Yes, I'm back. And hopefully back to stay, at least for a while (until my exams at the end of this term...)

This is the first fic I've written in ages, but, if I do say so myself, I'm quite proud of it. It's a little different from some of the things I used to write, but it's just meant to be a bit of fluffy fun for Halloween.

I know that since I've been gone, a lot of new people have joined who I haven't had the chance to get to know. I've read a couple of fics by new people, but there's too many for me to have had the chance to see all of them. So I hope to get to know you all now.

Disclaimers:
The Mighty Boosh belongs to Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding (bless them).
I sort of based the dance scene on the scene in the film "Van Helsing", at the vampire party, just in terms of the way the place looks. If you've seen the film you'll get it. If you haven't, it doesn't matter.
I also realised, after I was halfway through writing this, that x Thursday Next x has already done something a bit similar to this idea in one of her chapters... so I hope no-one thinks this is too same-y. Yeah. Sorry about that, anyway. I think it's different enough to be okay, I just thought I'd point it out.

Dedications:
To all my lovely fanfiction friends, who have been so sweet in the past few months.
To the band Theory Of A Deadman who wrote the song "Not Meant To Be" that I listened to the entire time I was writing this.

Now, please enjoy my first real offering after the end of my hiatus... and happy Halloween.


Masquerade

Howard Moon was used to his best friend Vince Noir being late for work – but turning up at one in the afternoon was still something of a record for lack of punctuality.

He glared at the smaller man from behind the counter at Vince, apparently not even noticing Howard (So what else is new? screamed part of Howard's brain), dragging two enormous, very full plastic bags. He hauled them into the shop, finally closed the door and shut out the rather chilly draft that had been blowing in, lifted the bags onto the chair by the shop window, and began sifting through them, grinning to himself.

Is this what I get, then? After ten years of friendship, now I don't even get a simple "good morning"? Howard thought. Or, his mind continued, as Vince held up a huge tube of gold glitter and smiled rather secretively (and rather prettily) to himself, perhaps that should be a simple "good afternoon", given what time it is...

"Let's have it then," he heard himself saying.

Vince jumped slightly (Like he didn't even remember anyone else was going to be here, thought Howard) and then turned round, a slight smirk on his face – now often a regular feature when he was talking to Howard. "What?"

"Let's have it," Howard said.

"Let's 'ave what?" Vince asked, as full of attitude as the average teenager.

"Your reasons. Your excuse for being late." Howard didn't know why he was trying to get Vince to go into this old routine. It was just grasping at straws of what their relationship once was. But he wanted some sort of normality, however sad... He even found himself rather pathetically getting out his notebook for Vince's excuses for being late, just in case.

"Oh," said Vince. "I was shoppin' for my Halloween costume."

Howard raised his eyebrows. Pretending, pretending this was all part of the act. "That's your excuse? That's rubbish, Vince."

"S'not an excuse, it's the truth!" Vince protested. "I wanted to be first in line so I couldn't come in this mornin', and then it took me ages to find all the stuff I need..."

A quick glance at his yearly planner informed Howard that it was indeed October 31st, All Hallow's Eve. He hadn't even realised.

But Vince, of course, would take any opportunity he could to dress up.

"Don't you think you're a bit old for Halloween, Vince?" Howard asked.

Vince just looked at him pityingly (another look that wasn't unusual when he was talking to Howard now). "No-one's too old for Halloween, Howard."

"I am," Howard said.

"Yeah, well, you're too old for everythin'," Vince said nastily, and then turned away, rather fast, as though he didn't want to watch Howard wince. Oh God, that made it even worse. Vince wasn't just being his usual sarcastic self and not thinking. He was doing it on purpose, getting at Howard.

Vince was lifting a large piece of red, velvet-y material out of his bag. He ran a hand over its surface appreciatively. His skin, pale and icy against the sensual deep colour, looked beautiful...

Howard shook himself, and looked down at a picture of Charlie Mingus on one of his jazz bookmarks, to get his mind re-ordered.

When he looked back up, Vince was getting out what appeared to be a polyester block.

"What's that, a ceiling tile?" Howard asked incredulously. "What are you being, a house? Are those things your curtains?"

Vince just gave Howard a scornful look and didn't answer.

"Leroy's got us tickets to this well classy party," he announced, after a minute.

"Oh?" said Howard, trying to sound interested. He knew that Vince's idea of a "well classy party" would be alcopop shots, glow sticks and near-naked people, all thrown in a heap into some tiny, sweaty, filthy club. In fact, Howard wasn't even sure why he was bothering with a costume. He'll be getting it off again within half an hour of going into the party, he thought bitterly, and with not a small amount of jealousy.

"Yeah, well. S'not really like you'd know, is it, Howard?" Vince said, almost pityingly.

There was a short silence.

"Anyway," Vince said abruptly, "As fun as this is, I'd better get to work on me costume. See ya, Howard." And he stuffed everything very hurriedly back into the bags, and disappeared up the stairs to the flat.

Howard gazed after him for a few moments.

Then, he slumped down behind the counter and put his head in his hands.

When had it got like this? When had it changed? This awful masquerade of a friendship that they continued to force... maybe he should just have stayed away from the Nabootique after he'd left last time. Maybe he shouldn't have come back after he'd walked out on Jurgen Haabermaaster. The others would never have known he wasn't still with the director...

Of course, Howard had come back. He'd come back for one reason and one reason only. A beautiful, delicate, tempting, agonising reason, who was even now making his Halloween costume and almost unaware that Howard even existed.

--

Howard spent the rest of the day trying to sell jazz LPs and pencil cases in a particularly bitter way. Needless to say, nobody – not one of the two costumers who came in to use the toilet – bought anything, and by closing time, Howard was in an even worse mood than he had been that morning.

Vince, however, seemed to be in an extremely good mood. He was still excited about his "well classy Halloween party" with Leroy. He swept off at about seven, clutching an enormous coat around himself to protect his precious costume – which he hadn't even bothered to show to Howard – from the tempestuous autumn weather.

It really was perfect weather for Halloween, Howard thought, as he looked out of the window – not watching Vince go, just happening to look out of the window. The trees were stripped of their leaves, and their skeletal arms were thrown up in some sort of strange despair against the brown-purple sky. The Moon was full and, in honour of the occasion, had dyed himself an eerie yellow colour and employed a few young clouds to drift creepily across his face every so often. The wind was actually whistling round the house. Yes, all in all, perfect weather.

