The Power of the Amulet

The aftermath of Howard’s encounter with Vince in “I Love the Chosen One”.



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Length: words

Notes: This takes forward the storyline started by Phoon in that fantastic fic, “I love the Chosen one”, the first fanfic I ever read. I have asked for, and kindly received, Phoon’s permission to use her idea in this way. This story does, of course, mean an alternative ending to “Fountain of Youth”.

Kindly beta’d by obeythebunny

The Power of the Amulet by losttime

Chapter 1

Howard Moon is angry.
He’s bloody angry.
He’s fucking angry.
Howard Moon is standing in this tent, in leather shorts, and chains and a collar. He’s cold, he’s tired, he’s hungry, and his anger is boiling and vicious.

The tent’s a hive of activity. Nomads are arranging piles of cushions and blankets, bringing in dishes of food, flasks of wine. Vince is giving orders left, right and centre, directing first one nomad, then another. He’s greeted Howard’s entrance with a glittering smile and a wave and is now ushering the nomads out of the tent, starting with the reluctant Blue Leader.

Howard’s standing in this tent, watching this man parade around in front of him like it’s all some big joke. This man, who’s his best friend – who used to be his best friend – poncing around now, acting like God’s gift, with those long slim feet bare and the rest of him now covered up not in that ridiculous, tight, white cowboy outfit but in some neck-to-ankle robe that makes him look like an elongated blue lampshade. With that fucking ugly necklace thing round his scrawny, lying throat.

There’s a series of increasingly hysterical orders from the Chosen One, and now all that remain are Howard’s two guards.
“Go,” orders the Chosen One “and take those things” – a gesture at the chains – “with you.” The nomads eye each other nervously.
“Look, just do it! Who’s in charge here? This is my servant, and I wish only him to look after me tonight…” Vince is doing quite a good impression of an imperious tone, letting it down rather with “…and he’s not going to be much use trussed up like Houdini, is he?”
The nomads start to lift the chains, hesitate; Vince actually stamps his foot.
“Get a move on!”
They clank from the tent, Vince shoving them out. He fastens the flap behind them. A quick grin back at Howard, and he clings to the flap for a few moments, peering out.

And all that frenetic, self-obsessed movement. It makes the fabric flow about his slim body and hides nothing of the lithe form underneath. He knows that. Bet he knows that. Howard can’t look. Vince Noir no longer merits any of Howard Moon’s time or attention.

Vince turns back with an exaggerated sigh.
“Thank God for that – thought they’d never go. All right, Howard?”
Howard looks up at him, noting, even in the mellow lamplight of the tent, the pallor of his face, the bright spots of red in his cheeks, the artificiality of the grin. His eyes look somehow blank. Is he on something? Is he all right?
But then why should Howard care? He doesn’t care. He looks down again. He’s trying to keep his breathing even.

They’re alone in this tent, where not that long ago – not that long ago today – they were lying, the two of them, best friends, lying on cushions and he – him – he had his tongue down Howard’s throat. And his skin under Howard’s own tongue had been warm and cool at the same time, and sweet and savoury. And this man had bucked and writhed and forced Howard downwards, forcing Howard to taste him all the way. And had smiled like a temptress, and groaned and whined and whimpered under Howard’s hands and mouth. And Howard can’t forget the taste of him, can’t forget the feel of his mouth and throat full of this man, this best friend, this bastard.

Vince and the robe flow back across the tent to stand just in front of Howard. Not far away but not close enough to touch. He’s not completely impervious, despite general appearances. His initial cheeriness has already had its edges knocked off by this solid block of hostility-made-human which is Howard Moon. Now he’s wired, on his toes, awkward.
“All right, Howard?” he repeats, a slightly beseeching note in his voice. “Better without the chains, yeah?”
Howard remains silent, not really in the mood for small-talk.

Because what’s so impossible, what’s so unbearable, is that he’d made him want it. It was Vince that had made him do it, had turned him, had perverted him, had brought him to the point where Howard had been ready to throw caution to the winds and cry “yes, this is it! This is what I want!” Ready to admit to all his deliberately forgotten dreams over years and years.

And then Vince had dropped him like last week’s trend.

“Howard? Howard, look at me. What’s wrong?”
The barefaced cheek of the question brings Howard’s head up with a snap. The look on his face is enough to send Vince back a step.
“You’ve taken your time, haven’t you?”
There’s a lot of things that he’s itching to spit out, but that sort of sums it up. It’s loaded. Howard knows what it means and, on at least one level, so does Vince.
“Aw, Howard, I’m really sorry. It’s been a really weird time, what with the sand monster and that, and when I got rid of him, I was coming to get you, honest I was…”

Yeah, like I really believe that.

“…I was coming back for you, but the Blue Berk dragged me off to this ceremony and I’ve only just been able to get them to stop. I really couldn’t have done it sooner. It was all a bit….intense.” His voice trails off.

And what’s so impossible, so unbearable, is that Howard hadn’t even realised it at first. He’d hung around like some besotted schoolboy. He’d held his breath as Vince sauntered out to meet the Sand Demon. He’d watched with a novel, thrilling feeling of possessiveness, protectiveness. He’d waited for his promised rendezvous with a kind of bubbling excitement, on the edge of happy laughter, his hands trembling, until he realised that Vince found being worshipped as the “Chosen One” by all those mad violent blue fuckwits more entertaining. And that was it – Howard had been entertainment; temporary entertainment.

Vince turns his head away, avoiding Howard’s eyes, speaking absently, almost nervously, to the tent, speaking like these are words he’s rehearsed, words he’s tried to memorise.
“See, it seems that the sand monster wasn’t a one-off. I mean, not the only test. Seems there are lots of other tests I have to do, starting tomorrow. They’re a bit… a bit…” His voice wavers. He looks straight at Howard and despite it all, Howard’s stomach gives an involuntary lurch as he reads fear in the eyes.
“Truth is, they’re the sort of tests I can’t do. No way. I mean, I probably, you know… can’t…. you know, won’t… come out of them, I mean….”
Tosh, Howard tells himself. Histrionics. He hardens his heart some more.
“And the other thing is, well, if I can’t, then you… I mean…”
There’s desperation in the inarticulacy. Howard knows Vince is waiting for a line, a feed. He needs something to hang his words on, shape his thoughts; something that shows Howard is there to help, that they’re together in this.
“…if I can’t, then you…”
Meaning, if the tests kill me, then there’s no way they will let you live either.
Howard can see now that the fear is genuine. This isn’t a Vince ploy. But still an echo bounces around in his brain.

“He is drunk on power … plans to ditch you…you are the Chosen One!”

Because, as if all that isn’t enough, he’s met her, that woman. God, she’s lovely. She’s just what a man, a real man, would want. Tall and golden-haired and green-eyed and soft-skinned, and a voice like velvet. And what she is, and what she’s said, makes it even more clear to Howard how wrong Vince is, how treacherous, how twisted. And it makes her plan, the one to steal the amulet, that fucking ugly necklace thing, even more attractive.

