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By Sarah Hapgood

"Only one more day to go", said Julian, placing the tea-tray on the living-room table "And then you can stop worrying. Where's the tea-cosy? Have you hidden it?"

"Why would I hide the tea-cosy?" said Adam, who was engrossed in the morning paper.

"You probably did it during one of your increasingly absent-minded phases", Julian rooted around behind the cushion on Adam's chair and withdrew the desired article "What did I say!"

"You must have put it there", Adam mumbled.

"No I didn't. It's you, you're going crackers", said Julian, sitting down at the table "Anything interesting in the paper?"

"It's terrible", Adam suddenly wailed "I can't take this on top of everything else".

"What?" Julian exclaimed, snatching the paper from him "What am I supposed to be looking at? ... There's a rather amusing cartoon of Gorth here".

"The piece about Lonts", said Adam, agitatedly tapping the newspaper "I knew it would happen one day. That he'd find someone his own age".

"'BABY LONTS FINDS ROMANCE'", said Julian, reading from one of the column headings "'One of the more charming aspects of the presidential tour has been the burgeoning friendship between Lonts, the darling of the Vanquisher's family, and Zareen, a pretty eunuch who is employed at the Ministry as one of Gorth's personal attendants. Insiders on the Ministry tour say the two lovelies only have eyes for one another and are constantly in each other's company. The Vanquisher has refused to comment on this unexpected development, and merely states that Lonts is fully entitled to make his own friends. The tour will end tomorrow'".

"I knew this would happen", Adam continued to wail.

"I'm more astonished to learn that Gorth has a personal attendant", said Julian "He always looks to me like someone who throws his clothes on in a darkened, confined space. Oh stop carrying on, Adam. How can you believe you've got serious competition from someone called Zareen? He sounds like a suburban ladies' hairdresser, or a character in a cheap 1950s sci-fi movie, 'Sex Goddesses From Venus', that kind of thing".

"I shouldn't have let him go".

"Yes you should", said Julian, firmly "It's probably done the little monster the world of good not to have you cosseting him every five minutes. And quite frankly it would have been unbearable to have him thumping around here these past few weeks. Anyway, you should be pleased. He's obviously got over his violent hatred of eunuchs".

"That is very small comfort, Jules", said Adam.

The following day brought a hoar frost and thick freezing fog. The weather was so bad in fact that Adam fretted that the others wouldn't be able to get home.

"We'll be safe from the Gorgon in this weather", said Julian "No one would be able to see her!"

"They won't be coming, I just know it", said Adam, anxiously.

"Oh they will", Julian groaned "Fire, flood and pestilence wouldn't keep them away".

The Ministry buggy pulled up in the street later that afternoon. By now the weather was so atrocious that Julian ordered Adam to wait in the living-room, whilst he went out into the street to greet them.

"Afternoon Julian!" Hillyard boomed, looming up out of the fog "Can't get used to wearing these winter clothes again after the weather we've been used to lately".

"The fur hat suits you dear heart", said Julian "What I can see of you anyway. Where's Finia? I hope he hasn't done a bunk".

"I am exhausted", said Finia, emerging from one of the back seats "So don't go presenting me with a backlog of washing, Julian".

"Nice to have you back, my little sweet-cake", said Julian.

Adam waited impatiently inside the house. Joby was the first into the living-room, and Adam pounced on him at once, removing his hat with the ear-flaps to get a better look at him.

"I ent half missed you", said Joby, hugging him back "It wasn't the same without you along. You know how boring official trips can be, and I had no one to let off steam to when Kieran was acting all regal".

"Not even Hillyard?"

"Bloody hopeless trying to talk to him", said Joby "He just keeps trying to get me pants down. Kieran? Come in here!"

"Addy, darlin'!" Kieran swept into the room, and then stopped dead when Adam gaped at him in horror "What is it?"

"Patsy, you can't afford to get any thinner", Adam exclaimed.

"I would've thought after all these weeks apart, you could've come up with a more imaginative opening-line than that!"

"But you're emaciated", said Adam, in a shocked voice.

Kieran didn't say anything. He merely glared at Adam and then hurriedly left the room.

"I didn't make a very good job of that did I?" Adam sighed.

"Don't worry about it, I understand", said Joby "He's in a bad way. No one knows that better than me. Talk about having two prima donna's in the family!"


"Lonts has been playing up as well", said Joby "He hasn't misbehaved or anything, he just acts as though he's God's gift. He's been a bit spoilt on this trip, all the Ministry men going ga-ga over him, so he starts lording it around a bit. The rest of us have been keeping an eye on him, making sure he doesn't get into trouble, but we haven't had time to give him the long lectures that you do. It's all been doing my head in. I bet it's been nice and quiet here".

"Adam!" Lonts bellowed from the doorway. He ran into the room and flung himself at the older man, covering his face in kisses. Adam was so pleased to see him that he responded enthusiastically.

"I'd better go and see how his lordship is", Joby muttered.

"Joby", Adam grabbed his arm "You and I must talk alone later. We have to sort this out once and for all. I'll meet you after dinner".

"Thanks, Adam", Joby smiled "I can't sort it on my own".

"You don't have to old love".

