"What you want, old fruit, is a nice spot of mortal peril."
Howard decided not to bother taking issue with Bertie's penchant for addressing him as various food items and objects. Somewhere in the unwritten book of Howard T. J. Moon's Rules to Live By, he'd overlooked a caution in the form of 'never take love advice from time-travelling dandies,' but even without Bollo around to issue portents of doom from the background, Howard had a bad feeling he'd soon be adding it.
"I don't want mortal peril, thank you very much, sir," Howard huffed. "I've had more than my fair share and it's done no good. As catch-phrases go, 'Don't kill me! I've got so much to give!' is a bit on the pathetic side, honestly."
"Ah," Bertie said, lighting one of his strong-smelling cigarettes. "Not real peril, you understand. The trick is to merely look as though you're deep in the soup, veritably drowning in the stuff. Tugs at the heartstrings and all that. Vince fishes you out, you're terribly grateful, and in the process he's caught onto the fact that life without you would be dust and ashes."
"Is that how it happened with you and Jeeves?" If Howard hadn't walked in on the two of them locked in a passionate snog in the supply cupboard, they wouldn't even be having this conversation, and it was the only reason Howard was actually listening to a single word from a man who seemed to think only future cigarettes were very bad for you. Howard much preferred conversing with Jeeves, who enjoyed literature and philosophy and thinking for the sake of thinking, a true renaissance man, but he was currently out shopping with Vince, as both Vince and Jeeves had deemed their counterparts unsuitable for choosing clothing. And Bertie had got his man in the end, hadn't he?
"Well, no, not in the strictest sense. It was more that I'd had a few more than a few too many and laid bare the whatsit, don't you know, but it's worked a treat for countless of my nearest and dearest."
"But Vince has nearly lost me a hundred times. I actually died once and nothing happened. I've told him I loved him and he's laughed."
"Hm. Perhaps you ought to be the one saving his skin, then, what?"
"I have done."
"And nothing! It's hopeless, Bertie. I'm doomed to live out the rest of my days in unrequited longing."
"Now, now. There's no need for this doom and gloom stuff. Normally I'd put the matter to Jeeves instanter, but as he seems to have developed one of his soupy notions in re: Bertram's ability to look after himself in the 21st century, I'd like to prove him to be all sound and fury. What if you got stuck in a lift together?"
"I don't know where I'm meant to find a lift guaranteed to stall. And as a desert island didn't help.... no, Bertie, Howard Moon is a hopeless case."
"This may be a three-gasper problem, as the Great Detective was wont to say," Bertie said, lighting his second.
"I think that was pipes," Howard corrected, coughing.
"It's the same principle. Now, then, what of the old green-eyed monster?"
Howard shuddered. "I wouldn't go looking for him for a thousand-- oh, green-eyed. Never mind."
"Jealousy, I mean to say."
Howard sighed, thinking of his disastrous birthday party. "It nearly did, once, but I backed off like a coward and he got distracted by a pretty girl."
"Ah, but never attempted, might one say, with your fellow man? Jeeves is never too bothered about girls even when I'm nearly to the altar, but once he thought I was being a bit too chummy with my chum Bingo Little--we were at school together, you see--and I don't mind telling you, Hell hath no fury like.... Well, perhaps I do mind telling you, at that." A high flush blossomed on Bertie's fair cheeks and he seemed to be looking off fondly at the memory. "Suffice it to say, making amends for my supposed transgressions was...how would Vince have it? Well nice."
Howard smiled in spite of himself. Bertie reminded him a lot of Vince in some ways, his silly fashion whims and fanciful phrases, and he'd give anything to put that look on Vince's face. "I don't think I know any men who'd agree to that." Leroy, maybe, but Vince would never believe it.
"Let it never be said that Bertram will not come to the aid of the party, when the party is in need of aid," Bertie said with a winning smile.
"Jeeves will understand, once I've explained it," Bertie said with a wave of his hand. "All we want is to assume a suitably compromising posish for them to witness on their triumphant return from the Top Shop. I say, that really is a bally good name. I wonder if I'd be breaking the rules if I put my pal Tuppy onto founding such an enterprise. He'd make a mint and finally be able to marry my cousin Angela."
"I think that might be one of those paradoxes Naboo warned us about when we rang him."
"Oh, quite right, indeed. Can't have the universe imploding, what? Still, the appearance of a fond e. can't hurt the fabric of the time-space thingummy, surely."
