Murderous Cockney geezers? Pfft. Transgendered psychotic mermen? No problem. Vicious urban foxes? Piece of cake. Best friend laying naked on you in a bathtub?
… better come back to that last one.
Pairing: Howard Moon/Vince Noir
Length: 40-50k words
Notes: Stay tuned for the sequel! Many thanks to Ms. Thieving Gypsy for being a wonderful, wonderful beta :]
The Miseducation of Howard Moon by fecklesslyfine
I: Howard Has A Fall
Author’s Notes: It’s a rather unassuming morning, but those are always the ones to watch out for.
“Don’t you want me, baby?! Don’t you want me, AHHHHOOHHHHH!!?!?!”
That was the first thing Howard heard upon waking; the sound of Vince wailing some horrible song into his hairbrush at six in the bloody morning on a Saturday. Some sympathy, please.
It hadn’t always been like this. Usually, Howard woke up peacefully around seven thirty to the sweet sounds of scatting, courtesy of the local jazz radio station, 103.7 KACK, set on his alarm clock. It always put him in the right mood for rolling out of bed and getting ready for his day. And Vince, for his part, was usually too absorbed in applying any number of cosmetics and hair products to his person to even think about thinking about singing; multitasking wasn’t exactly his forte. Normally, by the time he even flicked on the hairdryer, Howard had already been down in the shop for a good twenty-or thirty-odd minutes, at the least.
But lately, Vince had decided that the early morning hours were his for the taking. No longer did he enjoy his forty-five minute showers in peaceful quiet. No longer did he silently make faces at himself in the mirror as he meticulously applied his eyeliner.
Oh no. Vince had suddenly decided he was going to enter a karaoke contest at The Velvet Onion. The grand prize was getting to join an ‘80s tribute band with ugly, crooked haircuts and too many sparkles. Howard had tried not to grimace when Vince had showed him the flyer, all sunshine and excitement. He didn’t want to ruin Vince’s dream, but he just couldn’t imagine Vince in a tribute band.
Well, if he was being honest, Vince himself was practically a tribute to three bygone decades already, so it wasn’t really too much of a stretch from there. But it just seemed sacrilegious, him prancing off like that to go and join someone else’s band and make a fool out of himself. Howard couldn’t see why Vince making a fool out of himself with those twats was any better than Vince making a fool out of himself with Howard.
(Thing was, at least Howard already knew Vince was a fool, his fool; everyone else would probably be sorely disappointed once they cottoned on to it.)
At any rate, he really hoped with a small, mean part of him that Vince suddenly came down with strep throat, or that they booed him offstage so he would never want to sing karaoke again, if that meant that he could have both his friend and his mornings back. After all, the contest was still a whole two weeks away. He didn’t think he could handle it any longer.
…He really was a petty bastard sometimes, Howard grumbled internally, rolling over with a groan and hiding under his pillow as Vince howled on.
Not that he’d ever admit it, of course.
“Don’t you want me?! You know I don’t believe you when you say that you don’t need me!”
Sighing once he realised that the singing wasn’t going to stop any time soon, Howard sat up with a groan, blearily rubbing at his crusty eyes. He pulled out his woollen orthopaedic slippers and shuffled over to his wardrobe, shrugging on his dressing gown with the least amount of effort. It was amazing what being deprived of one and a half hours sleep could do to a man.
He groggily padded over to the bathroom and paused at the door left slightly ajar. Vince was jumping all about, pulling shapes and clutching his hairbrush in true teenage movie style as he sang along to his shower radio. The fact that he was clad in nothing but a towel wrapped about his skinny hips didn’t seem to be deterring him as his damp hair flicked water all over the mirror and counter.
Howard just stood and watched him for a minute. A small smile began to tug at the corners of his mouth. You couldn’t be mad at Vince for long, really. It was just impossible to hold a grudge against him. It was like being mad at a kitten, or a lollipop. His enthusiasm was unfortunately rather catching, with or without a poncho.
However, he really did need to take a piss.
Clearing his throat, Howard knocked on the doorframe. “Hey, er, Vince? Vince, d’you mind–?”
Of course, Vince couldn’t hear his timid morning voice, not above his whooping and hollering. Howard sighed, rapped on the frame again. “Vince? It’s Howard, I need the loo, just for a minute.”
No luck. Vince’s eyes were screwed tightly shut as he bobbed around and wailed his little heart out, only just a tad bit off-key this time. Howard sighed, pushing open the door and reaching toward the shower to turn off the radio. The air was suddenly knocked out of him as Vince careened into him from behind, and he heard a shrieked, “Oh shit!” as they were both swept off-balance, toppling ungracefully with limbs flailing into the bathtub.
Howard felt like he’d been knocked out for days when he finally opened his eyes again. Truth be told, he hadn’t been rendered unconscious at all, but it was such a shock to his system after just waking up to suddenly find himself wedged into a wet bathtub with his still-damp best friend planted on top of him.
It was just his luck, really.
Vince sputtered, trying to turn to face him but mostly just flapping about ineffectually like an overturned roly-poly. “What’re you thinking, sneakin’ up on me?! I coulda landed on my straighteners, you nob!”
Howard sighed, letting his head loll against the tub, feeling the water left from Vince’s shower seep into his pyjama pants and his hair. The cuff of his dressing gown had landed in a bit of a puddle and was already soppy with water. As a bonus, there was something uncomfortable and hard lodged under his shoulder. “Yeah, well, at least I was feeling generous and decided to cushion your graceful stumble into the tub for you.”
Vince giggled a bit at that. “Yeah, I guess you did. Cheers, Howard. What you doing up already, anyway? Last I looked, you were snuggled away in your bed like a shrew in a mitten.”
Howard grimaced, glad Vince couldn’t see his face. “Well, if your ‘singing’ hadn’t woken me up, I think my bladder might’ve. Speakin’ of, you’re crushing it.”
Vince paused. Howard thought he might be confused. It happened rather often.
“All right then, here, lemme get offa you then. Just got to figure out where my towel went.”
Howard blinked. “What are you talking about? You’re wearing it.”
Vince laughed. “Hmm, maybe if they made towels in my exact skin tone, I could be. Wouldn’t that be genius? I think it’s on the floor over there, actually. Can you reach it?”
Howard sighed. He trapped in a wet tub at six in the morning with his bladder being crushed by his damp, pointy, and, let us add, now naked best friend stuck on top of him. Yeah, yeah, just another day in the life…
“No, Vince, seeing as I’m currently beneath you, I’m pretty sure I cannot see, much less reach your towel. You’re going to have to get it yourself.”
Vince laughed. “All right, but you’ll have to help me up, yeah? I’m all slippery still and the tub’s a bit wet.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Howard sighed, the pressure in his groin growing. Their legs were cramped and tangled together. His dressing gown was caught at an odd angle underneath him, so it pulled insistently at his shoulders. Plus Vince was touching him in a lot of different places, all at the same time. It was rather uncomfortable all around. “Here, I’ll try and push you up.”
He managed to wriggle his hands between them, planting his palms on Vince’s shoulder blades. Unfortunately, he couldn’t move his elbows out to the side, so all Vince’s weight was resting on his wrists. It was a bit uncomfortable and painful. Maybe he ought to look into weightlifting classes next time he went to his Jazzercise.
“Can’t you grab the ledge?” Howard asked, sighing his long-suffering sigh. He’d worked especially hard on it, seeing how often it came in handy.
“There’s no ledge left, I’ve got shampoos all over them,” Vince reminded him, having the decency to act sheepish. Howard realised that the hard object underneath his shoulder was probably one of them. He sighed.
“Look, this isn’t working. Just… figure out a way to get up, yeah?”
Vince tried to shoot him an annoyed look over his shoulder, with mixed results. “I’m workin’ on it, alright? ‘M not just taking a holiday here. Geez, you forget you were the one to sneak up on me, not the other way around.”
“I wouldn’t have snuck up on you, as you put it, if you hadn’t been blasting your music so loud at six in the morning when most decent folk are still asleep,” Howard retorted. Vince shifted on top of him, probably ignoring him.
“Hey Howard, I’m gonna try and turn over, alright? I think it’ll work a bit better, just hang tight, yeah?”
Without waiting for an answer, Vince started to roll over as best he could in the cramped space. It just happened to be right at that moment where Howard realised that the pressure in his groan wasn’t entirely his bladder. And his flannel pyjama bottoms surely wouldn’t hide much. He tried to protest, but no intelligible words managed to make their way out of his mouth. Vince was already halfway turned, wedged tightly between his legs. It was too late, and Howard froze, unsure what to do. Vince finally made it all the way around, miraculously without elbowing him in the face; once they were stomach to stomach, he seemed pleased with his progress, then there was a pause. Vince blinked, his eyes flickered down for the briefest of moments, and he gave Howard a rather funny look.
Howard realised that their groins were pressed together and flushed as Vince had clearly felt his hardness against his own naked…ness…
“It’s just – the morning… thing…” he managed to get out, turning bright red.
Vince just looked at him for a moment, before smiling and nodding. “Yeah, alright.” Without another word, he sat back up on his knees, perched between Howard’s legs. Howard squeezed his eyes shut to preserve Vince’s modesty, so to speak, as well as to keep from having to face his questioning gaze any longer. He was thoroughly embarrassed. Of all times, it would have been then… it was just his luck.
He realised that Vince hadn’t got up yet; silence hung between them like a shower curtain. Or maybe it was the shower curtain. There was a small sigh, then a beat, then Vince stood and stepped out of the tub. A moment later, Howard heard the rustle of a towel. Figuring Vince was decently covered at this point, he opened his eyes and sat up, only to quickly put his hands over them once he was confronted with Vince’s nude derriere.
Vince was standing at the sink, looking at himself in the mirror; the towel was up around his precious hair, while the rest of him was rather… bare.
Howard was proud. He’d rhymed that one in his head. Pure poetic genius. Regardless, he was still a bit perturbed by the whole thing.
“Vince, would you just put some clothes on, please?”
He could hear Vince turning to look at him, amusement and a bit of a challenge in his voice. “What? Don’t mind if you see, you know, we’re both men here. Nothin’ you haven’t got yourself.” He laughed a bit, before adding mischievously, “Well, maybe a few things you haven’t got. I didn’t tell you ‘bout the Prince Albert, did I?”
Howard’s eyebrows were now visible above his hands, they shot up so high.
“You’ve got a what?!” He shrieked the words without intending, not sure whether he was more horrified at the thought of Vince having one, or at the fact he actually knew what it was.
Vince burst out laughing, and Howard sighed, realising he’d been had. Vince was probably doubled over, nearly crying with laughter from the sounds of it. Oh yes, it was all so hilarious.
A few minutes later, Vince managed to squeak out, “Honestly Howard, you’re so gullible! Come on, why would I ever get one of those? They’re well grotty!” He giggled on a bit longer, an odd hiccup here and there.
Howard, who was sulking in the tub with his eyes still shut, didn’t see what was so funny about the whole thing, and said as much. His bum was starting to ache from the hard floor of the tub, and besides, he was still a bit damp, and unfortunately still stuck with a morning erection and the urge to wee.
“Fine, fine, I’ve got my kimono on now,” Vince cajoled. Howard dared a peek. He actually had got his flowery robe on, was twirling about and watching the ends flop like a skirt. Howard sighed, bracing himself on the sides of the tub as he got up. More shampoo bottles scuttled across the floor, eager to taste freedom.
“All right, well, could you vacate for a bit, please? I’m going to probably go back to bed right after this, try to sleep off the horror of seeing your pasty white bum first thing in the morning.”
Vince laughed gaily, not at all offended. “It is rather pale, isn’t it?” he mused to himself, before smirking and flapping one of the sashes of his robe at Howard. “Alright, alright, I’m going. And, um, Howard…”
He trailed off, and Howard knitted his brow. “What, Vince?”
Vince bit his lip, as if he was containing a smile, then nodded with his head in the general direction of Howard’s groin. “Don’t worry about that, you know. Happens all the time, really.”
Howard felt the heat rise to his face again as Vince sashayed out of the bathroom, already singing a new song.
He had the distinct feeling he was missing something, but couldn’t for the life of him figure out what it might be.
Oh well. Urination now, rumination later.
End Notes: Thanks to Ms. Thieving Gypsy for her mad beta skills! Originally posted to the BSH on 14/8/08.
II: Howard Has A Thought
Author’s Notes: Sometimes, the simple things are the best things. Not always. But sometimes.
Later that day, Howard was drinking a hot cuppa down in the shop, delicately dusting the sellotape tree, when he suddenly found his mind drifting back to the morning’s conversation with Vince – who was conspicuously still absent from work.
It happens all the time, he’d said. Well, of course Howard would know that. He was a man, after all, with manly bits. Vince had such a tendency to state the obvious. Or perhaps Vince was just saying it to make Howard feel better, to let Howard know that he didn’t think it had anything to do with him being naked.
That’s the thing though. Howard wasn’t sure if it did or not.
He was attempting to blame his lack of experience, as one might say… it wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t used to people touching him, getting close to him, up in his personal space. Vince was the only one to constantly test the boundaries of his comfort zone, but he wasn’t normally nude when doing so. It was just an instinctive reaction to the heat of someone else’s body pressed up against his, only one layer of fabric between them.
Or maybe it really was just the morning thing. Either way, it didn’t have anything to do with Vince himself, and that was the important part. After that whole kissing business at his birthday party, Howard had found himself increasingly aware of things he hadn’t noticed before; the nonchalant touches Vince gave him, the odd things he said at times in a certain tone of voice. Even his increasing lack of modesty around Howard.
Obviously, he was just trying to get Howard to loosen up, that much was clear. Though it was a bit irritating and uncomfortable for Howard, he knew Vince was just trying to be a good friend. Vince surely understood that Howard was embarrassed by being so inexperienced in the ways of the world, and he knew that Howard would never actually ask him how all these things worked. (Mostly, Howard reflected, because he wouldn’t know what to ask first.)
But clearly, Vince knew more in the ways of women than Howard, so he should presumably be a good source of information – if anything, living with Vince had given him a pretty good idea of what having a woman around all the time would be like.
But Vince was still a man, and obviously he was just trying to help Howard loosen up, help him see how to act like a man who got women.
Howard knew most men weren’t as modest as he was. They weren’t as shy with their bodies, they made lewd jokes all the time, they weren’t afraid of talking to beautiful girls. It pained him to admit it, but he probably had better start paying more attention to Vince’s impromptu lessons, if he was ever going to have any success with the fairer sex.
He just didn’t understand why more women didn’t go for men like him. He was smart, intellectual, respectful, had a great sense of humour, pretty decent in the looks department overall. He was rugged and adventurous, yet sensitive and artistic. That sounded like a winning combination, right?
Maybe they did go for men like him, and he was just in the wrong part of town. All the ones around here looked like they were half his age, spent all their pay-cheques on clothing, and quite predictably didn’t look once at him, much less twice. They only had eyes for his best friend. But why did they go for Vince? He was practically one of them at this point. Did women actually like that? It certainly would never be Howard wearing makeup or trousers so tight as to look painted on. He wasn’t Vince, he would never be as confident as Vince. But, perhaps in his own way, he could try to be a bit more like him – try to absorb some of Vince’s suave confidence while staying loose and jazzy fresh?
Howard sighed, burying his head in his face. It was hard enough even to comprehend in his mind, never mind actually putting anything into action. He felt like he’d missed his chance to go out and learn these things the way everyone else did, through trial and error. At this point, it was assumed that he should know all about wooing women. Really, what dignified lady his age would want a man who had no more knowledge of how to please her than a wee schoolboy would?
It was just embarrassing, all around. Maybe he’d just become a hermit. Him and Vince would just live in this flat forever with Naboo and Bollo, and he wouldn’t need a lady.
And then terrifying thought hit him. Rather hard.
What if Vince actually somehow won the karaoke contest? What if he did join someone else’s band and go touring around the world in private jets with champagne on ice and groupies in skimpy clothing?
And that led him to another thought, equally as terrifying.
What if Vince stayed here but he still found someone? What if he, miracle of miracles, actually kept a steady girlfriend one day? What if – heaven forbid – he got married? And had little Vinces with his adorable, stylish, mod wife? He wouldn’t want to stick around with Howard, that’s for sure. Howard wouldn’t blame him for leaving, really. Even he would leave himself for the love of a beautiful girl, for a soul mate instead of just a best mate.
Howard sighed into his now-cold tea. The sellotape tree was in perfect order. He needed something else to distract himself with. But what? He’d already rearranged Stationery Village an excess of three times to improve its infrastructure, plus he’d cleaned the whole shop.
Or at least, it felt like he had. But time had decided to plague him today, surely, for it was still only half past noon. Maybe he’d just take his lunch now. Distract himself by eating. It could work.
Seven minutes later…
Howard sat behind the counter, morosely munching a sarnie and pondering his fate. Ever since he was little, his life had seemed inextricably tied with Vince’s. Even though they appeared at first glance to have nothing in common, even though they had totally opposite personalities with conflicting styles and interests – not to mention they bickered constantly – they were still best mates.
When they fought, they were like an old married couple. They each knew exactly which buttons to press to make the other mad, they always went off to sulk in their own way, and they always ended up making up and forgetting about the whole thing.
Vince was the best company he had, even though he never wanted to discuss interesting intellectual or poetic issues. Vince didn’t seem to mind talking with him either, though Howard’s brain automatically blocked out everything he said after the words “NME” or “Cheekbone” were mentioned.
Truth be told, he just couldn’t imagine his life without Vince around. He wouldn’t even have a life at this point, if it weren’t for Vince. Yeah, the kid got him in trouble more times than he could count, but he came to Howard’s rescue twice that amount. He literally went to hell and back for Howard. Who else on earth would ever care about him that much? Vince was like his other half… who else would be able to replace him once he’d gone off to make his own way in the world? Not Lester, that was for sure. He wasn’t quite as good company now that he’d gone and lost his head.
Howard frowned, munching in silence. This was getting to be a fairly depressing conversation with himself. He should go talk to Vince. He could use a little mindless chatter.
Plus it would give him an opportunity to scold him for not being at work. And that always made him feel better.
He polished off the sandwich, flipped the sign on the door to ‘momentarily closed,’ then ascended the stairs into the flat. Naboo wouldn’t mind – he and Bollo were out at some sort of DJ convention… or was it a shaman meeting? He hadn’t been listening all that closely. Besides, it was a pretty drizzly day and he’d only had two customers… neither of whom actually bought anything. He couldn’t imagine why his jazz LPs weren’t flying off the shelves. He’d even moved them right into the center of the room so they would be sure to be seen. Oh well, he’d worry about that later.
Looking about the flat for any signs of Vince, Howard was puzzled to find he was nowhere in sight. Not in the front room, not in the kitchen. Surely he wasn’t sleeping… perhaps he was still in the bathroom? That would be odd, even for Vince.
Howard approached the bathroom, knocking at the door with the back of his hand. He thought he heard humming, and a splash?
“Vince? You in there?”
The humming stopped. “Howard?”
“Vince, what’re you doing? It’s already – er, quarter to one, I think. Twelve fifty, perhaps. Anyway, that’s not the point. You were supposed to be downstairs hours ago!”
“Aww, Howard,” came the plaintive cry through the door, “It’s well drizzly out, nobody’ll be in today.”
Despite the fact that Vince had exactly echoed his earlier thoughts, Howard huffed. “What’re you doing, anyway? Even your hair can’t take that long to do.”
There was a faint huff and Howard knew Vince was pouting. “I’m taking a bubble bath, if you must know.”
Howard knitted his brow. “But you already had a shower today!”
There was a pause, and the sound of water rippling against the tub. “I just felt like takin’ one, okay? I’ll be out in a bit, alright?”
Howard sighed. “Alright… you’re just lucky Naboo is out today so he won’t notice.”
There was a little laugh. “He is? Genius!”
Howard just shook his head, heading back towards the kitchen. “See you in a bit, then,” he called back toward the bathroom as he went to put the kettle on again. It was definitely a day for Earl Grey.
A good twenty minutes later, Vince finally emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in one of his fuzzier, peach-coloured dressing gowns and wearing matching slippers. His hair seemed to be all done up and dry except for the very ends, but Howard wasn’t about to point that, or it’d be another fifteen minutes before he saw Vince again.
“Aww, Howard, you made tea. Cheers.” Vince picked up the cup sitting out for him and went to pour himself some. Howard knew better than to pour it for him ahead of time. Watching Vince try to microwave cold tea was entertaining, but after the one time he’d zapped it for too long and then burnt his hand on the hot mug, resulting in scalding tea all over the floor and the both of them, Howard had learned to just let him get it himself.
“Oi, it’s all cold!” Vince frowned at the kettle as if he was hoping his glare would heat it up to proper drinking temperature. Howard chuckled.
“Well, whose fault is that? Just turn the hob back on, it’ll be warm before you know it.”
Vince huffed dramatically for a moment, but after he’d turned the burner on, he came to sit next to Howard and didn’t seem too terribly fussed about the whole thing. Howard smelled peaches, along with some other more exotic, girly scents he couldn’t identify. Figures Vince would match his bath products with his dressing gown. He was so strange, sometimes. But he did smell rather good. The whole room seemed more cheerful with him in it. Howard wasn’t so proud that he couldn’t admit he did rather use Vince like a sun lamp. He’d probably have Seasonal Affective Disorder without Vince around to provide his Vitamin D in the soggier months.
“So how’s work been?” Vince wrapped his hands around his empty cup, giving Howard a subtle knowing smile.
Howard just shook his head, taking another sip of tea. “Crap, and you know it. Stop rubbing it in. I don’t know how you always manage to twist things around in your favour.”
Vince gloated, just for a moment. “Twisties are just one of my many skills, Howard. Really, you learn much more about work by avoiding it than you do by actually showing up.” He leaned his cheek on one hand, the fluffy cuff of his dressing gown reaching little fabric tendrils toward his face. “You know what I think we should do today?”
Howard raised his eyebrows, wondering what stroke of madness was going to follow that innocent question. “Hmm, what?”
Vince’s eyes lit up and a grin split his face. “We should make a fort in the front room!”
Howard’s eyebrows rose a little higher. “A fort, Vince? With vats of boiling tar and a moat full of crocodilians? Where are we going to find those in Dalston?”
Vince laughed, swatting Howard on the arm. “No, you berk. You know what I mean. Like a pillow fort! We could get the sheets and blankets off our beds, pull some chairs or curtain rods out, you know? Drape them over the couch, make a little fortress to hide inside and drink our tea in. S’what I used to do when I was little and it was too rainy to go outside and play.”
There was a pause.
“Vince, I thought you grew up in a forest?”
Vince blinked. “Oh, yeah. That’s right… well, it’s what I always wanted to do, when I was little, growing up in the forest.” Shaking off his momentary lapse in continuity, Vince focused his best shelter-puppy-facing-imminent-euthanasia face on Howard. “Pleeeease, Howard? It’ll be genius, I promise!”
Howard wanted to say no, just to prove that he could resist the shelter puppy face, but in all honesty, it did sound like a rather good idea.
“…all right. Fine.”
Forty minutes later, they stood in the front room, surveying their masterpiece. It was probably one of the more ridiculous-looking things Howard had seen in his life – well, that was probably a stretch, he’d seen some pretty ridiculous things in his time. But it was a bit silly – his reserved, tan and green tartan sheets hanging next to Vince’s blue and pink leopard print ones, their duvets lumped underneath the tangle of chairs, pillows strewn about the interior, and the floor lamp in the back that they’d used to make it tall enough. It had taken them forever to figure how to arrange it and get everything just right, seeing as neither of them had ever made a fort before.
He just hoped they could get it cleaned up before Naboo got back.
Vince, still in his dressing gown, clapped his hands together in excitement. “Excellent! Last one in’s a sweaty ballbag!”
He dove in through the entrance covered by a sheet flap, then poked his head out. “Get the tea for us, there’s a lad.” A cheeky grin was all Howard saw before he disappeared inside. Grumbling out of habit, Howard went and fetched their cups, before kneeling down at the entrance.
