The Final Chapter...
“Where are we now?” Howard asked, staring at the strange new space he had been taken to. “And why does it smell like the sea?”
“That’d be the salt,” Amy told him, a smile twitching the corners of her lips. “It’s barely perceptible normally, it’s only because you’re so small that you can taste it in the air.” She looked up at Howard wistfully. “I’m so glad I was able to see the beach. To smell and feel it for myself Thank you, Howard.”
Howard wasn’t sure what to say. Amy kept thanking him. As they’d walked back through the brain space various Vinces had come forward to thank him as well, shaking his hand and looking at him adoringly. The security Vinces had come forward with his flippers and oxygen tank, tipping their hats at him and complimenting his moustache. In fact, Howard noticed, there were more than a few moustaches on the personifications within Vince’s brain and he wondered if that was in any way significant.
But now they were somewhere new. The light was different here, brighter and whiter and the air really did smell of salt water. Amy had promised to get him out, he trusted her, and he was beginning to suspect that he knew where they were.
“So where are we?” he asked again, and loved the way Amy’s smile widened.
“Just above the tear duct, Darling,” she told him. “It’s the way we got out last time, works a treat, except that we have to make Vince cry, of course.”
“Right,” Howard said slowly. “Amy, listen, I just wanted to tell you...”
He stopped. He knew how he felt but didn’t actually know how to put it in to words. He loved Amy, admired her, cared for her, but he no longer felt an urge to woo her. She was a beloved part of Vince and he was reassured knowing that she was free and providing the spark and sass that were so much a part of the Vince he knew and loved.
“It’s alright, Darling,” she crooned back. “I get it. I understand. I’m gonna miss you, but...” she looked back to where Nacc was examining a nearby tear canal and stroking his moustache thoughtfully, “I think it’s all working out for the best, don’t you?”
“I guess so,” Howard agreed, letting out a huff of laughter through his nose.
Now that the time for final goodbyes had come Howard felt excessively awkward. He’d given up any hope of coming up with a great parting line but he wanted to offer something more, something meaningful.
“Can I talk to Vince, please?” Amy asked, now looking rather more serious.
“Of course, but-” Howard began, but still didn’t know what to say and so adjusted the mic so that Vince would be able to hear her and his headphones so that Amy would be able to hear Vince.
“You there, Sunshine?” Amy asked gently.
“Amy, that you?” Vince asked in return, sounding tired yet still excited to hear from her.
“Yeah, love,” Amy replied. “Look, Vince, I just needed to tell you... I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth about who I was when I turned up. I’m sorry I left my post just because I wanted a holiday and left you all vulnerable like that. I’m sorry-”
“Are you kidding?” Vince interrupted. “I loved having you around! And what were you going to tell me, anyway? ‘Oh, hi Vince, I’m part of your brain, just here for a mini break’? No way! I know what it’s been like in my head these last couple of years, I’d want a holiday as well! I just wish you could’ve stayed longer,” he said with great melancholy.
“Oh, Vince, darling,” Amy said in a voice thick with tears. “Me too. But we’re always going to be together, yeah? You and me, we’re one of a kind.”
“That’s what my mum always used to say to me,” Vince whispered and Howard could hear the tears in his voice as well.
“I know. And I know you’ve kept a lot of that to yourself, in the name of being the cheerful person you think everyone needs you to be. But being the Sunshine Kid doesn’t mean you have to lock your feelings away and beat yourself up about being human and not being perfect. Howard loves you, Vince, he’s gonna love you no matter what, even when he’s a grumpy sod or you’re having a bad day, even against his better judgement sometimes, and you don’t have to hide yourself from him, you’re allowed to show your feelings and ask for help. That’s what people do with the ones they love. It’s taken me a while to learn that too, but I reckon it’s true, and that we should give it a go. You don’t need to hide behind false smiles and hollow cheeriness, the sunshine’s still going to be there, even when it’s stormy, even when it’s dark, because Howard Moon knowns just how to reflect that light back to you, Darling, you trust me on that.” She stopped to draw a shaking breath, her eyes and cheeks wet but a smile on her lips all the same. “Be kind to yourself, love, give yourself a chance. And we’ll do out best to be kind to you as well. Deal?”
Howard heard Vince sob but Amy wasn’t quite done.
“And Howard’s going to do his best as well, sweetheart. Ok?” She told them both. “You’ve both got a bit to learn but it’s easier to do it together, yeah? And I know you can do it, Vince. I’m going to keep saying it in here until you believe it out there. And if I know it, you know it. We all love you, Vince. I love you. Goodbye.”