He refuses to weaken.
“So what to do you want?” he snaps.
Vince seems to relax visibly, as if a mere hostile sentence from Howard has given him some hope. He takes step closer, his smile hesitant, his voice expectant.
“Well, I thought…I mean, you’re the one who’s good at plans. That’s what we need right now, a Howard Moon plan! I know you can get us out of here, Howard! Your plans are always genius!” A pause, then Howard’s impassivity finally rings at least one bell.
“Look, I should have said this before, Howard. I’m sorry. I know I behaved like a tit to start with. Letting you be tied up in chains and whatever. It was only meant as a bit of fun. I didn’t know this would go so far.”
It’s late, it’s limp, but a Vince Noir apology at least has the allure of rarity.
“Oh, really? Thought you rather liked being ‘chosen’?”
“Well, that’s true, I can’t deny it. I went a bit wrong there, Howard. I can see that. But that’s behind me, really it is.” He leans forward expectantly. “We’re a team, Howard, like always. Me and you, back together, yeah? We’ll get out of this, won’t we? You with your thinking and me with my style? ‘Course we will! Yeah, Howard?”

Howard concentrates on his anger. He deserves to be angry. He has a right to be angry.
And you still with the amulet, he thinks bitterly. You’re still the Chosen One – tests or no tests. Now it’s not to your liking, you want out, so you’re back to manipulating. Typical. You just take and take and take, with your eyes, and your mouth, and your smile and your voice….and damn the consequences.

And all of this, all of this – confusion, humiliation, temptation, degradation – that’s why Howard’s angry now, with an anger that’s growing with every breath. And that’s why Vince has gone from best friend, to idol, to seducer, to whore, to pervert, to enemy-with-the-power-of-life-and-death, all in the space of one desert-haunted afternoon.

He stares straight back at that open, frightened face, as coldly as he can make his gaze. He doesn’t see that the fear in it is now fuelled by his own hostility. Vince’s plan has gone wrong, and for the life of him he doesn’t know why. His certainty of Howard has suddenly been blown apart and the emptiness that remains leaves him genuinely aghast. Vince gives a visible shudder, but presses gamely on, as if merely by talking he can right whatever’s wrong. He puts a smile on his mouth, but it can’t reach his eyes.
“So I thought” he says, as cheerily as he can manage, “let’s have a good time tonight, while you sort out the plan, then tomorrow we blow this popstand – we’re out of here!” The false exuberance doesn’t last long. His voice drops in pitch. “…before the tests…”

He falters, then fires up again. “It’s really comfy here, Howard.” His hand reaches out as if to take Howard’s arm, but seeing Howard’s expression he thinks better of it and the hand pulls away again. He carries on with his attempt at blithe good humour.
“You need to be comfy. And warm. And I bet they haven’t been giving you any nice food…” He has the grace to look a little guilty at this. “…so there’s some really nice things here. This bread is good,” he says, gesturing to something in a basket, “and this is a kind of wine, and – what’s this – like olive oil? Oh, and these things are really sweet and crunchy! You’ll like these – I do!” And he’s off amongst the dishes, pointing out each delicacy with the enthusiasm of a child.
And still Howard remains impassive. Vince steps back towards him, a little closer this time. His eyes are wide and dark, his voice brittle.
“It’s all specially for you, Howard. Everything in this tent. Everything is yours.” He drops his head, as if shyly, and then looks up through his lashes. The gesture seems to Howard at once full of calculation and yet genuinely hesitant.
“Everything.” The voice is rising in pitch again. “And you might want to know…well, I might as well say…‘cos I thought you might like…” His head comes up and he looks straight at Howard.
“I’m naked under here”.
And with that he pulls at the cord at his neck and the lampshade gown drops from his shoulders to lie in a puddle of fabric at his feet. He stands face on to Howard, his palms open outward at his sides in a kind of supplication, his eyes silent, pleading, and his slim body pale in the golden lamplight. The only imperfection is the heavy ugliness of the amulet hanging across his narrow chest.

He’s the most beautiful thing Howard has ever seen in his life.

Vince hangs there, expectant. His last shot. Everything.
Everything Howard has ever imagined in those forgotten dreams; hair, skin, eyes, mouth. Everything Howard knows to be wrong, and perverted, and twisted. The image – hair, skin, eyes, mouth – fills his brain and he pushes it away violently. It’s all he can do to keep concentrating on the real issue, and he does so with a vengeance.
Bitch, says his inner voice.
Slut, it says. Just another transparent ploy to get his own way. To use Howard, abuse his friendship. No more.
And even deeper down the voice says, Don’t let him hurt you again.
His brain is burning. Hair, skin, eyes, mouth.
He keeps his voice even, and cold.
“Well, don’t mind if I do, sir…” Vince’s face brightens “…partake of all this hospitality, that is.” Howard continues waspishly, with a broad gesture at the tent that pointedly excludes the figure in front of him.
Hair, skin, eyes, mouth.
The bright face dims. “Happy to help you out with a plan, seeing how you’d be completely useless yourself at putting one thought next to another…”
Vince keeps his mouth smiling.
Hair, skin, eyes, mouth.
Howard smiles back. It isn’t a smile.
“But before I do, let’s get the ground rules straight, shall we, little man?” There’s a sneer to Howard’s voice now that neither has ever heard before. Howard fixes his eyes on the green stone atop the amulet resting on Vince’s white skin.
Hair, skin, eyes, mouth.
That’s real power. That’s something he can work with.
Everything else is a distraction, a side issue, a betrayal.
“Ground rules?” asks Vince, genuinely bewildered. “Howard, what rules…?”
“Rules like, if you want to be on my team, Vince, if you want my help, it’s time for you to show willing.”
“But Howard…” the eyes are huge and lost. Vince opens his arms wider, as if to say, but here I am, as willing as you want…

Then Howard’s self-control snaps.
“Do you honestly think all this is supposed to make a difference now, Vince?” he snarls, waving his hand wildly around at the tent. “Is all this supposed to make me feel better? After what happened in this tent today? After what you did?”
Hair, skin, eyes, mouth.
“After what you made me do?”

Vince reels, his eyes even wider. “What I…?” he stutters, his whole face a picture of confusion and disbelief. “What we…?”
Then his face changes. He bites his bottom lip, visibly pulling himself together with a large breath.
“I thought you liked it” he says, quietly, almost a whisper.
A straightforward statement, that’s also a question.
“’Cos I did…”
The words seem to echo in Howard’s brain. He stays silent, breathing hard. He finds he can’t meet Vince’s gaze, that his words have hurt something he had convinced himself wasn’t there. But the image is burnt onto his retinas.
Hair, skin, eyes, mouth.
Black. White. Blue. Red.

