A/N Here it is, the end of the Odyssey. It's quite long, but I couldn't bear to split it up. Also, the London geography is based on my memories of being there, but it's been a while, so apologies if it's a little off! It's quite sad, actually, leaving this fic behind. I had a lot of fun with it, and I hope you all did too. Thankyou again so very much for reading and reviewing; this was my first long story and I was nervous, but you guys have all been so supportive. This final chapter is dedicated to all you English people who're finishing their GCSE's or A levels etcetera around now - congratulations, and enjoy the freedom! Love you all xoxo.
Vince spent the rest of the day and night resting. Though his treatment was working fine, his time in the Darxeetan fortress had really taken its toll on him, and he needed all the sleep he could get. His recovery sped by quickly for Howard, who spent most of his time checking in on his friend, and re-capping his adventures over and over again with the still awe-struck Naboo and Bollo. When he rested, he rested in Vince's bed. The two of them would lie side by side, often with one or both of them asleep, and every now and again Howard would wake up to see a smile from Vince, or vice versa. Bollo made them fairy cakes and tried his hardest not to roll his big gorilla eyes at the sight of Howard and Vince snuggled up together.
Finally, the next day arrived, and Vince woke up looking more or less like his usual self. The shop was closed for the day, and Howard was preparing breakfast after Naboo and Bollo left on shaman duty when he heard Vince's door open, and turned to see the rather adorable sight of Vince shuffling into the kitchen, his blanket curled around his entire body and his head like a fluro nun.
"My, don't you look handsome today. Is that the latest fashion?"
"Shut up" replied Vince, mock-insulted.
"No, I'm serious!" chuckled Howard. "It's a good look for you. Blanket-chique. It'll save you all that time you usually spend getting ready – now, you can just wake up and go!"
"Oh yeah? Well I'd rather wear my blanket out than a multi-porpoise tweed fertility suit!"
"I think you'll find that it's a multi-purpose tweed utility suit, Vince."
"Whatever, at least my blanket has colours!"
"Everything has a colour, Vince."
"Tweed is so not a colour."
"Tweed isn't the colour, it's the fabric. The colour is…" shit, what was the colour of tweed?
"Ha! You don't even know! You great northern pillock."
"Oi, don't be dissing the man who's making your breakfast!"
"Oooh, whatcha cooking?"
Howard smiled and positioned himself so he was blocking Vince's vision of the stove. "Oh, just a little surprise… a welcome back to health surprise. Something I thought you'd like. Of course, you probably don't want a great northern pillock making your breakfast, do you? Maybe I should just throw it all out…"
"No, no, no!" Vince scrambled his way past Howard, who had a big grin plastered across his face as his friend saw what he was preparing.
"Pancakes! With… everything!"
"That's right, sir."
"Maple syrup and strawberries and blueberries and chocolate and jam and sugar and sprinkles and … wow! Everything's so colourful!"
"When Howard Moon makes pancakes, he goes all out."
"Aw, Howard, you're a genius!"
As the two of them settled down to what was probably the most ridiculous and unhealthy breakfast Howard had ever had a hand in creating, the easy banter flowed between them, relaxing the atmosphere and warming the tightness in Howard's stomach. Vince teased him mercilessly all morning, taking advantage of his sudden return to health by jumping and scampering around Howard like a bluebottle, poking him in the ribs when he wasn't looking, flicking leftover strawberries at his head. Howard played along in faux-shock, retaliating where he could but mostly just inwardly marveling at his friend's renewed energy. Every time Vince came near him, a ripple of heat rushed through Howard's insides, throwing him off balance.
All the bouncing around in the kitchen proved enough for Howard that his friend was feeling well again, so that afternoon as planned the two of them got the tube into town. Naboo actually offered them a lift on the carpet, hush-hush, but Howard politely declined, having had quite enough of magical assistance to last him a lifetime.
The rest of the afternoon passed by like a montage, or at least it seemed that way to Howard. He bought the two of them ice-cream (Rocky Road for Vince, naturally, and a more dignified mocha-walnut for himself). They rode the Ferris wheel by the river, Vince squealing in delight as they neared the top of the ascent, leaning over the edge of the cable car and inadvertently emptying out the loose change and sweets from his pockets onto the unsuspecting crowd below. They browsed the shops on Oxford Street (well, Vince browsed, Howard just focused on not passing out from colour overload). They talked a lot. Almost constantly, they talked to each other, or at each other. Yabbering, bickering, teasing, crimping. Vince laughed a lot. Those moments, the moments when Howard felt that deliciously frightening rush of electricity in his gut, they passed by like photographs. Outside Topshop, in the queue for ice-cream, waiting for the lights to turn green at Piccadilly Circus. Amidst all the hustle and bustle of the city, he didn't have time to gather his thoughts, and Vince seemed just as caught up in the buzz as he was. It was a million light-years away from the stillness of the woodlands or the solitude of the tunnels, and part of Howard was terrified that they'd never get that stillness back, now that everything was so familiar once again.