Not that Howard cared about Halloween.

Not that Howard would have been given a chance to care, even if he'd have liked to. Less than five minutes after Vince's departure, Naboo and Bollo appeared, both obviously dressed to go out. Naboo was wearing those black robes he'd found to take those Goth girls out - not a good memory - and Bollo was wearing a rather ugly red-and-orange spotty tie. Howard hadn't known they were going anywhere, but this didn't surprise him: Naboo and Bollo were, if anything, even less likely to communicate with him than Vince was. But at least, he thought, they hadn't changed their behaviour towards him. At least they stayed consistent.

"You off, are you?" he asked, trying to sound like he didn't care.

"Yeah," said Naboo nonchalantly.

"Bollo DJ at Halloween roller disco," Bollo announced proudly. "Bollo top DJ on bill."

"Yeah, and I'm going to support him," said Naboo, with a look on his face that said "I'm going to see how many drugs I can skive off the rest of the clubbers".

"Oh," said Howard. "Well, that sounds like fun..."

"We'd invite you, Howard," said Naboo, interrupting him, "But you don't have a costume."

"Neither do you," Howard pointed out, unable to stop himself.

Naboo gave him a rather disdainful look. "Yeah, I do," he said. "I'm going as a shaman."

"And, let me guess, Bollo's going as a gorilla."

"No," said Bollo. "Bollo going as DJ." He patted the headphones round his neck with a paw.

Howard groaned softly to himself.

"Anyway," said Naboo, "We need someone to stay here and hand out the sweets. I don't want any angry trick-or-treaters on my hands. I once didn't have anything to give to a dragon child on Halloween; his parents burnt my house down. You can't be too careful these days. There's a bowl of stuff in the kitchen. Don't eat it all yourself. And don't touch my stuff. See ya."

"See you, Harold," Bollo added. And, with that, they were gone, leaving Howard alone in the silent flat.

--

The first group of trick-or-treaters came about half an hour later. They were mainly six-year-olds in ugly Disney Shop costumes, surrounded by twittering parents. They grabbed sweets from the plastic bowl with sticky hands.

"It's so good of you to do this for the kids," said one mother to Howard, clearly assuming he was some poor lonely bachelor desperately searching for some meaning in his life.

Actually, Howard thought after he closed the door, she wasn't wrong.

The next group of trick-or-treaters were teenagers in masks and baggy tracksuit trousers, who shifted threateningly around and edged themselves against the doorway and seemed to be possibly casing the joint. But they took some of the sweets, even so.

Another group came. Children again.

"What are you supposed to be, then?" one child asked Howard.

"He looks like my geography teacher at school," said another.

Howard wondered if he was going to cry.

As soon as the children had left, he shut the door, dumped the bowl of sweets, and slumped to the floor. This was not how he'd imagined his life being when he was younger. When he was younger, he'd been so sure of himself. He'd been on the brink of something amazing, he'd been sure he was. He'd been set for the top. He had dreams, ambitions, hopes. He was going to see the world. He was going to take on the world. He was going to win! He was Howard Moon.

True, he might have only been a zoo keeper at the time, but it didn't matter. Howard was going to be the best zoo keeper in history. He was going to found his own zoo, based on his own brand of animal ethics and expertise. No, he was going to found a chain of zoos. Then he'd be a famous jazz trumpeter, an actor, an explorer, a photographer...

Now, he was a shop keeper in a tiny, dirty, quite possibly illegal junk store in Dalston. He lived with a gorilla and a permanently stoned shaman. He was in his late thirties and he'd never even kissed anybody. He had no dreams, no ambitions. They were all hopeless. They were all futile. He was never going to amount to anything. He was an absolute nobody – and as nobody else seemed able to stand the sight of him anyway, how could he ever make it anywhere?

And if Vince, the one person that Howard had thought would always be with him, could cast him aside so easily, why should anybody else ever be interested in him?

Howard had never been especially close to his parents. They were kind and caring in a parental sort of way, but Vince had really been his family. He had had other friends in the past, but most of them had been weird faux intellectuals who incorrectly quoted Shakespeare while drunk, or who confused Wittgenstein with Frankenstein but pretended it was only part of their genius.

And there had never been anyone quite like Vince.

Vince.

Howard remembered Vince back at the zoo. How Vince's sunny mood could light up any day, however rainy; make any task, however miserable – or disgusting – not just bearable, but enjoyable. Vince's smile could make everything right again. Making Vince laugh was the ultimate achievement, the absolute goal to shoot for. He remembered their playful arguments about who had better music tastes; their cosy, companionable nights together in their zoo keepers hut, drinking hot chocolate in comfortable silence. Vince had had a few shallow mates and had liked to party. Howard had fancied himself as destined for greater things and liked muffin and nutmeg shades. But back then, somehow, it hadn't mattered. And Howard remembered, with an ache in his chest, the way Vince used to look at him, the way he used to say Howard's name. The way Vince – sweet, child-like, beautiful, adorable Vince – could make him feel like he was the centre of the universe with just a glance.

Now, Howard had long since been cast out of the centre of whatever neon-coloured universe it was that Vince existed in. Cast out and banished to some cold, unforgiving planet with dark mountain crags, biting winds, year-long nights far, far away from the sun – and no colours. No colours, no rainbows, no Vince.

Howard longed to have Vince look at him the way he used to, just once more. To feel, just once, that Vince again thought of him as someone special, someone worth bothering about. Someone worth spending his life with. Because that was what they had always been going to do: spend their lives together. It might not have been quite in the way that Howard would have liked, but it was still something. It was still being with Vince.

Sometimes, Howard felt like his old, beloved friend from the zoo was now a totally different person; that he had been somehow removed from Howard's life and replaced with a sulky, sarcastic stranger.

A sulky, sarcastic stranger who only got more beautiful and more lovable with each passing day.

The doorbell suddenly rang again, shocking Howard out of his thoughts. For a moment he considered not answering it, telling Naboo that no other trick-or-treaters had come – but he had a feeling that Naboo would somehow know he hadn't been doing his assigned job. Naboo had a habit of knowing things. He scrambled wearily to his feet and opened the door.

