Despite the march of hostile legions towards the heart of Europe, school and university terms began as usual in Rothenia at the end of August.
'Not the same, is it?' commented Reggie to Damien as they entered the SIS for the beginning of their final year.
'Yer mean wivout Lance? Nuh, s'not. Miss the guy bad, but yer probably miss him more.' Damien had as usual placed in his dark hair a magnificent garland of roses, one of those his dad Nathan customarily created for the Mendamero Men's first day back in school. Reggie's was a more subtle creation of laurel leaves, starred with periwinkles and clouded with gypsophila. Somehow it suited his personality.
Ed Cornish, himself for once in casuals, ushered in the Atwood twins, whose eyes were darting everywhere. They had been fitted out - probably by Mrs Willerby - with elaborate buttonholes, falls of ribbons hanging below them. One of the pair was picking at his in a puzzled sort of way.
'Is this customary, majesty?' he asked Damien with a grin, by which Damien knew it was Rafe.
'Stop calling me that, Double Trouble,' growled Damien. 'Ed might hear yer. Where's Yuri?'
It was Gabe who responded. 'Our sister is with Helen, who asked to be allowed to bring her. I believe she was proposing to fit out Yuri with vegetation also. Why do people do this? My nose is tingling ... oh!' The boy sneezed repeatedly.
'Oops! Sounds like hay fever,' Reggie sympathised. 'I've got my medication somewhere. I'll dose you at morning break, okay?'
Ed led the twins off to register them at reception for their Year 10 class.
'There yer are, darlin'!' Damien greeted his girlfriend with a big hug and kiss, then gathered up a shy but willing Yuri for another.
'Put her down, Daimey,' Helen warned. 'She's masquerading as fourteen. Now Yuri, there's Mattie, so go kiss him instead, baby girl. Daimey, is Mike here yet?'
'Nuh. I fink Marky was bringing 'im. Probably stopped for a shag somewhere on the way. The pair of 'em is insatiable.'
Helen sniffed. 'Cadet corps meeting is at midday break. I had an e-mail from Major Willemin yesterday which I want to share with you, Daimey.'
He took the printout, then gave his girlfriend a comical look. 'So ... yer outranks me, Cadet Lieutenant Debies. Iss somehow appropriate. Got the uniform sorted?'
Helen gave the nearest approach to a simper possible for such a strong woman. 'It's my native talent for command. I imagine the major thought I was the only person who had a chance of keeping you from being insubordinate. I've drafted our angels too. Mike was enthusiastic when I appointed him as sergeant to replace me. His eyes lit up: he has Marky as his corporal so they're both happy little soldiers.'
'Good decision, ma'am.'
'Don't ham up the subservience, sweetheart. It's just so notyou.'
Damien laughed, took Helen's arm and together they sought their home room.
In a gym hall just off Universitätsplaz, Lance, Luc and Barry were in the meantime registering for their own courses. The place was humming with activity. Men and women in their late teens gossiped and queued in long lines, waiting to receive IDs and get their pre-printed registration forms stamped.
Barry had forgotten to fill in the module choices on the back of his form, so there was a major panic going on, with Luc doing his best to soothe his flustered lover. Ignoring the drama, Lance looked idly round. It was a shame he couldn't enjoy this experience with Reggie and the gang, but he'd always known the extra year he had on his friends would eventually lead to this.
He became aware of surreptitious but persistent glances shot his way by many women and not a few men. After years in the SIS, where people had got used to him, he had almost forgotten the burden that went with his dazzling good looks, more stunning than ever since he had reached his full adult growth. Now that he was out in the world, however, the world was very much interested in him. He was wearing long shorts, sleeveless tee-shirt and flip-flops, his Aviators up in his thick hair. His calves and biceps were smooth, brown and flawless. Everything about him was utter perfection, from the curl of the dark locks across the nape of his neck to the curves of his hairless toes.
