AJ opened his eyes to the alarm clock and realized the alarm hadn't even gone off yet. Now waking up before the alarm, that was something new.
He knew without looking that his bed was empty. He'd spent the night before with some freaky goth-looking chick with a tongue piercing, and oh, man, that tongue piercing had been something else. But he'd done something to her. He wasn't sure what exactly. Maybe it was when he tried to fuck her up the ass. Or maybe it was when she said something like "tell me I'm beautiful" and AJ said something like "yeah, yeah." But whatever it was, he wasn't surprised that she was gone.
He stretched out an arm, and that act alone was enough to make him wonder. It seemed lighter. Easier to move. It didn't make the same kind of thumping noise it usually did when it hit the bed. He opened his eyes a little wider, trying to push the hangover out of his head. And fuck, this one really felt weird.
The first thing he noticed was the hair. It was longer, for whatever reason. He knew that because a lock of it was sticking to his neck. Hair didn't just, like, grow overnight, did it? He rolled on his back, still half asleep, and realized that something on his chest moved with him. That was when he sat up.
Tits. He had...
He scrambled out of bed so quickly that he hit the floor with a thud, his knees buckling and legs giving out from under him. He scrambled to his feet and bolted to the bathroom, banging his head on the door because he couldn't get it open fast enough.
No! No dick. No nothing.
And standing in front of the mirror like that, there was no doubt about it, because he was bare-ass naked, and his hair was tangled, and there was a hell of a lot more of it. He leaned closer to the mirror, ran his hand across his face. Yeah, fuller lips. No facial hair. But there were tattoos. The tattoos were still there.
He spun around. And what the fuck was he going to do next? There was no, like, turning into a girl emergency hotline. No protocol for this sort of thing. There was just panic. White-hot, absolute, bone-crunching, blow-your-fucking-mind panic.
He grabbed the bathrobe off the back of the door, wrapping it around his body, and the string went around his waist a whole lot tighter than usual. He ran barefoot to the door, getting within a inch of it before a completely logical thought crossed his mind.
He found it in his leather jacket, which had fallen off the chair and was lying in a heap on the floor, and ran out into the hallway. The maid waddled by with her cart, raising a quick eyebrow at him before she kept walking. Fuck you, AJ wanted to shout, but he was afraid to hear his voice.
And who do you go to when something like that happens? Who would believe it? His mom would freak. Brian would faint dead away. Nick would either laugh his ass off or assume he was a crazed fan and not let him in the door. Who was open minded enough to listen to him? Who would help some strange girl wandering around in the hotel hallway in a bathrobe and looking freshly fucked?
Howie's door was two down from his. AJ pounded on it, and finally let his new voice run free. It was higher. Still a little gravelly. A little like Kathleen Turner. "Howie!"
He danced from one tiny foot to the other, hearing Howie on the other side. He sensed Howie looking through the peep hole. Thinking about what to do.
"Howie, it's me. Open up."
Another pause. AJ banged again. "D, it's me. Open the fucking door, please." And he banged again, just for good measure.
The door opened an inch, and he saw Howie's eyes above the chain. "I'm calling security."
No! No! Disaster.
"No, D. It's me, AJ. Please, please, just let me in. You know me. I'm your buddy. Come on."
Howie's eyes narrowed. He must have seen something, because the door didn't slam immediately. AJ thought he might cry. "Please, please, D. I'm in the fucking crisis of my life here. I don't know what happened but...fuck!"
He did a dance of rage around the hallway. Kicked at the carpet with his bare feet, and it hurt more than usual, because his feet were smaller and he misjudged. He danced in a circle, wanting to punch the walls, wanting to tear his new hair out of his fucking head. And when he turned back around again, the door was open.
"Whoa," Howie said.
"Yeah, no fucking shit, whoa." AJ sat across from Howie on the bed, now obscenely aware of keeping his legs closed, his entire body feeling weird and foreign and like something that just did not belong to him.
"We have to tell the other guys."
"No!" AJ reached across, dug his fingers into Howie's arm so hard that he expected Howie to flinch, but he didn't. "We can't tell them. They'll...."
"AJ. We have to tell them."
"But..." And now tears were rolling slowly down his cheeks, and he couldn't remember the last time he'd cried, but there they were. Howie climbed off the bed and walked to the mini bar, calmly extracting a little bottle of whisky and handing it to AJ. AJ downed half of it in one gulp.
"You're pretty, though," Howie said.
"That does not make me feel better right now. And look." AJ slid the bathrobe off his shoulders, letting it fall to his waist. Howie looked away.
"No," AJ said. "No, look."
Howie turned slowly, cautiously, and peeked at AJ. Tattoos bled down AJ's arms, a dragon one crawling up his back. Exactly in the same spots where AJ had always had tattoos, except now they were on a woman's body.
Howie extended his hand, looking like he might touch them, and pulled it back. "Wow."
"No shit. I need a cigarette."
"Yeah." Howie smiled, and it was a combination of panic and reassurance. "Where are they?"
"In my room."
"Okay, let's go."
They walked into AJ's room, and AJ found his smokes on the night stand where he'd left them the night before, when he'd still been a guy. He lit one and sucked on it, sticking his glasses on and flopping back on the bed.
"Now that looks attractive," Howie smiled. Because AJ still laid like a guy. And he still smoked like a guy, holding the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, taking drags so deep that Howie was surprised AJ's lungs could hold it all. And AJ's glasses looked big and clunky on his new face, like they should be attached to a fake nose.
"I'll bring the guys," Howie said. "You wait here." He figured it wouldn't be bad for AJ to have a minute alone. Howie was kind of thinking that he needed one himself.
Collecting Kevin and Brian was easy. Nick was a little harder, since Howie had to bust in and literally drag Nick out of bed. Nick groaned and mumbled a few swear words.
He led the three of them into AJ's room, where AJ was sitting with his head down, hair forming a veil around his face. He was still padded in a bathrobe and hugging his narrow waist.
"Who's that?" Brian asked.
Howie took a deep breath. "It's AJ."
"Ha," Nick said. "Ha ha ha ha."
"No," Howie said. "It really is. Seriously."
"Right," Nick said. "If AJ were a girl, he wouldn't be that hot."
"Shut up, fuckwad," AJ snapped, and everyone froze.
