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Phoenix Rising

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“Hey! Chris!” Joey called over the buzzing of his tattoo needle and Linkin Park blaring on the sound system and Justin shouting into his cell phone, “Is that your artist guy?” Chris looked up from the sketch he was working on – a Chinese dragon that tomorrow would be adorning the back of an insurance broker from Winter Park – to see Joey pointing out the window at a tall, skinny guy with a black portfolio case who was pacing back and forth on the sidewalk. As he watched, the guy approached the door, reaching for the handle, and then backed off as if he’d thought better of it.

Chris shrugged and went back to his dragon, but a moment later he glanced up again to see the guy still hovering undecidedly outside the door. Cute, thought Chris, giving him more of a once-over, taking in the dark curls peeking out from beneath the cap pulled low on his forehead, a flash of blue eyes, pale, smooth skin, pretty lips. His gaze slid down over a flat belly and narrow hips embraced by tight, faded jeans and accentuated by a studded black belt. Wow. Really cute.

He’d figure the guy was just here for a tattoo and getting cold feet but for the portfolio case he was carrying. Plus, he looked pretty artsy, with the long hair and the beat-up orange leather jacket and the wispy scarf around his neck and that funny little hat. It must be his guy, though he couldn’t figure out why the hell he was still waiting out there on the sidewalk instead of coming inside.

Chris abandoned his dragon sketch and straightened, stretching the kinks out of his back. He went to the door and stuck his head out. The guy was standing at the curb, his back to the shop, almost as if he’d decided to leave.

Nice ass, thought Chris. Really nice.

“Are you JC?” he asked. The guy whirled around in surprise, stumbling off the curb and almost winding up flat on that nice ass in the street. “Whoa, man. Didn’t mean to scare you.” Chris ventured out onto the sidewalk.

“It’s okay. Um. Are you Chris?”

“I am. JC? Glad to meetcha.” Chris stuck out his hand and JC shook. Man, Chris thought, looking into JC’s eyes and finding himself kind of drowning in their gray-blue depths for a second or two, then letting his gaze rest on JC’s lips and finding himself biting his own. Man, this guy’s the whole package. He made an effort to re-focus. “You wanna come in?”

JC eyed the shop suspiciously, as if something dangerous might be lurking inside. How was he to know upon such recent acquaintance, Chris thought, that the most dangerous thing that lurked in that shop was actually standing right beside him here on the pavement?

“Yeah,” JC said hesitantly. “Sure.”

Chris held the door open for him and followed him in. “Joey, Justin, this is JC,” he announced. Joey and Justin gave him a wave, then went back to what they were doing, applying ink to a girl’s ankle and gesticulating wildly while arguing into a cell phone, respectively. JC nodded a bit shyly from where he was standing just inside the door.

“Well?” said Chris. “You gonna show me?” He gestured toward the portfolio.

“Oh. Yeah, of course.” JC laid it on the front counter and unzipped the case. “So,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I’ve got all kinds of stuff in here. This here’s some illustrations I did for a friend who wrote a kid’s book. It was about a cockroach named Simon. That’s Simon there and that’s Bernard, his best friend. He’s an earwig.” He turned a page. “These are pieces I did in art school. This one won first prize at our senior exhibition.” Chris leaned in to look at the photograph of a large abstract painting, all in greens and grays and black. It was impossible to pick out anything realistic, but Chris was reminded of a dark, lonely street late at night. “And this,” JC flipped to a page filled with large color photographs of abandoned buildings covered in graffiti and a long cement wall in some industrial area with hulking, dilapidated buildings in the background. “I did this too. Lance said it was cool to show you and I thought you’d want to see it, since they’re the closest things I’ve done to a mural. I don’t usually include them in my portfolio. Graffiti isn’t everyone’s idea of art.”

“Graffiti isn’t usually my idea of art, if it’s just tagging and throw ups. But this, man. Shit.” Chris whistled low. The buildings were painted in bright colors, one hue fading into another seamlessly, expertly airbrushed. The patterns were so complex that Chris couldn’t even make out the tag, though he knew it was in there somewhere. On the wall JC had painted an underwater scene in murky blues and greens, a fantastic vision what might be in that place if it rested on the ocean floor. Sharks, mermaids and scuba divers peered out from behind abandoned buildings, garbage, trashed cars and at least one dead body. There was some kind of ruined city, like Atlantis, though when he looked more closely Chris could see the Enchanted Castle and the dome from Epcot Center. “Jesus. How long did this take you?” This was a major piece, there was no way JC had done it in a single night.

“That one took a few nights.”

“Weren’t you worried about getting caught?” Chris asked. Cops patrolled that area pretty vigilantly, trying to keep the graffiti under control. Not that it did any good.

“Yeah, I had to keep an eye out, but I’m used to that. Goes with the territory.” Chris studied JC more closely than he had thus far, looking past the pretty features and slender frame. He looked delicate at first glance, but now Chris thought he could detect something steely in those blue eyes, like maybe he’d had to learn how tough life could be the hard way, and more than once.

He flipped through the rest of the portfolio, looking at paintings, illustrations, a bit of graphic design, some comic drawings. He nodded, his mind made up. Lance had said he was good, and he’d also said that JC really needed the work.

“So, the wall where I want the mural’s over here,” Chris said, coming out from behind the counter and leading JC over to the empty wall behind Joey’s station. Currently it was just a big, blank, beige expanse of nothing. Chris had a vision of it covered in… he didn’t know what, exactly. Something colorful, something that captured what this place was all about – inspiration, beauty, sacrifice, sanctuary. Security. He knew he could paint it himself, or one of the other guys could. They were all artists, all capable of doing it. But his medium was skin and the idea of covering something that big and flat and inanimate with his art was – well, it was just weird. And the business was doing well, beyond his wildest dreams really, and he had the money to hire someone, and Lance had said he knew a kid who was really talented and could use the experience and here was JC, ready to take the job. Lance hadn’t mentioned the fact that JC was hot. Chris guessed that Lance knew him all too well.

“So,” he turned to JC, “what I was thinking was –” JC wasn’t looking at him. His eyes were riveted to what Joey was doing, bent over his client’s ankle, applying the final touches to an iris, the kind of design that any of them could do in their sleep with one hand tied behind their back. Joey wiped down the design and bent over it again to trace in the final stamen. Chris looked back to JC just in time to see him sway on his feet. He was white as a sheet and beads of perspiration stood out on his upper lip. “JC? Are you okay, dude?” He didn’t look okay.

“Oh God,” groaned JC, and then his eyes rolled back in his head and he went down fast. Chris managed to mostly catch him before he hit the floor and lower him the rest of the way, sinking with him and ending up with JC’s head resting on his thigh. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared while Chris tried not to panic, wracking his brain for what to do if someone passes out.

“What the fuck?!” exclaimed Joey.

“I’ll call you back, I think some dude just died in the studio,” Justin said into the phone, flipping it closed.

“Oh man, that’s not good,” said the chick Joey was working on.

“Should I call 911?” asked Justin. “Is he dead?”

“JC,” Chris shook him gently. No response. “Get me – um – maybe a glass of water,” he said to Justin, who was looming over them uselessly. With JC’s head and shoulders in his lap he really couldn’t move. “JC. Dude, wake up.” He loosened his scarf and took off his hat and patted JC’s wrists and then his pale cheeks. That’s what they did in the movies anyway.

“Is he dead?” asked Joey.

“He looks dead,” said Justin, returning with a glass of water.

“God, you guys, he’s not dead!” exclaimed Chris. “Jesus. He’s breathing, okay? He just passed out.”

JC moaned, his eyelids fluttering and really, Chris thought, there was something wrong with finding that sexy, when the guy had just fainted in the middle of his studio.

“JC, man, are you okay? Wake up, dude.” JC opened his eyes and looked up at Chris and Chris felt a hot, tickling sensation in his belly. Those eyes did funny things to him. He tried to sit up, but Chris put a hand on his chest. “Give it a minute. Just lie still, now.”

JC gave a little nod and lay back down. “What happened?” he asked, his voice weak and shaky.

“You fainted,” said Chris. “Just went out like a light. Are you okay?”

“I – yeah.” JC looked away, then covered his face with his hands. “Oh my God, I’m such an idiot.”

“No, it’s fine,” said Chris. He looked up to find Joey and Justin and the iris girl still staring. “Go on, get back to work – or whatever you were doing,” he said. “Give the guy some room.” He waited until they backed off. “Okay, dude. Just sit up slow.” JC carefully raised himself up to a sitting position and Chris held out the glass of water.

“Thanks,” he said, taking a sip. “I’m so sorry, Chris. It just hit me and – wham. Really, I’m sorry.” He looked at Chris from over the rim of his glass. “It’s – I –” His face turned a deep red. “I can’t handle needles, man. I just – I can’t handle them. And –” He gestured toward where Joey was back at work, swallowing hard and resolutely keeping his eyes on Chris.

“Okay,” said Chris. Obviously a tattoo studio was not a good place for someone with a fear of needles. “Let’s get you outside. I think you need a breath of fresh air, whaddya say?”

Chris got to his feet and reached down to give JC a hand up, steadying him. “C’mon,” he said, steering him toward the door, a hand on his elbow in case he stumbled.

Out on the sidewalk JC sank onto the bench that was in front of the shop for customers who had to wait when they were busy. He turned his face up to the sun and sighed deeply. “I’m really sorry about that,” he said, studiously avoiding Chris’ eyes, focusing instead somewhere over his shoulder. “Damn. Talk about embarrassing.”

“It’s okay,” Chris assured him. “You have no idea the shit that goes on in there. Believe me, in the grand scheme, someone passing out is no big thing.”

JC nodded. “Well, I’ll just collect my portfolio. Thanks, Chris. You’ve been really cool about it.” He got to his feet and held out his hand. There was something in his expression that Chris couldn’t read, a tightness at the corner of his eyes, a twist in his mouth. He took JC’s hand and shook it, then gave him back his goofy little hat. JC put it on, pulling the brim down low so Chris couldn’t see his eyes which, he suspected, was the point.

“So, when do you want to get started?” Chris asked.

JC pushed the hat back on his forehead and blinked at him. Chris couldn’t help smiling a little at his obvious shock. “Started? But… dude. I passed out. In your shop. You mean you’d still want to hire me?”

“Sure,” Chris stated. “It’s not like you did it on purpose. It doesn’t change anything. I like your work, so yeah, I wanna hire you. You know, if we can agree on your fee and all.”

JC shoved his hands down into his pockets and cast a glance back at the building.

“But I can’t work here. You’d just have this guy around who keeps fainting on you again and again. I probably wouldn’t even be able to paint.”

“Well, that’s a problem,” Chris agreed. He thought about JC’s art, how he could so easily see it translated to that big wall in the studio and about what Lance had said about JC needing the work. He wondered how badly he needed it. JC was stylishly dressed, but if he looked closely he could see that his leather jacket was scuffed and creased and old, probably from the ‘70’s, and his jeans were faded and frayed and sure maybe that was just the style, but he could also see where they’d been clumsily mended along the inseam and there wasn’t anything stylish about that. Chris would lay odds that everything JC was wearing came from a thrift store. He knew what that was like, to not have money for clothes, to not know if you’d be able to buy food or make rent. “How about after hours, when all the needles are safely stowed away? We could do it that way. I usually work late anyway. You could start at 11. By that time everyone would be gone. It’d be a better working environment for you anyway. Quiet, no interruptions.”

JC smiled, his eyes crinkling up at the corners into little half moons. No way, thought Chris. Well, that is just too fucking cute.

“Really? You know, I think I could deal with that.” JC nodded firmly. “Yes, I’m sure I could deal with that. Wow, thanks Chris. That’s –” He shook his head, then met Chris’ eyes. “That’s really dope, man.”

They returned to the shop and JC gathered up his portfolio, which took about four times as long as it should because he couldn’t seem to speak without using his hands. “You won’t be disappointed Chris, I promise. You’ll see, I do good work. I’ve got ideas, lots of ideas. I’ll draw a few up and we can go over them tonight. Whatever you want, you just tell me and we’ll do it. We’ll make your wall into a thing of beauty. It’s gonna sing, dude.”