Outside was a pale, thin man with piercing blue eyes in a long black coat... and no-one else.

"Trick or treat," said the man, as soon as Howard opened the door.

Howard blinked at him rather stupidly, and then did another quick scan up and down the street. No, this man was definitely alone – not that he could see the rest of the road that well, as the nearest street lamp appeared to have fizzled out.

Even Vince would have agreed that this man was far too old for this sort of thing.

"Trick or treat," said the man again.

"Um... treat?" Howard said, holding out the bowl rather warily in case the man was a burglar who was going to attempt to force entry.

The man smiled. "Good choice," he said. "Treat it is." And he reached inside his coat.

"No," Howard said, rather awkwardly, "I'm supposed to give you a treat... not you give me one."

The man didn't respond. But then he appeared to find what he was looking for, and pulled out a piece of shiny black card, which he presented to Howard with a flourish.

Howard took it rather nervously and peered at it.

It was an invitation to some Halloween party at a very large, grand hotel in London. Howard stared at it, and then looked back at his visitor. "What... why...?"

The man smiled softly. His blue eyes seemed to look right through Howard – the way Vince's sometimes did, the wistful part of Howard's mind thought. "I'm giving it to you," the man said, "Because I know there's somebody at that party who wants to see you there."

"Excuse me?" Howard didn't know anyone rich enough to go to a party at anywhere as fancy as the place this invitation listed as the location, and even if he had done they'd probably just have thought of him as a general nuisance and made every effort possible to avoid him. This had to be some sort of joke.

"There's somebody at that party who wants to see you there," the man repeated. "It's not a joke," he added, making Howard shiver slightly at the unnerving accuracy of his guess at Howard's feelings. "There's somebody at that party who would give almost anything to have you there. Somebody who I think you'd give quite a lot to see, too."

"But... I don't know anyone at that party..." Howard stammered.

"Go and I think you'll find you won't mind," the man said, smiling mysteriously and flicking jet black hair across his face.

"But... I haven't got a costume," Howard protested, idiotically.

"Look in Naboo's wardrobe," the man said. And, with that, he turned and walked away.

"What –? Wait – how do you know Naboo? Wait! Wait!" Howard called – but the man didn't stop. And there was a mist gathering on the streets, and a moment later, the mysterious visitor had disappeared into it.

A second after, the dark street light flickered back to life.

Frowning, and more than a little unnerved, Howard closed the door slowly, staring at the invitation still in his hand. "Somebody who would give almost anything to have you there..."

It's a joke, Howard thought. That man knew Naboo... it's a joke. Naboo must have set it up as a Halloween prank, or some sort of test to see if I'd really go through his stuff. It can't be real... I don't know anyone at that party...

Maybe you're supposed to meet them there, said another part of his brain.

Howard gazed at the invitation again, wondering.

--

Five minutes later, Howard was in Naboo's bedroom, flinging open his wardrobe. He didn't know what he was looking for – after all, Naboo's clothes would hardly be his size – but that was what the man had said, and in spite of still being mostly sure this was all some sort of joke at his expense (it wouldn't be the first time), Howard couldn't help aching with curiosity.

Maybe you're supposed to meet them there.

As it turned out, Naboo didn't have many clothes. A few spare robes, mostly in blue (that would explain how he washed and kept his trademark look). Black robes from going out with the Goth girls...

Wait a moment.

Naboo had been wearing those black robes when he'd left an hour ago.

Howard grabbed the black material and hauled it out of the wardrobe.

This wasn't robes. This was some sort of old-fashioned style suit... and it definitely couldn't be Naboo's. It was obviously designed for a fully grown human adult...

A fully grown human adult... like Howard?

Howard dashed into the bathroom to try on the clothes. He knew there was no-one else there, but getting undressed Naboo's bedroom seemed a little weird – especially after the painfully embarrassing memory of the zip on his tweed utility suit breaking in there...

A minute later, he emerged from the bathroom, now changed into this mysterious new outfit. He was shaken, but somehow almost not surprised, to find that it was just his size.

He hurried eagerly to Vince's room to use to small man's full length mirror. Dashing about like this, like a child on Christmas day, was making him feel more alive than he had in perhaps a year or more. He got into Vince's room, rushed to the mirror – and then stopped.

The man who stared out at him didn't look at all like Howard. Howard wore tasteful, subtly fashionable shades of brown. Safari shirts if he was feeling adventurous. But this man, the man in the glass... he looked like the hero of a Victorian horror story. Some sort of dashing vampire hunter, perhaps.

Howard went right up to the glass, staring at himself. For the first time in a long time, he could even be called... handsome?

He put one against the mirror, as though trying to fall through into some backwards world where he would always be this new, attractive, confident-looking man.

He suddenly felt yet another fresh surge of energy. He felt years younger. He felt ready to go out somewhere. Anywhere. He felt ready to meet people. Ready to interact. Maybe this was why Vince liked dressing up so much, if he got the same rush from it...

Howard had a brief, wistful moment where he wondered what Vince would say if he could see Howard like this. Would he be amazed? Impressed? Would this look at last make him notice Howard? As his old friend? As... as something else? The man in the mirror looked ready to sweep Vince up in his arms and carry him away over romantic moorlands on a huge black horse. Could Vince think that too, if he saw Howard like this?

Then Howard remembered the invitation to the party, and looked at it again.

He had to go there. He was still sure he didn't know anybody there, but that thought once again rang in his brain: Maybe you're supposed to meet them there.

Maybe he could finally stop basing his entire life on hopes, dreams, wishes of what Vince might, but never would, think.

Then he suddenly noticed something on the invitation he hadn't seen before.

"Masquerade ball: masks are required."

Masks?

Howard had a brief moment of despair – he didn't have a mask, and although the costume shop down the road might still be open, he didn't think a plastic Grim Reaper mask that squirted fake blood on the push of a button would be appropriate, somehow. Then he suddenly remembered where he'd found the clothes he was now wearing, and sprinted back to Naboo's wardrobe. A few moments of frantic search later, Howard found a simple, elegant black mask that covered his eyes and nose, leaving his mouth visible. Perfect.

Another look in the mirror, and Howard was convinced he'd somehow turned into somebody else. But, what the hell? he thought, in a debonair, libertine sort of way. Throw caution to the winds. The night is young. Life is worth living. Yes, sir!