Don’t get taken in again.
“Think what you like.” he snaps. “The first rule is, I get to wear the amulet from now on. I’m in charge. We’ll make up the others from there, shall we? It won’t be difficult.” The hatred in his voice shocks Howard himself, but somehow he can’t stop, let alone see the stupidity of his words, even though a large part of him by now doesn’t believe what his mouth is saying. The confusion burns him up. He hates himself for it, hates the man in front of him, hates what he sees.


Loathes what this is doing to him
Vince’s fault. All Vince’s fault.
Wants to strike out. Wants to make him pay.

He forces himself to look up.

The words, the voice, have an entirely different impact on Vince. His first reaction is a splutter. Howard sees pain, a pain he has felt himself so many times in the past. The pain of rejection, the utter shock that a strong conviction, an absolute certainty, has been blown away, and he’s not wanted.
But this time it’s about Vince Noir.

Vince Noir isn’t wanted….

And in a split second, Vince has fired up, all rage and indignation, his eyes blazing.

“Oh, so that’s it, is it? That’s all you really wanted? You moron! It doesn’t matter who wears the amulet – it’ll kill us both! We’re both about to die and that’s all you can think of? Getting one up on me? Christ, you tell me I’m shallow! What’s happened to you, Howard? What do you think you look like now? I thought we were worth more than that, you and me. But if that’s really all you’re after, fine. I don’t give a shit. I’m tired of all this. Take the fucking amulet and take the fucking tests and show us all how great you are!”

And with that he puts his hand to his neck and wrenches off the chain. He’s bunching it together in his fists, his face working, his mouth a snarl.
“Have a ball! Just fuck off out of my sight, Howard Moon!”
And hurls it with all his strength straight at Howard.
The distance isn’t great. The heavy chain hits Howard in the diaphragm, driving out his breath. But his two hands come up instantaneously and he’s caught the thing even as it rams into him. The blow is enough to release all his pent-up rage. Vince is already turning away, his torso twisting from the hips. Howard grasps the chain and flings it back at the other man with all his might.
“Fuck you, Vince!”
The amulet strikes Vince a glancing but heavy blow on his turning body, just below his collarbone – hah! – nearly on his lying heart, even. The impact makes him stagger and cry out “Ow, fuck!” and retch with the pain. The amulet continues its own sweet course, flying across the tent to land with a soft thud in the cushions, where it slides out of view.
Vince stands there gasping for a second, staring at Howard as if he’s a stranger. Which is exactly how Howard feels. So he makes it clear.
“Fuck you, Vince” he repeats, breathing heavily.
But Vince can go one better. He turns to face Howard fully, his teeth bared, his hands cockily on his hips.
“As if I’d let you.”

Oh well, that’s enough. That’s all it takes. They’re separated by a few feet only, but still Howard runs at him. Actually runs at him, and when their bodies collide, Vince’s feet leave the floor with the force of the charge. It carries them back across the tent to land heavily in the mound of cushions, flailing. Fists, fingers, knees, teeth. Uncoordinated blows rain down on each other, sometimes on themselves, as chaotic as a playground fight. Incomprehensible words spit out in between the blows.

Vince’s animal strength is a shock. He might have the slighter frame but he’s wiry and supple, his arms and legs hard and sinewy. Howard has to fight back with all his strength. Vince is full of heat – his bones, his skin, his breath – all burning hot, all pressing into Howard, all crowding and suffocating. It fires up Howard’s anger even more and he’s desperate to cause hurt. He’s howling as he punches, or tries to punch, the writhing form beneath him, trying to get his hands up to where he can grasp that long white throat and crush him and hurt him and squeeze the fucking life out of him. But it’s so difficult to get a grip on this body of his. Vince is spitting and snarling, the long fingers reaching out and gouging and scratching and… Christ! – his hands are there first, on Howard’s own windpipe and he’s just as murderous and wild and determined. The pressure has him struggling for breath. For one split second they lock eyes, and neither recognises the other in the madness and violence within. Howard gets one hand up to the fingers, clawing them away just as he manages a vicious punch to Vince’s gut, enough to make him yelp and loosen his grip, enough to let Howard writhe away. His next punch to the side of Vince’s face – smack onto that white skin – sends Vince’s head snapping back against the cushions, his eyes a blur. For an instant the scene seems frozen – Vince is motionless, all sense knocked out of him, and Howard’s hands are there on his body and they are going to rip him to pieces, because Howard’s going to make him pay, and Howard is burning up with the desire for this….
And suddenly their eyes meet again. They’re no longer blind.
Fuck, is that blood in your mouth?
Fuck, is that blood in your hair?
The anger is still as consuming but that look – that blue gaze holding the penetrating brown – it’s a challenge.
Go on, do it then! I defy you, do it then!
And Howard’s hands are mad with the need to do it, so he does. He grabs at the exposed throat just waiting to be broken, and the top half of Vince’s last breath shouts out of his red, bloody mouth; part mad laugh, part howl, part sigh.

Chapter 2

Just that touch.

The moment his hands hit the hard frame of Vince’s neck they flinch. It’s partly Vince’s strange, triumphant shout that comes with the blow – Howard feels it, physically, in the depths of his gut – and partly the scorching, blazing heat of the white skin and the realisation of – Christ! What the fuck! What the fuck am I doing? The hesitation is enough to shift the precarious balance between the two men in Vince’s favour, and he’s quick to take advantage of it. There’s no respite in his attack. Suddenly Howard finds himself flipped onto his back, with Vince’s fists slicing into his ribcage like knives. He brings his hand up and strikes Vince a solid blow on the chin, driving his head back and dazing him sufficiently for Howard to get the advantage again. But there’s a different charge to the atmosphere now. They roll, pummeling. It’s no longer about vengeance. It’s not even about an amulet, if it ever has been. It’s just about not being the one to give in.

Howard finds himself on top of Vince again, the cushions giving no purchase whatsoever. He is prone on Vince’s body, their torsos matching, holding him down by weight alone. Now he has him. His legs are pressing into Vince’s, his hands have caught Vince’s arms at the elbows. The sensation of power, of being so in control of this man, of being able to feel this man’s whole body subjugated beneath his own, brings him to a dead stop. He holds Vince in the vice of his limbs, motionless, breathing heavily. Vince is still trying to arch up, trying to fight back, but Howard has him crucified on the cushions. With some degree of triumph, and not a little relief, Howard keeps him there, wriggling and spitting, but then suddenly he’s realised quite a number of things, all at once. Enough for a nice orderly list, in fact, though order of priority is out of the grasp of his still boiling brain at this moment.

The loin cloth is gone.

He hurts, a lot.

Hitting Vince is wrong.

He’s lying on top of him, their bodies exactly in line.

He doesn’t hate Vince. Not ever. Never.