*

The thing about JC was, he was always late. But not tonight. First night at the job, and Chris would be waiting for him and after he was so nice about everything there was no way in hell JC was going to make him wait.

He stowed his sleeping bag and his guitar and his small stack of books behind Lance’s couch. All of the drawings that he’d had spread out on the kitchen table went into the portfolio and he washed out his coffee cup and put it in the dish drainer. He looked longingly at the loaf of bread sitting on the counter, wondering if Lance would miss one slice and decided he probably wouldn’t. He felt kind of guilty sneaking food, but he just couldn’t admit to Lance that he was fucking hungry, not after Lance had been so patient about helping him out for so long now, in so many ways. JC felt like he just couldn’t ask him for more, not even for a stupid piece of bread. He had to be able to get by on his own. He just couldn’t figure out why it was so damn hard to do.

He guessed he’d have to ask Chris for an advance. He was going to need it to buy supplies anyway, he’d just ask for a little bit more so he could buy food as well.

It took about half an hour to walk to the shop. He nibbled on the bread for the first half of the walk. Eat it slow, make it last, makes it seem like more. He can’t recall when he’d started doing that, but it seemed to work. Or at least he’d tricked himself into thinking it did.

When he got to the shop the door was locked but the lights were on. He knocked and after a minute Chris emerged out of a doorway at the back.

“Hey,” he said as he opened the door to the shop. “You’re early. I thought you might be the pizza guy.”

“Oh,” replied JC. “No. Just me.” He smiled. “Is it okay? That I’m early? It took less time to get here than I thought.”

“No problem. C’mon in, dude. Oh, hey,” he said, looking over JC’s shoulder. JC turned around to see the pizza delivery guy standing behind him, so he moved inside and unzipped his portfolio on the front counter, pulling out the drawings he’d made that afternoon and trying to ignore the smell of garlic and cheese and tomato that was wafting in through the door. His stomach rumbled unhelpfully.

“You’ve gotta help me eat this,” said Chris, setting the box down beside the drawings. “I got an extra-large. Don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I was just that hungry cuz I haven’t eaten all day. I got half just cheese and half with pepperoni.” He flipped the top open and helped himself to a piece. “C’mon, dude, don’t be shy,” he said when he saw JC hesitating.

JC felt like he should decline, but the truth was he was so hungry that he just couldn’t force himself to, so instead he took a slice from the plain cheese side and tried not to cram the whole thing in his mouth at once. Warm, melted mozzarella, sweet tang of tomato, crisp, chewy crust – he hadn’t tasted anything so good in a long time. He hadn’t even realized he had let his eyes fall shut and that he was making a happy little humming noise, until he opened them and saw Chris watching him, his gaze steady and direct, the hint of a smile on his lips.

“Hungry?” he asked.

“Yeah,” mumbled JC, swallowing. “I guess I forgot to eat much today.” The truth was he’d hardly eaten at all for a few days now, but he wasn’t going to tell Chris that. “Do you want to see what I came up with?” he asked, gesturing toward his case.

“After we eat. You can show me then.” They munched in silence for a while. JC finished his slice and Chris handed him another, overriding his attempt at refusal. “I got Cokes in the fridge. You want one?”

“Okay, thanks,” said JC. He watched Chris walk to the back, disappear into that doorway. There was something about him that was kind of compelling, JC decided. He couldn’t really put his finger on it. He wasn’t classically good-looking, that’s for sure. But he was so full of energy that the air around him seemed to crackle and spark. And his eyes, dark and intense, the way they looked right at him, no hesitancy, no bullshit. JC thought his bullshit detector was pretty good, and Chris just seemed like the real thing. He dressed like a punk and he had his hair spiked up and he had earrings and tattoos – though he wasn’t covered in them the way Justin and Joey were – but he didn’t try to act tough. The dark-rimmed glasses provided a sort of counterpoint, gave him more of an artsy style. Still, he looked a little dangerous, thought JC. Or, no, not dangerous exactly. He searched for the word. Fierce, that’s it. Chris looked fierce.

Chris returned with the Cokes and they got down to business. He insisted on working out JC’s fee before they went any further, offering a third more than JC had expected and maybe he shouldn’t have agreed so quickly, but he was so overwhelmed that he couldn’t even pretend to hesitate. He was just glad Chris had beat him to making the first offer, because if he’d opened his mouth he would have talked himself out of all that money.

They spent some time going over JC’s preliminary sketches and Chris’ ideas. JC sketched while Chris talked, drawing fast, nodding and humming in agreement as his pencil turned Chris’ words into images.

“Yeah, like that, only maybe with his hands up higher, like he’s reaching.” JC erased the man’s arms and drew them in again, stretched above his head. “Perfect,” said Chris. “And then I was thinking we have to have a phoenix, like this one.” He stretched out his arm. “Because, you know.” He gestured toward the front window of the shop where the words Phoenix Rising Tattoo Studio were painted. “The phoenix rises from the ashes and that’s an important symbol to me, and to the other guys too. To a lot of people, actually.”

“Rising from the ashes,” murmured JC, concentrating on making a sketch of Chris’ tattoo, not even aware of repeating the words as his hand dashed across the page.

“This is gonna be wild,” said Chris. JC glanced up to meet his eyes and couldn’t help smiling.

“It’s gonna be awesome. I can’t wait to get started.” He straightened up and put down his pencil. “Um, Chris. I can begin the drawing for this tonight, but I’m gonna need to buy supplies if I’m gonna paint…”

“I’ll pay you half up front, the rest when you’re finished. Does that work?”

“Yeah,” nodded JC, relief flowing through him, grateful that he didn’t even really have to ask. “That’d be great.”

Chris wrote him a check and got him a ladder from the back and a bucket and some rags so he could get going with washing the wall.

“I put the rest of the pizza in the fridge,” said Chris. He had a black leather jacket on and a motorcycle helmet in his hand and was obviously on his way out. “There’s some more Cokes and waters and stuff in there. Feel free to help yourself to anything.” He showed JC where the light switches were and gave him a key to the shop. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” Chris hesitated, looking like there was something else on the tip of his tongue, a strange, open expression on his face, but then he just shook his head. “Lock the door behind me. And you should probably lower the blinds or you’ll have drunks and junkies bugging you all night to let them in.”

It was quiet when Chris left. He talked a lot, JC realized. It had seemed like an equal conversation, but now he realized that Chris had been doing most of the talking and he had just been agreeing with what he said and asking the occasional question. And that was fine. If there was one thing he was not in the mood for these days, it was talking about himself.

He didn’t really feel like he could start putting anything on the wall until he got Chris’ okay for the overall design, so he set himself up with his large sketch pad on the slanted drawing table at the back of the studio and started working out the ideas they’d talked about, trying to figure out how to incorporate them all into a single piece. He could have worked on it at Lance’s, but the studio had great light and was a lot more comfortable than Lance’s kitchen, plus he could blast music on the stereo as loud as he wanted and he knew he’d have complete privacy for the night. That assurance of having time alone was a luxury he hadn’t even realized that he’d missed.

At about three in the morning he wandered into the back looking for a Coke. The fridge was in a little hallway, with lockers and storage cabinets and a bunch of boxes piled up in the corner. He pushed aside a heavy curtain and switched on a light and found the piercing room, but backed out quickly after one look at the shiny, sharp implements laid out on the counter. There was a bathroom painted dark red and plastered with pictures of naked women and, interestingly thought JC, naked men as well. Equal-opportunity porn display. He approved.

The door to the office was closed but not locked. He pushed it open, feeling a little twinge of guilt for snooping, but not enough to stop him. He couldn’t help wincing as he scanned the room. Messy barely began to describe it. There was a couch piled with discarded clothes and blankets and pillows losing their stuffing. A couple of filing cabinets stood in one corner, papers spilling out of open drawers. There was a big wooden desk topped with a computer, stacks of papers, books, overflowing ashtrays, old fast food wrappers and empty beer bottles, a bong, coffee cups, pens, pencils… It was chaos. JC wondered how Chris could stand it. He couldn’t imagine trying to work in such an environment.

There was a picture frame sitting beside the computer. JC turned it so he could see what it was of. Four young women, three of them probably in their twenties and the youngest one maybe ten or so, and an older woman with dark, laughing eyes, and Chris. JC picked it up and studied it more closely. It must have been taken a few years before because Chris looked different. Rounder-cheeked, his beard a bit shorter, his hair in a bunch of little braids all tied up on top of his head. Well, that’s an original hairstyle, JC thought. He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not. He did like the look on Chris’ face. He looked happy. He wondered if it was being with his family that put that look there.

He’d seen that expression so many times on other people’s faces. He’d even seen it on the faces of his foster parents – some of them, the ones who had their own families. But that look had never been caused by him or directed at him, and he’d realized a long time ago that he’d go his whole life without knowing what it was like to belong to people in that way. He studied Chris’ smile in the picture, the thoughtful, determined look in his eyes, the way one hand rested on the shoulder of his youngest sister, the other one on his mother’s. No father in the picture. JC wondered about that, about whether Chris had grown up being the man of the family. Wondered if he felt like he was responsible for them, for keeping them safe. Wondered what that would be like, having that fierce, intent man looking out for you, knowing he had your back, that he’d be there to catch you if you fell.

JC shook himself out of it and returned the picture to its place on that unspeakably messy desk. He went back out into the shop, to the drawing table and picked up his pencil. He intended to have a finished design for Chris by the time he left and he still had a lot to do.

*

Over the next few nights the mural started to take shape as JC worked on transferring the sketch to the wall. He was being careful, he explained to Chris, looking at him earnestly as if Chris was questioning the rate of progress, which he wasn’t. It took as long as it took. Chris was an impatient man by nature, but he’d learned over the years that some things can’t be rushed.

“I could just throw something up there, dude, but that wouldn’t be right.” He and JC were leaning against the opposite wall, studying the mural. He was studying the mural anyway. JC seemed to be studying him. “I know this place means a lot to you. I know it has to be perfect.”

Chris’ lips quirked up in a little smile. “Nothing’s perfect, C. Haven’t you learned that yet?” Chris had taken to shortening JC’s already shortened name, and he couldn’t call him J, because that was Justin, so C it was.

“I know,” JC replied quietly. “I just always wish it could be.”

“If wishes were fishes we’d all – how does that go? I guess we’d all have a lot of fishes. Which would be kind of pointless.”

"I think it's horses." JC grinned at him, looking a bit amused.

"Well, that doesn't make sense either," Chris complained. "Why would wishes be horses? At least fishes rhymes."

Somehow they’d moved close enough so his bare arm brushed JC’s. He could feel his skin tighten into goose bumps, feel a tingle where they touched.

Chris turned his eyes back to the wall for a moment, then flicked them to the side to take in JC’s profile. An interesting face, Chris thought. Beautiful, sure, with those otherworldly eyes and that sensual mouth and the pale, perfect skin. And the nose, that’s what gave all the rest of it strength. A delicate nose would have tipped the scales too far to feminine, which JC definitely was not.

Chris looked back at the wall, feeling JC shift a tiny bit closer, feel his arm press more firmly. Chris swallowed hard, wondering if that was on purpose. It seemed like it was on purpose, but it was kind of surprising if it was.

He knew he could be charming when he set out to seduce someone. He could make it work more times than not, even though he was no George Clooney. He’d never suffered from a lack of company when he wanted it, making up in personality for anything he might lack in conventional good looks. Only he hadn’t set out to seduce JC, not that he wouldn’t want to. But he was paying him. Right now JC was his employee and therefore off-limits. He couldn’t imagine having sex with him and then being able to hand over the check for the remaining amount of his fee without feeling like a total shit.

He could flirt though, he thought. And then, maybe after… who knows?

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door. He went to answer and returned with a bag of Chinese food. JC disappeared into the back to grab a couple of Cokes while he took a seat on the floor and started pulling out boxes of sweet and sour pork and shrimp fried rice.

In only a few days, having a late dinner together had become their routine. JC would arrive at eleven – or closer to eleven thirty actually – and Chris would have ordered take-out – pizza or Chinese or teriyaki. Chris had never asked if JC wanted to have dinner with him before he started working, he had just assumed and JC went along like he didn’t care either way, but Chris had seen it in his eyes that first night, just how fucking desperate he’d looked at the sight of that pizza box, and he couldn’t get that look out of his head. Maybe that’s why he always ordered too much food.

