Vince was used to living in a noisy world. And not just because he lived in London and it was impossible to walk down the street without at least one person yelling for his number from a passing car or slamming their horn and calling him an electro poof (which he didn’t actually appreciate. Only Howard was allowed to call him that because Howard understood). No, for Vince it had more to do with his ability to understand what every single living creature around him was saying. Life was never quiet when you could hear what the birds were saying behind your back and regularly overheard the mice gossiping in their home behind the fridge.
A few animals actually could speak human, especially if they had been brought up in captivity and were especially smart (or had lived some place with a high level of background magical radiation, like the Zooniverse) and a lot could understand human even if they couldn’t talk back, but even if they couldn’t, Vince could talk to them, and understand what they were saying. It had made life less lonely when he’d been small and had kept him smiling through more hiccups than he cared to recall. It was hard to stay sad when a squirrel was singing show tunes in the park and a dog was barking requests, begging for it to sing something from a musical other than ‘Cats’.
It wasn’t just the noise noise either. A lot of animals used body language and smell and colour instead of verbal communication and Vince could read it all. In animals and humans alike. Howard had once teased Vince by calling his face visually noisy but Howard had no idea what those words actually meant. It was the only time in their lives that Vince thought he had understood words better than Howard, outside of fashion terms in any case, but he hadn’t tried to argue the point. Howard’s body language was confusing; like a porcupine begging for pats, and he was the one member of the animal kingdom who Vince couldn’t always understand (with the exception of the Crack Fox. Vince had known he was a creepy bastard but hadn’t realised just how dangerous he was until he’d lifted his tail and hit Vince with a fierce puff of ‘fuck you!’ that had knocked him out completely).
As a result of all the sensory noise Vince had got very good at tuning things out. Howard teased him about that too, calling him vacant and deaf, but he mostly said it when he was feeling insecure. He would puff out his chest like he was trying to show his dominance in their relationship and the easiest way to mollify him was for Vince to make himself small. Then Howard would almost always apologise and settle down. Vince liked it when he got Howard’s cues right, it made him feel like he was back at the zoo and actually getting something right. Because despite his happy go lucky appearance, and ability to cheer himself up pretty easily, Vince had been feeling down; the older he got the harder it was to ignore the feeling in his chest that he hadn’t done much with his life, that he hadn’t achieved much. Those kinds of thoughts made him feel like Howard and he tried to push them away whenever they appeared, and listen to the birds and tomcats and dogs instead, but the closer he got to his *cough* thirtieth birthday *cough* the harder it got to block out the negative thoughts and tune in the animals.
Vince woke up on the day of his birthday feeling off. Howard would probably know how to phrase it better but off was the only way Vince could think to describe it. At first he thought he’d gone deaf. There was a thick silence in his ears, like someone had snuck in to his room and poured brown sauce in to them as he slept, but a quick check with his finger, and a double check in the mirror, showed that his ears were clean, yet the silence remained.
It had been a while since Vince had let his panic escalate in to a full blown attack - normally he used a combination of soft fabric stimming, tuning in to animal noises, and deep breathing to get him through - but the harder he strained his ears the more obvious it became that something was missing. He jumped out of bed and threw open his door, racing through the flat in just his pants and vest, not caring what he looked like, only stopping when he reached the kitchen and saw Howard turning toward him, a spatula in his hand and eyebrows drawn down.
“Vince?” Howard asked warily. “You alright, Little Man? You look like you’ve seen a ghost?” At the sound of his voice Vince burst in to tears, noisy, ugly, messy tears, and lunged across the small space into Howard’s arms, thankful that for once Howard didn’t push him away. “Hey now,” Howard soothed instead, patting him awkwardly. “It’s not that bad. It’s only thirty. You’re still younger than me.”
Vince pulled back. He hadn’t even remembered it was his birthday. He’d been deliberately forgetting what date it was, trying to put off the inevitable, but now there was no denying. He tried to shrug and laugh and hide his embarrassment behind his hair but Howard still had a grip on his arm and Vince didn’t really want to move away from his comfort, it was too rare a thing not to make the most of.
“I thought I’d gone deaf,” he admitted, flashing Howard an apologetic grin. “Thought old age had finally caught up with me.”
Howard scrunched up his face at that, as if the very notion was ridiculous. “You’re not that old, Vince. You’ve got decades of living to go yet.”
“I don’t know, Howard,” Vince quipped back, feeling his heart begin to beat more calmly as he relaxed in to the banter. “I’m thirty now. Soon I’ll be forty, and then I’ll be fifty, and then I’ll be dead!”
Howard raised an eyebrow. “Have you been sneaking a look at my script again? Because I’m pretty sure that’s my line.”
“Well,” Vince shrugged. “You always get the best lines. I never seem to say anything.”
Howard laughed at that, the soft chuckle that made his eyes disappear in to the lines of his face like a happy piece of caramel fudge and Vince stared as long as he dared to, knowing that once Howard caught him he’d likely get all self conscious and refuse to be looked at.
“What are you talking about,” Howard ribbed him gently, moving away with a shake of his head to attend the pancakes sizzling in the pan. “You never stop talking. And you’re not deaf. Listen, there’s a bunch of your pigeon mates outside now, why don’t you go say hello while I serve up your birthday breakfast.”
“Yeah,” Vince agreed, trying to force some cheeriness in to his voice, even if something still felt wrong and strange. “Cheers, Howard.”