There was a long moment of silence, AJ looking at them with pathetic, dejected eyes. Howie bit his lip, Nick gaped and Kevin blinked once, twice, three times.
Brian spoke first, and his words came out slow and drawn out. "Oh my fucking God."
Everyone looked slowly at Brian, whose only usual swear words were "gosh," "darn" and "doggone it," and never attached to a reference to the Lord.
"I don't know," Kevin said, now perpetually shaking his head. "I don't know. Let's just get him dressed."
AJ put on one of his T-shirts, but when he tried to put on his own jeans, the waist fell to his hips. "Hold still," Howie said, grabbing the drawstring from the bathrobe.
AJ looked down as Howie looped it through his belt holes. "Very resourceful."
"Yeah. I do what I can." Howie worked until the ends of the string met and tied it tightly around AJ's waist. "There. At least your pants will stay up." He smiled and patted AJ on the arm, trying to look reassuring, trying to look like this wasn't the freakiest thing he'd ever seen. Then he followed Kevin into the hallway.
"This is too screwed up," Kevin said, keeping his voice low in case any fans were lurking around the corners.
"I know. What are we gonna do? Like, what are we gonna tell people?"
"I don't know. I'll worry about that. You take care of him."
Usually, AJ wasn't allowed to smoke on the bus. This time, no one said anything. He sat in a bean bag chair by the window, lighting one cigarette off the other, staring out at the scenery. Occasionally the bus would go under an overpass and AJ would get a glimpse of his face in the glass - slender, accentuated cheekbones; big, dark eyes that matched his hair; pale pink lips that felt like they didn't belong on his face.
"How ya doing over there?" Howie asked from the table, eating the soup Nick had microwaved.
AJ stared at the window. "Shitty. What are we gonna do about this?"
"I don't know. Kevin's handling it."
"Oh, that'll be fucking great. I need a drink."
"No, you don't."
AJ rolled his eyes. "Oh, spare me the shit, Howie. I just turned into a fucking chick. I deserve to drink a little."
And Howie not only let him have a drink, he brought it to him.
And it was official. AJ McLean was hospitalized in a small but prestigious secret South African clinic for a rare form of lung cancer. It served a couple of purposes - to explain AJ's disappearance, and to deliver the all-important "don't smoke kids, it's bad for you" message that was the heart and soul of the Backstreet image.
AJ slumped in the bean bag chair on the bus and watched it on MTV. They showed some footage of him, all muscled and studly in a white tank top while singing "Hey Mr. DJ." A couple of fans crying in reaction to the news, saying into the camera "Get well soon, AJ."
"How long do you think I'll be like this?" AJ asked.
Nick looked up from his magazine. "You're asking me? Like I have experience with turning into a woman?"
"Well, I don't fucking know." AJ waved his cigarette in the air, taking another swig of the beer Howie had gotten him on the last stop.
"I don't know, man. You're pretty, though."
AJ rolled his eyes. "What else is on?"
He wondered if he'd get his period. If he did, that would mean he could have kids. Whoa. And what if he changed back and he was already pregnant? Did that mean he'd be a pregnant guy? Whoa again.
"All I know is that you should shower, man," Nick said. "You've been sitting there for three days. Get up and move around a little."
It was funny, but a shower had never occurred to him. He got up and went into the bathroom, untying the drawstring around his pants. They fell to his ankles immediately and he stepped out of them, tugging off his shirt and examining himself in the mirror. And Nick was kind of right. He wasn't bad looking. Nice hips. Lean body, the same as when he was a boy, except there were a few more curves in places. The tattoos gave him a funky look, like a biker babe, or one of those electric chicks in futuristic movies with shaved heads and laser guns.
The bathroom door opened and AJ spun around. Howie, who had seen AJ naked after every show for the last 10 years, apologized and shut the door again.
"Howie," AJ called.
Howie opened the door a half an inch and talked through the crack. "Yeah?"
"I'm gonna change back."
The door shut again, and AJ went back to looking at himself in the mirror. He let his hands drift down his breasts, across his smooth stomach and curvaceous hips. Fuck, he thought. I'm a chick.
He turned sideways in the mirror, examining what having breasts did to his profile. It reminded him of Charlie's Angels, how their tight shirts bumped out a little when fire exploded and became a backdrop for their silhouettes. He tweaked a nipple, turned to look at his tattoos from all angles.
Fuck, he thought. I'm a chick.
AJ grabbed a towel, wrapping it around his chest and making sure it fell far enough to cover the important parts. He nudged open the door and stepped out, watching Nick and Howie look away quickly.
"Guys," AJ said. "I want to go shopping."
Shaving his legs had to be the single largest pain in the ass he'd ever experienced. It was especially tough in the little bus shower, where it was usually hard to even bend his knee without hitting the wall in front of him. It was a little easier now, since his legs were skinnier, and he found that with the right combination of balance and determination, he could bend his leg long enough to drag the razor across it. He cut himself about three times on each leg, muttering each time, and finally emerged from the bathroom in a towel with little squares of toilet paper stuck to his leg wounds.
"That fucking sucked," AJ announced, then headed back in the bathroom again. He used his hand to clear a spot in the smog on the mirror and examined his face. "I need make up," he called. "Red lipstick or something."
"We'll get it when we stop," Howie called back.
"Who's gonna shop with me?"
There was a long enough silence that AJ poked his head out again. Howie buried his head in his magazine, and Nick looked extremely interested in the television.
"Nick will," Howie said.
"Fuck you," Nick replied. "You should go. You wear women's clothes already. You and your man-blouses."
Howie swatted at him, but Nick ducked in time.
"Fuck both of you," AJ said. "I'll go myself."
The mall. When AJ was a kid, it was his single favorite hang out, just because he could hang out in the food court, or sit near the wishing well with his buddies and scope out the chicks. AJ was smooth enough that he could go undetected and scope out the guys, too. Before he was famous, he had a girlfriend who worked at the Cinnabon place, and she gave him free cinnamon buns and cans of Pepsi. The mall was the prime meat market for the 15 and under crowd, and AJ ruled it.
It had been a long time since AJ could walk into a mall and not get mobbed, having screaming girls run up to claw at him or throngs of giggling teenagers huddle behind him and follow him everywhere he went. Now, his only problem was what to wear.
