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You Leave These Marks

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It’s so simple, touch.  Skin-to-skin contact is the basis of all human interaction.  It’s been proven that the more babies are touched, the better they develop.  Touch is the most reassuring of the senses, a simple hand gesture speaking more than words ever could.

For people, touch is everything.   Somewhere out there is an other half, a better half, even, someone perfectly matched, made of the same stuff, carved from the same stone, popped out of the same mold— a soul mate, commonly called.  A soul mate only revealed by the first press of fingertips that leave behind their mark.  

Prints can appear at any age, at any time.  Though some people insist they felt some innate pull towards their mate, there’s no real sign that a Mate is nearby.  That is, until that first touch.

Yes, for people who want their soul mate, touch is everything.  For others, touch is their worst nightmare.

Growing up, Chris didn't want to touch, not like everyone else did.  In Kindergarten he would grasp wrists like all the other little boys and girls did, copying their parents and the adults they saw on TV.  But he didn't squeal and giggle like all the other children; he didn't find it automatic to race and greet every new girl with an open palm, even though he knew that was what he was supposed to do.

Everyone gripped wrists whenever they met someone new, everyone wanted to pull away with perfect copies of each others' fingerprints seared onto their skin.  Wasn't he part of everyone?

So he copied and followed and touched to fit in, even when it felt forced.

It wasn't until midway through eighth grade that Chris realized he didn't want to be gripping wrists with every new girl he met.  No, he thought as he rewound the lovemaking scene from GoldenEye again, watching the muscles in Pierce Brosnan's back ripple as if with new eyes, it wasn't girls he needed to be touching in the hope of Prints.

After that day, touch took on a new meaning for Chris.  First he stopped reaching out to every new person he met, learning to shrug off their attempts at the greeting and ignore their confused looks and often puzzled words.

It was tough in a middle school filled to the brim with hormones and changing bodies and self-discovery to keep to himself, but he had to.  Because on the off-chance that someone here could leave marks on his skin, that a boy here could leave Prints-- because it was a boy, Chris was sure of it-- was too dangerous to even think about.  He heard the horrible activists on TV shaming same-gender Prints, preaching everything from them being falsified to a warp of nature to the blackest of sins.  He stopped touching-- first boys, then girls, too, when touching them just felt like lying to himself.

He endured the strange looks and not-so-nice teasing at his aversion, just like he had withstood teasing from a hundred other things as he grew up, until one evening near the end of his tenth grade year.  He heard a word on the news that made him look up from his homework at the kitchen table, past the silhouettes of his parents watching the news from their armchairs.

Untouched, they were saying, a new movement of people without Prints who didn't want to find their Mates.  It was nearly unheard of, at least to Chris in his small town and his limited exposure to popular culture where everyone seemed to grip wrists as if on autopilot, passively and yet constantly searching for their Mate.  No, those who wished to be Untouched wore cuffs on both wrists and staunchly refused to greet with their hands.

Chris couldn't look away from the TV screen, eyes wide as he took in the wild hair and clothes of the group of Untouched protestors, wide black bands covering both wrists in an obvious signal to back off.

"Why should we be basing a relationship solely on someone's ability to leave ink on our skin?" a girl who couldn’t be older than twenty with hair rolled into long dark dreads screams at the camera, at the screen, at Chris.  "Why should I be expected to give my entire self over to someone before I've even properly met them?  Prints will not dictate the rest of my life!"

He couldn't stop thinking about it, wide awake in the darkness of his room, legs tangled in the sheets, remembering her words and her cuffs.  There were people out there who didn't want to be touched, either.  And maybe, even though their reasons were different from Chris's, just maybe he wouldn't have to feel like an outcast any longer.  Maybe he could just be a social rebel instead of a social pariah.

That weekend, Chris bought two black leather cuffs.  The finality in the metallic snap, the certainty in the chafing rub of stiff leather-- that was the first time he felt safe in his own skin.  Maybe he couldn't touch, and he definitely couldn't be touched, but he could own both of those facts.  He could make them part of what made him strong instead of what made him weak.  By hiding under the cover of the Untouched, Chris could be untouchable in his own right.

