“I think it’s better that I move out.”
Howard’s words hung in the air between them. Vince stared at his friend for a long moment. Perhaps if he just didn’t acknowledge it then it wouldn’t have happened. “Yeah,” he heard himself say, like it was someone else talking and he could only watch in slow, sick horror. “That’s probably a good idea. It ain’t… You’d be happier with Lester or something.”
Howard swallowed. He was standing tall, almost completely frozen. “I’ve… I got a flat. Leroy-”
“What?” Vince snapped, the world suddenly springing back into focus. He could feel his heart beating fast in his chest, his cheeks beginning to heat. “How long have you been planning this?”
“I mean-” Howard started.
“You know what?” Vince interrupted him again. “I don’t wanna know. It don’t even matter. Just leave, I’m done.”
“Vince-” Howard looked almost pained for a moment. The mask of casual indifference seemed to slip just for a second but then it was back up immediately. He closed his mouth firmly and nodded. “If that’s what you want.”
The absurdity of it slammed into his chest and he huffed out a hollow-sounding laugh. “What I want? You’ve got some nerve-”
“Vince!” Bollo shouted loudly, barrelling into the living room. “Vince and Howard must help.”
They both turned as one to glare at Bollo, the tension in the room so thick Vince was surprised the gorilla was able to wade through it. “What?” he snapped. “We’re in the middle of something here.”
“No,” Howard said, firmly. “We’re done. What do you need Bollo?”
Vince was so furious that he took a moment to be stunned by the ferocity of it. The gap was long enough for Bollo to start talking. “Naboo been sentenced to death.”
“What?” Howard snapped. “Again?”
“No,” Bollo said, “it real this time. I got a bad feeling about this.”
“What happened?” Howard said, turning so he was no longer facing Vince at all, almost blocking him from the conversation.
It made him so angry that he was tempted shove Howard in his back as hard as he could. He’d done that when they were little sometimes, when he’d not been out of the jungle long and the words to explain why he was so frustrated wouldn’t come. Howard had always just turned and given him a stern look then. “Use your words, Vince,” he’d said softly, but firmly. “I can’t help you unless you tell me what you want.” He didn’t know what he wanted any better now than he did then, but the urge to hurt Howard, to pass along some of the pain in his chest, made his hands ball into tight fists.
“Shaman’s secret book gone missing and they think Naboo lost it,” Bollo said. Now Vince was looking at him, he could see that he was agitated, he was moving from foot to foot and his hair was all puffed out. Naboo must really be in trouble.
“Well, what are we meant to do about it?” Howard asked, he sounded annoyed. He probably wished he’d already left, started his boring new life.
“Why are you even still here?” Vince snapped, unable to keep the words in. “Shouldn’t you be packing? Me and Bollo can sort this out without you like we always do, you’d probably only end doing something to make it worse anyway.”
Howard looked like he was going to argue, there was something in his eyes that Vince thought might be regret. It made him, if possible, even more angry. Howard had no right to feel bad now; it was him that was choosing to leave, him that had apparently been planning it for ages and ages behind Vince’s back. He didn’t get to play the hurt one now.
“Go and find Lester or one of your other boring, old farts. They might actually want you around,” he said.
It was enough. Howard deflated, his shoulders sagging in defeat for a moment before he drew himself up. “Very well, sir,” he said, his face now an impassive mask. “If that’s what you really think of me, I shall take my leave of you. But don’t come begging to me when it turns out that you need old Howard Moon afterall. I shall be busy, sir, I have things to attend to.”
Vince rolled his eyes. “Go on then,” he said, gesturing to the stairs. “No one’s stopping you.”
There was another fraction of a second where he thought Howard might back down, where his resolve to be an utter prick might finally dissolve. But it was gone as soon as it was there. He nodded his head and turned to the stairs and disappeared down them.
Vince turned away so he wouldn’t watch him go. “So?” he snapped when Bollo just stared at him. “What’s going on with Naboo?”
“Shaman are going to execute him unless we do something,” Bollo said, still shuffling from foot to foot in his agitation.
Vince reeled back in shock. “They’re going to kill him for losing some old book?”
“Naboo on his last warning after he set fire to Saboo’s robes with joint during last Shaman retreat,” Bollo explained.
“Okay,” Vince said, not wanting to get into all the weird shit the Shamans got up to. “What do you want us to do?”
“Go to Xooberon,” Bollo said. “We tell council Naboo was with you all weekend and he couldn’t have taken the book.”
“Is that all?” Vince said.
Bollo shrugged. “The council are ballbags, they believe Vince and we get Naboo back.”
