Stephen did up all the blinds, double-checked the lock, and examined both the attached shower and the space under Jon's desk for eavesdroppers.
This was pretty much his usual level of paranoia, so Jon didn't think anything of it. He only got worried when Stephen planted both hands on his desk's precious few square inches of free space and announced, "My arms and shoulders are sore, my back is constantly itchy, and these symptoms have persisted for more than seven days."
Even a far less dedicated hypochondriac than Jon would have recognized those symptoms. "Uh...wow. Stephen, this is...this is incredible. Congratulations."
Different religions had different feelings about the spontaneous growth that affected one in 450,000 human beings. Some Christian sects used to think they were signs of possession or deals with demons, although thankfully forced amputation had gone out of style by this century. Others believed they were a mark of divine grace, which could get awkward when a person with an inconvenient philosophy started showing. But they had come around on Frederick Douglass, and presumably would settle down about Ellen one of these days.
Last time Jon checked, Catholics fell on the side of "divine grace." The statistically-improbable proportion of Popes with the condition didn't hurt. "Have you told anyone else yet? Are you going to go public now, or after they grow in?"
"No. Neither. I'm going to go public never."
Jon raised his eyebrows. "You do realize that eventually they're going to be kind of hard to miss."
"I'm not growing them, Jon," scolded Stephen, wagging his finger at his perennial BFF. "I have every faith in the preventive ability of Prescott Pharmaceuticals. I'm only bringing it up with you on the very, very, very, very, very, very, very very very slim chance that my current course of medication is not 100% effective."
"Wait, you don't want them? I thought you'd be thrilled...."
"Are you crazy?" Stephen grabbed the lapels of his jacket and shoved them toward Jon's face, nearly yanking himself across the desk in the process. "Do you know how much it would cost to alter all of my suits?"
By the blue-white fluorescent of his bathroom lights, Stephen eyed the label on his bottle one more time.
VAXICARUS, it said. 100% Effective In Preventing Wing Development.* As Endorsed By Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, DFA.
Although never tested on humans, it had worked on 100% of the birds studied. Sure, the process had involved deforming fledgling chicks' skeletons to the point of death in 89% of those test subjects...but since Stephen was already a fully-grown adult (at least in terms of bone structure), he figured he had nothing to worry about.
Side Effects May Include, the label continued, St. John's Warts, choirmydia, and Gregorienteritis.
Stephen swallowed two, chased them with a swig of Bud Lite Lime (he had gallons of the stuff, and they kept sending more; he'd taken to brushing his teeth with it), and went to bed.
So he couldn't fall asleep on his back. So what? It was comfortable, that was all. Nothing more to it.
Jon had been planning for a while to steal an entrance pass to Lake Orchard Sycamore Pine Oak Field Estates. It wasn't like Stephen hadn't done the same with every key Jon had ever owned in the past eight years.
He hadn't gotten around to it yet, though, so he had to pull up to the gate and show the security guard his ID. "I should be on Mr. Colbert's visitor list?"
"Hm...nope, doesn't look like it."
"Are you sure? Maybe with the first name spelled with an H?"
"I'm sure. In fact, with an H, your name is right here on his blacklist. And, look, there's a note: 'Not to be allowed in under any circumstances. Armed, legged, and dangerous.'"
Jon groaned. "Listen, I'm sure he didn't mean...he was probably having a bad day and forgot to change it back afterward...if you could just let me through, I'm sure he'll be glad to hear from me."
"That may well be, Mr. Stewart," said the guard, handing back his license. "But a list is a list. And it's not worth the trouble Mr. Colbert would get me in if you're wrong."
Jon glanced over his shoulder at the back seat. He had ordered a veritable buffet of lotions, oils, and creams, as well as a couple of home-cooked meals in casserole dishes and foil-wrapped pans, and probably more snacks than were strictly necessary.
"Would it be worth the trouble," he said, "if you got a 1938 Red Merlot out of the deal?"
The guard raised her eyebrows. "Keep talking."
Jon was still grumbling to himself as he scaled Stephen's front steps. Knowing his luck, it would turn out Stephen wasn't even home. Jon was been overreacting to this whole thing, and Stephen was happy and pain-free and had decided to spend his entire vacation week in the Caribbean, and Jon had traded away his GPS for the right to knock on an empty door....
The paneled wood fell away under his knuckles. "Jon? You didn't need to come over! I told you I'd be fine!"