-

He graduates from Clovis East, choosing Fresno State to stay close to Hannah.  Most weekends and a lot of weekdays he drives to L.A., auditioning for so many different projects he can't keep them all straight.  His publicist Erica meets him at the agency every Saturday at 8 am with a Diet Coke and a full agenda, chirping incessantly as Chris tries to shake off the road hypnosis and sleepy haze.

It took a while to find an agent that could look past his high-pitched voice, his unusual look, and most importantly, the cuffs on his wrists.  It wasn't so uncommon to be an Untouched anymore, not now with the ideologies split almost 50/50 nationwide, cuffed wrists nearly as frequent as uncuffed, fond wrist grips just as acceptable as polite nods.

It was being an Untouched and being an actor that was so far fetched-- the idea that Chris would possibly have to play a character who's a Contact while not actually touching other actors also playing Contacts.  But Erica wanted him, shoving the contract over before he could answer more than two questions, going to bat for him with producers and directors nearly every week for his right to work regardless of his lifestyle.

Now, in the car, Chris alternates between nursing his Diet Coke and typing out ideas for the rest of his assignment for creative writing (which is starting to take on hints of the screenplay he's been writing since high school, he should really finish that instead of re-writing bits of it for his school work) and Erica's on the phone again, sweetly briefing yet another director on the nature of Chris's circumstances, an edge of impatience creeping in the longer she talks.

Chris puts down his phone to rub at his wrists again, running his forefinger under the leather now soft and pliable with age.  Not for the first time he thinks again about taking the cuffs off.  He was never truly an Untouched, never buying into the notion that a soul mate would unfairly define his life.  Half the time he doesn't even think about his soul mate, the whole thing more an abstract concept than a just-out-of-reach reality.  It jolts him a little every time he sees Prints on wrists, or sometimes splashed across a forearm or thigh from accidental first contact, to remember that there is someone out there whose touch will mark him forever.  There is someone who was made to match him perfectly, someone whose skin will change under his fingertips as well.

He unsnaps a cuff just to try it, sliding it off experimentally.  His wrist feels absolutely naked, worse than Chris feels when directors and producers are scrutinizing him.  Really it wouldn't be so bad to find his Mate now.  Things are changing, those opponents of same-sex soul mates less vocal and a whole wave of people advocating that something etched into DNA couldn't possibly be unnatural.  No, it wouldn't be so bad to have someone at the end of the day to talk to when schoolwork is piling up and sides need to be memorized and Hannah's back in treatment again.  A soul mate might actually be kind of nice, really.

Erica eyes him suspiciously but doesn't say anything when he slips the cuffs into his shoulder bag, flexing his wrists experimentally.  The tan line is faint but still visible, his skin dented and red from the metal punched into the leather.  He rubs his wrists again, trying to ignore how frail they feel, how exposed he is.  He squares his shoulders and walks into the building with Erica.

The receptionist just nods politely, punching buttons to call in that they've arrived.  Chris can feel his shoulders relax, relieved a little at her reaction so unlike the one he normally gets.  Contacts generally eye his cuffs with a reserved sort of grim acceptance, while people who are Untouched nod like they're a soldier fighting the same war, making him feel like an imposter.  It's nice to have someone not react at all to his Mate status.  She swivels back to her computer, pointing them towards the sitting area to wait to be called, and Chris gets a nice view of the dark, forest green Prints splayed across her left forearm, just positioned where a wrist grip would leave them.

Chris licks his lips nervously, hot anxiety blooming in his stomach at the thought of someone expecting him to greet them like Contacts do.  Without the cuffs, that's what he looks like, a Contact.  He hasn't paid much attention to touch expectations in L.A., instead spending his time mastering an appropriate politely apologetic smile and subtle but pointed wrist movement.  He has no idea if Contacts here simply give the wrist grip or if they’re into open, free affection like he’s heard they are in bigger cities.

By the time they're called back to a smaller room Chris has broken out in a sweat.  The thought of a Contact greeting is making his skin crawl, and all the previous contentment is long gone.  Touch from a stranger has never meant good things for Chris, shoves in the hallway for being chubby turning into shoulder-checks for his high-pitched voice and then yanks at his cuffs for daring to turn against their social structure.  Even Erica keeps her distance; even his closest friend at Fresno State, Haley, who knows he’s not strictly an Untouched, doesn’t casually touch him.

