The author's notes, spoiler-free, for those who want some background first. Click on the hyperlinks to get a translation of the phrases.
It works like this:
The DJ's playing Marilyn Manson and the club is about twenty degrees above boiling, bodies pressed against each other on the dance floor. You're about as out of place as you could possibly be, dressed in pale and tight-fitting faded jeans and a soft russet cashmere sweater. You can just overhear "fucking day-tripper" from over your left shoulder as you shove through the crowd, and you ignore it about as resolutely as you ignore the looks you're getting. You're not here to dance.
Fetish night, you think, looking around yourself at the beautiful people and the ones who want to be beautiful people. Either fetish night, or this is the kind of club where bondage gear is a usual sartorial choice. It isn't surprising; you find yourself in places like this far too often. You're starting to feel at home in places like this, as much as you wouldn't like to be.
The door across the club is unobtrusive. You wouldn't know it was there unless you were looking for it, and the only reason you're looking for it is that you know that it has to be there. You can feel what's waiting for you on the other side, like something big and dark and angry lurking on the horizon. The large guy who's leaning against the wall next to it is there as some sort of guard, holding a hand to stop you.
"Private party, man," he says. "And you're not invited."
"I don't need an invitation," you say, and press the palm of your hand against the door. The screaming starts a minute later. You got there just in time.
"Daylight is proof that God hates me," Joey said on a moan as he fell into the chair. "Coffee. Coffee, now, before my head falls off."
Lance didn't even look up from his laptop, just pushed over the carafe. "God doesn't hate you, He just hates your habit of drinking yourself stupid. You know that if you drank water before you went to sleep you wouldn't wake up so hung over."
"Tried that," Joey grunted, and managed to pour himself a cup of coffee without spilling more than a fourth of it all over the table and himself. He swore that the sunlight was lingering just where he was sitting, and wondered how it managed to know that he was hung over. "Man, how come I never see you hung over? You're, like, fucking inhuman."
"We've secretly replaced regular Lance with Folger's Crystals," Chris said from the doorway. "Let's see if he notices. Did you fuckers save any of the cherry Danish?"
Joey felt like turning green at the very thought of food. Lance hit a few keys and pointed at the breakfast tray the hotel had sent up for them. "All yours," he said. "Just don't touch Justin's cereal."
"I'd like to keep my hands where they are, thank you," Chris said, and walked across the room, scratching his belly under the t-shirt he'd slept in. "Joey, man, you keep this up, you're going to give us all a bad name, people will start thinking that we're pop stars or something. Fuck, Lance, you did eat the cherry Danish."
"I didn't touch your damn cherry Danish, you know I hate those things." Lance hooked his hands together and stretched them high over his head. Joey admired the view. "Did anyone wake up JC? ...Has anyone seen JC since last night, or did he finally achieve enlightenment on the dance floor and dissolve into his component zen atoms?"
"Asleep," Joey grunted. "Justin's room. Again. We gotta start making little signs that we can put outside our doors with who's sleeping where. Can't find anyone in the morning around here."
"You're just jealous because I won't succumb to your manly charms, Fatone," Chris said, and flipped on the TV. "I keep telling you. I'm too much man for you, babe."
"You wish," Joey mumbled, and rested his nose on the edge of his coffee cup. "Turn that down, it's tapdancing on my cerebellum."
But Chris was watching the screen and wincing. A well-groomed newscaster was holding a microphone, standing on the edge of a burned-out building. "...surprisingly, no casualties, but witnesses say that the fire started just past two AM and had burned out the club by the time that the authorities were able to arrive on-scene. This is Leah Rosenberg, KPRZ, back to you, Dan."
Lance glanced up from his computer and watched the TV for a moment before looking back down. "Wonder what started it," he said, and opened a web browser. Joey watched him stifle a yawn and reach for the coffee himself.
It works like this:
Sometimes you take a look around yourself and think that you want to give up on what you're doing and go back home, back where the sun is warm and your momma knows exactly what you're going through, because she went through it too. Sometimes you wake up in the morning and want to cry, because you wake up with the sense that you're needed, somewhere, across town, and you're going to have to come up with yet another excuse to get over there and take care of the things you need to take care of. Sometimes you think that it would be easier if you just slashed your wrists and let it all bleed out on the floor of whatever hotel in whatever city you're in, let all the demands on your time and your heart and your talents go washing away in rivulets of sticky red. You wonder if you could give it all up if you let yourself bleed dry and then filled your veins with someone else's blood, someone who couldn't do the shit that you can do.
It's in your blood. It always has been. You can't give it up and you can't ignore it; the one time you tried, people got hurt, people you cared about. Your momma knows how much you want to get rid of it, because she went through some of the same thing, but it's tame and settled in her. It hasn't settled in you, even though she thinks it has. You can feel it running just underneath your skin, like some uncaged animal twisting and shifting. Sometimes you think that if you looked down at your stomach, it would be visible beneath your lines, hissing and spitting and waiting to claw its way loose.
You can't ever let it loose, not the way it wants to be. You keep it pent up, wrapped up in chains of your own devising, and you only open those doors when there's no other choice. There's never any other choice. It's just who you are.
The inside curves of your elbows are marked with hundreds of tiny thin lines, the oldest ones long-since faded to nothingness; they never last for long. Your hair always smells of copál and frankincense. There are ink-stains on your hands and wrists and the soles of your feet are brown with henna. You carry a leather-bound journal with you, tucked in the one bag that everyone knows not to open, and sometimes you feel as though the long-dead person on those pages is the only one who can ever understand who and what you are.
It works like this: You hate it more than anything you could imagine, more than anything you could imagine, and if someone showed up on your doorstep tomorrow and told you that he could take it all away from you, you think that you would shut the door in his face and never once look back.
Chris could count on the fingers of one hand how many times they'd been in Colorado, and they always forgot until the were back there how much the altitude messed with all of them. They were creatures of sea level, all of them, and it was bad enough the first time that flecks of blood had spotted from JC's nose after the show and Justin had stayed in bed for hours complaining of the weight on his chest. It wasn't that bad, though, the next time they came through. And the mountains were pretty.
Johnny remembered this time, and scheduled them a few days of down-time to get used to it before their Denver show; they'd never again make the mistake of doing a full dance show just after having hit the altitude change. The first few hours involved lots of fluids and gentle, easy exercise, walking in circles around the halls of the hotel. Joey and Lance had always the least affected out of any of them, but that didn't mean that they liked it any more than the others.
"You drinking enough water?" Joey asked Chris.
"Gonna be peeing for the next six states, yeah, I'm cool. How you feeling?"
"Like an elephant is sitting on my chest, but I'll get over it. I'll be fine by tonight."
Chris smiled. "Wasn't that J's line?"
Joey grinned. "Hey, that doesn't mean it wasn't clever. We gotta steal the good ones when we find them. It's not like Justin manages to come up with all that many of them."
"You seen Lance?" Chris raised an eyebrow. "Or do we need the little post-it notes with who's sleeping in which bed again?"
Joey frowned. "I think I heard him say something about heading over to talk with Mal. That was a little while ago, though."
"Huh." Chris pulled the plastic ring off his waterbottle and twined it through his fingers. "You think they're sleeping together?"
"Nah." Joey ruffled Chris's hair. "I think they've just got a lot in common, and it's good for all of us to have people to talk to who aren't freaks."
"Speak for yourself," Chris said, and dropped to one knee, sliding the waterbottle-ring over Joey's thumb.
None of them could really remember when they picked up Malachai, but he was the best drummer that they'd ever had, and he'd managed to stick around through two albums and three tours. Joey swore sometimes that Mal had a few extra arms that he managed to pull out when they were needed, and sometimes, in that few hours before a show when everyone was just sort of jamming to warm up for yet another night on the pop circuit, Chris secretly agreed.
There'd always been something off about him, though, and Chris told himself as he shifted the ice bucket in his hand that he wasn't really going to look and see if Lance was spending time with Mal, not at all. Lance was a big boy, and could take care of himself. It didn't stop him from stretching his ears when he passed Mal's room, though, especially since the door was cocked half-open and he could hear Lance's soft rumble from inside.
"...quiet night for once, barukh atah Adonai, so I actually got a good six hours of sleep. There isn't even anything all that loud in this hotel. I wonder if it's just the mountain air."
Mal's voice was pitched in exactly the same range as JC's, which Chris hadn't noticed until Justin had commented on it once. "Or maybe I took care of it for you, because you're starting to get so tired that sooner or later you're going to start making mistakes. And we all know where that'll lead."
Chris could just see them through the crack of the door, sitting in the chairs around the room's small table. Lance looked as though he'd actually gotten those six hours of sleep he'd mentioned. Mal -- tall and elegant and blond and well-sculpted, about as far from the stereotypical drummer as it was possible to get -- sprawled out in his chair, one knee hooked over the arm. They were picking at the remnants of a room-service fruit and cheese tray. Chris was surprised at how calm and happy Lance looked, and something in his chest turned over at the sight.
Lance smiled. "Aren't you supposed to be on the other side?"
Mal snorted. "Last time I checked, I was on my own side. Besides, you needed the downtime after Phoenix. You should have called me in on that."
"I can take care of things on my own. Besides, it doesn't look all that great on the resume to go running for help. I was fine in a few days, anyway."
"Well, the help comes free of charge if you need it. I'm enjoying myself too much to risk the situation. Sure I can't talk you into the usual deal? Untold riches? Scantily-clad boys? Kingdoms of the earth?"
Lance laughed, a low and easy sound. "Answer's still no, man. Besides, you're drinking our beer."
"You're a tough sell, Bass."
"Always have been."
Chris backed away from the door on silent feet.
It works like this:
Your momma and your grandmomma watch your sister like a hawk when she starts hitting that age where boys suddenly get to be interesting, and you think it's because they want to make sure she doesn't get in over her head, but sometimes, with that strange sense that you don't understand at all, you think that's not it. It's like they're waiting for something, waiting to step in and take over or do something, and you wonder what it is that they're waiting for.
It stops after your momma finds you out in the garden one day playing with the things that have no names, the things that you've only been able to start seeing recently. "Oh, not you," she says, and brings her hands up to her face. "Oh, baby." She drops to her knees right there in the petunias and gathers you up for a hug, and you're not sure why, but she's crying, just a little.
It runs in the family, she tells you. Grandmother to mother, mother to daughter, but every few hundred years it jumps sideways, shifts and shuffles and appears in the boy of the generation. It's always wild when that happens, nothing like the settled and tamed bits that show up in the women of the family.
"I don't want it," you say, and frown down at your hands. "I don't want to have to do that."
"Oh, baby," she says again, and you know, you just know, that she's thinking of everything that you're going to have to go through, and that alone makes you twice as determined to ignore all of it and make it go away. If you don't use it, you don't have it. "Baby, it doesn't work like that. If you don't use it, it'll eat you up from inside."
You're determined that you'll be the exception to the rule, until the first Thing comes for you. You're thirteen years old and walking home worried that you're going to fail your algebra exam and all of a sudden the world explodes in pain and you're falling forever.
Your grandmomma shows up out of nowhere and once she deals with it, she takes you home and hands you the first journal to read. "When God wants you to do something, you can't ignore it. We can teach you what we know, and you can figure out the rest from the family journals," she tells you, and there's old pain in her eyes. "But you have to learn to use it, honey, or it's going to use you."
Two years later, you know all of the public and private Names of God, and you know what it is that you're seeing, and you know when things are wrong and when they're right and when someone is playing with things that they shouldn't be playing with. You know what to call on and what to leave alone, and you know that there are things in this world that aren't of this world. You've walked the paths of the moon and been to places that never even existed and you know what people are thinking and you know that when they look at you, they don't have any idea that last night you were holding fire in your hand without getting burned.
It doesn't make it any easier to accept.
They hit the hotel in Ft. Worth a few hours early, and Justin was almost too tired to realize that Lance was talking to Tiny as though he was about to go out. He slid up behind Lance and rested his chin against Lance's shoulder, tucking his arms around Lance's waist, and said, "I'm coming with you."
Lance spared a glance over his shoulder, and Justin thought that he looked irritated, like something was pissing him off and he just needed to go and deal with it. Justin didn't really particularly care. "Justin, now's not the time, okay? Tiny and I are just having a little argument over whether or not I'm bringing one of them with me."
"Lance," Justin said, and he put just enough whine into it to grate across Lance's nerves but not enough to piss him off. It was a finely tuned system; he could gauge each of the guys down to a hair. "Don't leave me here with Chris, please, I'm begging you. If I don't get out of here, I'm going to kill him, and I don't think we can find another countertenor on such short notice." He rubbed his cheek against Lance's shoulder. "I'll be your best friend."
"Jesus," Lance said, but he was smiling, against his will. "All right, all right, you can come with me, but you have to promise that you'll stay in the car, okay?"
"Okay," Justin said, and grinned happily at Tiny, who was beginning to look like he regretted even thinking about taking this job. "Where are we going?"
Lance rubbed a hand over his face. "I just have to go see someone about some business."
"Turn here," Lance said, quietly. "And park. I'll be back in a few minutes."
Justin shifted uneasily in the back of the car. "You sure we're in the right place?" It wasn't a very good neighborhood.
"Yeah, I'm sure. It won't take long. Wanna pick up some ice cream on the way home?" Lance unbuckled his seat belt and reached for the door handle.
Justin was expecting Tiny to protest Lance's leaving the car alone, but he didn't. Justin frowned and unbuckled his own seatbelt. "Here, let me or Tiny come with you. This doesn't look like the best place in the world for a pretty boy to head in alone." He cast his eyes up to Tiny's in the rear-view mirror, and was surprised to see that Tiny was shaking his head. He had never seen Tiny, or any one of their guards, let one of them get away with breaking security.
Lance smiled at him. "It's cool, Justin. I'll only be a minute." And he slid out of the car and jogged up the steps of the brownstone.
Justin leaned his elbows against the back of the front seat and watched as Lance opened the door of the building without even knocking. "Tiny," he said, and frowned. A few things clicked together, and he frowned a little more. "Is he here on some kind of drug buy or something?"
That earned a snort from Tiny. "Lance? That's a good one. Boy won't even take an aspirin." He drummed his large hands against the steering wheel and idly scanned the street. "No clue what he's up to. He'll be up there for ten, fifteen minutes, come down empty-handed and looking tired, and we'll hit the Baskin Robbins on the way back to the hotel. Happens every now and then. It's just one of those things."
"Huh," Justin said, just as his phone rang. It was his mother, and by the time he finished that conversation, Lance was sliding back into the backseat next to him. Lance flashed him a tired smile, and Justin caught a flash of growing bruise as Lance tugged down his sleeves.
"You still going stir-crazy?" Lance asked. "We could always run back to the hotel."
"I think I'll pass, but I heard a rumor about ice cream," Justin said. It wasn't until later that he realized that he hadn't bothered to ask what Lance had done upstairs.
It works like this:
Your momma handles stuff for you when you first get to Orlando, because you're having enough trouble trying to fit in without having to worry about all of the other stuff too. You only have to handle the things that she can't, and that makes you nervous, the fact that you can control stuff that she's not strong enough to handle. But your grandmomma warned you when you left that the real power skipped a generation, and you're starting to realize that your momma doesn't know everything. It was only a few years ago that she seemed so capable.
You like the other guys. They're peaceful, even when they're bouncing all over each other and acting like overcaffeinated monkeys. You knew the minute you saw them that they were just good people at heart and that you could trust any one of them to hold your back. By the time you're all ready to head off to Germany, your momma suggests that you might want to tell them. "You're going to be living all up in each others' pockets, baby," she says, "you might want to be honest up front. I can only cover you so long, and I can't stay with you forever."
"I'm already the freak," you tell her. "I'm not going to make it worse."
For the first time, you're more tempted than you've ever been before to use all of it. On a good day, you start thinking that you could drop a little bit of money in Chris's lap so that he didn't have to work so hard, spread himself so thinly, just to eat. You think that you could give you all just a little bit more energy, keep you all just a little less tired. You think that you could give the music just a touch of fascination, so that people who heard it would want to listen to you. You think that you could sort out your dancing in just a few minutes, once and for all, instead of the four extra hours a night it takes you to stubbornly work through each new bit of choreography that everyone else seems to pick up as easily as breathing.
On a bad day, you think that you could pin Chris to the wall and render him incapable of speaking or moving or getting on that one last nerve you're harboring. You think that you could put fat Lou into his own personal hell, where he's the pretty boy being fondled and drooled over, and never let him out. You think that you could peel the skin away from the wardrobe guy who always seems to let his hand linger a little too long on your inseam, so that he feels as naked and raw and exposed as he makes you feel. You think that you could make it seem as though you're the greatest dancer in the world, even if you aren't moving, just by reaching out and changing a few things.
You almost always want to make Justin, perfect golden beautiful Justin who never has to look down at his feet when he dances, break out. You want it so badly that when he actually does, you have to spend half an hour convincing yourself that it was the chocolate and not your fault.
You never do it, any of it. You know how easy it would be to start small, one or two little changes, and then let it all snowball until you're controlling everything around you. You don't want to get it that way. You want to earn it, if you get it at all, by your own sweat and tears, and not by cheating your way into it. You're trying as hard as you can to be normal, or at least not-normal in the same way that the other four are not-normal.
Your mother tells you once that she's proud of the man you're growing up to be. You look at her and wonder if she has any idea what she's saying.
JC slept on all of them, and people would usually call his choice of pillow indiscriminate, but he knew better. There were always rules for who he slept on at any given time. When he wanted nothing but a good night's sleep, warm and cherished and lulled to sleep by someone else's heartbeat, he crawled in with Joey. When his body was humming with the music, the electric push-pull need of energy running through his veins, he opened his mouth for Chris and they would fall back on the bed together, until the last one awake would pull up the covers with his toes and they would sleep the sleep of the righeously exhausted. When he was feeling small and needy, he climbed over Justin like a hothouse flower, and Justin would pet him and kiss him, closed-mouthed, for what felt like hours until they were both dizzy and shaking.
When he felt cold in down deep to his bones, the kind of cold that wasn't from temperature, he'd knock on Lance's door and Lance would always open it and look startled before nodding and taking him to bed.
He was nearly asleep on Lance's shoulder, warm and soft and comfortable, when Lance sat up with a sudden jerk. "Joey," he said, and was out of bed before JC could do much more than blink, pulling on a pair of boxers. JC trailed along behind him, feeling lost, as Lance rushed down the hallway, stopping outside the door of Joey's room. He didn't bother knocking, just tried the door, which refused to yield to his hand.
"Fuck," Lance said, and turned as though to go for the keycards that they all carried to each other's rooms, but stopped. "No time --" His eyes met JC's for half a second, and then he sighed and leaned over the electronic lock on the door. He brought his hand to his mouth and traced a few lines on the lock, fingers glistening with saliva, and JC blinked, because it was glowing faint blue-silver.
The door opened. Lance rushed inside. It took a second for the images to sort themselves out in JC's head, Joey flat on his back on the bed with the naked woman on top of him, before Lance had dragged the girl off of Joey and off the bed.
"What the --" Joey sat up, pulling the covers around his waist, and scowled. "Lance --"
Lance had his hands full of naked, hissing, spitting woman. He ducked one flying elbow and dragged his arm around her throat, wrenching her other arm up and behind her back. "You can't have him," he said, and JC's eyes rounded at the calm, even tone it was said in.
"He's not yours, Magus," she snarled, and brought her foot down on his instep. Lance didn't even bother wincing, just held on a little more tightly.
"Lance, what the fuck?" Joey repeated. Lance looked over at him.
"Did you penetrate her yet?" It was the same tone that Lance might have used for "did you remember the coffee". Joey just blinked, looking more confused. "Did you penetrate her," Lance repeated, and that time it was more urgent.
"No, I didn't, and you maybe want to tell me what the fuck is going on here?" Joey threw back the covers and reached for his own boxers. Lance's shoulders eased a little, as though Joey's answer had reassured him.
Drawn by the noise, Justin stuck his head through the door. "Yo, what the -- oh woah, naked chick."
"Not now, Justin," Lance said, and let go of the girl's arm. Chris came up behind Justin, and wisely enough, didn't say anything. "Which one are you?" Lance asked the girl, and his voice was back to that same even keel.
She tossed her head. "I don't have to tell you anything."
Lance sighed, and then looked up at Joey. "Sorry, man," he mumbled, sounding actually contrite, and then dragged his hand over her forehead, fingers moving in a complicated pattern.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph," Joey said, and jumped backwards so quickly that he fell back onto the bed. Justin froze next to JC and made a small noise. The girl hadn't changed all that much, except for the grey skin, the fangs, and the tail.