Long after Howard had closed the shop, dusted Stationery Village, replenished Paperclip Castle, and straightened Stapleopolis, he and Bertie were still both intermittently peering through the window to watch for Vince and Jeeves. It would have been quite pleasant if not for the nervous anticipation--Bertie bent the old piano to his will with beautifully pure (if technically lacking in some areas) renditions of Jazz classics that made Howard's heart skip in envy for Bertie seeing so many of the greats in person and being able to discover the music as it evolved. Howard was careful, when he joined in a duet, to comb his encyclopaedic knowledge of Jazz history and keep his improvisations strictly in 1928 territory, but either the 'electro education' from Vince that Jeeves had put a stop to had already done its damage or Howard was hearing things, because he would have sworn to hearing a fleeting suggestion of Gary Numan when Bertie grinned cheekily and crossed his right hand over Howard's left.
Howard was so caught up in thinking, yet again, of how much Bertie's pinstriped suit made him recall Vince in his Mod phase and simpler happier times, that he missed seeing Vince and Jeeves crossing the street until Bertie shot up from the bench and exclaimed, "Once more unto the breach, what?"
Howard's stomach knotted. "This might not be--"
"Faint heart never won fair...er, Vince!"
Bertie pulled Howard along by his sleeve and before Howard could say 'what if your gentleman's very personal gentleman breaks my neck in five places,' they were upstairs on the settee together, with Bertie making dramatically moony eyes at him that were the wrong shade of blue. "This isn't going to work," Howard gritted out between painfully clenched teeth.
"Not if you can't come up with the goods in the romantic gazing department," Bertie said. "Perhaps pretend you're in a play? Or do they do those anymore?"
Somewhere in the middle of choosing between Passion of a Charcutier and Swiss Adoration, Howard choked. He choked like he'd never choked before and wouldn't have believed he could choke again. He couldn't move or even blink. He vaguely registered Bertie saying, "Well it'll have to do," and felt his frozen hands being taken, but he couldn't do anything.
"Alright, Bertie? Wait'll you see what we got you! It's well bally, mate, or whatever it is you say. You're gonna start a whole retro movement with-- Oi, what've you done to Howard?"
Bertie sprang up from the settee, leaving Howard's hands raised in front of him. "Vince, old thing! It's not what it looks like, I give you my word as a--"
"What's it even look like, a freeze-frame from Thriller?"
"Mr Moon appears to have developed some form of spontaneous paralysis." Howard couldn't see Jeeves at all, but it wasn't as though he had a difficult voice to recognise.
"Aw, you been makin' him act, Bertie? He can't do that, whatever he says. He gets all...well, like that." A blurry Vince bent over Howard, smelling enticingly of sweets and sun-warmed hairspray. "Howard?" Vince snapped his fingers. "Howard. Howard? Howard!" He delivered a few sharp slaps to Howard's cheek. "C'mon, Howard. There ain't any play."
Howard felt his body un-choke and Vince came into focus. Unfortunately, the midpoint between Passion of a Charcutier and Swiss Adoration looked a great deal like Northern Desire, an expression Howard well knew the feeling of making due to having to keep it off his face around Vince.
And just for the briefest moment, Howard thought something in Vince's eyes and the parting of his lips could, just possibly, be an inkling of Electro Love. But then it was gone, and Howard wasn't sure he hadn't imagined it. Vince shook his head and smiled. "There, you're alright." His hand hovered above Howard's shoulder, but didn't come down on it. He couldn't have known Howard wouldn't have said 'don't touch me' this time. Vince bounded off to scoop up the shopping bags and drag a somewhat perplexed Bertie off by his elbow while chattering excitedly.
Howard slumped miserably back into the settee. It took him a moment to realise Jeeves was still hovering about. He might not have noticed at all if Jeeves hadn't softly cleared his throat.
"It really wasn't what it looked like," Howard offered.
"It appeared to be the disintegration of a well-intentioned but ill-considered scheme on Mr Wooster's part." Howard could nearly detect a hint of amusement somewhere in Jeeves's left eyebrow.
"Why do you call him that?" Howard asked, increasingly uncomfortable under Jeeves's discerning gaze and eager for the distraction. "You know we don't mind."
Jeeves's posture softened just a fraction. "My habits, Mr Moon, are difficult to break, and given the eventuality of a return to our own time, breaking that one in particular would be most unwise."
"You could stay," Howard said. "You could...be together without having to hide it."
Jeeves shook his head minutely. "No, Mr Moon, we cannot. I confess, I know that we do not."
"Quite inadvertently, I chanced upon one of our names mentioned in a newspaper from the year 1983."
