“Vince should be fine now, everything’s back to how it was. There’s only one thing wrong, Howard. You’ve come back normal size but your eyes have remained miniature.”
“That’s a funny joke, thank you. Yeah.”
Bollo chuckled and Naboo scoffed as he saw his jibe hit home but Vince started laughing so hard that the sound could barely escape and he came close to rolling off the shop counter.
“Vince?” Naboo asked worriedly, after the laughter had gone on for a whole minute. “Are you ok? It wasn’t that funny... Howard, what’ve you done?”
“Me?” Howard practically shrieked in indignation. “I just saved his life, fought an evil, rogue jazz cell - risked my life! Don’t you be accusing me of anything. It was your stupid joke about my perfectly normal sized eyes that started this. You said he’d be fine.”
They all turned back to look at Vince, whose laughter had redoubled at the mention of Howard’s eyes.
“Miniature eyes...” he wheezed between breathy laughs. “Ooh, they’e like belt holes! Haha! Or them little chocolates, what’re they called?” He giggled hysterically. “Kisses! Kisses! Tiny chocolate kisses! Chocolate eyes! Kissy eyes! Hahahaha! So delicious... I just wanna...”
Howard frowned in confusion. Even by Vince’s standards he was acting daft, and Naboo was looking worried.
“Vince, can you hear me?”
“‘Course I can, you sound well funny. Hahaha! Wait, who are you?”
“It’s like a part of him’s missing,” Naboo lisped seriously, and Bollo nodded in agreement, as if the ape even knew what they were talking about. “Did anything else happen when you were in there, Howard? Did the Jazz Cell do anything? Did it make it to his brain?”
Howard scoffed and pulled himself up to his full height, trying to look indignant which was a hard task when he was still dressed in the ridiculous scuba suit.
“You mean his brain cell. Singular. That berk’s probably still hiding in the closet. Just give him time to come out,” Howard laughed as he remembered the brain cell’s confession. “Ha! Coming out, that’s one of mine.” But Naboo and Bollo just stared blankly. “Anyway, just give his brain cell time to realise he can come back out to his stupid empty skull and Vince’ll be back to normal.”
“Brain cell?” Naboo mumbled, staring down at Vince who was still lying on the counter laughing to himself and rambling quietly about chocolate kisses. “That can’t be right. Are you sure, Howard? ‘Cos it feels like more than that. It really feels like there’s something missing.”
Howard took a step closer to the counter. Something did seem a little off now that he looked. Vince was giggling the way he usually only did when very, very drunk and his eyes were unfocused and glassy. His hair was sweaty and tangled but he hadn’t made an attempt to fix it since he’d been cured of the Jazz Cell and that more than anything else didn’t seem right to Howard.
“I’m telling you, Naboo, there was only the one brain cell in there. Well, him and the... well, the...”
Howard stuttered his way into silence as he remembered the other occupant of Vince’s brain space.
“Who? Who, you batty crease?” Naboo asked angrily. “Who else was in there? Howard, you’ve got to remember, it could be important.”
“Well, he was... they were... she was...”
Howard turned at the sound of the seductive, husky voice, his eyes widening until they were almost the size of regular sized eyes, as he watched the owner of the voice emerge from the behind a stand of jazz records.
The secretary stepped out of the shadows, cocking her head to the side, her red lips curving in an inviting, pouty smile, and Howard tried to back up toward the counter. He’d only been in her company for a minute during his adventure inside Vince’s body, she’d been sitting behind a desk and he’d been in a hurry, but that had been bad enough. Now, looking at her standing before him, twirling a lock of her silken, black hair around a delicate, manicured finger, hip cocked so temptingly in that tiny leopard-print dress, Howard wished he was wearing something a little less revealing.
“Who are you?” Naboo asked, somehow managing to sound both angry and mellowly befuddled all at once.
“Who, me?” she asked, striding forward until she was standing so close to Howard he fancied he could feel the fabric of her dress brushing against him, even through the thick rubber of the scuba suit. “I’m nobody really, just a secretary. Don’t you trouble your little head about it, Naboolio.”
She grinned up at Howard, her eyelashes fluttering in a way that made Howard both aroused and frightened out of his mind.
“So,” she said slowly, lifting hand to twirl a lock of her long, black hair once more. “Who’s up for a bit of fun?”
“Fun?” Howard stammered. “What do you mean, fun? How are you even here? You’re supposed to be inside Vince’s head!”
“Who is this, Howard?” Naboo demanded and Howard turned awkwardly, wondering how one went about malong introductions between a shaman and a figment of his mate’s brain.
“This is... um, this is... the secretary to Vince’s brain, I suppose.”
He turned back to the, what was she, a woman? But she simply shrugged her shoulder and winked up at him.
“You could call me that, I suppose. I’ll have to come up with a different name while I’m here though, can’t very well go around calling myself Vince Noir’s Frontal Lobe. I’ll work on it. It’ll be fun.”
“Fun,” Howard repeated weakly, wishing the Secretary’s gaze didn’t remind him quite so much of a snake.
“Yeah, fun, you know. I spend every single day staring out of Vince’s eyes and seeing him have fun - hanging out with you, going on adventures, shopping, flirting (she winked again). Well now it’s my turn.”
“But you can’t do this,” Naboo interrupted. “It shouldn’t even be physically possible for you to be here, this size, outside of Vince’s brain. You have to go back.”
Howard nodded in agreement but stopped when he saw the Secretary scowl, shuffling awkwardly in his scuba suit which squeaked embarrassingly every time his thighs rubbed together.
“And how are you going to make me, exactly? If you try I’ll just mess things up for Vince as much as I can. I’ll dress him badly, ruin his diet, make him confess his undying love to his secret crush.”
She turned her seductive smile back to Howard, who felt that same shiver of lust and terror run through him again. He couldn’t let her do that to Vince, the silly git would probably die of embarrassment if he were spotted wearing something that his trendy Shoreditch friends considered uncool, but he didn’t seem to be coping much better without the Secretary inside of him than he would with her actively sabotaging him from within. He’d sat up on the counter and was staring about dazedly, blinking every few seconds and frowning, and generally looking rather lost and a little bit sick.
“But you’re just the secretary,” Howard told her, regretting it when she turned her fierce scowl in his direction but continuing all the same. “How could you do any of that? Surely that’s all the job of that brain cell of his?”
“Brain cell?” Naboo interjected again. “What do you mean by that, Howard? No one can have just one brain cell, that’s not the way it works.”
“Vince did,” Howard shrugged. “I met him. He was a right proper git.”
The Brain Secretary laughed at that, moving around to stand at his hip, slipping an arm around his waist and making him want to run screaming, despite the cumbersome flippers, except that he was frozen in fear at being touched by a woman, even if that woman was the guardian to Vince’s brain.
“He is a git,” she agreed. “A right plonker, but he’s not the only brain cell. He’s just the part of Vince’s brain that controls his negative self-perception. He-”
“Negative self-perception?” Naboo smirked. “As if Vince has any of that. He couldn’t even spell that. He’s the most vain, self-satisfied trendy I’ve ever met.”
“N-E-G-A-T-I-V-E S-E-L-F P-E-R-C-E-P-T-I-O-N,” the Secretary spelled angrily. “And trust me, he’s very real. He’s basically a rogue cell, no better than that tentacled gentleman, which is why I was happy to let him in, I hoped he would finish the bastard off, or at least send him back where he belongs, but no, you had to go throw your lunch at him, didn’t you? Fat lot of good that did us.”
“Us?” Naboo asked, his expression turning from amusement to deep concern as the Brain Secretary spoke.
“Precious Vince been overrun by more jazz cells?” Bollo asked, shifting his feet nervously and eyeing Vince closely, whilst the erstwhile punk sat staring off into the distance with a vague look in his pretty, blank eyes.
“Not a jazz cell, darlin’,” the Secretary told him, her own expression turning melancholy. “Technically he’s from the Posterior Precuneus, but that’s a bugger to say so I tend to just refer to him as the NSP (for Negative Self-Perception), or ‘That Glittery Idiot’. He’s had me practically chained to that desk for years and I was desperate. And then... actually meeting Howard in person...” she shifted her body impossibly closer and Howard could see her cheeks turn a delicious shade of pink which, somehow, managed to jolt him free of his chokes. “I had to get out. I’ve done my time. I deserve a holiday.”
The silence stretched out in the little shop as the three men (which is to say the one man, one shaman and one gorilla) tried to come to terms with the idea that all was not well in the brain of Vince Noir and that part of his brain had actually made a break for freedom, and was standing in that very room with them in a pair of very impressive red high heels.
“But,” Howard mumbled eventually, “but if that wasn’t the brain, then where was Vince’s brain?”
The Brain Secretary sighed. “That was part of his brain, but not all of it, Love. That’s what brains are like, they’re made up of lots of parts, all working together, ‘cept that he took over when he had no right to. He keeps the rest of us, the cells, lobes, and cortexes, out the back, all except me of course, he keeps me at the desk, as if all I am is a pretty face and not the one who regulates just about everything. And as bad as I’ve got it, well that’s nothing compared to what he’s done to some of ‘em. Some are forced to work overtime, some are chained and gagged, starved, it’s horrible (you should see Long Term Memory, poor soul, she barely remembers herself now). You should see it, Howard, I wish you had seen it, but you ain’t exactly the curious sort, are you, Love? It was like a coup when that glittery idiot took over, I don’t even know how he managed it, but now we’re stuck and Vince has been turned into a person he was never meant to be.”
She finally turned her eyes to Vince, looking him up and down sadly and Howard stared in amazement at the two figures who were identical and yet so very different. Vince simply looked back at her with a bewildered smile.
“Do I know you?” he asked. “You seem well familiar. I like your dress by the way, it’s well retro. I’d love to wear something like that, ‘cept that I’m too fat...”
He sighed and looked down, picking at his shiny trousers as the Secretary slumped her shoulders, letting out an almost identical sigh.
“Usually I’m in there, tempering what he says,” she explained. “Keeping as much of the self-deprecating thoughts as quiet as I can. Some days it’s horrible. The NSP is completely narcissistic and obsessed with being liked by the outside world but also really, really horrible to Vince sometimes. You should hear the stuff he whispers to him in his sleep. But then, I suppose,” she said, turning her sharp blue eyes toward Howard. “You probably have a rather controlling NSP yourself, huh? Anyway, I need a break before I even think about going back in there. I mean, talk about a toxic working environment. So you’re just going to have to put up with me for a while, and with Vince running his mouth off a little more than normal. I’m sure you’ll cope.”
She gave Howard’s arse a quick pinch as she left his side and walked swayingly over to Vince.
“Boss? I mean, Vince?” she said gently. “Why don’t you take me upstairs and show me your room, alright darlin’? I’m going to be bunking with you for a bit.”
“Oh, ok,” Vince said faintly, looking toward Howard for reassurance and Howard nodded grudgingly, even though his cheeks were still red from the embarrassment of having his buttock pinched by a facet of his best mate’s mind, but Vince just shrugged and jumped down from the counter, letting the beautiful, black haired woman lead him toward the door.
“We’ll have to share a bed,” she told him in that same kindly voice. “But don’t worry, I won’t try anything on. And I might need to borrow your clothes for a few days. Until we can go out shopping together. Is that ok?”
“I guess so,” Vince replied, his voice still sounding spaced out and far off, and the Secretary put her arm around his shoulders protectively as they walked.
“Lovely, thank you,” she smiled. “I’ll even let you try on my dress if you like.”
“Genius,” Vince responded with a more enthusiasm before his face fell again. “But it won’t fit me. I’m way fatter than you.”
“Oh I think it will, pet,” came the Secretary’s voice as they turned the corner and started to climb the stairs.
“Trust me, darlin’. I’d lay money on us being exactly the same size. You’re only fat if I am. Or at least, I’m only fat if you are. But that’s irrelevant really, because I know for a fact that I am absolutely stunning.”
Howard, Naboo and Bollo stayed silent until Vince and the Secretary had moved out of ear shot before Naboo fixed Howard with a fearful stare.
“Howard, this is really bad,” he lisped. “Bad juju. “You’ve gotta fix it. Quick.”
“Me!” Howard squeaked. “I’ve already saved him once. Can’t I even take a quick shower first?”
But he knew that things were bad, that Vince had gone wrong and needed fixing. He just wasn’t sure that he was the man for the job.
To be continued...
The sound of the bed creaking, high heeled shoes being discarded, a quiet giggle.
“Come on now, Sunshine Kid, let’s get you out of those trousers. You can barely walk in that silly bondage gear. God, what were you thinking? ... Oh... yeah.”
A heaved sigh.
“Sunshine Kid. That’s you, darlin’. Remember?”
“No way, I’m a punk. No sunshine in me, I’m well dark.”
“‘Course you are, love.”
“But you’re right, I’ve been wearing this outfit for hours, it’s probably well uncool by now... Oh god I need to change! I need to change my clothes! Quick!”
“Alright, alright, calm down now. Let me just... there... there. All free. But it’s sleepy time now, ok? not fashion show time. You need to rest that gorgeous head of yours, you’ve been partying too much, love.”
“What are you, my mum?”
“There is a definite resemblance, isn’t there?”
“... I miss my mum.”
“... I know. So, you do remember her then?”
“Bits. I think. Did she... wear a floral pinnie and have flour in her hair... and have a big, bushy moustache?”
“No, love. I’m pretty sure that was Howard last week, when he made you those little cakes.”
“Oh yeah. They were genius. I should say thank you for those. I’m a rubbish friend, huh?”
“Howard knows you appreciate him, love. And you can say thank you in the morning if you like. But it’s still sleepy time now. How about you put on your ‘Runaways’ t-shirt for bed and I’ll brush your hair for you?”
“Alright. Hey, maybe I should try to look like her?”
“Like your mum?”
“Nah, like Joan Jett. She was well cool, wasn’t she? Everyone liked her. I reckon I could make myself look like her, well, an uglier version of her anyways. What d’you reckon?”
“I reckon you could. Tell you what, tomorrow we’ll go shopping for a fabulous Joan Jett jumpsuit for ya, how about that?”
“Not that you could be an uglier version of anything if you tried, darlin’. You’re beautiful.”
“Ha, you sound like my mum. Who are you, again?”
“I’m... Amy. Remember?”
“Oh, yeah, ‘course. You’re sleeping in here then?”
“If that’s alright?”
“‘Course it is. I hate sleeping alone. And you said I could try your dress on in the morning, right?”
“That’s right my gifted child. After all, what’s mine is yours.”
“Nice. But I’m not a gifted child though. I mean, I’m pretty handy with a pair of styling tongs, but that’s about it. Night night then.”
Another heavy sigh.
“Night night, Vince. Sweet dreams, darlin’.”
And then silence.
Howard listened to the conversation through the partially closed door, rubbing at his hair with a towel and trying not to feel so horribly unsettled by Vince’s change in demeanor. He had agreed with Naboo that something needed to be done (after Naboo had ordered Bollo to pin him down and threaten to pluck every hair from his moustache) but he’d stood his ground and had his shower first because he just didn’t feel comfortable knowing that there was probably Vince-plasma in his hair and on his skin. He’d hoped that some sort of plan would come to him in the shower because that was the sort of thing that happened to intelligent, creative types, wasn’t it? But all he’d been able to, well, come up with, was the image of the Brain Secretary walking across the Nabootique toward him in her blood red heels, with cherry red lips and long, black, glossy hair, and skin tight dress. She was everything he wanted, everything he liked, but then, just as he’d been really enjoying the image, he’d remembered her eyes - those large, pale, blue eyes - Vince’s eyes. But by then it was too late to stop, and now he just felt even more uncomfortable than before.
He knew something had to be done. They couldn’t just leave a part of Vince’s brain out in the world, walking around and seducing innocent jazz poets left, right and centre because... well he wasn’t quite sure what was wrong with it but it certainly wasn’t natural and possibly not even technically physically possible. But more than any of that, something really was wrong with Vince. He’d been acting more and more like a titbox for months, and now suddenly seemed to have morphed back into the constantly befuddled fifteen-year-old he’d bErnest back at the Zooniverse, except that that Vince had been full of self-confidence and smiles, while this Vince’s confidence seemed to have evaporated entirely.
Perhaps the Secretary was right after all, maybe Vince was being manipulated by his own negative perceptions, or whatever she’d called it, but that didn’t make the situation any easier, if anything it made it harder because how was Howard supposed to fix that! His initial plan had involved sneaking up on the Secretary from behind and holding on to her while Naboo shrunk her back down and zapped her back into Vince’s brain, but that would hardly stop the underlying problem and besides, now that he was starting to get to know her better Howard wasn’t sure how he felt about manhandling her, she was a lady after all, even if she was a lady part of Vince. Which was another confusing concept. Because the Secretary was part of Vince’s mind, but she was also a woman, and the logical next step was to suggest that this meant that Vince saw himself as partly female, wasn’t it?
Howard closed his eyes tight against the mounting headache and decided the best thing he could do right now was go and get some sleep. Things would look better in the morning. Of course, that statement had never once been true in all the years he’d been saying it, but Howard firmly believed that one day it would, and he’d wake up to something better than whatever mess he’d decided to ignore by sleeping. He would go to sleep (after his standard forty minutes of tossing and turning and run-of-the-mill existential crisis) and then in the morning he’d make Vince and his Secretary a coffee each and they could talk thing over like proper, sensible, adults.
He settled down into his bed feeling surprisingly calm and almost began to panic that he had nothing to ponder beyond the point of reasonable thought, until the question slunk into his head: ‘can personifications of brain functions even drink coffee?’
The next morning, bleary eyed and suspicious of the world and why sunshine had to be so damn sunshiny, Howard carried the two mugs of coffee into Vince’s room anyway, on the understanding that to presume anything about a lady was rather rude and that, since she was a guest in their home, it was part of his duties to make her a morning coffee. But when he pushed the door open and looked down at the bed half of said coffee splashed out of the mugs and onto his hands and Howard barely contained the pain-filled scream he wanted to give, but only because he really did not want to wake the two people still asleep in the bed in front of him.
They had turned to face each other in the night, their foreheads and noses touching, and their legs intertwined and wrapped in the messy tangle of sheets that barely covered the obscene amount of white skin. The Secretary had opted to keep her dress on, but it had ridden up in the night, and Vince was wearing nothing but a very old, very small, t-shirt, and Howard stared at their two pairs of legs, one pair smooth, one pair covered in dark, wiry hair, willing the part of his brain that controlled his feelings of attraction to back down. Eventually he managed to get his breathing under control but had only just begun to figure out how to make his legs work when the Secretary’s eyes fluttered open and fixed onto his.
“Howard! Oh, oh, Howard!” she said in delight, jumping from the bed and skipping over to him with her eyes wide and a smile on her beautifully red lips. “Howard, I just slept! I slept, Howard! I’ve never done that before! I mean, usually, I’m busy setting up the dreams and trying to hold back the nightmares and regulating the REM and...”
The excitement slipped from her face like snow from a rooftop, starting slow then with increasing speed, to be replaced by a look of deep concern. Howard began to ask her what was wrong but was interrupted by a desperately sad whimper from Vince, who the Secretary was looking at with something close to panic.
“Oh God, the nightmares...”
“Vince?” Howard moved around the side of the bed to place the coffee mugs on the bedside table, trying to find a place for them among the sweets wrappers and hair products. “Vince, are you alright?”
“Sweetheart?” the Secretary asked, coming around the other side and climbing back on to the bed, letting her dress ride up once more.
Howard looked away, focusing instead on his friend, who was beginning to wake, a scowl on his face that Howard had gotten used to seeing over the last year. But when he opened his eyes the scowl faded and Vince smiled, his eyelashes fluttering as he looked up at Howard.
“Am I dreaming? I love this dream.”
He moved to sit up, leaning his face dangerously close to Howard’s, but the Secretary pressed a hand to his shoulder and he obediently lay back down.
“You’re awake now, darlin’,” she told him. “Howard’s brought us coffee. Then you’re going out shopping with me, remember?”
For a moment Vince looked up at him, utterly mortified, but Howard passed him his coffee and the smile was soon back in place.
“Cheer’s, Howard,” he said, holding the mug tightly. “Hey, you know, um...”
“Amy,” the Secretary provided.
“Oh, yeah, I knew that,” Vince blushed. “You know Amy, right, Howard? She’s staying here for a few days. She’s on her holidays. She’s um, she’s... a relative?”
Howard tried to smile and nod and ignore the heartbreaking befuddlement that seemed to be the overriding feature of Vince without his frontal lobe secretary. Part of him wanted to insist that she simply went back, or that they stayed home, so that nothing untoward could happen to them, but instead he stayed silent and just watched as the Secretary, or Amy as she seemed to be calling herself, fluffed Vince’s hair and complimented him on his pretty eyes and asked him whether he still had his mirrorball suit. Whenever she looked in Howard’s direction her expression seemed hungry, loaded with enough desire that Howard had to fight the urge to beg her not to kill him because he had so much to give. She was an instinctively sexual being and every shift of her thighs and toss of her hair seemed to be calculated to draw Howard’s attention and yet, when she spoke to Vince she sounded and behaved like a loving mother, or a protective older sister, and it was all very, very confusing.
“... you should come with us, Howard.”
Howard blinked. He’d drifted away from the conversation for a moment and panicked as he realised that ‘Amy’ was addressing him.
“You should come shopping with us, Howard,” she repeated, leaning forward to smile at him with lips which were, incredibly, still painted a glossy cherry red.
“I hardly think-”
“Oh, come on, Howard,” Vince interrupted. “It’ll be fun. Just like old times! But with the three of us.”
“Old times?” Howard frowned. “What old times? I’ve never been shopping with you in my life.”
“Sure you have,” Vince countered. “You took me shopping for me Zooniverse uniform, didn’t you?”
“Yeah,” Howard replied. “Walking with you to the storeroom at the zoo so you could pick up your work clothes is hardly the same as going out to a real clothing store together, is it Vince?”
Vince’s face fell but the Secretary wasn’t about to let the idea go.
“It sounds the same to me,” she said stubbornly. “You have to come Howard, it’ll be great. We’ll go shopping and go out for dinner, maybe even a drink or two, it’ll be fun. You have to come, Howard, please?”
There was that word again. Fun. Howard didn’t trust it. But he also didn’t want to say no to Vince, or his Sec- Amy (Howard mentally corrected himself). He sighed and nodded and watched as Vince’s grin stretched wide with excitement whilst Amy’s grin turned predatory.
“Did you want to try on my dress now, Vince?” she said lightly, whilst keeping her eyes locked on Howard’s. He wanted to run then, but couldn’t seem to make his body move at all, choked as he was by her gaze, and so watched as she knelt up on the bed and shamelessly peeled the dress up and over her head.
He saw a flash of perfect, white skin and black underwear before he finally regained control of his muscles and bolted from the room. The last thing he saw before he left was Vince imitating the movement in order to remove his t-shirt and that was enough to short circuit his brain and he slammed the door on the sound of their delighted giggles at his prudish response, wishing he could come up with a plan to put things right. He was going to need another shower. And then, apparently, he was going shopping.
Howard was drunk. He wasn’t entirely sure how it had happened but knew it had something to do with Vince and Amy begging him to do shots with them because, “it’s only fun if you do it too, darlin’.” Worse still, Vince was sitting to his left and Amy on his right which basically meant he was listening to drunk Vince in stereo. He didn’t know how Amy could even get drunk, she was part of Vince’s brain after all and Howard wasn’t entirely sure that she even had a liver, or her own blood stream, or a separate brain, or... He groaned as his head began to spin, the whole situation was just too strange and he wasn’t sure how much more of it he could take. The Brain Secretary or rather, Amy, wanted to go skiing and skinny dipping and to eat an ice cream sundae the size of her head and Howard had barely survived a day of shopping.
The madness had started when Vince appeared in the lounge room wearing that ridiculous leopard print mini-dress paired with black skinny jeans and gold go-go boots, giggling nervously and striking poses, followed by Amy who was sporting a pair of red, leopard print, skinny jeans and a black, sequined blouse that Howard was sure he’d never seen before.
“Alright, Howard?” Vince’d asked hopefully as Howard rose to his feet with a sigh. “D’you like my outfit?”
Howard wasn’t sure whether he was expected to answer the question seriously until he looked up and saw Vince’s hopeful expression and Amy’s cocked eyebrow.
“You look...” he tried to think of an appropriate compliment. “You look like an inappropriately flirtatious secretary.”
“Aw, thanks, Howard!”
Things had only gotten worse when they both pulled him along to every horrible, trendy, boutique along the Camden high street. He was aware of the glares he was getting and that, under different circumstances, stepping out with two very attractive individuals on his arms would have made him walk proudly and with his head held high, but after the first hour his feet had started to hurt, and after four hours he was feeling a horrible mix of tired, irritated, hungry, deeply troubled and slightly aroused. This was mostly due to the fact that wherever they went either Vince or Amy (and quite often both) seemed to require Howard’s help in the dressing room. But, while Amy tried on everything she could get her perfectly manicured hands on and delighted in how her body looked and how exciting it was to be able to use a real-life mirror, Vince became more and more reluctant to try things on as the day progressed.
It started with simple things like, “Nah, my thighs are way too big for those jeans” and, “That’s not really my colour,” and, “Shirts and blazers? Are you kidding? I’d look like a bloke!” the likes of which Howard had heard often enough over the years, but devolved into statements like, “No way, I could never pull off a look like that. I mean, look at me!” and, “I don’t think this hat suits me,” and most heart breaking of all, “Wow. I really need to go back on the GI diet, huh?”
By five in the afternoon all Howard could hear were quiet, disheartened sighs from behind the dressing room curtain which he knew couldn’t bode well. Vince wasn’t even coming out to model each outfit as he tried them on anymore and Howard knew for a fact that playing TopModel was one of Vince’s favourite games, and it all came down to Amy.
As vivacious as she was, as charming and kind and delightful and beautiful and alluring as she was, Howard knew she couldn’t stay. She wasn’t just Vince’s brain’s secretary, or the guardian of his immediate thoughts and speech. She seemed to Howard, the longer he knew her, to be an integral part of Vince’s personality. And even with her compliments and encouragements and hugs Howard thought it would be a fairly simple exercise to graph the decline in Vince’s self confidence over the course of the afternoon. The longer he went without Amy at her post the more obvious Vince’s self-conscious and self-deprecating side became.
Yet it was rather difficult to remain appropriately concerned when Amy kept calling on him to help her with zippers and asking his opinion on whether a particular dress showed too much of her backside when she leant over. Howard struggled to maintain his composure as he told her that he could indeed see a little of her underpants when she leant forward but that said dress was still very nice and he was happy to pay for it. She’d worn it out of the shop, a silver sequined dress that was loose at the shoulder, displaying one black bra strap and a great deal of pale skin, but skin tight everywhere else. She’d given him a dazzling smile that made him want to sweep her into his arms and a passionate kiss, but then her smile had turned coy and suggestive and he’d lost his nerve. He’d suggested the pub instead.
And five hours later they were still there. Amy had opted for dessert for dinner and had maintained eye contact with Howard as she ate her hot fudge brownie with whipped cream in a manner that suggested she was enjoying it rather a lot, licking her spoon in a manner that Howard decided was completely unnecessary and could therefore probably be classified as flirting. And now she was giggling and tangling the fingers of one hand in the hair at the back of his neck whilst the other hand stroked over his chest and he knew that this was probably, almost definitely, flirtatious behaviour, but he didn’t know what to do in response. His usual ‘don’t-touch-me’ reflex wasn’t kicking in and he wasn’t entirely sure whether he was pleased about that or not. He tried to smile but stopped when he remembered that his smile was usually considered creepy, until one glance over at Amy told her that she definitely wasn’t put off by what she saw.
“So, Howard,” she said, batting her ridiculously long lashes at him. “Wanna dance with me, darlin’?”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” he replied shakily. “Howard Moon does not dance.”
She blinked in surprise but recovered quickly and tightened her hold on his hair, stretching upwards until her impossibly red lips brushes against his ear.
“Howard Moon does dance,” she whispered. “I’ve seen him dance. I’ve seen him shake his pumpkin ass. I’ve seen that willowy frame groove. And now I want to see it up close.”
He was about to decline graciously, but then another hand, identical and yet somehow completely different from the hand already rubbing over his chest, brushed tentatively over his heart.
“Yeah, come on, Howard, it’ll be fun. Just like old-”
“Don’t touch me!”
And at that moment Howard discovered what it felt like to kick a puppy. Vince pulled his hand away like it’d been burned and Howard looked over in time to see the tears well in those large, pale blue eyes. Howard didn’t know what to do. Vince didn’t usually respond like that, but then again, Vince wasn’t his usual self. He’d scooted away and into the very corner of the booth, shoulders hunched, fringe falling down across his face, hands squeezed between his thighs and toes turned inward and Howard fought down the panic that was bubbling up in his throat in the face of body language so blatantly obvious that even he couldn’t miss it.
“Vince?” Howard asked, sliding across the bench carefully, deploying some of his old llama calming techniques from his days as a zoo keeper in order to stop Vince from bolting from the room which, at that point, seemed a distinct possibility. “Vince, I didn’t mean... you know I don’t...” he sighed. “I’m sorry, Little Man.”
Vince looked up disbelievingly.
“I’m sorry too. I never listen. You’re always telling me and I’m just too thick. ‘S probably why you don’t want me around no more, huh? ‘Specially now that I’m getting old an’ I’m no longer as fashionable or unique or, or, or thin.”
He hid behind his hair again and before Howard could think of something comforting to say Amy had run around the table to Vince’s other side and was pulling him in to a fierce hug.
“Oh, darlin’, don’t cry now. Don’t cry. It’s alright. It’s just Howard being Howard, you know that. You know that. Come on now, what’s the matter?”
Howard shifted back a little as Vince began to explain to Amy about his fear that he was losing his edge, that he was developing fashion block and would end up as a washed-up nobody. Amy assured him that such a thing would never happen, because he was Vince Noir and therefore always ahead of the trends, but Howard could see the worry on her face, and when she caught his eye she for once looked at him with something other than a hungry kind of desire, though Howard couldn’t fathom what she was thinking.
“Tell you what,” she said, turning back to Vince and plastering the wide, cheeky smile back on her lips. “How about we get you another drink, to drown out that nasty, little voice in your head, and then,” and here she turned to Howard was a grin that was rather more wicked than cheeky. “And then we’re going to get Howard Moon out on the dance floor whether he likes it or not.”
Which was how Howard found himself in the centre of a crowded, smokey and rather loud dance floor. Vince was in front of him, dancing to the music with his eyes closed and his hands above his head, shaking his hips in the ridiculous leopard print dress which definitely should not have looked so very fetching on him. Howard was trying to concentrate on moving subtly to the beat so that hew didn’t embarrass anyone (he was a good dancer, he had no doubts about that, but only when there was proper music playing, which this was definitely not) but then those two soft, well manicured, hands crept around his waist and it was all he could do to stay upright. He could feel Amy pressed up against his back, her body moving to the beat with a great deal more ease than Howard’s, but before long he was dancing in time with her, letting her hips and hands dictate how and when he moved and he tried to remember exactly how it felt, exactly how she felt, because if anything warranted a thirty-seven verse ode in its honour it was that moment. They danced for hours and at some point Howard realised that Amy had moved and was in front of him, facing him, and his arms were around her and she felt so soft and real and so intoxicating that when she announced that it was time to go home Howard could only nod dumbly and allow her to fill his arms with the multitude of shopping bags she had acquired that day as he tried to determine what she might actually mean when she said that it was, “bed time”.
One glance at Vince, when they were finally out on the street however, and Howard realised that Amy may have had more on her mind than just Howard when she declared that it was time to go. His poor Little Man was back to giggling at nothing, though he seemed to be alternating between finding street signs and cracks in the pavement funny (Hah! Crack! ‘S funny, Howard, d’you get it?) and bursting into loud, childish sobs about how he had lost his fashion edge and was becoming a follower rather than a visionary.
Amy kept a tight hold of his hand as they walked back to the flat as well as a constant stream of reassurances, but she also kept a hand in Howard’s back pocket which was, quite frankly, very confusing. Howard tried to tune out of the conversation, focusing instead on maintaining his hold on the dozen or so shopping bags, but as they rounded the last corner and walked toward their door he realised that Vince’s constant stream of chatter had changed in subject.
“...But he doesn’t like me, and nothing I do ever makes him like me.”
“He does like you, you know that, darlin’. He’s always liked you.”
“But not in that way. Not in the way I want him to. He just thinks I’m a berk!”
“No he doesn’t.”
“He does!” Vince hiccuped and leaned against the wall as Howard put the bags down and began searching for his key. “He thinks I’m a simpleton, he doesn’t want to hang out with me, he hates all my outfits, and then I go and make it worse by being mean to him ‘cos it’s just so frustrating! And I’m never going to be cool enough or fashionable enough or famous enough for him to notice me or think that I’m worth being with.”
Ah, Howard thought, the secret crush. As Vince began to sob again Howard tried to appear deaf to what was being said because he felt fairly sure that under normal circumstances Vince would not appreciate him listening in on this sort of conversation. Still, it was hard not to step in and ask who this idiot was who didn’t realise how lucky they were to have won the love of Vince Noir. Even if they had been drifting apart a bit lately, hanging with different crowds and all, Howard and Vince still cared for each other, and if he ever found out who was causing Vince such heart break, well sir, they would be in for a world of pain.
“But are you sure that you need to do all that, sunshine?” Amy asked gently as Howard finally unlocked the door and began to gather up the shopping whilst trying not to disturb the heart-to-heart going on only a metre away.
He lingered in the doorway, wanting to hear Vince’s response but changed his mind and bolted up the stairs as fast as his heavily laden arms would allow when Vince shrugged, looked up with swollen, tear-filled eyes and said:
“It’s all I’ve got.”
Amy had to fix this and fix it fast because Howard could not deal with an emotional, depressed, tear stained best friend. That was not how their dynamic worked at all.
Howard didn’t stick around to hear the rest of Vince’s drunken confession. He dumped the shopping bags in the lounge room and made a bee-line for his bedroom, slamming the door shut and hoping against hope that by the time he woke the next morning the events of the previous day and night would make a little more sense. He tried to think about something nice instead, like the fact that if he closed his eyes he could still feel the press of Amy’s hands against his chest and his stomach, and the feel of her small - but definitely real feeling - breasts as they pressed against his back when she’d danced behind him. On second thoughts, Howard gulped shakily, he wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to think about that, because he wasn’t at all sure that we was ready to think about the fact that an integral part of his best mate, his Vince, had secondary sex characteristics of the female variety.
He knew that Vince often dressed flamboyantly, and he knew that Vince was comfortable and fairly open about his bisexuality, but he wasn’t at all sure of how that related (if at all) to Vince’s gender identity. If he really thought about it he could probably count the number of times Vince had referred to himself as a man on one hand, and that was an interesting thought. Vince has used to refer to himself as the sunshine kid and a gifted child and a fashion guru and once as the king of the mods but very rarely labeled himself in terms of gender. It would be an interesting exercise, Howard pondered, to track how often Vince did gender himself, and whether it was voluntary or whether it was simply a fashion thing or because he was trying to fit in with friends. Howard knew for a fact that Vince never corrected people, whether they called him a beautiful lady, a boy, or Howard’s ugly girlfriend, and he suddenly began to wonder if that was at all significant, whether Vince just went with the flow with regards to his gender or whether he’d simply given up on trying to correct people when they called him a woman. He thought he should probably ask except that he knew it was likely to be a fiercely awkward and embarrassing conversation for them both, especially if Vince were to turn the conversation around and enquire as to Howard’s own sexual identity, which, if he was honest, was as much of a mystery to him as it was to anyone else. It was probably better to just never bring it up and hope for the best really.
He was attracted to Amy, he was damn sure of that, and he found the female form to be generally very attractive, and breasts were, well... nice, though he would probably have to admit (although who he would admit it to, he hadn’t a clue) that he was more of a legs and backside man, and Amy certainly ticked those boxes. But she also had the sort of sparkling eyes and cheeky smile and high cheek bones and prominent nose which had been a feature of every crush Howard had ever owned up to. He had a definite type, he was becoming aware, but he wasn’t sure how the gender of his prospective partners came in to it, or what that meant for him. He wanted to fancy women, because surely that would be easier, but he wasn’t sure that his heart always agreed with him.
Maybe he could ask Amy, he thought. She was insightful and kind and unexpectedly intelligent and she at least wouldn’t laugh at him for being confused. Well, probably wouldn’t, or at least, not much. He sighed and shook the thoughts away, pulling on his pajamas and walking over to the light switch by the door just as the familiar twin clomps of Amy and Vince’s high heels were heard making their way up the stairs and into the flat.
“I am so pissed,” Vince slurred and Howard found himself leaning against the door in the dark, his ear pressed against the wood in order to hear what else Vince might admit to and what Amy might happen to say with regard to any possible crushes that she might possibly have on certain men she’d danced with that evening and whether or not she had any insights into what her own gender meant in relation to Vince’s, or what Howard was supposed to do about it all. “Why am I so pissed? I din’t drink that much, did I?”
“Yeah, sorry ‘bout that, Sunshine. That’d be my fault. Seems most of my alcohol consumption got transferred into you, don’t ask me how, I haven’t worked out most of the mechanics yet myself. The world is just large and weird and-”
“-and there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy?”
Howard startled so hard at hearing one of his favourite quotes delivered in slurred cockney that his head hit the door with enough force that he panicked for a moment, thinking that Vince and Amy might have heard him, but they were both too busy giggling and so Howard cautiously opened the door, just enough for him to see the two of them leaning against the wall by the kitchen, pink cheeked with alcohol and whatever joke had made them erupt into such a fit of laughter. It was good to see them laugh, they smiled so wide when they laughed that it made Howard wonder if it made their cheeks hurt, but he was still curious as to the source of Vince’s Shakespeare knowledge and so, evidently, was Amy.
“Where’d we learn that, darlin’?” she asked, scrunching her nose as she too tried to remember, though Vince was too drunk to realise what she had said.
“It’s something Howard likes to say, innit,” he responded, pushing off from the wall and swaying in his tall gold boots. “We studied it at school and he thought it was well intellectual. I just wanted to dress up like Ophelia an’ put flowers in me hair.”
“Oh, that I remember,” Amy nodded. “The blokes in the play kept on shamin’ her for wanting to get it on with Hamlet an’ just for being a girl, an’ then Hamlet went an’ teased her for being frigid. She couldn’t win.”
“God, I know that feeling,” Vince sighed heavily, his face falling suddenly and his bottom lip beginning to wobble. “Trust Howard to like a stupid, depressing play.”
“You brought it up, love,” Amy shrugged, and Howard closed his door over as she began to lead Vince toward their room. “An’ it’s not Howard’s fault, it’s just the way his brain is wired. He’s an incurable romantic. I bet all his lobes are in there in tights and neck ruffs or something.”
“He does look good in a ruff,” Vince nodded and Howard felt himself blush as Amy let out a deep ‘Mm-hmm‘ of agreement.
“That he certainly does. And in swim trunks too. Which reminds me,” she said, opening the bedroom door and stroking Vince’s hair as he walked past her into the room. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow, and this girl needs her sleep.”
“And this one an‘ all,” Vince mumbled in agreement as the door clicked shut and the conversation became muffled.
Howard shuffled into bed, his mind buzzing and a blush still burning his cheeks. He lay down in the dark, straightening the sheets around his body and lying flat and still, waiting for his brain to begin analysing what had been said until it all fell apart in his mind and needed to be put back together, which it promptly did. Because now he had some new facts to work with, one of the most important being that Amy thought he looked good in trunks. And she thought he was a romantic. And she could remember Hamlet! Howard felt his heart begin to beat faster because surely all of this meant he was in with a chance. Surely this information, combined with what he was now eighty-seven percent sure had been flirting when they’d been out at the bar, meant that if he were to ask her out for dinner or something similar, she would probably say yes. Of course dating part of Vince’s brain was still a little odd, and he knew that really he needed to get her back into Vince’s head so that she could sort him out and bring the real Vince back, but surely there was time for one night of dinner and dancing at some place classy and romantic. And then, Howard mused dreamily, once they’d had their night of hand holding and heart-felt sighs and declarations of love, then he would be able to let her go, and it would make a great story. Not that he’d have anyone to tell it to. Vince never listened to his brilliant anecdotes and Lester, well... Lester took his own meanings from things, and sometimes those meanings weren’t quite the ones Howard had been aiming for.