"Okay," Chris said, his voice full of the sort of calm that meant he was about half a step away from a classic freakout, "did someone slip me some bad Mountain Dew today, or did Lance just turn Joey's date into something straight off of Buffy?"
Lance let go of the girl; she turned to face him, putting her hands on her hips. JC noted with the one bit of his brain that was still functioning rationally that she had very nice breasts indeed. "Off limits," Lance said, sharply.
"Not yours," she countered with.
"They're all mine. If you leave now under your own free will and swear on your name not to return, I won't banish you."
"Sadra," came the voice from the door, and the girl whipped around, hissing under her breath. Malachai stood in the doorway, wearing only a pair of jeans, looking nonplussed.
"Can someone shut the fucking door before the entire floor is looking in on me?" Joey asked plaintively from the bed.
"Boss," the girl said. "Are you fucking done with your little vacation yet?"
Mal shook his head. "What are you doing here?"
She flipped her hair over her shoulder. "Looking for you. People are getting pretty pissed off that you're gone. People are a little more pissed off that you're the Magus's lapdog."
The air in the room grew sharper. "I am no man's lapdog," Mal said, slow and even.
"Well, it sure doesn't look like that from over here. You plan on coming back sometime this century?"
"Excuse me," Lance said, pleasantly, and both Mal and the girl whipped their heads over to look at him. "I think we're missing the point here."
"Which is?" Mal hissed.
Lance just smiled a little, that enigmatic smile that JC always thought looked so hot on him. "You gave me her name. Thank you." He moved faster than anyone could really react to, dragging his fingers between the girl's legs and then across her chest, rumbling out a few words in an unfamiliar language.
"Great," Joey said, after a long minute of silence, once the smoke had cleared. "Lance, you fucker, you just exorcised my date."
"I can't believe I nearly slept with that," Joey mourned, throwing himself down on the couch of his room. Chris cackled and dropped down onto the floor next to him.
"Yeah, you usually at least try to stick with your own species." Chris poked JC's knee. "You still with us, C?"
"Things got significantly more weird in the last half hour or so, didn't they?" JC asked, with a frown. Joey watched him try to piece things together, and thought that JC might be more freaked out than he himself was.
Lance, sprawled out on the other side of the couch with his feet in Joey's lap, looking like he'd been through the wringer, made a small noise at the knock on the door. "Someone want to go and get the room service?" he asked, his voice deep and half-slurring. "Don't think I could get up if the room was on fire."
"I'll do it," Mal said quietly, and rose from his chair to cross the room. In the confusion following the girl's disappearance, he just hadn't left, and as much as Joey would have liked to be alone with the guys, he had a few questions to ask anyway. He noted, as Mal answered the door and accepted the package of cookies that the hotel had sent up, the two long scars running down Mal's bare shoulderblades, and made a thoughtful hmm as a few things clicked together in his head.
"You okay, Joe?" Lance asked, nudging Joey with one toe.
"Yeah," Joey said, and actually looked at Lance for the first time in a while. He noted, for the first time, the way that Lance's skin seemed to be so drawn-out over his face, like Lance was wasting away from the inside. "You okay, man?"
"I'll be fine in a few minutes," Lance said, and sat up a little to take the package of cookies from Mal.
"Oo, Oreos," Chris said, happily, and leaned over to grab a few. Mouth full, he waved his hands. "All right, all right, I don't know what the fuck is going on but I'm still the boss of y'all, dammit, so I call this meeting to order. First order of business: Lance, what the fuck?"
Lance was methodically splitting each Oreo before licking the insides out. "Succubus," he said, nonchalantly. Joey blinked. "Gimme a second, let me get some of this sugar inside me before I crash even harder."
"Uh-huh," Chris said, and grabbed another cookie. "Are you sure someone didn't spike your Mountain Dew?"
"He's not lying," Malachai said, and sat back down in his chair. "You're luckier than you by all rights should be, Fatone. I'd say you were about thirty seconds away from being a dessicated husk."
"Who the fuck uses words like 'dessicated' in casual conversation?" Justin blurted. Chris kicked him. "Ow, Chris, that hurt."
"I'm a little more interested in the important questions, like how Lance knew what that chick was, and how he knew what to do with it, and what the fuck our drummer is doing in the middle of all of this, and the most important question, of course, which is, Lance, what the fuck?"
"I get it," Joey said, slowly, and then blinked as everyone turned to look at him. "Morningstar."
"At your service," Mal said, and sketched a half-bow, still seated.
Lance blinked. Through the mouthful of Oreos, he managed, "Okay, you've just managed to surprise me."
"Hey," Joey said, and poked Lance's foot. "Hello, raised Catholic over here." He looked over at Mal, who hadn't suddenly grown a tail and horns or anything.
"Someone want to clue in the resident heathen?" Chris asked.
"Our drummer is the Devil." Joey shook his head. "That's fucking wild."
Mal winced. "Please. That's such an outdated word. Morningstar will do, if you must. Or you could just go on calling me Mal, I rather like it. Bass, how are you holding up?"
"Refined sugar to the rescue once again," Lance said. Joey looked over at him and noticed that he was starting to look better, less tired. "I really wish I'd get more than thirty seconds' warning when stuff like that goes down so I didn't have to pick up the pieces from the crash afterwards."
"Okay," Joey said, slowly, and looked back over to Mal. "Lance, have you, like, sold your soul to Satan or something?"
Both Mal and Lance broke out into fits of laughter. Joey blinked, and looked over at Chris. "What? I thought it was a perfectly reasonable question," he protested.
Chris patted his knee. "Absolutely, Joey," he said, reassuringly. "Guys? Is that the sort of Joey-just-said-something-amazingly-stupid laughter, or is that the sort of Joey-just-said-something-amazingly-correct laughter?"
"I couldn't take him even if he wanted to," Mal finally said, wiping away tears of laughter from the corners of his eyes. "Bass, you mean you didn't tell them?"
"Tell us what?" Joey twisted on the couch to look at Lance again. A horrible thought occurred to him. "Lance, you're not some kind of demon yourself, are you?"
"Joey, you've met my momma, would you want to say that to her face?" Lance shook his head. "Nah. I can just -- I don't know. Do a little more than everyone else and stuff. It's hard to explain. I didn't tell you guys because I didn't want y'all to think I was some kind of freak."
"Hello," Chris said, "in a group with Justin Timberlake, you're not the biggest freak around," and Justin kicked him that time. "Ow, hey, Infant, lay off the knees."
"Let he who is without beard horns cast the first 'freak'," Justin said, and shook his head. "Lance, are you saying that you're, like, some kind of magician or something?"
"Magus," Lance said, "ritual mage, chosen of God and blah blah blah, but yes. In essence, you could say that."
"Woah," Justin said, his eyes wide. "That's pretty intense. Like, what sort of shit can you do?"
Lance rubbed a hand over his eyes. "Lots of stuff, but I don't, okay? I don't use it unless I have to. When someone's messing with something they shouldn't, or when things start happening that need someone to take care of them. It runs in my family or something, or so Mom and Grandma say. I'm the first one of us in a long time to be strong enough to earn the title of 'Magus'. Usually, it's a lot less -- showy in the family."
"'Strong' is a bit of an understatement," Mal said, in an undertone. Lance's cheeks flushed.
"What's your story?" JC asked suddenly, breaking his silence and looking over at Mal. "What are you doing here?"
Mal shrugged. "I was bored. I like the music. Touring is fun. Someone's got to keep an eye on Bass and make sure he doesn't fall over dead from overwork, since he's sure not going to."
"So, Lance, you're like, working for the Devil?" JC's eyebrows furrowed.
"Can we lay off the Devil thing?" Mal mumbled. They ignored him.
"No." Lance shook his head and sat up fully, obviously feeling much better. "I'm not working for him and he's not working for me, except for, you know, the fact that he plays drums for us. We're not even working together. I've got my thing to do and he's got his thing to do, and it's just nice to have someone who knows what I'm going through, that's all."
"You could have told us," Justin said, quietly. There was something odd on his face that Joey couldn't identify.
"No, actually, Justin, I couldn't have, and you know why? Because all of you, right this very minute, are sitting there thinking about what I can do and what I can't do and starting to get scared shitless over having me around, and if you're not worried that I'm going to, I don't know, turn you into a frog if you steal my last clean pair of underwear again, which don't think I didn't notice by the way, you're thinking about how you can use it for personal gain, and I just didn't want to go through any of that, okay? I wouldn't have told you if He-Who-Screws-Anything-With-Pulse over there hadn't picked the exact wrong girl to take home for the night." Lance blinked as he finished talking, as though he'd managed to surprise himself, and then blushed a little more. "Sorry," he mumbled. "Old issues."
There was silence for a minute. "...Can you really turn someone into a frog?" Justin finally asked, curiously, and then "ow", as Chris kicked him again.
"Pay no attention to the shithead in the corner, Lance. Nothing's changed about you in the past half hour except what we know about you. We'll back off, okay? Promise." Chris glared at the others, as though willing them by sheer force of personality to nod and agree. "You tell us what you want to tell us, and you don't tell us what you don't want to tell us, and we won't push or ask about it if you don't want to talk about it."
"That might not actually be possible," Mal said, and shrugged when all eyes turned to him. "I think that the Home Office has taken an interest in you."
It works like this:
Sometimes you get off on it. Your momma never warned you about that end of things, and you think that maybe she didn't know, maybe it's different for a girl. But sometimes you make it home and the power is singing in your blood and all you want to do is find someone to bury yourself in and let it release. You figure that it has something to do with being young and famous. Or maybe it would happen to you anyway.
Some nights you get up on stage and listen to the sounds of screaming filling your ears, and that doesn't do it for you. Not the way it gets JC and Justin charged up. But coming home with the magic sliding under your skin, wild and loose and let out of its cage to prowl around in your body, throw its head back and roar -- that's when you understand.
You have the most amazing night of your life the time when you come back in after having dealt with yet another teenage wannabe witch opening doors that should be left shut -- it's the story of your fucking life, you think sometimes -- and Chris takes one look at you and the first words out of his mouth are "holy fuck, Bass, what lit you on fire?" You're still looking for a way to respond to that when he knocks you on your back and starts nuzzling, open-mouthed, against your collarbone. You shout his name against his skin as you come while he's fucking you, willing yourself to keep that one little thread of control left over so that things don't start shaking or falling or catching on fire, and if you catch yourself wondering what it would be like to not have to hold onto that last bit of yourself that you can never, ever afford to let go of, well, it's a small price to pay.
You never tell Chris that he was your first, but you think he might have figured it out anyway, given the way he watches you under his eyelashes when he thinks you're not looking. You can't tell if he told the other guys or not, but a few days later, JC slides an arm around your waist and asks, softly, "you busy tonight?" and you can practically taste your smile.
It's weird, sometimes. You walk into Chris's hotel room one night without knocking, looking for your cell phone charger, and stop as you realize that JC is sitting on the couch, with Chris in his lap, kneeling over him and kissing him with singleminded intent. JC's hands are making kitten-paws against Chris's back and Chris is holding JC's cheeks in his hands, and it's lovely and intimate and makes the pit of your stomach ache. It's not the first time you've seen it, and you hadn't really thought that it would be the last, but it's different now that you know what JC's mouth tastes like, know what it's like to be the focus of Chris when he goes all elbows and legs and arms and mouth and need.
Is it just the magic? Is that what they sense -- the power making you more, somehow, your control over it cracking and breaking and letting all of what you bury shine through? You'd assumed that they were dating, had been dating forever, but Chris still touches you like he's starving and JC still lays his head against your shoulder and hums tiny arpeggios. You don't know what they're trying to tell you, and you don't know what you're supposed to do, and sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night with your legs twined between Chris's and stare at the ceiling for hours, terrified that he's only there because something in you that you know that he can't even sense is calling out to him.
Joey's the one to set you straight, and you know that it's completely by accident. You're watching movies in a hotel room in Houston, and Justin is draped over JC's lap, trying to get as much of his skin as possible in contact. You watch as JC tries to squirm free, or at least to turn it into something that resembles a porn flick less vividly. JC finally gently displaces him with a few inaudible words and gets up to refill his drink, and Justin's pout could probably be seen across the city. Joey snorts as he watches, and when he catches you looking at the noise, flashes you a grin. "Thank God one of the two of you finally grew up enough to be a legitimate target," he says, and shakes his head. "I was getting pretty tired hearing the two of them bitch about having to live around such pretty jailbait."
You ask JC about it later that night, when he slinks into your room and starts nuzzling your neck. He stops and blinks at you, like you've just said something insane. "I can't speak for Chris, but I've, like, been waiting for you to be ready for years. It's just. The connection, you know? Like, the music and the dancing and the way we're all there for each other and it's just nice to be able to express that, the way I love all of you guys, but I didn't want to push if you weren't ready. I waited for Chris to figure it out, he's better at things like that than I am." He brushes his knuckles over your cheek and frowns. "Are you not okay with it? I mean, Joey's straight, and that's cool, it doesn't mean that we love him any less, just differently. Is that what this is about?"
You spend the rest of the night proving to him that you are okay with it, really you are, and it stops being quite as weird for a while. It gets easier as time goes on to surrender the waking part of your brain up, submerge it in pleasure, and still keep that iron layer of self-control that you know you can't ever let go of. It gets easier to believe that Chris and JC are doing it because they want to, and not because you've slipped.
It only hurts a little bit when JC touches his fingers to your eyelids in the sweet lassitude of afterglow and asks, softly, "Where do you go when we do that, baby? What are you thinking about, inside that head of yours?"
You never really stop thinking about it. You watch Justin growing into his skin, the way he shines when he's on stage and in his element. The screaming girls stop screaming for the rest of you and start screaming JustinJustinJustin, and you watch the way he always has a smile for them even when you know he's exhausted and ready to drop. Something about it sits wrongly with you. It isn't until you're calmly explaining to a sobbing Hispanic woman whose forays into Santería were a little less harmless than she thought they would be that you realize why. She's looking at you the same way that they all look at Justin, like you're something from another world that's stepped into hers, and all you want to do is go and take a shower and wash the smoke from your skin. You start watching Justin after that, looking for it, and you wonder if the way he looks when he's on stage is the way you look to others when you walk in and start setting things right.
People always want to touch Justin when he's shining like that, as though a hand on his arm will rub off some of the glitter. You realize after a while that you're not immune to the effect either, and that puts you in a sour mood for a few days, but all of a sudden you're seeing past the familiar old Justin to the man he's becoming and you're fascinated by what you see, tucked underneath that adolescent self-discovery. Justin was born with it too, but what he was born with is so much different than what you were born with.
The difference between you is that Justin loves it, loves what he is, loves what he's becoming. You see it in him when he lopes into your room and cheerfully demands, "Come spot for me, bitch," and drags you down into the hotel's gym to watch him lifting weights for hours. He works out with the same dedication that you used for learning Hebrew and Aramaic, and you know it's for the same reason, but he's doing it to work with what he was given and you did it to keep from going mad. Sometimes you resent the fact that he has the choice, that he could ignore it if he really wanted to, and then you see the way he looks when he's got his head tilted back and his mouth open to sing and you know that it's not a choice for either of you, really, it's just a question of degree.
Justin comes to you after a show in Atlanta, one night when Chris and JC have shut and locked the door behind them, and when you ask him what he wants, he shifts his weight from foot to foot. "I want it to be you," he says, and bites his lip. "I know that you'll be able to do it right." It's the first time you've seen him hesitate in months. His skin is warm and soft and you take him so slowly that by the time he's thrown all that self-control to the wind, whimpering and pleading with you for more, harder, please, you know that you're more different from Justin than you'd thought, after all.
The next morning, he gives you soft toothpaste kisses and says "thank you" in a sleepy voice. It changes something in him, and you catch JC looking at you as Justin slinks across the stage and shakes his hips with a new level of electricity. Chris comes to you that night. When he's stretched out on your chest with his teeth on your throat, he mutters, "wanna make you fucking scream," and you wish for just a minute, for the first time in a long time, that you could.
JC was amused by the way that Joey seemed to be getting closer and closer to Lance with every little move, like he wanted to hover over Lance and make sure that everything was all right. Watching it almost distracted him from the unreality of the conversation that was going on.
"You could just go back, couldn't you?" Justin asked Malachai. "That would get them off our case."
"Probably not," Mal said, and stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankles. "Once the host of Hell have decided that they've taken an interest in someone, it's unlikely for them just to give up and go away."
Justin frowned. "But you're in charge. If you're in charge, you should be able to stop them." JC remembered that note in Justin's voice from years ago; it was the half-whine that only happened when something challenged Justin's preconceived notion of how the universe should work.
"It doesn't work like that, Justin," Lance said, and idly picked apart another Oreo. "It'd take me a few years to explain the power structures involved, but trust me, in Hell, you only have as much power as you can successfully pull off."
"And there isn't a, pardon the expression, chance in hell that I could pull that one off," Mal added.
JC frowned. "But you're the de --" He caught himself. He was at least trying to use the proper terminology, unlike Joey. "Okay. I think I'm a little confused here. I'm not like Joey, I wasn't raised Catholic -- the Mennonites don't have a lot to say about all of this, except in, like, really vague ways. And every religion I've studied ever since has had totally different things to say about good and evil and heaven and hell and I think that if we're going to be dealing with all of this, and you think that we will be, I don't think that we can assume that we know what's real and what's been made up."
"Yeah," Chris said. "I mean, the Bible contradicts itself all over the place, and it doesn't mention a lot of the things that churches teach now, and Milton and Dante made up a lot of other stuff along the way, and I'd really like to know what's true and what's not."
"I thought you only believed in God for the liner notes and the interviews," Justin said.
"Doesn't mean that I haven't done a lot of reading to come to that conclusion," Chris shot back, and looked at Lance. "If I'm hearing what you're saying right, you're some kind of, I don't know, force for Good or part of the army of God or something. And yet you're hanging around with, okay, we don't like the word 'Devil', how do we feel about the word 'Satan' instead?"
"ha-Satan," Mal said, giving it a different pronounciation. "Acceptable, in a pinch, if you need to use it."
Chris waved a hand. "Okay, okay. Whatever you want to call it, we've all been taught that Satan is the bad guy and God is the good guy and okay, I bet that part of the reason we think that is because all we've got is God's side of the story. What's the real version? We've got both of you here, you should be able to pick through and find the truth between the two of you. So what's the story?"
Lance and Mal exchanged helpless glances. "Beresheet bara elohim," Lance said, and threw up his hands. "Okay, let me try to do this in five minutes or less, and I'll try to be as gentle as possible. Anyone whose theistic worldview I utterly destroy here, I'm sorry, you're welcome to see me after class. Everything you read in the Bible is either correct, which is rare, correct but mistranslated, which is more common, correct in spirit but written down wrong, which is even more common, or flat-out wrong, which is, thankfully, pretty rare." He paused, and chewed on his lip a bit. JC thought for a second that it had been so long since he'd seen Lance look uncertain, even a bit, that it was worth it just to get that glimpse of the old Lance again.
"Okay," Lance finally said. "Let me start with the idea that ha-Satan, the Adversary, is a force for evil. That's Milton's fault, partially. Yes, Lucifer Morningstar was once an angel; yes, he is no longer a member of the angelic host; no, the reasons for the fall were not the reasons that you've always been told."
"Nobody's ever managed to get the entirety of the real story right," Mal added.
Lance threw him an exasperated glance. "My turn to talk. You can make editorial comments later. Forget everything that you know from Milton, Chris, because Milton understood some of it but totally put the wrong spin on things. Lucifer's rebellion wasn't a rebellion at all. Angels don't have free will, not the way that we do. They can make choices, but they can't deny their -- Well. Fate is a good translation for the concept, or destiny, or predetermination. The fall from heaven had nothing to do with the question of accepting Jesus as God's son the way Milton had it. I'm not going to even get into that right now, because we don't have the time, but it basically had to do with the fact that there was a job that needed to be done and someone needed to do it and that someone just happens to be sitting over there and eating the rest of my Oreos; put those down, man." Mal looked innocent. Lance rolled his eyes and continued.
"Before man existed, there was God and the angels, and everything was in perfect harmony. Once man came on the scene, enter the concept of free will, which meant that people -- us -- could choose to reject God and God's plan. It's not a question of good versus evil, it's a question of -- oh, God-consciousness versus non-God-consciousness, and since people who have non-God-consciousness have stepped outside of God's plan for them, someone's got to handle them."
JC frowned. "Handle them how? Is Hell really a place for punishment of sinners, then?"