Things began to shift – the atmosphere, the buzz, the space between them – in the early evening, when Vince suggested they swing by one of his favourite city clubs, just to "do the rounds, let them know I'm still on the scene." Howard grudgingly complied, if only because he didn't think he had it in him to refuse Vince anything anymore.
"So whaddya think?" bellowed Vince over the loud electro music pumping through the club's speakers.
"Er… yeah, it's interesting" yelled Howard, looking around warily. Everyone in here looked like a peacock or an alien. Then again, so did Vince, usually, it was just that Howard was used to the way he looked. Liked the way he looked, in fact.
"Don't fib, Howard, you hate it!"
"No, no, not at all, it's just different …"
"I said, it's different" he yelled.
"I'm sorry, Howard. We can go if you want."
Howard looked longingly at the exit for a split second, but then saw the hope and enthusiasm in his friend's eyes, and though, bugger it. I can deal with being in Vince's element for one evening. He smiled at Vince with what he hoped was an equally enthusiastic grin.
"No, I want to stay."
Vince beamed. He ushered Howard towards the bar, locking eyes and nudging him affectionately with his elbow as if to say "I know you're staying for me, and I appreciate it." They both settled down next to the bar, Vince with a flirtini and Howard with a pint, abandoning any attempts at conversation because they both had to shout to be heard, and Howard's voice was already growing sore and hoarse. He was content with nodding his head to the beat, vaguely watching the DJ spin out tune after mindless tune. Vince bumped into quite a few friends, and went up onto the dance-floor with them. He raised his eyebrows at Howard, asking him to follow, but Howard raised his hand with a smile, declining – there were many things Howard was willing to do for Vince, but dancing to electro was not one of them. Vince shrugged, and disappeared into the crowd, leaving Howard feeling his absence immediately.
For the next hour, Vince returned to the bar only to order more flirtinis and to give Howard a quick poke in the side or pat on the shoulder, his movements becoming slightly more exaggerated with each cocktail. Meanwhile, Howard was enjoying a light-headed sensation which came mostly from all the pints he had been downing in Vince's absence. The bright colours of the club were wavering, slightly, before his eyes, and when he saw Vince muscle through the crowd back towards him, clutching a fiver in his hand, the fluttering in his chest and stomach blossomed so quickly that he actually had to sit on his hands to stop himself from pulling Vince into an embarrassing hug, or… or, something else. He didn't know what.
Vince didn't make for the bar, though. He caught Howard's eye for a second, and stuffed the fiver back into his pocket, grinning a little cheekily. Howard was just about to ask, or shout, what was up, when Vince rushed towards him and spoke directly into his ear.
"Dance with me."
Vince's face was so close to Howard's that the older man could distinctly hear everything his friend said. He could even feel the vibrations of the words against his skin, and the sensation sent a shiver down his neck, rendering him unable to respond for a moment.
"Dance with me"repeated Vince, slowly this time, the traces of boyish cheek in his voice replaced with a surprisingly forceful lower register. Howard frowned, then grinned, shaking his head as if to say "don't be ridiculous, Vince."
But Vince had taken his hand and was pulling him off the bar stool and to his feet, leading him away from his comfort zone, towards the harsh lights of the dance floor. Howard pulled back on Vince's grip, standing his ground. Vince whipped around indignantly, wobbling a little from the alcohol. The music was so loud here, deafeningly loud.
Vince made a gesture with his hands that said "what's the problem?"
Howard returned with a gesture which he hoped said something along the lines of "it's nothing personal, I just don't dance", rather than "I don't want to dance with you", or even worse, "I am dying to dance with you, but I'm afraid that I won't ever be able to take my hands off you again." Luckily, Vince didn't stop to analyse the gesture; he merely rolled his eyes. Howard tried in vain to wrestle out of Vince's grip, embarrassed, feeling like a … well, a jazz maverick in an electro bar, but Vince pulled him close and murmured once again into his ear, having to stand on tip-toes to reach.
"Please. I want to dance with you."
Howard closed his eyes for a minute, savoring the closeness, still a little giddy from the beer, the realization beginning to dawn upon him that something was happening… something was in the air, and this time it wasn't the threat of impending doom. Still, his old fears bubbled up inside his gut, and he shook his head at Vince, shrugging his shoulders, trying to act out an apology for his lack of social cool. Vince leant up to his ear again.