‘But Vince remembered the quote,’ a voice whispered in his head and Howard had to nod at that. He remembered when Vince had become obsessed with making flower crowns instead of actually studying but if Amy was able to recall details from their study of ‘Hamlet’ then that meant that Vince did too.
It was rather a lot to wrap his head around but Howard felt the smile spreading across his face at the thought that Vince remembered one of his favourite quotes. He hadn’t thought about being an actor in years, had all but given up on the idea, but perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to get out his tights and ruff again, especially if Amy (and Vince) thought it might suit him. He wondered what else Amy might like, and whether he would be able to, perhaps, take her out to the new dinner/dance Jazz Club he’d heard about in Dartmouth Park. Except that as delightful as she was, Amy was still very much Vince and would probably turn her nose up in a very obvious way if expected to listen to Jazz for more than a few minutes. But he was sure he could think of something because truly, when he was honest, Amy was just the sort of woman he wanted to be with and he didn’t want to let that pass him by. Especially when the alternative was spending the rest of his life alone. Well, alone except for Vince.
Alone except for Vince. Howard mulled it over in his head as he stared up into the darkness. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that. He did love Vince, they were best mates and he knew that they had probably started to move from regular friendship and into slightly unhealthy codependency, but he wasn’t sure that he could imagine life without Vince at his side. He just wasn’t sure that a domestic, codependent, platonic relationship was all that he wanted, ultimately, in life. But maybe if he could make an arrangement with Amy... it was probably worth thinking about when he wasn’t full of beer and vodka and whatever else had been in the luridly coloured drinks Vince had been so keen on them gulping down on every count of three. Yes, he should definitely try and get some sleep. Especially since Amy apparently had plans for them all the next day, plans which quite possibly included Howard in a pair of swimming trunks.
He finally began to drift into sleep, wondering whether he should go for his classic blue swim trunks or dig out his tweed utility trunks and, eventually, dreamt of a beach reminiscent of the one on the desert island where they’d gone coco-loco and had woken up holding hands and full of regret, of Amy and Vince, dressed in silver sequined swimming costumes, braiding flowers into each other’s hair and speaking in iambic pentameter about the mysterious, moustached men they fancied, moving as if they were mirrors of one another rather than real people. And when he woke the next morning it was with a stretch and a groan and the annoying realisation that the dream was still vivid in his mind and that he was going to need to run to the shower before anyone saw the rather obvious party in his pants and asked embarrassing questions, or worse, laughed at him because of it. He recalled vaguely that he had been planning on asking Amy something, or possibly Vince, but couldn’t remember what and decided that what ever it was it could definitely wait until he had washed the image of twin Amy/Vinces wearing nothing but a few sequins as they reclined temptingly on white sand out of his mind.
But then, just as he had emerged from said shower (which hadn’t taken very long, all things considered) he heard Amy yell out to him to get his pumpkin ass into gear because apparently he was driving her to the beach. Howard groaned. It looked like he was in for another long day of ‘fun’ and just hoped that he wouldn’t be expected to swim.
“Howard, you ball bag!”
Howard froze as his tiny shaman landlord came storming toward him with eyes like a Xooberonian sky (which was to say, seeming mild but completely alien and therefore deceptively dangerous).
“Naboo, hi,” he responded, aiming for cheerful but falling short by a significant margin.
“Don’t you ‘hi’ me, you wing nut! If anyone’s getting high around here it should be me but I’m not am I, because I came out here this morning only to discover that Vince’s frontal lobe, or whatever the hell she reckons she is, is still here!”
“Yeah, right,” Howard shuffled nervously from foot to foot. “I’ll get right on that, Naboo. It’s just-”
“No, you won’t get right on that,” Naboo interrupted, his arms flailing and giving the impression of a tiny, royal blue tornado. “Because I’ve just given the three of you the day off! Why did I do that, Howard? Hmm? Why? D’you know why? It’s because Amy asked me to!”
“Um...” Howard wasn’t entirely sure why he was being yelled at for something Naboo had done but he wasn’t about to interrupt and the half-sized shaman was far from finished.
“I did it because Amy asked me too! She asked me and I said yes! She’s Vince’s pure charm, Howard, unfiltered by his outward awkwardness!” Howard blinked, that was a good line and he wondered if he’d be able to use it in a poem, but Naboo still wasn’t done. “She’s dangerous, Howard. Not ‘cos she’s evil or nothing, just cos she doesn’t belong out here.”
“Right, yep, sure,” Howard mumbled into the silence. “So, I’ll just...”
“No,” Naboo said through gritted teeth. “You are just going to take her for a fun day out and then insist that she goes back,” he finished, glaring upwards.
“But why me? Why can’t you tell her?”
“Because,” Naboo told him, as if it should be obvious. “You’re the only one I reckon she’ll listen to.”
He smirked before turning to walk back to his room and Howard waited until he heard the door click shut before moving back toward his own bedroom, trying to decide how he could best broach the subject with Amy and wondering how high Naboo was to think that a woman who was essentially Vince would ever listen to Howard Moon.
He didn’t have time to work himself into a proper panic over it however because an eruption of laughter in the kitchen gave him a whole new multitude of possible terrors to imagine and he stumbled around the corner in time to see Vince wipe flour from his face, his grin wide and full of delight. There was also flour on the old, hand-painted t-shirt he was wearing and the oversized pajama bottoms that Howard vaguely recognised as a pair he thought he’d lost back in the Zooniverse days, back even before the incident with the killeroo. There was even flour in Vince’s hair, and Howard pointed the fact out with trepidation - Vince could be particular about his hair.
“It’s alright,” Vince shrugged when Howard mentioned quietly that Vince had ‘a little bit of something’ in his hair, and laughed when Howard blinked in shock. “I haven’t showered yet, have I. No point being precious before I’ve worked my magic.”
Amy laughed at that, light and carefree, but it brought to Howard’s attention the fact that her own hair seemed as immaculate as it had the first moment he’d seen her, as was her make-up, which seemed odd considering she had only been awake half an hour. She was dressed in Vince’s kimono, pulled tight around her waist, and Howard tried not stare, looking instead at Vince whose smile and flour streaked cheeks were so reminiscent of the ten-year-old boy Howard had first known and fallen haplessly into friendship with that it made his chest ache. He missed that boy so much - ever optimistic, overly enthusiastic, and contagiously cheerful - he had been infuriating, and exactly what Howard had needed. He wondered if he needed it still, and whether perhaps Vince needed it as well, somehow.
“We’re making pancakes, Howard,” Vince informed him.
“I can see,” Howard nodded, trying to hide the twitch of his lips beneath his moustache.
“Only not very well,” Amy informed him. “I can’t cook to save my life.”
“I can see that as well,” he chuckled, and tried not to seem surprised when Vince joined him, sliding into his personal space with a half skip and his hands clasped hopefully.
“I thought Amy’s be well good at cooking, but she’s rubbish,” he said with mock exasperation, bumping his shoulder against Howard’s arm and looking up at him with blue eyes that were all but dancing with delight and Howard fought hard to keep his face straight until Vince looked away.
“And why should I know how to cook?” Amy demanded, turning to them both and looking scandalised. “What are you implying, Vince Noir?”
“Nah, nah, nothing like that,” Vince said hurriedly, flitting across to what was essentially, to Howard, his female doppelganger, and slipping his arms around her waist, snuggling against her and pressing his forehead to hers in a way that made the heat rise in Howard’s chest and neck.
“It’s just that you’re so good at everything else,” Vince explained. “You’re like a proper grown up and that. And you’ve got a perfect figure, stands to reason you’d know how to whip up a delicious healthy breakfast. That’s all.”
Amy let out a breathy chuckle and wrapped her arms about Vince, pulling him in to a proper hug, and Howard stared at them, trying to identify the source of the turmoil within his gut that had erupted at the sight of them. He wished he could hold them in the way they held each other, with such easy affection, but there were rules and Howard had no intention of breaking the rules and ruining what was left of his friendship. Even if Vince did look adorable.
Howard startled. Vince? No, he told himself, it was Amy he wanted to touch and hold and dote upon, his brain was just playing tricks on him because it was tired. His own brain secretary was probably not even fully awake yet, what with the lack of a strong morning tea in his system. He would have to remedy that, and inject a little bit of sense into the conversation - and the debacle that was Vince and Amy’s attempt at breakfast.
“Besides, pancakes isn’t exactly a ‘healthy’ breakfast, is it Little Ma-” he stumbled over the old term of affection. “Little One- Little... Vince?”
Vince had turned to stare at him like he’d grown an extra head but Amy was laughing silently beside him and Howard let out a frustrated huff at her amusement.
“What’s happened to your face, Howard?” He asked, only half-joking. “Have you gone wrong? And, anyway, pancakes are totally a healthy breakfast, there’s not even any sugar in them.”
“He’s right, Howard,” Amy added. “We remembered the ingredients easy enough, and there’s no sugar, just-”
“Eggs, milk, and flour, pancake power...”
Vince and Amy sang together and Howard couldn’t help but join in.
“Look at his milky, yellow, sunshine face.”
Vince was grinning madly and Amy was biting her lip invitingly and it was impossible not to let his own smile creep forth, growing ever stronger when no one commented that it was creepy, until he found himself whisking pancake batter and bopping his hips jazzily to the extended three-way crimp. Vince made the tea, he was good at tea, and Amy set out the selection of toppings on the kitchen counter. It was all so comfortable and domestic that Howard even found himself happily agreeing with the plans Amy laid out for the day, distracted by the way Vince smiled as he listened with growing excitement to the discussion of Amy’s proposed road trip to the coast.
“Can we have ice cream? And chips?” Vince asked, practically bouncing in his chair. “Will there be donkeys? And dolphins?”
“I don’t know about dolphins, Vince,” Howard replied indulgently, leaning across the table to wipe a spot of jam from the corner of Vince’s mouth before he thought to stop himself, dropping his gaze and his hand and trying to ignore the sudden flush of pink in Vince’s cheeks. “Or donkeys. But I’ll definitely buy you chips and ice cream. I myself will be engaged in the construction of a to-scale sand replica of New Orleans, the hometown and birthplace of Jazz.”
“A sand castle competition, great idea, Howard!” Amy responded, batting her eyelashes in a way that Howard thought was a little obvious, but which made him smile all the same, even if that hadn’t been what he was suggesting.
“Yeah!” Vince agreed. “I can make one too, it’ll be genius! Just like old times!”
Howard frowned at that but tried to hide it by eating the last bite of his pancakes and gathering up the dishes from the table, chivvying Vince and Amy along to the bathroom and trying not think about the fact that they had no qualms about seeing one another shower. Instead he thought over Vince’s words, that repeated phrase which seemed to have only surfaced in the aftermath of the Jazz Cell and Amy’s appearance. “Just like old times.” Vince, it seemed, was feeling nostalgic and Howard was fascinated by the strange insight he seemed to be getting into how Vince’s memory worked. Was it possible that Vince was craving those simpler days when they were young and carefree and had no greater problems in life than Bob Fossil’s embarrassing announcements over the Tannoy.
They had indeed been the seaside together, once, a long, long time ago and, as Howard squinted his mind’s eye, he recalled that there had been donkey rides that day, along with ice cream and chips, and battered fish which Vince had turned his nose up at and refused to eat. There hadn’t been any dolphins that Howard could remember but he had vague recollections of Vince spinning him a tall tale on the coach trip home, about how he had once swum with the aquatic mammals. It had made Howard laugh at the time and he had asked whether they were dolphins or porpoises and whether they could ride them and have races. Vince had told him that it was a ludicrous suggestion and that porpoise races didn’t exist but Howard had insisted that they did, purely for the sake of the argument, and to see Vince grin and giggle. Years later when Fossil had taken over the Zooniverse and they’d found themselves dressed in swimmers and preparing for their first ever porpoise race he’d turned to Vince and simply said “Told you,” and had been delighted at the way Vince had cackled in delight and ceded the argument.
It was nice to know that Vince still remembered those early, shared memories, even if he remembered them slightly differently sometimes. Howard had wondered (worried) that, what with Vince’s tendency to live only in the present, he didn’t treasure those remembrances the way Howard did, but it seemed that Vince did indeed recall their time together fondly. Howard tried not to analyse why that knowledge made him feel as warm and content as it did and went instead to his bedroom and began to plan out the perfect seaside attire that would be both practical and, hopefully, attractive. If today was to be his last day with Amy, and Vince’s second proper trip to the seaside (being stranded on a deserted island probably didn’t count), he wanted it to run smoothly, efficiently, and with appropriately scheduled, safe, fun.
“Just think about it, Howard. How often do you hear Vince referring to himself as a man?”
Amy’s voice drifted up from the sand, lazy and content above the gentle susurration of the ocean. (Susurration was one of Howard’s all time favourite words and he took great delight in any opportunity to use it within his own head, and hoped one day to actually get up the nerve to use it in an actual, real life conversation.) She was stretched out like a cat on the warm sand, her back arched and her cherry red lips stretched in a contented smile. It had been an uncomfortable two-and-a-half hours drive to the coast for Howard. Vince and Amy hadn’t been able to decide who should drive shotgun and who should be relegated to the back until Vince yielded under the assumption that Howard would probably prefer talking to Amy anyway, because it was always the way when a pretty girl appeared in their lives, and the strong smell of gorilla in the back just reminded him of being back in the zoo and the time he’d agreed to dress as a panda simply ‘cos Howard had asked, only to be ditched in favour of yet another awkward, going nowhere conversation with Mrs Gideon.
Vince’s mouth had been running off on him again and Howard had watched as his self-confidence seemed to leech out of him as the words continued like an overflowing basin which couldn’t be unplugged. Until Amy decided that she and Vince could share the front seat. Howard had begun to protest that they couldn’t on account of such an act being in violation of seatbelt safety regulations but shut his mouth when Amy turned to stare at him, her eyes dark and fierce.
“There’s no seatbelt in the back anyway,” she told him, cocking her hip and folding her arms under her breasts. “So sharing a belt’s got to be safer than one of us going without, right? Unless you’re objecting to our arrangement ‘cos you think we’re too big round the hips to share?” Her eyebrow rose so elegantly, and yet so cheekily, that Howard wasn’t sure that he could think of an answer that wouldn’t either get him slapped or laughed at, and Amy smiled wickedly when she saw the realisation in his eyes. “Answer carefully, darlin’. I wouldn’t want to have to slap you.”
He’d harrumphed and wheezed and guffed his way through, not really saying anything, and going so red that Vince laughingly pointed out that he looked like he had anticipatory sunburn, but it was all worth it when they’d buckled themselves in, Vince practically in Amy’s lap to ensure that they could indeed fit in the one seat, and that sunshine grin was aimed in his direction.
It was lunch by the time they reached Camber Sands Beach and Howard had been relieved to get out the car, stomping off alone across the sand under the pretext of putting up the sunshade and not wanting to be distracted while he got on with ‘men’s business’. Vince’s laughter had followed him across the deserted beach but as soon as he’d got to work he’d been able to put the embarrassment and strange sense of discomfiture out of his head and when the sunshade was up and properly secured and he stood with a groan to stretch his back he smiled contentedly at the beauty of the landscape they found themselves in.
W“There’s no donkey’s,” Vince had whined, trudging through the sand, lugging his beach bag. “But there’s a chippy around somewhere, I can smell it. Howard, can we have lunch?”
“Of course,” Howard had agreed. “But why am I the one who has to go searching for it?”
“Cos you’re the explorer, ain’t you?” Amy said, appearing at Vince’s side. “Stands to reason you’re the one to go off hunting for food. And besides, Vince and I need to apply our sunscreen. We have a look to maintain and it does not involve sunburn.”
Howard had gone then, because Vince and Amy had begun to remove their outer layers of clothing, the ridiculous, gauzy, matching kaftans, to reveal the dark blue swimming costumes beneath, and Howard didn’t think his brain could cope with the image of the two of them rubbing sun cream into each others backs, not if he was going to strip down to his own trunks later in the day, no sir.
And now lunch was eaten (Vince and Amy had both turned their nose up at the fish, which in turn led to Howard being swarmed by seagulls when he attempted to take the uneaten food to the bin), swimming had occurred, sandcastles had been constructed (and demolished) and he found himself lounging on a towel with Amy less than a foot away, her milky skin on show in a way that made Howard want to recite a whole book’s worth of cream poetry about. Vince was busy collecting shells down at the tideline and, instead of allowing any talk of romance or cream, Amy had insisted on talking about her boss.
“Just think about it, Howard. How often do you hear Vince referring to himself as a man?”
“Well, that’s a tricky question, isn’t it?” Howard replied, trying to sound intelligent without seeming pompous. “I was thinking about it only last night. But people don’t exactly go around self-referring do they?”
“Oh please,” she scoffed. “You do it constantly. You’re a man of action, a man’s man, a real man. You don’t even realise you’re doing it but you’re always either reminding us of your manliness or of your worldliness. If I didn’t know any better I’d say it was your way of chatting us up.”
Howard felt the familiar heat rising up his face and wished that for once it actually was sunburn rather than an unfortunate blush at the mention of courting and relationships, or ‘chatting up’ as Amy called it.
“And by ‘us’ you mean... you and Vince?”
“I mean Vince, yeah.”
“But you’re not Vince. You’re part of his brain, sure, but you’re not-”
“We are all Vince,” she snapped back angrily. “The immune system told you but you just didn’t get it. Every cell in Vince’s body is Vince and so am I. So if you fancy me...”
Amy let the thought hang in the air between them but Howard couldn’t bare the laughter in her eyes and looked away.
“I don’t understand why Vince is acting so...” he searched for the word but gave up in disgust after a few seconds. He knew what he wanted to say, just not how to say it - story of his life.
“So?” Amy prompted and Howard glanced at her quickly, trying to gage her reaction ahead of time.
“Well,” he began, rolling so that he was lying on his side, facing her, looking at the curve of her pale shoulder as he spoke, rather than at her face. “Well, I had sort of imagined that without you, without the female side of him, you know, inside of him, Vince would start to act differently. More masculine perhaps.” He huffed again, hoping he wasn’t making too much of a pig’s ear out things. “But if anything he’s been acting even more ‘feminine’ - crying over crushes and worrying about his weight and how he looks in the mirror even more than usual and tarting himself up just to go to the beach, wearing a dress thing again today...”
Howard stopped. He didn’t really mind what Vince wore, in fact he genuinely loved it when Vince dressed for himself and picked clothes because they were strange or colourful or sparkly or outrageous and always seemed to have his own style. Not only did it make Vince happy, which in turn made Howard happy (eventually, if sometimes grudgingly), it also gave Howard permission to do the same. When Vince tried to follow the crowd and fit in it made Howard nervous about his own look, and then they were both miserable. He tried to find a way to express that to Amy but cut his musing short when she started to chuckle quietly.
“Watching your face when you think is like reading a book, darlin’, d’you know that? And it’s even easier from out here. Inside Vince’s head it’s like reading the Specials board across a busy restaurant most of the time. Lying here with you it’s like reading a kids’ book in large print. I love it.”
“Well as long as you’re happy,” he snapped, suddenly self-conscious again. “Sorry. But if my face is a book, then you explain it to me. Why is Vince still acting like a girl, a young girl - or at least the very girly boy he was when we first met - when you’re out here? Surely there should be more posturing now that the NSP’s in charge. And more, just, maleness.”
“It ain’t as clean cut as all that, darlin’,” she said, her voice turning husky as she looked out at the sea. “There isn’t just a male part and a female part. There’s loads of us in there, ain’t there. And we’re all different incarnations of who Vince is, different parts with different purposes, ranging across the gender spectrum, ‘cos that’s Vince. But I’ll admit he’s regressed a bit, and it’s cut me up more than I thought it would, being out here. Some of it might be Long Term Memory trying to hold the fort. But I reckon that at least some of his behaviour can be blamed on the twins.”
Howard let his eyes flicker up to her face, trying to determine whether she was, in some way, taking the piss. But she seemed serious and thoughtful as she said it, biting her lip and curling a finger through her thick, black hair. Howard knew a thing or two about narrative (being a novelist/poet/playwright/actor) and he couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling of narrative momentum and the need to ask the question that would bring more of the story (if this had been a story and not Howard’s real life) to light.
“Who are the twins?” he asked, feeling the weight of the question on his tongue.
“You saw a photo of them, didn’t you?” Amy asked in lieu of a response. “They’re not really twins, they’re Vince’s inner child, and his childhood memories. Haven’t you noticed how much he’s been talking ‘bout the past? That’ll be them for sure. It’s actually funny, imagining them running rings around that glittery berk when I’m not there, and I bet Long Term Memory’s doing nothing to stop them either, she deserves a laugh, what with the NSP drooling over her all the time, acting like they’re married, sullying all those memories.”
Her voice trailed off as her lips formed a pouted frown but Howard was just confused. He had been shown a photograph of the Brain Cell’s supposed family but he’d dismissed it as a badly photoshopped fake because the image of two small children with Vince’s face was just too bizarre, let alone the housewife Vince in her dowdy blue blouse and beige trousers. Finding out that they were real was disconcerting and he couldn’t seem to follow Amy’s point.
“There are parts or Vince’s brain that are still children?” he asked disbelievingly but Amy just blinked slowly and nodded.
“I’m guessing there’s a few nippers running around in your brain space and all, darlin’,” she said a little sadly. “As grown up as you act, you’re barely less of a child than Vince.”
Howard wanted to argue that - he was an intellectual, a man of the world, a man of... well, a man in any case - but he didn’t want to get too far off topic, and he wanted to understand why Vince was behaving so much like a mix of the anxious child and ditzy teenager he had once been.
“And you think that these children, Vince’s childhood memories, have gotten into the brain room now that you’re not there?”
She nodded, shuffling closer to Howard on the towel to speak in a near whisper.
“They’re often in there. The NSP has a soft spot for ‘em. He’s a self-centered berk mostly but he does love those kids, those childhood times, ‘cos he was small then too, you see. Only he’s not great at keeping them under control. Usually I’m there to make sure they don’t show through too much in what Vince says or does - unless there’s a toy car somewhere, I swear those kids would override all brain function to play with every toy car Vince sees, it’s ridiculous - but I’m not there right now, and I’ll bet that the NSP is swinging between yelling his sparkly, oversized head off at Vince for not being perfect, and being distracted running around after the two kidlets he let loose in the control room. What a prick.”
She rolled her eyes and Howard huffed out a short laugh, trying to wrap his head around the information. It was hard enough imagining the different parts of Vince’s brain as different genders let alone imagining them as different ages as well but he supposed it made sense, if he turned his head on its side and squinted. It also helped him make up his mind once and for all and he broached the subject he had been dreading since the fabulous Frontal Lobe had first stepped into his personal space in her ridiculous heels, the smile on her lips a challenge and a naughty promise all at once. Because she was beautiful and charming and so easy to love and fall in love with, but Naboo was right, she didn’t belong out in the real world and she was very much needed in Vince’s brain.
“If I asked you to go back,” he said slowly, looking everywhere except those big, clear, blue eyes. “If I asked you to go back, when we’re back at the flat. Back inside Vince... Would you?” He cleared his throat hurriedly. “I mean, would you really dress him badly and ruin his diet?”
Amy let out a slow, defeated sigh and looked down along the beach to where Vince was kicking his feet through the waves, a plastic bucket full of shells in his hand and a large, floppy, black felt hat on his head.
“Of course not. I never would have, I just needed some leverage, to stop Naboo just zapping me straight back in again. I may still make him admit his secret crush though,” she smiled.
“I don’t know if that’s wise,” Howard countered. “The man seems like a dick, whoever he is. It might be best if Vince just got over him. Can you help him with that?”
She laughed at that. The dark, knowing chuckle that Howard’s body had already learnt to respond to with a blush.
“Oh Howard, you great lummox! I don’t think Vince will ever be over him. And I definitely won’t be any help! He’s had that crush for twenty years, it’s more than a crush really, so much more. I don’t think he’ll ever shift it.”
Howard’s eyes went wide as he gaped at Amy, trying to process what she’d said.
“Twenty years? But then, I should know who it is, shouldn’t I? I’ve known Vince that long and there aren’t many people we’ve known since school that we’re still in contact with, let alone anyone Vince would have a crush on. Who in God’s name is it?”
Amy stared, her expression beyond incredulous. It was the kind of stare that he’d seen on Vince’s pointy features many times, usually followed by the words, “You’ve gone wrong”, and usually in response to one of Howard’s plans for fame, fortune and a pretty lady. It was somehow strange to see it on Amy’s face.
“Well, Howard, it’s the same person I’m head over heels for, if that helps.”
Howard felt his stomach drop, like that strange sensation when the body wakes itself up from the edge of sleep. Amy’s lip was caught between her teeth, her unnaturally red lips looking even more like ripe cherries than usual as her teeth pressed into the soft skin. Her dark lashes fanned out across her cheeks and she was staring hard at the towel between them, her chest heaving more than before. Howard didn’t know what to do. This went beyond flirting. This was closer to a declaration of deep and genuine feeling and he’d really only received that from part man, part fish hybrids before. He tried to analyse the sentence, to see whether perhaps he’d misinterpreted, whether the beautiful woman opposite him had in fact all but said that she loved him, but the words became jumbled in his mind and he couldn’t bare the thought of second guessing himself and ruining the moment. But he didn’t know what to do instead.
“Amy, I-” he began, not even knowing how the sentence would end, but it didn’t matter, because Amy had pressed her lips to his, effectively silencing whatever bumbling confession or declaration might have spilled forth and Howard was too overcome to continue.
He’d never done this before. Obviously he’d read about the act of kissing and he’d seen it in films and on telly, and occasionally in real life, but actually being involved in a kiss was something completely different. It didn’t last long, was no more than a three second press of lips before Amy pulled back with a giggle that had none of the self-assurance that he had come to expect from her. It was decidedly breathy in tone, and very Vince in pitch, and before Howard could thank her, or confess his affection for her, she had pulled away completely and sprung to her feet.
“I will go back, Howard,” she said, looking over his shoulder wistfully. When we get back. After dinner. I want to try curry. Then I’ll go. But if I’m going back for good there’s still some things I need to get done, yeah? And this is one of ‘em.”
And with that she wriggled out of her swimming costume and set off across the sand at a run, shrieking as she hit the water and waded out into the sea. As warm and pleasant as it was on the sand Howard knew that the water was icy, because it was Britain and September after all, and he couldn’t help laughing as she squealed in delight and threw herself backwards into the gentle waves. Vince was laughing too, a delighted cackle as he left his bucket of shells on the shore and waded out to join her, splashing her to hear her laugh again, the very picture of innocent glee, except that overlaid on that picture was the mental image of Amy as she pulled out of their kiss, and the feel of her lips against his, plump and moist and perfect. He turned away, moving back to his sand New Orleans, sitting half-finished beside Vince’s sand Zooniverse, but he couldn’t concentrate. Amy liked him, fancied him, had kissed him! Amy who had agreed to return to Vince’s brain that night. Amy who... fancied the same person Vince did.
Howard stared down at the sand. He would have to analyse that sooner or later, but for now he was just going to think about that kiss, and what he was going to order from their local Indian Take-out when they got home. If Amy was leaving he would make his peace with it and know it was for the best. Vince would be back to normal after all, wouldn’t he?
Sorry this has taken a while. Thank you for bearing with me. More Vince, Amy and Howard. Well, mostly Howard and Amy. Still G to PG though.
Howard smiled. The evening had been one of delicious food, easy conversation, laughter, and a heat in his cheeks and chest that he didn’t think he could reasonably blame on either the curry or the alcohol he’d consumed. He felt more relaxed than he had in a long time and squashed every attempt by his mind to sabotage the feeling with the anxiety that was so often there. He’d have time to stress later, right then he wanted to enjoy the excellent company he was in, and it was excellent. The best he could imagine. Things had been rocky to start until Amy had managed to coax Vince into eating his curry, promising him that he had burned enough calories during their water fight at the beach to warrant a decent dinner, tempting him with butter chicken and mango lassi and anything else she deemed sweet enough for Vince to enjoy. She herself had tucked into the food like it was her last meal, which Howard supposed it was, and he was pleased that he’d ordered so many different dishes for her try, especially when she grinned at him, her cheeks red from the heat of the food and his red from something else entirely.
He’d cracked out the beer, the perfect British accompaniment to the meal, and they’d stayed together at the table, drinking and talking, laughing and teasing, long after the food was finished and the dirty plates stacked in sink to be dealt with at a later date. Vince seemed to be, once again, affected more swiftly by the alcohol, becoming giggly and leaning affectionately against him and Howard put a tentative arm around his shoulders, trying not to become concerned at the delighted sigh that issued from Vince’s spice-plump lips.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Vince mumbled sleepily when Amy suggested that it was time for him to head to bed. “You’ve made us happy again, how’d you do that?”
She’d laughed and Howard had turned away to turn on the kettle, trying to pretend that he couldn’t hear what Vince was saying. He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately, not wishing to overhear things that Vince didn’t mean to say aloud, and wouldn’t say under normal circumstances.
“I haven’t done much, love,” she told him softly. “You two are always capable, you just forget yourselves sometimes. It happens with best friends, Vince. Just do your best, yeah?”
“But can’t you stay?” Vince begged, sounding terribly young to Howard’s ears.
“‘fraid not, darlin’,” Amy replied sadly. “I don’t get much holiday. But this has been genius. I feel so much better. I reckon I probably look more like myself again and all.”
“You always look beautiful,” Vince murmured, leaning against his doppelganger lovingly. “How d’you always keep your make-up so perfect? Mine won’t ever stay put. I end up with all me eye liner in the corners of my eyes like black crows feet which is well gross. I don’t want to look old! Howard looks dignified with wrinkles and grey hairs but I’m just gonna end up like one of those shrunken voodoo heads! What’s your secret?”
Howard heard Amy sigh before the door closed behind them and let his hands fall away from the tea cupboard, suddenly unsure what to do with himself in the absence of Vince and Amy’s movement and noise and overflowing energy and emotion. Tonight was Amy’s last night, their last chance to spend time together, and he wasn’t sure how to proceed. He’d made a surprising amount of plans and fantasies over the last two days regarding his wooing of Vince’s brain secretary but none of them seemed right now, now that they were so close to actually spending their last hours together, knowing that she had feelings for him, that she requited his feelings for her, but knowing that she was not the only one.
Vince. Howard shivered as the name slipped through his mind and down his spine. He tried to put his thoughts in order but couldn’t seem to focus. Vince had been his best friend, one of his only friends (certainly his only friend who wasn’t more than twice his own age), for so long that sometimes Howard barely saw him, unless he was doing something particularly annoying or out of character. He was just always there, getting Howard into trouble, pulling him out of it, letting himself get pulled in to whatever trouble Howard had stumbled in to. Charming the monsters. Pulling shapes and pulling focus. It was hard to imagine Vince being anything other than confident and sure of himself, even having seen first hand the way Vince berated himself and put himself down in the absence of his frontal lobe to regulate such thoughts. Vince wasn’t complicated enough for self-loathing surely, except that Howard knew that he was.
“You making a pot, darlin’? I could do with a cup or two,” came the carelessly seductive voice from down the hall. “He fell asleep so fast,” she said as she walked back toward the kitchen, hips swinging like a metronome. “Slipped into sleep like a babe. Babe in the wood. That’s the story we always liked to tell ourselves, anyways. That tea ready yet? I’m parched.”
Howard tried not to be sucked down by the melancholy that had flitted across Amy’s face as she spoke because the second her eyes met his the shadow was gone and she was smiling at him in a way that made his own throat suddenly dry and his arms heavy and useless.
“I, I wasn’t-” he stuttered. “I wasn’t sure whether tea or, or... champagne?”
He watched as Amy’s lips twitched and the way her tongue darted out to lick at the corner of her mouth.
“Champagne sounds perfect, Howard. Cheers.”
It was a struggle to make it to the fridge and then, when he’d found the bottle, to actually open it, but then Amy stepped into his personal space, staring up at him with eyes that reminded him of the shallow, sandy blue-green sea of Camber Sands, yet reminded him more of another pair of eyes, identical yet somehow subtly different, though Howard couldn’t place how. And then her tongue was back, darting out to the corner of her cherry lips, and the champagne cork suddenly exploded from the bottle, making them both squeal and duck away, a tension falling across the kitchen that made it hard to make eye contact.
“I was wondering,” Howard said with rehearsed casualness once they had their champagne glasses in hand and were leaning against the kitchen bench. “Your lips.”
“Hmm?” Amy glanced over, eyebrow raised.
“Your lips? How do you keep them like that?”
“I heard Vince ask you earlier, how you keep your make-up so neat, but you just brushed him off and he fell asleep and I’m guessing you didn’t tell him. But I still want to know, because he was right, I’ve noticed it too. Your lips and your eye liner and, well, everything. It’s always perfect. Even when I walked in on you the other morning when,” Howard faltered, the image of Vince and his female incarnate sleeping together, their bodies so close, legs tangled in the covers, foreheads touching, was still branded into his mind as if he had only just seen it but Amy was looking nervous and he knew he had to continue.
“You saw us while we were sleeping,” she prompted him in a low voice.
“Yes,” he breathed. “I saw you first thing in the morning, still with perfect make-up. How does that work exactly? Because you’re beautiful, I mean it’s very attractive, it is. But it’s also just a tiny bit creepy. So I’d like to know how it works. If that’s alright?”
He shifted nervously from foot to foot, half expecting a slap, and when it came Amy’s soft chuckle was almost as bad.
“A bit creepy...” she repeated quietly. “It is a bit, I’ll give you that.”
“But how does it work? Is it a girl thing?” Howard pressed, trying to keep his voice steady as he watched Amy throw her head back and drain her glass, her pale neck stretching like a column of cream below the sharp line of her jaw, like a blade concealed beneath a glossy coat of... cream.
Then she laughed, lowering her head and smiling sweetly against the rim of her glass, eyes closed tight and breath coming out in amused stutters through her nose.
“You’re really something, you know that, Howard?” she asked when she eventually looked up, eyes dancing with laughter and mischief. “But, nah, it ain’t a girl thing. If it was a girl thing,” she stressed carefully. “Vince’d be able to do it.”
“But it ain’t,” she continued, her voice turning low and serious. “ ‘Cos I ain’t. Not really.” She sighed at the look of confusion on Howard’s face and turned to put her empty glass down on the counter behind her before continuing. “I ain’t exactly human, am I, darlin’?”
She paused but Howard could think of nothing to say and quickly put his own glass down before he was seized by a bout of chokes and dropped it. He did not want to ruin their evening with sweeping up shards and double checking the floor for any sign of glass splinters that could catch bare feet unawares, but when he turned back to her he still couldn’t think of a reply and shrank in on himself when he saw her sigh at his lack of response.
“I’m not human like you, Howard. Not really. I’m basically a personification of a concept, aren’t I?”
“That’s a big word for you, isn’t it?” Howard said aloud before he realised that Amy might take it as a serious insult rather than an attempt to ease the tension with friendly ribbing, but instead she smiled and actually elbowed him in the rib.
“I looked it up on Google this morning before Vince woke up,” she smirked. “That thing’s amazing. Typed in ‘giving a thing human dot dot dot’ and it just did the rest! Genius!”
Howard smiled back, realising that they were now pressed firmly against each other, hip to hip, elbow to rib, but the smile didn’t last, because Amy’s eyes were troubled when she looked up at him from beneath her lashes.
“I’m not really real, Howard. I mean, I am, but also not, d’you see? This isn’t make-up, this isn’t lipstick, it’s just how I’m made. Vince created me, subconsciously, but still, and he made me to look like this. Same with the hair and eyeliner and clothes. You have no idea how long I’ve been wearing that dress!”
“How long?” Howard asked, trying not to look down the opening of the kaftan she was still wearing from their day out at the beach.
“I don’t actually know myself,” Amy admitted. “Probably since... since Vince’s mum... I mean, he wasn’t lying when he said I look like her... But yeah, before yesterday I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to take it off. I didn’t know if I’d be able to take off me bra or anything neither, of whether I’d be like a Barbie doll with permanent knickers. It’s why I wanted to go skinny dipping,” she said, leaning heavily against Howard as she spoke. “Well, one of the reasons, I guess.”
Howard tried to control his breathing but it seemed like a lost cause when a delicate hand came to rest on his hip.
“Well now you know you can, at least,” he said in a constricted voice and felt her laughter against his chest, though it sounded closer to a sob to Howard’s ears.
“Yeah,” she replied. “So I’ll be taking those clothes you bought for me back with me when I go, if that’s alright?” Howard nodded. “I just wish there was time for me to figure out what else I can do. But I can’t. I have to go back. I have to...” and here Howard definitely heard a tearful sniff. “I have to see what I can do about the NSP. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do anything but I have to try I suppose. I’m going to miss you, Howard.”
Howard looked down past the perfect, glossy hair to the wide, blue eyes and red lips. He was supposed to say something, needed to say something - anything! - but his own brain was blank and all he could do was lower his head down to meet hers. She was the perfect woman, his perfect woman, an impossible woman, not real and yet real enough, and when her lips touched his they were the most real thing Howard thought he’d ever felt in his life. And then he was being pushed against the wall and there were small, familiar hands in his hair and stroking delicately against his face whilst those lips trailed across his jaw and neck and he shut his eyes and moaned his appreciation of that was overtaking his senses.
“Oh! Oh, Vince!”
And suddenly the lips and hands and warmth were gone and it wasn’t until he heard the skylight to the roof slam that he realised where Amy had gone and what he had said.
Sorry this has been a long time coming. And sorry if it's rubbish.
Howard opened the sky light carefully and peeked through, trying to gage Amy’s mood before he got too close. She was sitting on the roof, looking out over the city, arms wrapped around her pale legs, looking like she was about to cry. Howard was curious as to whether she could actually cry but decided he definitely wasn’t going to ask. He’d done enough damage already without questioning her humanity further.
She looked somehow much smaller than usual, huddled up by the chimney with her shoulders hunched and chin resting on her knees, and Howard felt an overwhelming urge to look after her, to make amends for what he had done. He wasn’t good at saying sorry, and he wasn’t particularly good at taking care of anyone either, but he’s seen enough films to know how to make a gesture of apologetic romance, or romantic atonement. Yes, Howard figured that aggrieved wooing was well within his emotional range, but it would also require props, and he knew just where to find them.
He ducked back down into the flat to gather what he needed, and his courage, and then climbed carefully up onto the roof. He’d never been up through the sky light before, had never seen any point in it, not to mention the fact that it was in violation of almost every safety regulation he had set for himself, but the building was structurally sound (he’d checked before signing Naboo’s lease) and so he clambered up, trying to move with a little poise and dignity even as he scrambled over the tiles and up onto the narrow, flat ledge.
“Hey there, Little... Lady? What are you doing up here on the roof?” he asked timidly.
Amy turned her head to look at him, a small amused smile on her lips, though Howard could see that her eyes were far from happy. They were so pale, and too bright, like a puppy’s eyes, wide and seeking desperately for comfort, like Vince’s eyes on the rare occasions when he was actually troubled by something. Howard wanted to hold her and reassure her but settled instead with edging out onto the roof until he was able to sit beside her, his peace offering on his lap.
“It’s nice up here,” Amy shrugged in answer to his question, then turned back to look out over the impossible city and improbable forest beyond. “We come up here all the time. I mean, Vince comes up here all the time.”
She sighed and Howard screwed up his courage.
“I’m sorry about before,” he told her, staring down at the basket in his lap as he spoke. “It was unforgivable, a faux pas of the worst kind. I can only beg your forgiveness but will understand completely if you can never find it within your heart to-”
“Oh, for the love of Jagger, Howard! As if I’m capable of NOT forgiving you, you plum!” Amy exhaled loudly, rolling her eyes and allowing her lips to twitch upward as he looked in her direction. “Vince doesn’t hold many grudges, and none against you, darlin’. No matter what you do, he always forgives you.”
The sadness in her voice made Howard want to fidget but he didn’t trust himself not to fall from the roof and plummet to his death so began to fuss with the basket instead until Amy let out a loud exasperated but amused huff.
“Alright Romeo, what’s in the basket then?”
