this is who we are at the end of the world remix by silveryscrape
"Let us go in;
The fog is rising."
—Emily Dickinson's last words, 1886
Nature was never his first choice. He was a man of the city, preferring the boardroom or penthouse suite, or even the occasional shithole apartment if circumstances warranted it, where he might find himself surrounded by cracked plaster and dingy linoleum for weeks on end until something changed, until he changed something, or, more likely, until something else happened beyond his control. He was a man without choices these days, and his current masters wanted him here in the forest. He would do what he had come to do, and then he would get out, go somewhere and try to be lost again, and think about what he might do next. He hated the forest. Too many of his few choices had been taken from him, in other forests, in other places and times.
The little tent was dark when he found it, and the little firepit dark but still warm, embers smouldering in jackets of ash. Bedtime had been hours earlier, apparently, and he could hear the sounds of breathing and a sigh, some rustling movement, subsiding into silence. He waited a long time near the unguarded campsite, but he could hear nothing more than the regular noises of the forest at night, creatures stirring through the underbrush, the hunting cry of an owl, wind tossing leaves at the tops of the huge trees. Carefully, he covered his watch with the palm of his hand, then illuminated the dial. Soon. He settled into his crouch, to wait and watch.
They had no idea, there in that tent. Just camping, a nice trip to the woods. His lips tightened. Idiots, innocents, about to be caught up in something they could not have expected, something they would never understand. Let them sleep in peace for a little while first.
Chris came awake with a start, sudden awareness in the dark, to flickering shapes from the muted tv slipping through the quiet living room. He had been dreaming about fire, about burning buildings and crying children and snakes coiling and recoiling around him, but there had been no feelings of panic or sadness, only an immense weary kind of acceptance, like finally. Let's do this, and get it over with. He could hear the clock over the piano ticking and wondered what had woken him. When the phone rang, he turned his head to look at it, unsurprised.
He picked it up and pressed a button. "Yeah."
"Chris, oh fuck, Chris."
Justin made a sobbing sort of noise over the phone, and Chris sat up straight on the couch. "Chris, can you come get us? I can't, JC won't, there was a light and JC won't wake up!"
"Justin, slow down. What about JC?
"Chris." Justin sucked in a panicky breath, and Chris could hear a zipping sound. Tent, maybe? He had dropped the two of them off in Bellefleur on Monday, and helped Justin load their gear into the rental while JC smiled sleepily, clutching his Starbucks cup and staying out of the way. Justin had been talking a mile a minute, excited as a kid to be going camping in the woods, and it had been ridiculously cute, watching him grin at JC and make horrible puns about roasting weenies, and watching JC blush and frown back. He had warned Justin not to call him for any reason on pain of death, so of course Justin knew he had better call, but Chris had really not expected them to run into any trouble at all. They'd refused to let Lonnie come along, for which Lonnie had been clearly grateful, but Lance had reserved the entire park for them and the rangers had assured them the place would be theirs, as much as that was possible.
"Justin, where are you? What happened?"
"Chris, he's. Can you come? I don't think he's hurt. But I can't wake him up."
Chris pushed the afghan on his lap to the floor and got to his feet. "What happened, Justin? Justin!" He started for the bedroom, pausing to grab the remote and flick the tv off, leaving the living room in darkness and moonlight. Justin was panting into the phone, shaky breaths in his ear that sent prickles of unease up Chris's spine and settled a cold ball in his gut.
"I'm okay, we're okay, I think. I just freaked out, Chris. There was this light, and JC fucking had to go check it out. Fuck! He won't wake up. He came back and he wouldn't say a word and he just laid down on his sleeping bag, and now I can't, I can't."
"Okay, Justin, calm down. Where are you?"
Justin drew in a deep breath, clearly trying hard to get himself together. "Camping, Chris. We're still—I drove us out into the woods, and then we hiked some more. I'm not—The ranger showed us how to get here. I could get us back out, but JC, shit, he. Chris."
"Justin, listen to me! Is he breathing? He's breathing, right?"
"Yeah. Yeah, he's breathing. He has a pulse. He's… Chris, he's just sleeping, but. Can you come? I'm kind of freaked out here." Justin attempted a shaky laugh, without much success, a strangled moan that made Chris push the phone against his ear, hard. "I'll get a flight out there right away. You call 911, Justin, okay? Call them, and then call me when you get to the hospital, okay? Justin?"
But there was no answer, only the absence of any sound at all, and he had lost the connection. He hit redial, clumsy fingers stabbing at the keypad, but the call was refused, and refused again. The Siskiyou was too far from the real world to get good phone reception, apparently. Surely Justin had not turned off his phone, not on purpose.
Chris tucked the phone in his pocket and threw open the door to his closet. He would call Joey and Lance from the car on the way to the airport. Lance would have to call his rangers in. Knowing Lance, he would also call in the big guns, the Army and the Navy and even the FBI, if necessary. The thought gave Chris no comfort.
