The shop had been closed for nearly an hour, but Vince and Howard had not moved much since, other than flipping the sign over. Howard was still lingering by the door, while Vince watched from behind the counter, using his fingernails to scratch the price-sticker off of his newest edition of Cheekbone. He had promised that he would wait to read it until closer to bedtime. Howard had orchestrated a very important conversation for them, so he claimed. Or had at least spent the whole day building up the bravery for it.
"I'm not the same man as I was when you met me, Vince."
"No kidding," he thought about making this into a joke about the former Howard's death or kidnapping or something justifiable, but it was difficult to do. It was distracting, the way this assuredly new Howard stood confidently against the doorframe, rather than swaying nervously away from it. Vince caught his eyes for a moment, which both understood as an enquiry.
"No kidding, no sir," Howard said smoothly, "I'm the courtship chameleon. That's what they call me on the streets."
Vince tossed his head back.
"Ugh, I don't like anyone calling at you on the streets. Who was it this time?"
"No one," sighed Howard, "Why, what would you do to them?"
Vince leaned against the shop counter, facing Howard but only occasionally looking at him.
"Talking about my man like that? I'd put them in their place, that's what."
"Oh, their place? Like your place isn't standing behind me, in this whole situation."
Howard had forgotten what they were originally talking about. As had Vince, who always somehow flitted back to it, like a confused little bird following a bit of foil down the road, only to finally catch it and find it empty.
"I don't see why you have to have a word for us," Vince's voice was light, and he drew a line between them with his finger. As he pulled it back to his chest, Howard caught himself leaning into it, as if caught on a hook. He stepped closer to the counter.
"I like to have things defined, that's all."
"There's not a word for it; we've got the definition already."
"So we're working backwards."
"You've lost it."
Vince's attention wandered to the drawer beside the till, from which he removed a half-finished packet of black licorice. He said 'brilliant' to himself, offered one to Howard on the assumption he would refuse, and leaned back against the shelves to enjoy them properly.
"Where did we leave off?" Howard prompted, looking - perhaps too intently - at Vince's lips while he ate.
"Holding hands, yeah?"
"Yeah," said Howard, "if you don't overdo it."
"Cheers" grinned Vince, "I thought you hated people even touching you."
"You're not 'people', Vince, not anymore."
All the reward and reassurance Howard ever could have hoped for was there in Vince's smile, which he tucked away slightly behind his hand in embarrassment. That's how Howard knew he'd said something good. Or funny, if Vince started laughing. But he didn't this time.
"It's all about compromise," Howard proceeded, "Just one of the chameleon's many colours."
"Compromise? What shade's that?"
"What does it go with?"
"Stop it now."
"Sorry," Vince said. It was an autoimmune response to the bickering, by now. He recovered quickly. "What about kisses?"
Howard crossed his arms on top of the counter. He was close enough to kiss Vince now, if he wanted to.
"They're okay," he said, giving a verbal sort of shrug, "I don't dislike them."
"Really? Even last time?!"
Howard had tried, almost successfully, to block 'last time' from his memory.
"You can't do it on stage, even if it's after a gig."
"Aww," Vince pouted, "I waited 'til the curtains were closed and everything."
"You.. you rushed me. Could've knocked me over or choked me or something. You've gotta warn me."
"Like it's some sort of terminal illness? It's just a kiss." Then, "Sorry, Howard. I'll try to."
He returned to the stash of sweets, looking for something Howard would like. He slid a Bounty bar across the counter, and Howard thanked him, all without words.
"Of course," scoffed Howard, "Who did you think you were talking to? I'm a man of rhythm."
"Great," said Vince, glancing longingly toward the kitchen, "Can we finish up in a bit, though? I was gonna make tea…"
"Making tea," In his mind, Howard backpedaled to this part of the definition, which they had already established, "We switch off. It's my go."
"Then I'll watch," Vince said, content as he always was when someone volunteered to do anything for him. But, at the same time, he was now out of exit opportunities from the conversation. His face twisted between the two feelings, unable to settle.
After the third cup Howard slid in front of him, though, he made up his mind to enjoy himself. It was nice to see Howard happy, anyway.
