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By Sarah Hapgood

The white-painted house was almost forgotten as they travelled back down through the forest. There were too many other distractions, such as spotting deer through the trees, horseback-riding, and fooling around with each other. It was only the fact that they wanted to know exactly who was on their doorstep that kept them going towards the building. More excitement was caused by sighting a possum in the undergrowth than by nearing the house!

When they got there, they trudged round it but at first failed to find an entrance. The wall had obviously been built at the same time as the house, because parts of it melded in with the structure. The shutters had been nailed into place, and at first there seemed to be no way in at all.

Adam was about to say that there was no point hanging around anymore, when an entrance was found. At the back of the house, a narrow trackway led from a wooden shed out into the forest. It had been used by the original inhabitants of the house to transport wood and kindling in from the trees.

"That's our way in", said Julian, wrenching open the shed door.

"Are we going in, Jules?" said Adam, uncertainly.

"Know thy enemy", said Julian.

Mieps insisted on leading from the front, arguing that he had the best eyesight and hearing. They all followed him in single file along a stone corridor that led from the wood-shed into what felt like the bowels of the house. This corridor weaved on for some way, twisting and turning, until Mieps pushed open a door which led, to their great surprise, into a huge mausoleum of a hall. It was massive, and completely cold and cheerless, decorated plentifully with marble statues. There were no windows, which added to the general feeling of after-death gloom.

"It's like a tomb", said Ransey, flashing a torch around the stone and marble structure.

"Well, here is your palace, Freaky", said Julian.

He looked around him. Tamaz was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Mieps.

"FREAKY!" Julian shouted.

"He and Mieps went back outside again", said Lonts.

Julian curled his horse-whip up in his hands and stormed back along the stone corridor, followed, with a great deal of perplexity, by all the others. As they neared the outside world they heard the sound of a gun going off.

"What do you think?" said Mieps, appearing on the edge of the forest, dragging a deer behind him. Tamaz was yodelling, excitedly.

"Who gave them a gun?" said Kieran.

"I did", said Ransey "Because Mieps is so reliable when it comes to hunting".

"I've done you proud this time", said Mieps "I spotted there was a lot of deer in this area".

"So now we've got you one", said Tamaz "Someone'll have to carry it home".

"Bind its feet first, it'll make it easier", said Mieps.

"How could you do it?" said Kieran "One minute it's skipping round the forest, the next it's numbers up!"

"Joby!" said Tamaz "|He's having a go at me again. Tell him!"

"Yeah, give it a rest, Kieran", said Joby "You've gotta expect this kind of thing now. It's our lifestyle".

"What the hell do I do with it?" said Adam, looking at the deer with dismay.

"Skin it and cook it", said Mieps, remorselessly.

"Just like that?" said Adam, faintly "It's a whole fucking deer!"

"I'll give you a hand", said Hillyard, picking up the dead animal and draping it round his shoulders "A bit of venison pie'll go down a treat".

"It's enough to make me go vegetarian too!" said Adam.

"Don't you ever do that again!" Julian roared at Tamaz "I look round and you've completely vanished!"

Terrified by his tone, Tamaz began to knuckle his eyes.

"So much for you wanting to be an empress in a palace", Julian continued.

"It's not a palace", Tamaz protested "It's a horrible old tomb. Don't you ever shut me in it!"

"Julian!" said Lonts, horrified "That would be really cruel".

"I give up", said Julian "Everybody home!"

"I don't even know where to begin", said Adam, once they were back at their own clearing, surveying the dead deer which looked like a huge stuffed toy "I can't do it, I'm sorry".

"You don't have to do it", said Hillyard "I can do it. Kieran, make up the fire".

"Make it up yourself, you barbarian!" said Kieran "I want no part of this".

"Look, it's dead", said Hillyard "And even you can't bring it back to life!"

"I don't care, I'm not doing it", said Kieran "I'm going down to the beach".

He turned and walked away. Joby followed him.

"Oh why did Mieps have to shoot it?" Adam sighed.

"Because he's a hunter", said Hillyard.

Julian looked around for Mieps, but he had vanished, along with Tamaz.

"Now where are they?" he said, waspishly.

