"Hey, no, wait," Justin says, but Joey already has his phone out; one button and it's dialing. Justin could scrabble for it, but instead he just sighs in resignation.
It rings twice, three times, and then Chris is croaking "what?" in the aggrieved tone of someone with superior sleep habits.
"You will not believe what J can do now," Joey says, and Justin crosses his arms and sighs again, while the situation unrolls like a particularly unwelcome red carpet.
"It's called the Mantle of Zeus," Madonna had said, and maybe if Justin hadn't gone to bus school he would have known right there it was going to be a shitshow.
"This is the dumbest prank," Chris says on the speakerphone. His voice sounds awful. Justin isn't sure if it's time or Joey's crappy phone. It's easier not to be curious. (And yet he's the one who's come running to Joey, and JC, and Lance, even knowing what it has to mean...)
"There were centuries when no one famous enough to use this art knew of it, and those who guarded the knowledge languished in obscurity," Madonna had said. If Justin had tried to do that voice, it would come out hammy, like he was telling a ghost story, but freaking Madonna had hit it exactly subtle enough to send a thrill of mystery up his spine, how much did she rehearse that. "Those we judge worthy are the true A-list," she had added, which had kind of broken the spell a little. But not entirely.
"For fuck's sake," Chris says, and hangs up.
"Nobody buys it without a demonstration," Justin says wearily. "I didn't. You, yourself, didn't, ten minutes ago, Joey. What did you expect?"
"I don't know," Joey says. "It's just so cool, and you said you told Lance and C, I couldn't leave him out."
"Sure, fine," Justin says. He could have. He was going to. "You ready to fuck, or you wanna think about it some more?"
Joey blushes. "Naw, I mean, if you're good, if you want to go through with it, I'm just gonna weird myself out if I think too much."
"I hear ya," Justin says. "But that's the deal, so. You got some photo ref for me?"
"Uh," Joey says. "Lemme just, uh..." Justin follows him to his laptop, and scrolls through the pictures he's brought up.
"You know I can't do the super-suit," Justin says, "Although if you have one, I can put it on..."
"ThatwouldbegreatI'llgogetthat," Joey says, all in one breath, and Justin sits down to shapeshift into Dean Cain circa 1993.
"We sometimes call it the coin trick," Madonna had said. "Because it has two sides, and because some people think the Greco-Bactrian kings started putting themselves on coins to make their faces widely known enough to pull it off."
"The who?" Justin had said, and Madonna had waved it off. "Not important," she had said. "The point is, the first side, once you learn to feel all those people out there with your face in their heads, you can leave them holding it - they're enough to sustain it, your own face doesn't have to - and you can change. The easiest thing is just a blurring, just soften things up a little, so you can go out without anyone knowing who you are."
"That doesn't make any sense," Justin had said, and then she had smiled and opened her eyes, wider, and then they were narrower, moving apart, and her hair was darkening and shortening, her whole jaw altering, like the faces morphing into each other in that Michael Jackson video, only real and impossible.
Justin relaxes back into himself once they've both come. He's still got the super suit on around his knees and ankles and feels pleasantly ridiculous. Joey is grinning with what seems to be similar sentiment.
"Whoo," he says, "That was something."
Justin has never particularly dreamed about sex with Joey, but it had sounded fun enough, when he considered it. Definitely worth getting to tell him.
"The other side is an exchange," Madonna had said. "Do you know why Zeus used to disguise himself?"
Justin had tried to remember what he knew about Zeus and came up with the Disney Hercules movie. It had turned out that was pretty off-base.
Joey is half-asleep by the time Justin gets the super-suit the rest of the way off, and mutters that he's welcome to stay, or not, it's all good, whatever, zzzz. Justin heads back to the guest room - he needs to text Chris about arranging a visit, and it feels rude to sit there on the edge of Joey's bed texting someone else.
lets trade schedules and figure out when I can visit, he sends, not even really expecting a reply back that night, and is completely thrown when he gets back a prompt and unelaborated no.