He approached the window slowly, confused by how unsettled he felt, and by the continued heavy silence in the back of his ears. It was only when he opened the window and stuck his head out, and the pigeons flew over to say good morning, cooing and fluttering at him, that Vince realised what was wrong. He couldn’t understand them, not a word or movement made sense, and by the odd looks they were giving him, the pigeons couldn’t understand him either. The panic was back, clawing at his throat as he strained his ears, hoping to hear something, but there was nothing. Normally he could hear the lazy monologues of the flies, droning away nasally, and the songs of the spiders spinning their webs or settling down to sleep, and even the soft marching chants of the ants on their way to track down the closest supply of jam. Now there was nothing, he couldn’t hear any of it.
He stumbled backwards and shut the window, hating the look of pity he saw in the pigeons’ eyes (at least he thought it was pity, couldn’t really tell anymore) and drew down the blind for good measure. He was shaking by the time he had walked back across to the kitchen and wanted to cry again, but there didn’t seem to be any tears left; his eyes felt as blocked as his ears as he stared down at the stack of pancakes that had set out for him.
“Howard?” he asked tentatively, looking up and realising that he had no clue what his friend was thinking or feeling either. “Howard I think something’s wrong with me. I think I need to talk to Naboo.”
Howard’s face looked concerned but Vince still wasn’t sure. Howard sometimes hid his true feelings and intentions, or changed how he felt so fast that Vince couldn’t keep up, and Vince could no longer read his body language at all.
“Sure, Vince, sure,” he said hurriedly, and Vince thought maybe he could hear panic in his voice. “Tell me what’s wrong, Vince? You’re white as a sheet again, and not in a fashionable way. Has your hearing gone again? Are you going to be sick? Should I get a bucket?” Vince shook his head, walking unsteadily to the table and sitting down with a thud, staring at the pancakes like he didn’t understand them either. The kitchen was too quiet, even with Howard’s anxious chatter, and it made him feel ill. “At least tell me what’s wrong, Vince?” Howard begged, the words making it through Vince’s muffled ears and thoughts.
“Alright, Howard,” Vince nodded looking up warily and then quickly away when they made accidental eye contact. Howard didn’t like eye contact, he remembered that at least. “But before I do, d’you think you could put down your tea? I don’t think I could deal with a cuppa to the face today, if it’s all the same with you.”
Naboo looked at him through a cloud of smoke, and Vince fought against the urge to curl his shoulders in and widen his eyes. He didn’t know why his body wanted to do that and was getting nothing from Naboo’s impassive facial expression. It was only Howard’s presence at his shoulder that stopped him from scurrying away, and the voice in his head reminding him that he hadn’t done anything wrong this time - hadn’t said any spells or drunk any potions or summoned any spirits - and so was entitled to ask his friend/landlord/local shaman for help.
“See, the thing is,” Naboo lisped grumpily, leaning up on his elbows and rubbing his eyes, not well pleased to have been woken up before midday. “It’s usually only little kids that can talk to animals, Vince. And it’s a rare gift even then. Your ability to talk to animals should have faded away years ago. And you’re thirty now. I guess your brain finally decided it’d grown up. Happy birthday.”
Vince watched as Naboo lay back down and covered his eyes with his turban, mumbling that he had the mother of all hangovers and needed a Resolve before he could even think about answering any more stupid questions. He turned to Howard, wide eyed and wondering what to do, but Howard was frowning and he couldn’t tell if it was an angry scowl, a frightened frown, or a look of concerned consternation. In the end Bollo put a heavy arm around him and led them out of Naboo’s room, but when the old ape spoke Vince recoiled at what he heard.
“Bollo! What’s wrong with your voice!”
The ape blinked and shook his head, shooing Vince back in to the kitchen and putting the kettle on for tea as he pottered around, making Naboo his Resolve.
“Nothing wrong with Bollo,” he grunted. “Something wrong with Precious Vince.”
Vince span around to look at Howard, desperate to hear that it it wasn’t just him, that Howard had heard it too, but Howard just looked frowny again and reached out to put his hand to Vince’s forehead, as if a fever might explain what was happening, the horrible change in Vince’s head.
“Bollo sounds the same as he’s always done, Vince,” Howard told him gently. “Well, since Naboo put the Familiar Juju on him. His voice hasn’t changed, Vince.”
Vince looked back and forth between his two friends, waiting for them to crack and tell him it was all a joke, but no ‘gotcha’ moment came and he slowly began to realise that all these years Howard, and everyone else, had been hearing the rough translation of Bollo’s voice, the one made possible by magic, whilst Vince had been hearing Bollo’s true voice. And now he was never going to hear it again.
He stared down at his stack of pancakes, his brain swirling so fast he couldn’t seem to process any of the thoughts that were screaming at him until his mind seemed blank. As blank and silent and empty as the world around him. He considered pushing the pancakes away - storming away from the table and making a proper scene - but he didn’t. It seemed a very childish thing to do after all. Instead he ate the food that Howard had made him and tried to smile, his lips folding inwards until they disappeared, as if they were feeling awkward too.
He ate as much as he could, to be polite, and then pushed his plate away, thanked Howard feebly, and got up from the table. Bollo tried to offer him a cup of tea but Vince skittered away, still feeling strange about the change in his friend’s voice. More than that he was aware of how ridiculous he looked dressed only in his bright yellow and pink pants and tight black vest. He was thirty years old and apparently his brain had decided to grow up, maybe it was time for the rest of him to do the same.
Howard snuck another peak around Vince’s door, trying not to panic too obviously. He’d expected Vince to spend the day swanning about, filling every available ledge with birthday cards sent by his many admirers, bossing everyone around, and forcing Howard to sit through a lengthy fashion show as he tried to decide which bizarre outfit he’d stitch himself in to that night. Howard had assumed Vince would be going out to celebrate but he wasn’t showing much sign of it.
