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By Sarah Hapgood

Ransey woke up suddenly at Wolf Castle in the early hours of Christmas morning. It had been several months since he'd last had a wet dream, not since Angel was killed in fact. But now they were back with a vengeance. This one had been erotic and terrifying. In it some invisible presence had put clamps on his nipples and had tried to drag him towards the door like a dog on a leash. The pain had made his whole body tingle and scorch as though he'd been electrocuted.

He came to consciousness and sat up in bed. He pulled open his pyjama jacket and inspected his chest. To his horror red marks had appeared amongst the sparse scattering of hair between his nipples and around them. They reminded him of the marks that had appeared on his stomach whilst they were lost in the Uncharted Area. He hadn't told any of the others about them, and they had gone down naturally over the course of a few days.

He slipped out of bed and sponged himself down from the water in his jug on the wash-stand. In spite of the bitter cold of a December morning at the Castle he was sweating profusely. He yanked up the window sash a fraction and let a little of the freezing fog seep in. He leaned his head against the glass and allowed a small murmur of pain to slip from his mouth.

Things had been going so well for them since Kieran's abdication. So much so that he should've known better really, Ransey thought ruefully. They had had a peaceful autumn at the Castle setting in, or "nesting" as Adam put it (rather delightfully, Ransey had thought). The weather had been surprisingly warm and balmy, and Ransey had spent a lot of time outside helping Joby to start planning the garden properly. For a man who had spent his working life in either dreary offices, or sitting in darkened rooms plotting someone's fate, the change of lifestyle suited Ransey superbly. When he went to bed at night he was so tired that no dream, erotic or otherwise, stood a chance of intruding on his subconscious.

Kieran and Joby's cottage had been made ready for habitation quite soon. Although 'cottage' was describing it grandly. It was in fact an old one-roomed woodcutter's hut. Hillyard had been amazed by their eagerness to move into it.

"It's dark and it's damp", he said "Reminds me of Resz's hut. I don't know how you can think of living there when you've got the Castle".

"Simple", said Joby "It means for six nights a week I get a respite from you!"

"I rather like it", said Adam "And when you compare it to the wagon and the hut we had on the island it seems quite palatial. For one night a week I can indulge my frontiersman fantasies".

Ransey lowered the sash again. It was still a couple of hours away from daylight and he went back to bed. Sleep was impossible though. The dogs were restless in the pen outside, and were keeping up a constant yelping and whining. A few doors further along the landing he could hear Lonts getting agitated about them. He could easily imagine that Adam was having trouble persuading the boy not to go down and attend to them. Ransey decided to go along and give moral support, although he knew really that he just wanted Adam's comforting presence.

"Alright if I come in?" he said, nudging open Adam's bedroom door.

If Adam was a little dismayed to see Ransey's pyjamaed form in his room at this hour he tried not to show it.

"The dogs are upset aren't they Ransey?" said Lonts, sitting up in bed "Adam won't let me go down to them".

"Of course I won't", said Adam, who was making coffee on his portable stove "It's still dark and there's freezing fog out there. The dogs can wait until breakfast-time".

"We would never have left the dogs alone and terrified in Kiskev", said Lonts, imperiously.

"I'll go down and have a look", said Ransey.

"Don't be silly Ransey", said Adam "If you go humouring him now he'll expect you to do it everytime one of those animals makes the slightest noise at all".

"I don't mind", said Ransey "I can't sleep anyway".

"Ransey's kind you see", said Lonts "He cares about animals. Unlike you Adam, you're just mean".

"Totally", said Adam "Horribly so. And to prove it, if you say another word about those dogs I shall probably spank you. You're as mad as Patsy or Hillyard when it comes to animals. I expected you to have more sense Ransey".

"Happy Yule", said Ransey, and went in search of the dogs.

