Vince Noir strutted around the zoo like he owned it because, actually, he kind of did. He and Howard had been left in charge for the next week or two with no one to keep their antics in check. He winked and grinned at the other keepers as he walked with Mick Jagger-esque pep back to Naboo's hut.
"Hey Naboo, you'll never guess what happened!" he said, letting himself in and shutting the door behind him. "Fossil put me and Howard in charge of the Zoo!"
"I know, you made a series of announcements about it," Naboo said, dismissively. He was on the couch where Vince had left him, only now he was pouring over a crystal ball instead of a hookah.
Vince sat down across from the tiny Shaman. "Oh yeah, I guess we did. What are you looking for, Naboo?"
Naboo was peering fixedly into the misty sphere. "Trying to see the zoo's future so I can win a bet on which of you two will destroy it first."
"Come on, it won't be that bad." Vince paused and thought better of his last statement. "See anything?"
"No, everything's all muddled since that last vision. It was so powerful it must have knocked out all my Shaman senses for a while."
"Sorry 'bout that," Vince said sheepishly. "What was in it, anyway? Are you sure you didn't see anything?"
"I did see something, but you have to promise not to tell Howard."
"I'm serious, Vince, it would fry his shriveled little brain."
"Alright, I'll tell you. Come closer."
Vince scootched closer to Naboo, watching out for any inanimate objects that might be trying to gather in, too. Strange how that kept happening.
Naboo glanced around to make sure they were alone, then leaned in closer to Vince and said, "You and Howard are going to shag."
Vince snorted with laughter. "Get stuffed, what are you on about? Me and Howard? That's ridiculous!"
"That's what I saw."
"What, you saw me and Howard Moon?"
"Yes. Scarred me for life, actually." Naboo set the crystal ball aside and reached for his hookah again. Vince shook his head, pulled out his flip phone and start typing. "What are you doing?" Naboo asked.
"Texting Leroy, he won't believe it."
Naboo tried and failed to snatch the phone from him. "You promised you wouldn't tell!"
"Yeah, I said I wouldn't tell Howard."
"Leroy's mates with Howard too, it'll get 'round." Naboo finally managed to get the phone away from Vince and snapped it shut. "Tell no one," he said pointedly.
Vince whined, "Come on, Naboo, this is huge! I've gotta tell someone."
Naboo handed the phone back and said, "This isn't funny, Vince. Do you have any idea how important this is to have appeared to me in a vision?"
"Well, last week you had a vision that the leftover egg rolls in the breakroom had gone off, so…"
"It's really important, Vince!"
Naboo was starting to sound really cross, which made Vince angry. What had he got his turban in a bunch over? There was no way this vision was coming true, and even if it did, it wasn't any of Naboo's business. Vince was starting to get bored with the whole conversation.
"I wouldn't have told you if it wasn't important," Naboo continued. "Howard's in love with you already and-"
"Now I know you're joking..."
"-You have to be nice to him, Vince. The fate of the zoo rests in your hands."
"Or in my pants, apparently."
Naboo threw his hands up in defeat. "Do what you want. Just don't come crying to me when the whole universe implodes or something."
"Whatever. Once Fossil gets back, I'm out of here."
Vince got up to leave. Naboo was ruining this potentially hilarious situation with his vague warnings; surely there was plenty of fun to be had without breaking any promises. He left the hut, turned up his collar against the chill from the rain and went to do his rounds. Half way through them he remembered that he was a manager now and could order someone else to do his rounds, but decided he kind of liked busy-work. He finished up and went back to the keeper's hut he shared with Howard.
"A'right, Howard?" he said cheerfully upon entering. Howard jumped slightly and turned toward the door as Vince came in.
"Oh, hey, Vince." He looked a little shiftier than usual.
Vince took off his jacket and hung it up. "What've you been up to?"
Howard was sitting on their couch, trying to discreetly tuck something he'd been looking at into the worn-out cushions. "Nothing," he said quickly. "Zoo business. What've you been up to?"
Vince shrugged. "Oh, you know. Distributing seeds. Shoveling dung. Chatting to Naboo…" He trailed off and took a seat so close to Howard that their knees touched.
Howard looked nervous. "Naboo? What… What did you chat to him about?"
"Oh, nothing really." Vince put his arm on the back of the couch and rested his chin on his hand. He studied Howard's face and said, "We chatted about you for a bit."
"Did you?" Howard's eyes darted around, looking everywhere but at Vince. His upper lip had begun to sweat under his thin mustache and he kept playing with the zip on his jacket. "About my leadership skills, was it? You know I've already made some very positive changes around h… What are you doing?"
Vince had reached out to run his free hand through Howard's loose curls. "Have you done something new with your hair?" he asked casually.
Howard backed away from him. "Why are you acting weird, Vince. What did Naboo say?"
"Nothing! He told me to be nice to you."
Howard's small eyes narrowed. "Why?"
"What do you mean why, can't I be nice to my best mate?"
"Not usually, no."
"Well I am, so you'll just have to deal with it."
Vince got up and went to the kitchen to make a smoothie. Judging by Howard's body language, Naboo had been right about his crush or whatever it was. Out of the corner of his eye, Vince saw Howard remove something from the cushions and hastily shove it in a desk drawer.
"So what are these big changes you've made?" Vince asked to change the subject.
He half-listened to Howard drone on about time management charts or something for the better part of an hour, thinking about what to do. His best mate fancied him. It didn't seem very funny anymore, just confusing. He sat down at the table and absentmindedly sipped at his smoothie until Howard realized he wasn't really listening.
"I think I'll go read for a while," Howard said quietly, and excused himself to his room.
Vince smiled apologetically as he left. He waited until he heard the click of the door latch followed by the squeak of the bedsprings, then got up from the table and made his way to the desk as quietly as possible. He slowly opened the drawer and removed what Howard had hidden there: a photo of the two of them on the last day of Year 10. It showed Howard grinning so widely you could barely make out the slits of his eyes, and Vince standing on tip-toe to kiss Howard's cheek. Vince smiled fondly as he looked at it. He ran his thumb over Howard's grin. When was the last time Howard had smiled like that? Vince carefully returned the picture to where he'd found it. I can make him smile again, he thought. Whatever happens to the zoo, I'll make Howard smile.
*** TBC ***