Alive beneath his fingers.
That's how Chris thought it felt, when it started. He didn't know it was starting, of course. Or rather, he didn't know what was starting. He knew it wasn't like all the other times.
When it started, Justin flopped down in front of him while he was sitting on the couch. He was shrugging his shoulders restlessly. "Chris, my back itches and I can't reach. Can you?"
Chris could, of course, and did, running his hand lightly over Justin's back, rubbing harder when Justin sighed and said, "There. There." Justin leaned forward and bent his head. Chris' hand lingered, the heel of his hand against Justin's spine, fingers spread wide, feeling something strange and fierce pulsing there, below Justin's T-shirt. Alive beneath his fingers.
Chris thought he knew what it was. He was wrong, of course. But he didn't know that then.
Justin wriggled again and pulled away from Chris' hand. "My whole back feels weird," he said. "Like my skin's too hot or something. I bet they did my laundry in some cheap fucking soap. I swear, if I get a rash I'm gonna kick some ass."
"Poor baby," Chris said. "You're just not made for this world."
Justin jumped on him and wrestled him to the floor. When Chris' hand brushed against his back, Justin shivered.
Chris thought he knew why.
He didn't like to remember that, later.
Joey nudged Chris in the dressing room one night and nodded toward Justin. "What do you think the kid's been up to?" he said, grinning. Justin was changing, and as he reached for his shirt, Chris saw his back, blotched red and purple in a strange pattern.
"Those aren't scratches, you ass," he said, moving toward Justin. Before he got there, JC grabbed Justin's arm and turned him around.
"What's wrong with your back?" JC said, touching one of the raw marks. Justin winced.
"I don't know," Justin said. "It's sore." JC's hand stroked just below Justin's shoulder blade, then pressed down firmly. Justin yelped. "Fuck, C! That hurt. I said it was fucking sore."
"Justin," JC said, "there's something here."
Chris didn't find that out right away. Justin had brushed JC off, shoulders lifting and dropping in a motion that had become very familiar to Chris. "It's nothing. A rash, probably. It's the fucking soap or something." He had yanked his shirt on carelessly, and if Chris hadn't been watching him closely, he would have missed Justin's flinch.
When Justin had stormed out, JC caught Chris' eye and said, "Do you know what's up with him?" Chris had shrugged. It felt oddly familiar. It wasn't until later that Chris realized he had mimicked the motion he'd seen so often on Justin's body.
Chris woke up that night to see Justin sitting on the edge of his bed. "Chris," he whispered, his voice thick with something. Drunk, Chris thought. Then saw Justin's eyes and sat up. Justin wasn't drunk.
"What is it, J?" Chris said.
"There is. There's something. On my back. I can feel it."
Chris reached over and switched on the light. "Let me see." Justin turned around obediently and took his shirt off. Chris crawled forward and touched Justin's back tentatively. Justin hissed. "Shh," Chris said. "I just need to see." He put a hand on the back of Justin's neck, fingers rubbing soothingly, and leaned in.
Justin's skin was warm, too warm, and it seemed to throb beneath Chris' hand. He slid a hand down over Justin's shoulder toward the small of his back, and felt - something. It was smooth and hard, pushing up just a little against Justin's skin. Chris flattened his hand and traced it, a graceful easy curve. He lifted his other hand from Justin's neck and found a matching curve on the other side of Justin's back. Justin whimpered and twisted around.
"What is it?" Justin's voice was shaking.
"There's something here," Chris said, keeping his own voice light. Justin made a small noise. "Hey," Chris said. He ran his hand up over Justin' shoulder. "You can get it checked out tomorrow, but it's probably nothing." Justin jerked until he bumped into Chris' arm. "Relax," Chris said, "I can't think of any dread diseases that start with a weird thing on your back."
Justin laughed weakly and crept closer to Chris. "Hey," Chris said again, softly, "you want to stay here tonight?"
"Yeah," Justin said. "Yeah. I. Yeah." He stood up to unbutton his pants. Chris bit his lip as he watched Justin hold his back stiffly straight as he stepped out of his jeans. Justin lay down carefully on his stomach and pushed the sheet down below his waist.
"It's nothing," Chris said, and Justin smiled as he closed his eyes.
Chris watched Justin sleep, head thrown back, throat exposed in a long slender line. The muscles in his back twitched restlessly.
"It's nothing," Chris breathed. "It's nothing."
It was nothing.
At least, that was the collective opinion of the army of doctors summoned by their nervous handlers. All tests came back negative when they should have been, and positive when they should have been. The doctors gave out various creams and lotions, refused to prescribe painkillers, shook their heads gravely. Chris almost punched one doctor when he mentioned psychosomatic illnesses. He wished he had when he caught Justin in front of the mirror, craning his head back over his shoulder, tears in his eyes.
Justin went home for a weekend. When he returned, he wouldn't see any more doctors. "I know what I have to do," he repeated stubbornly as JC reasoned and pleaded and finally shouted at him. JC looked at Chris helplessly, and Chris shrugged.
"Look," Chris said when he and Justin were alone, "I'm taking a lot on faith here."
"I know," Justin said without looking at him. "I'm sorry."
"No, I'm not saying. Don't be sorry," Chris said. "Like I said, I trust you, and I'm not gonna ask. I'm just saying. If there's any way you can, it would make things a lot easier for the guys if you told them. At least JC. I mean, maybe you think it's bad or something, or you don't want to worry him, but. He's going a little crazy here."
"I know," Justin said again. "I just. I can't. I'm not sure if it's really. And I just. I can't."
"Okay," Chris said. "It's okay. If you say you know what you have to do, and it's nothing to worry about, I believe you."
Justin looked at him. "I know what I have to do," he said.
Justin came offstage one night breathing heavily. He leaned against the doorway, one hand clutching the edge of the door. His knuckles were white.