The house was so cold and dark as he walked through it that he began to wonder why he felt he needed to impress Adam this way, particularly as Adam had viewed his favour with ill-concealed annoyance. During the day, with so many of them moving around in it, the house didn't feel so large and forbidding. At night it felt like the empty belly of an enormous whale and about as uncomfortable. By the time he reached the kitchen at the back of the house he felt thoroughly unnerved, and was relieved to see a bar of light under the door. When he went in he found Hillyard busily lighting the stove. The dogs by now were noticeably quieter.

"I went out to 'em", said Hillyard "Emptied a load of dog biscuits into their trough, so that should keep them quiet for a while. I don't know what was the matter with 'em though, but they have phases like that. Perhaps they kept seeing things in the fog".

Ransey sat down at the table. The first flames were blinking into life behind the bars of the stove, and the oil-lamp cast a warm glow over the room. The horrors of the dream and his solitary walk through the house were slowly being banished.

"You alright mate?" said Hillyard, putting the kettle on the hot-plate.

"Yea", said Ransey "It's just this house at night. Can give you the heebie-jeebies when you're walking through it".

"Know what you mean", said Hillyard "I keep thinking someone's standing at the top of the stairs behind me, and then I catch a shape out of the corner of my eye. Probably Angel come back to haunt us".

"Oh don't say that. Not even in jest", Ransey's eyes blinked anxiously behind his spectacles.

"Don't worry. One sight of you in those pyjamas and he'd run a mile".

"What's wrong with these pyjamas?"

"Well they're hardly the last word in sophistication are they?" said Hillyard "In fact they look like they come with matching colostomy bag and wheelchair".

"They keep me warm at night and that's all that matters", said Ransey "Anyway that gent's outfitters in the village doesn't offer a lot of choice. It was either these or a red satin pair with black frogging. I'd have looked a right prat in them. Julian might just about be able to get away with wearing them but I couldn't".

"You should make do with a hot water bottle like I do", said Hillyard "Sometimes if it gets really cold I keep me bath-robe on. Trouble is, we haven't got anyone to curl up with have we?"

"Missing Hirrid?"

"Not really. He'd probably be driving me mad if he was here. I wonder how he's getting on with the Ghoomers".

"Don't know", said Ransey "I expect he regrets what he did, staying there".

"You think so?"

"Well, can you imagine it? Stuck in the middle of that swamp, helping them to keep up their daily pretence of the old life. He must be as mad as they are by now. In fact I hope he is, it'll be the only way he could cope".

"I hope he's alright", said Hillyard "I'm a bloody jinx when it comes to relationships. After Stombal and Hirrid, I'm not going to go into any relationship that lasts longer than two hours. I'm not having anyone else come to a bad way because of me".

The fog had barely cleared at all by the time Kieran and Joby turned up around mid-morning. The temperature was still well below freezing and not likely to advance much.

"You must be perishing in that hut", said Hillyard, whose own attempts to light the hall fire were ending solely in smoke.

"Warmer than in here", said Joby "I'm surprised you're not having trouble with your pipes, it's so cold up here".

"The kitchen and the dining-room are quite snug", said Adam.

"Yea, but we want it warm in here too don't we?" said Joby.

"I'm working at it!" Hillyard snapped.

"I heard the dogs barking in the distance last night", said Kieran "You didn't have any trouble up here did you?"

"They were just a bit restless that's all", said Adam "Lonts was all for having them moved in here. In fact if they start up again tonight, he'll probably do just that. Even though I keep telling him they're not indoor animals".

"In Kiskev they probably had 'em in bed with them", said Joby.

"That's not true", said Lonts, who had appeared on the stairs "That was all lies".

"Don't tease him as soon as you get here Joby", said Adam "He gets so emotional about the dogs".

"Well if he's that worried why doesn't he sleep out in the pen with them?" said Joby "Joke! Joke!"

"See!" Hillyard shouted, triumphantly pointing at the grate "A flame's appeared".

Julian was late appearing for lunch and they started on the goose without him.

"Is he going to come down Finia?" said Adam, as the rest of them congregated round the dining-room table.

