Vagabonds Dedicated to my cheerleaders; Dani, Kati, Katie and Matt for their constant support and inspiration and to my friends and family for giving me the experiences to draw upon.
Drinking heavily is rarely a good idea, and for all that he considers himself an intelligent, thoughtful person, this was a lesson Adam had neither never learnt or simply ignored. Having only just opened his eyes he made his first mistake. The hangover hit him like a truck, his vision swam and his head pounded as nausea washed over him. He closed his eyes and tilted his head back in an attempt to subdue it. After a few moments he risked opening his eyes again. The pain was still there, but the ceiling was in focus which was a good start. It was only now that several things dawned on him; the first, he was sitting in a bathtub, the second, he was naked and the third – which became painfully obvious once he returned his head to it's natural position – was that he was sharing this bathtub with a very large girl. Mercifully, she wasn't naked, but she had presumably stripped down to her underwear before climbing into the tub. 'Oh Jesus...' he whispered as his stomach tightened. This wouldn't be the first time his beer goggles had betrayed him. However, she was still clothed, though only a little and Adam clung to this fact with a vice grip. If the girl he woke up with wasn't naked then it must be assumed that nothing happened. His own nudity was irrelevant. He now realised that her legs – chunky and cellulite-ridden – were either side of him, essentially trapping him. But he didn't want to be around when she woke up, so he decided it was time to cut and run. Putting his hands either side of the tub he pushed himself upwards. The horrendous squeaking noise that followed fired fresh waves of pain through his head, but he retained the clarity of mind to stop dead and hold his breath. He watched the girl opposite him, she stirred, moved her head a little, grunted and then began to snore heavily. Stifling a laugh he completed his exodus from the tub. Snatching a towel from a nearby rack he tied it around his waist and looked around the room. His friend Jack had a nice bathroom, fluffy dressing gowns, soft white towels and various toiletries littered the room. These were the few reminders of the room's previous organisation and cleanliness. Puddles of urine surrounded the toilet, the seat of which had somehow become detached and now rested in the nearby shower cubicle. Someone had covered the mirror in shaving foam and scrawled the word “TITS” in it. It was, Adam thought, a very normal start to the day after the night before, and although he knew he'd be one of the ones cleaning this mess up he couldn't bring himself to dread the thought because one thing, one desire, pushed itself to the front of his consciousness and shone brightly – coffee. Exiting into the hallway he saw people asleep under blankets, jackets and on one occasion a rug. He walked past a sideboard littered with beer cans and bottles, catching sight of something red in the mirror hanging above it. Coming to the top of the stairs he paused, turned and walked back to the mirror. The red thing he'd seen was him. From neck to toe his skin was stained red. He hurried back into the bathroom and dipped looked into the tub. What he'd thought was just water actually turned out to be some sort of red, alcoholic punch. Which, after several hours of marination had dyed him red. He couldn't help but laugh at his situation. He'd woken up in bath tubs before, he'd woken up with fat girls before, but never before had he woken up after a night of heavy drinking with a completely different skin colour. The kitchen was large and was spared from most of the mess. In a saucepan sat a congealed mess of what Adam thought must be mac n' cheese. After rifling through several cupboards he found the coffee, filled the kettle and flicked it on. As he did the doorbell rang. He ambled through the hallway, stepping over people and picking his way through the party's debris. As he turned the handle and pulled the door open he remembered he was red and wearing a towel. The smile reached his face before the door opened fully. A man stood on the doorstep holding a large box. His expression a mixture of confusion and discomfort. 'Mr. Fallon?' The postman asked. 'No, sorry. Wait here I'll go get him.' Adam left the door ajar and headed upstairs towards his friend Jack's room, finding his short, bearded friend passed out on his bed, fully clothed and snoring loudly. 'Jack,' Adam shook his shoulder. 'Jack, get up. Delivery.' Jack grumbled in protest. Adam shook him harder, then grabbed his head and moved it up and down violently. 'Jack! Delivery! Up, now!' Adam knew that his friend hated being woken up. After a night of heavy drinking the result of waking Jack up was usually violent, profane and altogether hilarious. Dodging a clumsy punch aimed at his crotch Adam
grabbed Jack's legs and began pulling him off the bed. 'Will you fuck off?' 'There's a delivery; big box.' 'Shit, the amp!' Jack sat up quickly. Too quickly. He groaned, held his head and closed his eyes against the pain. Gingerly he slid out of bad, having already been dragged half the way and plodded down the stairs. Adam waited for him in the kitchen where the kettle had finished boiling. Jack came in with the box and set it down on the table. Picking up a knife he plunged it into the sellotape and cut it open. After sorting through pieces of foam he pulled out a large, heavy box. Adam was just as excited to see the contents as he imagined Jack was. With some more cutting and pulling the box inside the box was opened and Jack pulled out a large, black guitar amplifier. 'Awesome,' Jack said, idly turning the knobs and flicking switches. 'We'll have to try it out later. First though, coffee.' 'Good idea,' said Jack, pulling out a chair and sitting down. 'Black, one sugar.' Adam began searching through the cupboards in search of a pair of mugs. After a few moments he stopped and turned to his friend. 'Cups?' 'Over there, on the left.' 'I checked that one, it's empty.' 'What do you mean it's empty?' Jack got up and opened the cupboard. It wasn't entirely empty. Someone had stuffed a sofa cushion into it. 'Empty, except for the sofa cushion. Who the hell put a sofa cushion in there?' 'I'm more worried about who moved all my crockery...How are we supposed to drink coffee now?' 'We'll have to find the cups.' Adam answered, searching the other cupboards. 'But we wont feel like looking for anything until we've had some coffee.' Jack replied, pulling the sofa cushion out of the cupboard and searching behind it. After a few more moments of searching through all the other cupboards, the pair came to the conclusion that there were indeed no cups in the kitchen. Adam, who had had enough of the current state of affairs, was determined to drink coffee out of something. A few moments later, he and Jack were sat around the table, sipping coffee from a saucepan and a measuring jug respectively. 'Why are you red?' Jack asked. 'Fell asleep in a bathtub full of punch.' Adam took a clumsy sip of coffee. Drinking from a saucepan wasn't a skill he'd mastered. 'With a fat chick.' Jack cringed. 'And why are you naked?' 'Your guess is as good as mine on that one.' 'And did you...' Jack made a ring with his left thumb and forefinger, poking another finger through it. Adam shook his head. 'I don't feel sullied and unclean, so I assume nothing happened.' 'Where are your clothes?' 'No idea. They'll turn up, they usually do.' Their vessels empty and their spirits lifted slightly, Adam and Jack set about that day's mammoth task â€“ cleaning the house. Jack started on the kitchen, tossing cans and bottles into a black bag, putting all the condiments, utensils and appliances back into their proper places. Adam meanwhile moved into the living room. This room had suffered the worst of the mess. On two of the three sofas people were sleeping soundly, one of whom had been drawn on. The third sofa was empty because it was missing a sofa cushion. In it's place was a dog bed, a cup resting in the middle. 'I found a cup.' Adam called into the kitchen. 'And a dog bed...' Jack entered the room, his bag of bottles clattering as he dragged it behind him. He regarded the dog's bed with confusion. Adam handed him the cup. 'That goes in the utility room.' Jack said, pointing to the dog bed. Adam dragged out along the hallways towards the back of the house where the utility room was. Inside, he found a spade and another cup. 'Check it out,' he said, coming back into the kitchen where Jack was mopping up spills with paper towels. 'Another cup, and a spade.' 'What the hell is this? Some sort of treasure hunt?' 'Looks that way. Maybe if I put the spade back I'll find the next clue!' Adam ran through the hall and out the patio doors, making a beeline for the shed. As he crossed the grass, thankful for the warm, dry summer day, he noticed a pair asleep under a blanket on Jack's little sister's trampoline. Everyone had that idea at some point,
but sleeping on a trampoline was a truly unpleasant experience. Opening the door to the shed, Adam saw a snooker cue and a china cup sat atop a work bench at the far end. Spade in hand he looked at the floor, hesitant to enter. He knew there were spiders in there and he knew they were waiting for him to set foot inside. The moment his bare soles touched the concrete they'd swarm over him, pulling him down to cocoon him; his body would feed them for years. Adam cast his fears aside – though not completely – and entered the shed. There was no sign of his eightlegged enemies, but he wasn't going to hang around and wait for them to turn up. He snatched up the cue and the cup and headed back into the house. Jack, his cleaning forgotten was sat in the kitchen, watching TV, a slice of toast between his teeth. His expression changed as Adam entered, brandishing the snooker cue. 'For fucks sake, someone's been messing around in my step-dad's game room.' 'It's not really a game room, he only has a pool table.' 'Well, whoever was fucking around in there is gonna have to pay for any damage done.' Jack got up and took the cue, making for the game room. Jack lived with his mother and younger half-sister. Their house was large, detached and very well kept, thanks mostly to the services of a dedicated cleaner. His step-dad was self-employed and reasonably well off but rarely allowed himself the luxury of actually spending any of the money he earned. The one thing he had splashed out on was a full-size snooker table. During Jack's parties – which he wasn't supposed to have – the only two rooms that were off limits were his step-dad's game room and the master bedroom. Though the master bedroom was often invaded since it led straight onto a balcony. 'Who would be smart enough to arrange a treasure hunt while drunk?' Adam asked. 'I don't know, what's to say they were drunk?' 'Everyone was drunk.' 'We'll find out in a moment.' Jack said, handing Adam the snooker cue and reaching for the door handle. 'I hope there is treasure at the end of all this. I hate going in your shed.' Jack opened the door and the sight that greeted them was truly horrific. The irony of using the word's “smart” and “treasure” was not lost on Adam, who burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. There, atop the pool table and surrounded by stacks of plates, cups and glasses was their friend Eddie. Eddie looked a lot like Shaggy from Scooby Doo, except with a beer belly which rose and fell rhythmically as he snored obnoxiously. The site of someone asleep on a snooker table and surrounded by crockery was odd enough, but the fact that Eddie was completely naked was had tipped Adam into the pit of hilarity. For Jack, the discovery was less amusing. Eddie was a good friend to them both, but he never listened to either of them and his clumsiness and bad luck bordered in supernatural. Though he was secretly impressed that Eddie, who dropped everything, had, while heavily drunk, moved an entire kitchen's worth of crockery into another room without dropping anything and without being noticed apparently. Still, this did little to extinguish his anger. He moved parallel to the table and jabbed Eddie in the ribs with the snooker cue. Eddie though, was impossible to wake from a beer coma. Instead he grunted and turned, snoring louder than before. 'Help me move him.' Said Jack, placing the cue in a rack on the wall. 'Hell no,' Adam responded, still recovering from his fit of laughter. 'Fine, I'll do it myself.' Jack pulled the cushions off a nearby couch off and laid them on the floor. After carefully moving piles of plates and cups, he grabbed Eddie by his upper body and dragged him off the table, setting him down on the cushions. During this process, Eddie had shown no signs of waking. 'There,' Jack said, releasing Eddie from his grasp. However, he had misjudged the placement of the cushions and Eddie's head fell backwards to crack against the hardwood floor. Adam and Jack gasped at the noise and waited in anxious silence. 'You fucker,' Eddie's voice, groggy and lacking any real anger cut through the silence. He stirred, sat up and regarded the two of them with a mixture of bemusement and anger. Then he fell back into the cushions and went back to sleep immediately. Adam laughed again, but Jack swore after looking over the snooker table. 'He drooled all over it!' He shouted, pointing to a large wet spot. 'How does anyone produce that much saliva?' Adam asked, looking at the wet spot with genuine surprise. 'Nevermind that, how do I clean it?' 'I don't know, rough side of a sponge?' Adam replied uselessly. 'If my step-dad noticed anything different he's gonna flip. I'm not supposed to have parties, and I'm definitely not supposed to let people in here.' 'What about letting drunk people sleep on the table?' 'You're not helping.' Jack glared at his friend. 'Wasn't really trying to. Look, it'll dry and then it'll be invisible. If it does need cleaning, just Google it or
something. Everything else is alright.' Adam looked around the room to make sure. It was exactly how it always looked, except for the piles of crockery. 'It'll be fine.' 'Where are my clothes?' Eddie, who apparently possessed an ingrained sense of comedic timing, sat up and looked around, covering his dignity with his hands. Adam laughed and clapped Eddie on the shoulder. 'Good morning sunshine, how're you feeling?' 'Awful,' Eddie replied. Without hesitation he reached for a nearby unopened can of beer, opened it and started drinking. 'I'll never understand how you can do that,' Jack said, picking up a stack of plates. 'It's the best hangover cure.' 'No it isn't,' said Adam. 'Drinking to cure a hangover is like cutting your head off to get rid of a headache.' Eddie, who hadn't been listening stood up and started picking through his rucksack which he'd had the good manners to hang up on the back of the door. He took out some clothes which he pulled on while at the same time trying to cover his genitals. The resulting display was like watching a pregnant cow trying to dance. Eddie's capacity to entertain – however unintentional – never ceased to amaze. At Jack's command, Adam and Eddie picked up a stack of crockery and began moving it back into the kitchen. From there the cleaning of Jack's house picked up steam. From every room of the house other party-goers awoke. Some slipped away to avoid the responsibility of cleaning, but some others joined in. By late afternoon the house had been restored to it's former glory. Even the toilet seat had been re-attached. Adam had been picking up rubbish in the hallway when the large girl, dressed in clothes that were far to small, crept down the stairs and left. Before she did she blew him a kiss. Adam shuddered. He was still wearing his towel at the time, though cleaning up had, as he anticipated, unearthed his clothing later on. With evening approaching the three friends were sat on the balcony. Eddie with a beer in his hand, Jack with a cup of coffee and a thick book and Adam with an acoustic guitar, playing nothing in particular. 'So, what's the plan for this evening?' Eddie asked, ending a lengthy silence punctuated only by Adam's playing. 'Nothing for me,' Adam replied, setting down the guitar. 'Gotta revise. English exam on Monday. Then Psychology on Thursday.' 'I've finished all my exams.' Eddie crushed his empty can as he spoke and reached for another. 'I know, that's because you only took two courses.' Adam motioned for Eddie to hand him some beer. 'And you're absolutely forbidden from having any fun until we've all finished our exams.' 'Why?' 'Because...Jack, you wanna take this one?' 'Because the end of college exams are important.' Said Jack, peering over the top of his book. 'It marks point at which we go from students to adults. It's the last piece of college before we're tossed out into the wide open world.' Jack took a swig of coffee and went back to reading. 'Exactly,' Adam picked up where his friend left off. 'It's very important, and if we're going to experience it we should all do it together, agreed?' 'Whatever,' Eddie shrugged. 'The rest of my friends are useless anyway. You two are the only ones who do anything.' 'I find it hilarious that you can accuse anybody of being useless.' Jack muttered from behind his book. 'What do you mean?' 'C'mon Eddie,' Adam said, grinning. 'Remember that time you froze a bottle of coke, tried to open it and it blew up? The exact words out of your mouth before it happened were “What's the worse that could happen?”.' 'How was I supposed to know it would blow up?' 'Because we told you it would?' Jack replied. Adam laughed as Eddie fell into an embarrassed silence. After a while longer Adam stood, drained the can of beer and said his goodbyes. The short walk home in the sunset gave Adam time to think, something he always appreciated. With his earphones in, the sounds of the world muted, he allowed his mind to wander. In reality he didn't need to revise for anything, he was good at English, he knew he was. He'd read the exam material cover to cover several times, not out of a sense of duty but because he genuinely enjoyed it. However, revision was always a good way to excuse yourself. In truth, after spending an entire Friday and most of Saturday with Jack and Eddie he was sick of them. His headache hadn't cleared and he felt the strong urge to shower, shave and do nothing for the rest of the evening. He liked the pair of them well enough, but being alone always bought a sense of peace and calm that he missed when he was with others. In truth he'd never felt particularly connected to anyone, not enough to put up with them for more than a couple of days at least, and although Jack and Eddie weren't aware of this he found no reason to tell them. Adam believed in being honest, and for the most part he was, but there
were times honesty and stupidity intertwined and at those times it was best to just ignore it. Adam smiled at his own double standards; he was fine with his own hypocrisy. In fact, he considered it necessary in some situations. People could go on about morals all they wanted, but the simple fact was that being yourself simply isn't compatible. So Adam had carefully managed his personalities. As a student of Psychology he saw every social encounter as a potential experiment. Meeting new people was always exciting because he was a blank slate to them. He could paint a completely different portrait and they'd have no idea if he was lying or not. It was interesting and, as he was fully aware, completely deceitful. Adam reached his doorstep just as his favourite song finished. He smiled at the unintentional planning, swinging the door open and closing it behind him, clicking his fingers as it shut. It was something he did every time though he wasn't quite sure why. Perhaps it added a little bit of flair to an otherwise mundane occurrence, but whatever the reason he did it every time, without fail. Pulling out his earphones he listened for sounds of occupation but heard nothing. Humming the tune from the last song to himself, he fixed himself some food then retired upstairs to his bedroom to fill the precious moments of his youth with absolutely nothing. 'You guys hear about this?' Eddie turned his laptop towards Adam and Jack. They were all gathered at a large, round table in the college refectory. Eddie had come along out of sheer boredom. Apart from the three of them the refectory was almost empty, a few other students were hanging around killing time until their exams later that day. On the screen was an article titled “University Students to Protest Rising Fees.” It outlined the plans of a large group of students to march through the streets of London on the upcoming Sunday in response to the government's recent decision to increase the cost of university. 'That's great,' Adam said through a mouthful of sandwich. 'But remind me why we should care?' 'Because this is important,' Eddie replied, spinning the laptop back around. 'Is it? We're not going to university.' 'That's not the point. It's about taking a stand and making a difference. When was the last time anyone protested anything? This gives our generation a chance to make a difference.' 'Yeah, make a difference to something we don't care about.' 'It's going to effect a lot of people, Natasha says-' 'Natasha, Natasha. If she told you to jump you'd say “how high?”.' Adam's tone was more aggressive than he'd intended. The past few months he'd had to put up with Eddie talking constantly about this new girl. She was amazing, according to Eddie. Adam had to concede that she was attractive but everything else rubbed him the wrong way. She was confrontational, a pseudo-artistic girl who took all her pictures in black and white and listened to underground music that no one else had ever heard of. Adam considered her nothing more than a walking cliché, and he loathed her. Now it appeared she was dabbling in political activism, and worse, she was dragging Eddie, poor naïve Eddie, into it. 'You just don't like her because she actually questions you.' Eddie's response was calmer than Adam had expected. 'Questioning I can deal with. She looked at me funny when I ordered a beef burger, then she told me off for buying something made by Nestlé. I don't dislike her because she questions me, I dislike her because she force-feeds everyone her beliefs. That bothers me.' Adam pointed his pen at Eddie to emphasise the last few words. He knew Eddie would back down, he hated confrontation and always did his best to keep the peace. Laying into Eddie as much as he did actually made Adam feel a little guilty, but he'd never let on. As anticipated, Eddie shrugged, exhaled loudly and diverted his full attention to the laptop once more. Jack, who had been silently reading this whole time set down his book and spoke. 'I think we should go along.' Adam and Eddie stopped what they were doing. Adam was sceptical, Eddie was excited.' 'Why?' The other two said in almost perfect unison. 'Well, first of all it might be quite exciting. Secondly, we can go to Tottenham Court Road and visit all those guitar shops.' 'Or we can go to the guitar shops and forget about the stupid protest.' 'C'mon Adam, you're always going on about how important psychology is. Isn't this a good opportunity for you? You could study...mob mentality or whatever.' 'We can't. Westfield's having a huge party to celebrate the end of exams. If all goes to plan I'll be too drunk to function the next day.' 'You hate Shaun Westfield.' Eddie replied. 'Yeah, but I don't hate parties. This is going to be a huge, end of college event. His house is massive, makes yours look like an outhouse.' Adam nodded towards Jack. 'Plus he's getting tonnes of booze in. It'll be free,
massive and extremely messy. What do you say? Sounds more fun than blowing money on a travel card and chanting bullshit, don't you think?' He could see he had already won Jack over, but Eddie had been framing an argument before Adam had even finished. 'Natasha and I already have plans for Saturday night.' 'Then bring her along. Or are parties too conformist for her? Hell, if she gets drunk she might be able to loosen up. That'd be better for everyone involved, especially you.' Adam grinned at Eddie, waiting for the lewdness of his comment to sink in. He watched the gears turn as his friend barely hid a smile. 'I'll ask her to come along. But doesn't Westfield live miles away?' 'Not too far,' Jack answered. 'There's a night bus that goes from the end of his road right outside my doorstep. We can leave late, crash at mine and avoid any cleaning whatsoever.' 'Fantastic!' Adam slapped the table, glanced at the clock hanging above the entrance and stood. 'Then we have a plan. And if we're sober enough the next day we can go to your protest Eddie.' Adam extended a hand, which Eddie shook. He had no intention of being sober enough to do anything, but Eddie didn't need to know that. 'Well gentlemen, I must get going, I've got a three hour exam to sit through. Adios.' Although it was only Friday morning, Shaun Westfield already had all the key elements of his party in place. His parents were gone, the dogs were in a kennel, the marquee was up and the booze had arrived in full. He'd drafted several of his friends in to help arrange everything. Long tables, stacked with food and drinks, lights and smoke machines inside, stripper poles on raised platforms and a full DJ's deck, complete with a huge library of music. As he stood at the head of his garden and surveyed the area he smiled. Everything had come off without a hitch and he still had more than 24 to go. He wanted to be remembered by all those who came along. He knew how important reputation was. His father, a businessman who travelled all over the world had taught him that it was important to get to know as many people as possible. The most average, unassuming person could be an influential entrepreneur. So it was always good to be at the centre of attention and always good to keep everyone happy. Luckily, Shaun had the money and influence to do just that. He had invited everyone from the college and from surrounding colleges, he expected the attendance to be somewhere around 200. Some he knew wouldn't come because they were socially awkward shut ins. Others would rather stick with their small group and drink quietly. But most, he knew, even those who disliked him, would come along. It had been the same at New Years, the same for his 18th birthday and it would be especially true this time. Happy with his planning, Shaun reached for a nearby bottle of wine, uncorked it and poured himself a glass. When Saturday night came this particular bottle wouldn't be on display. He wanted to make a good impression, but he doubted anyone else would appreciate good wine. He inhaled it deeply before taking a sip. All he had to do now was put on the finishing touched and wait. Then he had to decide on an outfit, but that could wait. In the meantime he would have to find out more about the protest. Someone had mentioned it in passing conversation the day before. He found out it fell on the day after his party which, initially, had given rise to doubt about the attendance, but he soon realised that the sort of people who actually take part in a protest weren't the sort of people he wanted at his party. Still, with such a large gathering of people from his generation in one place he would have to plan something, it was too good an opportunity to pass up on. He'd already set things into motion, tracking down the leading force behind the protests, a young man named Carlos, a Mexican-English university student in his first year. They had spoken briefly a couple of nights ago, but he hadn't been able to get a handle on the young upstart. He was charismatic, intelligent and fiercely devoted to his cause. He was also studying politics, a fact which Shaun found wonderfully ironic. The nature of politics was unchanging, he knew that. Everyone started out as a visionary, setting out to change the world and break the monotony, but eventually they fell foul of all the traps and trickery. They would be moulded, he knew, into a money grubbing, suit-stuffing puppet, wearing a perpetual shit-eating grin. Shaun scoffed and laughed, for all his hatred of politicians they did a wonderful job of making the rich richer. 'Excuse me mate,' Shaun's reverie was broken by a gruff, bearded man dressed in overalls and heavy work gloves. 'Yes?' 'We're here to build the stage.' 'Oh right,' Shaun stepped to the side and gestured to the area behind him. A flat square of grass about 20 feet square, covered by a marquee. 'Right in there.' The labourer nodded and headed back to the front of the house, reappearing some time later with another man carrying pieces of wood and metal bars. 'We'll have it done in a couple of hours,' the man said already getting to work. Shaun left the men to their work and headed back to the house. As he passed through the garden, people everywhere were arranging lawn furniture and covering the tables in cloths. Everything was going to plan and in the meantime he decided to get
online and get hold of Carlos. He still had many more questions to ask and, as they say, time is money. In which case Shaun had nothing but time. Saturday night loomed and Adam found himself stuck in a quandary. Standing shirtless in front of his mirror, the red tint not completely gone, he couldn't decide which aftershave to wear. He'd been on the receiving end of many jokes from Jack and Eddie who often questioned his sexuality. But they could say what they liked. Jack was short and hairy, Eddie smoked too much, drank even more and was covered in scars. They all had their flaws and Adam certainly didn't consider strict male grooming a flaw. In fact, he smelled damn good at any given time and he was very proud of this fact. True, if he could grow a good beard he probably would, but Jack had that market well and truly cornered. So he had to go down a different road. True, he might have bordered on metrosexual but he looked damn good in spite of it. Finally he decided on a scent, something fresh with a hint of citrus, perfect for what was shaping up to be a hot, humid evening. He finished dressing, checked his appearance a couple more times and, happy that everything was at it should be, he switched off the light and headed downstairs. His mother was curled up in the living room, watching whatever reality programme was on at the time. He poked his head round the door. 'I'm off now mum, probably won't be back until tomorrow sometime.' 'Alright love, you have your keys?' 'Yep.' 'Money for the bus?' 'Yes mum, I've got everything. You don't need to check every time' 'I'm your mother, it's my job.' 'I know, anyway, gotta run.' 'Okay. See you soon, have a good time.' Adam pulled the door to the living room shut and stepped out into the warm evening air. The walk to the bus stop was short, and although he'd cut it fine he knew Eddie would arrive after him. Jack would already be there, sitting, looking completely lost without a book to read. Adam rounded the corner and was a little shocked at the sight in front of him. Eddie was there already, Natasha next to him. Apparently she'd brought one of her friends who was chatting happily to Jack. Adam immediately felt out of place. Conversation didn't usually start until he arrived, but now the four of them were laughing and joking and he suddenly felt like a fifth wheel. Still, he wasn't going to let it deter him, though he did slow his pace somewhat. Eddie noticed him first, smiled and waved before nudging Jack who did the same. Adam ignored them, instead Adam turned his attention to the two girls, especially Natasha, trying to gauge their reactions. Natasha's face betrayed none of her emotions, but the other girl smiled happily. She was very attractive, long dark hair, slender, and big eyes which, Adam saw as got close to them were a greyish-green and. He found himself smiling back before he even realised it. Usually his every action was measured, but he found the girl's smile disarming and somehow honest, he couldn't help but reciprocate. Natasha however, was cold. Her arm's folded, her eyes focused on the space behind his right shoulder, her lack of eye contact told him everything. Eddie was smiling like an idiot though, obviously happy that she'd agreed to come along, and Adam, in turn was happy for him. 'Evening all,' he said, offering them all a smile, even Natasha. 'How you doing buddy?' Eddy asked, hitching up his ever descending jeans. He always wore a belt with a large buckle emblazoned with the Batman symbol, though what purpose it served was a mystery since his backside constantly hung out. 'I look good, I smell good and by god I feel good. I am very much ready to get silly.' 'Good good, oh, let me introduce you to Diana, Natasha's friend from college.' Eddie gestured to the skinny girl. Adam turned, extended his hand, smiled and inclined his head slightly. A gesture he had practised and repeated countless times before. She shook his hand, her fingers were long and elegant, the nails painted bright purple. 'Nice to meet you Diana, I'm Adam.' 'Nice to meet you too, Eddie told me a lot about you.' Adam glanced at Eddie, who smiled mischievously then nodded. 'Did he now? Well, I hope that doesn't make getting to know me any less interesting.' 'I'm sure it wont.' She smiled and met his eyes, the innocence in her face was disarming and Adam felt an odd need to protect her, as though she were a child. Her eyes seemed full of wonder and vulnerability. It was a very strange sensation and he wasn't at all comfortable with. 'Bus is coming,' Jack said, getting to his feet. The group turned their attention to the approaching red double decker. As it groaned to a stop they piled on, making their way up to the top floor which was relatively quiet
for a Saturday night. The usual occupants crowded the back seats, hooded and menacing, their mobiles blaring out tinny, obnoxious music. 'Looking forward to tonight?' Adam asked Diana, who had taken the seat across from him. 'Yeah, absolutely,' she smiled. 'I don't even know who this Shaun guy is. Are you sure he wont mind us turning up?' She turned her attention to Eddie, sat behind her with Natasha. 'Nah, Shaun loves being the centre of attention, the more people he has around him the better.' 'We should've left earlier,' Jack said, leaning forward against the back of Adam's seat. 'By the time we get there the pool will be full.' 'He has a pool?' Diana was obviously excited. 'Yeah, huge one. He's richer than he has any right to be.' 'I didn't bring a swimsuit.' 'That's alright,' Adam said. 'The rule is everyone goes in, at least once. No exceptions.' The bus trundled along noisily, apparently hitting every bump and irregularity in the road. It was a long journey, just under an hour. They passed the time with idle chatter and nonsense talk, during which time Adam was quiet, instead staring out of the window. The area he lived in was hilly and somewhat rural, providing a beautiful vista for sunsets. During these moments his mind wandered away towards nothing in particular, snatching at thoughts and ideas as they came. He wondered how it must've felt to be an old west cowboy, riding out beneath sunsets like this almost daily. Then he wondered how it would feel to be rich enough to own a coastal mansion where the sun sank into the sea. They were pleasant yet wholly unrealistic thoughts, but it didn't bother him. He hadn't planned his life out much further than finishing his exams and now they were over he found himself without direction. As long as he took the time to appreciate the sunset, he thought, he'd be happy with whatever life threw at him. 'What's on your mind?' Diana sat down next to him, shaking him from his daydream. 'Honestly? I was wondering how it felt to be a cowboy.' 'Got a thing for boots and leather chaps?' 'Yeah, but I was actually just appreciating the sunset.' He chuckled. 'It's very pretty,' she leaned forward as though to get a better view of it. 'I prefer sunrise though.' 'I'm usually passed out by the time the sun rises.' 'Well, how about tonight we stay up, get pleasantly drunk and watch the sun rise?' She smiled, her expression open and honest. 'We'll have to see how the night goes, but sure, that sounds good.' He returned the smile and found it came naturally. When they finally arrived Eddie had developed the irresistible urge to urinate, an urge he simply could not ignore. It was another one of his vices, claiming it was some sort of medical condition. It, like many of his flaws, led to humorous situations such as this. Hands clutching as his useless belt, he ran awkwardly to a nearby bush and relieved himself, oblivious to the fact they were on a semi-busy road and only a five minute walk away from Shaun's house. Once he had finished emptying his bladder, the size of which was often compared to a pea, walnut or grape, the group made their way up the road towards the grandly titled “Westfield Manor”. Adam smiled at the arrogance, if he had a manor he'd name it something absurd like the “Pleasure Palace” or “Shitbox” simply because he would giggle every time he had to write down his address. The grand title was certainly a fair representation though. They could hear the noise before they saw the entrance; pulsing music and the hubbub of conversation filled the cool night air along the narrow country lane. The entrance consisted of a large metal gate between two brick pillars, flanked by high bushes. The gates opened out onto a winding gravel path that extended up a well kept front lawn, widening at the front of the house. It was a wide, two story building with more rooms than Adam cared to count. The windows were high, wide and almost all illuminated. To the manor's left were the garages, 4 in total that he knew would be locked and alarmed to prevent anyone from messing around with the Westfield family's cars. The group followed the path round the right side of the house, which was as long as it was wide. Passing through a wide archway they entered into the garden. Long tables, benches and plastic lawn chairs filled up a large area, dominated by a dance floor and DJ booth beneath a white marquee. Directly behind the house was the swimming pool, and it was here that the main body of people had gathered. Adam spotted Shaun, who in turn glanced at his new guests. Clapping his present company on the shoulder, Westfield smiled broadly and strode across the grass towards them, opening his arms wide as he did so. He was dressed in a white dress shirt and beige trousers, the combined cost of which was probably greater than Adam's entire wardrobe.
