Finding a Leopard

Howard and Vince met lots of different ways; this is one of them. Or: Vince is eleven and small, and Howard is eleven and slightly less small.


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Finding a Leopard by Culumacilinte

‘I ain’t scared of you!’ says Vince when he’s eleven, and it’s mostly true. He’s not great at consequences yet, and he’s still used to dangers that come conveniently marked out in sharp teeth or bright colours (bright colours mean poison, not sweets, he knows, but that had never stopped him feeling a little pang of longing when he was littler) or bristling spines. A group of belligerent second-formers barely registers, no-matter how much bigger than him they are.

They give him a bruise to the cheekbone and a few plimsolls in the ribs before he gets away, rolling between the forest of adolescent shins and bolting across the tarmacadam. He ends up up a tree (trees, at least, are safe), hunched over like a tiny monkey in short trousers and glitter, tapping experimentally at his skinned knee. The blood’s already going tacky, and Vince frowns pointily at it as it comes off on his fingers, rubbing them together until it pills up and falls away.

He’s still not scared, not really. He’s annoyed, and confused, and kind of… hurt. Not hurt the way his knee stings or his ribs ache, but something smaller and tucked away under his sternum that doesn’t understand what the point of those boys trying to beat him up was.

The problem with England, he reflects pragmatically, is that there aren’t enough leopards and tigers. Back in the forest, he had a dozen mates with claws and teeth of their own he could’ve sicced on those boys. Obviously he’ll just need to find a new leopard of his own here.

With the timing of a universe that has an excellent narrative sensibility, it is at that point that someone else chooses to avail himself of the shelter of Vince’s tree. He does so in a slightly more conventional fashion than Vince, curling himself up against the trunk like a lanky comma and, after a few furtive glances around, propping a book on his knees. Vince recognises him from some of his classes. Mostly he remembers him because he’s got a genius last name; Moon, how cool is that?

He peers consideringly down through the leaves. Howard Moon doesn’t look much like a leopard. More like a bear, with his tiny bright eyes and his straggly mess of brown hair. But he’s got big hands, and he’s already quite tall, and anyway, a bear is way more English than a leopard, so that’s probably all right.

He announces himself by falling backwards on his branch and catching himself on his knees, swinging upside-down for a moment and feeling the wet chill of air on his tummy as his shirt pulls loose from his customised glittery belt. ‘All right?’

Howard shrieks in surprise, and his book goes flying, and his limbs manage to travel in about thirty different directions at once. Vince laughs, and lets himself tumble down into the grass, catching himself on his hands on the way and toppling backwards with a soft thump. It jars his bruised ribs, and he winces, before grinning a little naughtily at Howard. ”d I startle you?’

Howard crawls over to fetch his book, settling awkwardly back against the tree and giving Vince an uncertain sort of glower. ‘No.’

He looks even more like a bear pulling that face, a skinny, pale bear, and Vince laughs again. ‘What, you do that all the time, do you? ‘S a hobby of yours?’

‘Keeps the limbs loose,’ says Howard with a judicious sort of nod that looks like he’s copied it off the history teacher.

‘You’ve gotta be a master, then,’ Vince says. ‘You’re like a man made of noodles!’ He stretches out a leg to prod Howard in the knee with a non-uniform issue cowboy boot. Howard’s knees are pink and knobby, and his shorts are too short for him, like he’s grown too fast for the tailor to keep up. There’s gotta be at least four inches of thigh on show there; Vince’s fingers itch to do some alterations.

‘Well, I’m Italian. We’re all made of noodles there; it’s genetic.’ Howard’s mouth is twitching, but he looks faintly confused by his own words, and Vince narrows his eyes at him.


‘No, not really,’ Howard admits after a moment, and his twitching mouth turns into a laugh. Vince laughs too, and then suddenly they’re both caught up with it, eyes meeting and setting them off in a gale of inexplicable giggles.

Ow’, Vince wheezes, clutching a skinny arm around his ribs because it hurts but he can’t manage to stop himself, and by the time he does, his eyes are wet from the pain as well as the force of his laughter. He hastily scrubs the back of his hand across his face and sniffs once.

Howard’s gone all pink and there are little close-parentheses carved into his cheeks from grinning, but his smile wobbles a little when he looks back at Vince. ‘What were you doing up a tree, anyway?’

‘Some boys tried to beat me up,’ Vince says casually, and shrugs like it’s nothing, lifting up his scraped knee and giving it a little waggle in demonstration. Howard’s face pinches, and Vince gives him another prod. ‘What were you doing? You actually reading that? It’s about the size of my house! You could hollow it out and fit a whole colony of bats in there!’

Howard clutches the giant book to his chest, looking horrified. ‘This is a classic of the Western canon! You can’t go using books as— bat-homes!’

Vince grins and sticks his tongue out both at once, and then twists around to try and get a look at the title. ‘Less Miser Ables?’ he tries. ‘What’s that mean?’

Les Misérables,’ Howard corrects. ‘It’s French.’ Vince waves him off. He isn’t great at reading even in English; the letters all dance around like they want to be doing something more exciting than being cooped up in boring straight lines in boring old books, and then Vince gets sidetracked coming up with adventures for them.

‘What’s it about?’

It occurs to Vince that Howard’s eyes are less like a bear’s than a cockerel’s, maybe. Or an embarrassed shrew. Now they shift around awkwardly. ‘A… French priest?’ he says, like a guess, and Vince wrinkles his nose.

‘Sounds well boring.’

There’s a moment in which Howard keeps his appalled-librarian-maths-master posture, all straight and lips pressed down at the corners, and then he slumps back against the tree and lets the book fall onto his stomach. ‘God, it is,’ he admits, and Vince laughs. He’s not sure how he only barely noticed Howard before.

‘You’re gonna be my leopard,’ he announces, smiling in great satisfaction.

Howard squints at him. ‘Eh?’ But Vince never bothers to explain.

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