It sounded simple enough. Besides, it would be good for Vince to be out of the flat for awhile. It would give Howard a chance to get his things. Maybe he’d even be gone by the time Vince was back. He ignored the sharp stab in stomach at the thought. It was for the best, Howard had been dragging him down for too long. He could go on this little adventure, get Naboo back and take his mind off the whole thing at the same time. Maybe not being on the same planet as Howard for awhile would make him feel less like he was about to fly apart at the seams.
He forced a smile onto his face. “Come on then,” he said, hoping he sounded more certain than he felt. “Let’s get on with it.”
Vince was expecting more desert landscapes with distant mountains, like when they were searching for the Fountain of Youth. Instead, they found themselves in something that looked very much like, “Camden?” he asked after a moment.
Bollo shrugged. “They liked the aesthetic, they make capital city in its imagine.”
Vince grinned. “That is genius,” he said, feeling at home immediately.
It was better to be doing something. It made it easier to imagine a life without Howard in it. He could do this. He could hang out with Bollo and go on adventures. He hardly missed him at all. It was better if anything. He didn’t feel ready to punch someone at any moment for one thing.
He followed Bollo along the bustling high street which was filled with strange looking shaman with elaborate robes rather than goths. But Vince quite liked it, it gave the sense of difference from his normal life.
They reached a nondescript building just off the high street. Bollo pressed the buzzer on the grimy wall. “Earth council,” a bored voice replied.
Bollo leant close into the intercom to speak. “Bollo here to rescue Naboo.”
There was a long pause, then the screeching of a buzzer unlocking the door. They did the traditional tugging fruitlessly at the handle a few times before it released and admitted them into building. It was just as nondescript inside, faded blue carpet and scuffed white walls greeted them as they made their way to the second floor. It was only once they opened the door that things started to look a lot more like Vince might have expected.
They found themselves at the entrance of a forest. Trees arched overhead, meeting in the middle to create a dark canopy. Two moons hung above them, suspended in an inky sky dotted with stars, their soft light illuminating the new world in front of them. Vince was pretty used to this sort of thing, but he still got a little thrill from it; there was always a rightness to seeing something so foreign and magic.
He found himself turning to ask Howard if he remembered the last time they were there. He caught himself just in time, and grimaced at the way his stomach dropped at the realisation that he wasn’t ever going to be able to do that again. Howard wouldn’t make any more jokes about them not being able to afford more than one new location per adventure. He wasn’t going to pretend not to be afraid in the most unconvincing way ever, which in turn wasn’t going to make Vince’s protective streak kick-in and his wall of bravado go up.
There was no way he was going to start crying in the middle of the reception to the Shaman Council so he concentrated on the fury from that morning instead. Howard hadn’t cared enough to talk to him about finding somewhere else to live and so he was’t going to care enough now to cry about it.
By the time he’d gathered himself, Bollo had hurried forward towards a low table at the entrance to the forest. He took a deep breath and followed behind him. A ginger man in a Parker was sat there, his glasses pushed up high on his nose. He looked up and smiled.
“Alright, Bollo?” he asked in a thick Welsh accent. “You’re back sooner than I thought you’d be.’
“Bollo and Vince must see council,” Bollo said, his voice still agitated.
The shaman looked at him for a moment before understanding settled over his face. “This about Naboo? I saw they brought him in. Bad business with that book.” He looked genuine in his concern. “You ask me, they should be looking under Tony’s bed, it’s not like he hasn’t lost things before.”
“Bollo needs to see council,” Bollo interrupted.
“Alright,” he said, looking a bit put out. “They’ll be here now in a minute.”
Vince wanted to ask what that meant, but at that moment he heard a deep voice coming from inside the trees. “Who’s there Gethin? It is getting late and I wish to return home to my wife.”
Dennis appeared through the trees. He was just as imposing as Vince remembered. He shrank back behind Bollo without even meaning to do it. Vince mostly got along with people, but Naboo’s friends had always seemed remote and strange to him. In truth they’d always made him a bit nervous. He was used to fitting in with any group, subtly (or not so subtly) changing his look and interests so he could have as much in common with people as it took for them to accept him. That was hard with the Shaman, not that he didn’t dig their look, but because he couldn’t get a handle on what they wanted, other than to get off their faces. It might come with being hundreds of years old, but they always seemed to look right through him. It made him feel small and invisible.
“Dennis,” Bollo said, his voice high and anxious. “Bollo bring Vince to show that Naboo not lose book with ancient shaman secrets in it.”
“Alright?” Vince said, smiling and hoping he seemed friendly and non threatening.
Dennis looked irritated - not that Vince had seen him look any other way - as he glanced at Bollo. “Bollo,” he said, “I told you that the trial will take place at the full moons and not before. There is a process and Naboo is on his final warning, I am in no mood to give him special consideration. A few nights in a cell will likely do him good.”
“But Naboo was with Vince all weekend,” Bollo said. “He couldn’t have taken the book.”
