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an empty place at a card table

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A small non-sound. Air shifting. Less than a breeze. Tease of breath at the nape of his neck, whisper of near-touch.

Outside there's a blare of horns, the rattle-wheeze of a dying engine, rumbling bark of dogs.

A cockroach skitters past his foot and is gone. The prickle that had settled between his shoulder-blades recedes and curtains sway in the breeze.

Jensen blinks, glances around at his kitchen, the peeling linoleum and pile of dishes in the sink, dried on chili and smears of ketchup. He breathes out, testing the air, wonders what it was he thought he saw-heard-felt.

It's still dark outside, dawn breaking slowly, and Jensen will be long asleep by the time it arrives. The early morning sounds of garbage trucks and delivery vans a familiar muted backdrop overlain by dripping faucet and the sounds of his neighbors; screaming kids downstairs, slow burning argument upstairs, thump on the wall, and scrape of chair legs.

The scent of detergent rises up as he skins off his clothes. Six hour shift at the all-night-Laundromat, sorting through dirtied underclothes and jeans caked in mud and sweat, listening to the steady tumble and whine of the machines, counting out change and stifling yawns. A quiet night, only seven customers, four to sit on the plastic chairs in the syrupy thickened yellow light by the window, heads low, fingers twitching and jumping, sickening coughs rattling in their chests. The other three quick and busy, dropping off bags for Jensen to book in, eyes staring past him, cool slide of money and cooler voices.

Before that the evening shift at the massage parlor – nothing like he'd planned, torn ligaments, twisted knees, and shin splints, diet regimens and muscles taxed and strained – thin watery music, incense sticks and crystals dangling on long threads, fat businessmen pale beneath ugly suits, plump housewives working off tarnished gold rings and smiling lipstick slicked smiles. Jensen's hands kneading deep across shoulders and down the long line of their spines, easing away all their aches, pressing hard at the knots he finds, as they groan and melt beneath him.

A few clumsy passes, towels dropped to the floor, tight grip to his wrist trying to steer his hand downwards.

A promise of money, or favors, or just silent expectation.

Skin that is hot, or damp, or rigid beneath his fingertips before he snatches his hand away.

He knows that some of the others carry on, letting their strong hands tease and play, helping their client find release before collecting a fee.

It's not frowned upon, not exactly, but not expected either, his bosses uncaring so long as no one gets busted for solicitation.

He toes off his sneakers and drops his clothes to the floor, kicking the bundle to the side. Headlights throw long narrow beams across the ceiling, picking out the water-stains and the damp that creeps and sulks in the corners of the room. He tugs the curtains closed, and pulls back the thin blanket that covers his narrow bed with its flattened pillow and worn soft sheets.

He rolls his shoulders as he slides into the bed, that frozen ache that has resided between his shoulder-blades for a year or more now. He mashes his face down into the pillow, breathes deep the scents he cannot tell apart, age old dust and hair oil.

He stretches his hands high above his head, imagines them held there, pinned there, so that they couldn't touch or ease or soothe.

When he sleeps he dreams of strong hands molding his body and making him into something new.

 


 

The sky lightens.

Below people move, little blurs of dark against the sidewalks. Cars are rectangular blocks of metal and heat, jerking forward before halting, fumes grey and heavy and rich. The rivers of people flow, masses flooding together before darting off in narrow rivulets, then singling down to droplets.

Jeff spreads his wings as the sun heats the air.

It is the same and it is different from every other morning.

If he tries he can pick through the clamor of voices beneath him, single out a child asking for ice cream or an argument between a cab driver and a cyclist. He can hear off-key singing and the orders at the coffee vendor's cart below.

They are all words he has heard before, sounds that he has listened to down the centuries. And each one is unique in a way he cannot explain, each identical noise something new to his ear.

He steps off the side of the building and skims down to the sidewalk, where people brush past without seeing him.

Their warmth is a tease.

Occasionally one will pause, frown at something they cannot quite see, before they move on.

It has been many years since anyone beyond dogs have truly seen him, the whole of him, not just the dark lines of his suit, or the grey scruff of his beard, but also the arcing sweep of his wings, the feathers close packed and gloss-shined. Years since a hand was pressed to his face or someone smiled as they looked into his eyes. He loves the dogs that follow him, the strays and mongrels that yap at his feet, tongues lolling as they dance around, flirting for scraps and ear-scratchings, their eyes bright as they look at him.

Sometimes he'll come across a dog that shivers under his touch, fur matted and balding in places, deep flea bites and wet eyes. Skinny ribbed and sunken bowls for stomachs. They never fear him but they have learnt not to love either, tails tucked and ears flattened again the fragile curve of their skulls.

These Jeff feeds and tends to before finding the right house and yard to leave them. A place with sprigs of roses on the curtains and people whose hands he can see the marks of care on.

Dogs slipping through the cracks. People lost just as easy.