Stephen didn't look so great. There were purple rings under his eyes, and his hair was only half-coiffed. His T-shirt (lavender cotton, printed with an illustration of a unicorn against a moonlit-forest backdrop) was tight across the chest, giving Jon the incongruous impression that he'd bulked up.
But for Jon to point any of this out would be an unforgivable blow to Stephen's pride. "I was hoping we could hang out," he said instead. "That's all. I mean, if you're busy, we could do this some other time...."
"No! No, it's fine. Of course I'm busy — I'm in high demand, you know — but you caught me at a good breaking point. Come in."
Jon jerked his thumb at the car. "I'm gonna grab some stuff out of the back first, okay?"
Stephen perked up, eyebrows arching. "Stuff? What kind of stuff?"
"Oh, the usual...snacks, a couple of drinks, Star Wars blu-rays...and, uh, I know you said not to worry, but for me that's genetically impossible, so...I packed a couple of soothing lotion-type things. I hope you don't mind."
"None of them are from the Prescott Essences line, right?"
When Jon shook his head, Stephen flung both arms around Jon's shoulders and engulfed him in a bear hug.
In between lecturing Jon about how The Phantom Menace proved that government regulation strangled the prospects of ordinary citizens, Stephen ate half of the beef-and-macaroni casserole.
This was really happening. In spite of all the promises of Prescott's marketing department, he was growing new bones. And fast.
He kept his shirt on, though it chafed fiercely against his swollen skin (particularly on the right — ugh, what if they were coming in lopsided? So embarrassing). Some sentimental part of him wanted Jon to remember his back as normal for as long as possible, before getting a look at the reddened lumpy mass it was undoubtedly turning into.
Jon tried to construct some kind of counter-argument about how the real message was that corporate monopolies hurt average citizens, and that politicians who claimed to favor deregulation for the public good were secretly out to increase their own power. Stephen lay across the couch on his stomach and pretended to listen. Somehow, even when Jon was talking complete nonsense, it was soothing to hear his voice.
As the last of the credits rolled, Stephen tried to shift position and nearly yelped with the pain. The soft cotton might as well have been steel wool against his shoulder blades. He grit his teeth and did his best not to move a whisker.
"Stephen?" Jon had been asking him something. "Stephen, are you listening?"
"I said, do you want to watch any special features, or move on to...are you okay?"
"Jon," said Stephen thinly, "I need you to help me take my shirt off."
Stephen's left shoulder was flushed red, the skin shiny and in some places flaking. It didn't seem to be swollen much, though maybe it just looked good in comparison to the right.
His right shoulder, from the arc of the scapula to a third of the way down his back, bulged like a rug with a kitten hiding under it. The lump was as big as both of Jon's fists put together, a whole top layer of skin peeling away, ruddy bruises spotting the layer underneath.
"It itches," confessed Stephen, lying on the ground now with a pillow propping up his head and a towel under his chest. "But it hurts to scratch. They're not coming in weird, are they?"
"Everyone gets theirs in different ways," said Jon, trying to sound reassuring. He'd never sat through this with anyone before; what did he know from normal? Maybe everyone who grew wings had them lopsided for a while.
He lined up the various pastel bottles and jars in front of Stephen's pillow, then tapped a likely-seeming one to draw his attention. Just in case Stephen has been planning to decide by which shape he liked best, or something. "This one's supposed to infuse your skin with moisture, make it soft and supple, and, uh, I think it says something about repairing damaged—"
Stephen pointed to a taller, pale-yellow bottle. "I want to start with this one. It has a peach on it."
The cool lotion ribboning over Stephen's skin was the best thing he'd felt all day.
Jon's fingertips swirling it in circles were the second best, knocked down a place only because they were too rough at first. Once Stephen had made a few sufficiently pitiful noises, Jon gentled things up.
If he found anything over-intimate about this, he kept it to himself, which Stephen appreciated. This was already weird and complicated enough, what with how his whole wardrobe was in imminent need of a redesign (maybe he could sell the old suits for charity, or something?), and how Prescott might not want him as a sponsor now that he'd inadvertently proved them to be frauds, and how the stale Vicodin he was slipping might still be habit-forming, and on and on and on. He didn't need to get distracted by...Jon-sex-things.
When Jon's hands had passed every inch from the small of Stephen's back to the base of his neck, he retreated, but not far. Stephen could still feel the body heat from Jon's feet (or at least, the fuzz from Jon's socks) against his arm. His shoulders were down to a dull ache; nothing else hurt.