"No," Lance said, and shook his head, then stopped and bit his lip. "Well, yes and no. Mostly no. That's not really the right question. It's more like -- God's got this plan, right? Think of it like --" Lance's face brightened a little as he hit on the analogy. "Think of a really big symphony orchestra. Everyone's got the sheet music in front of them, and they all know what they're supposed to be playing. And everyone's supposed to be working towards the same goal -- the music -- but some of them don't want to play what's been written down, they want to go off and play what they want to play, and they don't care if it turns the whole thing into just chaotic noise, right? You with me so far?"
JC nodded. Lance leaned forward. "Okay. So God's the composer, right? The one who wrote the symphony. He knows what the end result is supposed to sound like, and he can identify who's not playing what they're supposed to be playing, and he can even figure out what they need to do to get there. If someone's playing the wrong notes because they can't figure out the right ones, he can take them aside, have a few words with them, maybe give them a little more of the score to figure out. But some of the people in the orchestra are playing the wrong notes out of maliciousness, because they resent being told what to play or they want to screw it up for other people, and there has to be someone standing down there in the rehearsal instead of up at the conductor's podium, who can take those people out of it and talk a little bit of sense into them, maybe shake them up a bit. Some people can be convinced that they really do want to play along with everyone after all, and they can go back into the orchestra and keep playing along. Some people just have to be thrown out of the symphony hall. But the guy who's doing the throwing is still working for the composer, because he's part of it too. He's not playing music himself, but he's making sure that the people who are playing the wrong music are taken care of."
"Everything involves music for you people," Mal said with a snort, and then held up his hands when Lance glared at him. "What, what? It's a good analogy."
"So what Lance is saying," Chris said, slowly, to Mal, "is that you're really working for God. Have been all along."
"Well, in essence...." Mal trailed off. "It's more complex than that, of course, but Milton's better-to-reign-in-Hell is laughable. I was created in order to fall." JC thought, for half a second, that he saw pain in the other man's eyes. "I always knew it, too. If there is anything I rebelled against, it was this: that the Name allowed me to know beforehand what it was that I would be giving up. Lucifer the Morningstar, captain of the host of angels, first among equals, beloved of the Name. Cherished and loved and respected. Who better to take on such a task? But oh, how I wish it had not been necessary."
"All right," Justin said, and JC thought, looking at his face, that Lance might have been talking to Justin when he'd apologized in advance for theological distress. "God made you and then kicked you out of Heaven so that you could go and handle the things that he couldn't. Where did the rest of them come from? The -- I don't know, demons and devils and other things that go bump in the night. If everything is part of God's plan, why did God make them?"
Lance and Malachai exchanged glances again, and Lance sighed. "Okay, this is going to be the hardest part to cover," Lance muttered.
Mal seemed to take pity. "God fucked up."
"He what?" Justin really shouldn't have been able to hit notes that Chris found difficult on a good day, but JC had to wince and rub at his ears anyway. Justin rose from his seat as though he was about to stalk across the room; Chris reached out a hand, without even looking, and shoved him back down.
Lance winced too. "Justin, I know this is tough, okay? You think it's tough now, try getting hit with it when you're twelve. Think of it like a story, okay? You don't have to believe me, you really don't."
"Shut up, J," Chris said, and leaned a little harder on Justin's shoulder before Justin could say anything. "I want to hear about this. What kind of fuckup?"
"Okay," Lance said again, and took a deep breath. "It's like -- okay. You guys remember the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle, right?" He was greeted with a bunch of blank looks, and he sighed again. "Basic scientific theory? Come on, I know I can't be the only one of us who has any clue about physics, Chris, you even went to fucking college."
"I was a psych major," Chris muttered.
"All right, all right." Lance stretched out his feet and rolled his shoulders, cracking his neck and settling back down. "Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It basically says that you can know where a subatomic particle is, or how fast it's moving, but never both at once. The very act of observing the system changes it. There's no way to look at something without changing what's going on."
"Okay," Chris said, and leaned forward.
"So. Everything in science has a sort of analog in the spiritual and magical worlds. Everything in science really is just a reflection of the spiritual and magical worlds, but that's a lesson for another day. There's a Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as applied to destiny, too, it turns out. God is omniscient, yeah, but he can't see the future. He can just see potential. It's like --" Lance bit his lip and waved one hand, and JC could tell that he was struggling for something that made sense. "Okay. Say that you've got a cup of hot coffee sitting on the edge of the counter, right? And you know, you just know that someone's going to come by and knock over that cup of coffee and get it all over everything and you're going to be finding shards of mug all over the kitchen floor with your bare feet for the next six months no matter how carefully you sweep it up. You don't know who's going to knock over the mug, and you don't know when, but you just know it's going to happen, so you move the mug."
"Or you don't put it there in the first place," Joey said, frowning.
"Shut up, I didn't say that it was a perfect analogy. So. Okay. God does things like that, you know? He can see what's going to happen, but not when or where. Because the act of observing the system changes it, right? He can move the cup of coffee. And he does, he moves the cup of coffee all the time. So he knew that there would have to be the fall, he knew that the angels would rebel against him. He made it so that they would have to, because someone needed to take that role. But he didn't realize all of the implications of what would go on. And he knew that some of them would have to, but he didn't know exactly which ones it would be. You with me so far?"
JC snuck a glance over at Mal, who was sitting with his hands folded in his lap, looking down at them as though they were the most interesting thing he'd ever seen. "Yeah," he said, for all of them.
"Okay," Lance said again, and realized that he was waving his hands around. He tucked them under his thighs and sighed. "Okay. So, you've got the fallen angels, and God knew that was going to happen. But you've also got -- oh, hell, I'm explaining all of this out of order and I keep leaving shit out. I --"
"And it came to pass," Malachai said, softly, "when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord said: My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown." His voice was soft; it fell into the sudden silence with weight and gravity. He looked up at the silence, and JC shivered a little at the look on his face. "Genesis. Chapter six. Verses one through four."
"The Nephilim." Lance was the only one who seemed to be immune to Malachai's soft voice. "Offspring of the fallen angels and human women, and the occasional human man. Sometimes also known as the Rephraim, phantoms. God didn't realize that once the angels fell, there would no longer be anything keeping them from interacting with humanity, and the Nephilim were born of that union. And that is what we mean when we say 'demon'."
"This is bullshit," Justin said, sharply. "All of it. It's bullshit." He stood this time; Chris couldn't get to him quickly enough. "This is all bullshit, and it's a good joke, okay, guys, you got me, fine, you can all laugh about it later. Fuck, I'm going back to bed. Wake me up when we're doing something other than sitting around and casually discussing blasphemy, okay?" He crossed the room with angry strides. Lance didn't make a move to stop him.
Chris scrambled to his feet. "Justin --"
"Let him go," Lance said, and when JC looked over to him, the exhaustion was clearly written across his face. "It's a lot to take in all at once. It's a lot to take in even in little bits. He's taking it better than I did." The door slammed behind Justin, and Lance dropped his head back to lean it against the couch. "I'll go talk to him in a little bit, when I feel like I can stand up without passing out."
"You should sleep," Joey said, slowly. "I don't pretend to know what's going on here, but you look wiped."
Lance's lips curved, but it wasn't a smile of amusement; more of weariness. "Story of my life, man. No, I gotta talk to him, but I'll finish answering the questions from you guys first. Justin'll be the hardest sell, he's the one who grew up with the same shit being shoveled into his head as I got until I had my eyes opened. I know how to get to him, I do." He sighed. "But you guys, what else do you want to know first?"
"Why do they want us?" JC frowned. "You said that they wouldn't leave us alone. Why us? Why us out of anyone?"
"Because you have the Magus," Mal said, and JC frowned, because if it had been someone else -- someone human, and he shied away from even thinking that to himself -- that would have been anger, or perhaps frustration. "Being able to say that you tempted the Magus to fall would cement your place for the next millennium. Claiming one of the Magus's companions is nearly as good."
"You never told us," Chris said, and looked over at Lance. JC knew that look, knew those dark eyes and that dangerous voice. "You knew that we'd be in danger, and you never told us."
"Look," Lance said, sharply, "Justin just stormed out of here like I set his tailfeathers on fire, and Lord only knows why the three of you are taking this so well because you by all rights shouldn't be, and it's not the sort of thing that you bring up in casual conversation, okay? I've been keeping an eye out for all of you guys even while I was in the middle of other stuff. I mean, what the heck was I supposed to say? Hell's minions are going to show up for you eventually, so be sure to keep an eye out, and if your date for the night has fangs and a tail don't bring her home before you clear her with me? Yeah, that'd go over really well." He slumped back against the couch again. "I was watching you guys. I was. Mal and I have been keeping an eye out."
"What's your story?" Joey asked, suddenly, and looked at Mal. "You and Lance seem awfully close. Aren't you supposed to be one of them? Are you just waiting for the right time to try and grab us and haul us away so you can -- I don't know, score your points or something?"
"I told you," Mal said, and scrubbed a hand over his face. "I like the music. I have a certain amount of -- discretion, based on who and what I am. If I choose to spend a few years out of the office, so to speak, wearing human guise and keeping the Magus companion, I have enough pull to swing it." He looked over at Lance. JC's breath caught in his throat. "I have some small knowledge of what it is like to have a task laid on your shoulders that you do not feel yourself capable of bearing alone. Lance is the first one in generations to have it this strongly. Not just in his family; anywhere. I thought that he might appreciate some help, particularly given that there isn't exactly a great deal of help coming from the other side of the struggle."
"Yeah," said Chris, and it was the fuck-you voice that usually got him in trouble. "You know, I think it might be a good idea if you head back to your room for a while, okay? Group time. We'll call you if we need you."
Mal shot a look over to Lance. Lance picked up a hand and waved it again, without opening his eyes. Mal sighed and rose to his feet, balancing lightly and gracefully and inclining his head. "All right. You know which room is mine."
Chris watched Mal go, and then got up off the floor to cross over and kneel down in front of Lance. JC thought for a minute that he should get up and run interference, get in between Chris and Lance before Chris decided to do something stupid, but Chris reached out and grabbed Lance's hand before he could move. "You fuck," Chris said, soft and almost affectionate. "You've been dealing with this since day one and you didn't say a damn thing? Fucker."
JC could just see the glint of Lance's green eyes peeking out from underneath his lashes. "You gonna kick my ass? Because if you are, I could really use another few hours to recharge my batteries first."
"Hell no," Chris said. "I'm gonna order you another bag of Oreos, and then we're going to sit down and you're going to tell us exactly what we have to do to keep safe, and then you're going to tell all of us how we can watch your back, and then we'll go and kick some sense into Justin and put you to bed. And then in the morning you're going to have a cold instead of doing that radio thing, and get a few extra hours of sleep."
Lance was just looking at Chris as though he'd grown an extra head. "Chris. You do realize that you're supposed to be freaking out right about now, right?"
"This is me," Chris said, and grinned, suddenly. "Since when have I done anything I was supposed to do?"
Justin was lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling when the knock came on the door. "Fuck off," he called, sharply. Whoever was on the other side of the door -- and he didn't care which of them it was, no matter who it was he didn't want to talk to him -- knocked again.
"I said fuck off," he yelled. "Jesus, what part of 'fuck off' do you not understand?"
"The part where you get to tell me what to do," came the voice through the door, and fuck, of course it was Lance. "Come on, Justin, I'm not going anywhere, and the faster you open this door, the sooner I can go and get some sleep. Let me in."
"I'm only doing this because you played the sympathy card," he muttered, and swung his legs off the bed to go and open the door.
"Hi," Lance said, and held up a bag of Oreos. "Can I come in? I brought cookies."
Justin narrowed his eyes. "Cookies do not heal the world's ills."
Lance leaned against the door of the room. He'd found clothes somewhere; the sweatpants were his, and the t-shirt, Justin thought, was Joey's. Or maybe Chris's. Justin felt a twinge of guilt when he took a good look and realized how tired Lance looked. "Yeah," Lance said, "but they're Oreos, man, how can you say no?" Justin sighed, because he'd never really been able to say no to Lance even when it didn't involve Oreos, and held the door open.
Lance padded across the room and draped himself over the foot of Justin's bed, picking up one of the pillows with his toes to pull it over and prop himself up on it. "Gross," Justin said, and swatted at Lance's feet. "Get your feet off my pillows."
"Right, right," Lance said, and pushed the bag of cookies over at Justin.
Justin took them and eyed Lance suspiciously. "This is the scene in the movie where you come and try and sort out my head, right? We're supposed to have a big and meaningful talk, and you straighten me out about things, and when it's over we hug and make up and I tearfully protest that I'm sorry for calling you a liar and walking out on you."
"Nope," Lance said, and reached over to snag a cookie from the package. "I just came to share my Oreos."
Justin glared at him. "You're not following the script."
Lance looked up at him and sighed. "Justin, I'm not here to talk about what's going down, okay? You made it pretty clear that you don't want to talk about it, so we won't. You know where I am if you've got any questions, and I'm not going to try and force it down your throat if you don't. I came to share my cookies and let you know that no matter what you think or say, it's not going to change anything."
Justin sat back against his pillows and felt somehow cheated. He'd almost been looking forward to the scene. "Oh," he said, and felt small.
Lance looked tired. Really fucking tired, and that made him feel worse, because even if the whole thing was one really big practical joke, that didn't explain why Lance was so wiped. "You okay, man?" Justin asked, after a few minutes, and reached for a cookie.
Lance waved a hand. "Yeah. It's no big deal, this sort of thing happens sometimes. A lot of times. I'll be okay after a good night's sleep and maybe some B12. I'm pretty used to it by now, it's just a sudden energy drain. Like trying to run a marathon without warming up for it first."
Justin narrowed his eyes, because he knew that it was some kind of freaky Lance reverse-psychology trick, and that didn't mean that he wouldn't fall for it anyway. He always did, and he was always irritated by it afterwards, but that didn't change the fact that he was going to ask. "How long has this been going on?"
Lance didn't say anything about it, but the smug little set of his shoulders made Justin want to shake him. "I was twelve. You think puberty is bad, try puberty plus religious crisis plus being told that you've got some kind of Glorious Destiny to be fulfilling. You guys think I had severe tire damage when you met me, you should have tried meeting me at twelve."
"This shit is freaky," Justin muttered. He ran a hand over his head and let slip the thought that had been running through his mind even as he'd left Joey's room. "It's -- it's not a joke, is it, Lance."
Lance brushed crumbs off of the bed. "No," he said, quietly, after a minute. "You can think that it is, though, if you'd like. If it would be easier. There's no reason you have to deal with it. I never wanted to drag you guys into it to begin with."
That made Justin irritated, even if he couldn't put his finger on why. "Fuck, is that what you think of me? That I'd just walk away from something when one of you guys needs me just 'cause I can't deal with it?"
"That is," Lance said, and it was calm and even and not at all accusing and that was what made it worse, "what you kind of did."
"Fuck," Justin said, and felt like hitting something. "That's not what I meant. I just --" He broke off and sighed. "It's heavy. It's a lot of shit to deal with. And I know it sounds fucked up to you, I know you must be thinking, he can't deal with it even though I had it ten times worse. I just." He trailed off again, bit his lip, and finally decided to blurt it all out. "Believing in God is kinda what's gotten me through a lot of the shit, you know? And you come in and tell me that everything I believed in is kinda wrong, or at least not right, and I just don't know how to process that."
"Oh, baby," Lance said, and it could have been condescending, but it wasn't. He sat up and seemed to be debating pulling Justin into a hug for a minute, but he didn't, and Justin was sort of glad for that, because he didn't really want to be touched. "Is what you believe in -- does it work for you? Does it make you a better person? Does it help you get through things?"
Justin looked down at his hands, tied together in his lap, and nodded. "Yeah. It does. It did."
Lance reached over and laid his hand over both of Justin's. "Then it's true. That's how it works. Look, the Bible -- it's a book. That's all, just a book. A lot of people have pinned a lot of heavy shit on it, have made it carry a lot of weight that it wasn't originally supposed to carry, but at the heart of it, it's still a book. That's all. It's got a bunch of stories that are supposed to tell us how to behave towards each other, and some of them are history and some of them are metaphor and some of them are just good stories, but at the heart of it, it's all about making us better people. And if that's what it does for you, that's it, it worked. You can believe that God made the heavens and the earth in six days or one day or six million years if you want. It doesn't matter. What matters is that God made it, and he put us here for a reason. Even when the stories aren't Fact, they're still Truth."
"That's not what they told me," Justin said. "I was raised in a pretty literalist church."
Lance smiled a little. "Yeah, so was I. Noah took them two by two, right?"
Looking at Lance, Justin felt it in his gut, just a little twisting bit of resentment that Lance could deal with it all so casually. It left him feeling small and cramped. "Yeah."
"And in one way, he did," Lance said. His fingers stroked the back of Justin's wrist. "Because when enough people believe in a story, it has weight, it has meaning. Even if Noah didn't exist, even if the Flood never happened -- and I'm not saying that -- it still means something. God promised that he'd never destroy us, and he hasn't, and he won't. It's the meaning behind it that matters."
"Do something for me," Justin said, suddenly, and picked up his head to look Lance in the eye. "Show me something. I need to be able to touch it, to see it, to look at it. In order to believe in it. I need to touch it."
"All right," Lance said, after a minute, and looked around him. "Here. Gimme a tissue."
Justin looked at him, and then sighed. He reached over and grabbed a tissue from the box on his nightstand, and handed it over to Lance. "What are you going to do?"
"Watch," Lance said, and twisted the tissue between his fingers to form a rough shape. He picked up both of Justin's hands, one at a time, and placed the tissue in Justin's cupped hands, then held his own palm over them and closed his eyes.
It was soft and slow and lazy, like something stretching and unfurling its wings, and Justin could feel it seeping into his palms as Lance breathed a single, barely-audible word. Something shifted against his skin, and he looked down to see green and red, jewel-tones.
He jerked his hands back, and the flower fell into his lap. "Fuck." He looked up, quickly, and caught the look as Lance opened his eyes -- calm, peaceful, settled. He knew that look, he'd seen it before on Lance's face, with Lance all sleepy and sated and post-coital.
"You said you needed to touch it," Lance said, and smiled.
Justin slid out a hand and brushed a shaking finger against the tiny flower. It looked like it was some kind of cousin to a poppy, and it was warm to the touch, petals like silk against his skin. "Jesus," Justin breathed, and looked back at Lance. "Is this -- did you --"
"It's real." Lance closed his eyes for a little longer than a blink, and then opened them again. "It's still a tissue at heart, so it's a little more fragile than a real flower, and it won't die from lack of water. But it's real. I like doing things like that, I don't get to do them often."
If he closed his eyes and pretended, Justin could almost believe that the flower in his hand was real. "I don't like this, Lance," he said, quietly.
Lance rested a hand against his knee. "I know."
And then, because it was Lance, Justin sighed and pulled back the covers. "Come on. You need sleep."
Later on, when Lance had fallen asleep -- they say that people look like they looked when they were younger when they're asleep, Justin thought, but Lance never looked like anything other than Lance -- Justin slipped from the bed and pressed the flower between the pages of his notebook. After a minute, he took his pen, and scrawled sideways on the page next to the flower: "Magic is real." He capped the pen again and laid it to rest next to the notebook, and then thought better of it and picked it up again, and added: "And that fucking scares me."
It works like this:
You're not the only one who can do what you do. You figure that out, slowly, as you wander through Europe and then back to the States. There's the old man in Berlin, and the scary motherfucker in London, and the librarian in California; there's the priest in Manhattan, and the rabbi in Madrid, and the sixteen-year-old girl in Manitoba, and the mamaloa in Bermuda who almost, almost makes you rethink your policy on not getting involved with women. You keep in touch with all of them, because you never know when they'll be useful, and they keep in touch with you, because they need you more than you need them. It's a secret society, one that's never spoken of in the daylight or when others might be able to overhear.
The fame and fortune are useful for about five minutes, and then people start recognizing you when you come around to set things right. You start spending as much time making people not remember you as you do cleaning up after them, and it isn't until the guy from London teaches you a few tricks to make people notice you and just not realize who you really are that you start relaxing a little more again.
He's the one who first starts teaching you the magic that doesn't only involve the things that your mother and grandmother could tell you, the stuff from hundreds of traditions that's old and heavy and dangerous. "Fucked if I know why nobody showed you this earlier, it can be damn useful sometimes," he mutters, and lights another cigarette. You try not to cough, and burn every word into your memory. You remember to thank him when one of the tracking and tracing spells he shows you saves your ass a few months later. He only shrugs.
The mamaloa is the one to show you how to get by on only four hours' worth of sleep a night for days, weeks when you need to. Her hands smell like patchouli, and the spirits speak through her, and when you touch her hair it feels like starshine under your fingers. She watches you with dark eyes and says, softly, "It is not enough, sometimes, to walk alone. Who will you find to walk beside you?"
