A/N: This sort of experimental -- more like a radio episode than a telly one. It's half written in Vince's insane and barely-coherent perspective, and half in a regular third-person POV. I wanted to try something a bit different and who the hell knows if it worked, eh? This (briefly) makes use of the ever-popular "sharing body heat" trope, ha, as well as Noel's touching-habits, so my apologies to all who have used them in fics before mine. As ever, thanks to my beta, Kay, for looking this over and offering me her profound and priceless advice. :D
If you've ever tried to style a hedgehog, then you know you can't just come at them with fiendish fingers and a blow-dryer and expect them to perk right up in anticipation of a new look. No way, if you go that route, they'll be ballin' up all over the place, rolling like scotch eggs in a basin. Ticklish little devils, they are, so you've got to give 'em a little song first, right? Something to the tune of Elton John and Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breakin' My Heart" does the trick nicely 'cos they love duets. Dunno why it is, but a good duet will stop their little snuffly sounds of distress and set 'em humming like choir boys on Sunday. And then you've got to get right with your styling instruments. You can't just groom a hedgehog with a hairbrush. He'd freak out and lodge himself in your face like a lop-sided pincushion! Imagine that! Nah, you've got to style our that reverse mohawk with a pair of chinese take-away chopsticks. The smell of lo-mein sends 'em into a complete stupor and you're free to barber away whether it's midnight or not.
'Course, you probably shouldn't try this at all if you're not a gifted child.
I'm a gifted child. They call me Dr. Doolittle in drain-pipes. I've got a way with the creatures, see, which is why Bob Fossil has me grooming hedgehogs in the Hedgehog Hut night and day, till the little buggers are so fashionable I start to feel plain by comparison.
Nah, I don't really feel plain. Ever. Heh.
But hedgehog grooming is my punishment for disappearing to the Arctic without giving notice. Fossil had to hire himself a pair of shepherds replace me and Howard, and the shepherds went mental and tried to get intimate with a frigid herd of antelope. The antelope did a stampede through the zoo and caused all sorts of crazy racket. Now the zoo is on the verge of bankruptcy or something -- don't know, wasn't really listening -- and I've been demoted from second head keeper to hedgehog groomer. It's not so bad, really. My voice is a bit off from singing so many duets, but it could always be worse.
'Cos I could always be Howard, couldn't I?
He's been made into Dixon Bainbridge's personal valet, and I use italics there not to suggest importance, but rather that the concept makes me a bit green 'round the gills. I thought Bainbridge was an all right sort first off. There's not a 'tache like his to be found in all of England, and he's a straight-up man of action, no doubt. But the way he peached on us up in the Arctic? Nah, I'm not havin' that, not even if I did get some genius boots out of the whole crack-up. And 'course old Fossil believed Bainbridge's side of the story, cos he wants to bum the man into the future, and then orders Howard into indentured servitude and me into the Hedgehog Hut. I've not seen much of Howard since then. That's why this story didn't open like our normal episodic programme, where I might stomp into our tatty shed with quills stuck in me face, yelling "That hedgehog don't know nothin' about context!" And Howard would be in the corner looking rumpled in his valet uniform, ready to belittle my pain and tell me all about his in ten different kinds of torturous detail.
And then, to cheer him up, I might reach out and give his chin a squeeze. He'd smile for a split-second, like he always do, then would slap my hand away and say "don't ever touch me!"
Why's he always do that, eh? Telling me not to do something only makes me want to do it more, 'till it preys at me like an itch I just got to scratch. Plus his chin is right out there, beckoning like a fuzzy knob on the end of a mis-shapen gourd. Touch meeee! it says. I can talk to chins as well, you know, so like it or not, Howard's chin is a traitor to the rest of his parts.
But this isn't our normal episodic programme, is it? It's just one of those quiet lulls between our high adventures, where you get to lounge around the inside of my stylishly coiffed head. What do you think of the place, anyway? Nice lighting and bright colours, innit? That's right, you're trapped inside Vince's head with all of my chatter. The pity of it is, I feel a scene change coming on.
Vince gently prodded Henry the hedgehog with a pair of lacquered chopsticks, quietly singing under his breath. "Once upon a time I was falling in love, now I'm only falling apart... nothing I can do, total eclipse of the heart." The hedgehog suddenly let out a bleat of annoyance and shot a quill at Vince's face. "Ow!" Vince complained, staggering backwards. "What's that about? I thought you liked duets!"
The hedgehog rolled into a ball and squeaked.
"It is so a duet!" Vince protested. "I seen Fossil and Bainbridge sing it with my own ears!"
"Well how was I supposed to know the original recording wasn't a duet? It was a duet when I heard it." Vince dashed the chopsticks to the ground in annoyance. "And I don't listen to that rubbish if I can help it, do I?" He removed his apron and stomped out of the Hedgehog Hut, muttering under his breath. "And for the record," he called out over his shoulder, "only porcupines can let loose their quills like that. Get a new gig!"
The quill was still stuck out prominently from his forehead when he entered the shed that he had, not long ago, shared with Howard. Howard hadn't been around much lately, though, which is why Vince was surprised to find him sat rumpled on the sofa, his valet jacket half-unbuttoned and a cup of tea in his hands. "All right," Vince said, nodding his head in greeting and smiling despite the smarting quill.
Howard stared. "What's happened to you?"
Vince reached up and plucked the quill from his forehead, wincing. "That hedgehog don't know nothin' about context!" he said, then wrinkled his brow as if surprised by his own words. "Huh. Deja vu."
"Bit of a riot yonder in the Hedgehot Hut, was it?" Howard lifted his eyebrows and blew on his tea. "Well, that's nothing on what I've been through."
Vince sighed and sat down next to Howard. Here it comes, he thought. Ten different kinds of torturous detail.
"Do you know what that mustachioed Hitler had me doing all day?" Howard asked, tilting his head back in anticipation.
"Mustachioed Hitler? That's a bit redundant, innit? Hilter had a mustache. It's like saying 'bearded Rasputin' or 'un-shaved Stalin'."
"Do you mind?" Howard said, frowning. "It's a concept. It's a description."
Vince chuckled. "It's completely unnecessary."
"I'm a man of adjectives, Vince. I paint a picture with words. They call me the word-picture-painter."