After dinner Chris would finish up his work and go, leaving JC alone in the studio and in the morning when he opened up there would be some new section of wall sketched in.

“D’you want – I think it’s Kung Pau chicken?” asked Chris, handing JC a take-out container. They passed them back and forth, eating out of them with chopsticks, no need for plates. They talked about the mural mostly, a little about the shop. Chris griped fondly about Justin and Joey. They were pains in the ass, but they were his pains in the ass.

“I miss Lance,” Chris said wistfully. “Wish he hadn’t moved on.” Lance had left a few months ago to take a job in a hot new gallery on Church Street. “We really need that kind of calm, level-headedness around here. God knows none of the rest of us have it.”

“No?” JC spoke around a mouthful of Mongolian beef.

“Nope. Justin’s at that age when it’s all just ‘me, me, me’, though to tell you the truth I’ll be surprised if he ever outgrows that. He’s a good kid, though, when he pulls his head out of his ass, and he’s got the talent, man. His portraits are un-fucking-believable. Joey, he’s great, but he’d just as soon lay around and do nothing as work. Gotta love him though, the guy’s a sweetheart. And then there’s me.” Chris took a bite of chow mein.

JC raised his eyebrows. “Go on.”

“Nothing. I’m just not good at calm. I bounce off the walls, talk to much, drive everybody crazy. I guess that’s just my special talent. Always has been.”

“You don’t drive me crazy.”

“Well, you must’ve attained some kind of artist nirvana or something then, because you’re the only one.”

JC had a little smear of pink sweet and sour sauce at the corner of his lip and Chris had the strongest urge to lean forward and lick it off. Instead he reached out with a napkin and wiped it away.

“Thanks,” said JC. His eyes had gone a little soft.

“Don’t mention it,” Chris said, looking into his box of chow mein so JC wouldn’t see the flush that had crept into his cheeks.

 

The next night they were sitting in the same spot, another section of wall sketched out, eating bacon double cheeseburgers, with a huge pile of fries and onion rings between them.

“You got too much food again, cat,” said JC. “I swear you’re trying to fatten me up or something.”

“It rubs the lotion on its skin,” leered Chris.

“Dude, that’s backwards. He starved them, remember?”

“Yeah, but they had to be nice and plump first. You’d make a lousy dress, C.”

JC rolled his eyes. “You’re sick, Chris. You need help.”

They ate in silence for a few minutes.

“So, um, I was wondering. Do you have any family?” JC asked out of the blue. Chris looked up in surprise. They hadn’t really talked about anything in their personal lives yet, just the studio and the project and random stuff about movies and music and TV.

“Yeah, I’ve got sisters, four of them. All younger. And my mom.”

“Do you – do you get along with them?”

“Oh yeah. My mom and me are close. She’s great. She’s my best friend really. We’ve been through a lot together. My sisters… they’re kinda like the two J’s. They’re pains in the ass, but they’re mine you know?” JC nodded, though Chris got the impression that maybe he didn’t really understand exactly what he meant. “And I love ‘em, even when they drive me nuts. Growing up with four little sisters - no wonder I’m certifiable.” Chris picked up an onion ring and squished it together so he could fit it in his mouth. “How about you, C? You got family?”

“No,” said JC with a tone of finality. “No family.”

Chris knew he was supposed to shut up at this point. He could tell from the closed expression on JC’s face and the way he wasn’t meeting his eyes. But he was never very good at not pushing things. In fact, he usually pushed things until he got pushed back, hard.

“So, what does that mean, ‘no family’? Are they dead? Did you run away? What?”

“They’re not dead,” said JC. “Or at least I don’t think so. Maybe they are, I don’t know. Um.” He glanced at Chris. “It’s not much of a story.”

“I don’t want a story, C.” He waited, not patiently, never patiently. But he waited.

“I grew up in foster homes. I got moved around a lot, never really stayed with anyone too long. It wasn’t like I was a bad kid. I tried to be good. I thought if I was good they’d let me stay. But it didn’t go that way. My birth mother, she couldn’t deal with a kid, she was kind of messed up. My dad wasn’t around. We were on the streets and so she had to give me up and that’s – that’s what happened.” JC laughed a little, in that way people do when they're talking about something shitty but they don't want you to feel sorry for them.

Chris frowned at him, trying to imagine JC as a skinny little kid, probably in hand-me-down clothes, getting shuffled from one home to the next, without anyone to call family.

“It wasn’t so bad, most of the time.” JC was toying with a french fry, twirling it between his thumb and forefinger. “It was just the way things were, you know?”

“Are you in touch with any of these people? Your foster parents?”

“Nah. It wasn’t like that. They were just doing a job. It wasn’t anything where we were gonna stay in touch.” He grimaced. “I ran away from the last place. Things got bad, so I just… left. Streets were better to me than those people were.”

Oh, baby, Chris thought. It took everything in him not to touch JC, but he knew that wouldn’t be welcome. JC wouldn’t want the kind of affection that stemmed from pity.

Chris took a slow breath. “We were poor, my family. Sometimes we didn’t have a place to live, so we lived in the car, all six of us packed in there.” JC was watching him closely, a little crease between his brows. “I’m just sayin’, I know what it’s like to be homeless, man. It sucks.” He shook his head. “Sucks hard.”

“But your mom, she kept you all together?”

“Yeah, she did.” Chris ignored the tightness in his throat. “My mom’s awesome.”

“No wonder you love her so much,” said JC softly.

“But you got into art school,” Chris said, changing the subject. “How’d you manage that?”

“I got a scholarship and tons of financial aid. I was a total charity case, basically. But I wasn’t about to complain. Art school was the best thing that ever happened to me. Massive creative rush. It was killer. I was, like, so high on inspiration. Yeah.” He nodded to himself, his eyes glazed over with the memory. “I got a job, my first real job, as an assistant to one of the profs. He was a sculptor, worked in bronze. And I,” a faint pink tinge colored his cheeks. “I modeled some, for night classes and stuff. And I met Lance.” The pink deepened.

“Oh,” said Chris, realization dawning. “You and Lance.”

“No, we’re not like – not anymore. Not for a long time. We’re just friends now. He’s been a good friend to me, but we weren’t right for each other. He tried, he really did. I’m just not cut out for relationships, that’s all. Too many issues.”

Chris could easily imagine from what JC had told him that there might be a ton of issues, but still, that didn’t mean he should give up. Hell, Chris had issues, Chris had a fucking boatload of issues, and he’d still managed to pull off two lengthy relationships and a number of shorter ones.

“JC, one attempt that doesn’t work out does not mean you’re not cut out for relationships. You’ve gotta give yourself a little more credit, dude.”

“Believe me, it wouldn’t matter if I’d tried once or a hundred times. Relationships and me – it just wasn’t meant to be.” JC rolled his eyes. “Okay, enough with the sob stories. I need to get to work.”

He started gathering up the remains of their dinner, but Chris shooed him away. “Then go get to work. I’ll deal with this.”

When Chris came out of his office a half hour later, JC was standing on a ladder, drawing the wing of the phoenix on the wall. Chris watched him for a moment, unseen. He was completely absorbed in what he was doing, a look of concentration on his face, his teeth worrying his bottom lip. He moved so gracefully. Like a dancer. He’d like to see JC dance. He had a feeling that would be quite a sight.

“I’m going home, C,” said Chris. “You have a good night.”

JC looked down at him. His eyes looked faraway, almost like he was high or in a trance. Maybe it was just the light, Chris thought.

“Okay, Chris. ‘Night.”

Chris walked out to his Harley, parked at the curb in front of the building. It was a balmy night, a warm breeze keeping the heat from being too oppressive. All the way home he thought about what JC had said. Their conversation ran through his mind on a continuous loop while he walked the dogs and then while he took a shower and later, lying in bed waiting for sleep to come. He couldn’t imagine what it would have been like to go through what he had without his family around him. To go through it all, and worse, alone. He pulled the sheet around him, suddenly chilled, despite the warmth of his room.

At least Chris understood now why he’d had that impression upon first meeting JC that the guy was tougher than he looked. Apparently a lot tougher. He looked like the slightest bit of wind would knock him right over, but JC had survived some major hurricanes in his life and he was still on his feet.

Chris sighed, shifting around in the bed, looking for a more comfortable position. He thought about JC’s pretty face, his long, lean body, his tight little ass. He could think of so many things he’d like to do with JC, things he’d like to do to him. But now it was more than that, because a pretty face and a hot body only went so far, usually only as far as a bathroom stall or a back alley, and that wasn’t the kind of thing he thought about with JC. Not anymore, anyway.

Now it had gotten deeper and therefore more complicated and Chris kind of wished it hadn’t, but he knew it was too late to go back. He was falling for JC, and there really wasn’t a whole helluva lot he could do about it.

 

He got burritos the next night, from the Mexican restaurant down the street, and chips and guacamole and taquitos and an order of jalapeno poppers for good measure.

“Chris, you shouldn’t order so much,” chided JC. “There’s children starving in India, dude.”

“There’s children starving right here in Orlando,” replied Chris. “And whether I order jalapeno poppers or not isn’t gonna change that. Unless you’re suggesting we feed poppers to the poor.”

“Let them eat poppers,” proclaimed JC, taking a bite of one. “Why not? They’re nutritious, right? There’s protein in the cheese and carbs in the pepper.”

“Plus there’s grease,” added Chris, contemplating a breaded blob of jalapeno. “Grease is the most important food group of them all.”

“Well duh. Everyone knows grease is the most important food group.”

Chris smiled at JC around a mouthful of popper and JC smiled back. He liked this, the way they had of being so easy and familiar with each other, like they’d been friends for a long time rather than just having met a week ago.

“So, Chris. I, uh, was wondering. How many tats do you have?” JC asked.

“Wow. You’re like the master of the non sequitur, you know that?” Chris thought for a minute. “Twelve, maybe? Thirteen? Not very many for a guy who owns a tattoo studio.”

“This one’s cool,” JC pointed to the Chinese dragon curling its way down Chris’ calf below the hem of his baggy shorts. “It kinda reminds me of you.”

“Of me?” Chris tilted his head to the side, studying the tattoo. He couldn’t imagine what the hell JC was talking about. That dragon looked nothing like him. At least he hoped it looked nothing like him. “I really hope I’m not that freaky looking, dude.”

“No, that’s not – he doesn’t look like you. He reminds me of you. Big difference.”

“I’ve got him there for luck. Dragons are symbols of good luck, you know.”

“And have you been lucky?” JC asked, taking a huge bite of burrito.

“I think I have. I mean, it all depends on your perspective. Some people might look at me, at what I’ve done with my life and think, man, what a loser. But I feel like I’ve been lucky, and that’s what matters, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah.” JC nodded, his eyes cutting to the side and Chris couldn’t help wondering if JC thought of himself as lucky. “I’d like one of those,” JC said wistfully.

“One – of these? You mean a tattoo?” Chris blinked at him in surprise. After what had happened the first time JC had come into the studio, he never would have suspected that he would entertain the thought of getting a tattoo.

“Unh-huh. I wish I could just have it, without having to get it. Like just skip the whole needles into skin part because, ewww.”

“So,” said Chris, “let’s say you can have a magic tattoo, no needles involved. What would you get? A lion? Like that necklace you always wear?” JC’s hand went unconsciously to his pendant, fingers rubbing over the lion head design. “I could do a sweet lion for you, dude. Maybe right between your shoulder blades, that’d look fantastic.”

“I don’t know,” said JC. “A lion would be cool, but I think – well. I wouldn’t want to copy you, Chris, but I think what I might really want would be…” He gestured toward the wall, where the phoenix was finally fully drawn, wings unfurled, rising above the flames. “That.”

Chris sat silently for a moment, letting it sink in. He could hardly believe how perfect it was, JC wanting a phoenix, and now he wanted more than anything to give JC that tattoo, even though he knew it was impossible. “You wouldn’t be copying me, JC. Do you know how many people come in here to have me give them a phoenix tattoo? I’ve probably done a hundred of them, and no two are alike. Every one is unique, cuz every person is unique. Yours would be just for you, just about you.”