Howard doubted there was anything inadvertent about it, and unless it carried a headline like 'Granddad keeps fit at the roller disco,' Howard could guess what it was. "What about paradoxes? And knowing when you're going to die? How could you possibly live with that?"
"Not when I will, Mr Moon."
"You know when Bertie--" Howard stopped short at a warning look from Jeeves. He lowered his voice. "How can you live with that? It's even worse!"
"On the contrary, Mr Moon. It is a long expanse of time, and there was no mention of a wife. It is a great point of pride for me to be able to anticipate Mr Wooster's needs."
Howard shook his head. "You're mad."
"Then perhaps my suggestion will prove unwelcome."
"A possible solution to your predicament with Mr Noir." At least Bertie and Howard had been able to make Jeeves see sense about the 'Your Grace' business, much to Vince's dismay. Vince had been completely insufferable for an entire day after Jeeves had determined that he was indeed the tenth duke of someplace-or-other Howard had never heard of. Not that Howard would admit he'd never heard of it.
"It's got to be better than Bertie's idea."
"Quite probably," Jeeves said, but unless Howard was very much mistaken, he sounded a bit fond. "I believe the most direct confession possible in a conducive setting might yield a satisfactory result."
Howard sighed. "I've done the direct confession, Jeeves. He found it hilarious."
"And the impetus was merely a wish to make your feelings known?" Jeeves asked with a raised eyebrow. Howard was beginning to understand what Bertie meant by 'soupy,' as well as wondering what on earth the two of them had talked about during their shopping trip, because Jeeves had the look of a man with an ace up his sleeve. But then, he usually sort of did.
"Of course it was. I thought we were about to die. It was my last chance."
"Do murderers not repent on their deathbeds?"
"I'm no murderer, sir!"
"Certainly not," Jeeves said. "But the stimulus of fear can move us to beliefs that would otherwise not stand up to calm reason."
Howard frowned. He'd believed it, always. He'd believed it somewhere deep down, even when Vince was just a gawky kid talking to birds in parks. He couldn't remember what it was like not to believe it. But.... "So you think Vince keeps putting me off because he doesn't think I mean it?"
"Even if the sentiment is not reciprocated, he cannot laugh if it obviously comes from the heart."
"Without impending doom."
Howard had his doubts. "And this conducive setting of yours?"
"That is best left to your judgement, Mr Moon. Perhaps a location of which you both hold pleasant memories."
Howard immediately thought of the zoo, which wasn't there anymore. But they would never have had the zoo if not for one day, the one time when what Howard really wanted was so clear and demanding and undeniable that he couldn't help but ask for it. No frost monsters or Shamen with swords, just Vince too young and too beautiful and grinning across at Howard like he had the best secret in the world and Howard was the only one he could tell it to. Howard smiled, cautiously. "I suppose you won't be sorry for a few hours with us gone, either."
"Oh, no, sir." It took Howard a moment to realise Jeeves wasn't addressing him, but Bertie in a massive feather-adorned fedora. "Mr Noir, I believe we agreed that this hat was...unsuitable."
"Must've slipped into the 'yes' pile by mistake," Vince said with an innocent shrug that contained absolutely no actual innocence.
Howard couldn't really examine whatever was bothering Jeeves about Bertie's outfit, because he could only look at Vince in a tight blue suit that made him look like some sort of 1920s ladyboy. In a very good way. He did manage, at least, not to make that comment.
Vince caught him looking and did a turn to show off the suit, and by consequence the way the fabric clung to his arse and shoulders. "Next Cheekbone's in an hour and a half. You watch, we'll be on the cover."
Jeeves said something to Bertie that Howard couldn't hear and led him off down the hallway, turning to give Howard a pointed lift of an eyebrow as if to say, 'Well, get on with it, then,' before disappearing into Howard's bedroom, which Vince had so graciously offered them.
"It's.... You look very nice, Vince."
"It ain't nice, Howard. Nice is for beige people. I'm well cutting-edge."
"Right, well...." Why was he even thinking of doing this? He was Beige People, at least as far as Vince was concerned. Vince couldn't or wouldn't or had forgotten how to see the shades and facets. "Have you got plans tomorrow?"
"Monday, ain't it? Shop's closed. I'm havin' a lie-in and deep-conditioning my hair."
"Oh. Because I was thinking we could...." Sorry, Jeeves. "The thing is, Vince, I think Jeeves and Bertie would like some time alone together."