He’s hard.

In fact, they’re both hard.

It’s enough to make him laugh, an involuntary snort of amusement at the ridiculousness of the situation.

What the fuck are we doing? he thinks. What the fuck am I doing…?

And while his body stays strong and dominant, mantling the other man, his mind and his heart relax. He looks down at the spitting, swearing, sweating face below him. Vince isn’t looking that pretty at the moment, he thinks, with more amusement.

What the fuck am I fighting him for? That’s not what I want to do…

He bends over, still pinning down Vince’s arms, and presses his mouth in a hard kiss on Vince’s brow. Like a benediction. He breathes into the skin, drawing up into himself the scent and taste of the other man. Some of that is now blood, their shared blood.

Everything in this tent is mine. Everything…

His lips brushing against Vince’s temple, he speaks. So softly, he can hardly hear himself.

“I’m sorry. Christ, I’m sorry…”

Vince twitches and holds still, Howard pulls back. The face beneath his has stopped snarling, the ugliness and hate dropping away like a mask, but what’s left looks lost and confused, not sure about this new turn of events.

Howard bends over and blesses Vince’s brow again. Then gently and tenderly, not even a conscious act, he begins to kiss his face. Hairline, eyebrows, the slide of his strange nose, the bruise on his cheek (oh God, what has he done?), an ear, his jaw-line, down to his throat (oh, his throat; beautiful, unbruised, unbroken)…. And between the kisses the soft, insufficient words are repeated:

“I’m sorry, so sorry…”

Now Vince is making a sound; nothing comprehensible, just a primitive word that could be a moan or a whine or even Howard’s name. Howard looks up again, with a hesitant smile. Vince’s eyes are wide with wonder. They flit to all angles of Howard’s face, but keep darting back to hold Howard’s gaze. They’re deep, darkened. Something glows in their heart. And his mouth starts to turn up at the corners.

“Howard…” – a breathy noise.

The returned half-smile is all the absolution Howard needs.

He bends right down, feeling Vince’s lashes on his face as he kisses his eyelids gently, first one, then the other, and then he begins his tour of the rest of Vince’s face again, touching lightly. It’s an unusual role for him. He knows he’s teasing.


Vince starts to struggle again, the breathless voice below him becoming agitated. But now it’s not resistance. Howard realises that Vince is trying, desperately, to find Howard’s mouth with his own, trying to trap and take to himself the kiss that Howard is doling out in fragments to the rest of the face.

Howard isn’t really that cruel. Howard lets him.

The kiss has all the intensity of those earlier in the day, all the lust, all the power, but is somehow sweeter. Again their blood mingles, but it’s passing, soon washed away. For all the violence, the damage is surprisingly slight. Their lips are meshed. They breathe with each other, neither wanting to break apart. Vince’s tongue is in control, and Howard lets him, relaxing into the scent and the taste and revelling in Vince’s moans that seem to come from deep inside his narrow frame. Howard moans too, feeling his whole body gathering for something that’s really going to happen this time. Oh yes, sir, no doubt about that…

He shifts his hands and eases his weight off the other man, one arm now arched protectively over Vince’s head, the other on Vince’s chest, the hand gently caressing the bruises the amulet has left there. The relaxation is his undoing. Vince’s arms are now free. In an instant Howard is flipped over onto his back, with Vince straddling him, and he’s staring back up at that strangely beautiful face framed by wild hair. A face wreathed in smiles.

“Got you now, Howard Moon! Now you’re never going to get away!”

Howard grins back, despite his predicament, which is, after all, a pretty good predicament to be in. He raises his hand, cupping Vince’s jaw and bringing him down into another kiss which threatens to deprive him of all breath and life, and he goes willingly to the slaughter…

And suddenly Vince is pulling away. Howard looks up with disappointment only to get a face full of hair. Vince is repaying the torture, trying to kiss every inch of Howard’s face, drawing shapes with his tongue, whispering foreign, unknown words into Howard’s ear even as he bites down. Howard moans and presses his head back into the cushions and as his neck arches so Vince attacks his throat, mouthing and licking the sensitive skin beneath his ear and then down across the pulse in his neck, the breathy panting increasing Howard’s state of arousal. He feels he’s going to burst.

“Oh ,Vince… Oh, Christ…!”

Vince is clearly enjoying this sadism. And below it all, their hips are locked together, Vince’s leg between Howard’s, their erections pressing against each other’s thighs, hot and hard.

And now Vince is moving down over Howard’s body, his tongue leaving Howard’s neck to trace strange patterns over his collarbones and chest, his hand on Howard’s ribcage. His lips caress the welts and bruises he finds, his tongue lapping at Howard’s nipples, and Howard cries out with the sensation, not clear how his body is able to hold out against this onslaught. But beneath the beautiful surface torment his inner self is warm and calm. He watches the dark head progress down his belly, and moves his hands in the hair, the beautiful hair, that he has always longed to touch. Vince’s face is over his groin. And as Howard gazes down at him he feels a fierce possessiveness, something he has never acknowledged before, his heart swelling with the thought.

Vince touches him. That touch. Howard’s hips jerk instinctively and he moans. Vince looks up and smiles – a warm, tender smile. Not that unusual, but special this time. Vince is stroking now, slowly, finger and thumb encircling, his breath itself tantalizing Howard’s skin. Howard sees how Vince’s other hand has slipped down to his own thighs, and he groans to see it move. Vince turns away and now Howard feels his tongue slide slowly up, root to tip. And again. And Vince nuzzles and kisses Howard’s slick skin, his hand squeezing, moving gently, at the base. He looks up at Howard again, the smile now eclipsed by something like awe, his eyes wide. Howard can hear his breaths and they are ragged with this barely-contained lust.

“Oh, Howard…” the voice is deep, roughened. “ I love how I’ve made you so hard.”

Howard gasps as the words and the voice deliver yet another rush of sensation.

Howard knows Vince is touching himself, stroking; he can feel the movement by his thigh. He desperately wants his hand there too. Fuck it, he wants his mouth there….he wants to possess every inch of this other body. But breathing is difficult now, the tent is spinning, and all he can do is lie spread-eagled under Vince’s ministrations, paralysed. He’s sure the merest touch now will make him come. Vince is making a whimpering noise, his eyes rolling back.

“Oh fuck, Howard, if you’re this hard, how hard do you think you’ve made me…?”

At this, Howard can’t stop the huge groan that surges out of him, racking his whole body. His hips thrust upwards into Vince’s hand, which tightens again, and then suddenly Vince has opened his mouth and he’s taken Howard in. Howard feels lips and tongue slide wetly, hotly down to meet Vince’s fist. His hips jerk again, and then again as he feels himself hit the back of Vince’s throat, and those lips close tighter round him, the suction starting, the caress of the tongue. Warmth, pressure, suck and swallow, wet, tongue sliding, teeth grazing, moving…Howard bites his lip, trying to quell the moans that hang in his throat, and grapples with one hand on Vince’s hair, the other on the cushions beneath them. But he can’t control the cries that come out of him, torn out from his heart and gut. The feeling of that mouth around him… at once so unexpected and yet just as his dreaming mind has often told him, though he’s refused to understand, to remember, until now.

