stomach at the same time "Can't we switch if off?"
"Shut up", said Joby "I want to see if he gets the star prize. This system's all wrong. They should tell us what's in the prize envelopes that they don't pick. Makes me think it's all a great swindle. I've a good mind to write to 'em about it".
"If you switch if off", said Lonts "We could play polar bears".
"You'll have to wait 'til Adam gets home. Anyway you get too carried away when we play it".
"But that's the point Joby".
"Look, I don't mind crawling around on the floor with you, but you usually have to start getting your dick out and that's no fun at all".
"Adam doesn't mind that when I play it with him".
"Well I do! Now shut up and let me concentrate on the last question".
Lonts watched impatiently whilst a tediously long question was read out, and the contestant took an age to think of his answer. And in the end all he won was a plastic dustpan-and-brush set. The screen crackled as the credits jerked across it, as though being manually operated by someone particularly arthritic. Lonts immediately climbed onto Joby and began pummelling him playfully. Joby tried to push him off, but Lonts was heavier and was enjoying himself too much to stop. He was only diverted by Adam appearing in the room. Lonts greeted him by jumping up and down on the sofa and yelling his name as though he hadn't seen him for several weeks.
"Popping out to do a bit of shopping you said!" Joby snarled "Mind Lonts for an hour you said! I've been stuck with him all by myself all bleedin' afternoon!"
"He's been a good boy hasn't he?" said Adam, squeezing Lonts and kissing him.
"That's not the point", said Joby, sulkily "I've almost forgotten what it's like to have an adult conversation. And if I have to read that magazine article to him one more time I'll scream. You know the one I mean, the one that goes on and on about how wonderful he is".
"Yes, I've been reading it myself. Julian's bought me a copy. I'll sleep with it under my pillow".
"I must know it word-for-word by now", Joby went on.
"Read it again Joby", said Lonts. He tossed the magazine at Joby and then sat watching him intently whilst he sucked his thumb.
The rest of the evening wasn't much of an improvement, not as far as Joby was concerned anyway. Adam spirited Lonts away to help Julian decorate the State Dining-Room, in readiness for the festive lunch the following day. Kieran was still closeted with his ministers, as he had been since that morning, and Ransey was working too. The television finished abruptly halfway through the evening, and Joby was reduced to looking through old seed catalogues to wile away the time.
He fell asleep presently, and woke up at midnight to the sound of church bells, which had only been installed a few years before. The fire had gone out and the room was freezing. Due to the chill and his loneliness everything about the room felt decayed and a little tacky. It was now officially Christmas, and the closest he could get to Kieran was by looking at his portrait on the wall. Joby went over to the sideboard and poured himself a drink.
"I comes back early to wish everyone a merry Yule, and I find the place deserted", said Hillyard, sliding into the room with the evidence of considerable festive cheer shining out of his eyes "Where is everyone?"
"I dunno", said Joby, draining his glass.
"We all went to that new club down Bullockspit Road", said Hillyard.
"Oh yea? First dozen drinks were free were they?" said Joby, sarcastically.
"You should've come, not sat in here all on your own".
"I wasn't invited. Not being one of the beautiful set".
"I wouldn't say that. Having seen you on the front cover of the 'Rose-Grower's Mate', looking very nice indeed in a pair of green rubber boots".
"Companion", Joby snapped "It's the 'Rose-Grower's Companion'. And you've seen me in those boots loads of times. Stop winding me up anyway, I've had a lousy evening. I can do without you starting. It doesn't feel like Christmas at all".
"Feeling neglected by Kieran?"
"Yea", said Joby, feeling too downhearted to argue.
"How about I put that right then?" Hillyard slid his hand down the front of Joby's baggy cotton pants. Joby tried to squirm out of his reach and only succeeded in getting himself aroused instead.
"For fuck's sake Hillyard", he gasped, trying to get away but Hillyard clung like a burr "I'm sick of all this immorality around here".
