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Paradise (or something...) by the Dashboard Lights

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It was a nippy October evening the first time Jon realized something was amiss.

He was on the roof of his apartment building, feeding a group of pigeons who hadn't had the sense to fly south for the winter, listening to the melody of traffic and that one car pounding music loud enough to shake the ground and what was probably some homeless guy yelling at nothing. Then a familiar-yet-unfamiliar figure strode around one of the rooftop structures, still grumbling. Oh. Not a homeless person, then.

"Stephen?"

Stephen turned with a start. "Oh! Jon. Fancy seeing you here."

"You did kinda move into my building," Jon reminded him. First thing Stephen had done with the advance when the Report got picked up, in fact.

"So I did. How 'bout that." Stephen jerked a thumb in the direction of the door to the stairs. "Well, I should be going. Enjoy your night."

Were they just not going to acknowledge...? "Hey, Stephen."

"What is it, Jon? I'm in a hurry."

"Nice wings," said Jon.

Stephen jumped. He looked over his shoulder. The feathered wings extending from his back twitched, then pulled close and fluttered into invisibility. "Wings? I don't know what you're talking about. Why would I have wings? Hahaha, don't be ridiculous." Jabbing a finger through the air at Jon, he added, "You saw nothing."

Jon was quick to agree. Mostly because Stephen's eyes had started glowing red, and in the movies that was usually a bad sign.

 

***

 

Okay, so Jon's best frenemy was an angel. Specifically, a fallen angel. It wasn't the weirdest thing he'd ever encountered, but it sure came close.

Jon went through a moderate crisis of faith (did this mean he had to convert? Did he have to be Catholic? Break his poor mother's heart) until he noticed that Stephen's aversion to religious symbols extended beyond the Christian. As long as it was connected to somebody's faith, he would get twitchy if he was too close. Jon got the impression it was belief itself that Stephen reacted to, and the symbols acted on it like a magnifying glass focusing sunlight.

Stephen tried to get around it by buying the kitschiest, tackiest, most commercially mass-produced religious items imaginable. Cheap votive candles in his apartment, year-round; plastic Christmas decorations piled everywhere in his studio, starting in early November. If he invited himself up to the tinsel- and carol-free haven of Jon's place a little more often than usual during the season, Jon didn't call him on it.

"I don't know what God wants," he lamented one year after a long night of spiked eggnog, sprawled all over Jon's couch with his wings out. "But Pat Robertson seems pretty sure. What 'm I s'posed to do, figure it out on my own?"

Jon stretched over the arm of the couch and smoothed his fingers through Stephen's feathers. Like the ones on angels in medieval paintings, Stephen's wings were narrow, with a span not much longer than the reach of his hands, and patterned in naturalistic shades of brown. According to the birding field guide Jon had picked up back when Stephen started letting him see them on purpose, his matched the tawny, stripey look of an eagle owl. "That's what most of us do. At least, those of us who are down with the whole 'God' idea in the first place."

"Well, I'm not one of you," said Stephen, flexing his wings toward Jon's touch. "And there is definitely a God. I remember that much."

And he was the one who could break out the extra limbs and the red eyes and the small, twisting horns, so Jon didn't argue.

 

***

 

"I could do better," said Stephen testily, as another series of red-and-gold fireworks exploded into the air out over the bay.

"All right," said Jon. "Let's see it."

"I didn't say I was going to!" yelped Stephen. "Using infernal powers is not exactly a ticket to grace, Jon! I just want it to be on the record that I could."

Jon, who had been harboring the suspicion that Stephen's amazing Fourth of July barbecue was due to a little supernatural zazz working in the grill, revised his opinion. Stephen might have played fast and loose with the truth in any other area based on what he wanted to be true, but when it came to his ongoing dream of getting a Heavenly re-instatement, he didn't mess around.

"Random question, and it's fine if you don't know the answer," said Jon. (He'd had a couple of beers by this point. So had Stephen, but Stephen had an inhuman metabolism, which made it count for less.) "There's this line in my people's book, and, uh, I guess your adopted people's book too, about angels coming down to Earth and getting it on with the hot human ladies, and then leaving little half-angel babies all around the place. Was that really a thing?"