The librarian in California makes you a cup of tea, and listens with a sympathetic ear, and lends you a few of the books that you haven't been able to find anywhere else. The rabbi gives you his blessing, and you feel warm for days. The sixteen-year-old girl makes you sign an autograph and then gives you her personal name to call on if you need her, watching you the entire time with eyes that are far too old for her face.
It does not, somehow, surprise you when the Morningstar shows up on tour with you. You think that it probably should, that this is weird even for the weirdness that is your life, but the guy in London just shrugs, and the old man in Berlin tells you not to turn down an unexpected ally, and the priest from Manhattan just smiles with sad eyes and tells you a story of a fall, or perhaps a Fall, and eventually you just shrug and keep on going.
You think that they can all see it in you, the same way that you can see it in them. You think that you would know each other in a heartbeat, no matter where and when you met them.
None of them are the four men you wake up with every day, the four brothers you never had and never knew that you wanted.
The mamaloa brushes her fingertips against your eyelids the next time you see her, and says, "If you do not love where you find love offered for you, you cannot live at all." When you ask her what she means, she slides from the bed and wraps her robe around her shoulders, and refuses to talk about it any more.
"We told you to sleep in," Chris said as he stumbled into the spare hotel room they were using as a lounge -- it occasionally paid off to rent out the entire floor for security purposes -- and frowned. He'd thought he was the first one up.
"And I ask you when the last time you saw me asleep past eight AM was," Lance said, mildly. He folded over the newspaper and sipped from the cup of coffee, clearly not his first.
"...Okay, good point," Chris said, and headed for the coffee himself. They generally all knew better than to talk to each other in the pre-mammalian pre-coffee stage, and he was only a little miffed when Lance didn't try to continue the conversation. "You didn't come back from talking with Justin last night," he finally said, two cups and a cherry Danish later.
Lance shrugged. "We talked about a few things, and then I totally crashed. I was wiped. We're good now."
"Okay," Chris said, after a few minutes. He looked Lance over with a long-practiced eye, trying to gauge relative levels of exhaustion, and finally decided that Lance was hovering at around the level of "four-show-plus-promotion week", which was roughly the level that the rest of them were at, so it was all okay. "You gonna do the voodoo thing before we all go out?"
Lance winced. "It's not voodoo. Voodoo is a very specific tradition. Which isn't mine, I should add. But yeah. You figure out what you're going to use?"
Chris nodded and slipped the pendant on its chain over his neck to hand it over to Lance. "Yeah, I figure I can live with wearing this for a while. You said it had to be against the skin, right?"
"Against the skin is better," Lance mumbled, distracted, and weighed the necklace in his hand. "This is good. It feels like you. I'll wait until everyone wakes up and do them all together."
"Do what all together?" Justin asked, as he stumbled in and headed for the coffee himself. "Did anyone wake up C?"
"Poked him when I got up," Chris said. "We've been in the 'five-more-minutes' stage for the last twenty minutes."
"Give me one of your earrings, Justin," Lance said.
Justin blinked blearily. His hands automatically came up to take out his left earring, and he paused just as he was handing it over to Lance. "Why?"
"Protection spell," Lance said, and reached over to take the jewelry from Justin's hand. "It's best if you hang it on something physical. I want to make sure that you guys will be able to see through any illusion spells that might be around you, too. Just in case."
"Oh," Justin said, after a minute's pause for thought, and rubbed a hand over his head. Chris watched, waiting for another temper tantrum, but it didn't manifest, and Chris wondered again what Justin and Lance had talked about last night.
Joey showed up next, contributed his eyebrow ring, picked up a cup of coffee, ran a hand over Justin's head, drank the coffee, re-filled the cup, and wandered off to take a shower, all without saying a word. JC was last, and surrendered his Leo pendant. "You sure?" Lance asked as JC handed it over. "I know how much this means to you."
JC shrugged. "You said it wouldn't hurt things any." It was more of a question than a statement.
"No, it won't, but I thought you might --"
JC smiled and kissed Lance on the cheek before flopping down on the room's bed. "You said to pick something that we wouldn't mind wearing for a while. I never take it off. Where's the problem?"
"...Good point," Lance said, and sat down on the floor.
Chris watched as Lance piled the jewelry in a small heap on the floor, and then slowly drew a complex, intricate circle with his finger around it in the carpet. "So," he finally ventured, watching, "this is going to let us see things that aren't there?"
Lance held up the hand that wasn't drawing on the carpet for silence, and waited until he finished the diagram before looking up and shaking his head. "Nope. It'll let you see things that are there. The real things that are there, not what the things want you to see. Hush a minute, I have to concentrate."
Chris shot Justin a look. Justin seemed unconcerned; he had picked up Lance's newspaper and sat down, using curled-up (and probably napping again by then) JC as a backrest while he sipped his coffee and read the paper. "Okay," Chris said, and sat back down.
Lance smiled. "And hush means hush, not Chris-hush."
"I'm not that bad," Chris mumbled.
"You really are, actually," Justin said, and looked up from the paper.
"Hush, I said," Lance repeated. Chris pointed at Justin and mouthed "kick your ass later", and Justin smirked.
When Lance started speaking, Chrish shut his mouth and turned to watch. Lance crossed himself, quickly, and murmurred something that Chris thought must have been Hebrew: "Ateh, malkuth, v'geburah, v'gedulah, l'olam, amen." He touched the diagram around the jewelry in a few places, lightly, and sang something briefly and half-tonally under his breath. A pause, then he sang again, and held his hands over the diagram.
Chris was expecting bright lights and showy fireworks, just because that was what magic should have been, but all Lance did was hold his hands there for a minute, and then pull them back. "Okay," he said.
That wrung a smile out of Lance. "What'd you want me to do, pull out my magic wand and start spouting pseudo-Latin? I hated that movie. Here." He picked up Chris's necklace and tossed it at him; Chris automatically whipped up his hand to catch it. It was warm beneath his fingers, strangely so, and seemed to settle against his breastbone like a baby when he slid it over his neck. Lance picked up the rest of the jewelry and stood; he handed Justin's earring over to him, and then bent over to nuzzle at JC's neck as he re-fastened JC's pendant around his neck. "JC, honey," he said, and JC made a sleepy noise and stretched.
"Is anything supposed to be looking different?" Chris asked, holding the pendant in one hand and looking at it upside-down.
"I told you," Lance said patiently. "It's not going to let you see things that aren't there. It's just going to let you see things as they really are. It's just an illusion-breaking and protection spell. It won't even get all illusions -- any of the ones that are particularly determined, or at all unusual, won't get broken by it. You want amusment, head on over to some industry function or something wearing one of those. Let's just say that some of our colleagues in this industry have found someone who knows a little bit of magic, and apparently it's cheaper than plastic surgery." Joey, carrying the empty cup of coffee he'd carried out of the room earlier, dressed in his normal clothes with a towel draped around his neck, came back in; Lance handed him his eyebrow ring back. Chris watched as Joey set it back in place, wondering if he was the only one who thought it felt weird and warm. "Don't place too much faith in it, and it's certainly not an excuse for being lazy about protecting yourself. But it'll help."
JC yawned. "Where's yours?" he asked, and detached Justin from using him as a backrest in order to sit up.
"I've got different protections," Lance said. "Different protections entirely."
"You also have," Chris said, "twenty-five minutes to take a shower before the car comes to get us for the radio promotion."
"Right," Lance said, and stood up. "Nobody leave without me."
After it was all over, they all agreed that was when things started to get a little weird.
"You okay, man?" The edges of JC's eyes crinkled with his concerned smile, and he proffered the cup of coffee he was carrying.
Lance took it. "Yeah. Just a little wiped." He peeled back the lid and sipped from it; JC knew that he'd managed to get just the right balance of cream and sugar when that little smile crossed Lance's face. Soundcheck raged around them with the usual small-force-of-nature noise level.
"Oh yeah. First thing I'm doing on our next day off is sleeping for fifteen hours."
"C," Lance said, patiently, "you do that on our days on." He smiled to show that he was teasing, and threaded his fingers through JC's. JC squeezed Lance's hand. "Think you could share some of that excess sleep? I'm running a little short these days."
"If you ever figure out a way," JC said, and lifted their twined fingers to press a kiss against Lance's knuckles. "Joey and I can sleep enough for all of us. The rest of you can run around the clock."
Lance laughed. "It's a deal."
"Great. Now get looking for a way to --" JC broke off, and his fingers tightened on Lance. He looked across the backstage corridor. "Oh, shit, Lance," he said, low and urgently. "Over there. Talking to Mal." The girl in question was small, pretty, and Asian, wearing a bright yellow STAFF t-shirt, and had an access pass around her neck. She also had, at least to JC's eyes, claws.
"Hmm?" Lance craned his neck around JC and took a look. "Oh. Akiko. Hey Aki!" he called, waving a hand. The girl turned around, and JC recognized her, after a moment, as one of their crew.
She smiled and waved at the two, then went back to talking to Mal. JC just stared. "...Okay, Lance, I know you guys joke about me being out of it a lot of the time, but I'm fairly sure I would have noticed if one of our roadies had claws."
Lance chuckled. "I told you. You're going to see things the way they really are, not the way people want you to see them."
"Yeah, but -- I mean -- first the band, then the crew? Are we some sort of ... I don't know, like, employment agency for the -- for the -- What the heck is she?"
Lance shook his head, but his tone was fond. "Former guardian house-spirit. We picked her up in Japan a while back; the people of her house were trying to drive her out, and she needed somewhere to go. She's managed to adapt quite nicely to being our guardian equipment-spirit."
JC could only imagine what his face looked like. Lance clapped him on the shoulder, still laughing. "No, really, it's okay. All you have to do is give her an offering every now and then, and she looks out for our gear. Traditionally, it's rice, but she appreciates pizza, too. Ever wonder why we never lose costumes and stuff?"
"Now you're just messing with me," JC muttered.
"Only a little," Lance said. "She really prefers chocolate."
They headed for the buses as usual right after the show, but Lance stopped just short and narrowed his eyes as though he was listening for something, then sighed. "You guys go on ahead," he said. "I'll meet you at the hotel tomorrow."
"What?" Chris asked, and shook his head. "What the fuck? You can't just skip the bus and say you'll meet up with us later. We've got a job to do here, in case you didn't notice."
"Look," Lance snapped, "nobody is more aware of that than I am, okay? I've never missed a show by accident in my life and I'm not going to miss this one. I said I'd meet you there, and I'll meet you there."
JC could hear the screaming teenagers from well behind the barricades, and he took a step forward. "Guys, come on, we've gotta get moving. Quickly." Their security milled around them, looking impatient. JC knew that they were about a minute away from being strongly "urged" onto the bus by the judicious application of hands gripping elbows.
"You go," Lance said, and took a step backwards. Dre moved as though to follow him, but Lance shook his head, and amazingly enough, Dre stopped. "It's important, Chris, or I wouldn't do it. I just need you to trust me, okay?"
Chris looked as though he was about to blow up. Joey was the one to break the standoff. "Come on," he said, and put a hand in the small of Chris's back. "Hurry up."
"Johnny's going to kill us," Chris said, but let himself be urged along. JC looked out the window of the bus as soon as he got on board, and could just see Lance, hands in the pockets of his street clothes, walking briskly through the mass of screaming girls. They parted for him like the Red Sea, and not a one of them seemed to notice who he was. When he saw that, JC decided that he might believe in magic after all.
Justin didn't even remember, later, what precisely had happened. It was the typical post-show chaos, and the venue had set up the barricades improperly, so ten or twelve teenagers managed to push past and Lonnie actually had to peel one of them off of him before they managed to make their way to the buses.
They were in Chicago for two nights, but nobody really felt like going anywhere after they all got back to the hotel and showered. It had been a long day -- made no easier by the fact that Lance had only turned up five minutes before the end of soundcheck, grabbing his headset and launching right into things without taking the time to explain where he'd been and what he'd been up to. By unspoken accord, they wound up in Chris's room, sprawled over couch and chairs and beds. Justin wondered how long it would take before Lance would excuse himself and head off to take care of whatever it was that he was taking care of.
"Hands up everyone who votes for Matrix: Reloaded," JC, who had the remote, declared. Chris's hand shot up immediately.
"We've seen it five times," Justin complained. "This month. And dude, no offense to you and your kung fu fetish, but it kinda sucked."
"Silence!" Chris ordered. "You just don't know fine philosophy when you see it. The Matrix movies are the most accurate Gnostic gospels we have available to us in the 20th century."
"It's the twenty-first century," Joey observed.
Chris pointed a finger at him. "Shut up."
Joey shrugged. "Just sayin'. And anyway, you really have no idea what you're talking about, do you? I bet you read it on the Internet or something."
Justin idly scratched the small of his back; it itched like all get-out, and he wondered if his shower hadn't been long enough, if the sweat was still sticking to his skin. "The first one was brilliant. The second one was crap."
"Heathen!" Chris yelled, and launched himself on top of Justin like a human torpedo. Justin lost the next few minutes to the resulting wrestling match, with Chris trying to make him say "Neo is my saviour" and Justin trying to get his hands free enough to hit that spot just beneath Chris's ribs that always made him curl up and shriek like a little girl, until Chris went still and pulled his hands back like he'd been burned.
"Justin," he said, and looked down at his hands, which were covered with a thin red film. "I, uh, think you're bleeding."
Justin looked down at Chris's hands. It took a moment to sink in, and then he lifted his hand to the spot on his back -- more than a spot, by then, and he hadn't really noticed, not until Chris had said something, just how much of his fucking back itched like motherfuck -- and his own fingers came away bloody. "Aw, fuck," he said, and tried to figure out if it hurt or just itched. "Anyone got antibiotic cream or something with them?"
Lance had been ignoring the byplay; he'd brought his laptop with him and had been checking his email. He looked up at that, though, almost casually. And then did a double-take. "Oh, shit," he said, and was on his feet within seconds, holding out a hand to Joey, who looked like he was about to lean over and pull up Justin's t-shirt to check. "Joey, don't touch him. Chris, go wash your hands right now. Twice. With the hottest water you can stand, and extra soap. Justin, get in the bathroom and take off your clothes. Now."
Justin just stared at him. "...What?"
"Don't just sit there, move," Lance snapped. "Run the water in the bathtub, but don't stop up the drain yet. Get it as hot as you think you can stand. I'll be right back. Nobody touch him."
He turned around and strode out of the hotel room, at something just under a jog. Justin looked back at Chris with round eyes. Chris was just staring at his hands, like something terrible had happened, and as Justin watched, Chris seemed to shake himself and stood. "You heard the man, J," he said, and headed for the bathroom.
"What the fuck?" Joey asked.
"I don't know," Chris called over his shoulder. "But that's not blood. Whatever it is, it's not blood. Justin, if I were you, I'd move."
The water in the bathroom started running. Justin stayed frozen for another minute, and then stood up and followed after Chris, pulling off his shirt as he went. He tried not to look at himself in the mirror, but the kind of hotel rooms they got were the kind that came with full-wall mirrors, and he couldn't help but see the rash spread out over his entire back, red and angry and weeping thin red fluid from what looked like hundreds of tiny purplish sores.
It started hurting as soon as he could see it. Chris, at the sink with his hands under running water, looked over at him. "Fuck, that's -- that's --"
"Really kinda gross," Joey contributed from the door to the bathroom.
"Yeah, okay, thanks," Justin snapped. He could feel the panic starting, could feel his voice spiraling, and he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Fuck, it hurt. He imagined that he could feel it spreading, could feel it crawling over his skin.
The door to the room opened and shut again. "Out of the way, Joey," Lance said, and his voice was calm and even. He came into the bathroom with a handful of a few things: something that looked like salt in a plastic baggie, a vial of some liquid or another, a few carelessly crumpled cloths. "Justin, don't panic, it's okay, we've still got time to catch it."
"Catch what," Justin said. He felt like he was half an inch away from reaching out and shaking Lance by the shoulders.
Lance didn't answer. He dropped the stuff he was carrying on the bathroom counter, squeezing by Chris to do so, and looked down at Chris's hands and nodded. "Keep washing," he said, and then called, "JC, can you go over to Justin's room and pick him up a change of clothes?"
"Sure," JC said, from just outside the bathroom, and Justin knew that Lance was sending him out of the room because JC didn't do well with sick-type things. The door clicked again. Lance reached over, tested the temperature of the water running in the bathtub, and hit the stopper. As the tub began to fill, he opened the baggie of salt and tossed a handful into the water, then uncapped the vial and poured some of the liquid under the tap.
"I thought you weren't supposed to take a bath if you have a rash," Joey said. "I could call the doctor and get him up here."
"It's not a rash," Lance said, his voice clipped. Whatever he'd poured into the water filled the room with something that was half-pleasant, clean and sharp, and it wasn't like anything that Justin had ever smelled before.
"Lance," Justin said, actually quite proud of how evenly and calmly it came out. He wasn't imagining it; it really was spreading, right under his eyes. He tore his eyes away from the mirror, where it had spread all over his back and around his sides, and was starting down the curve of his ass. He couldn't see the sores rising, but every time he took his eyes away and looked back, more of his skin was covered. "I'd really like to know what's going on here."
Lance dipped the pinky of one of his fingers into the steadily-filling tub. He closed his eyes for a minute, whispered something under his breath, and then sketched the sign of the cross and another, more complex symbol by dragging the finger through the face of the water. "One of them touched you," he said. "When security broke. I didn't think -- I wasn't looking for it, not there." He picked up two of the glasses on the counter. Their labels announced that they had been plastic-wrapped for YOUR protection, and he stripped that aside and filled the glasses from the tub, setting them aside. "Get in the tub. Get everything under the water."
"She was just a fan," Justin said, feeling unreasonably stubborn but stripping off his pants and dipping his toe in the water anyway. It was hot, but it felt good; somehow reassuring and comforting. "I didn't see anything weird about her. Just a fan."
"Just a fan who gave you a case of -- well, there's not really a name for them, but they're nasty, trust me. If you don't get in that tub, you've got about two hours before your skin starts to rot and fall off your bones, does that motivate you any faster?" Lance leaned a hip against the counter. Next to him, Justin noticed, Chris winced and soaped his hands again. It made him feel smaller and unclean, and he stepped into the tub, hissing at the temperature of the water, to combat it. "She wasn't a demon, you wouldn't have noticed anything weird or unusual about her. Just a girl. She must have run into one of them just before she got you, and they spelled her to pass it on. I didn't notice. I'm sorry."
"Is that going to happen to her, too?" Joey asked, softly.
Lance pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. "No, she was just the carrier. It was spelled for you; the minute you got hit by it, you could have started being contagious, and I'll handle that in a minute, but you're more important."
Justin couldn't help the sense of warmth that spread through his stomach at Lance's words, but he tried to conceal it. He sat down slowly in the water, and the minute the afflicted skin slid under the surface, the pain receded. "Oh," he said, surprised, and closed his eyes, sinking down further. "Oh, that's nice."
"Yeah," Lance said, and Justin opened his eyes at the tone of it to see the little smile on Lance's face. "You just hang out there for a minute, okay? Enjoy it, it's not every day that you get to take a bath in holy water." That made Justin blink -- he hadn't realized what Lance had been doing, but he had to admit, he felt safe there. And he hadn't realized how uncomfortable he'd been, how much it had hurt, until the pain and the itching went away. He looked down at his chest, and this time he could see changes; the patches of sores on his sides were fading away, slowly.
"I'm gonna go make sure that C isn't freaking out or anything," Joey said. "We'll bring back a change of clothes eventually, okay, Justin?" Justin nodded at him. Joey blew him a kiss, and Justin thought that maybe Joey was leaving because he was the one freaking out, not JC.
Lance reached over and shut off the sink's water -- Chris was still holding his hands underneath it, but he wasn't scrubbing, just watching Justin and Lance in the mirror's reflection. "Does it itch at all?" Lance asked him.
"A little," Chris said, "yeah, but I can't figure out if it's just the power of suggestion or if I'm really itching."
"That's probably a good sign, he probably wasn't contagious yet," Lance said. "If it really itched, you'd know it." He wrapped one of his hands around Chris's wrist, tilting Chris's hand so that he could see it more closely, and then nodded. "Go and dunk your hands in the tub anyway, just to be safe. We don't want to risk it."
"This is weird," Chris muttered, but knelt next to the tub and dangled his hands in the water. His fingertips brushed against Justin's ankles, and Justin shifted a little to make more room. There was too much of him to really fit in the tub all at once, so it was a good thing that they were all close.
"You okay, Justin?" Lance asked.
"Yeah," Justin said. "...Well, no. Kinda fucking freaked out over here, but it doesn't hurt anymore." He snuck another glance down at his body. He couldn't see the rash anymore.
