It was surprisingly easy to convince Howard.
Of course he refused at first, but Vince insisted that he couldn't do it himself with his hands trembling, and that he didn't trust his cool friends - the ones who actually knew about make-up - near his face the way he trusted Howard, and as a multi-instrumentalist, didn't Howard have incredibly nimble and decisive hands?
Literally the way to a man's heart is through his ribcage, but metaphorically the way to Howard's was through his ego. He followed Vince up to the bedroom and sat on the edge of his bed while Vince grabbed his make-up kit.
It really was an impressive collection. It was stored in an olive green fishing box that Vince had decorated with glittery puffy-paint pictures of scarf-wearing fish and squid in top hats. The lid opened up to reveal tiered drawers divided into little sections. Instead of hooks, lines, and bobbers, they held mascara, eye liner, eye shadow, blush, face paint, and lipstick in colors from plumb to champagne. It was obviously the kind of palette people would pay to play with, but Howard had no idea where to start. The closest he came to make-up was the beeswax lip balm he used when his lips became chapped.
"Vince," he began to protest, again, but Vince sat down next to him and handed him a thin black tube.
"Don't worry, I'll tell you exactly what to do. Believe me, I don't want my face to look freakish on my first night clubbing in months."
The tube was eyeliner, and Vince did give exact instructions. Howard leaned in close, closer than he was used to seeing anyone without the benefit of binoculars, and began tracing a thin line along Vince's eyelid. He tried to avoid unnecessary touching, but it helped to have one hand against the side of Vince's face while he applied the make-up. He was nervous about slipping and hitting the eye with the eyeliner pencil. The eye, on the other hand, seemed unconcerned as it pointed to some spot above Howard's head.
"What club are you going to?" Howard asked, trying to be just as casual as the eyeball.
The eye flickered to Howard's face and then back above his head. It was strange to feel the movement beneath the pencil. "The Anteater's Menu," he answered. "It's going to be genius. My return to the scene is the talk of the town, you know. Four months is a long time. I've been getting a dozen calls a day; where are you, Vince? When can we bask in your glory again? But I've been keeping myself wrapped in mystery."
"Yeah? And what are you going to tell them tonight?" Howard turned to the next eye, angling Vince's face just so. A strand of black hair slipped from behind an ear, and Vince raised a hand to push it back. The tremors were bad this evening. "And what are you going to say about the shaking?" He added as he finished the second eye and leaned back, satisfied.
"The truth, I suppose." Vince pressed a tube of mascara into Howard's hands and smiled.
Howard pulled the mascara brush out of the tube, and carefully tipped Vince's head back a bit further. "The truth?"
Applying mascara wasn't like combing a mustache, it seemed. It took a couple tries before Howard figured out how much pressure to use. "What, specifically, will you tell them?"
"You want a story, is that it?" Vince laughed. "I should have guessed. You're always hot for some word-on-word action."
"Well, I am doing you a favor..."
"Won't know if it's a favor 'til I look in a mirror," Vince retorted, but he was smiling up at Howard. "Alright then, but you'd better not lose yourself in the prose and mess up my face. And no complaining if you don't like the ending."
"It started all the way across the ocean in America. There's an ultra-successful coffee company over there called Mermaid Coffee. For a long time their mascot was a mermaid, but re-branding is all the rage right now, and they went looking for a new spokesperson. Some of my press shots crossed the desk of the CEO, a seafaring pirate named Bucky. She was impressed, and sailed over to take me back to the states on her ship.
"It was strange, because even though she picked me as the new mascot, she didn't seem to like me. At first I thought this was just part of her prickly pirate personality, but she was actually quite friendly with her crew. She was even friendly with people she didn't know, like Stan the stowaway, who we discovered a week into our voyage while looking for the lost Monopoly set. It was just me who got the cold shoulder. My feelings were hurt. I thought she was well fierce, and she treated me like a fly she wanted to swat.
"Well, living in close quarters meant I heard a bit of everything the crew chatted about. It wasn't long before I heard gossip that Bucky had a crush on the mermaid and didn't really want to replace her. But she was a businesswoman as well as a pirate, and she knew it was time for a change. It broke her heart that she wouldn't have an excuse to spend time with the mermaid, and she was taking it out on me. There were even rumors that she would change her mind once we reached land, and that I'd be sent packing.
"This was my shot at fame on the line! I asked around if the mermaid had feelings for Bucky, hoping that I could hook them up, but no one knew. It was too dangerous to ask the mermaid, because if it got back to Bucky that I was messing with her love life, I'd walk the plank for sure. She was a proud pirate, and a private pirate. I had to find out, but I had to do it on the sly. It became obvious that there was only one course of action - I would have to go to an underwater costume party dressed like Bucky, and see if it got the mermaid hot.