"What do you want to talk to Joby alone for?" Lonts pouted, after Joby had left the room.

"We're worried about Patsy. He's not well".

"Looks alright to me", Lonts shrugged "A bit thin perhaps. The way he's going you won't be able to call him beautiful for much longer, like you always do".

"And you and I are going to have a nice long chat alone together later too", said Adam, angrily.

Dinner wasn't quite the celebratory occasion Adam had had in mind. He watched Kieran intently throughout the meal, and observed that he was employing the tactics he had once used during state dinners. He busily pushed his food around his plate, hiding it under other food, but very little of it actually went into his mouth. Joby and Adam exchanged significant looks.

Afterwards Kieran went up to bed without a word, and Adam met Joby in the cupboard under the stairs.

"Bloody ridiculous that in all this house we can't find anywhere more private to talk than this", said Adam, placing a torch on top of the gas meter.

"It's either this or the bathroom", said Joby "And you can bet some jerk'll wanna use it as soon as we get in there".

"So I take it Patsy hasn't been the easiest of people to get along with on this trip?" said Adam.

"Easy!" Joby bellowed "There have been times I've seriously thought of running off with Hillyard! At least I don't have to worry about him deliberately starving himself".

"That's certainly true".

"I tried me best to keep an eye on Kieran, Ad. But you know what these official trips are like, he's even less likely than ever to eat properly. As soon as the grub's served all the distractions start. And at official dinners I can't exactly stand over him until he's cleared his plate".

"I don't blame you at all Joby, I know what it's like", said Adam "But the inescapable fact remains that we need to do something about him before he does irreparable damage to himself. I dread to think how little he weighs. Well under seven stones, possibly more like six I should think".

"But what can we do though?" said Joby "Force-feed him rare steaks and apple crumble?"

"That would only work in the short-term. This all goes so deep, into the core of him, that we need to get right at him. We need to shock him into seeing himself as he really is".

"It'd be no good standing him naked in front of a mirror", said Joby "He'd only refuse to see himself".

"Don't you think most people would be pretty appalled to see Patsy in the nude these days?"

"Yes", said Joby, sadly "What do you suggest though?"

"I had a letter today from the City Museum", said Adam "I was going to show all of you it at dinner, but I'm glad I didn't now. One of the Ministry renegades stole some sketches of mine from the Castle".

"Cheeky bastard", said Joby.

"He's tried selling them to the Museum, thinking they'd pay a fortune for them. Little did he know the artist was alive and well and living only a few streets away. So the Museum contacted me, saying they would be very interested in doing an exhibition of them".

"Hey, that's great", said Joby "You should've said earlier".

"Some of these pictures are rather personal, Joby. There's a whole sequence involving nude studies of Patsy, and I'm afraid I didn't flinch from showing him as he really is".

"You're going to exhibit him?"

"I know it sounds cruel", said Adam "And I risk losing his friendship forever, but I can't sit by and watch him kill himself. Something drastic has to be done".

"I know, but ... but as you said it's cruel".

"I won't do it if you disapprove".

"No, you do it", said Joby, strongly "I'd rather him furious and alive, than thin and dead. You can say it was all my idea if you like, I'll take the rap".

"I can't let you do that. What if he finished with you?"

"Then I really will run off with Hillyard", said Joby "You do it, Adam. I bet those pictures are gonna have everyone talking. If the whole City's going on about how thin he is, he'll have to listen".

When Adam reached the top of the stairs a short while later he saw Julian sitting on the edge of the bath, smoking a cheroot.

"As you look as though you've got the weight of the world on your shoulders, you can have a suck on my thing", said Julian, beckoning him into the room.

"How did Patsy look to you, Jules?" said Adam, taking the cheroot and sitting down on the toilet lid.

"Well put it this way I've seen more flesh on a skeleton!" said Julian "Your cute boys have been in this house only a few hours and already you look as though you're about to have a nervous breakdown".

"What do you expect? One's anorexic, another's an unfeeling brat", said Adam "How much simpler life seemed with you in comparison".

"I bet you wouldn't have said that when we were nineteen", Julian laughed, wryly.

"Oh God I'm too old for it all", Adam rubbed his eyes wearily "These past few weeks all I've had to worry about with you was where we'd put the tea-cosy!"

"And the Gorgon and the ghostly woman in the garden ..."

"Yes but they were hardly down to you", said Adam "What the hell am I going to do, Jules? I can't let Joby down".

"Concentrate on the easy part for now", said Julian "Go and talk to Mr Sex Appeal, the Eskimo Bombshell. Find out what he has to say for himself first of all. Get all that cleared up".

"I hope it's that simple".

"I think you'd find it is. Finia's been telling me things".

"What things?" said Adam.

"Lonts'll tell you if you ask him right".

"But what if I mess that up too?"

"Then come into my bed", said Julian, suggestively "Where I shall be deliriously happy to see you".

Reluctantly Adam tore himself away and went into the back bedroom that he'd hardly used during the past six weeks. Lonts was sitting on the edge of the bed, holding a clean nappy in his hands rather helplessly.

"Have you coped alright on the trip?" said Adam, getting out the pins and powder.

"Yes, Hillyard's been doing it", said Lonts.