'Hello, hello!' Shaun's voice boomed. He clasped Jack's hand first, then Eddies, addressing them by name and offering the usual â€œhow are youâ€?s. Adam conceded that he was charming, but knew it was mostly an act, born of necessity. 'And Adam,' he said, clutching his hand. His grip was firm, commanding. Adam responded in kind well aware of the kind of power games Shaun liked to play. He met his eyes, smiled slightly and held his gaze. 'Hi Shaun, thanks for the invite.' 'No problem at all.' Shaun grasped Adam's upper arm with his free hand, Adam did the same. 'And I see you've brought guests!.' He turned his attention to the two girls, his eyes lingering on them for a fraction longer than they should have. 'Yeah, I hope you don't mind.' Eddie said sheepishly, somewhat intimidated by Shaun's commanding personality. 'Not at all, and what are the names of these lovely ladies?' The girls gave their names and Shaun planted a kiss on the back of both their hands in an act that Adam found both cringe-worthy and amusing. Natasha made no effort to hide her disdain, but Diana, ever polite and friendly offered him a mock curtsey. Luckily they didn't have to suffer Shaun's company too long. More guests arrived behind them and the Westfield boy went off to play the part of host. They headed towards the pool where a good number of people had already gathered. However no one had ventured into the pool yet, which was full with all sorts of inflatables and floats. That would change shortly however. 'Dammit, no signal out here. Can I use your phone Eddie?' Adam asked. Eddie obliged, handing him a scratched, dented block of a phone which was missing the * key. 'Hold this,' Adam whispered to Diana, passing her the phone. He looked across at Jack and smiled, they both nodded and, in an act of unison that only years of friendship can bring, they scooped Eddie up and held him like an armchair. Eddie caught on immediately. His protests fell on deaf ears as others around the pool caught sight of the impending prank. Cheers, laughter and shouts of encouragement rose up from all around the pool while Eddie scrabbled and kicked to no effect. They were right on the edge of the pool now. They paused for a few moments, let the anticipation build, then tossed their hapless friend forward, face first into the pool. Roars of laughter erupted around it's perimeter as other's jumped in, creating a roiling mass of water. Eddie surfaced, looking as angry as he could, which wasn't very. 'You dicks. You complete and total dicks. I had half a pack of baccy in my pocket!' 'We'll buy you some more!' Adam shouted back, kicking off his shoes. 'Now get out the way!' He sprinted towards the edge of the pool and cannon-balled in, before he hit the water he felt slightly annoyed that the aftershave he had picked would be washed off. Jack followed moments later. Eddie's anger evaporated as they both clung to him, attempted to drag him down, giving way to, at first, reluctant laughter, then to full-blown humour. After several minutes of splashing, sinking and mock sword fights with long, foam floats, they remembered the girls. Adam and Eddie swam to the edge and lifted themselves out while Jack started talking to other people from college. 'Come on you two, get in.' Adam said, peeling off his shirt. 'No way,' Natasha replied, arms folded. 'Oh come on Nat,' said Diana, who placed her bag on the ground, into which she put Eddie's mobile and most of her jewellery. She made her way to the side and looked over the edge before gingerly dipping her foot in. Adam made a move to push her and she scrambled backwards. 'No! Don't push me! I'm not a very good swimmer.' 'Alright, no pushing.' Adam leaned forward and grabbed an inflatable dolphin. 'If you find yourself sinking just grab onto Flipper here and you'll be fine.' Cautiously she made her way forward, this time sitting on the edge of the pool and dipping both her feet in. 'Okay, going in now.' She slid forward, eventually slipping into the water. He light summer dress billowed out beneath her. She hurried to push it down, momentarily forgetting to tread water. As she started to sink she scrabbled to grab at the dolphin and clung to it for dear life after averting her near wardrobe malfunction. Adam couldn't contain his laughter. He lowered himself into the water and moved over to her. 'Perhaps we better move to the shallow end.' 'This isn't the shallow end?' She was genuinely surprised. Slowly and carefully, he led her, along with Flipper, over to the shallow end of the pool. Stone steps ascended out of the water which they seated themselves on, half submerged. When he turned around, Adam saw Eddie had managed to coax Natasha into the pool who, shockingly, seemed to be enjoying herself. Diana sat and stared out over the crowd of people, the inflatable dolphin cradled in her lap, water cascading from her hair and dress. Luckily, the thin garment hadn't become see through, something she had only thought
of after moving half away across the pool. Adam looked around the area, Jack had exited the pool and was engaged in conversation with a group of people, a glass of what Adam knew to be Jack Daniels and coke in his hand. He admired Jack, he was hardworking, intelligent and had a great work ethic. Adam knew these traits had been pounded into him by his commanding mother and equally commanding father. Employed since he was 15 and driving as soon as he was old enough, Jack was well on his way to adulthood and had already started looking for a full time job in finance or something else equally boring. Still, the reason Adam really admired him was because he knew absolutely everyone. It was impossible to walk down the street without Jack stopping to have a conversation with someone. Although he was usually quiet and studious, Adam knew that once Jack got to drinking he was Mr. Charming. He'd be at the centre of every conversation, every debate and he'd be an unending source of entertainment. Adam was convinced that he'd been named Jack because of his love of whisky. However, after meeting both his parents, he knew that couldn't possibly be the case. They were strict, Tory-voting, hardworking folk who probably never made time for alcohol. 'Barbecue!' He heard someone shout. The rush of movement was almost instantaneous. If there was one thing, only one thing that get people out of a large, heated pool, it was an every larger, even hotter barbecue. Jack became suddenly aware of his own hunger and got to his feet, water pouring off of his jeans as he did so. 'I'm going to go grab something before these savages take it all,' he said to Diana. 'Want anything?' 'No thanks, I'm a veggie.' 'He'll have brought vegetarian stuff. Trust me, Shaun caters to everyone's tastes.' 'Really? Great, I'll have a burger then.' Adam nodded and moved off towards the milling crowd, most of whom already had buns in hand. Carlos sipped his wine and looked over his glass towards the ridiculous Shaun Westfield. He has been contacted by this self-absorbed rich boy a few days earlier and though he loathed their type, Carlos knew that he and Shaun could have a mutually beneficial relationship, if not an entirely honest one. He was completely baffled as to how a person as obviously affluent as Shaun could possibly care about the rising price in university fees. Then he realised he didn't care, at all. Shaun saw the protests as an opportunity, not a cause. 'How's the wine?' Westfield asked. 'Very nice, I like the full-bodied ones.' Carlos swirled the liquid and took another swig. He was impressed Shaun had actually served him a good wine as opposed to the swill everyone else was drinking. 'Ah yes, that one's from Chile, year 2000.' Shaun drank from his glass. 'Hard to believe that was ten years ago. I was collecting PokĂŠmon cards when this was being made.' Carlos set his glass down on the table, sat back and looked across at Westfield. 'So, lets talk, shall we? Why did you invite me here tonight?' Shaun did likewise with his glass and sat in a high-backed chair opposite his quest. 'As you can probably tell, it wasn't to take part in all the merrymaking. Though you're more than welcome too, after we've discussed business.' 'Business, is it? I'm just a student, I don't know what I can offer you.' 'You're not just a student,' Shaun leaned forward and stared intently into Carlos' deep brown eyes. Carlos felt a twinge of intimidation. He snuffed it out immediately. 'You're becoming something of a folk hero.' 'Like Bob Dylan?' Carlos drank again, smiling behind his glass. 'Yeah, kinda like Dylan. Don't suppose you play guitar?' 'I do, but I'm not very good.' 'Neither is he. Anyway, we're going off track. Despite what you may think you are becoming quite a popular man.' Shaun leaned back again and rested his foot on his knee. 'And popularity is a commodity you know.' 'Commodity's have their price.' 'Good thing I'm loaded then,' Shaun flashed a smile, though it was devoid of humour. 'Here's what I'm offering Carlos. You and all these students, you have a real opportunity to make yourselves heard. However, just how much do you think marching in the street will achieve?' Carlos was silent, his expression contemplative. 'What I can offer you is more than that. More than marches and placards. I have connections all over the place, political connections, financial connections. This is a plight that will affect our generations and any to follow.' 'Why are you so invested in this?' Carlos asked, irritation pricking at him. So far Westfield had talked a lot, but said nothing. 'After all, you're loaded right?' 'I'm invested because what you have a platform upon which all the eyes of this generation are focused on. This is a generation that I am part of, wealth or no wealth.' Shaun drained his glass and set it to one side. 'I'm thinking about the long term here. I understand you're a student of politics, so am I, or I will be when I go to
university. Of course, studying politics will only get you so far. With my connections and my influence, however, we can go so much further.' 'Get to the point,' Carlos said, his irritation getting the better of him. He finished the last of his wine. Shaun was unaffected by the outburst. 'My point is this. You're currently a folk hero, I want a piece of that. I want the people to know my name and see my face. In return, my influence can guarantee you a very comfortable political career once you're done with your degree. It would also do wonders for my own political career. We'll be lauded as the heroes of a generation, that sounds like a pretty good platform for election, eh?' 'I see you've already got the right mindset.' Carlos knew Shaun was trying to use him and the protests, but the reason had been unclear until now. 'Already using persuasion and subterfuge to further yourself. Since you've already got those skills mastered you obviously don't need me.' Carlos stood, Shaun did too. 'What do you have to lose?' Shaun asked. 'I have my fingers in all the pies, I might not be able to stop the uni fees going up, but I can certainly effect some change. I could delay it, reduce the rate, limit it down somehow. In return for getting me a little exposure you gain a powerful political ally. Plus, I can lend my considerable financial clout to anything you needed.' 'It's not your clout, it's your father's.' 'Maybe so, but he's always telling me to branch out. This is me branching.' Carlos was silent for a while as he rolled the facts over in his head. He knew he was being used and the idea of submitting to Westfield was sickening. Every part of his mind told him to tear away from Shaun's influence and decline his offer. To accept his help would cheapen and taint the whole protest. But beneath all of that, beneath his integrity, his steadfast morals and his sense of right and wrong, an idea blossomed, spreading out from the centre of his being, blanking out all the doubt. Shaun didn't necessarily have to be an enemy. He was confident and commanding, but still young and na誰ve. Carlos could offer the Westfield boy all the exposure and influence he wanted, people would sing his praises. In the meantime, Carlos would play the long game. He'd slowly, but surely bring Shaun over to his way of thinking. The powerhungry, money-grubbing Westfield would become an unwitting political activist. He almost laughed at the thought. He wondered if he could pull it off, Shaun was a formidable adversary, but his arrogance was a huge weakness. Carlos turned to appraise him for a moment, then offered a smile and a nod. 'Alright,' he said, extending his hand. 'You've got a deal.' As the night wore on the crowd moved away from the pool and towards the dance floor. Adam saw Jack drift in that direction with a girl Adam wasn't familiar with clinging onto his arm. Eddie and Natasha had disappeared into the night somewhere and Adam ruthlessly pushed any further curiosity about their activity to the back of his mind. He'd seen enough naked Eddie to last him a life time the last thing he needed was to actively think about such a thing. He and Diana had moved to a swinging bench, lit either side by solarpowered outdoor lights which bathed the surrounding area in a soft, clean glow. He'd taken a liking to Diana, despite his usual scepticism about pretty girls and their inherent lack of a personality. But he was beginning to tire of the cute and innocent act, which she had faithfully kept up all evening. It was time, he decided, to delve a little deeper and try to push a few of her buttons and he knew just where to start. 'So what's Natasha's problem?' 'What do you mean?' Diana asked, confusion obvious. 'I mean,' he adjusted his position and faced her. 'She's so confrontational. We've argued about everything from the ethics of chocolate makers to the existence of global warming. We disagree on everything and she seems to go looking for an argument most of the time.' 'I think you're both very similar.' 'Us, similar? No fucking way.' 'Yes fucking way,' Diana smiled. 'You're both opinionated, passionate and have this steadfast belief that you're both right. You're like the same side of a magnet. You're exactly the same, but you can only every push each other away.' 'You sound like a fortune cookie.' 'It's true though,' she continued. 'The only difference is she's headstrong and you're analytical. You're both far too stubborn for your own good though.' 'I'm a Taurus, I can't help it.' Adam grinned. 'So's she. There's something else you have in common.' 'How long have you known her?' He asked after a brief silence. 'About 6 years, met her in secondary school. She hasn't changed much, lost a lot of weight though.' 'She used to be a fatty?'
'Careful you, you're getting into deep water.' She tried to make her expression serious, but he could see the ghost of a smile underneath. 'Yeah? Well at least if I do get in deep water I can swim in it.' 'I can swim, I was just working the cute, helpless angle. Natasha told me you were a psychology student and you're always playing mind games. Well, so am I so I thought I'd test you.' 'Is that so?' Adam stood up and held out his hand. 'Come on then, lets see if you really were bluffing.' Diana obliged and took his hand, moving awkwardly to a standing position from the swinging bench. Once she found her feet, he lifted her over his shoulder. 'What are you doing?' She protested. 'You could at least carry me like a princess.' Adam stopped at the head of the pool and set her down. 'Go on then,' he gestured to the water. The perimeter of the pool was lit now by tall lawn candles and strings of outside lights. The pool was completely empty now and the area around it was deserted as well. It seemed everyone was either inside of over at the marquee. 'I can't swim in the dark.' 'Bullshit, get in.' 'But it's cold.' 'I'll find you a blanket after you swim to the other end. Go on.' He nudged her in the back and she yelped and stepped backwards. 'Alright, I can't swim. Well I can, but not well.' 'How do I know this isn't another mind game?' 'Trust me?' She asked with a smile. 'Nope.' And to punctuate his refusal, Adam shoved her into the pool. Her scream was cut off by a splash that sounded much louder in the quiet of the night. Adam waited for her to surface, which she eventually did with a splutter. She gasped for air and fixed him with a stare that made a chill run down his spine. 'You bastard!' She shouted. 'I could've drowned!' 'You could've,' he said lowering himself to sit on the edge of the pool. 'But it turns out you can swim, so I'd say you're safe.' 'You didn't trust me.' 'You lied to me.' He splashed at her and smiled. 'Don't take it personally though, I hate mind games.' 'Tell me something,' She said sweeping wet hair from her forehead. 'Would you pull me?' 'Pull you? Like have-' 'Because I'd pull you.' With that, she moved forward, grabbed his arm and dragged him in. He emerged moments later and picked up the nearest float, which happened to be Flipper, and hit her across the head with it. The inflatable dolphin made a satisfying squeaking noise as it impacted, the pair of them laughed. Diana reached for another float, a crocodile and began hitting Adam back. He found himself thinking that they must've looked ridiculous, laughing uncontrollably, assaulting each other with squeaking pool toys and he didn't much care if they did. 'So how much of that cute and innocent thing is genuine?' He asked after they'd agreed to call the impromptu float-duel a draw. 'Most of it, I suppose. I don't do it intentionally so that much mean it's genuine, right?' 'I'd say so, yeah.' 'And how much of your pseudo-intellectual with a superiority complex act is genuine?' She asked with a wry smile. 'Superiority complex?' 'That's what I said.' Adam floated over the the side of the pool, levered himself out and sat on the edge. Diana climbed up the short metal ladder next to him. 'Not a lot,' he admitted, looking across to the marquee where the throng of people shifted and pulsed to the music. 'It's mostly a defence mechanism. I immediately dislike people when I first meet them. Keeps them at arm's length.' 'Did you dislike me?' She asked, shifting closer to him. 'No, and that's the weird thing. Seriously, I don't give anyone a fair chance. I look at them, I judge them and I'm usually right. They're usually vapid, party-going girls who wear kitsch, retro shit ironically, or floppyhaired douchebags in tight jeans.' 'And what did you peg me as?' Irritation edged her tone now, but Adam pressed on. 'I pegged you,' he turned to her. 'As a little bit of a hippy, possibly guitar playing, artsy type.' 'I play bass,' she said with a smile, the irritation evaporating. 'And my parents were huge hippies, and I love
photography. Alright, you're pretty good at this.' 'I know, and usually I'm right. But when I shook your hand and you smiled at me I couldn't bring myself to dislike you. It was weird. Christ, how much of a prick do I sound?' 'You sound very much like a prick, but that's just an act isn't it?' Adam paused for thought. He'd never had this conversation with anyone, not Jack, Eddie or even his own mother. The people he was closest to hadn't ever been made aware of his feeling about himself and the people he met. In fact, he still harboured a small amount of dislike for Jack and Eddie, still grew tired of their company, still made excuses not to see them whenever he didn't feel like it. Now Diana, a relative stranger he had known for only hours had somehow slipped behind his defences and got him talking about himself without him giving it half a thought. It made him uneasy, but more than that he found himself strangely impressed with her and even admired her a little. 'I suppose it is,' he thought. 'Can I just say how uncomfortable this is?' 'Why?' 'Well, I hardly know you, and yet I'm opening up to you.' 'Is that so unusual?' 'Yeah, I don't open up to anyone, never have. Wonder what makes you special?' 'Nothing special,' she smiled. 'I'm just a good, honest listener.' 'I'd say that was pretty special. Not many people listen nowadays, everyone just waits for their turn to speak. Anyway, I'm cold and I haven't had a drink in a couple of hours. Fancy a dance?' He got to his feet and put out his hand. She accepted and pulled herself up. 'It would be a pleasure,' she said with a smile, before shoving him back into the pool and running away towards the marquee. Jack looked like a tit, he knew he did. He wasn't graceful, elegant or in any way rhythmically-inclined. So whenever he took to a dance floor the result was more akin to a seizure than an actual dance. However, Jack was studying to become and accountant and so quickly ran the numbers through his head; he found that he didn't give a single flying fuck how he looked on the dance floor. Full of whisky and with his sense of embarrassment dulled, he danced like a madman, oblivious to anyone around him except the girl who stood in front of him. He'd met Grace while doing his rounds through the various social groups, catching up with old acquaintances and shaking the hands of new people. He loved the to and fro of conversation, casual, intellectual, it didn't matter. Socialising was a form of entertainment and – aside from a good book – there was nothing he enjoyed more. Grace was one of the new people he'd met that evening, the rest of whom he had forgotten. She had immediately attracted his interest; brightly-coloured hair, tattoos and a bold attitude. She had commanded the conversation surrounding her, swapping jokes and diverting all attention towards herself. It wasn't a vain kind of attention seeking though, it was a genuine charisma that drew people to her, Jack included. He had fired up conversation with her and let her talk about herself, urging her onwards with the occasional question, but always he kept the focus on her. After all, he already knew everything about himself so he'd rather hear about someone else. They had talked at length about a variety of subjects; the end of exams, music, books and of course the looming protest which he learned she was planning on going along to. That swung his decision of course, which meant that Adam would come along as well, however reluctantly. Now he was stood with Grace, who had – either out of courtesy or because she was the same – started dancing in an equally erratic and hilarious way. The two of them were now locked in a private duel of stupid dancing which was completely off-beat and bordering on obnoxious. However, he felt his head starting to swim and his mouth begin to dry and knew he'd have to take a break sooner or later, much to the relief of those around him he suspected. He looked up and across at Grace, who was flicking her blue and blonde hair around frantically. She stopped to look at him, her hair completely covering her face. He made the motion for drink then pointed his thumb across his shoulder to the area outside. She nodded and they started to shoulder their way through the crowd. As he moved through the press of people he spotted Adam, sopping wet and dancing with an equally drenched Diana, as well as Eddie and Natasha who were both obviously intoxicated and locked in an intense game of tonsil tennis. Jack wondered how anyone could kiss Eddie. He probably tasted like cigarette butts dropped into a half-full beer can. Jack had accidentally drunk such a concoction before and, if it was in fact true, Natasha must either have no sense of taste or balls of steel. Either of which would be helpful if she was considering a relationship with Eddie. Despite his private derision of his friend, Jack found himself feeling happy for Eddie. He just hoped Eddie didn't permanently remove Natasha from the heterosexual dating arena. Of Eddie's last two girlfriends, one had become a lesbian and one had started taking male hormones, grown a beard and insisted everyone called “her” Dave.
Once free of the crowd, Jack found himself appreciating the cool night air. Grace emerged behind him and took his hand before putting it to her forehead. 'Feel how sweaty I am,' she said, not really giving him a choice. 'That's disgusting.' 'You should feel my pits.' 'No, I really shouldn't.' Jack led them over to a drinks table, but found that it had been drained. He sifted through the empty plastic cups and discarded bottles, but it had been picked clean. 'Lets go inside,' Grace said, setting off towards the house. They entered through a pair of large French doors which opened out directly into the kitchen. There were a few people in here, the ones who preferred quiet conversation over loud music. A group of people were playing cards at a nearby table, obviously with some strip rules implemented. However, the men appeared to be on the losing end, much to Jack's disappointment. He wondered if he could get Grace to play, but he didn't even need to ask. She was already talking to the people at the table, who were nodding. Those who had removed clothing put it back on in preparation for a new round. Jack smiled and took a seat. He recognised a few of the people sat there and shook hands with them as the cards were dealt, casually catching up with people he was probably about to see naked. 'The game is Bullshit,' said a tall, long-haired guy to Jack's right. His name was Alex, metalhead, football fan and all-around fun guy to spend time with. He also had a notoriously high tolerance to alcohol and had never been out-drunk, not even by Eddie who was perpetually inebriated. 'And if you don't know how to play, you might as well strip right now.' The game progressed and it seemed fortune was smiling on Jack, who had lost only his socks so far. A girl across the table was down to her underwear, attempting to cover her breasts with her forearm while continuing to play. Eventually she gave up, threw the cards down, revealed her breasts and re-dressed, much to the appreciation of the numerous males gathered around the table. Grace was also getting luckily and sat with only her bra exposed. As they often did, the card game devolved into people refusing to strip, which of course led to forfeits that everyone took far too long considering and the whole undertaking eventually lost steam and stopped completely. Jack got up from the table, still mostly clothed and went over to grace. 'You can get dressed again now.' 'Why? It'll just waste more time later.' 'What?' 'Come on idiot.' She grabbed his hand and led him out into the entrance hall and up the winding staircase. Jack was half-dazed, his brain refusing to process exactly what was going on. But he refused to question it and smiled as she dragged him into one of the numerous unused rooms. Adam and Eddie were loitering in the living room, which was far larger than any room needed to be. Dominated by deep corner sofas, an absurdly large television and a stereo system so huge Adam was convinced the bass from it's speakers was actually causing some sort of structural damage. Eddie gazed around the room in awe, taking in the high ceilings, tall windows and gloriously modern dĂŠcor. It was a truly impressive room and just standing in it made one feel richer and more important. It was also pleasantly deserted, with places such as the pool, kitchen and games room attracting the most attention from the party goers. They had tried to get into the game room of course, but it was full to capacity. Though through the gaps between the crowd Adam had glimpsed arcade cabinets, pinball machines and pool tables; a veritable cornucopia of childhood dreams, condensed down into one room. Both of them had expressed their intense jealousy of Shaun Westfield's luck. Born into a rich family, he had wanted nothing. And though it was obvious that he was spoilt, he hid it behind charisma and charm, unlike most rich kids who immediately put themselves on a pedestal. Still, despite all the giddy, childish joy Westfield Manor offered, Adam wouldn't be rushing to befriend its namesake. He still disliked Shaun, but grudgingly respected him for his social clout. He had, after all, successfully bought together just under 200 people, kept the suitably merry and at the same time contained and controlled. There had, to Adam's knowledge, been no fights, burns, near-drownings or broken bones, which was always a good result for any party. Over the last hour he'd lost track of Jack, but a few mutual friends said they'd seen him heading upstairs with a blue haired girl. He didn't know anyone with blue hair, but thought he might have glimpsed her leaving the dance floor with him earlier. As for Diana and Natasha, they had gone off to tend to their other social obligations, which was fine with Adam. He liked Diana, even more so when he discovered she wasn't as kind and vapid as she first appeared.
Still, despite her unique position of being someone who didn't immediately annoy him, she had started to grate on him as the night wore on, yet he couldn't say why precisely. It was something about her personality, it wasn't entirely genuine, and until he could get behind her guard he couldn't trust her. Not that he particularly trusted anyone and he still felt a twinge of embarrassment for revealing as much of the inner workings of his mind as he had. Eddie, however, was clearly not at all happy to be rid of his female companion. He kept his eyes on the door, glancing over whenever anyone passed, hoping to catch sight of Natasha. He also checked his phone every two minutes for any sign of contact. Far from being happy for him, Adam was somewhat sickened by Eddie's sudden and unerring dedication to Natasha. Especially since they weren't officially a couple. Eddie had been whipped without even getting the cream, as Jack would put it. It couldn't be helped however, Eddie was infatuated and he never listened to Adam anyway. He certainly wouldn't listen to him if the prospect of tits was present. Adam flopped onto one of the sofas and groaned appreciatively. It was impossibly comfortable and he became aware of just how tired he was feeling. It was just past midnight and he was already thinking of sleep. There's no way he was old enough for that sort of thinking, not yet at least. Curiously, Eddie elected to seat himself on a footstool, which was odd, yet somehow appropriate. 'How are things going with Natasha?' Adam asked, only half interested. He was aware of Eddie's dislike for silences. 'Pretty well, yeah.' Eddie nodded absently and took a long swig of beer. 'Pretty well?' Adam echoed. 'I saw you two sneak off into the garden earlier.' 'We were just talking.' 'Uh huh.' Adam made no effort to hide his scepticism. 'Alright, maybe not just talking, but don't say anything.' 'A gentleman never tells,' Adam placed his hand across his heart. 'But you told, you filthy wretch.' 'What about you and Diana?' Asked Eddie, awkwardly shifting gear. 'She's alright.' 'Just alright?' 'Yeah, pretty and intelligent, but not what I'm looking for.' 'God dammit Adam. I spent ages talking about you to her and this is how you repay me? What's wrong with her?' 'Nothing's wrong.' Adam shifted to lay on the sofa, cradling his head in crossed arms. 'It's just not...right.' 'Best friend dare!' The shout had come from the entrance to the living room, where a dishevelled yet decidedly smug-looking Jack stood. His hair had been messed up and now stuck out at crazy angles, one of his shoelaces was untied and he was wearing his shirt backwards â€“ though Adam wasn't sure he'd even noticed. Jack ambled across the living room and sat down next to Adam, who regarded his hairy friend with a knowing suspicion. 'And where have you been?' 'Don't try and change the subject! Best friend dare!' 'What the hell are you talking about?' 'Remember that time your called me at 1am on a Monday night, after you got stranded and begged me to give you a lift home in the snow? Well, I'm calling in that debt. As you're best friend I'm invoking the best friend dare. What that means-' Jack raised a finger to silence Adam's protests. 'What that means is I pick one girl, any girl at all as long as she's not taken. Before the night ends you must leave with something from this girl; a number, a kiss, or maybe more.' He grinned smugly. 'Don't an idiot. That's a stupid idea.' 'Is it? I've seen you do this a hundred times. You find a tiny fault and you pick at it until it becomes a huge problem. I'll pick a girl at random and you'll talk to her and you'll damn well like her. You never know I might pick the girl of your dreams.' 'Plus with things looking the way they are, you'll be the only one without a girlfriend.' Eddie added. That's what clinched it. Diana had been right, he did have a superiority complex and the thought of Jack and Eddie being a rung above him on the social ladder made him sit up. It was obvious Jack had been with a girl, and Jack, Adam had to admit, was a desirable man. Reasonably good looking, despite his stupid beard and a sound future investment given his qualifications and work ethic. In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if Jack was the first among them to get married. It was the prospect of Eddie having sex on a regular basis that fired his determination. He didn't understand how anyone could go out with Eddie. His personal hygiene left a lot to be desired, he was always drunk, always smoking and was the most bad luck-ridden, clumsy idiot Adam had ever known. And although he and Natasha weren't an official item yet, he had a bad feeling they would be very
soon. Which meant Adam had little time to act. 'You're on.' He said, getting to his feet. 'Jack, find me a woman!' Jack laughed and got to his feet, Eddie did likewise and he led them through the house. As they passed through the hallways and rooms Adam became aware of just how many attractive girls were at the party. Exactly how it had escaped his attention before now was a mystery. Perhaps he was paying too much attention to Diana, or perhaps he was becoming asexual. Either way, the sudden realisation hit him like a freight train. Girls in bikinis or flimsy summer clothes were everywhere. Most of them drunk or dancing or both. And now, with his eyes seeking out every member of the fairer sex he became aware of how much he had missed. Jack led them down the hallway, through a dining room, the entrance hall and down another long hallway, coming to a stop eventually in the kitchen. He looked about the room, seeking out someone that matched his mysterious criteria. The kitchen was still packed and a large group was still playing card games, though most of them were male and all of them were fully clothed. 'There,' Jack said, pointing to a figure seated outside the large French doors. She was perched on the edge of the decking and, to their estimations, apparently alone. 'She's the one.' 'Why her?' Adam asked, craning his neck to try and see her face, though darkness and reflection made it impossible. 'Why not?' Jack smiled, patted his friend on the shoulder and turned away. 'We'll be in the living room.' With that, Jack and Eddie shouldered their way through the crowd and out of sight. Adam turned his attention back to the girl seated outside. At least he hoped it was a girl. He knew plenty of guys with long hair, in fact Jack had long hair back in college and he knew all too well how deceptive it could be. Especially when viewed from behind. He found a sudden nervousness gripping him. Often his conversations with strangers occurred as offshoots of other conversations from the people surrounding him. Directly approaching someone and firing up a discussion wasn't something he was good at. So he decided to waste time. He picked up a glass and strolled over to the bar which housed an impressive array of spirits, some of which he'd never heard of and, being a glutton for discovery, it was these he mixed into a glass with a generous serving of coke which did little to mask the foul, stinging taste of his utterly disgusting concoction. Still, being a staunch believer in Dutch courage, he drank it and made himself another. He was convinced he was about to make a huge idiot of himself, so he decided it was best not to remember it. As usual, alcohol was just the tool for the job. After a second disgusting cocktail he smoothed down his shirt, which was now mostly dry, absent-mindedly fiddled with his hair and made his way towards the French doors. As he walked the short distance his mind went into overdrive, how would he open conversation? A joke? A question? Just shut up and do it, he heard the voice of reason shout. 'Mind if I sit here?' He asked. God, what a cliché. 'Sit, stand, lay, you can do what you like.' She didn't turn to look up at him. 'Could I get naked and dance the Macarena?' He didn't know where he was going with this. 'You can,' she said, her tone didn't suggest this conversation was in any way strange. 'But I won't be joining you.' 'That's fine,' he lowered himself onto the edge of the decking and stared out across the pool. 'I'm Adam,' he stuck out his hand. She ignored it. 'I'm not.' 'Not what?' 'I'm not Adam.' 'So...what is your name?' He felt like she was deliberately making this difficult. 'I'll tell you if you tell me something first.' 'Sure.' She turned to face him and he was surprised by her appearance. She was pretty, straight, chocolate-coloured hair and eyes that, as best as he could tell in the dim light, were a warm, hazel brown. She wore a rainbow of brightly-coloured eye shadow, one colour blending into the next and there was a light dusting of glitter on her cheeks that caught the light of the candles and lanterns and made her cheeks sparkle oddly. Her expression though, was flat and gave nothing away. 'Tell me why you decided to sit there and start talking to me.' She asked. 'I didn't. It was a dare.' 'I'm a dare?' She asked, raising her eyebrows. 'No, not like that. See, my friend tried to set me up with a girl tonight, but as it turns out, she's not my type. So my other friend called on something called the best friend dare – which I'm pretty sure he made up – and
demanded that I talk to whichever girl he pointed out. That just so happened to be you.' 'Wow,' she was silent for a moment. 'You're really honest aren't you?' 'I've got no reason to lie to you. Yet.' He added with a smile. 'Most guys would lay a line on me, tell me I was pretty, some other crap.' 'Oh, I've got lines if you want them.' She laughed. 'Go ahead, lets see what you've got.' 'Alright.' He cleared his throat and pretended to crack his knuckled in mock preparation. 'Hey gorgeous, I'm Adam, wanna be my Eve?' For all his intelligence and attention to detail, Adam had to curse his poor timing, which was a constant thorn in his side. As he'd delivered this god-awful line, the girl had taken a sip of her drink. The result was that she spat the drink out in a shout of laughter, then started coughing. 'That's bloody awful!' She said in between coughs. 'I've never heard a chat up line so bad that it literally made me choke.' 'Well, I try to keep it interesting.' He said with a smile. 'So, now you give me your name.' 'Emily,' she answered, still coughing sporadically. 'Nice to meet you.' He extended his hand again, reflexively. This time though, she shook it. 'Sorry about the choking.' 'No worries,' she waved his apology all the way. 'I choke on things all the time. Would've thought after 18 years of eating and drinking I'd be able to do it without cocking it up all the time.' 'You enjoying your evening Emily?' He felt more comfortable now, the mood lightened by his awful chat up lines and her wonderfully theatrical reaction. 'It's alright,' she said, her expression faking boredom. 'My friends have buggered off though, left me out here on my Larry.' Adam looked down at the deck. 'Is this Larry?' He asked, tapping it. She responded with genuine laughter. 'Yes, this is Larry, my pet deck. I keep him here because my garden's too small.' 'So when I asked you if I could sit down...' 'You should've asked Larry instead.' Adam was liking this already. She'd made no attempt to be nice or welcoming, she'd been a little bit sarcastic, a little bit witty and hadn't been afraid to engage him directly. It was a refreshing change of pace. 'So why don't you go talk to someone else?' He asked. 'Don't know anyone else. I'm not from your college. I'm friends with Gemma Ritchie, do you know her?' 'Yeah actually, she was in my English Lit class. She's...alright.' She wasn't really. She slept with anything with a moptop and tight jeans, but that was besides the point. 'Yeah, she's alright.' Emily agreed. 'Except when she leaves you on your own to stick her tongue down the throat of the nearest guy with a moptop and skinny jeans.' Adam had to make sure he'd actually heard her correctly. 'Are you a mind reader?' 'Why?' 'I was thinking the exact same thing,' he admitted, all apprehension gone. 'Down to the very word.' She scoffed. 'I'm not surprised, she doesn't do a good job of hiding it. Do you know Ellie Harding?' 'Yeah,' he nodded. 'Came here with her too. But she's buggered off.' 'Knowing Ellie, she's either with her boyfriend or has gone home already. She's boring.' Emily glanced at him, but he detected no malice. 'So, out of my two best friends, one's a whore and the other's dull.' 'I'm an honest person,' Adam admitted with a shrug. 'And you seem like the sort who can handle it.' The pair of them settled into a comfortable conversation which flowed freely from one topic to the next. It made Adam realise just how much of his interaction with Diana had been out of courtesy, not interest. He had talked with her, listened to her, smiled at her, but didn't particularly care about what she had to say because he always felt he was distant from her. With Emily though, it was different. There was no falseness, no mask. She was straightforward and honest. Scathingly sarcastic and brilliantly witty. As their conversation dragged on they stumbled across unintentional innuendos and fallacies that would later become inside jokes. And each time he made a jab at her, she gave one right back. Adam realised that for the first time in a long time he was actually engrossed in an engaging conversation that was intellectually satisfying as well as downright amusing. So engaging was it in fact that it wasn't until he noticed the sky in the East lightening that he realised just how long he'd been talking with her. 'Holy shit,' he said looking at the sky. 'How long have we been out here?'