"It just so happened that the mermaid was going to a costume party at an island lagoon we were passing, so I got cozy with a pair of turtles on the ship who were going, and got invited along. It was easy enough to borrow bits and bobs from the other sailors to make the costume, but there was no way to make a wig that looked like Bucky's hair. She had short, spiky platinum blonde hair, you see. There was nothing for it. I had to cut my hair.
"I'm not ashamed to admit I almost cried when I saw my gorgeous hair hitting the deck. It was the shortest I'd cut it since I was ten years old. It looked cool, yeah, but it wasn't me, and I felt naked in a way that couldn't be fixed with clothing. I was brave, though. I had my mission. I bleached my hair, put on my pirate boots, and went to the party. The venue was genius! They'd lit the lagoon with candles on lily pads, and had hired two bands: one for above the surface, and one for below. I sat myself on a willow branch overhanging the water and waited. Soon enough I saw the mermaid swimming through the spindly coral doorway, and I could tell as she looked up at me from below the water that for a moment she thought I was Bucky. The smile she gave me in those moments rivaled the puffer-fish disco balls. When she realized I was someone else, she was polite but obviously put off.
"She avoided me, but I kept an eye on her as I got my feet wet and made the rounds, chatting up the party-goers. I saw her getting more and more drinks from the open bar, until she was pretty tanked. Only then did she suddenly get friendly, pulling me to the underwater dance floor and leading me in a waltz through the seaweed. She held me very close, and made sure we broke the surface every so often so I could breathe without leaving her arms. She didn't want to let me go when the party ended. Her friend Orson the octopus had to help extract me and take her home.
"I had my answer, and from there it wasn't hard to set them up. I told the mermaid everything, and she agreed to tell Bucky how she felt. She didn't mind moving on in her career as a mascot, especially if it meant she could openly date Bucky. And date they did! They were a gorgeous couple. We never told Bucky about my meddling - I was afraid she'd be angry and fire me - but the mermaid was very grateful. She wanted to repay me, and asked me if there was anything I desired. Well, there was, but it wasn't something I thought she could help me with. I told her anyway. I told her how much I missed my long, gorgeous hair.
"The mermaid patted my arm and what she told me next made my heart soar. There was a special mermaid coffee - grown on trees stuck to beluga whales like barnacles - and this coffee was so strong that it caused spontaneous hair growth. She brought me a cup the next day, warning me that the side effects were intense. I didn't care; I knocked it back without a second thought, feeling it burn my throat and do indecent things to my stomach lining. And just like she promised, my hair grew out down to my shoulders, soft and darkly coffee-colored with only the tips remaining bleach blond. Running my hands through my new hair felt like coming home.
"Only thing was, the caffeine content of that beluga barnacle coffee was so strong that my hands started shaking, and they'll probably keep doing for months. Was worth it, though. Totally worth it."
Vince looked up at Howard as he finished his story. Howard smiled. "So you made it big in the States?"
"Yeah. Mermaid Coffee entered a newer, cooler era with me at the helm. Then they chucked me for a squid with a huge mantle."
"Still, you must be happy to be back home."
Now that he was done talking, he handed Howard a tube of lip gloss. It was a frosty pink. Howard frowned at it, thinking it would probably make Vince's lips look bloodless. Well, Vince knew what he was doing. Howard uncapped it. Instead of holding the side of Vince's face, he found it easier to keep a light grip on his chin as he applied the gloss. He wasn't sure how far down the inside slope of Vince's lips he should go, so he stopped right at the top, where the lips would be touching if Vince's mouth were closed. Applying the lip gloss was easier than applying the eye make-up, but it felt stranger to be casually touching Vince's mouth than his eyes. Without a story to listen to, Howard felt the unruly llama herd of his thoughts wandering off in a dozen directions. It took effort to shepherd them back together. "Is that it, then?"
Vince quirked an eyebrow at him. "The story or the make-up?"
"What, the ending not to your satisfaction?"
Howard shrugged again. "It left a few loose threads."
"Nonsense! I wouldn't be caught dead with loose threads." Vince grinned at Howard, holding his arm out, and Howard grinned back as he pulled Vince to his feet.
The next time Vince asked, Howard only made a mild, token protest. "There's got to be somebody you'd rather have do this."
Vince smiled and tugged him upstairs to their room. "But you're the one who's here, yeah? Puts a lot of points in your corner."