"Yes, he forgot the time", said Finia, looking festive in a striking red and green dress "Got reading that book you've given him".

"I thought he might like that somehow", said Adam.

"Actually he said it made him feel physically sick", said Finia.

"I thought it'd be right up his street", said Adam, sounding put out "Cost me a fortune as well. First edition".

"A book made him feel sick?" said Ransey "What's it about?"

"Pornographic, knowing those two", said Joby.

"Erotic is the term I prefer", said Adam "A classic of the genre, or so I was assured by the bookseller".

"Has it got pictures?" said Joby.

"No Joby, it's classic erotica, not 'Playboy'", said Adam.

"I thought that was", Joby laughed.

"Got any murders in it?" said Ransey.

"I wouldn't have thought that was your scene anymore", said Adam.

"I can separate fact from fiction", said Ransey, haughtily.

"Nice of you all to wait for me", said Julian, coming in to take his place at the table.

"We didn't know if you could tear yourself away from your new book", said Hillyard, slicing off bits of the goose for him.

"I felt quite ill after reading bits of that", said Julian "There was one scene where the hero has someone shove their arm up his anus, whilst they were wearing a studded leather gauntlet if you please. How I wasn't sick after reading that I don't know".

"Sounds more like confessions of a farm vet to me", said Joby.

"His whole arm?" said Kieran, in disbelief "All the way up to the shoulder?"

"Could we possibly have some semblance of a civilised discussion at the lunch-table?" said Adam "It is Christmas after all".

"You started it", said Hillyard "Giving Julian dirty books as a present".

"I didn't know it had such distasteful imagery in it", said Adam "I thought it was all supposed to just be a bit kinky, in a very Victorian way. All about chastisement, very much Julian's thing".

"Oh there's plenty of that", said Julian.

"Well there you are then", said Adam "Stop complaining".

"But it's all so exceedingly dull and predictable", said Julian "There is no thrill of anticipation, just men being whipped in cold blood because they've got nothing better to do. And they all crave punishment, and relish it when it's administered. No one cowers in terror or begs for mercy, or even just bawls their head off like Lonts. They all rush for it like lemmings".

"Yes I can see that wouldn't suit you", said Adam, sarcastically "They should all be suffering instead".

"But doesn't that make it more real?" said Kieran "After all, men aren't going to do that kind of thing unless they really want to".

"The voice of experience", Joby grunted.

"I admit it", said Kieran "Adam'll tell you the same. I bet he doesn't cower in terror from Julian".

"I wouldn't give him the satisfaction", said Adam "Anyway there is and should be a difference between punishment for sexual pleasure, and punishment for the sake of teaching a lesson. It would be no good disciplining Lonts by spanking him if he started enjoying it. It means he'd only start playing up on purpose".

"He does anyway", said Joby "He knows he can get round you afterwards".

"Interesting psychology from a celibate's point of view", said Ransey "Why do some people get stimulated by being punished, and others just feel pain?"

"Some of us can't switch off from the humiliating side of it", said Joby.

"Not even if it means a lessening of responsibility?" said Adam "That's the great appeal for a lot of us. Someone else taking charge, being protective".

"Looking out for our sins", said Kieran.

"In that case", said Ransey "Why doesn't Lonts enjoy it? He likes Adam to be in charge and all protective of him".

"I don't like it because it means Adam's angry with me", said Lonts, sombrely "And I know I've upset him. Let him down. And I don't like it when Julian does it because it hurts".

"It's all about skin colour really", said Kieran "Pink bums are more sexy than white ones".

"How does that apply to Finia then?" said Joby "Or doesn't he have to worry about all that?"

"Mercifully not", said Finia "And I don't see what the colour of your arse has got to do with anything. A bum's a bum. They're all pretty grotesque, whatever shade they are".

"It's reckoned of course that it has everything to do with one's childhood", said Julian "If one was physically chastised as a child, one is more likely to have such tastes as an adult".

