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not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

A Habitation of Dragons

by No pSeud Attached

"Oh, look at this." JC, sitting on the edge of the recliner, holds up the magazine he's reading for Justin to see. "That's a great shoot, man. You look amazing."

There's a pull-out A2 poster, and Justin can only see a quarter. But his sky-blue scales glow vividly, because the make-up people spent hours scrubbing with long brushes. The one visible wing is polished too, oiled and rubbed with chamois. (For the first time in his life, Justin loves make up calls.) He does look amazing, Justin thinks, and he preens a little, licking a speck of dust from his shoulder. Then he does it again, just to admire the contrast between his hide and his ruby red forked tongue.

JC grins and carefully takes the poster out, unpicking the staples with his fingernails, and spreads it on the ground before he turns the next page.

In the full poster, Justin's lying on top of the mountain of sneakers, just as he is now. There's a little sidebar about how many thousand pairs are in the pile, and what brands. The numbers are wrong, of course, because fans keep on sending them. One night two girls, tender, wide-eyed thirteen year olds, somehow found their way through the fences and security and locked doors to let him know they still loved him. They'd come all the way from Minnesota to LA, on their own, they told him as they stroked his claws and he smiled down benevolently.

Sweet kids. They left their sneakers behind, and he can smell exactly where they are, still near the top under his left forepaw. It was weeks ago, but Justin knows every pair.

The first pitiful little bed had been made from his own shoes, shipped across the country from Florida, and he'd huddled unhappily on top of them, knowing instinctively that a dragon his size needed more Stuff. Now there's a properly majestic pile, and he can sprawl at ease, tail curling around the back to keep even the shoes he can't see safe. The worn ones, anything marked and dirty, he buries deep for bulk. The outside layers are spotless and new, except for some pairs donated by friends which give the hoard a homely smell. It's good Stuff.

"...and his mom says, 'it's the same old Justin inside, and we love him just as much'."

JC's still flipping through the stack of magazines he brought along, reading parts out and showing Justin the pages. Justin's long-sighted -- no one's figured out dragon-sized glasses yet, so too close and everything blurs, but he can see a cockroach scuttle at the far end of the warehouse and hit it dead on with a ball of fire no bigger than a golf ball. So JC sits at the foot of the sneaker mound, holding the magazines up for inspection.

There are older pictures in them too, of a loose-limbed curly-haired kid Justin is finding increasingly hard to believe used to be him. And on the next page JC offers there's a sequence of small, grainy, blurred video stills, something falling almost directly onto the lens, blotting out the lights above.

Justin's seen the bootleg footage of his change, a shaking video shot by some audience member who really hit the jackpot -- it was all over the TV, and in all the papers.

Everyone still makes a big deal about how he didn't squash rows of screaming girls to death. From his point of view, it had pretty much been an accident -- the sudden sensation of heaviness, the split of the harness, the screams changing pitch, and then the plummet downwards which made him crack open his wings. Reflex, that was all, but it makes better PR the way they tell it. Image is everything.

He snorts down at the magazine, just enough to make the shiny paper crackle in the heat, and JC drops it with a yelp and blows on his fingers. Justin's odd, grating dragon-laugh echoes from the flat walls.

"Ow!" JC flips him off, then grins and lies back down on the recliner. "I had a manicure this morning, you fucker."

JC's wearing flip-flops, even though it's cool in the large open space. Some things have vanished in the change, like Justin's love for breakfast cereal, which now just sticks annoyingly between his teeth and tastes sugar-sweet not blood-sweet. And some needs have gotten stronger.

Once Stuff comes into his lair, it can't leave. By now people know not to show up wearing sneakers. And those who do hand them over voluntarily before they go. At least, not many people argue after they've been pinned to the floor by razor-edged claws, and had eight-inch fire-polished teeth clamp gently around their feet, working the laces free.

He sighs and shifts his weight, sending a black-and-white left Reebok (size eight) rolling down onto the concrete floor by JC's recliner. JC leans over to pick it up, and tosses it back higher up the heap. Justin suppresses a growl. JC's his best friend, one of his brothers. The four of them, Trace, his mom and Johnny, they're the only ones he'll tolerate even touching his Stuff.

And Britney. Thinking about her, he sighs again. He'd let Britney come as close as she liked, touch anything she wanted, but she hasn't visited him since he changed, even though he wants to see her. She's...special. Or so she always said.

JC looks up at the roof, where the uncertain winter sun is peering in through the high windows.

"You want the door open, man?"

What he means is, with all the sighing going on the air is getting brimstoney. Justin nods, and wishes someone would invent five-pound breath mints.

When JC presses the button on the remote control, the wide doors roll back just enough to let in some fresh air. Justin rests his chin on his paws and stares through the narrow gap at the parking lot, and the dull grey building opposite and, beyond that, the hills, coolly distant. He's stuck here, being a good little trooper, in what his new lizardy brain insists should be a dark stone cave but is actually an ugly metal-walled warehouse in LA.

JC's humming, do-do-daing to the Police playing on the cheap stereo by the recliner. They had fancier sound systems at first, but after Justin had stepped on the fifth one JC said they might as well buy them from Walmart.