Emily glanced behind her. The kitchen was empty, the upstairs lights were off and people the hum of conversation was gone. At some point the music from the dance floor had been silenced and it seemed to they were the only people left in Westfield Manor. She pulled back the sleeve of her jacket and looked at her watch. 'Four hours,' she replied. 'Bloody hell, that's a long time to sit around talking about crap.' 'And my arse isn't even numb.' 'That's Larry,' she patted the decking. 'Very comfortable.' 'Even so,' he said, getting to his feet and stretching his legs. 'I've got a protest to go to today.' 'You too?' She stood up as well. 'I'm going along later as well. Don't know why though, not even going to uni. My friends are dragging me along.' 'I'm in the exact same boat.' Adam replied. 'Well, I'm going to find somewhere to crash for a few hours.' She yawned and stretched. Adam forced himself not to look at her breasts. In a fuller light she was very attractive. Her hair was subtly highlighted and she dressed simply yet effectively, accentuating a narrow waist, curved hips and long legs. Adam had always been a hips and legs kind of guy. Diana's legs were skinny and her hips were barely there. Emily had it right though. 'Yeah, me too.' He said, hesitant of pausing for too long.' You live nearby?' He asked. 'Just round the corner actually. My house isn't this nice though. I don't even like Shaun that much.' 'Me neither. Hey, before you go, give me your number.' 'Five,' she responded with a grin. 'Your phone number, idiot.' There was no animosity in the statement and, after they said their goodbyes, Adam went back into the house. Inside, the evidence of a party was obvious and as always the mess wasn't apparent until people had gone home or gone to sleep, but in this scenario the detritus left behind was monumental. Adam knew Westfield likely had an army of cleaners at his beck and call though, she he waded sleepily through the mess and found a spot on one of the huge sofas in the living room. Though they were even more comfortable when paired with fatigue he found his couldn't sleep. Snippets of his conversation with Emily replayed in his head. So instead he lay staring at the ceiling above, a contented smile on his face. The protest was much more popular than anyone had anticipated. Close to a thousand people had gathered on the streets, bearing placards and banners and chanting loudly. Most of those involved were, as expected, students, but among them were older men and women who still took an interest in the education system. A route had been planned through the streets and though no official arrangements had been made, roads were closed by the sheer weight of numbers. Progress was slow and staggered however, as people at the head of the protest stopped every few minute to chant, stamp and shout. Carlos and Shaun hadn't made an appearance yet, they were waiting at the end of the designated route, where a stage had been erected. Carlos, megaphone in hand, stood at the front of the stage, eyes fixed on the road directly opposite. It was from this avenue that the protest would emerge and spill out into the wide square. As he waited, Carlos could hear the chants echoing down the street. Bouncing of buildings and reaching his ears, they were distant but passionate. He felt a surge of pride, less so at his own accomplishment of organising the march, more at the willingness with which his peers â€“ most of them perfect strangers â€“ had taken to his idea. It had started off slowly, a group founded on the campus of his university. But it had grown exponentially, thanks in the most part to the internet and the magical ability to reach the world at the press of a button. He hadn't been entirely alone in his endeavour however, there were a few people, close friends or dedicated activists that shared his views. The current state of affairs annoyed Carlos. Though it was a sweeping statement he found it to be true. People didn't protest, no one stood up for themselves anymore. Instead they accepted whatever they were handed. The government had been elevated to a position of infallible authority. He heard them in the pubs and read their posts on forums, all of them complaining about the government, offering their ideas for a greater, richer England. But no one ever had the guts to actually stand up and make waves. That was the problem. Slacktivism he called it. The belief that you were doing something when really, you were doing nothing at all. He'd watched England slip into a hole, a hole dug by the greedy, self-serving politicians who cared for nothing more than lining their own pockets. So many simple solutions had been overlooked in favour of protracted, needlessly convoluted policies that gave people the illusion of change. They'd promise more jobs, more housing and an end to the recession, then in the next breath mention the 8 year plan. Nothing was immediate and nothing was effective. And Carlos had watched the world change. It had been subtle at first; a ripple starting at the heart of his generation and spreading outwards in ever growing circles. The masses began to mumble with discontent. Beneath the surface of servitude he felt the collective anger bubble. The frustration at being overlooked and forgotten, the sense of betrayal. It had fired their passion and, with the right catalysts, it would lead them to a
platform from which they could make their voices heard. Carlos cast his eyes up to the sky. It was clear blue with only a few wisps of cloud moving lazily. The only cloud that hung over the day was the presence of Shaun Westfield, who would not stop reminding Carlos of their deal. He'd tried to speak politics to the rich boy, but he was having none of it. He snuffed out any conversation immediately, intent instead on improving his public image. It was disgustingly ironic, that here, in the hive of activity against politicians, Carlos was stood shoulder to shoulder with the very kind of person he loathed. Still, Shaun's influence had already proved useful. The stage had been constructed quickly and rigged up to a microphone, a large screen hung overhead projected the image of whoever was speaking. It was needlessly flashy, Carlos thought, but the sense of professionalism might have a positive impact. Still, he clung to his battered red and white megaphone. It was a rather hackneyed symbol of rebellion, but he liked it nonetheless. The large paved square in which the protest was due to gather had been cleared, barriers set up at it's periphery with a heavy police presence. Also gathered in the immediate vicinity were the people who had helped Carlos organise the protest. They had jokingly started to refer to themselves as his Lieutenants and to him as their General. And though he dismissed any comparisons to a military regime he had to admit that he liked the respect and authority he now commanded. The chanting was closer now, louder and clearer. It wouldn't be long before the first of the protesters entered his vision and flooded into the square. He felt someone move to his shoulder and shuddered inwardly. It was a reaction that Shaun always elicited 'Almost show time,' he said with a practised smile. 'Got your speech ready.' Carlos squinted against the sunlight and looked towards the street. He saw movement. 'No speeches.' He replied. 'I'm at my best when I improvise.' Shaun spread his arms and shrugged, taking a step back. The crowd grew with surprising speed and intensity. A seething, writhing mass of people. A thousand separate voices joining as one. Again, Carlos was rushed by a surge of pride and he felt all the small hairs stand up on his arms at the sheer electricity of the situation. It was awe-inspiring, but he had to keep his head long enough to deliver his speech. The front ranks pushed forwards, stopping several yards shy of the stage. Behind them more people flooded in, filling out the gaps and pushing against the edge of the barriers. The atmosphere was excitable and tense. A phantom of worry glided across Carlos' mind. If things turned ugly it would be chaos and the last thing they needed was a few narrow minded idiots with a desire for destruction. Such actions would stain and other wise well-intentioned protest and, he knew, the media would eat it up. Overnight they would become rebels and anarchists. He knew they were present, the reporters and journalists, devious little monkeys, they were bloody relentless and they would sink their teeth into the first sign of disruption. He half expected them to have people planted in the actual protest to encourage anti-social behaviour. He just had to hope that the focused, cohesive mood of the majority would put a stop to anything undesirable. They had stopped appearing now and he realised it was time to speak. As he took to the stage a ragged cheer went up. He saw his image on the big screen above and behind him and allowed himself a small smile. It was an intoxicating feeling. He stood at the podium and raised the megaphone to his lips. Silence descended and the anticipation was palpable. He let it hang for a few moments, secretly relishing the feeling. Adrenalin coursed through his veins, mingling with the fear and nerves. Then he spoke. 'Friends,' he bellowed, his voice carrying across the square and echoing off into the side streets. 'I am pleased to see so many of you out here today. You know what that tells me? That tells me that this day is a day that shall be remembered.' He began pacing back and forth across the stage, gesturing with his free hand. 'That so many of you feel so insulted, angry and passionate is wonderful. I am young, but I have felt for a long time that the people of this country have lost their way. Our sense of purpose is gone. We are kicked around like a ragdoll and we take it because we never thought we had a choice.' He stopped and pointed out towards the crowd. 'But we do, and you are that choice. You hold in your hands the power to change this country for the better. I know there are cynics among you who would ask â€œBut what good is such a small change?â€?. Let me tell you what good it is. Like tossing a stone into a pond our actions here shall spread. It will start small but it will grow. The generation after us will remember this and they will feel like they can make a change as well. They will pass on that belief. What we do here will change the course of things to come. The past cannot be changed, so we must look to the future.' He paused and looked out across the crowd. They were held in rapt silence, every pair of eyes was on him. 'And the present,' he continued. 'Today, we will march. We will march against greed, against ignorance and against the men and women who got us into this mess to begin with. We will show them that we have a voice and we will be heard. We are the next generation, this country will be ours. But I will not inherit an empire of ash and poverty. I will not inherit a land inhabited by bigots,
xenophobes and blind men. Too many times we have let others clean up the mess of those who went before them. Not anymore. Today we make them answer for their actions, today we make our presence known!' He punched the air with his last word, to thundering applause. 'March with me!' He roared. 'Today, we are the majority!' He leapt nimbly from the stage, his Lieutenants gathering around him. Shaun approached, clapping as he passed across the stage. The thunderous applause continued. 'Moving stuff,' Shaun said, laying an arm across Carlos' shoulder. 'Promise me you'll never write a speech. You're obviously at your best when you improvise.' Despite his dislike of the situation and apparent familiarity with which Westfield treated him, Carlos couldn't keep the smile from his face. He felt supernatural, he'd commanded the attention of nearly a thousand people. He'd turned the gears and fired them into action as a whole. It was an incredible feeling. Carlos led the small group away from the stage which was already being dismantled by men dressed in overalls. He glanced at it and smiled, it would be the object of fond memories. The march to the Houses of Parliament was long, slow and hot. The pressing mass of people raising the temperature of the already humid summer day to an uncomfortable level. Adam found himself regretting his decision to come along. He'd managed to stay with his friends for the most part, but occasionally lost sight of them as the jostle of people around him disoriented him. He found it especially hard to spot Jack, who was inconsiderately short. Diana and Natasha were with them, but of Emily he'd seen precious little. He thought he'd glimpsed her at one point but it was impossible to tell,surrounded as he was by girls that were exactly her age and dressed in similar fashions. Despite the promise of seeing her there, he didn't think it was a worthwhile trade off for the uncomfortable warmth and agitation that assailed him as he was pushed along to god knows where. He'd watched some guy shout into a megaphone for a few minutes, but he had no idea who he was or why he was significant. He was obviously important however, since it was at his command that the march had continued. He also thought he saw Shaun Westfield take to the stage shortly after the speech was finished, but couldn't be sure. He longed for the moment when the crowd dissipated and loosened, allowing him to move away from it. As it was, they were funnelled into street after street, covering the width and running the length of most of them, leaving him nowhere to go but with the flow of the crowd. It was like being at a good, loud gig, except there was no music and everyone else was behaving like a prick. He sincerely hoped they did raise the price of university fees, just to screw over the people who constantly bumped into him and yelled in his ear. He pushed the bitterness down and pressed on regardless. According to the latest chant they were heading towards the Houses of Parliament. They'd stop there no doubt, which would give him a chance to slip away. He put his irritability down to his lack of sleep and the denial of a fry up that morning, thanks to Eddie oversleeping then misplacing his phone, consuming the best part of two hours. He wondered why they had to be at the protest on time. Surely protests weren't strictly monitored things? Nevertheless, they had rushed to the train station, blown a stupid amount on a travel card and gotten to the meeting point on time. Adam was impressed that so many people were able to gather together with little or no confusion or aggression. It was like a football match, except everyone was civilised and sober. So nothing like a football match, he thought to himself. With the sun at it's zenith and Adam's stomach well past it's lunch time threshold, they reached the Houses of Parliament. Now the chants and songs found a new intensity, edged with aggression and peppered with taunts and the odd threat. The change in the atmosphere was almost imperceptible, but it was there and Adam felt something inside him turn. Things were getting ugly and he knew it was best to grab his friends and get out now. The problem there was that his friends were nowhere to be seen and in the cacophony of protest their mobile phones were all but useless. So Adam resigned himself to the grim, arduous task of sifting through the crowd in search of a bearded midget and a clumsy chain-smoker. He lingered on that last thought. Surely not even Eddie could be so oblivious and socially insensitive as to actually smoke in such a large area. He was wrong. He came across Eddie, who stuck out like a sore thumb. His expression was half way between lost puppy and practised apathy. And in between his fingers, as always, was a cigarette. Despite their tight schedule that morning, Eddie had found time to buy tobacco, because Eddie always found time to buy tobacco. Last trains, buses, taxis or waiting lifts didn't mean anything to him. His priorities were in order; deal with addictions first, travel second. He grabbed Eddies shoulder and eschewed speech in favour of simple gesturing. He jabbed his thumb at the edge of the crowd. Eddie nodded and went towards where the protesters were thin on the ground. Adam continued moving through the crowd, eventually stumbling across Jack, who seemed at home in the middle of
the crowd, shouting and pumping his fist. He'd even got hold of a placard from somewhere. But at Adam's urging he passed it to a bystander and followed Adam to the edge of the crowd, where Eddie had wandered off a small way, presumably searching for Natasha. Adam didn't much care about where the girls were, and he had a sneaking suspicion Natasha would continue with the protest until she started throwing molotovs at police cars. As for Diana, she was Natasha's responsibility. It was a cold thought, but Adam didn't care. He wanted out before the tear gas started flying. He knew he was leaning towards exaggeration, but it paid to be careful. He enjoyed taking a risk as much as the next guy, but not for a cause he wasn't particularly invested in. With his friends gathered on the outskirts of the crowd, he felt his phone vibrate, fished into his pocket and glanced at the screen. It was Emily. 'Where are you?' She asked before he had time to greet her. 'Standing at the edge of the crowd.' He looked around for landmarks and did the best he could to describe his position. 'I think I see you,' she answered. He gazed around, caught a glimpse of her and waved, she returned the gesture, moving towards him. They both kept the phone to their ears. 'Can you see me yet?' Adam asked, reaching out and touching her face. 'Nope, can't see you anywhere.' She answered, punching out and hitting him in the arm. 'Ouch. Why would you do that?' Adam put the phone away. 'Oh sorry! Didn't see you there.' She smiled then glanced at her phone. 'Pfft, you hung up. How rude.' This odd display had been watched by Jack and Eddie with a sense of bemusement. Adam became aware of their presence and felt the onset of embarrassment. They'd give him hell for this later when they were alone. 'Oh right, how rude of me.' He cleared his throat, though he didn't really need to. 'Guys, this is Emily. Emily, these are the guys. Jack, short and hairy, Eddie, always smoking. That's all you need to remember.' Rather than reach out to shake his hand, Emily reached up and ruffled Jack's beard. Somehow it always became the focus of conversation. 'That's a really impressive beard,' she said, still playing with it. 'Are those ginger hairs.' 'Yeah, I don't know where they come from.' Jack answered normally. He was used to people playing with his beard, much like a pregnant woman got used to people laying their hands on her belly, he imagined. Except beards were much better than babies. Eddie stuck the cigarette he was holding into his mouth and used his now empty hand to shake Emily's. He smiled and offered her a greeting through a crooked mouth. 'They'll kill you, you know.' She said, indicating the cigarette. 'Non-smokers die every day.' Eddie responded. It was his stock response for just such a situation and as always, it diffused any pro-anti-smoking debates immediately. 'Besides, I intend to leave this world the way I entered it. Naked and screaming.' It disturbed Adam that he found himself thinking it was entirely possible that Eddie would find a way to die naked and screaming. He also wondered exactly what it would take to kill Eddie, whose numerous injuries, scars, falls and breaks over the years had done nothing to dim his child-like optimism. Adam imagined that Eddie's death, and consequently the death of all those around him would be preceded by the words: â€œHold my beer and watch this.â€?. He made a mental note to run like hell if those words ever passed Eddie's lips. After a brief discussion and several attempts by Eddie to phone Natasha, they agreed it was well past time to go and get some food. A decision for which Adam was eternally grateful. His stomach had been protesting as loudly as the students and when they finally found a place that suited all their tastes they sat themselves on an outside table and laid down the single menu in the middle of the table, craning their necks to read it from a stupid angle. Of course, picking the food was full of all the usual problems that cropped up whenever more than two people had to decide; last minute mind changes, indecision about hot or hot drinks and of course the question of how to split the bill. Eddie, in his infinite wisdom and foresight, had not a penny on him and this left Adam and Jack to foot the bill, despite Emily's insistence towards the contrary. Eventually they had decided, ordered, and now sat waiting. It was a glorious day, warm, blue and breezy and the streets of London were bustling with shoppers and day trippers. The protest itself seemed to be drawing little attention, though that was more likely borne from apprehension than a lack of curiosity. The food arrived and everyone dug in heartily. Within moments Eddie had spilt ketchup on himself and Jack had produced a book from his bag which he studied over a cup of strong, black coffee. It it weren't for caffeine Jack would barely function. The sheer amount of coffee and energy drinks he consumed would've given an elephant a buzz. Strangely, his massive sugar consumption didn't reflect on his physique at all and Adam silently cursed his metabolism. Eddie on the other hand, with his prominent beer belly, wasn't so lucky.
They ate with little conversation, talking about the protest would've been redundant as they had all been there, and being hot and lethargic as they were, none of them was in the mood for discussing the deeper meaning of the day. So they sat and chewed and gulped in welcome silence which even Eddie didn't attempt to break. Content instead to check his phone constantly and tap out a message or two, during which he dropped his phone once and spilt ketchup on himself. Adam looked across the road they had come down. Behind the buildings perhaps half a mile aware were the protesters. He wondered if that small slither of fear he'd felt was justified. Perhaps it was his mind creating an excuse to get away from the crowd, but he was certain that wasn't the case. He had felt a shift in the mood, a slight change to the tone of their chants. He found he was glad for the police presence, though he greatly doubted their efficiency at dealing with so many people. After all, it took four policemen to subdue a drunk man, a thousand students high on anger would be much harder to stop if they did decide to get out of control. 'Do you think this is all justified?' He asked to no one in particular, staring out across the street. 'The protest?' Jack asked. Adam nodded. 'I think so, that guy made some good points.' 'Yeah,' Eddie chimed in. 'I never thought I'd be the sort of person who'd change the world.' 'God forbid. If you were ever in charge I'd hang myself. Actually, that's not true. I'd stick around to see how monumentally you could cock it up.' 'Free beer and naked Fridays. How's that for a policy?' 'What about the old and fat?' Emily asked. 'Banned.' Eddie said matter of factly. 'Obviously.' 'I see your point though,' Emily said bringing the conversation back on track. 'If it takes a thousand people shouting at you to make you see your mistake you must be pretty stupid.' 'It's good in a way,' Adam conceded, tumbling over the thoughts in his head, examining the scenario from every angle. 'I mean, we're young, between children and adults and if we're ever gonna have a chance to do this sort of thing, it's now.' 'Hang on, weren't you against this?' Jack asked. 'I was. I still am. But I can see why all those people out there were convinced. You gotta do these things while you can, make no time for regrets. I know I hate missing opportunities.' 'Wanna go see how it's going?' Eddie asked, as a pretence to go find Natasha. 'Nah, I'd steer clear. I have feeling the shit's gonna hit the fan before long.' Eddie was clearly distraught at the thought of Natasha being in the middle of a maelstrom of protest and violence. Conversely, Adam thought she'd fit right in. It wasn't long before Adam's fears were given life. He heard shouts, threats, insults and shock, spreading out from the direction of the protest. These were followed briefly by sirens. Then the voices began to echo through the streets again, they were moving and they were coming closer. Their shouts were feral now, they goaded, taunted and hurled insults. But more than that they threw whatever debris they could get their hands on. Bottles smashed against pavement and wall, bins were uprooted and tossed every which way. When the group came into sight it was significantly smaller than the main body of the protest. Perhaps fifty people, but their association with the student protests would be all the papers needed. As they moved through the streets, causing whatever carnage was within their capacity, people moved to the side or into door ways to get out of the way. Now, more voices rose up from further down the street and a sickening realisation hit Adam. Behind all this organisation, others had been scheming. As with every popular movement or religion, there was the one splinter group who took it too far and clearly they had been waiting for this opportunity. The door to violent had been opened, if only by a crack, but it was enough. The new group waited at an intersection and this one was much larger, more than a hundred in total. They all looked like the sort of people Adam would go out of his way to avoid. They chanted too, but their chants were of bigotry and ignorance. White power. The various groups had raised their ugly heads and made their presence known, riding the coattails of a well meaning protest. Now the actions of these few would cheapen and tarnish the efforts of hundreds. Their pleas would fall upon deaf ears. Someone had engineered all this behind the scenes. They had planted people within the protesters to stir up conflict and spread influence. Up ahead, the destruction gained in intensity. Car windows were smashed, bricks sailed through store fronts, spray paint covered the walls and pavement. Luckily their violence hadn't been directed at anything sentient yet, but that would change. In the distance, Adam saw the bright yellow of reflective jackets, perched high atop horses. A large group policemen made their way towards the rioting mob. The front ranks wore body armour, helmets and carried tall riot shields, behind them came men on horseback. Bricks and bottles began to fly and someone lit an emergency flare. At this signal, more hooligans appeared from narrow alleys and side streets behind the rank of policemen. Then everyone turned very ugly. Adam saw a policeman take a brick to the head and tumble from his horse.
He was, at the least stunned, or worse dead. The horses began to hesitate as more flared were lit, the fountain of sparks and palls of smoke covering the area in thin haze. But there was no hesitation in the rioters who moved towards the wall of perspex, hammering against it with poles, hammers and wooden planks. More missiles arced high over them landing amidst the massed back ranks, hitting man and beast alike. Adam had seen riots before but only through the television. He'd read about them too and always it seemed that an inherent fear of retribution is what staggered the advance of so many riots. Not this one. These people acted like it was a battle and they'd already won. They didn't pause in the face of shields and batons, they pressed on, pushing the line of police backwards. They had no fear of punishment, no fear of injury or perhaps even death. They were incensed, passionate and it seemed, unstoppable. 'We're getting the fuck out of here,' Adam said. They had been standing stone-still, just like the other people around them, completely shocked by this sudden, violent display that disrupted a lazy Sunday afternoon. They moved back through the gathering crowd towards where they had last seen the majority of the protesters. As they rounded the corner they had seen the damage that the small group had done. Though the amount of people still gathered outside the Houses of Parliament was still large, they had dispersed and their passion had been extinguished. Several people were hurt, nursing head wounds, tended by the others. Bins had been overturned and in a few place piles of trash smouldered from what must have been recently extinguished fires. As though sensing their presence, Natasha and Diana emerged out of the crowd. Eddie rushed forward to hug Natasha, who to the rest of the world seemed entirely untroubled by the day's events. Diana on the other hand was visibly shaken and had been crying. 'Are you alright?' Eddie asked Natasha, who nodded and glared in the direction the hooligans had gone. 'They fucked it all up,' she said, the venom oozing out of every syllable. 'They made us look like a bunch of thugs. Don't they fucking learn?' 'White supremacists,' Adam said. 'They haven't learned anything in a century, can't expect them to start now.' 'What's going on over there?' Diana asked sheepishly. The noise from a few streets across was muffled but obvious. The sounds of struggle and, further in the distance, sirens. 'Lots of fighting,' Adam answered. 'They're attacking the police and doing a bloody good job of it. I think it's time we called it a day.' There was a murmur of agreement from around the group, even Natasha nodded. But before they could make plans they were interrupted by an amplified voice. It was the man who had spoken earlier. He'd obviously been in a fight, one eye was beginning to bruise and his shirt was torn, but his expression spoke of anger and injustice. His words backed it up. 'Listen,' he commanded, hopping up onto a bench. People looked up in silence, but this time it was despondent. 'Those people, they are not us. They have no relation to us, and to let their actions effect us cheapens us and makes us lesser people. We came here with a purpose. So lets continue. Let them fight their petty wars. We will not take a step forward if we are cowed by fear of violent bigots.' 'We should go fuck them up!' Someone shouted, he was met by shouts of agreement. 'No,' the man replied. 'What good will that do? Their actions have condemned us, we cannot possibly hope to regain our standing if we go down to their level. Do not give in to violence, there is enough of it in this world already.' He jumped down from the bench and walked through the crowd, who parted to make way for him. He picked up a discarded placard and held it high. 'This is all we need.' He said, shaking the sign. 'Words and purpose.' He switched off the megaphone and began chanting. Slowly others joined in, picking up the discarded signs and banners. In moments the crowd was back, packed tight and louder than ever. It was a strange parallel, Adam thought. Only streets away the bad elements associated with protest were gathered, causing harm and destruction. A stone's throw away however, their polar opposite had gathered, who, in the face of hatred and violence had turned the other cheek and continued their peaceful protest. However, not everyone was convinced. Some members of the crowd were gathered on the periphery. They had not rejoined their peers and were not chanting. They were indecisive. It was these people Adam abhorred. Simple-minded and ignorant, they were allowing their fear to dictate their beliefs and he knew some of them would be on the side of the hooligans before the day was out. Then a curious sight entered his vision. Shaun Westfield, immaculately dressed and apparently oblivious to the recent confrontation, made a beeline towards them. 'Hello friends,' he said arms sweeping wide to embrace their presence. 'Didn't except to see any of you here.' 'Same can be said for you,' Adam replied, meeting Shaun's eyes. The power games had already started. 'I have a personal investment in this.' Shaun replied with a smile that was bordering on smug. 'Who do you think arranged the stage and safe passage through the streets? Going on a protest march is hard work when you're walking in traffic.' It made perfect sense to Adam, who knew Westfield would take any opportunity to put his name on people's
lips. 'And who was it that planted the troublemakers?' Westfield's expression darkened for just a heartbeat. 'I hope you're not insinuating that I had something to do with this.' 'Of course not,' Adam replied. 'But someone did. I suggest you put your considerable influence to work finding out who.' 'Good advice.' 'Well Shaun, we'd love to stay and get our heads kicked in, but we're actually on our way home.' Adam turned and walked away, the others followed. On the train home they sat in whatever seats they could find. Adam found himself sat next to Diana, who hadn't said much all day. He'd barely thought about her since meeting Emily and he felt guilty because of it, but he wasn't quite sure why. He had no obligation to her, no strong feelings either way. He put it down to that aura of vulnerability that she radiated. 'You forgot about me,' she muttered, barely audible above the hum and rumble of the train. 'Sorry?' 'Last night. You said we'd watch the sun rise, remember?' 'I'm sorry,' he said lamely. 'It slipped my mind.' A smile played across her lips, but it was empty. 'That's alright, I can't blame you. She seems nice.' It took Adam a moment to realise who she was talking about. 'Don't go thinking I ditched you because of her. I just lost track of time. I'm sorry.' 'I'll forgive you on one condition.' She said, finally turning to meet his eyes. This was the second time in less than 24 hours that he had found himself on the end of an ultimatum from a female. Still, the guilt tugged at his conscience and he felt the urge to accept. 'What?' He had the good sense to ask. 'Go out with me. Tonight. Give me four hours of your time, with no pool and no friends to distract us.' She smiled, this time it was infectious and Adam found himself copying her without thinking about it. He mulled the proposition over for a while. He did owe her for letting her down and his strong sense of duty, which usually manifested itself as the inability to say no to puppy dog eyes sealed the deal. 'Alright. Tonight. We'll go out for dinner.' 'Sounds wonderful.' Diana smiled broadly, happiness sparkling in her eyes. Though she wasn't the perfect girl he relentlessly searched for, Diana was still a damn good catch. He wondered if his earlier irritation at her personality was more his fault for not getting to know her when he had the chance. Instead he'd played silly mind games and dicked about in the pool when he should've been asking and listening. After all, a four hour conversation was all it took for him to become intrigued and a little enamoured with Emily. Who was to say the same wouldn't apply to Diana? A small part of him mind told him he was kidding himself and looking for excuses to make himself feel better. He took the annoying little bugbear and squashed it. For once, his habit of over-thinking and over-analysing wouldn't get the better of him. In fact, his journey to get to know Diana would start now. 'Are you alright?' He asked. 'You looked really shaken up earlier.' 'I was terrified,' she admitted. 'It was awful. I don't even know what happened, suddenly people were pushing and shoving, shouting at each other. Then they started fighting. It just came out of nowhere.' 'Someone planted them there I think. Inserted people into the main protest group who would cause aggravation.' 'Why would anyone do that?' She asked, clearly upset by the day's events. 'It was meant to be peaceful. I mean, sure we were shouting, but it was a protest that's the point. It's not about fighting and violence.' 'I don't know why people do it. Some people don't understand anything other than violence. Maybe their minds can't process anything else. Whatever it is, it's ugly and it wont do the protest any good.' 'I can see tomorrow's papers already. They wont mention the peaceful side at all.' 'Nope. The media's shitty like that. They only want to report on whatever will get people talking. As a result actual news and journalism is forgotten in favour of celebrity weddings and football transfers. Makes me fucking sick. When my mum got divorced she didn't get a magazine deal and nationwide coverage in the newspapers. But some jumped up pop star snatches a baby from Africa and whoop-de-fucking-doo, it's front page!' Adam gesticulated angrily as he spoke and he realised he was ranting. Diana was smiling. 'You're passionate about something then.' She said. 'I didn't know your parents had split up. In fact, I don't even know your parents.'