"That explains Adam but not me", said Kieran "Me Mam never raised her hand to me once".

"Perhaps in your deepest subconscious you wanted her to", said Julian.

"Hard to imagine", said Kieran "She was so gentle. Of course she might have done it when I was really little and I just can't remember it. But I was sickeningly well-behaved as a wee boy so I doubt it. It's more likely to do with penance and punishment in my case. Guilty for being sinful, that kind of thing".

"And Joby can't understand what all the fuss is about because he was never walloped as a child", said Adam.

"Yes I was", said Joby "My mum couldn't communicate without slapping, except I was usually getting smacked round the head instead. She did that to everyone. It got so bad that my dad used to walk into a room holding his arms up to his head for protection".

"Your mother hit your father?" said Julian.

"I wish my mother had hit mine", said Adam "I'd have sold tickets".

"Didn't he ever strike back?" said Julian.

"Leave off!" Joby exclaimed "More than his life was worth. She'd have had him run out of town. Poor sod. Mind you, it was his fault for being such a lazy git. I think she just used to get frustrated with him. That's why she was so angry all the time, and we were all scared stiff of upsetting her".

"That accounts for the problems you had relating to women", said Adam "You were afraid of them because you were afraid of your mother. You saw them solely as a terrifying species, vengeful goddess-figures, to be appeased in some impossible way".

"There might be some sense in that", said Kieran.

"Exactly", said Adam "It probably all goes back to our mothers, male sexuality I mean. You, Patsy, always got on well with women because you had a non-threatening close relationship with your mother".

"I grew up around women", said Kieran "Me Mam and her friends. There weren't many male influences until I got to about ten or eleven".

"How does that account for Adam and Julian then?" said Joby "Lifelong gays".

"No simple answer", said Julian "In our case probably the exact opposite of Tinkerbell's life".

"Too few female influences", said Adam "I had very little contact with the female sex until I started working for a living, and I was in my late twenties by then! Women to me were almost as alien as they are for Hillyard or the others. I spent the greater part of my younger life in all-male environments, school and prison. My mother was practically inconsequential. She was so dominated by my father, and usually out of her head on booze anyway, that she had very little influence on me. And after leaving school Jules and I tended to ghetto-ise ourselves a bit. Only mixing with other gay men I mean. Probably the worst thing we could have done in retrospect. A few women in our social group might have helped us keep a perspective on everything, stopped us getting caught up in a downward spiral of sex all the time. Society can be so brutal without women, as we all know".

"You may be right", Julian sighed "After all, out of all of us Kieran seemed to have the happiest childhood".

"There was a lot of guilt there though", said Kieran "I felt guilty because I thought it was my fault she was alone, and she felt guilty because I didn't have me Da around. Not that I missed much from what I heard about him. Still, we were very protective of each other because of all that. It taught me the importance of not hurting those you love, and protecting 'em from life as much as you can. 'Cept sometimes I hid from the truth, like with Amy".

"But of course none of this theorising can help this lot", said Julian, making a sweeping gesture towards the four non-time-crossers "Motherless brats, each and everyone".

"Which accounts for a lot", said Joby "Ransey repressed, Hillyard with the attention-span of a dead insect, Finia with the romantic dreams, and Lonts who's completely barking".

"No I'm not, Joby", said Lonts, indignantly.

"Well you're not normal", said Joby.

"I'm more normal than you".

"Good grief, I think I'll shoot myself, I'm madder than I thought".

"You are both exactly the same", said Adam, whimsically "Two little boys who just want love and affection".

"Doesn't that apply to us all?" said Kieran "Even Ransey".

The meal took up most of the afternoon, and it was getting dark by the time they left the table. Most of them went to the kitchen to supervise the opening and decanting of a bottle of port by Hillyard. The ruby red liquid looked so warm, Christmassy and inviting that Adam felt a painfully sharp pang of dismay that he couldn't join in. He went back to the darkened dining-room to fetch a bowl of walnuts and found Joby peering suspiciously through a crack in the door leading into the atrium, where Kieran was sitting by the fire with Julian's notorious book.

