A/N: The places are (mostly) real: the people are not.

--- Chapter 1: 'Tis the Season to be Jolly ---

The pasty was cold. Lukewarm, at best.

"Bloody waste of 54p," thought Gary between chews as he strode across the quiet car park and into the little shopping centre. The stench of cigarette smoke from the cafe made him feel sick (ridiculous, he mused, that the one place that allowed smoking was perhaps the least appropriate of all), and so he hurried quickly onwards until he reached Woolworths. The shop was bright with Christmas decorations, the confectionary section having expanded, as it always did at such times, into a great expanse of sickly sweetness, and the adverts on the in-store televisions were now for plastic American toys in wildly clashing colours rather than electric screwdrivers and hosepipes.

Not that Gary was here to shop. No. He had come here to feel safe, to feel - well - normal. Woolworths was an unthreatening place, with none of the pressure of fashion that afflicted the record shops and the clothes boutiques. No-one looked askance at his hangdog expression or his frayed shoelaces - he was hardly alone in those here, after all - and for a while, just for a while, he felt part of everyone else's world. All too soon, though, his time was past, and he knew that he had to move on. He left the shop, and, checking for the scrumpled ticket in his pocket, made his way back to the bus station, giving his remaining change (six pence) and a rueful smile to the accordianist busking in the dingy subway.

The bus was on time, and surprisingly empty for the time of day. Gary liked buses, perhaps because they also formed something of a cocoon from the outside world: there were 'us', within the metal-and-glass cuboid, and everyone, everything, outside was simply 'them'. Just outside Wombourne, he caught a flash of a large striped dog-like shape, motionless in the gutter, its fur matted with rain and mud and oil and blood: but this was no dog; it was a badger. Was. A single tear welled up in one eye for just a moment. Then he shook his head and thought hard about football.

* * *

Dusk had long since fallen as the bus disgorged its load, but it was late- night opening in Wolverhampton, and the city's streets, though dark and shiny with recent rain, were bustling and noisy with chattering shoppers. Gary made his way along the street, past the great edifices of the Express & Star's headquarters ("WOLVES DESERVE PROMOTION - MANAGER'S CLAIM"), paused a moment to watch the enormous printing presses' whirling frenzy, and eventually reached the claustrophobic surrounds of the Mander Centre: yet another place to shelter from the world. The place to linger here was WH Smith, where the trick was to flick through the magazines with a proud, judgemental air, as though to say, "well, I might buy this, but only if it reaches my exalted standards". Not the newspapers, though: there was an unwritten law that anyone who dared open a paper without first paying for it would feel the wrath of the Assistant Manager upon them, yea, and there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth in the land. Smiting, too, quite likely.

Gary was shocked, after what seemed like just a few minutes, to find that it had gone six o'clock: he had to go home. Much as he didn't want to, it was what he had to do. He made his way to the tram stop as slowly as he could, and brooded silently in his seat as the vehicle glided effortlessly along the wide suburban roads. Bilston Central arrived, and he alighted with a hop, landing smoothly on his toes and swivelling 90 degrees in a single movement - an affectation he had picked up from somewhere, but one he had no real desire to change. The satisfaction from this micro-ballet was a very small one, but Gary would receive anything he could with open arms. The clouds had parted, and a moon just a couple of days off full, but even so providing no real light in this land of sodium, gazed benevolently down at the disregarding young man who scuffed his way despondently onwards. A five-minute walk brought Gary to Chamberlain Drive, and his house.

If only.