It was already sunny at the edge of the woods, and Chris hoisted his backpack higher on his shoulder and looked dubiously at the compass in his hand. Was it supposed to spin around in a circle like that? Truthfully, Chris was glad he was meeting Lance's ranger there, because he doubted he'd be able to manage in the forest on his own. Some hiking and a few years in the Boy Scouts had not prepared him for the tangle of wet vines and dark mossy trunks, the density of leaves and shadowy underbrush. Just peering into the distance of tree beyond tree ramped up his concern for Justin and JC. It was another world in there.
Luckily, Lance's ranger didn't keep him waiting. Within minutes Chris could hear the hum of an engine in the distance, and soon a dusty little Jeep pulled up behind his rental and stopped, and a man in jeans and a brown leather jacket climbed out.
"Yeah," Chris said, stepping forward and offering his hand. The ranger smiled, obviously amused, but he took Chris's hand briefly before turning away to dig through the back of the jeep, hauling out a backpack and another long-strapped bag, which he slung across his body.
"Ready to go?" he said, eyeing Chris's gear. He had not introduced himself, but he had an ID clipped to his well-worn jacket, and he clearly appreciated the urgency of the situation. Chris nodded.
"Rest of my people will meet us out there. Your man Bass says you haven't been able to reach them by cell phone?"
He led the way to what Chris could only assume was the trailhead, an opening in the underbrush only slightly less dense than its surroundings, and they set off. Chris tried to explain what he knew, what had happened and what Lance was trying to do about it, but the ranger had apparently spoken to Lance more recently than he. He knew all about Lance's plans, more than Chris did himself, and that was reassuring. Chris fell into step behind him, and felt the tangle in his gut loosen a little.
But every step along the path looked like every other step, to him, trees and bigger trees and more trees, a bewildering maze of green and black and brown, endless nature. Chris felt as though he was interrupting at every step, intruding into a conversation that stilled to waiting silence right before he arrived, waiting silence and a distant, weird attention, turned on him. It didn't help that his companion spoke little and seemed untiring. Hours later, and his gait was unhurried yet steady. Chris had wanted to sit down and prop his head on his hands, creepy trees or no, about forty seven miles back.
The ranger came to halt in front of him. Chris peered around his leather-clad back into a small, sunny clearing, and saw a small tent, zipped up tight.
"This is where I left them," the ranger said, and strode into the clearing.
Chris came along behind him, a little more slowly, looking around. He could hear birds singing and little creatures scurrying about in the leaves, and he supposed this would be a wonderful place to spend some time, isolated as it was. But he heard no human sounds, and Justin and JC were nowhere to be seen. The tangle tightened itself in his midsection, and he hurried to the tent.
The sound of the zipper was loud in the fresh morning air. Chris poked his head in gingerly and looked around the tiny, dim space. Justin looked back at him, sitting crosslegged with his hand on a long bundle of blankets, his eyes too wide and his face frozen.
"Chris?" he said in a small voice, then launched himself across the tent.
Lance had found a doctor who would meet them out in the woods, so that they could save time, and the ranger was taking them to a place nearby, a little way station used by Service personnel. It would take them hours to make their way out of the park, even considering how Chris drove, and the doctor was already on the road, heading for the station. Chris had to admit how efficient the plan sounded, typical Lance fare. His uneasiness was probably due to the weird vibe he had gotten from the forest, and his first sight of JC.
He was so still. Chris had seen him sleep a hundred times, a thousand times, head back and mouth open in cramped airplane seats, face down in exhausted collapse on hotel beds, cuddled up with Justin on the big couch in the back of the bus. He was never this motionless, a dynamic sleeper no matter how tired, and Chris could remember all the times he had heard Justin's outraged "OW" after JC had elbowed him or smacked him in the face, flinging his arms and legs about in active dreams.
Maybe JC wasn't dreaming now. Or maybe he had gone so far away that his body could no longer respond to what he saw. He wasn't seeing this world at all, Chris was certain of that much. Justin talked to him constantly, holding his passive body in the back of the Forest Service Jeep, stroking his pale face and murmuring to him, and JC never once opened his eyes.
"Here we are," the ranger said, turning the Jeep off the blacktop highway, and Chris looked up to see a dirt road disappearing into the trees. They bumped along the road for a few minutes, passing through a long tunnel of branches, and finally entered a small clearing. A Land Rover was parked in front of a wooden structure at the back of the clearing. As the ranger slowed to pull in alongside it, the door to the rough house flew open and Joey and Lance tumbled out.
Chris felt better almost immediately, seeing them, and from the backseat Justin made a relieved little noise. How could anything really be wrong, with the five of them together? They would get JC fixed up and out of this forest, and God as his witness, Chris would never allow anyone he knew to go camping again. He pushed open his door. The ranger was already out of his own seat and around the side of the vehicle, opening the passenger door carefully.
Lance went straight over to help the ranger slide JC's blanket-wrapped body out of the Jeep. Joey grabbed Chris's arm.
"How is he?" he said, his forehead wrinkled. Chris shrugged a little, biting his lip.
"And Justin? He's okay?"