"Justin, are you -" JC said, hurrying over to him.
"Don't touch me," Justin said sharply. JC froze. "Sorry," Justin said, closing his eyes. "It's just. I need. I have to go home."
"Are you okay, J?" Lance said.
"I just. Please. I have to leave now. Please," Justin said.
No one spoke as they made their way to the limo. Once in the car, Justin bent forward and laid his cheek against the seat in front of him. He spread his hands out carefully on either side of his head. Chris could see them trembling.
"You all right, kiddo?" Joey said.
"It hurts, Joey," Justin said. "It hurts."
The only sound for the rest of the ride was Justin's hard, deliberate breathing.
When they pulled up outside the hotel, Justin couldn't get out of the car. Joey picked him up and slung him over his shoulder. Joey tucked his arm tightly around Justin's legs, pulling him in close, but Justin still made tiny raw sounds in the back of his throat.
Lance, JC and Chris followed Joey into Justin's room. Joey lowered Justin gently until he was standing. Justin blinked, shielding his eyes with his hand, and Chris turned off all the lights except for a small lamp beside the bed. Justin ripped his shirt off and kicked out of his pants. "I'm sorry," he said as the others looked away from him, "it's too much, on my skin. I can't. It's too much."
"It's okay," Chris said. He forced himself to look at Justin. A fine sheen of sweat shimmered over his entire body. His arms were crossed as he swayed a little on his feet. He was pale to the lips.
"Do you want us to leave, J?" JC asked.
Justin's eyes widened. "I don't. If you don't. It's okay," he mumbled.
"We'll stay," JC said.
They sat and watched Justin. There was nothing else to do. Justin perched on the edge of the bed, then got back up quickly. He walked over toward the window, then to the bathroom. He paced aimlessly, his fingers plucking at his skin. Chris could see the red marks left behind.
"Justin," JC said, "shouldn't we get someone to help you -"
"No," Chris said.
"But this is -"
"No," Chris said. "If he wants us to, he'll ask."
"But he's obviously -"
"No," Chris said.
He knew he'd done the right thing when Justin's eyes darted to him gratefully. He sat back and watched. Justin kept pacing, a continuous circuit from the bed to the bathroom door to the dresser and back again. Chris kept watching. Justin's whole body was tense, and from time to time he'd pause, head cocked as if he were waiting for something.
Suddenly Justin cried out loudly and stumbled the last few steps to the dresser. He braced himself against it. Chris could hear his breath hissing through his teeth. Justin was turned away from them, gripping the dresser with both hands. Chris leaned forward. He thought it was a trick of the light, or the way Justin was moving. Then Justin cried out again.
"Mother of fuck," Joey breathed. JC made a small choked sound. Chris glanced over at the couch. Lance had a hand clasped over his mouth. Tears were falling silently down his face. Chris turned again to Justin.
There was something moving on Justin's back. No, not on it, but in it, something slithering beneath the skin. The smooth hard curves Chris had felt that night were pulsing, dark red and angry, in time with Justin's harsh panting. As Chris watched, the movement subsided. Justin's arms fell to his sides. He breathed deeply. He didn't look up.
It hit again and this time Justin dropped keening to his knees. He put his hands out in front of him and rested his head against the floor. His whole body was trembling. It seemed like Justin's skin was giving off the shrill desperate sound that twisted through the room. Then the noise cut off and the room was filled again with Justin's ragged breathing. Justin stayed hunched on his hands and knees. He looked up at Chris briefly. His face was dripping with sweat and tears.
JC said, "I can't. We have to," and Chris didn't bother to speak, just grunted roughly at him without taking his eyes from Justin. JC was silent.
It hit again, and again, and Justin was shaking and sobbing and swearing. His fingers dug into the carpet. His back rippled and throbbed. In the respite he slid his forearms down until he was braced on his elbows and pressed his cheek to the floor. His face was turned away. Chris was relieved by that, and then ashamed of his relief.
It hit again, and again, and Justin wasn't swearing anymore but chanting, over and over until it sounded like one long word, pleasepleaseplease pleaseplease. His voice skipped and skittered over the sounds, fading to a whisper, swelling to a shout. The syllables stretched out, longer and longer, until they melded into one another and then into nothing but noise, a drawn-out quivering moan.
JC got up before Chris could stop him. He knelt down next to Justin and said, "Honey, honey, please. Let us get someone to help you." He put a hand on Justin's shoulder. Justin lifted his head. JC yelped. He retreated to the couch and sat again, stunned, one hand clasped over his arm. Joey pulled his fingers away gently and said, low, "It's okay. He didn't break the skin."
JC said breathlessly, "We can't leave him like this. We have to. They can give him something, for the pain. They can try to find out what's wrong."
Chris said, "Justin." Justin didn't look up. He said it again, sharply, and again, until Justin looked at him. Justin's eyes were clouded and he had to fight to keep them focused on Chris.
"Do you know what's happening to you?" Chris said.
"Do you want us to do anything?"
Justin shook his head.
It hit again, harder this time, or sharper, or something, Chris didn't know what, but somehow different. Justin bucked up beneath it, then arched back over his legs. When he sagged back down onto his elbows, he was whimpering.
JC said, "I can't. We can't. Chris -"
"Leave," Chris said. JC made that small choked sound again, and Chris concentrated hard on smoothing his voice out. "Leave, C, guys. Go on." They stood.
JC said, "Justin," and Justin lifted his head again and met Chris' eyes.
"I'm staying," Chris said, and Justin's head rolled back down until his forehead touched the floor. Chris heard the door open and then close.
They were alone.