"I can't imagine all this fits in very well with your new image as an unstoppable sex-machine", said Adam, pushing him back on the bed and removing his pants.

"Adam?" Lonts sounded bewildered "Have you gone off me whilst I've been away? Don't you want me anymore?"

"I think it's rather more to the point that you've gone off me old love".

"I don't understand".

"Well aren't you going to tell me about Zareen?" said Adam "Or do I have to wait for the next instalment in the newspapers?"

"I thought you said you didn't mind me having friends?" said Lonts, angrily "And I haven't had a chance to tell you about him yet".

"That's very true", Adam sighed "Sorry old love, I jumped the gun".

"I was lonely", said Lonts "And I was missing you, and I kept wishing I'd stayed here with you. And Zareen was nice to me. We used to play volleyball together, and sometimes Finia joined in".

"How far did it all go?" said Adam, quietly "Any little games of polar bears in your tent for instance?"

"No!" Lonts yelled "I bet I've been more faithful than you have. Ransey kept telling me what you and Julian were probably up to. I hated hearing about it. I didn't want to know how much you were enjoying yourself without me. I could have romped around with Zareen but I didn't. I could've romped around with all sorts of men, they all fancied me. But I didn't".

"Probably because you'd have got a smack from one of the others if you had", said Adam "I'm sorry, Lo-Lo. It's just I read that silly piece in the newspaper. It kept going on about what a pair of lovebirds you and Zareen were. I feared the worst. I thought I'd lost you".

"The reporters were always hanging around us everywhere we stopped", said Lonts "All of us I mean. They kept seeing plots, thinking Kieran was trying to oust Gorth. Kieran got very upset about it. It was awful Adam, they kept reading all the wrong things into everything he said and did. That's why Kieran wouldn't give any interviews, because he said they'd twist everything he said. And when they couldn't find anything to say about Kieran, they'd start on the rest of us. They'd say things to me like 'you get on really well with Zareen don't you?' and of course I said yes, because it was true. I didn't know it was going to upset you".

"I know. But what's all this about you being a particularly bratty sex-symbol?"

"W-Well they kept telling me I was beautiful, a work of art", Lonts's bottom lip trembled "The Ministry men I mean. One day Hillyard caught them telling me all that, and he dragged me away. He really went angry at me Adam, and it wasn't fair. I didn't ask them to say those things".

"He was looking out for you, I'm glad to say".

"And as if that wasn't bad enough, Joby starts on at me. Tells me I'm nothing special. He said I look gormless and vacant most of the time".

"No you don't", Adam stroked his face gently "You are beautiful, that's the trouble".

"Well I started acting high-and-mighty to get my own back on them. I wanted to show Joby and Hillyard that others thought I was special, even if they didn't. I was just lonely, Adam. I wouldn't have done it if you'd been there. I used to cry in bed at night".

"Didn't the others hear you?"

"No!" said Lonts, vehemently "I used to get sent to bed before them. It's not fair, I'm not a baby. But Joby used to say I couldn't be trusted if I stayed up. And no one would talk to me at night like you do. And when Joby and Hillyard went out drinking they wouldn't let me go along with them. Said they couldn't enjoy themselves if I was there".

"Oh Lonts, I'm sorry you've been so unhappy", Adam hugged him "The others were only trying to look after you in their own heavy-handed way. They didn't want any harm to come to you".

"I know", said Lonts "Joby did say that to me one day in Yzel, when he caught me being upset. To make it up to me he took me out to that old ice-cream place where we went before".

"I hope you stayed sober this time!"

"Yes", said Lonts "Joby said I had to excuse him being grumpy, because he was worried about Kieran".

"He is very worried about him".

"But there's no need to be, not now we're back here with you".

"Your confidence in me is very touching, Lo-Lo", Adam laughed, warmly.

"Didn't you miss me at all, Adam?"

"I missed you everyday. Just because I liked being with Julian doesn't alter that fact at all".

"But you had fun with him?"

"Yes. Like I would still have done if you'd been here too".

"Someone told me you wouldn't miss me. That you and Julian would spend all your time having sex together".

"We'd soon get pretty exhausted if we did", said Adam "We're not as young as we were. Tell me Lonts, this 'someone' wouldn't happen to be Ransey would it?"

"I think he also told the reporters to watch me and Zareen".

"Did he indeed?" Adam drew in his breath sharply "Well it all becomes very clear now. He was hoping to drive you away from me, straight in Zareen's direction by the looks of things".

"But why?" said Lonts.

"Because if I lost you Lonts it'd break my heart", said Adam "And I think Ransey wants to hurt me. A love scorned and all that".

"Ransey has been strange lately", said Lonts "One day he went mad at me and Joby. Started yelling at us. I'd only been kissing Joby to cheer him up. He was so down about Kieran you see, and I thought he could do with being kissed. Joby likes it when I kiss him for comfort. He says it's no good Hillyard doing it as he carries on like a dog with a bone. But Ransey went really angry. Said we were all immoral and only thought about one thing".

"He's the one who's got it on the brain more than any of us!" said Adam "But that's the problem. It's all on his brain and nowhere else!"