"Okay," Lance said. "I'm going to go and make sure that Lonnie didn't get hit by it. He was the only other one who touched you, right?"
Justin thought about it for a minute. "I think so, yeah." He thought back; yeah, he'd been kind of twitchy when he'd gotten off the stage, all of the stress of the past week or so catching up with him until he'd felt like he was too big for his own skin, too tense for his own good. Their people had figured out a long time ago that there were times when it was okay to touch Justin and times when it wasn't, and they were generally really good at identifying when it was one of the times it wasn't.
"Good," Lance said, and nudged Chris's ass with one toe. "Hands out."
"But it's comfortable," Chris said. Justin was kind of obliquely glad that Chris said it, because it meant that he wasn't imagining things.
Lance gave him one of Those Looks. "You can get back in again again, if you'd like, but the two of you together might displace enough water to flood the entire floor." Chris sighed and withdrew his hands from the tub, shaking the droplets of water off of them. Lance held up a hand to stop him before he reached for one of the towels, then picked up one of the cloths from the counter and took one of Chris's hands. Justin watched as Lance slowly and patiently dried Chris's skin, rubbing the cloth over every inch with Lance's typical and painstaking attention to detail. He thought he might smell the same stuff that Lance had put in his bath, but he wasn't sure.
Chris leaned back against the counter and let Lance work. It felt almost like spying, watching that little moment of intimacy, and Justin dropped his eyes after a minute. Lance tossed the makeshift towel into the sink when he was done. "Don't touch that," he said. After a second, as what seemed like an afterthought, "And don't touch Justin's clothes, either, now that I remember it. I'll deal with them in a bit. Justin, just hang out for a while, okay?" He picked up both glasses of water that he'd filled from the tub. "I'll only be a few minutes."
There was a long silence after Lance left, like the room had suddenly gotten bigger and more echoing without his presence, and then Chris shook himself, once, and laughed. "Fuck," he said, "fucking wild," and pulled off his t-shirt. "Here, sit up, scootch forward, there's room for me behind you."
Justin ran his fingers along the surface of the water and watched the way it rippled in his wake. He didn't look at Chris. "I don't know if you're supposed to touch me."
"Bah," Chris said, and waved a hand. "Lean forward." Justin looked at him then, frowning, and Chris rolled his eyes. "Let me see your back," Chris said, patiently.
Justin could feel himself flushing. He told himself it was from the temperature of the water, which somehow wasn't losing any of its heat, and leaned forward. Chris bent over him, body radiating heat in the chill of the bathroom, and settled one hand on the nape of Justin's neck as he peered over Justin's skin. "Looks like it's gone," Chris said, and swept his hand over Justin's back.
Justin jerked forward, and some of the water sloshed over the side of the tub. "I don't think you're supposed to --" he said, and then stopped. He couldn't tell if it felt good or if it still hurt; it was as though his skin was raw, broken, even if whatever Lance had done had made it go away.
"He would have said if it wasn't okay," Chris said, and stripped out of his jeans, sliding in behind Justin and pulling Justin back between his spread legs to settle him. Justin took a deep breath and leaned his head back against Chris's chest. He had to admit it felt good.
Chris slid one hand under the water and cupped it, bringing it up and pouring the water out over Justin's head. Justin spluttered. "What the fuck?" he asked, and rubbed the water out of his eyes.
"Everyone could a little bit of baptizing sometimes," Chris said, and wrapped his arms around Justin.
Lance didn't even comment on Chris's presence when he returned a few minutes later. "Lonnie's okay," he told them.
"And he just held out his hands when you told him that you had to wash him with holy water, right?" Chris snorted.
"Yeah, actually," Lance said, and bent to pick up Justin's clothes from the floor, putting them in the sink and running the water.
Justin opened one eye. He'd almost drifted off to sleep up against Chris's back. "How'd you manage to convince our security guards that you're not insane?"
Lance threw a glance over his shoulder. "Think of it as magic if you'd like. How are you feeling?"
"My skin hurts," Justin said, and he could feel the petulance in his voice.
Lance's face softened as he looked at Justin. "Yeah, it'll ache for a bit. Here, get out of the tub for a few minutes, and let me try and do something about that." He shut off the water of the sink and picked up one of the cloths from the counter. Justin sighed -- when had he decided that he was just going to give up and do whatever Lance told him to do? -- and climbed out of the tub, dripping on the floor.
"Did JC and Joey ever come back with your clothes?" Lance asked, and lifted one of Justin's arms, running the cloth along it. Close-up, Justin could tell that he hadn't been imagining the smell; it was the same sharp bite of the liquid that Lance had poured into the tub. It felt cool against his skin, and in the wake of where Lance had swabbed, Justin's skin felt cool and soothed.
"No," Justin said. He wondered if he should go and try to find them, or if they had both just hit the limit on the amount of weird shit they could accept for one night and gone to hole up in the hotel bar to drink themselves stupid. Lance stroked down his back. It itched behind him, but it was a normal sort of itch, not the painful itch of something trying to break out from under his skin. He twisted his head, trying to see behind him. "What is that shit?" "Oiled cloth," Lance said. "It'll stop it hurting so much. Look, just -- do me a favor, okay? Don't touch any of the fans for a while. Any of you. I can't guard against stuff like this; I can only deal with it once it happens."
"Yeah, well, I didn't exactly touch her," Justin snapped. "She kind of touched me."
Lance sighed. Justin tried to ignore the feeling of Lance's hands on his skin, the way that the slow and painstaking sweep of skin and cloth over his body made him feel half cherished, half aroused. "I know," Lance said, and Justin wondered for a minute if Lance really did, or if Lance thought that they were all doing this just to be difficult. If Lance thought that they were nothing more than another problem to be solved. "Look, I have to go out. I've got to figure out where this came from and deal with it. Are you guys going to be okay?"
"We'll be fine," Chris said, from the bathtub. "C'mere, J."
Justin watched Lance's eyes flick down to Chris, holding out a hand from the water, and could just see the nearly-imperceptable tightening of Lance's eyes, the pull of the corners of his mouth, before he nodded. "Just drain the tub when you're done," Lance said, and turned on his heel to go.
Chicago gave way to Pittsburgh. Lance slept on the bus the entire way, emerging from his bunk only to use the bathroom and eat, once, a quick meal that Joey privately thought wouldn't have provided enough nutritional content to keep a mouse running. "You should eat," he said to Lance.
"Eventually," Lance said, voice slurry with exhaustion, and stumbled back to his bunk.
The show in Pittsburgh wasn't the best they'd ever done. They were all looking over their shoulders at the slightest noise at that point; Lance had taken them all aside and told them, with painstaking care, that they all needed to watch out for anything unusual. "It's all unusual," Chris had said, "we're fucking living in Never-Never land," but Lance had just given him That Look again and Chris had shut up.
Joey was almost starting to expect disaster on the fifty-yard dash from stadium to bus, and this time was no different. Lance stopped them all with an outstretched arm; his eyes darted from side to side and he sighed, from the depths of his diaphragm. "Justin," he said, "I need a diva fit. Right now, as loud and showy as you can make it, and it's gotta delay us for about half an hour before you all get on those buses."
"What?" Chris asked.
Justin just groaned. "Aw, man, why do I always gotta be the one to pitch the fucking diva fits? I'm fucking exhausted, can't someone else get that job for once? What's wrong?"
"Come on, boys," Tiny said, and held out an arm to urge them all onto the buses.
Lance's eyes were sharp and green in the streetlight-flood. "I don't have time to explain, I'll tell you later, just buy me some time."
"Fuck," JC said, his voice sudden and clear. "My notebook. I left my notebook back in the Quiet Room. I can't leave without it." Joey shot a glance over to him, just in time to see the tail end of the way that JC was looking at Justin. JC turned around and started striding back towards the stadium. "I'll be back as soon as I grab it."
Tiny frowned. "We can send someone back for it. Come on, we need you on the buses, now."
"I'm not leaving it to someone else," JC called over his shoulder, and kept going. Justin looked after him, then shrugged. "I'll keep him company," he said, and trotted off to catch up.
Chris followed Justin and JC. Joey looked at their retreating figures, then back at Lance. "You need an extra pair of hands?" he asked. "With whatever it is?"
"The three-man bus is booby trapped," Lance said, and headed for it. "You set foot on it, bad things will happen. Just ... I don't know. Stand outside and keep anyone from getting on. I'll defuse it."
Joey sighed and leaned against the side of the bus. Inside the bus, he could see the lights turning on, even behind the tinted windows, and wondered what Lance was doing. It was the perfect time for a cigarette; he often thought it was too bad that he didn't smoke.
"You should go inside your bus, Mr. Fatone," Tiny said. "It's not a good idea to be standing out in public like this."
Joey agreed with him, actually, but try telling that to Lance. "I think I'm going to stand out here for a bit while we wait," he said. "It's a nice night."
It wasn't. It was colder than Joey liked, and the sweat from the show was still drying on his skin. He was sticky and damp and wanted nothing more than a shower, a drink, and a good night's sleep. Behind him, the bus lights went off, then on again, and he thought that he could smell something burning. Or maybe that was his imagination. Tiny frowned and looked as though he might argue, but sighed and went over to talk to one of the guys who was working the line of barricades.
Joey wondered if that had anything to do with the apparent freaky mojo that Lance had pulled on all of their guards. Was that why they seemed to let him get away with breaking security at the drop of a hat to head off and do whatever he was doing? It couldn't be safe, not even if Lance had some weird ability to walk through crowds and have them not notice he was there. The thought left him uncomfortable. If Lance had hexed the guards to let him get away with stuff, what had he done to them? Was that the reason why they all seemed to be handling this with such a calm attitude -- Justin's occasional freak-out notwithstanding?
He pictured Lance sticking pins in little 'Nsync voodoo dolls, and had to lift one hand to his mouth and bite down on the palm, hard, to keep from dissolving into fits of completely inappropriate hysterical laughter. Maybe he wasn't taking this as well as he thought he was. Maybe none of them were.
He thought it might be Friday night. Maybe Thursday, but probably Friday. They were probably going to be in New Jersey by Sunday, and he thought it might be a good idea to actually go to church for the first time since the tour had started. Maybe he'd even go to confession first.
He might have been imagining the way that the bus was shaking, ever so slightly, against his shoulders. It had to be his imagination. It was just easier that way.
Later on, Chris would complain about the faint smell of smoke in the upholstery, and Justin would wonder why the hell he -- or at least in this case, his bus -- was the one who was being targetted, and JC would just shake his head at all of them and climb the stairs to disappear inside. Lance would lean on Joey's arm, just a little, nearly imperceptably, as they walked the few meters to their own bus, and head straight for his bunk without even bothering to shower first.
He'd never seen Lance this exhausted, this faded, this grey -- not even when he was half an inch away from hospitalization -- Joey would think, and bite his lip. He would strip off his clothes on the way to the shower, and then stop outside Lance's bunk and watch it for a minute, not even sure what the heck he was thinking. "We have to do something about this," he would say. "Soon. We can't keep living like this."
"I know," Lance would say, just a bare breath. "I'm working on it."
And Joey would wonder if maybe Lance wasn't as messed up by all of this as the rest of them were.
It works like this:
Sometimes you really, really wish you knew what the hell you were doing.
JC heard them arguing in the hotel in New Jersey; two voices, one deep, one lighter, raised in the hallway. He didn't even bother to try not to listen.
"--such a thing as too stubborn," Mal said, sharply. "And in this case, you are rapidly approaching that point. Just let me help you this once."
"And what price are you going to want me to pay for it?" Lance sounded tired. Lance was always sounding tired these days, and it made JC ache for him.
"In this case, nothing. I know that it is hard for you to accept the concept of help freely offered from the other side of the struggle, but in this case it is here and I am offering it, because you are being eaten from the inside. This cannot last for much longer. No one else may be able to see it, but I can. I can tell exactly how much longer you have, and it may not be as long as you think."
"It's my fight. Not yours. Not anymore. This one never was. You know I can't risk it."
A deep sigh. "At least call in some of the favors that people owe you, if you feel that you cannot trust me. Get someone in to watch your back. This is only the first round of the fight; they will keep coming, and they will keep throwing worse and worse things at you, and you will not be able to catch them all before they strike. One of these days, one of these days soon, you will move too slowly or notice too late and then one of them will be dead and in the hands of those who have a very good reason to bear you a very large grudge. Can you live with yourself when that happens?"
"I'm hoping that I won't have to." A pause. "I can't accept your help, you know. It's against the rules. It always has been. And even if you claim that the help is freely offered, things like that always come with strings, and they're strings that I can't afford."
"Oh, fuck the rules. Rules will not do you much good when you burn yourself down to nothing."
"If I burn," and Lance's voice was so quiet that JC had to strain his ears to hear it, "I'm going to take as many of them with me as I can. And I'll do so on my own terms. Not yours. Not his. Not theirs. Mine."
"Humans." Mal's voice was filled with disgust, and he followed that one word up with a string of them in a language that JC didn't know. Lance answered him in kind. There was silence for a minute, and then footsteps heading down the hall in both directions, and JC pressed his forehead against the door and felt more helpless than he ever had in his life.
Chris's hotel room caught on fire that night. He woke in the middle of the night and saw two glowing red eyes at the foot of the bed, screeched at the top of his lungs, and it wasn't until he started coughing that he noticed the smoke. They spent an hour in the parking lot, shivering and blowing on their hands and jumping up and down to keep warm, all except for Lance. Lance just sat on the curb and stared down at his hands, and JC wondered if he was even seeing them.
"You've got to do something about this," Chris said, sharply, when they were allowed back upstairs. "You're supposed to be the fucking powerful magic guy. Do something about this."
"I'm trying," Lance said, bitten off between his teeth. "I'm fucking trying. It's not that easy, there's not just one thing you can do and say that'll work --"
"Yeah, well," Chris said, and yanked open the door to Justin's room. "Fucking try harder."
JC watched as Lance stared after Chris. He looked numb; he didn't even see JC standing in his own open door and watching him. Lance rolled up his sleeve to bare his arm and pulled a pen knife out of his pocket. He set the point of it to the inside curve of his arm without even looking, parted the skin, and touched the first two fingers of his other hand to the blood welling up. As JC watched, Lance stood on tiptoe and ran his bloody fingers across both top corners of the door, leaving a smear of red behind him. As though sleepwalking, as though in a trance, he continued down the hall and did the same to Joey's door, then reached where JC was standing.
"Shut yourself in," Lance said. His eyes didn't meet JC's. "Shut the door and shut yourself in, and don't come out until the morning."
JC thought of the marks that had turned up over the door and all the windows of their bus and wondered how much blood Lance had to give. He stepped back and let the door close between them.
It works like this:
...No, actually, it doesn't. It doesn't work at all.
"Joey," Lance said, two days later, appearing in the doorway of the bus's bathroom while Joey was scrubbing off the last of the makeup from that night's show, "I need you to do me a favor."
Joey met Lance's eyes in the mirror. "Sure," he said, automatically. "What do you need?"
He was only a little confused when he saw Lance hold out the cell phone. "I need you to give Kelly a call and tell her that my momma's in Orlando on business, and she's missing having a baby around, okay? Tell her that Mom is gonna come over and help her out with Bri."
Joey reached for the phone without even thinking about it, and then stopped. "Wait a minute. ...Why?"
Lance was the best liar out of all of them, they'd known that for years, but after all the years, Joey could finally tell when Lance was lying. He didn't meet Joey's eyes as he shrugged. "Truth, man. Mom's missing the pitter-patter of little feet."
"No," Joey said slowly, and put down the cotton ball. He knew he looked like a raccoon with the eye-makeup half off, but he didn't much care. "The truth. Why?"
At least Lance didn't fight it too hard. He just sighed. "Bri's your kid. My goddaughter. That makes her a target. I'm worried that --"
"No," Joey said again, and turned to face Lance, feeling the anger starting to bubble up inside of him. "Not my kid. These people aren't going to do a damn thing to my kid. You can't let them."
"That's why." Lance shook his head. "I can keep you guys safe, you're right here with me, but I can't do anything for Bri from halfway across the fucking country, all right? Please. Call Kel, tell her my mom will come over and babysit, hell, tell her to take a trip or something and leave Bri with Mom altogether. Mom can handle it. She's not as strong as I am, but she knows her stuff. I left Bri with some protections, but if we're in this much danger, and we are, it won't be enough."
Joey reached for the phone again, taking it this time, and then stopped. "Wait a minute. You knew, didn't you."
"Knew what?" The lie was back in Lance's face, in the tilt of his head, and Joey felt sick.
"You knew that Bri could be in danger. Fuck, Lance, don't lie to me, you knew and you walked away and came on tour and you never bothered telling me."
"I couldn't, dammit." Joey could hear all the tones in Lance's voice, the worry and the self-hatred and the upset all wrapped up in one, but he was too angry to care. "Fuck. I almost said no when you asked me, you know? Just because of this, because I knew it would make her a target, but there's too much I can give her and there's too much I can be for her and I wanted your girl to have the best, the absolute best. But yeah, she's in danger, and yes, I'm sorry and I never intended for this to happen and I should have thought of it, I know I should have, but I didn't and I'm scared and will you just call your fucking girlfriend already?"
Joey thought, through the numbness and the anger, that they'd heard Lance shout more in the past few weeks than they'd heard in four years. He turned away and flipped open the cell phone with shaking fingers. Behind him, Lance made a soft sound, hurt mixed with sorrow, and by the time Joey had finished talking to Kelly, he was in his bunk with the curtains drawn again.
"Tonight," Chris said, draping himself over Justin's neck and breathing as quietly as he could into Justin's ear. "Meeting. My room, ten o'clock or so. All of us but Lance, so don't mention it to him."
Justin just nodded. Chris moved on, grabbed his suitcase, and picked up the keycard for his room.
It was a travel day and a late hotel arrival, and Chris noticed, now that he was looking for it, the way that Lance disappeared the minute that everyone had unpacked. It had been happening for a while, now that he thought about it, but somehow they'd never really put two and two together. He wondered how much of it they'd been "encouraged" not to notice.
"All right," he finally said, when the guys were in his room. Justin immediately stopped trying to hold JC down long enough to braid his hair; Joey looked listlessly up from the bed, where he was turning his cell phone over and over in his hands as though waiting for a call or a message. "Order."
"Number two, super-sized," Justin said, automatically, but his heart didn't seem to be in the usual joke. Looking around, Chris thought he understood why. The air in the room was tense, like somebody had died -- don't think that, don't think that.
"What's up, Chris?" JC asked gently.
Chris sighed and turned sideways in the chair so that he could hook one leg up over the leg of the chair and rub at his knee. "We need to -- I don't know. Work out some way to deal with this, somehow. I don't know about you guys, but this not-talking-about-it shit is driving me nuts."
They all did him the courtesy of not bothering to ask what "it" was. "He told me," Joey finally said. "Bri. He's worried that she might -- that they might -- "
"Fuck," Justin said, and without seeming to think about it, launched himself over to land on the bed next to Joey. Chris watched as Justin half-climbed, half-crawled over Joey, pushing him backwards against the pillows and holding onto him tightly. "It'll be okay, it'll be okay, fuck, man, she's gonna be okay."
"That's not it," Joey said, but he turned his head and rested his face against Justin's shoulder anyway. "It was that he didn't tell me until just now. His best fucking friend, his best fucking friend's kid, and he didn't tell me."
"I think he's worried." JC's voice was soft, and they all turned to look at him. "No, I mean, I've only seen him laugh once in the past forever, and it was three days ago, and it wasn't really for very long. I mean -- we didn't know about any of it, and I don't think he wanted for us to know, and now we do know and he has to deal with us as well as dealing with, well, whatever it is that he's dealing with. It's just -- it's gotta be rough, you know?"
"That's no excuse," Justin said fiercely, and tightened his arms around Joey. "It's not. He should have told us anyway. It's not fair that he didn't, not if we were going to be part of it."
"Yeah, like you dealt with it so well," Chris said, and rubbed at the other knee. He wasn't trying to be nasty, not deliberately, but he could hear it in his voice anyway.
Justin's eyes narrowed. "I'm coping, okay? It's a lot of crap to take in all at once, and I don't see you dealing with it all that wonderfully no matter how much of a good game you talk to Lance about being supportive and understanding and sensitive caring New-Age kind of guy."
"Our drummer is the devil," Chris shot back. "Our bass is some sort of freaky magician shit. And, in case you haven't noticed, there are big and nasty things with lots of teeth trying to eat us for dinner. You'll have to forgive me if I --"
"Guys." Joey sat up, dislodging Justin, and ran a hand through his hair. "Enough, okay? Please? Yelling at each other isn't going to solve anything." Chris flushed and looked down, muttering an apology, and Joey nodded. "Okay."