“Okay,” JC said with certainty. “Yeah, then that’s what I’d want. My own phoenix.” He glanced up at Chris from under his lashes. “And I’d want you to do it.”

Chris’ lip quirked up in a smile. “Man, you better believe I’d do it. If you went to anyone else, I’d be pissed.”

JC laughed, a little suggestive chuckle. “So possessive! You want to leave your mark on me, dude?”

Oh man, do I, thought Chris, watching the flirtatious sparkle in JC’s eyes. Mark you in ink and blood, so you’d wear my touch everywhere you went, every minute of every day, see it on your skin every time you looked in the mirror, feel its echo every time someone ran their hands over your body.

“Just say the word.” Chris tried to keep his voice light. “I’m ready anytime you are.”

JC dropped his gaze, smiling ruefully. “Nah. Thanks though. It wouldn’t work. I’d have a major freak out and then the men in white coats would be coming to haul my ass away and I’m not even kidding about that.”

Chris shrugged. “Well, then I guess it’s not meant to be.”

“Guess not,” said JC, reaching for another popper.

*

Once JC started putting color on the wall, the whole concept of the mural began to jell for him. He started seeing it in a new way, not just ideas he and Chris had thrown around, not just fragmented bits of drawing sketched out piecemeal. The colors made it coalesce, gave it meaning. The dark blue-black of the night sky arching over the nearly abandoned city streets, the run-down buildings rendered in the same greens and grays and black of the painting he’d done for his senior project, the windows lit by muddy yellow light or left black to be dark holes of emptiness, they were all familiar. Beneath the weak glow of a streetlight stood the figure of a man, reaching skyward toward a bright ball of fire, the flames rising to lick at the stars, and emerging from the fire, a giant phoenix, red-gold and shining from within, beautiful and powerful, pushing back the darkness with its brilliant light.

The symbolism wasn’t subtle, but it was accurate, thought JC. He understood why it appealed to Chris. It appealed to him for a lot of the same reasons.

It was 2:30 in the morning and he was struggling to get the shadow from the streetlight just right when the sound the door opening startled him so badly he almost tumbled off the ladder. He yelped, nearly falling before he regained his footing, relieved to see that it was only Chris and not a burglar.

“Dude,” Chris said. “Sorry – didn’t mean to scare you.” His voice was a little slurred.

“It’s cool. I just wasn’t expecting anyone.” JC climbed down the ladder, pausing at the bottom to let his heart rate return to normal. “What’re you doing here, Chris?”

Chris swayed on his feet a bit, steadying himself against a bookshelf. “I was out drinkin’ with some friends. Figured I’d stop in and say hi on my way home. See how the work was comin’ along.”

“Well, at the moment, this fucking thing is driving me crazy,” JC said, glancing back at the offending half-painted shadow, “but I guess in general it’s coming along fine.”

Chris leaned against the wall, gazing up at the partly-finished mural. JC watched him as his eyes moved over the piece. Funny that Chris was here now, because he’d just been thinking about him. They hadn’t had their usual dinner together that night and JC had found that he missed it. When he’d arrived, there had been a pizza on the front counter, still hot in its box, with a note from Chris saying he’d already ordered it when some friends had called wanting him to join them for drinks, so he was going out but JC had better not let the pizza go to waste.

“It’s awesome, C,” Chris said softly, his dark eyes focused on the wall. “You know that, don’t you?” He looked at JC. “You know how good you are, right?”

JC flushed. He knew he wasn’t bad, that he had some talent. More than that, he knew he just had to make art, that it was like a physical pain if he didn’t. But he had never been good at accepting praise. Coming from Chris it made him feel odd, prickly and uncomfortable and twitchy, but also pleased and proud. Chris was looking at him, all focused and intent and kind of smoldering. JC swallowed hard. He felt a little flare of desire spark along his nerves as he wondered if Chris wanted him. He’d never looked at him like that before, but then JC had never seen him when he was drunk before.

JC walked toward him slowly. Chris never took his eyes from him – if anything they just got bigger and darker the closer JC got.

“You know how special you are, don’t you, C?” Just a few quiet words and JC knew they weren’t talking about the mural anymore. Suddenly everything had shifted and he couldn’t even move because the air between them, around them, was so thick and heavy. Chris’ eyes were hungry, and it did things to JC to be looked at like that, made his stomach twist and his skin tingle and a sweet ache grow deep in his body.

Chris reached out and brushed his fingers over JC’s jaw, his thumb rubbing back and forth along his cheekbone. At the touch JC caught his breath, his body surprising him by flashing so hot that sweat bloomed on his skin. He could feel his heart pounding and it felt like that beat was magnified, throbbing through every part of him.

“Chris…”

“I know,” Chris said, snatching his hand back. “I shouldn’t. I won’t – sorry, sorry.” But JC was already sinking to his knees and he had Chris’ belt unbuckled and his zipper down before Chris even seemed to register what was happening and even though Chris was saying, “No, C, this isn’t right, you shouldn’t –” JC ignored it because he knew Chris wanted it and hell, he wanted it too, and even if he hadn’t he would have done it, because after everything Chris had done for him it was the least he could do in return. God knows he’d done the same for less, more times than he wanted to remember.

“Fuck,” Chris gasped, as JC slid his lips down over his swelling cock, sucking on the head, tongue flicking and swirling. “Fuck – I – no – goddammit, C.” Chris shoved at him, trying to push him away, but JC grabbed his wrists and moved them to the back of his head, making him push the other way, taking his cock in deeper as he did. He grunted when he felt Chris give in, his fingers curling into JC’s hair, a wave of arousal washing through him as he tugged on it just right.

Yeah, thought JC. Just go with it, Chris. You know you want to.

He bobbed his head, setting a steady rhythm, his tongue snaking along the underside. His hands settled on Chris’ hips, his thumbs rubbing back and forth, pressing down into the indentation there. Chris smelled good, clean, the faint scent of soap beneath the captivating musky scent of desire. He was making little whimpers and moans and when JC took him deeper he gasped, arching off the wall, bitter salt tang spilling onto JC’s tongue and making his mouth water.

JC glanced up to find Chris watching him. His eyes were almost black, his lips reddened as if he’d been biting them. “JC,” he whispered. His face contorted and he groaned as JC moved his hand to his balls, squeezing and rolling them at the same time that he pulled back to let his tongue play over the tip. Chris’ hand moved from JC’s head, caressing his brow, his cheek, his chin, fingertips tracing his lips. “JC,” Chris grit out. “Fuck.”

JC let his eyes fall shut, concentrating on getting Chris off now, moving faster, sucking harder. Chris’ hips were moving with him, pushing his cock deeper and JC let him go as far as he wanted, because yeah, he liked that. God, he liked that, and maybe if he wasn’t on his knees in the studio and maybe if Chris wasn’t drunk and maybe if he didn’t have this feeling that he owed this to Chris, maybe then he might even come just from this because fuck he moaned as Chris’ cock slid into his throat, it really fucking turned him on.

Chris cried out his name when he came, and JC had not expected that at all. It took him right out of the moment, even though he was sucking and swallowing and squeezing Chris’ balls, he was thinking Jesus, he said my name. He couldn’t remember anyone ever saying his name when they came before.

He drew back with a wet slurp and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and then with the hem of his shirt. He got to his feet, feeling a bit lost. He wanted a Coke, he wanted to get back to work, he wanted to leave, but Chris looked like he was barely staying on his feet, possibly about to pass out, so instead JC tucked him back in and zipped him up.

“JC,” Chris murmured, leaning heavily onto him and nuzzling his neck, then pulling him closer. JC tensed up, feeling trapped, but he knew Chris didn’t mean it that way, so he tried to relax, resting his hands lightly on Chris’ hips. “So good,” Chris mumbled. “You should let me.” He felt Chris’ hand at his crotch, his palm pressing against his cock. “Wanna feel you, C.”

“No,” said JC, moving away. “Not now,” he amended when Chris pulled back to look at him. “It’s late and I’ve gotta work and you’re about ready to pass out. So, I’ll take a rain check, okay?”

Chris frowned at him, but finally nodded uncertainly. He tried to move away from the wall but swayed dangerously before JC caught him.

“Whoa. Guess I’m drunker than I thought.”

“You shouldn’t drive,” JC said. “Come on. You’re spending the night here.” He put an arm around Chris’ waist and they made their way into the back. JC helped him get situated on the couch in his office, finding a pillow on the floor and spreading the blanket over him.

“C,” Chris said, as JC turned to go. “C’mere.”

JC came back and stood looking down at him. Chris struggled up to his elbow, reaching out to grab JC’s hand and tug him down. “Kiss me.”

JC looked at him for a moment, hesitating. Oh, what the hell, he decided. Chris probably wouldn’t even remember it in the morning.

He leaned in and brushed his lips over Chris’ in a light, dry kiss. He could feel Chris strain toward him as he drew back. “I gotta get back to work,” he said softly, pushing Chris gently back down onto the couch. “You sleep now.”

“Okay, C,” Chris mumbled drowsily. “’Night.”

“’Night,” he said. He looked back before he switched off the light to find Chris watching him, his eyes full of things JC didn’t even want to think about.

*

Chris wasn’t there the next night, or the one after, but each evening he left a note and some kind of take-out for JC. It was a lot lonelier without Chris and JC worried that he’d fucked up bad, except he could tell from the tone of the notes that Chris wasn’t angry, and why would he be? He’d gotten blown and he hadn’t even had to do anything in return. Still, it had probably been a mistake, JC acknowledged. But the way Chris had looked at him, the way it had felt when Chris touched him… what else could he have done?

On the third night Chris was there, acting as if nothing had happened. They sat on the floor eating phad thai and red curry and talked about the mural, which was nearing completion and about bands they liked and the book JC was reading and Chris talked about sports even though JC didn’t know most of the teams or what they played and JC talked about art even though Chris didn’t know most of the artists he mentioned. It was pretty normal, almost like that night had never happened, except for the look JC caught in Chris’ eye a couple of times when he thought he wasn’t being observed.

After they’d finished eating and cleared away the remnants of the meal, Chris went into the back and JC started getting ready to paint. He was working on the phoenix’ head and it was the trickiest part of the whole thing, because it had to look right – if he couldn’t capture the perfect expression to make it seem real, then the whole piece would fall apart.

He was staring up at it, trying to work out the angle of the beak when Chris emerged from the doorway, carrying a large piece of tracing paper.

“Um. I’ve got something for you, C,” he said nervously.

Chris handed the paper to him and JC held it out at arm’s length. It was a sketch of a phoenix, very like the one on the wall, only with more curve to its body and wings and longer tail feathers.

“It’s a phoenix,” Chris supplied unnecessarily. “It’s what I’d give you, if you wanted a tattoo. Just hypothetically, I mean. It’s one version of what we could do. Obviously, it’s kinda big. It wouldn’t have to be so big.” Chris looked worried and anxious, like maybe he expected JC to be offended.

“It’s beautiful, Chris,” JC said. It was. There was something sensual about it that wasn’t a part of the mural, something that Chris had added in on his own.

“I was thinking –” Chris pulled JC over in front of the mirror and held the paper against his body, along the left side of his chest and stomach. “It would go here.”

“Wow,” said JC. The tail feathers extended down over his hip, almost to the crease of his thigh. At the other end a wing curled sinuously around his nipple where it made a hard little point in the fabric of his t-shirt. He breathed slowly, trying to ignore how the drawing made him feel and even more than that, what it meant that Chris had made it for him.

“It’s so cool. I wish… I wish I could see…” He met Chris’ smile in the mirror with his own. “Thank you, Chris. I really love it.”

“What do you wish you could see?” Chris asked softly.

“Oh, you know. That I could see it on me. How it would really look, that’s all.”

“We could do that.” Chris’ eyes were so dark. JC couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but he couldn’t look away.

“I can’t – I mean, I want to, but I can’t.”

“No, I know that, dude. I just mean, if you want to see, I could trace it on you. I could even paint it in some, if you want. It’d look pretty much like a tat, it just wouldn’t be permanent.”

JC’s eyes widened. He hadn’t thought of that possibility. “You’d do that? Wouldn’t it take a long time? I’m supposed to be working.”