“You’ll have to grab them from me if you don’t want hot tea all over your pillows.”
Vince drew back the flap, taking his cup and setting it inside, then holding Howard’s for him. “Oh, these are your pillows on the floor, I didn’t want mine to get dirty,” he remarked, as Howard entered the fortress. Before Howard could reply, he looked around the interior of their fort and beamed in the dim light.
“I told you it would be genius, did I not? Look at this, it’s amazing! Our first real pillow fort, Howard.” The look on his face was not unlike that of a proud parent of a tot being sent off on his first day of preschool. That brought back Howard’s earlier thoughts and his stomach felt a bit queasy. Trying not to think about Vince sending his own future children off to school, Howard looked around and nodded.
“It is, indeed, a work of architectural genius. Thanks to yours truly, of course.”
Vince raised his eyebrows. “What’re you on about? I designed the thing!”
“Ah,” Howard corrected him, “I was the one who put everything into place. You merely stood around and told me which colours should go next to each other. I put in all the back-breaking labour. Therefore, I built it.”
Vince just smirked. “If you consider that back-breaking labour, I’d hate to ever see you try to assemble a bookshelf.”
“Right back at you, little man,” Howard said companionably, not even registering the old nickname as he leaned back against the pillows in front of the couch. “This is pretty nice, really,” he agreed with Vince’s earlier comment. “It was a good idea. It feels a lot less rainy now. I feel refreshed, oddly enough.”
Vince nodded, sipping his tea. “Yeah, me too. But that’s probably cos I used a new shower gel today.”
Howard just shook his head, laughing to himself. No, Vince would never be replaced by anyone, that’s for sure. Biting the inside of his lip, he suddenly asked, “Vince? What happens if you win the karaoke contest?”
Vince furrowed his brow. “What d’you mean?”
Howard tried to explain. “You know, like, do you go travelling with this band or something? Do you get a record deal? I just wasn’t sure what all happened…” He suddenly felt very stupid for asking.
Vince didn’t seem to find anything wrong with his question. “Eh, well, you don’t really travel too much. They’re just trying to find a temporary replacement for their lead singer. He’s getting surgery to remove notes from his vocal chords, or something like that. Dunno why he’s trying to get the notes taken out, but I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation for all of it.”
Howard felt it would be a lost cause to try to explain nodes to Vince, so he didn’t say anything.
“Anyway, they just need a replacement for like, a month or so while he recovers, I think. Nothing too special. Just get to play a few gigs, do some casinos, weddings, a county fair or two?” Vince ran a hand through his hair, suddenly looking embarrassed. “I mean, it’s nothing too glamorous, but I just thought, maybe if I could get a bit of publicity from it, you know, then when we go play, we might get a little more attention…”
Howard suddenly felt very, very stupid. It must have showed on his face, for Vince tilted his head questioningly and asked, “You okay, Howard?”
Howard nodded, feeling relief wash through him. “Oh. Yep, I’m all right. I just… I think I misunderstood what the contest was all about.”
Vince looked curious. “What’d you think it was? I told you all about it, remember?”
Howard waved him off. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I just… I don’t know, for some reason I thought it was more of a long-term thing, yeah? I thought you were going to go leave and travel the world and… yeah.” He looked down at his tea, feeling like a spectacular idiot. Vince had been thinking of the band the whole time, been thinking about him the whole time. And here he was, assuming Vince was just looking for an opportunity to run off and leave him behind.
When he looked up, Vince was looking at him with a strange sort of smile; a fond, friendly smile, but there was something deeper to it that he couldn’t quite parse. But he knew what it meant well enough. Vince understood, and he wasn’t mad at him.
“You nob, why would I go off and leave you?” Vince scolded, though he sounded rather amused by the whole thing. “Especially with that lot? God, their hair is awful. I’d have to do some serious salvaging on those soulless mops.”
Howard felt a smile spreading across his face. “I dunno what I was thinking, really. I was just worried, I guess.” He shrugged a shoulder, feeling sheepish.
“Why?” Vince pressed, giving him a worried look. “Why would you think I’d do that? I haven’t been acting like I want to leave, have I? I like it here with you and Bollo and Naboo. Where else would I want to go?”
Howard shrugged. “Not sure, really.”
Vince laughed, setting his tea down. “Come here, you great Northern twit.” He crawled over and wrapped Howard in a fluffy, peach-scented hug. “You’re my best mate, you nonce.”
Howard tried not to tense at the contact. It was just Vince, and just a hug. He could handle that, couldn’t he? It turns out he could, for it was over rather soon after, and Vince was settling himself down across from Howard, looking like a giddy schoolgirl.
“So,” he started, eyes gleaming. “Wanna paint our nails?”
Howard blanched. “Um.”
“Just kidding! But I mean, if you do want to–”
“Just drink your tea, Vince.”
A few hours later, Naboo would come home to find the hob still on – smoking faintly and making a horrible stench, as the tea had long evaporated – and Howard and Vince much in the same place they’d been for the better part of the day. Their cups of tea empty and discarded next to them, they were both curled up on the pillows napping away like two energy-spent toddlers.
Bollo drew back the opening to the fort. “Uhh,” he said. “Howard and Vince taking nap in pillow cave, Naboo.”
Naboo sighed wearily, letting his DJ bag slide to the floor as he went to turn off the burner. “Tell those jerk-offs to get up, find the Febreze, and open some windows. It smells like a bison’s jockstrap in here.”
Bollo wouldn’t ever tell Naboo, but secretly, he thought the whole thing was sort of sweet. Even if he was going to be the one stuck cleaning all this shit up.
III: Howard Has An Internal Conflict
Author’s Notes: Howard discovers some things are best illuminated in the dark.
Howard had finally gone to sleep at around two in the morning after much restless tossing and turning – unusual for him, he usually just lay down and drifted off rather effortlessly. He supposed the three-hour-long nap in the pillow fort hadn’t helped matters. Naboo hadn’t been too pleased about the scorched kettle, but eventually they got the place all aired out and cleaned up, and he hadn’t taunted them too much. Howard’s bed had felt a bit weird after sleeping in the fort; it was as if someone had rearranged all the bedclothes in the wrong order when they put them back on. But suddenly, in the midst of his vague unconsciousness, it seemed he was hearing things… hearing loud things.
Howard started drifting toward consciousness, sensing an oddly familiar and peculiar noise. It was a bit threatening… slicing, almost. It was so close, he could feel it. There was a heaviness on his ribs, it was difficult to breathe, everything was wrong. His eyes popped open with a start. There was a blinding light. His hands shot out, gripped something warm. It took them a moment to adjust, but then he recognised the figure looming over him.
“Vince?” He croaked.
Vince paused in his cutting, pulled back the scissors and gave him a rather surprised look, from what he could make out. The blinding light was coming from his face.
“Howard? Wha – I thought you were asleep!”
“How could I be with that thing shining in my face?” He protested, then paused. It took him another moment to figure out what exactly was going on.
“Vince… are you… are you cutting my hair?”
Vince’s shoulders rose up to his ears, or perhaps his neck just retreated. He looked sheepish and a bit like a turtle, at any rate. “Um… no?”
Howard sighed, leaning back against the stack of pillows that was, he realised, propping him up. He then recognised the blinding light; Vince was wearing a pair of LED reading glasses. Vince leaned back a bit, resting his weight on Howard’s hips. His knees were on either side of Howard’s torso, warm against his sides. It was then that Howard noticed that Vince was only wearing boxer shorts, and thus he had been gripping Vince’s bare thighs ever since he’d awoken. Howard felt his face grow warm in the darkness. He wasn’t sure how to remove them so Vince wouldn’t notice they’d been there: knowing Vince, there was a good chance he still hadn’t noticed.
“Well… is it looking good?” he ventured, figuring it would be a good course of action to keep Vince focused on his hair.
Vince let out the relieved sigh he’d apparently been holding in. “Yeah, it is, actually. Pretty good, if I do say so…” He cocked his head, looked down at Howard, who shut his eyes against the light until Vince realised he was blinding his subject and switched them off.
“S’it all right, then?” He sounded all of twelve again, so hesitant and unsure. Howard thought how odd the sound was: Vince, hesitant. He didn’t think he liked it, too foreign to his ears. He belatedly realised Vince was waiting for an answer.
“Er… yeah, all right. But just because ‘m not asleep anymore doesn’t mean ‘m paying you for it now,” he stipulated, leaning back against the pillow the way he thought Vince might’ve had him positioned. He wasn’t really tired, anyway. Might as well let Vince have his fun.
“Genius,” Vince replied happily, flicking on the lights once more and leaning forward to snip one of Howard’s locks. He didn’t seem too fussed about lack of payment; just getting to play with others’ hair was reward enough for him.
Howard, however, was starting to feel stifled once more. Vince was bloody straddling his waist, his bum and… other things resting on Howard’s body. Not to mention he was leaning forward and his bare chest was in Howard’s face. He stared at Vince’s nipples in the dim light, for lack of having anything else to look at. They seemed friendly enough. Maybe if he were to draw a smile underneath them, they’d have a little more personality. He wondered what kind of stories Vince’s nipples would tell. They’d probably be bitter, really, always being encased in skin-tight leather substitutes and vinyl, poly-blends, and only rarely a breathable cotton. He could always see them protesting the catsuits Vince had taken to wearing, especially on cold days. He’d caught Vince many a time trying to tug the plunging neckline over to cover them, as if they were something to be ashamed of; maybe they just didn’t go with his aesthetic. They still made appearances rather often, when he wasn’t paying attention. Howard had grown familiar to seeing them from afar, but up this close was a different story entirely.
He then wondered why he was thinking about Vince’s nipples so much. He didn’t think Vince had noticed his conspicuous silence, but just in case, he thought maybe a light conversation would help pass the time. He had no idea how long it took to cut his hair in the relative dark. The fact that it was still relatively dark even with the reading lights was actually a bit scary, but Vince always had managed to cut his hair quite well, so obviously it wasn’t much of an issue for him.
“So… how often do you do this?” he asked Vince, addressing his nipples.
Vince made a soft pondering sound. “About every month I trim for split ends… depends on how fast your hair seems to be growing. I usually give it a good cut every other month, generally speaking.”
Howard chuckled to himself, amused. “I can’t believe you actually sneak in here at night and go at it. Why didn’t you ever just ask me if you could cut my hair?”
He knew Vince was making a disbelieving face from the sound of his voice. “What? You berk, you know you’d never have agreed to let me. You’d be all, ‘Oh no Vince, don’t give me a mullet, I don’t want to be fashionable!’“
Howard laughed. “Well, I’m letting you now, aren’t I?”
Vince flicked off his reading lights, looking down and shaking his scissors at him. “That’s only cos you know I’ve been doing it this whole time and I do a bang-up job of it. Don’t even pretend otherwise.”
Howard smiled, knowing Vince was probably right. “Well… I mean, we could do it in the day, if you like. So you could get a proper amount of sleep and maybe make it to work on time.”
Vince giggled, flicking his lights back on and returning to his work. The soft snip of the scissors was right about Howard’s left ear, and he felt a little cascade of hair snips fall to his bare shoulder. “Yeah right, nice try. I like doing it like this, it’s more fun in the dark. Haven’t you noticed, Howard? Everything’s more fun when you do it in the dark.”
Howard frowned. “Like what? You can’t see anything in the dark. Unless you got those goggles of course, but most people don’t carry those about on their persons.” Though maybe he should start, Howard mused to himself. They looked like they would come in handy.
“You know,” Vince encouraged. “Things like watching movies, playing sardines, weaving baskets, dancing around in circles, taking baths, making lo – er, cupcakes. And cutting hair, obviously. When one of your senses is deprived, the others have to work overtime to make up for it. It’s well genius.”
“So if you didn’t have those reading lights, your nose would be telling you how to cut my hair?” Howard commented dryly. Vince huffed.
“First of all, they’re hair-cutting lights, not reading lights, you garlic twit. You know I don’t read. Second, if I were going to cut your hair completely in the dark, I wouldn’t use my nose, I’d use my fingers.”
He flipped off the lights once more, sitting back a bit. Howard was glad he was such a lightweight, else his legs would have been numb a long time ago. As it is, his legs were just getting really warm. He felt Vince stroke a hand through his hair, then lift a lock away from his head. He felt light pressure as Vince ran his fingers up the length of it, then released it.
“See, I can measure it with my hands. I can tell how long it is.”
Vince had set the scissors down apparently, since both of his hands were now running through Howard’s hair. Howard wasn’t used to people touching his head, but this felt rather nice, oddly enough.
“It feels pretty even on both sides,” Vince was saying, his fingers stroking down the sides of Howard’s head. “I wonder if it could use another layer? Hard to say, I’m not sure if it would be too much.” Howard’s eyes drifted shut of their own accord and his head drooped forward. It felt really, really good, if he was being honest.
Vince paused, then chuckled. “Like that, do you?”
Howard opened his eyes, lifting his head, and now it was his turn to look sheepish in the dark. “Sorry… just not used to people playin’ with my hair and all that.” He shrugged a shoulder, felt a little tickle as some of the hair clippings slid down his chest.
“Well, I am a pretty good head masseuse, you know.” Vince sounded pleased. “It stimulates your follicles so your hair grows in nice and thick. That’s why you’re supposed to massage your shampoo in, it’s good for your scalp.”
Howard’s eyes were shut again; Vince had resumed his ministrations. “You’re supposed to do that? Really?”
Vince gave him a condescending sigh. “Oh, Howard. I have so much to teach you.” He seemed to be enjoying himself as he rubbed circles into Howard’s scalp, his fingers splaying apart before coming together again. If Howard were a cat, he probably would’ve been purring.
“Maybe in the morning Vince,” he murmured. “‘M not sure how much I can retain at the moment.”
Vince was smiling, he was sure of it. “S’all right. You know me, I’m always happy to dispense hair advice at any hour. You know, I don’t usually do this bit; you’re usually not awake to appreciate it, so I don’t bother.”
Howard felt embarrassed for some reason. It suddenly occurred to him that he was in a dark room, in bed with his barely-clothed best friend straddling him and massaging his head. Ah, that would be it, then.
“You don’t have to,” he feebly protested as he opened his eyes, not really wanting Vince to stop, but feeling like he ought to.
Vince shrugged a shoulder, pale enough in the darkness for him to see the movement. “S’all right, I don’t mind. It’s good fun, really. I don’t get to play with your hair very often. Usually when I cut, it’s wham, bam, thank you ma’am, cos I’m tryin’ not to wake you up, you know? But since you’re already awake, I figure, why not?”
Not really knowing what to say, Howard just settled back against the pillows. There was silence for a few moments; Howard wasn’t sure if it was an awkward silence or a comfortable one. It seemed right on the boundary, could tip either way.
“Are you okay?” Vince asked suddenly, sliding his hair-cutting glasses up to the top of his head so they weren’t in his way. “From earlier, I forgot to ask if you were alright after landing in the tub. You did cushion my fall, after all.”
Howard had actually got a bit bruised, but he wasn’t about to admit it, no sir. “Eh, I’m fine, really. Don’t you worry: Old Howard Moon, he’s right as rain.”
“Alright, if you say so,” Vince giggled a bit. “Only just I saw you icing your bum earlier in the kitch–”
“Yeah, that was a totally unrelated incident, actually,” Howard intercepted, suddenly defensive. “I was just warming up the bag of peas to… you know, defrost them quicker.”
“Except I saw you stick them right back in the freezer after,” Vince snickered, running his fingers through Howard’s hair, starting at his hairline. “It’s okay,” he added, before Howard could defend himself any further. “I just wanted to say sorry for knockin’ you over, that’s all.”
Howard was touched, oddly. Aside from literally touched, he was surprised by Vince’s compassion, especially so long after the fact. He usually had the memory of an attention-deficit goldfish when it came to such things.
“Oh. Alright then.”
He honestly didn’t really want to think about that morning anymore. It was too embarrassing all around. He opened his eyes, tried to focus on something else. Vince’s nipples were still in his face. In the faint glow creeping in through their blinds, he thought he could see they were hard. Odd really, it wasn’t that cold in here. Then again, he was under the blankets with someone sitting on him, whereas Vince was rather suspect to the chilling night air.
His eyes wandered down Vince’s slim torso. It was no wonder everyone loved him. He was beautiful, really. Howard had pretty nice legs, sure, but Vince seemed to have nice everything. He recalled Vince’s pale arse, standing out against the dark cabinets. It was perfect, just like the rest of him. He had always taken good care of himself, though Howard wasn’t sure how someone stayed so thin on a diet of Twiglets and raspberry bootlaces, while he himself still had a bit of a belly even though he ate a balanced diet. It was just one of the many mysteries surrounding Vince.
One thing he always wondered about was why Vince went to such great lengths to do himself up every day. Even without the makeup he’d taken to wearing, without his hair fixed just right, without his outlandish outfits… Vince was gorgeous. Just like he was now, sitting here in the dark with all his makeup washed off, no fancy clothes, his hairdo deflated and waiting to be revived come dawn.
Any woman or man would be jealous, really. Anyone would want to touch him, just to see if he was real…
“Vince–” Howard started, then stopped. He wasn’t sure what he was trying to say, anymore. He wasn’t sure of a lot of things, lately.
“Howard?” Came the questioning reply. Vince was looking down at him. Howard shut his eyes.
“Ah, never mind, little man. Don’t worry about it.”
Vince sat back, his full weight on Howard’s hips. Howard tried not to think about how nice it felt, that weight right above his groin. Bugger, that just made him think about it. Great.
Something in Vince’s voice made Howard look up. Vince’s expression was hard to read in the dim, his fringe hanging low over his eyes.
He thought he could make out the corner of Vince’s mouth twitching into a small grin.
“You do know you’ve had your hands on my thighs this entire time, yeah?”
Shit! Howard moved his hands away as if they’d been burned. He’d completely forgotten. How had he let that happen? He’d started off trying to distract Vince, and only ended up distracting himself. He was such an idiot. It was pretty late, though, in his defense. He’d blame it on that.
“Sorry, Vince. ‘M a little out of it, you know, lack of sleep and all that. I don’t think it’ll leave any lasting marks, heh heh.” He tried a chuckle, but it sounded forced even to his own ears.
Vince cocked his head, hair spilling over his collarbone. It was longer than he’d thought, Howard noticed. So black in the darkness of the room, as if the nighttime itself was draped over Vince’s shoulders.
“Is that all, then?” he heard Vince ask, and Howard furrowed his brow.
“Er… what d’you–”
“Cos I thought maybe you were just doing it cos you wanted to,” Vince murmured, and Howard realized that perhaps, his own attempt at nonchalance wasn’t working quite as well as it usually did.
Howard’s brain seemed to short-circuit as Vince brought a hand up to his chest, running it up his neck to cradle his cheek. He didn’t know what was going on anymore. Was he still awake? He thought he could feel a familiar warmth pooling in his groin, and desperately hoped he was imagining it. He could explain away once, perhaps, but twice?
Vince’s voice brought him back to the present.
He blinked. “Vince?”
There was hot breath wafting across his lips suddenly. Howard started a bit, surprised. He exhaled slowly, realised how close their faces were. He could see Vince’s eyes now; they were dark, intense, and fixed upon his own.
“Why don’t you just say what you mean, Howard?” Vince’s voice was low and soft, but with an unusual inflection in it that Howard didn’t think he’d ever heard before. It was… sensuous? No, that couldn’t be right.
“What – what I mean? I don’t mean anything…” Howard hurriedly replied, his voice rising slightly in pitch as Vince’s other hand came to rest on his chest, tickling the shorn hairs that clung to his suddenly-too-warm skin.
Vince’s eyes slid shut, his breath hot and enticing against Howard’s lips. He leaned in, and Howard’s eyes squeezed shut, not believing what he knew was about to happen.
Howard’s eyes shot open. Vince was rising up off him, backing up off the bed, taking his scissors with him. Howard saw his slim, pale body for a moment, before it disappeared into the darkness of the hall. He thought he heard a faint, “You might want to take care of that,” before Vince totally disappeared, but it was so quiet, he couldn’t be sure he hadn’t just imagined it.
He exhaled slowly, slumping lifelessly against the pillows. Looking down, he sighed, realising Vince must have felt his hardness. Again. That was going to be difficult to explain. Maybe Vince would just forget about it, if he were lucky.
But Howard knew he wouldn’t. Even if he didn’t say anything, he would give Howard one of his knowing looks in the morning. He didn’t know if he could face it. Miserable, he rearranged the pillows so they lay flat, sinking down underneath the blankets, little hair snips pricking his skin. He felt cheated somehow, but for the life of him, couldn’t understand why. He finally drifted off to a fitful sleep, feeling cold and alone without Vince’s weight above him.
IV: Howard Has An Argument
Author’s Notes: Unsure of how to deal with Vince being a little too close for comfort, Howard beats a hasty retreat.
Oddly enough, Howard mused as he stood in front of the mirror the next morning, his hair did look pretty good. It looked extra good, actually, as if Vince had really outdone himself this time. Maybe it was easier for him to barber when Howard was awake.
He tried not to think about what else had transpired last night besides a haircut. It seemed unfair that in the course of a single day, he had gone from suffering an awkward morning embarrassment to recovering his dignity in the afternoon, just to stumble that night back into the uneasy realm of confusing, conflicting, awkward emotions and strange signals.
Howard wasn’t really sure what to think anymore. He’d first thought that Vince was trying to help him loosen up a bit. Now it seemed like Vince was teasing him in some roundabout way. Like Vince was trying to reel him in, only to suddenly push him away, all in one breath. They shared a room, after all; why would Vince slip off and sleep on the couch after cutting Howard’s hair? It was very unlike him to willingly give up the comfort of his own bed. Howard just didn’t understand what Vince was up to – he wondered if perhaps it was really just all in his own head that he was seeing things this way. Maybe he was trying to see hidden meanings where there weren’t any.
But was he attracted to Vince? Howard didn’t want to admit it, but a little part of him had meant what he said on the rooftop. Physical connection meant a lot to him, it wasn’t something to be taken lightly. Of course, he had nothing to really base this opinion on, but he just knew it to be true.
And he had felt… something, when Vince kissed him. Of course he had, he’d literally shouted it from the rooftop. Once he’d had a chance to think it through, however, he realised that it was probably just the excitement of the day, just the excitement of being kissed. Maybe he did feel something for Vince, in a way, but it surely didn’t have much to do with Vince himself, just the role he’d played.
Really, the more he’d thought about it over the following weeks, the more the memory had become tainted, even sour. Howard would’ve done it over again, sure, if it meant the difference between Vince remaining attached to his head or not, but now… it just felt as though his first kiss had been stolen from him. One of the milestones of his life – it had seemed like such a letdown later on, once he’d calmed down and realised that no, he wasn’t really gay, and no, he didn’t really care for Vince.
Though Vince had acted upset the instant Howard had turned his attention to someone else, Howard knew his friend. He knew when it was Vince’s easily-wounded pride talking. Vince just didn’t like being tossed aside – he would love nothing more than to have everyone constantly fighting over him. Just wanted to be the centre of attention.
Howard Moon was many things, but he was not stupid. He knew Vince had been telling the truth when he was trying to get Howard to calm down and stop going mental. He wasn’t in love with Howard, he said. It was just a kiss, he said. And even though Howard knew it was all for the best, it still stung him. Just the knowing that Vince forever would possess that part of him, and he couldn’t get it back.
There was nothing he could do about it now, of course; just move on and never tell Vince how disappointed he was.
That’s what he used to think, anyway. That was the neat conclusion he’d come to in his mind. It was easy enough to swallow, it was acceptable. He could have lived with that.
But the last day was starting to make him wonder if, perhaps, he’d too quickly dismissed the event – because now Vince was acting almost as if he wanted Howard.
Howard had difficulty deciphering these things, but he was pretty sure Vince was sending him some amorous signs. But why now? It was so confusing. Why did Vince always have to flit back and forth and change his mind and act coy and muddle everything? Howard could barely tell up from down anymore.
