In the months to come, Howard would look back on that moment many times. The way he had found his best friend in the world huddled in litter because he didn't want to go home to him. That Vince would rather sleep in a dank pile of rubbish than anywhere near him.
But for the moment, he couldn't let himself break down. That would have to happen later, out of Vince's sight.
He hesitated for a moment, then pulled Vince into his arms and cradled him gently, taking care not to jar him in case he had more serious injuries than Howard realized. One arm supported Vince's legs, the other curled round his back and under his neck. Vince let out a small, choked sound which brought tears to Howard's eyes. He swallowed them roughly, and concentrated on getting out of the alley onto the street, where he could borrow a phone and call an ambulance.
"Vince, can you remember anything?" He asked quietly, trying to distract him from the obvious pain he was in. Vince was tried to shake his head- and stopped quickly, wincing.
"No- wait, hang on. Um, there were some guys- they called me gay...one of them had a knife. I can't remember much after that."
Vince said, his eyelids fluttering. Howard was alarmed. He wasn't a medical man, but he knew that someone with a head injury shouldn't go to sleep. He stopped walking, and gave Vince a shake.
"Wake up, little man." Vince simply gave a sigh and closed his eyes again. Howard gritted his teeth.
"Sorry about this," he said quietly, and slapped Vince hard across the face. The effect was immediate; he jerked awake like someone had just thrown a bucket of cold water over him.
"What did you do that for?" Vince slurred loudly. "Get off me Howard, I'm fine." He attempted to wriggle out of Howard's arms, but he wasn't having any of it.
"Vince, I'm taking you to hospital, and that's that. You got beaten up, you're about as far from 'fine' as it's possible to be." Howard pronounced firmly. With that, he carried the protesting man out onto the street and plonked him down on a large table inside a 24 hour cafe, using the shopkeeper's landline to call an ambulance.
After the hurried phone call, Howard went back to sit with Vince, who had his head on the cafe table. Howard put a hand on his back, but Vince slapped it away.
"Get off me." There was ice in his tone. Howard flinched slightly.
"Vince...I'm so sorry." Vince snorted derisively.
"Yeah, right. You're meant to be my mate. We haven't spoken for weeks. How d'you think it makes me feel when you just stop talking to me one day?"
"I know, I'm really-"
"I don't care, Howard. Leave me alone." Vince's head was still on the table. He said everything without looking at Howard.
The ambulance arrived about ten minutes later, but it felt like an hour. They sat in silence, not looking at each other. Howard ached to reach out and hold Vince, but kept his distance. Right now, he'd probably get a broken nose for trying, and one he completely deserved.
He contemplated trying to explain to Vince exactly why he'd been not talking to anyone and basically acting like a wanker, but the truth was that he didn't really know himself. He didn't want to try and sort out the painful mess of feelings he was experiencing at the moment, and he hated himself for being a coward. For not wanting to admit that-
The screech of sirens broke his train of thought, and he stood up awkwardly.
"Come on Vince, we've got to go."
"I'll walk." Vince said, attempting to stand up and failing miserably. He grudgingly allowed Howard to help him across the pavement and into the ambulance, but wouldn't let him sit in the back next to him. Howard went and sat in the front with the driver and explained what he thought had happened. The driver nodded sagely.
"Lover's tiff, was it? When he ran off."
Howard was nonplussed.
"Sorry, what?" The driver rolled his eyes.
"Are you a couple?"
"No, no, we're not. Just friends." The word "couple" sent a shiver through Howard's spine, but he ignored it and stared fixedly at the road in front.
"Heard that one before." The driver muttered.
Vince hated hospitals. Ever since he'd broken his foot tripping over in a pair of boots a few years previously, and had to spend two weeks in one, he'd despised the places. They were boring, stank of antiseptic, and were a bit scary. Last time he'd been in one, at least he'd had Howard. Howard, who was the last person he wanted to see now. He ruffled his hair and wondered faintly how things had managed to change so much over a few months.
"Vince Noir?" A doctor poked her head round the curtains that were pulled round his bed. He nodded, and she sat on the end of his bed. She was pretty, he thought, dark red hair and green eyes, but he was hardly up to flirting.