"Joby, what on earth are you doing?" Adam hissed "You're peeping at Patsy as though you were Norman Bates!"

"Why's he reading that book?" Joby hissed back.

"Something to do?" Adam shrugged "After all it's not as if we've got any Christmas t.v schedules up here to moan about".

"He doesn't like porn stuff", said Joby "So why's he suddenly showing an interest in that thing?"

"Curiosity I expect. Anyway, why shouldn't he? It' not as if it's suddenly going to corrupt him".

"I wouldn't be so sure about that", said Joby, darkly "He still has those dreams you know, about being flogged. Does he ever ask you to do it?"

"No and I wouldn't anyway", said Adam "For heaven's sake I think you might just notice if you came back to the cottage one day to find him covered in whip-marks! You're being absurd. We all get peculiar dreams occasionally, you know that as well as I do".

"I'm just worried about him that's all".

"Joby, he's been fine since the abdication. Relaxed and happy. At this rate we might even get him to put on a bit of weight".

"Go and talk to him Adam", Joby implored.

"I was going to anyway", said Adam "And stop skulking behind doors, you can get yourself a bad name doing that".

Kieran looked up and smiled as Adam walked towards him and sat down on the next chair.

"Care to crack a few nuts with me Pats?"

"There's no answer to that", Kieran laughed, and tossed the expensive book carelessly onto the floor.

"Joby thinks you're turning into a masochist".

"Why? Because I live with him?"

"He thinks you're getting untold pleasure from reading decadent literature", said Adam "What did you think of it?"

"Like all porn, exciting in parts but mostly boring and repetitive", said Kieran "I found meself skimming over most pages so I can't be that corrupting".

"Oh you know Joby", said Adam, deftly shelling walnuts "He's as daft as a brush sometimes".

"I found meself agreeing with Julian a lot", said Kieran "It's all a bit clinical, beatings for the sake of it".

"No tormented Catholic souls wanting to pay penance for their sins?"

"There were bits of it in that some characters feel they deserve to be punished, but it's never explained why they feel like that so it doesn't make much sense".

"To explain it would be to get in the way of another juicy flogging", said Adam "Can't waste valuable page space explaining character motivation".

"Spose not", Kieran nuzzled his head against Adam's shoulder.

"So Joby doesn't have to worry then?"

"No, but I don't suppose it'll stop him", said Kieran "I can't blame him though. I have been a bit of an eejit at times these past few months. But I feel I left too many loose ends untied when I abdicated. The Ghoomers still being at large worries me. I tried talking to Gorth about it before I left but he wasn't interested, and apparently the Gorgon's taken up residence in the old Winter Palace".

"Well at least if she stays there everyone can just give the place a wide berth", said Adam.

"If only it were that simple", said Kieran.

"You can't worry for the human race Patsy. You were an excellent president, you did a good job over several years. You weren't corrupt, or evil, or uncaring. You have nothing to reproach yourself for, and you deserve a peaceful retirement. Few presidents laid their life on the line as you often did".

"You think I did the right thing abdicating?"

"Yes I do", said Adam "I know for a fact you share my views on lifelong leadership. It can lead at best to complacency, and at worse, callousness. Not that you would have ever been either, but it does the public good to have a change of face at the helm every few years, otherwise they can get to feeling that presidents are invincible, and that's not good if you've got a rotten one".

"That's exactly how I feel", said Kieran "But I really wish I'd destroyed the Ghoomers".

"How could you? We haven't got a clue how many of them there are", said Adam "And from what the old man in the cave told Ransey, we don't know how many breeds of hybrids they've produced either. It would be nigh-on impossible to hunt them all down".