"I think so," Chris said, but then Lance was waving them over, because JC was relatively light, but his floppy limbs had come loose from the blankets. Justin tried to help, but he was no use, exhausted and still freaked out, Chris could tell. A better answer to Joey's question might have been I don't think so. Justin had insisted on helping to carry JC out of the woods, until he stumbled, barely keeping his grip on the metal and plastic handles of the rescue board. JC's head had whipped back and forth inside the blanket Chris had folded around it, his hair spilling out across the nylon of the board, and Justin had moaned, horrified. Chris had made him sit for a long time before they went on, and it had taken Justin a long time to walk out of the woods. He would probably need to force Justin to rest in the cabin, too. Otherwise Justin would watch JC until he dropped.
They got JC inside and up an impressive open staircase, to a large, light bedroom filled with shabby furniture and a gigantic, quilt-covered bed. JC looked so small in the center of the bed, so small and still. Sick. Justin looked small, too, settling into a chair next to the bed, and he should really be on the bed, too, but Chris supposed this was as relaxed as he would get.
"He's really… he's sleeping hard," Lance said. Justin nodded, grimacing, and Lance put his arms around Justin's body, kneeling next to his chair, while Joey sat on the bed next to JC. Chris went down to check out the rest of the situation. Justin and JC were in good hands.
The ranger was just shouldering through the kitchen door as Chris came in. He set a cardboard box near a couple of others on the cheap kitchen table, and nodded briskly. "Okay, your doctor ought to be here soon. There's some canned food and supplies, if you need them, and I have a cooler in the back of the Jeep. Solar panels should be okay, but try to go easy on the solar shower. Five of you and all."
"We won't be here that long," Chris said. The ranger smiled.
"I believe in being overprepared. Now, about communications. No radio here. Your phone working?"
Chris dug his phone out of his jeans pocket and looked at the display. One weak bar, fading away almost immediately. "Well, Lance's, probably…"
Chris eyed him for that one, but he was right. The ranger followed him up the staircase. Three solemn faces turned to him as he entered the bedroom, one still turned away, and it struck Chris that it was up to him to keep them all going, to keep them all focused and strong, together.
"How about this place?" he said, and sure enough, Joey and Lance smiled, and Justin's face relaxed, a little.
"Rustic," Joey said, a wealth of meaning in the single word. Lance smirked and nodded, and Chris agreed. In other, less serious times, he'd have said the same thing and lots more besides, commenting freely on the stone fireplace and the rickety wooden and metal furniture, not to mention the lanterns and oil lamps in every room, which didn't bode well. The ranger stepped up next to Chris.
"Safe," he said briefly, and looked at JC. Something in Chris said yes, but he wasn't sure why, wasn't sure why safe was necessary, when the doctor was coming even now. Wasn't sure "safe" was the best way to describe this strange little cabin, with its wall of glass in back, facing the overhanging trees.
Justin didn't know where his phone was. "I can't find JC's phone, either. It must be in the woods still," he said, a shadow crossing his face, and Chris knew exactly what he was thinking. They were all still in the woods.
"Well, I got no signal at all." Joey frowned, flipping his phone shut. Lance unclipped his from his belt, and the signal was strong, no problem at all. Thank god for Lance's love of space-age super technology. They would need to call Johnny, after the doctor came and they knew what was up.
The ranger wished them all luck, gravely, and Chris locked the heavy door behind him when he left. Maybe it was silly, in such an isolated place, but it made him feel better. Then he went back up to join the others.
Lance's doctor showed up almost immediately, a stern-looking older man, reassuringly professional despite the hiking boots and sheepskin coat, with a black nylon bag over one shoulder. He nodded at Chris, unsmiling, and looked Lance and Joey over carefully before heading up to see JC. He had gotten there not a moment too soon, in Chris's opinion. JC was hot to the touch, sweating, his hair plastered over his forehead and tangled along his neck, and he kept throwing off the blankets Justin tried to tuck in around him. He hadn't woken up once, the whole day. No one had said it out loud, but Chris knew what they were all wondering. It had to be sleep.
Justin lifted his head from JC's arm when they piled into the room behind the doctor, but he kept a tight grip on JC's wrist as he twisted in his chair to face them, and his look was closed and suspicious.
"Who's this," he said to Chris. Lance cleared his throat as the doctor set his bag on the bedside table and began to dig around in it.
"This is Dr Cathin. He comes highly recommended."
Justin glanced at Lance, and then at Chris. Chris nodded. Justin's expression changed then, crumpled a little, his lips pulling down, and Chris had to bite his lip at the naked appeal in Justin's voice when he spoke to the doctor.
"Can you help him? What's wrong with him?"
The doctor turned to the bed, a stethoscope in his hand. "I'll need to assess him," he said. Justin nodded and released JC's arm, moving aside to let the doctor do his thing.
He peeled back JC's eyelids, felt his wrists, and probed delicately at his abdomen, before settling in to listen to his chest with the stethoscope. Chris watched his face closely, but his expression never changed, and he said nothing until he stepped back from the bed and opened his bag again.
"I'm going to draw some blood to be sure, but I believe this to be a variant of the Marburg virus, a type of flu we've been seeing around here lately."
He drew some glass tubes and a couple of needles from his bag. Chris thought of how JC would react to that in other circumstances and felt a strange unease, but Justin let his breath go suddenly, as if relieved, and Chris set the vague feeling aside.
"So he's, he'll."