"They do call me the corner-pointer," Howard mused.
Vince fished the makeup tackle box out from under his weekly pill organizer - which had also gotten the puffy paint treatment - and they settled on the bed. Howard was less hesitant this time. He remembered which tubes were for Vince's eyelids, which were for his lashes, and which were for his lips.
Vince handed him a pearly blue eyeshadow, and when Howard paused it wasn't because he didn't know what to do with it. He paused because he was looking at all the other colors in the box. Carefully, as if not to disturb the order of the tubes - as if there iwas/i an order to the violently-colored nest - he pulled out another eyeshadow. This one was a cautious fawn.
The blue would make Vince look pale and frosty. Howard decided quite firmly that he didn't like the blue. He put it in the box and uncapped the fawn. When he looked back Vince was regarding him calmly. Howard paused and looked at the make-up in his hand. What was he doing? Vince would never stand for this.
"Go on, then," Vince said.
So Howard did up Vince's eyes exactly as Vince had shown him before, but with his own choice of palette. He picked browns and golds that softened the sharp lines of Vince's face, as if the man were gazing into cozy fireplace rather than a club full of harsh neon lights. Howard figured he must be getting better at this, because he was liking the results much better this time. Vince caught sight of Howard's pleased smile and smiled in return.
"Where are you going tonight?" Howard asked, eager to keep that smile directed at him.
"Jacques L'Cube's new place. It's called D6." He closed his eyes and leaned back on his elbows as Howard rummaged for a nice dark-yet-muted tone for Vince's lips. "Actually, it's been open for a couple months, but this will be my first appearance."
"A big deal, I take it?" Vince's lips stained startlingly under Howard's hand.
"Huge. Jacques has been on my case constantly, saying all the hip polyhedrons are wondering where I've been."
"And you'll be telling them the truth?"
"Well, it is a good story."
"Let's hear it, yeah?"
Vince paused, lips parted, and Howard also paused with the coffee-colored mascara brush hovering millimeters above Vince's eyelashes. For a moment Howard thought he'd get mocked for asking again, but then Vince smiled. "You just can't get enough, can you? Alright then, but keep an eye on what you're doing, yeah?
"A long time ago I worked at a zoo. One day, a python went missing, and I was asked to get a statement from the neighboring cobra. The cobra agreed to tell me what he had seen, but in exchange he wanted a favor. He used to work for a snake-charmer, you see, and he missed doing his snaky dances for an audience. So he asked me to host a gig where he could dance for everyone once again. I agreed, we found the python, and I threw a massive party where I laid down the beats for the cobra. Afterwards we even got drunk and wrote a song together, performing it for the after-party crowd.
"Months passed, and eventually the zoo closed. The cobra went to stay with a wealthy snake enthusiast, and he was very happy there. He lived in a huge conservatory with dozens of other cobras, and he became a bona fide rock star. He knocked out hit after hit, toured reptile houses, and eventually started his own label. Some of his greatest hits were collaborations with a lady snake. While recording 'Taste the Danger in the Air' and 'First To Touch My New Skin,' they fell in love. Years went by. He had a large family.
"One of his daughters followed in his footsteps. Her name was Maya, and as a child she loved to hear her dad talk about his musical exploits, including the time we sang together. She grew into her own rock n' roll role, gathering a steady cult following. She knew she needed a hook, just one hit to propel her to rock stardom. And one dark night, coiled in the tallest branches of her home, with the moonlight shining through the glass of the conservatory's ceiling, she decided what she needed was me. Her dad had told the story of our collaboration many times, and the song we had written together was something of a legend. I was just the hook she needed; rare enough to be worth something, and well-known enough to create a buzz in the industry.
"She wrote me a nice letter, and out of nostalgia for the zoo I went and visited her. We went on strolls and talked about her father, and in the evening when it cooled we retired to the leafy canopy and brainstormed some lyrics. After a few days we had a pretty catchy song called 'Undulate', but Maya wasn't satisfied.
"There's something you might not know about snake music. They don't just listen to it with their ears - they feel it with their whole body. And snake musicians - well, they don't just sing. They also vibrate against the ground, and those vibrations are part of the song. Maya was getting frustrated with me because I couldn't understand the vibrations in the song, so I couldn't harmonize with her - not completely.
"She wanted so badly to teach me the secret layer of her music, so she went to the wise old snake witch and asked her if there was a way. 'Yes, my child,' the witch replied. 'You must spend three days and three nights listening to all of the rock legends, both reptile and human. And when your whole body is thrumming with the music, and the vibrations have transformed your spirit, you must bite the human. For at this moment your venom will be not poison but inspiration.' And that is exactly what Maya did.