"Bollocks", said Hillyard "I thought your complaint this evening was that you weren't getting enough. Come on, loosen up, it's Yule".
"Since when did you need that as an excuse!" Joby exclaimed.
"I don't, but I do fancy you like crazy".
"And what about poor old Hirrid eh? Our room-steward? He's potty about you".
"I'm very fond of him too, but it's you I'm talking about at the moment".
Hillyard tugged down Joby's pants with the kind of ease that comes from many years of practice. Joby felt no sense of ridiculousness at lying on the sofa with them wrapped around his knees, only a feeling of reassurance. That another human being was close to him after all.
"We can't", he said, as Hillyard gently tickled his balls "Or at least not here anyway".
"Come to my room then".
"We'll regret this tomorrow".
"No", said Joby "You're so pissed I doubt you'll remember it!"
"I'll remember everything".
Joby suddenly felt a cold draft around his legs. He knew without a shadow of a doubt that the door had opened and somebody was standing on the threshold, and he had fair idea who. The door gently closed again, and they were alone once more.
"Was that Kieran?" said Hillyard, almost frightened into sobriety.
"Pretty certain it was", Joby struggled to sit upright.
"Why didn't he say anything?"
"That's what I've got to find out".
Joby walked back through the chilly corridors of the Headquarters. He went from pockets of silence to short outbursts of festive revelry issuing from behind closed doors. In the distance he caught a glimpse of Hirrid carrying a basket of fruit into the State Dining-Room. It had been common knowledge within the Headquarters that Hirrid and Hillyard had been an "item" since they had returned from the Loud House the previous spring. Kieran had believed that Hillyard being forced to confront his subconscious fears in Hell would have cured him of his "itchy pants", and for a while it seemed this had been the case. But as the months wore on gossip started going the rounds that Hillyard was up to his old tricks again, although he was being more discreet this time. No one was certain how much Hirrid knew, but outwardly his devotion to Hillyard was becoming uncomfortable to those who knew Hillyard's tricks for certain.
Kieran was in bed when Joby reached the presidential suite. He was curled up under the bedcovers like a hibernating hedgehog, prickles outwards. Joby undressed and slid silently in next to him. He lay on his back staring into the darkness, not having the first idea what to say for the best.
"Christmas is a time for making plans for the future", said Kieran, rolling onto his back.
"What kind of plans?" said Joby, suspiciously.
"Major lifestyle changes".
"Oh stop trying to intimidate me", Joby snapped "I've lost count of the amount of times I've walked into places to find you rolling around with other people ... including Hillyard!"
"I think everyone's rolled around with Hillyard in their time", said Kieran "Do you think Gorth would make a good president? I know he's a bit of a back-room boy, but he's had years of experience, he knows the Ministry inside-out ..."
"What are you talking about?"
"I'm abdicating at Easter".
"Where have I heard that one before!" Joby groaned.
"I mean it this time", said Kieran "I didn't buy Wolf Castle just as an indulgence. There's a clearing in the forest halfway down the mountain that would be a perfect spot for a cottage, just big enough for two".
"D-Do you mean it?" Joby propped himself up on his elbow.
"I've thought about little else since I bought the place", said Kieran "And I finally made up my mind this evening, once and for all. I was coming along to tell you in fact, but you were otherwise engaged".
"Hillyard was pissed, and you know what he's like", Joby mumbled "I sometimes think he needs taking to a vet, and I ..."
"And you were lonely", said Kieran, softly.
"Well I've hardly seen you lately", said Joby "I don't see Adam that much either, except when he's dumping Lonts on me for a few hours".
"That's why I'm doing this", said Kieran "I've finally made up my mind that being with you means more to me than anything else. And the best I can do for you is to give your dream".
"What about Adam though?"
"He can live up at the Castle with Julian and Lonts. And one night a week, if it's alright with you, he can swap places with you".
"He'll like that", said Joby "Give him a chance to spend more time alone with you".