Chris waved aside his concerns. “It’d be my pleasure,” he said lightly. “I’d like to see it too. And anyway, you’re ahead of schedule with the mural. An hour or so isn’t going to make a big difference one way or another.”

JC looked at the drawing. It really was cool. He liked the expression in the phoenix’ eyes. It looked fierce and determined. Well, of course it did. Look who’d drawn it.

“You think about it for a minute,” said Chris. “I’ve got a couple things I need to finish up in the office.”

“Okay,” murmured JC. He lay the drawing out on one of the tattooing benches and stood contemplating it. He’d like to see what it would look like on him, he had no doubts about that. But he knew how intimate it would be, just him and Chris here in the studio and he’d have to be at least partly undressed and Chris would be touching him and even though he knew Chris was completely professional under normal circumstances, well, this wasn’t exactly normal, was it? And he couldn’t say how his body would react, except given what he’d felt the other night he was pretty sure it would, and possibly in a way he wouldn’t be able to hide. If he even wanted to hide it, which he wasn’t sure he did.

Which meant… what did it mean? He wanted something from Chris, he just didn’t know what. Sex. Maybe just sex. He didn’t even think he knew how to want anything more. The way Chris made him feel… it had been a long time since anyone had had that kind of effect on him.

Yeah, he decided. There was nothing wrong with sex. He liked sex. Sex was good and as long as that’s all it was, he could deal with that.

He ignored the tiny voice in the back of his head asking but are you sure that’s all this is? He could handle Chris. He knew how to keep his distance. He was a fucking expert in the field.

“Chris,” he said, leaning on the doorjamb to the office. Chris looked up from a pile of paperwork. “I think… if you want to, I’d like to have you draw it on me. Whenever you have time.”

“Okay,” said Chris. “Give me ten minutes.”

It took him closer to fifteen, and then another few minutes to get set up. JC was ostensibly making sketches of the phoenix beak for the mural, but actually he was just trying not to let on that he was nervous. When Chris said that he was ready, JC approached the bench.

“The shirt has to go,” said Chris. “And you’ll just need to undo your pants and kind of push ‘em down over your hip on that side.”

JC stripped off his shirt and lay down. He tried pushing his jeans out of the way, but it didn’t really work, so he shoved them down around his thighs instead and rolled his underwear down on one side. He was just glad that he happened to be wearing the new ones that he’d bought with the first installment of mural money and not his raggedy old boxers – or nothing at all, like he did sometimes.

“Roll up a bit more onto your side, and then can you put this arm,” Chris took his left arm and moved it over JC’s head, “like that? You won’t have to leave it there the whole time, just while I’m working on the wings.”

Lying like this made JC feel stretched out and exposed. He stared straight in front of him, trying to keep his breathing normal and ignoring the way his skin prickled into goose bumps when Chris smoothed the paper over his torso and applied the transfer.

"I'm just gonna paint in the outline," said Chris, as he removed the stencil. "It'll make it last a little better. I work fast, it won't take that long."

Chris bent over him, tracing on the design, with something that looked like a calligraphy pen. JC didn't really care what it was, as long as there wasn't a needle attached to it. Chris didn’t speak as he drew, seeming to concentrate entirely on what he was doing. He worked from the center upward, the stroke of his pen swift and firm as it followed the shape of phoenix wings over JC’s chest and around into his armpit, then curling forward around his nipple. JC thought he would give himself away then, stifling the moan that bubbled up in his throat by biting hard on his bottom lip. Chris glanced up at him and smiled a little. He reached out, his fingertip just lightly pressing in the center of JC’s lip, and gently pulled it free from his teeth.

“You’re gonna chew it off,” he chided.

“Trying to distract myself,” JC mumbled.

“From what? No needles involved, C, I promise.”

“It’s not that.” He decided to brazen it out. “You’re drawing circles around my nipple there. I could use a little distraction is all.”

“Hmmm.” Chris drew in the very last feather, the one that looped all the way around underneath. JC didn’t want to look. His nipple was so hard it ached. He knew it must be obvious to Chris that he was aroused, but Chris seemed calm, calmer than usual, as if all that energy that usually emanated from him was being channeled into what he was doing.

“You know,” Chris said, as he went back to the center and started downward. “It’s not unusual for people to get turned on by this. It happens. Sometimes it’s kind of inevitable, depending on what part of the body’s getting tattooed.” He gave JC a wicked smile. “Guys always get hard-ons when they get their dicks tattooed. Never lasts long though.”

“Jesus!” JC exclaimed. “You’ve actually done that?”

Chris chuckled. “Yeah. I’ve tattooed pretty much everything. Pierced most things too, but you probably don’t want to hear about that.”

JC squeezed his eyes shut. “God, no. Wow. I had no idea. That’s just – weird.” Chris gave him a look. “Oh. No, I don’t mean that like a judgement or – um, do you – are you – um, pierced?”

“Ears,” said Chris.

“Well, yeah, I know that. I was just wonder–”

“And nipples.”

“Oh.”

Chris traced a tail feather over JC’s hip, a mischievous smile on his face. “Did I succeed in distracting you?” he asked.

“Uh. Sort of. I guess.” Although now he felt like he needed a distraction from thinking about Chris with pierced nipples. It should gross him out, but instead he kinda liked the idea. He found himself asking, “Did it hurt?”

Chris rolled the waistband of JC’s underwear down farther and JC tried to pretend like half his ass wasn’t hanging out of his pants, bared to Chris’ eyes and that Chris wasn’t actually holding JC’s left cheek in his hand. He suspected Chris was embellishing the design a bit, because he didn’t recall the stencil having feathers that would reach that far down and curl around quite like that and he really needed Chris to wind it up because his cock was hovering right on the verge of getting hard and somehow the talk of piercing which should be making him feel sick was having the opposite effect.

“It did, actually,” said Chris. “But not as much as you’d think. Anyway, the pain’s a part of the experience.”

“Why –” JC’s throat felt dry. “Why did you do it?”

“I figured if I was gonna do it to other people I’d better know what it felt like to have it done to me. I wasn’t willing to go all the way and get a PA or something like that, but nipples I could do. Plus, I just like it, you know. That kind of thing’s hot to me.” He stopped what he was doing and looked up at JC. “I thought it might freak you out.”

“No,” JC murmured. “I guess not.”

“We’re done,” Chris said. “Unless you want me to color it in some. Though that might smudge the outline.”

“Oh. No, I don’t want to smudge it. Can I see?” He couldn’t really tell what it looked like from this angle.

“Sure.” Chris stood up and offered his hand, pulling JC to his feet. “Go look in the mirror.”

JC shuffled the few feet over to the full-length mirror hanging on the back wall, his jeans still pushed down below his hips.

“Oh my God,” he whispered. “Chris. It’s incredible.”

The phoenix covered the length of his torso, its body and wings swooping to mirror the planes of his chest, tail feathers curving along the line of his hipbone down into his groin and back over his ass. The bird’s head rested above his heart, her eye focused upward. JC took a deep, shuddery breath. Having that image on his skin felt like an embrace, as if something warm and strong was wrapped around him, holding him close.

“Can I touch it?” JC asked.

“The ink’s dry,” said Chris, swiping a finger over JC’s waist, making his muscles twitch. “See?”

JC ran his fingertips over the design, from his chest to his belly. His skin felt extra-sensitive, though he knew it must just be his imagination.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. He laughed a little, kind of amazed. “God, Chris. It’s really hot.”

“Yeah, it is,” Chris agreed. “I knew it would be.”

“I wish I could see it in color,” JC said.

Chris nodded, saying nothing. His eyes were focused on the dark lines painted on JC’s skin and JC had the impression that Chris was filling it in mentally, picking out the colors he would use in his head.

JC turned and looked at it from the side, at the bird’s tail feathers winding over his hip and then from the back where they followed the curve of his cheek. “God.” He turned back to face the front, meeting Chris’ eyes in the mirror. “Touch it,” he whispered. Chris didn’t move. “Please? I want you to.”

Chris reached out hesitantly and ran a finger along the bird’s back, over JC’s ribs and down his side, fitting his palm over JC’s hip where the plumes of tail feathers diverged. JC felt his cock filling and he knew that even if it was stupid and dangerous and went against all his self-imposed rules of self-preservation, he wanted Chris, and it had been so fucking long since he’d wanted anyone like this that he didn’t care if it showed or what it meant or what Chris would think, he just wanted, his whole body burning up with it until it felt like he was on fire.

“We shouldn’t,” said Chris, but his hand hadn't moved from JC’s hip.

“Why not?” JC’s voice was tight, shaking a bit.

“I’m paying you, C. It isn’t right.”

“Not for this.” Chris’ gaze was unwavering, and the heat in it made JC shiver. “You’re not paying me for this.”

“I know. It’s still not right.”

“God, Chris. It doesn’t matter. I want –” He almost said “it”. “I want you. Need you. Jesus, I need.” He turned toward Chris, pressed up against him, mouthing at his throat, nipping along the muscle, rocking his hips forward and letting him feel just how hard he was. “Need it.” Chris’ skin was hot against his lips. “Fuck. Just. Please.” He licked Chris’ ear. “Fuck me,” he whispered. “C’mon Chris, fuck me.”

That seemed to galvanize Chris into action and he fisted his hand in JC’s hair, crushing their mouths together. JC froze, not expecting the assault, torn between pushing Chris away and kissing him back. Kissing, no, he didn’t –

“What?” asked Chris, pulling back to look at him.

JC licked his lips. They felt swollen already. Chris tasted like mint. Like toothpaste. JC hadn’t brushed his teeth.

“JC?”

JC’s eyes darted to Chris’. He had a puzzled look on his face, and no wonder.

“Kissing,” he mumbled. “It’s just. I don’t.” He sighed. “Can we skip that part?”

Chris blinked at him, his expression completely blank, before it solidified into a frown, his eyes narrowed. He backed JC up until he hit the mirror and held him, one hand on the back of his neck, one on his shoulder. JC’s heart was pounding against his ribs. He struggled to take a deep breath, trying to maintain control.

“You want me to fuck you, but kissing’s off-limits?” Chris said, incredulous. “No fucking way, C. Kissing’s not optional with me, not with people I care about. Kiss me back. Kiss me back right now, or we’re done here.”

JC flushed, feeling frustrated, nervous, afraid, but he didn’t have time to process any of it because Chris’ hand was on his jaw and his lips were soft against JC’s, soft, but insistent. JC hated it, feeling trapped and invaded, feeling lost because the truth was he’d rarely been kissed and the times he’d kissed back were even fewer and he felt like he didn’t know what he was doing. He had a sudden, strange urge to cry when Chris pulled away, his face closed off and angry, and JC panicked, yanking him back, his heart beating high in his throat. He closed his eyes and smashed their lips together, kissing him awkwardly, the angle all wrong, his teeth bumping Chris’ lip, rough and tentative at the same time. It wasn’t a very good kiss, but it was a kiss all the same, and that seemed to be enough for Chris. He took back the lead, his hands on either side of JC’s head, holding him, pressing him back against the mirror and his mouth was hot and wet and JC couldn’t seem to get enough of it. Chris kissed aggressively, using his hand in JC’s hair to tilt him just where he wanted him and hold him there. JC's hands convulsively kneaded Chris’ shoulders and his mouth fell open as Chris’ licked over his bottom lip and worked his jaw open wider, taking possession of his mouth and JC gave in, let it wash over him, let himself sink, breathless and gasping, hungry little noises rising up out of him and flowing into Chris. He pulled Chris more tightly against him, his hips rocking forward urgently. He needed – something. More.

JC groaned as Chris knocked his legs apart, his thigh nudging up hard against JC’s cock. He whimpered at the contact and then he was pushing his own pants lower, just fucking desperate to rub bare skin against Chris and Chris’ hand was on his ass, middle finger slipping between to press against his hole and JC was so hard, so primed, there was already a wet spot on the leg of Chris’ jeans and God, it was building fast, heat pooling at the base of his spine. Chris pulled him closer, rolling his thigh against JC's cock and he gasped, fingers clutching at Chris’ shoulders, his face buried in Chris’ neck, his hips thrusting frantically, mindlessly.

“Please,” he moaned. “Chris.”

“That’s right, baby,” Chris’ voice curled hoarsely into his ear. “You know what to do. Ride me. Yeah, just like that.”