His stomach is rolling, anxiety making his limbs feel like lead and his head light and sick.  The PA who came to take them back is disappearing into a doorway when Erica’s pinky brushes his wrist, so light it had to have been accidental, but Chris coils back violently anyway, cupping the touched wrist in his other hand.  He stares at it, half-expecting a Print there with the severity of his reaction, but it’s just his wrist, even paler than the rest of him, knobby bone exposed and so, so vulnerable.

“Hold on,” Chris says, voice a little strangled with restraint.  Digging through his bag, he comes up victorious, snapping on one cuff, then the other.  As soon as the leather presses into his skin he relaxes, hiding again behind the Untouched.  He’s starting to think pretending to be someone else is part of his everyday life.

When he looks up, Erica’s waiting, patient, her face carefully blank even as she’s staring at his cuffs.

“Ready now,” he says softly, accepting the script she’s holding out.  She follows him wordlessly into the room.

-

The phone call comes just as he’s nearly done with his fifth semester of college.  It’s the week of finals and he’s up to his elbows in textbooks, notebooks and flashcards, three papers due within hours of each other and not enough Diet Coke in the world to keep him from losing his mind.  But he’s trying, carting books back and forth from the library and sleeping when he can.

His phone buzzes and he ignores it, flipping through the last chapters of his Western Civ book, the last general education class he’ll have to take.  It doesn’t stop buzzing, though, and eventually his agitation at the sound wins and he sighs, digging through the pile of papers on his desk until he finds it.

Eight missed calls.

Before he can pick it up, it rings again.

“Erica, you know I have finals this week,” Chris says without preamble, wedging the phone between his chin and shoulder to pick up his pen again.

“I know, I’m sorry,” Erica replies, not sounding sorry in the least bit, “but I got a very interesting email today.”

Chris huffs, barely catching a notebook before it could slide off onto the floor.  “I told you Erica, being a dead body three times is more than enough.  So is two different infomercials.”

She laughs.  “Oh, no, Christopher darling, this email was from you.”

He freezes mid-sentence, brain muddling through a semester’s worth of information to try and remember the morning.  He grabbed breakfast and forced himself to the rec center to use the treadmill for thirty minutes, then came back and checked his email before he got a shower--

“Oh no,” Chris moans, remembering, “what did I send you?”  He tugs on a cuff distractedly.

“Well,” she sounds absolutely cheeky, the cat who caught the canary, “it was supposed to be your resume from last year so I could update it for your audition next week, like the wonderful friend I am.  Imagine my surprise when instead I open up what looks like a nearly-finished manuscript of a children’s novel.”

“Oh, that?  That’s just something I’ve been working on for class,” Chris lies quickly, tamping down the panic.  The Land of Stories is something he’s been dreaming about since practically forever, a story he had to tell for himself, his seven-year-old self as much as his twenty-year-old self.  But she’s right, it wasn’t finished, not even fully written let alone edited, not with classes and working and--

“Chris, stop panicking,” Erica says gently, and he takes a deeper breath.  “It’s good.

“Wha-- really?” Chris squeaks out, barely believing.

“Really,” Erica confirms, and he can hear her smile.  “In fact, I think you have something really special there.  I’ve already talked to a literary agent--”

“You what?

-- “and as soon as you finish it I’ve got Little, Brown interested in reading it.  Very interested.”

“Oh,” Chris says faintly, all thoughts of the French Revolution long gone.

“Work on it and get back to me!  Good luck with finals!” Erica calls merrily, hanging up before Chris can think of a response.

He stares at the phone, pulls up the Word document on his computer, pulls out the crayon drawn map from so many years ago from it's special spot tucked away in a notebook. A map that might be in the front cover of a bound book before he turns 25.

Over Christmas break, Chris finishes the novel. Over Spring Break, he edits. After a summer of negotiations and three more classes to finish his major, Chris graduates in December with a BA in English in one hand and a two-book deal in the other.

-

"A book tour? Really?"

Erica's beside herself with excitement, nearly dancing around her office while Chris sits stricken in the visitor’s chair.

“Really, Christopher,” she mocks him, leaning forward over her desk until their noses nearly touch.  “A book tour.  So you can greet the masses, kiss babies, show off that pretty face to your adoring fans.”