“Well,” Howard puffed out, pleased to have something to talk about other than emotions and relationships and just how often Vince had needed to forgive Howard over the years. “This,” he held up a throw rug, “is for your legs, because it’s cold here and you, Little Lady, are not really dressed appropriately for the weather now are you?”
She laughed at that and quickly wrapped the blanket about herself, looking like a butterfly ready to emerge from its chrysalis, mumbling a thank you from within her fleecy cocoon which made Howard wish he had something to hide behind as well. He settled instead with removing the thermos and pouring out two mugs of steaming chamomile tea, one of which he passed to Amy, clinking their insulated camping mugs together companionably before settling into a companionable silence.
“Um...” Howard said eventually, when the tea was all gone and the moon’s quiet babbling had finally been muffled by the clouds that had come to settle over the night, thick and heavy and blotting out the stars. “I am... I am sorry... for before. I didn’t mean to- I didn’t-”
“It’s alright, Howard,” Amy interrupted, her voice far more relaxed thanks to the chamomile tea and when he dared to glance over there was a rosiness in her cheeks and a smile back on her lips. “But you did mean to. Or at least, someone in your brain space meant you to. It’s ok, really.”
“But,” Howard put his mug away, fussing with the picnic basket before he clamped down on his procrastination. “But I do really like you, Amy. I mean, it’s very confusing, isn’t it, this whole... thing. But I do like you, Amy. Very much. And I wanted this - tonight - to be nice. For you. For us! But... it’s just...”
Amy gave him a sympathetic tilt of the head and patted the space between them invitingly and Howard carefully shuffled closer.
“It’s just that nothing ever goes right for Howard Moon?”
“Well,” he whispered, not sure why he suddenly felt a need to keep his voice down. “Well, exactly.”
“I do understand that, darlin’,” she whispered back but Howard jolted back at her words. “‘Bout things never goin’ right”
“You?” he spluttered. “How could you possibly understand this? You can get whatever and whoever you want! How could someone like you understand mwhat it feels like to be constantly in the background, constantly overlooked?”
Howard knew he was making a scene but couldn’t seem to make himself stop and Amy didn’t interrupt him which meant that he was left to splutter and huff himself into silence, hating how whiny he sounded and the way Amy’s face hardened as he spoke. When he had finally talked himself out Amy brushed her hand over his shoulder, barely touching him but still moving back when Howard turned his head, anticipating the ‘don’t touch me’ even as Howard forced it down.
“I do,” she said softly, twirling a lock of hair around her finger in order to shield her face from Howard’s stare. “I do know what it’s like to not be seen. And we know, trust me we know, exactly how it feels to be told you ain’t good enough, and to be laughed at and passed over. Vince talks a good game but there’s not... well, there aren’t that many we’d actually call friend. And even without bringing Vince into it... God, Howard, you’ve got no idea! It’s all posturing with you, and you don’t see or hear anything!”
“Whoa there, hang on a minute-” Howard tried to interject but Amy refused to stop and the tears were at her eyes again, threatening to fall as she spoke, looking out into the night.
“There’s so much you don’t know, Howard. So much. Do you know how hard it is to be in love with someone but know that you’re not the one they’re supposed to fall in love with? You don’t. But you see, Howard, that’s me. ‘Cos I love you but... I’m not the one who gets to keep you. And that’s ok, ‘cos let’s face it, things never would’ve worked out between us really, but... that doesn’t make it easy, does it?”
“You,” Howard brought his hand to rest on her leg, just above her knee, his fingers fluttering and barely touching for fear that she might burst at his touch and he’d discover it was all just a mad hallucination. “You love me?”
“Like I didn’t make it obvious enough. I’m Vince, Howard! Of course I love you!”
“Yeah,” she smiled sadly. “But now it really is time for me to go.”
“Oh,” Howard repeated, feeling himself flush with embarrassment when Amy let out a breathy laugh.
“Promise me you’ll do the right thing?” Amy asked when Howard didn’t speak. “Promise that you’ll do the right thing by Vince? Please? He needs you, Howard, and he needs your help. I’ll do what I can from the inside but I need you to keep things going out here, to build him up, make him see that he can still be the Sunshine Kid, that he still is, if he wants to be. But that he’s more than just some shiny trinket made to please others, yeah? Remind him that he’s more than just his looks, alright? More than just a pretty face? Can you do that for me, please, Howard?”
“You want me to give Vince more compliments than he already gets?”
He had meant it as a joke but Amy nodded earnestly.
“Can you do it?”
“I think so. But-”
“And if it all goes wrong, if I can’t fix it, if I need your help, to save Vince,” she paused to rest her hand against his cheek, brushing her thumb across his skin as it was something precious. “I’ll give you a sign, yeah? Somehow. Something you’ll recognise.”
“I dunno yet, love, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But I’ll try and make it something you recognise, kay?”
Howard nodded dumbly, wishing there was some way to keep her there with him, but he knew that it wouldn’t work, just as she’d said. Now he wished he’d given her more of the experiences she wanted, wished he kissed her longer, wished he understood half of what she was saying most of the time. But that was life for Howard Moon, wasn’t it? Unfulfilled wishes and missed opportunities. He pushed his cheek against her hand and closed his eyes as she huffed out a breathy laugh and continued to stroke his face, wishing he’d never asked her to go back, back where he couldn’t, or rather didn’t want, to follow.
“I’ve got to go back,” she whispered, as if reading his mind. “I’ve got to try and fix things. Fix Vince. I don’t know how but I’ve got to try. And if I can’t... you will come and help me, won’t you, Howard? Please say you will.”
“Yes, of course-”
“Swear on Jagger!”
Howard fought against the fear and panic rising in his chest as he nodded. He would do anything for Amy.
“I’d do anything for Vince. You know that.”
And then Amy’s plump, soft lips were back on his, pressing and desperate and warm and he ran his hand up and over her arm as he opened his mouth to her kisses, holding back a moan as Amy’s hand continued to stroke his face carefully, her tongue brushing tentatively against his lips and sending ripples of pleasure through his body, his skin heating until he thought for certain that he would combust at any moment.
Amy’s kisses were sweet - delicate and yet filled with need - and Howard wished they could carry on with them all night, but the world had other ideas and just as he pressed his tongue against Amy’s the dark clouds opened with a fierce clap of thunder and they both shrieked, he with horror and she with delight and surprise. They shuffled down to the window carefully, grasping at hands and sleeves to keep each other from falling, Amy cackling and enjoying the rain. But even though it made him smile to hear her laughter, Howard clambered back into the house feeling rather put out. The kissing had stopped and it was time for Amy to go back where she belonged and he, Howard Moon, was left soaking wet and uncomfortably aroused. But then that was life, wasn’t it.
Howard watched from the doorway as Amy took a deep breath and lay down beside Vince on the bed. She was dressed again in the silver sequined minidress Howard had bought her, the shimmering fabric sliding up her pale thighs and the TopShop bag with the rest of her clothing in it bumping her hip as she moved into position. In the dim light from beyond the bedroom she seemed to shine and glitter strangely, like she didn’t quite fit within the reality around her, Howard thought before he caught himself and realised that there was a very good reason for that.
She wriggled her hips until she was comfortable and her face was opposite Vince’s, a near perfect mirror, but not quite. Vince’s face was relaxed in sleep for a start, whilst Amy’s held more emotions than Howard thought he could name (though if he were to hazard a guess he would number ‘motherly concern’, ‘feminine fear’, ‘warrior queen bravery’, and ‘good old fashioned stubbornness’ among the many he saw fluttering over her features as she lay her head down on the pillow).
“Alright,” she said nervously, her breathing fast and uneven. “I’m ready as I’ll ever be I suppose. Bye, Darlin’.”
Howard didn’t know what to say in return. He’d been infatuated, in his younger days, with the notion of not saying goodbye, an idea absorbed by some black and white film he’d watched at some point, in which the hero claimed, “This ain’t goodbye, Doll Face. I don’t do goodbyes. But you can call this... So long... Until next time.” It had seemed romantic in the context of the film, and just the sort of thing that a true Man of Action would say. As Howard recalled, the heroine of the piece, the Doll Face, had swooned and let herself be thoroughly kissed as the music swelled and the screen faded to black, and Howard had been desperate to emulate such easy, classic, cool - such confidence. He’d wanted to be that man, that hero who looked off at the horizon like there was something important on his mind, someone who didn’t do goodbyes. Now he felt that perhaps he was more the Doll Face of the story than the leading man. Amy called him Darlin’ after all.
His voice came out thick and cracked but there was nothing he could do to pull himself back from the emotional brink, and so had no choice but to watch, rooted to the spot, his throat tightening until he thought he might actually choke, as Amy turned her gaze to Vince’s sleeping face, caressing his cheek gently as a single, silvery tear tracked down her own, beautiful cheek.
“Huh,” she whispered as the small droplet reached her lip and then fell to the pillow below. “Didn’t know I could do that.”
And with that she pressed her forehead to Vince’s, shut her eyes tight, took a final breath, and then...
Howard considered himself to have a way with words, to be an intellectual, a regular (but not ordinary) wordsmith, yet he struggled to come up with words to describe what he saw. It was as if Amy... melted, except not in a distasteful way, not in a horror movie sort of way. She just seemed to melt from existence and back, Howard supposed, into Vince’s brain until she was gone completely and the only indication that she’d been there at all was the slight rumple in the covers she had lain on and the dent in the pillow. He looked at Vince’s face, hoping for some clue that Amy was back at her desk and that everything had returned to normal but Vince was still asleep and his face was slack and neutral and overwhelmingly dear, or so it seemed to Howard.
He was going to miss Amy. Her presence had been so freeing, so refreshing, so easy to fall in love with. Seeing Vince’s face every day wasn’t going to help him get over that quickly, no sir. Of course, seeing Vince’s face also wasn’t going to help him get over his other little realisation either. Because as much as he hated to admit it, he had meant it when Vince’s name had slipped from his lips in the kitchen. He did have feelings for Vince, did care for him very deeply, even when he was being a complete titbox and trying to eat Howard’s records to impress his new mates. He just wasn’t sure exactly how he felt deeply. Love was a many splendid thing after all, coming in many different forms, and he didn’t want to jump to any conclusions. All he knew was that he loved Vince. It had just taken Vince’s brain to show him that. And now Amy was gone and he was left to wonder whether it had been worth it for her, whether she’d had fun like she’d wanted. Whether she’d even been real. And then he saw that there was something on Vince’s cheek, something that shone like a sequin but which was actually a tear.
Well, Howard thought, that seemed to be that. Amy was most certainly back at her post, Vince would wake up his old self and Howard would do his very best to repress all of the emotions and urges that Amy’s unexpected visit had brought forth. He nodded to himself, knowing that the next thing he needed to do was to walk out of Vince’s room and shut the door behind him. He was tired after all, what with all the excitement and the chamomile tea, but making his muscles do what he wanted them to just didn’t seem to be working. Instead, when he finally got his legs going, Howard found himself walking over to sit on the empty side of Vince’s bed. Perhaps he could just lie down here for a bit. Not to spend the night of course, but just to keep an eye on things until he was certain that everything had returned to normal in Vince’s brain space. He had promised he would keep an eye on Vince, hadn’t he?
He told himself he was only following Amy’s orders as he removed his shoes and slipped under the soft blankets of Vince’s bed. He tried to move carefully, not wanting Vince to wake up in a panic, until he was in the same position Amy had been in, lying on his side so that he could study Vince’s face. He’d just stay for a few minutes, just to make sure nothing strange happened, just to make sure that Vince was alright. Just to make sure...
Howard woke the next morning with a jolt, his heart pounding in his chest as he tried to get his bearings and figure out why he seemed to be falling into a beautiful blue pool. Or two beautiful blue pools, it seemed. And then they blinked and Howard felt a blush rage suddenly in his cheeks as he realised that he was looking into Vince’s eyes, and that Vince was staring at him. They continued to stare at one another, neither blinking or turning away and Howard realised that this was probably the longest he’d ever held eye contact with anyone before, that this was important and significant and a moment of deepest epiphany. Until Vince snorted and began laughing in his face.
“What?” he squawked in response. “You’re the one in my bed, looking at me all lovey-dovey. Whatcha even doing, looking at me like a teenage girl with a crush? You missing Amy already?”
Vince was leaning in ridiculously close, disregarding all rules that Howard might have once tried to mandate with regard to personal boundaries, and grinning at him saucily, his eyes dancing with the laughter that was bubbling up inside of him and for a moment Howard felt ridiculously angry that Vince was teasing him when he’d only fallen asleep in Vince’s bed because he’d been concerned for Vince’s well-fare, but then it hit him. Because Vince’s voice and manner were all brash confidence, joking and flirting with no intent to harm, and he was engaging in banter (or trying to engage Howard in banter at any rate) without any sense of fear or hidden, romantic affection and instead of telling Vince leave off he found himself smiling. Which felt wonderful right up until Vince stopped smiling and suddenly looked alarmed.
“Why are you smiling at me like that? What’re you thinking? Is that really your smile? Jeez Howard! You better remember to steer clear of kids if that’s your smile. Is this why you’re not allowed at the swim centre anymore?”
“That...” Howard flushed as Vince wriggled out of the bed, still grinning wickedly. “That was a misunderstanding, you know that,” he snapped. “And I’m only here because you... well, you,” he wracked his brain for a reasonable explanation for why he was in Vince’s room. “Because you weren’t feeling well last night, remember? And Amy... said I should look after you.”
Vince turned from where he’d been fiddling with his hair at his vanity mirror to give Howard a confused look.
“I don’t remember that,” he retorted. “Then again, maybe I have been ill. The last couple of days are all a bit... hazy, you know? I mean, I remember Amy coming to visit, she was genius! But I don’t really remember the details. She was my cousin or something, right?”
“Yeah,” Howard agreed as he climbed stiffly from the bed. “Something like that.”
He tried to look Vince over without actually seeming like he was but stopped when Vince gave him another strange look in the mirror. He was all too aware that his stares were too much for some, too intense, and he didn’t want Vince to get suspicious. He’d just decided that everything was fine and Vince was back to acting like his usual irreverent self when Vince straightened up from the mirror and suddenly lurched toward the floor.
“Whoa there, Little Man,” Howard said as he ran forward to catch Vince before he hit the floor. “What’s this all about?”
“Dunno,” Vince replied, his voice suddenly wan and confused. “Just felt a bit off. Now I’ve got a headache. Maybe I’m a bit sick after all.”
Howard helped Vince back to bed and bustled about, tucking in blankets and plumping pillows, his anxiety increasing the longer Vince simply lay there and let him fuss but eventually he realised that he’d run out of things to do and was merely standing awkwardly by the bed, staring again. Vince was staring too, but at the wall rather than at him and so Howard collected his shoes and walked to the door, trying to look less apish than he felt, and so jumped embarrassingly when Vince said his name.
“Howard?” Vince asked, his voice back to the high and uncertain tone Howard had gotten used to over the last few days.
“Yes Vince?” Howard responded, still staring at the door, not wanting Vince to see the uncertainty and hint of fear that he was sure would be obvious on his face.
“I just... um, thanks, Howard. You know, for the stuff you do, the proper, grown-up stuff. Like when you, I dunno, take bins out, and bake me those little cakes and stuff. I’m rubbish at being a proper grown-up adult, don’t know what I’d do without you, so, you know... thanks.”
Howard felt his eyes widen as he stared at the wooden panels ahead of him. He didn’t want to turn around, even though he knew that Vince probably wanted him to, he just couldn’t. Because he knew the face that Vince made when he was trying to be sincere, when he was saying sorry or thank you and wanted to show that something was important, and he knew that he wouldn’t be able to bear it. Because sincere Vince tended to look up through his fringe with ridiculously large, blue eyes with shoulders rolled forward to make himself appear smaller and Howard knew that if he turned to look he was liable to do something he’d regret - like kiss him and then accidentally moan Amy’s name and ruin everything. So he nodded instead.
“Not a problem, Vince. Not a problem. Happy to help,” he blustered, still facing the door. “You know me, Adult Moon, they call me, because I know all about adult... things.”
He heard Vince snicker quietly behind him and made his exit, shutting the door with more force than was probably, strictly necessary. His words always seemed to come out wrong. Once it used to only happen around the women he was trying to court (which was all women, really) and when it happened with Vince it wasn’t so bad because Vince always knew what he was trying to say anyway. With Amy it had been easy, he’d actually been successfully charming a couple of times which, he supposed, could have been because talking to Amy was at once exotic and reassuringly familiar. But now he was nervous talking to Vince, and that did not bode well. He needed to get his feelings in order, and get over Amy, before he thought about exploring any feelings he might have for Vince - for both their sakes.
That didn’t mean he couldn’t bake Vince some of those little cakes he liked so much though. Especially if he had a headache. He had a sudden desire to do whatever necessary to see Vince smile. Amy had said to look after him after all, and Howard Moon never broke his promise to a lady.
This chapter is inspired by Vince Noir's list of excuses for being late at work found in The Mighty Book of Boosh.
For the next two days Howard watched Vince as closely as he was able, trying to assure himself that Amy had returned and put everything to rights, but it wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped. Well, the actual watching was fairly straight forward because Vince spent those first two days in bed with a headache that seemed to get steadily worse and which Naboo, when asked if he could do anything to help, just glared at Howard and muttered that he’d already told Howard what needed to be done and it wasn’t his fault that Howard was a stubborn, emotionally constipated ball bag. He’d been understanding and lenient to Vince but increasingly hostile to Howard, threatening to fire him at least once a day and making snide remarks that even Howard could see were no longer good natured ribbing.
Three days after Amy had left Vince finally appeared in the shop, styled to perfection in a David Bowie-esque, gold jumpsuit but still, Howard could see, a bit peaky looking beneath his feathered fringe.
“Alright?” he asked as he sauntered up to the counter and took up his long accustomed position by Howard’s right shoulder, and Howard felt the knot of anxiety within his chest loosen at the sound of Vince’s voice. He sounded just as he always had. “Sorry I’m late.”
“Oh yes?” Howard replied with a raised brow. Vince’s cheeky grin seemed doubly infectious somehow and Howard felt the banter rise up inside him as he struck a pose of long suffering customer service servitude. “I’ve been down here all morning, worked off my feet,” he gestured to the empty shop, “and despairing any chance of a break, even for a simple cup of tea, and you waltz in here like an androgynous Oscar’s statuette and say you’re sorry? You better have a good excuse, Little Man.”
“Oh, I do!” Vince said, his grin increasing and his chest broadening at Howard’s verbal sparring, seeing the opening that had been left for him and rushing to fill it in a way that almost made Howard want to hug him with relief. “Cos I got up this morning right, keen as anything to get back to being Vince Noir, Trendiest Shopkeeper in Shoreditch! except..”
“Except what?” Howard supplied on cue to let Vince know that he had his full attention.
“Except that I still had that headache, like a bad rave going on right in me headspace, yeah? I could barely put together this look, it was that bad. So I went looking for some Nurofen, you know, to take the edge of my pounding skull, but when I open the packet that you bought for me - thanks for that, by the way - but when I opened it... it was empty!”
Vince was in full dramatic mode and Howard couldn’t seem to help but egg him on, enjoying the easy banter and the surprising lack of sexual tension that he seemed to be feeling. Vince was a great story teller, not that Howard had ever told him so, he didn’t want the praise to go to the man’s head, but if this one continued to be as thrilling as it had started he might just have to let slip to Vince that he really was a weaver of fine tales.
“Oh no! What did you do?”
“Well I thought to myself, I am not going to panic over this, this isn’t going to prevent me from going down and helping Howard in the shop!”
“Quite right, sir,” Howard nodded. “It’s your duty, sir.”
“I know, sacred duty, being a shopkeeper. That’s why I went searching, you see. ‘Cos I knew something that that empty pill packet didn’t, smug bastard that he was. I knew that we quite often have another pack of Nurofen in the bathroom cupboard.”
“Oh, well done. Well done. See, I taught you that. I taught you that medical supplies could be found in the medicine cupboard. You’d be searching under the beds if it weren’t for me. I taught you everything you know.”
“You may have taught me all that I know,” Vince countered with a waggle of his eyebrows, “but you haven’t taught me all that you know... wait...”
“What?” Howard screwed up his face in confusion. They’d gotten into this sort of lingual muddle before. “I’ve taught you all... you’ve...”
“You’ve taught me all... Ah, forget it, d’you want to hear my excuse or not?”
Howard smoothed out his features and nodded for Vince to continue.
“Well, I went on through to the bathroom yeah, and opened the medicine cabinet, located the kit, everything going smooth as Freddy Mercury’s vocal range, but then I get it open...”
“And what?” Howard asked after a pause. “You can’t leave me hanging on this one, there’ll be no juicy danger today, not if you want me to excuse your being late to the shop.”
“I’m getting to it,” Vince grinned. “I was leaving a dramatic pause, you berk, now let me finish. Right? So, I open the kit and there it is. Only one Nurofen left, one blessed little headache pill, only this one’s not so little. Not little at all. In fact, it’s massive! As tall as a, as a...” Vince faltered, his eyebrows drawing in and his eyes losing their focus.
“As tall as what, Vince?” he coaxed gently. “Something pretty tall, I’ll bet.”
“Um, as tall as a...” Vince blinked, his eyes slowly coming back into focus before he grinned as if the lapse had never happened. “As tall as a, as a really tall thing! Yeah! Like a sunflower, or a library! It was tall, like really big, Howard. And I thought to m’self, how am I going to get this down inside me? Because by now my head is pounding like you would not even believe and I am desperate. So I decide the best way to go about it is to climb to the top, see if I can swallow it down that way.”
“Wait,” Howard interrupted, because as much as he hated to interrupt a good yarn he hated plot inconsistencies more. “How’d something that big fit in our medicine cabinet in the first place?”
“Well... it was a portal to another dimension, obviously.”
“Oh, very nice.”
“Yeah, you should’ve seen it, Howard, it was mad in there. Nurofen the size of mountains, trees the size of toothpicks, it was chaos, you’d’ve hated it, truly. But I knew I had to go in there, knew I had to scale that pill,” Vince flared his hands out in dramatic fashion and Howard felt himself drawn, as always, into the story Vince was weaving. Surely if he was able to create something like this his brain was back to normal and Amy, or the Frontal Lobe he should say, had sorted things out with Vince’s self-perception, or whatever he’d supposedly been.
He let Vince take his moment, gathering his dramatic tension around himself before he saw his moment and asked.
“Did you make it?”
Vince nodded. “It took me three hours, but I did it. I climbed up that mighty pain killer peak, metre by metre, using tweezers from the first aid kit as picks to pull myself up that shiny white surface, wondering if I’d ever make it, or if I’d ever see home again. Oh it was awful. But I finally made it to the top and was all ready to have another crack at swallowing it down when I realised the horrible truth...”
“What?” Howard whispered reverently and saw Vince drop his dramatic pose and a cheeky grin slide on to his face as he let the story’s tension slip away.
“Forgotten my glass of water, hadn’t I,” he said with a shrug. “And you know I can’t dry swallow a pill.”
“Oh no, sir,” Howard agreed. “You dry up. Like a frog in a drought.”
“Like a toad in a desert, I know,” Vince agreed, putting his hands on his hips and shaking his head.
“So what did you do?”
“I slid down it like a giant Helter Skelter and came down here. It was a complete waste of time,” Vince told him, looking up unexpectedly and catching Howard’s eye, and for once Howard fought to look back, holding the contact for a few seconds before he looked down, but not before he saw the amazement, shock and embarrassment on Vince’s face, along with the strange look in his eyes which Howard thought might possibly be longing. But then, as Howard dropped his gaze, Vince’s body language suddenly changed, becoming less sure, his head turned away from Howard and his shoulders hunching ever so slightly.
“In fact, my head’s still killing me so I might just,” he side stepped away from the counter and toward the door. “I might just pop down to Boots and grab a pack of, you know, regular sized Nurofen, yeah?”
He began to walk across the shop, reaching the door far too quickly, not giving Howard’s brain time to put together a suitable response to what Vince had said, and what he might want in return and it was only as Vince paused at the door, his hand already on the handle that Howard found his voice.
“Vince?” he called out, taking in Vince’s hopeful expression with a creeping feeling of dread.
‘Just say, Good story, glad to see you’re feeling better, see you soon, shall we watch a film tonight?’ the voice in Howard’s mind reasoned, ‘you know you want to, you know he wants you to, you know he needs you to, just do it, just say something!’ but instead Howard found himself standing like a statue behind the counter, his mouth opening and closing noiselessly as he struggled to produce the right words.
“Have you been possessed?” Vince asked eventually. “By a the spirit of a Pez dispenser?”
“Oh, get out,” he snapped, closing his mouth tightly as Vince let out a short laugh and exited the shop, waving through the window as he passed it, walking in the opposite direction of their local Boots and completely oblivious, as always.
Howard sighed. He had meant to slip a compliment in there somewhere but just hadn’t found the right moment. Vince seemed fine but he had promised Amy that he would try to ensure that Vince knew he was worth something more than just the value of his clothes and styling products. Perhaps, he pondered, he could write a song, sing to Vince about it, about how it wasn’t his shiny outer layers but his heart that mattered to Howard. Yeah, he could write something brilliant that would not only show off his skills but prove to Vince that he, Howard Moon, had feelings for him which were possibly something more than platonic. Except that it had always been Vince who came up with the lyrics for their songs, Howard had handled the actual composition, the music, the notes, the magic, but it had been Vince who handled the words. Still, Howard was sure he could come up with something. After all it was what was inside that counted and Howard had plenty happening inside, he just had to get it out somehow.
Howard spent the next two weeks trying to ensure that Vince understood that he was still the Sunshine Kid, was more than just a pawn for the fashionable people but it was harder work than he’d anticipated. He baked little cakes, planned special, one of a kind gifts to be delivered to the shop, even organised for special guests to drop by, as if cheering up Vince was some sort of chat show or star-studded charity fundraiser. But as the days that passed Vince seemed, if anything, to be getting worse. Howard continued to work on his song and set himself the task of saying at least one nice thing about Vince every day, in Vince’s hearing, but it wasn’t an easy task. Whenever he tried too hard to be complimentary Vince just got suspicious and angry, and less likely to accept Howard’s attempts at compliments.
His behaviour became more erratic as well, coming in late to work each day and becoming more obsessed with his appearance than ever before and, as hard as Howard tried to act like Vince’s brain was back in working order, he had to admit that something was wrong when he heard Vince mumbling to himself in the kitchen one evening, berating himself for wanting a bedtime snack.
“Just stop! Why am I doing this? I don’t need a snack! I need to stay thin, need to stay popular, need to stay ahead of the fashion game, need to... need to get rid of this damn headache! This is getting ridiculous!”
Howard heard the refrigerator door slam and peeked around the corner to see Vince, his hands clutched in his hair, his forehead pressed harshly against the fridge, a whine escaping from between his clenched teeth. Howard backed away, tip toeing to his bedroom and willing himself not to panic until he was safely behind his door and under the calming beige of his bedclothes. Something was wrong with Vince, something more than his awkward and barely perceptible compliments could fix, and he just didn’t know what else to do. If only Amy were there, she’d know what to do. All Howard had was a half written song and a belly full of mixed up, half realised feelings. He’d tried, he really had, but he’d failed just as he always did and he didn’t know what to do next because, as far as he could see, Amy hadn’t given him any sort of sign.
Things couldn’t possibly get worse.
Until the next day, when Vince walked in late, the rain glistening on his sequins, paler than normal, and announced that something was wrong.
Howard’s mind was racing, moving so fast it was making him nauseous and a little light headed. There were just so many conclusions to jump to and he couldn’t think clearly enough to put them in order from ‘actually could happen’ to ‘completely improbable’. All his mind could focus on was the fact that something was wrong with Vince. He’d been lower in energy than Howard had ever seen him these last days and now here he was, dragging his feet to his chair and gazing sadly out at the rain, refusing to even come up with a good excuse for his tardiness. Howard tried to remind him, once again, that he was made of sunshine, tried to crack a joke, but it didn’t seem to work.
And then he said those fatal words.
“I felt like there was something wrong for a while, but... I went to the doctor’s. He’s confirmed the worst.”
Howard’s mind went into a tail spin. Something was wrong, possibly with Vince’s brain? A tumour? an embolism? Cancer? Howard should have guessed that Vince’s headaches were something more than an internal squabble between his self-perception and frontal lobe. Vince looked devastated, drained of colour, and Howard felt the urge to protect his friend rear up stronger than ever before. This was it, this was his chance. He would prove his love for Vince in this time of hardship, be his rock in the storm, prove to Vince that he could be the man Vince wanted him to be. Yes sir, this was Howard Moon’s time to shine.
He put his hand solemnly on Vince’s shoulder, trying to convey stoic reliability and sensitive understanding all in one go.
“Hey, I’m here for you.”
Vince looked up at him, his face serious, blue eyes shining, pleading, and Howard fought to stay where he was, to not pull back from the intensity of the moment. He could practically hear the emotionally laden music behind their dialogue. This was it, they were finally being open and serious and sincere with each other. And when Vince placed his hand tremulously over Howard’s he realised that he felt absolutely no urge to say ‘Don’t touch me’.
“D’you mean that, Howard?” Vince asked softly.
“‘Course I do. It’s me and you all the way. What’s the problem? What is it?”
Vince paused and Howard mentally prepared himself for the worst. He had promised to take care of Vince. Had promised Amy. At the time his promise had had a lot to do with the love and attraction he felt for the exotic and fantastical Amy, but over the last couple of weeks he had come to see that his love really was for Vince. As dearly as he held Amy in his heart, it was Vince he was concerned for, and Vince he wanted to finally be open about his feelings with.
“Someone’s copying me.”
And then something inside him snapped.
He’d thought Vince was dying, that it was now or never, that there really was more to Vince than looks and Camden cool but now he just felt a fool. Without a thought he splashed what was left of his cold tea in Vince’s face and stormed back through the shop. Vince was fine and for all he knew this was just his Brain Secretary’s way of messing with him for not being brave enough to confront Vince about the feelings he had thought they shared. He could tell that Vince was hurt by his sudden change in demeanor, could see, as Vince tried to explain that to him it was a big deal, that he was struggling, that he was hurting, even if it was in a superficial, vain way, but it was hard to fight back against the embarrassment that had whelmed up within him, at the truth he had so nearly admitted to.
“But it is a big deal!” Vince argued pitifully, ignoring Howard’s glare, but Howard didn’t want to let his emotions get the better of him again.
The best thing to do was go back to what he knew, to what they’d always done. Banter. Banter was the way through this, except that Vince just wasn’t rising to it, wasn’t bouncing back and grinning and letting himself be distracted.
“It’s what’s inside that counts,” he said, hopefully, saying aloud the words that had been circling in his head for weeks, hoping that he might finally get through to Vince. He felt so torn between wanting to let Vince know how he now felt, and the fear of making himself so vulnerable that it was hard to stick to the script he had written out in his head for when the moment came to declare his passion, and if Vince seemed like he might get back to his normal self on his own, then Howard felt even less certain about putting it out that he was actually fairly sure that he did in fact love Vince. All of this, of course, ran through Howard’s head rather fast, a hurried internal jumble of conflicting thoughts and emotions that he had no control over, only to be stopped dead in it’s tracks when Vince, the man who was never supposed to be anything other than cheerful and positive, pressed his fist into his cheek mournfully and announced that he had nothing inside.
“I’m like a beach ball.”
His shoulders were rolled forwards and he was slumped over in his favourite red chair, rocking his knees like he’d done as a child when he’d hidden in the craft cupboard at school to avoid going to maths class and the inevitable humiliation when the teacher called on him, knowing full well that he didn’t understand the concept of multiplication. Inside Howard was reeling. He’d called Vince an air head enough times over the years to feel guilty at hearing the sentiment repeated by Vince himself, but most of all, such a show of Vince’s negative self-image was surely a sign that Amy was not in control of what was coming out of Vince’s mouth. And that was worrying.
But now that he’d put the wall of banter up between them Howard didn’t know how to stop. All he could do was continue and hope for the best, his words tumbling forth without his brain even thinking them out first. He had a few surprises lined up for Vince today, which might possibly do the trick, and there was always... the song, but he didn’t want to peak too soon. Or do anything that could be perceived as jumping the gun, relationship-wise. The last thing he wanted was for Vince to misinterpret his advances and make another post of MySpace about his flat mates bizarre habits and hobbies.
“...my stories are legendary. I’m a raconteur, you know.” Vince looked up at that and, for a second, Howard thought he had won him over but instead there was a hardness in Vince’s gaze, a hurt and an anger that was unnerving and unfamiliar.
“A raconteur? You’re stories are embarrassing. You’ve only got that one about the pencil case mix-up. About how you went to school and went home with the pencil case of the boy sitting next to you.”
“Yes,” Howard blinked, inwardly amazed that Vince had remembered such detail. “It turned out to be my pencil case all along. Because we had the same pencil cases, he put some of his pencils in my pencil case!”
For a few moments Howard felt himself get lost in the story, it was one of his best after all and he was playing it up, hoping to get a reaction, but when he looked back Vince was scowling more than ever, and, Howard realised, looking disturbingly like the NSP, ‘that glittery idiot’ as Amy had called him, slouched over as he was in his mirrorball suit. Even when Howard took the story to limits of absurdity Vince did no more than tsk, turning away from Howard’s finger pistols and posturings when once he would have laughed and told Howard he was being foolish, but with affection rather than a curled lip and a hard eye.
“This’ll cheer you up,” he told Vince, beginning to sweat as he moved toward the broom cupboard. He had wanted to save this surprise, build it up a bit more, show Vince that he actually knew all about electro and Vince’s musical heroes. He had a bit of backing music that he’d put together, to build the excitement, but there was no time for that now. Vince was acting, well, depressed, and something needed to be done.
He opened the door with a flourish and Gary Numan smiled cheerfully. He’d been all too happy to help out, was well aware of Vince’s status as vice-president of the Gary Numan fan club, but Vince did little more than glance over with a half-hearted, “Alright, Gary,” when he should have been squealing excitedly and asking whether Gary had received his letters and fan art. Gary looked deeply disappointed but Howard didn’t have the time or emotional capacity to deal with two upset people and so shut the door to the cupboard, hoping that the shiny gold fabric and bright lights would cheer up the electro legend the way they had done for Thom Yorke the week before, the last surprise guest to be greeted with less than a Vince Noir level of enthusiasm.
Vince’s eyes were actually looking glassy now. Not the vulnerable, uninhibited tearfulness that Howard had seen when Amy had been with them and Vince had been unable to hide most of his emotional responses and desires, but a sort of frustrated, pitiful expression that Howard had only ever seen when he accidentally caught sight of himself in one of Vince’s mirrors when he was in the sway of a dramatic crisis of lost youth and self-pity. He could give Vince something sweet, he thought, to perk him up, but the cakes he had planned to give Vince as part of a lunchtime treat weren’t ready yet (Bollo was keeping an eye on the oven, promising to help only because he too was becoming distressed by the changes in Vince’s demeanor, and it wasn’t really helping ‘Harold’ if the end result was aiding Vince, or so the hammy ape had reasoned as he’d set the timer on the stove) and Howard could feel himself beginning to panic.
“You like presents, don’t you, Vince?” he asked, trying to keep his voice casual so that Vince wouldn’t become suspicious and turn away from him even more. “Yeah? Just so happens I’ve got you one.”
Vince’s eyes brightened at the sight of the gift, his natural delight beginning to emerge as he walked toward the counter, though his body language was still guarded and uncertain as he twisted his fingers in front of his chest.
“Wow,” he said breathily, and Howard watched as the sparkle in his blue eyes increased as he took in the impressive feathered hat that Howard had sourced for him.
“Came from Papua New Guinea, that,” he said proudly, his own heart inflating as Vince’s joy expanded.
“Never been seen by human eyes before.”
Vince put on the hat and Howard breathed a sigh of relief at the immediate feeling of sunshine that seemed to radiate from Vince’s person. He had done that, he thought proudly. He had been able to help Vince, do the right thing, give the right thing, know Vince better than any other person. Save the day. Surely, he thought, Vince would soon forget this trifling copycat and recover himself.
Surely he would be able to see Howard’s gift as the declaration it was.
“What about the guy who made it?” Vince asked, looking both ridiculous and perfectly stylish in the brightly coloured headpiece.
“Blind,” Howard said conspiratorially, glad to finally be able to bounce words back and forth with ease.
“This is well skilled,” Vince grinned wide. “Cheers, Howard, I feel much better.”
But then, just as Howard was going to elaborate on the fact that he was happy to help, was happy to do anything for Vince, there was a banging on the shop door and he watched the sunshine and warmth leave Vince’s body like air rushing through a puncture in a ball. And he set his eyes on Lance Dior.
Howard was all set to hate him. He ushered Vince out of the way to avoid a scene and so that he could continue to play the part of Vince’s saviour and protector, furious and frustrated that his surprise visitor and gift had failed all thanks to the sparkly tit before him, but when Lance started talking Howard couldn’t help but be drawn to him. He was so very like Vince, was so keen to please, so ridiculous in his excuses, and he had sought Howard out. Over the last couple of weeks Vince hadn’t gone out of his way to speak to Howard or seek out his company, hadn’t paid him his usual compliments, or friendly insults. He hadn’t been... well, he hadn’t been Vince, and it was hard to resist Lance, who seemed so very much like the old Vince, the Vince of a year or two ago, the Vince who Howard desperately wanted back. Lance Dior had such a simple, sunshine feel to him that Howard suddenly found himself fantasizing about putting down some fat beats to his new shapes and whether, if Lance really was like Vince in every way, it might not be easier to simply leave Vince alone - who he only seemed to hurt anyway, no matter what he tried to do - and set his sights, and his new affections, on Lance instead. It all seemed to make sense as he gazed into the big, dark eyes. He needed to move out of the shadows, stop pandering to Vince. Lance could give him everything he wanted.
But then Lance left and the bubble popped. Of course Vince heard everything, and the anger and hurt were back, and Howard couldn’t blame him. Lance’s proximity had cast a glamour over him but it dropped soon after the imitator had left, and all he was left with was a jumble of confused thoughts and an even more distressed looking Vince. He tried to back-peddle, to assure Vince that despite the fact that he and Lance had seemed to click, that they’d had chemistry, that they made one whole person together, that he had drawn Howard into his web, that despite all of that he wasn’t about to ditch Vince. He was shocked at himself for falling for Lance’s charm so easily but knew it was probably because he was so desperate for Vince to be happy again. And because he now knew that he could not deny Vince’s destructive thoughts and feelings about himself were taking over. He wanted things to be simple like it had been before Amy interrupted their lives and showed him a side of his best friend that he hadn’t even had an inkling of but falling into the sequined arms of Lance Dior was not the answer, not when he had the real Vince almost within his reach.
“Don’t worry,” Howard told him appeasingly. This was his chance, his chance to really give Vince a compliment that would show that Howard appreciated him. That he loved him. “I’m not going to take him up on his offer. I’ve already got a mate who dresses like a futuristic prostitute.”
Howard wanted to kick himself but Vince took the compliment, barest of compliments that it was, smiling like it was a precious gift, and Howard decided then and there that it was time to pull out all the stops. He needed to stop faffing around, getting distracted, hoping that Vince would take his hints. It was time for him to tell Vince that he didn’t care about what the rest of the world thought, or what trend Vince was trying to comply with on any given day, that he loved Vince for who he was, for the person he was beneath the sequins. The song wasn’t as ready as he wanted it to be but if he didn’t just do it now he’d probably never think it was good enough to show Vince and he had a strong feeling that his song was exactly what Vince needed to hear.
“You know what I always say?” Howard asked, trying to act smooth as he pressed play on the ipod hidden in his pocket and filling the shop with music.
“It’s what’s inside that counts, my friend,
It’s not the peel, it’s the orange.
It’s what’s inside that counts, my friend,
It’s not the crust, it’s the filling.”
Vince looked slightly concerned but he wasn’t interrupting and he wasn’t itching or having a jazz reaction to the easy rhythm so Howard decided to really let loose, improvising where he hadn’t written the next verse.
“So, if you’re feeling blue
because somebody’s copying you,
you don’t automatically have to sue...”
“The world is big enough for two.”