Howard throws his head back, lost in the sensation.

Vince draws back gently. Checked, Howard looks down in despair to see Vince gazing at him, serene, calm, but with his eyes darkened and his lips swollen with desire.

“Look at me, Howard. Come back to me.”

He’s never before heard this deep voice – quiet, tender, yet commanding – from Vince, and he obeys, transfixed.

Vince sweeps his hair back so that Howard can see, then slowly and deliberately he licks the shaft and head and then again takes Howard in, this time all the way. The electric charge that flows through Howard as Vince sucks and then swallows around him is something he has never experienced. Vince, one hand on Howard’s cock, the other on his own, looks up again, his eyes dreamy and unfocussed. But they say to Howard, you want me, don’t you? You need me. You belong in my body…

Oh yes, thinks Howard, let me show you how much you belong to me…

Vince pulls away in surprise as Howard, lifting from the waist, grabs his shoulders and draws his face back up level with his own.

“Howard, whadda ya doin’? Why not?” There’s hurt wrapped up in the confusion.

Howard locks Vince’s gaze, trying to communicate what he wants to say but has no words for. Instead he kisses him again, drawing him close in a fierce embrace, stuttering something hopeless into his ear; something like Want, and Please, and Need to. How to say it without risking a slap in the face, metaphorical or even physical?

Vince pulls back with a questioning look in his face, his eyes wide and searching, and then he relaxes with a kind of joy. Now it’s his turn to pull Howard close, pressing his mouth against Howard’s jaw so that the other feels the words as much as hears them, breathy and rough.

“Oh Howard, fuck, yes… oh, Howard, fuck, please!”

And now Howard is above him again, kneeling between Vince’s opened legs, his fingers closing around the other man’s erection, triumphant as Vince gasps with pleasure, his eyelids fluttering, his face distracted. He kisses Vince deeply, stroking and pulling on his cock, hearing – no, feeling – Vince moan deep in his throat, vibrations against his lips. Then Vince gently disentangles Howard’s fingers and leads them in between his thighs. Howard wonders briefly what to do, but the gentle pressure of Vince’s hand makes everything clear and he gives himself over to instinct. He curls his arm under Vince, caressing the tight skin. One finger pushes inwards.

Howard hesitates at Vince’s sharp gasp, but his hand is grabbed hard.


And Vince clutches reflexively at the cushions, his knuckles whitening, as two, three fingers push in. He cries out again, and this time Howard pulls back, disturbed, looking searchingly into his friend’s eyes.

“Vince, are you sure? That you want this?”

He puts a reassuring hand up to Howard’s chest. Howard’s arms come automatically around Vince’s back, supporting, protective, and pull him close. Howard looks down with such an expression of concern that Vince has to blink hard and look away from Howard’s eyes for a moment. A soft hand cupping his jaw brings him back. Vince looks up with a dazzling if shaky smile, his voice a rough whisper.

“Howard, you idiot! I’ve been waiting so long for you to do this!”

Howard tries his best to look shocked. Vince grins again, stronger now.

“Ever since I saw you in those chains!”

Vince doesn’t see his joke until it’s out of his mouth. And weak as it is, they both splutter with laughter, pulling together in a hard embrace that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with belonging. Then it starts again as abruptly as it stopped; they are staring deep into each other’s eyes, intense, their breathing erratic. Howard reaches out to Vince’s face and suddenly Vince is on him, his hands pulling on Howard’s unruly hair, his limbs crushing their bodies together. Their kissing is deep and desperate, while they grasp and tear at whatever part of the other they can reach.

With something like a growl, Howard throws him backwards onto the cushions and Vince lies there, smirking for a moment before Howard pushes his thighs apart again and, barely thinking of his actions, grabs Vince’s hips, pulling him closer. Vince gropes wildly for something on the floor next to them – it’s one of the oil flasks, clearly already a victim of the fight, as much of its contents have spilled down the neck. It smells nutty and slightly sweet. He tips the rest of the contents messily into his hand and smears it down Howard’s torso, nipple to groin, sliding his hand up over Howard’s cock. Howard’s response is to bite down hard on Vince’s shoulder. He takes hold of Vince’s cock again with one hand, stroking and pulling and sharing the oil. Then, without Vince having to prompt him, he slips his other between Vince’s legs, and finds entry again. He pushes in hard, and then begins to slide his fingers in some kind of a rhythm whilst Vince cries out again, and now in pleasure, moaning deep in his throat.

And as that rhythm builds up Howard drops his head and brings his lips to where his hand is working at Vince’s cock. He licks upwards and mouths the tip, flicking his tongue across, and then takes in as much as he can while his other hand pushes in hard, stretching and feeling. The pressure on both sides, the feel of Howard’s mouth – the sound all this wrenches from Vince almost makes Howard come there and then. And something flips in Vince and he’s lost all control. He grasps at Howard’s hair, his shoulders, his forearms. His legs kick involuntarily as he writhes on Howard’s hand.

“Oh, Howard, Oh fuck, oh holy fuck, oh Howard please? Howard – want you in me… please? Please…?”

Howard feels a power and a knowledge he never imagined he could claim. This new ability to make another writhe and moan and lose all normal control is arousing to a degree he has never encountered before. Part of him wants to push the other man further, further, watching the extremes of pleasure and frustration fight it out in his body, but more than anything he wants to come – to come inside Vince, to stake his claim.

Howard pulls back. His throat is tight, he can barely swallow. He withdraws his fingers gently and watches the other relax a little, opening his eyes, huge dark blue pools full of anticipation, and something like apprehension. What Howard can’t see is the expression on his own face, something quite fierce, unfamiliar, dominant. Nor can he see it soften as he takes in the image of Vince lying below him, wild and in disarray, and for this wonderful moment, all his. He bends over and gathers Vince up to him, then twists his body so that Vince drops limply face down in the cushions, moaning softly, his eyes now closed. Howard pulls Vince’s slim hips up against his cock, and slides in.

From the first touch, he’s overwhelmed. The feeling of Vince tightly around him as he pushes inwards as far as he can go, his hips hard against Vince’s flesh, the sensation of pulling back and then thrusting in again …. he has no thought for finesse. He thrusts in harder and harder, increasing the pace, desperate for more. He’s rough and he knows it. He can’t stop himself. He hears Vince cry out, a high-pitched sound – a sound he keeps making as Howard thrusts deeper into him, more rhythmically, powerfully. But Howard can’t afford to listen. He can’t stop now, all would be lost.