He fell asleep to the montage of Anakin and Padmé running across alien grass.
The late summer evening had finally fallen when Jon squeezed his arm to wake him. "Stephen? If you're feeling okay, I'm gonna head out."
"Mgrph," said Stephen. He unglued his lips and tried again. "Stay?"
Jon woke up alone in a guest bed. And after giving a massage to a hot half-naked guy while arguing about Star Wars, no less. His college-age self would have been so disappointed in him.
(There were some key things his college-age self hadn't figured out yet.)
Stephen didn't seem to be awake yet, so Jon jumped in the nearest shower, tried out four different body washes in his search for the soap, and came out smelling like a fruit basket. He'd been told to make himself at home, and the most breakfast-y thing in Stephen's pantry was a crateful of frozen bacon, so he fried up a bunch of it with a side of cheese on toast. The more protein and calcium Stephen got right now, the better.
Jon polished off the first plate on his own, accompanied by a radio tuned to the nearest sports station and a judgmental-looking Emmy on the counter (the nameplate on her base taped over with a crayon drawing of the Report logo). When Stephen had yet to make an appearance, he loaded up a second plate, paired it with a glass of water — there was no milk to be found, just the leftover soda Jon had brought plus a worrying amount of cheap beer — and went looking.
Stephen's door was open a wedge, the interior darkened by quality drapes in defiance of the bright early sun. Through the chorus of irritated birds in the yard Jon could hear soft noise from inside; hands full, he tapped the doorjamb with his knee. "Stephen? You in here? Ready to eat?"
That noise again. To Jon's horror, he recognized it as a sob.
He shoved the door open, deposited the food on the nearest piece of furniture, and was at Stephen's bedside in a flash. The swollen knot of muscle and bone from the night before had bulged to the size of a loaf of bread, the skin over it more bruised and peeling than ever, while Stephen lay on top of the sheets and cried into his pillow. Jon smoothed a lock of thoroughly de-coiffed hair out of his sweat-streaked face and said, "What do you need? What can I do?"
"Hurts," gulped Stephen. "Hurts so much. Can't move."
"Don't try. I'll get you something. You have pain meds around here?"
"C-cabinet." Stephen's eyes flicked to a door over Jon's shoulder. "Bottom left."
Jon found the container easily. Next to it was a bottle with the familiar Prescott colors; he grabbed that too. One by mouth, the first label directed, every four hours as needed: he retrieved the water, Stephen managed to lift his head, and the first tablet was swallowed without too much spillage.
100% Effective In Preventing Wing Development.*, said the second label. In miniscule letters on the back it added, *May Not Be Effective On 100% Of Wings.
After a few silent minutes kneading the base of Stephen's neck, during which the tears slowed and the shaking eased, Jon said, "I think we should call a doctor."
"S-something's wrong?" croaked Stephen.
"I don't know. Maybe it's fine. But, Stephen...." Jon ran his palm down the muscles on Stephen's back, down the left side. The smooth, growth-free, normal left side. "You feel that?"
Stephen's eyes widened. "Vaxicarus."
"If it's living up to the label, great. If it was only 95% effective at keeping this wing from growing...if you end up with extra bone fragments in there, or something...I just think it's worth having a professional take a look."
With his left arm, and slow, careful movements, Stephen scrubbed at his eyes with a corner of the sheet. "It said 100%, Jon...if you can't trust pharmaceutical companies, who c-can you trust?"
"Also, the hospital will be able to prescribe you some morphine."
Stephen tensed under his touch. "W-what are you waiting for? Call them!"
They checked Stephen in and made Jon go home.
He slept in his own bed, fitfully, phone in hand. Just in case.
It was very unfair that all the nurses kept avoiding Stephen.
Sure, he had accidentally whacked one of them in the face with a wingful of sticky, downy feathers, and maybe he could have been a little clearer with the other that he meant a blowdryer and not a blowjob, and he had reduced a third to tears for bringing him an unacceptable color of jell-o...but he was a patient, wasn't he? Putting up with him was supposed to be their job!
He hadn't spoken to his doctor at all. Presumably she had been around after they put him under, to slice open the fluid-filled sac and bandage the torn, bruised flesh around the new joint it had been protecting, and to double-check the X-rays afterward. But she had left him to the nurses ever since, without so much as a 'just wanted to mention in person that your new skeletal structure is settling in nicely' or 'here's a prescription for something that will get you so high you'll be seeing dragons'."