He'd stolen one of Howie's belts and used a nail to poke a new hole in it, so his pants were still way too big, but at least they weren't held up with a piece of the hotel bathrobe. Since he still didn't have a bra, he wore the baggiest shirt he could find, because he liked it when chicks showed off their tits, but now that he actually had them, it wasn't cool to have them flopping all over the place.
He headed to the trendiest, most cutting edge store he could find - one that had blue-haired mannequins in the window and techno music spilling from the speakers. He walked straight to the counter and leaned on it, smirking at the girl behind it.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
"Yes you can, sweetheart," AJ said, ignoring the stunned look. "Where's your leather?"
Despite the fact that he was a girl, and that obviously sucked, AJ couldn't remember the last time he'd had so much fun shopping. His biggest problem was finding out what size he was, because the sizes started at two and went from there. And who the fuck would wear a two? He found a rack of little black dresses that zipped up the back and grabbed one of each size, from two to 12, and carried them all to the dressing room, the sales girl following behind him like he was going to steal them. He went in and started at four, and found the six fit perfectly except it was a little tight in the chest. So man, he figured. He must have hooters. He stayed in the size six for a few minutes, turning around in front of the mirror and examining himself. His skin was still pale, and his eyes were large and dark, and his hair was a deep, rich brown. If it were a little darker, he would be a 90s, funked-up version of Snow White. Maybe he was a hot chick.
He grabbed one of the little black dresses, and a pair of leather pants (which were a different size altogether), and one of those little tops that looked like a bandanna. It wasn't until he carried them to the counter that he realized he couldn't use his credit card.
"Hang on, sweetheart," he said. "I'll be right back."
A quick trip to the bank machine for a couple of thousand dollars and he was back, buying the clothes and heading to the next store. He bought a great little leather jacket, and a couple of pairs of killer heels that he'd love to see on a chick. He bought jeans, and sandals, and little black shirts, and half a dozen pairs of earrings. Then he lugged the barely manageable load to Macy's, wanting a tube of siren-red lipstick.
He stopped at a display of them, which was trapped in a little glass booth, and the woman behind the counter smelled like baby powder.
"Could I interest you in a free makeover?" she asked.
"No," AJ said, pressing his finger against the glass. "I just want one of those."
"We have a great assortment of cosmetics that would match your skin tone perfectly," she said. And fuck, did chicks always talk like this?
"One of those," he repeated.
"If you're going to get the lipstick, you might as well get the...."
"Fine," AJ said. "Give me whatever you think would look good. I'm going for, like, dark and sexy."
The woman looked like she was going to wet herself. She clucked her tongue and spun around, coming back to him with about a dozen tubes and containers. "This is the frosty winter blush...."
"Fine," AJ said. "I'll take it."
"If you want to hop in that chair over there...."
AJ waved his hand in the air. "I don't want to, like, try it on or nothing. Just pack it up and I'll take it."
AJ leaned against the counter as he waited, tapping his fingers impatiently and watching the chilly looks from perfectly-packaged women who walked past. He couldn't help but glance down at what he was wearing - way-too-baggy jeans, an old belt of Howie's, a worn Planet Hollywood shirt and a scruffy leather jacket. He ran his hand through his hair self consciously, just wishing the woman would hurry the fuck up.
Two women in business suits, both with pinched lips and severe hair, actually slowed down a little when they walked by, looking at AJ slumped against the counter and kicking the ground aimlessly.
"What?" AJ snapped, and they sped away.
He sighed and looked at the woman, who was putting the stuff in fancy boxes with cotton stuffing. He put his hand in his pocket and felt lots of cash left. "You know what?" he said. "I think I'll take that makeover."
It was nothing to sit back in a chair while someone did up his face. What was new was that the woman wanted to talk through the whole thing, telling him what colors would go best with his skin tone, and how he could best accentuate his eyes. Given that he wasn't sure how long he was going to be like this, AJ tried to pay attention, but after awhile he couldn't help but wonder why people gave such a shit about this stuff. She sat him up so he was facing a mirror, and he rubbed his lips together. "More red."
The woman dabbed on a little more lipstick and held out a tissue. AJ stared at it.
"Blot," she said.
"Press your lips against this."
AJ raised an eyebrow. "Why?"
"So..." The woman paused, looking slightly flustered, like AJ should know this. "So you don't get lipstick on your teeth."
AJ made a face and followed her instructions.
He left with a made-up face, about $500 poorer, and headed straight to the washrooms. He walked a few feet into the men's room, not even noticing a guy at the urinal until the guy gave him a startled look and AJ remembered. He turned around and walked into the other one, where he found a couple of women examining themselves in the mirror. One licked the tip of her finger and ran it along her eyebrow.
AJ went into one of the stalls and locked the door, squirming around the small space as he slid out of his old jeans. He stuffed them in the bag and put on the leather pants instead. Then he yanked off his shirt and dropped it in the bag, digging around to find one of the bras. He had no idea what bra size he was, so he'd bought one of each size, starting at 34B and working his way up.
It took a good half hour to find one that fit right, and another five minutes to figure out how to put it on and reach around to do it up. He'd become a master at taking them off, but he'd never had to worry about putting one on.
Then he picked the little black T-shirt with the silver beads that formed a Playboy bunny symbol and slid into it, smoothing it down before he opened the stall door and walked out.
He dragged his stuff to the trash can, starting to throw out the bra box and figuring he'd better keep it, in case he needed to buy another one and forgot the size. He didn't realize a girl was staring at him in the mirror until he was tucking his third bra back into its box.
"Hey," AJ said, holding out the bras that didn't fit. "You want these?"
The girl capped her lipstick and hurried out the door.
AJ tossed the bras in the garbage can and slid back into his jacket, smiling a little at his reflection. Oh yeah. He was definitely hot.
The driver was waiting for him at the entrance to the mall. He hopped out and helped AJ load his bags, and AJ slid into the back seat.
AJ stretched his legs and got comfortable, glancing at the mini bar and wondering if he should have a drink. The dividing window slid down and AJ saw the driver's eyes looking at him in the mirror. "Have fun?"
"Uh, yeah. Can I smoke in here?"
"Be my guest."
AJ lit one of his Marlboros and opened the window a crack.
"So which one are you with?" the driver asked. And why the fuck was the driver even talking to him?