He realizes Vince is pushing back into his thrusts, increasing the pressure, his cries now more like moans. He bends in from the waist to rest fully on Vince’s back, burying his head in the other’s neck, mouthing the soft skin, at the same time snaking his free hand round to grasp Vince’s erection. Vince’s hand is already there, stroking himself with that same rhythm. Their fingers intertwine, and move together.

But now there are words to Vince’s moans. Not just Howard’s name, not just the beautiful, imploring, heady obscenities that are torn unbidden from his mouth by Howard’s hand, Howard’s mouth, Howard’s cock. They’re something else, they’re spoken in little breathy gasps – sobs – laughs. The same things over and over again. They’re unexpected and unreal and they terrify Howard more than if Vince had been crying out that Howard’s killing him. Howard can’t afford to listen, because if he does, the world will change completely, and he won’t know what to do.

And that mustn’t happen because he can’t stop now; he will not fail. He will not lose this chance, this chance of all chances, because it’s all he wants.

He pushes Vince down hard into the cushions, trying to smother the words, trying to drown in Vince’s damp hair. And now all he can hear is what his own voice is saying, harshly, involuntarily:

“Vince. Oh fuck, Vince. Want you, Vince. Christ, want you so much…. you beautiful fucking……” Each thrust forces out the words, thick with desire.

And suddenly he’s looking straight into Vince’s face, and Vince is looking back at him, distracted words silently coming out of his mouth. And Howard can see himself, his face in the crook of Vince’s neck, his eyes looking out, their joined hands, his arm possessively around Vince’s waist. It’s a pornographic astral experience; he’s watching himself fuck Vince, and Vince can watch too.

It takes him a second to re-orient himself, but it seems a very long second. He sees gilt edging and realizes that it’s Vince’s posing mirror, lying side-on at the edge of the tent, revealed as they’ve been rolling in the cushions. Vince speaks again to Howard, through the reflection, but his eyes are unfocussed and his jaw slack – no words make any sense to Howard – how could they?

Those words. The cushions move again and the mirror disappears. Howard puts his head down and now pushes with a kind of desperation. His own breath comes out in hard grunts as he slams into Vince’s soft arse again, again, again, each thrust taking him further and further until it’s no longer bearable. He’s got his own words to speak, but they’re just muffled cries that only he knows what they mean and he bites into the shoulder below him to stifle them. He feels Vince shudder and grind into him, tossing his head back against Howard’s face with a keening sound. Howard thrusts his hand roughly over Vince, and suddenly Vince is bucking and crying out Howard’s name and Howard’s hand is wet and warm and sticky. The spasm pushes him backwards harder against Howard, constricting around him. Two, three more thrusts and Howard comes, and comes, and he tries to shout Vince’s name, and it’s a sob smothered against Vince’s neck. He feels himself flow into another body and it’s like his entire being is melting and melding with that body. He can’t imagine ever being separated from it again – surely it’s not physically possible? Howard no longer exists, he’s just a hot, wet moan rising from Vince’s gut.

Slowly his breathing eases; the trembling takes longer to subside. He revels in the heat of their bodies fused together, and he rests his mouth open on Vince’s neck, feeling his own saliva damp on the skin. And slowly his heart beats to more normal time. He feels himself slip out and sighs, with a mixture of satisfaction and yet disappointment that it’s over. He’s still.

But Vince isn’t. Howard is suddenly conscious that Vince’s back is heaving, shuddering in a little descending scale of a rhythm. It takes a moment, but then reality throws ice water over his hot naked skin. Vince is laughing.

His anger and indignation snap right back, racing ahead of heartbreak. The bitch. No, not now, not after all this. He pushes up with one hand and rolls over Vince’s shoulder to see, and to make Vince realise that he sees…. and then the ice water drenches him again, this time leaving him shaking with sick panic.

Vince’s eyes are shut, but his face is working, his mouth in a twist, teeth biting the lower lip. His skin is bathed with sweat, but also something else – tears. Tears pooling at the corners of his eyes and now running down the side of his nose.

Oh Christ, oh fuck, no, no, I’ve hurt him. Oh Christ, Vince, no, I’m sorry, I hurt you. Oh Christ no, don’t let this happen…

Frantic, he lifts their still-joined hands up to inspect them in the dim lamplight, but all he can see is a sticky sheen. Pulling back, he checks his own body. Nothing. He doesn’t know what to expect – blood? His guilty memory suddenly needles him about Vince’s cries and Vince’s words and how he ignored them, refused to hear them.

Now he swings Vince round by the shoulders, scanning for signs of damage. His eyes quickly find the expected; scratches, stubble burns, a smear of dried blood from his mouth, the bite marks on the shoulder and neck, the ugly welt on his chest where the amulet struck, the bruise on his cheek where the vicious blow hit home. But nothing else, nothing more severe.

By now Vince’s eyes are open, and his sobs have turned to a mild hiccup, but he’s clearly now in as much of a panic as Howard.

“Howard! What is it?” His eyes search the tent. “Are they coming?”

Howard shifts Vince’s body round so that they face. He cups Vince’s jaw with his hands and peers into his eyes, looking for an explanation there.

“Vince, you’re crying! Did I hurt you? I must have hurt you – I’m so sorry, Vince. Forgive me, little man? Where did I hurt you?”

Over and over.

Vince hiccups again and tries, with difficulty, to shake his head, trapped as it is in Howard’s hands. His smile, a bit watery, lights up.

“Howard, you idiot. As if…”

And at that moment, with the shifting of their bodies, the cushions part and the amulet puts in another appearance, sliding coldly down over Howard’s shoulder and landing with a thunk where their hips join with so much the look of a golden snake that both men jump. Vince is the first to recover, his hand darting down and re-emerging with the chain draped over his arm, a triumphant look on his face. Howard gazes on in benevolent resignation, the amulet now meaningless to him.

“Any bright, shiny thing…” he thinks fondly.

And then Vince brings the chain up over Howard’s head, and loops it clumsily around him, getting it caught on an ear, his nose, so that it’s some moments before the amulet nestles on Howard’s chest, with Vince proudly looking on.

And Howard is suddenly hollowed out, devastated by the gesture. He’s overwhelmed with guilt at his own accusations, his meanness, his violence; for what? This outcome is so wonderful, so beautiful, how could he have been so colossally stupid to have tried to deny it? He can’t understand….

He stares, dumbstruck, back at adoring blue eyes.

“Vince,” he eventually croaks, his throat hurting inexplicably, “I’m sorry… I asked for this but I don’t want it. I fought you for it – I don’t know why – but I don’t want it. But I won’t let them hurt you. I promise, little man, I promise. I won’t let them hurt you….” He has no idea how he’s going to keep this promise but he means it just the same.

Vince gives a big, shuddering sigh and smiles gloriously up at Howard.

