Sitting down was a laborious, multi-step affair for a camel. First it bent its forelegs at the knobby knees and rocked forward, putting its bulk at a tremendous angle that reminded Wyatt of a freighter about to tip over. Once anchored, it levered its back legs down until it was securely parallel to the hay-strewn ground again. All the while it was chewing its cud—at least, Wyatt figured that was cud. He wasn't a camel expert, and the infographic wired to the side of the exhibit didn't say.
"Boy," said Jon appreciatively. "Camels, huh."
"Yup," said Wyatt, hands in his pockets.
That seemed to sum it up.
Jon popped another handful of caramel corn into his mouth. He'd bought it at Wyatt's request, or at least, what Jon had interpreted as "a request" and Wyatt would have described as "a pause to look at it while we passed through the gift shop." Caramel corn was okay and all, but Wyatt wasn't particularly hungry in the first place, so he was content to let Jon carry the bag and much with camel-like determination through its contents. (The long face and sand-colored hat didn't hurt the impression.)
"So what do you want to see next?" said Jon. "Hey, how about the porcupines? You like porcupines, right?"
"They are pretty cool," said Wyatt, with a slow, almost Hermanesque grin.
Jon latched onto his approval with the feral intensity of a starved possum. "Great! Porcupines it is. Which way should we go?"
Wyatt shrugged. "You've got the map."
One awkward stammering search and one short walk later, they were standing at the railing of the porcupine enclosure, next to a gaggle of under-tens lugging oversized drink cups painted with cartoon elephants. A big spiny fellow waddled by, unconcerned with the kids' shrieks of delight. Wyatt leaned on the railing for a better view, narrowly missing a splotch of bird doings with his besweatered elbow. Spiny wouldn't've cared about that either. Yeah, porcupines were all right.
The kids' parents shepherded them on toward the duck enclosure, and Jon nudged Wyatt with his elbow. "Hey, man, you want one?"
"What?" said Wyatt, thinking of the kids' drinks.
"A porcupine." Jon nodded at Spiny, now sniffing at a low shrub. "They're not so big. Bet I could carry it, once I figured out how to avoid the spines. If you want me to."
He had one foot up on the cement base of the railing when Wyatt grabbed his collar. "No, man! Are you even listening to yourself? We can't steal a porcupine! I don't know what I'd do with one if I had it! What's with you today?"
Jon allowed Wyatt to pull him back to the ground, the feral glint slowly fading from his eyes. "You're right. Sorry, Stephen, I don't know what came over me."
"Wyatt," said Wyatt.
"Right." Jon blinked. "What did I say?"
"I never knew you liked bicycles," muttered Jon over a slice of pepperoni-and-mushroom pizza. "I could have rented a tandem bike with you if you'd asked."
"Don't be silly, Jon. You would have taken one look at the Ferris wheel and glared at me like an iguana with an ulcer."
As usual, Jon had trouble following Stephen's linguistic brilliance. "Like a what? Wait, is the Ferris wheel a metaphor too, or...?"
"No, the Ferris wheel is where Jimmy Fallon and I rode our tandem bike," said Stephen tiredly. "You know, he's a much better listener than you are."
"You know, some might say the test..." Jon tugged at his collar. He looked paler than usual. "Some might say the real test of listening ability is whether one is still listening after a long period of time. Say, over a decade. That's longer than six months."
"Only two months and a half so far." Stephen sprawled next to him on the couch with a happy sigh. If he were a Disney princess, this would have been the scene where his hair came unbound and cascaded over a stone pedestal, while a chorus of soul-crooning bluebirds flew overhead. "It feels like my whole life. Me and Jimmy, we get each other, you know?"
Jon pouted. Disgraceful, that was. Men their age had no business pouting, unless they were facing a truly heart-rending situation, like not being sent a free iPad quickly enough. "I thought I did."
Things relaxed after the movie started. They both cheered when the X-Men did awesome things, both groaned when the black guy died first, both gasped when Professor X took the bullet even though they had known all along a wheelchair waited on the horizon. It was the kind of movie that's good to watch alone, but better with geeky friends. Even if Jon was more of a DC guy.
No sooner had the credits started than they were comparing notes: which characters were most true to the comics, which bits of CGI were least convincing. "And, listen," added Jon, "if you ever decide to run into a heavily guarded compound after an accomplice of your mother's killer...I'd have your back. You know that, right? Maybe not physically, that wouldn't help much, but, you know. Spiritually."