Sitting back in his lawn chair, Stephen shrugged. "Probably. We're anatomically correct, if that's what you're asking. And you're made in God's image, so you're very attractive to us. General you, I mean. Specific you...let's just say I'm pretty sure the Almighty is taller."

"Hey, if I were all-powerful, I'd be taller too." A line of dazzling white flashes streamed through the clouds, flickering and crackling as they went. "The angels got in trouble for that, right? Was the problem that they were having sex at all, or was it more that they ended up being delinquent angel fathers?"

"How should I know? Obviously I never would have been involved in that kind of thing. Why are you asking?"

"Just trying to figure out if I should suggest that we make out, or if that would screw up your plans too much."

Stephen looked sharply at him, eyes blazing in the late summer night. "Jon, I am ninety-five percent sure...well, maybe only ninety percent...at least eighty percent sure that even if sex in general got a pass, gay stuff is still on the no-no list."

"I would bet a large amount of money that that is not true." Jon had thought a lot about this lately, and couldn't for the life of him come up with a reason why God would care. "Not that you need a reason. I mean, you can say no anyway. I'm just saying."

"Then no," said Stephen.

A string of blue-green sparklers lit up the night.

 

***

 

Two days later, Jon got a knock in the middle of the night. Stephen was in the hall, all humanoid features and obnoxious flag-spangled pajamas. "I've been thinking about you dying," he said. "And how you're definitely going to do that eventually. It was not a pleasant train of thought, Jon! Is your offer still open?"

"Stephen, it's three AM," said Jon, trying to figure out what the hell (figuratively speaking) he was talking about.

Stephen's face fell. "Does that mean I can't kiss you?"

Oh, right. That offer. "How about if we do it in the morning."

"Great!" said Stephen, letting himself in. "You are in for a treat, because I am amazingly cuddly. I'll be very still and quiet, don't worry! Although you might want to put a couple of extra fans on. I tend to run hot at night."

 

***

 

They did a few obligatory jokes on the shows, trying to guide the way the story hits the public consciousness. Jon's other correspondents harassed him about how this was totally incestuous, dating within the Comedy Central fake news family, and were his standards just so high that he refused to date anyone who hadn't helmed their own show for at least five years? Stephen issued "A Rare Correction" in which he admitted that his past condemnations of "the gay stuff" were probably uncalled-for, "and I'm not just saying that because I'm doing it now."

He was just as cuddly as advertised. And the running-hot problem became a blessing when winter rolled in: Jon kind of wanted to tether Stephen to his waist and keep him constantly nearby as a personal space heater.

Jon's family were polite about the relationship, although he could tell it caught them off-guard when it was still kicking around six months in. The "another guy" part they adjusted to pretty quickly, as far as he could tell; it was mostly the "conservative Christian" part that they couldn't wrap their heads around. (He didn't think they needed to know the "fallen angel" part.)

The dogs loved Stephen. Especially in the winter.

It was a January morning when Jon realized Stephen hadn't slept at his own place for at least a month. He thought about what that meant for a minute, then rolled over to curl against Stephen's nice warm back and close his eyes again, because there was snow on the windowsills and he didn't need to get up for another half hour anyway.

 

***

 

Locking himself in his office, Jon dialed Stephen's number and paced, keeping an eye on the muted TVs on the wall across from him. It was a sunny June afternoon.

"Hey, babe," he said, when it connected. "Question. Your, uh, your little allergy, that would definitely crop up in a church, right? Or a synagogue?"

"Yes. Obviously. This is why I only attend services at megachurches, via webcast. Why?"

"No reason. What if they were really sparsely decorated, though?"

"In a place like that? Doesn't matter how many symbols there are. The air is itchy all by itself. Jon, what's going on?"

"Nothing. Don't worry about it."

"I will not not worry about it! You're hiding something from me, aren't you? Keep this up, and I'll get angry. You won't like me when I'm angry!"

Jon sighed. Stephen had never turned any fire-and-brimstone-level wrath on anyone, but the garden-variety human ire wasn't a barrel of laughs either, and he didn't want Stephen to be unhappy about anything today. Eyes still on the newscasts, he said, "Can you hang on for eight hours?"

"Eight hours? That's practically forever!"

"Stephen, aren't you immortal?"

"Technically, yes! It's still a long time! I could do my show sixteen times in that long."

"Tell you what," said Jon. "You go do your show just once, and the moment that's over, I'll come pick you up. How's that sound?"