"Uh...Howie." And that sounded logical, because Howie didn't have a girlfriend at the moment. But just in case, AJ thought he should sound noncommittal. "You know. Whatever."
AJ looked at the driver in the rearview mirror, and their eyes locked. There seemed to be some deeper meaning there, but AJ couldn't place it.
"Mind if I show you something?" the driver asked.
Then the car pulled off to the side of the road, and the driver turned around in his seat. AJ couldn't figure out why the fuck they'd stopped, or why it looked like the driver was going to climb in the back. And then he realized.
"No," he said. "Drive the car."
"But we could just...."
"Drive the fucking car," AJ snapped.
The driver sighed and turned back around, and AJ couldn't believe it. He leaned forward and uncapped the Crown Royal, figuring after all that, he needed a drink.
"Don't," the driver said. "The guys don't like people drinking in the limo."
AJ's eyes widened. "Oh, that is such bullshit. We don't care who drinks in the limo."
The driver smirked. "We? So you're part of the band now?"
"Fuck you," AJ said. "You are so fired."
"And now you think you can fire me? Because you're one of the 800 girls they have on the road?"
"Fuck you," AJ repeated. "Is this how you talk to all the girls? Fuck you. Fuck you and turn around and close the fucking window."
The window closed, and AJ rode in silence back to the hotel, polishing off four shots of Crown Royal on the way, because he could drink in the limo, goddammit. He was dropped off at the back, but there was still a small group of girls in Backstreet Boys T-shirts. They were like insects, in a way. They could get in through any little crack or cranny.
They perked up when the limo stopped, like they might see a Backstreet Boy. AJ climbed out with all his bags, with no help from the driver this time, and he felt the disappointment.
"Look at her," he heard one of the fans say. "What a slut."
Every nerve and cell in AJ's body wanted to stop and tell her off, but there was nothing he could do.
He rode the elevator in silence, slumped against the wall, watching the numbers climb and wondering how his day went from being so fun to being such shit. He stopped at their floor and stepped off, lugging his stuff to Howie's room.
Howie opened the door and his jaw dropped. "Whoa."
AJ squeezed past him and dropped everything on the floor.
"Look at you," Howie said.
"Yeah. Look at me."
AJ turned and faced Howie, wanting more than ever to just hear something nice. He wanted to hear that he looked pretty, or hot, or like something Howie would talk to even if he wasn't AJ, the guy Howie had known since the Orlando talent show circuit.
"You look...like a tramp." Howie giggled and stepped back a little, and AJ wanted to cry.
"Fuck you, Howie." He turned quickly and strode to the window, mostly because he wasn't sure what else to do.
"Hey," Howie said quickly. "Hey, I'm sorry."
AJ pressed his forehead against the window, looking out at the city, not exactly sure where he fit into it anymore. And for the first time, he felt the ache of not being on stage for a week, and not being AJ McLean. It was like the person he'd tried so hard to become was stripped away because he'd changed genders.
He felt Howie's hand on his back, and then Howie's arms wrapped around his waist, pulling him back until Howie was hugging him from behind. Howie was still shorter than him, and his chin rested perfectly on AJ's shoulder.
"I'm sorry," Howie said. "Are you okay?"
AJ nodded, wanting the hug but at the same time wanting to break this moment because it was the sort of moment that would make his heart hurt and his eyes water. And then his eyes did water, and he burned with shame when he wiped them with the back of his hand.
"It's okay," Howie said quietly, squeezing him tighter. "We'll get you back."
AJ wasn't sure why he was crying, but maybe it was for a bunch of reasons. Because he'd lost his body. Because he'd lost his identity. Because he thought there were all these cool things he could do as a girl, like shop and fuck and act like a diva, and it wasn't that easy, because the rest of the world would probably stop him.
"We're gonna take a break," Howie said.
"Because of me? Don't if it's because of me."
"It's because of this whole thing. Not your fault. Just a couple of weeks. Brian needs it anyway. He hasn't been feeling well and he's really homesick, and it's not helping."
"Okay," AJ said, because deep down, he really wanted a break, and he didn't mind if it was because of him. Touring was hard enough. Touring as someone other than himself, especially without the high of being on stage, was even harder.
Keeping his promise to Kevin, Howie temporarily moved in with AJ when they got back to Orlando. He set out his assortment of grooming products in one of AJ's bathrooms, and instead of teasing him about it, AJ hovered behind him and said "Hey, cool. Paul Mitchell gel."
Howie sat on the back deck reading one of the books that AJ bought but never read, watching AJ traipse around doing yard work in a barely-there bikini. Howie slumped down farther in his chair so the deck railing would obscure his view of AJ's body every time AJ bent over to pull a weed, but just when he positioned himself perfectly, AJ would move back into view again. AJ was getting a great tan already - his skin always tanned quickly and perfectly - and it made AJ's lean limbs and pin-up figure all that more maddening to look at. And the tattoos, Howie decided, really were kind of hot.
Then AJ moved around to the front of the house, and Howie realized that AJ was pulling weeds because it was something he could do to show off his body. Howie moved to the front porch, just to make sure that AJ didn't get into any trouble.
AJ strode across the lawn and leaned against the railing. "Hey, D."
"Let's go to a club tonight."
Howie cleared his throat. "Which one?"
"I don't know. Your club, maybe. Or maybe something wilder. Want to?"
Howie shrugged. Really, he was just glad that AJ's morale was picking up a little.
"Should I wear something that covers the tattoos?" AJ asked. "Like, do they look too suspicious?"
"Nah," Howie said. "At most, it just looks like you're a really big AJ McLean fan."
"Hold still," Howie said, focusing hard on a spot a fraction of an inch below AJ's eyes. They were sitting on the bed facing each other, legs crossed, Howie trying to draw a perfect dark brown line under AJ's left eye.
Howie grunted and squirmed closer. "Hang on," AJ said, shifting so his legs were draped over Howie's, moving his bum closer so they were chest to chest. "Is that better?"
Howie's breathing hitched for a half a second. "Yeah."
AJ kept his eyes open, looking at the ceiling as the sharp tip of the eyeliner touched just under his eye. If he trusted anyone to have something sharp near his eye, it was Howie. Actually, Howie was probably the only one he trusted enough to do this.