"Um, thanks," said Kristen. Was it weird for him to put her in the Jewish character's role? Probably not as weird as it would be if her boss were identifying with a would-be mass murderer. "If someone ever kills my mom, I'll keep that in mind."
They departed the theater box at a leisurely pace, going back to more normal reflections on how the movies were developing the X-history timeline. At least, until Jon added, "Even though this one's in the sixties, I'm sure they're not trying to imply anything too out-there about Charles and Erik."
"What do you mean, 'out-there'?"
"Don't worry about it! Magneto and Professor X have not been co-opted by the machinations of the gay agenda. That would be ridiculous."
Kristen stopped in her tracks. "Jon. You know this is really random, right?"
"That's what I'm saying! You have no reason to get worked up about—"
"It's random because I didn't mention it in the first place," interrupted Kristen. "Although even if I had, why would I get 'worked up'? Those two have been gay for each other in the comics for, like, decades now."
"Well, yes," said Jon, cowed. "There is that."
Uncomfortable in still silence, they started walking again, pausing at a trash can to get rid of all the leftover snacks Jon had bought and neither had eaten.
"You know," remarked Kristen, "I'm sure Stephen would be fine if you gave yourself a break from having his back once in a while."
"A-ha!" cried Jon. "I haven't mentioned Stephen all afternoon. Who's being random now, huh?"
Jimmy's soft features were a map of baby-faced delight. "Gosh, Stephen, that's great. Hey, do you want to eat lunch first, or skip to dessert? I brought this neat box of toffees in the shape of Ronald Reagan's head."
Stephen turned a thunderous glare on the silver-lined box in Jimmy's hands. "You want us to eat the graven image of the man who ended Communism with his bare hands?"
"N-no," stammered Jimmy. It didn't look so bad when he pouted. "I guess I—"
"Kidding!" interrupted Stephen. "C'mon and open them. I bet they'll taste great with my ice cream."
"Or mine," said Jimmy hopefully.
They dished up two bowls of Americone Dream, with its gravitas-laden waffle cone chunks and its most patriotic of fudgy swirls. Topping it with delicious Reagan-faces was almost too much liberty and justice to go in one man's mouth. Stephen felt on the verge of having a freedomgasm just by looking at it.
He and Jimmy took their first bite at the same time, and broke into identical sunny grins. Well, almost identical; Jimmy's undoubtedly looked dopier, thanks to that sweater-vest he insisted on wearing. "Oh, right!" exclaimed Stephen. "I got you something too! Wait there."
He rummaged through his wardrobe, the one that was bigger on the inside (he didn't know how big; it had a funny draft at the back, and the interns he had sent to board it up never seemed to come back). The extra-dapper vest in Jimmy's size was waiting near the front; his eyes widened when Stephen held it up. "It's gorgeous!"
"I know! C'mere and let's get that hideous knitted thing off you. The sooner the better."
Jimmy readily submitted to Stephen's hands, but squirmed when they worked under the knitting and ended up pressing against his skin through nothing but a thin button-down. "Your hands are cold, Stephen Colbert."
"That's the cool appraisal of Style, Jimmy Fallon. Hold still."
Jimmy made a brave attempt. He even managed not to flinch for a few moments before cold-sensitivity and ticklishness won out. "If you don't let me do this myself, I'll...I'll tickle you!"
Stephen arched his eyebrows. "Do I look like the sort of man who would back down from a tickle-fight?"
His bravado faltered when Jimmy's fingers dug into his gut.
Writhing and chortling, Stephen struck back. The new vest went flying; Jimmy clawed at his sweatshirt; he laughed and yanked the wool monstrosity upward, trapping Jimmy's arms and covering his head. In a cunning strategic move Jimmy flung himself backward, freeing his body from the tyrannical plaid grip, then leaped at Stephen while that most patriotic of pundits was distracted by the moment of victory.
Both men tumbled to the carpet in a tangle of limbs, dueling with poorly-aimed tickle attacks now that they were both giggling too hard to see straight.
"Uncle!" cried Stephen at last. Not that he was actually giving up, but it was good hostmanship to be polite and let your visitors win, at least when there weren't any cameras watching.
Jimmy grinned. He had ended up on his hands and knees with his face over Stephen's, flushed from the exertion and dimple-cheeked with pride. "Hey, Stephen, did you know you've got ice cream on your face?"
"What? Where?" demanded Stephen, grateful for a new target for his perpetual ire. How dare any dessert, however delicious, mar his perfect face?