"Do they," Vince said, rolling his eyes slightly. "Paint me a picture, then. What'd the mustachioed Hitler get up to today?"
"Well." Howard took a deep breath, as if fortifying himself for a horrendous story, then he paused, quite suddenly. "Not much that's worth mentioning."
Vince blinked. "What? You can't do that! That's not a picture with words. That's not even a scribble!"
"Don't like that, do you?" Howard pressed back into the cushions, looking rather smug. "Well, I learned it from you. You, the juicy dangler."
"You call that juicy?" Vince shook his head in disbelief. "That was like a prune. Worse than a prune, a raisin." He secretly thought Howard might be offended by this comparison and would counter-act by offering up a truly juicy rendition of the mustachioed Hitler's antics, but to his surprise, Howard only sighed and looked defeated.
"I don't want to give you the details, Vince. It goes against my style, but in this case I think it's better you not know. You're too young. You're not ready."
"Too young? But you're always saying we're the same age."
"On the inside, Vince." Howard tapped his chest sagely. "You're younger on the inside."
"And you're made of wrinkles and gray hair on the inside?" Vince smiled and gave Howard a side-long look, then, unable to resist, reached up and cupped Howard's chin in his fingers. Howard's face blinked into the briefest of smiles, then he pulled away at once.
"Don't ever touch me," he said, gently swatting Vince's hand away.
"You always say that," Vince said, crossing his arms over his chest and pouting a bit.
"You always touch me!"
"And what of it?" Vince ran a restless hand through his hair. "It's just a little poke on your knobby chin. Never did no one no harm, did it?"
"Yes, well..." Howard gulped around for words for a moment. "Not everyone has pteronophobia, do they?"
"Turnophobia? What's that?" Vince gave Howard a look of deep scepticism. "I think you made that up just now."
"It's i pterono /i phobia and it's a very real malady that I suffer, thank you," Howard said crisply, putting his tea mug aside and standing up to straighten out his valet jacket.
"So what's it mean, then? Fear of being touched?" Vince thought this over for a moment. "You weren't one of those orphans in Russia, were you Howard? Strapped in a cradle with nothing but an icy and aloof bottle of vodka for company, and now you have fits when anyone touches you while you're sober?"
"Do I seem Russian? Does my lineagionic look Russian to you?" Howard gestured wildly at his face, and Vince quashed down his urge to go for the chin a second time.
"Russian bear, maybe?"
Howard gave a snort of contempt and wiped off his brow. "Look, I've got to get out of here before Bainbridge wakes from his midday nap and finds me missing."
Vince sat up straight. "But you never told me what pteronophobia is!"
"Look it up," Howard suggested, glancing at his watch and hurrying away.
Vince flumped back into the cushions, frowning. 'Look it up,' he says, he thought to himself. Whatever! It's not as if...
...there's some kind of book out there full of meanings for random words, is there? A book like that would be dead useful, no doubt, but who's boring enough to go about writing one?
What's that, you say? There is a book full of meanings for random words? A dictionary? Nah, I think you made that up just now. Nice try, you cheeky wisearse.
But it did happen exactly as I predicted, didn't it? I admit I was surprised to find Howard in the keeper's shack having a break, 'cos I didn't think this would go down like the usual episode. I thought I'd have to just sit around and sort the whole thing out in me head, the mystery of Howard's untouchable chin, but now I've got all these other things to ponder. Too bad my head's not a good place for pondering. It's more a place for lying about with a fizzy cocktail and entertaining casual thoughts about Horseradish Face, the Martian who had too many groupies, or for throwin' some White Duke remixes on the turntable. But I still can't help but wonder... Like what's Bainbridge got Howard doing that's so dreadful he won't even talk about it? Howard loves to talk about his own misery. He doesn't know it, but what they really call him is the misery-massager. He really loves to dive in and splash about and lather himself up with a heaping load of the perfume known as melancholia, so why's he gone all tight-lipped now? And what in bollocks is pteronophobia?
I still think it might be fear of touching. He didn't deny that it was, did he? I mean, he might have denied it, but I really wasn't paying attention 'cos I was thinking about him dressed up like a Russian bear in a cossack with one of them high, fuzzy hats on his head. I think he has a hat like that, actually. I think he might've worn it on our Arctic expedition.
You know... there's something about that Arctic expedition that I've forgotten, I think. Something important. Something that might help me to solve the mystery of Howard's fear of being touched. Ah, there it is. Things are starting to go all wavy-like, see? That means there's a flashback coming on...
"Come on, Vince, you've got to keep walking. If you stop walking, you'll get sleepy. And if you get sleepy, you'll end up an ice lolly like Bainbridge," Howard said, forcibly dragging Vince through another snow-drift. He glanced up and tried to tell by the position of the moon if they were headed in the right direction. Lord knew they needed to get back to the tent before their balls retracted up inside them for good.
"I don't wanna be like Bainbridge," Vince muttered, his head lolling painfully against his shoulder. "He's a complete dick. He's an utter radish, a.. I want a radish. Crunchy, spicy, good with cheese." Sadly, Vince was quite delirious now. His new boots were pinching his toes, and he was dreadfully cold to the bone. His icy wardrobe, though stylish, wasn't really proper protection against the elements.
Howard tried desperately to shake Vince back into the present. What a dire situation this was! They'd watched in horror as Black Frost did his insidious, sexual dance and sprayed Dixon Bainbridge with a fine mist that froze him solid to the spot, only to escape and find themselves lost in the white endlessness of the Arctic tundra. Now Howard himself was beginning to feel the bite of the polar air, and it took all of his strength to haul Vince over the next snowy hill.
"Vince! Look, Vince!" Howard rasped. There it was before them, shimmering like an oasis in a really, really cold desert: the tent.
"No, no..." Vince chanted mindlessly, flailing as he attempted to slip out of Howard's grip. "I don't want to go into the Moonlight World! I'll get a bat in my hair, and it'll freeze there forever and ever!"
"It's not the Moonlight World, it's the tent!"
"Oh," Vince gasped and staggered backwards. "Quick, get me inside before I have another hallucination."
Howard hustled Vince into the tent post-haste, throwing a blanket over him that had gone stiff with cold. Then he quickly set about starting up their little camp stove, where the last words of Biggy Shackleton had been defrosted only a few days before. "Bugger, out of propane," Howard muttered, shaking the empty container.