Although it was only a few days until the expected birth of Tamaz's children, the run-up to Yule was dominated by the news of the picture exhibition at the Museum. Adam's sketches caused even more of a furore than he had anticipated. No one had seen Kieran in such a shocking light before. They were used to the serene blonde, blue-eyed priest-like figure in white silk pyjamas, not this naked, emaciated, and deeply vulnerable figure stretched out on a sofa like a sacrificial offering. The publicity was intense, and some lambasted Adam for exploiting their dear ex-president in this way. Adam was deeply upset by these accusations and refused to attend the opening of the exhibition.

"You've turned me into a focking freak-show, Adam!" Kieran bellowed from the stairs one evening.

"You did that yourself, Patsy", Adam replied, tearfully.

"So what if I'm a bit thin?" said Kieran "You wouldn't parade a naked fat person like that, and invite everyone to speculate on his obesity. So why do it to me?"

"Because you're ill and you wouldn't listen to reason about it".

"I thought of all people I could trust you, Adam", said Kieran, emotionally "I've always counted on you. I would never have believed you could do such a thing. You've betrayed me, and I can't forgive you for it!"

Needless to say it was a very gloomy pre-Christmas atmosphere at the house. Kieran kept to his room on the top floor most of the time, leading Julian to nickname him "Rochester's wife".

"You can't stay up here forever", said Joby, standing helplessly by the bed "Everyone'll forget all about those pictures when Tamaz gives birth, and that won't be long now".

"I won't forget about them", said Kieran, with his tear-stained face propped up on the edge of his pillow, resolutely facing the wall "It's like a knife in me heart. After all these years, all we've meant to each other. I don't know how he could even think of doing this to me".

"Because he's worried about you", said Joby "You're anorexic ..."

"I am not focking anorexic! We've always been thin in my family. My mother was thin, and I take after her, that's all".

"Yea but you're not just thin, you're like a stick insect. Have you looked at those pictures properly? You look like a long-haired skeleton".

"Well at least I know how he really sees me now", said Kieran, bitterly.

"That is exactly how you look", said Joby "Adam didn't exaggerate at all. That is really you! I should know, I've felt your bony bits more than anyone else".

"Oh yes and I won't forget your part in this, Joby Long", said Kieran, sitting up and pointing at him accusingly "How you helped him cook this diabolical scheme up".

"Chucking me as well are you?" said Joby, angrily "Well that's just fine that is".

"Where are you going?" Kieran snapped, as Joby headed for the door.

"Out", said Joby "I'm meeting Hillyard for a sauna, because it's the sort of thing healthy people do. You wouldn't be interested, considering you're one of the Undead!"

"Oh dear", said Julian in the kitchen, as Joby slammed out of the front door "Throw another consort on the fire".

"It's nice and peaceful in here", said Joby, as Hillyard tossed more cold water on the coals "I seem to spend me life chasing peace and quiet, and never getting it".

"Kieran'll come round eventually", said Hillyard, sitting down next to him on the wooded slats of the bench "He's not stupid. He's not going to risk losing you or Adam".

"Yea but we might willingly lose him", said Joby "It's no bloody fun living with a basket-case".

"I don't understand why he's got this thing about food", said Hillyard "I mean he's never struck me as being particularly vain, so why does he worry about his figure so much?"

"It's got nothing to do with looks", said Joby "And all to do with him hating himself. This is just another way of punishing himself. All because he doesn't feel worthy".

"Worthy of what?"

"Life I think", said Joby "If I ever met his father I'd spit in his eye. He started all this by running out when Kieran was a baby. I spose none of it makes sense to you. It must be so much easier when you've never had parents. No one to screw you up".

"No one to love us either", said Hillyard, sadly "Sometimes if you were lucky you got a good Elder, but close one-to-one relationships weren't encouraged, in case it all went dodgy, if you know what I mean. I don't envy Tamaz's brood. What kind of life are they going to have? They'll be public exhibits from the minute they're born, and as soon as they're old enough they'll be pressured to breed. I hope it all works out, but somehow I can't help thinking they should've left things as they were".

"I suppose at least this way it can all be controlled", said Joby "The Ghoomers won't be able to take over and destroy everything".

"Trouble is, we don't know that all the rest of 'em got destroyed by the Gorgon do we?" said Hillyard "Some of 'em could've gone back underground. In fact, they could be anywhere".

On the way home they stopped outside the Museum and looked at the blown-up copies of Adam's pictures exhibited in the front window. It didn't matter how many times anyone saw them, they were still shocking.

"Do you fancy a bacon butty and a cup of coffee?" said Hillyard, gloomily.

"Yea alright", said Joby.

They bought their supper from a wagon parked on one of the bridges, and ate it staring down at the water. A few homeless men were grubbing around in the mud on the bank for anything that might have fallen from one of the boats. Joby was reminded of the day they had arrived in the City after Gabriel's Terror, of how they had seen corpses washed up on the shore. He remembered Kieran's determination to walk into the Evil, at grave risk to himself, just so that it could be stopped. He realised with a sharp pang that he loved him more than ever.

"These visionaries are never very easy to live with", said Hillyard, as though reading his thoughts "Stombal was the same. They can make you as miserable as you can imagine, but just think how empty it'd all be without them".

"Like it is for you?" said Joby, quietly "Since you lost Stombal I mean".