Justin knows he has multiple options here. The sex is like glue on a fraying edge, or a knot on a loose thread - if Chris keeps on refusing to sleep with him, his knowledge of Justin's shapeshifting will keep on pulling on it until eventually it unravels to the point where he can't do it any more. Justin could just live with that. Most people can't shapeshift. He couldn't shapeshift for most of his life, and, frankly, if he's stuck with his own face, that's a pretty good face to have. He is 100% sure that appealing to Chris on these grounds is going to get him a "boo hoo hoo, forever limited to being one of People's Sexiest Men", and it's hard to argue with that. He knows people have given it up on purpose, if they wanted to tell their mom or their kid or something, someone out of the question for sex. That could turn out to be what he had done, in retrospect.
There's also, y'know, dishonesty: Justin did, eventually, read up on Zeus, and it seems pretty obvious what people had in mind when they named the coin trick after him. Justin can't turn into a golden rain or a swan or anything like that, but Chris probably doesn't want to fuck a swan anyways. Justin doesn't actually know who he's into these days, but he knows who they used to talk about on the bus, and it wouldn't be that hard to contrive a situation where Chris could bump into "Gwen Stefani" and end up in bed. Who doesn't still kinda want to bang their old crushes.
Justin feels pretty gross about that, though. JC had talked to him, like, five thousand times about consent - probably literally dozens - and while shapeshifting wasn't in there, lying definitely was. What happened at the Super Bowl was bad enough, Justin doesn't ever want to have a closer encounter with making someone feeling violated.
Also. If Chris thinks he would - if Justin did approach Chris wearing someone else's face, and Chris said "no thank you, I had to go celibate because my creepy ex-friend is trying to deceive me into bed", and Justin deserved that, because he was - well, Justin can't really imagine further than that. It's just unthinkable.
He thinks it's probably legitimate to do at least a little more self-promotion, though. His conversation with Chris had been short, and maybe Chris hasn't thought through the possibilities! Maybe he genuinely doesn't have all the information. Justin can't remember, now, exactly how specific Joey had been on various points.
fyi I can do chicks, he texts, and fidgets with his phone, waiting to see if Chris will reply, for the short time it takes Chris to text back still no.
"Lansten," Justin says, when he gets Lance on the phone.
"You want me to tell Chris it'll be worth it," Lance says.
One of the great things about Lance is the way he's usually way ahead of Justin. Well, sometimes it's annoying, but sometimes it's weirdly comforting, to sink back into that dynamic where Lance knew what was going on with Justin before Justin did.
"Yeah," Justin says. "Wait. Worth what?"
"It," Lance says vaguely. "Are you sure it would be?"
"Hey," Justin says, stung. He doesn't get any complaints in bed even when he's not shapeshifting, thank you. And - "It was for you, right?"
"Oh, sure," Lance says. He coughs. "Okay, yes."
With Lance, Justin had made a sex tape - probably the only time he could get away with such a thing - of himself shifted into Cary Grant, circa Notorious. It started with him in a suit, leaning in a doorway, doing the eyes (as best he could), and ended with - well - so much for that suit. It was a good tape, Lance had turned out to have a good eye for angles and lighting, and pretty safe if it ever got leaked, because obviously it had to be fake somehow.
"Tell Chris I'll do a tape," Justin says. "You can tell him how much you continue to enjoy yours."
"Do you like to think about that?" Lance asks, but he doesn't actually deny it.
thx there is plenty of porn in the world without you involved, Chris texts Justin later, presumably after Lance has talked to him.