'Whose parents aren't split up nowadays?' He let the question hang in case Diana was one of the rare cases. 'I only live with my dad,' she said. 'Don't know where mum is. Ran away when I was 10 years old. My head teacher found me standing outside school in the rain. Then social services sent me to live with my dad.' She laughed a little. 'Sorry, you didn't ask for my life story.' 'No, it's good.' He smiled. 'Takes guts to run away from home. Where did you think you were going to go?' 'My dad asked the same thing when I turned up on his doorstep with a social worker. Except he was much angrier.' 'My dad's pretty alright, but I can't imagine two people more different than him and my mum. She's hardworking, organised and mature. He's a big kid who plays a lot of video games and guitar. He got me started on it.' 'Guitar?' 'Yeah. Been playing maybe 4 years now, but I'm still pretty shit. Now I've got nothing but time on my hands I should really practice more.' 'I tried to learn, but I'm not very good. Just about got chords down.' 'Didn't you say you play bass?' 'Yeah,' she laughed. 'But only slightly more competently than I play guitar.' 'Eddie's a bassist,' Adam glanced over his shoulder towards his scruffy friend. 'Pretty damn good at it actually.' They continued talking for the duration of the journey home and Adam found himself warming to her. She was open, spoke freely and asked questions, giving him the opportunity to talk about himself which was something that never came naturally. She also seemed genuinely interested in what he had to say, which was a good feeling. And though conversation never threatened to drift into the realm of the intellectual of the obscure and irreverent, it was pleasant and fulfilling. Adam wondered just how starved of human contact he had to be to de-construct and examine conversations the way he did. He realised it came much from his father, who had always instilled a sense of superiority in Adam during his younger years. Of course, the younger Adam had no real concept of superiority and simply believed that talking led to truth. Leading him to declare himself above many of his classmates, who most often had no idea what he was talking about. The dual-upbringing he had experienced had shaped him well, he thought. He had a strong work ethic, but not overzealous like Jack. He always made time for fun and since neither of his parents had been well off during his upbringing, he'd learnt to appreciate the simple joys of being outside, reading, writing and strumming a guitar. He was happy with the way things had gone, but for some reason his father's influence reigned supreme when it came to social situations. A man who often expressed his hatred of the mundane, Adam's father had raised his son in the same image. So Adam always sought to be different. When someone wore black, he wore white. He hated sports, if only by some twisted principle that everyone else seemed to like them. Popular music was dreadful, television was mind-numbing and the media was a circus. Exactly how much of this was his own personality and how much was a shadow of his father was unclear. In fact, over the years it had become impossible to separate the two. His mother functioned better in a world that demanded dedication and hard work, but her personality was the weaker one and she'd rubbed off on him much less. He wondered how these situations had effected all of his friends. Especially Eddie, whose family tree closely resembled a monkey puzzle. He had an entire step-family who were adoptive parents, though he was still in contact with his maternal parents. A blood brother and step-sister who were nothing like him, and despite the stress and confusion this must've caused to a the young Eddie he was still optimistic and apparently untroubled by it. You always heard about kids who went into foster care becoming problem children, but looking at Eddie it was impossible to imagine. Though he and Jack liked to rip into their friend at every given chance, he took it all well and remained loyal and friendly. It was easy to like Eddie. He never argued, except when it came to music, which was his passion. Jack was very much the product of his mother. She had at one time told him that Adam and Eddie weren't earning enough money and so Jack should find new friends. Jack still insisted that it was taken out context, but Adam had no problem believing his mother would've said exactly those words. Still, Jack added a much needed stability. He was reliable. He gave the lifts, organised the parties, kept the group together while drawing in others and adding people to the circle of friends. It was a good balance that the three of them shared and for once, the nagging dislike was gone and Adam found himself truly appreciating his friends. There was a deafening roar, a flash, a jolt, then darkness. The carriage halted immediately, people were tossed from their feet and fell screaming into others. The sound, apocalyptic and violent echoed down the tunnel,
soaking into the darkness. Screams began to filter through the deprivation of senses. Screams of wounded and the lamentations lost loved ones filled the dark with a coldness that cut to the core. People reached for phones, mp3 players and wind-up torches, their light sources woefully inadequate for beating back the crushing, almost physical darkness. They illuminated faces, pale, gaunt and horrified. Men and women looked at one another, confusion and terror contorting their features. Understanding, real and gutwrenching crept up on them slowly and as it did, cries went up. A bomb had been set off somewhere at the front of the tube train. Damage to the rear coaches was minimal, but there was no doubt as to what lay beyond the umbra. Twisted metal, torn bodies and shattered glass were mercifully hidden, though it made their existence no less real. It was a situation that at first caused shock and alarm, which then gave way to a numbness and denial. At least that was what Adam felt as he stared into the abyss, his hand clenched in Diana's who he could feel sobbing. He made no move, didn't reach out for something to hold, didn't reach for his phone. He stayed, still and silent, unable to think, move or put together any of the pieces that had tumbled down around him. He didn't think about what to do next, where to go or how he could help. He didn't think at all, he was frozen, cold and numb. Gripped by a terror so huge that it paralysed him. After an eternity of holding his breath he inhaled, the stagnant, lukewarm air of the tube tunnel fired his senses. He licked dry lips with a dry tongue and tried to speak, but only a hoarse croak came out, barely a breeze against the darkness. But others were starting to move now, scuffling and whispering in out in the darkness. It was as though they were all too scared to move for fear of punishment from some unseen tormentor. And perhaps they were right, perhaps there were people waiting beyond the darkness for anyone who had survived. No, Adam thought, he senses returning. This wasn't about murder, this was an act of destruction, human life was nothing more than collateral. He reached out to Diana and pulled her towards him, mustering his failing strength to hold her tightly. He felt the cold tears through the shoulder of his shirt as she shuddered and sobbed, unable to function beyond this emotional outpouring. Though he couldn't blame her, be could barely think. In the distance, a child, perhaps an infant began to cry and inside him something broke. It was a sound that so perfectly captured the horror of their situation that it seemed almost like a joke. But it wasn't. It was so far from humour, light and anything positive that he felt positively crushed by the weight of it. He'd seen the news those years ago and he'd felt saddened, but relieved. Now he was at the centre of it and he understood the magnitude of it far too well. He wished he didn't. 'Is everyone alright?' A man called into the darkness. A beam of light from a pocket torch lanced through the darkness towards them. Adam could only nod, though he was far from right. The man was kindly looking, short black hair, glasses and a suit. He moved down the train calling out to anyone that could hear him. 'Alright everyone,' he said, further away than before. 'We need to get off of this train, right now.' No one refused, but no one moved either. The man passed them again and approached the pair of doors they were standing next to. Putting the torch into his mouth, he prised at the doors, but they didn't budge. Adam moved to help him, glad to have something to rally around. Being the only point of light in the carriage it wasn't long before others joined them and the doors were forced open. The man held them open and shephered the people off, down the steep step and into the terrifying isolation of the tunnel. The gap between the train and the wall was wide enough to walk down comfortably, but the floor was uneven and treacherous. Once vacated, the man with the glasses hopped from the train and moved along the other carriages, shining his torch through the windows. Adam saw their faces illuminated, like ghosts, shimmering behind the glass. The impromptu rescue attempt continued. The man's decisive action had given them something to focus on, though the darkness enforced a sense of detachment. No one spoke, though they stood close to one another. Adam saw their leader move down towards the front of the train, he was swallowed by darkness, but not for long. When he returned his expression was haunting. 'We have to go back,' he said, his voice a roar against their combined silence. 'We have to find someone.' 'They'll come looking for us,' someone else said, a woman, an obvious quake in her voice. 'I'd rather get out of here now.' He said. 'Is anyone hurt? Can you all walk?' No one spoke out, so it was assumed they were fine. 'Lets move back that way,' he swung his torch back down the tunnel. 'To the last station we were in. Shouldn't take too long. Anyone with anything that can make a little light, use it. Stick together and watch the floor.' He moved to the front of the group and started walking. Like sheep, they followed him, grasping their gadgets, casting cold, pathetic light across the floor of the tunnel. The walk was long and silent, except for the scuffling of feet and sobbing. Somewhere down the line, it was realised, they had taken a wrong turn. The walk was taking longer than it
should have and now they didn't know where they were going. They might have stumbled into one of the abandoned tunnels, or a service way that was uninhabited. But they had no choice, they trudged on, too far in to turn back. Adam's mind drifted to the carnage they had left behind. He had expected to hear groans and screams of pain from the blasted front carriages. But, being late on a Sunday night the train was relatively empty, though the driver was surely dead, obliterated by the explosion. They weren't in a position to help anyone who was wounded. Confused, terrified and the furthest thing from a cohesive unit, they lacked the cooperation and resources to mount an attempt to save whoever might still be alive. It was a sickening thought, but it's ruthless necessity was undeniable. They could've done nothing and staying there longer put them at more risk and dented morale even more. Leaving was their only option. Time was meaningless in the perpetual twilight of the tunnel. Moving through the solid black, Adam felt like he was barely moving at all, just pacing the same spot up and down. It messed with his senses, threw his balance off and made him unsure of himself. To his right, her hand a vice grip around his, Diana was moving, slowly and cautiously. They hadn't said a word to each other yet and though he craved human interaction, something to take his mind off the tragedy and the long, endless walk, he had nothing to say. Nothing was appropriate, words held no power over a situation like this. They were meaningless. A half hour, perhaps longer, and they saw a dim, but glorious light far down the tunnel. Hope suffused them, though their situation had never really been hopeless and a brief chatter of conversation emerged from the sombre silence, before disappearing in the shadows that surrounded them. Their pace quickened and within moments the man in the glasses, their de facto leader, had reached the platform and pulled himself up. It was your typical London tube station. White tiles, benches and adverts, but it felt so safe and welcoming that it lifted a weight from their shoulders and a heaviness from their hearts. Adam could see the group of people that he'd travelled with. Perhaps thirty of them in total, children, teenagers and older people were among them. All of them looked around, happy to have light but otherwise vacant. The attack had shaken them all to their core and it would be a while before it all sank in, though when it did it would come with a sickening realisation and more tears. 'How is everyone?' Asked the man. 'Alright?' He searched their faces, he was met by nods but no more. He nodded in return slipped into silence. 'What's your name?' Adam asked, his voice squeezing through his dry throat and emerging as a croak. 'Daniel,' he replied. 'Yours?' 'Adam.' People introduced themselves, it was a small courtesy that Adam was thankful for. It increased their sense of unity, though didn't elevate it to any sort of useful level. 'We should start moving towards the exit,' Daniel said. 'Is everyone alright to carry on?' More nods. He led the way down the passages and up the stairs, but the abandonment of the station said it all. Not a soul was present and when they emerged into the foyer, it became obvious why. The station was closed, the street outside it dark and completely empty. They checked the offices spread around the edge of the station, the small rooms and the two-way mirrors, but no one was there. They waved at CCTV cameras, but if anyone saw them it wasn't obvious. Past the diamond-shaped grates that barred the exits, sirens rang through the night. Adam glanced at his phone, it was just past 1am. 'Looks like we're stuck here,' Daniel said. 'We'll have to stay here 'til morning. Might as well make yourselves comfortable.' People spread out, though not far. Reaping the rewards that proximity offered; protection and awareness. Any other day these people were strangers, but today they were like family and their concerted efforts and collective consciousness kept them together. Adam moved over to a vending machine and fished into his pocket for any change. He had no appetite, so punched in the two-digit code for a bottle of water. It thudded to the bottom of the machine, the sound loud against the silence of the station. He opened it, drank and held it out to Diana, who took it in a shaking hand and sipped sparingly. He made his way over to a wall and sat down with his back to it, Diana followed, drawing up her knees and hugging them. She was shivering. Without a word, Adam removed his jacket and draped it over her shoulders, though he knew cold wasn't the problem. The night was mild and comfortable, but it was a gesture he felt inclined to make. She drew the jacket tighter around her shoulders and whispered her thanks. The tears had run dry, but the sobbing had not stopped. He slid closer to her and put an arm across her shoulders, drawing her head into his chest. He stroked her hair softly, the sobbing slowed then stopped, replaced by deep, measured breathing. She had drifted off to sleep almost immediately, for which Adam was thankful. Sleep was an escape, a welcome respite from the pain of the last two hours. He tilted his head back against the white tiled wall and closed his eyes. A great fatigue fell over him, turned his arms and legs to lead, stiffening his joints and stinging his eyes. Sleep came quickly.
Eddie had gone back to Natasha's house at her continued insistence, though he was less than comfortable with the thought. On numerous occasions her dad had phoned her, which usually led to shouted, profanity-filled conversations. After their trip to London, he, Jack and Natasha had headed to the pub for some drinks while Adam and Diana had gone home to prepare for their date later that night. Despite the day's happenings in London, the two of them had planned to head back there later. After all, travel cards were valid until the next morning so it made sense to take advantage of them. Plus the riot was an isolated incident in a sprawling city, there was no chance they'd run into something like that twice in one day. Jack had returned home in the evening, leaving Eddie and Natasha to their drinks in the pub. They drank a while longer, before a slightly tipsy Natasha invited Eddie back. The invitation came with a wink that lent it all the subtlety of an atomic bomb, but Eddie wasn't about to turn it down. However, when they crossed the threshold of her small, two-story house the mood dissipated. Her parents were in the living room, eyes fixed on the television and when Eddie saw the news his blood ran cold. Ambulance, police and firemen swarmed in and out of a tube station as a scrolling news ticker told them of the devastation, of the explosions that had shocked the sleeping city. Six in total, spread out across the tube network. They had come without warning or provocation and Eddie hoped to god that Adam and Diana weren't in the middle of it. Reflexively he reached for his phone and noticed Natasha had done the same thing. All the networks would be flooded with correspondence, but it made no difference. An hour later and there was no response. Eddie's mind moved towards the worst case scenario. Natasha's assessment of the situation was more sensible, but her expression did a poor job of hiding her worry. For Jack, the news had come at an unwelcome hour. Having settled down to sleep, he was awoken by a phone call from his friend James. When he heard the news he sat bolt upright in his bed and switched on the television. All thoughts of sleep forgotten, he watched with disbelief. He watched them pull stretchers out of the tube stations, he watched paramedics descend down the stairs towards the platforms. It was the same across the city and already speculation was flying. First thoughts turned to terrorism, but when it became it was an act of anarchy, not murder, they all came to the same conclusion and it was one Jack found himself reaching as well. The rioters from earlier that day. Their aggression had been pre-destined and unstoppable, they had pushed forward with a zeal that made them dangerous. Jack had heard earlier that day that the riot had continued for hours while the police massed together enough officers to subdue the threat with tear gas and non-lethal firearms. The group had dispersed, scattering into the streets. But clearly their work was not done, and while the media men had scribbled in their note pads and the policemen spoke to reporters, the anarchists had been working on the next stage of their plan. An act so heinous and inhuman that it elevated them from the level of potential threat to folk devil. Men and women who had known of them for only a handful of hours were already decrying them as evil, blood-thirsty men with ties to all sorts of terrorist and extreme-right groups. Jack slid his legs out of bed, sleep was impossible now. He reached his phone and sent a text to Adam. He hoped his friend wasn't involved, hoped they had called it an early night and were already home. Adam was a night owl, always awake until the early hours and his phone was never on silent. Thirty minutes passed and no response came. Nervous now, Jack reached for his phone and called Eddie. 'Jack?' 'Did you hear?' 'Yeah, I can't believe it. Have you heard from Adam.' 'No. But he might be stuck in a station, or his phone could be dead.' 'Lets hope so,' Eddie responded, though his doubt was obvious. 'They're saying those rioters we saw today are behind it.' Jack continued after a silence. 'Yeah and they probably are.' Eddie agreed. 'Alright, well if you hear anything let me know.' Jack didn't have anything to talk about, his brain was a commotion. He hung up and turned on his laptop. A group this big and organised had to communicate somehow, so it was time to do some investigating. Adam awoke, cold and stiff. The cold white light of the florescent tubes blurring his vision. The amnesia of waking wore off slowly as the memory of what had happened seeped back into his consciousness. He shifted his weight and rubbed at his neck. Diana still slept, her head in his lap. Around them were others, survivors from the tube train. The sombre, detached mood still hung over them, though there was a murmur of conversation, which was a welcome departure from the tense, frightened silence they had so far been immersed in.
He reached for his phone, saw two messages had arrived and knew who they'd be from. Already framing the responses in his mind, he tapped away, letting Jack and Eddie know he was fine, though he doubted they'd still be awake. He was surprised when, shortly after responding to Eddie, his phone rang. He fumbled to answer it quickly, not wanting to wake Diana. 'Hello Eddie,' he said, his voice hoarse. 'Holy shit, are you alright?' 'Yeah, I'm fine. So is Diana. We were on one of the trains that got attacked, at the back luckily. We're stuck in a closed tube station, waiting for it to open.' He heard Jack's voice in the background, followed by Natasha's. Eddie relayed what he had heard to them. 'We all heard about it,' Eddie said after a moments silence. 'There were six attacks in total, spread out across the city. We've been watching the news; it's chaos.' Eddie paused again and exchanged a few words with Jack, Adam couldn't quite make out what they were discussing. When the conversation continued, it was Jack's voice that he heard. 'I've done some research,' Jack said. 'Though Googling something doesn't really count. From what I've found, it was the same group behind the bombings and the riot, though that's a given really. They don't have a name, it's more a collection of people; small cells and connections between other larger extreme-right groups.' Jack paused, Adam knew it was to take a sip of coffee. 'Unbelievably they don't make any attempt to hide this shit. Open forums on the internet that anyone can join.' 'Of course, you can't arrest someone for discussing terrorism.' 'That'll change soon,' Jack said. 'There's been lots of talk already. Any and all protests will be met with force, the presence and visibility of armed guards is going to be increased. They're pulling out the big guns.' 'Sounds like it's all going a bit police state.' Adam responded, recalling the sight of a wall of policemen in riot gear. The same sight would now greet any other form of protest. He'd known that any violence would stain the good intentions of the peaceful protesters. Now that was more obvious than ever. Jack fed him more information on the group, though it was hardly illuminating. For the most part they kept their heads down, organising behind he scenes, sticking to subterfuge and sabotage. They had latched onto the tuition fee protests as a stepping stone to something bigger. They had hoped that mob mentality would drive those around them to commit the same acts of violence they sough to incite. For the most part they were wrong, but their exposure to the media would draw curious minds to them. Jack also guessed that they were split into cells of various size, spread out across the UK, each governed by it's own appointed leader. While much of it was conjecture, it painted a worrying picture for the future. Had the situation become so dire that groups like this felt it was time to act? They had always existed, non-conformists and right-wing fundamentalists, but they were surrounded by ghost stories and a sort of dismissive scorn. Now they had sown fear throughout the populace, showing that they were prepared to take lives to further their cause – whatever that was. The students were willing to gather together as one and protest against something they were opposed to. Adam had considered that other, more undesirable elements might have felt the same way. After ending the call he looked at the clock on his phone, it was almost 6am and, he hoped, someone would be along to open the station soon. He glanced out into the street, where the warm, natural light of a summer's morning was like a sanctuary against the stagnant darkness he had endured only hours before. Fresh air – as fresh as it could be – breezed into the station and Adam breathed in deeply. There was a sense of relief that came over him. He hadn't considered it up until now, but he'd come close to dying. He'd been only a few feet away from people who had lost their lives. He had been lucky. He'd never stopped to consider what could have happened and, as the sorrow and fear threatened to overwhelm him, he pushed them away. He lived by his mantra, it was one that had always worked. Never make time for regrets, lives with your work and don't think about what might have happened. He had escaped, shaken but alive and that was what mattered. Death had come close, but it had missed him, thinking on the possibility of it was pointless; it hadn't happened. Around him, people who had fallen asleep on rolled up coats or bags were beginning to stir, a combination of their internal clocks and their worrying experience bringing them to an early wakefulness. People stretched and rubbed at their eyes and Adam saw the realisation register on the face of every one of them as it had done with him. For a few heartbeats, they were just waking up to a new day. Then that was stripped away as they took in their surroundings. As though waiting for her cue, Diana stirred and moved, lifting her head up and glancing blearily at Adam, not registering the situation. Then she laid her head back down to go back to sleep. Grasping at the opportunity to stretch his legs, Adam took her shoulders and shook her gently. She moaned in protest. 'Diana, wake up.' He shook her again, lifting her off him. She sat up and looked round with drowsy confusion which turned quickly into cold clarity. She shifted herself and sat up next to him. His jacket still hung off her shoulders, she pulled it tight around her.
'So it really happened,' she said, speaking for the first time since the explosion. 'Yeah,' he said, leaning his head back and staring absently at the ceiling. 'It really did.' 'I can't believe someone would do that,' she said, her voice was barely more than a whisper. 'How horrible.' 'I know. I spoke to Jack and Eddie, they know we're alright. Natasha too. Apparently it wasn't an isolated incident, there were five other attacks across London.' Diana's already large eyes widened with the shock of the news. 'What was that?' Someone asked from nearby, overhearing the news. Adam filled them in, his voice loud across the quiet of the hall. Everyone within earshot listened as he told them about the other attacks, the plan for increased armed police presence and the organisation of the group who caused it all. Once he was done, conversation flared up, filling the white tiled room. They fired questions at him, but he had no answers for them. Suddenly they treated him like a prophet, who saw the truth through a haze of obscurity. They asked him things he didn't â€“ couldn't â€“ know. How many had been killed, had anyone been arrested, were they planning any other attacks. He confessed his ignorance and they split off into other conversations, asking one another, reaching for phones to contact loved ones, people who might know more. Daniel came across the room towards him and crouched down. He still looked smart and kindly, despite the dark circles around his eyes and the dirty streaks on his crisp, white shirt. 'We'll be getting out of here soon,' Daniel said. 'I spoke to someone who works on the tube. Lots of stations are closed because of the attacks and the staff are all spread thin, but they'll send someone along soon to let us out.' Daniel clapped Adam on the shoulder and offered him a grim, yet genuine smile. 'Thanks for helping me with the door.' Adam knew it was a platitude. He'd done absolutely nothing to help lead these people to safety. Daniel had led them and he alone was the reason they weren't stuck, isolated and separated in a ruined tube train. 'Don't thank me,' Adam said. 'You were the one with enough foresight to carry a torch. You were the one who checked for other survivors. It's thanks to you that we all got out.' Daniel waves a hand to dismiss the comments. 'Nonsense, I didn't do anything special. I'm just glad we got here safely. I wish we could've checked the front carriage though, there might be someone...' he trailed away, worry lining his features. 'Even if there were survivors in the front carriage, we didn't have the resources to get them out. We barely even had enough light to see by.' Adam extended his hand. 'Thank you for the rescue, Daniel.' Daniel accepted and nodded, then stood up. He moved from person to person, spoke to them briefly, checked up on them. Some of them shook his hand or hugged them and though he felt guilty for admitting it, Adam was envious of him. He wished he'd had the courage to take action. Wished he had retained clarity of thought. Instead he had frozen, like everyone else. He'd always put himself above others, watched stupid television shows about how people reacted in emergencies, whether they were fight or flight, and he'd always told himself he'd be a fighter. But last night he had frozen, unable to process a single cogent thought. He cursed himself for his weakness. Another hour or so passed before a man in the bright orange vest of a London Underground worker arrived to unlock the grates that barred the exits. A couple of ambulances and fire engines were gathered outside, their crews ready to administer aid where necessary, but there was little need. Several policemen stood nearby, notepads in hand. Besides frayed nerves and a bad nights sleep, no one had sustained any real injuries beyond bumps and scraped and one twisted ankle from a fall in the tunnel. It was an odd thing, but Adam suddenly became aware of how dirty he and everyone else was. The filth from the tunnel had covered them, staining clothes and blackening skin. Then again, they had just trudged through miles of tunnel, so it was fitting that they looked the part. A few of the others were already talking to the police officers, who jotted down notes that they must've already heard a hundred times. Adam wondered if there were other groups of people that had gone through the same thing. He also wondered if there were people still stuck in the tunnels, who had either gotten lost in an attempt at freedom or stayed aboard their ruined trains, trapped in the darkness. It was a sobering thought and one that brought unwanted worry and despair. Adam had always been claustrophobic, and though he would never tell anyone, the fear that had gripped him as he traversed along the tunnel had been almost paralysing. He remembered how the darkness felt almost heavy, pressing in around him and if anyone had been able to see his expression it would've been one of fear and trepidation. He had been thankful, at the time, for the small point of human contact that Diana's hand had offered. A connection to someone else, a link to the real, physical world that he knew existed somewhere behind the darkness. Now, bathed in the light of a new sun and the cool morning air, he was glad to have survived. It was a clichĂŠ, he knew that, but it gave him a sense of perspective. He'd always thought that the dangers of the world were exaggerated. People getting stabbed, hit by cars or struck by lightning. These were freak occurrences that only
garnered fear because they were covered in the news. But now he'd been in the middle of one he had a different opinion of them completely. They could come at any time, happen to anyone. He wasn't immune, despite what his arrogance told him. Adam and Diana stuck around for a few more minutes to make sure they weren't needed, then they slipped away. The prospect of going home had never seemed to appealing. The thoughts of a soft bed and a hot drink made his bones feel heavy as a new wave of exhaustion swept over him. He suspected that he was physically rested enough to face the day, but the exhaustion he felt was emotional and psychological and it drained him much more than any sort of physical exertion ever could. On the train back they both dozed, scruffy and dirtstreaked among the fresh Monday morning commuters who still made their way to work despite the news of the day. Adam smiled. It was very British, trains had been blown up, people had died, but they would be damned if that stopped them getting to work on time. Adam had walked Diana back to her house, even though it gave him an extra bus to catch to get home. He felt inclined to make sure she was safe all the way to her doorstep. 'This'll do,' she said turning to him. They were stood on a corner of pavement that featured a letter box set into a brick wall. 'You live in a letter box?' He said, feigning mock surprise. 'You're skinny, but wow, to get in there. That's impressive.' 'No idiot,' she laughed. 'Just up the road. I'll be alright from here.' 'I'll take you all the way,' he said. 'I wanna see what your house is like.' 'It's fine,' she said with one of those innocent and disarming smiles. 'Thank you though. It's very kind.' 'Hell of a first date, eh?' He said with a thin smile. 'They don't usually end in explosions.' She said. The humour was doing a good job of masking the shock they both still felt. 'Not unless you're lucky.' 'I don't feel very lucky.' He admitted. 'We're lucky to be standing here,' she said. 'Lucky to be alive.' 'Never thought I'd consider standing and living lucky.' He said. 'Anyway, bugger off. I can practically feel my bed calling me from here.' They embraced, she kissed him on the cheek, met his eyes and smiled. Then turned and walked off up the road, disappearing as she rounded a corner. It was only after a few moments that Adam realised he was still carrying her bag, and as fabulous as it made him look he set off after her to give it back. When he caught up she was just opening her door. 'Diana!' He called waving his hand. She turned to him, her expression uncomfortable. 'Your bag!' He held it aloft. She approached him' 'Thank you,' she said taking it from him. Adam glanced at the house, it was quite large, white pebble dash. In the window of the living room stood a broad-shouldered, bald-headed man who regarded him with open malevolence. He felt small and uncomfortable under his gaze and his only response was to smile weakly. 'That's my dad,' she said nervously. 'He's very protective. Whenever boys come near the house he thinks they're after me. He's like a bloody dog.' 'He's not gonna start barking at me is he?' 'You shouldn't stick around to find out. I'll see you soon.' Adam needed no more incentive, he turned and left, his pace quicker than usually until he was out of sight of Diana's house. Carlos once again found himself sat in Shaun Westfield's manor, though without the background activity of a party the place had a cold, deserted feel to it. Shaun had called him and his “Lieutenants” over for a discussion about the protest. It wasn't a discussion Carlos wanted to have, given that the memory of it was still painful and embarrassing. Although he was only one man, he had considered himself responsible for the actions of everyone involved and therefore, in part, blamed himself for the riots. They were gathered in the living room this time, the gratuitously large television was tuned to a high definition news channel, which seemed entirely pointless. Carlos and his four closest collaborators were spread out over the large sofas, sipping drinks and picking at the food that had been bought out for them. Shaun entered the room and asked for their attention. 'We did a good job yesterday,' he began. 'Did we?' Carlos sneered. 'I wouldn't call riots and injured police officers “good”.' 'Ah, you're still blaming yourself for that I see. Those people never had any intention of being peaceful. They were there to cause trouble and they did. They were beyond our control.'