Chris wrinkles his nose at everything about that statement, and Erica laughs, adding, “All while being completely untouched, of course.”

He digs the leather into his skin, grounding himself.  He’s down to one cuff, now, a frown and slight shake of the head usually more than enough to hard off unwanted skin contact, but there’s still no Prints on his skin and the thought that he would have to touch not just one person, but hundreds, maybe thousands, was more than he could take.

“‘Adoring fans’?” he scoffs, ignoring her last comment.  “I seriously doubt anyone idolizes Dead Body Number Five or The Boy Who Comically Drops the Pasta.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong,” she says sagely, cocking an eyebrow.  “I’ll have you know plenty of people rewind that ten seconds of CSI over and over if only to catch another glimpse of their beloved Kurt Hummel.”

Chris looks up sharply, furrowing his brow.  He hasn’t heard that name in four years.  “Kurt...?”

“Seems like that scrappy little pilot about an underdog show choir did resonate, after all.”

He rolls his eyes.  “Not enough to get picked up for a full season.”

“Ah, but enough to get a sort of ridiculous fan following on the internet.”

Chris can’t even believe that.  He’s got less than 10,000 followers on twitter, an account he rarely if ever uses, and not a single person has ever sent him something about Kurt Hummel.

He can hardly recall the character, but still remembers the set, the director, the other actors.  He even still has their numbers in his phone, though he’s never called.  Lea’s invited him out for drinks more than once but there was never enough time in LA when he was driving back and forth on the weekends.  Now, diploma framed and hung on his bedroom wall, he’s all settled into his shitty little apartment with three other aspiring actors, he’s still making excuses not to meet her.  He tugs on his cuff again.

Erica pulls up a website, types in a phrase and starts scrolling through.  He can’t make much of the text-based webpage, but he does see the name Kurt Hummel over and over, next to other names he barely remembers, a Hudson and a Berry and a Mercedes catching his eye in the blur.

“Shit,” he curses quietly, seeing the number at the top of the page.  Over a thousand stories about characters only on TV for 42 minutes.

“Fans are a powerful thing,” Erica says, turning the computer back around.  “And that’s only this one website, there’s a lot more out there that host these fanfictions.”

“One of those stories was over a hundred thousand words long,” Chris marvels, more to himself than to Erica.  Someone actually took the time and the effort to expand their story, Kurt’s story, to the length of a really good-sized novel.  He feels a little faint.

“So, book tour?” she prompts when he’s silent for too long.

“Yeah, alright, book tour,” he concedes, tempted to pull out his phone and start looking for those other websites.  All these years and there’s still people out there that care about Kurt, that care about Chris, really, because Kurt was more than three-fourths his own creation, inspired by his own life--

“New York?” the words tumble out of his mouth before they’re fully formed in his brain.

“Yes, if all goes well I assume we’ll be making a stop in the city,” Erica says impassively, still typing away and not looking up.

He has no idea why he said it.  “Good, good because I’ve never been,” he says out loud, rationalizing it to himself more than to her.  She nods, and he nods to himself.

Later, when all the dates and places are finalized and he’s transferred them all to his calendar, he can’t help but pull up July again and again, staring at the 14th like the square has something important to tell him.

He falls asleep every night with the city running through his mind, hazy half-formed images of tall buildings and crowds in the heat of the summer.  Chris has never been to New York, but his bones are aching like they’re getting ready to return home.

----

Darren loves to laugh, to sing, to dance and play and feel.  Darren is touch.

In San Francisco, a brush of skin is nothing more than a sign of affection, and people in San Francisco have nothing if not fondness to share.  He grows up touching without a second thought, kissing cheeks and holding hands with abandon.

It’s not until he goes to Michigan that he realizes just how different his childhood was than most.  He was warned, even, but he just couldn’t imagine a place where people kept to themselves, where there were people who didn’t want a pat on the back or even a high-five.

He learns the hard way, though, and eventually it doesn’t hurt as much when someone shrinks back from his outstretched hand.  It still stings when Joey flinches under his shoulder squeeze or Lauren turns her head instinctively away from his kiss on the cheek, but he learns, and they learn, and he finds a medium.  It’s not a happy medium, or a sad one, but it’s a compromise he can live with.

