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It was another month before the sun finally pierced through the gloom completely, and when it did, one January lunchtime, it was like watching the first sun-rise at the dawn of time. For two hours it shone tinnily in the winter sky and then set again. In the meantime though the snow continued to fall, which meant the radio, their only link at the Castle with the outside world, didn't always give them the comforting City voices they had come to rely on, and reverted instead to bleeps and whistles. Ransey continued to send messages to the Ministry whenever he could get down to the village, but there were no replies. So instead they looked ahead to the summer, when surely more sunlight would finally thaw the snow, and then perhaps they could explore the surrounding countryside more fully.
Meanwhile they continued to live in their "ice palace", as Adam called it. Sometimes it was so cold at night that they were all forced to sleep huddled together in front of the fire in the atrium, with the dogs stacked around them for extra warmth. It wasn't until Candlemas Day that the barometer in the lobby actually moved up a couple of notches. By the middle of February it had even reached the dizzy heights of twelve below zero centigrade.
"It'll be bikini weather soon", said Joby.
At the beginning of March, and in bracing temperatures of nine below zero, the Ministry turned up.
"Now I hope you'll all remember to show your gratitude at them for putting themselves out like this", said Kieran sarcastically, as they all waited in the lobby.
The official presidential air-buggy landed on the lawn, sending up a tidal-wave of snow flying into the air.
"I do hope we're resolved from all requirements to be nice to them, Patsy", said Adam.
"Nice!" Kieran exclaimed "What's kept me going these past few weeks has been the thought of how many different ways I could torture Gorth if I ever got my hands on him!"
"You may be about to get the chance", said Julian "It's Mr President himself I see coming towards us".
A mass of beefy men had decanted from the air-buggy and were now, for reasons which escaped everyone at the Castle, running down towards the forest. This left Gorth to pick his own way across the snow-encrusted lawn towards the front door of the Castle. On his head he wore a goatskin cap with the word "GORTH" embroidered across the front.
"Is that in case he forgets who he is?" said Joby.
"More like in case everyone else forgets who he is", said Hillyard.
"Kieran!" Gorth bellowed, in what he intended to be a hearty manner, but it came out more like an apologetic enquiry.
"Gorth", said Kieran, in a subdued fashion "Where were your men heading to?"
"We have got a loo in the Castle you know", said Joby.
"Yes, very good, Joby", Gorth sniggered "In fact they're going down to hug the trees".
"Hug the trees?" said Kieran, incredulously "Of course, I should've guessed really!"
"It's all part of this new craze that's sweeping the City", said Gorth, following them into the atrium "To get in touch with the strong masculine side of our human heritage".
"Have a bloody hard job getting in touch with the female side", said Joby.
"What's hugging trees got to do with it?" said Kieran.
"It's to get in touch with Man's traditional role as the hunter, his natural affinity with nature and the countryside", said Gorth, standing over the fire "You can shut the doors actually, they won't be joining us. They'll all take up residence in the village. It gives them more freedom to express themselves, than standing on pomp and ceremony all the time".
"Pomp and ceremony!" Joby exclaimed "Oh yes, we've had a lot of that these past eight months!"
"Your personal security leaves a lot to be desired", said Ransey "Do you normally walk into strange buildings alone? It wouldn't have happened in my day".
"I know I'm with friends here", said Gorth, in a cringe-making attempt to be laddish.
"I wouldn't be so sure about that", said Joby, darkly.
Over lunch Gorth filled them in on how the Blast had affected the City. In other words, very little really. There had been mild excitement the night after the Blast had occurred, because the sun was still visible at midnight, and Buskin had sent euphoric messages about how the Blast had even registered on his machines so many miles away at the Weather Rock.
It was roughly estimated that about nine hundred men had perished in the Blast and its immediate after-effects. As such, a state of mourning had existed in the City for a while, but this was soon replaced by sarcastic letters and editorials in the newspapers, demanding to know how much longer this "atmosphere of hysteria" was going to continue.