Another first-year male student in front of Lance was so mesmerised that he was no longer even pretending not to stare. He was a Rothenian blond boy, quite pretty, and from the rainbow bands on his wrist, an out gay. Lance tried a conspiratorial smile, but it had quite an unexpected effect. Eyes widening, the boy went pale and collapsed to the floor, causing several girls to squeal.
Luc and Barry, still deep into the complexities of Barry's incomplete registration form, paid no attention to what was going on. Not so Lance, who felt he should help. He supported the boy's head while a girl with a bottle of water spilled some through his open lips. 'Vassie?' she asked, concerned. She clearly knew him. Water got through, the boy spluttered and sat up, bemused, and then gazed into the face of an angel, astounded.
'Is your name Vassie?' Lance attempted. No reply, just a stare of wonder.
'He's Vassilji. We were at the Gymno in Luchau. It's okay, he faints a lot.'
'Oh ... there was me, thinking it was my impact on him.'
The girl laughed. 'I wouldn't rule it out. Who areyou?'
'Lance? Are you Australian? Your Rothenian is perfect.'
'No ... English originally, but I've lived in Strelzen since I was a little kid.' After helping Vassilji to his feet he offered, 'Wanna coffee or something? I've finished here.'
Vassilji, blushing bright red, stammered out something that might have been agreement. His friend, who introduced herself as Marjika, took his arm and all three headed off to the nearby commissary.
Lance put the coffees on the table. 'So you two guys, how do you like Strelzen?'
Marjika answered while Vassie just stared. 'Oh, I've been here a lot for shopping expeditions, but it's great to be actually living in the big city. Vassie's aching to get into Club Liberation, aren't you, sweetie?'
Vassie finally mustered a grin and nodded.
'Never yet been there myself,' Lance confessed, 'though I ... er ... have hung out on the Wejg. It was exciting, but scary. It's not a safe place ... but I suppose you know that.'
'Are you a god?' Vassie blurted, to Marjika's giggles.
'Only an archangel,' Lance shot back. The other two laughed.
'You're as nice as you are beautiful,' Marjika pronounced. 'I hope we see each other around. I suppose you live at home still?'
'No, no. There's not enough room for me, my brothers and sister. I volunteered to my dads that I'd go into a small apartment near the Westbahnhof. I'm my own man for the first time.'
Vassie was gaining confidence. 'Your dads?'
'They're a gay couple ... I'm gay too.'
Vassie brightened so much that Lance felt he had to mention Reggie as his boyfriend. Vassie took it well, though he followed up with a question. 'Are your brothers anything as good looking as you, Lance?'
'They're nice. Mike's the next down from me. He's a body-builder type and has a boyfriend. Then there are the twins, and my sister Yuri.'
'Odd name,' observed Marjika. 'I suppose she's lesbian.'
Lance laughed. 'No, she's got an English boyfriend, Mattie. She's only fourteen ... super sweet.'
'She sounds cute.'
'Oh, she is. I miss them all, even if they're really only half an hour's walk away.'
They kicked their life stories around while they watched the latest bad news from the war in the Balkans on the commissary wall-screen. When they separated, they vowed to meet up again soon.
Lance went along to the Student Sports Association, where he joined the queue for the swimming-club desk. He was determined to get back into competitive swimming. As a young teen he had been a diver at national level, but his growth to six feet had finally put paid to returning to that enthusiasm. Instead, he was going to try out for the university swimming teams.
The three students manning the desk looked up, did a double-take and then beamed. Lance was recognised from his earlier career. Indeed, he knew one of the three from a competition in Prague they had both attended when Lance was fourteen. The other freshers in the queue behind him were forgotten in the jokes and backslapping as he was assured that with a bit of work he would have no problem getting on the university team.
Afterwards, Lance wandered out on to the sunlit square, feeling that his first day in higher education had gone pretty well. He rang Luc on his handijand arranged to meet up in Luc and Barry's apartment for Barry's first attempt at a meal without the benign presence of his mother to mitigate any disaster. The bells chimed from the tower of the university church of St Thomas Aquinas as Lance ambled happily in search of the politics department's noticeboard, barely registering the stares that pursued him as he went.
'Get down here, you twins!' Ed bellowed up the stairs.