Darren wants his soul mate.  He always has.  He used to spend hours snuggled into his mom’s side, tracing the five perfect fingerprints across her forearm, lines softened with time but still a dark, rich red.  He would put her arm next to hers, imagining what his own Prints would look like, how he would find his Mate, how they would settle into each other and stay there for the rest of forever, just like his own parents.

He grips wrists of boys and girls alike, never once stopping to consider the connotations of doing so, even when it gets called into question more than once.  His Mate isn’t a gender, it’s an idea, this human embodiment of unconditional trust and love and understanding that he can hold, kiss, love.  He wants it, more than he wants to be an actor or a singer or a songwriter.

Sometimes in fits of desperate loneliness he’ll greet every person down a busy New York sidewalk, he’ll stay for hours after a show to touch every person in the coffee shop, he’ll go home with someone and press his fingers into their skin and imagine what it would be like if a mark was left behind.

Even though he knows it’s no use, Darren follows every whim that tells him to take a new route to work, jog a different loop around the park, get coffee two blocks over instead.  He looks and he prays and he hopes and he touches, but at nearly 26 years old, Darren’s skin is still pristine.

He dates, both casually and seriously, but even with his deep loneliness ebbed he can’t stop the disappointment when his fingers don’t leave marks.  More often than not his dates don’t seem to mind, even more in New York than back in Michigan or San Francisco, but Darren can’t stop the tug in his heart, his very soul, for what he’s missing.  And he knows there’s only one person who has it.

He starts glaring at black cuffs, taking them as a personal insult.  How many people has he passed because they don’t want to be touched?  Any one of them could be his Mate, and the more he dates the more disheartened he gets.

Annaliese, a sweet Contact he met after one of his shows, pretty pink lips he couldn’t help but kiss even when his prints didn’t stick over their shared pizza, is the one who drags him to Barnes & Noble on a brutal summer afternoon.  She’s dying to get some book autographed for her nieces, a new children’s novel with an up-and-coming author.

He gets an earful as they wait in line, sweating in the shade and only half-listening to her go on and on about the fairytale characters of the story, but it’s not until she starts talking about the author that he pays attention.

“What was that?” Darren interrupts, shoving sweaty curls out of his eyes as they inch towards the glass doors, wisps of cool air frustratingly tantalizing every time they open.

“Chris Colfer is his name,” she explains, the twinge of annoyance betraying that this isn’t the first time she’s said so.  He grimaces apologetically as she digs through one of the bags slung over her shoulder, pulling out an impressively thick green novel, the artwork colorful and detailed on the front.  Something about that name is sparking his memory, like maybe he’s heard it before...

“Here he is,” she announces, shoving the back cover in his face.

The word underneath the picture-- Glee-- catches his attention first, because he remembers an audition a long time ago, a pilot he watched bitterly on TV and then felt horribly about later because it never made it past that first episode.  But no, it’s the picture itself that he can’t tear his eyes away from, looking and looking until Annaliese thumps the cover shut to stuff it back into her bag.

He doesn’t have to protest, though, because the same picture is plastered on all the windows of the Barnes & Noble, and Darren can’t stop staring at smooth skin and sculpted hair and a black cuff, prominently featured in the folded arm pose of the picture.

They finally make it inside and the iciness of the air conditioning is a blessing, Darren running a hand through his hair to try and arrange it into something halfway presentable.  For what, he’s not sure, but instinct never hurt him yet.

The picture in his mind of a round-cheeked boy singing “Mr. Cellophane” doesn’t quite match up with the stunning man smiling down at him from every surface, but a quick search on his phone confirms that it is in fact the same person, albeit quite a few years (and growth spurts) apart.  He keeps clicking through as the line inches forward, reading article after article and every interview he can find, but all that leaves him with is more questions.  He doesn’t want to know for the fiftieth time that Alex and Connor are two sides of his personality-- he wants to know how Chris takes his coffee and what color his bedroom walls are, and if he keeps his socks on when he sleeps, and if he’s ever cried for no reason at all except that he doesn’t know who’s touch will change his life...?

“Next!”

Annaliese tugs on his elbow and he jerks, following her automatically.  He can’t look, not yet, even though he can see in the very edge of his vision that Chris is smiling at him in that strained way of someone who’s been forcibly polite for hours.