“Yeah,” Vince said, gathering himself and stepping forward. “He was helping me get ready for this party that's happening next week, I wanted a cape that changed colour in time with the music-”
Dennis looked at him. “It is you,” he said, interrupting Vince just as he was getting into his flow. “Where is your boyfriend?”
Everyone froze, Vince’s mind working furiously to catch up with what he could possibly be talking about. Howard’s party, he realised with a jolt. They hadn’t actually seen the Shaman Council since then, or only fleetingly as they picked up Naboo. He wasn’t sure what to say. He’d buried the memory of that night so thoroughly that it was a shock to be reminded that it really happened.
“Is he not with you?” Dennis continued, when no one spoke. “It cannot be that he would allow you to travel alone to strange lands?””
Vince’s confusion started to morph into annoyance. That was some outdated relationship nonsense. Where did this mug get off thinking that Vince couldn’t go where he wanted whenever he wanted?
“Unless you are no longer together?” Dennis asked into the continued silence, his eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Because if you are not, then your love was not as strong as I thought. Perhaps it was because you were in a cupboard with an extreme sports calendar model and it tested the very foundations of your relationship. And if that is true… then I will personally make sure that your head is cleaved cleanly from your scrawny body.”
Vince blinked at him, the angry words he'd been preparing dying on his lips. There was steel in Dennis’ eyes and he had no doubt that if didn’t act quickly he was getting beheaded before he even had the chance to run. “What?” he said, his voice not as certain as he would have liked. “No, of course. We’re still totally together. Bumming all over the place. He’s just on holiday to a…” he paused for a fraction of second while his brain scrabbled around trying to locate a convincing lie, “jazz retreat. Yeah, I didn’t want to disturb him with this. But, we’re still totally together. No major issues where he can’t stand being the same room as me or anything.”
“Bring your life partner here,” Dennis said, his eyes never leaving Vince’s. “I will not trust you on the same planet as my wife.”
“You’ve got some trust issues, mate,” Vince couldn’t help but say, “you want to work on your own relationship instead of being so worried about mine.”
Dennis drew himself up. “Are you refusing?”
Vince hadn’t survived as long as he had without learning to read a room. “No,” he said, quickly, “course not. I’ll, err… I’ll just go and get him and come back.”
“You do that, raven scarecrow man,” Dennis said, seeming to relax slightly.
Vince turned and hustled Bollo out of the room. He shut the door firmly behind them before turning to the gorilla and hissing, “Now what are we going to do?”
Bollo narrowed his eyes at him. “We go get Howard,” he said, as though Vince was being stupid.
He was about to point out that he would rather wear Howard’s clothes for the rest of his life than ever talk to that Northern plonker again, when he realised that Bollo didn’t know Howard had decided to move out. He stopped, suddenly not wanting to say the words out loud. He didn’t want to talk about it yet. He needed more time to figure out how he felt about it so he could never think about it ever again. Besides, if Howard was actually going to come with them, he didn’t want Bollo knowing they’d ended their friendship. It would make it even weirder and harder for Vince to ignore.
“Yeah,” he forced out. “Okay. Let’s pop back. He’s probably still at the flat.”
Packing. So he could finally leave Vince once and for all.
He sighed. He had a bad feeling about this.
Howard was indeed still at the flat. He was messing around in the stockroom, doing something that Vince didn’t care about. He’d told Bollo to wait for them upstairs, not wanting to have the conversation in front of him. He walked quickly into the room, not wanting to give himself the chance to think about what he was going to say.
“Vince,” Howard said, looking surprised before a his face went back to blank indifference. “Did you get Naboo back okay?”
“You’re going to need to come with us,” Vince said, hating the admission with every fibre of his being.
Howard frowned. “Why?” he asked.
Vince hadn’t tried to come up with an excuse before seeing Howard. He was going to need to be in on the lie if there was any hope of it working. But now he was here the idea of admitting it was excruciating. He didn’t want to need Howard for anything, ever again if he could help it, but certainly not for something like this. He balled his hands into fists and forced himself to speak. “Dennis still thinks we’re together and if he finds out we’re not, he’s going to kill me and then probably Naboo. So, you’ll have to come with me and convince him we’re still together and that Naboo didn’t take any stupid book.”
There was a long pause where it seemed Howard was trying to grasp what Vince was saying. “You’re asking me to pretend to be your boyfriend so we can rescue Naboo?” There was something about his tone that made it sound like he suspected Vince might have made the whole thing up.
Vince glared at him. “I’m not asking you to do anything, you tit,” he said. “I’m just telling you that Naboo needs your help, and it’s not like he hasn’t rescued your stupid arse enough times that you don’t owe him this.”