"What about, say, we decide to pull a prank on someone, and we're-"
"On who?" Howard interrupted.
"I don't know. Naboo. We're pulling a prank on Naboo. We wait until we hear him outside -yeah?- and then, when he opens the door - bam! - there we are in the doorway, making out. Would that be okay?"
Howard was indisputably new at this type of thing, but it sounded to him like Vince was already pulling a prank.
"Something like that is that important to relationships?"
"Is to mine," Vince chuckled to himself, "It's all about the sense of humour. It's like a style."
"Is that what this is to you: a joke?"
Vince fiddled with the teaspoon in his mug, stirring the mostly-empty and miserably cold cup of tea more than should ever be necessary.
"'Course not," he said at last.
"It doesn't seem like you're taking it seriously right now. Like you don't realize how important it is to me, that we get this all sorted ahead of time."
"Ahead of time?" Vince was surprised, "What do you call the last ten times we went out?"
"Just... ten times we went out," Howard said, with frustration backing him up against a wall of confusion, "We haven't changed that much, Vince. We're just calling it something new, now, and I'm not used to that yet. I'm-"
"You're getting a little too deep for me right now, Howard," Vince interrupted. Nothing. He reached his hand across the table, setting it down well within Howard's line of vision before reaching to actually touch him, "Howard?"
"Hmm?" he looked at Vince's hand, as it settled over his own.
"I thought you were a chameleon."
He gave a single, breathy laugh.
"I'm trying to be."
"I can tell it's hard for you as it is," Vince admitted, "But I know you won't give up on it, because you've had your whole life to do that, and you haven't yet."
Howard leaned back, uncomfortably, but not far enough to free himself from Vince's hand. He liked that, for the time being. He had never been any good at defining his own comforts - at least when Vince wasn't around - so he always said no to everything. There were a few things he was convinced he wouldn't like, and he was still working up the courage to actually say them, even though he was fairly sure Vince would understand. He tried.
"That's why I need the definition… I need to make sure we both know what we're getting into, so no one's uncomfortable. I mean, you know that I haven't… you know that I'm… that I just can't. I really care about you, but I can't… er… I don't want you to be upset with me, uhm, because of that. Just because I won't. Sleep with. You."
"You won't sleep with me?"
Howard suddenly felt very lightheaded, wanting to sit down and forgetting he already was.
"I never expected us to have sex, Howard, but I was kind of looking forward to sleeping in your bed. I quite like a cuddle."
"So you aren't all heartbroken, over that? You're-?"
"Look," said Vince, squeezing Howard's hand, "I could've left too, you know. If I wanted to, I could've found someone like that," he emphasised this with another definitive squeeze, then let Howard's hand go.
"Yeah, I know you could've."
"Right. So you don't have to worry about us, definition or not. But if you want a definition, I won't let you down. I'll write it out and tape it up on the wall in our room. I'll frame it, if you want."
"I'd like that," he said, staring at his teacup so Vince couldn't pick up on the joy in his eyes. Usually, this was followed by Vince squinting comically at him, and trying to discern whether or not he was crying.
"Good," Vince said, "I won't be a minute."
Howard wanted to protest him leaving at all - Vince added such a warmth to the drab little box of a kitchen - but it was too late. Vince had sidestepped out, but returned as promised. He held Cheekbone in one hand, and the only biro Howard would let him loan from Stationery Village in the other.
He returned to his seat, found the most minimally decorated of pages, and carefully tore it out.
"Right," Vince practically hummed, "Where'd we leave off at?"
"Pranks on Naboo."
"Oh yeah, that's genius," he wrote in his neat - if somewhat frilly - cursive. "So, cuddling? Like if it's cold, we can snuggle up together."
"You're making me sick, just saying that."
"I won't write it."
"No, do. I think it's just nerves."
"And what about," Vince continued immediately, "instead of both trying to fit in your bed, we just trade for a double?"
"Naboo's got a double."
"Has he really?"
"Yeah. Come on, we'll do it now. I'll write it down and then we'll go."
"You're so…" Howard began, as Vince led him up the stairs, "You're so pretty, when you're being decisive."