She thunks down two books and says something, and he says something back, and his voice is what makes Darren look.

It’s like nothing he’s ever heard, ever seen, the way he’s laughing at Annaliese’s story, throwing his head back and putting up a hand too late to hide his perfectly straight, adorably tiny teeth.  His skin is so smooth, glowing where it’s off-set by his green button down, sleeves rolled up to showcase muscled forearms.

She closes the books and must say some sort of thank you but Darren’s not moving, still looking.  Chris turns his head, polite smile already in place, but when he blinks and meets Darren’s eyes the smile slides right off, his lips parting.

He might have said something, Darren thinks, but his rational thought and actions have thoroughly unhooked and he can’t stop himself from moving forward, hand already outstretched.  His fingertips brush over black leather before finding skin just as strong fingers, new but still so familiar, close over his wrist.

Someone might have screamed, or lunged, or both, but Darren’s looking at Chris, at eyes he can’t begin to name the color of.  It’s not a burn or even quite a tingle, but he can feel skin changing under his fingertips, atoms shifting, breaking and bonding, and when it stops he peels his hand away and Chris looks down, doing the same.

Just like he’s imagined a hundred times-- and yet, so much better than that-- left there on perfect pale skin are his fingerprints, Chris’s Prints, so dark pink they’re almost purple.  Wrapped around Darren’s own wrist, four fingers lined up on top and a thumb print on the soft underside, are his blue Prints, dark as a stormy sky.

He thinks the whole room might have gone still, or maybe the world’s just narrowed down to the two of them.  His Mate, Darren thinks, and a wave of effervescent giddiness wells up, something shifting and clicking into place where he hadn’t even known it was askew.

“Hi,” Chris says, voice soft and stunned.

“I’m Darren,” he offers, brushing his fingers back over the place they just made Prints.  Chris’s hand twitches under his palm.

“Chris,” he says faintly, drawing his hand back as a brunette runs up behind him, looking dazed.  Darren notices for the first time the rather large bodyguard hovering unsurely to the left, like he can’t believe what happened.

Neither can Darren.  He flexes his fingers, scared to touch the blue Prints even though he knows they’re permanent.  They’re his.

He looks up, turns, remembering Annaliese.  She gives him a sad sort of smile, wistful, he thinks, and leans in to kiss him on the cheek.

“Thank you,” he tells her, squeezing her hand so maybe she’ll understand what he can’t quite put into words right now.

“Don’t mention it,” she says, squeezing back as she turns to go.

“I think you should come with me.”  Darren turns back around.

The brunette is taller than him, obviously in charge and a little imposing, but one glance at Chris and Darren couldn’t say no.  He follows her with one last press over Chris’s Prints, fluttering his eyes closed happily when Chris does the same.  He shakes his head shyly as the last of the line bursts into applause.

--

It’s plain in the back of the store, stacked boxes of books shoved aside to house a couch and a table with Diet Cokes shoved into a bucket of ice.  Darren smiles, touching the cans curiously.  That’s one question answered out of the thousands, millions that won’t stop popping up.

He pulls out his phone and checks the time, wondering the best way to break the news to Chuck and his parents that he found his Mate.  The word makes him smile even wider, more goofily, looking down at his Prints again, holding them up to the light to inspect them.

Brunette is out there on the phone-- Erica, he thinks Chris’s bodyguard called her-- saying something about reservations and dates and postponements.

“I think we’re going to be here for a while,” she says, and a softer edge creeps into her voice.  Darren looks up, forehead creased, even though he can’t see her through the door.  It hadn’t occurred to him yet that Chris wasn’t in New York forever, that he could be gone in a matter of hours-- He balls his left hand into a fist, watching the Prints shift.  No.  Chris was his and he was Chris’s, and that’s how it was.

“Where is he?”

Darren sits up straighter.  He would know that voice absolutely anywhere.

“Chris, there’s still fans out there--”

“Nope, Tom got all their addresses and I promised to send them signed copies later.  Now, where is he, where’s...?”

The door opens wide and god, he’s even more gorgeous standing up, the lines of his body a fluid curve, firm but not hard, long and lean.  He thinks he might be drooling.

“--Darren.”  It’s full of something like hope and need and a whole lot of finally.