Vince hadn’t held a party at their flat since Howard’s thirty-second birthday fiasco, a night that had ended in a punctured bouncy castle, Dennis and Methuselah’s messy divorce, Bob Fossil in a grass skirt and nipple tassels, and Old Gregg trying to corner Howard in his room, claiming it was their honeymoon and that it was Howard’s turn to wear the wedding dress.
The mess that was Howard’s birthday had damaged all of their social standings - Howard had lost Lester (he hadn’t died, had just moved on to a cooler, ‘heads in jars’ set of friends), Naboo had been put on Shaman probation, Bollo had lost several lucrative DJing gigs when his connection to Howard had become known - but Vince had lost more than any of them. He’d spent months trying to claw his way back to the top of the Camden scene after it came out that someone had recorded their kiss on the rooftop and posted it to YouTube.
Howard had thought that when he saw Vince grieving his reputation and struggling to be accepted as cool all over again he had been seeing Vince at his lowest. Now, watching Vince tidy his room, throwing lolly wrappers and half-eaten packets of sweets into the bin, putting clothes back on their hangers, folding t-shirt, placing his pants in the hamper rather than throwing them, Howard saw that Vince was capable of a sadness Howard had never imagined. He was almost jealous. Almost but not quite.
Howard had been jealous of Vince when he first learned that his junior zookeeper could actually understand the animals they were looking after. He had thought the weird looking boy was genuinely insane when he’d seen him chattering away to the lions as he styled their hair but Naboo had confirmed that while Vince was definitely odd, and a bit dense, he really could understand the animals and speak their languages.
Howard had envied the attention Vince got from the animals, and from Mrs. Gideon, because of his gift, but had never wished him to lose it, he knew how important it was and now he was seeing the truth of it. Vince had gone wrong and Howard had no idea how to fix things.
It wasn’t his job to fix things, no sir, except that actually it always seemed to be these days, whether it was a jazz virus or apologising with little cakes when he ditched Vince after their kiss, ran off to Denmark, and came crawling back just as Vince was beginning to regain his social standing. Howard was always cleaning up after Vince, but this time Howard actually wanted to help.
He’d tried going to Naboo again but the tiny Shaman had just glared at him and told him that if Vince’s brain thought it was too grown up to understand animals then there was nothing he could do to reverse it. Only Vince’s brain could do that, Naboo insisted. He’d given Howard one of his long, deep looks, his oversized brown eyes clearing from their usual smoky haze as he looked in to Howard’s squinty one’s and he knew there was a message being directed at him but he had no idea what.
He watched Vince sigh as he picked up a pair of red and gold platform shoes and shook his head, packing them away carefully in the back of his overflowing wardrobe. He was dressed in his old Zooniverse work trousers, and a shirt that Howard suspected had once belonged to him if the swirls of faded brown and blue paisley were anything to go by, and he looked depressingly sensible.
As much as he’d known that talking to animals was important to Vince, he hadn’t realised just how integral it was to his friend’s understanding of himself, or the link between Vince’s special gift and his youth. Only last week he’d told Vince to grow up when he’d been upset at missing an episode of Colobos. Howard had been watching an important documentary and the Colobos episode was an old one, even if it was one of Vince’s favourites. He regretted his actions now, regretted telling Vince to stop being such a child. He didn’t like what he was seeing of ‘grown-up’ Vince. He needed to help Vince rediscover his inner child somehow.
The good news, he told himself as he watched Vince pack away the make-up that cluttered his vanity by pushing it all haphazardly in to the drawer, was that he, Howard T. J. Moon, was an expert at innocence and joy and childlikeness... Howard turned away from Vince’s doorway and pressed his head back against wall, groaning as quietly and dramatically as he knew how. He knew absolutely nothing about how to help someone rediscover their inner child. But he had to find a way. Somehow.
Vince shuffled out in to the living room, feeling older than even his thirty years could account for, wondering what he was supposed to do now, now that he wasn’t young anymore. Was he supposed to go along to a book club or jazzercise? Take up stamp collecting and start wearing tweed? He felt tired, unbelievably tired, like he’d stayed up three days straight partying, except that he hadn’t, and the very idea of going out and dancing and getting drunk made him want to curl up in bed and sleep for a week.
He made a beeline for the sofa, wrapping his arms around his waist and hunching his shoulders, wondering why he felt so exposed when he was wearing more clothing than usual, but stopped in his tracks when he saw the spread of delicious food laid out on the kitchen table. He took a few steps forward, entranced by the sight of strawberry bootlaces, flying saucers, Jaffa cakes, jammy dodgers, jelly babies, crisps, swiss rolls, squares of fudge - everything he loved, or at least used to love, laid out like the most genius window display ever devised, and with a giant chocolate cake in the centre, covered in icing and sprinkles and chocolate buttons.
The sight of it all made his mouth water but he knew he probably shouldn’t, and when Howard appeared at the top of the staircase he found himself glaring, though he wasn’t sure why. The sense of annoyance got worse when Howard saw him and immediately hid his hands behind his back and Vince wanted to fight and stamp his foot and demand to know what Howard was hiding from him... except that proper adults didn’t do that, did they. And apparently, according to Naboo and his brain and the suddenly silent world around him, Vince was now an adult. A grown-up. He had no idea how he was supposed to react to anything.
“Hey, Vince!” Howard greeted him, smiling and sounding cheerful but also possibly like he was maybe trying too hard at it. “How are things? Where you from?”