Howard’s face went through a number of emotions as Vince spoke, mostly it was annoyance but he was spitefully pleased to see a flash of hurt too. “I’m not saying that I won’t help, Vince,” Howard said, affecting an annoyingly reasonable tone. “Whatever has happened to your and my friendship, I will always care greatly for Naboo. So, if I can help him, of course I want to try.”
“Well, don’t go to any trouble,” Vince said, his voice taking on a petulant, sarcastic tone. Howard just managed to bring out it out in him. It was like he didn’t even have to try, just the slightest movement or look and Vince was so furious he was ready to punch walls. His reactions were almost as distressing as what Howard did to bring them out. He so desperately wanted to not care anymore, he was exhausted with the whole thing. He was tired of being angry and disappointed and hurt the whole time. He just wanted it to end, but he couldn’t seem to break the cycle.
Howard sighed, his jaw clenching in annoyance. “Do you want me to come or not?”
“I want you to be as far away as humanly possible,” Vince said. “But Naboo needs us to help him, so it doesn’t really matter what I want. Are you going to help or what?”
“You know I am,” Howard said. “He’s my friend as well, Vince, I’ve known him longer than you if you remember.”
“Good for you,” he snapped. “Come on.” He turned to leave before spinning back around. “And I ain’t told Bollo about you moving out yet, so keep your trap shut about it. I need to find someone else to take your room before I tell them.”
It looked for a moment like Howard might argue but in the end he just nodded his head once. Vince didn’t wait for him to change his mind before turning on his heel and stalking from the room.
Howard walked a few paces behind Vince and Bollo, not wanting to attract more of Vince’s ire. He just wanted to get the whole thing over with so he could get back to the flat and start packing. It felt like Bollo was sitting on his chest and his stomach was twisted in knots at the idea of what would happen then. He hadn’t dared think that far ahead, it was mostly a gaping black hole of uncertainty.
He hadn’t intended to tell Vince about his plans to move out. But Vince had seemed so furious with him - for what felt like the hundredth day in a row - that it just slipped out. There had been some small, sad part of him that had hoped Vince would care. That he might not want Howard to leave. It was stupid and embarrassing in retrospect. Vince had wanted to get rid of him for years. He should have got the hint and gone after they failed so spectacularly to even reach America, let alone become international rockstars. But he was a coward.
At least it was done now. Vince would be rid of him soon, just as soon as they got through this last task together. It was fitting, a chance to repay Naboo for the countless recuses he’d mounted for them, some small redressing of the cosmic balance sheet. It would be nice to feel useful for something, to be able to ensure that Vince was safe one last time.
He didn’t ask questions as they made their ways through Camden that wasn’t quite Camden and to an old government building. He sensed that any questions would be met with hostility. The forest was both a surprise and calming when they entered. He hung back, not wanting to capture Vince’s attention and anger again. Bollo and the ginger shaman were talking, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. He looked up at the moons and wondered if this would be the last time he’d see something like this.
Vince had always meant adventure to him; bright colours and sunshine. He didn’t want to think about the future, what future there would be now but he somehow couldn’t imagine that it would contain adventures and magic. When he tried to picture it he could only see quiet introspection and perhaps, if he was lucky, the odd glimpse of what Vince would achieve without him. He hoped at least Vince would be better off once he was gone.
“Ah,” a booming voice said from the edge of the forest. Howard looked up to find Dennis striding out toward them. He hadn’t seen the head shaman since his party. He didn’t much appreciate the reminder. “I see you have both arrived.”
Howard forced himself to stand by Vince’s side. He wondered briefly how he ought to stand, he suspected he looked uncomfortable and stiff but he couldn’t work out how to change that. He didn’t want to stand too close, but then, it felt like everyone could see how far apart they were.
“Yeah,” Vince was saying. Could everyone else hear that hard note to his voice? “Now let Naboo go and we can all get out of here.”
Dennis stared at him impassively for a long moment. “I told you scarecrow man, the trial will not take place until the full moons. If you wish to partake of it, you must stay here until then.”
“What?” Howard said, his voice sharp and worried even to his own ears.
“There is an order to such things,” Dennis said. “Naboo stands accused of a grave crime, I will not forgo the proper procedure. Gethin,” he gestured to the man still sitting at the wooden table, “take our guests to their quarters."
“Wait a minute,” Vince said, “when’re the full moons? Can’t we just come back then?”
“It is not done,” he said. “I would watch over you until you testify. If you want to help Naboo, you will have to stay here.”
It looked for a moment like Vince was going to argue, but Howard knew men like this - he’d grown up with one - arguing would only make them dig in more. He stepped forward. “As you wish,” he said. “We will do whatever you think necessary.”
Dennis relaxed immediately, he inclined his head in what was probably mean to be a gracious gesture but just made him look more pompous.