"What's that?" Vince said, his teeth chattering around the words. "Howard, I'm so cold I think my inner ears have turned into icy deaf tunnels 'cos I thought I heard you say we're out of propane."
"We are," Howard said flatly. Well, at least the tent offered them protection from the snow and wind.
"But I'm so cold," Vince said, and his voice wasn't merely whingey, like it was when a brisk breeze whisked through the thin walls of their shed back at the zoo. Rather, it was full of very real and deep despair.
"I know you are." Howard didn't know what else to say. He felt quite helpless, and his mind, which was typically so sharp and on top of things, had been rendered slow and sluggish.
"Please Howard, you've got to share you're body heat with me." Vince reached over and blindly groped around until he finally guided his stiff fingers into Howard's chin. Howard flinched away at once.
"Get off!" Howard snapped. "You've already got the only blanket."
"Do I?" Vince looked down at the blanket, blinking in confusion. "Is it a blanket of snow? 'Cos that's what it feels like." He balled up his hands inside the cold blanket, just the same. "Look, Howard, if we were in a suspenseful drama-romance, you'd have to offer your body to me as a gesture of mercy. Otherwise, I might die. We might accidentally touch in the night, but by morning we'll forget all about it and go back to the way we were before. We'll never speak of it again, I promise."
Howard sighed. "You're delirious, Vince. And we're not in a suspenseful drama-romance, we're in a surreal comedy." He frowned and looked around. "A surreal comedy that seems to have taken a wrong turn into the dire and serious," he added.
"But if we were cowboys, we could hold each other tight in a tent and everyone would still love us. We might even win film awards. You could spit on your fingers and--"
"Vince! You're babbling! We're not cowboys, this isn't Wyoming, and every time I spit my saliva turns into pellets of ice."
"Oh," Vince said, looking both sad and slightly confused. "So you're not going to hold me until I'm warm?"
"I..." Howard stammered. "I'm sorry, Vince. I just can't. I've got a malady."
"I don't care!" Vince wailed mindlessly, flinging himself against Howard's minky chest. "I'll get a shot of penicillin later."
"Vince, don't!" Howard started, then broke off, looking down at the top of Vince's head. He was already deep in sleep, his arms burrowed into the mink coat and wrapped tightly around Howard's middle. Howard held his breath and waited for his dreaded pteronophobia to over-take him. But it never came. He was too numb, he realised, to even feel Vince's touch.
He didn't know whether to feel relieved or disappointed.
Ha! You see now why we cut that bit from the final reel. Dire times, not to mention pretty homogay -- even for us. But what can I say? When a man's looking that snaggle-toothed bitch mortality in the face, he has to forget his pride and go by his instincts. Anyway, after that I slept like a drunk infant the whole night through, and come morning Fossil was hovering overhead in his heliocopter, shoutin' at us through his mega-phone. Ha, boy was he angry! He tied us to the heliocopter blades like a pair of Christmas hams and made us ride on them the whole way back to England! I was sick for days after, heaving up icicles into the toilet bowl like a snow leopard with a hairball.
But check it out. Howard did hold me in the night. In a non-homogay way, mind -- sorry to disappoint, if you were expecting something more. Though to tell the truth, I was expecting a bit more myself, seeing as the berk had made a big production out of telling me he loved me only hours before when we were trussed up by those freaks in the parkas. But nah, he just kept me warm until Fossil showed up, and but for that one mention of his malady, he seemed to endure the touching well enough through the night. So what was it about the Arctic that cured his pteronophobia?
Maybe the Arctic didn't cure his pteronophobia.
Maybe he passed it on to me and I've got pteronophobia right now! I could be crawling with it, and it might eat away at my flesh and make my hair fall out and my head go bulbous and I'll wake up tomorrow morning looking like Howard's more attractive twin, Voward. Aw, I'm not going to be able to think about the things that really matter -- things like the pros and cons of neon-coloured bootlaces -- until I find out what that pteronophobia's all about. Phobia means you got the Fear, right? What else can it be but fear of touching? But back in the Arctic that snaggle-toothed bitch mortality must have made Howard temporarily forget his fear, tricky minx that she is, and now that we're alive and out of danger his pteronophobia is back in full swing, hoofin' through his head like a crazed llama.
Lucky for me, one of the first things Howard taught me was how to calm a llama down.
Normally, Vince would have been asleep by now. He could fall asleep just about anywhere, and at the drop of a hat. That's how it goes when you're raised in the jungle and have to nap on the back of a galloping zebra, or catch a little sleepie in a rubber tree during monsoon season. But instead of sleeping, he was wrapped in a blanket and propped up on the sofa cushions with an ice-pack strapped to his head. He'd spent all evening cooking up the perfect plan to help Howard overcome his pteronophobia; now he just had to wait for Howard to finally show up from his long day of valeting for Bainbridge.
Unfortunately, it was another half-hour before Howard shuffled into the keeper's shed, and by then Vince was on the verge of nodding off. As soon as he heard the door open, though, he shook himself awake and let out a weak little cough.
"What's that?" Howard snapped on a lamp and looked Vince over. "Ice-pack? Isn't that a bit much for a little quill jab to the forehead?"
"It's not the quill," Vince said in a raspy voice, coughing again. "I'm just a touch under the weather." He made a big production of trying to push aside the blanket and being too weak to do so. "Nothing to worry about," he said, smiling faintly.
Howard raised a suspicious eyebrow. "You do look a bit more pale than usual, I guess. Quite like a pale, fragrant cheese."
"Do I?" Vince raised his hands to his face, a bit surprised because he hadn't actually done anything to make himself look more pale than usual.
"Yeah, you do." Howard draped his valet jacket over a chair and then sat down in it, stretching his legs out in front of him.
"Ah, well." Vince stared down into his lap. "I guess you've got a right to know the truth." He lifted his eyes to Howard's and took in a hearty breath. "Howard," he began, trying to make his voice sound both a bit frightened and yet unspeakably brave. "I'm afraid that I've been dealt a brutal blow to my health."
Howard only stared wordlessly, his eyes broadcasting his doubt. Vince glanced away, swallowed, then continued. "I'm dying, Howard! Dying tragic and young, just like James Dean. I'll leave behind a beautiful and whole corpse, mind, but you can bet your jazz collection that by this time next week, I'll have perished."