"But I'm so angry Adam", Kieran leapt to his feet and kicked the grate restlessly "I believe everything that old man said, and I can't stand the thought of the Devil winning, of the next age belonging to him and his kind. It makes a mockery of all the faith people had in me. Everything will belong to them Adam, doesn't that idea disgust you?"

"Not really", said Adam "You see old love there's a certain bitter irony to it all. The old man also said that at the end of the world there would be nothing but darkness. They will inherit a dark world. Now that may not bother them very much, but would anyone else want it anyway?"

"I understand what you're saying", said Kieran, wearily "But I love this world. Even this crazy one we walked into so recklessly all those years ago. Back in our time I used to get so angry with the scientists who moaned on about how insignificant we were in the great cosmos. We are not insignificant. The human race, for all we know, may have been the most brilliant and advanced creation in the entire Universe. God created us in His own image. That phrase means something to me".

"The human race has done some pretty appalling things Pats", said Adam "The Ghoomers are an example of just how debauched and twisted humans can get, and you only have to look around at this female-less world to see how intolerant we can be of each other".

"I know and I've lost faith in me fellow man many times", said Kieran "In our time and in this one. But for all its many hideous faults, the human race was still capable of producing great beauty. Human beings are endowed with a basic compassion. Most of us have an inbred sense of decency and fairness. And look who we're passing the baton onto! It makes my focking blood boil. All of it. Everything. The great achievements of the past, the symbols of the positive side of human nature, the intelligence, the love, the beauty ... it will all come to nothing in the end. It will all slide into a darkness ruled by evil".

"I know it's a cliche you don't want to hear at this time Pats, but no one ever said life was fair, or that it had to make sense. I once heard a nurse say that what helped her do her job, which was nursing the terminally-ill, was the belief that life is basically absurd. It's not an easy one to grasp. I forgot it entirely when you and Joby were away and Lonts was in hospital. It's hard to accept absurdity when your three boys are in danger, but it's also very true I'm afraid. And do bear in mind that if those Ghoomers do inherit the earth, by then they will be getting a world they deserve, if everything that old man said was true anyway".

There was a loud hum of voices and the others walked into the atrium. Ransey was carrying a tray of glasses.

"You two look serious", said Hillyard "Have you been having a row?"

"No, just discussing a serious issue", said Kieran.

"What?" said Joby, suspiciously.

"The end of the world".

"Oh that", said Hillyard "That's years off".

"And far too serious a topic for Christmas night", said Adam, breezily "Let's do something festive. Play a few games or something".

"Games?" said Ransey, suddenly looking terrified "I think I'll have an early night".

"Don't be ridiculous Ransey, it's not six o'clock yet", said Adam.

"Is that all?" said Ransey, in dismay "It can't be. It went dark hours ago".

"It's still only ten-to-six old love", said Adam, mischievously "We have the whole night ahead of us".

"We could have an orgy", said Lonts.

"No we couldn't", said Joby "Isn't it time you were in bed anyway?"

"I could dance for you if you get the gramophone out", said Lonts.

"Are you sure that clock hasn't stopped?" said Ransey.

"Perhaps Lonts has the right idea", said Adam "We could have a little talent contest".

"It sounds Hell", said Julian "You'll be suggesting charades next, or Scrabble".

"You don't know what I meant by talent contest", said Adam "I was thinking more like a game of forfeits. Deal out the cards, whoever gets the lowest number has to do something, say dancing in Lonts's case, for the person with the highest number".

"Who decides what they have to do?" said Joby.

"The one with the highest number of course".

"What kind of things?"

"Can be anything that the winner decrees", said Adam "But with a time-limit obviously, otherwise Julian would be having us cleaning his bedroom windows or something. And also no vindictive suggestions, as in take a ten-mile hike, that kind of thing".

"Sounds like it'll pass the time", said Julian, gloomily "I take it fruity suggestions are allowed, otherwise it seems scarcely worth playing".

"As long as the loser's happy with it", said Adam.

"Well where's the fun in that?" said Julian "It should be compulsory".

