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Kieran woke up to feel the sun on his eyes and cool, damp grass underneath his fingertips. He sat up startled and surveyed the scene. Adam lay a few feet from him, his breathing gentle and rhythmic.
They were lying on a smooth lawn, which stretched out from a large barnlike house, where every door and window stood open to the warm sunshine. A small wood was directly in front of them, promising a refreshing coolness if the heat of the day became too intense. A pigeon warbled close by, but otherwise all was enveloped in soothing peace. The only disconcerting note was that there seemed to be a curious flatness to the scene, a two-dimensional effect, like a picture in child's storybook come to life.
Kieran pinched himself. He felt it. He wasn't dreaming.
"Another time-slip?" he said, cautiously, when the other man was fully awake.
"Seems that way", Adam sighed, leaning back on his elbows "It must have happened whilst we were sleeping".
"Hey!" a familiar figure emerged from the woods. Joby had a look of relief on his face. Angel followed him in bewilderment "So you are around. I was beginning to wonder".
"Where did you wake up?" asked Adam, rising to his feet.
"Other side of the woods", Joby pointed behind him "In a barn. I was woken up by a couple of chickens pecking about".
"Anything else there?"
"No, just a country lane stretching ahead for a few miles".
"Any people, I meant", Adam snapped.
"Not a soul. Just me, him", Joby indicated Angel "And the chickens".
"W-what's happened?" Angel stammered.
"I reckon we've time-slipped again", said Adam "It must have been during the lunar eclipse last night".
"Well I prefer this year to the previous one", said Kieran.
"But that means, if we time-slipped", Joby looked around him in disbelief "We're still in the same place! This is where the Loud House should be".
"Then where's the sea?" asked Kieran.
"It hasn't arrived yet", said Adam "This, I think, must predate the Loud House and the Grey Sea by centuries. I expect if you travel a few miles to the north you might meet the sea. It gradually, over the years, eroded the land".
"The second Ice Age or whatever it was", said Kieran "Right, let's go and see who's in, and hope we don't give 'em too much of a fright".
"Another focking empty building!" Kieran stood in the middle of the atrium and looked at it in disgust.
"There was note on the front door", Joby walked in, carrying a slip of paper "It says 'Green Ways is here for your advantage and comfort. Please make yourself at home for the duration of your stay, be it long or short. And may you finally reach your required destination'".
"This place looks familiar", Adam peered up through the stairwell towards the distant skylight "Only looking in a healthier state than when we last saw it. Mirrors unsmashed, bannisters intact, everything swept and polished. This is the Loud House".
"Only smaller", said Kieran "There's just the one wing. It must have got added onto in the future. God Almighty, this is confusing!"
"Green Ways, and yet none of that bottle-green decor I'm bloody glad to say", said Joby.
"Well it's an improvement on some hotels I've been in", said Adam "Of course all this was predicted in our time, you know. I went to a conference once, in which someone suggested that in the future we would be able to pinpoint time-slip nodes with such accuracy that we could mark them in some way, as the old Pagans used to mark the crossing of the ley lines with religious monuments. Well it obviously happened didn't it?"
"Bit dodgy though", said Joby "Having a place like this which any old Tom, Dick or Harry from any time can pass through".
"Yes, and obviously it was a gamble which failed to pay off", said Adam "This building survived severe climatic changes, only to be devastated at some stage by a future occupant, and whoever it was turned it into the dreadful place we saw yesterday".
Green Ways had been designed with the sole thought of its guests' comfort in mind. Bathrooms were lavish, with floor-length mirrors and piles of soft towels and scented soaps. The dining-room sported a long polished table, with cutlery buffed to a mirrorlike intensity. The kitchen larder and cold store were stacked with meals pre-prepared, ready to cater for all tastes and needs. The beds were soft with clean, cool sheets.
Kieran wandered along the main first-floor corridor towards a bedroom at the far end. Joby was there, seated at a dressing-table with one of the drawers open. He was caressing a silk stocking in his hand.
"This room's for a woman", he said, in an almost reverential tone "I'd almost forgotten about all their softness".
"Green Ways! It sounds like a rest home", said Kieran, massaging shampoo into his hair.
Both he and Joby were standing in a shower-unit the size of their old cell at the prison.
"It is, in a way", Joby yelled above the roar of the hot water taps "A rest home for the permanently bewildered!"
"A rest home with no staff? Someone must come in here sometime, to clear up and restock. Perhaps when they do we can find out when and where we are".
"You'd think they'd leave out a newspaper or summat", Joby swept his wet hair back from his face "Give us some idea what the date is. I mean, for all we know, we might only be a few years ahead of our real time".
"Then again, we might be a couple of hundred", Kieran turned off the tap on his side of the shower, and groped for a towel "I'm beginning to believe, really believe, that we'll never get back".
"I know what you mean", Joby rubbed his chest vigorously "We've never been lost for this long before. How long were we in Beane's cave?"
"About a month".
"Quite. And this time we've been gone near on three months. I should think they've given us up for dead".
"Which is what we might be, for all we know".
"Ah bollocks!" Joby retorted, and picked at a couple of spots on his face "I refuse to believe that!"
"Well..." Kieran put on a spotless white collarless shirt, that seemed to swamp his spindly frame "this shirt sure feels like a shroud!"
Adam pulled a steak-and-kidney pie out of the oven, which he had left baking for some time. The aroma was delicious, and the sight almost pornographic to anyone who had spent the previous ten weeks living on rice and fruit. Even Adam, who was normally impervious to the joys of the kitchen and ate only to exist, was moved. He placed it gently on the table, and turned his attention to the vegetables.