'It doesn't help us though, does it? We've fucked it all up at the first hurdle.' Shaun pulled a dining chair across from a nearby table and sat down in front of them, regarding them all coolly. 'We didn't fuck anything up. We did what we set out to do, we protested peacefully. I think it's time to start planning round two.' 'Round two?' Carlos stood up and flung his arms wide. 'There isn't going to be a round two! You heard the news, they're going to treat violent protests with zero-tolerance. If even one person acts up they'll bring batons and tear gas down on the rest of us. I can't take that risk.' 'Then eliminate the risk.' Shaun leant forward, poured some water from a glass pitcher into a high, crystal glass and sipped. 'Make sure everyone knows what they're getting into. If people know the danger, it's their choice.' 'What? “Come protest with us! Get your faces stoved in!” Yeah, that'll bring 'em in droves.' 'People are more dedicated to this cause than you know.' Shaun said, pointing a finger at him. 'Millions of people heard about the protests. The old and the boring call us thugs, but our contemporaries, our peers, they want to join us. Call another protest Carlos, send out the message. Despite what you may think, this media coverage has been a blessing.' Carlos could see the sense in Shaun's words and he began to wonder if the rich kid actually had an ulterior motive. During the run up to the first protest he had worked hard, calling in favours to arrange a safe path through the streets and of course constructing the stage, which, while only a small gesture, had lent a good deal of authority to proceedings. And now, while Carlos and his friends haemorrhaged enthusiasm and lost the desire to continue in the face of a perceived disappointing defeat, Shaun had continued pushing forward, convinced that they hadn't been handed a setback, but instead an opportunity to capitalise on. 'It sounds like a good idea.' Alice, Carlos' girlfriend and one of his Lieutenants said. 'Me too,' said Paul, another of Carlos' friends. 'As long as everyone's aware of the potential punishment, it'll go fine.' Carlos rubbed at his cheek, his hand sounding like sand against his dark stubble. He tossed the thoughts around in his head, weighed up the pros and cons, the potential of another riot was the most immediate problem, but it was something that would have to be tackled closer to the time. Also, if what Shaun was saying was true – which he didn't doubt – the increased number of people would present a number of problems concerning organisation and logistics. But as before, Carlos felt that familiar burning inside. It started in the pit of his stomach and expanded, spread through his chest and lungs, surging up his throat to blast into his head, filling him with optimism and pride. It drove the cold emptiness of defeat away and filled him with a vigour he feared lost. 'Alright,' he said. 'But we'll need to really plan this. We'll need people to help, people all across the country. If we're gonna do it, we gotta do it right. It's gotta be huge, but organised. We'll need more leaders, a route through the city and a way of keeping out any of those fucking racist thugs.' Shaun got up from his seat and clapped Carlos on the shoulder. Surprisingly, it didn't discomfort Carlos as much as it usually did. It felt genuine, but Carlos had to be sure.' 'But there's something I need to know.' Carlos said, turning to look at Westfield. 'Why are you so dedicated to this?' 'I already answered that. Exposure, influence, all that stuff.' 'Your dad has connections in every sector in the country, you don't need more influence, and you're a rich kid, you can get into your university of choice without any trouble.' Shaun smiled. It was a knowing smile, it spoke of confirmation. 'I thought you might think of me that way.' Shaun said. 'A rich white boy, with enough money to buy his way into anything, is that right? In your eyes I'm one of the enemy, I'm already a politician, spreading lies and deceit, greeting with one hand and stabbing with the other. Well let me tell you something, all of you. I don't want to be handed anything I don't want to ride on anyone's coattails and I will not let the success of my family speak for me. True, this government had made the rich richer, but despite what you might think I'm not so obsessed with my lifestyle that I'd deceive and coerce to keep it that way. I see the problems people face. I see the unemployment, the tension and I hate it. I hate what the Cuntservatives have turned this country into and I will change things, alone of with your help. I will make a difference!' Carlos stared agape at Shaun. During his tirade, not a flicker of falseness had clouded his features. He spoke with a passion and honestly that raised the small hairs on Carlos' arms. His distrust of Westfield was washed away, replaced by a solid respect. 'I did think of you that way,' Carlos admitted, casting his gaze downwards. 'And I must apologise. My judgement leaves a lot to be desired it seems. I'm sorry.'
Shaun smiled again, this time genuine and shook his head. 'No need for apologies. Now, time is wasting and we've got a revolution to organise.' Adam loved the run up to Christmas and even though it was more than a month away, his new job and childlike excitement filled his much with such busyness as to filter out the events several months previous. He still dreamt of dark tunnels and muted silence, and occasionally his mind would slip back to that dark day, but for the most part he was focused, happy and moving in a distinctly forward direction. There had been snags, of course. Eddie and Natasha were a confirmed couple now and he was growing ever more distant. In his eagerness to please her, he often overlooked his other friends. He was also becoming more and more like her; cynical, artistic and politically aware. The protests had taken an extremely positive turn and Adam found himself watching the news nightly for more information on what was happening. Parliament's decision was three weeks away and with the looming threat of a rise in tuition fees the students had turned out in their droves. Carlos and Shaun were now recognised across the nation, appearing in papers and the morning news shows, spreading their message of considerate, yet steadfast protest. Westfield's change of character had been an unexpected and not entirely unpleasant surprise. In fact, he seemed to be the driving force behind their continued efforts. With numbers pushing ten thousand the protests had become monumentally popular and dissent among the ranked masses was minimal. Adam had watched on the news as one man threw a brick and three of the peaceful protesters turned on him, hauling him to the edge of the crowd and passing him to the police. There was a sense of unity that seemed impossible. There were also weekly reports of the group behind the riots. There had been multiple arrests, fights and several murders, including the gruesome hanging of an Indian woman from a bridge in London, pictures of which had dominated papers and news programs for days. It was a time of tension and dissent, people not indigenous to England felt uneasy and wary. It had become obvious that the motivation behind the attacks was mostly racial. It was another group dedicated to returning England to it's alleged former glory. London was under much tighter security measures, with the government making good on at least one of it's promises. Police presence had increased considerably and they were adopting a zero-tolerance policy towards anyone inciting or taking part in any act of public disorder or vandalism. Some praised the new approach, but more saw it as a foreshadowing of things to come. Adam had heard so much about it that he no longer cared. He was focused on himself. He had grown closer to Emily and he had attempted the relationship talk, but she had refused under no uncertain terms. It was disappointing, but not a defeat. Contrarily, Diana had shown him increased interest, but he was not interested, but couldn't drum up a reason that was cohesive and sensitive enough. So the charade had continued, she treating him like something more than a friend, him awkwardly refusing or sidestepping her advances while he pursued a girl who was giving him the same treatment. He'd spoken about it with Jack and Eddie several times, to the point where he was repeating himself and they were getting sick of hearing about it. Then again, it was all that dominated his mind so talking about anything else had become difficult. Everything had taken a turn downhill when a prominent person among the large, yet loose circle of friends, had invited them all over for a party to celebrate his birthday. James, the host, wasn't much of a talker, speaking only when necessary or suitably drunk, yet he was massively popular and kept in touch with everyone. During their college years, his parties had been something of a tradition. In more recent times they had reduced greatly, but attracted more people. It was a fair trade off. Adam was sitting with Emily, a site that had become common at any social gathering, her becoming a welcome member of the group. Jack had expressed his dislike for her early on, but later drunkenly admitted it was jealousy. As always, the pair shared their in-jokes and communicated in a way that would've seemed like gibberish to an outsider. Eddie and Natasha kept to themselves while Jack and Grace, who had started a relationship shortly after Shaun's party, moved among the guests separately, both engaging in the various social games, keeping up appearances and catching up with everyone. They were very similar, but Grace was certainly the dominant one. Bossy, demanding and with a strict no-nonsense approach to everything, she got things done but usually pissed people off along the way. She had punched Adam in the eye after he drunkenly slapped her backside. It was a mistake he wouldn't make again and he harboured a small amount of dislike for her. Diana was there as well, Adam had caught her looking at him from the periphery of his vision, but so far they had not spoken. He had failed to come up with any successful way of driving her off, so he had decided instead to act cold and unfriendly. He hated the idea of it, but it seemed like the only way. As the evening rolled on and more alcohol was consumed, Adam and Emily branched off to talk to others.
There were several people Adam could only stomach while drunk. The political people, who only ever talked about taxes, the cookie-cutter trendy kids who, underneath their floppy hair cuts and tight trousers were generally okay guys and the other dull people who never had much worthwhile to say. As it always did, the evening ended with Adam and Emily on the metal staircase outside James' third-storey flat. She lived just round the corner, he was a bus away and both were more drunk than usual and entirely without out thinking he leaned in to kiss her. She reciprocated and then went on her way without a word passing between them. Adam didn't really register it, the haze of inebriation had a way of dampening realisation. It was an hour before Natasha approached him, her face like a thunder cloud, set for confrontation. 'What did you do to her?' She seethed, her voice low, hissing between her teeth. 'To who?' Adam replied, trying not to let on just how drunk he was. 'Diana. She just ran off crying and blaming you. What did you do you dick?' 'Nothing, I haven't spoken to her all night.' 'Oh, and it didn't occur to you that that could be the problem?' 'I'll go talk to her,' he said getting shakily to his feet. 'You better, and try not to throw up on her. You're so drunk.' She scoffed. Adam patted himself, reached into his pockets and pulled out handfuls of nothing, then shrugged. 'Sorry Natasha, but I'm fresh out of shit to give. Go fuck yourself.' He laughed loudly to drown out her response and made his way outside, descending the first set of stairs to the middle level where Diana was leaning on the railing crying. 'What's the problem?' He asked with no small amount of disinterest. 'Nothing,' she said quietly. 'Oh right. See, I thought people cried when something was wrong. Guess you just do it to pass the time.' 'I saw you kiss her.' 'Who?' 'Who do you think?' She said, raising her voice and turning to him. 'Emily you idiot, I saw you kissing Emily.' 'Oh yeah...that did happen didn't it? I'd almost forgotten.' 'Why do you do it? Why do you go after a girl who had no interest in you while I'm left practically throwing myself at you? You always laugh hardest at her jokes, you always make eye contact with her and when you're not talking to her I see you steal lingering glances at her. I know you do because I've been doing the same thing with you.' 'Look,' Adam began. He'd grown tired of dancing around the subject and resolved to set record straight tonight. 'I realise you have feelings for me, and while that's quite flattering, this-' he moved his hands back and forth between them. '-This isn't going to work. You're just not right for me.' Diana looked visibly hurt, but Adam wasn't going to yield, not this time. He had to power through, they'd both be better off for it. 'Tell me why,' she said. 'I don't know. I just don't feel it, y'know? You're lovely, you're beautiful and funny and so, so kind. There's absolutely nothing I dislike about you, but there's nothing I love either.' He had to glance away from her face. He could see the crushing disappointment and pain he was causing. 'Sorry. Don't blame yourself, this is my fault. It's just the way I'm wired.' 'Did you just say “it's not you, it's me” but in more words?' Her voice was loud now. Uncomfortably so, Adam felt people gathering on the balcony above. 'What sort of shit is that? You never even gave me a chance! You were too busy going after a girl who doesn't want you!' She was bordering on hysterical now and Adam's plan to be straight and honest was falling apart as he felt guilt tugging at his heart strings. 'Look, Diana, lets talk about this properly another time. I've drunk too much and you're hysterical. Tomorrow, alright?' She glanced up at him through tear-filled eyes, he saw a glimmer of hope there and though he knew he should, he couldn't bring himself to snuff it out. 'Alright,' she said sniffling. 'Tomorrow.' Then she turned, descended the stairs and left. Morning came with unwelcome brightness. It was a cold, brittle sort of sunlight that belied the bitterness of the day outside. But at least there was no punch and no fat girl this time. Across James' flat people had slept where they fell, with some electing to rough it and stay up all night. These people were gathered in the kitchen as Adam passed through, squinting against the offensive light and stepping over cans and other detritus. Someone had pulled up a large section of the lino flooring and was – as only a horrendously drunk person could – using it as a blanket. Odds are James would never mention it, just like he had never mentioned his broken cupboard door or loose banister, both of which were the results of previous parties.
From the moment of waking Adam had been aware of last night's altercation with Diana and his brief, but effective fight with Natasha. He wanted to blame the alcohol, but really it just gave him the courage â€“ or rather, removed the tact â€“ to tell her what he'd always thought of her. It felt good, though it was a shameful admission for him. After a greasy breakfast, which served as a less effective time killer than he hoped, Adam knew it was time to speak to Diana. She wasn't answering her phone and rather than put it off further he decided, against all his instincts, to go directly to her house. He just hoped her bulldog of a father was out, asleep or dead. He stood outside her house and rang again. It was almost midday and it was likely, being a Sunday, that she was still asleep, but either way he was going to settle affairs. Beauty sleep be damned. He approached the door and, with his heart skipping a beat, knocked three times. In the tense silence that followed, he strained his ears and eyes for any sign of movement behind the door. Although he'd never been particularly athletic, he was pretty sure he could outrun Diana's dad if he needed to. Unless of course he ran like a dog as well, in which case he was stuffed. After a minute there was no answer and with all his sense screaming at him to turn around, he headed round the back of the house and tried her phone again. This time he heard it ringing, faintly from behind one of the upstairs windows. As though placed there by some design will, was a sturdy wooden trellis. The dried tendrils of a plant clung to it, crumbling under his hands as he sought a handhold. He felt more confident knowing that her dad must be otherwise engaged, otherwise he'd surely have answered the door. He hoped however that his dynamic entry into her house wouldn't be misinterpreted as a grand romantic gesture. Then again, who ever entered through a window to turn someone down? Slowly he made his way to the top of the trellis, pausing and holding his breath every time it an ominous creak or rattle issued from the dry wood. He looked down, it wasn't far, but that didn't mean he liked the idea of falling. He was level with her window now and crept over slowly. He imagined that to a casual observer it must've looked ridiculous and decidedly inelegant. He reached out a hand and clutched the ledge of the window, breathing a little sigh of relief for the sturdy support that solid brick offered. He inched closer to the window and as the room entered his vision his blood ran cold. Diana was curled up on her bead, crying. Her hair covered her face and she was dressed in a simple black nightie, but her arms and legs were covered in welts and bruises that simply couldn't be self-inflicted. Adam's answer came striding into the room, his belt in his hands, huge against the huddled, cowering form of his daughter. 'This is what you deserve,' he said, his voice like gravel, heavy with menace. She couldn't frame a coherent response, subsiding instead to whimpers and stammered begging. 'I raised a whore,' he said, slapping the belt against his open palm. 'I've seen you with all those boys. All the pictures online. You even have the gall to bring one to this house!' He yelled and lashed out, the belt snapping against her skin. She cried out in pain but made no attempt to get away or defend herself. Adam felt tears welling up and beneath it, a cold fear suffused by rage and indignation. 'You'll learn to be humble,' the big man said, fumbling for the button on his jeans. Adam had seen enough. His mind rushed as he clumsily descended, dropping the last six or so feet and stumbling. He had to help her, he didn't know how but he had to. He tried the back door and was met success when the handle turned, clicked and the door swung open. He looked around the kitchen but found nothing, then moved into the hall and saw a steel bat resting in an umbrella stand next to the door. He grabbed it and took the stairs two at a time. Reason thrashed at the edge of his mind, which was blind to anything except helping Diana. It told him how stupid he was, how it wasn't his business and how it could all go horribly wrong. But for once, the analyst, the observer and the careful thinker was gone, possessed now by a man running on instinct and emotion. On the landing he stopped to listen, he could hear Diana sobbing and made his way to the source of the sound. He edged the door open and saw Diana's father hunched over her. He didn't want to consider what was happening to her, but his back was to Adam and that's all that mattered. 'Get the fuck off her!' He bellowed. The man half turned before the bat crashed home with a sickening thud and he toppled to the floor. Blood was splattered on the end of the bat and with the weight of his actions crashing down around his ears he knelt down to feel for a pulse and released a breath he didn't realise he'd been holding when he found one. He didn't care for this man's life, not one bit, but the police didn't make the distinction between man and monster. He turned to Diana, who had sat up, clutching her knees, eyes wide and fixed on the prone figure of her father. Adam dropped the bat and approached her. He perched on the edge of the bed and tried to meet her eyes, but they wouldn't break away from her dad. 'Diana,' he said, reaching out a hand to grasp her shoulder. She flinched violently at the touch then turned her
attention to him as though noticing his presence for the first time. 'Is he...?' She trailed off, he shook his head. 'No, just unconscious.' 'He deserves to die,' she said, her eyes wild and brimming with malice. 'Maybe, but I'm not a murderer. Are you alright?' She shook her head. 'No, I'm not. Not at all.' She began to sob again. Adam reached out to embrace her, careful of the wounds on her arms and legs. He pulled her close and held her gently. After a while she calmed down. It was a bizarre situation and Adam was constantly aware of the man he'd just knocked out and the possibility of him waking up at any moment. At that though he hooked his foot around the bat and dragged it closer to him and â€“ more importantly â€“ further from the unconscious man. 'Diana, we need to leave.' He said, not really sure what his plan was. He just knew he didn't want to be around when her father came around. 'Pack some clothes, anything else you need. I'm getting you out of here.' 'To where?' She said, her voice was hopeless. 'Anywhere. My place, Natasha's place, anywhere that isn't here. I'm not leaving you here. Come on now, hurry. I'll help.' He slung his back off and opened it. It only contained a toothbrush, it was the one thing he wouldn't stay out without. 'Diana, come on.' He pulled her upright gently, hoping to coax her into acting. She moved slowly, drifting around the room, unsure of what to take. 'Clothes Diana, get some clothes. Something warm. Do you have any other bags?' 'Cupboard above the bed.' She said flatly. He rummaged through it, pulling out a large duffle bag. She began rifling through drawers and tossing various articles of clothing onto the bed. Adam, not really sure of what a girl needed when she was about to run away from home a second time, began tossing what he considered the essentials into his bag; make up, facial wipes, lotions and tablets. 'Diana, put things in the bag. Come on, hurry.' He said as she created an ever-growing pile of clothes on the bed. He reached over and grabbed piles of clothes, bundling them into the duffle bag. He found a camera, laptop, mp3 player and her mobile phone, which he put into his bag along with the one soft toy that rested on her bed. He considered it was somehow relevant since most girls he knew had a great many of the damned things. Diana was moving with more purpose now, but the light beyond her grey-green eyes was dead. She hauled clothes from their drawers and stuffed them into the duffle bag. Then she took a long, faux-fur lined coat from the back of her door and threw it around her shoulders before slipping on some simple, flat-bottom shoes. She brushed her hair back behind her ears and hefted the duffle bag, standing at the door, looking like one of those ladies from the old black and white films, standing at a train station waving goodbye to a lover. 'Ready?' He asked. She simply nodded. He shouldered his bag and took the other from her, grasped her hand and led her out of the house. He realised his pace was probably too quick, but he was eager to leave. He'd have to deal with the mental damage when they were a safe distance away. The most immediate haven was his house, and so he trotted to the bus stop with Diana in tow and waited in the cold light of morning. Diana was like a statue, staring straight ahead, moving only when Adam prompted her two. He wondered if something inside her had broken, given up and shut itself away from the pain. He wondered how long this had been going on. She always wore long sleeves and hid her legs with leggings or jeans. It was something that easily overlooked with the benefit of ignorance, but in light of this new discovery it took on a far more sinister meaning. He had known her for months, had it been going on all this time? Had he been beating and raping her all this time? If he had she didn't show it outwardly. But this time it had pushed her over the edge and she seemed to just stop. Back at his house, Adam led Diana inside and gestured her upstairs, hoping to get her out of sight before his mum emerged from one of the nearby rooms to meet them. Instinctively he clicked his fingers as the door closed, smiling slightly at the persistence of his quirk. She moved with painful slowness and he silently urged her to disappear. Luckily, his mother had been in the kitchen preparing a roast and hadn't heard them enter. Once she was safely upstairs he dropped the bags in his room. She sat heavily on the bed, but nothing about her demeanour changed. 'Make yourself comfortable, I'll give you a few minutes to get changed or whatever it is you need to do. Drink?' An almost imperceptible shake of the head gave him his answer. He left and moved downstairs. He knew full well he couldn't hide a girl in his room, but he wanted to explain the situation on his own terms. His mother, given to worry at the slightest sign of trouble, would make no end of fuss over a bedraggled, bruised girl arriving on her doorstep with two bagfuls of belongings. 'Oh hello love,' she said as he emerged into the kitchen. 'You're back early.' 'Hi mum, look, I need to tell you something.'
He explained the situation in just enough detail, leaving out his assault of Diana's father and the rape. 'So she just needs a place to stay. Her dad's a real cunt and-' 'Please don't use that word. It's horrid.' 'Sorry. Her dad's a real dick and she needs to get away. She won't be here long, just time to get her head straight.' 'She's welcome, but I don't want any angry father's knocking on my door you understand?' He nodded. She smiled warmly at him. 'You're a good boy,' she said to the guy who'd just hit someone with a bat. 'Looking out for your friends like that. Very good of you.' 'Thanks mum,' he smiled. 'How about some tea?' She said, getting up from the seat at the dining table to put the kettle on. Adam came upstairs with a two cups of tea. Diana had dressed and was looking more like herself. She smiled sadly at him as he entered. He set one mug down next to her and took a sip from his. 'Two sugars,' he said. 'That's how you take it, right?' 'Yeah, thanks.' She reached over and took the mug in her hands, apparently savouring the warmth of it. There was an awkward silence that followed. Adam didn't want to talk about what had just happened. Despite his personal experience he still felt like he had no right to intrude in this, her deepest of secrets. Eventually, she spoke and laid his questions to rest. 'He's been doing this for a year at least,' she said, staring mournfully into her tea. 'It happened when I got my first real boyfriend, Chris. He got insanely jealous and stopped me from seeing him. One day when Chris came round unexpected he beat him up. Before then my dad was just a normal dad. Kind and affectionate. Then he turned into a possessive psychopath...' 'A year?' Adam gasped. 'I had no idea, I'm sorry.' 'You learn to hide it,' she said. Her flippant familiarity gave the comment considerable clout. 'But you shouldn't have to. Why didn't you tell someone?' 'Like who?' 'The police?' 'And they would do what?' She spat. 'Take me away from my friends, my education? I couldn't start over again. It takes me so long to get to know people because I can't trust anyone straight away. I hate meeting new people, it makes me sick with nerves.' 'You seemed alright with me,' he said, recalling their first meeting. 'An act,' she said waving a hand dismissively. 'I put it on to keep people away.' Another silence followed as they both sipped at their tea. Adam sat down in his computer chair and instinctively reached for his guitar, pulling it into his lap before realising how inappropriate it was. As though reading his mind again, Diana smiled. 'Go ahead, I'd like to hear you play.' 'I'm not sure I-' 'Please?' She implored, her eyes huge and deep with sorrow. He realised she needed this. A small distraction from the tempest of thoughts that was no doubt battering her mind right now. He played something slow and lilting, the notes ringing out with clarity against the silence. It was nothing in particular, just something he made up. It was a melancholy piece and he felt it was incredibly ill-fitting, but when he glanced up to look at Diana she was watching him with rapt attention, smiling slightly. He finished and she offered him a brief applause. 'You're very good,' she said. 'I could've played something more upbeat.' He said. 'Please do,' she said gesturing to the guitar. After moving through every style that he was mildly competent in he set the guitar down and smiled. There was life behind Diana's eyes again, clearly the distraction had been good for her. She clapped again and smiled. 'Very good,' she said. 'Thank you.' 'That's alright. You can be my first fan.' 'What about your mum?' 'She only likes it when I play the old stuff. Mostly it's too loud for her. She's getting old bless her.' She laughed with genuine humour. 'Really though, thank you Adam.' 'Don't mention it.' He said detecting the deeper meaning behind her words. 'Friends don't let other friends suffer. Even if the course of helping is strewn with stupidity and rash decisions.' As the day continued Diana unpacked her stuff, Adam clearing out a couple of draws that were full of generic
miscellany. He had plunged himself into a situation that involved the girl he originally planned to shake off living with him. It was odd, but not uncomfortable. After all, she had no choice; no immediate choice at least. She could probably go and stay with Natasha, whose female company would probably be much more appropriate and supportive. Adam phoned her that night and after apologising and enduring a expletive-ridden tirade from her, he explained the situation, stunning her into silence. She agreed to let Diana come and stay with her, but needed a couple of days to clear out the spare room. Until then, he and Diana were room mates. She turned out to be very pleasant to live with, clearing up after herself and being sensitive to his strange need to have things at perpendicular angles. Her belongings took up very little space and he even used the time to teach her a few chords on guitar. She had a natural ear for music and picked up tunes quickly. That night she ate little, as she had done all day. He knew she was still troubled. Their guitar practice, television watching and video game sessions serving as a thinly veiled distraction from more troubling issues. He wouldn't press the matter, however. She'd talk when she was comfortable â€“ if she was comfortable. Abandoned buildings were easy to find in the poorer, industrial parts of London. Large warehouses, factories, even the occasional block of flats or low-lying office building. They offered a wealth of potential to people who didn't care about a few broken windows or the lack of running water. They still had a purpose; a function to serve, though it wouldn't appear on any contracts or permits. Joe surveyed the abandoned factory. The high windows were an irregular chequerboard; some smashed, allowing the blunt winter light to filter in, others covered in dirt, blocking it out. Glass and rubble littered the floor, water from recent rain dripped in through several holes in the ceiling, gathering into standing puddles that lent the air a musty, unpleasant odour. Still, it was structurally sound and that was all he required. As long as it didn't come crashing down on top of them it would do. He turned a full circle, slowly taking in the layout of the room. It was a typical factory, built in the old style with the administrative offices elevated above the main area, allowing supervisors a view of their workers. He approached the old staircase. It was made from wrought iron and heavy with rust. He placed his foot on the first step and shifted his weight. It screeched in protest, but held him. Slowly me made his way up, testing each step carefully. The staircase groaned and the rust flaked, but it would hold his weight. At the top the door to the office was gone, leaning against the opposite wall. In here were a couple of desks, old chairs and scattered stacks of paper that had since faded. The windows overlooking the factory floor were relatively clean and though the frames were chipped and battered, upon trying them they opened stiffly, swinging outwards. He looked out over the factory and imagined the people that would be massed there come nightfall. He knew the scene would be repeating itself in half a dozen more places across the city and he smiled to himself as all his plans fell into place. Leaving by the rear fire exit, he made his way back home to prepare for the evening. Diana was on Adam's doorstep, the entirety of her belongings stuffed into the large duffle bag, it's pouches bulging with the irregular shapes of toiletries and clothing. Despite the nature of her situation, she had enjoyed the time she'd spent with Adam, limited though it was. At any other time they would've been three days of unrequited happiness. But the shroud that hung over her extinguished any spark of joy. She had lived with the pain of abuse for a year, and for a time before that suffering at the hands of her mother, though her young, childish mind hadn't really comprehended the gravity of what was occurring. The pain came from the fact that someone else acknowledged her suffering. It made the pain more real somehow. She'd always been able to hide it, burying it away deep beneath a visage that she maintained every hour of the day, and that had made it a half-dream. Something that only occurred when she was alone, when she was an entirely different person. Now however, she could not hide the knowledge from Adam and the person she was when she was at home had breached the outside world, her misery and fear spreading forth like an oil spill, staining everything it touched. To smile was to lift the weight of the world, any gesture of happiness fought an uphill battle against the unrelenting negativity that had entrenched itself in her subconscious. She was aware of the changes that had overcome, aware that she would seem a different person to Adam, but she couldn't change it. And as she waited for Natasha and her dad to arrive to pick her up, she wondered if she could hide it from her longest and dearest friend. Adam had told her everything, and though Diana had been both irritated and embarrassed by the unauthorised revealing of her secrets, she couldn't blame him. Explaining the situation without going into detail would've been impossible. Now that Natasha knew there was one more person in the world she couldn't pretend around. Natasha would pry as she always did, digging around for problems and concerns, unrelenting in her desire to understand and help. But there was nothing Diana could say to make her understand. Words were pitiful, absolutely no use for conveying her emotions. Even actions wouldn't speak a
fraction of what she felt. She wanted to fade, unseen and unnoticed into the abyss, to be forgotten and overlooked. She wanted no one to be aware of her shame and her weakness. She couldn't meet Adam's eyes anymore, and she knew she wouldn't be able to look at Natasha either. She knew she'd find sympathy and understanding, but she didn't want it. She didn't want pity, she didn't want anything except to become invisible and be forgotten. She had tried to tell Adam so many times. As they both lay in his bed, she wanted to move close to him, to feel the warmth of another person, but any time she thought of it the hideous memories assaulted her and made her shudder with fear, turning her stomach with nausea. Her mind were betray her base desires and cripple her, preventing her from any sort of human contact. They would lay and chat, staring up into the darkness, the conversation coming in drips and drabs. Though there was a torrent inside Diana that was waiting to surge forth and pour into the open, she kept it dammed and plugged. She wanted no one else to bear her burden, even slightly. To do so was selfish and weak, two things she couldn't stand to be. She knew Adam could deal with it, he wouldn't offer her useless platitudes or tired old expressions. He'd give her a comfortable silence that spoke volumes. He understood the weight and the horror of her experience, or rather, he understood that nothing he had experienced could come close. So rather than attempting empathy, he would let her words sink in quietly. She appreciated this honesty, it was a small point of anchorage, a window into a world that seemed to lost to her now. Adam, always honest and witty, sarcastic and cunning, but caring and concerned underneath it all. He, like her, lived behind a mask, though Adam dropped his fairly often whereas she wore hers at all times. Even now when it was cracked and falling to pieces, she clutched at it, pressing it against the face of her identity in a desperate attempt to keep hidden. Perhaps that was why she had felt so close to him. To some small degree, he was doing the same thing she was. During their time together he had talked about his father, revealing the reason behind his superiority complex and obsessively analytical reasoning. There was a dichotomy to him, a perpetuation that kept his identity in a state of unrest. He believed he was better than anyone else, but his honesty told him otherwise, his mind was at war with itself, caught between detached bitterness and humble kindness. She had told him, during one of the brief times she had spoken, that he was making it too complicated for himself. That thinking was, at times, the worst course of action. She had urged him instead to simply â€œbeâ€?. To stop trying to balance the two personalities or trying to decide on which one to go with. He was constantly aware of how he acted and that would work against him in the long run. He had seemed genuinely appreciative of her advice. Adam came down the stairs, holding a cuddly duck toy in his hand. It had been hers since she was a baby, the one souvenir from a life left behind, now it was a reminder of two lives. 'Wouldn't want to go anywhere without Gordy,' he said, handing the toy over. She took it from him and chewed at the end of the duck's beak, which she had done ever since she was a child. Remarkably the beak was mostly intact, if not a little frayed. 'He's as old as I am,' she said idly. 'Wonder how long before he falls apart?' 'If you keep chewing him, not long.' 'I've always done this,' she said, chewing on the beak between sentences. 'Don't know why, makes me feel safe.' 'Whatever floats your boat,' he said. A silence followed, Adam sat down at the bottom of the stairs, Diana remained standing by the door, chewing on Gordy's beak. It was broken by Adam's mother, who emerged from the living room. 'Oh Diana, are you off?' 'Yes,' she replied. Parents of friends always made her nervous. 'Thank you for having me.' 'Not at all, you've been far cleaner and quieter than this bugger.' She kicked a slippered foot at Adam who swatted it away. 'Perhaps you two can switch at some time, then you can go bother someone else with your bloody guitar.' 'If it's too loud, you're too old.' Adam responded. Diana had come to admire the good-natured arguing that occurred between Adam and his mother, it was a heart-warming sight that also ferried along a sense of sadness when she realised she'd never have the same relationship with either of her parents. She hadn't paid much mind to her father. The memories of him were still far too vivid. His hot, stale breath on her cheek, the sting of the belt and his huge, rough hands grabbing at her. It made her head spin and the bruises on her body flared with new, phantom pain as she recalled every repulsive detail. At least now she would have a chance to heal properly. 'Listen,' Adam's mum continued. 'You come back if you ever need to, okay? I'll even make up the spare room for you. Beats his smelly room I bet.' 'Thank you,' Diana smiled politely.