The sheer horror of the Blast, with the way it had evaporated life on such a huge scale, and the ensuing winter, had completely passed the City dwellers by. It was impossible to impress on Gorth how alone they had felt at the Castle in the weeks immediately following the Blast, of how they had initially been convinced they were the only ones left on earth. Eventually they gave up trying to explain, as it was obvious Gorth thought they were all over-egging the pudding somewhat.
Gorth tried to make amends by telling them how genuinely distraught the men of the City had been by the news of Kieran's apparent death, and those of his family. Businesses had closed for a day out of respect, and obituaries to all of them had been fond and respectful. The Ministry had even had to put up with intruders breaking into the Headquarters, wanting to lay flowers in their old rooms. Kieran couldn't help feeling that, after this mass outpouring of emotion, men were going to be slightly peeved at them all turning up again. The lunch couldn't come to an end soon enough for any of them.
When Joby walked through the atrium a short while later he found Lonts sitting alone by the fireplace, and the rest of the Castle strangely quiet.
"If you're looking for Kieran he's still in the dining-room with Gorth", said Lonts "I think they're going to have a row".
"Oh. Great", said Joby, unenthusiastically.
"The others have all disappeared with the newspapers Gorth brought in", Lonts continued "There's quite a bit about us in them apparently. Someone's done sketches of each of us and hung them in the City Museum. Adam says they're not very good though. He says the artist hasn't caught Kieran's beauty at all, and has made him look like a terrifying prophet from the Old Testament instead. And he says Hillyard's looks as though he's eaten too many bowls of porridge, and is having trouble trying to keep it all down, and I'm grinning and looking up at the ceiling in mine, which Adam says makes me look as though I'm on drugs".
"I dread to think what mine looks like", said Joby, morosely.
"He says you look too serious in yours, as though you're about to strangle someone", said Lonts "Adam says it should be the artist".
"Oh well now we're alright again, they might do everyone a favour and take them down", said Joby "Otherwise I can just hear the comments about mine in years to come. 'Obviously he'd had a bad day', that kind of thing".
"Joby, what's going to happen to us now?" said Lonts, looking worried.
"I don't know", Joby replied "We might have to leave here until the area's completely back to normal. Perhaps live in the City for a while, but I can't imagine it'll be for long, and then we'll go back to as we were I suppose. What else is there?"
"Kieran's not going to be President again then?"
"Over my dead body!" said Joby, with great passion.
"Don't try and dress it up to me Gorth", Kieran was saying, with equal passion "The whole bloody thing smacks of the Ministry not caring. And by all accounts, from the quick scan of the newspapers I've seen, I'm not the only one who thinks so".
"It was impossible to get up here sooner", said Gorth "All the roads were impassable, and the cold and the dark made flying very difficult indeed".
"I'm not just thinking of us", said Kieran "But everyone in this entire area. Why wasn't a reconnaissance mission sent out sooner? Lives could have probably been saved if you'd done that. I dread to think how many men may have perished in the cold needlessly".
"I think you're being unreasonable", said Gorth "Conditions were horrendously difficult throughout this entire area".
"Alright, I'll concede you may have a point there", said Kieran, grudgingly "But what I can't bear is the total lack of concern you and the Ministry seem to have shown over the past few months. There are a lot of letters in the papers criticising you and yours for not showing enough interest in anything outside the City, and by all accounts this criticism has been going on ever since the Blast happened. Why for instance have you never made a public speech expressing your feelings about the entire catastrophe? We've got television these days, you could easily have arranged it".
"W-We did rehearse something", Gorth mumbled, awkwardly.
"Oh? Well why wasn't it aired?"
"We couldn't get it to come out right".
"It was felt that I sounded too wooden and the words too cliched, so it was judged better if nothing was said at all".