"In the forest", said Finia, giving a languid wave in that direction.

Mieps and Tamaz had disappeared into the undergrowth to have a triumphal fuck. Toppy had spied on them as much as he dared, but he could see very little of Tamaz, other than his slender, sunburnt legs sticking out from under Mieps. They both looked like a crude cartoon of a couple having sex. Mieps was the most visible, with his naked back, and his thick brown hair, which Tamaz was grabbing and pulling on lustily.

At one point Mieps looked up in Toppy's direction, his extraordinary snake-eyes piercing into the young boy's thoughts and desires like a very sinister burglar. Toppy turned and fled from the scene.

Joby followed Kieran up to the old lighthouse, where they stood gloomily at the sea-wall for some time, with Joby reminding Kieran of the many occasions Hillyard had hunted and caught food for them. Then they relapsed into a melancholy silence, and simply stared out at the expanse of sea which went on forever.

After they were both feeling sufficiently mellow they went into the lighthouse and made love on the steps. This was exciting, as making love in a new place always is, but hellishly uncomfortable at the same time.

"I think I've sprained me hands", Kieran joked, afterwards.

"You're a hopeless case", said Joby, kissing Kieran's palms.

"At least I haven't wet meself!" said Kieran, pointing at the semen stain on the front of Joby's pants.

"I've never got a hankie with me when I want one", Joby groaned.

They helped each other back down the ragged steps, and strolled along the beach which was forbiddingly quiet in the deep twilight, apart from the rhythmic crash of the waves on the sand.

"We haven't saved you any", said Tamaz, when they got back to the clearing.

"Do you mean to say you gannits have eaten that entire deer?" Kieran exclaimed.

"Did you want some then?" said Tamaz, suddenly looking concerned.

"No I'll find us something else to eat" said Kieran.

"I've buried the remains of it", said Hillyard, as he passed by "So there's no need for you to start up again".

"I once saw an owl eat a white field-mouse", Tamaz squawked "Would you have had a go at that too?!"

"I'll go back to the sloop and fix us summat to eat", said Joby.

"No, I'll fix us something to eat!" said Kieran, stamping off to the jetty.

Down in the galley on the sloop Kieran ladled peanut butter onto a hunk of bread and crammed it into his mouth, all the while giving a discourse on the virtues of vegetarianism.

"Look, meat's good for you, you've gotta admit that", said Joby, opening and shutting various jars and boxes at random "It's a valuable source of protein".

Kieran mumbled something through the bread.

"What?" said Joby.

"I said!" said Kieran, irritably "You can find protein in other things too".

"I'm not being lectured on nutrition by you!" said Joby "Someone who was anorexic for years, AND who's practised vampirism in his time! Oh look, there's a packet of custard creams here. Must be Adam's secret stash".

"We're supposed to be building our own paradise here", said Kieran "And we can't do that if Mieps and Tamaz insist on slaughtering all the local wildlife first!"

"I'm gonna open the custard creams", said Joby, and he sliced the packet in half with a carving-knife "Do summat useful and make some cocoa".

"There's no goat's milk here, it's all at the cottage", said Kieran "And I'm not going back out there to fetch it. Chances are those bloodthirsty nutters'd roast me over the fire too!"

"I couldn't be that lucky!" said Joby "Make it with water then. Awkward sod!"

They had another quiet hour together in the cabin before everyone returned. What with the cocoa and the silence, and Joby nodding off over a gardening magazine, Kieran felt as though he was back in their hut in the grounds of Wolf Castle.

His moment of peace and tranquillity wasn't to last long though. The following day, after a perplexing dream about the white-painted house in the forest, he insisted on going back there, taking Joby and Mieps (for "heightened psychic input") with him, and in the meantime making them promise not to tell the others where they were going.

They didn't spend long in the building. Kieran and Mieps simply walked around the chilly tomblike hall hand-in-hand, watched apprehensively by Joby. Then they left and closed the door.

"No one is to go back in there", said Kieran, once all of them were safely back outside "No one. Not ever".

"It's not another Loud House is it?" said Joby "Another entrance to Hell?"

"It's a time-cusp", said Kieran "Like that old textile-mill we came across when we still had the Indigo".

"That was a time-cusp?" said Joby.