"We've all established that we're pretty not cool with this," JC said. "And I don't know about you guys, but I'm not cool with it for two reasons. One, it kinda scares the shit out of me a little, and two, I'm really worried about Lance. He's, like, got all this shit on his shoulders, and he already had it there, and now it's only worse because he has to keep us safe, too, right? And he seems to be pulling away from us, like now that we know that he can do this weird stuff he's worried that we, I don't know, will suddenly get together and decide to vote him out of the group or something because he's too much trouble."
"Yeah," Chris said, and then an idea hit him between the eyes. "Has he been sleeping with any of you guys lately?" He looked at Joey first, because this was mostly a bus week.
Joey shook his head. Justin frowned, counted days on his fingers, and then said, "No. C, I thought he was sleeping with you."
"Not since this whole thing started." JC frowned too, and looked worried.
"And he hasn't slept with me since San Antonio." Chris shook his head. "Dammit. That's the problem with this, we never fucking notice shit like this even though we're living in each other's laps. Has he even been sleeping?"
"I don't know," JC said, helplessly. "I just feel like -- he's slipping through our fingers or something, you know? He's got all this other stuff to do, and he's always had the other stuff to do, but up until now it's just seemed like it was the business stuff, not the business stuff plus -- plus this. And maybe it was always there, but still -- I just feel like I don't know him anymore."
"The Lance I thought I knew would tell us anything." Joey's voice was quiet.
Justin was always the one to sum up a situation. "This sucks."
"Okay," Chris said. "So what are we going to do about it?"
"I don't think there's anything we can do about it." Justin hugged his knees to his chest. "I mean, there isn't exactly a whole lot of things we know about this sort of thing. What could we do, anyway? Walk up to one of the big nasty things and ask them very politely to stop messing with us?"
"We could ask Malachai for help," JC said.
Chris turned to look at JC. "Huh?"
"I overheard them talking. In the hallway. Mal wants to help, but Lance said no. Something about what the help would cost, or something. We could ask anyway."
"I -- don't know if that would be a good idea," Joey said, slowly. "I mean, okay, it's one thing to have the devil on your payroll, but it's another thing entirely to deliberately ask him for help, you know? Remember all the old stories. I mean, what if you'd have to sell your soul or something in order to make it happen?"
"We could ask," JC repeated, but he was starting to look disappointed.
"You don't have to." The flat voice came from the door of the room, and Chris whipped his head around to see Lance standing there, leaning against the wall and looking at them.
Chris wondered how long he'd been standing there. He wet his lips. "What do you mean?"
"I've got an plan," Lance said. "Of how to get us out of this." He closed his eyes. "It's going to be dangerous. Really dangerous. And it'll take split-second timing and a whole hell of a lot of trust and I'm going to need one of you to volunteer to help out with it, and what's worse is that I can't guarantee that it's going to work. I think it will, but I'm not positive, and the one of you who volunteers might wind up hurt or dead and I can't guarantee anything. But I need one of you. And I'll let you talk about it without me here, because I'm sure that you've got a lot to talk about. If you decide that you'll help, come and find me. I'll be in my room. If you don't, I won't think any less of you. I'll handle it the other way."
"Which is?" JC asked.
Lance smiled. It wasn't a smile born of amusement; his lips curled, thinly, as though he was trying to keep them pressed together. "Walk right up to the gates of hell and see how many of them I can take out before they get me, because I can't do this for very much longer and at least that way I'll take some of them with me. Think about it. Take as long as you'd like."
"Lance, wait," Joey said, as Lance turned around to go. He stopped, without turning around; the lines of his shoulders were tense. "I -- Get some sleep, all right? Don't wait up to watch over us. We're not going out tonight. None of us are."
"That might not make a difference," Lance said, and let himself out.
There was silence for a few minutes after the soft door-click. "Jesus," Joey finally said. "He's pretty much just told us to pick which one of us gets thrown to the wolves."
"And given us the chance to make him be the one," JC said. "Because he will. You know he will. If none of us do it, he'd march right up and keep on fighting until they dragged him down."
"We should pick names. Out of a hat. Or something. Write all of us down on a piece of paper and see who gets chosen." There was something in Justin's face that Chris didn't like. "See who has to do it."
"Not Joey." JC bit his lip. "Joey's got a kid. He can't risk -- he shouldn't --"
Something snapped inside of Chris. He stood up, ignoring the way his knees were screaming at him, ignoring the way that three startled pairs of eyes turned to his face. "Fuck that," he said, and it was angry and raw. "We're not sitting here and deciding who gets to die. If you need me, I'll be in Lance's room."
"Chris --" Justin lifted a hand as though to stop him. Chris could see it in his face, the look of "not Chris, not any of us" combined with "thank God he said it so that I don't have to," and he shook his head.
"Don't say it, Justin," he said. "Don't any of you say it. I've had enough of this shit, and I'm going to do something about it." He paused and licked his lips again. He didn't know if Lance meant to do things tonight or not, but he damn well wasn't going to make a big deal out of things. "Don't wait up."
The next morning, nobody looked as though they'd slept, but Chris was sitting in Lance's room when Justin stumbled in to see if -- Well, he told himself that he was there to see if they were going to be joining them for breakfast.
Chris's eyes looked haunted, as though he'd seen something that he really didn't want to see, but he managed to smile at Justin anyway. "Coffee's on the table," he said.
"I -- are we -- is there --" Justin stumbled to a stop and ran a hand over his head, trying to find a diplomatic way of saying "is everything okay, or do we still have to go through this?"
Chris seemed to know what he was saying, though. "No. Tonight. Lance said that you guys can -- that you guys can come and watch if you want, to see what happens. It's up to you. He has to go out and get some stuff today or something." In the bathroom, the shower clicked off.
"What is it?" Justin asked, after a minute of thought. "That you -- that you're going to have to do."
Chris shook his head. "I can't talk about it. I'm not -- I don't even really know what he's trying to do. He said that the less we know, the less we can give away."
Justin frowned. "Aren't you scared? Fuck, aren't you fucking terrified? I'd be crawling the walls."
Chris shrugged. "Not much I can do about it. Getting scared isn't going to help. Either it works or it doesn't, and if it doesn't, there's nothing I can do." No matter how cavalier his tone was, Justin thought he could see something in Chris's face, something that made him cross the room and rub his cheek against the top of Chris's head.
"What're you going to do today?" They didn't have a show tonight; Joey had argued for two days off, surrounding their New York show, so that they'd get some time to spend in the city.
"Stay inside with the covers pulled up over my head and try not to think about it. About any of it." Chris's shoulders were stiff. Justin wrapped his arms around Chris's neck and held on, tightly, and a few minutes later, Chris seemed to relax a bit.
"Want some company?" Justin asked, softly.
"I really don't think that --" Chris broke off as Lance came out of the bathroom. He was wearing a pair of jeans and toweling off his hair, and he walked past Justin and Chris without even really noticing that they were there.
"Lance," Justin said, and Lance looked up as Justin's voice seemed to yank him out of the half-daze he'd slipped into. "What time do you need us tonight?"
"Chris, as early as possible," Lance said. "No later than three or four. The rest of you --" He shook his head. "If you want to be there, be there at around seven. Moonrise is at seven-thirty. That's when we'll start."
"Okay," Justin said. And then, because it was still Lance, because of the way Lance's hands were shaking as he reached for a t-shirt to pull it over his head, because no matter what else went on Justin loved him, loved all of them, he crossed the room and folded Lance into a hug. Lance just held himself apart for a minute, and then seemed to exhale and fold, resting his head against Justin's shoulders and holding on.
"You do what you need to do," Justin said. "We'll be here waiting for you."
Joey took a while to get angry. He always had. The converse of that, though, was that when he got angry, it was always only for a little while, and when the anger dissipated, it always left him feeling slightly small and guilty for whatever he'd done while he was pissed off.
He was still pissed off at Lance for failing to mention that his baby daughter was in danger, but the voice of reason and ration had been whispering in his head all night. So when Lance came by, pulling on his jacket, Joey stood up. "Hey. Lance."
Lance stopped and turned around to look at him. His face was cool and defensive, as though waiting for the next blow, and Joey winced a little. "Yeah?"
"You going out?" Dumb question; of course Lance was going out, but that wasn't really what Joey was trying to say, and he hoped that Lance would know it.
They'd had enough bonding time that apparently Lance did, because he shrugged. "Got some errands to run. Things to pick up. Somebody to visit." The silence spiraled out between them, and then Lance sighed. "Yeah, you can come along if you want to."
"Okay," Joey said, and grabbed his jacket.
He was a little surprised when Lance headed for the subway instead of hailing down a cab. He used to love the subway, back when he'd lived here the first time, but it was an indulgence that he'd had to give up at around the time that they got their first hit single. Lance seemed to sense the look that Joey was giving him; he gave that sad tired smile again and said "It's okay, nobody's going to notice us. Nobody ever notices me when I'm on business. Job perk."
"So how come the subway anyway? Why not a cab? It'd probably be faster."
Lance drew his brows together. "Because you miss the subway, and we've got the time to take it. Why else?"
"Oh," Joey said. As apologies went, it wasn't the best that it could have been, but it was an apology after all, an apology in the way that they always apologized to each other. And Joey really did love the subway after all.
They emerged somewhere in the middle of Harlem, in a neighborhood that Joey had never been in. He looked around them warily. There were some neighborhoods that even native New Yorkers avoided, and this was looking to be one of them. "Where are we going?" he asked, trotting to catch up with Lance, who'd kept going when Joey stopped to look around.
"There's a place up here," Lance said, and waved them around a corner. "A shop I know of. It's got some of the things that I'm going to need. Then we have to go back down to lower Manhattan and visit a -- colleague of mine. You'll be okay coming with me, but don't touch anything, and just ... follow my cues, okay?"
"Yeah," Joey said, and wondered what Lance meant by that.
He found out when they reached their destination. It was an electronics shop, with graffiti scrawled across the storefront and bars on the window. Lance walked through the door without a second glance, and Joey followed. The woman behind the counter was in that indistinguishable valley that some black women went through, where she could have been thirty or sixty, and she was wearing brightly-patterned clothes that Joey thought might have been some sort of tribal design.
Her face lit up when she saw Lance walk through the door. "Lance," she said warmly, and then continued in a language that Joey didn't recognize. He wondered how many languages Lance spoke, anyway, and why none of them had realized it before then.
Lance actually smiled at that, a real smile that hadn't graced his face in a few weeks, and reached over the counter to grasp her hands. "Grace," he said. "English, I think. I brought a friend." He inclined his head towards Joey. Grace's gaze followed, and her smile got even wider as she reached out her hands to Joey.
"Your friends are my friends," she said, and her voice was thick with an unfamiliar accent. Joey threw a glance at Lance, and then clasped the woman's hands. They were strong and rough, the hands of a working woman, and she seemed implausibly solid beneath his touch. "Long time since you come visit. Your momma, she is well?"
"I've been busy," Lance said. "Mom's fine. I'll tell her that you send your love. Is Ojiisan in back? I need some stuff."
"Of course," Grace said. "You go."
Lance leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, then pulled back and turned to Joey. "C'mon, back here."
Joey followed as Lance led him through the tiny and cramped aisles of the store. They paused next to a door that led to what looked like a back room, which was curtained by what seemed like hundreds of strings of wooden beads. Lance reached down and untied his shoelaces, and Joey blinked, then did the same. He figured that it was simply rude to wear shoes in the presence of whomever they were going to meet, but when Lance kicked off his shoes and then slid his right foot into his left shoe and his left foot into his right shoe, Joey cleared his throat.
Lance looked up, and then shook his head. "I told you, follow my cues," he said, but it wasn't exasperated or nasty. Joey fumbled with the laces of his sneakers and switched them on his feet, as Lance pulled his t-shirt over his head and turned it inside out, then put it back on backwards.
"Okay, I know you said to follow your cues, but I have to ask," Joey said. His toes felt crunched in the wrong shoes, but he pulled his own shirt off and reversed it. The tag poked him in the chin.
"...It's a long story," Lance said, and turned his back on the beaded curtain. "Walk through the door backwards. Don't say anything to Ojiisan unless he speaks to you, but if he speaks to you, answer honestly. Or you could just stay out here with Grace while I go shopping."
It was tempting, but Joey shook his head. "I'll come with you," he said. Lance smiled at him and then walked backwards through the door. The beads clacked together; Joey couldn't see Lance behind the curtain. He took a deep breath and followed, and when the beads hit him, it felt like the bottom dropped out of his stomach.
He walked into Lance's hands in the small of his back, and Lance said, in his ear, "You can turn around now. Don't act too surprised."
That was, he thought when he turned around, about as useful as saying "don't be nervous" before a nationally televised awards show performance. The room that they were in looked nothing like the rest of the building. The walls were wood-paneled, and the room was illuminated by torches set into the wall at regular intervals. Joey couldn't identify the things that were on the shelves, beyond the few books that he saw. Some of them seemed to move under their own power, writhing out of the corner of his eye, stilling when he looked directly at them.
There was an old man behind the counter across the room. He appeared Asian, with long white hair, and was wearing some sort of long white kimono with his hands tucked into the sleeves. His eyes caught them both in turn. Next to him, Lance bowed deeply, and Joey gaped for a minute longer before catching himself and bowing as well.
"Ojiisan," Lance said, smoothly as he straightened. "We are but unworthy supplicants to your noble establishment. We have come to pay our respects to you."
The man's voice was rusty, as though he didn't use it very often. "This one welcomes you and your noble companion to this humble domain, Magus. May this one offer you refreshment?"
"We are not deserving of the trouble it would take you," Lance said.
"This one would be a poor host indeed if he did not take the trouble." The man turned around and picked up a silver tray from the counter behind him. Joey blinked. It hadn't been there a minute ago. "Come. Do this one the honor of taking tea with him."
"The honor is ours," Lance said, and bowed again. Joey followed as they moved over to a low table, ringed around with cushions. The man's kimono brushed the floor as he glided over and knelt. Lance settled himself on one of the other cushions; Joey glanced at Lance, and at the subtle nod, knelt as well. He hoped it didn't take too long; the position would kill his knees.
"Your honored mother came to visit this one from Orlando," the old man said. "This one believes it would have been yesterday, as you reckon time. Please forgive this one for his unspeakable rudeness in being hasty, but from the tale that she told, you are working with little time, and in great danger."
Lance nodded. "Regrettably, yes. My companion and I are working under a deadline. I would like nothing more than to be able to spend the morning sharing stories with you, but my time is short, and I have many other places I must be today. There is no rudeness to forgive, and if there is, it is my own for coming to you in such haste."
The old man turned to look at Joey. Joey flinched; those dark black eyes seemed to reach right through him. "And what is your name, O Magus's companion?"
"Um," Joey said. "Joey. I'm Joey."
"And are you a student of the Magus, then, that he brings you here?"
Joey looked at Lance out of the corners of his eyes. Lance didn't seem concerned, but the whole situation was making the hair on the back of Joey's neck stand up. The sheer amount of deference that Lance was showing made him nervous. "No," he said, remembering Lance's injunction to answer honestly. "Just a friend."
The old man looked back to Lance. "A good friend indeed, for you to bring him to this one." He reached for the tray and set out three small clay cups, turning each one around once before setting them back down on the table, and filled them with pale liquid from an earthen pot. His movements were slow and graceful.
"He is my brother in all but blood," Lance said, and picked up one of the three cups. He repeated the gesture of turning the cup around before setting his lips to it. Joey hastened to do the same. The tea was bitter against Joey's tongue. "It is to protect him and the others that I come to you now."
The old man nodded. "You will have a list of what you need."
Lance inclined his head. "I do." He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a sheet of paper that had been folded a few times. It was cream-colored and looked as though it might have been hand-made; the edges were rough and the proportions slightly off.
The old man took it, unfolded it, and nodded. "Yes. This one can provide you all that you need. Please, make yourself comfortable while this one seeks to fill your needs." He tucked the paper into one of his sleeves and rose. "This one shall return in a moment."
Lance bowed again, from his seated position. "I will gladly wait for your guidance, Ojiisan."
The man returned the bow, and glided across the room on noiseless feet. As Joey watched, he turned the corner and disappeared through a door behind the counter.
Lance turned to Joey and gave him a smile. "Okay, go ahead with the questions, I know you've got 'em."
Joey was surprised at how even his voice came out. "I think I'll start with the basic one: where are we?"
"Somewhere else. That's ... about all I can give you. This isn't a real place, not the same way that you think of places as real. There are doors to it all over the world. Ojiisan is one of the neutral parties. He's insanely old and insanely powerful, and no matter what you need, he's probably got it in stock. Consider him like the supernatural version of the local supermarket. Except he tends to stock more esoteric ingredients."
"What is he?" Joey asked.
Lance frowned, thoughtfully. "That's a good question. I don't rightly know." He laughed. "I don't think anyone does. It's just a good idea not to ask. If Ojiisan takes a dislike to you and decides that he won't sell to you anymore, you're up the proverbial creek without a paddle. He's the only place you can get some of this stuff without going into the places that you really don't want to go, because you're not likely to come back out of them with the same number of limbs you walked in there with."
Joey just shook his head. "Where do you learn stuff like this?" he asked. "I mean ... it's not like you've been out of our sight for more than three weeks or so since we started all of this stuff. Where do you get this sort of thing?"
Lance shrugged. "You'd be surprised. I'm actually one of the luckiest out of all of us. We get to travel so much that I meet a lot of people, and I get a lot of information from them. I've got contacts in most of the cities we've been in, either the local hotshots or the people who really know their stuff and just don't talk about it. You pick things up as time goes on."
"I still think this is weird," Joey muttered, and took another sip from his cup of tea.
"Totally understandable," Lance assured him. "Really, I'm just shocked by how well you guys are handling all of this. ...Relatively speaking, at least. I just wish that I hadn't had to drag you all into this. I really do. I never intended for it to --"
Joey put a hand on Lance's wrist. "It's okay. I know you didn't mean it. I -- this whole thing is freaky, and I'm not going to pretend that I understand it. Any of it. But --"
"Yeah," Lance said. "I know. It's okay."
The old man glided back to the table. Joey wondered how he managed to move like that, without making a sound. He was carrying what looked to be an assortment of different items, all wrapped up in a white cloth and tied with a length of twine, and he placed them on the table in front of Lance. "This one was able to fill all of your needs," he said, and sank back down on his knees at the table. "In addition, this one has included some items that may be of use to you in your struggle. This one hopes that you will find them helpful."
Lance brought his hands together in front of his chest and bowed so deeply that he touched his forehead to the table. "I am honored by your counsel, Ojiisan, and humbled that you should take the time to provide your wisdom to one who is so obviously unworthy." Joey still wanted to know how Lance could do that, just flip a switch or something in his head and spout off that sort of language, but it was just another sign that there were weird things about Lance that he still didn't know. "Please, allow me to provide you with compensation for the trouble you have gone to."
"This one would not hear of it," the old man said. "This one will call upon you when he has need of your services. In the meantime, take what this one offers with his compliments." He studied Lance's face. Joey suddenly got the impression that Lance would prefer paying for things up front, and he wondered what sort of things Lance had had to do in the past to repay favors just like this one.
"I am honored by your generosity," Lance said, and Joey hadn't been imagining the reluctance, because it was in Lance's voice. "And it is with the greatest reluctance that we must take our leave of you in such haste, but the mortal world does not recognize the dictates of what honor requires."
"This one understands," the old man said, and rose to his feet. Joey wondered if the old man was just missing some important bones in his legs; when Joey struggled to his feet it was a struggle indeed, and he tried to surreptituously shake some feeling back into his feet. Lance and the old man bowed to each other, deeply, like it was some sort of contest to see who could manage to touch his forehead to his knees first or something, and Joey bowed as well, feeling out-of-place.
"Come on," Lance said, under his breath, as he picked up the wrapped package from the table. The old man tucked his hands back into his sleeves and glided back over to stand behind the counter. Lance wrapped his fingers around Joey's elbow and guided him back over to the beaded curtain.
They walked through the curtain face-first this time, and Lance stopped on the other side to kick off his shoes and replace them on the right feet. Joey sat down on the floor to switch his shoes; his legs were still a little shaky from lack of bloodflow. "I hate it when he does that," Lance muttered, and pulled off his shirt to reverse it.
"Does what?" Joey asked.
"Takes things out in trade instead of accepting actual payment for things. He likes to have me owing him favors. A lot of people like to have me owing them favors, but he's one of the only people who gets to pull it off regularly, because I need him and he knows it. Dammit."
Grace leaned over the counter. "You get what you need?"