"Oh I get compensations", Hillyard smiled "Do you remember the Yule-tide we came to the City, after Kieran had fought Angel at the Loud House? His face was all bashed-up, he looked terrible. And yet he didn't complain. He just insisted we got on with life".

"He's always been wonderful", said Joby.

"You'll put him right, Joby. I know you will".

They walked back to the house in the December gloom. When they got in they found Ransey and Lonts in the kitchen cooking dinner, Adam and Julian were perched on either side of the fireplace, whilst Finia sat at the table putting polish on his fingernails. There was no need to ask where Kieran was.

"The telly's knackered", said Joby, flicking the switch in exasperation "We need some new batteries".

"Someone will have to take them to be re-charged then won't they?" said Adam, patiently.

"I'd better do it tomorrow", said Joby "We can't be without a telly on Christmas Day. It's going to be grim enough as it is, without that".

"Do you think Tinkerbell will graciously condescend to come down to us then, like the angel of the Lord in the carol?" said Julian "And Glory shone around!"

"Crazy how one person can make the whole house gloomy", said Finia.

"My sentiments exactly", said Julian.

"What the bloody hell is that?" said Joby, pointing at a miniature artificial Christmas tree, complete with glued-on baubles and tinsel.

"That is an abomination", said Julian.

"Don't be unkind", said Adam "Lonts bought it today. He thought it'd make the room look more festive".

"I hope we can do better than that!" said Joby, in disgust "Why can't we have a real tree?"

"Because someone will have to go out and buy it", said Adam.

"Another little job for you, Joby", said Julian.

"I don't know why we don't just cancel Yule this year", said Hillyard "With him upstairs it isn't gonna be much fun is it?"

"He'll get fed up with that room at some point", said Julian "One way to get him out would be to refuse to take anymore coal up there. Freeze him out".

"Yea, then I'll freeze too", said Joby "And I'll notice it more than him. When he's in one of those states he doesn't notice anything".

By sunset on Christmas Eve the atmosphere in the house was unbearable. The goose was prepared and now sitting on the cold shelf in the larder, there was a real tree in the living-room, and the drink was stacked up in the hall, but still the festive spirit was missing. Driven to desperate measures, Hillyard announced that he had booked a table for them all at the Satin and Velvet Dining-Hall for dinner. Lonts was so excited by this news that he hugged and kissed Hillyard as though he'd just rescued him from the jaws of death.

A feverish hour ensued in which they all hurriedly got washed, changed and shaved. Then just before departure Kieran slammed out of the front door into the fog-bound street.

"I'll go after him", said Joby, reaching for his coat "You lot go on to the restaurant. We'll meet you there. Both of us".

Joby caught up with Kieran at the end of the street. The Irishman was pulling his fur hat down over his eyes, more so that he wouldn't be recognised than anything else.

"You don't need to worry", said Joby, falling into step beside him "No one'll recognise you in this fog anyway. So, do you wanna ruin everyone's evening then? 'Cos you will if you don't come to the restaurant with me".

"What's the bloody point of me going to a restaurant?" snapped Kieran "Just so's everyone else can have a good gawp at the freak attempting to eat something? Oh look, they'll say, there's the one with a ribcage like a xylophone and the tiny penis".

Kieran turned abruptly down a side-street that led directly to the river. Joby hurried to keep pace with him.

"Adam'll just be pleased to see you", said Joby "He doesn't deserve any of this, Kiel. You've got to forgive him".

"Why the bloody hell should I?" said Kieran "Let him stick with Lonts. After all, he's nice and cuddly isn't he!"

"You prat!" Joby caught Kieran's arm and spun him round to face him "You're going to sling it all away just because you won't kick this problem of yours. What do you wanna do, Kieran? Starve yourself to death, is that it? Well go ahead then. But you needn't think I'm gonna hang around to watch you. We're finished, you and me. Once and for all, that's it, over".

"Joby", Kieran whispered "You can't mean it".

"There's nothing to stop me", said Joby "We're not married. I could just walk out and no one could say a thing to stop me".

"But we've always been together", said Kieran "Adam's always said we're like twins, you and me. Two sides of the same coin. We are like one person. You can't just chuck it all away. We've been through so much together".

"I know, but I can't live with this anymore", said Joby "I really can't. I don't know whether it's old age coming on or what, but I just can't put up with this anymore. I want to be with you, but I don't want all your hang-ups and breakdowns and eating disorders, and God knows what else. I want the real you. The man who's funny and kind and sexy. These demons have taken you over, and made you afraid to be you, haven't they?"

"Yes", said Kieran, in a small voice "I hate myself so much".

"There's nothing to hate though", said Joby "Nothing at all. I don't know what to do for you to show you how much I care. If risking my life wasn't enough, then quite frankly I'm stumped".

"Joby please don't go", Kieran took his hands "Please. I want to change, really I do. You mean more to me than anything. I got like this because ... well because of this whole Vanquisher of Evil business. All along the line I've felt as though it's all been some huge mistake, that I was picked by accident".

"Even if that was true, would it matter?" said Joby "You've made a pretty good job of it all told, probably a lot better than the real one, whoever he might have been. Everybody loves you. Me most of all".