It hit. Again and again and again. Chris thought he picked up the rhythm, watching Justin's muscles clench and quiver a moment before he moaned, watching something - something - simmer and then boil up beneath the skin on Justin's back. Every once in a while the rhythm cracked, ripping a shriek from Justin's throat, pulling him up and then dropping him back broken on his hands. Chris pushed his fingers hard into the arms of the chair. But it was made of soft, expensive leather, and no matter how hard Chris pushed, it gave gently under his fingers. Chris watched, and waited.
Chris thought time had collapsed in on itself, or else just disappeared. Evaporated. Ceased. He thought there was nothing else and never had been, never would be. Nothing but this moment and this room and pain and eternity, the boy crouched in the corner, the easy caress of the leather against his frantic clutching hands. Nothing but this, forever, always, something old unnamed always in the air, something new fighting forever to be born.
Chris heard a sound, that plaintive twisting pleasepleaseplease, and he thought maybe time hadn't collapsed but exploded, shattering outward, every moment from the past and the now and the future colliding with each other in a simultaneous smash, because hadn't he heard this before? Then Justin looked at him, and Chris realized Justin wasn't making that sound. He shut his mouth. Justin hung his head, intent on his solitary struggle.
Justin's breathing grew harsher. It sounded painful, Chris thought, and then smiled without amusement. More painful. He tripped on his way to the bathroom. It seemed so long since he'd moved, he had to think about how to walk.
He knelt down next to Justin with a glass of water, carefully not touching him. He waited for Justin to notice him. Justin put out a hand and took the glass, but before he could raise it to his lips, it hit again and the glass flew from his hands, breaking against the wall. When he stopped shaking, Justin made a small disappointed sound.
"It's okay," Chris said. "It's my fault. I'll get more."
When he returned, he knelt in front of Justin and held the glass to his mouth. But Justin was trembling so hard that he banged his lip on the rim, and Chris' hand was none too steady. Finally Chris poured the water into his cupped palm and Justin lapped at it greedily, dipping his head to catch the drops spilling out of Chris' hand. When the water was gone, Justin licked at Chris's fingers and then pulled them into his mouth, suckling desperately. Chris could feel when it hit again, could feel Justin covering his teeth with his lips and fighting not to bite.
"It's okay," Chris whispered. "If it helps," and Chris bit his lip as Justin's teeth sank into his skin. It hurt like hell. Chris was glad. When Justin sagged again, gasping, he let Chris' fingers fall from his lips. Chris put them in his own mouth and tasted blood.
Chris didn't go back to his chair but sat back on his heels and waited. He closed his eyes and wished. He didn't know for what. He opened his eyes and saw Justin's back, two sharp curves purple as bruises and something - something - pushing against the skin, and couldn't bring himself to wish this over. He looked at Justin's face, contorted with something sharper than pain, and he couldn't bring himself to wish this would last. He didn't think Justin could take much more. He didn't know how Justin had taken what he'd taken. Chris closed his eyes again and wished harder. He didn't know for what.
Justin was panting now, short shallow breaths that hitched his chest and warned Chris that something was coming. Justin dropped suddenly, flat against the floor, and tipped his head back. His arms stretched out from his sides. His mouth was open.
Chris heard a sound like something tearing, deep and jagged, something that would never be whole again. Then there was blood, a lot of blood, blossoming from Justin's back, and small white shards of bone, and Chris felt sickness rise in his throat and fought it, fought it, fought it.
Chris clapped both hands desperately over his mouth. Then he let them drop. Justin's back burst, there was no other word for it, blood and bone showering over them. Chris huddled on his hands and knees, swallowed red and white and knew he would be sick, knew it, knew it, knew it -
Something rose above Justin's body, shimmering and glittering. Dark deep violet at the root where they issued from Justin's body, washing into indigo and then pale, pale blue, tipped with gold and blood.
Justin was reduced to small pathetic mewling sounds which gradually grew softer and farther apart. Finally there was silence. Chris could barely see Justin beneath the wings that hovered over his body. He crept closer, and let out a breath he hadn't known he was holding when he saw Justin's back rise and fall.
Chris put two fingers to his mouth and looked. Justin was lying on his belly, one arm still outstretched, the other bent in toward his head. Thin lines of blood were drying along his sides.
Chris took a deep breath and looked up.
The wings seemed to move of their own accord, sweeping through the air, careless of the exhausted boy sprawled beneath them. They looked like. They looked like. They looked like wings. They were wide and tall, almost as tall as Chris. They seemed at first to be solid, but as Chris peered at them, he could see that they were articulated, made of what looked like feathers, but bigger and tougher looking. There was a shine to them, even in the dim light. As Chris leaned in, one brushed against his face. He jerked back. Justin cried out in his sleep. Chris' face stung where the wing had touched it. He put his hand up. His fingers came away wet and glittering.
It was terrible.
It was beautiful.
Chris sat on the floor all night. It was past noon when Justin started to stir, moaning as he pushed up onto his hands and knees. He put a hand behind him and flinched.
"Hey," Chris said.
Justin looked at him. "Hey," he said quietly.
"Did you -"
"I thought. I didn't know till. I wasn't sure." Justin started to stand up, then fell heavily to his knees. Chris stood and reached a hand down to him, letting Justin haul himself up. When Justin was on his feet, he swayed a little and clung to Chris' hand. Chris stepped closer, and a wing scratched his shoulder. Justin winced.
"Does it -"
"It just. They're sore," Justin said.
"You can feel them?" Chris said.
"Yes," Justin said.
Chris led Justin into the bathroom. Justin started to sit on the edge of the tub, but the wings bent against the walls and Justin swore.
"Can you pull them in?" Chris asked.
"I don't know," Justin said. He stood still, shoulders rolling, face twisted with effort. The wings fluttered frantically, then folded in against Justin's shoulders. "Ow," Justin said.
Chris wrung a washcloth out in the sink and wiped Justin's face, his chest, his stomach. He scrubbed as gently as he could at the dried blood on Justin's sides. Justin stared at the wall. Chris stepped back. "I don't know if. There's some. On your back, but if it's sore. Maybe we should wait."