Howard nodded, hanging his head a little, feeling for a moment like the world's greatest dud. How was it possible that he could go from fearlessly (well, almost fearlessly) facing mortal danger on an alien planet, to being petrified on the dance floor of an electro club, a tube-ride away from home? It was maddening, honestly. Vince merely smiled back at him, looking up into his eyes with a simple affection, tinged with something else, something wanting. He murmured again.
"You can't be scared. You're my hero."
Howard frowned, taken by surprise. Vince giggled, maybe a little nervously, and a grin started curling up the side of Howard's mouth, his anxieties ebbing back.
"Come on, hero!" Vince shouted. "A victory dance! Come on!"
Howard rolled his eyes as he felt himself being dragged, not so forcefully now, onto the dance floor, a fast-pumping beat vibrating through the floorboards. He looked around him – everyone else seemed to know what they were doing, and they were doing it fast. How do you learn these things? Was it instinct? he wondered. Just as he was about to ask Vince what the hell he was meant to be doing, the tune morphed into a slow ballad… God, it's a love song. At least I can dance to that, he though. Everyone can slow dance, can't they!?
But Howard needn't have worried – Vince, it seemed, was taking charge. He took Howard's arm and wrapped it around his own waist, placing his hand on Howard's shoulder, drawing himself close against the whole of Howard's body, swaying slowly to the music playing overhead. Vince held his head against Howard's chest, and Howard mimicked his movements, swaying side to side, feet moving in a slow waltz, looking over Vince's head at the crowd and feeling immensely proud because of who he was dancing with. Vince tilted his head upwards, staring at Howard, and nudged Howard's chin with his nose, his trademark cheeky grin resurfacing on his face. Howard nudged back playfully, pressing his nose against Vince's forehead and sticking his tongue out, faux-menacing, all the while moving to the beat, holding his friend close. Vince widened his eyes in a look of mock-terror, which then morphed into something more devilish, and Howard felt a sharp poke in the ribs.
"Ow!" he glared at Vince, still dancing.
Vince moved his arm back to Howard's shoulder, pouting in a melodrama of apology. Howard had to clench his teeth a little to stop himself from following his rather bizarre impulse to lean forward a fraction and bite Vince's big bottom lip, which was pouting at him in a maddeningly flirtatious manner, making him feel warm, warmer than warm, kind of boiling all over. Holding eye contact, Vince drew himself even closer to Howard, swaying to the music, back and forth, side to side, left to right, pressing himself against Howard's body a little too firmly for a waltz.
Howard was more than happy to let Vince lead the proceedings. Something was definitely happening, that was for sure, but beyond that, it seemed that the maverick was sailing unknown waters. He felt giddy, a little weak at the knees, too warm under the collar, utterly intoxicated. Vince was right there, right there in front of him, staring into his eyes like he was so… special. The way Vince was looking at him, it seemed like… well, it sounded crazy, but it seemed like, just maybe, he was trying to… what, Howard? Trying to hit on you? But it didn't seem that ridiculous an idea, with Vince looking up at him with those enormous baby blues, sucking on his lower lip, a dark and mischievous look in his eyes. Don't forget, Howard thought, he kissed you before. But that was different. Vince had been dying. He had been going mad. God, maybe he had been mad at the time, and Howard hadn't even noticed! Maybe Vince didn't even remember!
Vince nudged him a little, shaking him from his plagued thoughts. He raised his eyebrows in query, and Vince stood up on tiptoes again to reach his ear.
"Fancy a bit of air?"
Howard nodded, and followed Vince through the sweaty moving crowd, out a side exit and onto a deck which, somehow, mercifully, was deserted. Vince stretched his arms out over the railing, staring up at the stars. Howard stared up too, leaning back against the wall of the club, noticing the strange and kind of delirious stillness in the air. A few moments passed before Vince spoke.
"Loud enough in there for you?"
"I don't know how you do this every weekend, honestly."
Vince chuckled. "Come on, it's not that bad."
"My ears are still ringing."
"Really? Mine aren't."
"Maybe you're going deaf."
"I feel like I'm going deaf, and I was only in there for an hour or so. I can't imagine what it does to you if you go there every bloody night."
"I am not going deaf, you knob. If I was, I wouldn't mind listening to all your jazzy scat rubbish." Vince poked his tongue out.
"Hold your tongue, sir. Scat saved your life!"
"No, you saved my life."