Howard felt his smile stretch across the width of his face when Gary opened the cupboard to join in because surely if anything was going to impress and convince Vince, it was Gary Numan riffing along to a song that he, Howard Moon, had written just for him. And it worked. Vince himself joined in, and it was exactly what Howard’s song had needed, like one of their crimps of old, a true joining of minds and musical talents - not like the connection he had momentarily thought he had with Lance, but something real - and Howard felt delight build within him.
“It’s what’s inside that counts, my friend,”
“It’s not the jacket it’s the ‘tater.”
“It’s what’s inside that counts, my friend,”
“It’s the moon, not the craters.”
Howard was practically bouncing when, by the end of the song the moon had joined in and a magical jazz rabbit had turned up to do a trumpet solo, and was actually starting to think that this was the moment, the moment when he should admit his feelings to Vince, because hadn’t they tip-toed around it enough? Vince was smiling at him, they were talking and singing together without awkwardness and he finally, truly wanted to tell Vince that he requited his affections.
And he might have done if Lance Dior hadn’t turned up again, with Harold Boom in toe, sweeping them up in yet another strange and entangling adventure in the ‘real world’. At least now he and Vince were united in a cause, united in their music, and united in their desire to prove that they were original and unique (together as a unit). Perhaps, Howard thought hopefully as he watched Vince strut from the shop with renewed confidence and determination, perhaps this could be good for Vince, show him what he was capable of and that there was more to him than just his copyrighted face. And then perhaps, he would get around to admitting his true feelings. Maybe with an even more catchy song this time.
“Doo, doo, doo, Peacock Dreams...”
“Shut up, Gary.”
“So,” Howard said, his breathing ragged from the exertion and the cold of the air. “Kings of crimp then?”
Now that they had run out of satsumas and the playful battle had drawn to a close Howard was beginning to feel the ice in the air, and that strange, creeping embarrassment he always felt when the adrenaline wore off and it was just him and Vince, sitting together in their pants and vests, chests heaving and skin tacky from sweat and satsuma juice. He’d never been able to put his finger on exactly why it made him feel so strange, had never been able to separate out all of the emotions which cascaded over one another at those times, mixing and swirling and making his body feel so odd and hyperaware of every move either he or Vince made. Now, looking at his best mate and being able to say with ever growing certainty within his head that he not only loved Vince but found his physically attractive and (Howard averted his eyes as they began to drift down the line of Vince’s body yet again) alluring, it was all embarrassingly obvious.
“Yeah!” Vince said with a grin. “I’m telling you, Howard, this really could be our stepping stone to the big time.”
“Yeah, but,” Howard tried to seem casual as he edged closer to the point he was trying to make. “Kings of crimp. As opposed to... any other type of monarch? I mean, well, that is-”
“O’course, kings!” Vince interjected. “It’s like, one of them alterations, ain’t it, just sounds good. We couldn’t be dukes or duchesses of crimp, could we, that sounds rubbish. Kings just works. Why, don’t you like it?”
“No, no, I think it’s a great title, Little...” he floundered, wishing there was an easier way to have this conversation. “The word’s ‘alliteration’ by the way - not that it matters - It’s just, I’ve been wondering lately, about... well,” the rest of the words left him in a rush, “about what pronouns you prefer and whether my calling you Little Man is upsetting to you and whether you’ve been holding back from talking to me about your, your gender, and all that, because you thought I might not be accepting and I just wanted you to know that Howard Moon is not a man to judge a person’s gender, no sir. Or their sexuality,” he added hurriedly, wishing he could talk even faster and get this whole conversation over with before his ears, which were burning with his embarrassment, finally burst into flames. “I just... thought we should have the conversation is all.”
Vince’s eyes widened but he didn’t look up, choosing instead to stare at his hands, the chipped silver lacquer on his nails and the orange pulp beneath them. They weren’t particularly remarkable hands. He’d heard Vince make plenty of disparaging remarks about them over the years, usually when he was trying to build Howard up, explaining how he only had stumpy sausage fingers where as Howard had proper long musician’s digits that every man, woman and musical spirit was jealous of. It was yet another item on the long list of things about himself that Vince spoke disparagingly of which Howard had never noticed until Amy had knocked some sense into him.
“You want to talk about... my gender?” Vince asked, making it sound like Howard had asked him about why he had feet or hair or why music was heard through the ears and not the nostrils.
“Um, yes?” Howard responded. “I just thought that we should. We’ve been friends a long time, after all, and it just seemed pertinent to enquire about how you regarded yourself and what I, as your closest friend and confidant, could do to better accommodate your... gender identity?”
“Yeah, well I’m...” Vince’s brow’s furrowed until he looked like a hawk surveying a foreign landscape, intense and searching, before he suddenly grinned and tossed his head back, dazzling Howard with the delight in his blue eyes. “Jeez, Howard, I don’t even know! I’ve never really given it that much thought, you know. It’s just how I am. Cheers though, for asking!”
“Really?” Howard said, trying not to push the issue in case he came across as too forceful or aggressive. He hadn’t considered that the things that Amy knew with certainty might be things that Vince only knew intuitively but had never actually thought through. “You’ve never analysed your personhood and the man - or woman - within?”
Vince shrugged and looked away, putting his arms around his bare knees and letting his hair fall like a curtain across his face.
“You know me, I don’t like to over think stuff, I’m all about the moment you know?” Vince supplied and Howard nodded kindly, not wishing Vince to start thinking that Howard thought he was unintelligent for his lack of thought in the matter. He had been becoming all too aware of how often the tone of his voice and his habit for lecturing Vince on his latest obsession came across, the way it too often made Vince feel inferior. It wasn’t usually Howard’s intention, but he was discovering (quite painfully) that his intention versus what Vince actually experienced were often two very different things. Self-awareness was hard work but Howard was determined to persevere. One day he would be able to boast of his journey to self-enlightenment and loving humility but for now he was still a stumbling student, struggling to put the needs of the man he loved before his own and...
Howard looked up, realising that Vince was talking, had been talking for some minutes, but that Howard had heard none of it, wrapped up in his own musings as he’d been. Shit. He’d have to work on that.
“You listening, Howard?”
“‘Course I am!” Howard bluffed. “I’m... I’m always here for you, Vince,” he said, softening his voice and bringing his hand up to rest on Vince’s shoulder, just as he had when Vince had walked in to the shop looking like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. Howard had ruined the moment with a well-aimed mug of tea to the face that day but he was determined to get it right now.
“D’you really mean that, Howard?” Vince asked, echoing his own earlier words, as if picking up on the deja vu of the moment, though he didn’t look up, staring instead at the scuffed toes of his favourite white, platform boots.
“Hey, of course, I do,” Howard urged, wanting to squeeze Vince’s shoulder to make his point but refraining from doing so.
It felt rather intimate, after all, to have bare skin and not glittery, sequined cloth beneath his fingers, and he didn’t want to come on too strong, not when Vince was still looking so very small and vulnerable. When they had won the crimp-off Vince had been standing tall, looking so much like his old self that Howard had again wondered if things were now back to normal. He’s been so filled with that reflected sunshine that people around them at the Velvet Onion had actually congratulated him, taken him by the hand and said, “Good work, Howard,” without him having to remind them of his name ahead of time, and it had felt good. Lance Dior had almost convinced him that he needed to step out from behind Vince’s shadow but at that moment Howard realised that he was Howard Moon by name and nature, yes sir, and that maybe he was destined to orbit Vince and take in those reflected rays like the jazzy satellite he was rather than going off on his own. And maybe, he thought, it was his job to ensure that Vince’s light kept on shining brightly. Especially knowing now, as he did, that that light was a great deal less resilient and inextinguishable than he had always thought.
Seeing Vince experience fashion block had shaken Howard, but not nearly as much as seeing Vince turn up to work in a suit with short, brown hair, announcing that he’d managed to get himself a job at Rumbelows. (It had been a wig, much to Howard’s relief because, Vince told him, a little voice in his head had refused to let him cut it. Howard had silently thanked Amy for her intervention. He wondered if there was any way to get a new dress in to her, that woman deserved a pay rise of some sort.) Vince was never supposed to be so ordinary and Howard just couldn’t bare the thought that he had somehow been partially responsible for Vince’s fall in confidence. In fact, realising how much of Vince’s emotional turmoil seemed to be tied to Howard’s treatment of him was distressing to say the least, and Howard knew he needed to fix it. Unfortunately, while the resolution to do so had been difficult but doable, the practical acting out of such a resolution seemed to be a mystery beyond his ken.
“Howard? Howard are you even listening?” Vince’s voice broke through his ruminating, alerting him to the fact that he had once again been caught up in his own thoughts rather than listening to his friend. “Have you gone into a trance or something? I’ve been pouring my heart out, telling ya how I feel, how I get what you’re saying, that I probably am a bit, you know, both ways when it comes to gender an all! Did you hear any of it?”
“Yes!” Howard said quickly. “ ‘Course I was! You’re... you know, a crosser of the boundaries, a spanner of the genres, in gender terms. Just like you are with, you know, the whole bisexuality thing.”
Vince’s grin told Howard that he’d hit the nail on the head with that response, what with the way Vince was looking up at him with delight and a delicate blush on his cheeks. Putting a name to Vince’s sexuality had been a bit of guess, after all Vince had never really titled it as such (people in general tended to tip-toe around the word like it was some sort of contagious disease, for no real reason that Howard could fathom) but it had obviously been the right thing to say, going by the way Vince was smiling at him.
“And it doesn’t freak you out?” Vince asked wonderingly, leaning in to Howard’s hand that was still sitting comfortingly on his shoulder.
“Of course not,” Howard told him truthfully. “None of it could. It’s you and me, Vince, all the way. And, truth be told,” he said, gathering his courage. “Truth be told Vince, you aren’t the only one who might, well, apply such a term to themselves. Bisexuality, I mean.”
He cleared his throat, looking up to see that Vince had shifted his body so that their faces were now much closer than before, noses almost touching, breath mingling in the still, icy air.
“Really?” Vince asked softly. “You mean that, Howard?”
They were so close now. So close that Howard could feel the electricity building up between them, the inevitability of the moment, the knowledge that this was it, this was their time. Until the sound of a car, engine revving and chancy occupants jeering, sped past, alerting him to the fact that he was in fact sitting on the curb in broad daylight in his pants, in an intimate tableau with a man.
“Don’t touch me!” he squealed automatically, stumbling back as he stood too fast, hitting Vince in the shoulder with his knee and sending him sprawling out in the snow.
“Ow!” Vince shrieked, “Howard!”
But Howard didn’t stop to help Vince to his feet. He felt sick, both from the fear he had felt at the thought that he and Vince were about to be set upon and at the fact that he had just pushed Vince away yet again, just when he thought things had finally resolved themselves. He wanted to do it, he really did, he wanted to be with Vince, but the fear simply would not go away, and now he knew he had probably ruined any chance they might have had. Behind him Vince called again, but Howard continued toward the door, rushing up the stairs and locking himself in his room. He had, in one fell swoop, destroyed Vince’s confidence once again, a task that had taken him several days and a great deal of effort to begin repairing, and he doubted he would be able to fix it again.
After what seemed a horribly long time to Howard’s ears, the sound of chunky soled boots could be heard climbing the stairs. He briefly considered going out to begin the process of apologising (he had no doubt that it would be a long process) but stopped when he heard Bollo ask Vince if he was alright.
“Of course I am, ya batty crease! Why wouldn’t I be? Now get outta my way, I need to go fix me hair!”
The slam of Vince’s door sent a tremor through the building that made Howard tremble as well, but that was nothing compared to the pain that ran through him when he heard, through the thin wall that divided their rooms, the sound of Vince’s muffled sobs.Things couldn’t possibly get any worse. Then again, knowing Howard’s luck, they would do exactly that. And when he stepped into the shop the next morning and found Vince already in his accustomed place in the barber’s chair by the window, dressed in the red jumpsuit he’d bought on his day out with Amy, a scowl on his face which said quite clearly that Howard was below his notice and that they would never ever speak of what had happened on the snowy curb, Howard knew that things were indeed about to get worse.
When Vince sold him out for a cape that evening he was barely surprised.
Post ‘Crack Fox’
Things were tense in the cab ride home. They’s stayed to party with the shamen for far longer than Howard thought appropriate and he’d had no choice but to sit on a tree stump, nursing a drink that Saboo told him was, “like cider. Now just take it you weasel-eyed, tit mouse and remove yourself from my company!” whilst Vince bounced around, accepting drinks, both alcoholic and peyote (far too much peyote in Howard’s opinion), laughing and dancing and generally acting like he didn’t have a care in the world, as if he hadn’t cost Howard his job and almost doomed mankind earlier that day.
Vince had been flirting too, chatting up Saboo, who had visibly preened under the attention and had even let Vince try on his hat, and making eyes at the coven of witches who had appeared from behind a hedge at the stroke of midnight, complimenting them on their lustrous beards and letting them run their green hands up and down his jumpsuit as he insinuated that he was single and unattached and had a few free passes left for some variety night he was hosting later that week. Howard had wanted to walk over and tear him away from their wandering hands and saucy smiles but knew that his interference probably wouldn’t be welcome. Vince, he supposed, was moving on.
Naboo had ignored him, quite pointedly Howard noticed, until he informed him that it was time to call them all a cab, before Tony Harrison decided to demonstrate the party trick he’d picked up in Malaysia. He did it, even though there was a surcharge for being picked up in the forest, but only because he was tired and wanted to go home. It had been, without a doubt, one of the most exhausting days that he could remember and he wanted nothing more than to climb into his warm, soft bed and forget all of the emotional turmoil the day had put him through.
But first he had to endure the cramped taxi ride, the closeness of the cab made worse by the fact that Vince was pressed up against him, elbowing him, treading on his toes with the heel of his boot, and flicking Howard in the face with his hair as he directed his attention at Bollo and Naboo. Occasionally he would turn his eyes to Howard, hold his gaze with a strange sort of longing and seem as though he was about to say something important, but he never did. And then a few moments later he would dig his elbows harshly into Howard’s ribs again, turn to him with a scowl and apologise for touching him, his voice thick with sarcasm, but he never once gave Howard a chance to reply, or ask what he could do to fix what had happened between them, never looked anything but distant and resentful, right up until the point that he announced that he felt sick and passed out, sprawled across Howard’s lap.
Howard tried the shift the smaller man but there was really nowhere to shift him to, not when they were sharing a back seat with Bollo, and so he was forced to sit there as his leg went to sleep under Vince’s weight, trying desperately not to think about the fact that the ridiculous red jumpsuit had slipped again, revealing one dark pink and pert nipple, or that Vince’s fingers had tightened around a fold in Howard’s cords as he sought, as ever, for something to anchor him down in the chaotic world of his dreams.
Instead he stared ahead, at where Naboo was sitting, his back still turned to Howard in more ways than one, the glossy black hair seeming to stare back at him, judging him. Sometimes he suspected that it was really a wig, an enchanted hairpiece that allowed Naboo to know the thoughts of those around him. The rest of the time he figured Naboo just used some sort of extraterrestrial hair conditioner to keep it looking so glossy. He wouldn’t mind getting his hands on whatever it was Naboo used actually. It would be nice to be complimented on his hair for once, rather than having it likened to brown smoke, or an anaemic dust bunny. But there were other questions which needed answering before he could even think about moving on to hair regimes and Howard had no idea how he was supposed to go about asking. He didn’t want to beg or grovel but if he was still fired he would need to look for a new job in the morning, and possibly a new place to live, and the thought of applying for jobs with people he didn’t already know filled him with a greater terror than any magic or monster had ever produced.
“Yeth,” Naboo said suddenly, his lisp pronounced to the point of exaggeration under the influence of whatever he had been smoking.
“Sorry, what?” Howard blinked in surprise, trying, and failing, to make eye contact with the back of Naboo’s head.
“Yeth, you can have your job back,” Naboo elaborated.
“Oh, well, yes,” Howard flustered, relief flooding through him. “Thank you. I mean, of course, I never should have had my position terminated in the first place. Vince admitted it was his fault, you know. It was he who put those bin bags out in the alley, and he who invited that fox in. He invited it in! I would never do that, I only ever put refuse in designated refuse areas, you know that, right, Naboo? I would never-”
“I din’t fire you over that, you ballbag!” Naboo interrupted, sounding angrier than he had even when he’d been turning his back on Howard and accusing him of incorrect rubbish disposal procedure.
“O’ course not,” Naboo lisped, his point emphasised by Bollo, who let out a grunt and rolled his eyes at Howard, as if Howard were missing something obvious.
“Then why?” Howard asked, hearing his voice begin to climb higher in pitch as he struggled with the complete unfairness of the situation.
He could feel himself becoming agitated, his cheeks beginning to flush and his eyes blinking rapidly as he fought back the upset and embarrassment. He loved his job, worked hard at it, had made it his own, and it hurt to think that Naboo had simply wanted to get rid of him.
“Because of Vince,” Naboo told him without sympathy.
Howard let his jaw drop.
“You fired me simply because you wanted Vince to have my job?”
“No. I fired you because if Vince were really himself he never would have let me do it.”
Howard tried to follow Naboo’s logic but simply couldn’t fathom it.
“Because of Vince? I don’t understand, Naboo.”
Naboo sighed, turning around to face Howard for the first time and gazing into his small (he preferred to think of them as modest and understated) eyes with a pair that seemed impossibly large, dark and knowing for a man whose outward appearance seemed so young and who had, until a few minutes ago, given every appearance of being mellowly intoxicated.
“I told you weeks ago to get it sorted. Fix Vince, I told you, but I can’t trust you to do nothing, can I?”
Howard tried to draw himself up, to gather his indignation at such an accusation, but it was a hard thing when being held under Naboo’s intense stare, not to mention the beady gaze of Bollo, and the judging eyes of the taxi driver, staring at him in the rear vision mirror.
“But Amy went back,” he tried to explain. “She went back, she chose to go back, she said she was going to try and fix things.”
His words seemed thin and weak in the thick air of the cab and he was still being stared at and Vince was still holding tight to his trousers but Howard straightened his shoulders as best he could. He was not the villain in all of this, after all. He’d been the one to defeat the villain (or as good as) and save the day, not to mention Naboo’s life, and he did not deserve to be treated like a criminal.
“She said she’d give me a sign if she needed my help,” he argued on. “But I haven’t seen any sign, have you?”
Naboo’s eyes narrowed as his stare seemed to intensify.
“You don’t think Vince’s behaviour has been a pretty clear cry for help then, Howard?”
Howard stopped. He’d been about to continue, to speak in his own defense, but Naboo did have a point. Vince hadn’t been himself and Howard had seen the signs. But he also knew that there was a good chance that things were beyond repair between the two of them. Even if Vince had made an effort to make up for Howard being fired, even if he had made a gesture, he’d still been erratic and hostile in his behaviour, swinging between simpering poses and adoring looks on the one hand and ribbing that went beyond playful teasing and into the land of brutal bullying on the other. And as much as it hurt, as much as Howard wanted Vince to apologise over and over for the way his world had come crashing down around him as his job - his world - was ripped away, he knew that it was really only what he deserved for the pain he had inflicted on Vince.
Every time he closed his eyes his brain replayed the moment when they had almost kissed, when he had pushed Vince away, the moment he had run when he should have stayed strong, and he knew that every glare and biting comment was a continued response to what Howard had done. But he also knew that he could not fix it.
“I... I don’t know what to do,” he admitted softly, trying to ignore Bollo’s huff and muttered insult, focusing instead on the sympathetic look he received via the rearview mirror.
“Well,” Naboo said, suddenly sounding tired and bored once more. “You know what I think you should do.”
This time Naboo and the taxi driver joined Bollo in his huff but Vince only snuggled closer, rubbing his cheek against Howard’s thigh and mumbling about monkeys.
“The submarine and the shrinking kit are still set up in the stock room, aren’t they?”
“Yeah, I was going to ask you about that actually-” Howard replied with some confusion but Naboo’s temper suddenly flared.
“It’s there for when you come to your senses and realise that what you need to do is go back in there!”
“What?” Howard shrieked, his voice going so high that out beyond the car in the forest several bats were disorientated by the sound and bumped into a tree. “I can’t go back in there! There’s no need for me to go back in there! Amy-”
“Amy hasn’t sent you a sign, yeah, I know,” Naboo countered. “But don’t you think that maybe she hasn’t sent you a flipping sign because she isn’t actually free to do so?”
Naboo turned back in his seat, and his dark, glossy mane of hair resumed it’s silent judging as Howard stared at it forlornly. Meanwhile, the reality of Naboo’s words hung in the air between them like an unpleasant smell, the silence only broken, eventually, by another, sleep induced mumble from Vince, a sound that reminded Howard far too much of the whimpers he had used to hear from the younger man when they were boys bunking down on the floor for a sleep over, or men who were barely more than boys, bunking down on the floor of the keeper’s hut of an evening. It wasn’t a happy sound but it was the only one heard for the rest of the taxi ride back to the Nabootique and Howard wished, for once, that there was more noise, more sound, something to distract his thoughts from the path they’d recklessly taken, because Naboo’s words made sense, and suddenly his worry for Amy had tripled, quadrupled (quintupled?) and his concern for Vince had increased even more, because he had no idea how he was expected to fix Vince when it was Vince holding himself captive.
As they climbed from the cab, Bollo lifting Vince into his arms and wheezing as he carried the man up into the flat, Naboo grabbed Howard’s arm.
“Hear some wise words, yeah?” he said with a command that caused Howard’s muscles to bypass his brain and become docile and still. “I didn’t want to push you guys this far, din’t want to upset the narrative flow as long as you were both still on track, still following your timelines and all that, you understand?”
Howard nodded. He didn’t understand at all but he also didn’t want Naboo to get angry again, and the cabbie was still listening in, his window open, waiting for one of them to pay him, and Howard didn’t want the man thinking any worse of him than he already did.
“Right,” Naboo said, correctly interpreting the nod. “But the thing is, Howard, if you carry on like this, things ain’t gonna get better. You carry on like this your narrative, the thing that’s pulling you and Vince along, it’s gonna go wrong. You’re gonna end this season of your life on a down note, stuck in a cycle of bitterness and regret - you running away and crawling back and Vince laughing at you and hating you and crying in his bedroom every night - it’s gotta stop. Heed my words, yeah? And pay the cab driver, I left my wallet in my other turban.”
He spun around and walked up the stairs before Howard could protest or ask for a better explanation and it took the cabbie several coughs and less than subtle cleared throats before Howard recalled himself and payed the man.
“Hey mate,” the cabbie yelled, just as Howard was turning away, his head spinning as he tried to sort out his feelings and the information Naboo had forced him to consider. “Do I know you from somewhere?”
“Probably not,” Howard sighed. “I’ve just got one of those, you know, generic faces. I’m a nobody.”
“Nah,” the cabbie replied jovially. “You’re that actor geezer, ain’t you? Or is he a director. That foreign bloke, that Jurgen bloke. I seen you in that documentary.”
“You’ve mistaken me for someone else,” Howard told him, trying not to sound too woeful. “It happens. I’m just... a shopkeeper. I suppose.”
“Oh, alright,” the driver said with a shrug as he turned the key in the ignition and adjusted his rear mirror. “You should check him out though, the foreign bloke, you’re a dead ringer for ‘im. I reckon you could be his stunt double if, ya know, you needed a break from that lot. What were they on?” he laughed sharply. “Shrink rays? Gorilla costumes? You’re better off out of it, mate, that’s my tip. Speaking of which... don’t suppose you could, you know...”
Howard sighed and put an extra five pound note in the outstretched hand, holding his breath as the taxi sped off in a cloud of smoke and fumes. When the street was empty and silent again he turned back to look at the Nabootique, and the flat above it, the place he had happily called home for the last few years but which now only conjured up feelings of bitterness and regret, just as Naboo had said.
Naboo wanted him to fix things with Vince, even though it could mean danger or death for Howard; that was secondary, less important to the shaman than Vince’s peace of mind. Bollo hated him, though that was nothing new, the gorilla had always been jealous of Howard for being Vince’s first choice of friend. But now Vince hated him too, and that hurt. Maybe it would be better if he left. Not long ago he’d believed that his place was in Vince’s orbit but he had ruined that and didn’t want to be there if Vince no longer wanted him around. Who knew, maybe things would improve in Vince’s brain if Howard wasn’t there to mess things up. If he ran away and didn’t come back. Wasn’t that what Naboo had been hinting at.
The flat, when he reached it, was silent and dark and instead of going straight to bed Howard switched on the small, portable television that sat on his bedside table. By some strange twist of Fate (who is a fickle bitch, she really is) a film titled The Doctor and Pencil was just beginning and Howard watched it, entranced, until he fell into a deep, if rather disturbed, sleep, whilst around him, unseen but not unfelt, the fabric of his universe and the narrative of his life shifted and changed so that, when he awoke the next morning, the idea that maybe he should find a way out had solidified into a resolve to become an actor, and a chance encounter with a film on late night television had become an obsession.
The next day, and over the next few that followed, an uneasy truce seemed to develop. Howard kept up his stream of little cakes but gave up on the compliments. In fact, whenever Howard said anything more than ‘Hello’ Vince sniggered and threatened to put it on MySpace. They didn’t discuss the almost kiss or anything else that had happened that day after the crimp-off, didn’t revisit the discussion they had started to have about Howard’s sexuality or Vince’s gender. It was three days before they managed to have a conversation, and that was only because Vince had lost his phone...
“Howard, have you seen my phone?”
“I’m a little busy actually, Vince.”
Vince scowled, glaring down his nose at where Howard was slumped behind the counter, staring at the small television which he had taken to carrying about with him in order to avoid missing even a minute of the four hour conceptual films he’d been to watching day and night since the incident with the Crack Fox.
“Busy?” Vince spat back, his face twisting into a cruel smile. “Busy doing what? Growing your ass? Seriously, Howard, have you just decided to give up on life completely?”
“No,” Howard snapped, unable to come up with anything more witty without a few minutes brainstorming.
He wanted to be understanding, aware as he was that something wasn’t right with Vince’s mind, but it had been a lot easier to be sympathetic when Vince’s behaviour had leaned more towards the damaged and vulnerable variety rather than the confrontational and reckless kind.
“What you doing then?” Vince asked, pushing relentlessly. “If you aren’t trying to make your pumpkin ass larger? Trying to make your eyes bigger by staring at the telly? Don’t you remember what your old mum used to say? Telly turns your eyes square, Howard, it don’t make them bigger. It’s a lost cause, I’m telling you now. I’ve got belts with bigger holes than your peepers. They’re like-”
“Just shut up about my eyes, would you!” Howard barked, feeling a rush of pleasure when his raised voice made Vince jump. “And I also recall my old mum going on at length about how cute and chubby you used to be.”
“You’re just jealous ‘cos she liked me better than you,” Vince smirked, raising his chin in defiance, though the insecurity was still plain in his stance.
“Somebody had to, I suppose,” Howard bit back, raising himself to his full height so that even in platform boots Vince barely reached his moustache. “You’re own mum wasn’t exactly volunteering for the job now was she?”
The beat of silence that followed that statement was like the deep breath before the Spirit of Jazz’s own trumpet solo. The anticipation was suffocating but at the same time he didn’t want it to end for fear of what might come after. He actually had no idea about what had happened to Vince’s parents. Vince had been living with his grandmother when they met and it was one of the many things they had never discussed. When Vince did speak it was almost anticlimactic, his voice hard but quiet and Howard felt thrown by not being the one struggling for a come-back for once when it was obvious that Vince was.
“Don’t talk about my mum.”
“You started it, Vince. Chubby, blonde, cherub my mum used to call you. At least one of those things is still true. My ass has got some serious work to do if it wants to catch up with yours!”
He said it knowing that it would hurt, knowing that Vince lived with the eternal struggle between his sweet tooth and his desire to emulate the wafer thin idols in his magazines. Even so, watching the colour drain from Vince’s face as the insult hit home left him feeling that he’d crossed a line.
“Shut up,” Vince said, though with little bite. “I’m... working on it, yeah. I just keep screwing up my diet, don’t even know how. I know that I’m... Just shut up and help me find my phone.”
Howard found it eventually, lodged inside a platform boot that was part of the display Vince had made in the front window that morning. He span around triumphantly to present it to Vince, ready to boast of his phone finding prowess, only to find Vince at the mirror, staring aggressively at his own reflection. Vince preening at the mirror was hardly new and Howard’s first reaction was to roll his eyes, but a second glance showed him that Vince was not in fact preening, he was glaring, alternating between scrutinizing his nose and twisting himself around to try and see his pert, round, but perfectly in proportion backside.
“Hey, Narcissus,” Howard said with force, snapping Vince out of his self-inspection. “I found your phone. No missed calls though, guess you’re not as popular as you thought.”
“Don’t be looking through my phone like a Van Cleef villain, you berk!” Vince shrieked, lunging forward to grab the phone from Howard’s hand and clutching it tight to his chest. “It’s private, and I’m waiting on a call from a band to top the bill at my Electro Circus actually. It’s an important call, I can’t be having you hiding my phone just ‘cos you’re jealous that no one’s ever called you.”
“I get calls,” Howard shot back, even as he felt himself turn red and begin to shuffle from foot to foot under the fire of Vince’s glare.
“Right,” Vince drawled knowingly. “The only person calling you is Lester. Is he your boyfriend now? That your type? Is fossilized knackers what floats your boat, Howard? Should’ve known your type was old jazzy freaks like you.”
“No!” Howard shot back, not entirely sure why he felt the need to argue when he knew Vince was only trying to get back at him. “Howard Moon is a man of variety and culture, my tastes cannot be put in a box, sir! My aesthetic and romantic tastes span the genres, they cannot defined by something so basic as language!”
“Yeah, whatever,” Vince shrugged, taking a few pigeon-toed steps backwards toward the stairs. “I’ve met your type, Howard. You’ll get off with anyone who shows you a glimmer of affection so long as they look vaguely feminine, but will never actually admit to liking men. Or reciprocate.”
“Reciprocate? That’s a big word,” Howard shot back automatically, feeling the heat rise further in his cheeks but Vince simply shrugged again, one shoulder lifting with cold indifference.
“What’s it to you? It’s a fact.”
“It isn’t,” Howard said more softly. “I mean, when I say that my tastes can’t be put in a box, I mean... I do have a type, I suppose.” Vince looked up at that, curiosity sparkling in his eyes. “I... I talked about it with Amy, in fact.”
Howard watched as a parade of emotions marched across Vince’s ever expressive face at the mention of Amy, and he wondered just how much Vince remembered of the days when his frontal lobe and stepped into the wider world for a visit. It took him a moment to collect himself and, for a second, Howard saw a glimmer of the young zookeeper and best friend Vince had once been, his shoulders rolled forward to make himself seem smaller, his eyes hopeful as he looked up through his lengthening fringe. But then, as Howard watched, something seemed to clamp down behind Vince’s eyes and he turned away again, looking down at his phone as if it contained the words that could guide them back to a script with a satisfactory ending.
“You talked about it with Amy?” he asked in a voice not much louder than a whisper, glancing up just long enough to see Howard nod. “I miss her, she was a lough, weren’t she? Didn’t leave me her number though. I’d’ve liked to be able to call her, there was a lady who knew her fashion. She was... a cousin? Or something?”
He frowned and Howard felt a pit form in his stomach. He’d had no clue how to explain to Vince about who Amy really was and how she’d come to be staying with them for those few days. Vince didn’t seem to have any memory of joining the punk band or being infected by the jazz cell but seemed to remember Amy, though clearly not everything. Howard had opted for his usual method of simply not discussing the issue at all.
“Something like that,” Howard agreed, surprised by how gentle his own voice had become. It was hard to be rude when Vince was struggling so obviously with memories that didn’t quite fit together.
“An’ you talked to her about your type?”
“Well,” Howard swallowed nervously. “We-”
“Cos she is definitely your type!” Vince interrupted, a smile growing on his lips as he thought the idea through and obviously came to the conclusion that he liked it.
“She was?” Howard asked, trying for casual as he leant agains the counter, though from the way Vince angled himself away and looked at Howard suspiciously he may have missed casual by a few degrees.
“Are you kidding? With those cheekbones and old school glamour look? Not to mention the creamy skin,” Vince gave him a look, eyebrow raised, and Howard felt the blush reach his hairline, because Amy really was his type, but not for the reasons Vince seemed to think.
“Well, she’s not...” Howard cleared his voice, taking a step toward Vince, wondering if they were approaching some sort of reconciliation. Perhaps he didn’t need to be searching for a way out of the Nabootique after all. “She’s not my only type. If you know what I mean... Look, Vince, I’ve been thinking, about what we talked about the other day, and...”
He took another step forward, working as hard as he could to hold eye contact with Vince as he did so, and for a spit second he saw a different emotion flicker in Vince’s eyes, something which he might have identified as hope if it hadn’t disappeared so quickly, replaced by a hard suspicion.
“Look, Howard,” he said, holding his free hand up in front of him defensively whilst the other hand continued to clutch his phone to his chest as he began to back away. “Forget what I said, whatever it was, I didn’t mean it. I’m Vince Noir, ladies’ man. Same as you, yeah?” Howard shook his head but Vince’s expression only became more closed, as he did so, until he gave a huff and took one final step back out of Howard’s reach. “Face it Howard, you’re a ladies man. We had a lapse but we don’t really fancy each other. I don’t have a secret crush on you or nothing, don’t start getting ideas. Besides, you fancy girls and,” Vince took an unsteady breath as he continued.” And I’m a, a... not a girl, am I? We just need to find you the right woman. Maybe Lester’s got a blind, jazzy sister. You like the matures ladies, right, Howard?”
“Yeah well,” Howard felt the humiliation of rejection rise up within him as it became apparent that Vince had no intention of meeting him halfway in a reconciliation, was mocking Howard’s exploration of his sexuality, was denying Howard his sexuality. “Yeah well, at least I don’t fancy Terry Nutkins!”
“At least I’m not known locally as the bloke who was caught tonguing a picture of him!” Howard practically yelled. “You didn’t know I knew about that, did you, Vince? Well, I do. And I’d rather be known for getting off with ladies of more mature years than wanting to get dirty with balding TV naturalists! Ha! Can’t come back from that one, can you? Nailed your ass!”
He waited for Vince to respond, because Vince always responded, but there was nothing. Vince was staring at his feet, his cheeks as pink as cherries in cream, blinking like there was something caught in his eye.
“Yeah, well,” Vince muttered eventually, his voice low and uneven. “It’s big enough, ain’t it? Even a come-back cretin like you can nail it at this size. I have to go change my outfit.”
Howard felt lost for words for a moment. That didn’t sound like Vince at all.
“Change your outfit? You’ve not been in it for more than two hours, it can’t have gone out of fashion already? I thought you had a talent night to run.”
He was trying to sound light, to take the sting out of everything he’d said, to soothe the pain that had started in the pit that was once his stomach, but Vince still didn’t rise to it. He looked down instead and sniffed, glancing at his phone, hoping it would ring and free them both from the awkwardness.
“Yeah, well on second thoughts, these jeans just aren’t working for me, alright, so I have to change before anybody worth being seen by actually sees me. And it’s not a talent night, it’s a variety night, like cabaret, yeah? I’ve already told you. You should come some time, see some actual theatre instead of just wanking over those rubbish devised pieces on BBC4, imagining you’re an actor and not just a sad old man working in a dusty old shop!”
He turned on his heel and began to stomp toward the steps and Howard desperately wanted to leave things at that but his brain and mouth had other ideas and refused to stop, no matter how hard he begged.
“You work here too, you know! You’re no better than me. And if I’m an old man, you are too! We’re the same age, Vince!”
“At least I’m trying to get out,” Vince said without even slowing his steps and a moment later Howard was alone in the silent shop.
He sat, staring into space, counting the ticks of the clock until he lost count, and then picked up his phone and called Lester because the reality was that he didn’t get any phone calls, if he wanted company he called Lester, Lester didn’t call him, but that was a fact too humiliating to ever admit. Lester was in his seventies, (possibly) blind, and only dipped into reality when it suited him but he was the best that Howard could do. He’d been a fool to think he could be a serious contender for Vince’s affections, a fool to think that he could be anything. At least Lester gave him a sense of importance and purpose.
Lester answered eventually and informed Howard jovially that he was at the copy centre, “making some magic with the light and picture machines!” and invited Howard to join him. Howard looked around the empty shop, devoid of customers as it always was outside of Vince’s publicly advertised working hours (4pm-6pm Tuesday - Thursday), and then grabbed his hat and headed for the door. He wanted to get out, Vince and Naboo and Bollo wanted him gone. It was time to actually go, or at least start making a colour coded series of lists and a fifteen point plan of attack.
Howard was careful over the next two weeks, to keep the auditions he attended a secret from Vince, out of fear of what mockery the other man was liable to come up with. It was a good thing too, because every single audition ended up a disaster and Howard didn’t receive so much as a walk on role, extra’s part or call back. He’d had a series of portraits taken (Lester was surprisingly adept behind the camera considering he was legally blind) both head shots and dramatic, full body portraits to demonstrate his range, and he was actually quite proud of them, of the ones he wasn’t smiling in at any rate. But he hadn’t shown them to Vince.
Vince wouldn’t have had time to glance in his direction anyway, he had been busy day and night with his regular Friday night ‘Electro Circus’ and, if Howard had been in the mood to compliment Vince, he might have said that Vince was doing a very good job at coordinating the shows, rehearsals, and sound checks, and booking quite well known musical groups, acting troupes and comedians. As it was, he was not feeling particularly complimentary, especially toward Vince, and so said nothing.
This was mostly due to the fact that, despite being ever cheerful, calm and cool when shmoozing with the Camden elite and working the crowds on stage at the Velvet Onion, at home Vince’s moods were erratic to say the least. Howard had taken to wearing his largest pair of headphones when he watched his documentaries and films in bed (the ones Vince had given him as a belated birthday present when he’d first become interested in producing music of the electronic variety) in order to block out the distressing sound of Vince sobbing himself to sleep - or possibly crying in his sleep - but during the day Vince’s hard and sarcastic persona was almost always in place.
Occasionally he would engage in some banter, though there was always a malicious undertone to what he said, and very rarely he let Howard know when he was feeling stressed or anxious or unsure of things, but more often than not he managed to look down on Howard, even when not in high heels, or simply called him a twat before storming off in a rage, without even giving Howard a chance to speak.
It was draining and Howard turned all of his focus on to developing his acting, looking for a way to get out, to move on from the Nabootique, from Vince. It was hard to believe that not long ago he had thought that such a thing would never be possible, that his purpose in life was to orbit Vince, a moon to his sunshine self, but too much had changed, and too quickly, and now Howard simply wanted to walk away. Hadn’t Naboo told him that if he didn’t do so then their lives would simply end in bitterness and regret? Howard wasn’t about to let that happen, no sir, not for himself and not for Vince. Because despite how Vince now treated him (and how Howard treated Vince) he could not undo the realisation that he very much loved his former best mate, physically and emotionally, and the thought of their lives becoming a cycle of unsatisfied desire and a daily struggle between what they wanted and what they would never have... Howard didn’t want to do that to either of them. He wanted Vince to be happy and that didn’t seem likely to happen with Howard around.
That particular truth was hit home to him when he came down to the shop one morning to see Vince building a shrine to a pair of ridiculously tight trousers, mumbling about needing to lose weight in order to get into a band. Naboo and Bollo were fussing around him, telling Howard to give him space, so Howard tried to act casual. It wasn’t the first time Vince had lost his good sense over a fad diet or item of clothing but somehow Howard could see that it was more than that.
“I need- I need,” Vince murmured as he arranged purple velvet drapes around the drainpipes. “I need to get into these jeans. I need to lose the weight. Need to be popular, skinny, liked. Need...”
“Are you wearing... a suit?”
Vince looked up, blinking as if he was coming out of a trance and giving Howard a confused look.
“Your clothes, Vince,” Howard clarified. “You’re wearing a shirt and jacket. What are you doing?”
Vince looked down, blinked again, and then turned up his lips and scowled at Howard like he’d suggested that Bainbridge had been quite right to fire them from the zoo.
“This is what’s cool at the moment, yeah? It’s what the Black Tubes are wearing and they’re the hottest band of the minute. This is The Look, right now, not that I’d expect you to get that, you probably still think desert boots are acceptable footwear.”