"You're not going to go are you, Joby?" said Kieran, anxiously "I know it'd serve me right if you did".

"I'll stick with you, on one condition", said Joby "You make up with Adam. And stop ruining everybody's Christmas".

"Joby, I don't deserve you", Kieran flung himself into Joby's arms and cried.

"No", said Joby "You've been a right pain these past two years. Religious mania, anorexia, sleeping with Hillyard. The list is endless, not to mention beating me up with a magazine! You've been a monster".

"I know, I'm so sorry".

"But I've also been very proud of you", said Joby "And perhaps I should've told you that more often. You've never let any of it go to your head, started acting the Big I Am, apart from getting a bit regal sometimes. There can't be many who could say the same if they were put into your position".

"It'll be different from now on Joby, like the old days. We'll go out and have fun together. Boozing. I'll ignore all the cretins who stare".

"They won't stare so much when they've got used to you", said Joby "You coped with it alright in pre-president days. Now we'd better go and join the others".

"Oh there's plenty of time for all that", said Kieran "They're dug in for half the night. Why don't we go home and have some supper together, just the two of us. Whilst we've got the house to ourselves".

"You promise to actually eat something then?"

"I'll show you. Come on", said Kieran, and they linked arms.

They had got within two doors of their own house before something happened. A neighbour, who lived alone on the other side of Alon and Pyetr, suddenly burst out of his house, gibbering excitedly.

"Whatever it is tell someone else", said Kieran, as the little man attempted to apprehend him "It's Christmas and I'm on holiday".

"But Kieran", the little man exclaimed "I've got the Gorgon in my house!"

"How do you know she's harmless?" said Kieran, as he and Joby stepped tentatively into Feek's hallway.

"Because I've spoken to her, face-to-face", said Feek "I'm sure you think it's all a trap but it's not. I'll walk in ahead of you to prove it".

"Hang on", said Kieran "Let's start from the beginning shall we? How did she come to be in your house in the first place?"

"I let her in by mistake several days ago", said Feek "All the time she kept her hood pulled down over her face. I knew who she was immediately, don't ask me how, I just did. Well she went upstairs, and she sort of silently took over my first floor. I didn't dare go up there. I've been living down here all the time".

"But weren't you scared?" said Joby "Why didn't you tell someone?"

"I don't know", said Feek, helplessly "Probably because I knew she was dying".

"Dying?" Kieran exclaimed "But she's not a living thing".

"Oh yes she is. You can't argue with that fact. Simply because she's dead now. Up there", said Feek "Instinctively I knew it was only a matter of time. Well this evening I was pacing up and down in the hall here, wondering what on earth I was going to do for the best, when she called down to me".

"She spoke to you?" said Kieran "But I didn't know she could speak".

"She had the most incredible voice", said Feek "So soft ... well anyway she told me her power had gone, and I could go up to her. So I did. Although I was terrified I still went. She met me on the landing. I looked into her face. It was the most frightening, most exquisite moment of my life. She had very intense dark eyes, but otherwise she was completely harmless. Even the snakes' heads had gone. She just had ordinary hair. I don't want to tell you what happened next but ... well she's up there. She died half-an-hour ago. Go and see for yourself".

Kieran followed him up the narrow staircase. In the front bedroom the Gorgon lay on the bed, with a blanket wrapped round her body. Her eyes were closed, and brown hair hung lankly around her face, where the halo of snakes had once been. Her skin was blotchy and discoloured, like the advanced stages of skin cancer, but it was hard to see what about her had been able to cause such universal terror. Kieran felt of the pulse in her neck. There wasn't one.

"Joby", Kieran whispered, beckoning him over.

"She's changed", said Joby "When I saw her in the pantry mirror she was beautiful".

"I'm sure she was", said Feek "But you see, you're only looking at the shell of her now. The spirit of her has gone".

"How extraordinary", Kieran murmured "Her death raises more questions than it solves. You've got to contact the City Morgue, Feek, get them to take the body away. Perhaps a post-mortem might tell us a bit more about her".

"Manada needs to answer some questions too", said Joby.

"There'll be time enough for that in due course", said Kieran.

"I used to sit downstairs and hear her pacing about up here", said Feek "Everytime she went out onto the landing my heart stopped, in case she decided to come down the stairs to me ... And yet in some ways, I kept hoping she would".

The Satin and Velvet Dining Hall was buried under a welter of streamers and half-empty glasses. Midnight had come and gone, it was now officially Christmas. Governor Brinslee had sought out Adam's table and invited himself over, all the while expressing profound regrets that Kieran wasn't there.

"Hadn't you better be ready and waiting at the Ministry in case Tamaz goes into labour?" said Julian.

"No need", said Brinslee "As soon as he starts they'll toll the bell over the gatehouse. I can't say I'm looking forward to it. All that blood and gore, I shall probably faint".

A short while later Adam cornered Ransey outside the lavatories.

"Yule isn't a time for falling out, Adam", said Ransey, when he saw how angry Adam was.

"There may not be another time as good as now", said Adam "I know you resent me Ransey, and I can live with that. What I can't accept is you trying to turn Lonts against me, using him in your stupid games. He's got the mind of a child, he doesn't understand what's the matter with you. I don't know how you could do it, particularly trying to exploit him with the media like that. I thought you were fond of him".