And, with the same reckless abandon, the all-new Howard Moon bounded down the stairs, out of the door, and into the world beyond.

--

The hotel was huge, dark and imposing, even amongst the lights of London – just the right place for a Halloween party, Howard thought. He could see lights from inside and hear music, letting him know that said party was already in full swing.

Taking a deep breath, Howard strode up to the entrance. The foyer of the hotel was massive. Howard gulped – and then noticed a large, fancy sign directing him to the party. Trying to look like he knew what he was doing – and trying not to start wondering now he was actually here whether or not this whole thing had been a mistake – Howard followed it to a pair of grand doors, outside of which stood a security guard.

"Invitation, sir?" he said, as Howard approached.

Coolly, Howard pulled it out and handed it over. The guard took it, looked at it for a moment, and then handed it back to Howard. "Have a good night, sir," he said, holding open the doors – and Howard instantly felt like he had been sucked into another world.

The entire room was glittering golden and deep reds. The ceiling seemed to tower above him, but it might have just looked higher than it really was because it was obscured by the smoke of seemingly thousands of candles. There were long tables with refreshments around the walls – and all down the centre of the hall was the dance floor. And, on the dance floor, people spun and whirled in deep, dark, sensual colours, faces hidden by elaborate masks. Even the band at one end of the room – a fairly traditional set-up, by the sound of the music – were masked.

Howard felt like he was in a film. He watched the twirling couples, holding each other's waists, in perfect time like figures on a music box.

He had no idea what he was doing at this party. He didn't know who was giving it. But he almost had the feeling that perhaps, nobody else did either. These people didn't seem real. They seemed almost like characters from a dream. Wisps of fantasies that you could never quite get catch of. As intangible as those clouds across the Moon tonight.

Then he felt a hand on his shoulder – and suddenly remembering the prediction of that mysterious trick-or-treater that there was somebody who wanted him to be here, he nearly jumped about a foot in the air.

But when he turned round, it was a young woman – blonde, in a red dress. Her face was, of course, covered by a mask. But, like Howard, her mouth was visible – and it was smiling incredibly flirtatiously at Howard. She was attractive enough, but he was somehow sure that this wasn't who he was supposed to meet tonight.

"Um..." he began, completely unsure of what to do and suddenly feeling much like his old self again.

"My friend left me," the woman said, "And I just thought I'd say hi to everyone."

This may or may not have been true – she didn't seem in any hurry to move away from Howard. Indeed, her tongue was running over one canine tooth as she spoke. Howard tried not to stare (but maybe she wants me to stare?) but couldn't help it.

"You know," the woman went on, "In case I knew any of them and didn't realise."

So, no-one here knew who anyone else was...

It was just that realisation that Howard needed to get totally lost in this mysterious world.

Soon enough, he led the young woman out to the dance floor, where they got caught up amongst the elegant, vampiric bodies flowing, falling, nearly flying over the shining white and black tiles of the floor. Howard forgot he couldn't dance; in fact, he forgot everything. He could smell the dark grey smoke of the candles, hear the almost alarming notes of the band, feel the hands of the woman, just slightly dangerous, on his shoulders. Howard was so caught up that, even as the night got darker and darker, he didn't leave the floor. One woman came, then another: one pair of hands, then another, then another. It almost didn't matter who the partner was: all that really mattered was keeping up with the other dancing people, the eye holes of their masks almost empty-looking.

He even found he was hardly taking the time to compare any of his partners to Vince.

But, finally, almost exhausted from so much dancing, Howard was forced to break the strange enchantment of that dance floor and seek out some refreshments.

A caterer in a decorated silk waistcoat was serving elegant glasses of red wine, possibly supposed to look like blood. Howard took one and, on a whim, raised his glass to two women who were talking in soft voices by the bar, saying, "Ladies." The two women looked at him, and then burst into giggles. Howard nodded to himself, feeling increasingly not himself but enjoying every second of it, and drank.

"'Scuse me," said a voice behind him suddenly, and he felt a hand on his arm as someone tried to get close to the bar.

"Sorry," he said, turning round to move away from the bar and let other people past. The person behind him moved to come by, and then they looked up – and their eyes met Howard's.

Howard stared.

The person – a young man from the sound of his voice – was dressed in very tight black trousers and a silky black tunic, with a short, red, velvety cape over his shoulders. He was wearing a gold, glittery mask – the most elaborate Howard had seen that night, with little fake jewels stuck all over it and long, false eyelashes. Possibly he had made it himself...? He had long black hair almost as silky-looking as his shirt, framing his delicate face. Of the real face, Howard could only see the man's elegant chin and pale pink mouth, but something inside him jumped even so. And the man had huge, clear blue eyes, gazing up at him from behind the mask.

And they were staring back at Howard, slightly widened.

Was... was this man thinking the same thing that Howard was thinking?

Maybe you're supposed to meet them there.

Howard was so convinced that this meeting was the result of some sort of fate that he found himself saying, "Hi."

The man blinked, and then let out his breath slightly and gave Howard a little smile. "Hey," he said.

Then they went on looking at each other.

In the background, a beat in the music made the dancers toss and jerk.

"Oh," Howard said, suddenly, "Your drink... let me..." He reached round and picked up a glass for the other man. The younger man took it.

As he did, the tip of his finger brushed Howard's.

The touch registered in the young man's eyes – and he brought the glass up to his lips, letting the red stain his mouth slightly, without taking his gaze off Howard.

Howard's head was swimming. He didn't know who this man was – he didn't know who anyone was; he hardly even knew who he was – but he somehow felt he had to have more of him, had to be close to him. There was something about him that was drawing Howard in, like a comforting, calling light at the end of a long dark tunnel. He knew nothing about this young man – but somehow, he couldn't imagine turning, walking away from him.

"You havin' a good time, then?" the young man asked – although it took Howard a moment even to register that he had spoken, so entangled was he in his thoughts.

"Oh... yes. And you, are you having a good time?"

"Yeah," said the young man, a slightly cheeky smile now surfacing on his face. "'Specially now," he added, looking straight into Howard's eyes.

Howard felt himself go red. The young man's smile broadened a little more.

"So," he said, "Are you gonna ask me to dance?"