Doctor Cathin turned his grave gaze on Justin and nodded. "I'll give him an injection, a vaccine, some multivitamins. It might take him a while to fight this off, but he should do just fine."
He busied himself with a rubber strap, wrapping it around JC's arm, while Justin folded over himself, clutching his middle, and Lance and Joey high-fived each other triumphantly. JC would be okay. Chris shut his eyes, feeling as close to thanking someone, a creator or whoever, as he ever got. But when he looked up again, the doctor was tapping bubbles out of a syringe full of glowing yellow fluid, holding it in the air and examining it closely, and Chris felt the hollow twinge again.
JC gasped when the second needle slid into his skin, and kept on gasping when it was gone. Justin sent a burning glance at the doctor and hurried back to JC's side, clutching one limp hand to his chest and smoothing the matted hair from his face.
"Doc?" Lance said uncertainly.
"The vaccine works immediately. He's already fighting off the infection. But to be sure, I'm going to send out some medical personnel, some supplies, to support him until the fever effervesces."
Lance bowed his head, clearly relieved. Chris had to admit that was a great idea. They could use the extra help, JC could, and Justin could not maintain like this for much longer, riding the edge of exhaustion, stress, and worry. Dr Cathin spoke into his cell phone for a moment, and he used a lot of lingo Chris couldn't identify, turning away from them all to speak in quiet tones, but he seemed satisfied when he lowered the phone and turned to face them again.
"He'll be okay."
The doctor held Chris's gaze for a strong moment, then looked around at the other guys in turn as he tucked the tubes of blood away in his bag. Lance nodded back at him, and Joey bit his lip, then nodded too and turned his head, unable to keep JC out of his sight for long, Chris knew. Justin didn't look up at all, the whole of his piercing attention on JC, timing his breathing with each of JC's ragged inhalations. Whether JC heard the doctor's words was anyone's guess. He was somewhere else now, beyond response, and Chris could only hope Lance's Dr Cathin was right about how to keep his body from following his spirit into whatever strange place it had found.
With an effort, Chris turned away from the window and forced himself to look at the bed.
JC was not better. JC was paler, milky white and glowing, almost translucent. His breath bubbled in his chest, and a tremor ran through his whole body continually, as if he were rocked by huge waves, his body tossed in a strange current. He was sick in a way none of them had seen before, or heard of.
Justin refused to leave his side at all, as if he could will JC better, call him back by the sheer force of his worry and anguish. Chris knew he hadn't slept at all that night, because he had not slept either. None of them had. It was hard to contemplate leaving JC for that long, and Chris had spent hours looking out the expansive windows in JC's room, watching the night and the moonlit dirt road disappearing into the dark cave of trees, watching, and waiting. Dr Cathin's medical people had not shown up.
"Chris," Lance murmured from the old blanket-covered couch in the corner. Chris could just see the gleam of his eyes, and hear the sound of Joey's breathing, slow and steady.
"I'm going to call Dr Cathin again, see what's going on. I'll be downstairs."
"Okay," Chris said. Joey sat up, a scratchy rustle in the dark as he pulled his head from Lance's leg and moved away on the couch, a sigh as he drew in a deep breath. Lance tiptoed across the room and out the door, his body silhouetted briefly in the moonlight falling through the cabin's back windows, and the room settled back into quiet, broken only by the unsettling sound of JC's slow gasps, and Justin's hoarse, private whispers.
Lance didn't come back. Finally Chris made his way down the open staircase to find him.
He sat at the kitchen table, his body a tense curve on the metal and plastic chair, and he was holding the phone in a tight fist, staring at it in the flickering light from the Coleman lantern, seemingly mesmermized by the sight. Chris felt a tickle of unease along his spine.
"Lance. What did the doctor say? How soon can he have someone here?"
Lance turned his head slowly, and for a minute it seemed he wouldn't meet Chris's gaze. Then he opened his eyes and Chris couldn't ever remember a time when Lance had looked so lost, so uncertain and freaked out and still, as though the world were shifting under him. A sickening suspicion filled Chris, and he crossed the wooden floor in a sudden rush. Lance's hand was stiff, his muscles locked around the phone, holding on desperately, but Chris pried open his fingers to see the lighted display: Number not in service.
Lance shook his head. "I can't, the number won't go through. Chris, I—"
"What does that mean? Lance?"
"I don't know, Chris."
"Did you dial the right number? Did you double check?"
"God, Chris! Of course I did! This is how I reached him before. This is the number I got from the Forest Service, the closest doctor—"
"The Forest Service," Chris said, and Lance flushed.
"I'll get, I'll find someone else. The ranger—" Lance said, then broke off, his face tightening.
"That's fine, Lance," Chris said absently, turning away, trying to think. JC was fading right in front of his eyes, and he had no idea what to do. What had happened to the doctor? Lance made a noise behind him as he pushed through the doorway and out into the frigid night air, and when he glanced back, he could see Lance's shape in the tiny yellow square of the window. Farther away from the house, all he could see was the dark of the forest around him.
When Chris finally wandered back into the narrow clearing around the cabin, Lance opened the heavy wooden door and leaned out. "I called 911, Chris. They're going to triangulate on my signal and send some squads."