“May I ask how long until the full moons? We’re not from around here,” he added.
There was a stunned silence. Several horrified thoughts ran through his head. There was no way he could stay that long with Vince. They hadn’t been together for that long for months, although it sometimes felt like years. That was before he even considered the fact he’d need to keep up the ridiculous pretense that he and Vince were a couple the whole time.
“No way!” Vince said, his voice genuinely outraged. “I got a party at the end of the week. I can’t miss it, I’ll be cast out of the Camden elite.”
“That is your choice,” Dennis said. “If you wish Naboo to lose his head, by all means leave.”
Vince scowled and crossed his arms, but Howard knew he wasn’t going to continue to protest. “Okay,” Howard said. “If that’s what’s needed. We’ll stay.”
Dennis nodded again. “You are a sensible man,” he said. “Your partner would do well to better know his place.”
“That’s not Vince’s way,” Howard said, trying to sound apologetic and not sort of proud like he felt. For all that Vince’s stubborn streak had made Howard what to throttle him over the years, it still made Howard smile to see Vince stand up for himself. It was a trait that it had taken him years to master and it was still satisfying to see it now, even if it was mostly used to tell Howard to get stuffed these days. “But, we don’t have any clothes or anything, can we at least go and-”
Dennis glowered for a moment as Howard let his request dangle between them unfinished. “Gethin,” he snapped suddenly, “take our guests to their rooms and then arrange for their things to be brought to them.” With that he drifted away from them, heading out of the door.
Gethin hustled to his feet and gestured for them to follow him. They walked through the clearing and into the woods. It was darker there, but the moons provided plenty of light as they walked slowly down the path.
“It’s good of you to come and help out Naboo,” Gethin said, turning to grin at Vince and Howard. “He’s in a right mess.”
“It’s the least we can do,” Howard said, wishing there was literally anything else they might be able to do.
“Yeah, but giving up a month of your life to help him is well good of you. But, at least you get to be together, eh?” He turned to them to give them a wink that made Howard want to blush and turn around and flee. “It’ll be like a couple’s retreat. Be nice, I suspect. Spending all day, everyday, with each other, never having to leave each other’s side-”
“Alright!” Howard snapped, panic starting to claw at his throat. “We get the picture.”
Gethin turned to give him a strange look, but thankfully didn’t say anything. They left the forest to find themselves inexplicably back in Camden, this time outside a small terrace house.
“Here we are. You’re the ground floor flat,” Gethin said, gesturing to the house. “It’s not much, but it has all the mod cons.”
Howard nodded but neither he nor Vince made any effort to walk to the house.
“You coming, Bollo?” Vince said in the end, as they both refused to move.
“Bollo have to stay with Naboo,” he said.
“Oh,” Vince said and nodded.
“So, we err…” Howard said. “We just have to stay in here for a month before the trial?”
“Oh, no,” Gethin said, “don’t worry, you can come and go in Fake Camden as much as you want. Plus, Dennis will want you at all the state ceremonies and that.”
“Of course he will,” Howard sighed.
“Yeah, there’s an itinerary on the board inside. Right,” Gethin said, holding out a set of keys on a little metal hoop, “that should be everything. If you need me, just give me a bell on the intercom, I’m on reception for the next couple of weeks.”
Howard nodded and took the keys, while Vince continued to glower at the floor and refuse to look at anyone. They watched as the others walked away down the street before turning to look at the little house. The silence stretched on but Howard genuinely had no idea how he ought to break it. He stared at the top of Vince’s head, where it was bowed to stare pointedly at the pavement.
He considered speaking, considered trying to continue their conversation about the flat that Leroy had found for him, but decided against it. There didn’t seem much left to say, Vince wanted him gone and there was no point in moaning about it now. It had been years coming. The fact that Howard had always been too afraid to say the words out loud before was hardly Vince’s fault. It wasn’t fair to drag the whole thing out. Not to either of them.
“Right,” he said, his voice softer than he’d expected, like he wasn’t sure that he wanted Vince to hear him. He didn’t wait for a response, didn’t even really expect one, and walked through the little gate and up the path to the front door.
The key turned easily in the lock and the door swung open with a little push. The hallway was dim, and there was the usual junk mail and unclaimed circulars littering the communal space. Howard ignored it and turned to the secondary door which opened just as easily as the front door. He stepped inside and froze.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Vince said, his voice loud in the quiet of the flat.
If you could call it that. It might be kindly described at a studio; there was a small kitchen with a tiny table, a door which presumably led to a bathroom, and then just one large bed. It seemed to take up the entire space. It was probably just a normal sized double bed but it seemed impossibly huge.
He was about to suggest that it would be better that he slept on the floor when Vince spoke again.
“You can sleep on the floor,” he snapped, pushing by Howard into the small room and standing next to the bed.