He pauses outside the Laundromat, watching through smeared glass the tired woman behind the counter, the deep lines at the corner of her mouth, the soft curl to her hair.

She was pretty once. When she was young and her skin shone clear and smooth, eyes liquid sharp and the tilt to her nose beguiling.

She's beautiful now; the years on her face, the bitten quick of her nails, the sweat beading through the powder at her hairline.

He'd watched Jensen the night before. Wondered if this boy, this man, would be one of the ones who would see him, could feel him.

He'd watched as he sieved through the soiled clothes, hands careful over the perspiration stiffened seams and spatters of red-brown blood, baby vomit, and grass stains.

Watched him sway close to the faint draw of bodyheat, feeling the nervous flutter in the boy's stomach, the prickle of his skin.

Watched as eyes skimmed past and through him as if he were as strange and unreal as Jeff is himself.

Later, and the smells of the streets change, the taste of the air damper, sweet and salt-laced. Jeff moves along through the traffic, sliding between gridlocked cars, wings soft against dented paintwork. The sun is a distant glow in the sky, low dipped between tall buildings, shadows stretching out to submerge the streets.

The neon above the massage parlor whines and flickers as he passes beneath it, electric on his tongue, the sharp fizz of static at the back of his throat, feathers ruffled and askew. Prisms of light, spectrums thrown out by crystals decorate the reception, and Jeff feels the touch of their light gentle over his skin, the touch a soft promise. He slides past the desk and the bright smile of the receptionist and moves down the corridor, listening to the slap of flesh and stifled groans.

He pauses at the doorway to the room he can feel Jensen in.

The desire is there to spread his wings, the long encompassing stretch of muscle and feathers, fill the corridor with them, block out the fluorescent splutter of the lights and dainty trace of piped music. Fold Jensen up in them. Tuck him close, hot and breathing damp on his neck, have him nestled tight in that wide span.

Jeff closes his eyes, listens to the building creak and settle, the traffic outside, the distant airplanes and high flying nightjars. Murmur of thought and voices. Ticking of clocks.

When he steps forward, sliding into the room, Jensen startles, looks up, looks directly at him.

 


 

Jensen trails home slowly. The prickle between his shoulder blades is back, a light itch just beneath the skin that makes him want to shrug out of his jacket and shirt and scrape his back up against bare brickwork. It itches, overheated and tight, like his skin is stretched taunt and swollen.

It's been years since he felt anything like this; long hazy college days, lighting up and tuning out. Curl of smoke in his mouth and rough drag of beard at his back. Teeth nipping at his neck. Low growl of laughter in his ear. Papercuts from textbooks, nights spent loose on beer and weed, mornings tumbled together and muddled with hangovers and warm limbs, sweat slick and faintly gross, face cushioned on a hard chest and hiding from the alarm clock.

It's not yet midnight and the street is still busy, people spilling out onto the sidewalk from bars and fast food joints. He moves past them, threading his way carefully, catching no one's eye and avoiding bumping shoulders. Turning the corner onto his own street and the sounds begin to die away.

He takes the stairs up to his apartment two at a time, fingers fumbling for his keys long before he gets to the door.

The door shut and locked behind him and he closes his eyes.

It's still there.

The prickle between his shoulder blades.

The feeling of eyes on him.

The same sense of being watched, of another presence, which has been slowly growing over the last few weeks. Maybe months. Years.

"Please." He keeps his eyes shut, slipping out of his jacket and tugging off his t-shirt. "Please," he opens up his arms, fingers loose and relaxed. "Can I see you? I want to see you."

One step forward before he opens his eyes.

There's almost nothing there, a space before him with a dark indistinct blur. It could be a smudge on his glasses if he wasn't so certain.

"Please." Eyes shut again and Jensen takes another step.

It starts as a cool shiver at his wrist, before sliding up his arm leaving goose-bumps in its wake. Skims across his collarbone to pause at the base of his throat. Jensen holds his breath as the touch, light and cool slips down to rest over his heart, his skin hot and flushed beneath it.

"Open your eyes."

He doesn't. For a moment he just wants to stand here, faint touch electric at his chest, breathing carefully as his pulse begins to race.

"Jensen."

"Hmm?" He tips back his head as the touch moves back up to his throat, the touch spreading and curling around his neck, cupping him as a wide capable hand might.

"Open your eyes. Please."

Dark eyes. Scruff of beard. Warm, wide smile.

And great dark-shined wings arching up.

They're burnished and glossy in tone, a rich treacle color like fall in Maine and burnt sugar, all close packed feathers that catch and spin the light.

"Hi."

The smile widens, showing bright white teeth. "Hi."

"What –" Jensen shakes his head, unsure quite what his question is let alone how to phrase it.

"We've many names, but I normally go by Jeff."

"Okay. Jeff. Okay." Jensen laughs, Jeff's hand is still cupping his throat and he feels his thumb stroke up to caress his jaw-line.

"Alright?"