Talking to JC is the polar opposite of talking to Lance. JC wants to go to lunch, by which he means a million courses of tiny mysterious plates and giant fruity almond milk smoothies, and he wants to talk about Justin's film career and dance reality television and global climate change and football and anything except for what Justin is hoping to talk about. Not that catching up with C is bad, it's always good, now that they're solidly out from the shadow of when they thought they would both have similar post-NSync careers, or rather, the shadow of when they first realized they wouldn't. JC is funny and thoughtful and has genuinely interesting things to say. It probably doesn't hurt that a little part of Justin will always still think he's the coolest guy in the world. Eventually, though, JC is giving some serious oral to some kind of elaborately-striped artisanal popsicle thing, and Justin seizes the moment.
"So Joey told Chris about my thing," Justin says, and then when JC raises his eyebrows, "the thing I can do now?"
"Were you not going to?" JC asks, around his mouthful of popsicle.
"No!" Justin says. "Why is that so surprising to everyone."
"Hey, ish cool," JC says. "You always had good self-defense instincts, I respect that."
Justin isn't sure what JC means, and he isn't sure it matters. "Well, he knows now," he says. "And he doesn't want to play along, so, party over, I guess."
"Is this where I say 'cry me a river'?" JC says whimsically. "No, seriously, look, let's say Chris has his reasons. Isn't that enough?"
Put that way, it obviously has to be. "Okay, yeah," Justin sighs.
JC slurps popsicle thoughtfully. "Do you even want to sleep with him, really?"
Justin isn't sure how to answer that. He had wanted to sleep with JC, not with the desperation he had once, but out of a sort of nostalgia for having felt that way, maybe, and then it had gone awkwardly. It had been much more fun with Joey and Lance - maybe shapeshifted sex was only good approached as a performance, or a game?
He thinks about it again later, after he's said goodbye to JC. JC's request had been sort of hot, conceptually - he had wanted Justin to shapeshift into him, so he'd be, like, doing it with himself, his doppelgänger. Justin had liked that, visually, but he'd run into trouble with - well, the way Madonna had put it, "the more the world has seen of you, the more you can change". Justin's put most of himself out there, at one point or another, but apparently JC had had particularly stringent hopes for, well, one of the few of Justin's parts that hasn't been caught on camera, and he thinks sex is probably always going to go downhill after someone gets disappointed about someone's dick. Not that he really has much experience with that, but that's the stereotype.
He wonders if Chris would have been disappointed, if he had taken Justin up on his offer to shift into Gwen Stefani or whoever. He can do the forehead, the lips, the jaw, the shoulders, the boobs, the hips, the height; Madonna had taught him a whole system for breaking down the differences between his natural shape and the person he was trying to mimic. He can't do pussy. Madonna had asked lots of philosophical questions about whether girls had to have pussies while also providing surprisingly practical tips about genital-concealing sex. Justin is pretty clear that shapeshifting some tits doesn't actually make him a girl any more than shapeshifting Cary Grant's face makes him Cary Grant, so he hadn't worried too much about the philosophy. Maybe he couldn't have pulled off the deception either, who knows.
Justin isn't going to nag or beg or push or anything uncool like that. He reminds himself, from time to time, when he thinks of shooting Chris a quick text, or forwarding something funny, and then he doesn't, because he doesn't want Chris to feel like he's pushing. It has the side effect that now he's not speaking to him at all, but it's not like they talked that much before. It's probably not an unusual length of time for them to not be in touch yet, really. He doesn't even talk about him to Joey or Lance, he's doing really well, until one night he gets a little too deep into a bottle of something ridiculously aged and smooth and ends up leaving Chris a voicemail, of all stupid and embarrassing things, going on about how... he hardly remembers, after. How he's sorry for bugging him about it and thinking it wouldn't be a big deal and being an asshole, etc etc. He's pretty sure, the next morning, that it sounded unhinged, like the loop in his head saying "don't push him" had been playing so much that once he was drunk he completely lost track of what had happened outside his head, and just freaked out self-reflexively about the number of plays of the loop. Yikes. (And a rambling, emotional voicemail? What is he, seventeen again?)