And honestly, he wasn’t sure what he wanted. This was his best friend, after all. His quite unmistakably male best friend, underneath all the makeup and root-boost. Howard wasn’t really gay, he was fairly certain. Wouldn’t he have noticed by now if he were?
Out of the blue, Howard heard footsteps approaching.
He panicked, hurriedly vacated the bathroom without a backward glance. As he headed toward the kitchen, he heard the footsteps pause. The silence hung heavy at his back, punctuated by the click of the door shutting.
Well, if things weren’t going to be awkward before, he’d definitely just made them awkward now.
Howard wished desperately he weren’t such a coward when it came to matters of the heart. Man of not getting any action, that’s what he was. He was out of his element and he knew it.
Howard paused in the middle of the room. A thought occurred to him.
He could ask Naboo about all this.
As soon as the thought registered, it was immediately dismissed. Naboo had never been one to bestow very good advice on him. He favoured Vince, of course, and really just tolerated Howard on a general basis. He probably wouldn’t do much beyond smirk at him and make some crude joke. And he didn’t exactly trust Bollo to give good insight into human relationships. At least, not to him.
Howard huffed, descending the stairs into the Nabootique. This was all wrong. Normally when he had a problem, he could go to Vince and know that one way or another, they’d sort it out together. But now Vince was the problem, and he had nobody to go to. Not Lester, that was for sure. Bob Fossil… Howard really didn’t want to even entertain the idea. He didn’t really know any of Naboo’s shaman friends, and he hadn’t exactly kept in touch with anyone from the Zooniverse. And the bin men? Stuff the bin men.
He really needed to find himself some more friends to talk to, if Vince was going to continue confusing him like this. Howard sank into the chair behind the front desk and sighed. Wasn’t there a hotline for this, somewhere out there? Or maybe… maybe he could just talk to Vince and pretend his problem was with someone else.
No, that would never work. Vince would know right away that there wasn’t anyone else interested in Howard. They were together all the time, there was no fooling him.
Before he could come up with a satisfying solution, Howard heard Vince’s heels clomping down the stairs. This wasn’t good. If Vince was going to try and talk to him about this… well, he didn’t really know what he would say. He hadn’t had adequate time to think things through. He felt his pulse speeding up.
“Alright.” Vince gave his usual greeting just as cheerfully as he normally did. Howard wasn’t fooled. He knew it was coming, just knew it.
“Hey, Vince,” he nodded, forcing a smile as he leaned back in his chair. He felt as if any moment, the delicate ice they were treading would break and he would be plunged into the icy, murky depths, swept along by the current with no chance of a breath or a saviour.
He couldn’t do this right now, he couldn’t handle this. He just needed to think.
The next fifteen minutes were filled with stilted conversation, mostly from Howard’s end, and uncomfortable silences, again mostly thanks to Howard. Vince seemed to be acting fairly blas� about the whole thing, but Howard couldn’t help worrying that any moment, he’d clear his throat and start, “So, about last night…”
Howard would be perfectly happy pretending last night never happened, thank you very much, sir.
It came as a surprise to him, when Vince put down his magazine onto his lap and peered over, gently inquiring, “Howard… are you feeling alright?” Howard looked over at him; he actually seemed concerned. Still, Howard felt anxiety bubbling over inside of him.
“Just fine Vince, never better,” came his automatic retort, sharp and curt. Inwardly, Howard was panicking; he needed to find some way to distract Vince, throw him off.
“Really? You don’t seem fine to me. You seem upset about something. You’re off a bit, today. What’s wrong?” Vince set the magazine aside, and seemed like he was going to get up from his chair, then thought better of it.
Howard’s palms were damp with nervousness. “Nothing, I just told you. I’m one hundred percent fine. I invented fine.”
Vince didn’t look convinced. (Good one, Howard, his mind preened.)
“Just tell me what it is, Howard. You know I’m going to keep pestering you about it until you do.”
Howard sighed. Maybe the solution was simply to talk to Vince himself? He just didn’t feel prepared, didn’t feel ready to try and explain the way he felt.
“It’s, er… about last night.”
If Vince’s ears could perk up, they definitely would’ve. “Oh?” he said, casually. “What about last night?”
Howard didn’t believe for an instant that Vince was truly as innocent as he sounded. His eyes were guileless, but Howard was sure his friend knew exactly what he was talking about. It was just like Vince, though, to make Howard have to spell everything out for him.
“I just… well, I thought you were going to… you know. What you did on the – er, the rooftop,” Howard blurted, not wanting to say the words.
“What?” Vince seemed amused. “You thought I was going to… kiss you?”
Howard glowered. “It isn’t funny, Vince.”
“I think it’s pretty funny.”
“Well, it’s not!” Howard shouted, standing up and planting his hands on the desk. Vince looked startled and confused.
“The night of my birthday – on the roof, don’t you remember?” Howard sputtered indignantly, startled at his own boldness. “You took my first kiss, Vince! And now you’re being so – so casual!”
“What?” Vince’s eyes were suddenly wide, his brow knitted into confusion. “You say that like I ruined your life or something. I mean, I was in real danger there, I didn’t think you’d get so upset about it. It’s just a kiss, Howard,” he added, incredulously. “I didn’t think it was such a big deal.”
Howard felt something inside of him break in two. And those halves snapped in two as well, and again and again and it just kept going until he was sure the millions of shards inside him would pierce all his organs if he moved too suddenly. Killed from within: his final, most tragic end.
“Well, you thought wrong!” He countered, bristling. “And you know what, I tried to get over it, yeah? I thought I already had. Until you started acting strange all of a sudden, I was never going to mention how disappointed I was, because it was a life or death situation for you and I was trying to help out and be understanding, alright?” Howard couldn’t remember ever raising his voice at Vince in this way; and it was terrifying, and it was so, so relieving.
“I just – I always hoped it would be something special and you had to take even that from me, didn’t you? Vince Noir, my best mate, who could have anyone he wants with a snap of his fingers, he had to be the one to get there first. It couldn’t have even been a woman, at least!”
Howard tried to catch his breath. “And, and the thing is, it wasn’t even because you actually wanted to – and you know, if you had, maybe that would’ve been something different, I don’t know! But even that would’ve been better than doing it just to save your own skin because you got caught in a cupboard with another man’s wife! It would’ve been just too much to ask for it to be with someone who was maybe, possibly actually interested in me, for once!” Howard was seething. It felt raw and unfamiliar, the rushing of blood in his ears.
Vince looked taken aback at this new, un-Howard-like anger; normally when they got in arguments, he was quick on the draw, deflecting everything right back at Howard with his usual brand of illogic. Now he just looked even smaller than usual, almost timid. Even his hair seemed deflated.
“But I do love you, Howard. I still care about you,” he offered, looking up and biting his lower lip, looking shamed and uncomfortable.
Howard sighed, exasperated. Normally seeing Vince in distress would’ve triggered his protective instincts, but not right now. Right now, it was just irritating. He didn’t think Vince was getting the point of the conversation.
“Yes, Vince, I know, but that’s not exactly what I’m talking about, am I? There’s a difference between best mates and something more. And quite frankly, you’re confusing the scat out of me lately with the way you’ve been acting and I just want things to go back to normal, alright?” He was coming down from his anger; his voice was almost pleading now. He couldn’t stay mad at Vince, of course. But he just felt so… disappointed. “Please, Vince. Can we just forget about everything and just be friends again?”
Vince looked at him with an unreadable expression. Howard, who used to think he knew all his friend’s moods and faces, was no longer shocked by this. Vince felt so strange and alien to him, these last few days. It made his insides ache.
“You just want things to go back the way they were?” Vince asked quietly, voice carefully void of any telling inflection.
Howard nodded emphatically. “That’s all I want, I promise. I just…” He ran his hand over his face, trying to figure out how to word things properly. “I just feel like we’re growing apart somehow, you know? It’s like I don’t even know what you’re on about anymore. I mean,” he corrected himself, “Normally I don’t really know what you’re on about because it’s usually some pop singer I’ve never heard of. But this is… well, it’s different. And I don’t like it.”
Vince nodded, a resigned grimace tugging at his mouth. “Alright. I can do that.” He sank down into the nearest chair, and Howard heard a frustrated huff escape him. “Back to normal. Back to normal. Alright. By tomorrow, we won’t remember any of this, I’ll bet. That’s how normal it’ll be, yeah? Out of sight, out of mind.” He rose then, suddenly, not looking at Howard. “I’ve gotta go and touch up my hair, actually.”
And with that, he stomped up the stairs and was gone. Howard sighed, wondering if he’d hurt Vince’s feelings somehow. He didn’t mean to; he was just trying to save their friendship, really. Vince could surely understand that.
So why did he feel like he just made a big mistake?
IV Part Two: Howard Has A Revelation
Author’s Notes: A small adventure marks the return of the way things used to be, for better or worse.
Vince was singing in the shower again. This time, it was a tune Howard didn’t recognise at all. Garbled by the wall between them and the running water, he could just make out the words; something about boys not crying. Sounded a bit depressing for this early in the morning.
Howard rose, stretching luxuriously. What a beautiful morning this was going to be. It was Sunday, which meant the shop was closed. He and Vince could perhaps practice finding their new sound, maybe go and get some crisps, the normal things they always did. He’d been a bit worried last night when Vince had practically ran out of the shop after they’d talked, but later that evening, everything had suddenly been wonderful again.
Vince had reappeared around dinnertime, bright-eyed and cheerful, and Howard had felt his mood instantly lift. Things were going to be fine, everything would be great now that they were back on the same page. They had even crimped about spag bol – something they hadn’t done in a while.
Smiling with the assurance of a man whose life has just got back on track, Howard slung on his robe and padded downstairs to make himself a cup of tea. Once it was steaming in his hands, he settled on the couch, chuckling to himself as he thought of the fort he and Vince had constructed.
Things were so simple now. And he’d done it all on his own; he’d put his foot down and stood his ground and for once, it had ended spectacularly well. Howard knew he shouldn’t congratulate himself too much, but he was just pleased, really. Relieved.
Vince hobbled in, hair up in a towel on his head. He had some sort of greenish goop on his face, and when Howard looked down, he saw some weird sort of blue foam object with little knobs wedged between each of Vince’s toes.
“All right?” Vince greeted, making his way with some difficulty over to the counter to pour himself some tea. “Great weather for a day off, yeah? S’all bright and shiny like the Village People. We should go and do something!”
“What’s on your feet?” Howard inquired, before adding helpfully, “It looks like you fell asleep on an avocado.”
Vince scowled good-naturedly. “I just buffed and polished my nails, the foam is to keep them from touching while they dry, of course. And it’s a facial mask, you nob. It’s made out of clay, not guacamole.”
“Still say you could dip a crisp in it,” Howard remarked drily, taking a sip to hide his grin.
Vince rolled his eyes, tottering over to the couch and draping himself all over it. “You’d better not try, it’d probably suck all the acid out of your stomach and I’d have to feed you cat food and applesauce for the rest of your life. You’d smell like an old granny.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t eat it, obviously. I’d feed it to Fossil, he probably wouldn’t mind the cat food.” Howard covered a wide yawn with the back of his hand. “So what’d you say you wanted to do?”
“I didn’t,” Vince wrapped his slender fingers around his teacup, sipped daintily to keep from covering the rim in green goo. “But since you asked, I think we should go out. We could go to the park and feed the ducks and go on one of those little paddle-boats.” His eyes lit up. “I’ve always wanted to go on one of them, they’re well quaint!”
“Are you sure, Vince?” Howard was concerned, at least superficially. “The carp might try to eat you if you wear anything too shiny.”
Vince gave him a level look. “Last I checked, I wasn’t the one who had a problem with amorous fishy types.”
Howard blushed. Well. That shut him up.
Three hours later, Howard found himself sitting next to Vince inside the most ridiculous paddle-boat he had ever seen – the bloody thing had a giant swan head on the front, with wings on either side. Upon seeing it, Vince had immediately proclaimed it would be the only one he would set foot in, and could not be dissuaded. Howard, slightly embarrassed, had paid the rental fee with some reluctance and now here they were, going around in circles because Vince was distracted by dragonflies and carp, and subsequently kept forgetting to paddle.
Howard stopped moving his legs, figuring there was no point in him continuing for the time being. He looked over at Vince, who was almost cooing as he leaned forward to dip his fingertips in the water. The gaping carp seemed to grin at his attention and jostled for position, hoping for some tid-bits. Vince had debated what to bring them, ended up with a bag full of strawberry bootlaces and polo mints. Howard wasn’t so sure that was good for the fish, but they seemed to be enjoying it.
He hadn’t seen Vince look so contented in ages, it seemed. He was happy often, of course, but ever since they left the Zooniverse, Vince didn’t stop and talk to animals like he used to. He was suddenly so concerned about his hair, which he’d always seemed to be perfectly happy with, before. His outfits got wilder and his friends got weirder, and it was sometimes hard to believe the Vince he knew as a zookeeper was the same Vince he knew now.
Howard leaned back against the seat, folding his arms behind him and shutting his eyes, letting the warm rays of the sun hit him. He sat and contemplated, hearing Vince laugh and burble nonsense, scolding his aquatic acquaintances for being too rowdy.
Vince had always been the Sunshine Kid. The plucky one, the talented one. It seemed he’d become so worried about fitting in with the people in the city, so worried about making them like him. Vince didn’t need to worry, really – people liked him as soon as they met him. It was quite difficult to dislike him.
Well, Howard reasoned… sometimes it was more difficult than others. Sometimes he just wanted to shake Vince like a muppet, try to make him realise how silly it was spending hours in front of a mirror, trying to make himself look more and more perfect. If Vince didn’t think he looked good enough, what did he think Howard looked like? Vince had always teased him about the things he wore. Howard didn’t really mind. He often voiced his thoughts that the things Vince wore were pretty ridiculous as well. They just had different tastes; that was all right.
But sometimes the things Vince said… these last few months, it wasn’t like before. There was a meanness to his words at times, so out of place coming from that sweet mouth. Howard didn’t think it was really Vince speaking; it was the city speaking through him, he sometimes thought. Vince was so sensitive, so flightly. Howard knew where he stood in the world, had his niche, so to speak. He didn’t waver, at least not very often – let’s forget about that whole acting business, all right?
But Vince… every week he had a new look, a new clique, a new person to be. Howard wasn’t really sure why – perhaps it was just part of being trendy and fashionable. But he was fashionable too, just in a more practical way.
Howard cracked an eye open. Vince was still ripping bootlaces into pieces, tossing them to his adoring crowd. Howard couldn’t see his face, but he knew Vince was grinning ear to ear, eyes bright. That used to be enough for him, having all the animals love him. Having Howard as his friend. What made him change?
Maybe Vince was just growing up, his brain suggested.
Howard wasn’t sure he liked the idea.
Sorry, his brain replied. Just trying to help.
Howard sat up, blinking as he accidentally looked right into the sun.
“What’re they saying?” he asked, trying to peer over the edge of the stupid swan wing to see Vince’s fan club.
Vince laughed, turning around to look at him. “Howard, you’ll never believe, they absolutely love Jagger! I never knew carp had such good taste!”
Howard was right about one thing – Vince’s face was glowing, as radiant as the sun glistening on the water all around him. His eyes were the same deep blue as the lake, so vivid in his pale face. Howard felt some strange feeling wash over him as Vince enthused, “They want to come up here with us, but I tried explaining that if we filled the boat with water, pretty soon we’d just be down there with them.”
He was beautiful, Howard realised. There was no getting around it. He was.
He had to stop staring.
Tearing his eyes away from Vince, Howard shakily stood up in the boat, trying to lean over to Vince’s side enough to see the fish.
“It’s too bad we can’t just take them home,” he remarked, catching glimpse of the sizeable school that was eagerly bobbing up against the side of the boat. “I’m sure they’d love living in the bath.”
Thinking about the bath and recent shenanigans therein suddenly made him anxious, and he wobbled a bit.
Vince reached a hand out to steady him, voice concerned. “Howard, sit down, you’re gonna fall.”
The sudden touch on his leg shocked him in his already anxious state. Howard jumped, then skidded, and before he could register what was happening, there was the sensation of falling through air and the pain of his foot caught under the paddle. He tried to grab something, anything, but the flimsy wing on Vince’s side of the paddle-boat wasn’t strong enough to hold his weight and he heard Vince cry out as he pitched forward into the water, the whole boat following.
Everything was loud and muddled under the water, the slick bodies of fish sliding past his face and arms as they darted out of the way, everything was confusion. He couldn’t tell up from down for a moment, until he could open his eyes and resurface with a gasp, trying to wipe the wet hair from his eyes. He’d lost his hat, and as Howard spat water from his mouth, treading water and looking around frantically, he realised he’d also lost Vince.
“Vince!” he shouted, trying to swim around to the other side of the upturned boat to see if Vince was there. Relief hit him like a tsunami when he saw Vince sputtering on the other side, looking rather dishevelled and rather put out at being so unceremoniously dumped into the lake.
“If you wanted to go swimming, you could’ve just said so!” he shouted at Howard, pushing his long hair off his face. Mascara streaked down his face, giving him the appearance of a soggy raccoon. Howard just stared at him, bobbing in the water, and suddenly he was grinning, and then he was laughing, and Vince was laughing too. They were hysterical for what seemed like ages, clinging to the side of the swan boat. When he could finally catch his breath, Howard gave Vince a sheepish smile.
“Sorry, I didn’t know it’d be so cold.”
Vince splashed him. “You did so. Wanker.”
Without thinking, Howard reached over and wiped his finger under one of Vince’s eyes, covering it with black. He smudged it on Vince’s nose, which earned him another splash. Vince was still smiling though, so he supposed in the end it was all right.
The fish had warily started to venture back over, and a few gaped at Howard, looking confused as to why he had suddenly joined their ranks.
“Sorry,” Howard offered. “Didn’t mean to spoil your party.”
Vince was giggling as fish lipped at his clothes and his hair. “You didn’t ruin it,” he assured Howard. “They say it happens all the time. They’re rifling through your pockets right now, they’re sad there’s nothing good to be found in them.”
Howard just shook his head. “C’mon, let’s see if we can’t flip this boat back over, shall we?”
Vince rolled his eyes at the fish, as if he were a teenager who had just been ordered to clean his room in the middle of hanging out with friends and was embarrassed about it. He pushed at the boat ineffectually. “How’re we going to do that?”
Howard contemplated this.
“I have no idea.”
In the end, they were picked up by two lifeguards in a speedboat and their swan was towed back to the docks, bobbing in the wake. Howard kept apologising to anyone who would listen, and by the time they were back at the pier, Vince had made two new Gary Numan fans.
Even after they’d been back home for a good three hours, Vince hadn’t disappeared to repair his makeup or fix his flattened hair. Howard thought it funny, how odd it was to see him looking like a normal person for once. He seemed perfectly content to bob around the flat, avoiding helping Howard fix dinner as he joked with Naboo and Bollo, exaggerating the events of the day until Howard had apparently almost drowned and Vince had called upon the carp to push the two of them to shore, whereupon he rescued Howard and saved the day, and now Peter Jackson was making a movie out of it.
“Vince know CPR?” Bollo asked incredulously, trying not to think too much about P.J. It was a sore spot.
Vince scoffed. “Course I do! It’s just pressing on their chest and then, you know, the other bit.” Naboo just shook his head.
The conversation veered off after that, but Howard stirred the pumpkin soup and contemplated.
Later, once all four bellies were full and sated, Vince plunked himself on the couch and proceeded to skim what was on the telly until he landed on the Discovery Channel. Howard was in the middle of helping Bollo pile the dishes in the sink when Naboo coughed discreetly, nodded his head in the direction of the cupboard. Howard furrowed his brow, but followed the small shaman over to the corner.
“What?” he asked, sotto voce.
“What’s wrong with Vince?” Naboo asked, looking a bit confused himself.
Howard shrugged a shoulder, admitting, “I’m not really sure. He… he seemed different today.” Happier, he almost added. Like he used to be.
Naboo seemed to digest this. “Just don’t do it again, all right?”
Now Howard was well and truly confounded. “Do what?”
“Whatever you did,” was Naboo’s curt response. “He’s clearly lost his mind.”
After he’d shuffled away, Howard stood for a moment and processed this. What was wrong with Vince taking a break from being a fashionista, even if just for the day? What was wrong with him spending time with Howard, doing silly things and getting into adventures like they used to? He turned, looked over at Vince.
All right, so it was a little bit weird, the fact that he was just laying about without anything but traces of his eye makeup left, without his hair perfectly coiffed. But maybe Vince was just tired of being Vince. The more Howard thought about it, the more difficult a job it sounded, to always care what you looked like. He sighed inwardly, feeling once again like things were about to shift on him. He plodded over to the sofa and took a seat next to Vince, yawning broadly and stretching his arms. “What’s on?”
“Lemurs,” Vince answered without looking away from the screen. “They’re just like if a panda married a squirrel. S’genius.”
Howard rested his arm along the back of the sofa out of habit, and it seemed perfectly natural that Vince should snuggle closer, creeping into the space under his arm and leaning his head on Howard.
Perfectly natural, but that didn’t stop him noticing.
Vince was warm… almost too warm. Even through the cabled fabric of his thick cardigan, it was like cozying up to a little wood stove. Howard realised he’d missed this. Just sitting like this together, just being close. He’d told Vince so many times to stop touching him that finally, Vince had stopped.
Maybe that hadn’t been what he wanted at all. He just didn’t like people being in his space, putting their hands on him, closing in on him. And that was still true, but sitting here like this… it had actually been nice, he realised. Before he’d just tolerated it, because it was Vince. But now… he sort of liked it, being close. He could feel Vince’s hand playing with the hem of his cardigan, though a sidelong glance revealed Vince’s eyes were still glued to the lemurs scampering through treetops.
Vince just liked to touch things, he absorbed the world around him with his fingertips. He loved feeling fabrics, running his fingers through unmown grass, through ripples and across countertops.
Howard suddenly wasn’t watching the programme anymore. He felt sick.
He’d started it.
He’d been the one to push Vince away, the whole time. He’d told Vince not to touch him, and then he wondered why Vince started going out to clubs every night with Leroy and left him behind. It was his fault, making Vince leave. To tell Vince not to touch something, it was like telling a fish not to swim.
Vince’s hand was still fiddling with his cardigan, little inquisitive fingertips toying at loose threads, then running over the ridges of his corduroy trousers where the fabric buckled along the outer seam. The hand suddenly stilled, then withdrew. Howard felt Vince pull away ever so slightly – his head was a little lighter on Howard’s side, he suddenly seemed stiffer than before.
Was Vince afraid of him? He was still looking at the telly; if anyone else had looked on, they wouldn’t have seen any difference from a minute before. But Howard felt it.
He didn’t say anything.
What could he say? Somehow, telling someone to not touch him seemed more permissible than telling someone they could continue touching him. That came with all sorts of strange connotations. He told Vince he wanted to go back to normal – and it had worked, things had been wonderful today. He hadn’t meant he wanted Vince to go back to the way he was before they moved to the city, not directly, but somehow things seemed to be getting back to the way they used to be.
It was wonderful, and yet… something did seem amiss.
He looked down at the head of dark hair, at the curve of Vince’s nose illuminated by the television.
Naboo was right, it seemed clearer the more he thought about it. Vince had fun today, he was sure of it. But he was trying too hard. Trying too hard to be someone he wasn’t, anymore. It wasn’t his fault he was growing up, though – just like Howard, just like anyone else would. It was Howard’s fault for making them grow apart…
They couldn’t really go back in time, things weren’t going to be the way they used to be. He was starting to realise that. But now Vince was trying to be something for Howard, just like he was always trying to be something for everybody else. The sickly feeling in Howard’s stomach returned.
He didn’t want to be like all those other people, the ones who just liked Vince for his hair, or for his boots. He knew Vince – the real Vince. The Vince who stayed up for days straight trying to find the new sound with him. The Vince who got them marooned on a desert island, the Vince who dined with pandas and burned himself with his straighteners. The Vince who got them lost because he couldn’t read maps, the Vince who saved Howard from a marriage to a sea monster, didn’t know where to put the rubbish, and had satsuma fights with him.