"Wait for what?" Justin said.
"I don't know," Chris said. "I mean, won't they stop being sore? After a while?"
"I don't fucking know," Justin said. "I've never had wings before."
Chris opened his mouth, then closed it. Justin turned around silently. The wings were furled compactly, two dark curves running the length of Justin's back. Chris dabbed cautiously at the blood caked around them. Justin twitched, but when Chris paused, he said, "Do it."
"Okay," Chris said. When he was done, he threw the washcloth into the tub. Justin walked past him and Chris stepped back into the corner. Justin looked in the long mirror hanging on the back of the door. He shrugged his shoulders, and the wings snapped out to their full length. Chris gasped.
Chris could see Justin looking at himself in the mirror, the wings spread out around him, Chris' face peering anxiously over his shoulder. Chris' eyes dropped to the wings. Justin's back was bleeding again, staining the wings at the root. Chris looked back into the mirror.
The wings were too wide for the mirror, so all Chris saw was Justin's face, pale and drawn, and his body, surrounded by fluttering feathers. Reflected, the wings seemed like a shining frame for Justin's beauty, cradling him in sparkling blues and golds. They looked warm and soft, and Chris couldn't help reaching out until his fingertip hovered just over Justin's shoulder.
"Don't," Justin said, and Chris jerked. The golden tip of one of the feathers pricked his finger, and a drop of blood welled up. "Ow," Justin whispered.
Justin spread one hand over the wing in the mirror. Chris watched the reflection tremble with Justin's breath, glittering through Justin's fingers.
"Beautiful," Chris said. It was.
"It's not," Justin said. He pulled his hand down.
"Justin," Chris said, "it is. It's beautiful."
"It's not me," Justin said. "It's not me." He rolled his shoulders again, and the wings curled against his back. "Ow," Justin said, and walked out.
"So," Chris said.
"What?" Justin was standing in the middle of the room, the wings floating around him.
"I guess. I guess we better call the guys. They'll be worried about you."
"Sure," Justin said listlessly.
"I'll do that now then," Chris said without moving.
Justin looked at him. "Okay," he said.
"So do you wanna," Chris said. Justin looked at him. Chris quirked an eyebrow and nodded back toward the bed.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Justin said.
"Do you wanna maybe put some pants on?" Chris said.
Justin laughed shortly. "Sure," he said bitterly, "they won't be freaked out by the fucking huge wings I sprouted overnight, but my dick, that'll send them into fits."
"Look, J, do you," Chris said, and Justin shook his head and walked over toward the window. Chris couldn't tell if he was angry or upset. He used to know these things just by the set of Justin's shoulders.
Chris went into the other room and dug Justin's phone out of his bag. JC answered before the first ring was finished. "Are you all right?" JC said.
"It's me, C," Chris said. "You guys wanna come over now?"
"Is everything - what is it?" JC said.
Chris paused a moment. It seemed unfair not to prepare them, but he didn't know what to say. 'Big fucking wings' had the benefit of being true, but he wasn't sure how helpful that would be. 'The good news is, they'll show our Behind the Music on the Sci-Fi Channel'? 'You know how girls always say J looks like an angel'?
"Come over," Chris said, and hung up.
When he turned around, Justin was standing in the middle of the room. He had put his jeans on, and his head was turned to the side, glaring menacingly at the feathers that drifted over his shoulder. Chris almost smiled. Justin looked like a little boy who'd been drafted against his will into some kind of fancy dress spectacle.
Justin looked at him. "They're on their way," Chris said.
Justin shifted a little. "Chris," he said, "is it -" Justin stopped.
"What?" Chris said. "What is it, J?"
Justin shook his head.
"Justin," Chris said.
Justin licked his lips. "I forgot what I was going to say," he said.
JC almost knocked Chris over when he opened the door. "Justin, are you -" he said, then almost knocked Chris over again when he stumbled back a few steps. Joey crossed himself. Lance said, "God," and then stopped, a knuckle caught between his teeth.
"Justin," Joey said. "You have. Justin."
Justin folded his arms over his chest and looked miserably at them. "Yeah," he said.
"Justin," Lance breathed, "it's. You're. They're beautiful." He stepped closer to Justin and put out his hand.
"Don't," Justin said. Lance pulled his hand back quickly to his side.
"Sorry," Lance said. "I'm sorry."
"No," Justin said. "It's just. They hurt."
"Oh," Lance said.
They all stood there uncomfortably for a few minutes. Chris started to say something, then stopped as JC spoke.
"I don't like them," JC said.
Justin laughed, his real laugh. "Well, I guess I'll just go take them off then," he said, and laughed again. This time, the laugh veered off into a high choking sound, and Justin put his hand over his mouth.
JC walked over until he was standing in front of Justin. He didn't try to touch him. Justin took a step forward and put his head on JC's shoulder. JC lifted a hand carefully and stroked Justin's hair. Justin shook, and JC hummed softly in his ear.
Chris guided Lance and Joey out of the room. Joey started to ask him something, but Chris just looked at him and Joey fell silent. Chris sat on the floor outside the door. Lance and Joey left. He could hear Justin sobbing through the door.
When it had been quiet in the room for a while, Chris got up and let himself in.
Justin was kneeling over the sofa with his head buried in his arms. JC was sitting beside him, bending over him. His fingers traced delicately along the wounded skin on Justin's back. The wings quivered above them. Justin was making a soft shaky sound with every breath, like a child who'd cried himself out, too exhausted to weep any longer but too grieved to sleep.
"Shh," JC said, his fingers trailing gently over Justin's spine. "Shh."
Chris left, easing the door shut behind him.
The next morning Justin joined them for breakfast, looking worn out. He took the bowl Joey handed him and stood awkwardly next to the table.