“Doesn’t matter really…”

Howard stares at him, in an agony of guilt, for a long moment. Then he smiles back, hesitantly, shakily. The pain is still with him. But he knows what Vince means.

It doesn’t matter what happened then; this is now…

It doesn’t matter who wears it. We’re in this together

Vince pats the chain, then pats Howard’s chest, and in one languid movement turns so that his back rests in the curve of Howard’s body and his head leans back on Howard’s shoulder. Two long arms close around him instinctively, and, just as instinctively, and predictably, Vince goes straight to sleep.

Chapter 3

The lamps are guttering, Howard notices. He wonders how long they’ve been together, how long till dawn. He has an inkling that the nights are short in this strange place, but he can’t detect any graying of the light outside. He looks down at the sleeping man and strokes some of the black hair away from his face to gaze at it better. His heart is far too full for thought about what he sees. His finger traces a line from Vince’s ear to his nose and then across his lips. He knows he won’t wake him; he knows how solidly and absolutely Vince sleeps. And he smiles to himself as Vince’s face twitches to the touch and then settles down again with an inner sigh.

If this is his last night on Earth – well, Xooberon – it’s been a pretty damn good one. And all started by an amulet that’s basically the kiss of death to anyone who puts it on – he grins at the irony.

But looking at Vince only makes his body remember what’s happened, and he knows that if he’s to come up with a plan, then losing himself in those sensations isn’t going to be productive. He steels himself.

OK, so what’re the options?

One: Use the amulet – it’s buggered.

Two: Take the tests – Vince will die, and Howard too.

Three: Run away – desert in every direction, no map (they’d lost Naboo’s in any case), no idea whether any civilisation is two miles or two hundred from the camp; no water, no transport…

Four: ask the green-eyed woman… no, she’s not really a friend, is she?

Five: Find a friendly nomad – yeah, right.

No, hang on…

Five bracket A bracket: find an unfriendly nomad – the Blue Leader – kidnap him, hold him hostage, then get the nomads to take them somewhere to get batteries.

Yes! That’s a plan all right! Something they can easily do – they’re both at least two feet taller than the Blue Leader. As long as they’re stealthy and Vince concentrates on what he’s supposed to do.


He looks down again, smiling. His stomach has the weird habit now of somehow dissolving inside him every time he sees that face. He bends his head down and kisses Vince’s brow lightly. Vince breathes out and his breath warms Howard’s skin.

They’re cold. He’s only just realized how cold they are – their skins, so hot in sex, have cooled quickly. Vince’s exposed chest feels icy. Howard reaches out and gropes silently around him, and in moments finds spare fabric which he pulls towards them. It’s Vince’s lampshade gown, and he spreads it over them both, hugging Vince tighter and feeling warmth creep back. He hears vague sounds outside which indicate that the nomads are still around their fire. Later, he thinks, when it’s quiet. That’s when we’ll pounce. Right now, the little man can sleep.

It isn’t going to work, is it?

Somewhat less than evens, thinks Howard, and that’ll be being lucky…

Howard presses his face against Vince’s cheek and sends a message to whatever deity happens to be hovering over, not that Howard minds which one.

“Take me”, he thinks. “Take us both. Things could get better than this but frankly I doubt it. Right now I have all I have ever wanted, all I ever needed.”

He knows it’s pointless. From all his other brushes with the after-life and things related he knows that life and death rarely synchronize in a user-friendly way.

Vince stirs, opens his eyes on nothing, and says Howard’s name; then nestles back again, never waking.

Howard shifts to accommodate Vince’s new angle, and something jabs into his armpit – the amulet, digging into his flesh. He reaches across, careful not to disturb Vince, and pulls it out, squinting at the heavy, ugly thing faintly glowing in the lamplight. With one hand he turns it over, flips the back open and, despite himself, smiles at the distinctly earth-bound batteries inside. But a thought springs up. This means that Naboo has changed batteries in the past – basic household appliance batteries. The Xooberon equivalent might be in the camp after all. It can’t all be oil lamps…

Good! Another plan segment – Five bracket A bracket-bracket one close bracket!

Absent-mindedly he rolls the batteries round in their housing with his thumb, and flips one out, bringing it to his mouth automatically to test for sure.


Yes! Definitely a tingle!

Concentrating on keeping his hand steady – which is difficult – he stows the first battery between the heel of his hand and his little finger, and pulls out the other one.


Howard rolls the batteries round and round in his hand, trying to get them warm. He chafes the ends, even rubbing them across the fabric of the cushions, to see if any kind of static might help. Holding his breath he snaps them back and closes the amulet.

Wake Vince? No, it’s a long shot. It would be too cruel to raise his hopes before certain failure. Best he never knows.

Howard shifts so that both his arms and his legs are securely round Vince. He presses his head down against the other man’s. He could say things right now, the things that are surging around in his heart, trying to break out – Vince won’t hear. But he doesn’t. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and presses the button.

At that point the lamps choose to gutter completely, so that when he opens his eyes again it’s almost completely dark. Slowly he registers one lamp still burning in a corner. It’s the little orange one shaped like a satsuma which he and Vince gave Naboo last Christmas.

The little shaman is curled up in his bed, sound asleep, the discarded pipe of a hookah near him. Stray sodium light sneaks in through a crack in the curtains.

The cushions have disappeared. Howard is freezing cold, lying on the threadbare carpet and hard floorboards at the foot of Naboo’s bed, stark bollock-naked. His arm has gone to sleep, and Vince, lying on it, also stark bollock-naked, weighs a ton.

Howard allows himself to breathe a few times, to steady himself and make sure he isn’t hallucinating. Then he extricates his arm from beneath Vince and kneels up, letting Vince softly down onto the carpet. He lifts the amulet and, with as much delicacy as he can manage, disentangles the chain from his neck, taking great care not to touch the button, and gingerly places the whole thing on top of the chest of drawers opposite the foot of Naboo’s bed.

Nothing else happens.

They’re home. Home.

He turns back. Naboo is still sleeping, Vince is curled up on the floor. He should wake him. Howard reaches down to touch his shoulder and realises how cold Vince is again, how cold he himself is. Without another thought he scoops the other man up, one arm at Vince’s back, the other hooking under his knees, and, mildly surprised at his own strength, lifts him bodily and carries him off like a sleeping child down the corridor to their own room. He pushes the door open with his foot and closes it firmly behind them in the same way. Their room is quiet and soft with the comfort of familiarity and security.

Howard stands still for a moment, reasoning to himself, facing reality. They’re back, it’s another day, another planet. There’s no way he can expect what has happened on Xooberon to have a lasting effect. Life has tended not to treat him that favourably, and Vince – well, Vince has a tendency to forget important things. Anyway, he feels he should not presume…

He crosses the room to Vince’s bed and gently lowers the sleeping man on to it. Howard gathers the covers over him and straightens, still looking down at the form below him. The slim body is chilled to the bone. He himself now feels weak with cold, hunger and exhaustion. It surely can’t hurt if he holds Vince for a while longer, until they’re both warmer? Then he’ll go back to his own bed and wait to see what the morning brings.