"All you had to do was say what was in your heart", said Kieran, helplessly "Or did you just not feel anything?"
"I know, I'm sorry, but why was it that hard to do?"
"If I'd sounded too emotional I'd have been accused of hysteria and hypocrisy, and of milking the tragedy to boost my own popularity. And if I'd played it down I'd have been accused of being cold".
"There is a middle-ground between those two extremes you know".
"I couldn't find it, so I was advised to abandon it".
"I don't think you're getting very good advice at the moment Gorth", said Kieran "From the brief glimpse I've had of some of your new men, they all seem rather young. Inexperienced. Where are the seasoned old timers? They were usually only too quick with advice when I was President".
"I don't see much of them. They've lost heart. Gone into a mass decline I think", said Gorth "It's not easy being an unpopular president. Some are even saying that if I carry on the way I have been I'll end up more unpopular than even Gabriel! You never were unpopular, you don't know what it's like".
"I was towards the end".
"Not really. That was just a bit of exasperation because they were worried about you. You had charisma. I'm just dull".
"Your advisors should be helping you to work on that. Although you shouldn't do anything you're not comfortable with. It's more important than anything that you be yourself. A lot of the problem seems to be that you don't have an image the public can relate to. The President before Gabriel was a quiet unassuming bod, like yourself, and he was popular for that reason. Men instinctively trusted him. You can achieve that too".
"Yes, but I'm coming after the Vanquisher of Evil aren't I? The charismatic time-crosser with the blonde hair and blue eyes. The one who'd once been married to a Woman. I can't follow a legend as big as you".
"Cobblers", said Kieran "I'm an irrational, skinny bod who suffers from bouts of religious mania, and who is usually torn between his rosary and his penis. And if it wasn't for the men in my life I'd have been committed long ago. I'm pretty certain you can do better than that, Gorth".
"Do you really think that about yourself?" said Gorth "You should have a higher opinion of yourself than that".
"I agree, but I haven't. I haven't got any special skills Gorth. The only thing I could get a diploma in would be heavy petting".
"Will you come back to the Ministry with me? Act as my advisor for a while? I know you don't want to be President again, and quite frankly I don't blame you one bit, but stay at the Headquarters whilst this area gets back to normal. It might only be for a couple of months, until the summer".
"I don't like the thought of being a back-seat driver, Gorth".
"How can you be, when it'll be with my consent?" said Gorth "And the men in the City will be overjoyed to see you. They miss seeing you lot around, a lot of the colour's gone out of the place since the family left. I need someone who knows the ropes to tell me where I'm going wrong".
"Alright, at least until we can move back to the City", said Kieran "But if you don't mind we won't live at the Headquarters. I'd be too much like the old days. We'll rent somewhere for the meantime".
Kieran left the dining-room via the service entrance, which opened into the corridor running down to the kitchen. He promptly fell over Hillyard, who had been lingering at the foot of the back stairs.
"Have you been eavesdropping, Hillyard?" he said, crossly.
"No, I just thought I'd stay within earshot in case you needed me".
"What did you think was going to happen? Gorth roger me over the dinner-table!"
"You were upset whilst we were eating that's all", Hillyard sighed "I didn't want him to get to you too much".
"Lying hound, you wanted to know what was going on", said Kieran "At least now you know our plans, I can rely on you to broadcast it to all and sundry. Saves me having to do it".
"You're really tense aren't you?" Hillyard squeezed Kieran's shoulders "Do you want me to give you a massage?"
"I could do with something. I feel like I've been summoned back to school".
"How about a massage and a little bit of the other?" Hillyard pecked lightly at Kieran's lips.
"Been a long winter for you hasn't it?" Kieran whispered.
"I'm not after charity. You know how I feel about you".
"Same as you feel about Joby isn't it?" said Kieran, mischievously.
"Yea, except you're willing aren't you" said Hillyard "I think we could both do with a bit of close human comfort".