He sends a short text to Chris, just sorry please delete that, and goes through the motions of his schedule half dreading a text back and half hoping Chris will say something so it's not hanging over him.
can i call you is the furthest thing from what he was expecting.
Justin says sure, because oh god no this is already awkward enough is the coward's way out.
Chris still sounds like he had on Joey's phone; older, tireder, worn.
"You kept saying in your voicemail that you didn't understand," he says. "You haven't - I haven't heard you like that in a long time. Does it bother you so much?"
Justin takes a moment to answer. "Not really?" he says. "I don't know what to tell you about that voicemail except sorry. I don't understand, I would have thought, if anything, of you guys, JC might have been, I don't know - "
"Jealous?" Chris says drily.
"Or just not..." Justin trails off. "I mean, maybe none of you would have been okay with flipping the coin. But then when Lance was, and then C and even Joey - maybe it's a little bit 'one of these things is not like the other ones', I guess."
"But you knew that," Chris says softly. "Because you weren't going to tell me."
Justin exhales through his nose. "It's true," he admits, not bothering with whether it was Joey or Lance or JC who had passed that along. "I don't even know why now, it just seemed - easier - and then once Joey did tell you, it seemed dumb that I'd thought I wouldn't."
Chris sighs. There's a long, waiting silence.
"Okay," Chris finally says. "I never wanted to be the thing holding you back from anything, not even your weird stupid superpower I guess. Come visit me and let's do this."
So here's Justin, kneeling on the floor of Chris's living room naked to the waist, while Chris walks around him consideringly.
"Do you have to work from a reference?" Chris had asked. "Or can you just, like, think 'darker' and turn your hair darker or whatever?"
It didn't work by thinking, it was more like singing, or dancing, Justin had tried to explain, something you did with your body. But yes, he could make adjustments without having a particular image in mind.
"Cool," Chris had said, and something in his eyes had flashed, and Justin's breath had caught, just a little. Something was in the room then that hadn't been there before, like a low, barely-audible hum, and when Chris had said "so let's do this," when it had gone from something they were talking about to something they were doing now, it had thrummed in his ears.
"You're too tall," Chris had said, when they were both somehow standing, and then Justin had volunteered to take off his shirt, when Chris had just stood there, not saying anything, as a way to try to get things started.
The back of Justin's neck tingles as Chris circles behind him.
Justin's been looked at by a lot of people. That's the fact underpinning this whole situation, but more than that, he's been looked at in person by a lot of people, by directors, photographers, choreographers. It has long since become routine to try to be a little more this, a little less that, in his angles and pitch and face, whatever; that's what performing is.
Chris's eyes on him, contemplating, Chris getting ready to tell him to reshape his body, that feels completely different.
Chris steps, stops, looks down. His eyes are dark. Justin feels like he's in a spotlight, a film set, anywhere more dramatic than Chris's living room.
Finally Chris brings his hand up to Justin's jaw; it's the first contact between them, since Chris hugged him hello, and Justin has to swallow a gasp at the light touch.
"A little narrower here," Chris says. And then it's going, more light touches to Justin's hair, his shoulders, the sides of his nose, shrink a little here, soften here, and Chris always circling like something winding tighter and tighter and tighter.
A little thinner here. Paler here. Less definition, gliding his hand down Justin's shoulder, from his collarbone to his armpit, and Justin has to fight to relax away the muscle instead of tensing it. The same, to his belly. A little pinker, a brush to a nipple, and Justin does gasp, a little, and then the same finger to his lips, pinker here too.
Justin can't say when he gets it. Maybe it's when Chris vanishes away his stubble and checks the smoothness of his cheek with the backs of his fingers. Maybe it's the little tugs to his hair, longer, curlier, blonder. Maybe it's that none of the changes are very big at all, or that Justin remembers how it feels to wear this face, this body, even all these years later. There's a point when he knows, and he looks up into Chris's eyes and Chris knows he knows, and Chris takes a ragged, desperate breath, eyes wild.