'Take care of yourself,' the older woman reached out to embrace her. Diana stepped into the hug with a little reluctance, hugging back just gently enough for it to register. Adam's mum turned and tottered off into the kitchen, Diana smiling as she went. 'She's nice,' she said looking down at Adam. 'She likes you,' Adam said. 'Hated my last girlfriend.' 'Your last what?' Adam turned red at his slip of the tongue. 'I mean, you know, the last girl who stayed here. Christ, I'm an idiot.' 'It's alright,' Diana smiled. 'I understand what you're trying to say.' 'We never did have that talk,' Adam said at length. 'I don't think we need to.' Diana responded. 'I was just emotional that night. I realise now how kind and caring you are Adam, and though I still want to be with you, I can understand how you feel. You've done so much for me and if this is what you're like as a friend, then I'm more than happy with that.' 'I can't believe you even had time to think about that. To give me even a moment's thought with all the shit that's been spinning around you.' 'I had to take my mind off it somehow,' she said. 'Listen, Diana,' he started awkwardly. 'I feel like we need to talk about what happened. I mean really talk about you know? We've barely said two words about it, but I feel like it's hanging over us and we need to get rid of it.' Cold fear gripped her. She had been dreading this moment, but she understood him and she wanted to get her feelings out in the open as much as he did. 'Right now?' She said. 'In your hallway?' 'We've got a while,' he said, getting to his feet and heading up the stairs. 'Eddie's coming with Natasha, so we can expect them to be anywhere between ten and thirty minutes late.' 'Is he really that bad?' She asked. Talk of Eddie always bought a lightness of tone to any conversation. 'It's not really a question of bad,' he said. 'He's an unknown quantity. An anomaly. When scientists ask â€œwhat can go wrong?â€? the first thing on their list should be Eddie Keenan. Because if anyone can find away to screw something up, it's him.' She laughed for the first time in what felt like a lifetime, the sound was strange and alien to her, as though coming out of a memory hidden long ago. They both headed upstairs and sat on Adam's bed. He brushed a hand over the neck of his guitar as he did whenever he passed it. She wondered if he even noticed he was doing it, like when he clicked his fingers whenever the front door closed. He had these strange little rituals that she'd come to quietly adore. Adam opened the discussion, admitting that he was terrified of the repercussions of what he'd done, but also stating he had no regrets for acting so recklessly. However, he also said that he was having a hard time dealing with what had transpired and he was worried about her. The distance between them was a rift, huge and gaping, though they sat only scant inches apart. As he continued, expressing his concern, fear and sadness, framing his words eloquently and considerately, she felt something stir deep inside of her. It was cold and terrifying and it rushed through her body with astonishing speed. Before her mind could register it, she began to cry, desperately and heavily, her sobs loud and stuttering. She fell against him, burying her head in his shoulder, pressing hard against his flesh, attempting to hide her shame from all the world. It was the release of a year of abuse. These past three days had broken the dam of her resolve and now it came flooding out, pain and fear, doubt and sorrow and the crushing embarrassment of her weakness, all mingling together in a bitter flow of tears and a choking throat. Adam reacted calmly, holding her against him and stroking her hair. 'It's alright,' he said quietly, his lips near her ear as he bowed his head. 'I understand. You don't need to bottle it up anymore. You might think it's weakness, but there's no one I know who could go through what you did. You were brave and strong, Diana. The world demanded more from you than it had any right to. I wish I could show the same strength you've shown. I will think no less of you for crying, in my eyes you will always be an inspiration. I admire you, and I'm proud of you.' 'For what?' She choked between sobs. 'For continuing to be human.' He said. 'This sort of thing is a cycle, and you could've so easily become a bitter husk of a person. But you didn't, you became a wonderful, caring person, whose love and joy is a light in this world. You might think that's all an act; a personality you put on. But do you remember what you told me? Just be yourself. Perhaps after spending so long pretending to be someone else, it's not actually pretend anymore.' She wanted to tell him just how much of a difference his words had made, but her words were lost in sobs. She tried to stutter out a response, but she whimpered uselessly and the tears continued to flow. After a time, she managed to speak. 'Thank you Adam,' she said. The sobs subsided and she regained a modicum of composure. 'I've never looked
at myself from the outside before.' 'Well, it's the only place I can see you from,' he said with a smile, brushing the hair back from her tear-streaked face. 'And the person I see is strong, kind and beautiful, despite the burden she carries.' She placed her hand over his, holding it against her face and smiled. It felt like a ray of sunlight piercing a thunder cloud, bright and glittering and for the first time in a long time, she felt the sadness lift and burden became lighter. 'I know it'll take a long time for things to get set right,' Adam said. 'But I'm here for you every step of the way. If you fall, I'll pick you up and put you right back on the road. And when you can't go any further, I'll carry you the rest of the way.' She embraced him then, holding him so tightly that the arms in her muscles juddered and protested. She dug her fingers into his back, grasping at his shirt and bunching at the fabric underneath her hands. She clung to him desperately, like life-saving piece of debris in the middle of an endless ocean. He returned the gesture, holding her tightly. They stayed that way, silent and unmoving for several moments. She basked in the moment, soaking up the warmth and love she felt, drinking it in hungrily, deprived as she had been for so many years. Then a phone rang and their reverie was broken. Adam reached for his mobile as she moved away. The ringing ended, showing a missed call from Eddie. 'Guess that means they're outside,' he said. He took her face in his hands and kissed her forehead tenderly. 'Remember what I said.' 'I will,' she said. 'Forever and always.' Adam opened the front door just as Natasha was about to ring the bell, they regarded each other coldly, setting aside their now open animosity for another. He hefted the bag and moved past her towards the car. Behind him Diana and Natasha talked, immediately Natasha was asking questions, digging at the problems like a blind man with a shovel – well intentioned, but lacking finesse. At the car, Eddie stood outside, leaning against the passenger door, as always a cigarette in his hand. Natasha's father, a big, bald man was hunched over the steering wheel. Adam opened the boot and tossed the bag in, moving round to stand with Eddie, the two of them looking over at the girls. 'These have been the most fucked up few months of my life,' Adam said, dispensing with any greetings or clichéd catch ups. 'Same here man,' Eddie said. 'Think this is what growing up feels like?' 'I sure as shit hope not,' Adam replied. 'If it is I'm going to off myself now.' 'What? Not looking forward to a life of nine to five?' 'Not in the least. Might just grow a beard and go live in the mountains.' 'You can't grow a beard dude.' Eddie said, scratching at his own straggly facial hair. 'Damn, my plan is fundamentally flawed.' Adam paused. 'Listen, Eddie. I know shit has changed, I know you've got Natasha and everything now, but, well...' He trailed off for a moment. 'I miss you.' He concluded. 'I know man, it sucks. I miss you guys too – you and Jack. Feels like we've all gone in different directions.' 'And I'm sorry about what I said to Natasha.' 'That's alright man, I actually laughed when she told me.' 'Bet she didn't appreciate that.' 'Not at all,' Eddie laughed. 'But you know what, I don't mind. I know you two don't get on and probably never will.' He paused for a while, taking a few drags of his cigarette, the difference between the smoke and the cloud of their breath in the cold air was indistinguishable in the fast approaching evening. 'I love her.' He said, breaking the silence. 'Well then, all is forgiven.' Said Adam thrusting a hand towards him. Eddie shot him a quizzical look. 'It's like a rule. Men are allowed – no, expected – to act stupid in the face of love. Therefore, any insult you may have caused or will cause will be forgiven immediately. No exceptions.' Eddie smiled and shook Adam's hand. 'How about a drink tonight?' He said. 'You, me and Jack, we can catch up while Natasha and Diana have some time together.' 'That sounds like a good plan,' Adam said, genuinely happy. He hadn't seen Eddie in a couple of months and Jack was far too busy with Grace. The two of them were inseparable and when they were together they operated almost as one entity, augmenting each other's personalities to a point where Adam didn't really recognise Jack any more. Much of his short, bearded friend's personality was still present, but something essential had gone missing, an unspoken link they had shared had been severed somewhere along the line. Adam would be glad for the opportunity to rebuild burnt bridges. Natasha and Diana approached, the two men moved aside to allow them access to the car. Natasha climbed in the front, Diana opened the back door and stopped to hug Adam, the embrace was long, hard and lingering.
Even the usually blissfully unaware Eddie sensed the deeper meaning behind it, but, to his credit he said nothing. Then she climbed into the back seat and with one last handshake, Eddie got in as well. Then the car moved away down the road, disappearing into the encroaching dark. Adam waved as they went, even though the blackness surrounding him still bought back unpleasant memories. Then they were gone. The warehouse was packed, wall to wall with a seething mass of people and outside but still within earshot even more gathered. Lit by heavy industrial lights, powered by small generators, the organisation had been efficient and industrious. Joe looked out over the crowd with a calm eye. In a moment he would speak to them, he would rally them to action and they would be under his spell. In all the other pre-determined meeting places he knew the same thing was happening; the most charismatic among his group would be orating vehemently, firing up those who already followed them and winning over the curious souls who had come along to spectate. The only decoration in the dilapidated building was a long, heavy tapestry that Joe had hung from the offices. It was the symbol of his group. A bright white cliff face was set against the backdrop of a black sun, from outside black arrows pointed inwards towards the cliff. To a casual observer it meant to nothing, to those in the know it spoke volumes about their history and their ideals. It was the perfect banner to rally under. A flag that could be flown in broad daylight, slipping under everyone's radar. The hum of voices below was hushed and anxious. They were waiting, waiting for him to come out and direct them, lead them towards their ultimate victory. It would be a colossal undertaking, a battle against enemies on every side. But they had the one thing their adversaries lacked; spirit. They had a solid belief to anchor themselves to and it was this belief that would carry them through the hard times to come. Rising from one of the old chairs, Joe brushed down his immaculate slate-grey suit and ran his hands through his short, jet black hair. Physical appearance was just as important as charisma and he cut a handsome, imposing figure. Striding purposefully towards the windows he flung them open, their hinges screeching in protest. Silence fell immediately as hundreds of faces turned up to him. He let it hang in the air for just a few, sweet moments, then he spoke, his voice rich, loud and commanding. 'Brothers and sisters,' he began, throwing him arms wide as if to embrace them. 'I welcome you to this, the first of many meetings for our order.' 'Glory to the order!' A few of the veterans shouted. Joe smiled, their influence was a welcome addition to the nights proceedings. 'Glory to the order,' he replied, bringing his hands down and clasping them in front of him. 'I see some new faces among you tonight, so allow me a moment of two to introduce me family. We are the Order of Albion,' he said, his voice brimming with pride. 'An archaic name I know, but a strong reminder of our roots. We are all of us English, pure and unspoilt. Our ancestors roamed this land when the world beyond the sea was a myth. Our families fought in the wars that protected us. It is by their blood, their sweat and their devotion that we are granted life.' 'But what is England now?' He spat. 'A cesspool. A melting pot, so diluted by outside influence that we have become weak, faded and numb. We have no identity, the heroes of old are not our heroes. They didn't fight and die for this England.' He punched a fist into an open palm, emphasising his words. 'We have been at war for generations. A subtle war, fought by intrigue and deception, and though we are at it's crux, so many do not see the enemy. But we have let them in, one by one, then in their thousands. We became a haven, a safe place for the downtrodden. But then the downtrodden found a voice, and we became a playground instead. Full of children bickering over imaginary friends and perceived laws.' 'Now we bend our knee to them. The outsiders, the aliens. They come and they take what our forefathers gave their lives to create. Jobs, houses, women â€“ our very way of life is under constant assault. We reach out with the hand of charity and how do they react? They make ludicrous demands, they insist we recognise their beliefs and follow their rules.' Shouts from the crowd were accompanied by the pumping of fists. The adrenalin was almost palpable, the anger, the hatred and the indignation whipped them into a frenzy. 'But they are not our people!' Joe shouted, gesticulating wildly. 'They have no right to make demands! No right to tell us how to run this country! I will not sacrifice the hard work of my ancestors! I will not see it wasted on immigrants and fraudsters who can't even speak my language! I will not bend my knee to these invaders!' His voice was loud, uncontrolled and passionate, the noise from the crowd grew. 'This is MY country!' He bellowed with all the breath in his lungs. 'This is MY England! And I WILL reclaim it, piece by piece, person by person. England shall rise again!'
A cheer, tumultuous and soaring, boomed from the crowd. 'Follow me!' Joe shouted over the cacophony. 'Follow me to a new England, a pure England! OUR England!' Two weeks before Christmas and despite the country being draped and festooned in the usual festivity, the protests were showing no signs of slowing. Heavy snow and bitter temperatures had not slowed them down, in fact, the obstacles thrown before them drove them on harder. Now numbering twelve thousand, the crowd outside the Houses of Parliament was huge. The police presence was pronounced, dogs barked, horses shifted nervously and around the horde of protesters, officers in full riot gear were gathered in lines three men deep, hemming them in. They wouldn't be necessary, Carlos thought to himself. The protests had shown no signs of aggression or rioting since he had re-organised them. His new Lieutenants and his Enforcers did their jobs perfectly. The proposal would be voted on today, this was their last chance to make a change. It had gone far beyond the hike in tuition fees. Now it was an act that was steeped in principals and beliefs. This generation, long neglected and bereft of identity, would make their frustration heard, but they would also demonstrate maturity and level-headedness that, Carlos hoped, would show the people watching that they weren't just blindly marching. They had a purpose and, more than that, they had the guts to stick to their course, through rain, shine, or twelve inches of snow. The songs and chants were monumental in their volume now, rumbling against the ear drums and shaking the ground beneath their feet. Carlos couldn't believe that he had spearheaded such a thing. That he, for the most part, was responsible for the coming together of twelve thousand individuals. Most of them didn't know who he was, having heard about it from his Lieutenants, or coming along at the behest of their friends. Perhaps some of them were only there for a laugh, perhaps none of them cared about the tuition fees at all. But every face was welcome, every person added weight to their conviction. Carlos turned his attention back to the Houses of Parliament. A few hours was all that separated them from their goal, and, ultimately, all that stood between them and victory or defeat. He waited. Adam, Jack and Eddie had met up for another drink. After their successful reunion a few weeks ago they had approached their friendship with renewed vigour and made a point of hanging out at least once a week. Pleasantly, neither Jack or Eddie had bought their significant others along, which meant Adam could communicate with them as he always had. Natasha was attending the protest, something Eddie had to miss out on because of work, which was also the reason Grace was absent. The past three weeks had been a journey that Adam would never forget. His rescue of Diana and their short, but poignant time together was something that was rarely far from his thoughts. He had spoken to her most days since she left to stay with Natasha. She was doing well, opening up slowly and becoming more like the girl he had first met. It would be a long process and some of the scars would never heal, but having half a chance was better than none at all. Emily had gotten a boyfriend in the run up to Christmas and she was giddy with the joy of it. Adam had distanced himself from her as a result. Their friendship had blossomed with surprising ease, growing naturaly into a comfortable, familiar companionship. But always he wanted more, always he longed for her in a different capacity. Now he watched her, laughing and kissing another and it hurt him, though he'd never told her. But already he had started to push her away. Or rather, he was pushing himself away, leaving her and her happiness at the centre. The thoughts of those two â€“ Diana and Emily â€“ between them dominated his waking hours, occasionally bleeding through into his dreams as well. Thoughts of Diana bought feelings of concern and sorrow, while Emily carried regret, anger and envy. These weekly meetings with his two oldest friends were a welcome distraction and though she slipped into conversation occasionally, Adam kept Emily from most discussions. He had endured countless mockery at the hands of Jack and Eddie, who chided and goaded him for his feelings towards her and the blatant favouritism he showed to her whenever they were together. He knew their words carried truth, but that made it no easier for him to accept. 'Who wants to come outside for a cigarette with me?' Eddie asked. It was a question he always asked, but Adam had never smoked and Jack only indulged while drunk. 'No one Eddie. Ever.' Adam replied, swigging his drink. 'Come on guys.' 'No way. It's cold as a witches tit out there. I'm not going outside unless it is absolutely necessary.' Eddie made a sound that was a close approximation of disappointment then moved towards the door, head
hung low. The pub was relatively empty, the heavy snowfall keeping most people inside their houses. Adam loved the snow, on the short fifteen minute walk to the pub he had rolled in it several times and thrown countless snowballs at his friend. Jack, reluctant to join in at first had participated with enthusiasm when the idea to torment Eddie had arisen. Converted from an old 17th century coaching house, the Black Horse was a cosy place, replete with exposed timbers, uneven stone tiled floors and a fireplace, which was producing a welcome warmth as Adam's coat and gloves dried on a nearby rail. They had taken up their favourite spot in the deep, leather arm chairs and settled in front of the fire for a few drinks. The rustic charm of the Black Horse is what made Adam love it so. It was owned by an elderly couple who had kept it in the family for two generations apparently. Sure, the drinks cost more than the franchise pubs and bars, but the atmosphere was surpassed only by the superb food. 'So how's Diana doing?' Jack asked, taking a sip of his usual JD and Coke. He didn't really know Diana, so had no means of checking up on her himself, nor the inclination to probably. 'She's doing a lot better,' Adam said, nodding a little. 'She'll be alright I think.' 'Hell of a thing to go through though. Thought that shit only happened in movies.' 'Truth is stranger than fiction.' Adam tilted his glass of mulled wine towards Jack, they clinked glasses and drank. 'And what about Emily?' Jack asked. The obvious segue irritated Adam a little. 'What about her?' 'You know, the boyfriend situation. That must suck.' 'I try not to think about,' Adam lied. It was one of the two things he ever thought about. 'Guy seems like a prick anyway,' Jack said. 'What was his name again?' 'Josh.' 'Yeah, Josh. Definitely seems like a prick. One of those trendy kid who's all looks, no life.' 'Well then, let us pray for a speedy break up that leaves an opening for a kind, understanding friend.' They clinked glasses again. Eddie entered the pub and trudged across to them. They both leaned forward to look behind the wings of their chairs and the look on his face flooded them with worry. 'An explosion...' Eddie choked out, tears falling freely from his cheeks. He clutched his phone in his hand. He hadn't been talking to either of them, that left one person. Natasha. 'What happened?' Adam asked, rising from his seat. 'I was...talking. Then, a loud noise...' He trailed off, his eyes moving between the two of them. He wanted them to tell him it was alright, but he wouldn't believe it. 'Come on,' Jack said, snatching up his coat and making for the door. 'We've got to get up there.' 'How?' Adam asked, spreading his arms. 'Public transport isn't running, we can't get into London!' 'I'll drive,' Jack said. Adam opened his mouth to protest but Jack cut him off. 'You'd do it for Emily.' Adam nodded, picked up his coat and made for the door behind Eddie and Jack. Natasha had been in the thick of it, squashed between people, shoulder to shoulder with complete strangers. Despite the evening temperature falling to minus figures, the hustle and bustle of the crowd provided more than ample warmth. It was a thrilling experience, and though she was but one among thousands, she felt proud at the part she played â€“ however small. She had put her heart into the chants and the songs, waving her placards until her arms gave out and them for a while longer still. All around her were kindred spirits, people who shared her passion, her beliefs. This was where she belonged, this was her purpose. There was an hour left before the decision about the fees was made public. The protest organisers had made it clear that no matter which way the decision went there was to be no violence. They were all made aware of the punishment and danger could face if they participated in any anti-social activities. Natasha didn't mind. Violent protest was a futile gesture, no matter the purity of the notions behind it. It was always a one step forward, two steps back scenario. It had achieved nothing in the past and would achieve nothing in the future. She felt her phone vibrate and, with a little difficulty, fished her phone out of her pocket and bought it up to her ear. 'Hey Eddie,' she said. She always greeted him first, even when he rang her. 'Hey baby,' he said. 'Just wondering how it's going up there.' 'It's brilliant, you should really be here.' 'Yeah, but if we want to go away together in the new year I'll need the money I got for working overtime tonight.'
'I understand,' she said with a smile. 'I can't wait to start 2011 with you.' 'Me neither. Listen I-' Natasha didn't hear his next words. A deafening roar cracked the air, drowning out the voice of twelve thousand. Somewhere a short distance off to her left there was a flash of light, then a shock wave that hit her like a hammer blow. Then all was darkness and calamity. Carlos turned at the noise. The icy fingers of dread gripped his heart and as he took in the grotesque plateaux before him, his stomach turned and nausea threatened to overwhelm him. At the centre of the crowd, where many had gathered, was now a human crater, a rough circle, that was blasted and steaming. It was a glimpse of hell. Ruined, tattered bodies and disfigured pieces of flesh littered the newly created space. Steam rose from the still-warm pieces of meat that had only moments before been living, breathing human beings. That was the most sickening thing to Carlos. The steam. The blasted area was perhaps twenty feet across, the bomb hadn't been large, but it's effect was no less sickening. And where order, union and a single purpose had reigned, the wolves of chaos descended. They rent at the flesh of reason, tore the throat from courage and chased away the last spectres of strength. In seconds, a group twelve thousand strong was reduced to twelve thousand strangers, running in every direction in a blind panic. Then another problem dawned on him. Twelve thousand people, rushing to get as far away from the explosion as they could. They threatened to stampede, people who didn't know what had happened would be trampled as those closer to the devastation fled outwards. He knew as well that they would fear other attacks, other explosions, and they would seek to distance themselves from gathered groups, trying to put at much distance between themselves and the ethereal fear they all harboured. And as all his hard work dissolved in front of his eyes, he knew there was nothing he could do. The people he had led here, the people he felt responsible for. He had failed them, he had put them in harms way and now lives were loft. Sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and friends. Wiped from the earth in a hearbeat. Carlos fell to his knees in the snow, his mouth agape, tears flowing from his eyes, unable to take it in. The people scattered, screaming and shoving. He should've moved, shouted, rallied them. But he couldn't. Weakness suffused him, deadened his limbs and closed his throat. His mind gave up, thoughts and plans bounced around inside his mind but he couldn't grasp a single one. He saw a girl, no older than 16, fall down. No one moved to help her and she was trampled under foot, smashed to pieces on the cold, hard ground by the same people that she had stood alongside them. It all came at him in a rush that hit him like a truck. Every blink was like a snapshot, a picture that would never be forgotten for as long as he lived. He had failed. In every capacity. As a leader, an activist and a figurehead. He had failed. Joe and his group of two hundred or so had gathered in the side streets and shadowed alleyways around the main protest area. Police presence was large, but there were many avenues of entry for late comers or curious passers by. Spread around the perimeter were other members of the Order who had attended similar rallies earlier that night. Each cell had their orders, which would be executed with brutal, cold efficiency on his signal. His â€œsignalâ€? stood right next to him. A young Indian man that had found walking alone earlier that night. He had submitted to them quickly, divulging personal information such as his address and the names of his family members, which would be used as leverage against him. Not more than an hour later, the man was strapped and dressed in a heavy overcoat that hid the devastating payload. Joe had told him that his co-operation would save the lives of his family. It was only half a lie. It would save them, at least temporarily. They all watched as the man, alone and inconspicuous, walked from the alleyway towards the gathered crowd, disappearing into the throng. There was a pause of what felt like hours, then an explosion, flaring brilliantly against the night sky, it's skull-shattering boom was the first beat in a symphony that would play all night long. The distraction was instant, all heads turned towards the protesters as jaws dropped and voices screamed. Their guard was down and it was time to act. As one they surged from the shadow, bellowing and screaming, brandishing clubs, knives and metal bars. They had been positioned so at to almost completely encircle the police barricade surrounding the protest on it's broadest side. Adam tore forward, leading his cell to battle as he caught a glimpse of other cells moving out across the open
space, towards the confused line of policemen and women who had too little time to react. They smashed against them like waves upon a cliff. Only a few officers had turned to raise their shields in time, others, still distracted by the explosion, were taken unawares. Joe swung a crowbar into the side of an unsuspecting policeman, who hit the ground without a noise. His colleague turned just as the crowbar smashed into his mouth, shattering teeth and splintering bone. A pained gurgle oozed out of his ruined mouth. In his other hand, Joe held a long combat knife, which he slashed across the policeman's throat, his blood steaming against the icy ground. The attack did not let up, but the progress slowed as the police realised what was happening. But by the time they regained enough clarity to form up and present an organised front, many of them were already dead or wounded and there were holes in their defence. But there was still one weapon they had to their advantage. The dogs were released from somewhere behind the front lines. They sprang through the gaps in the line and lunged at the attackers. Without handlers to restrain them they tore at throats and faces, biting deep into arms and legs, bringing members of the Order down in a flurry of screaming, hopeless pain. Joe saw one man go down, his jugular opened by the jaws of a powerful German Shepherd. Even as it finished the kills, the men and women around it struck it with their weapons. It whimpered as the blows rained down on it, lost in fear and confusion. It died before it could take another life. In front, Joe faced riot shields and batons. He swung his crowbar, which bounced harmlessly off of the perspex shield before dodging a clumsy baton strike. He caught a glimpse of his opponent's face and saw fear and confusion there. Joe surged forward, crouching, shoulder tackling the man and throwing him off balance. As he recovered, Joe's knife lanced into his stomach and ripped out his intestines. As he fell, another stepped in to take his place. Joe shouted to rally those around him and pushed on with a fury unbound. They would win this night. The roads were relatively clear, with little snow on them, but that didn't make the journey any quicker. The thin layer that remained was still a problem. It had compacted and re-frozen, turning it to solid ice that made progress slow and dangerous and as they drew closer to London the traffic increased and their crawl became a halt as they become deadlocked. They were perhaps five miles from where they needed to be. During their journey they had turned to a local radio station which was reporting on the events at the protest. They confirmed Eddie's fear; an explosion had ripped through the crowd, the exact amount dead was unknown, but the protest was in tatters as terrified people ran in every direction. Early reports were also beginning to surface of a riot aimed at the police force that surrounded the protest. 'Sounds like all hell's breaking loose,' Adam said, staring down the aisle of traffic that stretched out before them. 'We need to hurry up,' Eddie said, his voice frantic. 'We need to get to Natasha?' 'How Eddie?' Jack asked, irritation rising. 'We can't move, we're stuck.' 'Then what do we do?' Eddie was desperate now, he leaned between the two front seats, searching the eyes of his friends for an answer. After a moment, Adam spoke. 'How far away are we Jack?' 'It's about a ten minute drive from here, why?' 'Then lets walk.' Adam had already opened his door. 'Walk? It'll take ages in this shit.' Jack waved a hand at the snow, but the sound of one of the back doors opening stopped him. Adam and Eddie were outside already. He sighed, pulled the car over as far as he could and got out with them. 'This traffic isn't going anywhere, we can just walk up the road.' Adam gestured up the gridlocked road, between the two lanes of cars which stood, unmoving in the bitter winter air. Without further prompting, Eddie set off at a quick pace, Adam and Jack falling in behind him. The walk was slow and treacherous, several times they slipped but righted themselves. The piles of snow made walking harder and within moments feet were soaked and numb, but they had made more progress in the last half hour than they had in twice that time in the car. They trudged on, Eddie spearheading their advance, pushing on with a strength and haste fuelled by desperation. The state of his friend shook Adam. He had always known Eddie as an optimistic, happy person. Nothing got him down. But the Eddie he saw now was a different person, completely removed from his old friend. And though neither he nor Jack had any real reason to be there, though they could drop out and stop at any time, they pressed on. Against cutting winds and long slicks of ice, they continued. It took an hour, perhaps more, but as they got closer to the Houses of Parliament the chaos became apparent. The explosion had taken place perhaps two hours ago, and the initial confusion and fear had given way to morbid curiosity as crowds
gathered on the outer edges, craning their necks and squinting against the darkness. Somewhere off in the distance were shouts and cries, no doubt a result of the riot they had heard about on the radio. The square where the protesters had gathered was chaos. The blasted area in the middle was a sickening site, a blackened smudge against the inky blackness of night. The dull grey of the concrete smeared with black from the blast. Adam was thankful for the darkness that no doubt shielded them from the hideous site in the centre of the square. But the chaos extended beyond the radius of the explosion, scattered around the area people lay on the cold ground, unmoving. People had moved in to help, though they were sparse in number and ill-prepared. Ambulances had been called, he heard someone say, but snow would delay them, during which times more lives would be lost. 'Don't just stand there, help us!' A girl shouted at them. Adam moved over to her to help her lift a man with a bad head wound. Adam breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw the mist of the man's breath materialise in the cold night air. Jack helped another person moved the wounded away from the square. As they worked more people came forward to help, their fear of a secondary attack fading. But everyone kept an eye on the riot taking place only a stone's throw away. Luckily it seemed they were not the focus of attention and went about their business unmolested. 'Natasha!' Adam turned to see Eddie hunched over her prone form. He lifted her and cradled her in his arms, shaking her gently. 'Natasha, can you hear me? Natasha!' Pain lanced through Adam's chest, somewhere beyond the flesh and the bone. His heart ached as he watched Eddie shake her more violently, begging her to open her eyes and wake up. 'Please Nataha, wake up. Open your eyes, please. If you can hear me, come back to me.' Eddie clutched her head to his chest and held her tight. She was perfectly still, her chest unmoving, no breath escaped her lungs to hang in the night air. She would never open her eyes again. As Eddie's sobs filled the air, set to a backdrop of combat and violence, the snow began to fall again. The battle raged on for an hour before the police officers could arrange enough of a defence to force a change in the flow of the fighting. Reinforcements had arrived, carrying very real guns which they used sparingly, the sharp crack of gunfire rose above the general tumult of battle. Joe had heard the orders, they were only to shoot those who threatened them directly, so the casualties they caused were minimal as word spread and they were ignored. This of course forced the attack into a bottle neck, concentrating on the middle of the line, which was now five men deep, the front ranks made up of armoured units carrying heavy clubs and shields that were as tall as a man. They put up a staunch resistance and the attack reached a stale mate. The Order could make no headway, but the police couldn't force them back. Then they came, soaring over head to clatter down to earth. Canisters of tear gas billowed around them. It was an eventuality Joe has planned for and most of the rioters pulled on gas masks which had been hanging around their necks. Of course there were a considerable number of people who had come unprepared and were forced out of the fighting. The gas cast a strange haze over the fighting. A ghostly, gossamer mist hanging against the pitch black of night. The orange glow from street lamps shot amber through the mist. Paired with the gas masks it obscured vision and the attack faltered for a moment. Another draw back of the gas masks, aside from reduced vision was reduced hearing. They had so far realised on organisation to win the day, but with gas masks on the voices were muffled and distant. Joe hoped the people he had entrusted with his strategies were still in the fight. His answer came with the missiles that flew above him. Trailing flame that scorched across the black blanket of the sky, sailing towards the massed ranks of police officers. The molotovs exploded with a great, billowing flame. The screams of men ablaze came to his ears through the gas mask. He saw a man beat frantically at the flame that covered his right arm. More molotovs flew, more gouts of flame erupted, flaring violently against the night, their light strange and eldritch through the haze of tear gas. The fire bombs continued to fly as the fighting increased in pace, the rioters sensing the dent in morale the fires had caused. Confusion and panic rippled through the police force, the fires had left gaps in their defence which members of the Order were quick to fill, flanking the defence of the shield-bearing riot police. Flame erupted at the sides of the battle, targeting the gun men. Joe allowed himself a smile as he plunged his knife into the eye of an unprotected police woman. His subordinates had not failed him. Once the gun men were disposed of they would take up their weapons and then the tide would turn.