"Yeah," Lance called back to her, and rose to his feet. He held down a hand to help Joey up, and Joey leaned on him as much as he could without dragging Lance back down with him. "I hate to stop by and then run, Grace, but we're on a deadline. I'll stop back in tomorrow to say hello, if I can."
Grace nodded. "Go," she said, and waved a hand at him. "Go with my prayers. I will ask God to watch over you in what you do."
Lance smiled again at that. "Thank you," he said, and walked over the counter to kiss her on the cheek. "It never hurts."
They walked back out of the shop, and Joey blinked at the sunlight that hit his eyes like a wet brick. It seemed as though they should have spent a few hours in the store, from the weirdness of everything that had happened, but the sun had only moved a hair's-breadth in the sky. "What'd he give you?" Joey asked as they walked back to the subway stop.
"A few things. Ink. Quills. Some other stuff that's a little more esoteric. Not the kind of ink that you can find at your local stationery store, that's for sure." Lance hefted the package in his hand. "I'm not sure what else he threw in there, but whatever he did, I'm sure I'm going to need it, either now or somewhere soon down the line. When Ojiisan gives you something without having to be asked for it, it's usually a sign that you forgot to think of something. I'm going to have to go back over the plan a few times until I figure out what he's trying to suggest that I do."
"And he just knows what you're trying to do so that he can give you suggestions," Joey said. It wasn't quite a question, but Lance treated it as one anyway.
"Yeah. He's Ojiisan. He knows shit like that. I don't know how he does, or what he knows, but he can just look at you and know what you're trying to do and what you're going to need. That's the other reason that everyone goes to see him."
"Pretty close-knit community, isn't it," Joey mused. He wondered what it was like, being part of something like that, knowing that there were other people out there who were going through the same kind of things you were going through. After a minute, he realized that it wasn't all that different from being a pop star, really. Just a different kind of work.
"Yeah," Lance said. "Everybody knows each other's business. You get really tired of it after a while."
"Where to next?" Joey stopped at the top of the subway stairs, and ignored the people who were pushing past him and muttering. "Any other weird surprises up your sleeve for me?"
"One or two," Lance said, and smiled again.
The Catholic church that Lance led them to was small and picturesque, tucked down in the heart of the Village. They arrived just before noon, and the bells were ringing and a handful of people were filing out of the front doors as Lance led them up to enter the building.
"What're we here for?" Joey asked.
"Friend of mine," Lance said. "I need him to give me a hand with something."
As they entered into the sanctuary, Joey's eyes automatically picked out the priest, who was talking in a soft voice with one of the parishioners while tucking the leftover Communion host into the nave. He was young for a priest; Joey would have pegged him in his mid-thirties. His features had a decidedly Asian cast to them. Looking at him, Joey knew immediately that this was one of the very rare truly religious people he'd ever met; the man seemed to encompass the idea of a holy man. It was in his face, the peace that he radiated.
He noticed Lance and Joey standing there after a moment, and excused himself gently to come over and meet them. "Lance," he said with a smile, and held out his hands. "I didn't know you were in town." Lance ducked his head, and the priest placed his hands on Lance's head, thumbing the sign of the Cross across Lance's forehead.
"Kei," Lance said, and kissed both of the priest's cheeks. "We're only here for a few days. I'm afraid it's not a social call, either; I need your help. Do you have the time this afternoon?"
"For you, always," the priest replied, and then shifted his glance to include Joey. His face changed a little, became even more welcoming, and he nodded as though Joey had said something to him, even though Joey hadn't so much as opened his mouth. "Welcome," he said, and placed both of his hands on Joey's shoulders. His skin was warm, and his very touch seemed to set Joey at ease. "It's all right, you know. All of it."
"I," Joey said, and then stopped. He wasn't sure what he was going to say, not at all.
The priest nodded. "I know. So does God. You don't need to worry about any of it. You probably will anyway, that's just who you are, but just remember that God is bigger than any of His churches. Just because men say that it's a sin doesn't mean that God thinks it is."
Something eased inside of Joey's heart, like it was precisely what he'd needed to hear. He'd been carrying it around since Briahna had been born, that nagging sense that no matter how many times he'd been to confession -- and it wasn't all that many, not the way it was supposed to be, not the way he was supposed to go as a good, or at least attempting to be good, Catholic boy -- there would always be that bit that couldn't be scrubbed away by Hail Marys and Our Fathers. Looking at this man, feeling the force of the unconditional love that he was being presented with, he could believe it.
"I," he said again, and then shook his head. "I believe you. But -- how do you know? How do you --"
"It's part of the job," the priest said, and traced the sign of the Cross on Joey's forehead as well. "At least when it's done right. I'm Kei. Welcome."
"I'm Joey," Joey said, and snuck a glance over at Lance. Lance was just watching, patiently, as though he'd known this would happen and had been waiting for it.
Kei turned to Lance. "How urgent are things? Do you have time to have lunch?"
"I'm fasting today," Lance said, "but I'm sure Joey would appreciate something, if nothing else than to get the taste of Ojiisan's tea out of his mouth." He threw a look at Joey. "That stuff is awful, isn't it?"
"Oh, thank goodness," Joey said. "I thought I was supposed to like it or something."
Kei laughed. "No one does; it's simply politeness to accept it. Come on, I can give you something." He inclined his head towards a hallway. "Lance, what do you need my help with? Shall we call one or two of the others?"
"Nah," Lance said. "I'm going walking tonight. I need someone to draw the wards. I could give it to one of the guys, but you know as well as I do what happens if it's even a little off."
"Oh! Yes, that should be no problem. I don't have the ink with me, though." Kei gestured them into the back of the church, into the rectory's kitchen. It was small and old, shabby in the late-fifties linoleum style that never got clean no matter how much you scrubbed it, but there were flowers on the kitchen table.
"That's why I went to see Ojiisan." Lance set the bundle onto the table and picked out the knots in the cord. Kei crossed the room and produced a bowl from one of the cabinets. Lance took it and sat down on one of the chairs; as Joey watched, he began setting out the things that had been in the bundle they'd gotten from Ojiisan.
Kei looked over at Joey. "May I offer you something to drink? Coffee? Soda? Water?"
"A Coke would be great," Joey said, absently, and sat down next to Lance. Lance poured some dark powder into the bowl, and then un-knotted a smaller pouch, shaking some golden dust on top of it. He poured a vial of something dark and amber on top of it. Kei handed Joey a can of Coke and Lance a spoon and a bottle of water; Lance used the spoon to stir the stuff in the bowl. "Thanks," Joey said, and popped the top of the can open.
"What are you planning on doing?" Kei asked. "What set of spells are we using?"
"The fallen and the Nephilim are after us," Lance said, and then looked up. "I'm going to be bargaining with them. I need all of it. All the protections, all of the bindings. We can't leave anything up to chance."
"Ouch," Kei said. "Do you need an extra pair of hands? I'm free tonight, and I could possibly also call in Avram and Sebastian if it was needed."
Lance shook his head. "No. Thank you, but I have it covered. I just need someone to draw the spells for me."
"All right," Kei said, and picked up the flower arrangement from the table, moving it to the counter. "On you, I'll assume?"
"Yeah." Lance glanced over at Joey. "Joey and the rest of the guys will only be watching. Well, except for Chris, but I can cover him. How are the rest of you guys, anyway? I haven't talked to you all in what seems like years."
"That's because it has been," Kei said lightly. "We are well. Busy, but well. Would you like me to do the blessing on that?"
"Please," Lance said, and picked up the bowl to hand it over. "Every little bit that someone else does is something that I don't have to."
Joey was relaxing -- the kitchen was small and homey, the kind of place that reminded him of a hundred friends' kitchens back in Brooklyn. He was expecting Kenny DeLuca's mom to show up at any minute and ask him to take the trash out, or old Mrs. Porter to show up with a coffee cake. Kei bent his head over the ink in the bowl and spoke a few words. And then it stopped seeming like one of the kitchens of his childhood, because Lance stood up and casually pulled his t-shirt over his head.
"You're lucky that my parishoners are kind enough to knock before they come back into the rectory," Kei said with a smile as Lance kicked off his shoes and pushed down his jeans. "I'm certain this couldn't look good for you."
"You either," Lance said with a laugh. "I can see the headlines in the Enquirer now. 'Boyband member found bare-ass in priest's kitchen.' On the table, you think?"
"That's why I moved the flowers," Kei said, and picked up the bundle of supplies to move them as well. He picked out a quill, a real quill made out of a real feather, though it wasn't any kind of feather Joey could immediately identify, and turned back. "Joey, if you would be so kind as to just move back?"
"Uh," Joey said, and scooted his chair out of the way as Lance stretched out on the table, lying on his stomach. "Okay."
"I know," Lance said, and crossed his arms beneath his chin. "Trust me, it only gets weirder from here on in."
It works like this:
You go back to the hotel with the lines of the spell quivering against your skin. You can feel them, the way they shift and move and settle. It's never been this powerful before. You've never tried to contain this much of it before.
Kei blesses you before you leave, and it makes you remember what you're doing all of this for. You think you should probably go to church more often. You're supposed to be working for God. It's easy to forget that, in the middle of all of the crap you go through.
When you get back to the hotel, JC gives you a second look when he sees the ink against your skin. You think it must look like a particularly demented tattoo, the way that the curves peek out from under the sleeves of your t-shirt and wind around your forearms. He slides up the tail of your shirt, wordlessly, and his fingers are cool against the small of your back as he traces one of the Names of God. You remember watching Joey's wide eyes as Kei worked his way over your shoulders, down your chest, around your hip and along your legs. "What does it mean?" JC asks.
You bite your lip. They've all been asking, but you don't know how much you can tell them, how much you should tell them. It's easier to just smile and demur. It seems cheap, casual, but you don't have the time right now to give a real answer. When it's all over. "It means that I'm going to be very, very busy," you finally say, and you can see the confusion and the disappointment in JC's eyes as you retreat before he can ask any more questions.
Chris is terrified. You can smell it on his skin; you can see it in his face. He knocks on your door at half past three and paces around the room three times, looking out the window, talking a mile a minute and not saying anything that means anything. "Chris," you finally say, interrupting a tirade about room service and how they just can't get the breakfast order right. He stops in mid-sentence and just looks at you like he's drowning and he doesn't know if you're going to throw him a rope or hold him under for the third time.
You lean over and wrap your hands around his, holding on. "Come on," you say, and you try to put as much solid reassurance into it as you can. "I'll tell you what I can while I work." You can't tell him everything -- not without giving it away, not without risking that they'll reach in and pull the plan out of Chris's head and know what you're trying to do. But you can give him a little bit of it, and that might help.
He flinches beneath the angel-feather quill as you work, and you find yourself humming a lullabye that you learned from your mother.
"All right," Lance said as he opened the door. He was wearing a thin cotton robe that was tied in the front, and Justin could see that he didn't have anything on underneath it. "You guys can come in now."
None of them had been doing much of anything that they weren't willing to drop at the first sign of life from the other room. Justin was the first into Lance's room; he stopped short when he saw Chris, who was just sitting up from the bed and reaching for a robe of his own. Chris's skin was dark with ink, and as Justin watched, he imagined that he could see some of the lines moving against each other and against Chris's shoulders and stomach.
The room smelled like something Justin couldn't place, kind of like the vague memory he had of attending a Catholic funeral once. "I know," Chris said, catching the look on Justin's face and standing up to wrap the robe around him. "It's grotesque."
"Actually, I think it's kind of interesting," JC said from behind Justin, and crossed the room. He brought his hand up just short of touching Chris's shoulder, fingers hovering just over a line of script in a foreign alphabet that, Justin thought, none of them had ever seen before. "What does it feel like?"
"What do you mean, what does it feel like?" Chris snapped, and tied the robe around his waist. "It feels like ink on my skin, what's it supposed to feel like?"
"It itches," Lance said, quietly. He'd pulled back the throw rug on the floor of the room and pushed the furniture out of the way, exposing the bare grain of the hardwood floor, and was drawing a circle on the floor with a ragged chunk of what looked like chalk. As they looked over to him, he finished the circle and bisected it neatly, then began to fill in one side with concentric half-circles. "Not the ink. But what it means. That itches."
"So," Joey said, after a long minute of silence while they all watched Lance work. "What do we, uh. What do we do?"
"If you're staying for the ceremony, get on the bed. I'll put up protections around it right before we start. If you're just here for the pre-show warmup, you can do whatever you want." Lance didn't look up; he frowned and erased one line before re-drawing it again, more carefully. When he reached the center of the circle, he turned back to the neat arcs he had created and began writing, right to left, his hand moving quickly but his script neat.
"We're staying," Joey said, firmly, and crossed the room to stand next to the bed. Justin watched as he hesitated for a minute, and then turned around to clasp Chris's shoulder firmly. Nothing more than that.
Justin had thought about it all night, what he would say to Chris, what he would want his last words to Chris to be if they really were his last words, and he hadn't been able to turn anything up that hadn't sounded too melodramatic or too inane. He settled for wrapping his arms around Chris's waist from behind, holding on tightly, and pretended to ignore the way that Chris leaned back against him a little more readily than he otherwise would have. "I love you, man," he said, into Chris's ear, and Chris breathed out a sharp breath and rested his hands on Justin's wrists.
The door to the hotel room opened with such force that the doorknob cracked against the wall. Lance didn't bother to look up, just sighed. "I thought one of you would lock the door --"
"What in the name of all that you hold holy are you attempting to do here?" Malachai kicked the door closed behind him again and put his hands on his hips, looking down at Lance. His expression was so sharp that it almost cut, and there was nothing in his face that was kind or understanding.
Lance kept writing. "Drawing the diagrams for a protection and summoning spell. If you're so out of practice that you can't remember what they look like, perhaps you should return to Sheol for a while. They're fairly basic."
"That's not what I meant, Bass, and you know it. You're going to try a bargain, aren't you." Mal's eyes roved over the room, and lit on Chris; Chris seemed to shrink back against Justin as that angry gaze took in the writing that covered all of his available skin except the face.
"Sweet suffering Word of God," Malachai said, and it sounded reverent even coming out of his mouth. "You're going to --" He crossed the room with quick steps and before anyone could react, tugged Chris's robe open at the chest, pulling it down over his shoulders and leaning forward to examine the symbols drawn over him. "You're insane."
Chris broke from the half-trance after a second and grabbed Mal's wrist, dragging it away from him. "Get your hands off of me," he said.
Mal paid him no mind, but let go and turned around to stride right up to the diagram that Lance was creating. He'd finished with the side he'd been working on, and moved to the other hemisphere, where he was in the process of adding three lines to divide it with a triangle. Mal looked down. "I could wipe this out with a wave of my hand," he said.
The edge that crept into Lance's voice was the first sign of emotion he'd shown in hours, Justin thought. "I could draw it again," he said.
Mal crossed his arms over his chest. "I should by all rights haul you into a dimension where you'd be lucky enough to summon the power to light a candle. What possessed you to even come up with a plan this -- this --" He ran out and let his hands drop, then picked them up and waved them as though he could catch the word if he gyrated enough.
"Stupid?" Lance suggested, and added three tiny symbols into the center of the triangle. "Reckless? Insane?"
Mal slashed one of his hands through the air. "All of the above! What were you thinking? Were you thinking?"
"Malachai." Lance looked up from the diagram, and Justin caught his breath at the look on Lance's face; taut and even, skin drawn over bone like that was all he had left. "You can either help, or you can leave. I don't have time for this sort of shit right now."
Justin caught his breath at the sudden tense silence. He could see something passing between the two men at a speed that he couldn't decipher. It looked like any one of the conversations that the guys could have without ever using words, only far more savage. Mal broke the eye contact first, sighing deeply. "All right. Fine. I still think that you're insane. What do you need me to do?"
Lance stood and closed his eyes, holding out one hand and turning in a slow circle before stopping with his hand pointing into the far corner of the room. "East?" he asked, glancing at Mal.
"East," Mal confirmed with another sigh. Lance nodded and knelt again, marking the circle in the direction he'd been pointing with a cross whose bottom point touched the edge of the circle, then added additional crosses at the other three cardinal points.
"Guys," Lance said, and his eyes fell on Joey, JC, and Justin in turn. "Last chance for a pee break or to decide you're not staying. If you don't have to pee and you're not leaving, go sit on the bed."
Justin's arms tightened around Chris's waist for a minute, and then he took a deep breath and let go. Chris didn't look up. He stepped across the room and sat down on the bed, and JC pulled him backwards until his head rested on JC's shoulder and just held him there. Joey took one last look around the room and then curled up against the side of Justin's legs, resting his head on Justin's knees.
"Once this all starts," Lance said, adding a final line of script to his diagram and standing again, "that's it. Don't talk. Don't get off the bed. Don't distract me. Don't even move if you can help it. I'm going to need to be able to concentrate utterly, and I can't do that if I'm worried about you guys. Do you understand?"
Justin nodded. "Yeah," he said, for all of them, and looked around him at the other three guys. "Yeah."
"Okay." Lance dropped his hands to his sides and took a deep breath, and for a minute, looked almost uncertain, as though there was something he wanted to say and couldn't quite find the words. The moment passed before Justin was even really sure that he'd seen it, and Lance turned around, pulling out a plastic bottle from his leather satchel and pouring the water inside it on the floor around the bed. He stepped backwards, put the bottle on the dresser, and then took a deep breath. Holding out his hands, he hit a single perfect A, which Justin knew was hovering at just the top of his range, and then let it slide down the scale slowly until it sank down into his usual timbre.
The notes seemed to build to fill the room, and Justin could feel it in the depths of his lungs, as though he was the one singing. Lance seemed to hold the note for far longer than he should have been able to, and he picked up his hands just as Justin thought that he must be running out of breath entirely and flicked his fingers out, sharply. A shower of sparks crackled from the tips of Lance's fingers, hit the boundaries that Lance had drawn with the water, and shimmered and cascaded around each other; they danced for a moment, twined around each other, and eventually thinned out until all Justin could see was the faintest of hazes separating them from the rest of the rest of the room.
Lance finally let the note drop; his chest heaved as he gasped for air. "Test that," he said, turning to Mal.
Mal walked up to the line and reached out a hand. That hand stopped just as he reached the near-invisible haze; Mal put a little weight behind it, or so it appeared, but he looked precisely like a man leaning against an invisible wall. "Feels solid," he said.
"Good," Lance said, and took another deep breath, then crossed the room to take Chris's hands in his own. Justin could see his lips moving in profile as he said something, but wasn't close enough to make out what it was. Whatever it was made Chris's face ripple, fear-resolve-worry-concern-determination-strength, and Chris nodded and stepped into the center of the circle that Lance had drawn, then slowly undid the belt of the robe and let it fall.
"I'm not going to smudge the lines, am I?" he asked, standing naked in the center of the circle and squaring his shoulders.
"No," Lance said. "It's special chalk."
"All right," Chris said, and sank to his knees as gracefully as he could. Justin could hear the twin cracks of cartilage against bone, the same way that Chris's knees always sounded.
Mal backed up to stand against the wall. Lance unknotted the belt of his own robe and folded it neatly, leaving it on the chair. With both of them naked, Justin could see the fullness of the spell-lines on their skin. They were similar, but Justin thought that he could tell they had been drawn by different hands; the lines on Lance were sweeping and graceful, like the lines of a bird's wing, while Chris's drawings were neat and precise, almost mathematical in their regularity. Lance pulled four white candles, each one as thick around as Justin's wrist, out of his bag and stationed each one of them at one of the crosses around the circle.
Lance was moving with calm, neat precision, the way he always looked when he was repeating a set of dance steps over and over and over again until they had been engraved in his muscle memory, like it was the most normal thing in the world. Justin could practically smell Chris's nerves, but he kept his head bowed, studying his own knees like they were the most fascinating thing in the world.
"The doors and windows," Mal said, his voice seeming horribly loud in the growing stillness of the room. Justin couldn't even hear the sounds of the city outside the window anymore.
Lance tossed Mal an irritated look. "I'm getting there," he said, but Justin knew from the tilt of Lance's head that maybe Lance hadn't thought of it at all. He wondered what else Lance was forgetting, what else that Justin himself didn't know and couldn't point out, and unbidden, he thought of all of the times that they'd all saved each other's asses at the last minute by reminding each other of things that they'd forgotten. Like toothbrushes or spare underwear or radio interviews or some sort of unknown protection that would keep the forces of Hell from eating them for breakfast. Lance locked the door and rested a hand on it, singing back that implausibly long downward scale, and Justin blinked his eyes a few times as the door seemed to half-disappear. It was still there, but it was suddenly hard for him to bring his eyes to focus on it.