"When she sunk her fangs into my arm I thought that I was going to die. I was pulled into a fever-state, a dreamy place where music burrowed into the tiny spaces between my skin cells and spread out like a lake of tattoo ink. Maya wrapped herself around my head as I thrashed about, trying to keep me still. Her venom sang in my veins like Jagger and Jett and Bowie and Benatar, but I couldn't hear it. I could only feel it. I had to learn to understand the thrumming because without it I was in a place of silence, going mad.
"When I woke up the first thing I was aware of was Maya singing me a lullaby. It was a song her father had sung for me once, but this time I was hearing - and feeling - the whole song. The second thing I was aware of was that I was shivering. I tried to hold myself still, but I couldn't. I could control it somewhat, though. After hearing Maya sing the chorus of the lullaby a few times I shakily joined in, singing with both my voice and my body.
"I tried to be angry at Maya for biting me, I really did. It was hard when I saw how happy she was that we could finally sing together in her language. It made me happy, too, so I chucked my anger in favor of throwing a massive, genius concert. We rocked out to rave reviews, then went on tour together, selling out venue after venue. I knew in the back of my mind that I couldn't stay too long, that Maya had to build her next hit without me to prove that she could stand on her own. We'd grown so close that it was hard for me to say goodbye, but she understood and kissed me on the nose with her flicky tongue and sent me on my way. But even though I'm home now, our songs are constantly stuck in my head. I catch myself humming them and vibrating them, even though there's no one here to appreciate the music."
Vince opened his eyes. Howard had finished applying the make-up early into the story, and was sitting back with his legs crossed. "That sounds... isolating," Howard observed. "Aren't you tempted to go back to your life of fame?"
"Nah, it was a wild ride, but it weren't my scene." Vince stood and stretched his arms above his head, briefly rising up on his toes as he arched his back. Howard watched as the hem of his shirt rode up, exposing pale skin. The new scar that ran along his abdomen was visible until Vince lowered his arms again. "Maya was destined to be a solo act, I could tell, and me..." he shrugged. "I'm destined for a different double act."
Howard paused, his chest aching with that anxious, hopeful happiness. It was a feeling he'd gotten used to these last few months, and he knew how to chase it away with an upbeat remark. "You and Gary Numan, huh?"
Vince rolled his eyes. "Who else?"
Vince appeared at the top of the stairs in a bathrobe with his hair pulled back. "I need to be at the Velvet Onion in two hours," he told Howard, "and the bloody tremors..." he trailed off, running his shaking hands through his hair. "So come 'ere already."
Howard set down the forms he'd been going through and made his way upstairs. He found Vince already in their room, lying on his bed with his feet by the pillows and his head hanging off the foot of the bed. His hair was an inky waterfall running down the duvet.
"I've decided I'm gonna let you do whatever you want with the make-up, Howard."
Howard blinked. "I'm glad you recognize my talent for quick learning and my-"
Vince cut in. "It's not because I trust you or think you're any good at this, mind."
"Oh?" He deflated slightly.
"It's because I'm not normal. Why should I look normal? Why should I look like what the Velvet Onion crowd expects me to look like?"
Howard picked up the make-up box and settled on the floor, his knees protesting. He wasn't sure if he should be worried or pleased by Vince's words. Vince cared too much about image, so this was a nice change of pace. But the timing was worrisome. "Is this because of your time off from the clubs?" he asked.
"Yeah, it ties in."
"Are you going to tell the gents at the Velvet Onion about it?"
"Yeah, I think so. Can I run it by you first?"
Howard smiled, surprised. "Sure, little man." He opened the box and began searching for a palatable palette.
Vince took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "Not many people realize it, but I'm not a normal bloke. I'm not just talking about being Prince of Camden or a rock n' roll star, mind. I'm those things, too, but I'm more than that. Or at least I used to be. I used to be a god.
"I was born thousands of years ago on the day that a human first realized that mammoth-fur loincloths looked great with knee-high boots. I was the god of fashion, the essence of style. My power flowed from the constant push-and-pull between peoples' desire to express individuality and their desire to fit in. I created crazes and tended to trends. And you know what? It was genius. I mean, all I had to do was whisper in the ears of a couple painter and playwrite-types, and suddenly ruffs were all the rage. I wandered the world throughout history, always the pinnacle of cool, because I was judge, jury, and executioner of cool.