"As long as you don't mind babysitting Lonts".
"Nah, give me a chance to get our washing done properly I expect", said Joby "It'll be the best solution for Adam as well".
"That's what I thought", said Kieran "Clear mountain air will be perfect for his chest. And plenty of relaxation. And Lonts'll get his full attention too".
"More like Lonts'll end up looking after him".
"Good thing too. Big strapping thing like Lonts should have no trouble getting Adam up and down stairs if needs be".
"And lifting him on and off the commode!"
"God help us if it comes to that", Kieran laughed.
"Oh I can't wait", Joby exclaimed "I wish it could all start tomorrow".
"That might be pushing it", said Kieran "But we'll have a taste of it in the New Year. I suggest we go down to Wolf Castle for a few weeks, see how we all like the lifestyle, and finalise plans for the cottage".
"When are you going to tell Adam and the others?"
"Tomorrow", said Kieran "The only way we're going to get Adam to retire and take things easy, is if we join in ourselves!"
Lonts finished making the bed, and smoothed the eiderdown with an almost palpable sense of pride. He was never happier than when doing jobs for Adam, however small, and it also gave him the opportunity to prove that he wasn't always as idiotic as was generally supposed.
"What do you want Angel?" he said, on hearing the door open.
Angel hadn't slept all night and it showed. He walked into the room, looking around him cautiously, as though expecting Adam to climb out of the walls.
"Come to give season's greetings", he said "Yule morning and all that. Got a problem with it?"
Lonts didn't answer. He stared at Angel distrustfully.
"All alone?" Angel went on "Can't say I'm surprised. A little of your company goes a long way".
"Adam's only just upstairs", said Lonts, nodding in the direction of the turret doorway "He's taken a cup of coffee up to Julian".
"Got you doing the housework have they?"
"I like making the bed. I learnt how to do it properly when I was in hospital. Adam says I do it better than the room-steward".
"You've got it all sewn up haven't you?" Angel was now standing too close to him for comfort "Really exploited your cute, cuddly charms didn't you? You're like their mascot, their pet poodle. How did you do it Lonts? I know. You just played the fool all the time. Made them feel superior. You love it don't you? You don't have to think, just play the baby for them".
Angel seized Lonts's wrist and twisted it until Lonts yelped in pain.
"I can't help it if you make people hate you Angel", said Lonts, trying not to cry.
"Your luck's going to run out one day".
"No it won't", Lonts finally managed to extricate his wrist from Angel's grasp "I'm the Kiskev Survivor. I survive. Always. That's why I'm popular and I have someone who loves me, whereas you're in a mess and losing your looks".
Angel pushed Lonts roughly onto the bed, and then crouched over him malevolently.
"You'll self-destruct one day", he said "You're Kiskevian, you can't help it. The rest of us used to hear tales about you lot, how your brains were rotted by moonshine, how you fucked snow-dogs ..."
"That's not true", said Lonts "No one I know did that. It would have been cruel. They weren't cruel, my lot, just unhappy. That's why they slaughtered the snow-dogs before the fire, so that the animals wouldn't starve afterwards".
"What are you doing in here Angel?" Adam bellowed from the turret stairs "Get away from him. NOW!"
Angel reluctantly got to his feet and glared at Adam indigently.
"Lonts wanted a kiss, didn't you Lonts?"
"I shouldn't think for one moment he wanted to kiss you", said Adam "If you're after money again then you're out of luck. Now piss off out of here before I lose my temper".
"Some threat!" Angel sneered "You'd cough your guts up before you managed to do anything. Does Lonts know about when you fancied me? Remember? At the blind-man's inn? You were almost as taken by me then as you are with him now".
"I never felt the remotest shred of affection for you Angel. It's just at the time I mistakenly wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt. I found it hard to believe that anyone could quite so rotten and debauched as you are. Now get out! If you don't I'll yell out of the window to the guards".