He suddenly wanted to get up, to rush from the room, to go and hide in his own room and pull the covers over his head the way he used to when he was six and he was worried about the monsters under the bed grabbing his ankles. JC seemed to feel the quiver under his skin, because he stretched out his fingers a little and entwined them with Justin's, holding on loosely enough for it to be comfortable but tightly enough for it to be reassuring.
"All right," Lance said, after singing each of the windows into that same half-nothingness as the door. "Chris?"
"Yeah," Chris said. It was an answer.
Lance heard it as such. "Mal?"
Mal waved a hand. "Don't wait on my account."
"All right," Lance repeated, and took another breath and closed his eyes. Justin's fingers tightened on JC's.
Lance held out his hands and breathed a word, and the candles seemed to ripple and then flamed to life. He turned his back on the circle, facing towards the east, bowed deeply, and crossed his arms over his chest. "Sh'ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad," he breathed. "Baruch shem kavod malchuto l'olam va'ed." He crossed himself, slowly, and continued, "Ateh, malkuth, v'geburah, v'gedulah, l'olam, amen."
The room seemed to get warmer as Lance moved slowly around the circle, stopping at each cardinal point and sketching a sign in the air. He was still speaking, the words tumbling off his lips as though they were long familiar, but they were too soft for Justin to make out. Each symbol was complex and precise, and if Justin squinted, he could almost see them lingering in the air long after Lance had moved on.
Lance was on the outside of the circle, Justin noted, and wondered what would keep him safe.
Lance's words had slipped into a half-chant, rising and falling over a few notes each. Justin couldn't even tell if he was speaking in English or not. He paced the circle once, twice, then three times, his hands moving constantly, and finally he wound back up at the point of the east, though this time he was facing into the circle.
"Sh'ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai echad," he repeated, finally, and let his hands fall. "Amen."
There was silence, and then Lance took another breath and rocked his head back and forth on his neck. The crack of his spine sounded loud in the room. "Okay," he said again. Justin wondered if he was just trying to gather up his courage to keep going. "Chris?"
"Just do it," Chris growled, and picked up his head to stare at Lance.
Lance stared at him for a minute, then nodded. He picked up a hand and half-reached for Chris, as though he wanted to reach through the barriers he'd drawn and cup Chris's cheek in his hand, but took a step back before he could, spread his hands, tilted his head back, and sang again.
This was a different song. Justin could hear it ripping through the silence, clawing away at the peace that Lance had created. It was harsh and atonal, with a skipping syncopation that Justin couldn't wrap his brain around. Every time he had almost managed to squeeze it into some familiar rhythmic pattern in his mind, it modulated and hitched. Lance's eyes were closed, and his face was set in concentration, as though this was the most important thing he would ever do, to get each note perfect and true. It seemed heavy, as though the notes fell from Lance's lips and piled up in the room around him.
Lance was sweating, Justin noticed, and he couldn't tell why, because his own toes were chilly in the climate-controlled hotel room. Lance's voice broke on a particularly long note, and Justin could see the brief panic that rushed across his face, but he caught himself before he could falter and put some more breath into it to back it up. It wasn't a very demanding piece of music, if you could even call that music, but Justin thought that maybe Lance wasn't just singing, that there was something going on that he couldn't see as Lance carefully timed his breaths, gulping in air in precisely the way that years of voice coaches had told them all never to do.
And then Justin blinked, and blinked again, because suddenly they weren't alone in the room.
His mind was trying to tell him that what his eyes were seeing wasn't real, couldn't possibly be real, couldn't actually exist. JC's fingers tightened on his, and Joey's shoulders stiffened against his thighs. Justin thought that he might have cried out, but Lance didn't turn his head at all, just held the last note for what felt like forever. Chris's shoulders were shaking inside the circle, and Justin could see his fingers clench once, then release.
The figures started out looking like rough charcoal sketches, a few lines here and there. Lance let his last note die off and opened his eyes, picking up his hands and holding them out in front of him. His voice was hoarse as he said, "Enter into these vessels, I conjure you. Enter into these vessels, I evoke you. Enter into these vessels and occupy these boundaries, by command and by my authority. I bind you to this place and this time, by my hand and by my power, by El, by Eloe, by Sabbaoth; by Zelioz, by Ramathel, by Eyel, by Azboga, by Shemira and by Shemurah; by Eyeh Asher Eyeh who has given me these hands and these powers. Enter into these vessels and be bound there until I release you to go."
The half-smudged lines that were hovering in mid-air thickened and filled. Line turned to curve, curve hollowed and rounded into three dimensions, transparent grotesqueries becoming more and more solid as Lance spoke. Justin found his eyes skipping right past them; he couldn't make himself focus on the forms. There were too many mouths and too many arms and he couldn't tell what was skin and what was hair and what was -- something he probably shouldn't think about. The bodies ranged around the circle, each of them twisting and struggling, reaching for Chris in the circle and then pulling back, hissing, as they struck that barrier that Lance had so painstakingly drawn and constructed.
The room smelled like hair burning, and rotten eggs, and three-day-old death. Justin breathed through his mouth and tried to see Chris, but the things were in his line of sight. He flicked his eyes over to Mal, who was still leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets, and then back at Lance, who was facing the host of bodies that were not normal bodies with an expression of calm certitude.
"Magus," hissed one of the things, the one that was standing, or slumping, or lurching, or -- or something -- right next to Lance. The voice was nothing Justin could describe, even to himself, like the way that something sounds in a dream when you know that it's just waiting to rear back and eat you, and it reached his ears without the thing's mouth moving at all. It turned its head (which was joined to its body with what looked like two necks, or one neck split in two, and which had far more than the usual number of teeth) to Lance.
Hollywood, Justin thought, and had to stifle the hysterical laughter that threatened to bubble up from his stomach, would give its collective left arm to be able to produce special effects one tenth as good as this.
Lance's face was calm, but there was something wild around his eyes, like he was fighting to keep ten different things in order at once in his head. "Asmodeus," he said, and the thing hissed again. Lance moved his eyes around the circle, pinning that gaze on each of the creatures one by one. "Naamah. Uzza and Mastema and Azael, Astaroth and Belial, Moloch and Belphegor and Melchiresa. Semyaz and Baraqel. I name you."
"Magus," one of the other things hissed again, and this time it was a curse. "Why have you dared to reach beyond your grasp? Why have you dared to summon us here?"
Lance took a deep breath and then let his teeth show. It wasn't a smile, but it looked like one. "I want to offer you a deal."
"Lightbringer," came the not-voice from one of the other things, and it reached out an arm that ended in two hands to point at Malachai, who simply raised an eyebrow. "You cheapen yourself by associating with these sons of clay. Will you stand against us and release your place as Lord of Hell?" It seemed to have a problem with the sibilants, as though its teeth were in the wrong place.
"I relinquish nothing," Malachai said. He sounded as though he could have been in any high-society tea party ever, polite and urbane and smooth and unconcerned. "I am here only to observe. Make your bargain, or do not. It is of no concern to me."
"You dirty yourself," another of the things spat. "Return to your rightful place and release your concerns here. You cannot hope to rule when you are not present to govern."
"Enough," Lance said, and it was sharp and acid. The things hissed again and swiveled, or lurched, or turned, or -- or something -- back to face him. "I am the one who has summoned you here. I am the one you will bargin with. I have your names, and I have brought you to my work-room. Will you treat with me, under the rules of offer and counter-offer, or shall I cast you back to the pit from which I have brought you?"
There was a long silence, punctuated only by hissing and rough breathing and a low sick wet sound that Justin couldn't find the source of and didn't really want to. And then one of the things growled, "We will treat with you, under the rules of offer and counter-offer."
"Good," Lance said, and coughed sharply. "You have made targets of those who are mine. You have sought to claim them. My offer is this: you will leave them alone, me and mine, for all time, unto death and beyond death, from generation to generation. And in return, you may freely take the sacrifice I have prepared for you, take that sacrifice and do with him what you may."
Joey hissed in shock. JC froze, his chest not even rising and falling beneath Justin's shoulderblades. Justin was the last one to process what Lance had said, the last one to let Lance's words penetrate his ears and seep through to his brain, and the minute they did, he almost reared off the bed and lunged for Lance. The only thing that stopped him was the thought that he really didn't want to be any closer to those things than he had to be. No, he thought, as though if he thought the words firmly and clearly enough he could throw them across the room and into Lance's ears. No, you motherfucker, we trusted you, Chris trusted you --
"What benefit do you receive from this?" one of the things was saying, and Justin wrapped his hands into fists and gritted his teeth and listened.
"It will allow me to stop watching over my shoulder every waking moment. And before you ask, the benefit to you will be that you will get the chance at one of your targets, no questions asked, no struggle to fight. Freely given."
This seemed to be the subject of a great deal of consultation among the things. They shuffled their feet, or their pseudopods, or their -- their things, and looked at each other assessingly. "Your offer seems too simple," one of them finally replied.
Lance shrugged. "I'm tired of fighting you. Your boss has made a deal with me, and I've made a deal with him, and that seems to be working out well enough for both of us. I see no reason why we can't do the same. There's no reason for us to be struggling like this. Yeah, sure, I have to send certain of you back home when some idiot calls you up and shouldn't have, and I have to cast some of you out when you're in the process of trying to possess someone, but really, the whole medieval good versus evil thing is so outdated for twenty-first century sensibilities. I see no reason why we can't live and let live. I'd love to broker a truce just on each others' word, but I know that won't work for you guys, so you get a token of the sincerity of my desire to stop getting in each other's way. You take the sacrifice and go. You leave my people alone, the ones that bear my mark, and I don't go out of my way to hunt you down, those of you who are in Asiyyah, and send you back to Sheol. It's simple enough, but I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be."
Another long moment for consultation, and finally a consensus seemed to have been reached. The thing at Lance's right hand shifted, and Justin could see in the sudden space that Chris was bent over, bent double, his forehead on his knees and the curve of his back the only thing that was really visible. Little and lost and forsaken. The protest rose in Justin's throat again, and Lance's eyes flickered over to him, just for a minute, quickly and then gone. And the protest died in Justin's mouth, because the two words that shone clearly in Lance's eyes were trust me, and God help him, Justin did.
"State the full terms of the bargain that will bind us both," the thing said.
"You give oath that you and yours will not harm, through action or through inaction, or cause harm to come in any way, to those of my people whom I have marked as mine or those who belong to me. You give oath that you and yours will not set any other, human, angelic, or demonic, against those of my people whom I have marked as mine or those who belong to me. You give oath that you and yours will not interfere, in this world or in any other, with the courses of the lives, actions, and well-being of those of my people whom I have marked as mine or those who belong to me. In exchange, you are offered the sacrifice which has been prepared for you; I will open the circle and you will have access to do with that sacrifice anything that you may. I will not lift my hand or raise my power to stop you, hinder you, or impede you in whatever you may do."
Another pause, another consultation, and the thing hissed again, then shifted its weight. "We agree," it said.
"Selah," Lance said, and took a step backwards, so that he was within reaching distance of the dresser where he'd spread out his supplies. He picked up the obsidian knife that he'd left there and returned to where he'd been standing, holding out one of his arms. The thing he'd been dealing with held out one of its arms as well, or something that served the function of an arm, and set sharp-tipped claws against it. The blood that dripped from those claws was thick and viscous, purple-tinged. It fell to the floor in seven steady drops and every one seemed to slam like a door or ring like a bell.
Lance twisted the knife against the crook of his own elbow, where there were old scars just waiting to be re-opened, and held his own arm over where the thing's blood had fallen. Their blood mingled on the floor. The thing reached down and swabbed its hand through the puddle, then wiped its almost-fingers across its possibly-forehead and then touched it to its tongue and said, "The bargain is set."
Lance crouched down and trailed his fingers through the mixed blood on the floor, then stood again. It was bright against his fingers, and he reached for his own forehead -- then stopped. "I should probably open the circle for you first," he said, and turned.
"The bargain is not active until the words have been spoken," the thing rasped.
"Oh, I know," Lance said, and smiled. "But I figured you wouldn't want to wait a minute longer than you had to, to get your hands on the sacrifice." The things seemed to surge forward, hungry and slavering, and Lance reached down a toe to place it over one line of the circle, getting ready to rub it out.
It all seemed to happen between one heartbeat and the next, and Justin thought that if he'd blinked at just the wrong time, he would have missed it. Lance broke the chalk line on the floor, the line of the circle surrounding Chris. Chris came off his knees like a shot being fired from a cannon, and their hands met, Chris's right hand to Lance's left, grasping each other's wrists and holding tightly. The demon-things surged forward again, reaching for Chris. Lance jerked Chris, hard, and Chris stumbled out of the circle just as Lance brought his right hand, fingers sticky with blood and ichor, up to rake it across Chris's forehead and leave him stained with reddish-purple. Chris's tongue flicked out against Lance's fingers. His voice was rusty and taut, but he rasped, each word precise and definite, "The bargain is set."
Then the first of the things that had lunged forward touched Lance. There was a flash of light, as the lines on Lance's skin blazed silver and fire, and the room took on the stink of burning flesh and carrion. Something was screaming a rough, hoarse keen, and it was a many-layered voice. Justin did blink then, as the acrid smoke that had risen from something seared his eyes, and by the time he forced his eyes back open, streaming tears, the things were gone and Chris was stretched out on the floor.
Lance swayed on his feet. He was panting roughly, like he'd just run a marathon, and all he said was "Fuck," before pitching over face-first.
"It's over," Mal said into the silence. Justin looked over at him to see him crouched down, still leaning against the wall, his hands between his spread knees. He rose to his feet and pushed himself away from the wall, walking across the room and crouching down at Chris's side, fingers reaching with the ease of long practice to check the pulse in Chris's neck. Chris was apparently conscious, or at least conscious enough to bat feebly at Mal's hand to push it away and roll over, pushing himself half-off the floor and leaning hard on his hands. Mal looked up and met Justin's eyes across the distance separating them. "You can get off the bed now. The barriers were dropped when Lance passed out."
That took a minute to sink in too, and then Justin was off the bed and kneeling at Chris's side, his arms going around Chris's waist to support him. Chris stumbled and fell sideways across Justin's lap; he was shaking nearly imperceptably beneath his skin. JC and Joey followed him; Joey knelt down next to Lance and turned him over with gentle hands, while JC just stood between the two like he couldn't decide which of the two needed his attention more.
"I don't understand," Justin said, and glared at Mal as though it was all his fault. "What the hell just happened?"
Mal knelt on the other side of Lance's unconscious form and brushed his hand over Lance's forehead. "He tricked them. It was a beautiful bargain, truly beautiful."
"But he sold Chris to them."
"He sold himself to them," Chris said. He coughed and pushed himself up to a sitting position, leaning heavily against Justin's shoulder. The smear of blood across his forehead was the only spot of color in his face. "He just made them think that he was selling me."
"So they should have taken him," Joey said, and looked up from Lance to stare accusingly at Mal. "Is that what you're saying? That he sold himself to them and they're going to come back for him at some point and we're just going to have to watch them take him?"
"No," Mal said. "They can't. Really, that was the most fantastic double-cross I've seen pulled off in years. They can't touch him. He can't sell them his soul; it's already been claimed. Hell's creatures can't bear to so much as touch those who have already been marked by the Lord." He shook his head. "He sold them something that they can't claim, can't even touch, and bought safety for the rest of you all by doing it."
"Is he going to be okay?" Joey demanded. "He's out cold. Is he hurt?"
Mal shook his head. "He might sleep for a few days or so -- yes, I'm exaggerating, but not by much; controlling all of that took every inch of his reserves and then some. But he'll wake up and he'll be fine. Tired, hungry, and sore, dazed for a while, and he shouldn't be allowed to do anything more magically strenuous than lighting a candle until he gets his full strength back, which will be a joy to enforce, let me tell you. But he'll be fine."
Joey's shoulders relaxed. "All right," he said, and then nodded. "C, gimme a hand with him."
"No," Mal said, and bent over. He gathered Lance into his arms, the way that one would cradle a child, and rose to his feet. "I will take the Magus to bed."
"Yeah, well," Joey said, and stood up as well. "You go ahead and do that. I'll take Lance to bed. Guys, if you need me, Lance and I will be in my room." He pointed at Mal. "If you're going to carry him to bed, you're carrying him to my bed."
Mal seemed to know better than to argue. "Fine," he said, and turned to go, with Lance still in his arms.
"You said that the fallen ones can't touch him," Justin said. "But you can."
Mal paused and looked back over his shoulder as Joey opened the door for him. "I know," he said, and then was gone.
"Wait," Justin said, too late. "I don't get it. I don't get what just happened."
JC sank down to sit on the floor next to Justin and Chris. He brushed his hand over Chris's back and laughed, softly. "He never fell," JC said. "That's what it means. He was right. He told us the truth. He never fell." Chris straightened up a bit, and JC smiled at him. "Come on. Let's get you into the shower and see if this stuff comes off with some soap."
"I feel like something just hit me between the eyes," Chris said.
"Yeah," JC said. "Come on. Let's all just go to sleep. Things will look better in the morning."
It works like this:
You wake up in the middle of the night in some anonymous hotel room in some anonymous American city with the familiar sense that something is wrong, or about to be wrong. After so long, you can wake up quickly when you need to, but you stare at the ceiling in the dark for a few minutes to try and assess the danger. It is something that you'll have to go and deal with. You extricate yourself from Justin -- sharing a bed with him is like sharing a bed with an octopus, it's like he has far too many limbs than any human should and they all want to be wrapped around you at any given time. He rolls over as you slide from the bed, making a sleepy unhappy noise as his source of heat abandons him, and you tuck the covers more firmly around him as you root around on the floor with your toes to try and find your pants.
You didn't get much of a chance to unpack, the busses rolled in late, so you have to feel through your bags by touch to find the stuff you're going to need. Your hand brushes against the bottle of whiskey in your bag and you smile; you'd gotten it in the mail a few months back, after everything had gone down, from the scary motherfucker in London with a simple note that said "nice work, kid." Coming from him, that's a compliment of the highest order, and you couldn't bring yourself to actually drink it. Your supplies are tucked underneath it, and you throw some sagebrush and a handful of candles into your backpack and sling it over your shoulder.
The soft click of the hotel room door as you shut it behind you is loud in the corridor. You're not all that surprised to find JC standing against the wall with his hands in his pockets. "We going?" he asks you.
He doesn't have the natural talents that you have, which means that you're not supposed to teach him how to do what you can do, but in all the years you've known him, you've never known JC to take that as an answer. You've been teaching him for three months, and you sometimes think that despite being blind to the flow of things, he might wind up being better at all of this than you are. He enjoys it, in a way that you don't. It's nice to have him around sometimes to remind you of the good parts of it all. He'll never replace you, because there are some things that require your ability to sense shifts and flows, but he watches your back and takes care of what he can and you're grateful to have him, really. You're working on some way to give him a little bit of your senses, some spell that will transfer just enough of it to him that he doesn't have to rely on complex divination, but he says that if you never manage to get it working, that's fine, too. He doesn't seem to mind being the equivalent of a blind man trying to grope his way through the dark. "After all," he says, every time the subject comes up, "Beethoven was deaf when he wrote half his music."
"Yeah," you say now, stifling a yawn. He nods and picks up his own pack of supplies, slinging it over his shoulder and falling into step behind you. His hand slips into the back pocket of your jeans as you wait for the elevator, a warm and comforting presence, and you know that no matter what's facing you at the other end of all of this, it won't be anywhere as bad as it used to be.
You'll come back later, tired but only because you were up late playing Halo with Joey and Chris, and you'll strip off your clothes and shove Justin over so that you have enough room to get back into the bed. He'll protest without even waking up, and you'll smooth a hand over his head and let him twine his legs with yours again. In the morning, Chris will wake you up with a flying tackle on the bed and sit on your ankles, chattering a mile a minute about the latest practical joke he's got in mind for the crew, and Joey will wander in after ten minutes of it all with a cup of coffee for you, and you'll eventually let yourself into JC's room and wake him up with soft kisses just underneath the jaw-line.
You know all of this, because it's the way that things have worked for the past few months. Nobody ever asks what goes on when you and JC disappear in the middle of the night, or sometimes in the middle of the afternoon, but it's more like they just don't bring it up directly. Sometimes Joey will come to you when he pulls a muscle and lets you spell it better, and sometimes Justin will randomly speculate about which reporters deserve a good case of the boils, and they all keep coming to you to put protections on the jewelry they wear most often. It's not like they're trying to ignore it. But it's not a big deal anymore, not like you'd always worried it would be.
The elevator dings. JC pulls his hand from your back pocket and slips it into your hand as you walk inside. You squeeze his fingers in return, and you're rewarded with one of those smiles of his, the smile that lights up his face and warms your soul.
It works like this: Sometimes -- more and more often, more and more frequently -- you really start to think that you might be happy.