Chris moved reluctantly into the strip of light spilling from the open door. He had taken the blackness of the night inside him, somehow, brought it back with him out of the woods. Lance's face was open, so uncertain and ready for blame. Turning away could only protect him, now.
"I'll be upstairs," he said, pushing past him through the narrow doorway, moving through the kitchen, not turning back. Behind him, Lance made no sound.
He climbed the stairs to tell Joey and Justin about the rescue, and Joey closed his eyes, while Justin bowed his head and his face twisted up. Chris had to look away. He settled onto the couch, stiffly. Joey rubbed a warm hand over his knee, but the something still pressed hard around Chris's heart, filling up his lungs, and he could barely draw a breath.
Minutes went by, and more minutes, and more. Finally Joey got up from the couch, sliding his hand over JC's foot as he passed, catching Chris's eye and nodding toward Justin. Chris attempted a "duh" look. Maybe it worked. Joey nodded a little and left the room, and Chris could hear him speak to Lance, downstairs, and Lance's low tones in answer. Lance sounded… Chris put that aside, and focused his attention on the figures on the bed.
More minutes went by, and more. Chris sensed each one keenly, hyperaware of the ticking of his watch, of the whisper of Justin's hand over JC's shuddering chest, of the gurgle of JC's respirations. JC's breathing began to speed up at about the same time the windows of the bedroom pinkened past sunrise, and Justin whispered, "Chris?"
With no sense of shock at all, Chris realized how much time had passed. Daylight was seeping into JC's room, cold light filling up the space, surrounding them. He could hear the birds calling in the trees outside, singing their daytime songs, and someone, Lance or Joey, moving around down below.
"Chris, shouldn't they be here by now? It's been hours."
"Yeah," Chris said, and pushed himself up from the couch. Justin sighed.
He found Lance in the kitchen, rifling through supplies on the counter, yanking at the particle board cabinet doors and slamming them shut again, while Joey dug through the cardboard boxes the ranger had left.
"It's past six, Lance," he said, and Lance swung around to face him, his expression tight and miserable.
"I know, I. Do you have my phone, Chris?"
"What? What about your phone? I just want to know where the rescue squads are, Lance."
Lance flushed, but he went on doggedly. "My phone. It was on the table, but now I can't find it." He pushed past Chris into the living room and started yanking blankets from the old couch. Chris followed him.
"You lost your phone." Chris couldn't keep the steel from his voice. Lance flinched a little.
"Lance Bass lost his phone."
"Dammit, Chris," Lance started, but then he closed his mouth, and the fire subsided in his eyes, leaving only something that looked like guilt. Chris rubbed his forehead and scrubbed his face with both hands, blocking out the sight, bottling up the sharp words that tried to escape his throat.
"Did you look? Could you have left it somewhere else? Maybe Joey took it."
"Joey didn't take it." Joey frowned, arms crossed over his chest, and went on. "In fact, Joey can't find his own phone, either."
"So," Chris started, but the enormity of everything hit him suddenly, and he found himself looking at Lance's closed face while he tried to think. He couldn't seem to catch hold of his thoughts. They raced around in his head, each possibility sparking and then fading away to dim nothing, nothing connecting, nothing adding up. How could he figure things out if he had no idea what was going on? With a strange, sinking sense, he realized he had not seen his own phone since their first moments in cabin. He turned abruptly and climbed the stairs.
Justin raised his head slowly, his eyes dull, but Chris waved him back with as much gentleness as he could muster, and he subsided, clutching at JC's damp shirt. Chris's jacket… the phone was not in his jacket. Not in his backpack. Chris turned around in the spacious bedroom, trying to remember, but it was nowhere. Lance's doctor had disappeared, so Lance had called 911, he said. But they had not come either, and now, now when Lance had to call for help again, the phones were missing. Nothing made sense, at all.
He made his way back down the stairs, trembling, feeling the air around him closing in. His sight seemed to darken, and Lance's lowered head and Joey's arm around his shoulders barely registered.
"My phone doesn't even work out here, Lance."
Lance's head shot up and his eyes narrowed, but Joey stepped forward and raised a hand. "Okay, we're out of here," he said, pushing his hand into his front pocket. The keys to the Land Rover jangled when he pulled them out. "No more waiting. This is fucking stupid. Go get JC."
He slammed the cabin door on his way out. It was the most sensible thing anyone had done since the start of this whole thing, but Chris felt no release of the pressure built up in him. He held Lance's gaze, staring hard, trying to see all the way inside, and Lance looked back with something bleak in his eyes. They listened to the muffled thunk of the driver's side door, and then Joey cranked the battery. And then again, and again, and again, and Lance looked down. Watching Lance bite his lip, listening to Joey popping the hood of the Land Rover, feeling a horrible certainty spread through his body… finally, he had figured something out, and it was the worst thing he could think of. Not Lance.
Joey came back in after a minute. "Won't start. No distributor cap," he said briefly, tossing the keys to the plank coffee table. They slid across the wood surface and over the edge, onto the shabby braided rug.
Lance turned to him, frowning. "What? It's broken?"