“I know fashion!” Howard bit back, shuffling his feet further behind the counter and out of sight. “I know a great deal about the world of fashion, I’ll have you know, but Howard Moon does not blow about on the breezes that the fickle weather pattern of fashion produce, no sir. Howard Moon is a mountain in the storm, you could learn a lot from me, Vince.”
Vince simply rolled his eyes and continued to staple gun fabric decoratively around the ridiculously skinny jeans he had displayed but Howard was still perturbed about his choice of outfit. This was not something he felt Amy would approve of, it hardly seemed like something the NSP would wear either, except that the berk was so completely obsessed with conforming to the latest fashion trend. It wasn’t a bad look, Howard was quite fond of the way a well cut suit flattered the figure of both men and women and he had no doubt that Vince was fitting in perfectly with the new crowd he had charmed his way into, but it was a startlingly stark wardrobe choice as far as Howard could see, and made Vince seem more of a stranger than ever.
“I need to lose five more sizes to fit into these. I need to lose it all by tonight,” Vince suddenly told him in a small voice and it was Howard’s turn to blink in confusion, disorientated by such a statement.
“You can’t lose that kind of weight in one day!” he exclaimed, but Vince didn’t even react to his raised voice. “No one can, Vince that’s ludicrous. Why do you need to do that? People like you the way you are, your legs have character, they’re strong, they’ve been on adventures, run away from monsters, they’re strong, healthy-”
“Shut up, alright!” Vince squawked. “They’re horrible! Can we not talk about it, please? Maybe I don’t want to look healthy and strong!”
Howard was about to explain to Vince that wanting to look unhealthy was one of the stupidest things Vince had ever set as a goal for himself but didn’t get a chance as Bollo shuffled back in, bearing a wheelchair which he promised would get Vince’s pins down in no time.
“This is ridiculous, Vince,” he told him as Vince jumped gleefully into the chair and began to fiddle with the controls. “Have you lost your mind? Become completely delusional? You need to take a leaf out of my book, Little Man, get a hobby, get a life outside of your work!”
“Get a hobby?” Vince looked up, unimpressed. “Like you? No offense, Howard, but you are the last person anyone would want to go to for life advice. You don’t even have any hobbies, just weird obsessions that you suck all the fun out of and then leave scattered behind you. Like that time you bought that box of chocolates for Mrs Gideon on Valentine’s Day then ate them all yourself when she turned you down - again - wandering about the zoo, leaving shiny wrappers in your wake, like a messed up Hansel and Gretel trail, except at the end of it, instead of a witch in a genius house made out of sweets, it was just you, filling an empty chocolate box with salted caramel flavoured tears. Face it Howard, you’re going nowhere.”
And with that Vince zoomed out of the shop, maneuvering the wheelchair with the same beginners luck he seemed to have with everything. Howard tried to be reasonable about it all, tried to set it aside, it was only Vince after all, and what did Vince know? Nothing. Why, Howard assured himself, he barely even felt anything for Vince any more, other than a vague sexual attraction, certainly nothing romantic or meaningful or deep. He would show Vince. He had plans to see Jurgen Haabemaaster give a talk that very night and after it was done he would present himself to the man and show him his head shots and beg - well not beg, Howard Moon didn’t beg, no sir, except for when he did - but he would certainly put his case forward in a confident and actorly manner and the great Haabemaaster was sure to see the raw, dramatic talent radiating from him.
It all went tits up, of course, when Fossil turned up and announced that Jurgen had rescheduled his talk in order to attend Vince’s variety night instead. Vince had been, if not kind, then at least less aggressive in his insults when Howard had put forth the notion that he might show off his own acting chops, and Howard took it as the apology it probably was, for what Vince had said about Howard being ill-equipped to give life advice. Vince even agreed to let him show his stuff, still sitting in that ridiculous wheelchair, and Howard smiled inwardly as he saw Vince’s will crumble as he agreed to put Howard on the bill. Vince wasn’t even aware that he was aiding Howard in his escape from his hum-drum life, and from Vince. They would both, finally, have a chance at being happy. Now he just needed to learn how to actually act.
Monty had been a godsend. Slightly creepy and must scented, but a godsend all the same. Howard felt he’d never had such luck before. Usually when he was in a hole and feeling down he got kidnapped by monsters or fired from his job or accidentally killed simply because he was dressed up as a dying gorilla. He wasn’t used to chance meetings with people who could help him, and were willing to do so. And yes, Monty had been a little eccentric, but weren’t all the greats? And he’d freed Howard of his chokes and now nothing could stand in his way.
Vince had tried to shut him down, crush his spirit like he always did but then even, as if by miraculous happenstance, he had actually called Howard asking for help. Howard had never felt more alive as he strutted out onto the stage, had felt the audience giving him their full attention, and had sucked that energy into his soul like a powerful hoover. He’d unleashed all of his anger and confusion and rage in his performance, showing the crowd through his body and his facial expressions exactly how he felt, how he had struggled to understand who Amy was and why she had come, how he’d had to cope with the realisation that he fancied his best mate, how he had tried his best to do right by him, but had been worn down by the rejection, how he had eventually had to turn his back and make the decision to set them both free by carving out a new path for himself. For was it not true that what you love you must let go? It was all there in his performance and, even though he uttered only one word, he felt that every person watching him understood on the deepest level what he was conveying. He received a standing ovation, thunderous applause, even the cheese plant was impressed. It was better than winning the crimp-off and he had done it on his own. And then, to top off his night, Jurgen Haabemaaster sought him out to offer him a job.
He bid a quick farewell to Vince, almost hoping that the other man would beg him to stay, or show any emotion at all, but Vince was still more concerned with fitting into this stupid jeans and his stupid band, and so Howard left, not even staying to watch the last act, and flew to Denmark that very night, unaware that at the Velvet Onion another unlikely yet timely coincidence had occurred. As Bollo pulled up the strained zip of Vince’s black drainpipes, the message reached Vince’s brain that Howard was leaving, this time for good, and something akin to a riot took place in the hidden brain space behind the NSP’s office, the parts of Vince’s brain revolting and trying desperately to wrestle control from the sparkly berk who had held them captive for too long.
The story went that Vince Noir had given himself a case of ‘balloon head’ trying to squeeze into skinny jeans that were at least three sizes too small, a rumour which ended his Electro Circus and his musical ambitions, not to mention setting back his social aspirations by some months. But upon closer inspection Naboo discovered that it hadn’t been the jeans at all, Vince’s brain had been reacting to the loss of Howard and Naboo cursed the idiot for doing the opposite of what he needed to do. It was a long two weeks before Howard returned but he did, just as Naboo knew he would, and when he walked back through the Nabootique door, Naboo decided that enough was enough.
I've been sitting with this chapter for ages, trying to make it run more smoothly, but this is all I've got. Sorry. Thank you for your patience.
Even if the gusset was a little low and the claws a little cumbersome Howard tried to tell himself that his natural acting ability would shine through. Jurgen had told him that it would, that his immense talent for portraying pain and anxiety would be evident to all who saw him, that the costume was just an outward trapping, an indicator, an observable expression of the internal concept that Howard alone could physically express. He had been in the crab suit for five hours now and had had several moments when he wasn’t entirely sure that Jurgen was being serious, that this wasn’t just some elaborate joke at his expense, a new way for the world to bring him low, but the crew seemed to be taking it seriously, their faces professional to the point of disinterest, and that was strangely comforting.
“And Action!” Jurgen called from his position on the crane that he claimed gave him the god-like perspective necessary for superior film-making.
He was directing as well as starring in the commercial but assured Howard that the true star of the piece would be Howard himself, the Angry Crab. And once he had made his name and gained exposure through the ad campaign then, Jurgen reassured him, he would be ready to take the world by storm in his first feature film. He just had to get through the rest of the day, finish the commercial, and then he would be on his way to a serious acting career the likes of which Sammy the Crab could not even imagine. It was a point of pride really, that he had managed to score the part of a crab when only that night Jurgen had been talking to Sammy himself. Sure, Sammy had suffered from a drug induced rampage soon after and ended up in the prison for animal offenders, but Howard chose to believe that even if that hadn’t happened he would somehow have been Jurgen’s first choice. He hoped that Monty was proud of him, wherever he was.
“Howard! I said ‘Action’!” Jurgen yelled and Howard shook himself free of his thoughts, jumping into character and moving himself from side to side, trying his hardest to inhabit the character of a vicious crab, determined to cause gastric discomfort.
“Cue the Blast Fast!” someone yelled in the deep blackness beyond the pink, stomach set, and Howard felt his traitorous mind begin to wander again, reminiscing about how this set was so very different to the reality of the inside of Vince’s body.
How even though the set was supposed to be a stylistic and vaguely surreal representation of what it was like inside Jurgen’s “tummy space”, it wasn’t nearly as colourful, strange or terrifying as what Howard remembered of his adventure inside the human body. Vince’s body had been constantly in motion, even though outwardly he had been lying on the Nabootique counter, feverish and barely moving beyond the shivers and uncontrolled movements of his head, inside his body had been so full of movement and colour that at times it had given Howard vertigo. The set of the Windy Blast Fast commercial just could not compare. Perhaps it had simply been Vince’s body that was so full of colour and movement and that surreal kind of magic, because that was very much the essence of Vince, was it not?
Compared with the world of Vince Noir the real world seemed dull, but Howard wouldn’t be going back, no sir. He was making it on his own, was doing the right thing for both of them. Vince had made it very clear that the crush he might have once had on Howard was well and truly over and that he had no desire for Howard to reciprocate whatever feelings he might once have harboured. Howard was sure that back in Dalston Vince was doing just fine, was probably flourishing without Howard there to upset his mind space, was probably completely healthy now, without the dark, melancholy cloud of Howard always looming over him. And Howard was doing just fine as well, putting that darkness to good work as an avant-garde actor. They were better off alone, he just had to keep reminding himself of that fact.
At which point Howard’s musings were cut short by the large, prop, Windy Blast Fast tablet which was dropped onto his head from above, knocking him out cold, and putting an end to the day’s filming.
When Howard awoke blearily, back in his hotel bed in inner city Copenhagen several hours later, his eyes immediately fixed on the serious face of Jurgen Haabemaaster and he knew, without doubt, that he was about to receive bad news. It had become something of a sixth sense, the ability to know when he was about to be disappointed, and Howard knew it was about to happen to him now, to the point that when Jurgen began to speak he could barely muster more than a vague sense of disappointment.
“I am glad to see you are recovered, Howard,” Jurgen told him sagely. “Thankfully you sustained no lasting damage from your accidental encounter with the giant pharmaceutical and we were able to finish the filming for the advertisement with the footage we had already shot.”
Jurgen put emphasis on odd syllables, creating a strange rhythm with his words which always seemed to be just off the beat, and it took Howard a moment to figure out what had been said, but Jurgen took the silence as understanding and continued his speech with an expression of intellectual woe that Howard quite envied.
“Unfortunately Howard, your tendency toward the mind wandering during filming means that I fear I cannot use you in my next project. For your own safety, you understand? You are better suited perhaps to the continuous performance of the stage, where you do not have the temptation of breaks in character.”
Howard nodded, not sure what to say, his mind already convinced that Jurgen was simply trying to let him down gently, that he never had any acting talent at all, had always been a fool, had never had any chance of success. He was a failure and now he had no where to go, and nothing to work for.
“You will of course be paid the agreed amount for your work over the last few days. And I would be pleased to write you a reference to an old friend of mine who runs an agency back in London. Are you hearing me, Howard?”
Howard nodded again but couldn’t think of anything to say and eventually Jurgen stood and left, striking a pose in the doorway that expressed both his sadness at their parting and his belief that it was ultimately for the best, at least, the best for Jurgen. Howard let sleep creep up on him again, a despondent sort of weariness that he knew had little to do with being really tired, and little to do with the mild concussion either. Howard simply felt tired. He wondered if, in his own mind, various parts of his brain were sitting about feeling sorry for themselves, or whether there was one particular part of his subconscious controlling the others and making him feel so dejected, and wished there was some person in the world who loved him enough to go in there and set things right. But such a thought was a fantasy, for no one loved Howard Moon. At least, he thought, he might be able to return to the Nabootique. He wasn’t loved but possibly he was missed, he might possibly be of use, in a stock-taking capacity.
The next morning he packed his bags, sent a text to Naboo to inform him of his return, and set his eyes back toward London Town, hoping like hell that Vince would have moved on to better things, as he suspected he would have, and so wouldn’t be there to witness the shame and failure of Howard’s acting career and his life.
Of course Vince was there, because it wouldn’t be Howard’s life if it wasn’t full to bursting with humiliating moments, a point proved by the fact that he had been so easily replaced by a man who was like a younger, thinner, more attractive version of himself (or, a younger, thinner, more attractive version of Harold Boom, to be more precise) and that, within minutes of walking through the Nabootique door, the Windy Blast Fast advert began to play on the small, portable television set that had once been his. Bollo began to snigger and chuckle, enjoying Howard’s embarrassment with the same relish he’d had the day they met at the zoo and Howard had stepped on a rake and hit himself in the face. Naboo had smirked and given Howard a look that said very clearly that he was an even bigger idiot than previously thought. But Vince... it hurt Howard so fiercely to hear Vince’s laughter. It was like a burning in his chest, a pain that he could not treat - there was no Savlon for the heart and soul, no sir, and for a second Howard considered walking straight back out the door. He had honestly thought that he had cured himself of his affection, his desire, his... love, for Vince, but it seemed he had been mistaken, and it hurt all the more to know that the man he did love found him amusing and pathetic.
But then the laughter didn’t stop. Vince began to double over, eyes bulging and unwashed hair falling about his face as the cackles, harsh and cruel and barely laughter at all, continued without pause, even as Vince began to run out of breath. It was so horribly familiar that Howard actually scanned the shop, in case Amy was hiding behind a display, waiting to reveal herself, but there was no Amy, and the humour fell from Naboo’s face so fast that Howard knew it was as serious as he suspected, that Vince had not gotten better as Howard had hoped. The laughter went on long after the advert had finished, jarring with the bland pop music that was now playing through the television and Howard felt the familiar panic creep into his throat.
“Vince!” he said with as much authority as he could muster but was surprised to see Vince jump, the shade of his eyes shifting from a misted glass blue to overcast grey as he blinked and abruptly ceased laughing.
“Hey Howard,” Vince replied, grinning easily as he stood up, smiling as if he hadn’t a care in the world. “I was wondering where you’d got to, haven’t seen you for days! You and Lester get stuck in a jazz trance together?”
“No,” Howard said with a slow shake of his head. “No, Vince, I haven’t. Don’t you remember? I was-”
“Oi, I remember! It’s your birthday next week!” Vince interrupted. “Oh, have I go the perfect gift for you! It’s gonna be genius, you’re gonna love me- IT!” Vince suddenly yelled, his cheeks flaming to red before Howard had even processed the slip. “You’re going to love me for it,” Vince explained. “It’ll be genius. Yeah. Actually, I better go and, um, you know, organise it. Bye, Howard.”
And with that he slipped past the counter and out of the door, leaving Howard feeling confused and a little sick, like he’d been on an unsettling, badly maintained roller coaster at a back field country fair, and was now caught under the wrathful gaze of Naboo the-very-angry Enigma.
“This needs fixing, Howard,” he said in a voice which one might have mistaken for bored if not for the hard undertone to the words. “The shrink ray is still set up in the stock room, for when you decide to grow a pair and go do what needs to be done.”
Howard tried to hide his disappointment, and his hurt, but knew that Naboo could read him like a book of beige magic.
“You knew I’d be back?”
“Of course I did, you idiot. You’re so predictable I didn’t even need to use me psychic abilities to know you’d be back before the month was out.” Howard huffed at such an assessment but Naboo’s fierce glare kept him from actually speaking in his own defense. “I also don’t need to be psychic to know that even though you’ve seen a glimpse of just how bad Vince’s mood swings are you’re still going to procrastinate about actually doing anything about it.”
“But why should I?” Howard exclaimed, throwing down his suitcase and almost hitting Bollo, who shuffled back behind Naboo at the unexpected outburst. “I get it, Vince’s gone wrong, he’s had a brain snap... or something... but why should I be the one to fix it? Why can’t he just see a doctor?”
“Howard make a good point.”
“Thank you, Bollo!” Howard said, reaching his arm out to express to Naboo that even Bollo could see the truth of the situation but, as usual, the hammy ape had no intention of actually helping.
“Howard not medical professional, barely has his own brain, shouldn’t be trusted with mental health of precious Vince. Me think it safer to put him out with the trash. In ‘designated refuse area’ of course.”
“Good one, Bollo,” Naboo chuckled before returning his serious gaze to Howard’s indignant face. “But it has to be Howard. Vince isn’t going to go to a doctor, is he? He’s not going to admit he’s depressed. You’re his friend, Howard. His brain - and his body - is wired to sync with you. You’ve got to do this, it’s just the way this sort of narrative works!”
“But,” Howard frowned woefully. “How can Vince be depressed? He was just in here laughing like a ventriloquist doll and then waltzed out with a smile as if he only saw me yesterday. That’s not depression.”
The look Naboo gave him was so scathing that Howard felt the burn of the insult even though it wasn’t said.
“You’ve got one week,” he told him instead, switching off the television and straightening his gold embroidered cuffs.
“But it’s my birthday in a week!” Howard whined, feeling yet again that coming back to Dalston was not the best idea after all.
“Consider it a birthday gift then,” Naboo shrugged, moving toward the exit with Bollo trailing close behind. “Save Vince and maybe, finally, get the life you actually want, and the one Vince deserves. If not...” he paused dramatically in the doorway. “Let’s just say that me turning my back on you again will be the least of your problems.”
The bell over the door jangled with their exit and Howard stood in the empty shop, silently screaming as his body began to be overcome by Chokes of a very different kind. He had one week. One week to try and figure out how to ‘save’ Vince, whatever that might mean. The last time round it had seemed easy, because Amy had been there to tell him what to do and help him fall in love - to see that he had really been in love all along - but now he was expected to do it on his own. Amy still hadn’t given him a sign, and he had no clue how Vince felt about him anymore, and all he could think about was the fact that he didn’t actually know what sort of life he did want, deep down, other than that he wanted Vince to be part of it, and for Vince to be happy. He carried his suitcase up the stairs, trudging slowly, willing his brain to come up with anything at all, but there seemed to be a distinct lack of thoughts in his head just then and so, when he reached the flat, he dropped his case in the corner, put the kettle on to boil, and called Lester, because a problem of this magnitude required brainstorming and, quite frankly, he had no one else to turn to.
Lester was surprisingly eager to help, especially when Howard explained that Vince was in peril once more. He had, after all, always admired Vince’s style, a point which he spoke about at length when he finally arrived at the flat with two bottles of ‘Thinking Whiskey’. There had been three bottles but he’d felt the need for some ‘Traveling Whiskey’. Howard was just impressed that Lester hadn’t fallen in the canal and tried to say so, only to be waved into silence. Lester had no time for such small talk, not when there was Vince Noir to discuss.
“I’ve always admired his style and all,” Lester nodded, bringing the whiskey to his lips.
“Yeah, I know,” Howard sighed, downing his own drink in one gulp. “You’ve only told me seventy-nine times now.”
“D’you know who he reminds me of?” Lester continued on regardless.
“A young David Bowie?” Howard muttered, pouring himself another drink.
“A young David Bowie,” Lester replied, as if he was deaf instead of blind.
“You already said, Lester. But no matter how often you point out that he’s channeling the world’s greatest sparkly tit, it isn’t actually helping us come up with a plan, is it?”
“There’s more to Bowie that sparkles and great tits, Howard,” Lester rambled relentlessly. “There’s the glitter package too!”
Lester cackled, pointing at Howard’s face as if he could see the blush creeping up his cheeks.
“That’s enough now!” Howard barked angrily. “And it’s certainly enough whiskey for you!”
Howard went to stand, intent on storming off into the kitchen with the half empty bottles until Lester had learnt his lesson and stopped teasing, but the old man caught his wrist and yanked him back down with greater strength than Howard had anticipated.
“Aw, come on Howard, I’m just an old man stealing a spoonful of the comedy custard while nobody’s looking. Come now, sit down, we have to be serious about this. We’ve got to come up with a way for you so save Vince. And then hopefully convince him to bum you silly afterwards, am I right?”
“Well,” Howard tried to stop the red stain from spreading further across his cheeks through will power alone. “The first part, certainly.”
“Aw, you can be honest with me, Howard,” Lester said with a serious nod. “We is Jazz Brothers. And Vince, well, you know who he reminds me of?”
“A young David Bowie.”
“Yeah, I get it,” Howard said through gritted teeth. “David Bowie. The antithesis of jazz. So how are we going to do this?”
“No, no, no!” Lester squawked, emphasizing each word by taking off his hat and hitting Howard across the head with it, sending plumes of dust up into the air above them. “Don’t you see Howard! Bowie IS Jazz! He is the great chameleon, always changing, yet at his core is that same spark of greatness, that essence of music, forever unchanged. Moving with the sound and the times, evolving and keeping his listeners guessing. Yeah. Great man, David Bowie. First time I saw him I wanted to offer myself up on a platter to be ravished, potatoes and carrots and all.”
Howard tried to shuffle away across the couch without Lester noticing and taking offense but he needn’t have worried. Lester was still nodding to himself, lost in his memory of Christ only knew what, but eventually Howard felt he needed to say something or Lester would stay like that for hours and they’d never come up with a solution to their problem.
“Right... And so... Vince is like that too?”
“Well,” Lester shrugged. “In a way. He certainly has a similar effect on my balls!” Lester cackled again but calmed himself quickly when he heard Howard’s pointed sigh. “I’m sorry, Howard. But yes, Vince is a chameleon, like the great Bowie, but like our musical overlord he too retains his essence, no matter how he changes his look or who he’s out to charm. Your first challenge, if you want to save him, is to discover the truth of Vince Noir’s essence.”
Lester uttered those words like a prophet, or like a monk who could only be reached if one was brave enough to scale a perilous peak. For all his madness (though Howard preferred to think of it as eccentricities) Lester was one of the most zen people Howard had ever met, capable of pure and deep insights between the bouts of nonsense. It was one of the main reasons Howard had been drawn to Lester, had idolised him and sought him out as a mentor, just as he’d done with Tommy, and his music teacher when he’d been a young lad. The disturbing thought that perhaps absurd, philosophical, old men were his true type briefly crossed Howard’s mind but he resisted the urge to gag and squashed the thought quickly. He didn’t want to be with Lester or Tommy or any of the men he’d followed around like a puppy. He wanted to be them, wise and worldly and taken seriously. When it came to people he wanted to be with in a (Howard prepared himself mentally to think it) sexually intimate way, they tended to have creamy skin, prominent noses, sharp cheekbones, large captivating eyes, and a mysterious allure about them. Basically, he admitted to himself, Vince.
“Vince’s essence?” he repeated, trying not to sound like he was whining and ruining the emotional resonance of the moment. “How exactly am I supposed to do that? When I left he didn’t even want to talk to me half the time and when we did talk it wasn’t anything like old times, we just argued, savagely. How am I supposed to help him get better, work out his essence, if we can’t even talk to each other properly?”
“Well,” Lester said thoughtfully, “you could start by baking him more of those little cakes. Actually, better make a double batch, so I can test them. You know, for quality reasons. And then we’ll do some role play, to help you with your compliments and your flirting technique because quite frankly, Howard you couldn’t sweet talk a horny swamp rat into a free down-stairs trumpet blowing, if you catch my meaning, and you sure ain’t going to get Vince on side with your looks. Men of our advanced age can’t rely on our looks to woo, we need sugar words and in Vince’s case, just sugar in general.”
Howard had jumped to his feet at the suggestion of cakes, those he could do and they would work well as a gesture of apology, in the same way Vince had given up his cape when they had battled the Crack Fox. Howard would create a multitude of uniquely decorated little cakes, to show that he was sorry, and that he cared. His ruminating as to whether he could create cupcakes to symbolise the various personas of David Bowie came to a sudden halt however when Lester suggested that he couldn’t use his charm and wit to win Vince over.
“I’ll have you know I’m great at compliments actually. I’m a poet. I don’t need your help. Old Honey Tongue Moon, they used to call me. Young Honey Tongue Moon, actually, because we’re not the same age, are we, Lester?”
“Hyi hyi hyi! Oh, Howard you crack me up!” Lester laughed, slapping his thigh at the non-existent joke. “You need all the help you can get, and then some! We’ll practice ‘til dawn if we have to. And then when you’re done sweet talking me we’ll get to work on your clothes.”
Howard felt his eyes bug out of his head. Lester seemed to think that he just needed to get Vince into bed when they were supposed to be coming up with a way to restore balance within his mind. But even if romancing Vince was their goal he didn’t think a blind man who thought that scuba outfits were sexy would be much help in the wardrobe department.
“No,” he said firmly though Lester just grinned up at him. “There’s nothing wrong with the way I dress and anyway, we’re trying to get Vince to open up and talk to me, we’re trying to think of a way to fix what’s wrong with his brain. How could changing the way I dress really help that?”
“Trust me, Howard,” Lester told him sagely. “I have a plan. I don’t intend to change your look, it’s a strong look and the sound your cord covered thighs make as you walk is a great way for me to tell when you’re coming. I won’t be making you over, as such. But Ole Canny Corncrake has a few ideas for how to really get Vince to open up and start talking to you, you just wait and see. We might have to do something about your titties though, those bangers are jubbling around like jello on a stereo.”
Howard covered his chest self-consciously before realising what he was doing and huffing his way to the kitchen to begin his first batch of cakes. As eccentric as Lester was his advice was very rarely wrong. He’d give it a go and see if he couldn’t get Vince to talk to him and then, hopefully within the next seven days, find the root of the problem, discover the essence of Vince, and save Vince from the monsters of his own mind.
“What in the name of Madonna, Mother of Fashion, are you wearing?”
Vince appeared in the doorway to the Nabootique the next morning, one foot still on the bottom stair, his whole body frozen as he tried to register the fashion disaster before him. Howard looked down at his ensemble, trying to hide his nerves. Lester had picked the outfit the night before, after a bottle of whiskey, two bottles of wine and at least a dozen mini sponge cakes, swearing that it would make Vince desperate to talk to him. Howard had been dubious at the time and was doubly so now because Vince was eyeing him like he was a particularly hideous plague victim, but he stood his ground and launched into the speech that Lester had made him practice.
“These are my cargo, multi-pocket, zip trousers, Vince. Theres a zip round each leg so that in seconds they can transform from sensible slacks to adventure-ready shorts! What do you think?”
“I think they need to be doused in petrol and burnt at the stake for crimes against innocent eyes, Howard. That’s what I think.”
Howard bit back the automatic, scathing response that threatened to spill forth. He’d promised to do things Lester’s way, to try to at least, and Lester had coached him in how he was to meet such a comment.
“Why exactly is that, Vince? Can you explain it to me?”
For a handful of moments Vince looked suspicious but Howard put on his strongest ‘confused puppy‘ look (Lester had made him practice that in the mirror too) and just like that Vince’s expression changed, sharpening as he walked into the shop and began to assess Howard’s trousers.
“Well, the obvious thing is of course that this style was never actually stylish and was at its most popular in, like, 1999, with fishermen and mountain climbers. They’re outdoor wear and not in any way appropriate for London.”
“But they’re practical,” Howard interjected, forgetting for a moment the active listening and interest he was supposed to be practicing. “They zip down to shorts. They’re multi-purpose.”
“It’s winter,” Vince pointed out. “And what do you do with the bits you zip off? Carry them round all day? Use up your precious storage space by stuffing them in your pockets? Doesn’t sound very practical to me. They’re worse than the tweed utility suit. Why not just wear that?”
Howard took a deep breath. He wanted Vince to talk to him but he didn’t want a fight and it appeared that this required him to walk a very fine line, but he could master this, so help him, he would.
“I can’t wear my tweed utility suit,” he said casually, shrugging as if their discussion of his clothing was no big deal. “The zip broke, remember? I’m not sure how, but-”
“Maybe the seam threads came loose so that when you tried to tug the zip back up the whole thing unraveled and fell off,” Vince blurted out in a rush and Howard blinked. Vince was very carefully not looking at him and Howard reminded himself to tread with extra care.
“That’s... exactly what happened actually,” he said, trying to match Vince’s blank expression. “How did you-”
“It’s for the best though, it wasn’t working as a suit at all, you looked like the park ranger from Yogi Bear,” Vince said quickly.
“You preferred it when it was zipped down to trunks then?”
“I...” Vince didn’t look at him but he did look up, his gaze fixed on some distant mark for several seconds as he registered Howard’s subtle prelude in the symphony of flirting. “Yeah, well,” Vince continued nervously. “You know what they say, less is more, especially with fabric that eye-molestingly bad. But the point is, those trousers are even worse than that. They’re an abomination, Howard. You should take them off and burn them.”
“You’d rather see me without trousers? Is that what you’re saying?” Howard said with a waggle of his eyebrows.
Vince gaped, his eyes so wide Howard fancied that if he was standing closer he’d be able to see Amy beyond them, struggling valiantly in Vince’s brain, and he felt quite proud that he’d managed to leave Vince speechless for a change. He decided to press his advantage and continue before Vince found his tongue again and came up with a scathing retort.
“I like what you’re wearing today, Vince,” he said, remembering not to smile, in case it came across as a leer. He raised his eyebrow instead, because Lester had said it was a powerful piece of business and one Howard should exploit. Who would have guessed that Lester really was an expert in the ways of wooing. “I’d quite like to get into those jeans, if only that were possible.”
“Wh-what...” Vince stammered, now thrown completely off balance, his voice rising to a squawk. “What d’you mean by that?”
“Only that skinny jeans suit you so well. I wish I could wear them but I don’t think they’d fit. I don’t think I could get into your jeans, no matter how much I’d like to. And I would like to. Would love to, in fact.” He left a beat of silence before breaking the tension of the moment by carelessly adding. “Your blouse is great too. Very retro, very you. Very... David Bowie. I like it.”
For a split second Vince smiled at the compliment, his face a picture of delight, before his eyes went from wide and bright to thin and suspicious, confusion written across his features.
“Are you coming on to me?” he asked seriously but Howard simply gave him his best expression of wide eyed innocence.
“Why would you think that, Vince? Cupcake? There’s jam and cream inside,” he said with a wink as he revealed the cakes and held the platter temptingly under Vince’s nose.
“You got a bit of a thing for filling things with cream then?” Vince said as he chose the largest of the cakes and bit into it, cocking his own eyebrow in Howard’s direction but for once Howard felt prepared, ready to respond with something witty rather than being seized by the chokes.
“I most certainly do,” he said with over the top seriousness. “Captain Creamfill they called me. Although, I’m also a big fan of having the cream inside of me.”
Seeing Vince choke on his cake, his own mouth so full of cream he couldn’t have responded even if he was able to think of anything to say to such an insinuation, felt like one of the greatest triumphs of Howard’s life. Vince’s eyes were streaming as he coughed and he was looking at Howard like he was a new man, one worth talking to, worth opening up to. When Howard offered to get him a glass of water to clear his throat Vince could only nod, and when he returned with the drink, making sure to let his fingers brush against Vince’s in an intimate and lingering fashion, the conversation continued to flow, light-hearted and teasing, flirty and suggestive and Howard felt drunk with it, sure that he would be able to solve whatever problems Vince might be having before the week was out.
Until, of course, Vince turned surly in the late afternoon and misinterpreted Howard’s compliment of his shapely legs to mean that he thought Vince was fat. He tried not to be disappointed. It was still early days after all, and he was sure that he had made excellent progress using Lester’s suggestions. The jazzy wiseman had promised to teach him more that night, the art of playing hard to get apparently, so Howard closed up the shop, put out the bin bags, pulled down the shutters with more speed than he might once have done, and went off for his next lesson in dating, keen to see what else Lester could teach him, and to tell his mentor all that he had achieved. Oh yes, things were finally on the move for Howard Moon.
If Howard had to describe the six days that followed, he would probably say that they had been “quite something”. He didn’t feel that he’d made nearly as much progress as he would have liked, not even with Lester’s coaching and Naboo’s - albeit half-hearted - attempts at help. It was true that he and Vince seemed to have rediscovered their spark, the magic that allowed them to talk the day away and ignore the rest of the world, and as long as Howard kept in his mind that he didn’t need to get defensive whenever Vince passed judgement on his appearance or tastes, things went surprisingly smoothly. The less Howard got angry at Vince the fewer comments Vince made that could be taken as offensive. Yet even when Howard was on his best behaviour there were still times when Vince would become surly, uncommunicative and uncooperative without warning. He would be happy when alone in Howard’s company and if a customer should enter the shop he would serve them cheerfully and compliment their clothes or hair, winning them over in an instant and ensuring that they ended up spending at least twice as much as they had intended to in the little shop. But as soon at they left, in the wake of the conversation and smiles, Vince would seem to collapse in on himself. Howard feared that it was because he just wasn’t enough to keep Vince happy and engaged. He worried that Vince noticed, after interacting with others, that Howard was a sad second when it came to friendship and conversation, and he did his best to follow Lester’s advice about showing that he too could chat happily with others, that he wasn’t just sitting around, pining for Vince, that he too could be fun and outgoing, but the fear remained.
It had happened only that very morn. A young man had entered the Nabootique only minutes after Vince came down for work and Vince had found him the perfect pair of boots to go with the belt the man had been after, and had chatted animatedly about a new club that was opening. He hadn’t even acknowledged that it was Howard’s birthday yet but Howard was refusing to take offense because he had witnessed the way Vince’s forgetfulness had changed from a quirk of personality to something much deeper, and much darker. He seemed fine as he smiled and laughed with the man, flicking his hair and complimenting the stranger on the sequin detail on his ridiculously tight jeans but, when the stranger left, Vince’s shoulders slumped and he stood in the centre of the shop with a far away look in his eyes and a slight frown marring his beautiful face, like a clockwork toy whose key had wound down.
“Did you see his jeans, Howard?” he said, his voice barely above a mumble. “Proper drainpipes, those were. His whole style was pretty genius actually. I saw you looking.”
“I most certainly wasn’t,” Howard began to protest, but Vince cut him off with a heavy sigh as he stared down at his own skinny jeans and colourful t-shirt.
“It’s alright. I can’t compete with a look like that. I got tossed out of the scene, can’t quite conquer it again, can’t get my look right, you know. Fashion block again, I reckon. I just can’t seem to pull things together anymore, you know.”
Howard frowned. Vince had mentioned the issue several times over the last few days and it was worrying. Howard had wanted to help but fashion, especially what Vince considered fashion, was so foreign to him that he just hadn’t known how. Now of course he had spent a week actually listening to Vince when he spoke about fashion and so stepped forward, striking a Man-of-Action pose as he surveyed the racks of clothing and accessories behind Vince.
“Well,” he began cautiously. “I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with what you’re wearing. It’s casually stylish, isn’t that what you’d call it? But if you did want something to, you know, give it a real Vince Noir flair, then...”
He reached across and snatched a hat down from the wall, settling it on to Vince’s head with possibly more affection than he had meant to show. Vince brought his hand up to the hat, an action he usually did when his head was bare and he felt the need to fluff his hair, and instead grinned shyly, adjusting the white hat downwards and lowering his head to hide the blush, but Howard saw it anyway.
“That’s a signature Vince Noir look, isn’t it?” he asked kindly. “First time we met you were dressed as a cowboy, as I recall.”
“In a Pound Store costume, yeah,” Vince nodded, looking at the floor and affording Howard a spectacular view of the long sweep of his lashes. “Gave you the sheriff’s badge though, didn’t I?”
“And quite rightly too,” Howard nodded theatrically. “Howard Moon doesn’t usually accessorize, you know. But he does make exceptions. When it’s something important.”
Even beneath the veil of his hair and the brim of the cowboy hat Howard could see the pink of Vince’s cheeks deepen.
“You look good with a bit of sparkle on you,” he agreed softly and this time it was Howard’s turn to blush.
“I think it suits you better,” he said with sincerity, leaning in close to pluck a black jacket from the rack and settling it over Vince’s shoulders. The jacket was light weight, the sort of thing that had been designed to hang well but not provide any sort of actual protection from the weather, just the sort of thing that Vince preferred, and featured a delicately embroidered silver pattern of planets and stars. It was understated enough to meet with Howard’s approval but sparkly enough, and whimsical enough, to appeal to Vince.
“This...” Vince looked down with some surprise, “is actually a good look, Howard. Interstellar Cowboy, or something. Thanks. What’s happened, have you received an unexpected blow to the head that affected the fashion centre of your brain?”
Howard chuckled as he watched Vince examine the jacket, turning slowly on the spot to check himself out in one of the Nabootique’s many mirrors.
“I think you’ll find I’ve been paying very close attention of late,” he said seriously. “I’ve picked up quite a lot about what the young folks are in to these days. Peacocking’s all the rage now, isn’t it?”
Vince looked up in surprise and Howard could see the suspicion waring with the amusement on his face.
“What, you think I’m some sort of bird man? Is that it?” he asked, only half seriously.
“Naturally,” Howard nodded, with comedic pomposity. “In the best possible way, of course.”
Vince grinned wide and leaned into Howard’s space, looking up at Howard from under the wide brim of his hat in a way that was too exciting for so early in the morning.
“And that’s what you go for is it?” he asked quietly. “A peacock? Half man, half bird?”
Howard tweaked his moustache and did his best to look like a man who was suave and well versed in the ways of romance.
“You know me, Little Man. I like a nice, prominent, beak and a few well decorated tail feathers.”
Vince looked down suddenly and a twitch in the muscles around his eye betrayed the fact that he had, as usual, found something to dislike about his appearance, though whatever it was, he kept it to himself as he adjusted the jacket.
“At least it comes down long enough to hide the muffin top,” he muttered, to Howard’s confusion.
Vince had always loved the tops of the muffins he made, where the batter had overflowed the tin and become deliciously overcooked and golden. Surely the muffin top was the best part of the muffin, every man and his monkey knew that. Vince’s mind was in worse trouble than he’d thought if he had taken a dislike to muffin tops.
“It is a good look,” Vince continued, though without any real enthusiasm. “Would probably look genius on, you know, what’s-his-face from before. I’m probably too old for it now... And the fact that I’m still a bit, you know... You gotta stop making all them cakes and that, Howard. Except...” his words drifted off as he plucked at the hem of his t-shirt, his lips a thin line and his eyes a little too glassy to be dismissed as perfectly fine.
Howard was about to point out that no one in the world wore fashion as well as Vince, and that he could wear anything, be it an outlandish catsuit or an understated t-shirt, and still be breathtaking, when Vince blinked and let out a short “oh!” of surprise as he seemed to remember something of importance.
“Actually, I’ve got to go out for a bit. Got stuff to organise. Important day and all that.”
“Oh yes,” Howard spoke up hopefully. “And what’s that then?”
Vince grinned then, that same old sly and cheeky, yet somehow innocent-seeming, smile.
“Gee, I don’t know, Old Man. What’s so special about today, hmm? Couldn’t be your birthday at all, could it?”
Howard tried not to smile too wide, in case it came across as creepy, but couldn’t hide how thrilled he was that, as poor as Vince’s memory seemed to be, he had in fact remembered Howard’s birthday.
“Aren’t you going to stick around then?” he asked hopefully and saw concern enter Vince’s eyes as he bit his lip anxiously. “We could do some birthday crimping maybe? Haven’t done that in a while. Or we could put on some new tunes? Or, or,” he floundered for something else to suggest and tried not to look too disappointed when Vince shook his head regretfully.
“Sorry, Howard. I’ve got stuff I need to get done. But I’ll be back later, yeah! And we’ll do some proper fun birthday stuff.”
“You wouldn’t be picking up my present would you?” Howard asked slyly.
Vince blinked in surprise before grinning again and edging toward the door.
“No. Not at all. I had to order that in advance. But I might be doing other birthday related stuff, maybe. You know, once I’m done with official shop business and that. You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you.”