Vince gave him a close-lipped smile in response to his broad one and tried his best to seem normal. “From my bedroom just down there,” he supplied, shuffling from foot to foot awkwardly in his flat, sensible shoes. “I was just doing a bit of a tidy up.” His words faltered and they both nodded awkwardly, silence falling down between them that Vince knew he would have been able to banish with ease only a day ago. Now he couldn’t seem to decipher Howard’s mood, which meant he didn’t know what to say. He watched Howard shift his arms, still hidden behind him, and felt curiosity spark in his chest. “What you got there?”
Vince felt anger flare again, but knew that it was mostly anger at himself, for apparently ruining their dynamic by not knowing how to carry on a conversation anymore. He knew that once he would have gently teased Howard, got in to his space - alright, flirted with him, Vince admitted - but he couldn’t seem to make either his brain or body get on board with it. He felt stuck and the deep silence of the room, the lack of visual clues, and the lack of background noise, what Vince had always just thought of as the noise of life, was making him feel ill.
“Fine,” he said eventually, flapping his arms uselessly by his sides. “I guess I’ll just go back to my room and get those bags of clothes ready to give away. ‘Spose we could sell ‘em in the shop,” he mumbled, looking away when Howard tried to catch his eye. “I’ll just head back to my room and... and read a... book.”
Vince had no idea where the words had come from, even as they were leaving his mouth, and they made him want to be sick. Not just because they felt unnatural, like putting on toner before cleanser, but because the only books Vince had in his room were Charlie books and he was pretty sure that, as an adult, those weren’t the sort of books he was supposed to be reading. Howard had been telling him for years that they were children’s books, written by a simpleton, and Vince felt suddenly hot and ashamed.
“No! Please don’t go?” Howard burst out, lunging forward, one hand reaching out as if to hold Vince back.
He didn’t though, didn’t touch Vince. Instead his hand hovered just out of reach and Vince noticed starkly how large Howard’s hands were. His own were short and stubby but Howard had proper mans’ hands, proper grown-up hands. Vince immediately pushed his own in to his pockets. He hadn’t worn trousers with proper pockets for years but he supposed grown-ups needed pockets for things like... tissues? car keys? Except Vince couldn’t drive.
“Please don’t go just yet,” Howard repeated, taking another step forward and puffing out his chest, his moustache twitching from side to side like he was working up the courage for something. Vince wondered if he was about to be chucked again. Howard had ditched him as a boyfriend thirty seconds after their first kiss, now he wondered if he was about to ditch him as a friend. “It’s your birthday, Vince! I made a cake! And I got all your favourite party food! And I got you this. I thought we could watch it together.”
He took another step closer and finally revealed what he had been hiding, a Colobos the Crab DVD box set, and Vince felt his bottom lip tremble. His instinct was to lunge forward and hug Howard so tight his buttons popped, and he so desperately wanted to snuggle in to those big comforting arms the way he’d done earlier that morning, but his brain suddenly asked him if that sort of thing was appropriate and Vince couldn’t answer that. He didn’t know. He couldn’t even spell the word appropriate let alone define it.
“I don’t know, Howard,” he said slowly, not wanting to hurt his friend’s feelings but not wanting to trap him in to a morning of watching a show he didn’t enjoy. “I didn’t think you even liked Colobos. You said it was a kids show.”
“Did I?” Howard asked faintly, looking down at his feet. He was wearing his usual combination of socks and sandals and Vince joined him in staring. He probably got really good airflow around his feet doing that. Vince bet that Howard’s feet never got sweaty and sticky the way his did in his boots. He’d never really noticed it before but it had been hard to deny it when he’d started packing away his party clothes: his shoes stank. “Well,” Howard stammered eventually. “Sometimes it’s important to indulge in childish things. To get in touch with ones inner child. And, well...” he looked up searchingly but Vince turned his face away quickly to avoid eye contact. “I wasn’t sure if you had much planned for the day so I took the liberty of organising a few fun birthday appropriate activities for us both. Something to take your mind off of... things... I wrote up a detailed itinerary if... if you’d like to take a look?”
“An itinerary? That sounds good. Sensible,” Vince mumbled, feeling miserable and small again. “And the cake looks great. But it’s not exactly a balanced meal is it?” It was impossible to avoid Howard’s gaze then, because his eyes had widened so much that they were almost wider than Vince’s, and even with the world on mute and fuzzily unfocused he could see that Howard was shocked and possibly upset or hurt by what Vince had said. “Thanks, Howard,” he said with a sigh. Grown-ups didn’t hurt their friends feelings when they’d gone to do much effort, he was sure of that. “I’m not sure I’m up for much partying but we’ll give it a go.”
He accepted the present Howard thrust at him, knowing that under normal circumstances he would have been thrilled to receive it, especially from Howard, and made himself busy setting up the first disk in the DVD player as Howard cut two slices of cake and began transferring the snacks to the coffee table. By the time everything was ready the level of awkward between them had a taste and smell and a shadow, or at least it would have done if Vince’s gift hadn’t decided to move on to someone younger and brighter.
They began to sit but just as Vince had convinced himself that it was probably okay to sit on the same sofa cushion that Howard was aiming for Naboo and Bollo came stomping out of their room, carrying the magic carpet and a large suitcase. Vince immediately sprung back up and away from Howard, concerned for possibly the first time ever, about what his friends might think.
“Hey, where are you guys off to?”
Naboo turned toward him, blinking just a little too slowly. His face and body were almost always difficult to read anyway and Vince had no clue what might be going on inside his head, or what he might be feeling, even after he spoke.