"Are you sure you're doing it right?" AJ asked.
"I think so," Howie muttered, still deep in concentration. He worked the tip to the corner of AJ's eyelid and sat back. "There. Take a look."
AJ grabbed the hand mirror and studied his reflection. "Looks good. Do the other one."
He squirmed even closer, so close that their hips bumped and the crotches of their pants scraped together. AJ noticed a certain heat and firmness, smirked and squirmed even closer.
"Oh, Howard," he said. "Are you happy to see me?"
Howie blushed a little and twirled the eyeliner pencil in his fingers. "Don't be a brat."
AJ squirmed even more and rubbed against Howie, slowly and deliberately. "You are. You're sporting wood for me."
"Shut up and hold still."
Howie did the other eye and sighed. "There."
AJ grabbed his favorite tube of siren-red lipstick and handed it to Howie. "Do my lips, too."
"You can do your own lips."
"I don't care. I want you to do them."
Howie grimaced and uncapped the lipstick, twisting the end until the red tip poked out. "Okay. Open your mouth a little."
AJ obeyed, opening his mouth and letting his jaw go slack, feeling the tip of the lipstick press from one side of his lips to the other. Then Howie did his top lip, and it was all AJ could do not to smile.
AJ checked himself in the mirror. "Okay. Cool. Hand me that tissue."
Howie frowned but passed it to AJ anyway. "What for?"
AJ folded it in half and pressed his lips against it. "Blot."
They started at Tabu, but AJ wasn't happy there. Too many people were crowding around Howie for it to be any fun. Not only that, but the repetitive dance music was driving AJ a little nutty. He was wearing leather pants, leather jacket, and his bandanna top, hair messy and the reddest lipstick he could find. If he saw someone who looked like him, he decided, he would definitely try to pick her up.
They settled on a club so new that AJ didn't know the name of it. It was mainstream enough that Howie fit in but different enough that there were few Backstreet Boys fans. AJ felt every set of male eyes in the place leer at him, and he couldn't decide if he liked it or hated it.
They headed straight to the bar, AJ lighting a cigarette and ordering a shot of whisky that he downed the second it landed in front of him. He slid the empty shot glass back at the bartender and croaked "Another one."
The bartender paused, and AJ could feel everyone lining the bar stare at him. Another shot of whisky landed in front of him and he downed that one too.
The guy on the other side of Howie hooted. "The girl can drink!"
"You're fucking right, the girl can drink," AJ replied, waiting for the bartender to refill his glass. He took a deep drag of his cigarette and almost coughed smoke when he heard two heavy notes, and then a woman's breathy voice come through the speakers - What are you thinking about?
"Fuck me!" AJ said. "Living Dead Girl! Let's go."
"Nah," Howie said from his position on the stool.
"Come on, Howie. I don't know how long I'm gonna be a girl. I want a chance to go out and work the dance floor."
Howie scratched his head and looked out at the floor. "Then...go."
"Fine. You sit and watch the master. Or, mistress. Or whatever."
AJ arched his back and slid under the metal bar, already moving by the time he hit the dance floor. He slithered in and out of the crowd, shamelessly shaking his ass, spreading his arms and feeling 50 sets of eyeballs watching him. It was like taking his new body for a road test. The song changed and became a techno remix of "Blister in the Sun," and AJ knew there was no way he was stopping.
He was gleaming from a layer of fresh sweat when he looked back at Howie again, and realized for the first time that Howie was talking to someone. A guy. A guy who looked a lot like Chris Kirkpatrick. AJ skipped across the dance floor and leaned over the metal bar. "Hey!" he shouted.
Howie looked, and the guy turned, and it was Chris Kirkpatrick. "I'm Lexie," AJ shouted, and he realized what a stupid name it was, but until then everyone had been calling him "Alex" and that just seemed a little too obvious.
He loved the way Chris looked at him for a second longer than usual, and the way Chris's eyes gave him a quick once-over. "Hey," Chris said, giving AJ a weak handshake.
"You're in that band, aren't you?" AJ said, loudly so he could be heard over the music.
"Yeah," Chris said. "So's he." Chris pointed down the bar and AJ saw Justin Timberlake about three people away.
AJ's eyes narrowed, and his mind raced, and oh, he had an idea.
Howie leaned over so he could talk into AJ's ear. "There's a VIP area in the back," Howie said. "We're gonna head back there."
"Okay," AJ said. "I'll see you back there in a few."
Howie followed Chris and AJ couldn't help but let his gaze rest on Justin again. Oh, fuck it. You only live once.
He limbo'd under the bar again and slithered over to Justin, letting his hand brush across Justin's lower back. Justin turned and AJ saw that look in his eyes. He knew that look, because he'd had it himself a thousand times. It was a look that said "Oh. Hot chick."
AJ squeezed in next to Justin and leaned against the bar, waiting for the bartender to pass, feeling Justin's eyes fixed on him. If this was truly his night, Justin would say something to him. If not, no big deal.
The bartender stopped. "Whisky?"
"You betcha," AJ said, fishing in his pocket for some money. He looked up to see Justin watching him and smiled a little.
"Nice tattoos," Justin said.
"Thanks. They had a four-for-one special so I thought I'd go nuts with them."
Justin studied him, like he couldn't decide whether or not AJ was joking, and laughed a little. "Really?"
"No, not really."
Then they both laughed. The bartender set another shot of whisky in front of AJ and he downed it.
"Whoa," Justin said. "Tough girl."
"You'd better believe it. So what's your name?"
Justin flinched visibly, looking at the dance floor and back again, and AJ could tell from the reaction that Justin thought everyone knew his name. "Um, Justin."
"Justin. Nice name. I'm Lexie." AJ shook his hand slowly, letting his fingertips brush across the inside of Justin's wrist, and he felt Justin shudder.
"Lexie. Nice name. I'm Justin."
AJ let out a sarcastic, "ha ha ha" kind of laugh. "You're a funny kid."
Justin raised an eyebrow. "Funny strange or funny ha-ha?"
More laughter, and geez, this was looking easier than AJ thought.
"So, Justin," AJ said, letting his hand rest on Justin's stomach. "Do you dance?"
Justin's eyes seemed to darken, and AJ knew that look, because he'd had it a hundred times himself. "Yeah."