"Just—here—" Jimmy touched his cheek.
"Uh, sorry," blurted a familiar voice. "Did I come at a bad time?"
Stephen craned his neck until his chin jutted toward the ceiling. The upside-down figure of Jon stood in the doorway, looking even more awkward than usual, although maybe that was just the upside-down-ness talking. It wasn't like he had any reason to be embarrassed at walking in on a red-faced Stephen lying prone on the floor, fingers still crooked in the collar of Jimmy's discarded sweater-vest, while an equally out-of-breath Jimmy thumbed a smear of vanilla from the corner of his mouth.
"Do you mind?" huffed Stephen. "We're in the middle of a best-friendship-for-six-months lunch, here."
"I can see that," said upside-down-Jon dubiously. Really, he ought to turn over; he was making Stephen dizzy. "Guess I'll be on my way, then."
"Whoa," he said, a flush of warmth rising all the way to his hairline. "Is this some kind of party?"
"No, Jon." Sam got to her feet, a dour look on her face. "This is an intervention."
Sam took the arm Jason wasn't already holding, and the pair led Jon to a seat near where the edges of the dark wood tables were pushed together. John Oliver, toying with a Mets napkin beside him, put a hand on his knee. "We all want you to know, Jon, that we love you very much. This isn't about punishing you. It's about getting you help."
"Guys, this is ridiculous. Help for what?"
"Oh, dear," muttered Hodgman. "This is going to be harder than we thought."
"People, please," said Sam. "Let's all just calm down and do this exactly like we planned. If we each describe to Jon how his little problem is hurting us, I'm sure he'll come around."
The somber expressions on the faces of so many people he loved and cared about made Jon feel smaller than usual. In the back of his mind he wondered what animal simile Stephen would use to describe his own face at that moment. Probably something like in the vulnerable fawn and/or startled kitten family.
After a brief round of nonverbal hot-potato over who would go first, Larry took the plunge. "Look, Jon, you're a great guy, and under most circumstances I'd be happy to spend an afternoon hanging out with you. But...square dancing? Seriously? I don't care about square dancing. I'm pretty sure you don't care about square dancing. I'm not convinced that square dancers care about square dancing—but that's beside the point. The point is, it was a waste of time for both of us, and you weren't even paying attention enough to notice."
Sam, who had taken the seat beside him, picked up the thread. "Don't get me wrong, I appreciate you not complaining when the babysitter bailed and I had to bring Ripley to the park, or when she screamed loud enough to scare all the ducks away, or when she got hungry and I had to do the whole boobs-out-in-public thing. I just would have appreciated it more if you hadn't apologized to every stranger and their dog for supporting the infant menace to society as we know it."
Wyatt, next, shrugged and said simply, "I had to stop you from stealing a porcupine."
"There are like thirty high-resolution paparazzi shots on JustJared of you caressing my arm," put in Olivia. "My publicist basically had a conniption. I don't even know what the blogs are saying about it, because she's ordered me not to look at them for the rest of the year. I know you're used to being touchy-feely with Stephen, and that's great and all, but—"
"Stephen?" echoed Jon. "What does he have to do with this?"
"What doesn't he have to do with it?" retorted Sam. "Your best friend is spending time with someone new, so you get jealous and start acting out. Don't let the lack of dancing cutlery fool you: it's a tale as old as time."
"Jealousy?" Jon forced a rusty laugh. "That's absurd. Why would I be jealous of some doe-eyed late-night rookie whose ice cream totally doesn't even taste that great?"
"Jon," said John, voice heavy with a sorrow of Dickensian proportions. "You bought me an American-flag poncho. And said you were terribly sorry if it wasn't obnoxious enough."
Jon winced. "Okay, maybe that wasn't the best idea." Had he really been treating them all so badly? Trying to cram them into a mold that no one but Stephen could fill?
A dozen pairs of angry/sad/generally-unimpressed eyes said yes.
Though he really couldn't afford to, Jon shrunk down in his chair. "Listen, guys, I really am sorry for whatever dickishness you've had to put up with. I guess I didn't realize how much this Stephen thing was getting to me."
"You miss him," said Wyatt. "It's not like we don't sympathize."
"Sort of," added Aasif quickly. "With the missing-a-friend part in general. Maybe not so much with the specific Stephen part."
"So you'll talk to him?" John sounded ready to burst into tears at any second. "Or...or find some way of dealing with this that doesn't involve taking it out on us?"