Gabe appeared on the landing. 'What is it, our father?'
'Down here! Now!'
The two boys descended cautiously, dressed only in underpants. An angry adult was something new in their experience. 'You seem rather emotional, our father,' Rafe observed.
'I have to confess to a slight adrenalin surge,' Gabe commented to his partner in crime, with a nod to the bristling man looming over them.
'Have you two been on the Internet?'
Rafeadmitted it. 'A fascinating insight into human sexuality. We were enthralled. We've been trying out all sorts of activities as a result. My bottom is very sore and Gabe's penis is somewhat chafed.'
'Did it occur to you to shut the damned thing down before you went upstairs to copulate imaginatively?'
Gabe frowned. 'We were more than a little carried away by the site our foster brother Luc told us about. We were able to order all sorts of things with that oblong card you use to make purchases. We bought many toys, clamps and other implements. It will be most enjoyable when they arrive.'
Ed took a deep breath, and his voice became controlled and deliberate. 'Did you go in my wallet and take my plastic? Is that how you got my card data?'
'Oh no, Rafe memorised everything at the Lidl supermarket when you took him shopping and the card fell from the machine. He's very observant and, when he picked it up for you, he was interested in the raised characters on the front and the printing on the back.. We worked out the process easily enough on the computer. Did we do something wrong? Is it not customary for human families to share their resources?'
There was an explosion. 'Aargh! You pedantic little creeps! Wait till I get my ....'
The twins, sensing a crisis, darted back up the stairs with Ed Cornish thundering in pursuit. He grabbed them as they reached their bedroom door and hauled them downstairs squirming, one under each arm. 'You little devils have compromised my finances, opened me up to identity fraud, and squandered my hard-earned cash - not to mention fucking up our desktop and shocking the hell out of Mrs Willerby. It'll be months before you work off thisdebt.' He put Rafe down. 'You, the garage! Empty it and sweep it out. No dinner till you do.' Then it was Gabe's turn. 'You! Outside. I want that front garden weeded. You can mow the lawn when you've finished. And to hell with your hay fever.'
The two stared up at him. Gabe dared to attempt negotiation. 'Isn't this reaction a little excessive?'
'One more word and you'll sleep apart for the next fortnight.'
That did the trick. With a woeful look at each other, the twins slouched out to meet their respective dooms. Rafe muttered rebelliously under his breath but was not brave enough to become more audible.
Henryarrived ten minutes later. He got only a scowl and grunt from the normally articulate Gabe, squatting on the path poking at weeds with a trowel.
'Why's Gabe gardening in just his underpants?'
'I'll kill those little bastards pretty soon. As if it weren't bad enough they're delinquents, they're self-righteous with it! Lance was never like this.'
'Why Edward, I've not seen you like this before.'
Ed suddenly looked embarrassed. 'They've got to me. The pair of them have no morality, sexual or otherwise. They have no good side to appeal to. Are you surethey started off as angels?'
'Umm ... Lance said so. Isn't that the problem?'
'Lance. He was a dream of a kid: happy, biddable and plain nice. Now we have two imps who've blundered into human life and think it's one big party.'
'I coped with Luc around the house.'
'Luc was over the worst when we got him. He wanted to be accepted. Face it, Ed, this is the reality of parenting. We've been spared it till now.'
Ed headed with determination towards the drinks cabinet. 'I'm gonna put a lock on this. They'll be on booze and weed next. Wanna gin?'
'Bit early isn't it? Okay, okay. I'll keep you company, big man.'
They occupied a sofa together, and after a moment of silent communion, Ed asked after the progress in fortifying the Kaleczyke Horja.
'Fine thanks. We've reopened the old tunnels and casements. I have a bunker to die for ... or in. My engineers have had to remodel artillery pieces to fire on slides, but they've been imaginative. They've placed the guns to lay down barrages along lines calculated by their computers. The crossfire from the mountain will be murderous; there is no dead ground in which to hide. The infantry positions are masked and mutually supporting. As long as Kaleczyk has a determined garrison, it can hold out for a long time ... long enough for Rudi's purposes anyway.