He didn’t need Vince to be anybody else, even if that somebody else was just his younger self. He just wanted his friend back – the Vince that was here with him now. How did it become so confusing, so complicated?
Howard gave Vince’s shoulder a squeeze – ever so gently, but Vince turned and looked at him. And when he saw that Howard was trying to smile, he gave a small smile back.
Then he turned back to the telly, without a word, and Howard felt a little better.
There were fingers tugging at his cardigan once more.
End Notes: See their paddle boat here: http://images.triseptsolutions.com/slideshow/MCODOLP21.jpg
V: Howard Plays Doctor
Author’s Notes: He’ll cure what ails you. Provided what ails you doesn’t involve too much bodily contact.
“I’m all sniffly, Howard,” Vince whined with great enthusiasm as he trudged down the stairs to the Nabootique. He was still wearing a robe and slippers, all schoolboy trying to get his mum’s permission to stay home that day. “My throat things are all swollen and they hurt like a motherbitch. Naboo says I’ve got a cold and I reckon he’s right.”
He sulked over to the counter and lifted himself up onto it. Howard looked up from his book, surprised at this new development.
“You were just fine last night, weren’t you?”
Vince shook his head. “No, my throat was starting to hurt. But I thought it was just dry from practicing so much for the contest. Apparently Naboo is pretty qualified as a doctor and a shaman. He shone a light at my throat and said my immune system is compressed.”
“Compromised?” corrected Howard automatically, lowering his book and feeling guilty. “Did he say why?”
Vince eyed him. “He said it might’ve had to do with someone dumping me in a lake yesterday, then having to walk in wet clothes all the way home when it was startin’ to get all windy and cold.”
Howard was sure he looked as guilty as he felt. Vince was clearly of lighter stock than he, and didn’t possess such a robust Northern constitution. He looked around, searching for something to help. Something besides pencil tops and sticky notes. “I’m sure we have some lozenges around here somewhere, Vince. You should take some vitamins.”
“I think I need to go and rest,” Vince encouraged. “And I need some tea.”
Howard sighed, but he was smiling. “All right, go and get in bed, I’ll be up in a minute. Chamomile all right?”
Vince swiveled on the counter, reaching over to wrap his arms around Howard’s neck, enveloping him in a hug. “Cheers, Howard,” he chirped, planting a light kiss on Howard’s cheek before sliding off the counter and making his way back upstairs.
Howard didn’t follow right away. His cheek felt warm. He touched it, thinking. He seemed to be doing a lot of that, lately. He still wasn’t sure if he’d upset Vince the other day, when he got angry and started shouting that he wanted everything to go back to normal. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He was sure Vince had been hurt somehow, but he didn’t know why. And somehow yesterday had been so lovely, and yet so strange. It was making his brain hurt to try and understand it all.
He slid his bookmark into the book to mark his page, setting it aside. Voltaire could wait. It was time for the doctor to work his magic.
Vince was definitely starting to look a bit under the weather when Howard brought him the chamomile, but as soon as he looked over his wan face was immediately brightened by a smile. Howard felt warm at the thought that Vince was so happy to see him, then recalled that it was the tea Vince had been waiting for.
Well, still. He and chamomile were a package deal.
Handing the mug to Vince with a word of caution, as the steam was still billowing out the top and he knew Vince wasn’t used to getting his tea while it was still piping hot, Howard gingerly sat on the edge of Vince’s bed. Vince blew softly on the tea, trying to grip the mug with as little of his fingers as possible.
“S’too hot to hold,” he decided, reaching past Howard to set it on his nightstand. “M’ gonna set it there for a bit.”
“Put lots of honey into it for you,” Howard added, because it felt important. “Instead of sugar, it’s better when you’re sick. Antioxidants.” He reached down to the floor for the bag he had also brought in with him, and pulled it up to rest on his lap. Vince’s eyes grew wide with surprise.
“That is a well trendy bag, Howard! The lead – er, the former lead singer of the Black Tubes had one!” He had the decency to look shamed for a moment. “Where’d you get one’a them?”
Howard gave him a clever grin. “Ah, this is nothing more than a traditional doctor’s bag, Vince. What you now consider to be a fashionable item used to be entirely utilitarian and only served one function – carrying medicine.”
Vince looked a bit befuddled. “So what are you doing with it then? Since you’re not trying to be trendy, and you’re not a doctor…”
“Ah, that’s what you think.” Howard waggled his finger at Vince as he popped open the clasp with one hand and peered inside the bag. The aroma of old leather and a tangy, harsh medicinal scent wafted from inside. “In this bag are all sorts of Moon family cure-alls, passed down from my grandpop, who was quite the county physician back in his day.”
Vince stared at him blankly. “So this stuff’s been sitting around Leeds in that bag since the 1800s, is what you’re saying.”
Howard sighed. “Well, all right, most of it’s things I’ve stocked up from the chemist’s in the last few months, but I think there might be a few herbal tinctures left…” Seeing the face Vince made, he hastily added, “They’re not as bad as they sound, really.”
“Tincture? Sounds like torture. Or… or sphincter.” Vince giggled a little, reaching over for his cooling tea and snuggling down into his blankets. “S’okay Howard. M’not dying yet, you can save the scary bits for later. Just need a lozenge, really. You got any of them?”
While depressed that Vince didn’t want to experience the wonders of herbal remedy, Howard was pleased he at least had those, if nothing else. Soon Vince was sucking contentedly on a little cherry orb, which he had curiously examined before popping into his mouth.
“Y’know, even when I was a kid, Howard, I remember thinking… s’just like a sweet, really. Healing sweets. Why aren’t they all like that?” Vince pondered this. “Just think, they’d make fortunes selling vitamin lollies to children. Beta carotene bootlaces.”
Howard shrugged a shoulder, setting his bag back down on the floor. The scent in the air still lingered, mixing now with the cherry flavour on Vince’s breath. It was sort of homey.
“Maybe they wouldn’t all taste so good if they were good for you. It would defeat the purpose, perhaps. Like when they try to make meat out of soy…” Howard found his eyes drifting about the room. He never realised how different it looked from Vince’s side.
Vince’s cheeks were rosy as he nodded, sipping his tea. “Yeah, you’re right. But these ones are good.” He rolled the lozenge on his tongue as he reached a hand out and placed it over Howard’s. “Thankth Howard. Ith reawy nithe of you.”
Howard looked down at their hands, then up to Vince’s face. His friend smiled, withdrawing his hand and moving the lozenge to his cheek.
“I mean… it’s really nice of you. I’m sure I’ll be better in no time. And the contest is still over a week away, it could have been worse. Though I have to say, I’m still wondering why you aren’t getting sick as well. It’s just my luck, really.”
Vince looked perfectly content, but Howard’s face fell. He’d forgotten about the karaoke contest. What if Vince didn’t get better, what if his voice stayed all scratchy and he wasn’t well enough to sing? It was all his fault for falling off that stupid boat.
“I’m sorry, Vince,” he mumbled, hoping that between his shoulders and his hair, something would hide him. “I really didn’t mean to make you sick right before the contest.”
Vince gave him a light smack on the arm, laughing a little. “Hey, I just said it was all right, didn’t I? You need a hearing aid, old man.”
Howard turned to him, raising his eyebrows. “If I’m old, you’re old too, remember?”
Vince laughed, shaking his head. “Ah, no way, beauty is timeless. I’m like Cher, I’m gonna look just like this when I’m eighty, only I’ll be all hunched over and I’ll have to pull shapes with my cane. I’ll be nana chic.”
The thought of Vince as a wee, skinny old man with a balding mullet and tatty mirrorball suit was enough to make Howard snort with laughter.
“Somehow, I don’t doubt it, little man. And I’ll be in a wheelchair with a sort of oatmeal-coloured blanket over my legs that matches my trumpet sock.”
“With a bassoon sellotaped to your head,” Vince finished, closing his eyes and holding the cup of tea under his face. “Mm, this feels nice. Like a steam facial.”
Howard wished he had a camera and skill enough to capture the look on Vince’s face right at that very moment – his eyes shut, long dark lashes feathery-soft against his smooth cheeks, mouth curved into a smile at the very ends, the colour returning to his face. His slender fingers curved around the mug, holding it as if it were something far more precious than tea.
When Vince opened his eyes again, Howard was busy plucking invisible lint balls from his cardigan.
“I think I’m gonna have to get back down to the shop pretty soon,” he demurred, brushing off his thighs. “Naboo is going to wonder why he hasn’t sold anything at all lately.”
“It hasn’t bothered him for the last few months, it shouldn’t bother him now,” Vince cajoled, tilting his head and trying to catch Howard’s attention with his eyes.
Howard purposefully didn’t look at him. “Yes, I know, but I still feel obligated. After all, he is paying us and letting us stay here.”
“Well,” Vince said with a note of finality in his voice, “I’m obligating you to stay here and nurse me back to health. After all, if you can’t hand me more of those lozenges,” he nodded in the direction of the doctor’s bag, “then I won’t get better! So then I won’t be able to work at all for… I don’t know, a month at least! That’s surely worse than you missing a few hours.”
Howard had to look at Vince then, a smile tugging at his mouth.
“You are so manipulative.”
Vince preened. “Would it help if I batted my lashes?” He didn’t wait for an answer, fluttering them like a Golden Age Hollywood actress. “C’mon, it’ll make you feel important,” he assured him, before sipping daintily at his tea.
Howard sighed. How could he argue with that, really?
“All right. You’ve got your tea, you’ve got your lozenges. What else does Vince Noir need to recuperate?”
Vince pondered this as he sank back into his pillows, tapping his lips with a finger. “M’not entirely sure what that means, but I think you should do a silly dance for me. That always makes me feel better.” He looked like he was trying to restrain a wicked grin, and failing.
Howard put up his hands defensively. “Oh no, I’m not about to embarrass myself just for your entertainment, no sir. Get Bollo to do it. There is a long and proud tradition of dancing monkeys throughout history, after all–”
“He’s an ape, not a monkey,” Vince corrected him with relish.
“Right.” Howard waved off his interruption. “Basically, I’ve acted like an ape more times than is fit for one man’s lifetime. Couldn’t I just get you a book or something?”
Vince made a face. “Oh, c’mon Howard. Make an effort, why don’t you?”
Howard got the sense he wasn’t just talking about the present situation, but it was only fleeting.
“Well, what else would make you happy?” he asked, challengingly. “D’you want me to set up a Top Shop in here?” Howard blanched as soon as the words left his mouth. That could be a dangerous offer.
Vince’s eyebrows raised considerably. “If only!” But he seemed distracted somehow, all of a sudden. Howard tried again.
“Or maybe I could give Gary Numan a ring. You know, get him to do a little song and dance instead.”
Vince’s smile seemed wearier by the second. “Hmm, maybe. That’d be sort of funny, him flying his jet all the way here just for that.” He held out his barely-touched tea to Howard, who dutifully set it on the nightstand. “Y’know, I think I’m a bit tired, maybe I’ll just have a nap after all. S’what I came in here to do…”
Howard nodded in agreement, rising from the bed. “That would probably be the most help, now that I think of it. Good idea.” He grabbed his medicine bag hastily, backing up a bit. “Well, have a good rest, just call if you need anything later.”
Vince looked as if he wanted to smile, but couldn’t quite manage it. His voice was quite sincere when he replied softly, “Thank you, Howard.”
Howard had reached the door, but he paused. “Are you… is something wrong, Vince?”
Vince shook his head, suddenly seeming more animated. “Nah, I’m just a bit tired, actually. Just going to go to sleep now.” He smiled this time.
Howard nodded, mostly satisfied. “All right then.” As an afterthought, he added, “Sweet dreams.”
Vince bundled down into his blankets. “You too,” he murmured softly, and then he was out. Howard stood there for a moment, watching the rise and fall of Vince’s ribs grow slower. He felt like he had just been shut out, somehow. Stupid, really. He was tired, after all.
Shutting the door behind him nearly-inaudibly, Howard softly padded away from the room. He left the medicine bag on the kitchen table, walked a few paces, then came back and sat down on second thought.
His eyes lighted on some markers Vince had left out on the counter the other day.
He had an idea.
When Vince awoke some time later, there would be a hand-drawn card on his nightstand. The words were surrounded with little doodles of suns and moons, trees and birds, and two stick figures wearing go-go boots and a cardigan, respectively.
The card read as follows:
I’m sorry my actions have contributed to events that have made you sick. I hope you feel better soon and don’t worry: karma will take care of me. I’ll probably get some sort of rare foot cancer in the next day or two. Oh well. At least we were having fun. If you need more tea, let me know.
Howard TJ Moon
He was watching a documentary on Fluxus artists down in the Nabootique when the door unexpectedly opened. Howard nearly tripped over himself trying to stand up and turn to face the customer and turn off the telly all at once. He steadied himself with a nervous chuckle, straightening his cardigan, then launched into his sales pitch.
“Hello! Welcome to the Nabootique, where all your favourite household–” the words caught in his throat, suddenly dry. “Oddities are… located…”
The woman gave him a funny look. “What was that you were watching?” she inquired in a foreign accent, stepping to the side a bit, as if she didn’t quite want to move forward, but wasn’t quite ready to retreat.
Howard just gaped.
Wake up, you fool! his brain shouted.
It was Mrs. Gideon, and she was looking more lovely than ever, if he did say himself. A nice, reserved pencil skirt and blazer combination never failed to do it for him. Howard felt a little nauseous and flustered.
“He-hello,” he stammered, forgetting to answer her question. “How are you? It’s so nice to see you.”
She looked at him strangely, again. “Do I know you?”
Howard’s heart fluttered. “Yes, yes – it’s me, Howard Moon! Don’t you remember, I worked at the Zooniverse with you, back in the day. You know,” he prodded hopefully, “I was a zookeeper?”
Gideon showed no signs of recognition. “Ah, you must have joined just as it closed, yes? I don’t remember you, I’m sorry.”
Howard felt the familiar frustration of trying to re-introduce himself to Mrs. Gideon every time he talked to her. “No, I worked there for years. Years and years and years.” He caught himself. “Well, not that many, I’m not that old, really.” Howard chuckled awkwardly, hurrying along. “But yes, I was friends with Vince. You remember Vince Noir, I’m sure?”
Gideon’s eyes lit up. “Oh, Vince! He was such a darling boy, he had such a way with the animals. Oh, I always wondered where he went off to. Do you know where I could find him?”
There was a black feeling settling in Howard’s gut. “Oh, he works here with me, actually. We live above the shop. Naboo owns the place, Bollo lives here too.”
Gideon looked surprised at this. “The gorilla, living here in your flat? Really?” She seemed to shake off the distraction, returning to the previous topic with a strange intensity. “So Vince works here, does he? Is he around? I would love to speak with him, I’m sure we have so much catching up to do. Is he single, do you know?”
Howard’s eyebrows rose to his hairline, while his balls shriveled.
“Single? You mean–”
“You know,” Gideon prodded, and she seemed to be checking her reflection in a coat of arms, tucking invisible stray strands of hair into place. “Is he seeing anybody? I always thought he was such an interesting, clever young man. And quite attractive, if you know what I mean.”
The black feeling in his stomach coiled and tensed, ready to strike. “You’re interested in Vince, you mean?” Howard felt ill. The whole time he’d been longing for Gideon, she’d been secretly pining for Vince? It seemed like a cruel practical joke.
“Yes,” Gideon explained patiently, and there was a tense note in her voice, as if to warn that her patience would not last all that much longer. “Is he here?”
“I’m afraid he’s rather ill at the moment, he’s not in today,” Howard heard his mouth saying. “And he is seeing someone – he’s seeing me, actually. We’re seeing each other in a relationship sort of way.”
Gideon looked slightly revolted. “Seeing you?”
“That’s right,” Howard puffed up his chest just a bit, tilted his chin up. “We’re together. So I’m sorry but he’ll not be interested, maybe I’ll just tell him you stopped by or something. He probably won’t remember by tomorrow anyway, he is a bit delirious on cough syrup.”
He made his way around the counter, moved to herd Gideon out the door. “Well anyway, it was so nice to see you, unfortunately we’re closing in – oh, right now, actually! So sorry, you’ll have to go, maybe you can come back at another time, but if you can’t, of course, we’ll understand, have a lovely day, bye now.”
And with that, Howard had ushered Mrs. Gideon out the door over her protests, and locked it, putting the ‘Closed’ sign into place. He leaned his back against the door, letting out a sigh of relief.
That had been a close one. He frowned. Who did she think she was, just coming in here like that and trying to move in on Vince? If he couldn’t have Vince, she certainly couldn’t!
Howard blinked. Where had that thought come from? He was surely meaning to think, if he couldn’t have her, neither could Vince.
That didn’t seem quite right either.
Howard sighed, rubbing a hand over his face as he made his way back over to the counter. He flicked the telly back on, settling back into his chair with a heavy sigh. The Fluxus documentary was over, a little ticker in the bottom of the screen announcing that a special on Sid and Nancy was up next. Howard pulled a face and made to turn it off again.
He sat in the quiet of the shop, thinking of the man in the room above him.
A seed had been planted; irrigated by the musings of his fertile mind, it now began to sprout…
VI: Howard Is Called-Out
Author’s Notes: It’s not quite the magic word, but it’s good for a start.
It was finally dusk. The city was starting to change out of its uptight work clothes and get ready for a night out. Gaggles of girls clip-clopped by the shop, trotting smartly in their heels – in a few hours, they wouldn’t be so graceful. Headlights and neon signs were turning on and flickering, respectively. The Nabootique was closed, and Howard was busy counting the till. They had made about 20 euro. It somehow seemed like a lot more than usual.
Howard occasionally wondered just how the shop stayed afloat – how indeed, Naboo could afford to pay his and Vince’s salaries, much less rent for the flat. He had a feeling it had something to do with shady shamanistic dealings that were probably best left well enough alone. Don’t shoot a gift horse in the mouth, and all that.
He closed the till, standing and stretching with a yawn. Time to go make dinner, see if said shaman and his familiar were about. Maybe Vince was up by now – it had been several hours since he’d gone to sleep, after all. He suddenly remembered the card he’d made, and his stomach twisted a bit. Maybe he could go sneak upstairs and hide it before Vince saw it. It did seem rather silly, in hindsight.
Howard crept on tippy-toes up the stairs into the flat, peering around. Naboo and Bollo were sitting on the couch, smoking hookah and listening to something that sounded like Pink Floyd, if he remembered correctly. The room smelled a bit illegal.
“Hey, chicka chick-oww. What’s happenin?” He tried with a grin, by way of greeting.
The two lumps on the sofa slowly turned their heads to face him.
“Hey Harold,” Bollo rumbled.
Naboo’s eyes were heavy-lidded and he actually gave Howard a lazy smile, slurring not unkindly, “Hey, you ballbag, who’s lookin’ after the store?”
“It’s past closing time, Naboo,” Howard gently reminded him. Naboo squinted, looking at Bollo as if for confirmation. Bollo was too busy staring at his hands to respond. Naboo shrugged, turning back to Howard and giggling a bit.
“Awright then. F’you wan’ some brownies, Bollo made some, they’re on the counter.”
Howard tried not to laugh. “That’s all right, I’m good, actually. M’just gonna go wake up Vince, yeah?”
Naboo just nodded, his head wobbling on its axis like a ragdoll’s.
Howard left the room hurriedly, hoping the scent wouldn’t cling to him, and made his way back to the bedroom as quietly as he could, remembering his mission. He opened the door a crack, peering inside. Vince was laying on his side, facing the door. The card was clutched under his hand, a little wrinkled.
Howard frowned and smiled at the same time. A tingle ran through him and settled in his stomach, though from nerves or something else, he wasn’t entirely sure. Not really sure what he was doing, Howard slowly entered the room, trying to shut the door softly behind him. He shuffled with some trepidation over to Vince’s bed, staring down at his friend’s lax face. Vince turned into a child when he slept, limbs strewn across the bed and blankets tangled or even entirely kicked off. Howard had tripped many a time over a duvet left on the floor or a pillow that had somehow been launched all the way across the room. This time, he’d managed to keep the sheet and one quilt on, but true to form, the rest were cast to the carpet.
He picked up the mug of cold tea, which looked as if it held less than when he’d left. Howard tilted it until he could see his reflection in the calm light. The room still smelled faintly of cherries, the air soft and close. Howard turned the mug, realised he could see a faint imprint of Vince’s lips on the rim. Before he thought too much about it, Howard lined it up with his own lips and took a sip. The bitter, cold taste brought him back to his sentences, and he jerked the mug away guiltily. He looked down to make sure Vince was still asleep, replaced the mug on the nightstand with a nervous tremor.
Not sure what to do with himself, Howard stood uncertainly, hands searching for some purpose. He brushed off the front of his cardigan, smoothing the creases on the front of his corduroy trousers – staring all the while at the card under Vince’s loose grasp, at the charcoal smudge of his eyelashes and the mess of his slumber-coiffed hair on the pillow.
Maybe he should take the card and put it somewhere safe. Perhaps somewhere Vince might forget about it. Or at least not mention it. It seemed condemning in some way he couldn’t quite parse.
Howard leaned forward, trying to see if he could perhaps slide the card out from under Vince’s sleepy paw. The paper rustled against the fabric of the sheets, seeming to echo impossibly loud in the small room. Howard froze when Vince stirred and made a small noise, like a kitten’s mewl.
A butterly feeling was in Howard’s throat.
He tugged ever so slightly at the card again, a grimace contorting his face. It was suddenly very important that this card should find its way to the rubbish bin.
It took him a moment to realise Vince was looking at him blearily, the cornflowers of his irises hazy where they were visible.
“Whatcherupto?” Vince’s mouth muttered, looking detached from the rest of his face.
Howard paused, tried to think of a reasonable excuse.
“Just, er, moving it, yeah? So you didn’t get a paper cut in your sleep,” he found himself babbling. “Nasty things, sneaking up on you when you’re at your most vulnerable. They’re real opportunists, paper cuts.”
Vince gave a fuzzy laugh, let Howard remove the card. “You’re such a spanner. Did you mean it, though?”
Howard paused. “Mean what?”
“That you’d get me s’more teaaa…” Vince’s drawl turned into a yawn as he stretched and cracked his ankles under the sheet. Howard pulled a face, forgetting about the card.
“That is a disgusting habit, Vince. Not to mention bad for your joints.”
Vince gave him a cheeky wink as he propped himself on his elbows. “Ah, you love it. I guess I’ll just get up, actually. Might as well get me own tea, since you seem to be avoiding the topic.” He sat up a little more, yawning again. “Full o’ false promises, you are. But cheers, I liked the card.”
This was followed by a genuine grin, and Howard resisted the urge to blush; instead, he looked down at the card and shrugged a shoulder.
“Eh, just a little piece of my artistic genius that I decided to benevolently bestow upon you.”
Vince chuckled softly, looking around at the mess his sleeping self had made. “I ought to be strapped down, yeah? Or rolled into a cocoon before bed. This really cannot go on.”
Howard leaned over to scoop up a blanket, placing the card on the nightstand before turning his attention to meticulously folding said blanket. He placed it on the end of Vince’s bed, turned to realise Vince was watching him with an amused smile.
“What?” He found himself asking, defensively. “Just keeping things tidy, you know.”
“Yeah, by setting it on my unmade bed,” Vince scoffed, but his eyes were laughing. He slowly swung his bare legs over the side of the bed, trying to stand. Howard realised he must have been wearing only his y-fronts under the long, vintage Robert Smith t-shirt, and tried not to think too overmuch on that fact.
“You’re a mentalist, you know that?” Vince added, wobbling as he stood. Howard cut his protest short when he saw Vince falter, found himself lunging over to keep him from falling down.
Vince clung to him, barked out a laugh. “Howard, my legs have all turned to jelly, imagine that! I’ll be able to fit in those drainpipes now, I reckon.”
Howard didn’t think it was quite so funny. “You should lay back down, little man. They may just fall off if you overuse them right now.”