Nobody had brought him a mirror, so he couldn't see what he looked like. His new limb was by turns sore and numb, too much so to practice moving, and he wasn't supposed to anyway, lest he disturb the bandages. There was nothing to do except watch bad daytime TV, bother the nurses, and sulk.
Stephen lay on his left side and wished Jon would show up. Or anyone, for that matter, so long as they brought Stephen's iPad with them.
Someone from the Enquirer was wheedling the hospital staff when Jon made it to the waiting room. He ducked behind a corner, hid his face behind the bouquet of zinnias he'd brought, and did his best impression of a potted plant until the reporter was escorted out.
Stephen was in bed when the on-duty nurse ushered Jon in, in a pale-green hospital gown with one of the upper quadrants hacked hastily off, and what looked like a fluffy brownish-grey blanket draped over the bared part of his back. White gauze and the purpling edges of bruises were just visible under its edge. "I said no interviews!" he snapped without looking up.
"He's all yours," said the nurse dryly.
"Thanks," said Jon, and handed her the bouquet. "For the staff, with my compliments. Stephen? It's me."
Stephen sat up on his elbows. "Jon?"
The downy wing moved with him.
In motion, the new limb was unmistakable. It didn't move like a prosthetic, a puppet, or CGI; it was part of him, held close to his body, the carpal joint around the level of his ear and the longest feathers just brushing his hips. Between the muddy color, the wrinkled skin visible through crooked tufts of feathering, and the awkward imbalance of its missing twin, it wouldn't win any beauty contests...but it was whole, and healthy, and undeniably Stephen's.
"It looks amazing," said Jon honestly. "How are you feeling?"
Stephen's lip wobbled. For a moment Jon assumed the worst. Then, in an exquisitely fragile voice, Stephen said, "The scale says I've gained five pounds."
No wonder he had turned down an interview.
"It's all the wing," Jon reminded him, taking a seat. "Without it, I bet you've actually lost a bunch."
Carefully, Stephen sat the rest of the way up. The lines of his face did seem sharper, and he was still pale from the strain. "So...if I had it removed...."
"You'd be back in surgery, and in for a longer recovery period," Jon reminded him. "But yeah, you'd be down the weight."
"And my suits would fit again."
Stephen curled his wing around and experimented for a moment, first stroking the feathers with his hand, then holding his arm still and flapping the wing slowly against it. It was like watching a baby deer's first steps. Jon was mesmerized.
"This," said Stephen softly, "is going to collect so much dust."
"I'm the best right-wing pundit on TV...literally. This...is The Colbert Report!"
"Are you ever going to get tired of those puns?" said Jon, only half watching the Stephen on the screen.
The real Stephen kneeling in front of him (in a loose toga-style shirt, a stark contrast to the hastily-tailored show suit with a new button-up opening in back) snorted. "Does the Pope ever get tired of wearing fancy hats? C'mon, Jon, I gotta work with what the good Lord gave me. Now get back to working with what the good Lord gave me."
With a fond sigh Jon got back to dragging his fingers through Stephen's feathers. They needed grooming now more than ever because the downy ones were molting in patches, leaving room for his adult feathers to come in: deep brown, with white flecks and splotches, especially on the underside. Besides, as Stephen complained, the skin around the feather follicles got itchy, and Jon made it feel better.
Just as the opening credits were blending with the applause, Stephen paused the TiVo. "I wanted to thank you," he said, arching his wing against Jon's hands.
"Stephen, there's really no need to—"
"I'm not gonna talk like this for long, so shut up for a minute, okay? You've been really nice and supportive and did not once laugh at my various experiences of crushing pain, and I appreciate it. Also you have resisted the temptation to take advantage of me, even when I'm in a tantalizingly vulnerable position and not wearing a lot of clothing, and I appreciate that too."
"Um, no problem," said Jon. "You know that's not really an issue, right?"
"It's okay, Jon. You don't need to hide it. Being attracted to someone like me doesn't count as a threat to your heterosexuality; all it means is that you have eyes."
As usual, Jon decided to forego the explanation. "I accept your thanks," he said instead, squeezing Stephen's shoulders, careful to avoid the still-tender base of the wing joint. "Say, what do you want me to do with these baby feathers you're shedding?"
"Oh, those? Put 'em in the basket on the end table," said Stephen, reaching for the remote. "I'm having them made into a set of throw pillows."