"...gays marrying right and left, lifetime sentences for nonviolent crimes being thrown out, what's next? Citizens United being overturned? Cats and dogs living together? It's madness!"
"You know," said Jon, already smiling as he entered the green room, "my household already has cats and dogs living together. Has done for several years, even while your show was on the air. Speaking of which...you don't have a show on the air. How did you get into the building?"
Maybe one of Conan's people had let him in? The Late Night studio was, of course, right down the hall from the two Comedy Central studios, and Jon and Stephen had snuck in there before. Or maybe, when they had remodeled Stephen's old studio for The Nightly Show, they hadn't completely filled in the hyperdimensional labyrinth under his desk, and he had snuck in through the Starbucks....
"Jon, c'mon," chided Stephen, liberating another grape from Doris Kearns Goodwin's catered fruit platter. "I'm magic. Comes with the whole immortality deal. Obviously."
"Stephen was just telling me how the country has descended into a liberal free-for-all, and how your retirement is probably the only thing that can save it," explained Doris, standing to shake Jon's hand. "And how much it's going to upset him when you're gone."
"'M nah upfet!" complained Stephen, speaking around the grape in his mouth.
"I think you're a little upset," said Jon dryly. "You haven't come by to see me since I made the announcement."
Stephen swallowed and tried again. "I have been busy! Running errands for Santa. Trying to launch a startup around the revolutionary concept of beard-based advertising, or 'beardvertising'. Handing out condoms at the drunken week-long bacchanal in Secret San Francisco after the whole thing with the gays and the marrying. Getting totally hammered at the drunken week-long bacchanal in Secret San Francisco. Accidentally getting married and needing to figure out a quick divorce after the drunken week-long bacchanal in Secret San Francisco."
"Uh-huh. Listen, I don't have long, just dropped in to say hi to Doris, but will you be around later? Maybe for dinner?"
It was really nice to see Stephen's angry pout these days. He made it very dramatic, did the eyebrows and everything, but there was a lightness that hadn't been there until a few short years ago. "So you'd rather talk to Ms. Goodwin before me, is that it?"
"Well, she did sorta get booked on the show," said Jon sheepishly. "All official-like and everything."
Doris patted Stephen on the shoulder. "Don't worry. In spite of my best efforts, you're still the only one of us he's agreed to write a book with."
Stephen let out a theatrical sigh. "I guess, if you insist on still putting serious focus on your fakey pseudo-news television show even though at this point you could easily coast to the finish and college-Americans would still watch every minute while crying into their Pabst Blue Ribbons, I guess I could run a few errands and come back after the show."
"Would you? That would be great." Jon pulled Stephen to his feet, then into a hug. "I know you've got important immortal business to deal with, but please don't skip this. I've missed you, babe."
"I haven't missed you," said Stephen, though he might have been clinging a bit to Jon's show suit as he hugged back. "Because you've been on the air four nights a week. What am I going to do without you? What is America going to do without you?"
"America will survive. It always has," said Jon, rubbing his back. Stephen wasn't wearing a suit, just a business-casual ensemble, but the fabric felt impossibly smooth. Gift from the elves, maybe. "And you're just going to have to visit more often."
"Sure, Mom. See you at dinner." Stephen gave him an extra squeeze, then stepped away. "And, Ms. Goodwin...again, I...."
Doris waved away whatever he was going to say. "Apology accepted."
A soft swirl of golden light surrounded Stephen. He smiled at both of them, and vanished.
"What was he apologizing for?" asked Jon.
Doris shook her head. "He knows what he did."
Jon was on the road, of all things, doing standup, when the Mets won the World Series. He threw in a joke in the opening of his set about having multiple orgasms on the ride over, and the crowd laughed and clapped.
Afterward, a handful of determined fans caught him outside with books and photos to autograph. Jon's bodyguard handed him a Sharpie, and he scribbled through each signature....
The fans noticed the newcomer before he did. "Oh-em-gee, it's Stephen! Stephen, sign this too!"
There was a general clamor of fresh adoration, Stephen produced a marker of his own (it was luminescent in the crisp October night), and everyone walked away with two autographs and wide grins. Jon's bodyguard knew Stephen already, of course, but he said "He's with me" anyway, ushering Stephen into the back of the car.
"We weren't scheduled to have dinner until five days and three states from now. What's the occasion?" he asked, once he was safely buckled in and Stephen had shaken a fine layer of faerie dust off his boots. "You didn't have anything to do with the...the win, did you?"
"I wish! I could count it as an early birthday present for you...for the next decade," said Stephen. "I just thought, since it happened, and you're out traveling, you needed someone to show up and help you celebrate your unlikely victory. Your very unlikely victory. Your vanishingly unlikely, extremely long-awaited...."
"Oh, hush, you. What did you bring me?"
Out of nowhere, Stephen produced a bottle of something that was probably alcoholic, and marked with a label Jon couldn't read. "Ta-da!"
Jon squinted at the unfamiliar script. "Is that Elvish?"