And suddenly the canals began to rise all around them. Amy looked up at him with wide eyes, her silver tears falling as the real tears began to drain down to Vince’s eyes. She gave Howard a fierce hug and another quick kiss on the cheek before darting away through the building flood to where Nacc was waiting for her, waving him a final farewell and yelling to him to put on his oxygen mask. Howard did so hurriedly and then let himself fall back into the salty water, carried along quite literally by the torrent of emotion.
He could barely see, what with water rushing past the glass of his face mask, and all he could hear was the rush of the current, and his muscles felt as though they were being pummeled by the water, by Vince’s tears, and it was all too much, until suddenly there was the sensation of falling, even though he was still surrounded by a bubble of saline and it was terrifying and Howard wanted to scream that they had made an error of judgement, that he didn’t want to die, he had so much to give, and finally knew who he wanted to give it to!
And then the ground was suddenly in front of him and he hit it with a thud barely strong enough to knock the wind from his lungs. He took a moment to catch his breath and get his bearings back before rolling to his side and slipping the mask and oxygen tank off with a tired shrug. He had to wriggle his feet free of the flippers in order to climb to his hands and knees and that alone seemed to require all of his energy. He was back in the stock room, that much was clear. There were the boxes of their regular stock, the racks and shelves of unique items waiting to be either priced by himself or de-hexed by Naboo. In the corner the medieval castle he had made from receipt rolls still stood, lording over the stationary supplies as if nothing strange had happened at all, and Howard felt nausea building in his throat as he began to wonder whether anything had happened or if it had been a hallucination and he was simply losing his mind.
Until suddenly there were arms around his waist holding tight, a head leaning against his back with a nose that he would recognise anywhere pressing against his ribs, and sobs heaving through his whole body that weren’t his but were close enough that they might as well have been.
He was home.
“Oh, god, Howard!” Vince sobbed against him, “this has been the most intense night of my life! Are you ok?”
Howard tried to talk but still didn’t seem to be able to draw enough air into his lungs. He managed it on the third go but only once he had untangled himself from Vince’s arms long enough to sit down in a more comfortable position.
“Yeah, Little Man,” he said breathily. “I think I’m alright. And I agree, it’s been a fairly intense night all round. Next year,” he whispered, as he gulped air into his burning throat. “Next year shall be just have a quiet night in, for my birthday?”
Vince laughed, which turned in to another sob as he flung his arms back around Howard, cocooning him in the floaty fabric of his blouse until Howard felt himself begin to find some sort of equilibrium. He was back to his regular size but it felt strange, like he had surfaced too quickly after diving down to feed the starfish at the Zooniverse and when he tried to stand a wave of exhaustion hit him squarely between the eyes and he sat back down with a bump, Vince still clinging to him like the beautiful limpid he was.
“Shall we just sleep here?” he asked with a yawn, but Vince chuckled and pulled away to gaze at Howard with equally tired, and loving, eyes.
“No way. We aren’t as young as we used to be. I can’t be having with sleepovers on hard floors. I need my bed and so do you.”
“I need your bed, do I?” Howard asked with eyebrows raised and for once Vince responded with an equally saucy grin instead of flustered embarrassment.
“You most certainly do, Howard Moon. But we might have to start with just a sleepy in the same bed, yeah? ‘Cos it is five in the morning and I am...”
His voice trailed off and Howard sat forward in concern, bringing his hand to Vince’s face and rubbing his thumb across the sharp cheekbone, still wet and red from tears.
“Hey,” he whispered, “are you alright?”
Vince blinked slowly before looking up and in to Howard’s eyes. It was still a struggle to hold eye contact for long, Howard suspected it always would be because that was just the way he was, but he gave it go and was rewarded with the most wonderful sunshine smile for his trouble.
“Yeah, I think so,” Vince told him. “I was going to say that I felt shattered, you know, as in tired. But then I realised that I don’t really. I mean, I’m so tired I could probably fall asleep without doing any of my nighttime skin care regime... but I don’t feel... shattered. I actually feel ok. My headache’s gone and all.”
Howard sighed with relief and pulled Vince back in for another tight hug before they began the arduous process of climbing to their feet and then climbing the stairs to the flat. There was no question about where they would both be sleeping and Howard felt as though he was in a strange, soft focus sort of dream as he stood in the centre of Vince’s bedroom and let himself be stripped of the cumbersome scuba suit. Vince kissed his face, neck, shoulders and chest as he pulled the difficult fabric from Howard’s skin, but they were soft, slothful kisses, signs of love and adoration and relief that Howard was back and that they were finally free to care for one another in the way they needed to.