Joey laughed, a humorless bark. "It's fucking gone, Lance. There is no distributor cap. The distributor cap has been removed."
"It's. How can it be gone?"
Lance's eyes widened, seemed to fill with a terrible knowledge, as Joey shrugged and turned away. He was so good, the best. Lance was always the best at everything. Chris laughed, too, and thought he would not be able to stop. "That's… that's just classic. Oh, fuck, Lance. That's just classic. The distributor cap!"
Lance hunched his shoulders, and his voice shook. "What is your problem, Chris?"
"My problem? You want to know what my problem is?"
"Fuck, Chris, you—"
"I feel like I can't trust anyone anymore," Chris shouted, and Lance gasped and turned away.
"All right," Joey said, frowning, but Lance wheeled around again, his face distorted and furious and hurt.
"What are you trying to say, Chris?" he spat, and flung a glass from the plank table into the stone fireplace. The sound of breaking glass froze the room into stillness, until Justin's shrill voice broke through.
"Shut up, shut up, shut up," he yelled from the top of the stairs, his hands clenched, tears running down his face. "You stupid fuckers, how can you even—" He choked and ran the back of his hand over his mouth, then disappeared into the bedroom again.
Lance walked unsteadily toward the kitchen door, his spine stiff, his face turned away from Chris, and in a moment the ground fell away beneath Chris's feet, and he knew what he had done.
He couldn't blame Lance for walking away. Couldn't blame him for anything. Whatever was going on, whoever was preying on them in this rustic hole, they were to blame, not Lance. Not Lance, who had tried his hardest to take care of them in all the ways he knew best, who had been thwarted at every turn. It was not Lance's fault that they were caught up in something evil and strange, something beyond their comprehension. Not Lance's fault that Chris had allowed the rage and fear to claw its way out of his own black heart, because he was the only one of them unworthy of trust.
He would not leave the cabin again. He couldn't risk it, not with someone out there in the woods, and something bitter and small inside his own soul, another enemy. He stood next to the windows, looking out, trying to catch a glimpse of movement for some unknown amount of time, until Joey pushed a chair behind his legs and he sat. Nothing was out there, as far as he could see, but he kept his eyes open anyway.
Chris guessed it was close to sundown when he gave up watching. It did no good, anyway. There were too many windows, and the forest was too big. With a sense of giving up, he turned away from the wall of glass and climbed the wooden staircase, clutching the rail as a wave of dizziness hit him about half-way up.
"Chris," Joey said, from the doorway to the kitchen, his face drawn in the dim light, and his eyes filled with concern. Chris shook his head and continued up the stairs.
JC was… Justin was sitting on the bed with his back against the headboard, propped stiffly, his head falling forward and jerking up slightly as he dozed. He opened his eyes slowly when Chris spoke his name, but there was no recognition in them at all, no understanding, only a kind of lost loneliness.
"Justin, go get something to eat."
He shook his head, a nauseated look flitting across his face, and shifted uncomfortably on the bed. His hand sliding across JC's neck made a thick sound.
Chris hardened his voice. "Then go take a shower, Justin. I'll watch over him for a while."
Justin looked at him for a few seconds, then blinked and sucked in a huge breath. "Okay," he said in a voice full of broken glass, pulling his hand from JC's neck and lurching up from the bed. Chris thought he'd have to catch him as he wobbled across the bedroom floor, but he straightened and stretched his spine, bending backwards carefully, and disappeared into the bathroom, and Chris was left with JC.
He dragged a chair closer to the bed, but lost his grip on the wooden arm at the last second. The chair seat thumped against the mattress before he could catch it. "Sorry," he murmured, a reflex, but no one answered back. Nobody made an annoyed noise and tried to aim a sleep-clumsy swat at his leg, nobody grinned at him and told him what a klutz he was, it must be all the crack. Nobody asked him what the hell he was doing anyway, watching people in their sleep. Chris sank into the chair and put his forehead on the scratchy sheet next to JC's struggling body.
"Oh, JC. What are we gonna do with you. What are we gonna do." Nobody answered, and Chris's throat closed up tight.
When Justin stumbled back from the shower, red-eyed and grim, to settle gingerly on the bed next to JC, Chris got up from his chair, feeling like he was a thousand years old.
"Want some tea?"
Justin reached out to touch JC, but his hand hovered over JC's sticky skin, and Chris could see his jaw tense before he took JC's boneless hand in his. He turned his head in Chris's direction, not quite meeting his eyes, and when he spoke, his voice was full of grief.
"I don't know."
"You want some," Chris told him, and curved his hand around Justin's head, pulling him in for a rough hug against his body for a second. Justin exhaled against him, trembling, but he had a small smile when he pushed Chris away, a slight lifting of his expression that struck Chris in the heart like a knife.
"I'll get you some," Chris mumbled, then escaped down the open staircase to the kitchen.
Joey set the bowl he was holding on the formica table when Chris walked into the room, and immediately wrapped him up in his arms, pulling Chris's forehead in to rest on his shoulder, and it was a great comfort. Joey was always a great comfort, but that just made it all worse now. He tried to pull away, but Joey wouldn't let him.