"Mm", said Kieran "If that hand that shot out of the wall had been more successful, Toppy would have got sucked into another dimension of time".

"I imagine the underground train was also part of the cusp", said Mieps.

"But the vampires sealed them off", said Joby "Although I spose people have been talking about 'em re-opening for ages".

"I think what it is is this", said Kieran "I now believe the vampires' power was like Gabriel's, it actually had geographical limits. They thought they had sealed them all off, but they hadn't. They may even have been unable to reach the underground ones at all, like radiowaves not being able to get past mountains. It's a wee bit late in the day to say this now, but when we got out of the cell at Henang, instead of heading to the lighthouse, perhaps we should have gone down to the basements and tried there".

"We couldn't have known that at the time", Joby growled "Then you're telling me that that house is on an honest-to-goodness active time-cusp? That it could send us back to our own time?"

"Or another one", said Mieps "The point is, you aren't marooned in this one anymore".

"I'm not going back, Kieran", said Joby, firmly, and he began to trudge back up into the forest.

"Joby, that wasn't my suggestion!" Kieran roared "Why do you think I said no one was to go in there?"

"I can't stand the thought of going back!" Joby yelled.

"Neither can I, you great bozo!" said Kieran "Not after all this time! Will you listen to me for once, to what I'm actually saying? I'd resigned meself to staying here way back at the Freak Colony! It's you who'd done nothing but moan your arse off for the past 23 years!"

"I'm not going back", Joby persisted.

"This is what I've had to put up with all along", said Kieran to Mieps "Once he gets a bee in his bonnet, there's no reasoning with him".

"He's even more wilful than Tamaz", said Mieps.

When they got back to the clearing they found the others all congregated in siesta-mode, apart from the BBTTs, who had gone down to the beach for a game of tennis. Kieran informed those present of his findings, and Adam had a go at him and Joby for returning to the house.

"If that place is a real time-cusp, we might never have seen you and Mieps again", he said to them "Think of what nearly happened to poor Toppy that time!"

Everyone was so busy clucking about the appalling dangers of venturing near time-cusps, that it didn't occur to them that anyone would ever want to move out of the present time at all. It was a measure of how much the 4 time-crossers had made it their home now that the idea of going back to their own time was unthinkable and pointless. Unfortunately Lonts, who had learnt at an early age that the hardest lesson oflife is to never take anything for granted, hadn't fully grasped their attitude.

"I've been dreading this happening!" he wailed, bursting into noisy tears "You're going to leave and go back. After all this time, after everything! How can you even think about it!"

"Lo-Lo, Lo-Lo", Adam soothed and stroked his head "Deep breaths now, deep breaths. This is all your fault, Patsy. Why can't you leave things alone?"

"Because it's safer to know the truth", Kieran protested.

"Maybe, but now you've really upset Lo-Lo", said Adam "I could thump you for all your meddling over the past 2 days! It's caused unnecessary tension".

"You do what you like to him, I'll take Lonts for a walk", said Joby "We can have a chat".

"What an excellent idea", said Adam "But don't for goodness sake go near that house again!"

"I'm sorry, Joby", said Lonts, trailing him through the forest "I'm being really selfish. If you wanted to go back to your time, then the rest of us could go too. I would try to blend in".

"You couldn't blend in anywhere!" said Joby "Anymore than Tamaz could! I wish people would just listen for once. I don't want to go back to my own time. There is nothing for me there! How many more times have I gotta say it!"

"But you had family back there", said Lonts.

"Yeah, big deal", said Joby.

"You had a real brother", said Lonts.

"He's the last person I'd wanna see!" said Joby "I'd rather see Angel again than him!"

They sat down on a fallen tree. Joby picked up a twig and began to swish lazily at the undergrowth.

"Look around us, Lonts", he said "This beautiful place. We just bought a boat and sailed here, found it was empty, and now we'll stay here for a while. We couldn't have done that in my time. There'd have been forms to fill in, endless fucking beaurocracy and red tape, people checking up on us, wanting to know what we were doing, trying to see if they could extract more money out of us somehow. There was nowhere we could've escaped to like this. Anyone who tried was treated like a lunatic or a criminal. The whole world then was like some gigantic bee-hive. It was sheer insanity, and I never met anyone who seemed to like it like that".