"All that power at my French-manicured fingertips! You'd think I'd be eternally happy as the god of trendiness, yeah? And I was, mostly. For thousands of years I set the winds of style in motion and watched as humanity struggled to keep up. I saw how hard people fought to be at the frontline of fashion. I saw the dreadful faux-pas people made to try to get ahead. I saw the excitement it caused when something surprising became vogue. And I got jealous. I was watching the most fantastic game ever played, and I couldn't join in because I was making the rules.
"So I decided to give up my divine powers and become human, as one does.
"It was kind of a disaster at first. I had turned myself into an adult human, but I was shit at taking care of myself. I'd never realized all the work that goes into not dying. I was like a child in an adult body. I needed someone to look out for me, so I latched onto pretty much the first person I met. Ironically, he was well unfashionable, but I was desperate. I leaned on him as I got my feet under me. It didn't take long, but by then we'd gotten used to each other. And when I was ready to try to sway the tides of fashion as a human, he stuck around. Said he wanted to be in a band with me, imagine that! I didn't let him slow me down, though. He didn't like the thriving clubs I went to, anyway, and as long as he didn't follow me there I was safe. And although I wouldn't admit it to anyone, it was rather comforting to have someone boring and reliable to come home to after a night of frenzied trend-chasing.
"I guess it could have gone on like that for a long time, but then I started to go... wrong. I felt sick if I wasn't at a club surround by fans. I got headaches if I didn't switch my outfit four times a day. My mood swung from deliriously happy to dangerously angry at the drop of a headdress. Worse, I could feel my human body breaking down. My hands shook and my body felt like it was buzzing. It occurred to me rather late that there was a reason why gods weren't supposed to descend to Earth. Divinity can't be switched off, only bottled up. And things that are bottled up tend to explode.
"Well, I wasn't ready to go up in a pillar of glitter and sequins! So I did what any intelligent being would do in my place: I asked my flatmate to research gods who have managed mortalness. He's into libraries and stuff, see. But he just looked at me all panicky-like. Then he fled. What a weirdo. Without any other options, I brought out my set of divine crayons - a goodbye gift from the god of rainbows and portals - and drew a pony. Mind you, ponies are an ancient symbol of wisdom, and when drawn with magic crayons they make a fine oracle-on-the-go.
"Soon enough I had the address of a god who had descended ages ago and was living happily in Islington, apparently in no danger of being pulled apart by repressed powers. I was determined to find out how. I packed an emergency supply of accessories and made my way to the address. My symptoms were getting worse, and by the time I arrived I was itching to restyle my hair. Palms sweating, I rang the bell of a modest, well-kept house.
"The woman who answered must have recognized me for what I was, because she invited me in without question. She was quite short, but she stood with such confidence and command that she seemed to tower above me. Her hair was dark and curved down to her chin, framing her soft face. Looking at her was like looking at a queen. She was so captivating that it took me awhile to notice anything else about the room where she led me. The curtains were down. The only light came from a dim lamp in the corner. Instead of paintings there were whips and paddles hanging on the walls. A pair of handcuffs was sitting next to a tea tray on the side table. There was also another woman in the room. Her long, feathered blonde hair and sharp features were half-hidden by shadows.
"The queen-like woman spoke. 'I'm Drosera.' She bared her teeth in a maybe-possibly-friendly way and raised one hand to gesture to the other woman. "This is Mayfly.'
"Mayfly gave a tight-lipped smile as she regarded me with large eyes. She was taller and maybe even prettier than Drosera, but the shadows seemed to pull her into the background. She was wearing a dark leather collar.
"'And you,' Drosera continued, 'are sick. And I don't mean that in a complimentary way. How long have you been human?'
"I told her my story as she led me to the sofa. Mayfly lingered behind, sipping her tea and gazing at Drosera. When I finished Drosera looked me up and down, tapping her finger against the side of her mouth. Her nails were a deep green with dewdrop-shaped jewels that caught what little light there was in the room. 'Most gods who descend don't make it a month before they lose control,' she said. 'How have you held on so long?'
"I shrugged. 'How have you?'
"She laughed. 'It took me years and countless mortal bodies to find a way to survive on Earth. I could tell you my secret, but what's in it for me?' Her eyes flickered from my face to the whips on the walls, and I swallowed. She wanted me to offer myself up to her. I could feel it, seeing her perch on the edge of a chair, back straight, in the center of the room. Maybe it was a charm or maybe not, but part of me wanted it, too. She deserved anyone who stepped within her reach, didn't she?
"I shook my head, resisting. 'I can get you into any club in London.'
"She rolled her eyes. 'Do you really think I've ever been turned away from a club?'