Howard closed his mouth, irritation swelling in his chest. “We can rotate,” he said, trying to sound firm but reasonable. “One night each in the bed.”
Vince spun on his heel. “No way,” he said, “my hair’ll be ruined.”
“My back won’t take sleeping on the floor for a month, don’t be a brat.” Name calling was hardly going to help but the look of utter contempt on Vince’s face stung. The idea of being locked together for a month was already almost unbearable, but now it was clear there was going to be nowhere to hide from Vince’s displeasure at his presence. He was furious at the whole situation.
“It ain’t my fault you’re so old,” Vince spat. “There’s no way I’m sleeping on the floor just because you hurt yourself at your stupid exercise class.” His face twisted into a scowl as he spoke. It didn’t suit him. Howard hadn’t seen that expression, the tight twist of lips and narrowed eyes, when they were younger. Vince had always been so happy, so sunny and pleased with life, with Howard. He hated that expression and the way it seemed reserved exclusively for him.
“We’ll share it,” he snapped. He blinked rapidly after he spoke, an old habit that he’d thought he’d left behind, but he was so surprised that he’d actually said it, like the words had come from somewhere else entirely, he couldn’t seem to stop.
Vince recoiled. “No way,” he said. “I ain’t being in a bed with you.”
“Grow up, Vince,” he sighed. “There’s plenty of room. I’m not sleeping on the floor and so you can either share with me or you can be on the floor. Those are your options.” With that he pointedly turned to begin examining the books on the small shelf near the bed. It was like he could feel Vince’s furious stare boring into his back between his shoulder blades. He ignored it as best he could and pulled a book at random off the shelf.
“You are such a tit,” Vince snapped. It would usually be this point in an argument that Vince would slam out of the shop or flat, but there wasn’t anywhere to go, so instead he stomped over to the bathroom slamming the door behind him.
Howard took a slow seat on the bed, trying to breathe evenly. His heart was racing and his stomach was in knots. He hated arguing with Vince. Despite the fact they’d always bickered, there had rarely been any genuinely cross words when they were younger. He remembered the first time they’d actually fought, how he’d been terrified that it would be the end of their relationship, how greatful he’d been when Vince smiled at him the next morning. Things had gone back to normal quickly, but that first spike of terror lingered for a weeks afterwards. He wondered when arguing had become so normal for them. When the teasing had turned into something more real and hurtful. He couldn’t pinpoint it and trying only made him feel sad and a bit hopeless. He sighed and tried to read, even as his eyes were drawn to the closed bathroom door every few moments.
The atmosphere remained thick for the rest of the afternoon, even after Vince emerged into the bedroom to sit at the kitchen table. They had both always been stubborn, but not when it came to each other, their make-ups after a fight were usually swift - although he supposed they didn’t so much make up as they did just pretend that it hadn’t happened. But no longer, now the silences could go on for days. It was just another sign of how little Vince needed him now. Even his inability to sit still and quiet weren’t enough to compel him to speak to Howard.
It seemed like hours later when their buzzer rang and Howard to get to his feet, with great relief, to answer the door.
Gethin grinned at him, laden with their bags. “Alright?” he said with a little wave. “The lads got you some stuff for while you’re here. Hope it’s okay, they just grabbed some stuff out of your rooms and I don’t know how much Tony and Saboo know about human fashion to be honest.”
“Thank you,” he said, reaching out to take the luggage with a nod. Vince would no doubt hate whatever they’d bought, but it would have to do. “We appreciate you doing that. I’m simple a man but even I probably need more than one outfit for a month.”
“You’re alright,” Gethin assured him with a little nod. “Everything alright with the flat?”
“It’s pretty small,” Howard said before he could stop himself.
Gethin laughed. “Yeah, stingey bastards, aren’t they? I figured you guys wouldn’t mind too much, though, a little holiday for you both.”
Howard forced a smile onto his face. “Yeah, it’ll be good to spend some time together. Get away from everything.” His voice sounded flat and unconvincing even to himself.
“Well,” Gethin said, something a bit rueful about his tone, “I’m sure you’ll have a good time. There’s a fair few official events that Dennis will want you to attend, of course, but otherwise you can carry on however you want.”
Howard bit down on the exasperated sigh that wanted to escape his chest. “Yes," he said, trying not to sound as concerned as he felt. "What are they exactly?”
“Lots of things, really,” Gethin said with a shrug. “There’s a whole calendar of them around the trial, everyone is expected to attend. The first one’s tonight, in…” he looked at the old fashioned digital watch on his wrist, “an hour and a half. I’ll come back and pick you both up if you like.”
“Do we need to change?” Howard’s stomach had filled with heavy dread. They were going to be expected to act like a couple. In public. Multiple times over the coming weeks. The thought kept occurring to him whenever he thought about leaving the flat and it felt like he was drowning.