"Well I suppose in this time we have to put up with Codlik complaining because we wanted to escape", said Lonts, earnestly.

"Yeah but the fact is, that's all he could do, whinge a bit", said Joby "He couldn't come chasing after us with a great list of rules and regulations! Me and Kieran have lived longer in this time than we did in our own. We're fully naturalised now. You're more of a brother to me than mine could ever have been. Adam and Julian have been more like proper parents than my own ever were. And Kieran's the best partner I could ever have had".

"You've forgotten Tamaz", said Lonts.

"I could never forget Tamaz!" said Joby "I just don't know which niche to put him in that's all. Just put it this way. There would never have been anyone in my time to equal him!"

The BBTTs had returned from the beach, and been appraised of the situation. Julian marched around them saying he would thrash anyone who went into the house again. Tamaz made a whimper about "being treated like a worm", but Bardin fortuitously clamped his hand over his mouth.

By the time Joby and Lonts had returned, Tamaz had heard all about their earlier scene, and he also got the wrong end of the stick. Joby, by now driven to total exasperation, said that for the very last time he hadn't any intention of going back in time. Tamaz was slightly mollified, although he watched Joby intently for the rest of the day, as though expecting him to suddenly hurtle off in the direction of the house.

"Probably be best if we just torched it", said Joby.

"No, don't do that", said Kieran "You never know what we might unleash if we go doing things like that".

Tamaz had overheard this exchange, and promptly scuttled round to the back of the cottage. Kieran and Joby hadn't seen him go, but Bardin had, and had guessed what he was about. It was by the back door of the cottage that they kept the wooden box containing some spare cans of oil and matches, stuff used to light the lamps in the cottage.

Bardin followed him, and found him ferreting around in the box, as he had quietly expected. He pulled Tamaz away from the box and slammed the lid back down.

"I can read you like a book", Bardin exclaimed "You're so daft you make Bengo look like an intellectual!"

"If that house is burnt down, Joby can't go back to his own time", said Tamaz.

"Why don't you listen to what he said?" said Bardin "I can understand why he gets so exasperated! He doesn't want to go back to his time!"

"But if the house is gone, I'll be safe in case he gets the urge in the future", said Tamaz.

"He won't", said Bardin "And chances are if you try to burn that house you'll end up setting yourself alight instead!"

Tamaz struggled with him to get at the box. Bardin knew from past experience with him that Tamaz was stronger than he looked, and was a particularly good wrestler, so Bardin tried extra hard to get him under control early on. He managed to get Tamaz's hands pinned behind his back, and then, remembering the technique Julian had used at the Town House, succeeded in getting him pinned across his lap. Tamaz, fearing he was about to get a beating, wailed and pleaded for help.

"Be thankful it's me here and not Mieps or Julian", said Bardin "If they'd caught you, you'd really be feeling it right now!"

"What's he done?" said Bengo, coming out through the back door.

"He wanted to set light to the house in the forest", said Bardin.

"Why?" said Bengo "We're not going near it".

"Let me up!" Tamaz cried.

"Not until you can be trusted", said Bardin.

"I'll behave!" said Tamaz "I promise! I am treated like a worm!"

Bardin set him back on his feet. Tamaz stood there knuckling his eyes. To appease him the clowns performed one of their old routines. This was an exceptionally clever one, in which Bengo had to pose as a dwarf. He and Bardin were almost exactly the same height, but the whole success of the act rested on their persuading the audience that Bengo was two feet shorter than Bardin! Amazingly it worked. This was thanks largely to the fitness, strength, and dexterity of both the clowns, as Bardin had to pick Bengo up like a toddler, and handle him in the same way an army drill captain would handle a rifle.

Fortunately Tamaz was so enraptured by it he forgot his own rough handling by Bardin. That is, until Joby appeared at the back door of the cottage looking for him. Tamaz couldn't have looked more guilty if he'd been caught holding the oil and the matches.

"I'm beginning to think we should move well away from that house", said Joby "But whilst we're here I'm gonna make sure you're watched all the time, even if I have to put Mieps on guard over you!"

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