“Shaman business,” he said in his usual monotone. “They need everyone apparently, even those of us still on probation.” Both Howard and Vince began to fidget at that and both jumped when Naboo let out a long suffering sigh. “Saboo and Tony Harrison were supposed to be on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan but they got lost. They were last seen fighting over the map and threatening to push each other off the carpet, heading in the direction of Brixton.”
He rolled his eyes and Bollo grunted and did the same. “Idiots,” he muttered, still sounding strange to Vince’s ears. “Alderaan nowhere near Brixton. Ballbags.”
“Exactly,” Naboo agreed. “So we might not be back for a few days. Don’t do anything stupid and stay out of my room.”
Vince watched them trudge down the stairs before he turned back to Howard and they both sat down to watch the telly. The sofa leant itself toward intimacy, it was almost impossible not to end up hip to hip, but Vince still felt that he should move, even if Howard seemed to be tolerating his being there. His indecision lasted until the moment the first episode started and Howard slid the plate with the large slice of chocolate cake in to his hands.
Perhaps growing old would grow on him, Vince thought sadly. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about his waistline if he was going to be wearing sensible trousers that required belts. He could let himself go and eat as much cake as he wanted. Somehow the thought wasn’t that comforting but the feel of Howard’s arm along the back of the sofa and his chest against Vince’s shoulder, that was comforting, and rewatching the first season of Colobos was even better than he remembered, so the day wasn’t a complete blow out. He just hoped that whatever Howard had planned for the rest of the day was as quiet and relaxing as this.
“Howard! I don’t want to do this.”
Howard turned at the vulnerability in Vince’s voice, one sandal still in his hand. He’d thought that they were getting somewhere, that the inner Vince, the true Vince, was re-emerging, and seeing how small and unsure he looked, standing on the mats at the entrance to the indoor inflatable world, Howard felt like he was looking back at Vince as he’d been when they first met: achingly young and trying to hide his terror. This wasn’t the inner child he’d been hoping to bring out.
“It’s fine, Vince,” he said, trying to keep up the cheerful tone. They’d never get the Sunshine Kid back if Howard gave in to despair as well. “Leroy says we can have the place to ourselves for the next hour. And I know you love a good bounce! Jimmy flips and summersaults and all that. Come on, Vince. You’re never too old for a bouncy castle, remember? You told me that on my birthday, remember?”
Vince nodded but still looked unsure and so Howard made himself busy by putting his shoes carefully to one side and then clamouring up on to the central bouncy castle. He then looked back at Vince with as much bravado as he could muster and held out his hand.
“Care to bounce?”
Seeing Vince smile, even if it was more coy and less confident than his usual megawatt grin, made Howard’s heart beat out a jazzy little rhythm in his chest. He was so used to doing everything wrong in life - and in his relationship with Vince - that it made him giddy with relief at being able to read Vince well enough to make him smile.
He’d been worried that morning that the DVDs were the wrong present because at first Vince had been so reluctant but now he was starting to trust that the list he’d written really would be successful, and not just the one he’d written of their day’s itinerary. The other list, the one he hadn’t offered to show Vince, was of everything Howard knew was guaranteed to make Vince smile. Sweets, cake, Colobos, bouncing, fast food with a toy, he’d noticed it all and noted it, along with more personal and intimate things too, like being allowed to press himself up against Howard’s side when they were on the sofa together, making eye contact when he told a joke, and holding Vince’s hand. Those last three were difficult for Howard but he knew they would be worth it, and once he had made that decision it actually didn’t seem so bad. It was always the same really - once he resigned himself to Vince being in his personal space he realised that it was actually very pleasant, and that he enjoyed it, and never wanted it to end - which was why he usually kept a safe distance between them. Today though, it was a special day. It was Vince’s birthday and Howard couldn’t bear to see him so sad, so bereft.
They both smiled as they stumbled up in to the bouncy castle and once they were in the centre Howard fell backwards against the air-filled fabric, bouncing back up again with a flourish that made Vince laugh, open mouthed and carefree for the first time that day. Howard felt buoyed and repeated the action with extra dramatics before grabbing up Vince’s hand again and beginning to bounce as high as the castle and his ankles would allow.
Vince’s cheeks were beginning to turn from pale to a rosy pink and he was looking at Howard with something that Howard thought might be affection, bright and dancing and swirling like a Van Gogh painting. It all made him want to recite a poem, or to compose one, to admit that he adored Vince, as a friend, as more, despite his flaws and because of them. And to admit that he had made a mistake when he’d rejected Vince, not just at his party in favour of the pencil case girl, but when he’d chosen Joey Moose to help him back at the zoo, when he’d chosen Milky Joe as his companion on the island, when he’d chosen a yeti map, and his own company on Black Lake, and every other time he’d rejected Vince in favour of anyone or anything else.
He didn’t say any of that of course, he didn’t want to ruin the moment, and because he was trying to help Vince regain his ability to understand animals which meant regaining his childlikeness or innocence (or something along those lines, Howard surmised) and bringing Howard’s very adult feelings in to the equation would most definitely not help with that.
So instead they bounced and laughed and somersaulted until Leroy came in to kick them out so that he could get the place ready for a children’s party, but within minutes of them putting their shoes back on and heading back out in to the real world Vince seemed to deflate, like a castle with a puncture, his smile fading and his hands retreating back to the pockets of his sensible, less-than-skintight, trousers.
It was disheartening but Howard wasn’t about to give up. He was a man of action, he reminded himself, and he was on an incredibly important mission, and he had an itinerary that he needed to stick to. The painting workshop at the Museum of Naive Art was due to start in half an hour and he was looking forward to seeing the masterpiece that Vince would no doubt produce. He’d even pose for him again if he had to, and vowed not to get grumpy if he ended up looking like a pink balloon or beige round of cheese. He was determined to hear Vince proclaim himself a gifted child again, and for it to be true.