"My mind raced. The whips were starting to look appealing. She would probably know just how much force to use so it wouldn't scar, just sting, sting and burn. With effort I pulled my thoughts as far away from the dark, dangerous room as I could. I cleared my throat. 'My flatmate makes a mean quiche.'
"Her mouth parted in surprise. She regarded me quietly for a minute, then sighed. 'We'll need two pies, because I'm partial to quiche lorraine and she's vegetarian.' She turned towards Mayfly. 'What'll you have?'
"Mayfly looked at Drosera fondly. 'Quiche florentine.'
"I nodded, struck speechless that she'd accepted.
"'Then we have a deal, Vince. The secret of humanity for two quiche pies. Homemade, of course. Bear witness, Mayfly.'
"I wondered what kind of idiot would go back on a deal as good as this, but I didn't say anything.
"'The secret, Vince, is balance. As a god you exist in a place equipped to handle the power of your aspect. As a human, your aspect begins to overwhelm you. It drives you mad and destroys your body. The only way to temper it is to balance it with the aspect of another god. A god whose nature opposes your own.'
"Mayfly winked at me. I was in a room with two other gods, not just one.
"'So I find a god of boring things,' I said. 'Then what?'
"'You share your name. Your real name. And you must get the name of the other god. After that, your powers will be linked, and you will achieve a homeostasis that your human body can withstand.'
"'But that's hard! Gods hate sharing their real names, there's myths about it and everything.'
"Drosera shrugged. 'If you can't persuade another god to descend and share her name, then give up. Most gods just can't hack it as human.'
"I bristled. 'I can hack it! I was born hacking! Well not really, that was Athena, but you know what I mean. Just you watch!' And I thanked her for the tea and left.
"The next day at breakfast I was a nervous wreck. I'd already customized and re-customized my favorite boots while trying to think of the gods who were most unlike me. There were gods of tombs and embalming which is dead boring. They were all creepers though. I couldn't imagine sharing my name with anyone who collected organs in jars, even if the jars came in cool matching sets.
"My flatmate came in and I tried to calm myself. We'd been fighting more in recent days. He'd always been a stick in the mud, but I swear he was getting worse. It felt like we were growing further apart, if that were possible. The last thing I wanted was another row, but I figured asking his opinion was pretty safe. 'Morning,' I said. 'Out of all the myths and stuff, who do you think is the most boring god?'
"'How do you know?' he snapped, his eyes darting about frantically. 'I've kept it secret for so long! No one has even suspected, and then you of all people!'
"I scooted my chair to the other side of the room, warily watching him mutter and pace as I finished my cereal. After about five minutes it clicked. 'You're a god? Of what?'
"He sighed. 'Bookmarks.'
"'Bookmarks?' I scoffed.
"'Well, other things, too. Wider concepts, such as the staying power of the classics. The novel that is read and reread through generations, the music that has been played on gramophones and iPods and everything in-between. The durability of tradition. Mostly bookmarks, though.'
"I decided I was still better off on the other side of the room. 'And what are you doing on Earth?' I asked.
"'I like jazz. The jazz scene in the divine realm just doesn't sizzle the way it does here.'
"'Jazz! That was popular ages ago, and I should know! Why the hell do you listen to it now?"
"'You aren't really listening to me, are you?'
"'Whatever.' And I told him about my divinity, and the sickness, and the advice of the goddesses with the bondage kink. He took it well. Didn't even laugh when I asked the big question. It was then - and only then - that I realized I hadn't thought twice about sharing my name with him. As freakish as he was, he was obviously my balance. The dull to my shine. My godsend. So I asked, 'Will you share your name with me?'
"'No risk is too great for the pursuit of jazz,' he replied, which he later explained meant 'yes'.
"And not a moment too soon! Even though he'd been on Earth longer, I was worse off. I guess being overwhelmed by the aspect of dusty old things gave him dusty old symptoms. And he was so awkward anyway, it's not like anyone would notice. But me? I was about to shake apart at the seams, and it hurt if I didn't put on a completely new outfit every five minutes.
"My flatmate fixed me a cup of tea and took me upstairs.
"Now you're probably wondering what it's like when two gods exchange names. If you think it's some big, romantic ceremony like a wedding, well just set that idea free like a dog on the moor 'cause it ain't. It's more like... if you're sitting under a blanket-and-pillow fort with your best mate, telling a ghost story with a torch pointed up at your chin for dramatic effect. And then you realize that you've forgot what the monster in the story is supposed to be, and it's really only scary anyways when you don't know what's scratching in the closet, so you stop talking and he just looks at you, expecting something, so you kiss him. And you've dropped the torch and knocked the blanket down, so for a moment it's just the two of you tangled in a dark, warm universe.