There was a pause; the heaviest pause imaginable. Somehow Vince had moved closer to Howard, or maybe Howard had done the same. They locked eyes, and Howard felt the intensity of Vince's stare, his crystal eyes boring into him, almost daring him, his cheeky smile all but faded, his jaw quivering a little, betraying – what looked like – nerves? Howard clenched his hands. The space between them was molten, electric, alight. Then –
"Oi, you geezers got a cigarette?"
A drunken patron pushed through the door behind them, staggering onto the deck, along with a flock of mates. Howard fought every single one of his instincts not to grab the man by his collar and throw him over the railing, instead just shrugging apologetically. "We don't smoke." The men didn't seem interested in moving on, however, pushing and jostling each other, clinking bottles, their loud voices tearing through the delicate atmosphere. Vince seemed to sense Howard's frustration, and he smiled sympathetically, beckoning his friend down the stairs and out onto the street.
"C'mon, maybe we can get a bite to eat. I'm a bit sick of the club."
"Thank god for that."
They wandered through the crowded city streets, walking side by side, looking up or down straight ahead, and rarely, at each other. The tingly sensation in Howard's stomach began rising again. He didn't know how much more of this he could take. He'd had enough tension to last him a lifetime in the past week, and now to finally come home and find his nerves still working overtime… unfair, was what it was. Unfair, and stressful, and… he caught Vince's eye briefly… yeah, maybe it felt sort of wonderful too.
They must have been walking for a while before Howard floated down to reality for a moment. They were standing at the intersection of Shaftsbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road, and he wondered where the hell they were going.
"Vince, where exactly are we going to eat?"
"Oh, what? I've been following you!"
Howard rolled his eyes. "Great. You're telling me we've just been walking aimlessly for the past twenty minutes?"
"Uh-huh." Vince grinned.
"Well, come on, where do you want to eat?"
"Dunno. You know me, I'm happy with crisps."
"We are not having crisps for dinner, Vince."
"We had pancakes for breakfast. Ice cream for lunch. You do realize you're headed for a sugar overdose, don't you?"
"Sounds good to me."
"What, death by sugar? Seems like a good way to go."
Howard froze up. It was ridiculous, he knew it, but Vince's throwaway comment reminded him of his friend's death – it pulled him back to that awful moment when he realized that Vince wasn't waking up. He remembered thumping on his chest, begging him to breathe. Still a little tipsy, he felt tears pricking his eyes, and too late tried to blink them away, embarrassed, mortified.
Vince reached for his hand. "Hey, it's okay. I'm sorry, I didn't mean…"
"No, no, don't apologize. I'm sorry. It's just… it's been a long week, y'know."
"I shouldn't have dragged you to that club. You're exhausted."
"You know, I actually had a good time. Eventually."
Vince smiled. Not a sly smile, or a childish one, just a stunningly honest genuine smile – the kind of smile that made it hard to imagine how anything could ever be wrong with the world.
"Howard, I never really got to say…"
"To say what?"
"Come off it, you don't need to thank me. What're friends for?"
"I do need to thank you. Do you realize what you did? Do you? You saved my life. You traveled to that bloody alien planet all by yourself…" (A few passersby turned their heads in surprise) "…and you fought all kinds of things, and nearly got killed a billion times, hell you kick-started a bloody revolution! And you never gave up."
Howard realized that he and Vince were still holding hands, standing there at the intersection. He couldn't move. Vince was everything.
"You could have died, Howard. You did die! Even if it was for a second. Every time something went wrong, you came through. And the thing is, I knew you would. That's the only thought that kept me going when, you know, all that stuff was happening. I knew you'd come. It's all I could think about."
"Don't know why you'd have that kind of faith in me" said Howard, trying to be jokey and casual but coming off as stilted and nervous. "I always run away."
"I know you do. But it was different this time. It was proper danger, y'know? And as soon as they took me, I knew you'd be coming after me. I could just feel it. You know, I could feel it even when I was getting sick and going all crazy. I was trying to tell you, but the words came out all wrong."
Howard remembered Vince's insane ramblings… "The moon… doesn't… it comes back. Glowing." The Moon. That was him. God, he felt more tears pricking his eyes. Vince noticed, and brought up his free hand to wipe them away.
"I didn't mean to upset you."
"You didn't, Vince. I just… I don't know what to…"
"What's wrong?" Vince's hand gripped more tightly around Howard's.
"Nothing. I just… I'm sorry, but it's hard. I look at you, and I remember you being, you know, dead. And now you're so alive. It's strange. It's wonderful, but it's strange. I get caught up, you know, remembering."
Vince stared back at Howard, not saying anything for a minute. Howard could feel his friend's hand trembling just a little against his own, and to his surprise, Vince's eyes seemed to gloss over a little. Tears?