"I will. I swear, I will. Please don't cry," implored Jon. "Who wants a drink? On me."
"Woohoo!" exclaimed Olivia, summing up the general noises of agreement from around the tables. "DayDrinks for everyone!"
Jimmy Fallon was his eternal enemy for six months, and Anderson Cooper, while still admirably shiny, had no sense of tact.
Jon himself was finishing up some sort of work when he arrived. The nerve. Showing off his focus and togetherness, when poor Stephen barely had the strength to put one foot in front of the other. He made it as far as the couch before collapsing, landing flat on his back and repurposing a worn old throw pillow to cover his face. It didn't match anything in the room; he couldn't understand why Jon hadn't thrown it out years ago.
That said, it was awfully comfortable.
"Okay, all set," said Jon, closing his laptop. "Sorry about that. How are you doing? How's everything with, uh, Jimmy?"
"Do not mock my pain, Jon Stewart," snarled Stephen through the pillow.
"Guess the six months are up, huh."
Stephen made an inarticulate noise of blackest despair.
"I guess I have a confession to make." Jon's voice was coming closer, not that Stephen cared. "While you guys were friends, I went a little overboard with jealousy, and got pretty mean about it instead of sucking it up and being happy for you. I'm sorry for not appreciating what you had. I really do feel bad now that it's gone."
Stephen moved the pillow aside and rolled his eyes way, way up. Jon was upside-down again: standing over the arm of the couch, leaning slightly to bring his face into Stephen's line of vision. (The dark grey pullover did absolutely nothing for his eyes, but was at least less of a travesty than all things sweater-vest-related.) "You were jealous? Of Jimmy Fallon?"
"What did you have to be jealous of? He was only my BFFSM. You're my BJFWBF."
Jon scrunched up his face like a confused mole rat. "BJ...FWBF?"
"Best Jewish Friend With Benefits Forever," clarified Stephen.
Jon nearly did a spit-take, which was pretty impressive, seeing as how he wasn't drinking anything. He also nearly fell on Stephen in the process. "Uh, Stephen...when you say benefits, do you mean...?"
"I mean that I claim our time together as charity work with the elderly, which makes me eligible for tax benefits," said Stephen, tensing in case he had to fling himself out of the way in a hurry. "Obviously."
Jon's hands were planted on either side of Stephen's head now, face low enough that it was getting hard to focus on. "Why?" demanded Stephen, turning on his most menacing squint. "What did you think I meant? Are there potential friend-benefits I'm not getting? Don't hold out on me, Stewart!"
No answer. Though there was something awfully intense in the set of Jon's mouth. Something he was having a hard time describing in animal terms.
"Do I have ice cream on my face again?" said Stephen nervously.
"No," said Jon, shaking himself and backing away. "Never mind. Forget it."
Stephen relaxed. Mostly. He wiped around his mouth and chin, just to be safe.
Intense as it had seemed, Stephen's friendship with Jimmy had run its course. He was cranky about the loss, but not unusually so — and he was taking out that crankiness in Jon's office, without any apparent dissonance over the fact that they'd barely spoken for six months (plus a few accidental extra weeks).
All Jon had to do was relax and treat Stephen as he usually did, and there was no reason they couldn't slip straight back into their old routine. They could have exactly the friendship they'd had before.
Which was why, instead, Jon found himself saying, "Now that you mention it, I think I'm the one not getting all the friend-benefits here. You stranded me without a BFF for half a year, Stephen. How are you planning to make it up to me?"
"Dunno," said Stephen, toying with the pillow on his stomach. "What did you have in mind? Normally I charge for autographed merchandise, but in your case, a limited exception...."
Jon strode back to the couch, where he steadied Stephen's head in a two-handed grip and pinned him with an upside-down kiss, not least to shut him up.
"Mmm," sighed Stephen, as the shoreline fell away beneath them. "Do all friends do this, or just the Jewish ones? Because I'm starting to think not learning any of my writers' names might have been a mistake."
Jon pulled away mid-neck-nuzzle. "Stephen? Babe? If you decide to start making out with anyone else, Jewish or otherwise, I'm not going to take out my frustration on my correspondents. I'm just going to tell them what you're up to, then step aside and leave you at their mercy."
Stephen allowed himself a brief (and pretty) pout before spidering his fingers across the back of Jon's skull and sliding his own tongue reassuringly in the direction of Jon's tonsils. Screw other friends. Or, more to the point, don't screw other friends. It turned out all he'd ever needed was this one.