Jensen nods, mouth falling open a little as Jeff's hand comes up the cradle the back of his head, a firm touch trailing behind his ear.

Time stretches thin - he can feel that last time he was touched like this, delicate fingers tracing the line of his skull; feel the first time he was touched like this, sweaty and clumsy fumblings under the bleachers. He sucks in a breath feeling both the thick press of his high school boyfriend's fingers (Conner, football jock, ginger hair, braying laugh) and his last one night stand's (no name, tall and skinny, all knobbly bones and quiet sibilant voice).

Jeff catches his eye, stares at him.

There are ages in Jeff's touch, millennia in each press of his fingertips.

Jensen brings up both his hands, settles them on the cheap suit fabric at Jeff's shoulders.

"Go on."

Jensen bites his lip, steps closer.

The first touch to the wings is like nothing he has ever known, soft and rigid and golden beneath his palms. He strokes upwards, against the grain of the feathers, feeling the spines and down, curving upwards to the peaks high over Jeff's head, then following the line downwards until his fingers tingle with static.

He steps back, feeling the sparks blue and lit-up dancing from his fingers, snapping back to Jeff's wings.

He laughs again, shaking his head as Jeff's wings stretch and span outwards, filling his apartment, the reach of them impossibly wide.

When Jeff surges forwards, kissing him on the mouth, it is a shock and an inevitable conclusion all in one. Jeff's lips and teeth and tongue fierce and there and real. There's an arm tight around his back and the scrape of beard against his cheek. There is heat against his chest. Scent of bleach and salt and amber in his nose. Feathers caught in his fist.

He gasps for air, stepping backward and drawing Jeff with him. It's only a handful of steps to the bed and he feels as if he is floating, drunk on rich wine, blood singing every time Jeff bites at his lip or smudges kisses against his cheek.

A wing curves round him as he drops back to the bed, cushioning his fall and holding him steady and tight. The feathers tickle his skin, light and unimaginable, while Jeff's hands move sure and firm, following the line of his ribs and flattening out over his belly. Jensen shifts feeling the scratch and tease of each feather-tip against the planes of his back, while Jeff's hold dips to grip his waist.

"Turn over." Jeff's voice is low and dirty in his ear, nothing but darkness and heat, his nose brushing against his temple, lips' a hairsbreadth from his face.

Jensen settles slowly on his stomach, stretching out on the bed as Jeff's wings draw back and settle neatly behind him. He presses his face into the pillow, listening to the fast jackrabbit of his heartbeat.

"Shh," Jeff soothes although he hasn't made a sound. "Just feel." Again there is the tickle and tease of feathers against his arms whilst Jeff's hands settle wide and heavy at the base of his spine, pressing down and out forcing a groan from him.

It's like taffy being stretched and pulled, Jeff's hands smoothing outwards from the long line of his backbone, kneading deep into each muscle and working at the ache there.

Moans spill unchecked from Jensen's mouth when Jeff's nails score faint lines down the center of his back, and he rocks into the give of the mattress, hard and flushed and waiting for something more.

Up and spanning out over his shoulder blades, the touch curves and flows, finding lines and pathways on his body he has never known. Lips brush the nape of his neck, warm and damp, before teeth scrape dully the same spot.

"Just feel," Jeff repeats, and Jensen bites his lip against a plea.

Jeff's hands circle round to the space between his shoulder blades. Pause there. Draw away. They lift slowly, rising steadily from Jensen's skin. "What?" He can still feel them, feel the weight of them, the calluses and warmth of them. He can still feel them thought he knows they are no longer touching him.

"Come on, Jensen, feel."

Slow long elegant curves, arching upwards, bowing out from the center of his back.

Jeff's hands stroking brilliant life into a span of nothing.

"Tell me, can you feel them? Jensen?"

"Yes." It is unreal. It is sinew and muscle and bone. Ten thousand nerve endings. Weight and force and span.

It is Jeff's fingers combing through new glossy feathers, feeling the air currents, the steady puff of Jeff's breath.

Wings, wide and strong and growing gracefully from his back.

Jeff runs a hand against the tips of the furthest primary feathers and Jensen shivers, a shudder running liquid down his back. "See?"

"How did you - ?"

Jeff laughs, leaning forward so that Jensen's wings are pressed down and wide, kissing the spur of bone where Jensen's back merges into wing. "I didn't."

More kisses, whilst random touches stroke along his feathers, soothing and ruffling. "No?"

"No." Teeth again at the small of his back, digging in bluntly. "They were always yours." Nails pinching at his hips, tiny darts of pain that make him catch his breath and press down harder into the bed. "You've always had them, just never knew."

"Oh." Jensen cries out as Jeff arches over him, gripping feathers in his fists, and feels his wings span out far for the first time.

"We all have wings." He can hear Jeff's smile in his voice. "Just not everyone knows."

 

 






I told you
That we could fly
'Cause we all have wings
But some of us don't know why
--- Never Tear Us Apart