"Do you get it now?" Chris says. "Why we should never have done this?"
Justin looks up at Chris and knows that in this moment he holds him in the palm of his hand.
"That's not what I think at all," he says, reaching back for a voice from so many concerts and albums ago, almost half a lifetime. It's both strange and familiar in his ears, in his mouth, and Chris's eyes go even wider. Justin realizes as he says it that he means it: he doesn't know how he would have felt about this, if Chris had just told him, but here and now it feels like fair game.
"Come on, Chris, " Justin says. "You're not going to leave me hanging like this, are you?" He leans forward, nuzzling his face into Chris's middle.
"Fuck," Chris says, "Okay," and after that it's just sex. Just Chris slick on Justin's tongue, and his voice murmuring "Justin, Juppy, Juppy", and his hands tangled in the curls - Justin did this a few times, back when he had the curls, not with Chris, of course. Everyone always goes for the curls. There's a weird moment when Chris returns the favor when it feels like he should have the braids, but of course that's not how this works.
They end up slumped together on Chris's sofa, fitting together like they'd all gotten used to doing in vans and planes and all the weird places they had used to sleep. Justin lets the breadth ease back into his shoulders but he keeps the hair long; Chris is still toying with it idly.
"So," Chris finally says, voice hoarse. "Did you really never know?"
Justin shakes his head a little against Chris's hand. "I don't even - you could tell me this was nostalgia you developed, like, last year, and I would believe that."
Chris snorts. "I didn't even think of that," he says. "Sure, Justin, this is nostalgia I developed last year. I started thinking about turning 40 and it got me hot for sixteen-year-olds from the 90s."
Justin tries to remember how he'd felt about Chris when he was sixteen. It's blurry, washed over with things that happened later, so many moments staining back through time and coloring everything. He had looked up to him, he thinks. He had felt safe, that in all the tumult of Lou and overeager adults there was this adult-but-also-not-quite-adult who was on their side, looking out for them.
Chris's face is just a head-turn away; they must have been this close a thousand times, back then.
"You never said anything," Justin says.
He can feel tension creeping back in between them, as the post-orgasmic laxness ebbs.
"Of course not," Chris says, shifting a little, so he's not quite so melted against Justin. "I fell for a teenager, what else could I do? I'm glad if you never noticed."
Justin sits up a little straighter, lets his hair shrink back to its neat buzz, the stubble emerge. He's all the way back to himself now, like a long melisma resolving.
"Just a teenager?" he asks. "I mean, I was still around when I was. Older."
"Aww," Chris says, sitting back until just his knee is touching Justin's thigh. "Want me to tell you you're aging well? Still pretty?"
Justin has entire teams of people who talk to him about whether he's aging well. And he's put on the Mantle of Zeus; he can feel all the people out there who still like his face just fine. Or, well, he can't feel that it's liking, but they know his face, and in entertainment, it probably is. He can't feel anything in particular from Chris - the thread that was tugging on him is snipped, now.
He wonders, suddenly, sickly, if this will be the last time he sees him. Chris pulls back his knee, and it's like their entire relationship is folding up; Chris is about to say something polite about Justin's career, he thinks, and after that they'll never be honest again.
"Wait," Justin says, and reaches out to put his hand on Chris's arm, and does the whole transformation again, the shoulders, the face, the hair, watching Chris's face like a mirror as he can't help but react.
"Tell me," Justin says. "Tell me about Europe, or Orlando, or whatever. Tell me what this means to you."
Chris puts his hand lightly on Justin's face, like he had when he was directing his transformation, and Justin leans into it.
"You're not that kid any more," Chris says quietly.
Justin wraps his hand around Chris's wrist. "I know," Justin says in his regular, thirty-year-old voice. He holds Chris's hand against his face, and waits to see what they'll turn into together.