"Justin wants tea," he said into Joey's body. Joey loosened his tight grip a little, and when Chris stepped back he could see in his eyes that Joey knew how much he was fronting, and that it was okay, as always. His chest loosened slightly. He turned away, and saw that Lance was pouring tea from the stone pot into one of the old chipped mugs.
"I'll bring it to him," he said quietly, almost looking at Chris, and Chris nodded.
Lance nodded back, his hand trembling noticeably, but he took in a deep breath and picked up the mug, snagging a foil container of pastries off the counter as he made his way out of the kitchen toward the front of the cabin. Joey cuffed Chris on the shoulder and followed Lance. For a second, Chris felt as though he'd done something right.
A shout filled the little cabin, a sudden clap of sound. Joey bellowed his name, and Chris closed his eyes, unable to help himself. Then he was tearing out of the kitchen and up the steps, and there was no time for his weakness, at all.
JC was changing again. Shadows slid around under his opalescent skin, a roiling mass of shapes, inky little fingers probing up from the depths of his body that fell back again and faded away, so that JC was in constant motion, a slow bubbling all over his body that had nothing to do with the normal stretch and pull of muscles. Chris thought he could hear Justin whimpering from the corner of the room, but JC's breathing had become a continuous squeal, a steam whistle hiss of pain that filled up the airless room.
"Chris. Chris, do something."
"I, I'll—" Chris said wildly, clenching his hands, and there had to be something to do, but he knew it was too late. It was too late, but how could that be? The unearthly sound of JC's thin song filled his head, and Justin was sobbing openly, Joey holding him, and Lance's eyes were empty and dark. It was up to him, his responsibility.
Chris turned and left the room. He knew what he had to do. He had known for a while, but he had been too much of a coward to do it. He would go now, even though the time for it was clearly past.
He slammed his way through fog-obscured trees, bashing at the undergrowth with a branch he scooped up from the damp ground, yelling and cursing, his voice haggard and stripped to nothing in the still air. "Here I am, assholes! What do you want? What do you want from us?"
The forest mocked him, it seemed, and trees sent up roots through piles of leaves to trip him as he ran. It was hard to see in the fog, in his madness, so that a sudden movement on the edge of the little clearing where he ended up sent a bolt of fear straight through him. He crashed to a halt, gasping, brandishing the stick before his body, a pathetic weapon. A man was standing at the edge of the treeline with something in his hand. Something… it was a gun, pointed right at him. The stick fell from his nerveless fingers. The forest ranger, utterly composed in his brown leather, smiled.
Chris stared at him, chest heaving. Something inside of him clicked into place and said of course. How could he have been so utterly, disastrously stupid.
"You… what the fuck is going on?"
The smile faded from the ranger's face, faded into cold distance, dispassionate appraisal. "I can't tell you that."
"You son of a bitch! JC's dying."
The words burned in the cool air like a brand. Maybe he was dying. Maybe dying would be better. Chris wiped his eyes angrily, beyond caring whether tears would help. Something flickered over the ranger's face, and he lowered the gun.
In a second everything in Chris's soul rose up, all the fear and grief and anger and worry, and he flung himself at the man, slammed him with his body, flailing his arms and legs, trying to get at the gun. He had a glimpse of shocked green eyes and felt a tremendous blow, and then he was lying on his back, gasping for breath, with something heavy lying on top of him. The gun! He had no clue what to do with it. Scrambling to his feet, he swung his body around wildly, clutching the gun with both hands, trying to locate the ranger. He was nowhere in sight. The forest was unchanged, full of silence and the sense of watching eyes.
Chris spun around, then spun again. "Where are you? Come out, you fucker, and let me shoot you!"
The trees laughed at him, and stillness filled the little glade again. Chris could hear himself sobbing for breath, sobbing, and finally he lowered his head and lowered the gun, defeated. After a minute he tossed it into a pile of leaves in front of him, wondering if it would go off and shoot him, and that seemed like the most hilarious thing he had ever heard.
The faintest whisper of sound, and Chris raised his head to see the ranger crouching to retrieve the gun, watching him carefully. He straightened, tucking the gun away under his jacket, and stood, hands open at his sides.
"He's going to be okay."
The ranger's cool voice, speaking the doctor's words. Chris tried to fight the blackness filling him up, the same feeling that had surrounded him and lived in him since the night of Justin's call, the threatening feeling of storm clouds on the horizon. It had come down to this, empty words in a lost place, the end of the world. He was numb. There was nothing more.
The man nodded, looking at Chris intently. "You'll hear from me—from us," he said, then turned to slip away through the trees before Chris could say a word. He watched for a long time until the normal forest noises settled around him and he got cold. JC needed him. They all did. He rose to his feet and brushed at the seat of his pants, looking around through the mossy trees, at the white glimmer of shafts of light hitting the forest floor, but as far as he could tell, nothing looked back.
When he got back, Joey took him by the arm the minute he shed his parka, a grim set to his face, and dragged Chris to the bedroom stairs. "Joey," he said, tugging at the too tight, urgent hold, but Joey shook his head, his eyes glazed and shocky. Chris could feel his heart clenching, and a dull pain settled in his chest. He shook off Joey's grip at the top of
the stairs and stepped through the bedroom doorway. Lance met his gaze from the corner when he slipped into the room, Joey close behind him, and pointed shakily at the bed and raised his eyebrows.