"I'm surprised you didn't go charging off after those men earlier. You'd have been spoilt for choice there".
"I want to be with someone I love".
"And I'm not going to argue with that one".
They had slipped up the back stairs to one of the empty bedrooms over the store-room area. This large, uncurtained, unheated room at least had a mattress, and afterwards they lay in each other's arms and looked out through the low-lying window, watching the sun as it set over the snow-covered fields and hills.
"I can't believe how many years I've waited for today", said Hillyard, running his fingers along Kieran's bare leg.
"Weren't disappointed were you?"
"Hardly! You certainly lived up to expectations, and you're very sure of yourself in bed. I like that. I've been with too many who needed coaxing towards bedrooms like nervous horses".
"If I wasn't a good lay Hillyard I wouldn't be much of anything", said Kieran.
"That's not true", said Hillyard "But I can see you're not lacking in confidence in this department at least".
"I've got too much at times", Kieran laughed "Why do you think Adam has to spank me occasionally!"
"Adam!" Hillyard exclaimed "I'd forgotten about him. What's he going to say?"
"Don't worry about him", Kieran kissed him "He's not going to knock you around the house. Anyway, the amount of times he's cuckolded me he can't really say anything".
"How do you two stay together?" said Hillyard "I mean, you're not conventional by anyone's standards"
"We're very different when we're alone together. I worried for a time that we'd grow apart, with all our other commitments. But in some ways it's brought us closer together. I don't know how it works but it does".
"And Joby?" said Hillyard "Are you going to tell him what happened today?"
"That needs careful thought. The trouble with Joby is that I never know how he's going to react, but he hurts inside real hard".
"You should've thought about that then shouldn't you?" said Hillyard, with no malice.
"Yes I should. I worry like hell that one day he'll get fed up with me and all me daft ways".
"Can't see that somehow myself".
"It'd kill me if he did", said Kieran "Joby's the sort that if he did finally call it quits there'd be no way I could get him back. And I couldn't bear the thought of him settling down with someone else. Of seeing him happy with someone else, not wanting me".
"That'll never happen. Who else'd put up with the miserable little devil!" said Hillyard "Anyway, you'd still have Adam".
"Who shares a bed with Lonts, and who is effectively married to Julian. I wouldn't be in partnership with him, like I am with Joby".
"Then there's always me".
"You'd run a mile! You carry on playing the wicked uncle, Hillyard. That's what you're good at. Me and you'd be hopeless. We're alright for a bit of fun together, but that's it. I need a strong base".
"And I'm not it?"
"Nope", Kieran smiled "But it was nice to feel you in me for a while".
When they finally appeared downstairs again they ran into Adam and Julian, who were sitting in the atrium surrounded by a sea of crumpled newsprint. From the significant looks the two older men gave them, Kieran knew that his and Hillyard's activities were written all over them.
"Has anyone seen Joby?" Kieran asked, trying to sound casual.
"He's showing Gorth up to his room", said Adam, distantly "We've decided to put him on the top floor. Hope it's not too cold for him up there, but there's no room elsewhere".
"I'll go and fix him up a hot water bottle", said Hillyard, nervously "That might help".
He had retreated to the kitchen before anyone could reply.
"And I think I'll go and sit with Finia for a while", said Julian, easing himself off the sofa "I don't believe it, the stuffing's coming out of that cushion! This whole place is going to the dogs".
Once they were alone Kieran sat down next to Adam on the sofa.
"Don't ignore me, Addy", he said, softly "I know how Lonts feels when you do that".
"Do you want me to talk to Joby for you?" said Adam, folding his newspaper meticulously.
"Would you do that for me?" said Kieran, sounding surprised.
"I'll try, I don't promise miracles though".
"You're being very reasonable".
"Well I'm hoping Joby'll do the right thing and beat the shit out of you", said Adam "If it wasn't for Joby's feelings in fact I'd find it very hard to be cross".