"What, toss us out on our bums so they can spend all day tossing off and bumming? That's well inhospitable."
"We're the ones meant to be showing hospitality. Have a little compassion, Vince. They live in a time where loving each other is illegal."
"Ain't stoppin' 'em now, I'll bet. You better give your sheets a good wash once they've gone."
"Just for a few hours. Don't they deserve a few hours of not being afraid of someone seeing or hearing? Can you imagine loving someone and never, ever being allowed to show it the way you want to?"
Vince gave Howard a look that cut him to the very heart. "Yeah, I can." There was a hard edge to his voice.
Howard nearly dared hope that it could be anything to do with him. But then, if it was, did that mean this growing distance between them was all Howard's fault? No, it wasn't. If Vince didn't use and abuse him and treat him like a leper.... But maybe it was time to just leave all that out. New beginning. From the heart, Jeeves had said. "We could have a picnic in the park? Parliament Hill? We haven't done that in a long time."
Vince didn't say anything for a moment and gave Howard a strange look that heart-sinkingly appeared was going to preface a 'you've gone wrong.' But what Vince said, softly and still strangely, was, "Yeah, alright." But then Vince grinned. "None of that brown rice and barley nonsense, mind. I want proper food, yeah?"
Howard couldn't fight a smile that was entirely too fond. "Nutella sandwiches and malt loaf aren't proper food."
"How-ard." And in that moment, Vince was so much the Vince that used to trail after Howard and want to be a part of everything he did, that Howard nearly forgot the careful plan he'd been hatching and told him then and there. But Howard Moon is a soul of discipline, so all he said was, "You'll have all you want, little man."
"You goin' retro too, Howard? You ain't called me that in ages neither."
Vince might have been about to say something else, but Bertie appeared in the hallway, Jeeves following behind them with a look on his face like he'd smelt something terrible.
"It's bally marvellous, Jeeves! You can bet your very chemise on it, mark my words," Bertie was saying. "What ho, Vinces and Howards all. I don't suppose you'd mind if I borrowed the piano again."
He didn't wait for an answer, though, and bounded downstairs with Jeeves trailing like a black cloud. After a few moments, Howard could hear banged-out strains of 'Cars' floating up from the shop. Vince laughed gleefully and Howard felt he was wearing a rather stupid smile himself.
"Would not a roast chicken be more suitable fare?" Jeeves asked as Howard slathered Nutella onto several slices of bread.
"If you're not having a picnic with Vince," Howard said with a shrug. Poor Jeeves was clearly scandalised, but there was nothing for it. "I slip children's vitamins into his sweets so he won't end up malnourished. Pass the crisps, will you?"
Jeeves picked up the packet like it was made of acid and looked on with unmasked horror as Howard crumbled a liberal handful into one of the sandwiches.
Despite his distaste for the contents, Jeeves did help Howard pack everything attractively into a hamper he'd unearthed from somewhere. Howard was practically shaking by the time Vince emerged from the hair-maintenance ritual in the bathroom he'd refused to give up, but it was well worth the wait. Not because of Vince's hair (though was especially shiny and, when Vince stepped up next to Howard, sweet-smelling), but because of his outfit. He was wearing one of the new suits, in a blue even more suited to his eyes than the one he'd modelled yesterday, but that wasn't it either. Howard admittedly didn't pay a great deal of attention to Vince's vast wardrobe, but he'd know the white cowboy boots anywhere. They were a relic of different times, and to Howard they looked like hope.
It was a perfect afternoon. Just enough sun to make it pleasant, thankfully no drizzle, and warm enough that Vince took off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves, which Howard counted as a victory of himself over fashion. He loved Vince any way he could possibly look, but his favourite these days was when Vince was a bit less than perfect, eyeliner smeared after a night out or groggy and stubbly in the morning, or, as now, sweating slightly in fine pinstriped tailoring and mussing his hair with a careless hand as he grinned into his flirtini and finally told Howard what had happened when he was kindapped by the Monkey King as a child, gesturing with chocolate and crisp crumbs stuck to his fingers.
"Do you want to go and see the flamingoes?" Howard asked when the story was done and Vince was lounging sleepily on his back, picking at bits of grass. Howard's heart was pounding. This was it.
Vince sat up. He didn't smile. He didn't exclaim 'genius!' and grab Howard's hand and take off at a run. "What're you doing, Howard?" he asked, icy and weary as the sun went behind a cloud.
"I'm-- what do you mean?" Howard hadn't known his heart could sink that low. Surely his knees couldn't accommodate it.