AJ let his hand drift down, hovering around Justin's belt buckle. "Do you fast dance or slow dance?"
"I dance any way you want me to."
"Good." AJ's hand drifted even farther, until it rested on the part of Justin Timberlake that most people never got to touch. The part that everyone wanted to touch. "Because I'll dance with you until you beg me to stop, and you come so hard that your teeth rattle."
AJ was sure Justin was going to spit out his drink. But he held it together, the poor boy. And when he spoke, he practically squeaked. "Okay."
AJ clicked his tongue. "Actually, on second thought, I don't feel like it." He pushed himself off the bar and walked away, feeling Justin's eyes on him, and waited until he was a few feet away to start snickering.
And God, that moment almost made a few weeks of gender-change hell worth it.
AJ found Howie in the back, tapping his fingers against the arm of the couch, looking a little bored. He smiled when AJ strutted across the room and landed next to him.
AJ leaned in so his lips were almost brushing Howie's earlobe. "Howie."
"I want to go home."
The first thing AJ did when he got back to his house was head to the fridge for some vodka. He poured himself a shot and added a bit of lime and a bunch of ice. "Want one?"
Howie made himself comfortable on one of the stools. "Sure."
AJ made another one and slid it across the counter. "Cheers."
Howie raised the glass. "To what?"
"To being half drunk already."
Howie clinked glasses with him and took a drink. "You know, you're taking this pretty well."
AJ walked around the counter and sat on the stool next to Howie. "What? Being a chick?"
"Yeah. I mean, the first few days I thought you were suicidal, but you're getting better."
AJ found his cigarettes and lit one with a broad sweep of the arm. "D, I grew up with shit. My dad fucked off, my mom was on her own, I dropped out of school my sophomore year, I put up with shitheads like Lou Pearlman, I kicked and clawed and scratched my way through everything. This is nothing. This is act one: the war."
Howie's brow furrowed. "What's that from?"
"Wag the Dog. Ever seen it?"
"Nope. But I like that."
AJ finished his vodka and slammed the empty glass on the counter. "D, I gotta be straight with you."
Howie took a slow sip of his drink. "Okay."
"I want to fuck."
Howie choked a little, pulling the glass away and covering his mouth with his hand. "What?"
"I. Want. To. Fuck."
"Yeah, why not? I mean, if you had a chance to be a chick for awhile, wouldn't you want to fuck? To see what it feels like? Besides, I need to. Like, really need to. I don't know how this equipment works, but I haven't had an orgasm since this happened."
Howie's eyes widened. "Are you serious?"
"As a heart attack."
"Ouch. That's a long time."
"Right." AJ thought about getting up and pouring himself another drink, but decided to hold off until the conversation was over. "And I know you know how to give me one. And it's perfect. You like girls, so there's a match on the body front. I like guys and girls, so I won't be wigged out by it happening."
Howie paused, and it seemed like forever, because AJ had already presented his best arguments and he wasn't sure if he could think of another one.
Fuck it, AJ thought. He was going to get another drink. He slid off his stool and headed for the fridge. "I'm not talking about us falling in love. I'm talking about an orgasm. And I know I know how to give you one. I'm not going to, like, fall in love with you if we do it. And you won't either, right?"
Howie didn't answer. He tapped his fingers once against the counter and studied his drink again.
AJ strode to the counter and leaned against it, knowing from that vantage point that Howie could see down his shirt, because he'd had girls do it to him. "Kevin said you were supposed to take care of me, right?"
"How did you know that?"
"Because you guys are like my brothers. I know how you operate. So this would be like taking care of me. Because trust me, if I don't come soon, I'm gonna go crazy."
He poured a drink for himself and one for Howie, giving Howie time to think about it. By the time he rounded the corner and slid back on the stool, Howie had made up his mind.
"Okay," Howie said. "But just once."
It was kind of neat feeling, having Howie naked on top of him, especially since Howie was heavier than him for a change. They were still just kissing, which was awfully nice even if it wasn't different from what it would feel like if AJ was a boy.
"Okay," Howie said into AJ's mouth, letting his hand drift down AJ's chest and rest on his stomach. "Tell me what to do."
"Do what you usually do," AJ said. "I mean, how you usually get girls off. I know how I do it, but..."
"Okay. I'm just a little nervous, because it's you."
AJ sifted his fingers through Howie's hair. "It's okay, D. Trust me. If it's anything like sex when you're a guy, you can't do it wrong."
Howie shifted, and the sheets rustled. His tongue traced a trail down AJ's neck, stopping to plant a string of sweet wet kisses. Then his lips slid across AJ's skin, and his tongue traced a glimmering line around AJ's bleeding heart tattoo on his arm. Then it flattened and left a wet swipe down the middle, and AJ thought he might come right there. His breathing hitched and his back arched a little when Howie wrapped his lips around AJ's nipple.
"Ah," AJ said. "That feels good."
"As good as it does when you're a guy?"
"Better. Definitely better."
So Howie did it more, licking and sucking and tickling with his tongue, moving to give the other nipple equal attention before he kissed his way down to AJ's belly button. Then he squirmed between AJ's legs and dove in with his tongue, tickling and tugging and licking in a way that made AJ's insides turn to jelly.
"Fuck," AJ gasped. "Oh my God, fuck."
Howie stopped. "Okay?"
"Yes! Fuck. Don't stop. You're doing it right. You're doing it right. You're doing it right."
Howie kept going, and AJ couldn't help but grab a fistful of Howie's hair. "Oh, fuck, D. This is going to last, like, 30 seconds if you keep it up."
That didn't provide Howie with a whole lot of incentive to stop, so he didn't. And it felt good, like a slow rolling feeling that started in his belly and worked its way through his entire body. When he came he couldn't help but lift his hips off the bed, moaning and groaning like a mad man (mad woman?). Howie worked his way back up AJ's body, and AJ panted and clutched at his back.
"Okay?" Howie asked again.
"Yeah. That was really fucking okay. It seemed to last, like, longer or something." He caught his breath and smiled. "Roll on your back, boy. I'm going to ravage you."
AJ woke up to Howie's arm around him, Howie's face pressed against his back and Howie's warm breath against his skin. He smiled and stretched, squeezing Howie's hand and pressing it against his stomach.
Howie gave what sounded like a contented sigh. "Morning."