Howard went even redder. "But... um... your drink..."

The young man just smiled and put his still-nearly-full glass back down on the table. "I'd rather dance," he said – a look in his eyes that added "especially with you".

Howard felt his insides turn over with nerves. Suddenly, he remembered that he was supposed to be a terrible dancer.

Maybe you're supposed to meet them there.

Courage, man, he cautioned himself. Faint hearts never won fair... person. Fair person.

"Would you like to dance?"

The young man's smile broadened even more and he looked genuinely delighted – and perhaps just the littlest bit coy, which somehow made him even more enchanting. "And there was me thinkin' you were never goin' to ask," he said – and held out his hand for Howard's.

Howard took it.

The young man led him out to the dance floor, and then stopped, right in the centre of the floor. Howard suddenly felt like the candles had become more smoky than before. Since when had he felt like he had nothing like enough oxygen? And, perhaps more importantly, since when would he not have cared about feeling almost light-headed enough to pass out?

And his new dancing partner was looking up at him, those huge blue eyes illuminated by the light of all those hundreds of candles...

Howard reached out, nervously, almost afraid to touch this intoxicating young man – and put his hands on the other man's hips.

The other man shivered a little, eyes fluttering closed briefly, and then opening again as he moved a bit closer to Howard. He tilted his head up to look up at Howard – and, as though that was a cue, they gave their bodies up to the dance.

Howard lost all track of time out there on the black and white dance floor, amid the almost phantom-like forms of the other dancers, the strange sea of silk, velvet and no faces. The feeling of being held, the way his partner moved, made him feel things he had only ever felt for one other person before – that one other person being Vince, who Howard had always assumed was sort of a one-off in his talent for making Howard feel floored and dazzled and helpless. But Howard had never really experienced any of the things he was experiencing now, with Vince. Now, the movements of another body against his, arms around him, a head against his shoulder – the look on the other man's face every time he pulled back slightly, his slightly open mouth in his ivory skin and flickering eyelids behind his mask – made him feel like he was drunk.

The night grew later, and the hands of the large clock on the wall turned on and on, and Howard became more and more weak with feelings over which he was convinced he had absolutely n control.

The other man seemed to be experiencing it too – his body was becoming increasingly heavy against Howard's, his eyes burning darkly against the gold of his mask as he looked at his taller partner. And then, as yet another dance spun itself to a conclusion, he suddenly reached up and kissed Howard on the mouth.

Instantly, a volcano seemed to go off in Howard's stomach.

A volcano at the feeling of someone's mouth against his, soft and hot and wet and only there for him, because this young man wanted him...

And also a volcano because he suddenly realised what he was doing. Dancing, desiring, someone else. Someone who wasn't his Vince. Okay, Vince wasn't his – but Howard still suddenly felt the sickening sense of shock. As though he'd cheated on Vince or something.

The young man drew back slightly, breathless, body hot against Howard's. Howard shuddered with something he could only imagine was lust, and a woman behind him brushed his legs with the net of her skirt as the next dance began.

"You don't like that?" the young man asked.

Howard fought a very quick internal battle. Part of him was still screaming Vince! Vince! and beating Howard's insides for even daring to think he could feel things for someone else when there was Vince.

But where was Vince now? Probably in some seedy bar, some toilet stall, some alley, drunk and stoned out of his mind, half naked and getting off with three people of various genders at the same time. Not giving a thought for Howard. As always.

If Vince could do it, Howard thought, why couldn't he?

The young man was still looking at him. He brushed his fingers slightly under Howard's collar, the cool of his fingers on Howard's burning skin making him jump.

"No..." Howard said softly, "Of course I do..." And he bent his head and kissed the man again.

After another few minutes, the young man drew away again. Now his pupils were so huge he looked like Vince when he came home after – no, no Vince! – he looked like someone coming home after taking drugs. I did that to him, Howard thought, in considerable surprise.

"You know," said the young man, voice now low and hitching, "The people givin' this party, they've rented the hotel... I got a room..."

Howard's heart pounded him so hard in the chest that it was actually physically painful. Did this mean...? It had to mean that. Inexperienced as he was, Howard wasn't completely stupid. What else would they do in a bedroom, especially after such a lustful dance? Drink tea and tell amusing, intellectual anecdotes about trumpets?

The young man was looking at him expectantly, hopefully – longingly. "Well...?" he murmured. Howard could feel his breath against his face. All he could see was the faceless dancers. Even when he closed his eyes momentarily they were still there, inside his mind.

"What are we waiting for...?" he breathed.

--

Five minutes later, they were running up the stairs, clutching hold of each other awkwardly, unwilling to break physical contact. Howard's whole body was screaming with want. He was worried he might have a heart attack at the prospect of sex before he actually got to the physical act of it – he had never felt the way he was feeling now, stomach roaring with nerves, heart thundering, body shaking and hot and sweaty...

"Here," panted his companion, hauling him sideways into a door. Their bodies crashed together. Not really knowing what he was doing – not caring – Howard forced the other man against the door and kissed him, hard. The other man kissed back, scrabbling for the key, and suddenly, the door fell open and they stumbled through. Howard slammed the door as fast as he could and shoved his companion against its back now, still kissing him, running his hands through his hair. He didn't know how he knew how to do the things he was doing, but they came from somewhere – some strange, animal part of him that he had only been aware of in small moments when Vince...

Oh God, not Vince again.

Howard drew away from the other man. Was he ever going to be able to live his own life? Without images of Vince, creeping in the corners, surfacing in every shadow, haunting him?

The young man seemed to misinterpret Howard's pulling away, however. "Yeah," he said, "I wanna just, get ready first... so, I dunno, I'll go in the bathroom and you can..." He gestured vaguely towards the bed, seeming not to know what to do, and then, with a rather embarrassed smile, hurried into the bathroom and locked the door.

Howard leaned against the wall and attempted to stop breathing like a half-drowned warthog. He could feel sweat running down his face. Suddenly, sex – seedy, aggressive sex – didn't seem so attractive.

But it had felt so good, when they were kissing...

And so, so wrong.

Howard took the opportunity to look around the room. It was very grand, and similar in decor to the party downstairs: deep, sensual reds; shiny, almost black wood; low lighting. There was a vague smell of some sweet perfume, a cocktail of tropical flowers and some sort of fruit, which Howard supposed must have come from his companion.