"That's crazy, Vince," Howard said, frowning. "I'd never bet my jazz collection."
"But..." Vince's mouth lunged around for words. "But I'm dying. Haven't you got anything to say about it?"
"I've already said it, Vince. That's crazy. You were fine as wine this morning. I've never seen you with so much as a hang-nail. People like you don't die."
"People like me die all the time! Elvis. Jim Morrison. Kurt Cobain!" The distress in Vince's voice wasn't exactly feigned, now. Though keenly aware that he was lying his tits off, he was a little bothered by the fact that Howard didn't believe him.
"Those three jokers?" Howard snorted. "They all died on the toilet, Vince. You don't even go to the toilet, near as I can tell. Your body is too pristine and efficient to produce human waste."
Vince furrowed his brow. He was pretty sure Kurt Cobain hadn't shot himself on the toilet, but now wasn't the time for arguments about rock 'n roll fatalities. "Yeah? Well my body's not too efficient to have caught a terminal case of Munchausen Syndrome, is it? 'Cos that's what I've got, Howard. I'm dying of Munchausen's." Vince sat back proudly. Munchausen Syndrome was the first disease that had caught his eye in the medical book he'd found in Howard's bookcase. MUNCHausen. Vince hadn't read up on all the details, but figured that it had something to do with munching on a bad biscuit and breathing in the crumbs until they irritated the lining of the wind-pipe. Over time, the wind-pipe would swell up to the size of a pin and he'd no longer be able to pull in a breath. God, what a terrible way for a man to go.
A flicker of a smile passed across Howard's face. "Munchausen Syndrome? You don't say. That's a terrible way for a man to go, Vince." He stood up and crossed the room, sitting down on the sofa beside Vince. "First you'll lose all your hair," he said, his hard orbiting near but not quite touching Vince's well-styled locks. "Then your perfect skin will start to yellow and sag like a Vicar's chicken at Sunday dinner."
"It will?" Vince asked, genuine worry creeping into his voice. He hadn't planned on losing his hair and good looks for the sake of this little caper.
"Oh, yes," Howard said, looking very serious indeed. "Do you think... well, perhaps we ought to shave your head now? So it won't be such a shock to you to lose your hair later?"
"No, no," Vince said hastily. "I'd like to hang on to it for as long as possible, thanks." He thought quickly, running through the mental mouse-maze in his mind for a subtle change in subject. "But there is one thing that might make me feel better," he said, pausing for dramatic effect. "Seeing as I'm dying, and all."
"Well... you might not like it. But it's my dying wish, right? You'd not want to deny a dying man his last wish, would you?
"I'd rather gargle rusty razorblades, Vince," Howard said solemnly. "I'd rather bathe in Bollo's warm and freshly heaved-up monkey vom."
Vince had a niggling suspicious that Howard might be having him on, so, giving a triumphant laugh, he dropped his facade all at once. He lunged for Howard, planting his fingers on either side of Howard's chin. "Ha! Got you! I've got you, you smug, untouchable chin! Nothing gets past the chin-pinchers. They'll come at you fast, like chopsticks at a hedgehog! Oiiii!"
"Leave off!" Howard bolted to his feet, as if he were on springs.
Vince giggled hysterically and rolled around on the sofa, pulling the ice-pack from his head and struggling to catch his breath.
"You know what, Vince? You really are sick," Howard said, looking profoundly annoyed.
"I know!" Vince said between laughs. "I've got Munchausen's!"
"Really. Do you know what Munchausen's is, Vince? Munchausen's is when someone pretends to be sick. Your pretending to be someone who pretends to be sick. That's Munchausen's on a whole new level."
"Does that make me the Munchausen Maverick?" Vince couldn't help laughing at his own quip, but Howard's serious expression prompted him to collect himself. "Aw, come on, Howard. I'm just trying to help you get over your pteronophobia! You can't live your whole life afraid of being touched. No one needs that!"
"I'm not afraid of being touched!" Howard said, taking a step forward and pressing his hand against the top of Vince's head. "See? Your head's touching my hand and I'm not shaking in me boots, am I?"
"Yeah, but..." Vince reached out and squeezed Howard's knee. Howard flinched away, as if he'd been prodded with an electrical baton. "Look at that business! If I touch you, you have a right fit! You're worse than Henry the hedgehog. I bet you'd roll into a ball and blaze a rut across the floorboards, if you could. Disappear into that mouse-hole, right over there, never to be seen again."
"What's your point?" Howard asked, re-seating himself safely out of Vince's reach. "It's none of your concern, is it? If you want someone to touch, touch yourself. Or do you not do that enough as it is?"
"What do you mean?" Vince asked, shifting uncomfortably.
"I mean you're like a teenaged chimpanzee. Don't you know I can hear you at night, rustling around in your sleeping bag and making those deranged trumpeting sounds? I've got the ears of a multi-instrumentalist, Vince. I can hear everything. And I also know how you style your hair with the bathroom door shut so's you can snog your face in the mirror. Who do you think wipes your lip-prints off the glass every morning? Howard Moon, that's who."
"You're perverted!" Vince wrinkled up his face in horror and hid behind the blanket, blushing fiercely.
"Am I? I thought you were the one dying of Munchausen's."
"I just wanted to tweak your chin, Howard! At least I didn't ask you to share your body heat with me like I'd planned."
Howard let out a hassled groan and bowed his head. "Why... would you need my body heat? You had ice on your head."
Vince was silent for a moment. Why had he planned to ask for Howard's body heat? He couldn't remember rightly now, but he thought it was only about wanting to help Howard get over his fear of being touched. That was all it was, right? It wasn't like he needed to touch Howard. Or even wanted to. It was just a bit of a game that they played, and now that Howard was never around they were hardly ever able to play it. "I don't know," he finally said, his voice muffled by the blanket. "I don't see much of you these days, and you don't want to tell me anything about what you're doing for Bainbridge. I reckon I was just... acting out."
Howard clicked his tongue in a chiding fashion. "I never thought I would see the day when Vince Noir felt he wasn't getting enough attention." Especially from me, he added mentally.
"I get plenty of attention," Vince said hurriedly, yanking the blanket away from his face. "But I'm tired of talking to hedgehogs all day long. You should have seen the fashion runway show that Henry and I worked out the other day... I had all of the little hedgehogs decked out in ribbon scarves and pillbox hats made out of bottle caps. We dyed the tips of Henry's mohawk green and he looked like a prickly pear with paws, it was genius!"