"Deal!" exclaimed Stephen. "See, Jon, it's so much easier when you agree to do things my way."

Jon couldn't help smiling. Stephen was so cute (how could you have a Heaven and want to kick him out of it?). "I'll keep it in mind."

 

***

 

He kept breaking into random smiles throughout the day. The writers who brought him the first draft of the Marriage Equality Act piece for workshopping were the first to call him out on it. "Wait, if this passes, are you...are you planning to propose?"

"That's not the kind of thing we're putting in the bit," said Jon sternly. "But, uh, I might be thinking about it, yes."

The gossip shot around the offices. People kept dropping in to say things like "congratulations!" and "couldn't happen to a nicer guy" and "I hope he says yes, he's gotten so much more tolerable since having you around." Jon tried to strike a balance between thanking his employees and urging them to keep it in the building.

He was in wardrobe, the script all polished and five minutes left until showtime, when John Oliver let himself in and shut the door. "Jon, I'm very sorry to interrupt, and believe me when I say the last thing I want to do is ruin your happiness...but you cannot go through with this proposal."

"First off, let me say I appreciate you bringing this up now, and not waiting until the middle of the wedding to start yelling objections," said Jon, doing up his buttons. "And second, why not?"

"Because Stephen Colbert is a demon from the pit of hell."

Jon looked at him for a long moment, then said, "Come on, John, South Carolina isn't that bad."

"I'm serious!" cried Oliver. "This has nothing to do with his assumed backstory — he is literally not human, he —"

"— has been around for thousands of years, has some pretty neat wings, gets a serious rash when he touches a crucifix," filled in Jon. "Yeah, I know. So you're, what, an agent from an ancient British secret society dedicated to protecting humanity from various demonic scourges, or something?"

Oliver's mouth opened and closed several times. "My backstory is not the point!" he stammered at last. "I'm not sure you understand the magnitude of the situation here!"

"Listen, I'm not going to go around claiming Stephen is a perfect angel. Literally or figuratively," said Jon. "But he cares more about doing the right thing than anyone else I've ever known — even if he comes at it kind of sideways sometimes — okay, a lot of the time — and he's a good person, and he makes me happy, and he absolutely refuses to use any of those infernal powers he occasionally brags about having. So what's your problem here, again?"

"Hold on a second. Why would a demon refuse to use its powers?"

"He's afraid it'll screw up his chance at re-ascension."

"Demons don't get a chance for re-ascension." Before Jon could figure out how to react to that, Oliver added, "...which I will never, ever tell him, at the risk of setting loose an angry demon with nothing to lose on the streets of New York."

Jon finished doing up his tie. "Good man," he said, clapping Oliver on the shoulder on his way out. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a show to do."

 

***

 

They made it all the way home ("home" tonight meaning Stephen's place on the coast, with the dogs) before Stephen remembered that he was supposed to be hassling Jon over something. Jon took his hand, and got down on one knee.

Stephen's eyes went very large, dark under the living room lamps. In a small voice, he said, "Are we allowed?"

"We're allowed. I mean, lots of places we already were, but it's officially legal in New York. The vote went through."

"That's not what I meant, Jon!" Horns curled into visibility, arcing over the crown of Stephen's head; rounded cream-and-brown wings flapped outward from his shoulder blades. "If a priest tries to pronounce anything over me, someone's going to burst into flames! Probably him!"

"So we skip having a religious ceremony. Go down to the courthouse, let that be the whole of it. Render unto Caesar what is due Caesar, and so on. I know your human identity is solid enough to hold up for legal purposes."

"Also not what I meant! You can't just — I realize I'm a devil in the sack, but that's no reason to —"

"That doesn't hurt, I won't lie," cut in Jon. "But I do also happen to love you. Listen, if you're not comfortable, I'll understand...."

Stephen dropped to his knees with a thud and dragged Jon into a helplessly ardent kiss.

"I — I'm guessing that's a yes?" panted Jon.

"Yes yes yes yes yes," said Stephen, and kissed him again.

As enraptured as Jon felt in that moment, the whole room seemed brighter.

 

***

 

Dragging his fingers through his husband's feathers one night (Stephen's wings were never "out" long enough to get disheveled, but he never said no to grooming), Jon said, "By the way, how do you feel about kids?"