Howard groaned. Oh God, what was he doing? Going into lusty bedrooms with strange men? What about Vince? Why was he doing this? For some sort of twisted relief? Vengeance Vince would never know about, never even care about? To find a substitute? Maybe this man even looked a bit like Vince, with his long black hair...? And why was he here in the first place? Because a total stranger had given him an invitation and then vanished into the mist... Am I going completely mad? Howard wondered desperately.

He tried to get a grip on himself.

Once again, he told himself that Vince didn't care about him. Wouldn't care at all if Howard slept with someone else – unless, of course, he found a way to use it to laugh at Howard. Then he might care. Howard knew this. He couldn't be doing this for the wrong reasons. He wanted to do it, and he had the right to do it. Vince didn't care...

But Howard cared about Vince. More than cared about him.

No, he told himself. You have your own life. You can do what you want to do. Vince does. Vince doesn't own you. Vince doesn't control you.

Determinedly, Howard took off his jacket and shoes and went and lay himself on the bed, down amongst velvety draping, and looked up at the ceiling. The red curtains round the bed were tied up there.

About a minute later, a sound alerted him to the return of his companion. The young man was emerging from the bathroom, now without his cape and only in his silky tunic and tight black trousers. His mask, however, was still securely over his face. Maybe that's some kink of his, thought Howard.

The young man gave Howard a little smile, closed the door of the bathroom behind him, and came gracefully across the room. His lip gloss shimmered in the vaguely eerie light. The glitter on his mask sparkled. He moved like a wisp of cloud or smoke, gliding over the room... settling against the velvety drapes of the bed as he reached it and sank down next to Howard.

They lay side by side in silence for a few moments, and then the young man shifted onto his side to look at Howard. He reached out a hand, slowly, almost curiously, to trace the outline of Howard's lips, giggled ever so softly – and then covered Howard's mouth with his own.

And Howard kissed back, even though part of his mind now screamed with protest. Kissed back as though they were still down on that dance floor.

It felt good, oh, it felt good. The young man stroked Howard's face and neck with long, delicate fingers; slipped a hand under Howard's shirt. Howard responded: running his hands through the man's hair, even silkier than the silk of his tunic. But all he could see behind his closed eyes was Vince.

You can do whatever you want to do, he told himself furiously, as the younger man reached for the buttons of his shirt.

Maybe you're supposed to meet them there, he reminded himself. This young man could be the exact person Howard was supposed to meet.

Or he could not. Howard could made some awful mistake. With his luck... it would be just like Howard to totally miss the person he was really supposed to be meeting and get off with someone completely wrong.

The young man stopped kissing him. Howard opened his eyes to find his companion sitting back, looking down at him. As soon as he saw Howard looking at him, the young man gave Howard a faint smile, and then moved to sit with one leg either side of Howard's body. Howard gave a faint gasp at the hot weight – but this was not good weight, not like the young man's weight on the dance floor; this was oppressive, frightening, and it was the wrong weight. It wasn't Vince's weight.

The young man was reaching down to Howard's trousers. He bent down and kissed Howard again.

Howard made a last, desperate attempt to kiss him back.

And then he thought, properly, of Vince.

He couldn't do this. He couldn't sleep with someone else; he certainly couldn't lose his virginity to someone else, someone not Vince. He loved Vince. Vince was the only person he'd ever really loved – both as a friend and romantically. Vince was his one, his only, his everything. Who was he trying to fool? Vince did own him, control him, as far as it was possible for one person to own and control another. Vince was his moon and stars.

He turned his head away sharply.

The young man was left hanging slightly in the air.

"You okay?" he asked.

Howard struggled to get out from under him, to sit up, to feel cool air against his body, not the gross heaviness of someone else's limbs.

"What's the matter?" the young man was asking, sounding bewildered. Howard felt very guilty suddenly. It wasn't this man's fault that Howard so weak, so hopelessly lost to someone who hardly even remembered he was there anymore...

"I'm sorry," Howard said. "I'm sorry... I can't."

"Why, what's the matter?" The young man sounded very confused. "Did I do somethin' wrong?"

"No, no," Howard said. "Oh God, I'm sorry..." And he put his head in his hands.

After a second, he felt the other man's arm go around his shoulders.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"I'm sorry... I can't do this. It – it isn't you. It's just – I – there's someone else."

The young man looked startled. "You're with someone else?"

"No! No, I'm not. But I'm... I'm in love with someone. I'm in love with someone else. I'm in love with my best friend... and I'm sorry, I can't..."

The young man had let go of Howard's shoulders.

He's angry, Howard thought. Not that he didn't think the other man had every right to be angry; Howard had practically forced his way into his bedroom, and was now telling him he wasn't going to get anything, after all.

But then, the other man said something totally unexpected.

"Well then, we got a lot in common... cos I'm in love with my best friend too."

At that, Howard turned and stared at him.

"You... you are?"

"Yeah," the young man said, shaking his head slightly so the long black strands caught the light. "And I'm really only 'ere cos I'm tryin' to forget, like I always am. Lookin' for people to fuck, lookin' for parties, lookin' for anything so I can stop thinkin' about him for one second." He sighed. He suddenly sounded incredibly sad.

"I'm... I'm sorry," Howard said, awkwardly.

"Nah, s'not your fault," muttered the young man. He flicked one of his nails a couple of times. Then he looked back at Howard. "You remind me of him, actually. You bein' Northern with that moustache..."

Howard froze.

No. No. It couldn't be.

He had to be imaging it. It was just the emotions of what they were talking about – it was just that the things the other man was saying were the sort of things he hoped that...

It couldn't be that...

But the way the other man had said those words – "You bein' Northern with that moustache" – how many times had he heard similar things said to him, in the same voice, same accent, same inflection, tone, same thoughts behind them...?

"Vince?!"

The young man jumped.

"What –? How'd you know my –?" And then he suddenly stopped too.

"Howard?"

Vince.

Howard reached up and grabbed the other man's mask with fumbling, shaking hands, and pulled it off.

And there was Vince: beautiful, flawless, a vision in the low light and decor of the room.

Vince.

Howard suddenly felt like he was drowning. His head was roaring. Vince. He'd been dancing like that with Vince? He'd been kissing Vince? Kissing Vince like that? He'd been on the bed with Vince... going to... sleep with Vince?