"If it was genius then what's the problem, exactly?"
"Well it's no fun to put on a runway show when there's no audience, is there?" Vince said pointedly.
Howard crossed his arms loosely over his chest and Vince saw, for the first time, how exhausted Howard appeared. It wasn't an entirely bad look for him, either, was the startling thing. His hair was rumpled this way and that, unruly like it was when he first woke up in the morning, and his eyelids were at half-mast, giving his face a softened, almost dreamy quality. But if only he'd smile...
"Vince, look, I'm sorry that I missed your big fashion runway show, but I just haven't had time for that sort of larkin' about. You wouldn't believe the things that madman Bainbridge has me doing," Howard explained, then immediately looked sorry, as if he felt he'd said a bit too much.
Vince gave Howard a quizzical look that was edged with surprise. "You know what? Maybe you are the juicy dangler. Dropping all these tasty hints about what you and Bainbridge are up to and then clammin' up tight like a lock-jawed lizard. Don't you want to talk about it?"
"No," Howard said, thought the way he was biting his lip made it seem as if he weren't one-hundred percent certain.
"Aw, why not?" Vince slumped over in disappointment. "You told me all about what happened when you had to imitate a bobcat in heat for that pay raise. You told me about that time Miss Gideon caught you makin' lewd gestures at her with your lunch. You didn't spare a single detail when Bob Fossil tape recorded you havin'--"
"Whoa now, Vince," Howard said, raising up a hand. "You didn't even like it when I told you those stories! You called them 'ten kinds of torturous detail'."
"I changed my mind," Vince said earnestly. "My mind is flexible, like a rubber hose. Just when you think you've found the end where the water comes out -- shazam! -- I've drenched you from behind like Little Tricky Ricky and you got a severe case of soggy pockets to cope with."
Howard almost looked amused. "Little Fickle Bobby," he corrected.
Vince's lips pursed into the beginnings of a smile. "Whatever," he said, shrugging easily. "Point is, I'd not mind hearing about what you've been up to in ten kinds of torturous detail. This time."
Howard made a hissing, doubtful noise through his teeth. "Ten kinds of torturous detail? You think you're up for all ten?" He came to his feet and looked down at Vince, curiosity etched on his face. "Better start with something more manageable," he said, reaching out and brushing Vince's fringe aside, his thumb grazing the red mark where Vince had been stuck with Henry's quill. "Like maybe three kinds of torturous detail." He smiled tightly and dropped his hand away.
Vince's own smile began to turn down at the corners, until his lips were pressed together into a thin, flat line. "You're not going to tell me a thing, are you?"
Howard turned away, ignoring the question. "Got to be scootin'," he said. "Bainbridge will be wanting his before-bed ovaltine."
Vince sighed and fiddled with the ice-pack that was slowly melting into his fashionably distressed jeans. Rubbish, he thought sourly. What's really ten kinds of torturous detail is...
...trying to get Howard to bend when he's made up his mind on something. His completely hateful attitude towards electro and dance music, for example, could only ever be altered if Satchmo retired from blowing his chewy cheeks out on the trumpet and tried his hand at something with real style, like Gravy Train. Then and only then might Howard re-consider his brutal musical biases. What's so spiffin' about brass and spit-valves, I ask you? But Howard lives for that nonsense, and his judgment is as inflexible as those lead-pipe legs he stands on. He ought to get more taffy-textured, like me.
Rigid denial. No matter that he claims otherwise, it's obvious that Howard hates to be touched. And if he's that skittish around me, his mate, imagine how he'd be with a fine lady friend. If she reached for his hand he'd probably swoon and call for smelling salts, and if she swooped in for a snog he'd likely come apart like a Chistmas cracker. God, no wonder he's never got a girlfriend.
Not that he's got time for one now that he's saddled with Bainbridge. Not that he ever really has prospects, anyway. There's Miss Gideon, 'course, but he prefers to gaze at her from afar, like a panini-munching pervert. And what was that ridiculous claim that I'm not getting enough attention from people these days? Attention's practically falling out of the sky for me. I've got it on surplus to the point where I'm thinking of opening a warehouse, actually. I'll peddle away my back catalogue of attention to more needy wallflower types, and throw a weekend special on buy one, get one free. Wherever Vince Noir goes, everyone queues up for a piece of him.
Everyone but Howard, that is. Too busy making Bainbridge's before-bed ovaltine to comfort his best mate in a time of illness, is he? Too strapped down with valet duties to come round and see Henry the hedgehog work a genius waddle down the Zooniverse's fashion runway, yeah? Well, whatever. I don't need Howard Moon's time when I've got everyone else calling up, trying to book an appointment.
I'd better go see what he's up to, though. Could be that he needs me.
Vince put aside his dribbly ice-pack and left the keeper's shack, cloaked in the cover of night.
"You! What do you think you're doing, loitering around the giraffe's high-rise with hair like that? Don't you know they're bulimic? They're going to take a bite out of your delectable locks and then spend the night purging into the falcons' nests." Bob Fossil had climbed out of the ocelot pit and was shining a large flashlight in Vince's direction.
"All right, Mr Fossil. How'd you see me over here? I'm cloaked in the cover of night!"
"My flashlight played upon the gentle shaking of your tassels," Fossil said, taking a few cautious steps in Vince's direction. "And now I must tell you that the Zooniverse has been closed for hours, and that the fine for trespassing is a passionate night spent with me, down in the ocelot pit."
Vince squinted hard at Fossil. "I'm not trespassing!" he said. "I work and basically live here, you nutbox."
"I've never seen you before in my life," Fossil countered. "Unfortunately," he added, licking his greasy lips.
"It's me, Vince!"
"Vince Vaughn?" Fossil took another step forward, panning the light over Vince's body. "Wow, you're so much more attractive in person. Just like that man who plays Dan Ashcroft on the picture-box."
"Not Vince Vaughn, you berk. Vince Noir." Vince pointed to the vinyl letters he'd long ago glued to the pocket of his keeper's jacket.
"Vince Noirrrrrrrr." Fossil looked rather constipated as he tried to remember where he'd heard the name before. "Oh, right! Vincey! Sorry," he said, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I didn't recognize you without that ancient Russian bear you keep as consort."