Adam had no idea what to do. The site before him was saddening beyond belief. To see his friend so wounded, so lost. He had broken, weeping uncontrollably as he rocked back and forth, cradling his dead lover in his arms. A flash of fire broke Adam's attention as he turned to look at the riot. They were blanketed in night, but the fire burnt like a beacon, flashing momentarily before washing away into what the flames revealed to be a crowd of people. It was too much to take in. Eddie's loss, the chaos before them and the death that surrounded them. Such a travesty should never have been allowed to happen, but somewhere the balance of power has shifted and it had landed firmly in the hands of the extremists. Jack obviously shared his concerns, as he broke the silence that surrounded them. 'We need to leave.' Adam gazed solemnly at Eddie and Natasha. He knew his friend wound be inconsolable, but Jack was right. The longer they lingered the closer they were to danger. It was senseless to put more life at risk tonight. Adam approached Eddie and placed a hand on his shoulder. 'Eddie, we need to go.' His words fell on deaf ears as Eddie continued to sob. Adam glanced at Natasha's face, which was ivory white and unmarked, her blue lips frozen in a neutral expression that spoke of peace and security. But no feelings dwelt behind her eyes anymore, no thoughts moved through her mind. She was gone, never to speak again. They would never argue again. He couldn't imagine the sadness Eddie felt, not even a fraction of it. 'Bastards,' the sound was barely audible, it came through gritted teeth. 'They did this.' Eddie had stopped sobbing, but his shoulders still shuddered and jerked as he held them back. He had turned his gaze up to the riot taking place not too far away. 'They took her away...' The sadness in his voice made Adam flinch, so profound and powerful that it was almost physical. 'We were gonna go away next year,' Eddie said to no one in particular. 'We were gonna get a place together...' 'Eddie...' Adam trailed off. 'She was everything to me, she was all the happiness I had.' Adam had no words, no actions, nothing. It was all so inadequate. 'Now it's all gone...I'll never see her smile again. I'll never kiss her, never hear her laugh. The one light I had in this world has gone out.' Silence settled over them as the power of Eddie's mourning stunned them all into silence. He was pouring his heart out, and Adam felt the tears flow down his face. 'Do something for me,' Eddie said, turning to look up at Adam. His long hair hid his face in shadow, Adam couldn't read his expression. 'Anything,' Adam choked. 'Make sure she gets a proper funeral.' Before Adam could process what was happening, Eddie was on his feet and running straight towards the riot. 'Eddie no!' Adam called out and chased after him, but it the speed at which Eddie moved had put him too far ahead. It didn't take long for him to close the distance. He barrelled into the rioters, tackling one from his feet and punching him repeatedly. Adam could only watch as two others, aware of their allies plight, struck at Eddie with pipe and hammer, then a third man plunged a knife into Eddie's back. He slumped to the ground forgotten, the man he had attacked rising to his feet. Adam couldn't find the strength to anything as a rush of indistinguishable emotions washed over him. He wanted to scream, he wanted to charge at them like Eddie had done, he wanted to take at least one of them down, to steal their life away as they had done to Eddie and Natasha. But he couldn't. Instead he fell to his knees, all strength gone, his eyes fixed on the unmoving form of his friend. Everything felt like it was moving in slow motion, the sounds of combat and pain were muffled and distant, the outlines of buildings and people were indistinct, obscured by tears. And there, cast aside as just another casualty, was Eddie. The man who always laughed, always smiled, who had put up with their insults and good-natured bullying. Who lived alone in a small flat at the YMCA. Who was lonely and troubled, but would never tell them because he would never want anyone to worry. Now he would never get the chance. His voice would be silent forever. He'd never get to go away with the love of his life, never get the flat, or the children he had talked about. He'd never get the chance to make up for the mistakes his own parents had made. As all these thoughts ran through Adam's mind â€“ memories past and imaginings of the future â€“ he felt something change. Through the sadness and fear came a fury, burning white hot, blistering and uncontrollable. He alone couldn't make a difference. But there were some who could.
Carlos had watched the scene from the crowd, the three men had emerged, moving into the destruction. They had helped with moving bodies, then they had found someone, obviously a friend. One had run off to his certain death, another had followed a short way, the third was rooted to the spot. He didn't know these people, but the pain was no less poignant. The sense of failure was still there, like a cloud of guilt that hung over him. It was another life lost, due to him. It was his plans, his ideas, that had caused this. He had wanted everyone prepared for danger, but he had expected it to come from the police, not from a force that had gone undetected and unchecked and now rained chaos over the square. One of the three men â€“ now two â€“ came walking towards them, his face set in a scowl, his eyes red-rimmed and still watering. He pointed at Carlos, who stood stunned for a moment, then approached. 'You organised this,' the man said, his voice gruff. 'Yes, I did.' 'Good, I need you to rally these people.' 'For what?' 'For that.' The man pointed behind him to the riot. 'No way,' Carlos shook his head. 'This isn't their fight.' 'No? What happened to wanting to change things? What happened to making yourself heard? Those people over there, they are what can happen when you're not scared to act.' 'These people were blown up in the middle of a peaceful protest, how do you expect me to convince them to charge into a fight where more of them will die?' 'I'd rather know how you plan on not getting involved.' 'What do you mean?' Carlos asked, though suspicion and fear trickled through him. 'I mean,' the man said, lowering his voice. 'People know you, they know you. And when they're done murdering the police force they'll come for you. Act now, while we have a chance to make a difference, because you won't get another chance.' Carlos considered his words for a moment. He made a good point, but it led to a terrible place. Lots of people knew Carlos, knew his name and his face and rarely could he walk down the street without being stopped and congratulated or thanked for his efforts. He hadn't considered the dark underbelly of the publicity he now enjoyed. But now it had reared it's ugly head, it sneered at him and demanded a decision that he couldn't possibly make. Fight now and risk the lives of many, or flee and wait in fear for the day when they would come for him. 'I can't make that decision,' Carlos said, glancing back at the crowd who watched the exchange with an unblinking gaze. 'Then let them decide.' 'What's your name?' Carlos asked. 'Adam, and that was my friend Eddie who just died. His girlfriend Natasha was trampled to death.' 'I'm sorry,' Carlos knew his condolences meant nothing, but the words slipped out before he had a chance to stop them. 'Don't apologise,' Adam said. 'Just act.' Carlos drew in a deep breath and turned towards the crowd. Joe revelled in the chaos that surrounded him, the power that pulsed from the massed members of the Order of Albion. It was thrilling, invigorating and unstoppable. And as their advantage grew he tasted the fear and desperation of the police force. This is how disputes should be settled, he thought. Not with pretty words and compromise, but with an unyielding iron fist. People feared strength, and fear brought obedience. So long as there was obedience, there was order, and order gave birth to happiness. They had given too much ground. They had conceded an inch and lost a mile, year after year for decades. The limp-wristed politicians came to power, they peddled multi-ethnicity and tolerance, but as they did they weakened the very country they were supposed to serve. People had fallen into routine. They followed their leaders without a second thought. It was a case of the blind leading the blind, but the Order would open their eyes and cast light on all the shadows. They would guide the way to a happier England, a safer England, an England unified under one banner. And they would lead by example; with power and strength. They would crush their enemies without mercy, they would spread the message of fear and they would reign supreme. This night was the first step on their long journey. Assaulting the police was something even a madman wouldn't dream of. They were seen as a stone wall; unmovable, unbreakable and entirely insurmountable. But now the wall was crumbling, and Joe's soldiers surged through the cracks to breach the fortress behind them.
And when the fortress fell, the sense of safety the British public so treasured would crumble as well. They were pushing hard now, gunfire sounded in above the battle, loud and empowering now that the weapons were in the hands of the rioters. All around him was a melee, all order forgotten as men engaged each other in single combat. It didn't bother Joe at all, they had the numbers and the zeal to win and a lapse in order allowed his men to vent their frustrations. He saw a policeman go down as a sledgehammer slammed into his knees. He heard the sickening crack of his bones and his scream of pain as he fell, the sledgehammer fell again, this time with a sickening wet thud, turning his face into a crater, all features demolished. Then there came a disturbance from Joe's right. There was activity at the right flank of his group. It was the side closest to the square where the protesters had stood. He chanced a look, and saw a mass of people moving towards them. He smiled, he had been expecting reinforcements from other cells hidden throughout the city. Then he heard their taunts and their threats and his heart leapt into his throat. They were not allies. They were a thousand pissed off students who demanded revenge. 'Right! Right!' He called, raising his arm and turning it clockwise. A few men acknowledged the order, but the concentration of most of them was broken, focused instead on the line in front, which was holding steady despite the heavy attack they were under. Joe couldn't organise enough of his men in time, and before the right flank acknowledged the new threat, they were set upon by the students. Their rage was great, their numbers oppressing, they had no weapons, but they charged forward, as the Order had done, with no fear or hesitation. If they were afraid Joe could not sense it nor see it in their eyes. He hoped he had drilled his men well enough to push back this new threat. 'What I'm about to say will sound utterly insane,' Carlos began, turning to the mass of people behind him. Though many had left, returning home, getting as far away from the chaos as possible, a good number remained. Their feet stayed by curiosity or indecision, but regardless of their reasons for staying, their fear was palpable. He saw it in their eyes, quick glances towards the direction of the riot, hands wringing, feet shifting. He felt as though he was fighting a lost cause already. But whatever he chose to fight, he'd be backing a lost cause, so he plunged ahead. 'When I was young, I used to get bullied by a boy named Gavin. On almost a daily basis he would beat me up and ridicule me in the middle of the playground at school. There were always witnesses, in fact, the other children would often gather round to watch. Every time it happened, I wished someone would intervene. I wished they would stop watching and help me instead. But no one ever did.' He paused and scanned their faces, he had their attention at least. 'I'm sure a lot of you have been through the same thing, either as the victim or the casual observer. The truth is, we all like to watch the world die, as long as we're at a good safe distance. We live vicariously through the fear and pain of others, and though we might empathise with them, we never stop to help them.' 'How many of you have been on a bus or train, and that one thug is playing his obnoxious music on his phone? He's alone and outnumbered by all the mildly irritated passengers, but what do we to? We tut and roll our eyes. We never tell him to shut up, because whoever did would act alone. We'd all shy away from conflict and we'd sooner let that one brave soul get his arse kicked than step up and help him.' Carlos, unsure and awkward at first, had found his rhythm and he felt that familiar warmth of pride and power spread through him. He hoped it was getting through to them. 'I've spent my life as a bystander, I've spent my life tutting and rolling my eyes, but now I've had enough. These people control us with fear and the promise of pain. They have caused the death of god knows how many people tonight and they are over there, right now, killing more. How can we let these people exist? How can we let these people control us?' He hopped up onto a planter, the small tree inside it was bare and pathetic looking. 'How can we hope to live in a world without fear and pain if we ourselves are not willing to endure it? I will endure, I will fight down to my last because if I don't, people like them will control us. I will not allow it.' 'I'd never ask a single one of you to fight with me, that would be selfish and irresponsible. I simply ask you to choose. Choose your future. Avoid injury and potential death now and let them win, or stand with me and fight as one. Push them back under ground and keep them there, away from the light of day.' There was a silence that hung above a stillness that seemed unnatural, as though the crowd in front of him were an illusion. Then a slow clap, joined by thousand pairs of hands, carried by a cheer that ripped through the night. The people in front of him moved forward. He could see their anger and their resolve and it bonded them together as one. 'This will be no protest!' He bellowed above the voices. 'This will be a battle, but we are not like them, we will not take human life. We have to help, we have to distract them, weaken them, give the police a chance to
regroup and reinforce. Do not fear injury or death, because fear is their weapon. We do this not for ourselves, but for our country and all those that will follow us. Our younger siblings and the children we've yet to have. We fight for the future!' Another cheer as fists punched the air. Instinctively the people formed up into a tight group and a smile swept across Carlos' face as one of the tall banners was lifted, except now it was a battle standard. He hopped down and moved through the crowd to it's front. As he went, people clapped him on the back and cheered him. He expected to feel fear, a seed of doubt somewhere deep in his gut, but there was nothing. He knew they could do this, he knew they would make the difference. He took a deep breath and smiled at what he was about to do. He punched upwards and outwards and bellowed. 'CHARGE!' A thousand bodies moved forward on his command. He'd always wanted to do that. Adam and Jack were side by side as they smashed into the side of the rioters. Adam didn't know how to fight, but the weapons they held didn't frighten him. In fact, he wanted to get his hands on one and smash as many of their bastard skulls as he could. But he wouldn't, he wouldn't debase himself to the level of murderer. He would fight and he would wound, but he would not kill. Without any particular grace, but with tremendous power borne of fury and adrenalin, he smashed his fist into the side of one man's head, sending him sprawling. He ignored the pain in his knuckled and stepped forward to kick another person in the side of the knee. The joint bent at an unnatural angle and with a scream of pain, his victim fell. Adam was oblivious of the others around him, blinded by rage and sorrow, he pushed forward, surrounding himself in the carnage and putting every ounce of his strength into every attack. He would carry on, alone if necessary, until he died. Beside him, Jack, slightly less incensed but no less confident, sent an uppercut into one man's jaw then punched another in the throat, making him gasp and wheeze before a kick to the groin flattened him. The rioters had begun to turn their attention to this new threat now and Adam found himself face to face with a big, bald bastard with bronze knuckles. Without much thinking about it, Adam ducked under a heavy punch and slammed his knee into his opponents stomach, doubling him over before delivering a powerful elbow to the back of his head. When he was a child, Adam had grown up on martial arts films. His dad had got him hooked, reading out the subtitles on Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee flicks. Adam never paid attention to the story, he was always focusing on the heroes on screen. He had so wanted to be like them. He had mimicked their moves in the back garden, even going so far as to create a makeshift punching back from pillows and blankets stuffed into a sleeping bag. When he was young, he wanted to be a warrior for justice. He wanted to be able to take on a dozen men and come out unscathed. He had watched Enter the Dragon a hundred times and even taken a Karate class for a few years. Of course, much of what he learned was lost to him now, but he remembered those heroes of his youth and for one night at least, he could be like them. He was going to be a hero. Sergeant Pearce watched as the students piled into the unprotected and unprepared flank of the rioters. He smiled broadly, full of pride and hope. The distraction they provided was pivotal and as the attention turned to them, his men had a chance to end the fight. The rioters had removed most of their gas masks now that the tear gas had dissipated, but there was more where that came from. 'Tear gas!' He called. 'Put it far away from the students, roll it in low. Don't give them a chance to react. Once that shit goes up, I want everyone up front and pushing hard. Now!' A team of people in gas masks came forward, set down the canisters, popped them and them rolled them low through the legs of the front ranks of police and into the loosely gathered back ranks of the rioters. Alarms were raised, but too late. The gas went up and they dropped their weapons, clutching at eyes and throats and coughing violently. 'Now!' Pearce called, moving forward and drawing his nightstick. 'Push the advantage! Get in there and sort them out!' The line of police pushed forward. The back ranks of the rioters broke and scattered, unable to fight through the gas that blinded and choked. As they did, the police force curved around behind the main body of the attackers, kicking the still-smoking canisters forward as they went, pushing them into the tightly massed crowd that was now trapped on three sides. Joe struggled to come to terms with what was happening. It has happened as slowly, but it felt instantaneous. He had rallied his men to push back the new threat that the students posed. Though they were without
weapons, they proved impossible to stop and they fought on with fearless fury. As he led the attack against these new aggressors, he heard a clamour behind him. The word “gas” reached his ears, but it was too late to react. He looked behind him as his men, unprotected from the gas, broke and scattered, unable to continue the fight. With new found organisation and confidence, the police made a decisive move, encircling them and leaving them one very narrow avenue of escape back through the alleys they had emerged from. They were narrow and a retreat would be slow, painfully slow. But running was not an option, Joe would take as many students down as he could. He would show them the error of their ways, give them an example of the power they opposed. He picked out one man in particular, who fought with uncontrolled ferocity. His movements were heavy and clumsy, but when he hit he did so with such weight that men fell flat on their backs. Joe decided he had to go. He shouldered his way through the crowd and up close, he took in the short brown hair, the average features, slightly feminine – but now broken – nose and the brown eyes, one of which was ringed with a black eye. The other man caught his eye and without hesitation rushed forward. Joe sidestepped and lashed out with his knife, cutting the other man high in the shoulder. He stopped and smiled smugly, but the wound had not slowed his aggressor and he reacted just in time to dodge a powerful haymaker that almost took his head off. Fear was not a weapon he could use against this person, blinded as he was by rage. It was best not to toy with him then. He ducked under another punch and surged forward, his knife finding flesh as it plunged into his foe's stomach. He moved back to examine the expression on his victim's face, but realised his mistake too late. Rather than the shock and fear he had been expecting, he found anger. But he only glimpsed it for a second as a headbutt thundered into his face, breaking his nose and smashing his teeth. He was staggered backwards in a daze as the other man charged him to the ground. Punch after punch landed on his face, he raised his arms in a vain attempt to guard himself but the attack was unrelenting. Blows landed on his face, neck, arms and chest or anywhere else that was within arm's reach. He felt the weight above him lift as the man was dragged off of him. Then he heard it, a tenacious silence. He couldn't hear the raised voice of his soldiers anymore, or the clash and thud of combat. They were beaten, the last sight he saw was a shoe thundering towards his face. Adam staggered back from brutal kick he had just delivered to the body of the black haired man in the smart suit. A dozen hands grabbed at him and pulled him back to prevent him from killing the other man outright. Then the pain surged through him from a hundred places. A cut on his arm, a broken nose, a black eye, but they were all dull against the thudding ache in his stomach. He looked down, his shirt dark with blood from a wound the adrenalin had hidden from him. The blood flowed freely, soaking his jeans and running down his leg, pooling on the floor below. He swayed and fell backwards, the world falling into darkness to the soundtrack of distant sirens Carlos was bruised and beaten, breathing heavily as a hundred muscles protested against every movement, but it was all as nothing in the face of the victory they had won. He looked around him, the ground was littered with bodies. The lucky were wounded or unconscious, the unlucky – all of them on the side of the students – were dead. He hadn't had a chance to really take in the weight of numbers involved in the skirmish, but it was large. The number of rioters was unknown, but now, with most of them disabled or surrendering, he realised there was a horde of them. They outnumbered the students heavily, and were probably slightly more numerous than the police force. How this many people had gathered, organised and emerged without someone noticing was a mystery. But all his conjecture was pointless now. The how and why didn't mean anything, dwarfed as they were by the glorious defeat the rioters had suffered. They had demanded a heavy price, however, and the dead and dying would be a scar on the memories of everyone involved. A stark reminder of the danger that constantly lurked in the shadow. Everyone was unsure about how to continue now. So they stood, exchanging glances, all of their attention eventually falling on Carlos, who had no idea what to do himself. Luckily, the burden was lifted as a tall, bald policeman shouldered his way through the crowd. He was heavily built, with a stern face and a cut below his right eye. He approached Carlos, who didn't feel entirely comfortable with his presence. He looked angry, but as he drew near, he extended a hand and grinned, the sternness of his features softening. 'Sergeant Anthony Pearce,' it took Carlos a moment to realise he was introducing himself. 'Carlos,' he replied. 'Carlos Martinez.' He shook the huge hand, which had a grip as tight as one would expect. 'You in charge of this lot?' Pearce nodded over Carlos' shoulder to the students. 'Sort of, yeah. I organised the protests.'
'Good thing you showed up when you did. We would've been buggered otherwise.' 'No need to thank us, we were just doing our duty.' Carlos gave a crooked smile. 'Oh yeah?' Pearce raised an eyebrow. 'Yeah, can't just stand by and let these scumbags get away with it, can you?' 'No you cant,' Pearce laughed, clapping Carlos on the back, causing him to stumble forward slightly. Behind him, he heard a chorus of voices go up in shock and horror. He turned around to find the crowd had parted and after pushing his way through found they had gathered around the body of Adam, who had apparently been stabbed in the fight. His friend, whose name Carlos didn't remember, was already at his side. He obviously had some rudimentary first aid knowledge, as he started applying pressure to the wound, using his scarf to stem the flow. He slapped at Adam's face, attempting to rouse him, but to no avail. In the distance, he heard sirens. 'Sounds like the ambulances are here,' Pearce said. 'Bloody typical. Just like the movies they appear after all the fighting's done.' He had appeared at Carlos' side with so stealthily that Carlos found it impossible to believe a man so big could be so silent. 'Better get your lot sorted first,' Pearce continued. 'My boys can hold on a while longer. Besides, we've got a few arrests to make.' 'Thank you Sergeant,' Carlos replied. 'No thanks necessary. I'll send a few of my men out to help with the wounded...and the bodies.' He said grimly before striding back to the assembled line of policemen, bellowed orders and waving his arms. Six officers broke away from their ranks to help the students, a few of whom had already begun moving through the crowd. 'Alright, everyone who can move, start helping the wounded. If anyone knows first aid, do what you can for whoever you can.' Carlos called, the people around him spurred into action immediately. The first of the ambulances arrived, upon which the most severely wounded were loaded. Adam was among them, though Jack was denied a ride along due to space and time restraints. It pained him to leave his friend's side, but he understood the necessity, as hard as it was to accept. The potential horror of the evening bore down on him like a malevolent deity; two friends had already been lost, he couldn't bear the thought of losing another. To distract himself he set himself a task. It was grim, heartbreaking and entirely necessary. He moved out to where he thought the edge of the group of rioters had been. Though the ground was covered in snow, slush and bodies, so it was impossible to tell. With a heavy heart, he began moving people aside. Some of them corpses, most of them wounded, who groaned in protest. He didn't have the inclination to help them, focusing instead on finding the body of his friend. It didn't take long, Eddie was laying face down, but he was still instantly recognisable. Jack turned him over, his body was cold, his lips blue. His expression was one of profound sorrow, frozen in a moment that reflected his pain. Jack knew it had nothing to do with the brief but brutal attack he had suffered, and everything to do wit Natasha's death. He would make sure that Eddie's last wish was fulfilled though. He lifted the body of his friend, pain searing through his side as a recently cracked rib protested against the exertion. His expression stony, jaw tensed against the tears and the pain that threatened to overcome him. Now was not a time for weakness, after all he had endured he wouldn't let his emotions overcome him now. He made his way slowly and painfully across the open ground to where the body of Natasha lay. It had only been perhaps an hour ago that they had arrived, but the moment seemed so far away. Like a black and white photo, the snow was stark against the dark of the night and a thin blanket had covered Natasha's body. He laid Eddie down next to her and brushed the snow away, then took their cold hands and clasped them together before removing his long coat and covering them both as best he could. It was a small gesture but it felt right. Jack had never given much thought to the afterlife. His beliefs and his reasons were all grounded in science and logic, but in this moment he found himself sincerely hoping there was some great beyond where Eddie and Natasha would find each other. He smiled sadly at the thought. The significance of their passing had been lost in the flurry of activity that had followed, but now it settled on him like the weight of the world. He had known Eddie a little longer than Adam and he had become an almost permanent fixture in his life. Jack didn't realise how much he'd come to appreciate Eddie's company until now. He had always considered him a true friend, and one of only two people that held that honour. Now he was gone and he wondered who was left to call him at any time of day and chat about random nonsense. Who was left to be the butt of the jokes? Who was left to take all the bad stuff in their stride and continue on with a smile on their face? Jack knew no one that could come close; Eddie was a unique character and the sting of his death wouldn't fade for a very long time. As the snow began to fall heavily, Jack sat down cross legged at the head of his two departed friends and gave
them several moments of silence as he allowed the memories of them to flood his mind. Diana had been sitting in the spare room of Natasha's house, listening to the radio reports live from the riots outside the Houses of Parliament. Her heart had dropped when she heard about the explosion, then leapt when they talked about the students joining the fight against the rioters. They had found out who they were, a group of right-wing extremists calling themselves The Order of Albion, who were apparently dedicated to the â€œcleansingâ€? of England and a return to old ways. Diana had been to tense and anxious to pay them more than a passing thought. They were reprehensible, but she would save her scorn for a time when she could focus on it more clearly. For an hour she had listened intently to the radio broadcast, which had offered sketchy details at best and apart from keeping listeners abreast of any change in the flow of the full-scale battle that was currently under way, they offered precious little information. When they had announced the victory of the police and students, Diana had almost cheered, but had stifled it for fear of waking up Natasha's parents. They had been very welcoming and considerate, but she still detected a little irritation that was undoubtedly caused by her continued presence in their relatively small house. Still, she was far happier and more comfortable than she had ever been. She had revealed all of her fears and concerns to Natasha, not so much because of the constant badgering, but because her distance had strained their relationship. With each person she opened up to, she found a new gleaming gem of happiness to hoard and treasure. As she spilled her heart, the clouds broke and sunlight speared through the storm clouds. Now she felt light, clean and correct. Like everything was aligned. Her phone rang, the sound loud against the night time silence. She scrabbled to answer it, wanting to silence it as quickly as possible. It was Natasha. 'How did it go?' She asked with excitement. 'Diana, it's Jack.' 'Jack?' Diana's confusion was obvious in her voice. 'Sit down Diana.' As Jack revealed the course of events of the evening, Diana felt an impending sense of loss. She recalled the explosion, and though she knew what was coming the impact wasn't lessened. Jack revealed Natasha's death and the tears came immediately, but she was determined to hear him out, though she dreaded what would follow. He mind rushed with the possibilities. If Jack was there, that would mean Adam and Eddie were, since they were always together nowadays. Jack didn't have her number, hence why he had called from Natasha's phone, but Adam did, so why hadn't he called. Jack told her about Eddie, how he had recklessly charged into the fight alone and unarmed. She did not feel the pain of his loss quite to heavily, she admitted to herself shamefully, but his closeness to Natasha had led to an improved relationship between himself and Diana. 'And what about Adam?' She asked, her voice was dreadfully calm. 'He got stabbed, he's on his way to hospital.' Jack paused. 'I don't know what's gonna happen to him.' 'Which hospital?' She was already pulling on her shoes as he answered. Within minutes she was ready to go, but first she had a duty. It was going to painful and horrendous, but it was necessary. She ended the call with Jack and left her room, walking down the hallway a short way to the bedroom of Natasha's parents. They were sleeping soundly, for which she was glad, because sleep would elude them for the rest of the night. She woke them gently, flicking on the lamps. The tone of her voice told them something was wrong, bringing them to an alert wakefulness. She broke the news to them as gently as she could, but as she watched Natasha's mother's face fall and the tears begin to fall, she found herself unable to hold back any longer. Natasha's father drew his wife into an embrace, though he wasn't in a much better state. Diana perched herself on the end of the bed and cried freely. It felt like an immeasurable amount of time before she felt like she could continue. She explained herself to them both and left them to their grieving as she exited the house. Luckily the hospital was near a route that the night bus travelled along and the roads were relatively clear. It was a short journey but it felt like a lifetime. She was one of only a few people on the bus, but this relative isolation would not tempt her into shedding more tears. She was stronger now, and the time for mourning would come later. Her strength, what little she could offer, was needed. The hospital was unusually busy, she realised they must be rushing to treat the wounded, students, rioters and police officers alike. The people they were bringing in were conscious but wounded, suffering from head wounds and fractured or broken bones. She figured they must have bought the more severely wounded in first, in whose number Adam was almost certainly included. She made her way to the reception desk. The woman behind her looked harried and flustered. She enquired as to the whereabouts of Adam. Initially the receptionist
refused her the information, but the long night's toil had worn down her patience and after some pestering she surrendered his location. Diana walked briskly through the hallways, glancing at signs only occasionally, hoping she was heading the right way. She found Adam in a separate room, stripped to the waist, heavily bandaged and hooked up to oxygen. The reassuring beep of the heart rate monitor was strangely comforting. He was alive, but he looked like he might let go at any time. He was pale, slick with sweat and his face showed a pain that registered even through the unconsciousness. She pulled up a chair and rested her head in her hands, staring at his chest as it slowly rose and fell. She willed it continue moving, for him to keep living. But thoughts didn't have volume. 'I don't know if you can hear me, but if all those movies are anything to go by, you can, and what I'm about to say will save your life, I hope.' 'See Adam, you're not allowed to die. I forbid it. Jack already told me Natasha died, so if you go too I wont have anyone left.' Tears came unbidden to her eyes and began falling on the blanket that covered him. 'Look at me,' she spat. 'All this stuff happens and what can I do? I can only cry. I wasn't there for Natasha, I didn't rush to help her like you three did. I sat at home. I told her I was tired and went to bed. What good am I?' She sat back down heavily, hiding her tears with a palm across her face. 'I feel so weak and helpless. I can't even save myself from a bad situation, how can I save other people? What right do I have to carry on while people like you and Natasha suffer? You two are so strong, you're everything to me. You both saved my life, I wish I could repay the favour somehow, but instead I sit here and weep like a widow, useless and weak in the face of it all.' She trailed off into a silence punctuated by sniffs as she battled the tears. 'I won't cry anymore,' she said getting to her feet. 'I can't do anything to help, I know that, but I won't continue being weak and helpless. Now stop fucking about and wake up.' Jack had moved away from Eddie and Natasha after his phone call to Diana, who had taken the news with a surprising strength. He had started to help the other students and police officers with the wounded and dead. He had helped people to their feet, regardless of which side they had fought on. It was a peculiarity in the postbattle calm that had settled. The rioters had been out for blood, now they accepted the helping hands of the very people they had fought against earlier. Perhaps they were humbled in the face of defeat, resigned to the grudging acceptance of their position as the losers. Or perhaps they had never been all that dedicated to begin with, instead being guided by mob mentality, confident under the veil of invulnerability that anonymity amidst a crowd offered. Whatever the reason for their co-operation, Jack did no discriminate in who helped, though he had stopped to think that he was essentially putting enemy soldiers back on the field, but he doubted they'd be stupid enough to try anything after tonight. Many of the rioters had been surprisingly forthcoming with information. They revealed the name of the group; The Order of Albion, and the identity of their leader, Joe, who incidentally was the only person who had so far gone unaided. Joe had stabbed Adam before getting beaten to within an inch of life. He had been left to lay unconscious in the heavy snow. Jack knew from his research that Joe was likely the leader of one of the cells he had heard about, and represented only a small amount of the total power the Order possessed. But this defeat would drive them back into obscurity to plot and plan in secret. Now they had an identity they would be easier to track and now they knew people would oppose them it wouldn't be a surprise if they never reared their head again. With most of the wounded sorted and packed into ambulances only those with minor wounds were left. These people would require nothing more than rest and relaxation to heal. The police force hadn't been so lucky however. They had been engaged in their sombre task for longer and with greater organisation and already the number of dead outweighed the wounded by a sickeningly high ratio. The police had been the main target of the Order and had been spared no mercy. In several places, blackened corpses rested in horrifying contrast against the snow. Everyone averted their eyes from these sights, a bleak reminder of the evil that men could commit against each other. After tending to their wounded, the students moved towards the police force and silently started helping them, slipping into the organisation seamlessly. The sights here were far worse, a testament to the violence and zeal with which the Order had attacked. Blood slicked the ground, bright red against the snow and ice. Still the students continued with grim determination, as though they were accustomed to the horrors of combat. This was a day that would stay with everyone involved for as long as they would life. It was technically a civil war and though this one conflict was likely to be the only battle, the loss of life, though relatively small, would still be keenly felt by friends and family.