"Suspicious. They're here to replace us, Jon! We have to keep them down at all costs."

"Again, Stephen...you're immortal." And Jon had been planning to nominate himself as the sperm donor, too, since he wasn't sure he was up for raising any baby nephilim. Although, come to think of it, maybe that would just be cruel, deliberately having children they knew Stephen would outlive. What would a half-angel's lifespan look like...?

"Lot of good that did us," replied Stephen from his prone position on the mattress, head resting on his folded arms. "We're still around, but along come the new kids, and bam! We're practically obsolete."

"Oh," said Jon. "You're talking about us. About humanity." Wasn't rejecting the human race the kind of thing angels Fell for...?

Stephen caught his breath, apparently making the same realization. "I didn't mean it!" he exclaimed, then buried his face in the covers. Muffled, he repeated, "Didn't mean it."

Jon swung a leg over his back and straddled his hips, getting better leverage to dig his thumbs into either side of Stephen's spine. "I know what you meant," he said, massaging up to the back of Stephen's neck, then back down to the bases of his wings. "I love you, okay?"

He bent over, ignoring the way his own all-too-mortal back creaked with the effort, and kissed Stephen's neck.

Something in his vision flickered.

"Did it just get brighter in here?" asked Jon, looking around, trying to catch whatever-it-was happening again.

"Dunno," said Stephen, eyes still hidden. "Kiss me again?"

"Only if we switch positions. My back can't take much more of this."

Stephen immediately made Jon lie down, and was reluctant to let him move for the next several hours.

 

***

 

"We are not naming it Damien. Or Nicolae. Or Rosemary! Do you want to beg attention from an ancient British secret society dedicated to protecting humanity from various demonic scourges?"

"Don't be silly, Jon. None of those are remotely competent. They probably don't have the faintest idea that I'm here."

"You do realize that John Oliver's been tailing you since 2006."

"...Oh. In that case, what were your suggestions, again?"

 

***

 

Oliver had a few suggestions, which he claimed would ensure that the child's birth didn't fulfill any unpleasant (read: apocalyptic) prophecies. Since they were relatively minor and non-invasive, Jon was fine with taking them into account as he and Stephen decided on the egg donor, on the surrogate, on the general timing.

Baby Eleanor Rose Colbert-Stewart was born in August, and by that point Stephen was definitely lighting up rooms on a regular basis. Nobody but Jon seemed to notice, so he tried not to worry about it. If there was something wrong, Stephen would tell him, right?

Right?

 

***

 

"Hm? Is something wrong?" asked Stephen, finally pulling off his headphones.

"Yes, something's wrong! Stephen, I can barely see the road," said Jon from the driver's seat. "I need you to figure out where the next exit is. Or the next rest stop. Or something."

Outside the windows, the snow swirled thick and white around them as Jon inched along the freeway. This trip was supposed to be for baby's first Christmas at the cabin upstate; instead, it was getting bogged down in baby's first Christmas Eve in the middle of nowhere. At least Ellie was asleep in her car seat. Stephen had kept her entertained for the first leg of the trip, then gotten lost in some TV show as soon as she'd dozed off.

"This would be easier if you just got GPS in the car," pointed out Stephen now, as he found the map feature on his phone.

"Just trying to help you feel useful, babe," said Jon, squinting down the lane. They were still in the lane, weren't they?

A minute later Stephen reported that they were just over a mile from the nearest rest stop (and, according to his phone's positioning, still on the road). "How long does that mean until we can get hot coffee?"

"About ten minutes." Jon wasn't thrilled with driving in this for much longer, but he didn't have a whole lot of choice. "Ellie's still all bundled up, right?"

"Blanket still in place, teeny-weeny coat still on," reported Stephen. "And, um...you know what, I'm going to just drape my arm over her for a while. She doesn't feel colder than, you know, human...but just to be safe. Boy, it really is coming down out there, isn't it?"

They rolled forward in relative silence. Jon had been listening to NPR for a while, but switched it off to talk to Stephen, and now he didn't want anything to distract him into missing his turn.

At last they took a slow curve to the right. "The phone says this is it," said Stephen, sounding dubious. "But shouldn't there be lights, or something?"

Jon's heart sank. "I don't think it's that kind of rest stop."