Vince looked at him with a pout, and he suddenly seemed so close, too close to Howard’s face with all his germs. He was all warm, sticky heat with a fever in his cheeks Howard hadn’t noticed before. He wanted to push Vince away as quickly as he could, because he suddenly wanted to hold him closer and brush the damp hair from his forehead, and that surely was not allowed.
“I wanna go places, Howard! Stop being such a mother hen!” Vince proclaimed loudly, his eyes sliding half shut. “Mmm, I’m all woozy-like.”
“Let’s get you back to bed,” Howard prodded, but Vince responded to his gentle direction by pouting fiercely.
“No! I wanna… er, I wanna stay up, I don’t want to be sick. If I lay down, I’ll be sick more.” He looked rather plaintively at Howard. “S’how it works, you know.”
Howard gripped him more firmly and steered him back down onto the bed, though truth be told, he didn’t provide much resistance. “Not now, you have to rest or you won’t be able to go out later.”
“I want you to stay here with me,” Vince tugged at his arm ineffectually. “If I go to bed, you’ll just leave again, won’t you?”
Howard gave him a small grin, not wanting to admit he was rather touched that Vince was so adamant about his company. He looked down, saw Vince’s bare thighs poking out indecently pale from under the black shirt, and looked hurriedly back up.
“No, I’ll stay here.”
Vince eyed him. “Promise?”
There was no other answer, really.
“I promise,” he reassured Vince. “Why don’t you just get under the blankets again–”
“M’ I making you uncomfortable?” Vince interrupted brazenly. Howard just stared at him, all feverflush and defiance.
“Why would you be making me uncomfortable?” He asked lightly, moving away to pick up another blanket. He heard Vince huff.
“Cos you were lookin’ at my pins like they were going to eat you.”
Howard tried to laugh. “You’re delirious, little man. C’mon, into bed with you.”
“I’m not that delirious,” Vince protested, not moving. “I know that look, you get it all the time, just not usually with me.” He sounded hurt. “I don’t see what’s so wrong, I mean, you’ve seen ‘em all the time. I’m just in my pants when we have Satsuma fights.”
Howard gathered up the last blanket and dumped them in a pile next to Vince’s bed, turning his attention to Vince’s sheet. “I promise you there’s nothing wrong with your legs, but you’re going to have to put them up if I’m going to make your bed.”
Vince snorted, pulling his legs all the way onto the bed; instead of tucking them under the sheet, he splayed them out over the mattress, pinning the blanket down.
“Why are you so ridiculous, Howard?” He demanded, suddenly angry.
“Vince, please, I’m just trying to make the bed for you, I’m trying to do you a favour.”
“Forget the bloody bed, why won’t you even look at me anymore?”
Howard dared a glance, but the fire in Vince’s eyes was too bright to look at. He blinked, seeing spots. “Vince, please, I know you have a fever but working yourself up over nothing is not going to help anything–”
“I’m not working myself up!” Vince spat, sitting up and gripping his knees as if to keep himself from lunging at Howard. “You’re being a fucking twat, but you’re being so nice about it that I feel like a cunt for saying anything. Why are you so bloody scared of me now? I hate it.”
Howard looked at him then, shocked at the profanities, his thoughts roiling and colliding inside his head. His throat felt tight. He squared his shoulders, raising his chin as he stood up just a little taller.
“I’m not scared of you, Vince.”
Vince’s lips were a thin, angry fault line in his angular face, and his eyes were glassy. “Then what are you scared of?”
Howard opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He stared helplessly at Vince, his mind unhelpfully echoing the words over and over, like the sound of a drop of water inside an empty cavern.
Maybe there was a little fear in all of this, all right. But he couldn’t well admit to that without admitting why.
“That’s what I thought,” Vince huffed, pulling his legs to him and hiding underneath his huge shirt. His cheeks were pink and his eyelashes wet. “You’re a bloody coward.”
Howard felt a shockwave run through him from the tips of his hair to the bottom of his soles. No, they could not be talking about this. This was something to be skirted, never brought to light and actually examined. Vince had to know that. He had to.
“Vince, I’m going to go make you some tea, alright?” He set the blankets on the end of the bed and turned, making for the door like a drowning man towards land.
“Bloody fucking coward!” The accusation hit him in the back like a sack of bricks, but he kept walking until he was out the door and safely on the other side. The dull thud of a pillow hitting the wood rang in his ears, but he kept walking until he found himself down in the dark Nabootique. All the bric-a-brac leered at him in the darkness, and it was a few moments before Howard realised there was something wet running down his cheek.
He never did make the tea.
Several days passed before they spoke again. Bollo had taken over nurse duty, scowling at Howard whenever they passed in the hall. Howard kept to himself in the Nabootique by day, leaving for Jazzercise and occupying his nights by visiting with Lester’s head and watching documentaries. When he did return to the bedroom, it was always late at night, long after Vince had gone to sleep. Or at least, he was pretending to be sleeping. Howard rose earlier than ever, showered and ate before anyone else was up.
The lack of sleep was starting to show in his face, but of course, nobody was around to tell him this. After all, Lester was blind. But he felt it.
Naboo tried to talk to him on the third day, but Howard just looked at him. It so happened that Naboo was sober enough that day to realise that perhaps this was something he should just stay out of. Or maybe he just saw that it would be pointless to say anything. Howard was surprised that he didn’t even offer a snide remark, but maybe he was just that imposing. Or, more improbably, Naboo was actually gaining some measure of respect for him.
No, that certainly wasn’t it. He must truly just look a mess, then.
Howard stared at himself in the mirror. He looked older than the day before. He felt older. He couldn’t pinpoint exactly why, but he knew that whatever it was, it would probably go away if he would just talk to Vince again. Apologise, or something.
It was just too frightening a thought, though. Vince had crossed the line, had actually prodded the elephant, and he was worried that maybe, they couldn’t go back this time. Couldn’t rewind and go back to normal – clearly that hadn’t worked, they’d tried that already. And look where they were now.
Howard felt their friendship slipping through his fingers and he didn’t know how to catch it. He was being backed into a corner; he wished Vince would let well enough alone already, and he wished Vince would push a little harder. His mind screamed it every time he snuck into the room at night and glanced over at the prone figure lying in bed, every time he looked at Vince’s hair products lining the bathroom counter.
Make me love you already, or leave me alone.
He was a weak man, couldn’t even make the decision for himself. What was wrong with him, waiting here for Vince to make the first move? He almost had, really, but Howard just ran away yet again.
Why was he so afraid? He couldn’t figure it out. Did Vince need to run a bulldozer over him? Drop an anvil from atop a building to land on his head?
He was just uncertain. Didn’t know what he was risking, or what for. There was too much still unknown, too many scary things lurking around the corner for him to possibly deal with. He couldn’t do it. He was a coward, after all.
Even thinking it stung him. Howard realised he was still staring at his reflection in the mirror. How apt, his mind supplied. How bloody ironic, for you.
A movement caught his peripheral vision; Vince suddenly next to him, an apparition. He was pale but no longer looked feverish and wan. His eyes were deep and tired, just like Howard’s. Howard looked at him through the mirror, afraid to actually turn and look at him. Afraid to actually acknowledge he was standing there.
“Alright,” Vince murmured, a hopeful smile tugging at his mouth.
Howard found himself returning the smile. “All right.” He couldn’t turn, not just yet. Vince seemed to sense this, came up behind him and wrapped his arms around Howard’s torso, gently leaned his head against Howard’s back. Not demanding anything.
Howard relaxed, placed his hand over Vince’s.
It really was all right, after all.
“Howard, I don’t know what to wear for the contest and it’s tomorrow night and I’ve got to figure it out right quick or I’ve got no chance at winning, at all.”
Vince was rushing around the room in a panic, piling garments on his bed. The mountain was growing steadily larger as he delved deeper into his closet, which Howard was sure couldn’t actually really contain the amount of clothing that was coming out of it. Yet somehow, it did.
“Why don’t you wear your, ehh…” Howard trailed off, not knowing the names for any of Vince’s outlandish garments. What was he doing anyway, trying to give Vince fashion advice? He’d just ignore it, after all.
Howard was reclined on his bed, pretending to read Chomsky. It was rather entertaining watching Vince work himself up into a flurry. He kept emerging from his closet, decked out in increasingly impossible combinations, trying to coax some sort of useful response from Howard. It was like extracting liquid from stone; Vince, for all his charm, was no Moses, nor Mark E. Smith.
“All right, I think I’ve got it.” Vince finally announced with a flourish, striking a pose. “How’s this?”
Howard felt his jaw go slack.
It was the mirrorball suit, but it wasn’t the mirrorball suit. Over the glittery fabric, there were now chevrons of sleek, solid silver traveling down Vince’s torso and limbs, pointing down towards his groin. Strange protrusions from his shoulders were reminiscent of the human Coke can, as Howard called it, but now looked as if they belonged on an alien coat of armor. A magnificent spray of long, white-and black-striped feathers fastened around his neck with an elaborate choker. Standing tall and slim in sleek silver go-go boots, he looked like nothing Howard had ever seen before. He looked ridiculous, but he somehow looked incredible.
“What?” He managed to croak out, trying to ignore the approving sensation in his groin. He tried to subtly pull his legs up, lowering the book over his crotch.
Vince looked pleased. “I had a new one made a little while back. Just hadn’t found the right occasion to wear it. It’s based on a costume in that movie I told you about, remember?”
Howard didn’t remember, but Vince was already eyeing himself critically in the mirror and muttering, “It’s more seventies than eighties but those tossers wouldn’t know that, anyway.”
Howard followed the lines of Vince’s body with his eyes, growing more flustered by the moment, but still unable to look away. It’d been a few days since they’d made up, so to speak, and again life seemed to be taking a different turn. Neither had prodded the elephant again, but now that Howard knew that Vince somehow impossibly thought of him the same way, that he somehow affected Vince the way Vince affected him…
Well, put bluntly, he could barely be in the same room as Vince without blushing now. And Vince knew it, he was sure. It had turned into a game now; see how quickly Howard would get flustered and find some excuse to run off, remember some errand that needed doing. Yet Vince didn’t seem to be angry anymore – rather, he seemed to be quite enjoying himself. Howard for his part felt like a mouse being toyed with, just waiting to be pounced upon… and somehow, it filled him with exhilaration.
The anticipation was more than he could bear, but he was still too nervous to take the first step. He didn’t know how this sort of thing worked, and it embarrassed him more than he wanted to admit. But he was sure he was finally discovering the meaning of that old phrase, “the thrill of the chase.” Even though he wasn’t really doing much of the chasing…
Howard really didn’t know how it was possible for him to want one person as much as he did, didn’t know how it was possible that his best friend was twisting his stomach into knots, but he felt he was on the verge of something. A terrible and glorious something.
“I think you should wear it,” Howard finally said. Vince turned back to him, looking delighted.
“Yeah?” He asked, rocking on his heels, pleased with the approval.
Howard nodded. “At the very least, nobody else will be able to concentrate on singing, so they’ll have to make you the winner.”
Vince laughed at this, steepled his fingers like an evil mastermind. “Ha, you really think so? Imagine that, how genius would that be?”
He strutted back into the closet to change back into his normal clothes – if they could be deemed that – while calling out to Howard, “So, you’d better not have anything on for tomorrow night, or you know I’ll put all your jazz records in the microwave. Maybe some bubblegum in your trumpet. Just in case you were thinking of hanging out with Lester or something.”
Howard just smiled, realised he was holding his Chomsky upside down.
“Oh, I’ll be there. Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
VII: Howard Comes to a Decision
Author’s Notes: He hopes it’s the right one, this time.
It was approaching half five, and Howard mentally ticked off the hours he’d spent watching Vince fly about the flat in an adrenalin-fueled daze. At least nine by now, surely? Perhaps ten? He hadn’t realised there was so much preparation to be done before something as silly as a karaoke contest. Apparently, there were showers to be taken, nails to be buffed, facials to be peeled, hair to be straightened, feet to be pumiced, costumes to be pressed, lint to be rolled, body spray to be misted, teeth to be polished, makeup to be applied, breath to be freshened. And probably a myriad other things he didn’t know the names for, and probably shouldn’t ask.
It was a bit of a circus, the steady stream of people stampeding in and out of the bathroom, up and down the stairs, through his home and in his personal space. Howard was currently seated at the kitchen table, which was just about the only place not occupied by some sort of stylist, fashion lackey, or well-wisher. They all left him well enough alone, occasionally shooting him odd looks, but it was mostly just all the unfamiliar bodies taking up his space that was giving him the heebee-jeebees.
A man needed room to breathe, after all. And right now, he was choking a bit on hairspray fumes.
All right, that was enough.
Howard found himself on the roof a few minutes later, not quite remembering how he’d ended up there. It seemed like the logical choice, but he didn’t recall actually making the executive decision. Regardless, he was safe from the chaos of downstairs, and that was what mattered. Could hear himself think again. Though perhaps that wasn’t the best thing either.
He’d really missed Vince, today. There had been none of the subtle flirtation and teasing he’d started to grow accustomed to; none of the friendly banter or the camaraderie, or even just a few minutes of sitting and drinking tea together. He supposed it was understandable, but it didn’t really make sense, why Vince would spend all day preparing for something that came as naturally to him as flight did to birds – excepting emus, ostriches, kiwis, puffins, and penguins, of course.
Howard allowed himself a huff. That didn’t quite capture it, so he indulged with a drawn-out sigh of annoyance. Was Vince avoiding him, perhaps? Maybe he was just nervous, didn’t want to be thrown off his game by whatever it was they were slowly starting to grasp at.
Howard didn’t even really know where it might be leading, now that he thought about it. So Vince wanted him to be bolder, but surely Vince knew that he couldn’t just… improvise. It wasn’t like jazz, there were no scales to learn. He just didn’t know how these things worked, as much as it pained him to admit. The movies made it look easy, but he’d given up acting for a reason. The awkwardness of his adolescence had come rushing back all too eagerly, which didn’t entirely please him, either.
Vince had to know that it was going to be his first move, not Howard’s. If he even made one…
Each day brought some new small thrill, but creeping back with it came a little doubt, every time. And Howard didn’t want to doubt. He was tired of doubting. He wanted something concrete, something tangible, even though the thought of actually kissing Vince again was more terrifying than anything he could imagine. Because this time, he might actually be expecting it, and then he’d get it all wrong and Vince would probably rethink things and realise it just wasn’t going to work out after all. And then he’d have to give himself Chinese burns for the rest of his life.
Howard sighed, taking a look at his watch. Half six already. Vince had to be at the Velvet Onion in half an hour. Maybe he would get a chance to see him before he dashed off in his inevitable cloud of glitter.
Why did he find that attractive, anyway? Howard scrunched his forehead, ruminating. Maybe it was because Vince was so like a woman, so charming and graceful and pretty that Howard could find him alluring in the way of the opposite sex, yet he still had enough boyish qualities that Howard could talk to him about anything (well, almost anything.)
Or maybe it was because Vince was just… Vince.
He liked that explanation best.
Howard suddenly felt the urge to talk to him; to tell him everything. To spill his guts, in the metaphorical sense. He could do it. He needed to do it. Now, while he still had the courage.
He carefully made his way off the roof, back down inside. The amount of people in the flat had significantly decreased, much to his relief, and he headed toward the bathroom purposefully, a new bounce in his stride.
He reached the door and came up short. It was cracked open enough for him to see the mirror, and Vince was – as predicted – essentially covered in glitter. He was laughing, cheeks rosy from what might be makeup or might be high spirits, talking to some trendy-looking girl as she put the finishing touches on his makeup. He was wearing the new and improved mirrorball suit; the feather collar hadn’t yet been put on, but his dark hair gleamed as glossy and perfect as ever, striking against the silver of his outfit. From what he could see, Vince’s high cheekbones were dusted with a silvery blue shimmer, and his eyes were darkly lined, bold against his pale face.
Howard felt a twist in his stomach as the little tart applied a final coat of gloss to Vince’s lips, then leaned back to survey her work, clearly liking what she saw. She smiled coyly as Vince enthusiastically voiced his thanks and leaned in to mime pecking her on the cheek in an exaggerated aristocratic fashion, which made her giggle and return the gesture.
Only, she somehow managed to forget the part about feigning the kiss.
The floor was dropping out from underneath Howard as he watched her lips on his, even as Vince pulled away and cried out in alarm, turning to the mirror to assess the damage.
“Oh Christy, you’ve tainted the colour of my lipgloss! Now I’ll have to do it all over!” The words had no sooner left his mouth than he locked eyes with Howard in the mirror and seemed to stop dead, a look of surprise on his face.
Howard saw his opportunity and took it. He pulled open the door with no small amount of force, startling the trendy even further.
“All right, I’m his manager,” Howard somehow had the mind to fib, “And I’ve got to talk business now so if you’ll please be scooting along, right then, there you go, he’ll see you at the club I’m sure.” He herded the girl out of the bathroom, surprised at how often he seemed to be shooing women out of doors, lately. It closed with a click, and then he was just looking at Vince, who was looking back at him, equally stupefied.
“Yeah?” Vince asked, as if he could think of nothing else to say. Howard flushed.
“Well, er, I was just… you know, coming to see how things were going along. Is it, er, fixable?” He nodded towards Vince, trying not to look directly at his glossy lips and failing. He couldn’t see anything wrong with them, really. They looked just as enticing as always.
Suddenly Vince just started laughing hysterically, the giggles bubbling up out of him like champagne fizz. Howard just watched him for a minute, but soon his lips were twitching, and he too succumbed to laughter, not knowing what was so funny and not really caring.
“Did you see the look on her face?!” Vince managed to get out, eyes dancing. “I think you really upset her, Howard.”
Howard felt his cheeks burning. “It was just a coincidence, really, just happened to be walking in, you know–”
“Bollocks, you were probably standing there for ages!” Vince retorted, hands on his hips. Howard was finding it difficult to look at him, all of a sudden. He’d seen the outfit yesterday, sure, but that made it no less stunning today. Vince looked impossibly ethereal in the warm lighting of the bathroom, like a glam rock seraphim come to bring him tidings of great joy, or something.
Howard yearned to clutch Vince’s slim body, ached to grip the curve of his hip, to slide an arm around his lean torso and feel his back under his fingers; anything to hold onto the heat of him and prove that he was really there. To make sure he hadn’t been a figment of Howard’s feverish imagination for the last ten years.
“I just…” He started, then stopped. Watching Vince’s easy affection with that girl had done something to the fire that had propelled him in here to confess his… well, whatever it was that he felt. His courage abandoned him, and he was left guppying.
Vince took a step closer, a thoughtful look on his face. He was in his platform boots, but he still had to look up at Howard in such close proximity. Howard froze as Vince sidled up in front of him, close enough to touch. His fingers twitched, and he tried to still them, unsuccessfully. Vince followed his gaze down to his misbehaving digits, and suddenly he was holding Howard’s hand, and his skin was so soft and smooth and warm, Howard thought he might pass out.
“Howard…” And at this he had to look up again, because that voice was so soft, so calm.
Vince was unbelievably close, the silken blue of his irises somehow more brilliant than anything he was wearing. Howard wasn’t sure if he was breathing anymore, but he could feel Vince’s warm breath waft across his lips and that seemed to be enough. He felt like a butterfly pinned to a board under Vince’s spell, unable to move, to speak. Then Vince smiled, as if everything suddenly made sense.
Howard inhaled sharply as Vince leaned in.
Their lips touched, just barely – and they were every bit as soft and smooth and vaguely sticky as he had remembered. It was a gentle caress, hardly even there, but it sent a tremor through his entire being. Before he even realised Vince had pulled away, Howard felt a murmured “Relax already,” against his lips, followed by another kiss – more sweet, warm pressure that felt like nothing else he had ever experienced in all his life.
Their first kiss had been nothing like this, all rushed and startling and awkward. Flailing limbs, not knowing what to do.
He felt his knees tremble as Vince moved closer, letting go of Howard’s hand to direct it towards his back, aligning their bodies so that Howard gasped at the heat of him.
“Vince–” He wasn’t sure what he was trying to say, but Vince seemed to understand. Their eyes met, and Vince gave a coy grin, bringing a hand up to the back of Howard’s neck and pulling him in for a kiss that made the previous two look like mere appetizers.
His mouth met Howard’s with a delicious urgency that in a manner of seconds became his undoing. Vince was nipping at his bottom lip, and Howard was suddenly clutching Vince to him, pressing their bodies even closer together. It wasn’t nearly enough, and he could have cried in desperation, but Vince was licking at his bottom lip and so he opened his mouth and.
And then he died.
He must have died, because the feeling of Vince’s tongue sliding hot and velvety against his own could surely not exist on this Earthly plane. It was too exquisite, too intense, too good to possibly be true. A groan wrenched its way from deep inside him, and Vince whimpered as he wound his fingers in the curls at Howard’s nape.
The exotic sound sent a jolt of electricity straight to Howard’s groin and he trembled with need. He couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t do anything but hold Vince tightly to him and try to match the way his mouth moved, savor the sweet taste of him, the feeling of liquid desire burning in his fingertips, his throat, his stomach, down to his toes.
Vince’s other hand was fisting his shirt collar and Howard was in shock, not believing he was actually kissing Vince and Vince was actually kissing him back. Why? Why was this happening? his traitorous mind wondered, even as he tried to shut it up and just focus on the dance of Vince’s tongue, on the small squirming motions he was making against Howard and the little moans vibrating into Howard’s mouth.
He was kissing Vince. Vince was kissing him. They were kissing. They were kissing. They were bloody kissing!
Howard pulled back with a gasp, as if a bucket of ice water had been dumped on him. He was hard and straining against the fabric of his cords, could feel Vince’s own desire against his, pulsing through the tight fabric of his cat suit. Howard tried to bite back a moan, shifting away so he wouldn’t embarrass himself by… well.
Vince looked up at him, breathing heavily. His eyes were impossibly dark and bright, filled with something Howard had never seen directed at him before. Vince’s lips were pink and swollen, traces of gloss around his mouth. Howard licked his own lips, could taste it on him. He wondered if he looked as flushed, as exhilarated. They stared at each other, and time seemed to stretch on forever until Vince leaned in once more.
At the last minute, his lips met Howard’s cheek, though this was not their intended target. He pulled back, looking confused.
“Howard?” And his voice was husky like Howard had never heard it, was rough and soft all at once. It was too much.
“I – I can’t–” Howard stammered, then wanted to take his words back as Vince’s face instantly fell. He looked stunned, backed away a step.
“But – Howard, what–” He looked as if he had been kicked, and Howard felt his gut wrench in guilt.
“Vince, I – god, I want to, but…”
“Then why don’t you?” Vince’s eyes were pleading. Something in Howard broke.
“I just can’t, Vince.”
Vince’s face darkened in a way that shouldn’t be allowed, his gaze suddenly intense. “Why bloody not?”
“Because,” Howard blurted, “I’m nothing special, Vince. Not compared to all your friends. I’m not like them, you know? That’s not what I’m about.” He felt like he was running away again, but he couldn’t stop the words that were tumbling from his mouth. “What I mean is, do you think I’d really hold your attention for that long? More likely, you’d get bored of me in a week and go find someone else more your style, more your type. Maybe not even a week, maybe half a week.” He was rambling and he didn’t know why, but he was suddenly shaking and terrified of himself. Of Vince. Of the desire coursing through his veins. Of everything.
“I just don’t think I could deal with that, you know? It doesn’t seem worth it, a few days fun and then a friendship never the same.” Howard couldn’t look at Vince anymore, cheeks hot with shame, his mouth moving on its own. “You have to see what I mean, Vince. You might be okay with that, but I know I wouldn’t be.” He stared at his hands, the hands that had just held Vince so close. They seemed alien, not part of his body. He saw the erection that still tented his trousers, and flushed, ashamed at being so transparent, so wanton.
“It’d mean too much to me,” He finished softly, not daring to speak any louder. “I just don’t want to be the one who has to walk away from everything. Cos it would happen, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if you dropped me, I wouldn’t be able to go back and pretend it never happened.” He rubbed his wrist uncomfortably, feeling the urgent need for a Chinese burn.