All those things he'd dreamed of a thousand times and convinced himself would never really happen?

It was too wonderful and awful to begin to think of.

Vince was staring at him. Howard realised that he was still wearing his mask. He reached up and took it off.

"Oh my God," Vince said. His voice was trembling. The mask gone, all his usual barriers seemed to have been ripped away too, leaving him totally exposed, raw in the open air. "Howard..."

"Vince."

They stared at each other.

Finally, Howard began to say, "What are you doing here...?" – but as soon as he moved, Vince threw himself forwards, caught Howard's face between his hands and kissed him so hard that Howard felt like his whole body would explode from the feeling of it...

Unable to bear the emotions without further confirmation of how Vince felt, he pulled away. "Vince..."

Vince clutched at him and tried to kiss him again, almost whimpering.

"Vince, no..."

"Oh God, Howard, you said you loved me!" Vince cried, voice cracking painfully. Howard had never heard Vince sound like that before. So desperate. So lost.

"Vince, I just –"

"You can't tell me you don't now!"

"Vince!" Howard grabbed Vince's arms and forced him to stay still, look at him. He shuddered slightly. Vince was pale and shaking, eyes wet with tears that were starting to gather round his lashes.

"Vince. Just, calm down."

"I don't want to calm down!" Vince protested. "You... you said you love me." A stray tear skipped over one razor-sharp cheekbone.

"Vince... all I wanted to ask is... did you really mean what you said?"

"Did I mean it?" Vince almost yelped. "When I've waited practically me whole life to... oh God, Howard..." And with that, he completely broke down.

Howard threw aside any selfish personal desires he might have had to kiss Vince – or, indeed, do anything else with or to Vince – and instead gathered the smaller man up in his arms, rocking him gently and stroking his hair. Vince clutched Howard fiercely, sobbing and muttering to himself under his breath.

"It's okay, little man..." Howard soothed, because it was easier to do this than think about the fact that he'd just heard that Vince was in love with him, and because he never could bear to see Vince in any sort of pain. "It's okay... it's okay..."

Vince pulled away sharply and clutched Howard's face. "I love you, Howard," he said.

Howard felt as though all his insides had melted – in the most blissful way it was possible to feel that.

"I love you too, Vince," he said.

"Oh Christ," Vince mumbled, scrubbing a hand across his face. "I've... after all this... after it all just gettin' worse and worse the whole time... I never thought... and oh fuck, Howard, I've been such an arse to you... I just... I thought you didn't... I couldn't cope with..."

"Shh, shh, shh," Howard murmured, pulling Vince back against him. "It's okay. It's okay now. It's okay now."

Yes, he thought wonderingly. It's okay now... Vince... Vince loves me.

Vince loves me.

After another few minutes, Vince pulled away again, more slowly this time, and looked up at Howard properly. "Oh Howard... I'm sorry."

"I'm sorry too, Vince."

"But you didn't –"

Howard just shook his head. He couldn't explain. But he was still sorry. Sorry he hadn't been there to save Vince from this cycle he'd locked himself into. Sorry he hadn't told Vince how he felt so much sooner.

He didn't know how to explain any of this to Vince. So he just bent his head so their lips brushed together.

Vince blinked damp eyelashes at him wonderingly as he drew back. Once again, Howard noticed how his hair shone in the light.

"You're beautiful," he breathed, almost without realising it.

Vince blinked at him and smiled shyly, wiping his hand over his face again. "I'm not, really."

"What? Vince –"

"S'all just an act, Howard. I thought you of all people would know that... s'all just an act. I'm not really beautiful."

"Yes, you are," Howard said.

Vince's eyes shone. He reached up and kissed Howard again. Properly. Howard realised with a shiver how many times they'd kissed during tonight's party before they'd realised it was each other. But now... now he knew this was Vince. Vince kissing him. Vince's lips against his. Vince, the love of his life, who he'd never thought he'd have the chance to have. Vince.

He wrapped his arms around the small, delicate shape of the man in front of him, still almost unable to believe that he was really being allowed to touch him, hold him, claim him. Vince moaned softly and slipped his arms round Howard's neck. They sank back onto the bed together.

They kissed for a while, slow and sensual amidst the drapery of the giant bed. Howard felt like his entire body was fizzing, tingling and gasping. And every time he opened his eyes briefly, he saw Vince, his Vince – really his Vince, now – above him. Eyelids fluttering just like before. Those eyelashes were so beautiful... no-one else had eyelashes like that. How could Howard not have realised who he was dancing with?

Slowly, finally, Vince rolled over to the side, and Howard rolled with him. Vince drew away slightly to look at Howard, blue eyes huge and beautiful. Howard reached up and ran a finger down the gentle edge of Vince's face, and Vince leaned into his touch. The loose black of his tunic had caught as he moved, exposing one hip, milk white and shimmering. Howard couldn't help reaching out and putting his hand over the exposed skin, half protecting, half claiming. The younger man caught his breath slightly. Howard's stomach turned over. Was this vision really here? Was he really on a bed with him, Howard Moon, jazz-loving virgin? Was this not just another dream?

But no dream could feel so real as this one did. No dream could ever be as beautiful as the sight of Vince sitting up a moment later – the curve of his back was incredible, the poetic part of Howard's mind thought dreamily, like the curve of the crescent moon – reaching down to undo the top of his tunic.

Howard didn't even need to question this now. He was Vince's for the asking, whenever Vince wanted him.

He sat up too, putting his arms around Vince from behind. Vince leaned his head back and kissed the side of Howard's jaw. Howard reached down and gently lifted Vince's tunic away from his body, trailing the silk over Vince's skin as he did. Vince followed Howard's hands with his own, watching Howard's fingers gliding over his flesh. His face in profile against the lights looked stunning. Like a work of art.

Howard slid his hands over Vince's stomach, and Vince gasped again.

He turned round and reached for the buttons of Howard's shirt once more. This time, Howard didn't stop him.

Vince slowly undid the shirt Howard was wearing and drew it down Howard's back. Howard hardly moved, just sat still, watching Vince. In the low light he looked even more like something unreal, something supernatural.

"What?" Vince asked, looking up at Howard.

"I love you," Howard said.