"Calm down old man", said Angel, mockingly "You're not as young as you were, you can't afford to get so excited. I'm going. Happy Yule!"
"It's so sad the way he's deteriorated", said Adam, after Angel had left "He was given a second chance, but he's messing it up all along the line. The best thing he could do would be to get right away from the City and start again somewhere else. Except he hasn't got the courage or the motivation to do it".
"He's afraid to be away from Kieran", said Lonts "He only feels safe when he's near him".
"Yes I expect you're right", Adam sighed "Poor little bastard. He never did have a hope. Tomce saw to that, right at the beginning".
Hillyard had given Lonts a pale blue shirt for Yule, and was now debating with Adam whether it would show the boy's looks off to his very best advantage. They were sitting in an alcove adjoining the State Dining-Room, waiting for Kieran to appear so that they could go in and start the mammoth operation of eating the seven-course Yule lunch.
"Blue's a strange colour on him", said Adam, who got annoyed if anyone else bought clothes for Lonts "It doesn't show off his colouring to his best advantage. Particularly pale blue".
"Well I thought it was alright", said Hillyard, sulkily "I don't know why he couldn't have worn it today".
"It's a cold colour", Adam went on "Lonts needs earthy colours".
"Will you listen to the way you're carrying on?" Ransey exclaimed, having failed to concentrate on a magazine article whilst the discussion was in progress "You sound like a couple of hairdressers at a fashion-shoot! That boy is a living, breathing human being, not a porcelain doll!"
"I don't know what's eating you Ransey I'm sure", said Adam, in an injured tone.
"I want to know who the joker is who sent me an abacus for Yule", said Ransey, sourly.
"I'm sure whoever it was simply meant it as a little joke born out of affection", said Adam "You do make such a big deal out of being an accountant after all".
"It is a big deal, and it's not a job to be belittled".
A hiatus was caused at that moment by Julian walking in accompanied by Finia, who looked extraordinary in a gold satin frock and a black feather boa.
"He could almost pass muster as a real woman from a distance in that get-up", said Ransey, approvingly.
"How would you know?" Adam snapped.
"Coochy coochy coo!" said Ransey, tickling Adam under the chin in a teasing way.
"Is Adam being difficult again?" said Julian.
"Tell me a time when he isn't", said Ransey.
"Nice feather boa", said Joby, walking into the room ahead of Kieran "Do just nicely for throttling him with!"
Finia flicked it disdainfully in his direction.
"What's the matter Hillyard?" said Kieran, mischievously "You look a bit pale, as though you've got a guilty secret".
"That dress", Hillyard gasped "Where did Finia get it?"
"Why?" said Julian "Do you want one?"
"Where did you get it?" Hillyard grabbed the neck of the dress and tugged at it as though trying to rip it away.
"Hands off the merchandise", said Finia, imperiously "If you don't intend paying".
"But don't you recognise it Lonts?" said Hillyard, now almost in desperation "It's the same dress She wore, the Golden Woman".
"No it isn't Hillyard", said Lonts "It's a darker colour for one thing".
"Pull yourself together", said Finia "This dress is mine, not some wretched Sleep Demon's".
"I've put you next to Hillyard at dinner Addy", Kieran whispered to Adam "Perhaps you could keep an eye on him. I'm getting a bit concerned".
"He's been acting oddly for some time now", Adam replied "Got a bit of a phobia at the moment about being alone".
"And it's all due to that so-called Golden Woman", said Kieran "It took him weeks to tell us about that sighting of her on the train. Poor Hilly. I was going to be all cross with him today too".
"Caught him and Joby exchanging compliments of the season last night".
"Kissing under the mistletoe eh?" said Adam.
"Worse. Joby had his pants round his knees at the time".
"The dirty little trollop! I look to Joby to set standards around here".
"Huh!" said Kieran "You're looking in the wrong direction then. I'm going to have to keep a closer eye on Joby in the future".
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