He slips under the covers and draws Vince back against his body, as he had lain in the cushions on Xooberon. Howard tries not to think of those moments. He pushes his face into Vince’s hair and breathes, concentrating on counting the seconds between Vince’s breaths, whether they match his own. Gradually he feels his body relax as it warms beneath the covers. Vince’s breathing is sweet and steady. Howard will get up soon.

Howard sleeps.

It isn’t a good sleep. It’s a sleep born of a completely exhausted body with a mind still wired with the tensions of the previous day. Strange fragments of dreams jerk in front of his twitching eyes, mainly colours – of the desert, of the tent, firelight, a peacock feather slowly tracing across white skin, lamplight gleaming on oil, the glint of gold – and then there are two bodies, locked together in a violent grappling, falling endlessly to the ground…and crashing….

Howard wakes with a start. Gray light is seeping in through the curtains. He feels warm, warm with the pressure of another body against his. Vince is awake. He’s shifted round and his eyes are wide open, staring at Howard.

Howard stares back, not wanting to be the first to speak. The blue eyes seem like saucers, the face one big question-mark. Vince’s gaze flies round the familiar setting of the room, back to Howard’s face, down at the covers and Howard’s arms around him, and back to Howard’s face again. Then his expression relaxes and the mouth breaks into a wide grin.

“You got us back, Howard! You’re a genius! I knew you would!”

Howard’s heart can’t help but swell with the praise.

Vince twists slightly in his embrace, as if to verify they are really in their own room. Howard can feel tension building in that slim body, and he knows what will be coming next – a huge explosion of Vince energy and a volley of questions which will define Vince’s unique grasp of what’s happened. Questions like-

Can we have some tea?

Where’s Naboo?

Do you think there are any of those flapjacks left?

Is it going to rain?

Can we go shopping later?

But Howard has a question. He hadn’t intended to think of one, but he’s woken with it, and at all costs he has to get it out before Vince can steal a march and the moment is lost.

Vince opens his mouth to speak and Howard raises a hand quickly to quiet him. Vince shuts his mouth on cue and looks expectant.

“Vince, I wanted to ask you…”


“Yeah, Howard?”

“Do you remember what happened?”


Be patient, thinks Howard.

“On Xooberon? Where we’ve just been?

Again the grin, “Oh yeah, ‘course I do! That midget, wow, he was a bit mental, yeah? And the sand monster… and all them blue men?”

Howard raises his eyes to heaven.

“No! No! I mean… what happened to us… in the tent…?”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” The sudden quietness of the voice unnerves Howard. He looks straight at Vince. The blue eyes are now wary, guarded, unsure. Vince knows exactly what Howard is on about.

“What about it?”

Howard swallows. He realizes he can get this very wrong. Vince’s eyes never waver, his face now oddly impassive.

Howard flusters. He wants to say “What did it mean to you? What do you want from me? Do you want everything? ‘Cos you can have it, just tell me what it meant to you…”

But instead he says, “Did I hurt you?”

Vince’s breath comes out in a rush that’s almost a laugh.


Howard presses on, the only thing he can say, and in its own way, just as important to him.

“Did I hurt you? In the tent, you… you were crying… I must have hurt you. You cried…”

Vince seems to have difficulty with his breathing. His mouth opens and shuts a few times without emitting words, then there’s another gust of air that’s almost laughter.

“Oh, Howard, ‘cos I was happy!”


“’Cos I was happy, stupid! Never felt so happy!”

So people really did that? Howard has never before felt like crying himself when he was happy. Happiness isn’t such a regular feeling. But right now he feels his throat constrict with some sort of pain that seems completely correlated to the fire that has started to glow inside him. He puts his still-raised, questioning hand to Vince’s face, against his cheek, as if to check this Vince is real and not part of his dream, and Vince turns his mouth into it and softly kisses the palm. Howard’s throat hurts so much he thinks he might choke. He does his best. He manages to blurt out, “So you weren’t hurt then…?” Foolishly.

Vince turns again, smiling softly, eyes deep and dark.

“You idiot, Howard. As if you could hurt me. You love me.”

Ah yes, that. Suddenly the bonds round that heart of his burst open and all that surging stuff comes out. The words are said. Howard hasn’t said them; he hasn’t dared since that icy day long ago when those same words had made Vince laugh. But the love he had felt then – hesitant, unsure, his confidence crumpling in an instant for all his outward bravado – is nothing compared to the conviction that now sustains him, the ardour that possesses him. And even if he still can’t say those words, Vince has, and that counts, and they both heard. Howard knows there’s no way back for him now. The world has changed, and that’s fine by him.

But amazingly, he finds he can actually speak.

“Well, yes, that’s true, little man…

…I do.”

And equally amazingly, he finds this world-changing admission is really quite easy, after all.

He’s sure he’s being properly calm and mature about all this, a good example for Vince. He still doesn’t understand that Vince’s growing smile, like the sun rising, is directly related to the blossoming, unimagined joy radiating from his own face. In any case, he’s got work to do. He takes Vince’s words and his own and wraps them up carefully together with all the memories of the tent – the violence, the pain, the tenderness, the delight, every sensual experience – making a kind of pliable ball of treasure which he pushes far, far down inside himself, right to the centre of his ready heart. Yes, he thinks, that’s a good job done.

Vince is still looking at him, and his sudden preoccupation, with tender, baffled wonder. Surely even Howard can’t have missed what Vince has done, to make those words easy for Howard? Me for him, him for me….

So Vince has to do it for Howard anyway.

“’Course you do! ‘S’obvious…

And I love you… ‘s’obvious too… for a long, long time, really. You knew that, right?”

Oh yeah, right.

“We both did, right?”

“Yeah, right.”

Two smiles, one happy and confident; one happy – oh, so happy – and absolutely amazed…

I love you.

The words. The words from the tent, the words from the mirror. Words from Vince.

Finally, words from Vince.

Howard still can’t believe them at first, which is why Vince keeps repeating them, while Howard gulps like a stranded fish. And then suddenly Howard’s paralysis clears and in one swift movement he brings his arms round Vince’s back and pulls him in. Their mouths meet at once, Vince still speaking, so those words go into Howard’s mouth with his tongue, and Howard instantly wraps them up and takes them down, down to that deep place to store them with the rest of his treasure, where no-one can pluck them out again, not even himself.

And then he’s rising up again into the daylight of his new world to find that Vince is no longer concentrating and has taken his mouth off to kiss Howard’s jaw and throat and ear and nose and brow…

So Howard finds Vince again, and brings him back to the best kiss on Earth, if not the whole universe.

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