"You wanna sit down?" Lance said, getting up.
"No," Justin said softly. "I. They're in the way."
Lance sat down. JC put a hand on his arm. "I'll call Johnny this morning," JC said.
"You won't tell him?" Justin said.
"No," JC said slowly, "no, not if you don't want me to. But I have to tell him something. We're going to need to cancel the rest of the tour."
"No," Justin said.
"Justin," JC said. "You have." Justin looked at him. "You can barely stand. I think we have to -"
"No," Justin said. Justin looked at Chris. JC looked at him too. Chris didn't know what to say.
"Look," JC said, running a hand through his hair, "I'll talk to Johnny. I'll tell him - something. And he'll handle everything, he'll explain it to everyone -"
"Oh yeah?" Justin said. "What'll he say? Tour cancelled on account of wings?"
"Well, what do you want to do?" JC snapped. "Get us all a pair, say it's a new costume?"
Justin dropped his bowl on the table. They all listened to it clatter as it spun to a stop.
"I just," Justin said. "I just don't want everything to change."
Everyone was silent.
Finally Chris said, "Why don't we take a week off and see where we are then?"
Justin spent most of the week sleeping. At least that's what he said he was doing. When Chris looked in on him, he was lying on his stomach in the bed, the wings covering him. But his breath sounded a little too even and measured for sleep, and when Chris said, "Justin," he flinched, just a little. The wings shivered.
Chris left him alone.
JC spent most of the week on the phone. He had one story for Johnny, one for Lonnie, another for the publicist. Lance laughed weakly as JC hung up. "You better be careful to keep your stories straight," he said.
"Doesn't matter," JC said. "They all think I'm lying. They think it's drugs."
Joey grinned briefly, then said, "So. Um. Do you think that's what it is?"
They all looked at him. Joey flushed. "Oh, right. Cause that's much crazier than him just growing them out of nowhere." No one said anything. "I just thought. I mean, if it was, then maybe there's something else he could take. That would. You know."
"I think," Chris said, "I think we've just got to assume they're here to stay."
"So what do we do?" Lance said.
"Whatever Justin wants," Chris said. JC looked at him sharply. "Whatever Justin wants," Chris said again.
What Justin wanted was to try to continue the tour. JC raised his eyebrows skeptically when Justin said it, but Justin looked so miserable that Chris knew JC wouldn't be able to hold out. He was right.
When Justin kept the wings folded in and wore Joey's shirts, he looked pretty normal. They were still painful, and Justin flinched any time anyone came near them. Chris had them change the show until it was more like hanging out and wandering rhythmically than dancing, but at least Justin looked a little less like he was constantly bracing for a blow. Johnny put out a story about an injury, and the fans didn't seem to mind the curtailed choreography.
None of it mattered. Justin started to get a focused, grim look in his eye toward the end of every show, and he stumbled over the simplified steps. He stripped his shirt off as soon as he left the stage. The wings spread out over and above him.
One night Joey got a mouthful of feathers and said, spitting them out, "Yo, J, you think you could -"
"I'm sorry," Justin said. "I can't. It. They don't want to stay folded up."
Chris was a little creeped out by the way Justin, the way they all referred to the wings as "them", like they were some alien creations that had attached themselves to Justin. He thought about how he'd feel if Justin started calling them his.
"Do they hurt?" Chris said. "When you do it?"
"No," Justin mumbled. "Not much."
Two days later the bleeding started. Chris saw it first, red leeching out, forming a strange pattern on the back of Justin's shirt. He didn't say anything. JC saw it next, and he didn't say anything either. He just grabbed Justin's back, ignoring his pained cry, and held his bloody hand in front of Justin's face. Justin hung his head.
JC called Johnny.
xiii: alone together
"Cheer up, kiddo," Chris said. "You were always bitching about not having enough time off."
"That was you," Justin said, kicking at the wall.
"Well, aren't you lucky then. You don't have to listen to me anymore." Justin grunted. Chris said, "Look, it's just. Just take some time, we'll figure things out. You know, just some kind of. Training period, or something. You'll get used to them, and then..." Chris' voice trailed off helplessly.
"I don't want to go home," Justin said without looking up.
"I know, J," Chris said gently. "But we can't, anymore. It's hurting you -"
"No," Justin said, "no, I know we can't, I just meant. I know I have to go somewhere. But I don't want to go home."
"Okay," Chris said after a moment. "Is there. Were you thinking there was someplace you wanna go?"
"I don't care," Justin said. "Just not. I mean. Maybe someplace, like, out in the country. Someplace to be alone."
Chris paused. He took a deep breath. "Look, J, I'm not sure how good an idea it is for you to be on your own -"
"No," Justin said. He turned to look at Chris. "I meant, like, we could be alone. Together."
"I'll see what I can do," Chris said.
"It's just," Chris said. "He just needs some time. To adjust."
"I don't like it," JC said.
"Well, join the club, C. I think we've all got a lot of stuff we don't like right now." Chris' voice was softer than the words. "Look, just give him a chance to get used to. Things. He just needs a break, I guess. An adjustment period. I promise, I'll call you as soon as it's over."
"I don't like it," JC said again. "Out in the middle of nowhere like that. Anything could happen."
Chris said, "He won't be alone."
They were alone.
It had taken them forever to get there. Chris drove, and Justin lay in the back seat. Justin had taken his shirt off at first, let the wings open as much as they could in the cramped space, but Chris leaned back over the seat and tapped his ankle lightly. "J," he said, "what if. Somebody might stop us, or. You know." Justin had looked at him gravely, then pulled his shirt back on. He lay down and turned his face into the back of the seat.
It was dark when they got there. It was a small cabin, three rooms and a bathroom, but it was open and airy, with tall windows along the walls. It was almost empty of furniture; Chris had called ahead. When Justin walked in, the wings stretched out to their full length without touching anything. Justin smiled.