"Don't you care?" said Kieran, accusingly.
Adam suddenly pushed him back against the sofa and pinned him to the cushions with a lengthy kiss.
"And what do you think?" said Adam, eventually "I think I care. And I'll sort Joby out for you".
"Why are you being so reasonable, Addy?"
"Because there's too much repression around here".
"Is there?" Kieran exclaimed "Or are you just thinking of Ransey?"
"Put it this way, it's hard for me to get jealous of Hillyard", said Adam "It'd be like getting jealous of a petrol-pump! You and he aren't about to elope together are you?"
"I don't think there's much likelihood of that", said Kieran, wryly.
"And I do love the sight of Hillyard squirming under my displeasure", said Adam "I think I'll be stern with him a little longer, it's such tremendous fun".
"But what about Joby?"
"You've treated him badly, Pats", said Adam "I'm ashamed of you".
"I know", Kieran looked at his hands helplessly.
"But I can resolve my anger by giving you a good walloping, it's not so easy for Joby", said Adam "But as we don't want another wounded spectre roaming about the place, I'll do my best by him".
"I'll be very grateful to you".
"Yes", Adam purred "I know you will".
Joby had known about it all along. He had watched unseen from the kitchen doorway as Kieran and Hillyard smooched their way up the back stairs. He had overheard their whispered conversation, and suddenly, for the first time in years, he hated the world they were living in. If Kieran had been his wife he wouldn't have hesitated to break them up, but they all played by different rules now, and he was no longer sure if he could handle it. He wanted monogamy and fidelity. And he was annoyed that Kieran, to whom he had given so much, had such a light view of it.
After settling Gorth, he had kicked his heels in his own room for a while. Getting bored with that he had gone onto the landing and checked who was in the atrium before going downstairs. The atrium was empty, apart from Ransey, who was scanning newspapers.
"There's an outbreak of mass hysteria in a village to the east of here", said Ransey, when Joby joined him by the fire "Some of the men are claiming to be driven out of their houses by invisible presences and demonic voices. Says here that the 'authorities believe it is yet another instance of mass hysteria resulting from the Blast'. Be interesting to ask Gorth if he knows anymore about it".
"Where's everybody gone?" said Joby "In this house I mean".
"I don't know", Ransey shrugged, indifferently "Leave 'em to it, Joby. It's easier in the long run".
"No!" Joby whimpered, and ran down the corridor which connected to the kitchen wing. He met Hillyard coming towards him, clutching Gorth's hot water bottle to his chest. He started guiltily on seeing Joby.
"Let's talk, Joby", he said.
"You're the last person I want to talk to", Joby shrieked, pushing past him "Just stay out of my way!"
Joby had gone and hid in the larder, where he cried shamelessly into one of the towels left hanging from a hook attached to a shelf. He was caught in that hideous form of misery whereby he wanted to be left alone, and yet at the same time wanted someone to come along and comfort him. The longer Kieran avoided him, the more irrationally convinced he became that Kieran was laughing at him. Poor old Joby. After all these years he still couldn't cope with it. The bastards. Those bastards with their smugness and their ease, their take it or leave it attitude to sex, seeing it only as a quick physical release and nothing else.
When he had calmed himself slightly he became aware that there was a faint noise coming from the pantry, which led off the other end of the room. Someone was moving about in there. He could hear a soft scraping of bare feet against the flagstone floor. And a hissing noise ... as of snakes.
The door to the pantry was slightly ajar. Directly opposite it was a stone sink on brick legs, with a spotted mirror hanging over it. There was someone standing behind the door. He could see her reflection in the mirror. She was watching him as intently as he was watching her. The red snakes circled about her face like a diabolical halo, like an elaborate hairstyle that had come to life. Her face was only briefly glimpsed through the hissing mess, but what Joby saw shocked him to the core.
She was beautiful. Mesmerisingly, bewitchingly beautiful.
Slowly he began to move towards her.
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