He found his way to the side of a boxy silhouette against the grey haze, and pulled the car into what he sure hoped bore some resemblance to a legal parking space. Nothing here but a single, low-slung building, just big enough to hold two restrooms, a couple of vending machines, and a stack of brochures for nearby tourist traps. Not even a lousy McDonald's in sight.

"Maybe it's at least heated inside?" said Stephen.

"Doubt it," said Jon. He wasn't even willing to switch off the engine, though he let go of the steering wheel, stuffing his ungloved hands into his own coat and hugging them under his arms. "How far is the next...?"

"Twenty-two miles."

Which would be hours. Jon swallowed. "Stephen...?"

"Uh-huh?"

Jon leaned over the back of the seat. The dashboard lights glittered over the outline of Stephen, wearing a designer coat that was mostly for show because he so rarely got cold, arm draped across Ellie, who was drooling lightly in her sleep. "Is there anything you can do?"

Stephen swallowed. "By 'anything' you mean...anything."

"Yeah."

"I mean, sure, there are things I can do...there's a lot of stuff I could do...."

"I wouldn't ask if it was just for me," interrupted Jon.

Stephen hung his head. Jon held his breath.

When Stephen looked up, his eyes were two burning coals in the gloom. "Come back here. And turn off the car first."

Jon did, sticking the keys in his pocket and clambering awkwardly between the seats. Stephen was unbuckling the baby from her carrier; she woke up just enough to fuss, so he shushed her as he gathered her into his arms and scooted over. There was just enough room for Jon to squeeze into the middle of the row, with Stephen's arm around his shoulder, Stephen's legs pressed up against his, Ellie cradled warmly against Stephen's chest.

"Do you want to hold her?" asked Stephen, over Ellie's discontented mumbles. The only light left was a few grey-blanketed streetlamps, and his eyes. "I think she might want you."

"I'm not the one with the supernatural heat-producing ability, here."

"Jon, much as I like to hear you appreciate my talents, in a few moments I might be getting dangerously hot. And not in the metaphorical sense that I usually am."

"Ah," said Jon. "All right, hand her over." He tried to get a sense for how cold Ellie was by touching her cheek, but his own hands were so chilled that it just made her start wailing in earnest. "Sorry, sweetie! It's okay, shhh. It's gonna warm up in a minute."

There was a light, feather whoof as Stephen spread his wings: manifesting them right through his clothes, curling them around the group like a living, flexible blanket. His feathers were definitely luminescent. The sight startled the baby enough that her sobbing ratcheted down to a light sniffling, the better to gape at the pretty lights.

"Yeah, check it out, kiddo," said Jon, leaning against Stephen's shoulder. "We weren't going to show you this for a while, but it's an emergency, so, surprise! Daddy Stephen's magic."

"I've tried so hard."

Jon almost asked what Stephen was talking about, but Stephen wasn't looking at him. He was looking at the roof. No, through the roof.

"I've done everything You asked," continued Stephen. "And everything I wasn't sure You'd asked, but a lot of other people seemed pretty solid on. As far as I can tell, I was very good! And if I was doing the wrong thing, well, You could have jumped in and offered a little personal guidance any time you wanted!"

It was a variation on the kind of thing he'd been yelling at the sky the day Jon first saw his wings. The kind of thing he'd kept on shouting at regular intervals since, while Jon tried not to eavesdrop. It was a private thing, after all.

"Sure, it was entirely because I wanted to get back to You. But it's because I loved You! Is that so selfish?"

He was brightening in a different way now: not making the space around them lighter, but glowing under his skin, whole body turning the rosy gold of a hand held against direct sunlight.

"Well, guess what," spat Stephen. "I love them more than You now. Deal with it."

Cracks ran through his skin; veins of red-gold stood out underneath, like lava seen between plates of rock. His eyes had gone jet-black all the way across, except for the irises, both a solid, burning scarlet. The tips of his feathers were charred-black now too, and his horns flickered like they were reflecting a fireplace.

Melting water streamed down the windows.

 

***

 

Jon dozed off leaning against the car door, and woke up a couple hours later with a crick in his neck, his daughter in his arms, and his feet in the lap of an uncharacteristically quiet Stephen. His husband had dropped out of full demonic aspect, but the interior of the cabin was still cozy, and a glance out the window found that they were in the center of a crater of melted snow at least twenty feet across.