"Well, it's obvious you've been pretty badly beaten up," she smiled, "but there's no sign of broken bones. You've actually been relatively lucky, believe it or not."
"'Suppose so," Vince replied moodily. "When can I go home?"
"We want to keep you here for another hour, just to make sure you haven't got concussion. However, if you feel fit enough to go home after that, then we won't keep you."
"'Kay. Thanks, that's good." He waited for her to go, but she didn't.
"One more thing- we have to check. The man that you arrived with...he was the one that found you. He didn't...?" She gestured towards Vince's injuries. Vince shook his head.
"No, he'd never do that." The woman looked visibly relieved; obviously dealing with abuse victims wasn't her weekly highlight.
"Great. Would you like us to fetch him for you?"
"No. Yes. I don't know." Vince didn't know what to do. One part of him wanted to hit Howard, the other part of him wanted to hug him.
"You're going to have to speak to him at some point, if you're flatmates." She said softly. Vince raised his eyebrows at her.
"How d'you know that?" The doctor shrugged apologetically.
"It's in your file, he's your emergency contact." Anger flared inside Vince. Why did he have to be so reliant on Howard? Look what happened when Howard decided not to care anymore. He, Vince, collapsed.
"He might be my flatmate, but he's also a wanker." The doctor laughed, and stood up to leave.
"Word of advice. Don't throw a friendship away over something that's not worth it," she spoke hurriedly, anxious to be gone. "I did once, and it was the worst mistake of my life."
Vince sighed. The doctor was right; he'd have to speak to Howard anyway.
"Alright then. Just for five minutes."
Howard was sat in the patient's waiting room. Several hospital staff had already asked him whether he'd like to go and visit his relation or friend, but he'd explained that they'd argued.
He twiddled his thumbs, blinking away the tears blurring his eyes. Guilt and sadness clenched his stomach into knots, and no matter how he tried to distract himself he couldn't help re-running the events of that evening in his head. Stop it, he thought, you can't change things once you've done them. But however hard he tried to reason with himself, he couldn't help feeling terrible.
"Mr Moon?" A doctor was standing over him. He blinked stupidly up at her.
"Yes?" She beckoned him to follow her, and lead him through a maze of brightly lit corridors while talking to him over her shoulder.
"...We have to do the routine tests still, but after that he'll be free to go home. He's asked to speak to you. Grudgingly, apparently."
Howard allowed himself to be lead into a room, which was as plain and boring as the rest of the hospital. He noted dryly that under any normal circumstances, Vince would probably have decorated the entire ward with glitter by now. As it was, he could see him lying in bed and staring at the ceiling.
"I'll be back in a few minutes," said the doctor, and bustled off out the door. There were no other patients in the ward. Howard coughed awkwardly and sat down on the chair at the foot of Vince's bed.
"Vince, I'm so sorry. D'you really hate me?" The words spilled out before he could stop them.
What a stupid thing to ask. Of course Vince hated him, why wouldn't he, after all that had happened between them over the last few weeks?
Vince sighed. "I don't know at the moment, really. Depends if you explain why you've been like this."
Howard flushed a little. "I don't think I know myself."
Vince's voice was cold when he replied. "Well, you better figure it out, I'm not going to sit around and wait forever." He turned over so he was facing away from him.
Howard felt stupid. He could have said anything, and all he'd basically said was "I dunno." Well done, Howard, nice way to start things off.
"I didn't mean that...I know I've been awful. I know you deserve more than excuses, so- give me a day. And I'll try to sort things out."
Vince didn't say anything, just turned away from Howard, who took that as his cue to go.
If he had waited a few seconds longer, he might have heard a small sob from Vince's bed.
The next fifteen minutes when he waited for Vince to be let out were a blur of indecision and anxiousness, but soon Howard had realized what he had to do to get his friend back. He personally had no idea what was going on in his head, so maybe it was time to ask someone else to figure it out for him.
Soon, Vince was cleared for any signs of concussion, and immediately demanded to go home. Howard hailed a taxi, got Vince home and to bed, without any further conversation between them. It had been a long day, he thought, as he made a cup of tea, a very long day.