“Just a ceremony to start the whole thing off,” Gethin said. “Won’t take long.”
Howard nodded and tried not to look as miserable about it as he felt. “Okay, well in that case I better let Vince know.”
Vince took the news with just a shrug before snatching the bag out of Howard's hand and going to get ready. He’d been horrified by the outfits that he’d been brought but Howard had mostly ignored him; it wasn’t like he actually wanted Howard’s opinion on what he was wearing anyway.
True to his word, Gethin arrived an hour later to escort them to the docks and into a large stone building that wasn’t there in the real Camden. Vince trailed behind Howard and Gethin. Howard didn’t need to look behind to know that he was scowling at him. It was something he should probably be used to by now, but he wasn’t. It was more distracting than when Vince used to prattle on while they were at the zoo.
They entered a large room, the high, stone walls were covered with hangings, crude tapestries that seemed to depict the Shaman Council on various adventures. Howard noticed Tony Harrison was being sick in one while Saboo looked on with an unmistakable scowl. But that was all Howard noticed before he saw what was in the middle of the room and stopped short.
Naboo was in a cage suspended from the ceiling. He was still in his full robes and turban, but he was looking decidedly rumpled. He stared up at him with a sick rising up from in his stomach
Somehow the idea of anything bad really happening to Naboo had never actually occurred to Howard until that moment. It wasn’t the right order of things; Naboo saved them, he wasn’t the one that needed saving. He was slouched on the floor of the cage, scowling at everyone. Despite his obvious anger, he looked tired and small. It made Howard feel jittery with nerves.
“Fellow shaman, guests,” a booming voice suddenly called out. Howard turned to see Dennis had swept into the room. “We are gathered here to begin the trial of Naboo, who stands accused of a grievous crime.” The muttering and shuffling of feet slowly died away as Dennis continued, “To have lost the secrets of our sacred order is a crime punishable by death.”
Howard could tell how much he was enjoying the attention, the pomp and circumstance. That just made him more anxious, his stomach tightening uncomfortably. Someone like that would be much harder to reason with. Not to mention they were actually there to lie.
“Naboo,” Dennis continued turning his face up toward the cage, “how do you plead?”
Naboo shuffled as far forward as the cage would allow. “Not guilty, you ballbag. I told you I wasn’t even here when it went missing.”
Dennis’ face flickered with obvious annoyance. “Very well,” he said, ignoring the slight. “Then I hereby announce the Trial of Naboo the Shaman begun.” He raised his hands dramatically but nothing happened but a long, ringing silence.
“Tony, you pink scroat,” Saboo hissed from somewhere behind Howard, “that’s your cue. Hit the bloody cymbal.”
“Alright,” Tony huffed, “who put it on a step?”
Howard turned to see Tony attempting to climb onto a plinth so he could headbutt a massive cymbal. He struggled for several seconds before Saboo just rolled his eyes and picked up the hammer and did it himself. “Honestly,” he spat as the ringing died away, “what even is the point of you?”
“It’s not my fault I’ve been discriminated against,” Tony groused. “I’ve rung the starter cymbal for hundreds of years.”
Saboo opened his mouth to answer but Dennis was talking loudly over him and Howard turned away.
“The trial is begun,” Dennis shouted, trying to recover some sense of dramatic tension and very nearly succeeding. “All witnesses are sworn to honesty and any deception will be treated as a capital offence and they shall join Naboo in his beheading.”
Howard tried not to flinch back as Dennis’ eyes flicked to him. He realised with a sinking feeling that Vince was no longer next to him, having pointedly walked to the other side of the room.
There was a beat of silence before the low-hum of people talking began to resume around him. Howard looked about for Vince, intending to go him but Dennis was already walking toward him.
“Where is your lover?” Dennis asked, his voice hard and eyes narrowed.
“Vince is just getting some drinks,” Howard said, trying not to visibly react to the title Dennis had given him. “I was just going to find him actually. But, it was good to see you again-”
“I shall come with you,” Dennis said. “You are Naboo’s star witnesses and I would get to know you better.”
Howard stopped himself deflating by holding himself very still for a moment, and then forced himself to nod. He was going to end up losing his head, he just knew it. It was like Dennis knew they were lying. He supposed it made sense, the idea of him and Vince as a couple did seem somewhat laughable. You only had to look at them together to see that. He cast about, looking for Vince desperately. Finally he spotted him talking to Bollo.
“Ah, there he is,” he said, trying to sound upbeat as he pointed over to him and started pushing through the crowd. “Vince!” he said as he arrived.
“What do you want?” Vince snapped, turning around and glaring for a moment before clearly spotting Dennis. He froze, his eyes wide.