Howard looked up, feeling a sudden, intense sadness building up behind his eyes. “Yes, Vince?”
Vince was gazing at him with one of the most raw looks he had ever seen on his friend’s face – openly injured, as if he’d been struck. “Do you think I’d really do that to you, Howard?” He demanded, and Howard heard an unusual tremor in his voice. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately and it’s getting on my nerves! It’s like you’re suddenly convinced I’m just out to ruin your life, or something!”
Vince was getting more worked up with each word – his eyes were wide and flashed with something akin to betrayal. “I mean, come on, give me some credit, all right? I’ve stuck with you through everything!”
He moved forward again, backed Howard up against the door. To an outsider, it might have looked comical. Vince’s glare was turned up to full power. If looks could kill… well, Howard would be at least in critical condition with third-degree burns.
“You know,” and now the dam had burst and Vince was angry like he had never seen. “I’m actually pretty sick and tired of you always feeling so sorry for yourself! You always complain about things but you never do anything about them! You’re always acting like you deserve something better, but when what you want is right in front of you, you can’t even see it! Even when you have it in your arms, all you bloody do is push it away! Why? Cos for some stupid reason, you think you’re not good enough and you apparently think I don’t even care!” Vince exhaled sharply through his nose, tossing his hair.
“If you see something you want, you should go after it, that’s how it works! That’s what I’ve been trying to get you to do this whole time! But you’re so bloody thick, I swear, it’s like talking to a peanut! And even when I finally realise you’re never going to speak up and do it for you so you’ve got no more excuses, you just try and run away! Again!”
Vince jabbed a finger in the middle of Howard’s chest accusingly, punctuating his words with sharp pokes. “Well, I refuse to do all the work here, Howard. Stop trying to guess what I’m thinking, cos all it’s done so far is make us both angry for stupid reasons and I’m done with it!”
Vince was almost shouting now, too loud and too close with his nostrils flared – Howard had nowhere to hide, feeling suddenly overwhelmed not only by Vince’s anger but also the elephant that was now proceeding to trample him under its enormous, bulky feet. It was starting to sink in, all of it.
“I’m done trying to get through to you, all right? I think I’ve dropped enough bloody hints at this point, I’ve pretty much done everything up to and including outright seduction – and if you can’t figure it out for yourself, I’m not gonna be fussed to keep on trying, yeah?!” His voice cracked, his face was thunder personified, and it just seemed so wrong that he should have brought this out of Vince, who was never angry, not like this. Howard was wracked with guilt as Vince’s tirade continued.
“I mean, why would I go to all this effort if I wasn’t serious about you? Why would I even bother with you, Howard? Think about it, I could go out and just as easily find someone else to have fun with for half a week!” Howard winced as his own words were spat back at him, trying to slide to the side and regain some of his personal space. Vince let him move away, but he didn’t stop there.
“You know, just because I like to go out and have a life doesn’t mean I can’t be serious, all right? Maybe you think I’d get bored of you cos I get bored of a lot of other things, but think about it, Howard! You’re the only one in the whole world that I’ve stayed with all these years!” Vince’s voice rose quite impressively in pitch. “If I haven’t gotten bored of you yet, maybe that should say something! That’s bollocks saying it wouldn’t mean nothing to me. You don’t know what’s going on in my head!”
He paused suddenly, considering. “I mean, I know you were in there once and all, but – no, but anyway, that’s got nothing to do with it!” Vince brushed off the distraction. “What I’m saying is that I can’t believe you’re using that rubbish as an excuse not to even try! That’s the stupidest bloody thing I’ve ever heard!”
Vince sighed heavily, the fight leaving him. He looked at Howard with such disappointment, it made him want to curl up into a ball and hide.
“So basically,” he spoke softer now, “this is getting well ridiculous and I refuse to keep making a fool of myself just so you can turn around and be a coward.” He crossed his arms defensively in front of him, looking small and just as beautiful as ever. Howard wanted so badly to say something, something that would make it better. Something to show Vince that he was sorry for making excuses, sorry for being the man he was. Sorry that Vince had to have feelings for someone who couldn’t even return a kiss without making a mess of everything.
Nothing came out of his mouth, though. Not a single sound. He choked.
But then… Vince sighed, adding in a voice just barely loud enough to make out, “Either make your move or get off the bloody boat – or whatever it is we’re on – and… just let me get on with my life and get over you, yeah?”
His voice trembled a bit on the last few syllables and he looked around the room, as if he could no longer stand the sight of him. Before Howard could do anything, Vince suddenly gasped, looking at the clock on his shower radio. “Oh, Jaggers’ balls, I’m going to be late for the bloody contest! Shit!”
Without another word, he snatched up his feather neckpiece from where it had been sitting on the counter the whole time, fleeing out the bathroom before Howard had even realised he was no longer talking.
He was in a state of shock, though, to be fair: because Vince had done it. He’d said the magic words.
Either make your move or get off the bloody boat.
If he’d rung a bell, Howard would have salivated.
He wasn’t sure why it was so important that Vince had said just that, just so. Wasn’t sure why those few words suddenly made him sure, more than anything else, that this was real. That Vince wanted him, not anyone else. That this was right. That he needed to take his chance before it passed him by. That it was all up to him, now.
It suddenly became so clear what he needed to do.
But in order to do that, Vince needed to be here, and now he wasn’t, and this desperately needed fixing.
Suddenly snapping out of it, Howard blinked in shock, ran frantically out of the bathroom and down the stairs, through the shop and out the door, realizing belatedly that he wasn’t wearing shoes and realizing further that he didn’t really give a flying hoot at the moment.
He could see a taxi pulling away, the one that had been clearly waiting there for Vince all along. Howard frantically tried to think. He knew where the Velvet Onion was, could he make it in time? He didn’t want Vince to go onstage upset, he needed to apologise, needed to do something.
A heady mixture of emotions was reaching a boiling point within him. Guilt at having hurt Vince so much, for making him feel like Howard didn’t trust him; elation at realizing that Vince was actually trying to get him to take action, to claim what was being offered; and fear. Fear that it might be too late, that he might have missed his chance. Fear of letting slip through his fingers the one thing in his life that was, he realised, everything that mattered.
Howard sprinted down the street, ignoring the looks he was surely getting as his socks squished wetly on the pavement and rocks dug into his feet.
He had to get there in time. Vince needed him to be there.
And he needed Vince.
VIII: Howard Makes His Move
Author’s Notes: The Man of Action finally takes action.
The grit of the sidewalk felt like millions of pins underfoot, biting sharply into his feet through the thin fabric of his socks, scraping with every hit on the pavement. The world was flying past, a blurred photo he could barely make sense of. His heart was racing, as if that would help him run quicker. Howard could scarcely believe how fast he was going. Traffic seemed to stop for him, pedestrians parted like the Red Sea to let him through.
He was badly out of breath, his throat painfully dry. His sides were stitching. His feet felt like two pans of meatloaf. But none of that mattered now, not even the tiniest bit. He would walk on fire to make this right. He would slay any dragon, scale any mountain, attempt the most daring bassoon solo in front of ninety-thousand at Wembley Stadium. In just a pair of pants. Pink ones.
Nobody had ever told Howard that strawberry lip-gloss was the taste of love. But they didn’t have to; now he knew. And now he would do anything to taste it again.
His entire future hinged on this moment. His fate danced on the head of a pin, having kicked all the angels off; all but the one wearing a feather ruff with glitter around his eyes.
Howard was running so fast, all his fears and doubts seemed to have been left in the dust. He felt free, as if all the self-imposed constraints he’d been carrying his whole life suddenly fell away. They couldn’t keep up, not anymore.
His life was flashing before his eyes. All the days he’d shared with Vince, all their adventures, all the times Vince had rescued him from peril, all the times Vince had crimped with him, danced around like an idiot with him, teased him and taken care of him. Every look, every smile, every laugh.
Howard was nothing without him.
And he had only a few minutes left to prove it.
Howard tried to focus, glancing at the street signs as he whizzed past. Only a few more blocks. So close. So close. He could do it. He had to do it. There were no other options. No more chances. Two more blocks. Keep running. Keep breathing. Just keep moving, so close. So bloody close. One more block. There’s the entrance, just get inside, have to get inside.
Howard stopped up short at the door – or rather, as close as he could get to the door. The pavement was packed with all sorts of brightly-coloured people queuing to get inside, jostling for position and making all sorts of noise. Howard blanched, trying to regain his breath. There was no way he would get in now; he’d have to go all the way to the end of the line. He didn’t have his wallet, suppose there was a cover charge? What if the event was sold out? He didn’t fit the dress code, he didn’t even have shoes.
Howard shook himself, taking a deep breath. No! Not anymore!
That’s how the old Howard would think. The Howard who cringed and sighed and never cut in line, who always obeyed all the rules. The Howard who hadn’t just ran across town to confess his true love before it was too late. He had to be bold, he had to be daring. He had to prove himself to Vince. If he gave up now…
Howard squared his shoulders, marched right up to the bouncer, much to the chagrin of the yappy kids that protested immediately.
“Back of the line, you old wank!”
“Shove off, we’ve been ‘ere for ages!”
“Who do you fink you are?!”
Howard turned to face the crowd, stared the closest punk down.
“Who am I?” He paused for effect. “Howard Moon, Man of Action.”
It felt good to say that. Whirling back to face the bouncer, who seemed wholly unimpressed, Howard summoned up his best steely resolve.
“Sir, I must gain entrance to this building immediately! It is a matter of dire urgency!”
The bouncer was already shaking his head, jabbing a thumb at the end of the queue. “Get back there, mate, wait your turn, fucksake.”
Howard felt his blood beginning to boil. They had no idea what they were tampering with! His very life was in the hands of idiots.
“I can’t wait any longer! I’ve been waiting my whole life for this moment and I’m telling you, I must get inside. Vince Noir is expecting me!”
The bouncer sighed heavily, looking down the list on his clipboard as if it greatly pained him to do so. “What you say your name was?”
“Howard.” He puffed up his chest just a little. “Howard Moon.”
The bouncer looked at the list, then at Howard. Back and forth. “Don’t see you on here.”
Howard wanted to do something very violent just then. He restrained himself – barely, of course. He took a deep breath, trying his best to appeal to the bouncer, and indeed, to the crowd that was now starting to eye him like prey.
“Look. I have to go confess my true love before it’s too late, because if I don’t, I will spend the rest of my life alone and miserable, and I will always think back to this very moment where my entire future hung in the balance, and I will curse at the top of my lungs the day you were ever handed a clipboard and given the power to decide my fate!” Howard couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. It was as if they belonged to someone else entirely.
“And if you think you can deal with the guilt of knowing that you single-handedly ruined my one chance at finding happiness, I am here to inform you that you are bloody wrong, sir! Your whole life will be consumed with wondering what would have happened if you had been just a little more compassionate, wondering what good you could have brought into the world! You keep sitting there and telling me no, and I swear to you on my honour as a Man of Action that I will literally come at you like a needle-nosed barracuda of regret until you’re so old and senile you can’t recognise yourself in the mirror!”
Howard stopped suddenly. The bouncer was looking at him with a strange softness. Indeed, all the noise around him seemed to have died down; when Howard turned to look, he was met with countless pairs of staring eyes.
“…That was epic,” one girl breathed out after a moment.
“Why don’t you ever do stuff like that for me?” another asked the man standing next to her, whacking him none-too-lightly on the arm.
“Let him in!” a voice cried, then another, and more, til there was a chorus of chanting electro kids all about him. Howard turned to the bouncer, who looked a bit out of his element.
“Please,” he tried. It was the magic word, after all.
The bouncer looked from the crowd to Howard, then back to the crowd. Wordlessly, he lifted the barrier, and Howard, sucking in a breath, darted through it and headed for the door, remembering to yell out a ‘thank you!’ as he darted by.
He could hear cheering at his back, and a lone male voice cried out above the cacophony, “You get him, girlfriend!”
Howard slipped inside the club, trying to get his bearings. He’d wasted enough time already. And the club was already packed with people, dancing half-heartedly to the warm-up DJ. It was dim, close, crowded and loud. How was he going to find Vince in time? He didn’t even remember how to get backstage, where there would surely be more idiotic security to deal with.
A booming American accent suddenly crackled into life over the PA. “Welcome kiddies and their caretakers! This is your last warning that the karaoke contest will start in five minutes. That’s five whole minutes to get your little keisters all filled up with drinky drinks, because I’m not guaranteeing these yahoos aren’t tone deaf, and the drunker you are, the more fun it is for me!”
That was it! Howard had never been so glad to hear Bob Fossil’s obnoxious voice. If he could get to Fossil, he could get to Vince. The announcer booth up high, that’s where he always was! Howard pushed his way through the crowd, enduring a painful crunch on his toes from some tart’s stilettos in the process. He grasped the railing of the stairs, leaning on it for support as he dragged himself out of the maelstrom of people and huffed and puffed his way up to the booth.
Sure enough, when he pushed the door open, Bob Fossil was sitting there in his spinning chair. He was cackling madly as some strange, oily green bloke gesticulated wildly with a cane, telling some story in a gravelly voice.
Both men turned to look at him after a moment, as if trying to process why he would be interrupting them. Unsurprisingly, Fossil was the first to pipe up.
“Why, if it isn’t Howard Moon! What are you doing here, Futzo the clown? I’m talking business with a friend of mine and it’s a conversation for adult ears only,” he jeered, then took in Howard’s appearance. “Geez Louise, Moon, did the big boys push you in the mud and steal all your lunch money? Or do you always look like you just got bummed by a grizzly bear?”
Howard raised his eyebrows. “If you’re quite finished, Fossil, I need to see Vince. Immediately.”
Fossil swung from side to side in his chair, giving Howard an amused look. He nudged his strange green friend, rolling his eyes. “Okay, Moon! You can see Vincey, all right. After he’s finished making me tons of money with that sweet songbird voice of his, how’s that?”
Blood rushing in his ears, Howard strode forward and slammed both hands down on the arms of Fossil’s chair, bringing him to a standstill. He got right up in Fossil’s face, growling with a strength he didn’t know he had, “I need to see him now, and you are going to let me. Now where is he?!”
Fossil seemed bemused. “Uh. He’s backstage.”
“Then get me backstage.”
Fossil just blinked, shot a look to the green man, who shrugged a shoulder helpfully. Looking back at Howard, Fossil leaned towards the radio strapped onto his shoulder and turned it on. Over the static, he yapped, “Hey, Bruno! Yeah, I know that’s not your name, suck it up already. Vince Noir’s got a visitor, big angry-looking jazz freak, let him in. Yeah, I know. Yeah. Yeah. I like you in the special way too. Shut up.”
He clicked off the radio, blinking balefully at Howard. “There. Just don’t make him late. Stage door’s just downstairs, under these stairs. Happy?”
Howard grinned. “Actually, no.”
He straightened and gave one of the arms of the chair a mighty pull, sending Bob Fossil spinning around in circles so fast, the chair juddered violently and nearly tipped over.
“Now I am,” he called over his shoulder as he let the door swing shut behind him, savouring the high-pitched shrieks Fossil let out.
Howard wasted no time, taking the stairs down two at a time and nearly falling on his face as a result. Recovering just barely, he rounded the corner and tugged on the heavy door beneath the stairs – he’d known it was here all along, surely. Of course he had.
Finally wrenching the blasted thing open, he found himself in a familiar hallway. Or maybe it just looked like all the other hallways in this place. Howard found himself speed-walking down the corridor, head turning like a garden sprinkler, reading each name of the doors of the dressing rooms. They all seemed terribly bizarre, even by Camden standards. Mary the Turnpike? Yowlin’ Twitty McFinkster? The Incin-Orator?
He made a face, looking desperately for the one name he needed to find. Suddenly, footsteps that weren’t his echoed down the hall over the muffled sounds of the club music. Howard blanched – another run-in with security was the last thing he needed, even if Fossil had apparently granted him permission. Couldn’t waste any more time.
Howard anxiously looked around him, willing Vince’s name to magically appear on one of the doors. A few steps further, and suddenly an apparition before him: Vince Noir, surrounded by the same cheesy metal star frame that adorned all the doors. Somehow, it felt like he was gazing upon the Pearly Gates, the final frontier. He could hear faint singing from inside, he knew that voice.
“I would tell you I loved you, if I thought that you would stay…”
Howard’s heart was pounding in his ears as he grabbed the knob and wrenched it open, almost tripping over his flopping socks in his haste to get inside. He shut the door hurriedly behind him, afraid to turn and face the room, suddenly.
“But I know that it’s no use, that you’ve already–”
No, he was here now. He wasn’t afraid. This was his destiny, or at least something very similar, if not quite exact.
Howard turned, straightening his back and steeling himself.
Vince was sat on a chair before the huge mirror, the bright light bulbs framing it giving him a heavenly, warm glow. Vince instantly locked gazes with him in the mirror, blue eyes wide with surprise as he trailed off, his warm-ups forgotten. Howard felt his knees go weak, similarly forgetting anything he might have planned on saying.
And it was an exclamation, a statement, a question as Vince turned to face him, looking baffled and amazed.
“You’re here–” he said, again in that strange, transcendent voice that somehow said everything at once. He seemed so far away, and Howard wanted to bring him back to Earth, now. He stepped forward, some hidden courage he didn’t think he possessed now propelling him to stand mere feet from Vince.
“I told you I would be,” was all Howard could think to say.
Vince stood, then, tottering a little in his boots as he pushed back the chair without looking away. His smile lit up his whole face, his slim body shimmered like a pixie dust mirage.
He opened his mouth to speak, then paused. Howard’s heart fluttered, caught in his throat like a trapped moth. Vince, lost for words?
Vince seemed to realise he was gaping like a fish, blushed prettily, then tried again. “How did you…?”
“I ran,” Howard said, simply. No need to hide the truth, nor inflate it. For once, he didn’t need to exaggerate his deeds. It was a warm feeling coursing through his veins.
Vince laughed, in that way that said he couldn’t quite believe what was happening. He looked down then, blinked when he caught sight of Howard’s unshod feet. “Howard, you’re not wearing any shoes! But, why did you–”
A loud knock on the door interrupted, and Howard jumped, not expecting the sudden noise. A fairly non-descript, official-looking man with a radio and clipboard entered. Both Howard and Vince turned to look at the intruder – Howard was sure he actually glared, but the man was seemingly nonplussed.
“Vince Noir, I’m here to escort you to the stage, show-time is two minutes.”
Vince nodded, waving a hand at him dismissively. “All right, I’m coming! Give me one second, yeah?”
Howard cleared his throat, feeling as if speech had been momentarily stolen from him. “Ehm, just wanted to say… good luck, Vince,” he managed.
“You’re supposed to say ‘break a leg,’ you bumberclart.” Vince corrected him, backing toward the door. His voice was light, but he seemed expectant, somehow, and Howard tried to say something, anything that would explain everything. He felt a case of the Chokes coming on and tried not to panic.
“Well, I’ll see you out there, yeah?” Vince asked hopefully as he went to follow the stage attendant, who was now looking quite disgruntled. “I’ll be looking for you!”
“O – okay,” Howard faintly agreed, giving a small wave as Vince retreated down the corridor. A backward glance was the last thing Howard saw as he rounded the corner, and then he was gone.
Howard stood there, wondered if he was in shock. Impossibly, he’d just made an arse of himself yet again. But hopefully Vince could put two and two together – he’d ran here in his socks, after all.
But now wasn’t the time to think about that. He had to get back out to the club and get up to the front – he wasn’t about to start breaking promises! Howard quickly turned on his heel and scarpered back the way he’d come, pushing the heavy door open and finding that the crowd had stopped dancing and were now gathering at the front near the stage.
Fossil was in the spotlight, hamming it up in typical, lewd fashion as he attempted to rev up the crowd. Howard inwardly groaned, suddenly feeling nervous for Vince as he realised how much the crowd had swelled since he’d been in the dressing room. Vince wouldn’t get nervous, though; he lived for things like this.
Now he just had to make his way to the front of the stage. This was definitely easier said than done. He quickly found that politely tapping people on the shoulder was not going to get him very far; though it pained him greatly to ignore the basic rules of courtesy, Howard forced himself to push his way through the crowd. His feet were going to be battered and bruised the next day, but it would be worth it to see the look that would hopefully be on Vince’s face when he saw Howard right up front.
Brushing off a few protests that he was too tall, Howard parked himself front and center and refused to budge. He was a Northern mountain, firm and unmovable. Deal with that, electro-tarts.
Fossil saw him and made a rude face, then shouted unnecessarily into his microphone, “All right, listen up, you squatty beavers! The karaoke contest is beginning! Here are your nipple-licious judges, A Flock of Starships!”
This was met with general whooping and hollering as four strange, asymmetrical men – or at least they held the possibility of being men – tottered their way onstage and took seats at a long table to the right of the stage. They were all wearing tall boots, strange jumpsuits, and were pursing their lips like rock stars, which sort of made them look like rubber duckies. Still, Howard hated to admit, but it really did look like Vince would fit in with them. Though obviously, he looked better than all them combined.
“And here are your fabumongous contestants, who all have their own talky boxes so they can introduce themselves!” Fossil screeched, making a grandiose gesture to the other side of the stage, where a line of trendy-looking Camdenites was beginning to strut out. Each one sidled up to the microphone stand at centre stage in turn, announcing their name in a dramatic fashion and taking their place in the line-up. Despite how frankly horrifying some of them appeared to Howard, they all garnered a good amount of applause and screams. Howard counted eight contestants, began to worry when he didn’t see Vince among them.
Finally, when he’d just started to wonder if perhaps he’d somehow made Vince too late and he’d been expelled from the contest, a clamour of high-pitched screams assaulted his ears. Vince was bounding onstage with a huge grin on his face and the venue was suddenly a madhouse, the crowd hollering his name so loudly that he could barely be heard as he introduced himself.
A rather large brassiere suddenly sailed through the air and landed at Vince’s feet; he looked at it in vague confusion, as if wondering why someone would give him such an article, then took his place in the line-up. Howard saw his eyes scanning the crowd, tried to catch his attention.
He didn’t have to do much – Vince’s eyes lighted on him almost immediately, and he gave a little, excited wave. Momentarily distracted by the girl next to him fainting, Howard managed to wave back, though it was cut short as he accidentally elbowed someone in the face and was then obliged to apologise profusely.
“All right, cut the noisy noise, pronto!” Fossil was parading back to centre stage. “Those are your contestants, now wave bye-bye to them as they go backstage!” Cheers erupted again as all nine figures exited the stage, and Howard was suddenly nervous.
“Now listen up so I don’t have to repeat myself!” Fossil yapped. “There’s gonna be three rounds! Each round will have the contestants singing songs chosen by their mucho sexy selves!” He did a rather vulgar thing with his hips and Howard tried to force down the bile that rose in his throat.
“Now! Only five can make it to the second round, and only three to the final round! So you’re all supposed to cheer for your favourite, because part of the whole thingy is getting you guys to go all wild and crazy and take your clothes off.” Fossil blinked, realised that maybe he wasn’t supposed to have said that, then shrugged and continued unabated. “Uhhh… the other thingies they’re being judged on are costumes, singing… uh, something else too… I know this one, shut up!”
He fidgeted, pulled a familiar-looking recorder out of someplace unmentionable, and pressed a button. ‘Stage presence,’ said Fossil’s recorded voice. The rotund man looked annoyed. “I already said that!” he barked at the recorder, spittle flying.
Turning back to the audience, he seemed to remember where he was, quickly adding, “Let the contest begin!”
It soon became apparent to Howard that the contest was far more about popularity and style than singing ability. The first three contestants were absolute rubbish, in his opinion, but of course, he was biased for more than a few reasons. They were all decked out in blinding, fluorescent colours and screeched and hollered like off-key banshees, pulling ridiculous shapes and flouncing about the stage with pompous carriage. The audience seemed to eat it up – minus Howard, of course.