He gave Howard a wink as he skipped to the door and sailed through it, flicking his hair in a way that Howard now understood as flirtatious, and he couldn’t stop the warm glow that spread through his chest at the action. Things with Vince were so much better than they had been for so long, and yet even beneath the warmth of affection and the thrill that came of flirting successfully with Vince, there was still a lump of anxiety in the pit of his stomach. It was a week since Naboo had set him his ultimatum and Lester had instructed him to discover the truth of Vince Noir’s essence. As much ground as he felt he had gained he did not think he was any closer to achieving either goal which meant that before midnight his only remaining option would be to shrink himself down again and go back inside Vince’s brain space, with no guarantee that he would make it safely out again, that he would achieve his goal before the shrink ray’s affects wore off and his body attempted to grow back to its normal size while still inside of Vince, or that he’d even be able to do anything to alter Vince’s mental state once he was there. It made him feel ill to think on it and so he did what he did best when faced with such things. And decided not to think about it. Something would come up, something generally did, and Lester had promised to come around later to offer some last minute support. Everything would be alright, he just had to stay positive, a feat which was easier said than done for a man like Howard Moon.
“What are you doing up here?” This is my spot!
Those last few words were not actually spoken and yet Howard could feel them in the air, and when he turned to look at Vince he could see the genuine confusion in Vince’s face, and the challenge in his eyes.
This is my special place, the challenge read. You’ve never even been up here before.
And as far as Vince was aware, Howard never had. Vince had no knowledge of Howard’s time on the roof with Amy - the chamomile tea, the sweet conversation, the kiss. This was Vince’s special hiding place, and even through the cloud of annoyance and self-pity that surrounded him, Howard felt a pang of remorse at being there. Except that, of course, he wouldn’t be there at all if he didn’t have to go into hiding from the party Vince had thrown for him against his will. A party that, it transpired, wasn’t even for him! Howard turned his eyes away from the sparkly tit beside him on the roof. He had been betrayed, had been wrong about Vince, completely wrong, and he had no desire to soothe any hurt feelings that Vince might claim to have at this time.
“What am I doing up here?” he asked angrily. “I’m hiding, aren’t I? Hiding from the shame, the embarrassment that was my birthday party.”
As he said the words the scenes of his party sped backwards through his mind, like a VHS on rewind. Things had been tense when Vince came back to the shop that afternoon. It was Howard’s birthday after all and, no matter what he told himself, it did hurt to have no one around to wish him happy returns for the day. And then Vince had announced that they should have a party, in complete disregard for Howard’s feelings, and he had started to become suspicious. He had thought that flirting with the young woman who came through the door at that moment might have been a way to get Vince’s attention back on him, she was quite like Vince in looks and style after all, and Lester had kept on telling him to demonstrate his social skills in front of Vince, and to play hard to get, but the plan had backfired because he had got rather carried away. He hadn’t expected her to flirt back quite so much, and suddenly he was agreeing to the party after all and by the time she left and he turned his focus back to Vince he knew that he had some serious ground to make up. Vince was unimpressed, and in a vindictive mood, Howard could tell, and he made himself scarce as quickly as possible because he knew that no matter how much he felt that his feelings were being trampled on, he needed to keep Vince on side. Because ultimately, if he didn’t fix things to Naboo’s approval by the end of the night, he would be out on the street for good, and he just couldn’t go through the process of Naboo turning his back again, couldn’t stand the thought of losing Vince completely. And so he tried to stay out of Vince’s way.
Flirt with other people, Lester had told him. Show Vince that you aren’t a complete social reject, Lester had told him. Try to flirt with people who look like Vince or emulate his style, to show Vince that you have a definite type and that Vince is it, Lester had told him! Howard fumed as he paced up and down his room, trying to decide what to wear. He had been planning on a quiet night in with Vince, and now he was stuck with a party! A party for god’s sake! The fact that Naboo agreed to let them close the shop early, on account of it being Howard’s special day, only heightened his suspicion and he spent hours pacing around his room, desperately trying to calm himself down, resorting at last to giving himself a Chinese burn in order to simply be able to go out and await Lester’s arrival. He had hoped that Lester would have some more wisdom for him, something to make the party anything but a spiraling portal of disaster, but other than the man-corset, which really did increase Howard’s confidence when he looked himself up and down in the mirror, Lester claimed that he had nothing more to teach him.
“You have become the Master now, Howard,” he said with a slow nod of his head. “You have discovered the truth of Vince Noir’s essence and soon you shall conquer the demon that is darkening both your souls.”
“No I haven’t!” Howard squealed, but Lester refused to listen.
“You have, even if you are not at this moment consciously aware of it. When the time is right, you will know what to do.”
Things got steadily worse from there.
People began to arrive and music blared out of speakers that Howard hadn’t even known they owned, and before he knew what was happening a party had begun around him. When Vince eventually emerged, interrupting Howard’s speech about safe fun, he had realised that the party was not for him at all. It was just Vince’s narcissistic attempt at regaining the top spot in the Shoreditch fashion scene. Howard had just been a means to an end, and that hurt. Worse than that, he felt disappointed. He had been all set to rip into Vince when he found him, until he finally got hold of him and looked down at the man who had been his best friend for so long. He took in the sleekness of Vince’s hair, the feathers of his cloak, and the pattern printed on the fabric of his tunic which seemed so reminiscent of peacock feathers. It might have been no more than a coincidence but Howard refused to give in to such thinking. He had very nearly swept Vince into a deep and passionate kiss right then and there but knew that it didn’t pay to be too keen, or to risk embarrassing Vince in front of the people he was desperate to impress. And so he had played it cool, brought out the banter, dialled up the flirting, and had held his ground, even when Vince had said, so brazenly, that it was obvious that Howard fancied him.
When he dubbed himself The Confuser, Howard had been strangely proud. He recalled all those weeks ago when Vince had admitted to not being sure of his identity, either in terms of gender or sexuality. Now he could put a name to it, and own it, and it was proof that Vince had thought over what they had discussed, and grown as a person. It had made the urge to kiss him that much harder to resist. And then Vince had suggested a game of spin the bottle. Howard had thought he was finally going to be with Vince, and that Vince, being the instigator of the game, was keen as well. But that was, of course, not the way it turned out.
And now here they were, sitting together awkwardly on the rooftop.
“Oh come on, Howard. It doesn’t matter that you’re a virgin,” Vince said with a kindness that Howard almost believed. “It’s fine. Women respect that. They don’t mind that you’ve not gone beyond the kiss.”
They were back to discussing women again. Howard wondered if they would ever be able to stop kidding themselves or if they were doomed to play at heterosexual posturing for evermore. He shook his head and looked away.
“You’ve never kissed anyone before, have you?”
Now Vince was looking suspicious. Howard had no clue how he could ever go about explaining what had gone on between himself and Amy, how he had moaned Vince’s name into her mouth, how his first kiss had been with the Frontal Lobe of Vince’s brain! And so he did what he had always done. He played pretend.
“So?” he said with affected umbrage, but Vince looked more concerned than anything.
“Have you ever held anyone’s hand?”
“I don’t like people touching me, ok?” Howard shot back, knowing that if Vince pushed too hard, or began to make fun of him, he would reveal everything and Vince would want nothing to do with him. “Anyway, I’ve had deeper relationships in my mind, at a distance, than you will ever have in your life time, you know that,” he said, drawing on all his acting skills to give the words the pomposity needed to pull off the lie.
“Are you talking about the incident with the binoculars?”
Howard flinched at that. He’d been sixteen when that unfortunate incident had occurred, and he’d never actually been caught, it had all been innuendo and hearsay. Only Vince had put the pieces together and realised that it was Howard sitting in the tree outside their geography teacher’s house at night with a pair of binoculars. Vince who seemed to have a mind like a sieve and yet had remembered an incident half a life-time ago. At least Howard didn’t have to act much when responding to that accusation.
“That was never proved, ok.”
“It was in The Guardian,” Vince said with emphasis, as if it had been in the national newspaper, and not just their local paper of the same name.
“Look,” Howard changed the subject smoothly, trying to explain to Vince the truth of his soul before it was too late. “I don’t flit about. I don’t play the field, alright. When I make that leap across the physical boundary, it’ll be forever, sir.”
He was angry as he said it, wishing it sounded more like a promise instead of a threat, but he had no chance to expand on the idea because at that moment Dennis, the deranged Head Shaman, burst through the sky light, wielding a sword that suggested strongly to Howard that he was compensating for something.
“Ah! There you are, you prancing Kingfisher! Prepare to die!”
“Yeah, look, mate. I’m not interested in your wife!” Vince tried to reassure him, shuffling closer to Howard as he put his hands out in supplication. “We were just standing in a cupboard together.”
“Just in the cupboard with an extreme sports model. I don’t think so.”
“Honestly, I’m not interested in your wife. I’m in love with someone already.”
Vince spoke with such sincerity that Howard’s heart began to sing, although that may have been adrenaline caused by being in such close proximity to a psychopath with a sword, it was hard to tell.
“The lies of a backtracking worm.”
“I’m in love with Howard,” Vince said without hesitation.
“Oh, yeah,” Howard said, realising too late that he was delivering his declaration of love with absolutely no emotion whatsoever. “We’re in love.”
“Prove it,” growled the shaman, holding his sword aloft in a menacing fashion and, while Howard prepared to escape (though how he might actually have escaped from the roof he had no idea) Vince moved as well, not to flee, but to take Howard’s face in his hands and kiss him with greater passion than a kiss for such a charade coils surely warrant. Howard could practically hear the romantic music swell in the night sky around them.
And then it all clicked into place. Vince’s lips on his were familiar and yet not the same at all as the ones he had first kissed. The gentle press of Vince’s fingers against his cheek, the electric feeling of those beloved lips, the hitch of Vince’s breath when Howard’s tongue brushed against his, quite accidentally - it all made sense. He realised that this was a sign, but not just a sign, it was the sign. The one he had been waiting for, hoping for. Vince needed him, Vince loved him, and he well and truly wanted to be with Vince for the rest of his days, as a friend, and a companion, and as a lover!
Now was the moment, he realised, the moment to admit his feelings properly and with feeling, but he had to do so in a way that didn’t seem premeditated. As far as Vince was aware this was Howard’s first kiss and in a way it was, for Amy had been a fantasy, even when she had been sitting beside him, holding his hand, kissing him, there had been a sense of unreality about their interactions, like it was a rehearsal and this, here and now, was what they had been working towards.
“Thanks, Howard,” Vince said with his hand over his heart once the Head Shaman had left them in piece, off to rethink a few basic principles. Vince was trying to sound casual, though Howard could see the sparkle in his eyes, the flush in his beautiful cheeks, the deep timbre of his voice that seemed like the hum of something molten and sexual.
“Thank you,” he said with sincerity.
“What d’you mean?” Vince asked but Howard knew that he understood.
“Thank you for the gift of love... a light went on in my head... you have flipped my switch, baby!”
“Look, Howard, you have got to stop falling for people when they give you the slightest bit of affection.”
They were so close. Vince was behaving like it was nothing but Howard could spot self-preservation when he saw it, and he pushed on regardless.
“Don’t pretend you don’t love me,” he said, relieved to finally be getting it all out in the open.
“Love? Howard, you’ve gone mad!”
Finally they were going to make this work, create a beautiful future together. He believed it truly. Right up until the moment when they fell from the roof. Because nothing really did work out quite right for Howard Moon.
It hadn’t been a satisfactory conclusion. Howard had been so shocked - and flattered - that the American girl, Diva, had come to the party, that she had remembered Howard’s name, and that someone attractive and confident and not Vince should be interested in him, and as a result had managed to lose his head a bit. He hadn’t meant to ditch Vince, had actually been about to apologise, especially when Vince turned away, small and hurt and claiming he would never love again (Howard’s heart had cracked at that, though he had put on a brave face) until another young, pretty thing had walked into the backyard and Vince had assured Howard that everything was fine. Howard found out later that the girl had been no more than a friend of Vince’s who had come to show off how well his latest wiglet looked on her.
And now the party was over, the horror that had been his... thirty-second... birthday, finally over and done with. There had been some up sides of course. The bouncy castle had actually been good fun and watching Vince breathless and exhilarated as they’d bounced had set Howard’s heart to racing despite himself. At one point, as half of Camden had clambered on to the bouncy castle with them, Vince had lost his footing, falling sideways with a flail of arms and flowing sleeves, and Howard had reached out instinctively to grab his hand. In the giddiness of it all they had held hands, joyful and carefree, until Diva had bounced toward him, arms outstretched and smile inviting and Howard had let go of Vince in order to wrap his arms around her instead, excited by the press of her body against his, and yet unsettled as well, because it was wrong - she was wrong - not by any fault of her own but simply because she wasn’t Vince and because he had used her to prove something and by so doing had hurt them all.
Diva had yelled to him that the bouncy castle was the best idea ever and that Howard was a genius and he had looked past her in time to see Vince scowl deeply, his bouncing dropping in its enthusiasm as he frowned at such misplaced praise.
“No, no,” Howard told her hurriedly. “No this was all Vince’s idea. He planned it all. For my birthday.” Diva looked skeptical and Vince looked away, a blush staining his cheeks like nettle rash, but Howard continued on regardless. “It’s an interesting story, actually. You see, Vince had promised me a bouncy castle for my birthday the very year we met, told our whole class to come along to my birthday. I’m sure they would have been happy to attend without Vince’s sugar promises, I was quite a popular student really, had all sorts of nick names and songs dedicated to me,” he said with a nod and a grin, hoping that Vince wouldn’t choose that moment to pipe in with what those names had actually been. No one needed to hear a rendition of the ‘Loony Moony’ song, and certainly not on his birthday. “Vince had everyone in our class convinced that my birthday party would be the greatest our primary school had ever seen. When the big day came though... Vince and the fabled bouncy castle were nowhere to be found. My classmates jumped on me instead.”
Even by the standards of Howard’s stories it wasn’t a winner. There was no punchline, no twist. Howard had ended his birthday at the local hospital with a concussion and some very nasty bruises.
“I was there,” Vince burst out suddenly. “I did want to... I had it all planned. Mum was supposed to bring it, and...” his lip wobbled dramatically. “I said I was sorry,” he continued with a hint of a whine in his voice. “And I brought you them flowers at the hospital, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you stole those flowers from someone else’s room though, didn’t you?” Howard countered, not knowing why he was arguing, knowing that he should have gotten over the incident years ago, yet never had.
“I said I was sorry,” Vince repeated, now standing motionless as the bouncy castle heaved around him. “I had it all set, the whole thing, so’s you’d like me and be my friend and all. But my mum...”
With a muffled sob Vince fled the castle and the party, his hands pressed over his mouth to stop the distressed noises from drawing any further attention, even as his flowing sleeves turned every head he passed.
Howard went to follow him but was pulled back and fell to the floor of the bouncy castle as Diva tugged on his wrist.
“Don’t bother with him, Howard,” she said with a mixture of anger and annoyance. “He doesn’t really care about you. He set you up, asked me to come by the shop and see if I could sweet talk you into allowing the party because I look like your ex-girlfriend Amy, then asked me to spread the word that it was his party and not yours. He said no one would come if they knew it was for you. He doesn’t care about you. All he cares about is himself.”
Howard launched himself from the castle and was halfway across the yard before his brain registered exactly what Diva had told him. He turned back to her, trying to find the lie in her words but the anger and frustration were still written clearly on her face, as well as a good measure of pity. She was telling the truth and his heart dropped from his chest with such speed that he felt physically ill.
“It’s not like that,” he tried to tell her, but the words seemed to stick in his throat as he watched her walk toward him with more sympathy than he was sure he’d ever been faced with before. “Vince is just going through a really rough time at the moment, that’s all, but really he-”
“He pretends not to know you,” she countered. “Tells people you’re nothing more than a glorified stalker that he keeps around because it’s ‘cool’. He actually made it cool to have a stalker so that he could have an excuse for your existence! He uses you!”
“He needs me,” Howard said lamely, hating the truth she was speaking, and the volume she was speaking at. All eyes were on him and this was not the kind of attention he wanted from the crowd gathered for his so-called birthday party.
“Does he?” Diva asked him pityingly. “Or is it just you who needs him?”
“No,” Howard said into the silence of the backyard. No one was bouncing now, everyone was listening intently to what he would say next. “He needs me. Vince-”
“Vince uses you! He uses you, Howard. Because the truth is, Vince Noir is only cool when compared to you,” Diva shrugged. “Sorry, Howard.”
He chanced a glance up and saw a few of the partiers nod. Everyone looked vaguely uncomfortable at such a revelation and Howard wasn’t about to hang around and see what Diva might say next, no matter how accurate it might be, so turned on his heel and walked as swiftly as he could through the shop and the flat and up to Vince’s bedroom. They needed to talk, to actually talk, and he was determined to do it right this time. But, of course, when he opened Vince’s door, Vince was nowhere to be found.
An hour later Howard looked up from the tired trance he’d fallen into whilst waiting for Vince to return to see Naboo leaning against the door frame.
“This hasn’t really worked out according to plan, has it?” the tiny shaman lisped, his eyes surprisingly sharp for someone who’s turban was on such a jaunty angle and who smelt so suspicious, even from half a room away.
“No,” Howard agreed tiredly. “It hasn’t. I’m sorry, Naboo. I just can’t do this. I’ve tried and I’ve tried but I can’t keep it up. I can’t save Vince. I can’t save anyone. I’m the most forgettable man in history, I’m not cut out to be a hero.”
“You know what you’ve got to do.”
“No,” Howard said with more volume. “I can’t. Can’t you see, Naboo? Vince doesn’t want my help. He barely remembers who I am, most of the time, and when he does he’s apparently busy trying to pretend that he doesn’t know me at all! If I go back in there, back inside his body, inside his mind, his immune system will kill me before I even get to Amy, let alone figure out how to help her!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, of course Vince remembers who you are,” Naboo scoffed. “D’you know how intense a memory has to be for a person to remember it on a cellular level, Howard? And Vince’s cells did remember you, didn’t they?”
“Not straight away,” Howard pouted. “At first they wanted to melt me down in a bath of pain.”
“Yeah, but they did recognise you eventually, and that’s pretty significant, don’t you think? That Vince’s immune system, that his very being, remembered you?”
“Well, they remembered the pancakes,” Howard mumbled.
He could feel his resolve slipping already and cursed himself for being so easily influenced by those around him.
“Yeah, they remembered the pancakes,” Naboo agreed. “A memory so happy it’s imprinted on the very essence of who Vince is. That’s pretty fucking amazing, Howard. ‘s like muscle memory, or something, ain’t it? It’s why I knew you were the only one I could send in there the first time. And it’s why you need to get your pumpkin ass up on to that roof before I have to turn my back on you again. ‘Cos I don’t actually want to do that, believe it or not.”
“What? The roof? Why?”
“Cos Vince needs you, you ball bag. You promised Amy that you’d help him and you just ran away instead. Every single time.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve had quiet a lot on, so-”
“Lies, lies, from tiny eyes. Now get up there and do what you should probably’ve done back at the arctic, or at least after Nanageddon.”
Howard blinked at Naboo’s exasperated sigh. Now he definitely had no idea what Naboo was on about.
“Just get back on the roof, Howard and work it out. Me an’ Bollo are off to Saboo’s an’ won’t be back tonight, if you catch my meaning... which you obviously don’t.” He sighed again. “Poor Vince. Still, maybe you’ll just figure it out once you’re up there.”
“Figure what out?”
“It’s time to be a man of action, Howard,” Naboo just told him with a smirk, “I know you’ve got it in you.” And he padded softly out of the room before Howard could think of another question.
Howard sighed heavily. He should have thought to check the roof. Amy had told him that it was where Vince went to hide from the world and he suddenly wondered what it usually took to send Vince Noir into hiding. Everything was such a mess, a horrible tangle, like too many trumpets trying to take the solo and not listening to the beat. Howard had heard more than his fair share of bad jazz over the years (not that he’d ever admit it) and he knew how it felt when the music had gone wrong, when discord filled the air instead of sweet, smooth rhythms, and that was how he felt just now. And, he suspected, how Vince was feeling as well. He needed to fix it, but how was he to go about it?
“And Howard,” Naboo’s voice suddenly wafted through the still air of the flat. “The equipment’s all set up in the stockroom. I’ve made some modifications. Just point and click, yeah? Good luck.”
Oh, Howard thought. Right, that. It was probably time to just get it over with, even if it meant getting dissolved by Vince’s immune system or fried by his Braincell. Still, perhaps if he got Vince into the right frame of mind beforehand things would go a little more smoothly. With a sudden grin Howard climbed to his feet, hoping that they would still have the necessary ingredients after Naboo’s dubious baking that afternoon. Downstairs he could hear Naboo kicking out the last of the party goers, complaining that he could find Lester’s body but not his head, but eventually there was nothing but silence, and Howard walked out of Vince’s bedroom and in to the kitchen. The party was over, the horror that had been his... thirty-second... birthday, finally done with. And it was time to grow up. It was also time to make pancakes.
Sorry this has taken so long. I am going to try and get this story finished soon, I know it's dragged on too long already. Thank you for your patience.
Howard threw the blanket at Vince’s head by way of announcing his arrival, one because he didn’t have enough hands to carry everything up the narrow ladder and on to the roof, two because he hoped it would provide a lighthearted start to the proceedings, and three because he was actually a little frightened of what emotions he might see upon Vince’s face when the other man realised he was there. He regretted the decision when Vince began to flail and nearly fell from the roof all over again, but after a few stomach turning moments he regained his balance and pulled the blanket from his head with a glare.
“What are you doing, you freak? Was it not enough to humiliate me to the point of social death, but you want to actually kill me too?”
Vince’s voice was harsh and he was so absorbed in his anger that he hadn’t even thought to fix his hair and Howard fought back the smile that wanted to peak through his moustache at seeing Vince’s carefully straightened hair floating about with static, like a dark, glossy halo around his pale face. Instead he held up his picnic basket and thermos, praying to any and all gods that happened to be in the vicinity that this would actually work.
“I have tea,” he said. “And I made you pancakes. Permission to come aboard?”
Vince gave a snort which may have been a laugh and gave Howard a curt nod.
“This isn’t actually a boat, Howard,” he said once Howard had clambered up on to the narrow ledge and placed the basket between them. “You do know that, right? You didn’t hit your head or anything when you fell, did you?”
“Unfortunately not,” Howard replied. “But I don’t know what the protocol is for asking to join someone on a roof so I thought I’d stick with what I know.”
“And you know a lot about boat protocol, do you? Other than how to walk a plank?”
“Well, we are future sailors, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Vince smiled up at him shyly before sadness reclaimed his face. “Except we never got to perform that one. The Flighty Zeus stole it from us.”
He looked so forlorn that Howard wanted to break his own rule and give him a cuddle but knew that he needed to repair things quite a bit more before Vince would welcome that sort of intimacy.
“Well, maybe one day, Little Man,” he said comfortingly. “If you still want to.”
Vince was silent for so long that Howard began to worry that he hadn’t actually said the words aloud, or worse, that Vince had slipped into some sort of coma, but eventually Vince looked up and gave him a quick smile before looking down at the basket and clearing his throat.
“So what’s with the blanket then?” he asked jovially. “You didn’t mistake me for a bogeyman, did you? Think you could throw a blanket over my head and make me question my own existence? I look enough like one, sitting on the roof like a beak-nosed gargoyle with mascara over half my face.”
“No,” Howard said softly, hating the ease with which Vince put down his own appearance. “No, I just know that it gets cold up here and that you, Little Lady, are not dressed appropriately for such an altitude.”
There was a beat of silence as they both realised what Howard had said and Howard wondered whether it would be better to simply throw himself off the roof and save them both the embarrassment, but Vince spoke before he could work out the pros and cons of such an action.
“Did you just call me, Little Lady?” he asked, scrunching his nose up like he couldn’t quite figure out how he felt about it all.
“I...” Howard felt himself panic. The words had spilled from his mouth without thought, a reaction to the sense of deja vu he had felt when he climbed out on to the roof with a picnic basket slung over his arm, on a quest to fix a mess that was mostly of his own making. “Did I say that?” he bluffed as he edged his way closer on the narrow rooftop. “I didn’t mean to imply, I mean, of course I know that you’re, that you...”
“I don’t mind,” Vince told him with a smile that was shy but didn’t look feigned. “Really. I’m The Confuser, remember? I’ve been thinking about it a lot, since that day when we... talked. An’ I reckon I get a little thrill when people think I’m a woman, or can’t tell what I am. It’s like... you know, liking different colours on different days. Some days I feel more like one thing, some days more like another, some days I just don’t know.” He looked up to give Howard a shy smile before continuing. “But there’s something a bit old-fashioned romantic about being called Little Lady, ain’t there? I quite like it.”
The silence that stretched out between them when Vince finished was less tense than before and Howard felt proud at Vince’s ability to voice how he felt, and who he was. And that something positive had come from the disastrous day when they had almost kissed out in the snow. But he didn’t know what to say in reply, how to move the conversation forward. He should have written himself a plan, a running sheet, or at least some dot points, but there hadn’t been time. Luckily though, Vince was there to save him, as usual.
“Did you say you’d made pancakes? I love pancakes.”
“I know,” Howard said with a waggle of his eyebrows. “That’s why I made them.”
He tried not to notice the blush that spread across Vince’s cheeks at that moment, he needed to maintain his focus if he was going to get this right.
He carefully removed the dish he had filled with pancakes and put a generous serve onto a plate for Vince, handing it over and setting out the maple syrup, small tub of cream, and cutlery on to the narrow ledge where Vince could reach them. Seeing Vince’s excitement at something so simple made Howard’s heart ache with more emotions than he could name and he wished, not for the first time, that things might have just been simple, that he might have realised years ago that he loved Vince and was loved in return. He was aware now that he had first felt that sensation of intense affection the very first time they had eaten pancakes together. Now, perhaps, if he had to admit the truth of everything to Vince, they should start right at the beginning. It was, after all, a very good place to start.
“Do you remember the first time we had pancakes, Vince?” he asked as casually as he could.
“Yeah!” Vince replied around a mouthful of pancake and syrup. He swallowed thickly and gave Howard a sheepish grin before continuing. “I mean, it was my first taste of pancakes ever, really. Mum had never had much time for cooked breakfasts or nothing like that. But your mum was bit of a champ in the kitchen.”
Howard nodded, trying to keep his face neutral, to show that he was listening and interested in what Vince had to say. It should have been easy because he was interested, well and truly, but he was aware that all too often his resting face gave off a vibe of disapproval. But even though he was trying his hardest, Vince still ducked his head down and away from Howard’s gaze.
“It was the day after my birthday, as I recall,” Howard said, hoping that he was succeeding in keeping any judgement from the tone of his voice.
“That horrific birthday, huh? That...” Vince looked out at the night sky before them. “That... old... chestnut.”
“That horrific, never to be spoken of, chestnut, yes,” Howard agreed, nodding out at the stars. “I should be over it by now, I know. But I’m not.”
“Well, you’re not the only one.”
“What?” Howard asked in confusion. “You’d forgotten all about it this morning! I had to do a flash back and everything.”
“I was in that flashback, I’ll have you know,” Vince countered, spearing a chunk of pancake with his fork. “And you’re not the only one who’s a half decent actor. You’d never tell any of your heavily embroidered stories if I didn’t pretend not to remember them.”
He lobbed the spongy sweetness into his mouth and gave Howard an apologetic look but Howard worked to keep himself calm, despite his confusion.
“But you hate my stories,” he told Vince, hiding behind his mug of tea.
“No,” Vince said with equal softness. “I just... never wanted you to think I was, you know, too keen. And when I tell stories they always end up going wrong, I get in over my head, can’t think of an ending. When you tell stories...” Vince paused to take a deep breath before turning to look at Howard once more. “When you tell stories you smile and your eyes go all crinkly and happy in the corners. I love that.”
Howard didn’t know what to say, he wasn’t used to Vince being so honest, or to receiving compliments about his eyes. His throat felt tight and he cleared it roughly, fighting to control his emotions so that he could see this through.
“There are some stories you really haven’t heard though,” he said gently. “And some, I’m sure, I haven’t heard from you.”
“Like what?” Vince asked with a half-smile. “You been leading a secret double life? Left behind a string of lovers?”
“No,” Howard said steadily, refusing for once to rise to the bait. “No I think I’ve really only loved one person, though the love has changed and evolved over the years, obviously. It started with pancakes you see. I woke up the day after my birthday in a bad mood and went down stairs only to discover that the cause of my bad mood was sitting at my kitchen table, talking to my mum. And I was all set to yell at him, right up until he turned to me with the biggest, bluest eyes you’ve ever seen and simply said, ‘sorry’. And then my mum put pancakes down in front of us both, because they were my favourite breakfast food and she knew I needed cheering up, and that little person, well, they were so delighted by that simple breakfast, that I just couldn’t stay angry at them. I fell into a deep friendship with them instead. He was the love of my life, you see. And no matter how often I tried to run away or ‘move on’ I always came back to him, because I loved him, in more ways than I can count. He appeared in my life as if by magic. You appeared in my life, Vince. And I’m so glad that you did.”
He waited for a response but Vince just let out a melancholy sniff as he gazed down at the smeared syrup and cream on his plate, as if trying to read the future in the sugary galaxy before him.
“You’re not going to start making declarations of love again, are you?”
“Do I need to repeat them again?” Howard asked, wishing Vince would look at him, and see that he was being sincere. “I can say it again and again until you believe me.”
Vince shook his head but Howard saw the small upward turn of his lips as he remembered Howard announcing to the world that he was a massive gayist and in love with Vince.
“It wasn’t magic though, Howard,” he said eventually, running his finger through the syrup and holding it up for inspection. “Didn’t you ever wonder why I was there? Or how I’d found you in the hospital?”
“Actually no. I was ten years old. I didn’t tend to question much. And my family never really talked about... things.”
“Tell me about it!” Vince rolled his eyes dramatically before sucking the syrup from his finger in a way that made Howard feel rather hot under the collar. Vince grinned when he noticed the reaction but it didn’t last long, and he continued in a more serious tone. “Your parents never talked about anything! They were champions of the closed lips. The moustaches probably helped and all, but it’s no surprise that you’re repressed, Howard, seriously, growing up in that house. I mean, they were nice and all, they were well loving and your mum was a genius cook and your dad told the best stories about all those dodgy, old, artifacts he kept in his study, but they weren’t half uptight. More British than the queen, they were!”
“Yes, alright, thank you!” Howard burst in on the monologue.
What Vince said was true, of course, but Howard was still rather prickly when it came to anyone questioning the parenting methods of his mother and father. They had been loving and kind and sensible but, it had to be said, they had never encouraged conversation, or sat Howard down for any sort of important ‘life talks’ when he was growing up. They had assumed he would learn what he needed to know from books and school, and that was mostly true, but Howard had never really learnt the basics of comfortable conversation, the sort where people took turns and listened carefully to what the other person was saying. Still, he was learning now, and that was something.
“So why were you there that morning, then?” he asked more gently, aware that one wrong word could make Vince clam up again, and that they couldn’t afford to let that happen.
“It was my mum, Howard,” Vince whispered, his voice cracking on the second to last word. “She sent me on ahead to the party. She was supposed to come after work with the... with the bouncy castle. But she got into a bit of bother. With a car. As in, her car got hit by someone else’s car and...” Vince’s eyes were glassy with tears and his expression seemed frozen as he finally spoke the words, and as much as he felt desperate to comfort him, Howard sat silently, entranced by Vince’s stillness, and by the tragedy of his story. “Your dad took me aside from the party, just as all the trouble was starting about your bouncy castle, because a police man had turned up at the house. They were so busy with me that they weren’t there to stop all those little shits from our class from jumping all over you. I got taken to the hospital in a cop car, you turned up an hour later and when your mum found out that they couldn’t get hold of my nan and were looking for someone to take care of me for the night... she said she’d do it. She was a bit stiff and proper, but she was a right angel, your mum.”
Howard didn’t know what to say but Vince just kept right on talking, a landslide of words tumbling from his mouth now that the memory had finally been unlocked. And so Howard listened. Vince had stayed with them until the day of his mum’s funeral but he hadn’t ever told Howard that that had been why his nan came to collect him. Howard had never met Vince’s mother and so had assumed that he had always lived with his nan and, like Vince had pointed out, no one in Howard’s household had ever spoken about it. Howard supposed that his parents had assumed that Vince would tell Howard, but Vince had refused to speak about his mother’s death to anyone. It had only been years and years later that Vince had started to talk about his mum, mentioning in passing that the song playing on the radio had been one of her favourites, or that some popular singer or other had a beehive hairdo just like his mum had used to do. Howard, being naturally self-involved, had never questioned Vince’s upbringing, or what had happened to Vince’s family.
“I’m so... sorry, Vince,” he breathed painfully, unsure whether his words were loud enough to even be heard, until Vince looked up at him, puffy-eyed and grateful.
“It wasn’t your fault, Howard, you know? That you didn’t know. We were kids. And, well, mumbly and British and bad at communicating (that hasn’t changed really),” Vince said as the words seemed to peter out, sniffing and rubbing at his nose, which had turned a delicate shade of red as the tears tumbled down his cheeks. “You know who she looked like, my mum?” he asked suddenly. “She looked like that girl who came to stay. You know, what’s-her-face. Amy. My mum looked just like her.”
Howard felt the world shift around him. He had wondered how he would get them both to this point and now suddenly here they were, and he had had no control over it at all. He nodded gravely and took Vince’s plate from his unresisting hands, packing the remains of their pancake picnic back into the basket as he cleared his mind and tried to catch his breath.
“Yeah, it’s funny you should say that actually,” he said slowly, trying not to give in to the Chokes that he felt creeping upon him when Vince turned to look at him suspiciously.
“What d’you mean?”
“Well, there’s a reason why she looks so much like your mum. And so much like you.”
“Because she was my cousin, maybe?” Vince offered but when Howard didn’t respond he looked closely at Howard’s eyes, his face more serious than Howard could recall it ever being before.
“She’s not my cousin is she.” he said after studying Howard for several seconds. “Then who was she?”
“No, she wasn’t,” Howard admitted, wondering what he would do if Vince decided to get angry at him when he told the truth, and wondering why he hadn’t just told it in the first place. “What... What do you remember from that week, Vince?”
“Not a lot,” Vince replied, frowning as he attempted to sort through his memories. “I remember trying to get in with this punk band. Terminal Margret they were called, but they weren’t very nice. They were well rude to you, it was like your birthday party all over again. I remember being angry. Don’t know what about. My emotions have been all over the shop lately. But then I don’t remember anything much until Amy walked in the shop and explained that she was... in town? And a relative or something like that... and that she was on holiday and wanted to have fun... But now you’re saying we weren’t related? It’s funny though, cos it felt like we were, we just got on, you know, clicked straight away and could talk like we’d known each other for years...” His voice drifted off as he stared out across the rooftops and Howard felt the guilt build up within him as Vince struggled to sort out the facts from the fantasy that had crept in to fill the blanks.
“Was it all a dream then?” Vince asked, still looking wistfully into the distance. “Nah, that’d be too naff. But it’s something weird though, right? It wouldn’t be our lives if it wasn’t something weird and unexpected. Was she like, I dunno, like the Spirit of Jazz, like an... an... anthropomorphic... thingy? Was she the Spirit of Perfect Winged Eyeliner or something?”
Howard shook his head but was determined to not let the moment slip away, not when they were so close to having the truth of everything out in the open at last.
“Not quite, but it’s funny you should mention the Spirit of Jazz. In fact, I think I need to tell you another story. And then I think we need to go down to the Nabootique. There’s something I promised Amy I would do and while she wasn’t, strictly speaking, human, a promise is still a promise, and Howard Moon is a man of his word, or at least he tries to be.”
“Alright, Action Man,” Vince said with just a hint of a cheeky smile as he looked up at Howard from beneath his mussed hair. “Let’s hear it then. I’ve spilled my guts, time for you to do the same, I reckon.”
“Agreed,” Howard said with conviction. “Well, to quote our good friend Lester, it all began a long time ago, before people had webbed knees. There was a jazz musician who lived by the swamps of Mississippi...”
“There’s something... wrong in my brain?” Vince asked fearfully, his cheeks unnaturally pale, especially against the smudged remains of his mascara and eye liner. “I don’t understand.”
“It is a difficult concept,” Howard agreed, taking in several gulped breaths of cold air as he worked to calm the shaking caused by the adrenaline coursing through his body.
Speaking at such length, about everything that had happened over the last few months, had left his body wired and his mouth dry but at least it was all said now, at least he had finally explained to Vince where the feelings he was experiencing were coming from. Not that Vince seemed to be taking it particularly well.
“I don’t believe it,” Vince said, as if to prove the point. “I can’t. There’s nothing wrong with me, or my brain, or my thinking. I’m fine. I’m just dumb, just empty, that’s me, yeah! A beach ball remember! I’ve not been overtaken by some dark force. That sort of thing happens to you, Howard, not me. I’m a simpleton, remember?”
“But that’s just what the NSP wants you to think,” Howard all but begged him. “It’s not you thinking that you’re worthless or ugly or fat or not good enough for those Camden ninnies! It’s that glittery berk in your brain, terrorising the rest of your mind and making you think this way. Please, Vince, please just come down to the shop. Naboo’s set up the shrink ray, you’ll see it’s true. Please?”
“Shrink ray?” Vince asked, looking at Howard pleadingly, wanting it all to be just another fanciful story even as he realised it was truth. “Is that what that thing is? In the stock room? I saw it earlier today, after you went upstairs to get ready for the party. I thought it was some sort of futuristic, Tron type dentist set up. I thought Naboo was opening up a side line or something.”
Howard shook his head and carefully slipped his hand down to lace his fingers between Vince’s, tugging him gently down through the sky light and the apartment and the stairs until they came to stand in the doorway of the stock room. It was an impressive sight to be sure and Howard tried his hardest to breathe evenly as he looked at the large, silver shrink ray, and the computer monitor and other electrical equipment which would enable him to communicate with the outside world once he was shrunk down. Hanging up in the corner was the scuba suit, now with an improved headset so that Howard would be able to speak to Vince, even when he was inside him, and if it hadn’t been for Vince’s hand holding his so tightly he might have lost his nerve then and there and simply bolted out the door and off into the night.
“So all that stuff,” Vince whispered, staring about the room in awe. “It really was real. You really think there’s something wrong with my head. And that you can fix it?”
“I do,” Howard nodded. “Or at least, I think I can help Amy, and get you back in a healthier frame of mind. You’ll have to do a lot of the work after that I think.”
“You think I’m depressed?” Vince asked tearfully and Howard turned suddenly to wrap the smaller man in a tight hug.
He hadn’t expected Vince to say that, had wondered whether he even was, but knew now that if Vince was able to recognise it in himself, then they were on the right track, and that they would pull through.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he whispered into Vince’s hair, marveling at the way Vince’s head fit so perfectly under his chin, like puzzle pieces that really were supposed to lie side by side. “But yes, I do. That’s why we need to do this. Amy needs my help, she’s trying her best to keep things going but your NSP, your Negative Self-Perception, it’s hurting your mind, Vince. And I can’t let anyone hurt you, not even you.”
“Right,” Vince said shakily, “and what about you?”
“Me?” Howard asked in confusion. “What about-”
“Are you depressed?” Vince asked earnestly, overriding Howard’s attempt to brush off the question. “Because I’ve seen you hurt yourself, seen you give yourself chinese burns. And I’ve seen you mope around in your pjs for weeks on end over being rejected by publishers and directors and women. You cried so much into that koi carp pond that you killed the fish, remember? If me never feeling really happy, really free of those mean thoughts, feeling numb or angry or confused instead of just normal... hating myself, not having energy for being friends, and just wanting to cry for no real reason... if that's,” his voice hitched and Howard tightened his hold on the man he loved. “If that’s depression... isn’t that you as well?”
“I...” Howard could see the truth of it, like a fist clenching around his heart, and it only made him hold Vince tighter. “Shall we just focus on one brain at a time? Let’s just get you feeling better first, and then I promise I’ll get some help for myself. Promise.”
“Alright. So long as it’s a promise,” Vince said solemnly before pulling out of the hug and walking over to the ray. “So we’re doing this thing. You’re going to go in there and kick some brain cell ass and be back in time for a kiss before sunrise, yeah?” Howard nodded again but Vince still looked uneasy and, standing beside the large and complicated looking computer system, it wasn’t hard to see why. “One problem though... How exactly are we going to get you inside of me?”