Rubbing the sleep-crud out of his eyes, he said, "Have I told you lately that I love you?"

"You better," muttered Stephen. "And I sure hope you have the rest of the directions memorized, because I tried to play Angry Birds while I was all fire-and-brimstoned-up and, long story short, I seem to have accidentally melted my phone."

 

***

 

It was almost sunrise by the time they finally made it to the cabin. Jon didn't say much to Stephen the whole time: changing the baby, driving along newly-cleared roads, hauling things inside. Everything he could think of seemed so painfully inadequate.

Once he'd gotten a bottle of Ellie's formula in the microwave, he gave it a shot. "So, uh, technically I guess it's Christmas Eve...and my sleep schedule is all out of whack now, although with a five-month-old that's probably an advantage...do you want to decorate?"

Stephen's features twisted into a pained snarl. "No, I do not want to decorate." He stalked over to the fireplace, threw in a few logs, and with a single vicious gesture set them ablaze. "What would be the point?"

"The point would be...that you haven't given up? That you still...."

"I don't still anything!"

A blast of wind slammed open one of the hall closet doors. Ellie shrieked in distress; Jon scooped her out of her carrier and bounced her a few times. "Stephen, babe, calm down, you're gonna scare her."

Stephen gritted his teeth, but he pulled down one of the boxes on the top shelf with his hands only, no supernatural powers thrown around. Jon retrieved the formula one-armed, checked the temperature, and tried to convince the baby that everything would seem much better once she wasn't hungry. Occupied in the kitchenette, he was only half-watching as Stephen carried the box over to the couch.

The next thing he knew, Stephen was staring at the unshielded flames. Garlands of tinsel and off-mold plastic ornaments were visible in the half-open box, and Stephen's hands were wrapped around the cheap figurine of an angel.

"You don't have to do this," said Jon softly.

"Might as well, though," said Stephen. The firelight flickered against his eyes. "It's not me anymore, right? It's never gonna be me again. The sooner I get a grip and accept that...."

His fingers tightened around the nylon gown, the lumpy plastic wings.

"Stephen..." breathed Jon. "Doesn't that hurt?"

"What?"

"Your hands...?"

Stephen stared.

Then he had dropped the angel and was tearing through the box. Out came strings of holly, the full cast of a nativity scene, some angelic wall hangings, a carved wooden crucifix the size of his hand. Stephen wrapped himself in them, clasped them in his hands, pressed them against his face. Even the crucifix didn't so much as leave a mark.

Jon was gaping at him in wonder by now. "Let's see your wings."

The instant Stephen spread them, the room burst to light as if the sun had risen all at once in the middle of it. Jon had to squint against the brilliance, covering the baby's eyes. Feathers were flying everywhere, he couldn't see...

...and then it was over, the light fading to normal, leaving Stephen, just Stephen, standing silhouetted against the window. No wings, no horns, nothing but a string of plastic holly over his shoulders and bits of tinsel in his hair.

A tawny feather drifted past them. Ellie laughed and grabbed at it.

"You get it, baby girl," said Stephen faintly. He was twitching in odd ways, rolling his shoulders; he ran both hands backward through his mussed hair. "Jon, I...this is going to sound like the craziest thing, but I think I'm...."

"...Risen?"

"Not that good," Stephen assured him. "Just. ...Human."

 

***

 

There was a lot for Stephen to get used to. Feeling cold. Needing food. Knowing that he would, someday, die. That last one kept him up at night, which was rough, as he had also started needing sleep.

He went in person to churches, and complained that none of the figures in the stained-glass windows were accurate. He went in person to synagogues, dragging Jon along for the purpose of having an expert around to copy the motions from. He went to the locations of a handful of other demons living on Earth, as tracked by John Oliver's ancient British secret society. Jon was expressly forbidden to come along on any of these trips, because "it's all well and good for them to earn redemption by falling in love, but Heaven help them if any of them start by falling in love with you."

Ellie probably wouldn't remember a minute of her father's fallen-angel days. They agreed it was best left to Stephen to decide what to tell her, and when. In the meantime, he tried to get the hang of human-style parenting, also by copying Jon much more than he cared to admit.

And if his famous Fourth of July barbecue never tasted quite as amazing as it had before, Jon never said a word.