Chris put his bag on the sofa that was the lone piece of furniture in the front room and headed for the bathroom. When he returned, his bag was gone. Justin had moved it into the bedroom. "So," Chris said, leaning in the doorway, "you want to go to bed now?"
"I'm not tired," Justin said. Chris stepped back into the living room to let Justin pass. "Can we. Is there anyone around?"
"Sixty acres of just us," Chris said.
"Is that. That sounds like a lot, sixty acres," Justin said.
Chris said, "We're alone." Justin smiled again.
Justin walked outside and Chris followed him. Chris had left the lights on in the cabin and the windows glowed brightly, wide streaks of light. Chris stopped Justin when the streaks had shrunk to thin slashes in the velvet night. "Justin," he said, "that's far enough."
Justin turned. His face was shrouded by the darkness. Chris moved closer, blinking. His eyes still hadn't adjusted. Justin started to sit down, then shrugged impatiently and lay on his stomach in the dirt. He propped himself on his elbows and rested his chin in his hands. The wings billowed above him, gleaming dully.
Chris sat down a few feet from him. He looked up and saw the stars glinting in the sky, more than he'd ever seen before. Chris was a city boy, and he was suspicious of these country stars, shining smugly without the competition of neon, ten thousand perfect worlds Chris would never know.
Chris looked down. Justin had thrown his head back, the curls at the nape of his neck brushing against the wings, darker than gold. As Chris watched, the wings moved higher, hovering over Justin's body, shedding a low hard light over him. Justin's parted lips shone.
Chris looked back at the stars.
Justin didn't move till morning. Chris slept a little, waking as dawn crept over the horizon, the clear gray light speared by the dark tips of the trees. The light bled brighter, pink-tinged clouds swallowing the last of the night. Justin rose gracefully, so smoothly that the wings barely quivered around him. Chris clambered to his feet and followed him back to the house.
Justin went straight to bed. He slept like the dead, face pushed into the pillow, glimpses of tan skin flashing through the shielding wings as he slept. Chris stood over him. He had to bend from side to side to dodge the drifting wings. He leaned in closer. It was the first good look at them he'd had since the first night.
The tips were still the same, hard and heavy-looking, as though they'd been dipped in gold. Blues still played over most of each wing, shifting pale to deep to dark as the wings moved. But the centers were different. The purple had faded to a light clear violet. Chris thought that perhaps that first night they had been stained with Justin's blood.
Along the roots, Justin's flesh had started to heal. It no longer gaped angrily where it had been torn. A thin strip of whole skin, no wider than Chris' finger, divided the wings from each other. Chris ached to trace that golden line. But the wings stirred restlessly in the air, and Justin had already gasped and mumbled once, when a stray feather had just caught Chris' cheek, before he could pull away.
Chris sat on a chair in the corner of the room, knees pulled up to his chest. He watched as sunlight flooded through the curtainless windows, sifting through the warp and weft of the wings. Justin's lashes fluttered as the rays brightened his face. He pulled an arm over his eyes. There was no sound in the room but Justin's soft breathing and the rustling of the wings.
Justin apparently intended to sleep all day, but tired as he was, Chris couldn't stay still. He wandered idly into the kitchen and realized he was hungry. He ate two sandwiches, grateful for that simple reflex. He stood on the porch and smoked. The woods stretched out green and inviting in the daylight, but he was reluctant to leave Justin alone. He sat on the sofa and stared up at the ceiling.
He must have dozed off because he woke up with Justin standing over him. The sun was setting. Justin was still flushed with sleep, his cheeks fever-bright against the pale blue of the wings. He was naked. "Hey," Justin said as Chris rubbed his hands over his face.
"Hey," Chris said. He sat up.
"You wanna," Justin said, heading for the door. "Outside."
"Justin," Chris said, and Justin paused. The wings fluttered impatiently. "Don't you want dinner or something? You haven't eaten since yesterday."
"I'm not hungry," Justin said, looking startled. Chris stood up and studied him. He hadn't thought about it before, his attention had been focused on the wings, but Justin hadn't been eating much lately. He had always been slender, but he was even leaner now, his body all muscle. His face was thinner too, cheekbones standing out in sharp relief.
Justin turned toward him, and the last of the sunlight struck him full on. The wings arched over the slim line of his body and the severe beauty of his face. Chris caught his breath as he realized why he hadn't noticed the changes in Justin.
Justin looked like an angel.
xviii: want to
Justin ate a sandwich to placate Chris and then strode through the door, some secret purpose tightening his muscles and lengthening his steps. Chris almost had to run to keep up with him.
Again Chris left the lights on in the cabin. Again Chris had to stop Justin when the lights threatened to shrink into nothingness. Chris sat on the ground, but Justin remained standing. He tipped his head up. The wings cast a cold glow over his face, set in grim lines of concentration.
"Justin," Chris said, and then Justin started rolling his shoulders. The wings rustled frantically, then stopped. Chris could hear Justin panting.
"Justin," Chris said again, and then the rustling came again, the wings moving quickly through the air, a dazzling blur in the dying light.
Chris wasn't sure how long he watched before he figured out what Justin was trying to do. "Justin," he said, scrambling to his feet and walking toward him, "are you sure. They might not be made for that."
"I can feel it," Justin said. "They want to."
Chris sat back down.
Justin caught a rhythm eventually, and the wings stopped fluttering and swept through the air forcefully. Justin remained on the ground.
When the moon rose Justin started running. He ran hard for several steps and then leapt into the air. Each time he fell heavily to the ground, the wings still beating fruitlessly. The moonlight was bright enough for Chris to see the desperate desire in Justin's eyes as the wings cut uselessly through the night, the sweat that shimmered over his body, the bruises that bloomed over his skin as he fell, and fell, and fell again.