"I am", said Ransey "Very fond. Look, I lost my head, alright? We've all been a bit out of it during the past couple of years, it's not surprising when you consider everything that's happened. Kieran's had his eating disorder, and I've ... oh I don't know what it was with me. I just couldn't handle love I suppose. I was wrong to use Lonts but ... but dammit Adam, I just got jealous of how much you enjoy him. It was stupid, and I give you my solemn word it won't happen again".

"If it does ..."

"It won't".

The noise level in the restaurant trailed off suddenly. Everyone listened intently as, through the fog, could be heard the sound of the Ministry bell tolling.

"The others'll be wondering where we are", said Joby, as Kieran tugged him by his hand across the quadrangle at the Ministry Headquarters.

"Never mind boozing, Joby", said Kieran, excitedly "It's not everyday you get to witness the birth of a whole new race".

"Thank God", said Joby.

The narrow stairs leading up to the Birthing Chamber were clogged with men. For once Kieran wasn't slow in using his status to butt his way to the front of the queue. In the large chamber at the top, some effort had been made to give Tamaz a modicum of privacy, in that a wooden screen had been erected round his bed. The majority of the room's occupants were forced to wait outside the screen, and the room was buzzing with the sound of men's voices murmuring. The whole atmosphere was one of awe-struck wonder.

Kieran pulled Joby up to the screen and they took turns to glimpse quickly through the cracks. What was more astonishing than anything was how pronounced Tamaz's feminine traits had become. His soft brown hair had grown long during his incarceration, his face was smooth, and he had very noticeable breasts. He was to all intents and purposes now female.

"Good God", Kieran whispered "There's hope, Joby. He's practically a woman. I really think this is going to work".

"They must be like chameleons", said Joby "Able to bring out each side of them to adapt whenever necessary".

"It's wonderful", said Kieran, feeling a great urge to cry "I thought it would be freakish, blasphemous somehow. But it's beautiful. So beautiful".

"Yea well let's give him a bit of space shall we?" said Joby "Let's wait at the bottom of the stairs. We'll hear soon enough when he's produced".

At the foot of the stairs they met Brinslee, who elected to sit with them rather than go any further. He was happy to confess to them too that he felt quite squeamish about it all. For several hours they waited. There was an almost carnival air about the place by now. All the scepticism of the previous months was replaced instead by an air of joyous anticipation.

"Momentous times, Kieran", said Brinslee, emphatically "We'll be remembering this night in our old age".

"At least it won't be quite such a quiet old age as we'd imagined", said Kieran "I can't get over it. To think there will be children in the world again!"

"I wasn't looking forward to living in a land of geriatrics", said Joby "But what are we gonna call 'em? He? She?"

"Whatever they want", said Kieran "Whatever they choose to be. As long as they don't all want to be boys!"

At around three a.m the news filtered through that two of the babies had been born dead. Everyone seemed to draw breath, and the carnival atmosphere was replaced by one of pensive sadness, as though they were all bracing themselves for bitter disappointment. The hour that passed next was one of the longest anyone had ever known.

"I don't want to ever go through this again", said Brinslee.

"God will give us this chance", said Kieran "And we must never ever mess it up again".

"I can hear something", Joby jumped to his feet, excitedly "Was that a baby crying? Somebody tell me!"

Within a few minutes Gorth came hurtling down the stairs towards them.

"Four!" he yelled "Four are alive! Four babies live!"

"Wasting official guard's time is a very serious offence", said a City Guard, stamping down the stairs in Feek's house "If the whole City wasn't celebrating this morning and we weren't all in a good mood, I'd have you thrown in the Assizes".

"But she was there I tell you!" Feek exclaimed "You could see the imprint of her body on my bed".

"You could've done that yourself!" said the Guard, angrily. He pulled open Feek's front door and let in the sound of church bells ringing out joyously "You have an over-active imagination, Feek. If the Gorgon really had been in your room, how come you're here to tell me about it eh?"

"I told you, she had lost her power".

"That was careless of her wasn't it?"

"Ask the Vanquisher, he saw her too".

"You've had the Vanquisher in your room as well?" said the Guard, sarcastically "You have been a busy boy haven't you? Now let me see if I've got this right. The Gorgon came to your house, showed herself upstairs and lived as your lodger for a few days. You spoke to her face-to-face but claim she couldn't harm you. She lies down on your bed and promptly dies. Then a few hours later she's magically vanished into thin air! Seems to me you've had a bit too much of the Yule-tide cheer".

"I don't drink", said Feek, indignantly "I don't even keep any in the house".

"Oh yes, talking of your house", said the Guard "This is a big place for you to have all to yourself. With the chronic housing problem in the City at the moment I suspect you could easily put up a few refugees, say half-a-dozen or more. With them around you won't have time to fantasise about Medusa. I'll strongly recommend you to the Housing Minister's department. Happy Yule-tide, Feek".

As Kieran and Joby walked home at dawn they noticed signs of the birth everywhere. Men had scrawled the number four on walls, doorways and windows. Sometimes this was changed to the "Fantastic Four". One confectioners had opened early and were hard at work churning out baby-shaped sweets.