He could feel Chris’ cock, hard against his thigh, just on the edge of his awareness, but all he could really feel was the rough fabric of Chris’ jeans rubbing harshly against his dick, and Chris’ hand on his ass, pulling him in faster and rougher and then his other hand in JC’s hair again and his lips open and wet and his tongue licking in deeper and deeper. JC groaned into Chris’ mouth, pressing harder against him, and he felt so good that JC wanted to just fucking crawl inside him. He licked at Chris’ mouth, bit at his lips, lost himself in deep, open-mouthed kisses, goodgoodsogood.

His orgasm hit hard and suddenly, a blast of sensation so intense he couldn’t even blurt a warning. Everything whited-out, all his senses shutting down so that all he could do was feel. He shook apart against Chris, the shockwave washing through every cell of his body, the throb in his cock deep and heavy, spilling onto Chris’ thigh in sharp, aching spasms that seemed to go on and on. At last the final shudder passed and he found himself draped over Chris, still moaning and whimpering and panting damply against his collarbone.

He felt completely boneless. He could have no more held himself up than he could have flown to the moon, so he was grateful for Chris’ arms around him and the thigh still between his legs, supporting his weight. He couldn’t even move, which made it hard to get any distance, and he was so totally out of it he didn’t even care.

“Oh my God,” he groaned. “Holy shit. Chris.”

“Yeah?” Chris’ hand rubbed his back, up and down, long, slow strokes, and JC melted against him. Maybe this kind of thing wasn’t so bad, he thought fuzzily, and then, Jesus, he must’ve blown the top of my head off for me to be thinking that way.

“I. I came all over your pants, man,” he slurred.

“It’ll wash out. And that was so totally worth it.” Chris’ hand smoothed over JC’s hair, fingers threading through the strands. JC wondered if he could fall asleep like this, standing up. “C’mon, C.” Chris was pushing him upright and he straightened, feeling a bit wobbly. He pushed his hair back from his face and hitched his jeans up, grimacing as he caught sight of the mess he’d made of Chris’ pants.

“Oh, wow. Sorry ‘bout that.”

Chris looked down. “So, apparently when you go off, you go off. You’re like a fucking geyser.” He grinned at JC. “Good to know.”

JC felt himself blush. “Chris, I –”

“It’s sexy, C,” Chris interrupted, leaning forward to kiss him. “You’re sexy. C’mon.” Chris wrapped his fingers around JC’s wrist.

“Where?” JC glanced up at the mural. “I should probably get back to work.”

“I’m giving you the night off. Hell, if I’m gonna screw around with an employee, I might as well take advantage of it.”

“I’m not an employee,” JC said stubbornly.

“Whatever. I’m officially giving you the night off. Now come in the back and get naked with me.”

JC hesitated, looking at Chris. He didn’t do this, let things get personal like this. He wanted to go with Chris, but if he did he was breaking his one hard and fast rule when it came to sex. He screwed strangers when he wanted sex, or let them screw him, depending on his mood, and when it was over, that was it, he was gone. It was just the way it had always been, and even though he’d tried it other ways, it was the only way it worked.

“I should, um.” He glanced at the mural, then at the door, fidgeting, then back at Chris. “I’m not good at this. At, um. Sticking around. And other stuff.”

“What other stuff?” asked Chris.

“Well. Everything.”

Chris took a step closer. He released JC’s wrist and just twined their fingers loosely together. “It’s okay, C. You don’t have to be good at this.” Chris spoke softly, like he would to gentle some wild creature. JC recognized the tone for what it was, but he still found it working on him, found himself wanting to stay more than he wanted to leave. “What do you need to hear? That it’s just sex? Fine. It’s just sex. Just you and me making each other feel good.” He stroked JC’s cheek, ran his hand back into his hair. “You said you wanted me to fuck you. Do you still want that?”

His eyes flicked to Chris and away. He nodded.

“Good. Cuz I want that too. I want that so bad it’s driving me crazy.” Chris leaned in and whispered in JC’s ear. “C’mon in the back and do the horizontal mambo with me, dude.”

JC laughed and the tension broke and all of a sudden it was just him and Chris again and he could ignore the rest of it and just let all the shit fade into the background.

“Dude.” He punched him lightly in the stomach. “You’re such a dork.”

“Oh no, you’ve discovered my shameful secret! C, you’ve gotta promise not to tell, or you’ll ruin my reputation as a tough, sophisticated man of mystery.”

JC snorted. “Your reputation as a ginormous dork, you mean,” he corrected, and he let Chris pull him into the back.

*

Chris had really thought JC was going to bolt. He had a skittish, uneasy look in his eyes that just screamed ‘get me outta here’, but after fighting with himself for three days about wanting JC before admitting defeat, Chris was determined not to lose him now. He thought maybe he understood where JC’s jitters were coming from, so he didn’t take it personally. JC wanted him, he’d just demonstrated that. He thought it was probably just inexperience – not sexual inexperience. Emotional inexperience. There were so many reasons a person with JC’s background could be messed up about sex. Chris only hoped that it wasn’t because of the worst-case scenarios that came to mind.

But in the end, JC relented, letting Chris tug him into the office, standing to the side while Chris swept all the junk off the couch and covered the cushions with his ratty but soft blanket, switched on the lamp on his desk, grabbed lube and condoms out of the drawer and turned off the overhead light.

“You keep lube in your desk? And rubbers? Dude, what do you do in here?”

Chris tossed them onto the couch. “Hey, I’m just being prepared. You never know, someday I might be able to lure some sexy tattooed artist back here to my lair and have my wicked way with him.” He ran his hand down JC’s side, over the lines of the drawing. He could swear that he felt the image hum with energy beneath his fingertips, though he knew that was impossible. He followed the swirl of wingtip around JC’s nipple, then brushed back and forth over the little peak until it stood up in a hard point. He bent down to lick it and felt JC shiver.

“Want you naked,” he murmured, kissing his way up to JC’s throat, pausing to explore the hollow at the base of it, then mouthing at his Adam’s apple. His hand went to the waistband of JC’s jeans, but JC grabbed his wrist.

“You first,” he said, and Chris guessed that was fair, since JC had been the only one showing any skin so far. Chris stripped off his shirt and JC’s eyes went immediately to his nipples.

“I could take them out,” Chris said quietly. “If they bother you.”

JC shook his head, reaching out to touch one of the little silver rings, a faint flush on his cheeks. He played with it for a minute while Chris tried to keep his breathing steady, a battle he lost when JC tugged on it gently.

“What does that feel like?” he asked.

“Feels good,” Chris managed.

“And this?” JC twisted it a little.

“Mmph. Fucking good.”

“I like them,” JC said with a gleam in his eye. “They’re hot.”

“Glad you think so,” Chris said, relieved. It could have gone either way. Turned on was a helluva lot better than passed out.

JC unfastened Chris’ jeans, pushed them down over his hips and then Chris had to sit and take off his motorcycle boots and JC toed off his silly little green sneakers and shimmied out of his jeans and Chris grabbed his hips and drew him forward until his cock was hanging right there in front of his face. JC smelled like come and Chris knew he’d taste like it too. He nuzzled JC’s crotch, inhaling, letting the coarse hairs tickle his lips. JC laid his hand on his head, just resting it lightly there.

“Chris?” He sounded a little unsure.

He ran his hands over JC’s ass, caressing the smooth skin, feeling the flex of firm muscle. He cupped his cheeks, bringing him a step closer and then he licked over his cock, taking it into his mouth to feel it harden that way. JC’s breath hitched and Chris glanced up at him. He was looking down, his hair falling around his face, his lips parted. Chris watched his chest rise and fall as he sucked, slowly gliding his tongue over the head, tasting salt and musk and something else, earthy and rich, unique to JC. He felt his own desire swell as JC’s cock swelled in his mouth, watching his eyelids flutter closed and his head tilt back as he started to move, little thrusts following Chris’ rhythm. He found a spot that made JC gasp and kept coming back to it, until a warm, bitter trickle flowed onto his tongue and JC’s fingers stopped combing through his hair and instead held on tight.

He drew back and let JC’s cock slide from his mouth, and took it in his hand, stroking loosely, looking up at him.

“You wanna come down here?” he asked.

“Okay. Um, how do you want this to go?”

“Just want you, C.” Chris’ forefinger followed the line from the phoenix’ tail feather that curled around JC’s hip, ending at his groin, where the dark hairs began. “How doesn’t matter. However you want.”

JC knelt over him, straddling his thighs. “Like this? Is this okay?”

“This is fantastic.” Chris pulled him forward so he fell against him and then held him there sprawled on top of him while he found JC’s mouth and this time there was no hesitation. JC’s lips parted and his tongue met Chris’ and he groaned, kissing him back hungrily, shifting forward until their cocks nudged against each other and then he was squirming on top of Chris and rubbing, and it felt so fucking good that Chris thought he could almost be perfectly happy just coming from this alone. Almost. He reached for the lube and flicked the top open. JC held his hand out for it.

“I can do it,” he said.

“Let me.” Chris was already slicking up his fingers.

JC took a breath. “You don’t need to, Chris. I’m good without.”

“I want to,” said Chris. He reached behind JC and rubbed slippery fingers over his hole, watching his eyes lose their focus. “Feel good?” JC nodded jerkily. “Wanna make you feel good, C.” He pushed a finger inside. So hot, so tight, smooth muscle clenching down. ‘Good without’, JC had said. Chris mentally rolled his eyes, putting that down as yet another piece of evidence of JC’s defensiveness when it came to sex. He felt as tight as a virgin, no way he could go without a bit of prep, not if he didn't want it to hurt. But maybe that was what he was used to, or even what he liked. Chris didn’t know, but he didn’t like to be the cause of pain, at least not when he wasn’t sure it was wanted.

JC’s forehead was resting on his shoulder. His hand had fallen to their cocks and he was stroking them both, just lightly, his hips rocking back to meet the inward push of Chris’ finger. He added a second finger, and when he twisted them around and scissored them open. JC moaned and shuddered, and when he crooked his fingers forward as he pushed in JC gasped, his hand tightening around their cocks.

Chris turned his head and JC’s ear was right there. “You like that?” he whispered, brushing over his prostate again.

“God,” JC grit out. “Yeah.”

“You still wanna go without?” Chris rubbed a little more firmly and JC groaned.

“Ohhh. No,” JC panted. “Uh. Not so much. Oh fuck. Chris. Let’s.”

“Yeah,” said Chris, unable to wait any longer. “Let’s.”

He handed JC the condom because his hand was busy and JC rolled it on him and he shifted down and JC crawled up and then he was sinking down on Chris’ dick and Chris made some kind of strangled noise and nearly gave himself a stroke trying to keep from grabbing JC’s hips and just shoving up into him hard and fast. He didn’t think he’d ever seen anything so hot in all his life as JC taking him in, flushed and sweat-sheened, his eyes smoky dark, the black lines of the phoenix stark against his skin. Chris bit his lip, his head falling back, staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

“Jesus,” he gasped. “A minute dude or I won’t – fuck, you feel so - Christ.” He closed his eyes, tried to catch his breath but it was damn hard with JC’s ass sheathed tight around his cock and his thighs soft against Chris’ legs. He leaned forward and licked right below Chris’ ear, his breath puffing softly against his neck.

“You feel good, Chris,” JC murmured, his voice low and scratchy, hardly sounding like JC at all. “Real good. Like - ohhh - fuck, it’s good.”

“Yeah,” Chris rasped. “Good. Kind of an understatement.”

JC rocked back and forth with Chris’ cock inside him, small movements that worked him in deeper. Chris forced himself to stay still, letting JC set the pace, even though his body was begging him to move. He ran his hands up JC’s sides, over his back, down to his ass and because he couldn’t resist, he touched himself where his cock disappeared into JC’s body and then he touched JC, stroking him where he was stretched open around him.

Fuck,” JC gasped, rolling his hips, faster now, thrusting hard, grunting as he worked himself on Chris' cock and Chris planted his feet on the floor and gripped JC’s ass in his hands and held him, pushing him down as he pistoned up fast and rough. JC’s dick left wet streaks against Chris’ belly every time he moved, cool against his the heat of his skin. He looked down to see JC’s cock, flushed red and shinyslick, his thighs tensed and the phoenix design rippling fluidly as he moved.