Vince's eyes shone again. He picked up Howard's shirt and tossed it away from the bed.

"I love you too," he said – and pushed Howard back down onto the bed.

After that, Howard realised he didn't even know how to think anymore. The sensations of Vince's hands, Vince's mouth, Vince's hair against his face and Vince's body against his made him feel like every nerve in his body, every neuron in his brain, was turning to fire. He was totally hopeless in this presence of this beauty. Slowly they removed the rest of their clothes, and rolled back against the velvet of the bed, the material prickling their skin. Howard could feel sweat all over him but suddenly it was the most amazing feeling in the world – second to the feeling of Vince, of course. Vince rolled over onto his back, kissed Howard again, and then put his hands on Howard's shoulders, trying to position them for Howard to...

"Vince, I..."

"S'okay," Vince breathed. "I want you to."

"But I..."

"I'll help you..." Vince murmured, reaching one hand down. And the feelings of Vince's fingers were the last thing Howard needed to come completely undone and finally, finally, do as he'd always wanted, and give his whole being up entirely to doing Vince's bidding...

--

At first, Howard thought the feeling of someone kissing him was the beginning of another of those dreams – the best dreams he'd ever had, and also the worst nightmares.

And then, suddenly, his whole body burned with the memories of last night, and he opened his eyes to see Vince above him, eyes brilliant, hair unstraightened and messy from last night's 'excursions', make-up slightly smeared under his eyes. And possibly the most beautiful Howard had ever seen him.

"Vince," Howard said, confirming to himself that this was real, that Vince was actually there.

Vince's smiled widened, and he kissed Howard again. Howard found that he was awake enough to kiss back. He'd probably always be awake enough for that...

When they finished kissing, Vince settled his head against Howard's shoulder. Howard could feel him smiling.

"Howard, I –"

"What is it, my darling?"

Vince shifted with pleasure at the use of the pet name. "I just... I always wanted this, and I didn't think..."

"I know," Howard said. "I know. I didn't either."

"I love you," Vince said.

"I love you too," Howard responded. "I think I've loved you ever since I first saw you... You're my whole world, you always have been."

Vince made a faint noise of happiness and wrapped his arms round Howard, giving him a gentle squeeze. "And you're amazing." Then he suddenly pushed himself up and grinned, looking much more like the cheeky Vince that Howard normally knew. "And not just amazing at all that romantic stuff, thought that is pretty amazing. But Howard, I mean, you always said you were a man of many talents but I didn't realise quite how many..."

Howard felt himself going red – a fairly common theme this Halloween weekend, it seemed – and Vince giggled. "And clearly a man of natural talents, too, as you'd never done it before."

"Oi, you. Less of that."

Vince sighed and flopped back against the bed. "I dunno. I guess I sort of like it. It's like you belong to me."

"That's not a very fair way of thinking of it... you'd done it before."

"Yeah, but it was really the same for me. Like it was me first time. Cos it never meant anything before," Vince said, simply.

Howard's whole body tingled with joy, and he kissed the top of Vince's head.

"So, Vince," he said, after some time of just lying in the warmth, revelling in the feeling of being able to touch each other, "What were you doing here, at this party, in the first place? I thought you were going out with Leroy."

Vince was running his fingers up and down Howard's arm. "This was the party with Leroy," he said.

Howard blinked. "But... how did Leroy...? And... well, it doesn't really seem your sort of thing, Vince..."

"Not shallow and drunken enough?"

"You know I didn't mean –"

"No, but I did. Those parties, I hate 'em. All those stupid people fawning all over me, I can't go fuckin' anywhere. And they all dress the same! Where's the fun in that? Where's the originality? Anyway, as for Leroy and the invites, he gets around. He knows quite a lot of reasonably rich people. I think he slept with the man giving the party's wife and she got 'im the invitations, but I wasn't totally listenin' when he told me."

"Oh," Howard said, not entirely sure what else to say.

"But I think," Vince said, running a hand through Howard's hair, "That I should be the one asking you what you were doing here. You didn't even have an invitation. Or did you? And how?"

"I didn't. Not until after you'd left, anyway," Howard said, and he told Vince the story of the single adult trick-or-treater.

"Weird," Vince said, when Howard had finished. "And you believed 'im, Howard?"

"Obviously," Howard said, and Vince laughed.

"No, but, I was curious," he went on. "And lonely... And anyway, I wouldn't have it any other way. Because last night was a night I thought would never happen, and now..."

"I know," Vince said quietly. "And 'e was right, in a way. There was someone who wanted you to be here. I just wasn't quite ready to admit it to you. I reckon we both needed that little push."

Howard kissed Vince again.

"Who d'you think he was, though?" Vince asked.

"I don't know. I assume some friend of Naboo's. He mentioned Naboo's name."

But Vince was shaking his head. "Can't 'ave been. Naboo didn't know where I was goin' tonight. I didn't tell 'im cos I thought he might want to come, and he'd probably 'ave brought the whole Board of Shamen too and I didn't think they'd go down too well at this sort of party..." Vince went on, but Howard wasn't listening. Not a friend of Naboo's? But then who had it been?

"He wasn't someone you know, was he, Vince?"

"I didn't send 'im, if that's what you mean," Vince said.

"No, but... maybe he was one of your friends, just acting on impulse. Intuition."

"If it was, I'll be that man's slave for life," Vince said, making Howard glow with pleasure. "No, what did you say he looked like again?"

"Oh... thin, quite pale... black hair, blue eyes... tall... older than you... about fifteen, twenty years older? Wearing a long black coat..."

"Sounds sort of like me," Vince said, with a faint laugh. "Or how one of me relatives might 'ave looked if I'd known any of 'em. But no, I don't know anyone who looks like that."

He doesn't know anyone who looks like that? Howard thought. But... that man... he knew all about us...

A sudden shiver ran through Howard's body.

"Howard, sweetheart, you okay?" Vince asked.

Howard looked up at his concerned-filled, breath-taking blue eyes... and concluded that, whatever had happened, he was immensely grateful to whoever, or whatever, had decided to intervene.

"Never better, little man. Never better."

Vince's eyes sparkled, and he laid his head back against Howard's shoulder.

"Genius..."


Interpret as you wish! I just wanted to throw a little Halloween-y touch in there somewhere.

Thanks for reading,
violence x