Vince licked up the melted ice cream from around the cone before it could reach his fingers, focusing on the simple movement and the taste and feel of the last rays of the afternoon sun warming his skin. It had been a good day. It had, in fact, been a better day than he’d had in a long time and he wouldn’t have believed it was even possible for Howard to organise a day filled with so many activities that were fun and didn’t require much socialising, being out in public, or focus too much on his new status as a fully grown adult with no magical abilities or special gifts or anything at all that set him apart from the crowd.
It had made him wonder, as they’d stopped for pastries, whether this was how Howard felt, if this was why he was always so desperate to prove himself, yet why he wore such terrible clothing - stuck between the need for validation and the desire to hide from the world and not be seen. If it was then Vince could see why Howard was often so grumpy, the whole mess was giving him a headache and he’d only been doing it a day. If he had to live the rest of his life like this he was worried he’d go insane. Everything was so quiet, so foreign, and it was hard to enjoy things when he constantly felt like he was only ever hearing twenty per cent of the conversation.
Howard had done his best though and Vince really had enjoyed himself. It had been wonderful to discover that he could still paint, he hadn’t done that in ages, and Howard had even poked fun at his own painting and joked with Vince and had drawn Vince in to a crimp both literally and figuratively. Vince intended to hang it on the wall when they got home, to remind himself that it was possible to be a grown-up and still act a little bit like a kid.
His own drawings hadn’t been so inspiring. Every attempt to draw Charlie had been unsuccessful and the Plan Pony had remained silent and unmoving, but he’d managed to paint an interesting jungle scene, something he thought Bryan would appreciate, but it had reminded him a bit too strongly of what he’d lost and now, standing at the railings of the capuchin monkey enclosure at their local zoo, it was hard not feel overwhelmed by self-pity.
Howard was standing beside him, claiming to be studying the monkeys and how they differed from the ones they’d known back at the Zooniverse, but every time Vince looked up from his ice cream Howard was watching him instead of the capuchins. Howard had opted for a small single cone from the snacks kiosk, but had talked Vince in to getting a large one with a flake and sprinkles and Vince wondered if maybe Howard was regretting his choice. He certainly looked hungry.
“What?” he asked the next time he caught Howard staring.
“What, what?” Howard responded, his eyes darting and his moustache bristling like a cat faced with water.
Vince snorted. Howard, for all he pretended to be a real grown-up, and was seen as such by the rest of the world, could still act immature when it suited him. Perhaps there was hope for Vince yet.
“What are you staring at, with those chocolate button eyes? Do I have something on my face?”
Howard chuckled at that and Vince felt ridiculously pleased to have made him laugh. He may have lost his ability to understand animal body language but he knew that a laugh like that meant he had made Howard genuinely happy. The skin around his eyes had gone crinkly, like a puzzle made up of smiles and summer days, and Vince felt his stomach begin to flutter like he’d stepped in to a butterfly house. He knew what that meant as well but he had no idea how proper adults went about telling people they liked them. Childish flirting and teasing had never worked, neither had scaring away anyone who might have potentially shown any interest in being with Howard. Then again, kissing Howard hadn’t worked either, even if it had seemed like a more adult move, because Vince had found himself backtracking immediately, overwhelmed by the complete change in Howard’s face and tone and posture. It had been too overwhelming, but now he thought he might just be mature enough to cope with it.
He raised his eyebrow to remind Howard that he did actually want an answer, because Howard had gone back to staring at him like he did that TV advert with the clumsy puppy in it, and watched Howard start blustering again as his cheeks went red.
“Do I have shit on my face, or what?”
“No,” Howard said softly. “Just a little ice cream.”
An instant later his thumb was brushing against the corner of Vince’s mouth, wiping away the stray trace of sweetness, and Vince found that he couldn’t quite breath, and that he couldn’t look away from Howard’s eyes. For a moment he thought that Howard meant to kiss him. There was a thick stillness in the air, a tension, and even though he was aware of the capuchins chattering, it was indistinct, and he had no idea what they might be saying.
All he could focus on was Howard, but after another long moment Howard lowered his hand and wiped it on his trousers. Vince turned back to the monkey enclosure, feeling foolish both for what he’d thought was about to happen and for the melted ice cream dripping down over his fingers. Adulting was even harder than he’d thought. He couldn’t tell what people around him were saying when they weren’t talking and he couldn’t ask for advice from the animals around him even though animals were generally very observant and good at giving advice. And he was pretty sure the shirt he was wearing was giving him hives, even if it was the most stylish thing Howard had ever owned.
“Have you...” Howard hesitated, squinting toward the setting sun. “Have you had a good day, Vince? Has it been a fun birthday?”
Vince took a long deep breath. It had been a good day. Howard had worked hard to make him feel better about getting old and losing his ability to talk to animals and he appreciated that more than any gift or party or mass of followers looking at him all starry-eyed.
“Yeah,” he nodded slowly, leaning against the railing, nudging his shoulder against Howard’s. “It’s been genius, Howard. Thanks.” They stood silently for a long while, staring at the trees of the monkey habitat as the sun began to tuck itself behind them. Eventually he sighed. “So is this the part where I realise that even if I’ve lost my gift, growing up doesn’t necessarily mean giving up what makes me Me?”