Justin was holding JC, sitting on the bed and clutching JC's solid body to him, tears rolling down his face. JC was awake, squinting against the light in the dim bedroom.
"Was I sick?" he rasped, licking his lips.
Justin buried his face in JC's neck. Beside him, Joey made an incoherent sound, but Chris couldn't take that in, because his heart had opened wide and was singing, and he was grabbing Joey by the arm and Lance by the shirt and tugging them to the bed, and everything was good, great, fine. The world was fine, and JC was alive.
"Naw, just a little bug," he said, grinning widely.
JC was better, and Justin was better because of it, and life was weirder than anything Chris could have believed. The Land Rover had started right away when Joey tried it the next morning, although the cell phones were probably gone forever. It had been a little like coming home, taunting Lance in his sadness over his lost phone list, hearing JC's rusty chuckle and Justin's snicker, a little like coming back to the world again. Today he and Joey would drive them the fuck out of these woods, and then he would persuade Lance to deal with all the fallout back home, because he was good at that, and he needed it. Johnny was no doubt screaming and freaked out. Lance could call him and let him rant for a few hours, and then the two of them would plan what to do and say about all of this.
But first, he would check on JC one more time, because he was a great big dork after all. Swinging his way along the rail up the open staircase to JC's room felt like he was climbing up on top of the world, like JC might be okay, really, and the world was a place he could understand again.
JC's door was closed. Strange. Chris put his hand on the doorknob, warmed from the light coming in the bright bank of windows, but when he heard the murmur of sound coming through the door he stopped and stood there in the hall and listened, feeling even more like a dork, a dork who eavesdropped.
"I thought you were. Oh, fuck. JC"
Justin's voice was husky and warm, and Chris knew what he was hearing, but he turned the knob slowly anyway. The door swung open, silent on its hinges, and in the golden light he saw them on the bed. They were wound together, moving together, Justin sliding his thigh between JC's legs, JC twining his fingers through Justin's hair, pulling his head back to lick and suck at Justin's neck. They were naked, and beautiful, and Chris knew he should turn around and leave, but they were beautiful, and alive.
"I'm not. I'm okay, Justin. Hear me?" JC's voice was shaking, and exultant, and Justin moaned "yes" and JC laughed against his neck and bit down until Justin jerked on top him and whimpered.
"You hear me? You sure?"
"Fuck. Yes," Justin moaned again. Chris bit his lip, about to turn around, when JC tilted his head and opened his eyes, meeting Chris's gaze across Justin's heaving shoulders, across the room, his eyes burning through the hazy afternoon sunlight.
"I'm okay. I'm okay, and everything's okay, do you hear me?"
And then he was closing his eyes and lowering his head to kiss Justin deeply, pulling him down and rolling him over on the bed, taking his thrilled noises in and answering him with his body and his urgent hands. Chris came to himself abruptly and stumbled back through the doorway, slamming the wooden door. For a moment all he could do was stand there, shaking his head, embarrassed and happy, slightly aroused, a little uneasy. He had wanted to answer JC, wanted to tell him yes, but he remembered everything, remembered the dark hours and the cold, knowing look in a pair of green eyes, and he wondered.
Entertainment news sites had the full story: the boyband Nsync was back on track, picking right up where they'd left off, and singer JC Chasez was said to be fully recovered from the flu that had laid him low for three weeks. "Luckily, one of the weeks was a vacation week anyway," said fellow band member Chris Kirkpatrick. Justin Timberlake, youngest member of the group, added, "Yeah, that was handy." Chasez himself had only this to say: "I feel better. You have no idea, man." All missed appearances would be rescheduled, according to the band's management.
The flu. He quirked his lips, amused, and typed in the URL to the secure email site the Collective was using this week. His masters had heard his report, had considered his words, conferring with low voices in the dim light of the sumptuous conference room while he sat back, sipping on a fine single malt, absorbing the comfort and quiet to remember in the field, confident in his choice. Everything that had happened during the past few weeks had confirmed his feelings about how to handle the Kirkpatrick problem. Cocky as he was, and a member of a boyband, he was nevertheless resourceful and loyal, and he understood what was most important in life. He understood that life was important.
His masters had ultimately come to a consensus, and agreed with him. He would initiate formal contact, although the thought of anything formal where Kirkpatrick was concerned was laughable, really. He would be like a breath of air in their stuffy group, a window into the dim cloister, a wild card, although the Collective could not realize that. They saw Kirkpatrick as another tool, another blade to hone for use in battle, a man with a preternatural feel for the darkness on the horizon. Another man who had seen too much, no other choices left to him. They were wrong. Dark times were coming, and desperate measures were necessary, but his masters could not see, indeed refused to see, how similar they had become to the enemy, here in the end-times.
Change was in the wind, the only way to survive. He would do what he could to insure that the possibilities remained open, for himself, and for Kirkpatrick. For all of them.
It took only a minute to type out the message, then he logged out of the program, exed out of the browser, and shut the cover of the laptop.
Welcome, Chris. There are 632 days remaining.