"Morning, lover boy." AJ rolled over to face Howie and caught Howie giggling. "I can't believe every girl in the world doesn't want you, man. You're a hell of a lay."
"Well, when you put it so nicely like that..."
"Sorry. You know what I mean." AJ reached up and pulled a stray strand of hair out of Howie's eyes. "Are you going to be, like, weird about this?"
"No," Howie said, snuggling his face against the pillow. "I'm okay."
"I mean when I change back."
Howie bit his lip and looked down at the pillow. "No. I don't think so. I've kind of come to think of you as two different people. Girl AJ and boy AJ."
AJ swallowed hard. He wasn't two people. There was only one of him, at least as far as he knew. And he knew the real answer to that was "yes."
"Come here," Howie said, wrapping his arm around AJ's waist and pulling him closer. "You're fun. I want to do that again."
Girl AJ was happy to hear that. Boy AJ did it anyway.
An hour and a half later, they lay in post-coital bliss again, AJ finding his cigarettes on the night stand and lighting one, blowing the smoke into the morning air. "Hey," AJ said.
Howie's face snuggled against AJ's shoulder. "Hey what?"
"Remember Tommy Bigby?"
He felt Howie jiggle and knew he was laughing. "The kid with the puppet he'd made out of his brother's sock?"
"Yeah. He was at, like, every fucking thing I went to. And he always came in last." AJ grabbed an ashtray from the night stand and set it on his chest. "He had that fucking sock, and the eyes were bottle caps. Remember that? And he did that ventriloquist act and he was so fucking bad at it."
Howie was laughing constantly now. "Yeah."
"And he'd sing..." AJ paused to laugh even harder. "...and he'd sing 'Dream a Little Dream of Me.' Always the same fucking song. And people would get up and leave."
Howie laughed even harder and sounded like he might snort.
AJ paused to flick his ash. "He always came in last. Like, dead last. And I thought after awhile that it must have hurt that kid. To want to do that enough to show up with his fucking brother's sock, and still just never be good at it. And I remember this one time, you and Tommy Bigby were at the same show, and you said something to him. I forget what it was."
AJ felt Howie shrug and took another drag.
"You said something like 'I really enjoyed that.' Which is nothing, really, but no one ever told that kid that. But you did, because it was like you knew he needed to hear it."
Howie snuggled more into AJ's shoulder. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." AJ paused and took another drag, blowing a slender stream of smoke at the ceiling. "I wonder what that kid's doing now. I mean, I hope it's something that makes him as happy as the puppet did. And I hope he kicks ass at it."
Howie's hand slid across AJ's stomach and rested there, making a warm hand print on his skin. "Sometimes I really love you, AJ."
"Yeah," AJ sighed. "I really love you all the time."
"And I don't want to get out of bed today."
They got out of bed the next day long enough to get in the bathtub, Howie sitting on one end and AJ lounged on the other. Howie dipped the razor in the water and swished it around, pulling it out and sighing. "What a pain in the ass this is," he said as he ran it smoothly and oh-so-carefully along AJ's leg.
"You're telling me. I'm never going to bitch about a girl with hairy legs again."
"No kidding." Howie tightened his grip slightly on AJ's leg and cocked his head as he worked along the knee.
"You're not doing bad for no experience," AJ said.
"Yeah. Like you've had years of experience." It was fascinating watching Howie focus so hard on something, and how gently he was doing this, like one wrong move would break AJ in half. "I wonder if you'll turn back gradually," Howie said. "Like tomorrow you'll wake up with a beard."
"Yeah. A chick with facial hair. Then I'll look like...I don't know...Lance Bass."
Howie snickered. "That is so mean. So mean."
Pretty soon they were laughing so hard that Howie had to stop, and then they laughed at each other laughing. Howie tugged at AJ's legs and pulled him underwater, and when he emerged Howie was listening closely to something.
The bathroom door swung open and AJ's mother appeared. "Oh. Howie. I'm sorry."
They exchanged a look of mute panic and Howie tugged AJ's legs enough to emerge all but his head in bubbles, to cover the tattoos. "Hi."
"What are you doing here?"
"Just, um, house sitting," Howie said cheerfully. "Watching the place until AJ gets back."
AJ's mom nodded, and AJ couldn't help but stare at her, looking away every time she looked at him. He wanted to jump out of the tub and hug her. Tell her what hell he'd been through. But he didn't want to put her through this, and didn't even know where he'd start anyway.
"Have you heard anything?" she asked. It occurred to AJ then that he had no idea what Kevin had told his mother. He hoped it wasn't the cancer story.
"No," Howie said. "But I'll let you know when I do."
AJ's mother sighed and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. "Okay," she said, glancing at AJ. AJ thought he saw some flicker of recognition. Some emotion he couldn't place. "Sorry to interrupt. If you talk to him, tell him to please phone me. I'm dying to hear from him."
Howie smiled a little. "I know."
She left as quietly as she'd come. AJ swallowed a lump in his throat and stared down at the bubbles. He felt the palm of Howie's hand run along his leg. "It's okay," Howie said.
"I know. I just..."
"I know. It's okay."
AJ sighed and put his hands on the side of the tub, starting to sit up when the door opened. He sank back down and saw his mother again.
"If you talk to AJ," she said, staring right at AJ as she said it, "tell him he'd better not be smoking."
Howie gave her another one of his calm, rational smiles. "Will do."
They waited until she left to exchange perplexed looks. "What the fuck was that all about?" AJ asked.
Howie shrugged. "I don't know. She's your mom."
A week later, AJ woke to an empty bed, the blankets in Howie's spot still rumpled and drawn back. Because "just once" had turned out to be the world's biggest, fattest lie.
AJ sat up slowly, rubbing his eyes and putting on his glasses, which were still his old ones. He needed to get some new frames to go with his new womanly face.
He walked down the stairs to find Howie in the front yard. AJ could hear the mumble of his voice through the screen door.
He was in the front yard talking to one of AJ's neighbors, a girl about 21. The girl had her hair in a pony tail, wearing jean shorts and a bikini top. She was cute. AJ had always thought that.
AJ leaned against the door frame and watched, rubbing his toe against the carpet. The girl threw her head back and laughed, so Howie must have said something adorable. When she walked away she patted his stomach, and he watched her leave.