The panic attack that ensued when Howard brought forth the needle and attempted to explain to him that once Howard had been shrunk down Vince would need to suck him into the syringe and then inject him into his body, had lasted so long that Howard feared Naboo would return home before they even got down to the action. He felt like a monster for making Vince cry, for dragging him from the corner where he was hyperventilating and shaking his head furiously, but there was no other way to do what needed to be done.
“I know you don’t like needles, Vince,” he said in his most soothing, zookeeper voice, guiding Vince gently back toward the shrink ray. “But you don’t have to worry about finding a vein or anything like that. I just need you to get me into your body and then I’ll do the rest. Please, Vince. Please?”
Vince had been shaking as he nodded and even watching Howard strip down and struggle into the scuba suit had failed to cheer him up, even when Howard became tangled and fell to the floor with his backside hanging out of the blue rubber, Vince did little more than sniff and ask if Howard needed a hand. Eventually though they were ready and in position. Howard donned his headset and Vince put on the matching pair and Howard stood before the shrink ray, trying to keep his shoulders square and his posture confident. He took deep, even breaths as he watched Vince turn on the ray, his fingers shaking as he followed the instructions left on a laminated card by Naboo, reading the words out under his breath so that he didn’t make any mistakes. Once the machine had began to buzz, the power charging and building the tension in the room, Vince looked up and finally gave Howard a smile.
“The scuba look,” he said with satisfaction. “I predicted that look a few months back. It looks good on you. I could never quite make it work.”
Howard felt self-conscious under Vince’s appraising stare and attempted to suck in the gut that had been increasing with slow determination over the last few years. He was doing his best to be brave and confident about what they were about to do because he knew how terrified Vince was, but such courage was hard to maintain. Vince wasn’t the only one fearing what might become of them both once Howard was shrunk down and injected back into Vince. He saw Vince’s finger creep toward the shrink button and braced himself, eyes scrunched tightly shut and muscles tense, but the jolt of the shrink ray didn’t hit him and after a few moments he opened his eyes cautiously, anxious to ensure that Vince hadn’t run off to the corner to breathe into a paper bag.
Vince’s finger was still hovering over the button but he wasn’t making any move to press it. He was staring into space and biting on his lip, his free hand twisting itself in and around the floaty fabric of his sleeve and Howard hesitated to wake him from the trance he seemed to have fallen into but Vince seemed to sense that he was being watched and looked up at Howard with a strange look in his eyes.
“What’s the matter, Little Man?” he asked gently, trying not to spook the other man when they were so close to doing what needed to be done. “What’s wrong?”
Vince moved around the ray awkwardly, edging past the machinery and toward Howard as if at any moment he expected to be set upon or told he was unwelcome. Howard held his ground, waiting as patiently as he could for Vince to approach and keeping his gaze low but not averted, treating Vince like the half-tamed animal he seemed to resemble so strongly.
“Amy,” Vince murmured, close enough that Howard could hear him, close enough that Howard could see the silver threads woven through his delicate blouse, but so close that, with his head lowered, Howard was unable to see Vince’s eyes or face.
“What about her?”
Vince continued to bite his lip, shifting nervously from foot to foot in his worn socks, seeming so small without his usual heels.
“It’s just that,” Vince mumbled nervously. “Well, you... You really fancied her, Howard. And I remember enough of that week to know that she was well in to you - which makes sense I suppose, if she was part of my brain or something - but I just... I need to know that you’re coming back. I know I’ve not been a great friend, I know you probably don’t want to be with me like... like, you know... like in a sexy times kind of way or as a proper couple or nothing, but...”
His voice seemed to fade and he brought his hands up to grasp his arms, hugging himself and looking so horribly forlorn that Howard decided something had to be done. He gathered Vince into his arms and held him tight, despite the surprised squeak that escaped Vince at such a show of affection.
“The second this is over I’m going back on that roof and yelling out my love for you until you believe it,” he said, his voice gruff with emotion.
“Please don’t,” Vince replied, his voice muffled against Howard’s chest. “That was embarrassing enough the last time. You don’t owe me nothing.”
“Well, maybe I’ll have a shower first,” Howard ceded. “But I want you to understand that I want to be with you,” Howard told him, squeezing tighter, aware that Vince was still a ball of tension and fear in his arms.
“Yeah, but just because...” Vince took a deep breath and nuzzled his forehead against the rubbery scuba suit. “Just because I love you, Howard, don’t mean you have to...”
“But I do!” Howard countered. “It took me a while to get there but I do, Vince, please believe me that I do...”
He hesitated. He didn’t want to, and yet the words he had intended to say simply did not come and Vince felt the silence of the unspoken words, and moved himself backwards out of Howard’s embrace.
“You loved Amy, I reckon,” he said mournfully. “And I... I’m scared that when you get in there, in my... my brain,” he stuttered. “You’re going to see her again and realise that it’s still her you want, and not me at all, cos let’s face it, Howard, no body wants me - not really -”
“No!” Howard interjected. “That’s the NSP talking. Please Vince.”
“But it is true. People don’t want Me. People want me to be a beach ball. No body wants Vince Noir. They just want the walking coat hanger with the expensive hair cut. Which is usually ok, because there’s not much in my head anyway, is there. You only ever saw Amy and that other guy, what’s to say that isn’t all there is. But you need more than that, Howard. You like brains and deep, intellectual types and... and when you go back, and see her smiling at you like she does, and looking genius in that little dress,” he sighed sadly. “You’re going to want to stay in there with her or something, and I’ll never see you again. Or you’ll want to bring her out here again and...” he looked up at Howard with tear-filled eyes. “I’m not bright, Howard, I know that. I don’t have a lot of brain power to spare. If you and Amy decide to leave or, or...”
It made Howard’s chest hurt and his throat tight to see Vince in such a state and he steeled himself to say what needed to be said.
“I was... very attracted to Amy,” he said carefully. “I admit, when I met her, and when she began to flirt with me, and wasn't put off by my awkwardness or my, you know, general Howardness,” he sighed. “I will admit that I was very flattered, and attracted. I fancied myself in love. But it wasn’t long before I realised (with a little nudging from Amy) that it wasn’t she who I loved, not really. It was you. It has always been you, always will be. Even when we’re cross with each other, or forgetting to actually show our affection. I love you Vince. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t.”
And suddenly Vince’s hands were on his cheeks and Vince’s lips were on his lips and they were feverish kisses, anxious and desperate, and Howard felt swept along by the intensity of them. There were small, wonderfully familiar hands in his hair and stroking delicately across his jaw and neck and he shut his eyes and moaned his appreciation for what was overtaking his sense.
“Oh! Oh, Vince!”
At the sound of Howard moaning his name Vince redoubled his efforts, kissing Howard for all he was worth and Howard did his best to match him, both swept up in the kiss and elated that the person on his mind really was Vince, that he had been able to prove to them both that it was Vince, not Amy, who he wanted to be with. He let Vince dictate the kiss, following his lead until they parted for breath and Vince stepped back, running his hands down Howard’s chest with a reverence that Howard was sure he didn’t deserve.
“So there’s something wrong with my brain,” Vince said in a dejected and yet matter-of-fact tone.
“From what I’ve seen,” Howard agreed gently. “And according to Amy.”
“Amy, who is not a real person at all but part of my actual brain,” Vince intoned, and Howard could only nod, terrified of screwing things up between them again, when they were finally so close. Vince heaved a sigh and looked down at his legs. “And if you, I dunno, fix me? Will I change? Will I stop wearing gold jeggings and lipstick? Will I stop being the Confuser?”
Howard struggled to pinpoint what emotions were being displayed on Vince’s face, there were too many, from fear to bewilderment to shame, but he knew one thing for certain.
“No. It won’t change any of that. I’m not trying to fix you. This is not a Coldplay song. You don’t need fixing, your frontal lobe just needs a little help, to stop the negative part of your brain from controlling the rest of you. So that the essence of Vince Noir can make its way through again. You’ll see, it’ll all work out in the end.”
Howard wasn’t entirely confident that he believed that last part, things didn’t always go according to plan for him, but they did for Vince, and as long as he remembered that this mission was about Vince he could believe that, for Vince’s sake, everything would turn out alright.
“The essence of Vince Noir?” Vince asked with a little more bounce in his step as he headed back to his position behind the shrink ray. “Sounds like a perfume or something, that does. Or one of the daft things Lester’s always saying, when he wants to sound wise and not just cracked.”
He laughed and Howard tried to smile along, even as his fear suddenly doubled, but it was too late to back out now. Vince was looking at him with an intensity that Howard could not deny. He looked like the young, painted, heroes from the covers of his mother’s historical novels, all curves and angles and perfect lighting, an expression of love, loss and desperation on his face and, for the second time in his life, Howard felt very much like the heroine. Sure, he was the one who was going on the adventure, was saving Vince, but he couldn’t deny that Vince was the hero of the story, the one it was really all about. Howard just hoped that this was not the sort of story that ended with the death of the brave, fair maiden in order to complete the cycle of woe for the hero. He silently promised himself that he would make it through, would do what needed to be done for Vince and for Amy, would make it out alive and in one piece. And then, he promised himself, he intended to write a historical novel in which the heroine really did save the hero and came out of the story in tact. It would be a damn fine story and he would be able to write it from experience, truly felt that it was a story he could write, because if he could shrink himself down and do battle with Vince’s Negative Self-Perception without even a harpoon, septuagenarian sidekick, or packed lunch to back him up, then surely he could do anything.
He tried to think of a good parting line, something smooth, something loving, but couldn’t come up with a single thing and instead settled for a small, rather awkward looking wave.
“Alright,” Vince nodded back, giving his own little wave and bringing his finger down toward the shrink button. “See you soon, ok, Howard?”
“I love you,” he said pathetically as Vince’s finger hit the button, and the last thing he saw was Vince’s smile as the beam from the ray shot toward him before the world warped around him and suddenly became a whole lot bigger, until he was standing in a petri dish filled with saline and Vince had crossed the room to kneel in front of him.
The whimper as Vince pressed the syringe into his arm was a painful experience for Howard, both because Vince was now so much larger than him and his voice seemed to be all around, louder than his ears could handle, and because he hated causing pain to the person he loved more than any other. But then the saline that he was suspended in began to move and he realised that he was on his way into Vince once more. It was a strange and uncomfortable few seconds, passing through the syringe and into Vince’s arm but it wasn’t painful, he was too small for it to have been a squeeze, but that didn’t stop it being strange. He was now so small that Vince hadn’t been able to see him within the petri dish once the shrink ray had done it’s work, although that hadn’t stopped those blue eyes from searching for him, or from looking down lovingly as he picked up the small dish and took it over to the computer station and the waiting syringe. Howard had heard Vince talking himself in to injecting the syringe into his arm for several long minutes before the whimper signaled that the deed had been done and he had wanted to tell Vince how proud he was of him but knew that such words would have to wait until the adventure was over and done with.
And now he was back in the vibrant and warped world of Vince’s body. He had a few moments of disorientation before a crackling began in his ears, followed by the tinny sound of Vince’c voice over the intercom, shaky and emotional, but the most welcome noise Howard thought he had ever heard.
“You there, Howard?”
“Yeah,” Howard responded as he took in his surroundings and began to tread, well, tread plasma, he supposed. “You ok, Little Man?”
“I guess so,” Vince replied. “I’ve had to have a sit down though. I never want to do that again. I’d rather face another Crack Fox than face another needle.”
“Um, Vince,” Howard said slowly. “The Crack Fox had a hand made of needles.”
“Oh... yeah. Well, I’d rather that than have to stick myself with one ever again,” Vince said in a small voice. “I am sorry about the whole Crack Fox thing, Howard. I acted like a right tit and-”
“Vince,” Howard interrupted. “I forgave you already, remember? And it really wasn’t your fault.”
“Can we perhaps talk about it later? When I’m not inside your arm maybe?”
“Yeah, alright,” Vince ceded, and Howard swore that he could hear the blush that he knew would be spreading across Vince’s face along with the delicate smile. “So, what now?”
“Well,” Howard said calmly. “Right now I’m trying to figure out which way I should be swimming in order to get up to your brain.”
“Oh, I can help with that!” Vince’s voice cracked with static as his excitement rose. “I can see you on the monitor! It’s got like an outline of me and a little glowing dot that’s you.”
“Well, it’s not that brilliant. I look huge on this thing. And my hair don’t look like that! Am I really that fat? This is an outrage, Howard! If this is me my diet is really not working! What’re we going to do?”
“Focus, Vince!” Howard interrupted, trying to maintain his calm. “You are the most ridiculously attractive man I know, you’re a John William Waterhouse painting brought to life, and there is nothing wrong with your figure. When we are done here I will be very happy to show you exactly how much I adore it but right now-”
“I know, I know. It’s focus time,” Vince supplied. “Um... I think you need to go left.”
Howard began to swim and pretended to ignore the relieved sigh he heard from Vince which indicated that he was going in the right direction. It seemed to take an awfully long time and an eery silence filled the strange, liquid space, only broken by the distant *thunk thunk, thunk thunk* that vibrated through the plasma and muscle around him. Occasionally Vince would murmur that he was on the right track or ask whether it was hard to swim through - what it looked like, were his insides fashionable, would it hurt when Howard entered his brain, was Howard still ok - but mostly there was silence, until a familiar silvery swarm swooped down in front of him, causing him to gasp, which in turn caused Vince to begin panicking.
“Howard? Howard! What’s going on, Howard? Please talk to me? D’we need to get you out? Need me to stick another needle in so you can escape?”
“Woah, slow down there,” Howard replied quickly. “It’s your immune system, Vince. Just... give me a moment.”
Howard could feel the anxiety rising in his throat but was determined to stand his ground. He had managed to best these silver berks before and he could do it again. He just had to stay calm.
“Halt!” the head white cell yelled pointlessly, since Howard had already come to a complete stop. “Stop what you’re doing and explain yourself before we soak you in the shower of pain!”
Howard sighed and spread his arms wide.
“I’m Howard Moon. You must remember me,” he said dolefully. “You’re an immune system you’re supposed to remember any foreign bodies that enter Vince’s body. That’s kind of your thing. I’ve been here before, you have to remember me!”
“We... do remember you,” one of the silver heads said thoughtfully. “You are...”
“Who are you again?”
“You are... the blue rubber virus man!”
“No!” the leader said, reigning in the chaos that was quickly escalating as the individual members of the immune system tried to remember who Howard might be.
“No,” Howard agreed. “I’m Howard Moon. I’m Vince’s best friend. I was the one who defeated the Jazz Cell. Please remember.”
“We remember the Jazz Cell!” the white cell yelled dramatically. “He tried to kill us! He invaded the brain! He lured red cells from their schools with promises of vouchers and hair products! And murdered them! We remember him!”
“Then you should remember me!” Howard argued. “You took me to the brain. I defeated the Jazz Cell!”
“We don’t remember you,” the immune system said as one beast. “And so we shall kill you.”
“Howard!” Vince yelled into his ear. “Howard you’ve got to make them remember you!”
“I’m aware of that,” Howard replied through gritted teeth.
He loved Vince, and had proved to himself and to the universe that he would probably never be able to stop, but Vince’s insides could be downright thick sometimes, and he really needed to get to the brain and bring this adventure to its moment of climax. He wasn’t entirely sure how long the effects of the shrink ray would last, despite Naboo’s apparent confidence, and he had things that needed to be done, and arguing with Vince’s immune system was not on the list.
“The flu!” Vince suddenly yelled through the intercom, making Howard wince as the headset crackled loudly.
“The what?” he asked, beginning to get annoyed, and aware that the immune system were beginning to spread out, blocking his exits and fencing him in.
“Remember when I had the flu,” Vince explained. “You helped me get better. You brought me soup! They’re my immune system, right? They’ll remember the flu, won’t they? You and them, you worked as a team then!”
Howard wanted to groan, or sigh, or throw himself to the floor and weep, but he couldn’t do the first two without making Vince feel even worse about himself than he already did. And he couldn’t throw himself to the floor because, well, because there was no damn floor and he wasn’t sure what damage he might inflict on Vince if he started pounding dramatically on his bicep muscles simply to prove how tragic his circumstances were. So instead he took a deep, calming breath and used his most reasonable voice.
“I’m part of Vince’s immune system too,” he said with a smile and a nod. “I run things from the outside, usually. I just popped in for a... surprise inspection is all. Is everything running smoothly in here?”
In front of him the multitude of pale, Vince-like heads bobbed about in confusion but Howard was an expert on reading the faces of Vince Noir (or he was getting there at least) and he could see that the idea made sense in their strange, single focus, hive mind.
“You...” the leader screwed up his forehead in concentration, his lips becoming a tight, downward pointing arrow as he tried to make sense of the information he was presented with. “You are management?”
“It’s management! It’s management!”
“Are we with management?”
“I’m a junior manager!”
“No you’re not, you pillock!” the leader of the immune system bellowed.
“It’s my weekend job,” one of the cells yelled from the back.
“No it’s not,” the leader insisted. “You’re part of the immune system, we all are! And there’s no Rumbalows in here, anyway.”
“Well, there should be,” the cell at the back grumbled. “Would be useful.”
“No it wouldn’t!” the leader argued. “Now be silent in the presence of the manager!”
“Yes!” Howard agreed quickly. “Yes, silence in the presence of the manager! I’m from Immunology, the big guys, the top virus boilers. That’s me. And I’m just seeing how things are going now, inside Vince’s body, and his brain. I expect you to comply fully with immune system protocol?”
He tried to hide the tremor in his voice but it was there and the white cells narrowed their eyes at him as he tried to tread plasma in a casual and yet authoritative manner.
“Prove it,” the white cell from the back of the group barked and, as the other cells began to echo him, Howard wondered if there was a way to tread water casually backwards.
“Tell them ‘bout the soup, Howard! Quick!” Vince’s voice crackled over the intercom and Howard was desperate enough that he went with the idea without thinking.
“Soup!” he shrieked and was surprised when the immune system stopped their chanting.
“Soup?” the leader eventually asked and Howard nodded frantically as he racked his brain for the memory which Vince seemed to think would convince the rabid cells.
“Yes,” Howard nodded frantically. “Yes, soup. When Vince had the flu and you were fighting things on the inside I was the one in charge of the soup. Remember? The soup, soup, tasty soup?”
“Spicy carrot and coriander,” the leader of the white cells sang.
“Chilli chowder!” called out another from the back.
And then suddenly Howard was crimping with Vince’s immune system, only this time he could hear Vince singing along through the headset as well, and the white cells were adding side lines and moving to the beat and when it ended he knew they would take him exactly where he wanted to go, and they did, with greater speed than he could have ever managed alone.
“To the brain! To the brain!” they yelled as they sped Howard up Vince’s neck, toward the base of his spine and, under the cover of their noise, Howard adjusted the microphone on his headset to be a little closer to his mouth.
“Thanks, Vince,” he whispered. “You really saved me back there.”
“Aw, Howard,” Vince responded in his own whisper, though why he felt it necessary Howard couldn’t fathom. “You would have done just fine without me yelling random stuff at you. You’re genius at this. Sorry that even my cells are daft. I’m just not made of, you know, intelligent stuff.”
“Would you stop saying that!” Howard hissed as the immune system began to slow down around him. “There’s nothing wrong with how you’re made. You’re amazing. You’re sunshine, remember?”
“Who told you that?” Vince asked despondently. “I’m just a wig covering up a traffic jam of a face and a massive arse attached to a body that barely even recognizes the person it’s been in love with for twenty years!”
Howard felt himself begin to panic once more. He had thought through so many scenarios, planned out ways to escape from various perils whilst inside of Vince’s body and mind, but he had not factored in that Vince would have one of the mood swings into deep negativity that had been such a hallmark of his personality of late, not when Howard had no real way of snapping him out of it, when there was a chance Vince might do something dangerous or reckless to them both, and jeopardise Howard’s safety.
“Vince,” he said carefully, aware that the immune system had swum away to face him, and that he had arrived at the entrance to Vince’s brain. “Vince you are sunshine, you are good, you are... bloody hell, Vince, you are sweetness and sugar, even when you’re trying to be a punk or a goth or anything else. You’re made of candy floss, remember? You’re fruit salad.”
“But no substance, right?” Vince replied morosely. “And I’ve made you go inside me on a mission that can’t possibly succeed. I’m so sorry, Howard.”
“You have plenty of substance, Vince,” Howard said as gently as he could. “I’m swimming in it right now. And remember Amy? Wasn’t she full of substance and emotion? And she’s part of you, Vince. And she’s not the only one in there. We just have to let the others out, let them be free.” Howard was aware that he was monologuing now, striking a dramatic pose that Vince couldn’t even see, hearing the swell of the passionate music behind him as he spoke. “I’ve never been much good at telling you that you’ve got talent, that I like things about you, and that I’m proud of you, but I am, Vince. And now you need to believe in yourself. The way you used to, before the negative thoughts crept in and took over.”
The white cells nodded in agreement, their faces serious as if they actually understood what was going on, but Howard appreciated the fact that they had been swayed by his words and did his best to bow as he began to tread plasma again.
“But Howard,” Vince tried to argue, but he was cut off by the immune system, which was sick of hanging around, listening to a domestic tiff, even if the blue scuba suited one did speak so compellingly.
“We have taken you as far as we can, oh Immune System Upper Management Coordinator,” the leader announced loudly. “We hope you have been satisfied with what you have seen and we appreciate the gifts of soup when we do battle against the invaders of Vince. Farewell!”
Howard waved them on their way and watched them leave before he started down the familiar corridor into Vince’s brain. The sparks of light within the walls seemed the same, and he was able to remove the oxygen mask from his face and breathe in here just as he had before, though he tried not to question exactly why he was able to breathe here when in other parts of Vince’s body he couldn’t. At first, in the flickering pink light, everything seemed just as it had the last time he walked through to the antechamber of Vince’s mind, and yet it soon became apparent that things really had changed, and not for the better. The pink of the walls was darker for a start, the sparks less ordered and controlled. Through the headset he could hear Vince’s harsh breathing as he fought to contain the panic attack Howard supposed he was experiencing as a result of the situation and he began to softly hum as he walked along, reprising the soup song quietly between them. He smiled when, as Vince began to settle his breathing the lights became less erratic, but the space was still darker, and more irregular in shape, than it had been in the past.
As he approached the entrance to the room that he thought of as The Waiting Room the walls around him seemed to pulse, their texture tacky, stickier than it had once been Howard thought, and it was with trepidation that he drew aside the fleshy, porous curtain that divided the nerve passage from the brain space and revealed Amy, sitting at her desk as usual, and yet so tragically altered that Howard felt grief hit him between the eyes like a breeze block of pain at the sight of her.
“Amy?” he asked.
But there was no reply.
“Amy?” Vine asked timidly through the headset. “Howard, what’s wrong with Amy? Howard? Howard, I can’t breathe.”
Howard understood the feeling. He couldn’t draw breath, couldn’t seem to make his lungs and throat work, couldn’t even seem to move, let alone speak and relieve some of Vince’s anxiety. Amy was at her desk, just as Howard had hoped she would be, but she didn’t turn her head at his entrance, didn’t swivel in her chair, didn’t smile, didn’t acknowledge his entrance in any way. Howard approached her with caution, taking in how pale her lips were, as if the natural cherry red had faded from them, and the way her eyes seemed to glaze over between slow blinks. Her hair was still a beautiful, glossy cascade of black curls but her shoulders were slumped and, when Howard finally came to stand in front of her desk he discovered that around her wrists were cuffs.
Amy had been chained to her desk.
“Amy?” Howard asked gently, and tried to feel some hope when she looked up at him, but it was Vince who spoke as Amy raised her head, her blue eyes welling with silver tears.
“Oh god, Howard, help me. I hate myself,” Vince said in a melancholy tone, followed by a dense pause. “I don’t know why I said that out loud just now.”
“I think,” Howard said thoughtfully. “I think Amy was trying to talk to us. I think that was her.”
“But,” Vince gasped in a frightened voice, “but she’s not supposed to be the negative one, is she? I thought that was some other bloke. Amy’s supposed to like me!”
Howard could hear Vince’s shuddering, panicked breaths through his headset, loud and harsh in his ears, but Amy just blinked again and stared at him like a woman who hadn’t slept in too long.
“I’m so sorry, Howard,” Vince whispered, and Howard was sure that his voice sounded more like Amy than Vince if that were possible.
She lowered her head and typed listlessly at the keyboard in front of her and Howard became aware in the silence that Vince’s breathing, which had sounded like he might have been edging toward tears, now seemed to be calming slightly. Even in her almost comatose state Amy was attempting to do her job and Howard smiled, albeit sadly, at how brave she and Vince really were. Something on her cheek caught his eye, a sudden shine as the walls sparked around them, and Howard took another step toward the desk to see what it was. A wave of light went past again, highlighting several other points of light on Amy’s skin and at first Howard thought they might be tears but then recoiled in horror when he realised the truth.
They were sequins. But they weren’t the normal silver sequins that Vince so loved to stitch on to his clothing to add a little sparkle, and which inevitably found their way to every corner of the flat (and occasionally into Howard’s hair, and once into his breakfast). No, these seemed thick, hard and metallic. And embedded in Amy’s skin.
“Vince?” Howard asked softly, watching as Amy typed something in to her computer, one hand able to move enough to answer the phone and adjust the screen, the other chained so close that it could reach the keyboard and no more.
“Yeah?” Vince asked nervously, and Howard could imagine him fidgeting in anticipation of the question, the shifting of his feet and twirling of his hair matched in rhythm with the pulsing of the walls.
“Vince how do you feel about yourself right now?”
He heard Vince hesitate, heard the hitch before he spoke, saw Amy’s eyes begin to glaze over, her hands stilling above the keys.
“Vince?” he urged.
“I sent you in there,” Vince mumbled. “In me, in... And now you’re sad and angry, I can tell! And, and you’re gonna hate me, cos I’ve even ruined Amy!”
Howard wanted to calm him, to reassure Vince that all would be well but held his tongue instead and kept his eyes on Amy. Just below her left eye something was happening. As Vince babbled and apologised and spiraled deeper into his self-loathing Howard watched the metallic sequin erupt on Amy’s pale cheekbone.
“... and I can’t get nothing right! And... Ow! Ow, my head! I’ve had this headache for weeks and weeks and it won’t go away! I can’t even get rid of a headache! And last week I got butter all through the jam jar and jam all in the butter and you hate that! And-”
“Vince,” he finally interrupted gently. “I don’t hate you. Something is wrong with Amy but she isn’t ruined. At least, I don’t think she is. But I need you to stay calm, alright? Can you do that for me? Your moods affect Amy and this whole place, or this place affects your mood,” he reasoned before pulling himself back on track.
Vince couldn’t cope with philosophical pondering right now. Now was the time for action and he was going to be a man of action if it killed him. Or at least wounded him. Or left him with a nasty headache.
“My mood?” Vince sniffled.
“Yes. It... messes with the lights. I need you just to try and stay calm for me, ok?”
Howard heard a muffled crackling that he took as a nod from Vince and a moment later Amy blinked her eyes and echoed the movement, her fingers returning to the keyboard, and the walls to a more regular rhythm of pulses and flashes of light.
“Well done, Little... Ones,” Howard said with a nod of his own.
It was hard to turn away from Amy. What he really wanted to do was to hold her and comfort her and try to find some way to remove the shackles from her wrists but knew deep down that nothing would be gained by that. For all he knew the cuffs were alarmed and any attempt to remove them would bring the NSP and brain security down on both of them. At the very least it would just increase the distress of all three of them but that didn’t make it any easier to simply walk on, knowing that Amy was suffering. He settled instead with reaching his hand out to brush delicately against Amy’s cheek. She seemed to lean in to the touch, eyelids fluttering in a manner that Howard took as a good sign, but when his finger accidentally touched one of the sequins that marred her skin she recoiled violently, causing Howard to jump back and pull his hand away.
She didn’t look at him again, even when he whispered her name, and Howard knew that his first instinct had been right, that even those few seconds of contact had hurt Amy, for he could give her nothing more, except a promise that he would journey onwards and try to find a way to right what had gone wrong.
With that in mind he steeled himself for action, removed his oxygen tank and his scuba flippers, for greater ease of tip toeing, and walked to the door to the NSP’s domain.
The door was not shut, not entirely, and Howard peeked around it, hoping that his nemesis wouldn’t actually be there, but not sure what he next move could be if he wasn’t. He put his head around the door, trying to see as much of the room as he could without revealing himself, but not wishing to seem like some sort of vaudevillian character in the process, aware of how absurd his head might look appearing in a door way, eyes shifty and moustache bristling. He needn’t have worried, because while the NSP was in the room, he didn’t notice Howard in the doorway, he was too busy yelling down a large, orange, 1970’s looking telephone and glaring at a wall of computer screens.
“What do you mean, there’s been a breech of security?” the glittery berk shouted, looking from screen to screen. “Where? The arm? The arm? You think I care about a sore on his arm? Just send the immune system! This whole body is so stupid sometimes it’s barely worth my time!”
Howard tried to get a look at the screens, which all appeared to show different parts of Vince’s body and different incarnations of Vince, all looking at the NSP like they had no idea what he was talking about.
“What do you mean, ‘sightings of an unknown entity in a blue scuba suit’? That look went out of fashion months ago! That’s ludicrous! What? The Immune system are telling you ‘No Comment’?! Christy I am sick of this body! I swear, I’ve had it up to here. You’re all so stupid it hurts! Get those overgrown silver fish on the screen now!”
The NSP’s voice was a shriek by the time he made his final demand to whoever was on the other end of his systemic phone line and the ferocity of his tone, and obvious hatred for the body he was part of, made Howard cringe. This was where the thoughts were coming from and no mistake. And this, Howard was certain, was the source of the silver sequins that were appearing on Amy’s skin and seemingly leeching her of whatever it was that gave her independence and life.
The NSP had gone back to yelling, demanding to speak to the head cell of the immune system because he wasn’t buying any story about the intruder in the body being a ‘private immunology matter’ and was so engrossed in his rage that he didn’t notice a movement at the opposite end of the room, but Howard did. Someone was peering around another door, much the same as Howard was, and when they saw him, they put out a hand and gestured for Howard to come.
Howard saw the white, Vince-like face of the head white cell of the immune system flash up on to the screen, capturing the full attention of the NSP, and made his move, creeping carefully across the room, thankful that he was doing so in his slightly damp socks and not his flippers. It wasn’t a huge room but it felt impossibly large as Howard began his delicate passage, and he stopped several times when he feared that he was about to be discovered, but Vince’s Negative Self-Perception was too busy becoming hilariously outraged by the answers being handed to him by the leader of the immune system.
“That, my good glittery sir, is a matter of immune system confidentiality and not to be discussed with anyone outside of the department or below at least a junior management level.”
“Confidentiality!” the NSP screamed. “Management! I’m in charge of this body, pal! There’s no higher management than me, I’ll have you know, and I’m demanding that you tell me what’s going on in that arm!”
“Head of the brain department you might currently be, sir,” the white cell countered, “but this body is a collective, last I checked. Systems working in collaboration, as it were. And this was a matter that concerned the immune system and no other. It was an internal matter and was brought to its logical and satisfactory conclusion, and there’s an end to it.”
Howard continued to inch his way across the room, past the half-way point and biting hard in to his lip to stop himself from laughing at the NSP’s frustration. He chanced a look at the screens and saw a flicker in the eye of the leader of the immune system as it saw Howard and grinned. Howard smiled back and gave a subtle salute and then redoubled his efforts to remain silent as the white cell continued to bluster and misdirect and keep the NSP focused on the screens and away from Howard.
“Tell me what is going on in that arm!” the silver sequined brain cell demanded, banging his fist on the control panel in front of him. “Tell me now!”
“Nothing,” the white cell replied, somehow managing to shrug despite the fact that he had no shoulders or neck. “I can honestly and truthfully tell you without a word of a deception or a lie that there is at this moment nothing at all amiss in either of Vince Noir’s arms. Of which there are two. And nice arms they are as well. If I do say so myself. Which I am. With my mouth. Right now. And that’s all I have to say on the matter. So I shall bid you good day and get back to my job now. Once I stop talking. Which is now.”
The ridiculous cell continued babbling until Howard was through the door and had given him a thumbs up. They were able to close the door without notice because, upon realising that the immune system was not going to give him a straight answer, the NSP began to throw the worst tantrum Howard had ever heard. With the door shut behind him Howard felt it was safe to tut at such behaviour, but stopped when Vince whimpered in his ear.
“Just try to block it out, Vince,” he said into the microphone comfortingly. “I know your brain is telling you horrible things right now but whatever they are, they are not true. Believe me, Vince. They aren’t true. Alright?”
Vince only whimpered again sadly in reply but Howard knew that there was little he could do. He needed to focus on the task before him, and the Vince before him as well. For that was who she was.
“Thanks for your help there,” he told her, turning his gaze to the diminutive figure before him. “I’m Howard Moon, I’m here to save Vince. Can you help me?”
She smiled at him. A small, yet hopeful, crooked tooth, Vince Noir smile, and Howard felt a strange flutter in his chest at this new incarnation, this facet, of Vince.
“Yes,” she said softly. “I remember you.”
Howard blinked in surprise. He wasn’t used to being remembered, especially not by understated, kindly, attractive women but then he recalled what Amy had told him, what seemed an age ago, when they had been lying on the warm sand, watching Vince tread happily through the waves, on the perfect day out at the beach.
“You’re Vince’s Long Term Memory, aren’t you?”
The Vince smiled again, wider this time but as she did Howard noticed that she too was marred by several silvery sequins in the skin of her face and neck.
“I think so,” she told him. “I don’t quite remember. But you are Howard Moon, I remember you. You save us. Always. Are you here to save us again?”
Howard followed Vince’s Long Term Memory along another dim, pulsing corridor, wondering how he could begin to ask her what exactly had been happening in the brain over the last few months, and where she was taking him, and what her plans were. The problem was, Long Term Memory was incredibly vague, like a grandmother, only more dotty, and Howard got the impression that she didn’t seem to think she needed to explain anything to him. He was Howard T.J. Moon. He was here to save them. That was what she had told him and she seemed to think that was enough.
Vince was still whimpering and mumbling in his ear, his distress testament to the violence of the NSP’s tantrum, and Howard tried to reassure him as often as he could as he attempted to keep up with his guide, but he found it difficult to concentrate on comforting his friend, especially when the Long Term Memory stopped suddenly before another thick curtain of bluish, fleshy strands that Howard would have sworn hadn’t been there a moment ago. She turned to look at him, her face kind but sad in a way that made Howard want to make her a pot of tea and a whole tray of tiny cakes, because it was Vince’s face and Vince’s features were not made for such deeply ingrained melancholy.
“Look,” he said gently. “Long Term Mem-”
“You can call me Lottie,” she interrupted. “I came up with it when Amy returned. She told me that I could call her Amy, that she had a name, not just a title. So I thought I could do the same. It was the first idea I have had in a very long time. Since...” she drifted off, looking into the distance at something Howard couldn’t see.
“Well, Lottie,” Howard continued, feeling better for being able to call her by a name of her choosing, rather than her description. “I’ve been meaning to ask-”
“He made this, you know,” she interrupted again, her voice just on the wrong side of dreamy. “He built walls and doors and these shifting, unnatural pathways, to lock us all away, to control us. I am not strong enough to pull them down, but he allows me to walk them more freely than others, as long as I do not remember too vividly.
“Who made this?” Howard asked in confusion. Lottie was like Vince at his most dreamy and it was hard to follow her thoughts.
“Him,” she replied with conviction. “The silver sequined menace. He wooed us all, told us we were all so ‘genius’ and that we all deserved our own pedestal, and our own studio with our own cameras. Before then we had a shared space, no concept of personal space or boundaries.”
“That sounds about right,” Howard muttered to himself, forgetting that there was still a microphone by his lips.
“Hey!” Vince whined tearfully over the intercom. “What d’you mean by that?”
“Just that,” Howard panicked. Vince was in his ear and Vince’s face on a facet of his brain was staring up at him, and he felt horribly outnumbered. “Just that you have always been a very tactile person,” he said in his own defense. “It stands to reason that your brain space would be open plan.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” Lottie responded. “You’ve always had quite the talent for fabricating the most pompous excuses haven’t you, Howard Moon?”
“But it was the truth!” Howard squawked, shuffling his feet under the unblinking stare of Vince’s Long Term Memory.
“That’s what makes the pomposity so endearing,” she replied. “You always look like you’re up to something. Even when you’re not.”
“Yeah,” Vince agreed shakily, and Howard tried to feel pleased that at least his discomfort was providing Vince with a good distraction. “You always look like you’ve been up to some shady, ball licking activity, Howard.”
“Hmm,” Lottie hummed, looking even more thoughtful than usual. “We wrote that. We shouldn’t have done. But our unrequited love has always made us do the most absurd things where Howard is concerned.”
“Well,” Vince said sheepishly, though Howard was more taken by the absurdity of the situation he currently found himself in, in which Vince was having a conversation with his own memory, using Howard as some sort of telephone system.
“But there isn’t time for such thoughts now,” Lottie interrupted once again. “You are needed, Howard T.J. Moon. None of us are strong enough to dismantle the walls within Vince’s head, the walls and barriers created by Vince’s negative thoughts, because we helped to create them, and we are part of Vince. But you, Howard, you have the ability to break down those walls of negativity. You must.”
“But how?” Howard cried, feeling utterly overwhelmed. “How am I any stronger than any of you? I don’t even belong here, I don’t know how to demolish brain walls! I’m just a simple jazz musician stroke character actor stroke shop keeper. How can I-”
“This is no time to give in to your own Negative Self-Perceptions, Howard Moon!” Lottie raised her voice to cut him off. “No one knows better how to complete this task than you. You who has overcome so many fears in your life, who has more practice than anyone else in the world in the art of increasing Vince’s positive view of himself. You can do this because you are not Vince. You love Vince. It is up to you.”
She seemed so confident, even though her voice was dreamy and gentle, that Howard found himself nodding. Vince seemed to agree.
“You can do this, Howard,” he urged. “You can do this. I believe in you, Howard.”
“Come on then,” Lottie urged him. “There is no knowing how long the NSP will be distracted by the diversion you came up with so cunningly with the immune system, and we have no time to lose. Amy has nearly lost herself to the encroaching negativity. Come along.”
She held her hand out and Howard let out a deep breath and took it, letting her guide him through the heavy curtain and in to a stranger place than any he had seen so far.
“It’s like...” Howard gazed around, squinting in the bright light and trying desperately to recall what the large space he had entered reminded him of. “It’s like a film studio.”
And it was. All around the large brain space were small, enclosed studio sets, each with their own cameras, and dim lights, but with only partial openings - enough for Howard to see in, but not enough for the light above them to pierce the gloomy interiors. And the light... Howard tried to look up, to make sense of it, but all he could tell for certain was that it was a large, yellow orb on a colourful plinth, like an art deco vase. It was beautiful yet chaotic.
“Film studios. That is exactly what they are,” Lottie agreed slowly. “The NSP played upon the natural vanity that is in every Vince and now they are all trapped. That silver dictator can keep an eye on everyone and check the opinions of his favourites at his leisure. If he wants to berate anyone he just yells down the phone at them. He rarely comes in here. Unless it is to fetch the twins. But even though he loves them he’s hurting them as well. He knows it, I think. He doesn’t visit them as much as he used to.”
Her tone was so sad that Howard again felt the urge to offer her some comfort but all he could do was give her hand a gentle squeeze. She smiled softly before turning back to look at the unhappy space, portioned off in badly constructed compartments. He peaked in to a few. The fashionista with the dali-esque moustache was talking directly to the camera as he held up different jackets, trying to determine which would work best with the patterned skinny jeans he predicted to be the height of fashion by sunrise. Down from him was a young looking Vince, hair still a natural, dirty blonde colour, dressed in their old high-school uniform. He was sitting at a desk and staring at the sheet of paper before him with tears in his eyes, mumbling to himself and scuffing his feet against the floor, seeming to try and block out the cameras by letting his hair fall across his face.
“If every customer pays twenty pounds for a celebrity tracking and you have an average of fifteen customers an hour and you work for four hours, how much money will you have saved up for that well trendy pair of boots by the end of the day? Oh Christy this is impossible!”
“Who’s that?” Howard asked, hating the distress that was emanating from that small cell-like booth, and the memories of their high-school days. Maths had always been painful for Vince, he had failed the subject every year from their fifth grade until they finally agreed that G.C.S.E.s weren’t important and left the stresses of school behind.