Nowadays many people believed that they lived in total security. War was a far away business now, fought more by machines than man and it left people feeling safe. There were dangers at home, but nothing beyond the usual thug. This would reach everyone in the country, it would, Jack hoped, shock them into activity. He hoped that they would help each other in times of need, as the protesters had. He hoped it would make them stronger. Only time would tell. Diana was woken by a terrifying noise. The flat, unending tone of the heart rate monitor had shocked her into consciousness and she was on her feet and out into the hall before she really had time to register what was happening. She screamed for a doctor, one came running, followed by a nurse. The flurry of activity that followed was lost on her, but she couldn't take her eyes off of Adam, whose chest had stopped moving. They worked at him with syringes and defibrillators, his body jerking violently as the electricity surged through his nerves. 'You have to do something!' She shouted. 'You have to leave,' the doctor said, not taking his attention off of Adam. 'Clear!' The doctor shocked him again. 'Do something else, this isn't working!' 'Young lady, please be quiet!' The nurse reprimanded her. 'How can I be quiet? My friend is dying, you have to save him, you have to!' Another nurse entered with the sole intent of removing Diana from the room. She became away of this and backed away into a corner. 'No, I'm not leaving, not until I know he's alright.' 'The doctor can't concentrate with you shrieking. Now come on.' She nurse reached out and grabbed Diana's wrist. Acting entirely on animal instinct, Diana lashed out, slapping the nurse in the face. She was determined to stay. 'Get off me!' She yelled. 'I'm not leaving!' The nurse was fuming now, incensed by the attack. She wrapped a hefty arm around Diana's waist and used her free arm to fend off the flurry of attacks that came at her as she lifted the skinny girl and forcefully remove her from the room. Chucking her bodily into the hallway, she shut and locked the door in Diana's face, who was up in an instant, banging her fists against the wood, screaming her protest. People came out of their rooms to find the source of the commotion, people within earshot gathered round, but Diana was oblivious to them, only one thing mattered and that was Adam. She came to realise, after several solid minutes of pounding her fists against the door, that it wasn't going to get her anywhere. Defeated, she slumped to the floor, back against the door and drew her knees up, hugging them to her as she always did in times of insecurity. All the old feelings were back, she felt small and helpless, holding no sway over this terrible course of events. Everything was going wrong, she had lost one of the two people she loved already and now the fate of the second person was hanging in the balance, out of her reach. Eventually a large, black security guard came to her. She was ready to fight again, but she found he was kind and understanding, despite his massive frame and shaven head. He took her to a quiet area, filled with couches and tables stacked with magazines. He talked to her until she calmed down, assured her it would all be alright, though she didn't believe him. He bought her a cup of tea and a blanket and stayed with her until she was calm, though she sadness and fear still raged inside of her. 'What's your name?' She said over a steaming mug of tea. 'Richard, but you can call me Ricky. Everyone does.' His voice was deep, soulful, it was immediately reassuring, as though he possessed all the strength in the world. She found herself comfortable in his company, which was practically a phenomenon for her. 'Let me tell you something kiddo,' he leaned back in his chair. 'I been here nearly fifteen years now and I've seen everything. I've seen fights, tears, laughter and joy. I've watched children cry over the bodies of their parents, I've watched wives lose their husbands, I've seen enough joy and sorrow for a lifetime. But you never get used to it. After a while you start to feel for everyone that comes through those doors. I've heard people say you gotta be cold to get along in a job like this, but I disagree.' He turned towards her, his eyes exuded power and confidence. 'I think it helps if you care. There's nothing wrong with shedding a tear when someone passes, or cracking a smile when someone wakes up. So many people try to hide their emotions, but you can't do that. You gotta let them out, emotions give us strength. Seeing you out there tells me one thing; you really care about this Adam guy, and if he knows it there's no way he's leaving that behind.' 'But he flatlined...' she said quietly. 'Flatline don't mean shit. The spirit is infinitely more powerful than our bodies. But sometimes we need
someone to come along and lend us their spirit.' 'What, like pray?' 'If you like, or just sending out all your good thoughts. Giving them all your energy. I know it might sound like bullshit, but trust me, somehow it makes a difference. It all flows through a space we can't see, and it effects us. Trust me.' Diana nodded and sipped at her tea. She'd always believed in the spirit and karma, and at this point she was willing to try anything that might help her cause. 'Anyway, you stay here, I'll come get you when they're done. He'll be fine, I know it.' Ricky got up and left. Diana set down her tea and laid herself out on one of the couches. She closed her eyes and bought Adam's face to her mind, she pictured him the hospital bed, clinging to life. She focused all of her emotion and, without really knowing how, focused it at him. At any other time she would've felt ridiculous, but now she sincerely hoped that it would make a difference. She hoped Ricky's words were true and that she could simply will Adam to live. She knew it would be down to science and medicine and the skill of the doctors, but she had to weigh in somehow, she refused to be helpless. 'Live, Adam. Don't you dare leave me here alone. I need you.' Adam's murmur, though intelligible and almost silent, somehow managed to wake Diana, who had been dozing uncomfortably in the chair next to the bed. Wan sunlight filtered into the room, She was unsure how much time had passed and she didn't much care. She rushed to the beside in time to see his eyes flicker open, the pupils shrinking as light hit them for the first time in hours. He didn't register her at first, staring unmoving at the ceiling tiles above him. The pieces fell into place slowly, the steady beeping, the mask around his mouth, the smell of disinfectant, and lastly the pain in his abdomen. He was in a hospital. The face to his right was obscured by shadow, the pale sunlight casting a halo around it. Then she spoke and he felt a warmth as the familiar voice reached his ears. He didn't quite understand what was said, but it spoke of safety and survival. Then the memories came, the events of the night before. Eddie and Natasha's deaths, the fight with the rioters, Adam's fight with the suited man and the wound he had suffered. He had survived it all somehow. He wished Eddie had been as lucky. When he tried to speak he found his throat too dry to do anything except mumble and whisper. 'Don't speak,' the familiar voice said. 'You're still very weak, but you're alive.' He registered the joy in her voice, but still couldn't identify her through the haze in his mind. His vision swam as exhaustion gripped him, falling once again into darkness, but this time it was warm and comfortable. He felt the glow of another soul nearby, someone kind and caring reaching out to him, anchoring him to the land of the living. The funeral was held on a suitably miserable January afternoon. Beneath a sky of steel the mourners gathered, family members were garbed in the traditional black, while Jack and Adam wore bright colours, something Eddie had often mentioned in life. He had said he wanted a party, not a wake, and though the mood was still sombre, looking so ludicrously out of place lifted their spirits. Christmas had passed with little celebration for the small circle of friends that remained. It was the first sad Christmas Adam had ever experienced and it was a truly saddening occasion. Usually one to get wrapped up in all the festivities, he had spent Christmas Day recuperating in hospital. Jack, Diana and Emily had bought him gifts, as had his mother, but without the decorations and the dinner it was a miserable day. His recovery had been slow, not really aided by the multiple other wounds he had suffered during the fight which had further weakened his body. A few broken and cracked ribs, broken nose and a fractured wrist from his collapse were all bumps in the road to recovery. Still, he had killed the time by writing and playing guitar, which his mother had kindly bought to him. A few days before New Years he was out and among his friends again, though nothing felt the same. There was a large space that would never be filled and every trip to the pub, every social gathering, was marked by this scar. Eddie's death had been a heavy blow that still bought a prevailing sense of numbness when it cropped up in conversation. Adam and Jack had spoken about it, though only briefly, both of them deciding it was better to mourn in private, even if it did take longer. Adam was also constantly worried about Diana. He knew Natasha's death effected her in the same way Eddie's had effected him. Perhaps more so, given her dependence on the other girl. Still, he had done what he could to support her. He realised he would be involved in quite possibly the most tragic romance of all time, if only he could bring himself to see her as more than a friend. But he couldn't. She had slept by his bed most nights, bought him gifts, food and books to entertain him. She had stayed and spoken with him all day long and shown nothing but loyalty and devotion. And while it touched him deeply, he found no love for her and he hated himself for it. He had tried to force it, but knew it was pointless. Love wasn't a tangible thing, it couldn't be
manipulated or created. It was a reaction, a spark from nowhere that threatened to ignite everything around it. When Emily had come to see him his heart had leapt and though she showed genuine concern and care her level of commitment didn't approach Diana's. Still he could not deny his feelings for her. In truth, the long periods of sleep were a welcome release from the turmoil of his mind. He thought it endlessly selfish of him to worry about his personal relationships while other things that demanded his attention went ignored. A light rain began to fall, pulling Adam back into the present and pattering against headstones and the coffins that lay in the middle of their gathering. It had been agreed that Eddie and Natasha would share a service, buried next to one another. He looked to his right at Diana who stood with Natasha's parents, both of them weeping silently. Across from him, Emily stood staring. She had attended more out of politeness towards Adam, she had never really known Eddie and Adam didn't blame her for not shedding a tear. In fact, he felt stupid for even inviting her. Eddie's family had gathered; both the adoptive side and the paternal. They had been hard to find, but Jack had been his usual resourceful self and tracked them down. Adam wished the reunion had happened while Eddie were still alive. It might have led him to a different life. All in all there were perhaps a dozen people from Eddie's family, half-brothers and sisters, cousins, four different parents and the odd auntie or uncle. Most of them had never met Eddie, or only heard about him and Adam found their presence mildly insulting. If he had his way it would be no one but Jack, Diana and himself, telling stories and sharing memories. He and Jack had been there for him more than his family ever had. Natasha's family was the exact opposite however. They numbered near fifty and all were crying or holding one another. They ranged from young children who didn't understand what was happening, to the frighteningly old who looked as though they were little more than sticks and twine. Clearly the Reinhold clan was a close knit one. As they spoke Adam heard clips of a foreign language, hinting at Eastern European ancestry, though he couldn't make out the exact dialect, not that he could tell the difference anyway. It also explained a great deal of Natasha's stubbornness and direct honesty. The priest finished his droning on as the coffins were lowered. He was another addition that Adam found unwelcome, but he was for the benefit of Natasha's family more than anything. Some of the more elderly Reinholds were clearly religious, tracing the sign of the cross in front of them as the priest finished speaking. Adam stepped forward and breathed in deep. He had nothing planned and the look of surprise on Jack's face bought a mischievous smile to his face. Eddie would appreciate this sort of thing, he thought. 'If I could have your attention for a moment,' Adam said, raising his arms. People regarded him with confusion as they exchanged whispered questions and the odd look of indignation. 'I am Adam, I was Eddie's closest friend along with Jack here,' he gestured at his bearded friend, who waved happily. 'I would like to say a few words about Eddie before we finish. It was always Eddie's dream to have an unconventional funeral and out here, in the rain, with all of you dressed in black I was afraid we'd failed him. But see, we prepared for this eventuality and I have a few items I would like to commit to his grave, if I might.' He glanced at the priest, who half shrugged, half nodded. Adam disappeared for a few moments, before reappearing from Jack's car, parked a short distance away with a large cardboard box and a bass guitar slung over his back. 'Eddie's bass was always rubbish, but he loved it, so I want to make sure he can take the funk to heaven.' Adam lowered the instrument into the grave. 'Next, those of you who knew Eddie knew he loved two things almost as much as he loved bass. Drinking and smoking.' He produced a six-pack of beer from the box, snapped two off and tossed one to Jack who caught it deftly. They opened the cans and lifted them skywards before drinking, an act that elicited more than a few looks of shook from the mourners. The remaining four cans Adam tossed into the grave. Then he produced a leather pouch which was worn and fraying. It was the pouch Eddie had stored his smoking paraphernalia in and wherever he went, it followed. Adam tossed it in along with the beer and the bass guitar. 'And finally, no man should be alone for a long period of time without some entertainment.' Adam turned the box upside down and dumped a large stack of porno magazines into the grave, smiling as some of the Reinholds gasped. 'Now, let me make it clear that I mean no disrespect to anyone here; least of all my friend Eddie. But I want to remember him as he was in life. He was always full of fun, always bright and optimistic. You simply couldn't beat him down. He lived alone in a tiny, messy little flat at the YMCA. He had a few jobs, but usually lost them or got made redundant, so he usually existed on a pitiful amount of dole money. All he had was bass, beer and cigarettes and he made the most of that. He was an inspiration to me, it's just a shame I realised it too late. Rest in peace Eddie, tell all the hot angels about me.' He offered the grave in front of him a sort of casual salute, then returned to Jack's side, who was trying hard to hide his wide grin. He glanced at Diana, who was
smiling against her sorrow, keeping her head down so as not to offend anyone else. Emily was smiling too, it was a beautiful expression that always bought warmth to Adam's heart, along with a wrenching sadness and longing that he could not satisfy. Adam and the other passed on the wake, electing instead to drink to the dead and celebrate their lives with laughter and jokes. The day wore on and despite the animosity he expected, he noticed Diana and Emily getting along well with each other. Emily had been given very few opportunities to integrate herself among Adam's friend. She had met Jack only a handful of times and never before directly spoken to Diana. He was worried that her presence might cause discomfort, but Jack, ever the social animal, had embraced this new friend and Diana, her past grievances either forgotten or very well hidden, was being friendly and conversational. He sat back and sank into the hum of conversation, taking in his surroundings. The fire that pushed the cold back and the two seats across from him that shouldn't have been empty. He could see them there, hands locked across the gap between the armchairs, heads turned towards each other, engaged a conversation none of them would ever hear. He remembered how he had felt when college had finished. Stepping out into the wide open world was like stepping off a cliff. Frightening and at the same time exhilarating. He had set out with one thing in mind; he intended to play it by ear and see where life took him. He remembered the carefree party where they had laughed and drunk their fill. He remembered the days where they seemed eternal and invulnerable, with no responsibilities and no obligations. Days when the sun always shone and every day was a perfect summer. When he thought of those days he saw the fields they would sit in, the sunsets they would watch and the night skies they stared at. That was a whole life ago now. Everything had changed and they had been pushed beyond reason. The real world had been shoved in their faces and they had to either accept it or shy away. It had stripped away their arrogance and exposed their weaknesses. It had broken hearts, picked at the stitches of friendship and taken life from them. It had been only a few months, but already the world seemed bleak. The colour and the beauty were gone, replaced instead by a dull drudgery that hung heavily on the soul. And for the first time in his life, Adam, against all his beliefs, wished he was back in those days of summer. He wished with all his strength that he could turn back time and stay in those days for the rest of time. But he knew it was impossible, they were gone and nothing would ever be the same. He saw the future. The jobs that would pull them apart, the far away universities, the travelling. They would talk from time to time, perhaps gather together a couple of times a year, but ultimately they would separate. Adam felt like all his life he'd been walking a tightrope while his friends held the safety net. Now as he looked down he saw only the cold, hard ground. But the separation would be slow and he would bleed every joyous moment, every meeting and every party dry. He would hoard the memories and the laughter and he would hold them to his chest for the rest of his life. These moments were precious and would not be forgotten. Prologue: A Moment of Stillness The pub was far too busy and far too noisy for Adam to really enjoy himself. He had agreed to go out for a drink or two with a few friends who were really little more than acquaintances. Still, he had been determined to try and be a little more social at least and with Jack constantly busy with Grace, Diana in university and Emily's time monopolised by both work and Josh, he had no choice but to branch out and extend his social circle. But the people he currently held counsel with were boring. It was a sweeping statement and one borne of his inherent sense of superiority, but it had firmly entrenched itself into his mind and try as he might he couldn't shift it. Thus he had little or no desire to get to the know the people sat around him, filling the time by checking his phone for replies to the messages he had sent to the people he actually cared about. Despite the horrific events surrounding the tuition fee increases, the government had gone ahead with the proposal anyway. It was foolish to believe that a loss of many human lives would spur them to change their minds and the decision had been met with outcry from millions of people. But the fighting was over and there was no strength to fight any more. Adam thought maybe it was their strategy all along. Maybe the Order had been government funded, with instructions to start a war with the protesters, essentially removing two future problems. But he pushes the conspiracy theories away; it was not only too smart for the government, but too outrageous as well, despite how much he convinced himself otherwise. He turned in his seat to look around the pub; it was a new one, part of a franchise, flat screen TVs hung from most of the walls, displaying either sports, news or music videos which didn't match the songs that were
playing over the loud PA system. It was dark, noisy and not at all suited to quiet conversation, which Adam valued much more than loud dancing. As he took in his surroundings, someone caught his eye. Sitting across the pub at a romantic table for two was Josh, with another girl who definitely wasn't Emily. Curious, Adam watched for a few moments and his suspicions were realised then they kissed passionately. Turning back to his original position he reached into his phone and sent a message to Emily. The response came a couple of minutes later. She told him she wasn't seeing Josh tonight because he was doing something with his family, but she would be seeing him the following day. It was all Adam needed. As he got up from his chair, the events of the previous months flooded through him. Before the protests and the fights, he would never have confronted anyone. He had been, he realised, a coward. He talked tough, talked about hatred and disgust, but never acted on it. Now he had grown and the fear he previously had of pain and fear were, for the most part, gone, replaced by a confidence that wasn't instantly obvious but it sat behind his eyes, strong and unwavering. Now he approached problems head on, he tackled obstacles as they appeared rather than putting them to one side and letting the mountains become mole hills. He approached Josh and he harnessed all the hatred, anger and helplessness he felt. He took him in, his smug smile, finely groomed hair, designer clothes and that practised smile that made the ladies swoon. He gathered up all the negativity and frustration and built it all up. Josh stood atop this mountain of shit, previously untouchable, made invulnerable by Emily's love for him. Now Adam would change that. 'Having a nice evening Josh?' Adam asked, approaching unnoticed. Josh looked up at him and flashed him that smile, Adam felt his anger flare. 'Hello Adam, didn't see you in here tonight. Yeah, I'm just here with my cousin Bianca,' he gestured to the girl opposite him, who looked confused, but smiled and nodded anyway. 'Uh huh, in my family we frown upon kissing cousins, guess you guys must do it differently.' 'It was just a friendly peck. A small show of affection.' Josh's smile had faded. He wrung his hands nervously. 'Cut the shit Josh, you were some dimmed lights and porno music away from fucking on the table.' Adam made his anger obvious. There was a tense silence that followed. Adam studied Josh closely, watched the minute movements of his face, the subtle changed in body language. He was thinking of a way out of it; and failing. 'And what are you going to do?' Josh asked at last, his tone mildly threatening. 'You're not gonna do anything. If you tell Emily you'll hurt her poor feelings. I've seen the way you follow her around like a puppy dog, you'd never do that. A man like me has his needs, understand? Now why don't you go pester Emily and-' Adam's fist crashed into the side of Josh's head, knocking him from his chair. Adam leaned over him and grabbed him by the cuff of his shirt. 'Listen up you arrogant cunt,' he hissed. 'You're making two very bad mistakes. One, I'm not afraid of hurting Emily, not if it's better for her in the long run. And two, I'm not afraid of hurting you either. If I ever so much as see a shadow that resembles you anywhere near Emily, you can bet that I will come after you and then you can try pulling off that charming smile with broken teeth.' Adam slammed Josh's head into the tiled floor. He became aware of the chatter surrounding him and the shouting of Bianca, his actions had not gone unnoticed. He stood, straightened his shirt, then spied Josh's starter; a bowl of steaming hot tomato soup and a devious thought came to him. He shrugged. 'Fuck it.' He knocked the scalding soup onto the dazed Josh, who shouted and writhed as it covered the skin of his face. Adam turned and walked, unmolested, through the crowd that had gathered. He fought to keep the smile from his face. His legs felt like they weren't there, his lungs burned and even the cold rain that beat down all around him did nothing to stave off the heat he felt as he ran up the steep hill towards where he knew Emily would be. Even though it was a dreary day, with ironclad clouds disgorging heavy rain, he knew she'd be there, sat atop the hill overlooking the town below. As Adam pushed harder, he wondered how Emily, poor asthmatic Emily, would ever have been able to get up this hill alone. As he the ground levelled out into a plateaux he saw a small car park nearby, her silver hatchback was parked there and he cursed his stupidity. He saw here there, as he knew he would, silhouetted against the cityscape, hood up, shoulders heaving sporadically. Around her feet was the mush of several discarded tissues, she'd been here a while. He sat down next to her, but said nothing. There was nothing he could say. Though he thought he understood the pain she was feeling, he knew Emily would only open up on her own terms. It was just a question of patience.
'How did you find me?' She asked, her voice faint against the pattering of the rain. She didn't even look up to see who it was. She knew him too well. 'Come on, did you forget who you're talking to? How could I not find you?' He scanned her face for any sign of a smile, but couldn't see past her hood. Another silence followed. 'Josh broke up with me today,' she whispered. The words were so laden with sorrow that Adam felt the strings of his heart tug painfully. 'I thought as much,' he said, attempting to be as calm and confident as possible. Emily didn't react well to empathy or clichĂŠd simpering. She was much like him in that regard. 'Sucks though,' he continued. 'He told me he'd been cheating on me, but wouldn't say how long. Someone beat the shit out of him, probably the boyfriend of one of the other girls.' She wiped away her tears with another tissue, blew her nose then discarded it. 'Well if he was cheating on you, he deserved it. Only scumbags cheat.' 'Why would he cheat on me though? I thought we had something special.' 'Most men are only in it for the sex and they'll say anything to get it.' He leaned forward, trying to find an angle from which he could see her face. 'Don't blame yourself, learn from this mistake and then move on. Don't let someone like him upset you.' 'It's impossible not to be upset,' she said, some strength returning to her voice. 'This is the longest relationship I've ever had, I thought it was going somewhere.' 'Well it's not any more,' he joked. He thought he saw a smile in the shadow of her hood. He was glad she could still appreciate humour. 'Look,' he continued, turning to face her. 'Breaking up is never easy, but no one else can really help you. I can give you advice, but you're the one who has to act. You can brood on this and let it get to you, or you can learn, put it behind you and carry on.' She turned her face upwards and met his eyes. Even though she had been crying her beauty still shone through. He opened his arms and she moved in for the embrace, resting her head on his shoulder. 'You'll be fine,' he said. 'You're better than him, far better.' He felt her nod. 'He's ugly now anyway. Looked like he'd been burnt.' 'Yeah, tomato soup to the face will do that.' He grinned as she moved back to read his expression. She looked shocked. 'That was you?' 'Yeah. Remember that text I sent you last night? I wanted to find out if Josh had lied to you. Turns out he did, so I had a few words with him, but I think the language of violence got my message across more effectively.' 'So it's because of you he broke up with me?' Her tone was indignant and angry. 'This is your fault?' 'Excuse me, what?' He let his anger through. 'I'm not sure I understand you. It sounds like you just blamed me for your boyfriend breaking up with you.' 'Because it's your fault! If you'd have left it alone we'd still be together!' 'And he'd still be fucking someone else on the side! Sort your head out Emily, you're talking shit. I know you want someone to blame, but it's not me, it's Josh. I know you're hurting but I couldn't keep this a secret from you. I would never let that happen.' He looked her straight in the eyes, daring her to challenge him, to argue further. 'And what happened to no bullshit?' She asked, referencing the mutual honesty they shared. 'You should have come to me first and let me deal with it! You had no right. I was happy, and I would rather be blissfully ignorant than a miserable wreck!' She stood up, he copied her, unwilling to let assume a position of dominance. 'Then you're a fucking idiot,' he spat. 'I thought you were intelligent, strong and sensible, but if you'd rather let some guy play you like a drum then go ahead. I won't try and help you anymore.' 'Good!' She screamed. 'If this is what you call help then I don't want any of it!' She snatched up her bag and in a heartbeat Adam let slip all the anger and frustration. As he watched her turn to leave a thought, unpleasant and taboo entered his mind, bright and contrasting like blood on the snow: Was this the moment where it all came down? Was this the end of them? Then from the depths of his being, something grew, not something black and hateful, but something pure and clean, it surged through his body, strengthened his resolved and snatched him from the jaws of defeat and in the back of his mind, one word burned brightly: No. He grabbed her wrist, she spun round and sent a punch directly into his face. Even as the blood ran over his lips, he pulled her close into a tight embrace. 'Get off me!' She shouted, struggling against his grip. 'Let me go! Don't touch me!' He held on against her tirade, letting her wear herself out before she submitted to her situation. 'Listen Emily, I might have made a mistake and caused you pain, but that was never my intention. I won't let
anyone or anything come between us ever and I refuse to let this be the end of us. I'm not perfect, but I've always tried to be the best friend to you. I love ever moment I spend with you and whenever I think of a time we were together I smile. You're a light in my life and I need you Emily.' As he held her, he saw himself as a shield and he was overcome with a need to protect her, to preserve her beauty and innocence for as long as he lived. They remained that way for a number of minutes, Emily locked in Adam's embraced as the rain drove ever downwards. Out before them, the town spread out, the little novas of light from street lamps, windows and cars were beacons against the dark Sunday sky. 'How do you do it?' She asked after a lengthy silence, her voice calmer. 'Do what?' 'You always find the right words.' 'Practice,' he replied, moving backwards to look her in the eye. He saw the concern on her face and remembered his nose was bleeding. 'Oh yeah, this.' He moved a finger up to touch the blood. 'Don't worry, I didn't get any in your hair.' 'Did I do that? I'm so sorry.' 'Yeah you did! Didn't know you could hit that hard. Don't worry though, I'll get you back one day.' He wiped the blood away on the back of his sleeve. 'That's disgusting,' she said, reaching into her pocket for a tissue and handing it to him. 'I'm glad I have you,' she said, digging her head into his shoulder. 'Well, you need one positive male role model in your life. We're not all douchebags.' 'All the guys I'm interested in are douchebags according to you.' 'And am I ever wrong?' 'No,' she replied sadly. 'No you're not. I'll never find anyone. I'll be single forever.' 'That's not true,' he said. 'My mum told me a story once. When humans first appeared we had two heads, four arms and four legs, but then a great disaster split all the humans in two and spread them across the world. Somewhere out there is your other half, and together you'll be stronger than anything on this earth. It's just a question of looking.' 'That's a nice thought,' she said, snuggling in closer to him. 'But I don't want my other half, just someone who isn't a douchebag, but I'm starting to think you're the only male alive who isn't. Why can't there be another guy like you? Someone to make me laugh, someone who gets all the inside jokes? That was one thing I hated about Josh, he never made me laugh.' 'Then why not me?' He asked the question before he had a chance to stop it. Again, she drew back to look him in the eye. Her expression was unreadable. 'What?' 'Well, does there need to be another guy when the one you want is right here?' 'What are you trying to say?' 'We're basically a couple without the sex,' he said looking her directly in the eye, unwilling to let his confidence waver. He was on this road now, for better or worse. The only direction left was forward. 'We get each other, we joke, we share our secrets. We're closer than most legitimate couples are!' 'Are you suggesting we...get together?' He expression was still unreadable. He quickly reviewed his prospects; while he wasn't a burn victim, like Josh, he was perhaps average looking, unemployed and didn't have much going for him apart from his skill with music and his intellect, which he had recently realised was far less prodigious than he liked to believe. 'No,' he said, his heart breaking slightly. 'No, you could do much better than me.' 'Don't you wonder what it feels like to kiss me?' She asked, she looked flashed him a sultry look, the air of seduction surrounding her was so powerful that Adam had resist several of his more carnal urges. 'I already kissed you,' he replied lamely. 'And what about my skin?' She asked. 'Don't you want to stroke your fingers across my skin? Run your hands over my hips, feel me close to you? Don't tell me you haven't thought about it.' Adam's mind was abuzz with questions and doubts. Was she playing? While her behaviour was unusual he didn't put it past her. If she was serious... 'Yes I've thought about it,' he replied. 'About those things and so much more. I've dreamt of moments that I can pray for. Ever since that four hour conversation on your doorstep not a day has passed when I haven't thought about you.' He fixed her with an intense gaze, attempting to transmit just how important this was. 'When you started going out with Josh it killed me, but I told myself it was just an infatuation. But I can't get you out of my head and I realised this isn't infatuation. This is something greater than you or I, something way beyond lust or friendship, this is...' He trailed off, the words stopping short.
'Say it,' she said, tilting her head upwards, their lips were a hair's breadth apart.