Whilst he was occupied Angel roamed the cellar, gazing in wonder at the tins, jars, sacks and bottles all around him. At the prison the food stores had been as repetitious as the meals. He had never in his life before seen such a variety of food and drink. It was mind-boggling.
A rusty screeching sound from the floor alerted him to more interesting items. Angel crouched on his heels and peered through the gloom, as the glare of the naked lightbulb overhead did little to illuminate the floor.
The rat was large. There were rich pickings at Green Ways for the likes of this rodent. With great nimbleness Angel grabbed the rodent before the creature was even aware of his presence. It shrieked and squirmed in his hands. Angel gently rose to his feet, all the while stroking the rat and muttering soothing noises. The rat wasn't convinced, and its heart hammered frantically within its chest.
Angel raised it up and kissed it softly. Then he parted his lips and bit deep into the fur, wrenching out the hammering heart with one violent and expert tug of his teeth. His mouth bulged with the rodent's innards, and blood cascaded from the corners of his lips. Satisfied, he dashed the remains of it to the floor.
The candlelight enhanced the table-setting no end, and was much appreciated by the four men sitting in the high-backed chairs.
"I've heard about meals like this", Joby chortled, as Adam placed the pie in the middle of the table "In a previous life I think".
Adam pushed the knife into the golden crust of the pie and the thick, brown, aromatic gravy oozed out.
"Get on with it!" Kieran exclaimed "I don't think I can bear the suspense".
The pie was shared out and greeted with universal rapture. Even Angel shovelled it down in fast, continuous movements, barely taking a pause for breath, much to the amusement of the other three who previously wouldn't have believed him capable of such vigorous energy.
"I always get hungry at times like this", he said, when he saw the others watching him in astonishment.
"At times like what?" asked Kieran.
"A-at times when I'm hungry", Angel said, weakly.
"I didn't know you'd learned to cook at some time in your long life Adam", said Joby.
"The pie was already made, I only heated it up", Adam snapped "And I wasn't aware I was Methusaleh just yet".
"He's thirty-eight", said Kieran "And he doesn't look a day over sixty!"
The claret went down some more, between Kieran and Joby that is. It was decided to keep Angel off it. It was felt that he behaved oddly enough at the best of times, without adding alcohol to the mixture now. Not that he seemed to be mourning his exclusion. On the contrary, there was a flush in his cheeks and a sparkle in his eyes which seemed to indicate that his own kicks were far more exciting than anything mere alcohol could provide.
Adam was watching Kieran. During his session in the bathroom the younger man had scrubbed up well, and sat at the polished table in all his glory, showing the gorgeous splendours of his being that had excited so many women. His fair hair was clean, and seemed almost white after having been darkened by dirt for some time. His skin was pink and scrubbed, showing up his strong cheekbones and his Irish blue eyes. Adam had been infatuated with Kieran for the past three years, but even he had almost forgotten how mesmerisingly beautiful the younger man could be.
His hopes that after dinner they could disappear together were dashed though, when Joby and Kieran located the drinks cabinet. Adam sighed and went off to tour the house in search of clues as to which era they may now be in.
Kieran loosened the cork and eased it gently out of the bottle. The champagne foamed voluptuously and fizzed over his hands.
"Friend of yours?" Joby sniggered "Always reminds me of a successful wank when it does that".
"That's why it's such a sexy drink. Apart from the buzz it gives you".
Joby selected a peach from the fruit bowl and dropped it into his glass. He swilled it around in the champagne, picked it up and sucked on it blissfully, until the juice ran down his clean shirt.
"I hope we don't get a bill at the end of our stay. Cheers!" said Kieran, taking a thirsty gulp of the champagne "I must say that our invisible hosts are very lavish with their hospitality".
"Makes you wonder why don't it?" said Joby, rather morosely.
"Never look a gift horse in the mouth. They can't take anything off us, if we haven't got anything, now can they?"
"What good would those do 'em?"
"They might be like Angel", Joby jerked his head in the direction of the far side of the room, where the boy was dancing silently by himself "After our blood like. Is he alright do you think?"
"He's never alright", Kieran poured two more glasses "We'll have to open another bottle soon. Anyway, he can't be much of a vampire, as he never seems to make much effort to get at us".
"He knows we'd kill him if he tried", Joby snarled.
"Us and whose focking army! Ignore him anyway, he's boring. Think instead of all the people that have been through this building. All from different era's, different centuries".
"Shuddup, you're giving me the creep. I keep expecting a Roman Centurion to come through the wall".
"God knows what he'd make of the place!"
"Open another bottle, just in case. We wanna look welcoming for him".
"I suppose that tomorrow we go exploring", said Kieran, as another bottle flowed "And I hope everywhere else is as nice as this".
"It can't be worse than some of the places we've been in recently".
Adam grew bored with his fruitless searching very quickly, knowing full well that it was unlikely he would find anything. Green Ways was scoured as thoroughly as any top hotel room between guests. There wasn't anything in it not designed solely to give temporary comfort, but without a hint of anything personal. He half expected to find a Gideon Bible in each bedroom.
An owl hooted outside, which drew his attention to the bedroom window. Lethargically he leaned on the windowsill and gazed out. It was dusk, and a more beautiful dusk than he had seen in recent times. There was a peacefulness and tranquillity in the air that seemed unique to rural late summer twilights such as this. A movement below caught his eye. Kieran had wandered out alone onto the lawn. He swayed awkwardly on the grass, skipped around a bit, and even attempted a ragged cartwheel. For once, there was no sign of Joby.
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