"Tamaz'll be made a saint at this rate", said Joby.

"The whole City's gone broody", Kieran laughed "Who'd have thought it from a load of men!"

Everyone else was already up when they got home. The television was blaring in the living-room, giving yet another update on the progress of the babies, although they hadn't been shown to the public yet.

"Where did you two get to?" said Adam.

"Where do you think!" said Joby.

"We never did get any supper, Joby", said Kieran, selecting an apple from the bowl on the table.

"Did you see the birth?" Hillyard shouted through the hatch-way from the kitchen.

"We stayed outside most of the time", said Joby.

"Thought he needed a bit of privacy to get on with it", Kieran added.

"I still think you might have let me know what you were up to", said Adam "You stay out all night and worry me half to death ..."

"Adam, you make us sound like a couple of teenagers", said Joby "You'll be lecturing us on safe sex next!"

"Well what am I supposed to think?" said Adam "The last time I saw Patsy he was in the middle of a protracted hunger strike!"

"We've had a talk about that", said Joby "Although I can't believe that happened last night as well. Feels more like several weeks ago".

"I didn't enjoy last night at all", Adam went on "You ruined it all for me".

"Stop whining, Adam", said Julian "You sound like some twittery old spinster".

"Oh I'm fed up with those two", Adam began to slam cutlery on the table in an aggressive fashion "They have never once considered my feelings. Never. When we were in prison they bickered all the time and drove me mad".

"I expect you were pretty insufferable yourself", said Julian.

"You can say that again", said Joby "I can't believe I used to be afraid of him in those days".

"Lying devil, Joby", Kieran laughed "You still can be when Adam gets wild enough. Once I remember you begging me not to leave you alone with him!"

"That was ages ago", said Joby, loftily.

"I blame you for it all, Patsy", said Adam.

"So what's new?" said Kieran "You've always blamed me for everything!"

"Can't we open the presents now?" said Lonts, wistfully.

"What makes you think anyone's got you anything?" said Joby.

"Adam has", said Lonts.

"Thought he'd have given that to you already", Joby muttered.

Hillyard served up Christmas lunch a couple of hours later, whilst wearing a black-and-white fur hat that Joby had given him as a joke. Joby wasn't best pleased to hear Adam describe it as "the height of hipness", and Hillyard kept it on for the rest of the day. Kieran complained about being served nothing but sprouts.

"You can have a couple of carrots too", said Hillyard.

"Oh whoopee", said Kieran, unenthusiastically "Can't I at least have a roast potato?"

"Better not", said Hillyard "I baked them in the juices from the goose".

"I should've got you a vegetarian cookbook for Christmas, Hillyard", Kieran grumbled.

"I think I preferred it when you were hidden upstairs", said Julian.

"I'm not even that keen on sprouts", said Kieran.

On Boxing Day afternoon the four babies were shown to the public for the first time. Tamaz didn't appear alongside them, because he was too busy tucking into his umpteenth serving of steak-and-kidney pie. The quadrangle was packed, including Kieran and his party. To Adam's dismay, Lonts was being besieged by admirers, all wanting to press little gifts onto him.

"I would've thought they would lose interest in him now they have small babies to look at", said Adam.

"He's more popular than ever", said Hillyard.

"He represents survival", said an anonymous bystander "Hope for the future, endurance against all the odds".

The babies were brought out to rapturous applause. Each one was carried by a separate doctor onto the balcony of the Headquarters.

"Poor wee things", said Kieran "Dragging 'em out into this cold weather".

"They'll be alright", said Joby "They've got their little furry suits on".

"You can rest assured that the Ministry will make sure not one of them so much as sneezes", said Adam.

"You should be up there with them, Kieran", said the anonymous bystander "Back at the Ministry, where you belong".

"No", said Kieran, firmly "There's only one place I belong, and that's with my own people".

That evening Kieran sat at the window of his room with Joby, and watched as the snow continued to fall over the City.

"Strange world", said Joby "Where people can be so pleased that freaks have been born".

"But like all other era's we'll just have to wait and see how things turn out", said Kieran "The only thing that makes me feel a wee bit sad is that those babies won't ever have any freedom. They were born public property, and that's how they'll stay".

"What do we do next, Kiel?" Joby whispered.

"Wait until the Ministry tell us we can have Wolf Castle back", said Kieran "They reckon it'll be next summer by the time we can move back. They want to use it as a base whilst they finish their work in the Blast area".

"And what about ... about the Slime Man?" said Joby, instinctively touching his eye which had yet to recover its vision, in spite of Adam's prognosis that it would only be blinded temporarily "He's still around isn't he?"

"About the City somewhere", said Kieran.

"So do you think it's him that's attacking people?"

"The Devil's at large too, Joby".

"You're worried about those babies aren't you?"

"Yes I am", Kieran sighed "That old phrase, Deliver Us From Evil, it applies doubly so to them. We've succeeded in kickstarting the next generation, even if it isn't quite what we expected it to be, now we have to make sure it stays out of reach of the forces of darkness. That is not going to be easy".

"Ah, but they have the Vanquisher of Evil on their side", said Joby, hugging him.

"Take me to bed and say that", said Kieran.


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