Vince’s skin against his was warm and welcoming and the smell of sweat and salt, hair spray and tea and sleep, and a hint of maple syrup and cream, pulled at Howard until he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. Vince’s lips against his, moving so slowly they were barely kisses at all, were the final comfort that sent Howard in to a deep and well deserved sleep and Vince followed quickly after, slipping in to the most restful slumber he’d had in months. In the morning, they both promised themselves, they would celebrate properly.
Or the afternoon, as it transpired, for just as the two friends fell in to sleep the sun began to rise over the city, her mellow smile shining down on the city and all those sleeping within it.
“Oi, Howard?” Vince asked, months later as Howard sat at his desk by the window, looking out at the afternoon sun, still smiling her hazy smile over the city. “You want a cup of tea?”
“In a minute,” Howard replied, turning back to his laptop and typing the last few sentences.
When he looked up the sun was a little lower in the sky and Vince was leaning against his desk, two steaming mugs of tea in his hands.
“You still at it?” Vince asked, carefully handing Howard the mug with two tea bags and only one sugar in it. “I thought you’d finished that one days ago.”
Howard nodded. He had indeed finished his second novel two days ago, and sent it off to his editor, a process he was becoming better at dealing with, now that he was actually writing something he was genuinely proud of.
“I did,” he told Vince. “This is something new. An idea I had at breakfast that I just wanted to get out, you know?”
“You are a machine!” Vince told him affectionately. “Who would have guessed romance novels would be your thing! It’s genius!”
Howard gave another nod and sipped his tea to hide just how much Vince’s compliments made him smile. It had indeed been a surprise to everyone when Howard Moon had written his first romance novel, and had it accepted for publication, but Howard had promised himself, on that fateful night when he had gone back inside of Vince’s brain, that he would do it, and so he had. After a few days of kissing and procrastinating, of course. But once he started it had come so easily. He was writing about something he knew after all, and that seemed to make all the difference in the world.
Vince had been supportive to a fault, to the point that Howard had to remind him from time to time that he didn’t need to smile and cheer on Howard if what he really needed was a bit of time out. Vince still seemed to need permission to take time for himself, to be sad from time to time, or at least, to show it, but they were getting there, even if some days weren’t quite so good as others.
“How are you feeling today?” Howard asked, recalling that he had spent a good portion of the day in the flat while Vince redecorated the shop (again).
It was amazing how business had picked up now that Vince had free reign to stock it and decorate it as he pleased, drawing on the multitude of skills he had accumulated and honed over the years, but Howard was aware that he hadn’t checked in with him today, and that being caring and supportive and less self-absorbed had been another of the things he had promised himself, and he still wasn’t that great at doing it yet.
“Alright,” Vince said with a shrug, raising his eyebrows in surprise when Howard gave him a serious look to ensure that alright was actually how Vince felt. “What? It’s true. It’s been an alright day. I’m a bit flat but nothing too bad. Nothing like yesterday. I’m catching up with Leroy in a bit, actually, to play some tennis. That should perk up those brain characters of mine a bit, yeah?”
Howard stood and drew Vince into a gentle hug. Part of him had hoped that Vince would be right as rain once the NSP had been somewhat neutralised, but the other part of him knew that there was no quick fix. They were still working on it in fact, and sometimes Howard still struggled with his desire to shy away from human contact, and Vince struggled not to pick and snark in order to push Howard away before Howard could push him, but they were getting better at it and Howard had faith in them both, as a unit. They would be alright.
And when words didn’t seem to work Howard knew one sure fire way to remind them both that they were loved and safe and didn’t need to pretend to be anyone they weren’t. He caught Vince’s chin between his thumb and finger, tilting the pretty face that had so much beauty and life and spirit behind it upward toward him, and kissed Vince with all the passion he gave to the heroes and heroines of his books, his heart leaping with excitement when Vince kissed him back in equal measure, humming against his lips and bringing a hand up to tangle in Howard’s soft curls.
Somewhere behind them he heard Naboo walk in to the room, sigh in disgust, and leave again, muttering under his breath that happiness and a happy ended had come at great cost and that it was always him that had had to deal with the fall out when Vince and Howard got an idea in their heads, but Howard ignored it. They were happy and they were whole, and their narrative was finally back on track.