At school the next morning, Howard was already seated quietly at his desk before the first bell even rang. He always was. The classroom, even when the teacher was absent, was a sort of sanctuary from the other children. No one else would be caught dead inside the building before they absolutely had to be. The self imposed isolation did nothing to help Howard's reputation among the other students, but it did a lot for his own sanity and physical well being.
When the bell rang Howard watched the kids pouring through the door with mild interest. He was watching out for Vince's distinctive haircut and diminutive figure. Three minutes later, every seat in the classroom had been filled save for Vince's. Howard was beginning to fret that Vince wasn't coming. Perhaps the smaller boy had been attacked again after leaving Howard's house yesterday. Howard had wanted to accompany him home, and the heavy feeling in his stomach was making him regret not disobeying his mother's orders.
Suddenly, mere moments before the second bell rang, Vince shuffled through the door. "Cutting it a bit close aren't we Mr. Noir?" the teacher commented from her desk.
"Sorry," Vince said. Keeping his head down, the blonde boy hurried to his seat. In doing so, he passed right next to Howard, and without looking up or stopping, he dropped a note on Howard's desk. As the teacher started class Howard unfolded the crumpled piece of paper. It read, in overly careful handwriting, "Come with me to the park after school?" Howard looked up from the note to see that Vince had turned around to look at him. Howard nodded and Vince smiled before turning to face forwards.
The bruises around Vince's eyes, Howard noticed, had only gotten worse since the day before. It looked as though Vince had smeared purple and blue eye shadow over his face. His eyes were also slightly puffy, but not swollen to the extent that Howard had expected. The terrible bruises explained why Vince was staring down at his desk with his hair swept around his face. Howard didn't blame him. He would have tried to hide too.
When class was excused for recess and lunch Howard lost track of Vince. Howard had to stand in line to get his lunch, but Vince had brought food from home. By the time Howard's tray was full he couldn't even see the telltale blonde hair among the sea of students in the cafeteria. So Howard sat by himself, hoping to find Vince on the playground.
Once Howard had finished eating he rushed outside to search for Vince. Howard had no idea where Vince usually spent his time during recess, so he decided to do a sweep of the entire playground. He started at the jungle gym. He looked underneath all of the slides, checked every swing, and peeped inside every plastic tube. No luck. So he moved on to the ball fields, but Vince wasn't playing football or throwing a baseball. Howard stalked the fence line, checking the outer reaches of the play area. Still, he saw no sign of the smaller boy. He repeated the search for a second time, but simply could not find Vince, and now they were being called back inside. Upon reaching the classroom the first thing Howard noticed was Vince. He was seated at his usual place up front. Howard was perplexed. He had searched every inch of the playground. How could he have missed one small boy? Howard had learned one thing. Noticeable though he was, Vince Noir was awfully good at disappearing.
When the final bell rang, instead of rushing out the door like he usually did, Vince gathered his things and approached Howard. "Do you still want to go to the park?" he asked cautiously.
"Of course!" Howard said, a bit too loudly. "I mean... yes. Yes I do. I tried to find you at lunch, but you disappeared."
"Yeah, I had... stuff to do. But you still want to go, that's great!" Vince smiled, the same blindingly bright smile that Howard remembered from back when Vince had first arrived at the school.
"Well, let's go." Howard pulled his backpack over his shoulders and the two boys walked out.
As soon as they got away from the school it was as though a light had been switched on in Vince. He didn't just walk anymore, no. He strolled, he sauntered, he all but floated down the street. He couldn't keep the electric smile that should have made him so popular at school off his face. The day was overcast, as it usually was, but Howard felt as though he was in the company of his own personal sun.
Vince led them down the street, chattering happily about anything that caught his fancy in the shop windows. Howard only half listened, sensing that Vince didn't require a reply, and probably would have been talking whether or not Howard was present. Howard got the feeling that Vince talked to himself a lot. It made sense, really. Vince was probably his own best friend.
Howard was pulled from his thoughts as Vince stopped abruptly. The blonde boy was staring longingly into a shop window. "I'll have them one day." Howard followed his gaze up to a pair of white knee high boots.
"Vince? You know that those are women's shoes, right?"
"Who cares? They're genius, is what they are."
"Whatever you say." The pair began to walk away, but Howard looked back for a moment. Topshop, he noted. He'd have to remember that.
As they got closer and closer to the park more and more people recognized Vince. There were numerous calls of "Oi Vince! Who's that ya with?"
Vince answered every call with "It's me mate Howard." Howard wasn't so sure that they were mates, but he didn't comment.
Upon reaching the park Vince led Howard through the trees to an open area near a large fountain. Benches were placed around the water feature. Pigeons had gathered to eat the bread crumbs being thrown by a couple of old ladies. "Vince, what are we doing here?" Howard asked.
"I have to prove somethin' to you." Vince started making cooing sounds.
Howard's heart sank. He shouldn't have come with Vince. Obviously the boy really was insane. Howard had heard about Vince 'talking' to birds on the playground at school, but he thought that the claims were exaggerated. But then, what had Vince said yesterday? I was walking by the river, and I heard somebody yellin' 'Help! Help!'. Did Vince really think that he could talk to animals? And not just birds, but cats too? What had Howard gotten himself into? He never should have come to the park, he never should have brought Vince to his house. This boy needed help. Serious help, the kind that could only be found at an institution. Those kids at school had been right.
"Vince?" Howard asked cautiously, not wanting to set Vince off now that he knew the smaller boy was insane.
"Just wait Howard." Vince continued cooing as the pigeons flapped about around him.
Now that he thought about it, Vince even looked crazy. No normal boy had hair that long. No normal boy decorated their school uniform. Heck, no normal boy lusted over a pair of women's boots. It even explained the greetings from the people on the street. Obviously the adults knew that he was mentally ill. He was probably like a pet to them. "Listen, Vince, it's been nice, but..."
Howard shifted his feet nervously. What was the best way out of this situation? He was trying to be polite. He didn't want to upset Vince, but he didn't want to be around him either. He could just run away. That would work. But it would be rude. If there was one thing Howard wasn't, it was rude. But did manners count when dealing with insanity? Howard had just about made up his mind to run when Vince grabbed his wrist.
"Okay. C'mere." Vince pulled Howard to an empty bench and got him to stand on the seat. "Now look." Reluctantly, Howard looked in the direction Vince indicated. His mouth dropped open before he could stop it. The pigeons had rearranged themselves. The pigeons had formed letters. The letters read HI HOWARD. Howard stared at Vince in shock. The smaller boy stared back at Howard, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth. His blue eyes, bright with hope and amusement, stood out starkly from the bruises on his face. "I'm not crazy," he said quietly.
Howard looked back and forth from the pigeons to Vince. "No. No you're not," he said. Vince beamed. Howard began to understand that he'd had his last truly normal day.
A/N: Hi! Hope you enjoyed reading this chapter. So, a few things. 1. Thank you so, so much to everyone who reviewed! :) 2. I don't understand how the British school system works. I spent a huge amount of time reading about it, but I still don't understand. So, this story will have a more Americanized school system. I hope that's not a problem. 3. Sorry this chapter was shorter than the last. 4. How exactly are reviews dealt with on this site? Do I answer you each individually? Or do I answer in an author's note? and 5. PLEASE REVIEW Criticism is welcome.