“Oh, poor child,” Lottie sighed, following Howard’s gaze with misty eyes. “They are the Inferior Temporal Gyrus. The part of Vince’s brain that specialises in processing numbers.”
“Numbers?” Howard did a double take as the blonde head hit the desk with a groan. “That’s your numbers expert? Thirteen-year-old Vince is your numbers expert?”
Lottie shrugged sadly.
“Are you that surprised? They have a better grasp on mathematics than the rest of us. I recall the years when we were considered above average in our class. We used to let you copy from us because we knew that it was a fair exchange. You helped us in so many ways, and as brilliant as you were at most things, you struggled with grasping division. I remember... that was the last time maths really made sense. They tried so hard to grasp the concept, but Inferior Temporal Gyrus... they are still only so young, and were never given a chance to develop.”
“Well, I mean,” Howard huffed. “Inferior. That’s not, that’s not nice!”
“Oh, dear, it’s not an insult. It’s what they are,” Lottie explained. “They’re actually a collection of two million cells. And yet they still struggle an awful lot. They’d rather turn numbers into pictures. They liked geometry. But the Negative Self-Perception, he prefers to remind Gyrus of what they cannot do.”
“They?” Howard asked, feeling like there was something he was missing. The look Lottie gave him, vague though it was, assured him that there definitely was.
“We aren’t all either male or female, Howard Moon.”
“But,” Howard frowned in confusion. “I knew Vince at this age. Are you saying-”
“I was pretty confused at that age,” Vince mumbled into his ear, and it made Howard jump, he’d forgotten Vince was still listening in. “Puberty was a bitch.”
Howard nodded at that. Puberty hadn’t been kind to him, but his own memory insisted that Vince had only gone from strength to strength in their teenage years, with the exception of a short period in the eighties when Vince had attempted to make the Labyrinth Goblin King look actually work (a dark three days that they never spoke of), but when he looked up again Lottie was nodding in agreement with Vince. Obviously she remembered a few things about their teenage years that Howard didn’t. Or at least remembered them slightly differently.
“And the NSP, he thinks it’s funny to make the Inf- to make Gyrus do things that make them miserable?” Howard asked through clenched teeth. “Let’s take that glittery arse hole down!”
“Excellent,” Lottie replied, urging him further in to the brain space. “That’s the Howard Moon I remember.”
She took his hand and tugged him forward, past more and more Vinces, all of them in various stages of sequin infestation, each a different Vince, and yet all his Vince. There was a Vince with bleach blonde hair, strutting around his small space in very high-heeled boots, tight blue jeans and a red racing jacket, who Lottie introduced as the Motor Cortex. Vince’s creativity was a different sort of Vince entirely, like a self-portrait rather than a person, painted with a broad brush in messy, multi-coloured, multi-layered acrylics, and Howard felt incredibly proud when he saw him, for he was the sort of creation that Vince produced so well, naive in style and yet put together with great skill, and though his skin was all streaks of yellow, peach, purple, brown and green, he was as much a truthful representation of Vince as any of the brain facets Howard had seen. Further along in the row of what Howard had begun to think of as isolation rooms, there was a rather alarming (and arousing) looking auburn haired Vince that he was told was known simply as Pons. They were striking dramatic poses and pouting at the cameras around them, casting bedroom eyes at the lens from under their thick fringe of hair, and moving between slouching endearingly and arching their back so seductively that Howard’s mouth ran dry. Pons, apparently, was a rather mysterious figure, even among the other brain Vinces. Pons was responsible for Vince’s posture and movement, but also for creating the correct level of consciousness necessary for Vince to sleep, among other things. Howard looked at their smokey eyes and otherworldly, fey, appearance, and had to agree that it seemed a fitting job for a brain personification who looked... like that. Pons had only one sequin, like a birthmark on their prominent cheekbone and, when their eyes met for a moment, Howard understood how even the NSP might struggle to truly overpower Pons.
They walked until they were close to the strange pedestal with it’s blinding and yet hypnotic light. Halfway through the journey the Vince outside, the one who Howard could hear in his ear, burst into tears, because he was tired but knew that he couldn’t go to sleep, and because his body was itching to change into a different outfit, because he was certain that the one he was wearing had been a mistake and he was surely the laughing stock of Camden all over again, but Howard urged him to calm down, to head out to the small kitchen at the back of the shop, to make himself a cup of tea, and maybe a snack. Secretly he was relieved at Vince’s outburst because it indicated that Vince’s Negative Self-Perception was still in a rage and focused elsewhere, but he hated the thought of Vince crying alone. Lottie let go of his hand then, and Howard looked at the strange sight before him, noticing for the first time that there was someone sitting by the stained glass plinth, and that that someone was very familiar, and entirely unexpected.
“Wait! Wait, that’s me! What am I doing inside Vince’s brain? I thought you were all Vince. The immune system said, and Amy said. It’s Vince’s body, Vince’s brain, you’re all supposed to be Vince! What am I doing in Vince’s brain?”
The figure looked up and Howard felt a shiver run up his spine. It was definitely him, all the props and costume pieces were there, but he wasn’t quite a real Howard. He was an approximation, the way Vince thought of him, and it was an eye opener to say the least. For a start the Howard sitting beneath the shining orb seemed to have larger eyes. They were kind and understanding and the colour of melted chocolate mixed with honey. He was dressed in brown loafers and brown cords but also an orange roll neck under a patterned shirt of purples and blues, with his old Zooniverse jacket over the top and unzipped. The look was completed by a hat set at a jaunty angle and decorated with forest flowers and bamboo leaves. It seemed that whatever jokes Vince might make about Howard’s beigeness, and no matter how often Howard had claimed over the years to be a man of simple tastes who didn’t accessorise, Vince still thought of him as a rather colourful, eccentric person. The Howard of Vince’s mind was even smoking a pipe and holding a notepad and pen. He stared at Howard a moment longer before returning to his writing and Howard wished it really was that easy to fill a page with words.
“Who is he?” he asked quietly.
“Oh, him,” Lottie nodded slowly. “That’s the Nucleus Accumbens, we call him Nacc. He’s... well, he’s like a reward centre, I suppose. Mostly he writes very long letters full of dopamine and sends them throughout Vince’s body as needed. He doesn’t talk much, just says things like ‘well done’, ‘good work, Little Man’, ‘hey, your hair’s looking nice today’, that sort of thing. He responds to... he responds to pleasure. Emotional pleasure. Physical pleasure. He reads it when it comes in and he sends out messages to help Vince respond accordingly.”
“Pleasure?” Howard stammered. “But he looks like me!”
“Yes, funny that. That Vince’s body links pleasure and the rush of dopamine through his veins with you so strongly. He is very kind, and interesting in his own way, I’m sure, but he is not why I brought you here.”
Lottie turned to look up at the bright ball above them and then back to Howard expectantly.
“You’ve brought me to see a lamp?” Howard asked, a little exasperated. “And how exactly is this supposed to help? What am I supposed to do?”
“I... don’t remember,” said the Long Term Memory, a tremor creeping in to her voice that made Howard immediately reign in his temper. “The NSP, he permits me more freedom than most. I am not chained, and even if my body is fast being covered in the silver marks of his influence, at least I can still be useful, can still provide Vince with most of the memories he requires. But I am not permitted,” she said with a hitch in her throat. “Not permitted to remember everything. I am not permitted to remember things about me, or why any of this had to happen. I only know that this is very, very important.”
“And this... this light?” Howard asked kindly. “What is it, exactly?”
“The light? Why that, Howard Moon, is Vince Noir.”
Howard blinked and felt all at once like a whole mountain had just fallen down on top of him, and as if he’d swallowed a helium balloon and was being pulled skyward with inevitable force. It was discomfiting and made his heart race, and yet, of course it was. Of course the light was Vince. He stared, even though it hurt his eyes to look directly at something so bright, so radiant, until eventually his eyes began to water too much for him to ignore and he was forced to blink again and look away. Of course. Of course it was.
“It can’t possibly be this simple,” he said out loud, watching the whole narrative slot into place and finally make sense in his mind. “Discover the essence of Vince Noir, Lester said. Remind him he’s still the Sunshine kid, Amy told me. And it really is that simple.”
“Hmm?” Lottie asked in a faraway voice, still staring at the light, but Howard wasn’t really talking to her. He was speaking aloud, finally coming to terms with what needed to be done, what he should have done months ago when Naboo told him to get back inside Vince and fix things. Because this thing, this piece of art and beauty and light and sunshine at the centre of Vince’s mind... it really was Vince.
“This is it, isn’t it?” he asked, not waiting for Lottie to answer. “This is the essence of Vince. The NSP couldn’t destroy it without damaging himself and so he just blocked it out, made himself an office where he wouldn’t have to see it and made it so that the other parts of Vince’s brain couldn’t see it either All we need to do is let the sunshine back in and remind Vince of who he is, and who he’s always been! I...” he hesitated as one final revelation hit him. “I can actually do this!”
I apologise for how ridiculously sappy this got. I didn't mean for that to happen. Sorry.
Howard looked up at the light, at the true inner essence of Vince Noir, and felt a warmth spread through his chest. He glanced back down at Nacc, in all his pseudo Howardness, and felt the warmth increase when he received a smile in return.
“I can do this,” Howard said with growing conviction.
“You can do this,” Nacc agreed. “Of course you can. You can do anything.”
Howard gave a decisive nod and strode toward the closest wall. It was an odd thing, walls made out of what was essentially Vince’s brain, but Howard reminded himself that he had been to Monkey Hell, had been on adventures in jungles, and Arctic tundras, had scaled mountains, uncovered evil plots, escaped from demons and voodoo witches, battles all manner of weird and hideous creatures. He had done all of that and now he would succeed in this because, he reminded himself, he wouldn’t have been able to do those things without Vince beside him and wouldn’t be able to do anything like it ever again if he didn’t succeed in this. And essentially Vince was still beside him in this, Vince was all around him, everywhere he looked. It was all too easy to keep in mind what was at stake and he he came to stand in front of the closest of the pinkish walls as if facing up to a duel.
“Howard?” Vince whispered in his ear, his voice wobbling. “Howard what is it that you can do? What are you doing?”
Howard put out his hand to run it along the wall and felt it tremble. He pushed but nothing happened. He pushed again, pressing both hands to the fleshy barrier and putting as much of his weight behind it as he could. It didn’t budge.
“Howard?” Vince asked again and Howard had an idea.
“Do you know Vince,” he said casually, softly, his eyes darting about as he tried to anticipate what might happen. “You’re actually one of the most educated people in our social circle. You’re very accomplished, Vince.”
“What?” Vince asked with a disbelieving laugh, as confused as Howard had expected him to be, but behind him the light shone a little brighter and the wall beneath his hands seemed to shudder. “I never even got my GCSEs. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You have a Btec in Hair Design and you topped your class as I recall. You have a Diploma in Animal Management.”
“Yeah, but-” Vince tried to argue but Howard was having none of it.
“You went to Saint Martin’s College after that. You got your degree in fashion and design, even if you won’t let me frame it for display in the flat. Most of the people we interact with haven’t used even half the brain power you have. You’re clever, Vince. You’re educated. And it is so very sexy.” He left a beat of silence before adding: “I love you.”
The light in the orb suddenly flared and Howard pushed against the wall again and watched it dissolve between his fingers, the cameras and lights that had been within disappearing into clouds of dust as the true light of Vince Noir hit them. Within was a Vince, as Howard had expected, and it didn’t take long for him to realise what part of Vince’s mind this was. He was dressed in black skinny jeans and a t-shirt which should have been tight if there had been an ounce of fat anywhere on the waifish child-man before him.
“I’m so hungry!” he cried, stumbling toward Howard. “Howard, please? Please can I have a snack? Something that’s not malt loaf? I’m so hungry, all the time!”
He grasped Howard’s arms with hands that seemed too brittle to hold on for long and Howard steadied him, nodding his reassurance as he spoke into his headset once more, shuffling himself and Vince’s appetite toward the next wall in need of demolishing.
“Vince? Can you get yourself a snack, please?” he asked carefully. “I’m here with your appetite and he’s rather hungry.”
“Oh,” Vince said in surprise. “But I’m not... I don’t think I should...”
“Do you know something I love about you?” Howard said a little more forcefully. “ The way you eat. The pleasure I see in your face when you eat something new and realise you love it. The way you imitate how turtles eat with those gummy snakes you love. The joy in your eyes when I tell you I’ve made mac and cheese. The way you close your eyes to properly enjoy ice cream. You really appreciate food, Vince. You are a pleasure to cook for... I love you.”
He could hear Vince draw in his breath at that and pushed his hand, and the hands of Vince’s appetite against the next wall, grinning with triumph as it dissolved to nothing. He jumped when there was a loud crunch through the headset but the appetite beside him moaned in pleasure and Howard realised that Vince was eating.
“Toast with peanut butter!” the appetite explained, a giddy smile on his thin face. “Oh, I’ve missed this more than anything! Thank you, Howard.”
They were joined by another Vince as the flesh wall collapsed and Howard startled at the sight of the be-speckled Vince, with his hair combed over and his checkered suit. He was clutching a weather map and blinking at the light all around him.
“And you are?” Howard asked, trying not to sound as bemused as he felt at such a different representation of Vince.
“Insula,” they responded nasally. “I... I mostly do smell. I mean, I don’t do smells. I mean, I’m responsible for Vince’s sense of smell. I’m very good. I can tell when it’s going to rain or snow. I can tell when you’re cooking me something from the other side of the flat. You changed your shampoo last year, I was able to smell that too. I’m very good.”
He pushed his spectacles up his nose and blinked at Howard expectantly and Howard wondered how he could use this information to compliment Vince.
“Well done,” he said eventually before speaking in to his mic. “Vince, is it true that you can tell when it’s going to snow or rain?”
“Hmm?” Vince, voice was muffled as he swallowed the last of his toast. “Well, yeah. But that’s no big deal, surely.”
“Not everyone can do that, Vince,” Howard pointed out reasonably. “I can’t do that. You’re a person of many talents, Vince. The more I see of your brain the more amazed I am at what a complex person you are. There’s so much going on inside your head, Vince, so much to discover. I love you.”
The next wall disappeared at the touch of his and the various Vinces’ hands and Howard felt a strange electricity in the air around them - an excitement that he could practically taste - and Pons stood from the ruins of his cell and smiled at them all, turning immediately to place his hands against the next wall as Howard told Vince of how much he admired his ability to dream so vividly and recount it so well, at his ability to tell stories, to perform, to draw people in with his charm and sweetness. The more members of Vince’s brain community there were with him, and the more Vince seemed to accept the praise, the easier it became to rid Vince’s mind of the walls the NSP had constructed. It seemed to take no time at all, though Howard was aware that in reality they must have been at it for most of the night, and his throat felt dry and raw by the time he realised that there were no more walls, only Vince’s of all sizes, varieties and genders all around him. They were talking excitedly to each other and embracing, complimenting one another which in turn increased the light that was shining forth from Vince’s essence and filling the large brain room.
Even two security Vinces were there, laughing and showing off their thin, pencil moustaches and doffing their hats bashfully. Howard felt an immense sense of satisfaction at a job well done as he observed the joy around him, and at the way Vince was humming happily in his ear, until he realised that even the passage that led to the NSP’s office had disappeared and that the glittery incarnation of all of Vince’s worst thoughts was now stalking toward him, the other Vinces moving back to give him a clear path.
“Did you do this?” the Negative Self-Perception asked quietly, his voice somewhere between menace and fear.
“I had to,” Howard told him, doing his best to hold his ground and not simply lose his nerve and turn tail like the coward he knew he so often was. “For the good of Vince. You were destroying him.”
“But now you’re destroying me.”
He stood face to face with the NSP, watching the man’s chest heave with rage and pain, but he couldn’t feel any anger or hatred toward him, not anymore.
“Howard?” Vince suddenly asked, sounding small and distant. “Is something wrong? Did we do the wrong thing?”
“No, not at all,” Howard replied without doubt. “I love you, Vince,” he said, staring in to the eyes of the one part of Vince’s mind that he knew would struggle to truly believe it. “I love you. Glittery titbox and all. Nobody’s perfect, but who wants perfect? I want you. And I love you. And not just for what’s on the outside. You are more than just a pretty face, Vince. You are sunshine, inside and out. You are kindness and laughter and stupid pranks and crimps and every musical genre under the sun, and you are sweetness and gentleness and yet so sharp too. You have a quick mind and great sense of humour and I could talk about all the things I love about you for hours on end, in fact I just have. And when I get back out of here I probably will again. Because I love you. And I will continue to love you, no matter what, through good and bad and all the subtle and nuanced in between times too. And I will love you, even when you cannot love yourself.” He took a step forward and stretched out his hand to brush his fingers over a silvery cheek and watched a shower of sequins fall in their wake. “I love you, Vince Noir.”
He heard a sob in his ear, but when Vince went to return the declaration of love the words were overshadowed by the words of the NSP.
“I don’t want to die.”
Howard frowned. He hadn’t been expecting anything like this. He hadn’t expected to feel sympathy for the villain of the piece.
“You... you won’t. Why will you die?” he asked, and the NSPs shoulders slumped as he looked up at Howard beseechingly.
“If he’s got you, he’ll never hear me again. You do this, I’ll cease to exist.”
“No,” Howard argued. “No, you don’t need to worry about that. Everyone has these thoughts, sees themselves negatively sometimes. You won’t just disappear. I... We just need you to stop trying to destroy everything that is Vince to ensure your own survival. It’s hard, not being popular, trust me I know. But you don’t have to be the villain.”
“But I’m Negative Self-Perception!” the sequined brain cell wailed. “It’s what I am!”
“I know, and labels can be a right nuisance ,” Howard agreed. “But you can be a help, rather than a hindrance.”
“How?” he asked in a small, timid voice that Howard recognised as the tone Vince used when at his most vulnerable.
He couldn’t hate someone (or something) that personified Vince’s worst feelings about himself. Beneath his spangled exterior the NSP quite obviously disliked himself more than anyone else possibly could.
“Without you Vince would probably think he was invincible,” Howard explained. “When you’re off duty Vince does things like putting on two eye patches and going flying in a helicopter piloted by Bob Fossil. Am I right?” He raised an eyebrow and fancied he could see a blush spread across the silver face “You can be a balancing influence, a force for good ultimately.”
The NSP looked off in to the distance, his brow crinkling in concentration as he thought through what Howard had said.
“So... what do I do?”
“It’s time to take a step back,” Howard told him, feeling the weight of the moment, how important his words were, and how carefully they had to be delivered if this was to work. “It’s time to be part of the ensemble rather than the soloist.”
“But I’m Negative Self-Perception. No body likes me.”
There was quiet murmuring in the crowd around them but Howard wasn’t sure who they were agreeing with.
“So give yourself a name rather than a title, like Amy and Lottie,” Howard suggested.
“A name? Like what? Like Frank, or Steve, or something?” the NSP asked and Howard nodded enthusiastically.
“Steve’s good, if that’s what you want.”
“But they’re still going to hate me.”
“No we won’t,” came a voice from the corner and Howard span around, his heart suddenly pounding.
The crowd parted for her as she walked elegantly toward him, hips swaying and red heels clicking on the floor. She smiled, the sort of Vince Noir megawatt smile that always made a tingle rush through Howard’s spine, and Howard smiled back. Her lips were red again, the glossy, cherry colour they were supposed to be, and as she approached she reached her hand up to flick one of the last silver sequins from her cheek. She stopped in front of Howard and ran a hand lovingly down his chest before leaning in to kiss him delicately on the cheek.
“Hey, Howard,” she said in a low, sultry tone. “Thanks.”
Howard nodded, unsure what to say, or whether he’d be able to say anything at all, but Amy seemed to understand. She gave him another smile before turning her attention to the glittery personification standing sheepishly in the centre of the brain space.
“Sweetheart. Steve,” Amy said kindly, walking forward. “Let me tell you something about Vince Noir. For all our vanity, our sharp tongue, our teasing, for all our foibles and failings, there is one thing Vince can never do. And that is hold a grudge. Now come here.”
Amy opened her arms and waited as the brain cell known as Steve, formerly the NSP, thought about her words and then walked slowly into her embrace. Howard beamed, filled to bursting with pride for the woman who was such an integral part of the person he loved, and loved in her own right. And then there was a movement to his right and Vince’s inner child and childhood memories burst forth from the crowd of Vinces and ran forward to hug Steve as well, wrapping their little arms around his hips and holding on so tight that even their eyes were squeezed shut. After that the other parts of Vince’s brain seemed to decide that this was one of those times when the best thing to do was follow the crowd and they came forward in ones and twos to add their arms to the escalating group hug. Howard wondered if maybe he was supposed to join in as well but figured it was a moment for Vince, and that he was quite happy to watch for now and save his hug for his Vince, once he was back in the wider world.
“I love you, Howard,” Vince’s voice crackled through the headphones, as if he too felt the urge to hug and be held. “I know we’ve said it a lot tonight, but I really, really do. What you said was well beautiful. Can’t wait to get you back out here with me. ‘M gonna kiss you senseless, just you wait.”
Howard chuckled at that but didn’t have the time to think of a witty reply because the Vince’s were shuffling apart, spreading out into a circle, and there was a sense of excitement building in the air as they moved back from where Amy and the two youngest Vinces still stood. At first Howard thought the NSP really had disappeared and his heart jolted in panic but then Amy too stood back and Howard realised that standing between Vince’s childhood memories and his inner child was someone quite their own size, still all in sequins (though how it was more of a romper suit than a form fitting bodysuit), but a child.
Lottie ran forward again to wrap him into another hug, picking him up and smiling lovingly.
“Now this is someone I remember!”
There was a great deal of cheering and whooping and clapping after that and Howard decided to leave them to it, wandering back toward the colourful plinth and the light above it, like the tatty moth he was beneath the blue and yellow scuba suit. He put his hands up against the coloured glass feeling the warmth and life within, marveling at how it somehow did radiate what could only be called the Essence of Vince. He wondered if there was something similar inside his own mind, wondered if it was anything as beautiful as Vince’s.
He had just begun to contemplate the existence of the soul and how it impacted on the brain’s ability to function when he realised that while he was alone, he was not really alone.
“Well done,” Nacc told him. “Very well done. You did it. I knew you could.”
“Thank you, sir,” Howard replied, still a little awkward about talking to his doplegengar, knowing that they were the one in charge of giving Vince his pleasure signals. “But I’m afraid the rest of the work will be yours. I helped get things moving but only Vince can really fix Vince.”
“Indeed,” the pseudo Howard agreed. “Wise words from a man of great intellect and handsome features. There is a great deal to do. There are blockages in the pipes, the serotonin flow has been reduced as a result of the walls that were built through here and it shall take time and care to repair them. Luckily I have a great deal of experience in such matters. Have I ever told you of my time working in the drains? I am a man of many worldly pursuits, you know.”
“I’m sure you are,” Howard agreed. “But maybe you can tell me another time.”
“Or maybe you would prefer to know other things,” Nacc waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Just between you and me, he likes to have his hair stroked.”
“What?” Howard asked, suddenly feeling like a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights, sensing his impending doom with no way to escape.
“You heard what I said. Vince finds massages of his scalp and gentle brushing of his hair to be very pleasurable. I thought you might find such information useful.”
“Well, I...” Howard stammered. He’d never had the sex talk with his parents, a fact for which he had been mostly pleased, and having a similar discussion with Vince’s pleasure centre (who looked just like him!) was almost enough to give him a full case of the Chokes.
“I don’t think I need any advice, thanks all the same.”
“Or perhaps you would prefer to learn the secrets of the massaging of his balls?” Nacc continued saucily. “He likes that as well.”
“No! No, hair tips are fine!” Howard squawked, edging away. “And who are you being now? I thought you were supposed to be me, not Rudi van DiSarzio!”
“Are you willing to caress the balls of the one you love, Howard Moon?” Nacc continued, his voice rising and adding to Howard’s growing embarrassment, especially when he heard an equally embarrassed giggle through his headset and realised that Vince was listening to every word.
“Well, yes, of course,” Howard hissed. “I love Vince and... Howard Moon is not a man to shirk his responsibilities as a lover. It will be a pleasure to give him pleasure. And it’s not as if I’m unfamiliar with the equipment. I don’t need any tips from you, sir. Thank you very much.”
Nacc just grinned wolfishly and let out a low chuckle.
“Howard Moon knows his way around a pair of balls without a guide?” he asked teasingly and Howard felt the heat in his cheeks fan to a flame as he realised what he’d admitted to so casually, and loudly. He took another step backwards, trying to think of a polite way to escape the conversation and almost collapsed with relief when he heard Amy call his name.
“Howard!” she called as she trotted toward him. “Howard I’ve been looking for you. I wanted to say thank you.”
“You already did,” Howard reminded her, wrapping his arms around her waist like it was the most natural thing in the world.
“Well I wanted to say thank you properly then,” she told him with a smile, her eyes dancing with amusement and affection. “If that’s alright with Vince, of course. I knew you’d come through for us in the end. Thank you, Howard.”
She tilted her chin upward and Howard took the cue to lower his own until her lips pressed lightly against his. It was a chaste kiss, a sharing of emotion between two friends, and Howard felt his heart flutter in his chest as he realised that he truly did understand the difference between his affection for Amy and his deep love for Vince.
As they parted Howard heard Vince sigh. It was a contented, sleepy noise and Howard wondered just how long he had been inside of Vince’s brain, and how much longer the affects of the shrink ray would last.
“You alright there, Vince?” he asked as he pulled Amy into a tight embrace, feeling her snuggle into his arms, rubbing her face against his chest like a cat.
“Yeah,” Vince answered. “I actually feel pretty good. Tired though. Shattered actually. Is it time for you to come home now, Howard?”
“Yeah, Little Man, I think it is,” Howard said with a smile, until the reality of how that might be done hit him like a breeze block of fear. “Except...”
“Except what, Howard?” Vince asked with concern, but Howard didn’t want to worry him now, not after all he’d been through. He cleared his throat and tried his best to sound confident and reassuring.
“Oh, nothing to worry about, nothing I can’t handle. Howard Moon is a man of many plans, and we will have this all sorted out in no time at all, don’t you worry.”
“Worry about what though, Howard?” Vince asked, his voice becoming shrill as Howard’s reassurances made him more stressed rather than relaxed.
“Well,” Howard said slowly. “About how exactly I’m going to get out of your head in order to kiss you, is all.”
“Oh,” Vince replied. “I hadn’t really thought of that.”
There was silence for a moment as both men shared the horrible thought that they had no idea how exactly to end the adventure and that Howard wouldn’t be able to survive for long inside of Vince.
“I think I might be able to help you out there, Darling,” Amy suddenly spoke up. “Come with me, yeah? We’ll get you sorted.” She turned to lead Howard back through the brain space but stopped after a few steps and turned back, her eyes focusing sharply on Nacc as he sat by the plinth cleaning his pipe. “You can come too, if you want to,” she said in a husky tone that Howard had once heard directed at him. “You look like you could be... all sorts of fun.”
“I did not need to hear that,” Howard and Vince said as one, but Amy just laughed.
She had a plan.
All happy endings have to come some time, I suppose. Thank you to the wonderful people who were so supportive of this story and of my writing in general. It was a pleasure. Thank you. xx
“Where are we now?” Howard asked, staring at the strange new space he had been taken to. “And why does it smell like the sea?”
“That’d be the salt,” Amy told him, a smile twitching the corners of her lips. “It’s barely perceptible normally, it’s only because you’re so small that you can taste it in the air.” She looked up at Howard wistfully. “I’m so glad I was able to see the beach. To smell and feel it for myself Thank you, Howard.”
Howard wasn’t sure what to say. Amy kept thanking him. As they’d walked back through the brain space various Vinces had come forward to thank him as well, shaking his hand and looking at him adoringly. The security Vinces had come forward with his flippers and oxygen tank, tipping their hats at him and complimenting his moustache. In fact, Howard noticed, there were more than a few moustaches on the personifications within Vince’s brain and he wondered if that was in any way significant.
But now they were somewhere new. The light was different here, brighter and whiter, and the air really did smell of salt water. Amy had promised to get him out, he trusted her, and he was beginning to suspect that he knew where they were.
“So where are we?” he asked again, and loved the way Amy’s smile widened.
“Just above the tear duct, Darling,” she told him. “It’s the way we got out last time, works a treat, except that we have to make Vince cry, of course.”
“Right,” Howard said slowly. “Amy, listen, I just wanted to tell you...”
He stopped. He knew how he felt but didn’t actually know how to put it in to words. He loved Amy, admired her, cared for her, but he no longer felt an urge to woo her. She was a beloved part of Vince and he was reassured knowing that she was free and providing the spark and sass that were so much a part of the Vince he knew and loved.
“It’s alright, Darling,” she crooned back. “I get it. I understand. I’m gonna miss you, but...” she looked back to where Nacc was examining a nearby tear canal and stroking his moustache thoughtfully, “I think it’s all working out for the best, don’t you?”
“I guess so,” Howard agreed, letting out a huff of laughter through his nose.
Now that the time for final goodbyes had come Howard felt excessively awkward. He’d given up any hope of coming up with a great parting line but he wanted to offer something at least, something meaningful.
“Can I talk to Vince, please?” Amy asked, now looking rather more serious.
“Of course, but-” Howard began, but still didn’t know what to say and so adjusted the mic so that Vince would be able to hear her better and his headphones so that Amy would be able to hear Vince.
“You there, Sunshine?” Amy asked gently.
“Amy, that you?” Vince asked in return, sounding tired yet still excited to hear from her.
“Yeah, love,” Amy replied. “Look, Vince, I just needed to tell you... I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the truth about who I was when I turned up. I’m sorry I left my post just because I wanted a holiday and left you all vulnerable like that. I’m sorry-”
“Are you kidding?” Vince interrupted. “I loved having you around! And what were you going to tell me, anyway? ‘Oh, hi Vince, I’m part of your brain, just here for a mini break’? No way! I know what it’s been like in my head these last couple of years, I’d want a holiday as well! I just wish you could’ve stayed longer,” he said with great melancholy.
“Oh, Vince, darling,” Amy said in a voice thick with tears. “Me too. But we’re always going to be together, yeah? You and me, we’re one of a kind.”
“That’s what my mum always used to say to me,” Vince whispered and Howard could hear the tears in his voice as well.
“I know. And I know you’ve kept a lot of that to yourself, in the name of being the cheerful person you think everyone needs you to be. But being the Sunshine Kid doesn’t mean you have to lock your feelings away and beat yourself up about being human and not being perfect. I get that now. Howard loves you, Vince, he’s gonna love you no matter what, even when he’s a grumpy sod or you’re having a bad day, even against his better judgement sometimes, and you don’t have to hide yourself from him, you’re allowed to show your feelings and ask for help. That’s what people do with the ones they love. It’s taken me a while to learn that too, but I reckon it’s true, and that we should give it a go. You don’t need to hide behind false smiles and hollow cheeriness, the sunshine’s still going to be there, even when it’s stormy, even when it’s dark, because Howard Moon knowns just how to reflect that light back to you, Darling, you trust me on that.” She stopped to draw a shaking breath, her eyes and cheeks wet but a smile on her lips all the same. “Be kind to yourself, love, give yourself a chance. And we’ll do out best to be kind to you as well. Deal?”
Howard heard Vince sob but Amy wasn’t quite done.
“And Howard’s going to do his best as well, sweetheart. Ok?” She told them both. “You’ve both got a bit to learn but it’s easier to do it together, yeah? And I know you can do it, Vince. I’m going to keep saying it in here until you believe it out there. And if I know it, you know it. We all love you, Vince. I love you. Goodbye.”
And suddenly the canals began to rise all around them. Amy looked up at him with wide eyes, her silver tears falling as the real tears began to drain down to Vince’s eyes. She gave Howard a fierce hug and another quick kiss on the cheek before darting away through the building flood to where Nacc was waiting for her, waving him a final farewell and yelling to him to put on his oxygen mask. Howard did so hurriedly and then let himself fall back into the salty water, carried along quite literally by the torrent of emotion.
He could barely see, what with water gushing past the glass of his face mask, and all he could hear was the rush of the current, and his muscles felt as though they were being pummeled by the water, by Vince’s tears, and it was all too much, until suddenly there was the sensation of falling, even though he was still surrounded by a bubble of saline, and it was terrifying and Howard wanted to scream that they had made an error of judgement, that he didn’t want to die, he had so much to give, and finally knew who he wanted to give it to!
And then the ground was suddenly in front of him and he hit it with a thud barely strong enough to knock the wind from his lungs. He took a moment to catch his breath and get his bearings back before rolling to his side and slipping the mask and oxygen tank off with a tired shrug. He had to wriggle his feet free of the flippers in order to climb to his hands and knees and that alone seemed to require all of his energy. He was back in the stock room, that much was clear. There were the boxes of their regular stock, the racks and shelves of unique items waiting to be either priced by himself or de-hexed by Naboo. In the corner the medieval castle he had made from receipt rolls still stood, lording over the stationary supplies as if nothing strange had happened at all, and Howard felt nausea building in his throat as he began to wonder whether anything had happened or if it had been a hallucination and he was simply losing his mind.
Until suddenly there were arms around his waist holding tight, a head leaning against his back with a nose that he would recognise anywhere pressing against his ribs, and sobs heaving through his whole body that weren’t his but were close enough that they might as well have been.
He was home.
“Oh, god, Howard!” Vince sobbed against him, “this has been the most intense night of my life! Are you ok?”
Howard tried to talk but still didn’t seem to be able to draw enough air into his lungs. He managed it on the third go but only once he had untangled himself from Vince’s arms long enough to sit down in a more comfortable position.
“Yeah, Little Man,” he said breathily. “I think I’m alright. And I agree, it’s been a fairly intense night all round. Next year,” he whispered, as he gulped air into his burning throat. “Next year shall be just have a quiet night in, for my birthday?”
Vince laughed, which turned in to another sob as he flung his arms back around Howard, cocooning him in the floaty fabric of his blouse until Howard felt himself begin to find some sort of equilibrium. He was back to his regular size but it felt strange, like he had surfaced too quickly after diving down to feed the starfish at the Zooniverse and when he tried to stand a wave of exhaustion hit him squarely between the eyes and he sat back down with a bump, Vince still clinging to him like the beautiful limpid he was.
“Shall we just sleep here?” he asked with a yawn, but Vince chuckled and pulled away to gaze at Howard with equally tired, and loving, eyes.
“No way. We aren’t as young as we used to be. I can’t be having with sleepovers on hard floors. I need my bed and so do you.”
“I need your bed, do I?” Howard asked with eyebrows raised and for once Vince responded with an equally saucy grin instead of flustered embarrassment.
“You most certainly do, Howard Moon. But we might have to start with just a sleepy in the same bed, yeah? ‘Cos it is five in the morning and I am...”
His voice trailed off and Howard sat forward in concern, bringing his hand to Vince’s face and rubbing his thumb across the sharp cheekbone, still wet and red from tears.
“Hey,” he whispered, “are you alright?”
Vince blinked slowly before looking up and in to Howard’s eyes. It was still a struggle to hold eye contact for long, Howard suspected it always would be because that was just the way he was, but he gave it go and was rewarded with the most wonderful sunshine smile for his trouble.
“Yeah, I think so,” Vince told him. “I was going to say that I felt shattered, you know, as in tired. But then I realised that I don’t really. I mean, I’m so tired I could probably fall asleep without doing any of my nighttime skin care regime... but I don’t feel... shattered. I actually feel ok. My headache’s gone and all.”
Howard sighed with relief and pulled Vince back in for another tight hug before they began the arduous process of climbing to their feet and then climbing the stairs to the flat. There was no question about where they would both be sleeping and Howard felt as though he was in a strange, soft focus sort of dream as he stood in the centre of Vince’s bedroom and let himself be stripped of the cumbersome scuba suit. Vince kissed his face, neck, shoulders and chest as he pulled the difficult fabric from Howard’s skin, but they were soft, slothful kisses, signs of love and adoration and relief that Howard was back and that they were finally free to care for one another in the way they needed to.
Vince’s skin against his was warm and welcoming and the smell of sweat and salt, hair spray and tea and sleep, and a hint of maple syrup and cream, pulled at Howard until he couldn’t keep his eyes open any longer. Vince’s lips against his, moving so slowly they were barely kisses at all, were the final comfort that sent Howard in to a deep and well deserved sleep and Vince followed quickly after, slipping in to the most restful slumber he’d had in months. In the morning, they both promised themselves, they would celebrate properly.
Or the afternoon, as it transpired, for just as the two friends fell in to sleep the sun began to rise, her mellow smile shining down on the city and all those sleeping within it.
“Oi, Howard?” Vince asked, months later as Howard sat at his desk by the window, looking out at the afternoon sun, still smiling her hazy smile over the city. “You want a cup of tea?”
“In a minute,” Howard replied, turning back to his laptop and typing the last few sentences.
When he looked up the sun was a little lower in the sky and Vince was leaning against his desk, two steaming mugs of tea in his hands.
“You still at it?” Vince asked, carefully handing Howard the mug with two tea bags and only one sugar in it. “I thought you’d finished that one days ago.”
Howard nodded. He had indeed finished his second novel two days ago, and sent it off to his editor, a process he was becoming better at dealing with, now that he was actually writing something he was genuinely proud of.
“I did,” he told Vince. “This is something new. An idea I had at breakfast that I just wanted to get out, you know?”
“You are a machine!” Vince told him affectionately. “Who would have guessed romance novels would be your thing! It’s genius!”
Howard gave another nod and sipped his tea to hide just how much Vince’s compliments made him smile. It had indeed been a surprise to everyone when Howard Moon had written his first romance novel, and had it accepted for publication, but Howard had promised himself, on that fateful night when he had gone back inside of Vince’s brain, that he would do it, and so he had. After a few days of kissing and procrastinating, of course. But once he started it had come so easily. He was writing about something he knew after all, and that seemed to make all the difference in the world.
Vince had been supportive to a fault, to the point that Howard had to remind him from time to time that he didn’t need to smile and cheer on Howard if what he really needed was a bit of time out. Vince still seemed to need permission to take time for himself, to be sad from time to time, or at least, to show it, but they were getting there, even if some days weren’t quite so good as others.
“How are you feeling today?” Howard asked, recalling that he had spent a good portion of the day in the flat while Vince redecorated the shop (again).
It was amazing how business had picked up now that Vince had free reign to stock it and decorate it as he pleased, drawing on the multitude of skills he had accumulated and honed over the years, but Howard was aware that he hadn’t checked in with him today, and that being caring and supportive and less self-absorbed had been another of the things he had promised himself, and he still wasn’t that great at doing it yet.
“Alright,” Vince said with a shrug, raising his eyebrows in surprise when Howard gave him a serious look to ensure that alright was actually how Vince felt. “What? It’s true. It’s been an alright day. I’m a bit flat but nothing too bad. Nothing like yesterday. I’m catching up with Leroy in a bit, actually, to play some tennis. That should perk up those brain characters of mine a bit, yeah?”
Howard stood and drew Vince into a gentle hug. Part of him had hoped that Vince would be right as rain once the NSP had been somewhat neutralised, but the other part of him knew that there was no quick fix. They were still working on it in fact, and sometimes Howard struggled with his desire to shy away from human contact, and Vince struggled not to pick and snark in order to push Howard away before Howard could push him, but they were getting better at it and Howard had faith in them both, as a unit. They would be alright.
And when words didn’t seem to work Howard knew one sure fire way to remind them both that they were loved and safe and didn’t need to pretend to be anyone they weren’t. He caught Vince’s chin between his thumb and finger, tilting the pretty face that had so much beauty and life and spirit behind it upward toward him, and kissed Vince with all the passion he gave to the heroes and heroines of his books, his heart leaping with excitement when Vince kissed him back in equal measure, humming against his lips and bringing a hand up to tangle in Howard’s soft curls.
Somewhere behind them he heard Naboo walk in to the room, sigh in disgust, and leave again, muttering under his breath that happiness and a happy ending had come at great cost and that it was always him that had had to deal with the fall out when Vince and Howard got an idea in their heads, but Howard ignored it. They were happy and they were whole, and their narrative was finally back on track.