“Is there a problem?” Dennis said, looking between them.
“Oh,” Howard said, trying to force out a breezy laugh and missing by about a thousand miles. “It’s my fault, I made the mistake of not complimenting Vince’s outfit and he’s annoyed with me. You know how…” he trailed off, “partners can be.”
Dennis looked at them for a moment before letting out a deep laugh. “I do! I once said I didn’t like my wife’s new wrestling bib and she got me in a headlock the likes of which I had never experienced!”
Howard laughed. “They can be so sensitive, can’t they?”
“Who’s that then?” Vince snapped.
Howard was furiously trying to silently communicate with Vince to get him to shut up, but thankfully Dennis just laughed again. “I can see you have your hands full here,” he said, slapping Howard on the back and making him stumble forward. “I shall leave you so I may converse with more important guests, but I shall be seeing you both soon.”
Howard gave him a half-hearted wave as he left. There was an awkward silence once they were alone, even Bollo didn’t seem to have anything to say to break it.
“I’m going,” Vince said suddenly, “this is rubbish and Gethin said we only had to stay for the opening bit.”
Howard nodded, not in any mood to disagree and so he fell in to step behind him as Vince made his way out of the room and back down the street. Howard’s heart was still beating fast in his chest. He couldn’t get the image of Naboo, suspended from the ceiling, looking small and worried out of his head. It was probably too late for the seriousness of the situation to be sinking in now, but it was. It felt like he ball of concrete had settled in his stomach.
The council planned to kill Naboo - it was clear they’d already decided he was guilty - and that meant they’d be looking for any reason to do it. If he and Vince were his best defence, then they’d be looking for reasons to discredit or not believe them. This wasn’t going to be as simple as just saying they were a couple, everyone was going to have to believe it. If they gave anyone any reason to think they weren’t really together…
He swallowed down a wave of panic. He wasn’t going to be able to do it. There was no way he could pretend to be Vince’s partner. It would have been unthinkable even when they were getting along, but now, when Vince hated the very sight of him, it seemed impossible.
He supposed he probably deserved it, it was exactly the sort of sick game the universe liked playing with Howard Moon. He’d thought he was going to be able to slink away from the mess he’d made; fade way from Vince without him ever knowing what it was costing Howard to do it and, perhaps, without the other man even really noticing it. There was no chance of that now. How was Howard supposed to pretend that he was okay with leaving while also pretending that he was a doting boyfriend? Because there was no doubt that was the role he’d have to play; Dennis would use any hint of a fracture between them to exploit his case against Naboo.
He sighed and tried to steal himself to talk to Vince. They were going to have to agree some fundamentals before this went too much further. The weight in his stomach seemed to grow uncomfortably. He waited until they were safely inside their little flat before speaking. Vince was pretending not to notice he was there, pottering around the small space, unpacking the clothes they’d been brought.
“I think,” he started, then ran out of words. Vince whipped his head toward him and stared. Howard swallowed heavily, Vince’s face was impassive but somehow he knew he was only seconds away from snapping something angrily at him. “We need to talk about this little ruse we’re doing.” He’d hoped that he’d sound lighthearted but his voice was too strained for that.
Vince’s whole posture stiffened. “What’s that mean?”
“Well, if we’re going to pretend to be…” he simply couldn’t make himself say ‘boyfriend’ or any permutation of it, “together, then there are some things that we should talk about first.”
“No way,” Vince said, physically backing away from Howard and the conversation.
“Vince,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady, “you saw Naboo; he’s in real trouble. We need to take this seriously. If we mess this up, if Dennis has any reason to doubt what we’re saying, Naboo could die, and frankly, so could we.”
Vince looked both sullen and furious which was a facial miracle. He wanted to refuse, Howard knew, but this was still Vince. He still wanted everyone to be happy, as long as they weren’t called Howard Moon, and there was no way he was going to leave his friend in danger. “Fine,” he huffed. “Whatever.”
Howard let out a slow breath. There was a lot that they’d need to discuss; they’d need a backstory and an agreement on protocol at the very least. But he didn't have the energy to discuss it. The very idea made him feel weary and sad. So instead he nodded his agreement. “Okay, good. Let’s get some sleep and we can- We can talk about this more in the morning.”
Vince glared at him, like this was his fault, which was neither fair nor unusual, but instead of reacting, he just turned and headed into the little bathroom.
He closed the door behind him and closed his eyes. This was going to be an awful few weeks. He knew already that his tattered heart wasn’t going to make it through. The best he could do was shore up his reactions, not let Vince see. That would be the final humiliation, to have his devastation over what was happening seen, and likely mocked or even met with disgust.
He leant heavily on the sink and took some deep breaths. He needed to get a grip if he was going to make it out of this with any shred of dignity.