He shuddered as someone rubbed up against him from behind, sidled forward a bit to get away from the frankly unwarranted contact, intentional or not. The electro was making his head throb, and it was quickly getting uncomfortably stuffy as the masses moved and grooved around him. Howard was glad that his height allowed him to breathe the cool air hovering right above the dancing crowd, but his skin was hot and prickly beneath his roll-neck. Couldn’t Vince just cut in line and come out already?
It seemed like a fortnight had passed by the time the eighth contestant took her bows and floated off the stage to thunderous applause – literally floated, she was wearing hover-boots that Howard was sure he’d be hearing all about for the next week from Vince.
The thought made his pulse speed up. Vince was on next! This would all be worth it, showing Vince that he cared about him enough to stand through this entire bloody contest, being dripped on by electro kids with frizzled, sweaty mullets.
Of course, the instant Vince stepped out onto the stage, the room exploded.
Howard winced at the hoarse screaming assaulting him from all sides, but Vince seemed to glow even brighter in response to the cheers. Howard vaguely wondered if it was one of those ‘I do believe in fairies’ sort of things – it was a thought left unfinished, as he could barely hear himself think. After all, the crowd was still roaring all about him. Furthermore, Vince had just shot him a dazzling smile and he had to suddenly focus on not just toppling right over.
“Hey, you cheeky lot!” Vince greeted enthusiastically into the microphone, waving familiarly like he knew everyone in the room. Which was entirely possible, all things given.
When the music began, Howard felt a faint twinge of recognition. It seemed an odd choice for Vince, especially in the face of the other songs that had been performed; a simple, if somewhat perky guitar, bass and drum combo, rather than those radioactive synthesizer noises. Excited cheers signaled that everyone else knew what song it was, and Vince languidly tossed his hair, seeming perfectly at ease in the spotlight.
“I would say I’m sorry, if I thought that it would change your mind,” he sang, in that oddly-deep voice that still surprised Howard every time he heard it. He seemed more in-tune than Howard remembered, as well. Vince chose that moment to glance down at Howard, looking at him meaningfully as he continued, “But I know that this time I’ve said too much, been too unkind.”
Howard felt confusion stir in his stomach. It was just a song; so why did he suddenly look so… serious? He looked like he meant every word he was signing. It was unsettling, in a way, to see him so… so sincere. Everything was always a laugh for Vince.
Well… that’s what he used to think. He knew a bit better now.
“I would break down at your feet,” Vince had taken the microphone and moved to the other side of the stage, singing to a gaggle of girls who eagerly reached for his hand, but now and then he looked back over towards Howard, as if trying to find him in the crowd.
“I would tell you that I loved you, if I thought that you would stay–”
And Howard realised he’d heard Vince singing the same song when he stumbled into the dressing room. Heard him singing it in the shower after he’d told Vince he wanted things to go back to normal. Had that really only been a week ago?
“‘Cos boys don’t cry…”
Vince was making his way back to Howard’s side of the stage, the feather collar wafting majestically as he moved fluidly, so unlike the usual jerky movements he usually employed when he was putting on a show. It seemed to fit the song, fit the way he was looking at Howard again, as if he was singing right to him. Howard felt trapped in his gaze, was overwhelmed by the emotion in Vince’s face. If only he’d gotten here sooner, if only he hadn’t felt so rushed, he would have told Vince how he felt, and Vince wouldn’t feel so bad right now.
“Misjudged your limits, pushed you too far. Took you for granted…”
He sang a bit melodramatically, perhaps, but from the look in his eyes, Howard knew there was more beneath his stage veneer. He found himself suddenly reminded of their argument a week and a half ago… he’d actually yelled at Vince, accused him of stealing his first kiss, of taking advantage of his friendship. Vince hadn’t even got defensive, had just shrank into himself and mumbled that he really did care for Howard. That he loved him.
Howard wanted to kick himself. He’d been too bloody stupid to understand just what Vince had meant. Been too blinded by his own paranoia and confusion, his own injured pride…
Howard felt a flush of shame heat his cheeks. He hadn’t meant all that rubbish he’d spouted, not really. Maybe at the time he’d been a bit frustrated, didn’t realise that all he’d really wanted was just for Vince to mean it… but Vince really had.
What was this song about, then? Howard was the one who should be apologising; the whole time, he thought Vince was the one making him feel like rubbish, when really, he’d been doing the same right back. It just didn’t make any sense.
“But I just keep on laughing, hiding the tears in my eyes. Cos boys don’t cry…” Vince had moved back to centre stage, sliding the microphone back into its stand as he crooned the final line,
“Boys don’t cry…”
He looked at Howard again, gave him an oddly timid smile as he trailed off, his voice meshing with ecstatic screams. Howard found himself impulsively mouthing, ‘I’m sorry,’ but Vince didn’t seem to be able to understand him. He squinted at Howard for a moment, then remembered he was supposed to be getting off stage. He ducked another sizeable brassiere as he waved to the crowd and legged it offstage, shooting one last look over his shoulder that Howard hoped was meant for him.
“He’s so dreamy,” a girl sighed next to him, just loud enough that he could hear over the squeals of the crowd. Howard felt a strange melange of possessiveness and pride wash over him.
“You’ve no idea,” he mumbled to himself, looking to stage-right where Vince had exited just moments before, picturing the look on his face.
The night went quickly after that. Fossil came back out and announced the five contestants that were to go on to the second round. Vince, unsurprisingly, was one of them. His competition included Mary the Turnpike, the Incin-Orator, and a few others whose names Howard couldn’t remember. They all looked the same to him; it wasn’t worth the effort trying to keep them all straight.
Vince was the last to go, again, and Howard realised that, though his feet were really starting to ache and throb from his outdoor jaunt, his socks were finally dry. He wiggled his toes in excitement as Vince took the stage once more, strutting up to the mic and beaming at the crowd.
Howard stole a glance over at A Flock of Starships, who were conferring amongst themselves, generally appearing to approve of Vince. He felt a flush of pride come over him, eyes swiveling back to centre stage as he waited for Vince’s song to start. After the last one, he wasn’t quite sure to expect.
The intro came over the PA system; it definitely sounded upbeat. But as Vince started to sing again, Howard couldn’t help sucking in a sudden breath, not daring to let it out.
“I know I’m into you; I don’t know what to do. When we talk, I feel like I’ve died twice,” Vince sang brazenly as he draped his arms over the mic stand, looking through his lashes toward Howard. He seemed sassier, less subdued than before as he bobbed his hips to the camp piano beat, there was something of a challenge in his stance. It looked like he owned the stage, and to Howard, it looked that he was about to receive a secret telling-off in front of the whole club.
“You break my heart when you try to play nice.” This with a pointed glance at Howard before he tossed his hair and sang to the crowd, “Like a detective without a case, I magnify what you say and test the implications.”
Howard felt a bit flustered, but he knew he was probably owed a good chastising, after everything was said and done. Vince strutted with the mic stand over towards him, a feisty set to his jaw.
“It could be you or it could be through before it even begins. I’m a fish swimming without fins–”
As he launched into the chorus, Vince threw his whole body into it, swiveling his hips in a way that made Howard even hotter under the collar than he thought was possible.
“Better luck next time – maybe we could have a go with another kind of love, one that carries on…”
The audience started to clap along, raising their arms above their heads and cheering Vince on as he put on a performance to rival Jagger, jerking about and shimmying in a way that only he could.
“Guess I’ve only one regret – that I didn’t get to know you better than I did.”
The audience went wild during the instrumental break as Vince bit his lower lip and shot Howard another ball-crushing gaze, accented with a saucy hip wiggle before he took the mic from its stand and slithered over further towards Howard.
Okay, thought Howard. He got his apology out of the way with the first song, now he’s trying to show me what I’m missing out on? Well, it’s definitely working, Christy.
A light bulb suddenly clicked on in Howard’s head, so brightly he almost staggered.
Vince had anticipated this whole thing, hadn’t he?
Howard’s mouth slackened a little as the realisation struck him. Vince had been planning this. The contest. The songs. All the hints he suddenly started dropping out of the blue. He must have been plotting the whole time, the little brat.
“You tell me that you’re mine. Are you just being kind?” Vince was raising his eyebrows expectantly as he looked out over the crowd, as if waiting for Howard to respond. “Let’s not stretch our imagination. When you look in my eyes, always get them butterflies,”
And Howard nearly went legless as might be expected when Vince looked straight at him, so brazen in his desire, and purred, “My knees get weak with anticipation.” Several more girls swooned and Howard thought he might very well join them if this kept up.
But it was brave of him to sing this, Howard started to appreciate. Really, as far as Vince knew, Howard had rejected him back at the flat. Sure, he’d run all the way here, but that wasn’t a sure sign of anything; he could have just done it out of guilt, after all. Vince was singing his heart out, literally, and all Howard had done was fail to confess his feelings like he’d sworn he would.
He didn’t really deserve this many chances. How Vince put up with him, he might never know.
“And if I might have a slip of the tongue,” this with a flirty touch of tongue to front teeth, “Will the fun disappear? Is the binding coming undone?”
No, thought Howard desperately. No, no, not anymore. I’m here now, I’m ready!
It was becoming too much to bear.
“You keep me waiting within your grasp,” Vince gestured wildly, as if in frustration. “But I can’t tell what you feel and I’m too afraid to ask you.”
Howard wanted to shout to him, tell him anything and everything he wanted to hear, but it was futile over the music. He tried say it with a look, but with those stage lights, there was likely no way Vince would be able to really read his expression. How Vince could see him at all, he wasn’t even sure.
“Better luck next time! Maybe we could have a go with another kind of love–” Vince launched into the chorus again, no longer quite so aloof as he worked the crowd into a frenzy, moving to the edge of the stage and waving an arm as he sang with enthusiasm. Howard felt himself being knocked about by the surging mass of people, but he had eyes only for the man on stage.
“Better luck next time, guess I’ve only one regret – that I didn’t get to know you better than I did…” Vince struck his final pose as he sang the last line, one arm elegantly outstretched as if trying to hold onto something elusive – like a dryer sheet, perhaps… Howard’s unhelpful brain supplied. But no matter. The music faded out and the crowd roared with approval, Howard right with them.
Vince gave them an aloof grin as he held up his hands in thanks, but it quickly traded in for a more genuine, sheepish model. It was easy to imagine his inner monologue: “They really like me, imagine that! This is geeeenius!”
Howard smiled fondly at the thought, becoming so caught up in his own musings that he almost missed the saucy wink Vince gave him as he paraded off the stage. Thankfully, there were no brassiere projectiles this time, though Howard swore he’d seen a rather scanty pair of women’s underwear whizzing overhead at some point.
Predictably, Fossil came out to ‘entertain’ the crowd with some jaw-dropping dance moves while the band deliberated who should progress to the next round. Howard nearly huffed in frustration, trying not to look at the baby blue monstrosity on stage. He knew Vince would make it to the next round, he just had to be a finalist after that performance. His mind was spinning, wondering what the last song would be. Hopefully something a little more optimistic than the last two.
More than anything, Howard just wanted to fast-forward to after everything was over – to a moment where he could get Vince away from all these annoying people and finally say and do what he set out to.
Thinking about it instantly sent tremors through him. Excited tremors or terrified tremors, he wasn’t quite sure. They all seemed about the same at this point.
All right. Maybe he could wait. Just a little longer, another half-hour to bolster his nerves. It wasn’t as if he really had a choice.
Finally, the band called Fossil over and handed him a small piece of paper. He obediently trotted back to the middle of the stage and cleared his throat.
“Okay, listen up everybody! Especially you, Moon.” He narrowed his eyes at Howard for no apparent reason, then gave the crowd what he apparently took to be a winning smile.
“Our finalists are… B Sting, The Incin-Orator, and Camden’s Darling, Vince Noir! Now–”
A chorus of hurrah’s and fuck yeahs! cut him off from saying any more, and it took a few moments for Fossil to become audible again.
“Hey hey, keep your hats on, people!” Fossil looked a bit disgruntled at being interrupted. “Okay, so now they each get to sing one last song, and then Flock of… er…” He reached for his tape recorder, but couldn’t seem to locate it.
“Starships!” someone shouted from the audience, and Fossil bristled.
“I just said that! Anyway, they’re gonna pick the winner after this song so just sit tight, don’t go anywhere, because The Incin-Orator is up next!”
He galumphed offstage, and the first finalist took the stage. Howard had been watching this bloke the whole time and still couldn’t figure out if his hat was supposed to be on fire or not… regardless, he wasn’t a big fan of the rather stoic delivery, nor the strange toga-like garment. He wasn’t as painful as some of the others had been, but still, Howard was relieved when his song was through.
“All right! That was The Incin-Orator! Now give it up for B Sting!” Fossil yowled in grating tones.
Howard wasn’t a big fan of this one, either. She actually knew how to sing, unlike the last fellow, but her voice was so high and piercing, Howard found it difficult to unplug his ears long enough to even make out what she was saying. To make matters worse, she had taken off the shirt she’d been wearing so far, a hideous yellow and black striped monstrosity, and was now only wearing a mini-skirt and what looked like gaffer’s tape over her… erm. Womanly endowments. Which really weren’t much to speak of.
It was about as attractive as watching a scrawny twelve-year-old boy gyrating to some boppy song about sailors and freeways… which is, to say, not at all.
She also had rather large, bracket-shaped eyebrows and some sort of weird, pointed appendage sticking out from her derriere, which Howard found a bit disturbing, to say the least. He only noticed this because she insisted on assuming positions that left no doubt as to its location.
Finally, her song ended and she soaked up her applause for entirely too long. Fossil had to bodily shove her offstage before she could flash her underthings at the audience anymore.
“Okay, so that was B Sting, boys and girls! Yeah, yeah, okay – anyway, put your meat cleavers together for our last performer of the night, Vincey – -er, Vince Noir!”
Howard felt adrenalin flood his veins as Vince emerged from the darkness of backstage, exhilaration written all over his face.
“Alright?!” he called, even before he’d got to the microphone. Howard was used to the screaming by now, only cracked a grin as Vince reached out to touch a few of the hands that were straining toward him. He giggled, backed up and gave a nod to cue his music. There was hardly any preamble before he opened his mouth, and then…
“When you’re quiet, but your eyes are saying everything I need to know,” came the surprisingly soft voice, “I want to burrow like a sparrow, dodging alley cats and whiskers…”
Howard wrinkled his brow in confusion. This wasn’t electro at all. Just a nice, simple piano, and… Vince.
“Why do we talk in whispers?” he was asking, not dancing around or flailing his arms, barely even moving his hips as the drums came in. Even his feathers were still. “Is it painful hearing voices ring so early in the morning?”
Howard got a vision then. In it, there was no audience in the club; nobody else was waiting backstage, there was no Bob Fossil. It was just him and Vince and this song, and Vince was trying to tell him something.
“I’ve been waiting for the day when I can throw away these numbers that line my dresser drawers and cupboards,” Vince crooned, and Howard had seen him act before, and he’d seen him lie, but this was neither one of those things.
The spotlight drew him in like a beacon, but that was nothing compared to the look on Vince’s face. He knew Vince was the type to wear his heart on his sleeve, but this was something else entirely. They were staring at each other, and surely everyone else would notice… but there wasn’t anyone else, remember?
But there was, a small part of him knew, and he felt the hush that had descended. Vince, the perpetual snake-charmer, had mesmerised them all.
“Start me over,” he asked Howard, a clear voice in the dark, a point-blank gaze. “Life seems so much slower with your toothbrush by the mirror. Can I make it any clearer?”
The music swelled and Howard felt lightheaded. Delirious.
“And I just might say it tonight.” Vince swayed into the chorus, but there was something frightened in his demeanor that Howard could suddenly see; and he could only watch, not sure what to expect.
“I just might say it tonight,” Vince repeated, as if reassuring himself. “And I just might tell you tonight that…”
Howard’s eyes grew wide as he realised what Vince was about to–
“I love you, and you should stay all my life…”
Howard wondered if anyone would possibly catch him, were he to swoon this time. Surely that hadn’t just – no, Vince would never have… not in front of all these people. Not here. Not–
His heart was beating well over the speed limit and Howard could just stare in dumb amazement at Vince as he seemed to gather himself for the next verse.
“They’ll tell you that you’ll maybe make it, if you just cut your clothes and change your hair, but I won’t fuss and moan about what you wear.” This with a wink, and Howard gave a breathless laugh, still shocked to his core.
“I feel so much better when I read your dirty letters.” And this with a hint of a blush. “Just wear your sweaters in the winter, cos I wouldn’t want you to get cold.”
And Howard realised that Vince was taking the microphone and moving towards him, and his heart just hit thirty over.
“I hope that we’re together when we’re old.” Vince was smiling now, as he approached. “I would have sold all my possessions – never took piano lessons.”
He stopped in front of Howard, eyes fixed on him. Howard felt faint. Here he was, in a whole club packed full of Camden’s finest… well, finest what, he wasn’t exactly sure. But he wasn’t anything special in their eyes, he knew that well. And Vince cared so much about them, but here he was, singing to Howard and he meant it, he had to. In front of everyone.
“But baby, you’re a grand. And I will learn to play the good notes, and tune you up the best I can…”
Howard felt a little more asthmatic than he had five minutes ago.
Vince had reached the chorus again, and was he – Howard blanched. He was getting off the stage. Getting off the stage meant only one thing. Howard found himself backing up. He couldn’t let Vince do this, he’d regret it later – here, in front of all his friends. They’d just laugh at him, he’d be devastated.
“And I just might say it tonight,” Vince was in the crowd now, and though the crowd had been eagerly pawing him earlier, the tone of the song and the fact that he was standing in their midst seemed to keep them at bay. Howard looked over his shoulder, could see a frown coming on as Vince realised that he was trying to slip away.
“I just might say it tonight, and I just might tell you tonight,” and Howard knew he was running again, but surely this time it was different, he was trying to protect Vince, he was trying to–
“That I love you, and you should stay all my life,” came Vince’s voice, and something in it was so sincere, so urgent, so full of naked need that Howard felt it like a blow. He stopped dead, paralysed.
“I just might say it tonight,” and Vince strode forward and the crowd parted for him like he was some sort of important Biblical figure and Howard was trapped, there was nowhere for him to go, and he turned around and there was Vince standing before him.
The spotlight had followed him so he burned like anything, all pale skin and too-dark eyes, the shimmer of the glitter dust that seemed to coat him. The whole world seemed to be swallowed up by his eyes in that moment.
“I just might tell you tonight, that–” He was holding his microphone to his lips and looking into Howard with a frightening intensity and everyone was staring and Howard felt his knees tremble and his palms were clammy.
And then he saw the fear in Vince’s eyes. The sheer, naked terror.
And then nothing else mattered, because Howard knew what came next, and something in him snapped. Vince shouldn’t do this alone. He stepped forward and put his hand over Vince’s on the microphone and, possessed by something otherworldly, somehow managed to sing the words with him:
“I love you and you should stay all my life…”
The music kept going, but there was complete and utter silence as the two of them stared, as if they’d never seen each other before. Howard realised his mouth was hanging slightly open, and couldn’t seem to close it. Vince seemed equally disabled, until he inhaled and leaned in to murmur breathlessly in Howard’s ear,
“I think now is when we run.“
Howard didn’t need to be told twice. He grabbed Vince’s hand in his, and suddenly they were fleeing toward the exit, Howard slicing through the crowd as if he’d been born for it. The spell that had been cast over the club suddenly broke with the force of water rupturing a dam. A giant roar echoed behind them – it sounded as if they were escaping from Hell, and all the hounds were out for blood. He thought he heard Fossil’s outraged voice rising above the din.
And then they were through the door, a shock of cold air on Howard’s face, and they were running faster now, away from the club, away from the crowd, away from the whole world. Howard looked at Vince, totally awestruck by the last few minutes. He could barely even process anything. From the look on Vince’s face, neither could he. Or he was just concentrating very hard on not falling over in his platform shoes. But he caught Howard’s eye and a huge grin split his face, and Howard found himself laughing, breathlessly, and then Vince was laughing too.
Passers-by watched them pass, two men laughing hysterically as they ran hand-in-hand, one looking like a geography teacher without shoes, the other like some sort of bird that was supposed to have died out in the 80s. The sun had set, the moon was high in the sky, and the streetlights seemed to be guiding them home, lighting their way.
Howard’s feet ached like bloody murder, but the run seemed shorter this time, though he was more out of breath and was developing a serious stitch in his side by the time they arrived in front of the Nabootique. They both stopped short, bent double as they wheezed painfully, trying to get their breath back. Maybe the joyous laughter ought to have waited a bit. Still, too late for regrets, Howard thought, looking over at Vince.
Neither of them had regained their ability to speak, but Vince was still glowing even without the spotlight. Howard patted his pockets, praying to any deity that was listening that he might miraculously have his keys on him. While he was searching in vain, Vince straightened a little and walked over to the door. He pushed on it, and it swung open almost cheerfully.
Vince hiccupped, laughing, and held the door for Howard, who turned right around and locked it as soon as they got inside the dark shop. He turned, still breathing heavily, to see that Vince was kicking off his boots and rubbing the arch of one foot, trying to balance on the other.
“Come on.” He straightened up, tugging Howard’s arm while trying to yank off his feather neckpiece with the other. By the time it had sailed across the room to land somewhere among the detritus of the shop, Vince and Howard were already halfway up the stairs.
“Where are we going?” Howard squeaked, not liking stairs after he’d just run more in the course of a few hours than he had for two months prior.
“Roof,” was the unusually concise answer. Vince was tugging him along through the flat, urging him out the hatch and only seeming to stop for breath once they were both perched on the shingles, staring at each other once more.
“W-why are we up here?” Howard shivered, though there was no breeze. Vince smiled serenely.
“To get it right this time.”
He scooted closer, went to lean in, but Howard held up a hand and stuttered, “Wait-wait. Wait.”
Vince knitted his brow, but he leaned back all the same, looking a bit put out. Howard shook his head.
“I have to say… I ran there to tell you something, and I got there and… I couldn’t. And I need to, because you just… said everything, in front of everyone, and I need to say…” He took a nervous breath, but Vince didn’t try to interrupt, just watching him with twinkling, curious eyes and a hint of a smile.
What do I say? Shite. What could I possibly –
“I need you,” Howard blurted. Vince blinked once, twice. His eyes were so wide, so impossibly incandescent in the cool light of the moon.
His voice was small and sweet; he seemed all of twelve years old again, and though that particular image made him feel a bit of a paedo, Howard wanted to hold him close and protect him from everything… even if Vince wasn’t the one who really needed the saving.
“More than anything,” he said, honestly. “I… I’ve been an utter twat, Vince, and I don’t know why you waited around for me, but… I’m glad you did. And I… meant what I said. Back there, in the club. And here, on my birthday. I meant that too. I couldn’t… there was never going to be anybody else,” he said, realising it was true even as it left his mouth.
“All along, it was my crazy best mate who talks to animals and dresses like a Topshop mannequin… I… well. I wish I’d figured it out sooner. Would’ve… er, saved me a pair of socks.”
Vince bit down on his lower lip, but it only lasted a moment as he broke into a radiant smile. If he was shimmering before, he was literally glowing now.
Sunshine Kid, Howard thought. My Sunshine Kid.
Opening his mouth to say something, Vince was cut off as Howard swooped in and kissed him full on the lips with a passion neither were quite anticipating. It wasn’t skilled or completely comfortable, given that they were perched on a rooftop, but what it lacked in experience and comfort, it made up for with intensity and fervour. Howard slipped his arms around Vince’s waist and pulled the smaller man to him, was daring enough to slide his eager tongue into that warm, welcoming, dark heat to tangle with Vince’s.
His mouth was like a jungle of unimaginable wonders, a paradise that Howard had never realised was right in front of him. His lips were truly beyond the softest Howard could’ve imagined; the taste of strawberries consumed him once more and his resulting throes of ecstasy could easily give St. Theresa a run for her money. Howard felt as if a million mortars were shrieking and screaming, exploding into brilliant firestorms of colour behind his eyelids – felt as if he might explode into countless unrecognisable bits from the sheer, heady insanity of it all.