"It's rather like that."
Vince smiled at Howard, who blushed slightly.
"So you shared your name with this stately god?"
"Stately?" Vince laughed. "Don't know about that, but yeah, we shared our names. My mortal body was burning and shaking, and having his name was like being wrapped in a tweed glacier. Even so, it's taken a long time to recover, and I still shake sometimes."
Howard started picking up the scattered cosmetics. "Still," he said, "Small price to pay." He placed the tubes back in the tackle box and handed it to Vince.
Vince nodded. "Yeah, two quiche pies was a small price." He set the tackle box on his dresser next to his pill box. "Don't wait up, okay?"
It used to be that when Vince came home in the early hours before dawn, Howard only woke long enough to recognize that it was Vince - and not some inept burglar - who was stumbling about their bedroom. Then he'd drift right back down into sleep, sometimes not even losing the thread of his dreams. It was a useful skill, something he'd trained himself to do soon after he'd realized that Vince's clubbing was not just a phase.
And then Vince had stopped going out, and Howard had become accustomed to having Vince there all through the night. Not only that, but any unusual sounds from his side of the bedroom jolted Howard awake. It didn't lend to a good night's sleep, but his brain had decided that monitoring Vince was more important.
He could hear Vince ascending the stairs at a slow, even pace. Not drunk, then. Not high. He hadn't been, since he'd returned to his scene. The bedroom door opened and Vince slipped inside, not especially loud but not especially quiet, and headed for the bathroom. Now that clubbing was back on the calendar, Howard supposed he would have to retrain himself to ignore Vince's late-night comings and goings.
Or maybe not. Maybe he'd just allow for this twenty minutes of waking in the middle of his sleep, like the opposite of a noontime nap.
Howard propped himself up on one elbow to peer at Vince. "Yes?"
"Oh, you are awake." He sounded slightly surprised.
Howard wasn't sure what to say to that. He could just see the edge of Vince's refection in the bathroom mirror. Vince had closed the bathroom door part way so that the light spilling out didn't reach Howard's bed. He was sitting at the mirror, holding something under the faucet. As Howard watched, he wrung the extra water out of a flannel and ran it across the left side of his face, leaving a trail of smeared makeup. He stuck the flannel under the faucet again, but now he was looking at the dark slice of bedroom reflected in the mirror. "You should have been there. It was amazing. Don't know how I'll ever get to sleep after that."
"Drink some warm milk," he suggested.
Vince laughed. "Surely that's a last resort." The streaks of makeup slowly disappeared, leaving Vince's skin clean and slightly red. "Howard, tell me a story?"
Howard sighed. "You don't like my stories."
"No... it's just, there's a time and a place, you know? Not at a party or a gig. But bedtime's ideal, really."
Howard wanted to roll over and go back to sleep. He really did. But his brain was intent on watching the methodical movement of flannel to face to faucet. "You've heard all my good ones."
Vince was smiling at the bedroom's reflection. "So tell me something new."
He opened his mouth to protest, but then he remembered - when had that ever done him any good? So he lay back against his pillows and shut his eyes. He didn't have to think too hard to come up with something. "Three or four days after the surgery, I came to visit you at hospital. You were sleeping, though, so I meandered towards the gift shop. Initially, I was drawn in by their collection of miniature ceramic saxophones, but once inside I found an unsurpassed selection of teddy bears and balloons. That's not my usual type of purchase, but it seemed like something that might brighten your bedside. I picked out a bear with a sailor cap and a silvery balloon.
"As I carried the gifts back, I passed the cafeteria and decided a cup of tea would do me good. Besides, it was unlikely you'd be awake yet. I set everything down at a table near the register, except for the balloon which would blow away, obviously. I carried that with me as I bought my tea. When I came back I realized that drinking tea while holding a balloon was cumbersome, so I tied the balloon to the paw of the bear.
"A woman approached. She looked to be about my age, with black hair tied up in a braid and a pretty green scarf over her hair. Without even glancing at me, she picked up the teddy bear and balloon and started walking away.
"'Oi!' I said, 'That's mine.'
"'No,' she replied, frowning at me. 'I bought these.'
"She sounded so certain! But then I noticed a balloon tied to the strap of her shoulder bag, hovering behind her. I gestured towards it. 'Perhaps that's yours?'
"'Oh,' she said, surprised and confused. 'But the teddy bear is mine. See?' And she showed me the tag that was fixed to the bear's ear. Someone had written Faiza on it in with a felt-tipped pen. 'That's my daughter's name. I bought the bear for her.'