Howard shrugged, glancing down at him. “Actually I kind of hoped that doing all this would spark something in your brain and bring your gift back. But what you just said was good too. And true. You don’t have to change yourself just because you’re getting older, not unless you want to.” He scrunched up his forehead and flicked his hair back away from his eyes, and Vince felt the fluttering in his stomach start up again. “You may not be a gifted child anymore, Vince, but you’re still a...” he swallowed deeply and looked across at Vince, his tiny brown eyes dancing with a mix of emotions that Vince couldn’t even guess at. “You’re still a gift, Vince.”
Vince turned back to face Howard properly. He’d never heard something so beautiful in his life. He leant in, determined to kiss Howard properly this time ‘round and not mess it up by running away, but as he rose up carefully on his toes and Howard lowered his chin, he heard a strange, distant sound, like a wasp ranting around a bin at a fairground. He tried to ignore it. He didn’t even care if it was his gift coming back, he just wanted to spend the next few minutes focussing on Howard and creating a good and pleasant evening to their day together, but Howard frowned and pulled back and Vince only just resisted the urge to scream. He was supposed to be an adult after all. He was too old for foot stamping hissy fits.
“Do you hear something, Vince?”
“Nope,” Vince answered stubbornly, leaning in further, hating that he felt like he was chasing Howard’s lips, hating more that he really could hear something and that it was getting louder, coming from somewhere above him.
The next thing Howard knew Vince had been knocked to the ground, and unconscious, by a pink head with tentacles falling from the sky at great speed.
“Vince! Vince! What did you do to him? You pink pimple-headed freak!”
“This is an outrage! My head is in no way shaped like one of your human pimples. I’m a complex inter-dimensional being! Where’s my respect?”
“You fell from the sky and knocked out my friend!”
Vince was vaguely aware of Howard’s voice, angry and desperate, and of another voice, nasal and whiny and familiar, one of Naboo’s Shaman friends, but it was hard to focus on their words when there were so many other voices vying for his attention.
“Is he awake?”
“I think he’s awake. But he’s got his eyes closed.”
“I like his hair. D’you think if I asked he’d style mine like that?”
“You’re not to ask him anything until after he’s kissed the tall, fuzzy lipped one, you hear me?”
“You’re such a romantic. How d’you even know they’re that in to each other?”
“Body language, you moron. The chin tilting, shoulder tilting, hip tilting! If they tilted toward each other any more they’d fall over!”
“That one did fall over.”
“Yes, but that’s because of the talking baboon’s arse. They love each other, just watch.”
Vince opened his eyes slowly and watched a sparrow circle above, happy to be out enjoying the day. Her pace was leisurely and said that she was flying for the love of it, and had already checked their surrounds for birds of prey. His eyes turned toward the capuchin enclosure to where two monkeys were watching him and chattering away about his hair. To his left a fly buzzed past lazily, singing a song about the sandwich scraps it had eaten earlier that day and the ice cream it had just spotted and intended to eat for dinner.
Vince sat up with a start, his mind filled with glorious noise and movement and information. There were people clustered around, looking at him with concern and admiration, and awe at his striking hair and features. They were looking at Howard too, mostly watching the entertainment unfold as he berated the bulbous pink head of Tony Harrison. Howard looked distraught, his face crumpled in genuine grief, and Vince’s desire to comfort and coddle his friend welled up, his need to restore Howard’s equilibrium and reassure him rising up too strong to ignore.
“Howard?” he asked, propping himself up on his elbows. He was dizzy and his back was sore but his headache was gone and he couldn’t stop the smile that spread wide across his face, especially when Howard turned toward him with a smile full of just as much sunshine, and relief and love besides. “Howard,” Vince whispered as he watched Howard toss Tony Harrison’s head to the side so that it bounced away down the path and bumped against a bin. “Howard, I can hear them again!”
Howard scrambled over to him, his movements awkward and clumsy as he rushed to Vince’s side, moving his hands like he wanted to touch Vince and make sure that he was okay but was holding himself back out of fear of being rejected. Vince blinked. He’d never been able to read Howard so easily before, he’d always been like a novel with tiny, out of focus print but now it seemed obvious and Vince could see exactly what Howard’s body language had been screaming at him for so long.
‘Howard loves me!’
He tilted his chin up, unable to keep the smile under wraps as he heard the capuchins cheer him on, telling him to hurry up and kiss the fuzzy-lipped fool, and so he did. The press of Howard’s nose against his cheek, the graze of Howard’s stubble against his chin, the tickle of his moustache, made Vince’s head spin. The sensations were familiar but entirely new at the same time and he brought his hand up to brush against Howard’s jaw, worried he would be pushed away and giddy with relief when Howard pushed in to the touch instead, allowing Vince to guide their movements, moaning breathily when Vince gently nibbled at his lips, opening his mouth to accept Vince’s tongue and to tentatively explore with his own.
It was glorious and Vince wanted to keep at it for the foreseeable future but the crowd that had gathered were cheering and even though he was fine with the attention, Howard, apparently, was not. Still, Vince wasn’t quite ready to stop, and grabbed at Howard’s curls the way he’d always wanted to, and gave him one last passionate, love filled kiss before he finally let him go, gazing up at his flushed cheeks and wide eyes. Howard was aroused and in love and slightly terrified; Vince could see it in the set of his shoulders and the lines of his forehead and the movement of his eyes. And the tent in his trousers was a dead give away too.
The moment was broken by the arrival of Naboo and Bollo and half a dozen other shamen stomping in to the zoo to collect Tony Harrison, who was still yelling that everything was an outrage and that he would be demanding workers compensation and pursuing a charges against Saboo for assault.