"H-Howard." Vince cleared his throat. "You're amazing. You are amazing."
"It's you" replied Howard, still holding Vince's hand.
"All of it. Every time I got stuck in some life or death situation, it was you that got me through. I'd get this rush of strength or adrenaline or something, knowing that I had to get to you. All those "amazing" things I did, it was your strength, not mine."
Vince sniffed, his voice wobbling a little. "You know, maybe it's shared strength. Remember what Thraxos said? About how the spell brought us both back, cuz we're kind of the same on the inside or something?"
"Two sides of the same coin."
"Yeah. You're still a hero though."
Howard smiled. "It's about time someone thought so, I suppose." He ran his fingers over Vince's, realizing suddenly that they were perilously close to either breaking physical contact (no, please don't) or making something else happen. He frowned, staring upward and noticing the first signs of rainfall on his face. Vince was still staring at him… god, what Vince want?
"Er… I guess we better be heading back." Howard cursed himself for saying that, but he couldn't help it; it had just slipped out. He didn't want to head back! He didn't want to break contact with Vince, but that had just happened too. He clenched his fingers into his own palm; a poor substitute.
"Yeah, I guess." Vince sounded quiet, almost dejected, brushing the rain off his jacket. "Did you want to call Naboo, get him to pick us up on the carpet?"
"No, I've had enough magic to last me through at least the next fortnight. I'm officially taking a break from magic."
"Tube it is then" murmured Vince.
There was an awkward charged pause. Neither of them made the first movement towards the station; they were waiting for each other. The tension grew too quickly for Howard, and he broke the pause, taking the first few steps away from the corner and towards Leicester Square. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
The crowd faded into nothing, and it was just Vince.
"Howard, I just wanted to say…"
"Vince I'm in love with you." Howard had blurted out the words, hardly realizing. He realized now, though. Oh, god. He bit his tongue. What had he done? What if Vince was freaked out, what if he…
But no. A smile was shining forth from Vince's face. He tugged Howard towards him, and Howard realized a millisecond before it happened that Vince was going to kiss him. Their lips met, standing on a busy street corner, buses and taxis rushing past, passersby whistling at them, the rain beating down upon their heads. At first the kiss was hungry, needy, dangerous, all teeth and tongue until the tension between them melted away, and then it was softer, slower. Howard grabbed Vince around the waist and held him close, another dance. Breath mingled. Hands clenched and grasped. Vince nipped on Howard's lower lip, and Howard groaned a little, sucking Vince's lower lip in return and forcing a whimper from the younger man. Howard's hands ran up the back of Vince's shirt, his fingers ghosting over Vince's skin. Vince rocked his hips a little in response, and the delicious friction forced them both to murmur sounds of appreciation into each others' mouths. The kiss… oh, the kiss, it could have lasted forever.
Howard felt dizzy, elevated, like he was in a dream. Eventually, he and Vince pulled back a little, arms still wrapped around each other, and Howard gazed into Vince's eyes. Vince leaned up and pecked him on lips playfully, his cheeky smile still hovering over his features but his eyes betraying something more vulnerable.
"Howard… you meant that, yeah?"
"Of course I did. I love you. It's been driving me crazy."
"I know the feeling" Vince smiled.
They kissed again, softly, quietly. Howard fought the impulse to shout out to everyone in the street that he was holding his best friend, kissing his best friend, this wonderful fantastic beautiful creature named Vince.
"Howard… you really want this? I just want to make sure it's not just… I dunno… post-rescue stress relief or something."
"Vince." Howard stared deep into his eyes. "You're… you're my everything. You're the answer to all my questions. I want to be with you. All the time. Forever."
Vince sniffed again, and threw his arms around Howard's neck, hugging him tightly. "I love you. I love you. I think I've always loved you" he murmured.
Howard ruffled Vince's hair affectionately. "C'mon little man, let's get you home."
"I am home" replied Vince, breaking apart from the hug, smiling softly. Howard looked over Vince's shoulder and noticed that their revelations had drawn a bit of an audience; a small crowd of passers-by, watching with smiles on their faces. A few girls caught his eye and clapped excitedly, giving Howard very enthusiastic thumbs up. Hearing one of them say "about time!" over the buzz of the crowd, he grinned at Vince, who giggled shyly, and the two of them started walking towards the tube station.
The rain pelted down from above, illuminated in the street lights and showering the city in silver. Vince's hand was warm in his own. Howard's heart was singing with delight. They had so much time to catch up on. He stopped to wipe a raindrop from Vince's nose.
This, he thought. This is the kind of magic I could get used to.
-- The End --