“C’mon,” growled Chris as he realized how close he was. God, so close, too close to hold on. “C’mon, jack yourself, C. Lemme see it.”

JC whimpered as he wrapped his hand around his cock and stroked, bracing himself on the back of the couch and then it was just a blur of hard and fast and someone moaning and someone crying out, the smell of sex and sweat in the air, the wet sound of fucking and the slap of skin on skin. Chris focused on JC leaning over him, his eyes dark and glazed over, his mouth slack and as he watched his face changed, his eyes closing but his expression opening, and Chris felt a hot stripe of wetness land on his stomach and then another and another, felt JC’s ass clench around him, beautifully tight as he groaned, a deep, carnal sound of release that made a jolt of electricity streak up Chris’ spine.

“Oh, Jesus,” he gasped, arching up, trying to keep his eyes open, because Christ, his face. He couldn’t look away but he lost his vision anyway, everything blurring as he bucked up, out of control. It rushed through him like lightening, filling him with heat. He knew he was being loud but he couldn’t fucking help it and he didn’t fucking care. JC was throbbing around him and he was throbbing inside JC and it was perfect, just perfect. He held JC to him, his fingers digging into the flesh of his ass, grinding into him, straining up through the last spasm and then collapsing back down to the couch, gasping and shaking.

JC was panting, plastered against Chris, his head resting on the back of the sofa. He was shivering too, just kind of trembling all over and not really in a way that made Chris think it was leftover from the orgasm.

“Baby,” he mumbled, wrapping his arms around JC. “It’s okay. Shhh, it’s okay.” He didn’t know what prompted him to say that, but in a moment the shivering stopped and JC was still, so maybe it was what he needed to hear.

Eventually, JC sat up and brushed his hair back from his face. Chris looked at him and smiled and JC smiled back, looking sated and tired, with that same uncertainty in his eyes that Chris had seen there earlier.

JC moved back and Chris slipped out of him. He started to get to his feet, but before he could go very far, Chris tugged him closer.

“Get horizontal with me for a minute,” he said. He felt JC tense up. “Just for a minute. Then you can leave, if you want.” He grabbed a pillow off the floor and another blanket and lay down on his side, scooting back to make room and JC lay down gingerly beside him with his back to Chris. Chris spread the blanket over them and spooned up behind him even though they were sticky and messy. At the moment he really couldn’t care less.

Chris ran a hand over JC’s side, over the tracing of the phoenix, following the lines by memory. At first JC lay there stiffly, but by gradual increments Chris felt him relax, his limbs slowly going heavy and slack. He mumbled something into the pillow that Chris couldn’t understand.

“What?”

“Didn’t do the horizontal mambo.” He sounded sleepy.

“You’re right,” Chris agreed. “We did the vertical one. Far more difficult and complicated moves, a much more advanced version that should only be attempted by highly trained professionals such as ourselves.” He wrapped his arm around JC’s waist.

“And how would you rate our performance?” sighed JC.

“Ten out of ten, definitely,” Chris whispered against his neck. “No, eleven out of ten. A hundred out of ten. Off the scales, dude.” He pressed a kiss to the silky skin below his ear, then settled in behind JC. He was a little surprised that JC hadn’t left, was even more surprised when he heard him begin to snore softly.

He stayed, thought Chris. That had to mean something, didn’t it?

*

JC could hear voices, somewhere far off, whispery, nagging voices. Although, JC thought, for whispers they were very shrill and kinda loud. He did his best to shut them out and tried to sink down again into peaceful, beautiful, wonderful sleep, but then he heard laughter and there was jostling and someone was saying Fuck you, you fucking fucks right in his ear and he was being buffeted around and the covers were slipping off and something heavy and warm and slightly sweaty was on top of him and what the fuck?!

He opened his eyes to see Chris climbing over him, buck naked, with his hair sticking up in all directions and creases from the pillow indented on his face. Standing behind him he could see Joey and Justin, who appeared to be incapacitated with laughter, since they were both bent over double and wheezing and snorting and Joey had tears seeping out of the corners of his eyes.

Chris paused midway through climbing over him. JC lay still beneath him, too disoriented to make any kind of move. “We – ahhh – sort of overslept,” Chris said, ignoring the guys behind him. Justin made some comment to Joey about Chris’ ass, which was indeed in prominent view from their position, and they collapsed into another fit of giggles. JC was frozen in confusion. He’d just laid down for a minute next to Chris, just for a minute and only because Chris had seemed like he really wanted him to. He was going to get up and spend the rest of the night working on the mural and what the hell were Joey and Justin doing here?

“And, uh, if you were hoping to keep this thing on the QT,” Chris shook his head, “it ain’t gonna happen.” Chris didn’t really seem at all perturbed by having two big, tattooed guys dissolving into giggle fits at the sight of his naked ass. In fact, he smiled as he gave JC a quick peck on the lips. “Morning, C.”

He stood up and turned to face Joey and Justin, hands on hips. JC covered his face with his hands, just praying that the fact that Chris had been pretty much covered in jizz last night wasn’t obvious this morning.

“Since when is it okay to just barge into my office without knocking?” barked Chris.

“Dude, we always barge in!” protested Justin. “You’ve never asked us to knock. But then we’ve never found you in here gettin’ your freak on before!”

“Next time we’ll knock,” said Joey. “Jesus, would you just put on some clothes?”

“I was not ‘gettin’ my freak on’, J. I know it must seem that way to your innocent, virginal eyes,” Justin spluttered Hey! I’m not a virgin… but Chris talked over him, not letting him finish, “but, actually, I was sleeping. Soundly and most comfortably until you woke me – and JC, I might add – and I’m disinclined to clothe myself just to soothe your offended sensibilities.” He folded his arms in front of his chest and shifted so his weight was resting on one hip, smirking at the two of them. “Though I sympathize. Better men than you have been humbled at the sight of the Fine Kirkpatrick Ass.” Justin and Joey immediately starting denying any interest in or envy of Chris’ ass. Chris shot JC a look as if to say can you believe these guys?

JC stifled a giggle. As weird as the situation was and as strange as he felt about it, it was kind of funny. He sat up, holding the blanket to his chest. He really didn’t want Justin and Joey to catch a glimpse of the drawing and start asking questions about that.

“Guys, you’re being rude,” Chris interrupted.

“Dude, you’re the one standing there naked, talking about your ass,” Justin pointed out.

“Say good morning to JC,” instructed Chris, as if he was speaking to simple-minded children.

Joey and Justin looked at him, and JC resisted the urge to pull the blanket up over his head and hide underneath it until everyone went away. “Good morning, JC,” they said in unison.

“Morning,” he mumbled, giving them a weak smile and a half-hearted little wave, because that seemed like the polite response to being discovered naked and possibly a bit crusty in spots after having spent the night messing around with their boss.

Chris was herding them out the door and into the studio, still naked. “Chris,” Justin said emphatically. “Clothes.”

“Nope.” JC could hear his voice in the hall. “It’s Naked Day. I’ll be tattooing naked all day. In fact, we should all be naked all day, the customers would love it.”

He heard the sound of something falling over and Justin saying something about a “pervy psycho” and Joey’s mock-indignant threat to “sue your ass for sexual harassment” and then Justin shrieked in a perfect imitation of a teenage girl and there was more laughter and then the sound of the front door closing and silence. In a minute Chris reappeared.

“I sent them to get coffee. Told them not to hurry.” He sat on the edge of the couch. “What a way to wake up. I’m really sorry about that, C.”

JC wasn’t sure what to say. He was still feeling a bit shell-shocked and very much not-awake. He ran his hand through his hair. “I can’t believe I slept here all night.” With Chris, he thought. On that narrow couch. Pressed up against each other, all night long. He didn’t think he’d ever done anything like that before, with anyone. On the rare occasions that he and Lance had shared a bed, there had always been plenty of room between them. “I can’t believe they walked in on us.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands until he saw stars. “I can’t believe I slept here,” he repeated. With you. He looked at Chris. “I need to go.”

“You should at least stay for coffee,” Chris said. “Don’t worry – they’re good guys, C. They give me shit, but it’s all cool.”

“I’m not worried,” he said. He didn’t really care what those two thought about him, though he didn’t think he could deal with them giving him shit about Chris. “I’ve just gotta go, before, you know. It gets too late...” He trailed off.

“Okay,” said Chris, rubbing his hand up and down JC’s arm.

“I should go, Chris.” He couldn’t get up until Chris moved.

“Okay.” Chris met his eyes. “Kiss me first?” JC sighed, feeling a bit exasperated. “I won’t let you go unless you kiss me,” stated Chris firmly.

“Fine,” snapped JC and he leaned forward and kissed Chris, a quick peck like Chris had given him when Joey and Justin were there.

Chris tilted his head and regarded him through narrowed eyes. “Let me rephrase that,” he said flatly. “I won’t let you go unless you kiss me like you actually remember what we did last night.”

JC felt his temper flare, but at the same moment an image arose in his mind of Chris beneath him, looking up at him through sex-glazed eyes, looking at him as if he was seeing something extraordinary, and then the way he had held him afterwards, when he was shaking for no reason at all and trying not to fall apart and not even knowing why, and Chris had said it was okay and somehow he had simply believed him.

He hadn’t even realized he had moved, but his mouth was against Chris’ and his hands were in Chris’ hair. Chris made a surprised noise, but then he was kissing him back enthusiastically, his tongue swiping the seam of JC’s lips until he parted them and let him in. JC moaned when their tongues met, his body coming alive, heat washing through him. The kiss turned sloppy and desperate, lots of tongue, teeth nipping, breath going ragged. JC felt a flare of desire fill him again, twisting in his belly, tingles spreading from his groin. He was hard, just from a kiss, and he hadn’t even been touched and when Chris shifted nearer JC could feel that he was too. He groaned into Chris’ mouth when he pushed him onto his back on the couch and climbed on top of him, his hand kneading JC's side, his thigh, his ass. He ground his hips down and JC's legs fell open as he bucked up, their cocks sliding and rubbing against each other and between their bellies.

“C,” Chris gasped. “JC. JC.” His hand was digging into the flesh of JC’s butt, urging him up to meet his thrusts, but JC didn’t need any urging. He rolled his hips, undulating beneath Chris and reaching back to brace his hands against the arm of the couch so he could push up, harder, faster. He wasn’t sure how this had happened, how he’d gone from embarrassed and slightly pissed off to desperately needing to come within the space of a few minutes, but he was here now, and there was nothing he could do but ride it through to the other side.

He brought a hand down between them to Chris’ chest, running his fingers over the smooth metal of one of Chris’ nipple rings. Hot, he thought. So hot. He tugged on it in time with their movements, feeling Chris shudder.

“Fuck,” Chris gasped. “You’re hot, C. Jesus,” and JC realized he must’ve said it aloud but he didn’t care, not when his balls were drawing up and the sweet, sharp tension was filling him from head to toe, so his muscles tightened and his back arched. Chris groaned deeply, shaking, rocking down in short, hard jabs, his face pressed to JC’s neck, his moans loud in JC’s ear. He felt his cock jerk against his stomach and warmth spread between them, and it was so good, to feel Chris lose it like that, to know it was because of him, but he was still aching, almost there, so close and he needed, he needed… He heard himself making a pained little whining noise, as he twisted up, trying to get more friction.

“Okay,” panted Chris, even while he was still shaking from his orgasm. “I got you, C.” He rolled to the side and swiped his fingers through the come on JC’s stomach and wrapped a hand around his shaft, but instead of jerking him he just circled, slowly, just his thumb tracing a gentle circle around the tip, his eyes moving from JC’s face to his cock and back again. Around and around, slick and wet and up over the slit and then around again. JC went still, his muscles stiff, his body vibrating on a knife-edge of pleasure. His eyes were open but he couldn't see anything, his fists clenched, a high keening wail beginning in his throat, getting louder as the feeling grew, almost too much, too intense, stretching him out agonizingly on the brink but not tipping him over, until Chris rubbed ohhh right there, right there and suddenly he was coming, God he was coming so fucking hard. He arched up with a shout as it blasted through him, filling him to bursting, hotbeautifulperfect. He cried out again when Chris slid his mouth down over his cock, taking him in as JC was still coming, pumping into the sudden wet warmth and he writhed up, not even aware of pushing deep as Chris swallowed around him and then just held him in his mouth until he fell back onto the cushions in a stunned and breathless heap.