“I could ‘ave been killed!” he wheezed as Dennis picked him up and tucked him under his arm. “And look at what happened! I struck that young lady and broke her nose! She’s hideous now!”
It took Vince a moment to realise what was being said by Howard was quicker on the uptake and jumped to Vince’s defense, pulling Vince to his feet after him.
“He is most certainly not hideous, sir!” he announced, puffing out his chest in a display of dominance. “He is beautiful, I’ll have you know, and, and, and glorious and godly, like an angel carved from cream, and I love him!”
“Aw, Howard! I love you too!” Vince’s cheeks had actually started to ache he felt so happy. Even Naboo making retching noises and claiming he was going to be sick couldn’t ruin his mood and he could tell that beneath it all their flat mate secretly approved of the declarations. And then he remembered his other good news. “Naboo!” he exclaimed. “Naboo, my gift came back! I can talk to animals again! That bump on the head cured me! Isn’t that genius?”
Naboo however looked nonplussed. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the way it works, Vince. Kids grow out of that sort of magic, you just took longer than most ‘cos you’re a bit, you know, slow. You’ve probably just got a concussion from Tony Harrison’s fat arse hitting you in the back of the head. You should see a doctor.”
Another argument broke out at that as Tony Harrison began yelling in outrage about slander and workplace bullying and suing Dennis for managing such a toxic working environment until a green witch at the back of the crowd told them all to shut up.
“For the love of Brian Christ, shu’ up!” she snapped, shaking her head. “He hasn’t grown out of nothing. I was there at his baptism, saw the Good Witch of the North grant him the gift of all the languages of the animals with my own eyes.”
“Sorry, what?” Vince asked in confusion, noticing her smugness and an underlying affection. They’d never really met but he’d seen her around a bit. He thought she might be a friend of Bryan’s but he didn’t know for sure. He tended to avoid green people as a rule, it tended to be a sign of serious juju. “You were at my baptism?”
“You had a baptism?” Howard asked at the same moment, but they held back the rest of their questions when the witch waved her hands at them to be silent.
“I was there,” she told them firmly. “I done seen you get your gift, and saw the Wicked Witch of the West add the curse that said you’d slowly lose your gift in the lead up to your thirtieth birthday and that if you didn’t share a kiss with your true love before sunset on that same day you’d lose it forever. She’s got a weird sense of humour.”
“Wow,” said Howard with minimal emotion in his voice. “That’s an unexpected twist.”
“Yeah,” Vince agreed, but something still didn’t seem right. “But when I woke up after that pink guy fell on me I could already hear the animals again. I could hear them talking before we kissed. That can’t have been a coincidence surely. The hit to my head must’ve done something.” He brought his hand up to check on his hair as he said it and noticed that Howard was shuffling uncomfortably beside him, like he’d done something wrong and was just waiting for Vince to figure out what and give him hell for it. “Howard?” He asked carefully, watching the blush start at Howard’s neck and work its way up his jaw to his cheeks. “Howard, did you kiss me while I was unconscious?”
Howard looked at his feet in panicked indecision for a moment before looking up at Vince with the most stricken expression Vince had ever seen, as if he was pleading for his life.
“It was mouth to mouth!” he wailed. “You weren’t moving and I didn’t know what to do! Please don’t hate me, I’ve got so much to give!”
“Aw, Howard,” Vince smiled, shaking his head at the tears he could see lining up in Howard’s tiny eyes. “I don’t hate you. I love you. And without you I would’ve never have got my gift back. Come here.”
By the time they pulled out of the kiss, which even Vince would agree had gotten a little out of hand, the rest of the Shaman council had trundled off, muttering that humans were gross and that they still needed to track down Saboo, until only the green witch remained.
“So,” Vince said as he turned to the witch slowly, tucking his hand in to Howard’s, loving how his smaller fingers became lost within Howard’s larger ones; the perfect fit, the perfect pair. “Wicked Witch of the West, Good Witch of the North. What are you then?”
“Morally Ambivalent Witch of the South,” she said with a toothy grin.
“Right,” Vince nodded. “And what was your gift exactly?”
“Gift of a good metabolism,” the witch told him proudly. “Much more useful in the long run, I find. But I best be off. It’s a full moon tonight and I’ve got a full night’s cackling scheduled. Take care now.”
Vince watched her go with a smile. Her revelation had been unexpected but not unusual. Life was always throwing up strange plot twists and he’d learnt to just roll with it over the years. Besides, did the when or how really matter when it all turned out right in the end?
He turned to look up at Howard, biting his lower lip at the joy that was overflowing from his body. Not only could he understand the animals again, he could understand body language again, could understand Howard again, even better than before!
“Come on, small eyes,” he teased, tugging on Howard’s hand and pulling him toward the exit. “Let’s go home. We’ve still got half a chocolate cake and three Colobos DVDs waiting for us, and I want to get out of these clothes.”
“Oh,” Howard said softly, his eyes brows raising in a way that Vince knew meant he was trying to be saucy. “I quite like the clothes.”
Vince grinned. Howard might have the perfect eyebrows for insinuation, but Vince had the mouth for it. “The clothes themselves aren’t really the issue, Howard,” he replied, letting his tongue dart out to lick the corner of his lip. “Except that I’d rather I wasn’t wearing anything at all. And I fully intend to get you out of your clothes as well. It’s my birthday after all. Birthday suits seem the most fitting fashion choice, don’t you think?”
Howard let out a small squeak, like he’d been poked, and a quick glance showed Vince that he looked like he’d been poked as well, but in his eyes he could see something more. He could see a whole story book of emotions and thoughts and desires, and he liked what he saw.