"If you keep that attitude up Jules, you'll be barred from playing".

Kieran took a deck of cards out of a drawer and dealt them out. The game got off to a bad start when Julian got the highest and Finia the lowest. Julian decided to use the opportunity to tell him to bring one of his tea-chests in from the out-house, something he'd been trying to get Finia to do ever since they had arrived.

"What do you think I am?" Finia snapped "A bloody coolie!"

"No", said Julian "More like a rather bad-tempered whippet, the way you keep snapping at me all the time".

"I'll bring it in tomorrow", said Hillyard "Finia's too small to lug that about. Ask him to do something else".

"It's no fun asking Finia to do things", said Julian "It's no different to normal life. Can't I get someone else?"

"Only if you get the highest card next time", said Kieran "You'll have pass on this round though".

"Great game", said Julian, sarcastically.

He perked up when Hillyard came out tops next, and Kieran got the lowest.

"Can I do something for him instead?" said Hillyard.

"You're the victor", said Adam "You're in charge. It's your choice".

Hillyard elected to kiss Kieran's bare spine, something he said he'd always had a great urge to do when he scrubbed his back.

"You should have no trouble finding it", said Joby, sourly "It sticks out like the ridge of the Himalayas".

What followed was a moment of such unbearable intimacy that everyone else in the room immediately felt like voyeurs, with the exception of Joby who looked as though he wanted to put a hole in the wall.

"It gets easier as the game progresses", Adam whispered to him "We all get a turn. You'll see, it becomes quite fun".

Joby had great trouble being convinced of this. When it was his turn to select the highest card he draw Lonts as the loser, which annoyed him as it meant he couldn't get Kieran jealous in any way. Instead his request that Lonts not make a single noise in his presence until at least Candlemas Day didn't go down well with Adam.

"Not going very well this game is it?" said Julian.

Moved by Lonts's hurt expression Joby agreed to let him dance for him, provided it didn't take too long. Lonts enthusiastically agreed, and the game seemed to perk up from then on until it actually began to be fun. Hillyard kissed Finia's toes, Joby licked thick chocolate sauce (left over from the Yule log) off Kieran's ear-lobes, Julian had to stand on a chair and recite 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' on Adam's orders, and got his ankles whacked with a rolled-up magazine if he forgot or misplaced any words, and various other deeds were performed that, in Adam's words, served as a good way to settle old scores at the end of the year.

"We'll have to play it again tomorrow night", said Lonts, at the end of the evening "I haven't had a chance to tell Joby to do anything".

"We're going home tomorrow", said Joby, firmly "You'll have to wait 'til next Christmas".

When Julian emerged from the bathroom later he found Adam sitting on the wooden settle opposite his bedroom door, smoking a cigar.

"Don't look at me like that", said Adam "It is Christmas, and I've been looking forward to this all day".

"Who gave it to you?" said Julian, accusingly.

"Nobody", said Adam "I bought it for myself".

"Alright I won't go on", Julian sat down next to him "It's a tip downstairs. No one's cleared the lunch things away yet. The plates will be all congealed by tomorrow".

"Well don't worry, I can't believe you'll end up doing the dishes somehow", said Adam "Would you like a suck on my cigar?"

"I can never resist such an offer from you dear heart", said Julian, and drew on the weed in a leisurely fashion "Not bad".

"You should've seen Pats and Joby trying to help each other up the stairs just now", said Adam "Quite comical. They kept falling backwards like clowns. Nice to see Patsy looking so relaxed for a change. I've been worrying about him so much".

"He looks well enough to me", said Julian "Although still far too skinny to my way of thinking. Talking of food, who cooked the goose today?"

"Hillyard and I did it between us".

"I meant to compliment the chef. It was nice and juicy, the way I like it", said Julian "I always did like greasy meat, can't bear something that has all the goodness cooked out of it".

"If only it could be like this always", Adam sighed.