Vince clung to him, cupping either side of his face with two firm little hands, as if he were afraid that Howard might try to run away again – or perhaps fall off the roof again. If Howard hadn’t been so intent on kissing him with every fibre of his being, if he’d known just what to say to allay any fears, he would’ve said it. Instead, he only held Vince tighter, hoping it might say everything he didn’t have the words for.
Unfortunately, the part of his brain that was still conscientious enough to remember that he needed to inhale at some point gave a sharp nudge in the ribcage with its pointed elbow, startling him back into reality.
With great regret, Howard drew back, feeling hazy and so, so warm. Vince’s back was firm and radiated heat under his fingers, the strange, alien texture of the smooth fabric making him feel he was holding a doll.
But no doll had ever looked at him with such unabashed desire, such wonder and such relief. It struck him to his core. Vince’s eyes didn’t flash with the hard sheen of diamonds as they had when he was angered; something softer, more tender was now roiling in their depths. Howard saw his own reflection in the twin infinities of black, wanted to fall into those tide pools and never come out.
This was definitely going to call for a cream poem. But that could wait until later. Howard smiled, and Vince smiled back. There was a moment where they were just sitting there, grinning like loons, not saying a word.
And then the dam broke and they were laughing and laughing and laughing.
Vince wiped a tear from his eye, his finger coming away with a black smudge of mascara.
“You know, you had me worried there, you nonce. I thought you were really gonna run away – without me!”
Howard just shook his head, unable to keep the stupid, happy grin from his face.
“I… I didn’t want to, I just didn’t want to embarrass you in front of your friends.” He flushed a bit, ducking his head and clearing his throat to try and hide it. “Once they realised you were singing to the guy in the roll-neck, and all.”
Vince scoffed. “Howard. Trust me, they’ll have forgotten all about it in a week. And b’sides, I’d been planning that for a month!” He looked pleased with himself. “After all those sappy songs I picked, I don’t think me singing t’you could’ve really been much worse. Besides,” he added, snuggling up under Howard’s chin before Howard could interrupt, “I don’t care. You mean more t’me than they do. I… erm, I know I don’t always act like it. S’why I sang the first one. I’m… not good at saying sorry so I thought, you know… if I sang it. Maybe.”
Howard buried his nose in Vince’s hair, wondering if he was going to get a smack for his trouble. “S’okay. I have a lot to be sorry for, myself.”
Vince sighed happily. “I was really about ready to just kill you, you should know. Like… literally, chuck you in a bin and toss you out back in the designated refuse area.”
Howard snorted, and it felt natural to lazily rub Vince’s side. The material felt so odd, he couldn’t stop touching it. Or maybe it was just a matter of who was wearing it.
“We should get you out of this,” he said absently. Vince snorted, pulling back to look at him with raised eyebrows.
“What?” Howard asked, confused for a moment, before he registered what he’d just said. He wondered how red his face looked in the moonlight.
“As a beet,” Vince helpfully informed him. “You know, I’ve been waiting for you to say that.”
“For how long?!” squeaked Howard, turning even more red, if that was humanly possible. Vince pretended to ponder this.
“Oh, at least a couple of years. About ten, give or take.” He winked, and Howard thought he might just fall off the roof again.
Suddenly, the clouds parted, and a familiar round face emerged.
“Aah, I’m tha Moon… and eh, they say, eh, look down ‘ere, lookit ‘em people all sittin’ round lookin’ at da Moon. And they sayin, ohhhh, its so romantic-like, eh, what? Sittin’ under ‘is big ol’ face, ‘e makes me all ‘orny, and they, eh, they’re all talkin’ ‘bout their love cos tha Moon, ‘e makes them so nice. Ehh, I once, eh, I was in love, but she uh, she didn’t stick around, tha’s comets for you. I’m the Moon…”
The clouds drifted back overhead, and Vince and Howard stared at the sky.
“A bit of an alabaster retard, that one,” Howard mused, and Vince nodded, opening his mouth to reply.
Howard blinked. “Vince, you sound remarkably like–”
“Fossil!” Vince exclaimed, craning his neck to look down at the street. Howard, hoping it was some sort of elaborate mirage, followed his gaze. Somehow, it didn’t shock him as much as it should have to see there was a rather size-able crowd surrounding the store, making such a ruckus that he suddenly wondered how he possibly hadn’t noticed them.
“VINCEYYYYY!” Fossil was yelping into a megaphone. “Come back, Vincey! You won the contest! You got first place, come back to me, I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT YOU!”
Howard blinked, turning to Vince. “You… you won, you should go get your prize or whatever it is they want to give you.”
Vince scoffed. “Please, I don’t want to be in that bloody awful band. I thought I told you, their hair is hideous. I only did the contest so I could… er, you know.” He bobbled his head from side to side, apparently unable to come up with a good description of what had transpired in the last few hours.
“Confess your undying love for me?” Howard prompted, and the word felt sparkling, fizzy on his tongue.
Vince rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “I should’ve known better, now I’m never going to hear the end of it.”
“What?!” Vince yelled, peering down at Fossil. “I don’t want it! I dropped out of the contest, give it to someone else.”
“But we want you!” A Flock of Starships shouted in exact unison, pursing their lips sexily. Another girl dropped to the floor in a dead faint.
“He’s not going anywhere, all right? You heard him, go home! He’s not interested!” Howard bellowed, surprising himself, and the crowd lingered for another moment before it began to dissipate, people walking away, shaking their heads, chatting animatedly and shooting strange looks up to the roof, where Howard realised he and Vince were still fairly… entwined, one might say.
“But Vincey! I need you! Please Vincey, have a heart!” Fossil whined, which only made Howard grumble under his breath that Fossil was stealing his thunder. Vince giggled under his breath.
“Sorry,” he called out, “I’ve got a lot on right now, Fossil! I’m sure you’ll find someone else to give the first prize to. What about that girl with the gaffer tape?”
Fossil shook his fist at Howard and threatened to kick his face off, but at that point, Vince and Howard were no longer paying attention. They didn’t notice when Fossil and the rest of the crowd left, nor even when Naboo and Bollo made their way back into the flat.
They sat together, watching more and more stars appear the longer they stared at the sky. Vince shivered, snuggling closer. Howard ducked his head down, shyly pressing a kiss to Vince’s temple. This elicited a small, happy noise from Vince, so he did it again on his cheek. And then Vince had lifted his head, so of course, he had to kiss those lips again and he could officially confirm that he was, indeed, done for.
“Did we do it right this time?” he asked, between kisses. Vince smiled against his mouth.
“What do you think?”
Howard stifled a laugh. “Thinking got me into that whole mess. I think I’m going to stop thinking for a while and just… do.”
Vince pressed another soft kiss to his mouth, wiggling his lips against Howard’s moustache, which got them both giggling.
“I like the sound of that.”
(Or is it really? Yes, it is. But is it really?)
End Notes: Vince’s songs were “Boys Don’t Cry” by the Cure, and “Better Luck” and “Might Tell You Tonight” by Scissor Sisters.
IX: Howard Has an Epilogue
Author’s Notes: Sometimes, things just fall in place as they ought. And when they do, it’s best to just go with it.
It finally became too cold to sit up on the roof, and though Howard was a bit sad to leave that safe cocoon, he reminded himself that Vince wasn’t going anywhere. He’d surely proved that much, already. After they found themselves back in the warmth of the flat, rubbing their hands to warm up, Howard found his thoughts drifting back to his accidental innuendo on the roof.
“You know, I’ve been waiting for you to say that.”
“For how long?!”
“Oh, at least a couple of years. About ten, give or take.”
He turned to Vince, taking the other man’s hands in his and blowing gently on them to warm them up. When he looked up, Vince’s eyes were the warmest that blue could get without turning into another colour.
He felt himself flush again, cursed the fact that he had suddenly turned into a teenage girl. Vince interlaced their fingers. “C’mon,” he said, winking at Howard. “Let’s get you off your feet.”
Howard followed him towards their bedroom – another small detail that made now him think twice. They passed through the living room, where Naboo and Bollo were sat as usual, flipping through channels.
“Alright,” Vince greeted out of habit. Both the shaman and his familiar turned to look at the two. Their eyes seemed to immediately land on their intertwined hands; Howard panicked for a moment, tried to slip away, but Vince’s fingers suddenly had a vice grip and he kept him still.
“So you decided to forget about the contest?” Naboo asked in his usual disinterested tones, but something told Howard he was actually very interested, indeed.
“Yeah, decided I didn’t really care about it so much anymore,” Vince shrugged a shoulder. “Better things came up.”
Howard tried not to flush. Naboo’s mouth just twitched, and he turned back to the telly with a dismissive, “Leave the shop unlocked again, and I’ll turn you into a potted plant, Howard.”
“Duly noted, Naboo.” Howard nodded, desperate to get out of there. Mostly because Bollo was eyeing him in a not-entirely friendly manner.
“Harold hurt precious Vince, Bollo eat Harold for lunch.” The ape rumbled.
“You mean, breakfast,” Naboo absently corrected. Bollo stopped short.
“Er, yeah. Bollo mean breakfast.”
Howard managed an uneasy smile. “Sure thing. No worries. Ehm.”
He tugged at Vince’s hand, nodded towards the hallway. Vince seemed to sense his distress, and called a goodnight to the other two before resuming their journey to the bedroom.
Once the door had shut behind them, Vince turned to him, cracked a grin. “Awful eager to get in here, aren’t you?”
Damn, there was that blush again. Howard shook his head, holding up his hands in the universal gesture of innocence. “No, I was just… well, if Bollo had been looking at you like you were made of bacon and toast, maybe you would’ve understood.”
“Sure, sure,” Vince teased, reaching behind him to fumble at his zip. “Say, Howard, could you get the clasp on this? I can’t do it myself.” He presented his back to Howard who looked at it like it was going to eat him.
“Just undo the clasp and the zipper, that’s all,” Vince prodded.
Howard reached for the clasp, felt clumsy as his fingers fumbled with it for a moment before it came undone.
“Okay, there.” He said, a bit too quickly. It was a bit warm in here, surely?
“And the zip?” Vince looked over his shoulder, letting out a little giggle. “C’mon Howard, if you can’t even get me unzipped, how are we ever supposed to–”
“Okay, zip done!” Howard announced, having dragged the zipper all the way down to where it ended. In his haste to interrupt Vince, he hadn’t realised how low it really went, running well down over the small of Vince’s back. Almost above his–
Yeah, his face was just going to be permanently pink.
“Cheers, Howard,” Vince twirled around to face him, rising on his toes and planting a kiss on his lips as he moved toward his wardrobe, easing his arms out of the suit.
Howard found himself touching his lips. It didn’t seem real. They were kissing, now. And he liked it. It felt right. Strange, but right.
He then realised Vince was peeling off his mirrorball suit… and it didn’t look as if there was much of anything else underneath. No, that was definitely an arse cheek.
Howard turned around to preserve Vince’s modesty. He felt a little funny, mostly in the vicinity of his groin. No, he was having none of that now. Or Vince really would think he had them come in here for… well, that.
“D’you mind if I hit the shower?” Vince asked cheekily, and Howard turned a little, peeked through his fingers, only to see that Vince had put on a robe. He sheepishly lowered his hands, knew Vince was trying – and mostly failing – not to giggle at him.
“Er, no, go right ahead.” He toed off his ruined socks, bending down to pick them up and moved to put them in the waste bin.
“Want to join me?”
He missed the bin entirely and had to bend down, pick up the sock and try again. Straightening to look at Vince, Howard gulped. He was joking, surely?
“Why would I be joking?” Vince grinned, sidling up to Howard and tugging on the hem of his rollneck. “C’mon, let me at least get you out of this thing, you must be pretty warm now we’re inside.” Before Howard could even think to protest, Vince was hauling the shirt up and over his head, leaving him just in his undershirt. He had to admit, it was a lot cooler without the heavy fabric.
But now Vince had seemed to think he had free reign to just remove all Howard’s clothes. Nimble fingers were swiftly un-looping his belt, and Howard realised he’d be down to his skivs in a manner of moments if he didn’t say something.
“Er, Vince. Uhm.”
Vince looked into his eyes then, cocked his head. “You trust me, yeah?”
Howard blinked, words caught in his throat.
Vince held his gaze as he unbuttoned Howard’s trousers. His hands brushed certain sensitive parts of Howard’s anatomy, and Howard tried not to take in too obvious a breath. He wasn’t sure whether that had been done on purpose, but then Vince dragged down the zip and yes, that was definitely intentional.
Feeling suddenly very warm again, he stepped out of his trousers, left in his pants and undershirt. Vince still held his gaze, a semi-sweet, semi-mischievous smile on his lips. “Now, do you want to join me or what?”
When Howard didn’t respond, he moved in closer and rose up on his toes to whisper in Howard’s ear, “The answer you’re looking for is yes.”
This felt somehow like coming full-circle, back in the shower again. Except this time, Vince wasn’t lying naked on top of him; instead, they were standing together under the spray and the steam and he was somewhat futilely trying to preserve Vince’s modesty by not looking too directly at him (which isn’t to say he didn’t steal a few glances, who wouldn’t?)
Vince turned to him with an outstretched handful of shower gel, smiling hopefully. Howard blinked, a water droplet dripping from his eyelashes to his cheek. “Is that for you, or for me?”
“For you,” Vince nodded. “Let me do it, yeah? We’ll be like a couple of monkeys.”
“Except I don’t think either of us has fleas,” Howard returned, acquiescing to Vince’s request and allowing his chest to be soaped up. “Eee, that’s freezing!”
Vince just laughed at him, swirling the suds in his chest hair and making it stick out to a point. “Ohh, lookit that! That’s genius, I could never do that with mine!”
Howard blinked. “You have hair on your chest?”
Vince looked affronted. “Course I do! Look!” He pointed to his sternum, and Howard leaned in a bit to see, trying to not get hit with a stream of water in the face.
“I don’t see any.”
“It’s there! I know it’s there, I’ve seen it!”
“Vince, even small children have some sort of… you know, peach fuzz–”
“I will find it, and when I do, you’ll feel well stupid.” Vince huffed, smushing down the foamy horn on Howard’s chest and continuing in his apparent quest to make Howard smell like a woman. A very citrus-y woman.
He lingered over one of Howard’s nipples, and Howard was suddenly blinking very rapidly indeed. Vince looked at him coyly, repeating the motion, and Howard backed up a bit, shaking his head a little in embarrassment. Vince just laughed at him, not unkindly.
“Come here, you nob. Feels good, don’t it?”
Howard frowned a little, trying to not think about things that felt good. The last thing he needed right now was to get too… er, excited. One thing at a time, thank you.
But Vince was running his soap-slicked hands over Howard’s torso, up and down his sides, making him shiver even in the heat of the shower. Down his arms, lightly over his palms, which surprisingly sent a strong jolt of Feel Good down his stomach. Vince tapped his side to make him turn around, and maybe it ought to feel strange, letting his best friend – or whatever they were, now – soap him up in the shower, as if he couldn’t do it himself.
But it didn’t feel like some strange grooming ritual, like one might expect with Vince. It felt like he… actually wanted to just touch Howard. And that was kind of a nice feeling.
Sod that. It was a bloody amazing feeling.
Vince ran his hands up and down Howard’s back, massaging gently here and there. “You’re so tense, relax already. It’s just me,” he pointed out, and Howard had to admit his point. If there was anyone in the world who he ought to feel completely at ease with, it was Vince.
Fingers strayed down to his arse, groping unashamedly, and the heat in his face was suddenly matched by the heat in his groin. He accidentally let out a small moan as Vince’s fingers lightly brushed where thigh met buttock. Suddenly, Vince was pressed flush against him from behind, and Howard nearly bit through his lip when he felt Vince’s shower-slick hardness pressed against him. Because of their height difference, it rested just against the cleft of his arse and felt so horribly exhilarating that Howard found it hard to breathe.
“Vince–” he managed, as Vince’s arms slid around him, hands splaying across his chest and stomach.
“Mm?” Vince asked, leaning in to press a kiss against Howard’s shoulder blade. He was obviously completely at ease, which was somewhat reassuring, and somewhat intimidating.
“I… erm. This is…”
“Too much?” Vince asked, in the most understanding voice Howard could remember ever hearing him use.
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak more.
Vince pressed another kiss to his shoulder and then withdrew his arms. Howard immediately felt cold, the warm water being obstructed by Vince’s body. He felt ridiculous. He was a grown man. He could do this.
“C’mere,” Vince said softly, and Howard turned to look at him, blinking away another drop that had slid down his forehead from his wet hair. Vince smiled at him, all sweetness this time.
“Give me your hand.”
Hesitating only a moment, Howard held out one of his arms. Vince guided his hand down, and then before he could say anything, his fingers were touching Vince’s erection and a thrill ran through him. Vince stepped closer to him, kissing the corner of his mouth.
“See, it’s okay. Little Vince don’t bite, he don’t even talk back like I do.”
Howard laughed, despite himself, but his hand was frozen. He didn’t know what to do. Well, he knew, but he didn’t know.
“You can look, Howard. Touch me, it’s okay. I told you before, I don’t have nothing you don’t got.”
“Anything,” Howard absently corrected, daring to run his fingers down Vince’s length and back up again, which twitched at the attention. “S’a double negative.”
“Feels like a double positive if you ask me,” Was the chuckled answer, followed by a soft moan as Howard wrapped his hand fully around Vince’s arousal. Emboldened, Howard slowly slid his hand up and down, the feeling of another man against his palm still unnerving in a strange way that made him want more.
“I knew I had a thing for your big hands. I just didn’t know how much of a thing,” Vince sighed happily. He moved closer, rested his head against Howard’s collar and then Vince’s hand was snaking down his belly, running through the coarse, soapy hair to gently stroke the base of Howard’s erection.
Howard inhaled sharply as Vince began to tease him, his small fist sliding up and down his length with no amount of shyness.
“This okay?” Howard heard and felt the words against his skin, and he nodded, trying to mimic Vince’s movements.
“Yeah… it’s… it’s good.” Vince swiped a thumb over the head of his prick, and Howard shuddered, “Really good.”
There was something hot against his collarbone, and a shiver ran down Howard’s spine when he realised Vince was licking his skin, nibbling gently at the ridge of his clavicle. The muscles of his lower back tensed, his erection was throbbing excitedly as Vince deftly stroked him. It felt so different than when it had been him on his own; so much better, it was overwhelming.
Vince suddenly stopped and Howard fought back a groan of disappointment, but then he took Howard’s hand off his erection and moved so their anatomies slid next to each other. Howard bit down on his lower lip at the wave of heat the contact sent through him, risked a look down.
He didn’t know if cocks could be pretty, but if they could, Vince’s was the dictionary definition – should have expected that, really. It was just as pale as the rest of him and flushed rosy; somewhat longer than his, but not as wide around. The short curls at its base were so dark against his ivory thighs and gently sloping hips, deceptively delicate…
He was shaken from his thoughts as Vince took Howard’s hand and wrapped it around the both of them. Howard looked up to see a naughty glint in Vince’s eye.
“Trust me. It feels good.”
Howard gave an experimental stroke, his head falling back just slightly as a rolling wave of pleasure washed over him. He could hear Vince give a short breathless laugh, and that tongue was suddenly at his neck, lips pressing wet kisses on his hot skin, teeth just barely teasing at his skin. Howard took to his given task with relish, not believing that something so simple could feel so amazing. It felt too good, too much.
“Let’s get out of here, I’m getting pruney,” Vince giggled after a minute into his ear, swiping his tongue along the lobe. Howard moaned a bit louder than he would’ve liked, and he could hear the grin in Vince’s voice when he murmured, “I’ll have to remember that.”
They managed to keep their hands off each other long enough to get out of the shower, find towels, and sneak back to the bedroom like giggling teenagers.
In the front room, Naboo heard the shower turn off and turned to Bollo, who took his hands away from his ears and tilted his head.
“They’d better not get into a habit of that,” Naboo grumbled, “Or I’m making them pay the whole bloody water bill themselves.”
Bollo nodded. “Bollo not want to hear that every day.”
“Makes two of us,” Naboo rolled his eyes, but after Bollo had turned back to the telly, he let the faintest hint of an amused grin reach his lips. Couldn’t be ruining his reputation, now.
Meanwhile, Howard and Vince were currently involved in a very interesting discussion of their own.
“Ahh,” said Howard.
“Mm,” said Vince.
“Uuuhhh,” said Howard.
“Mmmhmmm,” said Vince.
“OOH!” said Howard.
It was Howard’s first experience with oral sex and he was currently gripping the sheets of Vince’s bed as if he was clinging to it for dear life. Vince had essentially thrown him down on it as soon as they made it back inside, kissing the breath out of him before working his way down Howard’s body until he had, with very little warning, ran his tongue along the underside of Howard’s erection and then neatly took him in his mouth, nearly to the base.
Howard came very close to biting off part of his tongue, but he recovered enough to remember that he was supposed to be breathing at some point. Vince kept looking at him with amused glances, but they were tender as well, and he found he couldn’t return them. It was too intense to try and hold eye contact. His eyes squeezed shut, and he worried that he wouldn’t last very long, it felt too amazing to not give in.
“Vince, Vince, I…” he was too embarrassed to say it, but Vince seemed to understand, pulling away with a faint slurp. He licked his lips, smiling.
“Too much again, huh?”
Howard nodded, head falling back against the pillows. Vince scooted up to lie next to him, cuddling close. His erection hadn’t seemed to wane any, and it companionably nudged Howard’s side. Howard turned to look at Vince, feeling warm and loved and lost for words. He brought a hand up to Vince’s cheek, the wet, curling hair cold against the back of his hand.
“I think today should be my new birthday,” He found himself saying. Vince looked pleased.
“Why’s that?” He asked, unnecessarily.
“Because,” Howard felt a huge grin coming on. “This has definitely been the best day of my life.”
Vince ducked his head, swatted at him playfully. “You big sap.”
“I’m the biggest sap that ever sapped,” Howard confirmed, wrapping an arm around Vince and pulling him closer. Vince giggled.
“I’ve got blowjob breath, you nonce.”
Howard shrugged, planting a kiss on Vince’s forehead. “I expect that’s one of those things you get used to, hmm?”
Vince cackled, delighted. “You should stay. Here, I mean. Tonight.”
Howard raised his eyebrows. “Where else would I go?”
A shrug of his slim shoulder, and Vince was creeping a hand toward his groin once more. “Oh, I dunno. Across the room.”
“I want to see you,” Vince murmured, just as Howard bit his lip and mumbled that he was close. Howard looked up shyly, and the sight of Vince looking at him like he couldn’t get enough of him was more than enough to send him over the edge. He gasped like a drowning man as a golden heat spread through every inch of his body and the supernova in his stomach blinded him to everything but the vivid hue of Vince’s eyes.
He swore he saw spots after, regaining enough consciousness to stroke Vince to completion. Vince buried his head in the crook of Howard’s neck, clutching at him tightly as he came with a cry.
And as he shuddered, arcs of wet heat hitting their stomachs, Howard held him close, kissed the top of his damp head. Vince rolled back, blinked at him blearily, kissed his cheek before collapsing against the pillow. He seemed to be asleep mere moments later. Howard smiled fondly, reached across the bed as delicately as he could to reach his previously-discarded rollneck and clean them up with it.
Tossing it to the floor, he pulled the duvet up over the two of them, snuggling closer to Vince and pulling the cord on the lamp sitting on the nightstand.
“Goodnight,” he whispered, kissing Vince’s forehead before settling down beside him. Vince smiled a little in his semi-conscious haze, murmuring,
Howard smiled, fireworks going off again inside him as he wrapped an arm around Vince. He was still in disbelief, and part of him knew that might never go away. Not that he truly wanted it to. It was the best feeling he’d ever had. And all because of the man in his arms. His best friend. His… everything, really. Howard shut his eyes, murmuring softly, honestly in reply,
“I love you too… always have…”
End Notes: Thanks so much to everyone who read this back when it was first posted on Livejournal, and to those who read it here! Your lovely comments have been much appreciated :]