Chris watched in silence for as long as he could. When Justin fell yet again, crying out as his battered knees struck the ground, Chris said, "J, please. Stop." Justin looked at him, and Chris shivered. He recognized that look from countless days in rehearsal, Justin fighting with fierce determination to force his body into some routine it struggled against. Justin always won those battles.
Tonight Justin wasn't winning. Chris watched, one hand pressed to his lips, as Justin ran, and leapt, and fell. When dawn broke, Justin curled up in the dirt and sobbed in frustration, the wings hovering reproachfully just above him, stray feathers scratching at his skin.
Justin let Chris lead him back up to the cabin. He ate the sandwich Chris gave him absently, then let Chris guide him into the bedroom. He stood obediently in the middle of the room while Chris got soap and water and a washcloth.
Justin whimpered when Chris wiped the cloth over his chest. Justin was covered in bruises and scrapes, dirt smeared across his body and caked over his shredded elbows and knees. Chris did the best he could at cleaning him up, but finally Justin put a hand over Chris' wrist. Chris stopped.
Justin lay down on the bed, moaning a little as his weight settled on his bruises. Chris watched for a moment, then took a step back. Justin reached a hand out to him and looked up. Chris took his hand and lay down, sliding beneath one wing. A chill prickle passed over his side as the wing drifted against his skin, and Justin winced. The wing lifted. Justin closed his eyes. Chris clasped Justin's hand in both his own.
When Chris woke, he wasn't sure where he was. All he could see were layers of violet and blue sparkling over him. Then the colors lowered to sting his face, and Justin cried out. Chris remembered.
The sun was still high when they got out of bed. Chris made eggs, and Justin pushed them around on his plate. Chris said, "J, come on," and Justin made a face and ate them quickly. Chris sat on the couch, and Justin perched beside him, half standing, wincing as his knee came in contact with the upholstered arm.
"How you feeling?" Chris said quietly.
"Weird," Justin said.
Chris looked over at him, then laughed and looked up at his face. "So are you never wearing pants again or what?"
"Why should I?" Justin said.
Chris shrugged. "Good point. But I don't care what lifestyle choices you make, I'm not turning nudist." Justin laughed. "J," Chris said, low, and Justin stopped laughing.
"I can't," Justin said. He got up and walked to the window. The wings quivered in the sunlight. "I can't." Chris sat back and stared at the ceiling.
When it was dark, they went out again into the woods. Justin moved more slowly, his body stiffened from the night before. Chris tried to look away, at the dirt beneath him, at the stars above. But he kept looking back at Justin, teeth worrying at his lip, muscles straining stubbornly. There was something familiar in Justin's dogged persistence, and Chris clung to that for comfort in the dark.
Justin ran, and leapt, and this time he skidded briefly before he fell. As he dragged himself up from the ground, something sparked in his eyes. Justin ran again, and leapt, and this time the wings caught something and carried him for a few steps before dropping him to his knees. Justin opened his mouth as he left the ground, and a pure sweet sound came from his lips, clear and melodic as a song. There was something even more familiar to Chris in that joyful soaring sound. There was no comfort in it for Chris at all.
Justin stood still for a moment, arms folded into his body, the wings spread wide. He glanced at Chris, just once, and then looked up at the sky. He took a deep breath.
Justin ran, and leapt, and took flight.
Chris looked at the long light curve of Justin's body splitting the night, looked at the strong wings pulling him high into the air.
He knew it was wrong, but he thought it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.
Chris could still hear Justin singing, even after he'd disappeared from view. He waited with a patience born of necessity as the sound faded, and felt his heart rise as the song swelled again, growing louder and louder until finally it cut off and Justin tumbled to the ground in front of him. Justin lay still and crumpled in the dirt. Chris crawled close and knelt in front of him. "J?" he whispered. "J?" and Justin pushed up on his hands and knees and kissed him.
Justin kissed him frantically, his mouth tasting of something sweet and dark and wild. Chris' hands reached out, but the wings beat rapidly around Justin's body and all he could do was cup Justin's face and kiss him back. Justin pushed him onto his back and slid over him, fingers tugging at Chris' clothes, mouth moving hotly over Chris' skin. Chris' hands scrabbled helplessly at the ground. The rustling of the wings rose around them, fast and fast, sharp and sharp, until the air sparked and crackled with it.
Justin swung off Chris and pulled insistently at him until Chris sat up and then knelt. Justin moved in again, kissing him. He grasped Chris' shoulders with a startling strength. Chris' hands skimmed lightly over Justin's hips, his stomach, his chest. Justin broke away from Chris and shoved him until Chris fell back onto his hands. Justin turned around in front of him and sank to his elbows. "Justin," Chris said, "Justin, no, I don't," and Justin looked back over his shoulder, face masked by the wing.
"Please," Justin said, "pleasepleaseplease," his voice spiraling plaintively above the frenzied rustling of the wings. "Pleasepleasepleaseplease -"
"All right," Chris shouted above the noise, "all right." Justin stilled and dropped his head, mouth pressed to the ground. Chris tried to go slowly, but the wings were thrashing around him, the noise grating at his ears, the sharp edges scratching at his skin, until Chris felt half crazed and desperate. Justin bucked back against him and Chris grabbed his hips and pushed inside. Justin cried out and then froze, the wings halting in the air. "Oh," Justin said, "oh," and the wings moved again. Chris pulled back out of their way and then pushed in again. Justin's body moved with him, his mouth dragging against the dirt with every thrust.
"Don't," Chris said, trying to reach up through the blur and dazzle of the wings to touch Justin's head, "don't, don't, baby, don't." He tried to put a hand on Justin's back, but the wing slipped under his hand and stung him, and he thrust again, and again. Justin's fingers dug deep into the ground.