'Babe, did you hear the news this afternoon? Belgrade has fallen. Serbia's under Malik-rammu's heel.'
Ed took a long swig at his gin. 'I'd better get over to the Ostberg Palace, now you're home. Don't go soft on those twins. They finish their chores or they sleep in different rooms. That's the only threat that seems to work on them.'
'Oh ... please! Be vengeful for me, little babe.'
'If I must.'
Ed finished his drink, got up and went to reassume his uniform. As he was leaving the house, Henry called him back.
'Had you thought about our angelic waifs, Ed? What'll we do with them when we're both on service? Mrs Willerby is willing, but she can't be responsible for them in the long term.'
Ed frowned. 'Had you thought what's to happen to them if we don't come back, little one? And what if Tobias triumphs? How can we protect them then? I have no solution.'
'We're not going back to Britain ... at least till all this is over.' Peter Lewis was looking adamant.
'But Pete! Think of your career ... and your income.'
'Look, Gav, I've been watching you, Max and Rupe getting ready to fight the good fight against incarnate evil. You want me to turn my back on you and return to my social services desk in Watford as you go off to war? No way! We're agreed, aren't we, love?'
He looked over at Chrissie, who gave something that mighthave been interpreted as a nod, though not a very willing one. 'Anyway, it's too late now,' Pete continued. 'I sent my resignation by e-mail ... if it ever arrives there.'
Gavin stared. 'Okay ... that's more decisive than I'd have liked. Fritz is having all us volunteers out at Terlenehem tomorrow. Are you quite sure about this?'
'Yes, I ...'
'Not you, Pete. I want to hear it from Chrissie.'
The man in question blushed and shuffled his feet. 'Er ... guess so. Can't go anywhere without my Petey anyway. Wouldn't want to.'
Max rolled his eyes. 'That's it then. We'd better put in for two more Ultra Team uniforms. And you'd better get into training, Chrissie. You'll need to lose at least thirty pounds.'
'Well I dunno ...'
Peter intervened. 'He's having you on, Chris love. Don't listen to him. Behave, Max!'
'Can we have a word, Mendamero our father?' Two identical faces were peering around the lounge door. It was Gabe doing the talking, as usual. Somehow Henry could always tell which twin was which, even without that clue.
'Done your chores, boys?'
'Yes, our father. Can we get dressed now?'
'Sure. Have a shower ... apart. Then we can talk.'
Two small butts disappeared upstairs. When they reappeared, the boys were in identical hoodies and jeans. It never seemed to occur to them that they might dress differently.
Gabe began once more. 'It is about existence.'
'Start with the big one, why don't you.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'No matter. Carry on, Gabe my babe.'
'Very well. My brother and I do not get it.'
'There are rules, which we do not understand. This sex thing. It is immensely enjoyable and fulfilling. Our bodies seem designed to perform a lot of it. So why do we always get into trouble when we do it? What is wrong with us?'
'Er ... nothing, babes. At least when you do it in private and keep the noise down. But we've explained to you that, although having sex together isn't wrong, looking like you two do makes it awkward. There is a human distaste for sex between family members.'
'Yes ... incest, we know. But we are not brothers other than in the spiritual sense, and only family as being your adopted children. Rafe and I love each other, father. It is very hard not to be able to show it.'
Henry was moved. 'Come here, babes.'
The two boys settled on either side of him. He took them round the shoulders and they snuggled into him. He kissed their hair before recommencing, 'Now, little ones. I dounderstand. We love you too.'
Rafe reared up. 'The loud general doesn't seem to.'
Henry pulled him back. 'Yes, Ed does. He only shouts at you so much because he cares for you. He wants to help you, to get you to behave in a human way, but you don't want to learn the ground rules.'
'We try, father,' Gabe responded.
'Sometimes, baby, I don't think you do. Fun is a new sensation for you, and you don't want anything to interfere with it. You're carried away by all these feelings and tastes.'