"You mean Howard?" Vince's face fell visibly, as it was a face he'd always fancied as entirely unforgettable.
"That's right. The bear I promoted to Bainbridge's personal valet," Fossil said proudly. "And I promoted some other keeper to head hedgehog stylist. Oh, the money I'll save! I'm gonna send away for a Chinese bride with two black eyes."
"That was me," Vince said sourly. "And I was demoted, not promoted."
"Oh, right." Fossil shifted around, rolling his eyes back in the direction of the ocelot pit suggestively. "When should we start breaking you in?"
Vince sighed and stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Look, if you could just tell me where Bainbridge and Howard are holed up, I'll be on my way."
"Bainbridge is staying at my place for a while," Fossil said. "We decided I should re-decorate the ocelot pit while he recovers from his noble Arctic expedition in isolation."
"Right then," Vince said, waving a hand. "Good luck with that."
"Wait!" Fossil called desperately after Vince's retreating back. "I've just installed a water bed! Don't you want to get busy gettin' sea-sick?"
Vince shivered and hurried away, storm-clouds of depression nipping at his heels. "Get lost!" he said, trying to kick one of the clouds away. He'd never been i forgotten /i before. Why would he need Howard hanging around him in order to be memorable? He was memorable in his own right!
Fossil's cabin was dark, but for a single window that glowed near the back. Vince hesitated at the front door, his hand poised to knock, then he re-considered and moved in the direction of the lone, lit window, pushing a few vines away and situating himself so that he had a clear view of the room inside.
The view was almost painfully clear.
There, in the bedroom, stood an entirely naked Dixon Bainbridge, his head thrown back proudly. And there, on his knees before Bainbridge, was Howard. Bainbridge had a tight grip on one of Howard's shoulder, and Howard was shuddering ever so slightly. The back of Howard's head mercifully blocked out the exact details of what he was doing to Bainbridge's cock-and-ball region, but the strange noises he was making, which almost sounded like muffled laughter, and the movement of his hands made it obvious that he wasn't exactly meditating.
Vince made a small, yelping sound and jerked away from the window, clapping a hand over his mouth.
Then he leaned against the wall of the cabin, quiet for several long moments. His inner thoughts, however, were far from quiet.
THAT CHEATING WANKER! HE SAID HE LOVED ME! HE SAID HE LOVED ME AND WHEN I LAUGHED HE SULKED LIKE A BED-WETTING INFANT! HE THREW ME OUT OF THE TENT AND LEFT ME TO DIE, THEN AFTER SAYING HE LOVED ME HE SHARED HIS BODY HEAT WITH ME AND SAVED MY LIFE! AND NOW HE'S TOUCHING BAINBRIDGE! AND BAINBRIDGE IS TOUCHING HIM! OH GOD, WHAT IF THEY'VE KISSED? WHAT IF THEIR MUSTACHES HAVE RUBBED TOGETHER LIKE BRILLO PADS AS THEY ROLL 'ROUND THE BED LIKE GREASY SAUSAGES? HE WAS TOUCHING BAINBRIDGE'S SAUSAGE! HE HATES TO BE TOUCHED! IF ANYONE GETS TO TOUCH HIM, IT'S ME! HE'S MY RUSSIAN BEAR AND MY JAZZ IMBECILE AND MY MINE AND MINE MINE HE'S MINE!
WELL! NOW WHAT DO I DO? IF YOU'RE JUST GOING TO SIT THERE SNICKERING THEN YOU CAN GET OUT!
When Vince returned to the keeper's shack he threw open the door and set about methodically breaking off the legs from all their chairs. Then he tossed the legs into the fireplace, ignited them, and fell into a deep sleep before the licking, hissing flames. He could still sleep at the drop of the hat, after all, but when he woke the next morning he was drained and itchy-faced, and knew that his sleep had been the sleep of rage and betrayal.
But in the hazy morning light, with the birds chirping merrily outside his window, he just felt drained and sad. This didn't last long, however; he was still Vince Noir, after all, and, according to the premise established by all previous episodes, Vince Noir always won. So he sat down with his cup of tea, got out his paintbrush and watercolours, and proceeded to make a list. It read as follows:
1) Make Howurd pay attenshun too me again.
2) Help Howerd with his ternafobia.
3) Find out what the fcuk ternafobia is?
4) Learn too spell beter.
5) Get Howard away from that Hitler-anus, Bainbridge.
By lunch-time, Vince thought he'd made some progress. In fact, he'd ever formulated something of a plan. And it was a good thing, too, because at precisely noon Howard came into the shack carrying his lunch. "Bainbridge went to eat with Miss Gideon," he said, looking almost happy. "We've got exactly ten minutes to demolish this bucket of fried chicken I found in his mustache."
"You eat," Vince said, pushing his watercolours aside. "I had some late weetibix."
Howard sat down at the table across from Vince and began to make short work of a drumstick. "Mm," he said between bites. "Seems like I've not eaten anything in days."
Except for sausage, Vince thought dourly. But he only nodded and forced a smile. "Hey, Howard," he said, twirling a spoon between his fingers. "Remember that poetry slam we had in the chameleon boudoir last spring?"
"Do I?" Howard set down his drumstick. "It was incredible! Davey Salamander lost his tail when I read 'The Music of Marsupials' and we got into that argument with the gilamonster about whether poems have to rhyme or not."
"Yeah!" Vince sat upright, getting into the spirit of things. "And we had to set old Gil right with a tune."
And with that, they both promptly broke out into song:
Poetry, poetry, it doesn't have to rhyme
shake your leaves, shake your leaves,
the poet-tree won't mind.
it stings ya like a catheter,
villanelle and quatrain
suckin' out your brain,
sonnet, o' sonnet,
wear it like a pretty bonnet,
but poetry, poetry
it doesn't have to do that thing
where the words sound the same at the end.
"Ha, genius!" Vince said, rubbing his palms on the knees of his jeans.
"Those chameleon's gave us a snapping ovation!" Howard exclaimed, smiling broadly.
Vince stared at that smile for a moment, as if mesmerised by it, and felt the old urge to grab for Howard's chin well up inside him. He squeezed his own knee instead, willing his meandering mind to stay focused. One thing at a time. "You know," he began, his tone carefully measured. "You ought to recite some of your poetry for Bainbridge. I bet he'd appreciate it. Might be less hard on you, and such." Vince tried not to grimace at the mental image of Bainbridge being 'hard' on Howard.