Chris rolled off Justin and lay next to him, gasping. Justin turned his head and kissed him. He made a soft sound as his torn lips touched Chris', but his fists met around Chris' neck and held Chris tightly against him. Chris tasted dirt and blood and sweet dark wild and Justin.
When dawn came Justin laid his head on Chris' stomach. He pressed his raw lips to the angry scratches over Chris' ribs. He brought his fist up to rest against the base of Chris' throat, still clasping a handful of dirt. Chris watched the sun rise through the swirling blues of Justin's wings.
xx: into the woods
They slept all day in the sun. It was late afternoon before they made their way slowly back to the cabin. Justin limped and rubbed his arms and shoulders, the wings drooping down over him. When Chris tried to talk to him, he shook his head and smiled.
Justin let Chris wash him off again, feed him, lead him to the bed and lay him down with his head on Chris' chest. Chris said, "Justin, I think we should -" Justin rubbed his hip soothingly and said, "Shh. Shh." Chris closed his eyes and felt the wings hovering over them.
When night fell, they went out again into the woods.
Every night Justin ran, and leapt, and the night caught him.
Every night Justin fell, and Chris pinned him to the earth.
Every night it got easier. Soon there were no bruises on Justin except the dark abrasion on his cheek where it rubbed every night in the dirt.
Every night Justin flew farther. Chris watched Justin soar above him singing. He waited, his hands anchored in the dirt, his head tilted up to watch the silent stars. He closed his eyes when a strange lovely figure sliced through the sky, held aloft on glittering wings.
Beautiful, he thought, and hated himself for thinking. Beautiful.
In the mornings they walked back to the cabin side by side. Sometimes Chris' hand brushed against Justin's, but their fingers never twined together. Chris washed the dirt from Justin's body and from his own, and they went to bed. They rose in the late afternoon and waited restlessly, wordlessly, for night to fall.
One afternoon Chris found Justin staring at his reflection in the window. He bit his lip. He'd asked them to take away all the mirrors. "I don't," Justin said. "I don't." He put a hand against the window.
"I know," Chris said. "It's not you."
"It is," Justin said. "It is now." Chris was silent. "It's beautiful."
"I know," Chris said. They watched the wings flutter in the glass.
"I don't want to go," Justin said.
"Then don't," Chris said, his breath catching in his throat.
"I can't help it," Justin said. "They want to."
"Then come back," Chris said.
"It's so hard," Justin said. "Every night it's harder."
"Come back," Chris said again. He reached out and put his hand on Justin's chest, over his heart. He saw a thin line of blood well up on his arm where the wing caught it. Justin slid his fingers over the glass, covering the reflection of Chris' hand.
"I don't want to go," Justin said.
That night Justin flew farther than he ever had before. For the first time, there was a heart-stopping moment when the song faltered and Chris heard nothing but the croaks and rustles of the night. Then the song came back, and Chris' heart rose again, but he knew he had lost something in that moment, something he would never have again.
That night the wings beat fiercely, frantically, even after Justin had fallen. Chris had to fight his way through them, cold sharp cuts prickling along his palms, his chest, his thighs. Justin gasped when he laid his head on Chris' stomach. He turned his head to look up at Chris, tears in his eyes. His mouth left a red smear where it dragged along Chris' skin.
"I'm sorry," Justin said. "I'm sorry."
"It's all right," Chris said, putting a hand over the bruise on Justin's cheek. "It's not -" He stopped. Justin looked down.
"It's all right," Chris said again. He pulled his hand up gently, until Justin was looking at him. "It's worth it." Chris wasn't talking about the cuts.
"I'm sorry," Justin said again.
"I know," Chris said.
One morning Justin pulled away when they reached the cabin. He laid his head against the smooth glass of the window. Chris watched him, the wings fluttering anxiously around him. Then he turned and went into the bedroom. He sat on the bed and put his head in his hands.
When Chris came out of the bedroom, Justin was still leaning against the window. Chris walked up next to him and took his hand. They stood looking at the green bright woods together. Then Chris led Justin into the bedroom.
He sat in the straight-backed wooden chair and pulled Justin into his lap. Justin looked down at him, his eyes wide. "I'm sorry," Justin said, and Chris put his hand over Justin's mouth. Then he took it away and kissed him. Justin bent his head down to Chris'. When Chris pulled away, Justin buried his face in Chris' shoulder.
Chris ran his hands over Justin's chest, over his stomach, over his legs. "I don't want to go," Justin said without lifting his head. "I don't want to go." Chris moved his hands over Justin's hips, then slid them up and around, beneath the wings, to the tender hidden skin he hadn't touched since before the first night. He ignored the feathers burning his knuckles and concentrated on the warm soft skin of Justin's back. Justin gasped and rocked against him. Chris pressed his hands into Justin's back, his mouth into Justin's shoulder.
They stayed like that, locked together, until the sunlight had slipped from the windows. Then Chris let his stinging hands drop from Justin's back. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back. When he opened his eyes, the wings arched over him, wide as the sky.
When night fell, they walked hand in hand into the woods. Justin stood still and tilted his head up to the sky. Then he turned and walked back to Chris. The wings twitched and buzzed around him. "I don't want to go," he said.
"I know," Chris said.
"I can't help it. They want to."
"I know," Chris said.
"I can't help it," Justin said, lower this time. "I want to."
Chris kissed him. Then he stepped back and closed his eyes. He heard Justin's feet drum against the ground, heard the rustle of the wings. There was a split second of silence as Justin was borne aloft. Then he heard the song.
He waited, his eyes closed, until the song faded away. He waited, and it didn't come back. He opened his eyes when he was sure he would see nothing but the empty sky and the cold distant gleam of the stars.
When dawn broke, he went back to tell the others it was over.
with many thanks to [lesa], who started the trend [here].