AJ moved away from the door, heading toward the kitchen when Howie came in. "Hey," Howie said. "You know that girl?"
"A little." AJ opened the fridge door and pulled out a carton of orange juice. "Why?"
"I don't know."
"You think she's cute?"
Howie shrugged. "A little."
"Well, why don't you just fucking go for her, then?"
Howie's brow furrowed as he slid up on the stool. "What's the matter?"
AJ took a drink straight out of the carton and put it back in the fridge, slamming the door when he was done. "Nothing. I'm just saying, go for her. She's single. You're single. She's probably not gonna turn into a guy any time soon, so why not? Go for it." He left the kitchen as quickly as possible, wondering even as he walked why he was being so weird.
Howie came up about an hour later. AJ was curled up on the bed reading one of his books. Howie had been reading it, and AJ had forgotten he'd even owned it.
Howie leaned against the door frame. "AJ."
"What?" AJ said without looking up.
"Talk to me."
AJ snorted. "I'm talking to you."
"We...we should stop."
"Fine then. Let's stop. I don't care."
"I don't, you know," AJ said. "Actually, you know, I'm getting the hang of this. There's no point in you even fucking staying here."
"AJ, what's the problem?"
Before he knew what he was doing, AJ shut the book and whipped it across the room. It fluttered frantically and landed open on the floor. "My problem is I want my fucking body back. I want my life back. I want my friend back."
"I haven't gone anywhere."
AJ got up, heading toward the bathroom. "The problem is you. It's always been you. You understand? My problem is that you like me now and you won't like me later. My problem is that you treat me like I'm fragile and you won't even admit that you won't like me later. My problem is that I am not two fucking people. I'm just one. Just me."
He slammed the bathroom door behind him, sitting on the toilet and putting his head in his hands. And then he was crying again. Maybe it was a chick thing, but he doubted it.
He heard Howie say his name on the other side of the door and he reached over and turned the lock.
"Just get out of here," he called, and a few seconds later he heard his bedroom door shut.
When he came out, Howie's stuff was still there, but Howie was gone. AJ checked for a note but knew he wouldn't find one. And then, he thought he'd drink a little.
He put on a pair of jeans and his Playboy T-shirt and walked to the local bar. It was only early afternoon, and he slid up on the stool with about four other locals. A jukebox in the back chugged out "Sweet Home Alabama."
"Whisky," AJ said, and he couldn't get it fast enough.
Okay, maybe he was drunk. A little. Okay, a lot drunk.
He stood outside his third bar in four hours, wondering when it had gotten dark and become night. He waved his hand in the air for a cab, hearing a couple of guys jeer "hey, baby" behind him. AJ gave them the finger.
The cab stopped and AJ tumbled in, using the door to slide himself into a sitting position. The streetlights blurred on the other side of the window, and sometime during the ride, it started to rain.
He got out and stood in his front yard for a few minutes, letting the rain soak him, his hair plastered to his forehead in wet, sloppy strands. The water soaked his shirt and made it stick to his chest, and not in a hot way, and his jeans clung to his skin. He took a deep breath and looked up at his house. The house he'd worked so hard for. The house with no one in it.
He stumbled in and kicked his wet shoes off in the doorway, glancing at the coat rack to find Howie's jacket gone. And that figured. He used the railing to pull himself up the stairs, pausing to waver at the top before he walked into his bedroom and landed headfirst on his bed.
Forget it, he thought. Forget everything. Fuck it. Have a drink and relax. And wait, he'd already done that. It was supposed to make it hurt less, but it hadn't worked. Not by a long shot.
He peeled off his clothes and threw them at the foot of the bed, fumbling to get under the sheets. Then he pulled himself up and laid on his stomach, wrapping his arms around his pillow. And even soaking wet, he was able to fall asleep.
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes were the blurry numbers of the alarm clock. And it felt like another weird hangover, but then he remembered the last time that he felt like this.
He was afraid to move. Afraid to think. He turned a little onto his side and felt something move with it. And he knew, without even looking, that he was a boy again.
AJ jumped a little and opened his eyes all the way, seeing a blurry version of Howie standing in his bedroom.
"It's back," AJ mumbled, laying on his stomach again and burying his face in the pillow.
"I know." Howie sat on the edge of the bed. "You look like shit. And not because you're a boy. I mean, in general."
"I know. I was all wet from the rain." He shivered a little and he couldn't figure out if it was the memory of it or a genuine shiver.
He felt Howie's hand on his forehead. "You feel warm. Maybe you're sick."
"No. I was pretty drunk."
"Oh," Howie said, although AJ was pretty sure that Howie already knew that.
"Are you okay?"
AJ nodded a little into his pillow, and he thought he might cry again.
"Get up," Howie said. "Let's get you in the shower."
The warm water against his face was like a gift from God, and it almost felt a little weird to have all his parts back. He ran his hands across his own body this time, and when he opened his mouth to speak, he sounded like himself.
He stayed in there until the glass shower door fogged, and then he stayed in there some more. He bowed his head, letting the warm water massage his neck and back, and barely noticed when the door opened and someone appeared behind him.
He felt a hand on his back and turned to find Howie, hair already wet and stringy, his mouth not smiling but his eyes making up for it.
Howie wrapped his arms around AJ's waist and pulled him closer, giving him a kiss even hotter than the water, his slick arms moving to hold AJ against him. AJ put his arms around Howie's shoulders and kissed back, and it was so good that AJ couldn't even be bothered to question it.
"Sometimes I really love you," Howie said against his lips, and AJ knew how he felt.
A month later, sitting in a little cafe with Howie, AJ saw the goth chick again. It had been so long, and he'd been so drunk before, that he barely recognized her. But he knew it was her from the look she gave him before she sat down at the next table.
"Hey," AJ said.
She looked cautious. "Hey."
"I'm sorry about before."
He wasn't sure who looked more stunned, the girl or Howie.
"Really. I can be a jerk sometimes when I'm drinking, and...you're beautiful."
"Thanks," she said, and AJ hoped it meant at least a little something.
Howie got the bill and they slid into their jackets, heading out the front door. Howie gave him a puzzled look. "What was that all about?"
"Well, it's kind of...like, I know how she feels, I guess."
"Tommy Bigby," Howie said, and it made no sense, but they laughed all the way down the sidewalk anyway.