"Nah," Howard said, all at once going morose. "We don't really have that kind of relationship."
"Oh, come on!" Vince urged. "He's a man of letters like you, innee? He'd surely appreciate some finely crafted verse about cream ovals and the gestational cycle of the musical marsupial."
Howard paused over his chicken wing. "Do you really think so?"
Vince tried not to feel stung by the hopeful tone in Howard's voice. "Sure!" he said. "Don't you remember how I got tears in my eyes when you read me that line about the jazz pouch where jazz joeys are incubated for forty days and forty nights while Coltrane is piped-in through their mum's tummy?" Vince kindly withheld the fact that his tears had in fact been tears of horror.
"Yeahhh," Howard said slowly. "I think you may be on to something, Vince. Even if he doesn't care for my verse, Bainbridge is the sort who would appreciate a man with literary endeavours."
"'Course he is!"
"Brilliant!" Howard pushed the bucket of chicken away and stood up, determination etched on his face. "I'm going to go recite to him right now!"
"You do that," Vince said, grinning up at Howard. Then, as soon as Howard had left, he began to count slowly, under his breath. "One... two... three... four... fi--"
"Vince!" The door to the swung open and Howard re-entered the shack, his face bright red. "Bainbridge slapped me and said he never wanted to hear my demented devil's voice again! He fired me on the spot!"
"No!" Vince said, popping to his feet. "He didn't like your poetry?"
"He audibly gagged!"
"You're jokin!" Vince covered his mouth and, unable to stop himself, began to giggle.
"What? What's so funny?" Howard demanded, rubbing the side of his face.
"Well..." Vince began, rather gingerly. "Don't take this the wrong way, but it's a small price to pay, innit? To have your talents insulted in exchange for being released from indentured valet-hood?" He then held his breath. If Howard was disappointed that he'd been fired, he didn't know what he'd do.
Howard looked suspicious at once. "Is that what your plan was? To get me away from Bainbridge?"
Vince shuffled his feet. "Um. Is that what you want my plan to have been?"
"Vince," Howard said, very grave. "You're an absolute genius." He then grinned heartily and held his arms open wide. Vince felt something break free inside him, then he took a few, buoyant steps toward Howard, his own arms shaping up for an embrace.
Then Howard suddenly thrust his arms out and shoved Vince away.
"Sorry! I'm sorry!" Howard said, looking flustered. "I've got all the right hug instincts, but it's the damned pteronophobia. It always kicks in, in the end!"
"Ow," Vince groaned, rubbing at his chest. "But why? I'm not made of feathers, you know!"
Howard furrowed his brow, profoundly confused. "Well, you're not made of feathers when you're not wearing a boa, I suppose. Is that what you mean?"
"No." Vince crossed the room and removed a cumbersome volume from Howard's bookcase. "I looked pteronophobia up, you berk. Just like you suggested. And what do you know, there really is a book full of meanings for random words. Imagine that! I'm telling you, that Mr Dictionary is on to something! When's he gonna put out a sequel?"
Vince then flipped the dictionary open to the page he'd marked, and held it out for Howard to read.
Pteronophobia: fear of being tickled by feathers.
"Oh. So that's what pteronophobia means," Howard said.
"What, you mean that's not what you've got?" Vince closed the book and put it back on the shelf.
"No," Howard said simply. "I'm just ticklish."
They both stared at each other for a moment, smiles slowly inching across their faces.
"That's all?" Vince finally said. "Gosh, Howard. Why didn't you just say so?"
Howard flushed, then flumped down on the couch. "Because it's embarrassing! Men of action aren't supposed to be ticklish. They're supposed to be stoic and unfeeling and carved of oak."
"That's no good, Howard," Vince said, sitting himself down beside his friend. "You're pretty much the least unfeeling person I know."
Howard mulled Vince's words over. Any other time they might've offended him, but there was something about the way Vince had said them that almost seemed... well, admiring.
"Look, Howard, if you want to get over your ticklishness, you need me to sort you out."
"You?" Howard gave Vince a doubtful look. "What can you do for me?"
"I've worked with the hedgehogs, haven't I? I've been trained up as a non-tickler. I've got the skills!"
Howard rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "I guess there is that. But what do I have to do? This doesn't involve re-styling my hair, does it?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Vince laughed. "You can't re-style a lack of style." He got to his feet and moved towards the stereo. "Just lay out on the floor and try to relax, yeah?"
Howard did as he was told, first removing his valet jacket, then arranging his gangly body out on the rug so that he was sprawled out with his arms and legs akimbo. Then he took a few deep breaths, closing his eyes just as Vince switched on the record player and the sounds of the Human League's "Don't You Want Me" filled the shack.
"You didn't tell me this therapy would involve 80's-era electro," Howard grumbled.
"Cool your boots, it's a duet. I know what I'm doing." Vince's shadow fell over Howard as he approached him with a pair of chopsticks in hand. He studied Howard's prone position for a moment, then lowered himself to his knees and crouched beside him. "All right," he began, his tone professional. "The trick of it is that you've got to i know /i where you're going to be touched. If you know, you're less likely to feel the tickle. That's why you can never tickle yourself, right? 'Cos your mind knows just where your hand is headed."
Howard nodded wordlessly. There was something slightly odd about this situation. All this talk of tickling and touching was making him feel strangely light-headed. He dismissed it as blood rushing to his brain and simply nodded again.
"Okay. I'm gonna touch the chopsticks to your throat. Ready?"
Vince lightly touched the tip of the chopsticks against the base of Howard's throat, right where his blood beat fast, and held his breath.
Howard was also holding his breath. But the chopsticks were just chopsticks, nothing more than wood, and they didn't tickle him in the slightest. "It's working," he whispered.
"Right." Vince cleared his throat. "Now I'm gonna do the same thing, but with my finger. It'll be right against your throat again, so you know exactly where my finger is headed."
"And you're not going to put them anywhere else?" Howard asked, his voice unnaturally high.
"Not yet," Vince said, pressing his fingertips to Howard's throat and watching carefully for Howard's reaction. Howard only swallowed, his throat spasming slightly under
Vince's touch, then nodded for Vince to continue.