Justin tilts his head to get the key, then croons along. His voice is good as ever, even though his mouth won't make words. JC glances up from the magazine and smiles, and sings a bit louder.

Everyone stops by regularly, trying to make him feel included. Chris, out of some perverse determination to act normal, insists on getting Justin to play ball. He's punctured dozens, and swallowed a couple. Now Chris has commissioned someone to build an outsize Playstation controller from sheet steel, and he's trying to source a fireproof screen for the giant TV on the wall. It makes Justin want to pin him down and lick him all over, which he's pretty sure is a sign of affection.

Joey, more practically-minded, always brings marshmallows when he comes to chat, and Justin toasts them with small, precise flames. Kelly's been there a couple times too, and on the first visit Justin sniffed the air carefully, just in case Joey had been bullshitting all these years. He'd been telling the truth, though, and so Justin extended his neck and let her pet his soft-as-snake skin nose.

Lance doesn't bring marshmallows. Lance brings chunks of sulphur, like giant candies, and tosses them high in the air for Justin to catch and crunch up. Lance likes bigger flames, because Lance is a fucking pyromaniac; Justin likes fire too, but most of all he likes that Lance isn't ever afraid of him. Possibly this is not some huge trust deal, but just that, as Chris says, Lance has no sense of personal danger. Whatever, Lance will sit on Justin's forearm, tucked right up against the tender hollow of his throat, laughing and whooping while Justin curls out smoke-edged crimson flames twenty or thirty yards long and scorches the shimmering air with a noise like a monster blowtorch.

Lance has big plans for live pyro and aerial stunts on tour. When Justin's free to venture outside, they're going flying together. They haven't told anyone yet, because it would only cause trouble, but Lance wants to try dragon free-fall.

He shifts and stretches, grumbling, half unfurling his wings. They ache, cramped up indoors for too long.

JC scrambles up the sneaker heap, and Justin curves his neck, angling his head to get on eye-level. JC scratches behind Justin's scalloped ear, in just the perfect spot to soothe him.

"Hey, honey. Don't be sad. You can go out, just as soon as Johnny sorts out the liability insurance situation. We gotta be careful, you know that. Like, one too many enchiladas, dude, and you could burp and burn down a studio."

Justin licks JC's foot because he understands, really he does, it just doesn't make him any less restless. Johnny won't even let him do meet and greets yet, which is a pity because he'd really enjoy spending a little time with some special fans.

JC's hand has stilled. Justin butts him with his head, making sure not to catch him with the frill of spikes. JC hugs his neck, then resumes scratching. After a while, the warehouse starts to resonate, thrumming to a sound like a rusty battleship purring.

Justin still wants to fly.

Johnny keeps saying that he'll have everything in place soon, everything Justin needs: FAA clearance, insurance, trucks to move his Stuff, fireproof places to sleep, venue access, food. Sometimes Justin wonders exactly how Johnny stays so calm about the situation, but that's just the way Johnny is, always ahead of the game. He fixes, he arranges, he promotes, and he hides the things the teenies don't need to see. He's done a lot in the past, to keep the machine rolling, and the show on the road, and the money pouring in. Johnny understands the bottom line, understands Stuff as much as any human can, and so Justin trusts him.

A few minutes later, a tendril of smoke drifts inside around the open door, and Justin sniffs.

"Are you hungry?" JC asks. "You want me to see if lunch is ready yet?"

When Justin nods heavily, JC scrambles down, scattering sneakers. Justin gathers them up tenderly, and rearranges them on the pile. Nikes, Adidas, Pumas -- and there's the pair of little pink Chucks he took from one of the PR girls. Young and pretty, but she's seeing a guy in the legal department, which is kind of a shame.

The next rumble comes from his stomach.

Justin happily chows down the food they bring him -- lots of barbecue, because no one likes to see him eating cows raw -- but while it fuels him, it doesn't completely satisfy. It lacks that special something.

This, Justin has not explained to anyone. He doesn't feel bad about it -- it's part of his new nature, like the need for Stuff -- but he knows it would cause even more trouble than flying with Lance.

He snuffles over the sneakers by his left forepaw, then licks his teeth and yawns. The poster on the floor flutters and drifts away a foot or two.

Even with the guys doing their best, it sucks to be trapped in the warehouse. Justin half hopes more teenies will sneak in to see him, but security has gotten tighter -- paparazzi have been caught hanging around, and Justin hates strangers trying to sneak up close to his Stuff. He hates it even more than he wants company.

Mostly, Justin wishes he'd turned into a dragon somewhere other than LA. He could be back in the Orlando compound, with its familiar security guys, busy staff everywhere, and bring-your-kids-to-work days. That would be cool. Last week Bev came to see Justin, and Chris's younger sisters flew in with her. He blew smoke rings for them, and pretty frilly flames. They're such cute kids -- such special little sweethearts. Although they're Chris's sisters, and so he really mustn't...

Damn, he's hungry. And still so, so bored.

Justin sighs, and settles down to wait for JC to return, closing his eyes to daydream about soaring over a stadium full of girls all dressed in white, screaming his name. He can't wait to start touring again.



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