Rafe nodded vigorously. 'It is so very different from our angelic existence. Black-cherry ice cream with dark-chocolate chips is true heaven.'
Henry suppressed a grin. 'Existence is great and it's not wrong to want to enjoy it, but there comes a point when enjoyment shifts into sheer hedonism, and you live only for those sensations you so prize. Then you put your desires before everything else, and you lose the capacity to love. You become selfish, and selfish people cannot give, only take. But true love demands sacrifice. This is when growing up comes in. Life is about compromise, babes.
'The pair of you mustn't just submerge yourselves in sex and gratification. By doing that you're ignoring other claims on you: your sister and your other brothers, the part you have to play in our family, Mrs Willerby's peace of mind. You're turning your backs on those who depend on your help.'
'We are? Oh! That's horrible. We must be bad people.' Gabe had his hand to his mouth.
'You would be if you hadn't just been shocked by the possibility. But you're not Tobias. You really do love each other, so you know what it is to care for someone else. You just need to turn some of that love outwards towards the rest of the world. That way lies the humanity you want to attain. You understand me?'
Two shaggy manes of hair nodded to Henry. The twins got up and kissed him, seeming to share a moment of telepathy. They went out into the kitchen, and the next Henry heard, the dishwasher was being emptied and plates were being stacked in cupboards. He let out a mental sigh and dared to relax. Parenthood ... sometimes it didn't suck.
A distant rattle of gunfire came from the woodland at the back of the château of Tarlenheim. Max grinned at Gavin as they leaned on the rail fence which marked the paddock in front of the mansion. They had been gazing at the deer cropping the grass under the oaks of the park. The deer had cocked their heads at the sound of guns, contemplating flight.
'I hope that's not Chrissie shooting himself in the foot.'
Gavin chuckled. 'I hope it's not him shooting Rupe in the butt.'
'So you are a bit worried about putting firearms in his sweaty hands.'
'You can't fault Chrissie for good intentions, Max. You just don't want to be in his line of fire.' He pondered a while, then started off on a new tack. 'Sweets, I've been having an odd feeling since I came back to Rothenia.'
'Only one odd feeling in this Land of Weird? Is it Maxxie related?'
'No. It's quite different. I think maybe only I can sense it. There's a new thing here and it relates just to us.'
'What do ya mean, babes?'
'I can feel other people like us, but I can't get a fix on them.'
'People who can transform into winged creatures ... avians, if you prefer. You know how we've had to stop transforming as our second natures have become more and more powerful. We've discussed this. Our bodies - our essences, maybe - want to stay as birdmen. It's more truly us than our human forms. But to remain that way we would have to live as exiles in our own society. We'd be freaks pushed out to the margins.'
'But you can sense others like us. Are they hiding here? Are they close by?'
'I don't know. I keep looking up in the sky to see them. I feel they're as trapped as we are. I can sense their frustration. They want to take wing, but daren't.'
Max meditated on the idea. Eventually he said, 'This is a bit exciting, Gav. We should try to find our hidden cousins. They might have useful tips about feather rot and other stuff that worries me once in a while. I'd swear I began moulting last time we transformed. Also, I'd like to know what happens to my beard when I'm a birdman. I have no stubble. I mean, I know you have no stubble even when you're human, but I miss it. It makes me look cool.
'And then there're clothes: why do we have to be naked as bird-guys? Maybe these others you sense have fashion tips. Flying around with my junk whistling in the wind might be embarrassing in certain contexts. That demon we were hunting in Middlesbrough made some really cutting comments about my length when we caught up with it.'
'Just as well you disembowelled him. He'll never taunt your manhood again.'
'Served him right. I could have commented on his stench for one thing, but I didn't. I'm way too tolerant of others.'
Gavin was shaking with silent laughter. Eventually he continued, 'I'm going to talk to Henry about it. He may have ideas, and possibly these avians have been sighted by someone. If so, it'll have got back to him. I'm pretty sure he'll be as interested in them as we are. Now, we'd better go see if the Stevenage Ultras are still alive and unhurt after Fritzy's tuition in small arms.'
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