Darren stands up to match him, already reaching out.  It absolutely shatters his heart when Chris flinches away, bringing his cuffed arm protectively up to his stomach.  Darren drops his hand and blinks furiously against the traitor tears in the corners of his eyes-- he knew what the cuff meant, he’s always known, if he just wasn’t so stupid--

“Hey, no,” he whispers.  Darren looks up carefully.  Chris looks as deflated as he feels.  “I’m sorry, let me just--”  Slowly, so slow Darren feels like he might die with anticipation, Chris brings up a hand to rest on Darren’s cheek. 

He nuzzles in on instinct, smiling at Chris in what he hopes is reassurance.  The word won’t stop pounding in his mind, thrumming like a heartbeat: Mate.

“Hi,” Chris breathes again, and Darren smiles wider.

“Hey you,” he murmurs back.

“I know you’re--”

“I can’t believe you--”

They both start talking at the same time, then stop, laughing at themselves.  Darren’s so happy, unbelievably so, and nothing has ever felt as good as Chris’s hand on his cheek.

“Where are you going after this?” Darren asks, looking into those blue-green-grey eyes like they might hold the answer.  “D.C.?  Atlanta?  L.A.?  I’ll follow you anywhere.”

It’s true, but he still gets a little thrill when Chris’s breath catches, his eyes widen.  “Darren, I-- I can’t ask you to do that...”

“You’re not asking, I’m offering,” he insists.  “I can play guitar anywhere, even if you’re the only one to hear it.  Especially if you’re the only one to hear it.”

Chris smiles, cheeks flushing a little red.  “I can write anywhere too, you know.  A laptop works in any city.”

He hadn’t thought about that.

“I think,” Chris continues, lips twitching like he’s trying not to smile, “I’m going to stay here for a few more days, at least.”

“Oh?” Darren asks breathlessly.

“Mmhmm,” Chris confirms, tilting his head.  “Someone touched my arm and simultaneously threw a figurative wrench in my plans.”

Darren doesn’t smile, even though Chris is.  “I’m so sorry, I knew you were Untouched, I wasn’t thinking, I just couldn’t--”

“Darren,” Chris says sternly, cutting him off.  Carefully, so carefully, Chris picks up the hand hanging loose at Darren’s side, the brush of skin sending warmth all the way to his toes.  Deliberately he intertwines their fingers, resting them both against his chest.

“I wear this cuff because it keeps me from being so vulnerable,” he admits shakily, looking down instead of at Darren.  He resists to urge to tilt Chris’s chin up.  “But you touching me for the first time-- that’s the most vulnerable I’ve ever been.”  He looks up finally, eyes shining with tears.

Darren opens his mouth, but Chris shakes his head.

“I think, now that you’re here, feeling a little overwhelmed, a little exposed might just be okay,”  Chris says, low, and Darren nods in agreement, blinking back happy tears, too, unable to keep himself from sneaking a look at Chris’s lips.

Chris raises his eyebrows.  Shit.  Darren’s totally caught.  He tries to smile apologetically even as every cell is screaming for him to put his lips on Chris’s.  But they have time, all the time in the world now that they’ve found each other, there’s no need to rush...

Gentle pressure on the back of his neck and a determined look in Chris’s eyes and Darren doesn’t need to be told twice.  Gingerly resting his other hand on Chris’s hip, watching his eyes for the slightest hint of reluctance and finding none, Darren leans in to press his lips to Chris’s.

Touch has always meant a lot to Darren, but never so much as now.  He can feel just how big this is for Chris, how he gets a little bolder with every press and drag of lips, and more than anything he knows deep in his bones, in his soul, really, how important this is for the both of them-- that this is it, this is home.

Chris’s eyes are still shut as he pulls away, mouths detaching with a soft reluctant smack, and Darren watches his lips curve up with a pounding heart.  When Chris finally opens his eyes, his breaths a little ragged, Darren’s smile is just as wide and happy.

“Okay?” he ventures, careful of his fingers just skimming the hard line of Chris’s hipbone.

“God, yes,” Chris says, and Darren can hardly feel his feet on the ground.  “Touching you is something I could definitely get used to.”

“I don’t think I ever will,” Darren says honestly, sliding his hand around to the small of Chris’s back and pulling him in again.