"Why can't it be?" said Julian "I'm in no hurry to go off on anymore balloon trips, and I can't believe the others are either".

"It's not as simple as that Jules", said Adam "We're all on borrowed time".

"You sound like that old man in the coffee-shop last Christmas, do you remember?"

"God, was it only last Christmas?"

"He kept going on about a comet hitting the earth. The end of mankind, blah-blah-blah".

"Who's to say he isn't right?" said Adam "And then the Ghoomers really will win".

"Are the dogs alright Adam?" said Lonts, appearing in the doorway of the bedroom, wearing only his nappy.

"Yes, you can't hear them can you?" said Adam "Hillyard went out to them before going to bed. He said they seemed quite calm".


Julian suddenly pulled Lonts towards him and gave him a huge kiss on the mouth, whilst squeezing his bottom through his nappy at the same time. Lonts looked shaken but relatively undisturbed at the end of it, and went to bed quite placidly when Adam told him to go.

"Don't worry, that's as far as I'll ever go", said Julian "Perhaps it's because I'm slightly drunk, but he really was good enough to eat".

"He always is", said Adam "Nappy and all".

"Oh I always think he looks like some luscious Greek slave in that", said Julian "It's like a loin-cloth you see. You really are very lucky".

"I'll remind you of that next time he plays up", said Adam "No you're right. I am lucky, and I'll be the first to admit it".

"I hope I haven't done him irreparable psychological harm", said Julian "And don't ask me to say that again in a hurry".

"Nonsense. Lonts adores being kissed".

"Hmm. Better not get me playing polar bears with him though", said Julian "I don't think I could control myself then".

Ransey locked the house up and then went back into the atrium. He was tired but, frustratingly, too restless to go to bed. Sometimes he wondered how he coped with the strain of living with the others. Sometimes he wished they weren't so damn physical with each other. Sometimes he wished he lived in the sort of household so many lived in, where men just co-existed peacefully alongside each other like monks, getting on with their tasks of work, communicating only when absolutely necessary. Sometimes he wondered if, for the sake of his own sanity, that wouldn't be the best option for him, to move to a place like that.

But he was caught in a cleft stick. He may not be very sexual, or have much intensity of passion, but he wasn't completely cold. There was a part of him that needed the emotional freedom which living with the others gave him. And there was a definite part of him that needed Adam, even if it was only to see him about the house or hear his voice.

He sat down by the dying embers of the fire, removed his spectacles and wept. He quietly berated himself for being such a hopeless case, for not being able to sort himself out and decide what he wanted. Perhaps he should talk to Joby alone sometime, find out exactly how he had come to terms with his feelings for Kieran. That saga had had a happy ending though. Ransey knew there was no such hope for him. The idea of being able to make himself sexually desirable for Adam was laughable, even if he could have brought himself to enjoy it.

He picked up Julian's book which had been left on the floor. For some time he sat turning over the pages, mechanically taking in the relentless procession of whipping, cock-sucking, cock-pulling, cock-nibbling, massage, ball-binding, nipple-clamping (he didn't need reminding of that!), spanking, toe-licking ... it was all so incredibly exhausting. Didn't these characters ever get bored? Didn't one of them ever say wearily "can't we just sit together and talk?" Then he remembered Julian's lukewarm appraisal of the book at lunchtime and he felt he probably wasn't so alone in his views after all! What Ransey did know was that he couldn't have brought himself to do any of the above, not alone with one person anyway. He'd have felt far too embarrassed. How on earth did you face them the next day?

Out in the woods surrounding the Castle a wolf howled plaintively, as though decrying its misery at being alone outside on such a cold night. Poor bastard, thought Ransey, I know how it feels. Then he remembered that wolves were supposed to be sociable animals who mated for life. "I'm going against the whole of Nature", he thought, miserably.

The Castle suddenly felt very cold and very large, exactly as it had done during his dawn walk. He was glad he wasn't alone in it, and hoped that he never would be. Hurriedly, he made his way up to bed.

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