"The middle of your chest now. You ready?"
Howard felt Vince's finger draw a line from his throat to the ridge of his sternum, tripping over buttons along the way, then it paused right over Howard's thudding heart and Vince let out a small laugh. "Feels like you've got a wash-machine going under there," Vince remarked. "Scrubbin' a heavy load of boots, maybe."
"Shhh, be quiet, Vince."
"Right. Okay, I'm going to the belly-button now. This one's gonna be tough, so you best brace yourself."
Every muscle in Howard's body tensed as Vince's finger made a lazy trail from his chest to his navel, where it circled the rim of his belly-button once, then stopped. Howard felt himself unspool internally, as if there were waves rocking away beneath him, carrying him toward unknown waters. It should have been ten different kinds of torture to be touched like this, to have Vince's hand journeying lower and lower. Hell, it was ten different kinds of torture, but Howard thought it would be a worse sort of torture to have it stop now.
"Top marks!" Vince said cheerfully, giving Howard's belly a playful poke. "If you can stand that, then I'd say you're well on your way to recovery!" Vince started to pull his finger away, but Howard clinched down on his wrist and pressed Vince's hand down flat against his belly.
"Don't." The word was a raw groan in the back of Howard's throat.
Vince met his eyes. "Don't what?"
The word hung between them, and it was too late for Howard to stuff it back into his mouth. He closed his eyes tight and waited for Vince to laugh his bloody head off.
"Whatever," Vince said, his voice a sneer as he snatched his hand away.
Howard's eyes sprung open in surprise. "Whatever?" he repeated, propping himself up on his elbows.
Vince was glaring at him. "You think I'm going to not stop? After what you got up to with Bainbridge in Fossil's cabin?"
"What do you mean?" Howard narrowed his eyes. "Did you spy on me?"
"I followed you so I could help you! And instead I found you on your knees, lathering up Bainbridge's cock and balls with your cheating Yorkshire tongue."
"Cheating?" Howard blinked, noticing for the first time that Vince didn't seem angry. No, it was more like he seemed hurt. "And you thought I was doing what with my tongue?"
"Sampling his sausage! Tipping the torpedo! Sucking up the sailors!"
"I was not!" Howard felt his face heat up. "I was ordered to apply a healing salve to his black-frost-bitten thighs and genitalia! With a baster, mind, but it was still awful." Howard wrapped his arms around himself and shuddered. "Oh, you can't imagine the smell. You can't fathom the sight of his blackened, crispy pubic hairs and blistered balls! Don't you know that I wanted to kill myself!" Howard was yelling now. So loudly, in fact, that Bainbridge had to excuse himself from the Zooniverse at once, as everyone had stopped their work in order to crane their necks in his direction, morbidly curious about the state of his blistered balls.
Vince stared at Howard, thunderstruck. "God, Howard, you really ought to have read your poetry to Bainbridge sooner," he said.
"And you really ought to have your head checked if you think for one minute I'd allow my tongue to stray anywhere near Bainbridge's business."
Vince fucked his head, sheepish. "I'd had a lot of hairspray last night," he said. "Them fumes had me reelin'. Could have affected my judgment."
"You think?" Howard asked, softening. "I'm surprised you'd go to the trouble. Looking up words in the dictionary, spying on me, curing me of my non-pteronophobia."
"Aw," Vince said, going red. "I was just really bored."
"Bored without me around, you mean."
"I do not!"
"You missed me."
"Miss a face like that?"
"Hey," Howard said, raising an eyebrow. "You're the one who can't keep your hands off it."
"What, like this?" Vince darted his hand out, giving Howard's chin a good, hard squeeze.
Howard didn't respond, only sat there and allowed Vince to tweak his chin, all while fighting back a smile. "Why do always you do that?" he asked.
Vince grinned. "Reckon I was waiting for you to let me."
"Well," Howard said, and the weight of that word seemed to expand until it's meaning was something like: I'm letting you. I'm letting you do... whatever.
So Vince kissed him. With his hand still under Howard's chin, he pressed his lips to his and inched his tongue into Howard's mouth. And then they were kissing hard, breath passing quick and hot between them. "That tickle?" Vince asked, voice muffled.
"Horribly," Howard said.
Vince pulled Howard's shirt free from the waistband of his trousers and scraped his fingertips through the hair on Howard's chest and stomach. "That?"
Vince grinned against Howard's mouth, then threw one leg over Howard's torso so that he was straddling him. "And that?" He ground his hips against Howard's in an insinuating fashion, and this time, Howard's answer was only a single, ragged groan.
Vince pushed himself further down and made short work of the fastenings on Howard's trousers, then slowly pulled down his shorts.
"And?" he asked softly, moving his hand to where it should tickle most, and in the best sort of way.
a bit later
Vince came up behind Howard, who was in front of the mirror buttoning his shirt, and snaked an arm over Howard's shoulder to tweak his chin.
"What are you doing?" Howard asked.
"Chin-pinchers!" Vince said triumphantly..
"Not now," Howard muttered, smiling. "We just finished up with that business."
Oh, what's this?" Vince smirked. "Is chin-pinching the new secret code?"
"Nothing new about it, Vince. Your chin-pinching was always a sign of your deep eremophobia."
"Deep what! Earophobia? I'm not afraid of ears, Howard."
"Vince..." Howard pivoted around, amused, and gave Vince's own chin a pinch. "Just look it up."
Some things never change.
And then some things change but it feels like they didn't 'cos it seems like they were really like that all along.
Aw, quit lookin' so smug, you. When you see us again next week we'll be up to our usual nonsense. It's all planned out, see: I'm gonna get jealous over Howard's waxing romantic for his former cheese-headed lover, Tommy Nooka, endure the unwanted advances of a weirdo cutout named Rudi, and save Howard from a pack of mod-worshipping wolves. 'Course, you won't see the detour we take on the vespas that leads us to a leafy grove where we'll go bumming behind a rock after arguing about how much Tommy's grated head weighs. Nah, we'll cut that out of the final reel because this isn't that kind of a show. You'll just have to live with the subtext. It's all about subtext, innit? That's what I've said all along.
Subtext, context... whatever.
Oh, and if you're wondering how all these dire shenanigans ended happily... well, I told you from the start, didn't I?
I'm a gifted child.