“Oh,” he said, swallowing, trying to get enough air, trying to straighten out his neck and his back and not fall off the couch. “Oh.” He blinked up at the ceiling. This, he thought. This is different. In pretty much every way. He reached a tentative hand down to touch Chris’ hair. He was lying with his head pillowed on JC’s hip, and it couldn’t have been very comfortable because he was scrunched up at the foot of the couch, but he showed no signs of wanting to move. Chris sighed contentedly when JC’s fingers threaded through the spiky strands, stiff with yesterday’s gel.

“Don’t go to sleep again,” Chris mumbled.

“No.” JC took a deep breath. “Won’t,” though he almost felt like he could.

“Dude,” said Chris. JC waited, but that seemed to be all there was.

After a minute, Chris pushed himself up and looked at JC. His face was flushed and his eyes were bright. “You make me crazy, you know that?”

JC shook his head. He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say. He felt a little crazy himself, actually, a little freaked out and pretty scared, but he also felt really, really good. He decided not to try to explain all that to Chris.

Chris crawled forward until he was crouched over JC and ran his hand slowly over the drawing on his skin. JC watched as he lightly traced over the bird’s body and down to his hip where the lines were smudged in places and overlaid with a smattering of finger-shaped bruises.

“So hot,” he murmured, bending down and mouthing over the pattern, his tongue sliding over tail feathers, along the bird’s back to the wings and JC couldn’t help stretching up slightly toward Chris’ mouth, his skin tingling in the wake of Chris’ lips.

“I could ink it on you again, if you want,” Chris said, kissing his way up the wing to JC’s nipple and giving it a flick of his tongue. “I could do it in henna, so it’d last longer.”

“I’d like that,” breathed JC. “Yeah, I –” he ran his hand over the design. “I don’t want it to go away.”

JC found himself reaching up again to touch Chris’ hair and then his brow and his cheek before he let his hand fall to Chris’ chest. He pushed his pinkie into one of the rings and rubbed back and forth over the nipple.

“You like those, don’t you?” asked Chris with a smile, his voice a bit raspy.

“Mmm – hmm,” JC said softly, feeling Chris’ nipple perk up to a little nub under his finger. “I didn’t know I did. I’ve never known anyone who had them. But yeah, I like them.”

Chris closed his eyes, and JC took the other ring between his fingers and twisted. Chris arched into it, biting his lip and JC felt a spark down low, felt his cock twitch against his thigh. God, he thought, he must be crazy, getting turned on again, so soon.

He really should get up, in fact he wanted to get out of there before Joey and Justin got back. Just then he heard the door open again and voices out in the studio. Too late.

“C,” Chris said, shifting back onto his haunches. “I’ve gotta go home and shower and walk the dogs and get back here by eleven. I’ll get the coffee while you get dressed and then I’ll give you a ride to Lance’s, okay?”

“I can walk,” said JC.

“I know you can walk,” said Chris patiently, “but let me give you a ride. What’s the point in having a Harley if I don’t get to have a sexy guy on the back of it every once in while?”

There was something about Chris, JC thought as he pulled on his jeans. Well, there were a lot of things about Chris, things he’d probably be spending a lot of time that day thinking about, but for now there was this one thing… he had a way of doing things for you, but making it seem like you were doing something for him. JC thought he needed to figure that out better, because it kept happening and he didn’t tend to notice it until later.

But Chris did seem happy enough to have JC on the back of his bike, and JC was happy to be there, with the warm morning air brushing against his skin and the big bike purring between his legs and his arms around Chris. He tried not to question it, just to go with it and let it be what it was.

“I’ll see you tonight,” Chris said, when he dropped him off.

“I can finish it tonight,” said JC. “The mural.”

“Oh. That’s great. And then you’ll be done.” Chris didn’t sound exactly thrilled.

“Yeah.” JC certainly wasn’t going to be the one to say anything about whether they were going to see each other after.

“Is there anything you want for dinner?” Chris put the helmet on and backed the bike around.

“Just you,” JC said, feeling self-conscious as soon as it was out of his mouth, but Chris just laughed.

“Kirkpatrick a la carte. You're lucky, it’s the special tonight.”

They were sitting against the wall opposite the mural, a bottle between them. It was five in the morning and Chris was there because he’d said he wanted to watch JC make that last brush stroke and JC was glad he’d stayed, partly because it was nice to have the company, but also because he’d wanted Chris to be present for that final moment. It was his mural, after all.

So they were pleased and tired and half drunk and they'd been talking for hours, while JC painted and then when he finished and Chris broke out the celebratory bottle of tequila and they started doing shots while they admired the mural from across the room. It was quiet in the studio, and outside the street was quiet too, just the sound of early morning birdsong wafting in through the open windows.

“What about Lance?” Chris asked.

“Lance was…” JC cast about, trying to find the words. “I couldn’t be what he wanted. I couldn’t give him… I didn’t even know how to try and he – I guess he didn’t want to deal with my – with me. He didn’t want to settle for less. I wasn’t good enough for him.”

Chris frowned. “He said that?”

“Lance? No, he’d never say that, not in so many words. But I knew it. It was obvious.”

Chris looked unconvinced.

“Okay, C. So why weren’t you good enough? You wanna explain that to me?”

“Not particularly,” said JC, reaching for the salt and sprinkling a bit on his wrist. He licked, tipped back the bottle of tequila and bit down on a lime, grimacing.

“You tell me your issues and I’ll tell you mine,” coaxed Chris, holding out a hand for the bottle. He didn’t bother with the salt and lime, just took a hefty swallow.

“You’re gonna tell me your private shit, just like that? I don’t think so,” JC scoffed.

“We could take turns,” Chris offered. JC was alarmed to see that it looked like he actually meant it.

“Um, I don’t think – I’m not trying to – it’s just that.” JC sighed, looking at him worriedly. Chris was going to think that he was playing coy or trying to be mysterious or something and that wasn’t it, not at all.

Chris licked a stripe over the base of his thumb and sprinkled it with salt. He handed JC the bottle and held up his wrist, waiting with a slice of lime in the other hand. JC licked, took a shot and sank his teeth into the lime Chris was holding. The shot hit him with a not unpleasant wave of dizziness. He was starting to feel the effects, everything slowing down a little bit, hard edges blurring. Chris was watching him with those big, dark eyes and JC suddenly wanted to be touching him. He leaned forward and kind of nuzzled his neck for a minute and then Chris moved, coming to lean back against the wall beside him. He put his arm around JC, which maybe wasn’t the most comfortable position because JC was taller, but when JC leaned sideways and rested his head on Chris’ shoulder it was perfect.

He sighed. He could feel words rising up inside him and he knew he was gonna say stuff, stuff he didn’t ever say. Tequila and Chris, Chris and tequila. He couldn’t fight the both of them together.

“I don’t know. When I get to know people – when I. Shit.” This was hard. He took another drink. That was better. “I try not to get close. It’s better that way, cuz I, I fuck things up. I guess cuz I never had anyone to be close to before. I mean when I was younger. And then when I was on my own, well, you know, shit happens. I learned… I mean, I already knew, but… I learned not to trust people, to look out for myself, cuz that’s the only way to get by. Whatever. Can’t change any of that, I’m just saying, people are the way they are for a reason and that’s probably mine.”

Chris’ fingers threaded lightly through his hair, in a repetitive and soothing motion. JC closed his eyes.

“When I wanna get laid, I just find somebody. It’s like taking care of a need. And it’s great, but then it’s over and I never see the guy again. That’s how I like it. The only time it wasn’t like that was Lance, and I guess that’s cuz we were roommates back then and I couldn’t avoid him. But it was still mostly sex. The rest of the stuff just never worked out between us. My fault, like I said.”

“So, you just pick guys up in clubs? That kind of thing?”

“Yeah, that’s pretty much it.” It sounded so sleazy, JC thought, cringing inwardly. It was sleazy, fucking strangers in alleys and parked cars. It’d never bothered him before, but now he worried about what Chris would think. Chris was gonna think he was a slut, and he’d be right.

“Hey,” said Chris. “There’s nothing wrong with that. I do that too sometimes.”

“But not as a steady diet,” said JC.

“No.”

“Well, that’s what I do. That’s all I do. That’s why I didn’t want to kiss you, cuz I –” He took another swig. His voice dropped almost to a whisper. “I haven’t really done that much. It’s not usually required if it’s just a quick fuck.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Chris. They were quiet for a minute. “So what is this?” Chris turned to look at him. “What we’re doing here, you and me, this breaks your pattern.”

JC nodded, just a tiny movement. Chris brushed his hand along JC’s jawline, back to his ear.

“Okay,” he breathed. He leaned his head against the wall, still watching JC and JC leaned against it too, their foreheads nearly touching. “You wanna try? With me?”

JC’s heart beat heavy and hard in his chest. He couldn’t get words out, so he just nodded again, barely even a nod, little jerky movements, almost as if he were shaking. He blinked at the tightness in his throat.

“Okay,” Chris whispered, sliding forward to kiss him, slow and warm and sensual, the kind of kiss that was sweet like honey, like candy, sugary and soft. They parted and JC’s lips tingled. “Dude.” Chris smiled at him, waggling his eyebrows. “I think you just said you’d be my boyfriend. Guess this means we’re going steady.”

JC looked at him blankly. He didn’t know if he should be freaked out or if he should laugh, so he laughed, thinking it the better option. It was a freaked-out sounding laugh, but still. He grabbed for the tequila, feeling the burn steady him as it went down.

“Seriously though, C,” Chris said. “We can take it slow, as slow as you want.”

JC took a gulping breath. He stared at a spot just to the right of Chris’ shoulder. Someone had tacked a drawing of Superman to the wall and a corner of it had torn loose. Outside a car horn blared and someone walking by on the sidewalk whooped in response. He looked at Chris, into his eyes.

“I want you to take me home with you. Now. Tonight. Or, this morning.”

Chris raised his eyebrows.

JC was breathing too fast. He tried to slow it down. “I want to stay with you. Again, I mean. In a bed. Your bed.”

“That’s not exactly what I had in mind when I said we could take it slow.”

JC’s face fell. “Don’t you want –”

Chris pressed his fingers to JC’s lips. “Of course I do. Jesus, I want that so much. I just want to be sure it’s what you want.”

“I’ll never be sure, Chris,” said JC without hesitation. “At some point I’ve gotta just, I don’t know, take a chance or something. Just close my eyes and jump. But – if I act like an idiot or make a complete fool outta myself or screw everything up like I probably will… I’m sorry, you know. I just wanna say that now, in case I don’t when the time comes.”

Chris nodded, considering JC’s words carefully. “Okay. Apology noted and accepted before the fact.” He kissed JC again. “We’ll make it up as we go along, C. We’ll make it what works for us, okay? We can throw out the rules and just do what feels right.”

JC managed a smile, even if it was a little wobbly. “I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. I could totally fuck everything up.”

Chris chuckled. “Yeah, well, that’s how it is, C. No one has a clue what they’re doing and we all fuck up constantly. The key is in how good you are at fixing the fuck ups, because fuck up, you will.”

“I bet you’re pretty good at fixing fuck ups,” murmured JC.

“I don’t suck,” admitted Chris. “Or, well, actually, I do. That happens to be one tried-and-true way to fix a fuck up.” He grinned. “In conjunction with a judicious combination of alcohol, chocolate and flattery. There, I’ve just given away one of my most closely-guarded secrets. Now you’re starting ahead of the game.”

Chris grinned at him and JC focused on the look in his eyes, warm and happy and very clear, like he was seeing JC just the way he was, looking right past the pretty face and the messed up past and all the doubts JC had about why this was a bad idea and would never work in a million years, seeing something different, something no one else saw, something that was maybe better and stronger than JC had ever suspected.

“You ready to go?” Chris asked, getting to his feet. JC stood up and looked one more time at the mural. It was finished, the bird rising swift and sure into the star-filled night, her bright, determined eyes trained forward into the unknown.

“I’m ready,” said JC.