"What did Jeeves tell you?"
"Well coincidence, then, ain't it?"
"I don't know what you mean, Vince. I just wanted--"
"I know you don't like me anymore, Howard. You ain't liked me in probably a year. No reason to act like you do, yeah? 'S been nice pretending for a bit, but...." Vince shook his head and stood up, swaying slightly under the weight of champagne and whatever Howard had inadvertently done to him.
"Vince!" Howard scrambled to his feet and caught Vince by the wrist. "Vince, what are you talking about? Of course I like you. I--"
Vince snatched his arm away. "Bloody flamingoes, Howard? When I just got done telling Jeeves how we used to come here?"
"Yeah, there was this little toy flamingo in a shop, and--" The sun was back out, but it might as well have been storming from the look on Vince's face. "Never mind."
Vince grabbed up his jacket and it was only Howard's finely honed survival instincts that enabled him to get hold of Vince's...well, it was meant to be his shoulder, but his hand would do. Perhaps his hand would do better. This wasn't in the plan, but Howard was nothing if not adaptable. "Vince," he said, raising Vince's hand to his lips and brushing a trembling kiss across his knuckles. Vince froze and stared at Howard. "Jeeves didn't say anything about flamingoes. He only said I should take you somewhere that was...that we had good memories of. And I thought about you talking to the flamingoes and telling me they were saying my hair was stupid, and the day you said you'd come to the zoo and I just...." Howard took the deepest breath he'd ever taken in his life. "I thought we'd go lean on that railing again and look at them and you'd tell me what they were saying, and you'd laugh, and I'd tell you how much I... I love you, Vince."
Vince's mouth dropped open in a way not becoming anyone who was regularly on magazine covers and he made a sound like all the wind had been knocked out of him. "You stupid tit," he finally said, and suddenly Howard lost all his breath too, due to having Vince flung upon him and squeezing the life out of him. Howard mustered all his courage and nudged Vince's head off his shoulder so that they were nose to nose, and finally, finally, leaned down and kissed Vince.
It wasn't a roof kiss, with someone watching and Howard's mind short-circuiting on possible death and birthday horrors and kingdoms of gaydom. It was a park kiss, a new invention that had Vince's lips soft and pliant and Howard's hands fisting unprotested in Vince's imperfect sweaty hair, that tasted of chocolate and champagne and laughter and I'm sorry and barbecue crisps and made Howard's knees weak. They collapsed down onto the blanket, Vince grinning and giving Howard a look he wished he'd recognised years ago, and joined the ranks of the other hundred scattered couples doing the same thing in spots scattered across the Heath.
"Howard?" Vince said, breathless and perfect against Howard's lips.
"I'd quite fancy you telling me in front of the flamingoes anyway. They'll be well chuffed to know we've worked out."
Howard bit down on the instinct to ask, 'But have we really worked out?' and by consequence on Vince's lower lip, and, really, the enthusiastic moan he got from Vince was all the answer he needed.
"Where is my new hat?"
"Ah. Regrettably, sir, the sanctity of the timeline demanded that I jettison the article en route."
"What? What sanctity? What jettison? Have you got some sort of time-sickness? I think Naboo gave us a potion for that, didn't he?"
"I am entirely well, sir, I assure you. I believe you were distracted by the talking gorilla at the time and failed to over hear my exchange with the Shaman Mr Naboo had brought along to assist in returning us."
"Yes, Saboo, wasn't it? What would you think of me with a goatee?"
"Perhaps we might discuss it later, sir. Before Mr Saboo removed a strikingly similar...hat, I remarked upon it and he informed me that it had flown into his hands whilst he was travelling between dimensions several years prior."
"And so you just flung it into the whirling void, did you? Suppose he didn't catch mine at all and it's gone and landed on some unsuspecting medieval peasant?"
"Doubtful, sir. I fear that its future was fore-ordained."
"Oh, no matter, I suppose, eh? I imagine it would have found its way onto some species of merry blaze or fishmonger, if I know the soupy look you were giving it."
"It was unsuitable, sir."
"I disagree entirely, Jeeves, but it's neither here nor there in view of it being flung away. Well, home sweet H. at any rate. I hardly know what to do first."
"I would strongly favour a reacquaintance with the bed, sir."
"Oh, tired, are you?"
"Oh. Oh! I say, Jeeves, that is a well genius notion."
"Sir, I fear our time is not quite prepared for Mr Noir's...most singular diction."
"Pity. But right as always. Bally topping it is, then."
"Very good, sir."