"I'm always pretty," Vince nodded, "but I know what you mean. You are too; you're ridiculous."
Ridiculous? Howard thought, as Vince threw open the bedroom door. Howard rolled his eyes.
"I don't think this is gonna work," he said, while Vince lunged for the headboard of his bed, "We'd need to have room for all three of them to-"
"Shh," Vince turned quickly around.
"-Fit out here, before we-"
"Was that the shop door? Sounded like keys."
Howard moved closer to the stairs, internally rehearsing his 'please don't kill me' speech, which he was forced to give almost every time the shop had a visitor.
Vince grabbed his hand and stopped him, pulling him back into the doorway.
"I know that you know what I have to do," Vince said, in a tone he hoped Howard would classify as a warning.
He bit his lip. Vince took his hands.
Vince had definitely 'rushed' him, this time; he forced Howard against the open door.
"And you know that I don't know what I'm doing."
"'S fine," Vince leaned forward, standing on his toes, "That's not in your definition. Not at all."
Howard got in about half of a relieved sigh, before Vince's lips stopped him. Probably some lipstick, too. He would look later.
He had one hand curled around Vince's hip, and the other buried between a few hundred layers of his hair - both were intentionally placed by Vince. That was all Howard remembered, when he heard Naboo padding up the stairs.
"Ugh," he exclaimed, stopping dead at the top of the staircase, "You can just ask me."
He waved his hands, muttered something quickly and disgustedly, and stomped off to his room. Vince was the one to separate them. They watched their beds melt together, for every inch they pulled apart.
"Thanks, Naboo," Vince called, "That's genius."
Howard stood quietly against the door. He was still working on remembering to breathe. The nerves had gone, after a brief peak where he considered passing out, if he could force himself.
Vince had already dug a jar of makeup remover from his nightstand, and set it down in the center of the bed to confirm it was sturdy. As if that would help, Howard thought. But he moved nearer, regardless.
"Here," Vince patted the vacant side of the bed, "sit down, relax, and I'll take my foundation off of both of us."
He moved immediately to what was now his side of the bed, where Vince welcomed him with a gentle, guiding hand. Howard had never - in all his life - felt so comfortable and confident. He was going to call it an eclipse, with Vince being made out of sunshine or something, and choosing to settle down with him.
"...It's good," he managed, instead.
Vince patted the towel against Howard's lips, then his own, until they were smooth and clean. With what was arguably the only demanding bit of his day finished, Vince sighed, stretched his arms up over his head, and then folded himself into the space against Howard's shoulder.
"We can put the definition there," he said, waving his finger too vaguely to be of any help. Howard assumed he meant somewhere above the headboard, near the middle.
Howard asked if he should stroke Vince's hair. He wasn't sure what else to do with it, bouncing away in front of him as Vince spoke.
"Go on," Vince agreed, "it's the end of the day, anyway."
He did, until Vince was very still and mostly asleep. It was conducive to his thought process. Very important.
"Did you decide on a word for us, yet?" Vince yawned, knowing Howard would understand him without making him repeat it.
"Yeah. The word for us is 'soulmate.'"
"Think so. Do you have a better one?"
Vince turned his head for a moment, just to check how Howard meant this; he had to look at his eyes. It was genuine.
"What about like, moon and stars?"
"So I'm a great lump of rock, and you get to be not one - but multiple - stars."
"'S wrong with that?"
"It's a little bit cutesy."
"And 'soulmate' is what, edgy and dark? I'm your beacon of light, Howard. I'm like a lighthouse, at least. We both know that."
"Sure you are. Don't push it."
"I'm painting it on the wall before you're even awake tomorrow. First thing, after your midnight haircut."
"Right. You'd be totally nocturnal, if not for me."
"I was nocturnal cos of you. Do you remember - back at the zoo - sometimes we'd be so knackered after a night shift, we'd get our sleeping bags out. Like little children, even though we had a couch and that arm-chair, as well…"
Just as they had done back then, Howard fell asleep to the sound of Vince's smoothest storytelling voice. Only then could Vince relax, lean into Howard's chest, and drift off to the rhythm of his breathing.