"I was bewildered. But then, out of the corner of my eye I spotted some brown fur. There, just two tables over, was another sailor bear. Sure enough, it was mine. It turned out that we had bought identical teddy bears, and I had tied my balloon to the paw of her bear!"
Howard opened his eyes and saw that his friend was still in the bathroom. His face was clean now, and he was putting on his pajamas. "Is that it?" Vince asked, and it was clear from his voice that he didn't consider that a proper ending.
"...No?" Howard closed his eyes again and struggled to think of a way to continue his story. As far as he was concerned, it had been a perfect narrative specimen, but Vince was picky about these kinds of things and had yet to learn that brevity was the soul of wit. "Well, the two of us had a good laugh about the mix-up, and then she introduced herself. Her name was Maha, and she told me she'd seen me around the transplant unit. 'You're Vincent's donor, aren't you?' she asked, and told me she had donated to Faiza, who was in a room next to yours."
"Oh yeah, Faiza!" Vince said. "She was cool. We snuck into the children's ward together to use their art supplies."
Howard smiled. "That's right, Maha said you were a bad influence. Anyway, we drank our tea together and compared notes on our surgeries. And we talked about... well, a bit of everything. It was nice to spend some time with someone in the same boat."
"Always better to have other people in your boat," Vince agreed. "Unless you're in a kayak. Then it might get awkward."
"Whoa there, now! Don't dismiss the tandem kayak. Many a romantic evening has been spent paddling through the park in a kayak built for two."
"Sorry, sorry," Vince chuckled. "Not to mention, it's the only boat that can be paddled the same way in both our world and the mirror world."
Howard hesitated. "I'm not sure what that means."
"You wouldn't, would you? You haven't been to the mirror world."
The mattress dipped as Vince sat down on the side of the bed. Howard opened his eyes again. Vince was sitting hunched over with his elbows on his knees, the faded t-shirt he wore to bed hanging loosely on his shoulders. In the low light Howard couldn't tell if the shirt was purple or blue or grey. He couldn't remember, but he knew it was Vince's favorite.
"Yeah?" He turned on his side to face Vince, but Vince was staring down at his knees.
"You do know that I'm not embarrassed, yeah? That is, not usually. Not unless you actually do something. I mean, if I don't tell them, it's not because I'm ashamed or anything."
Howard studied Vince, trying to see what he was getting at. It should be easy, here in their room. Without his makeup, Vince looked more common and real than he ever did when he stepped out of their flat. He looked good. He looked healthy. He looked lost. Howard reached out and squeezed his knee. "Vince, what's wrong?"
"Do you ever... do you ever think that this isn't right?"
Howard blinked. "In what way?"
"I mean, it's not how we do things, is it? The illness. The IVs and the sutures. The hospital and doctors and social workers and those damn pills. Where's... I dunno, Naboo's miracle cure? I just..." he trailed off. "Howard?"
"Do you ever worry that all the magic is gone?"
Howard went very still. He knew how hard this had been for Vince. Hell, it had been hard for himself, a man who thrived with schedules and lists and organization. There was just so much to juggle, so much to remember. They kept track of Vince's blood sugar and blood pressure every day. They went to the clinic twice a week to draw his blood and keep track of his labs. And the pills... some had to be taken on an empty stomach. Some had to be taken with meals. Some interacted with others and had to be taken hours apart. Some caused side effects like swelling, tremors, and mood swings. Some increased Vince's chances of getting diabetes or skin cancer. There were pills to help with the side effects of other pills. Names that had tripped his tongue early on were now familiar: prednisone, tacrolimus, mycophenolate. He'd learned about all their bad side effects, but even worse were the things that would happen without them.
Rejection had always been a scary word to Howard, but now it was scary for a different reason.
And Howard worried. Sometimes he worried that Vince wouldn't take it seriously enough, that he'd miss doses or skip out on getting his blood drawn, or drink and do drugs as if nothing had changed. Other times he worried that Vince would take it too seriously, that the weight of all the changes would drag him down, and that Vince would lose his eternally cheerful, joyfully sardonic self.
Somehow all those worries had come pouring out when he sat down with Maha. They'd quietly panicked together over tea, and it had felt so good. And before he'd left she'd squeezed his hand and told him that they were two of the luckiest people in the world. 'We got the chance to save our families,' she'd said. If he could find the words to tell that story to Vince, he would.
Vince reached over and nudged Howard's hip. "Do you think it's gone? The magic?" he repeated.
Howard remembered the moment the doctors had told him he was a match for Vince.
"No," he told Vince, his voice tired but assured. "Not for an instant."