"You think every fantasy language you don't recognize is Elvish."
"With you, it's a safe guess," pointed out Jon. "So, is it?"
"...Yes. Sindarin, to be specific. You haven't really lived until you've imbibed of the moonshine of the Noldor."
Back at Jon's hotel suite, he posted a few lines of celebration on the Facebook page he had finally been enjoined to get, and Stephen poured them each a glass. It was a fancy, comfortable suite: fresh flowers on the tables, gauzy curtains filtering out the city lights. They toasted the Mets, and the various races of Middle-earth, and the joys of good company.
"I caught your set," said Stephen sternly. "Caught that joke about all the orgasms at the beginning. That's a little tasteless, don't you think?"
"Well, I don't watch my own standup," said Jon dismissively. "I think it's crass."
"No, I mean...it's tasteless that you didn't wait until I was here to help."
Jon raised his eyebrows. Stephen was a lot better at grasping nuance and irony than he had once been, but he was still behind the curve on some things. Especially gay things, no matter how much he had come to accept himself (Jon was dead certain he'd gotten it on with more than a few hot male elves). "Stephen. It was a joke."
"My orgasm quota for the night is still untouched."
"Oh!" exclaimed Stephen. "Oh, well...in that case...."
Jon beckoned him over. Stephen slipped off his glasses, straddled Jon's lap, and bent for a kiss. There was this thing he did with tastes, with not being bound by the human rules of bodily chemistry — instead of the sour flavor of Noldorian alcohol, he tasted like apple pie. With extra cinnamon.
"If you really want to be on-theme tonight, you should taste like peanuts and Crackerjacks," remarked Jon, nibbling at Stephen's no-longer-deaf ear (he didn't need the glasses anymore, either, he just liked what they did for his image) while getting in a good squeeze of Stephen's pants.
With a soft groan of appreciation, Stephen arched against him. "I'm gonna taste like you in a couple minutes. Don't be picky."
The big-screen in Jon's den was capturing the NASA livestream, guests had shown up in star-covered sweaters and dangly planet earrings, and Jon was refilling the veggie dip when he caught the sound of Stephen's voice.
"Sure, I've been to Europa. That's the one with the volcanoes, isn't it?"
"No, the volcanoes are on Io!" exclaimed Neil Degrasse Tyson. "Europa is the one covered in ice...possibly with lakes underneath, possibly with life. As our probe is, hopefully, about to discover."
"Okay, maybe I haven't been to Europa. But I could go if I wanted! What are we doing sending a robot to an alien moon to go ice fishing, when we could have an American doing it instead?"
Neil, as usual, looked fascinated with Stephen's current...Stephen-ness. "The robot is going to take photos and analyze samples...but could you take photos too? Could you bring samples back? If you can bring us pieces of Europa...or Venus, or Pluto, or Kepler-452B...the value to the astronomical community would be—"
"—astronomical?" suggested Jon. "Don't get your hopes up. He can see stuff; he can't bring it back. Stephen, quit teasing the physicist with science you can't follow through on."
"Look, I never promised I would get you a giant squid," grumbled Stephen. "I only told you I had seen a giant squid. It's not even that great! It's exactly like a regular squid, just...giant-er."
"Could you go to the depths of the Europan oceans too?" asked Neil. "Any life there is bound to be completely unlike what evolved on Earth...and yet, if it evolved to fit a similar ecological niche, on the surface level it might look strikingly—"
"Is there a risk that the robot might fall over?" asked Jon.
"Fall over. Or get stuck on a rock. Or climb a tree and not be able to get down again. Not that there are, you know, trees on Europa...but whatever the nearest equivalent of a tree is. Didn't that one Martian robot trip over a rock and land upside-down?"
"All our space-traveling robots are designed to be functional on as many types of terrain as possible," said Neil. "But in science, there's always some risk."
"Got it. Well, maybe Stephen could promise to pick up any robots that fall over."
"That would be fantastic," said Neil. "You'd be a hero to NASA, Stephen. How about it?"
Stephen's eyes were wide. "A Martian robot tripped and got stuck?"
"Like a really expensive turtle," confirmed Jon.
"Nobody told me!"
"It was on the news," said Neil.
"Ah, I got all my news from The Daily Show, and haven't watched since what's-his-name left," said Stephen. "Be right back. I have a turtlebot to save."
He jumped, and flew straight through the ceiling like a ghostly Superman. Jon thought he even saw the flash of a cape.
"Wow," said Neil. "He really saw a giant squid?"
"Claims he did."
"And if there are squid-equivalents on Europa...is there some reason you would change the subject about it?"
Jon fidgeted, trying to decide whether to be more loyal to his Best Physicist Friend or his Best Immortal Friend Forever, No, Literally, Forever. "Listen, you can't tell anyone I told you this, okay?"
The physicist leaned closer, riveted. "I won't tell a soul."
"Well...I'm pretty sure there's life. Out there. Couldn't tell you where. But any hypothetical extraterrestrial life is under a separate hypothetical...jurisdiction, or whatever you'd call it, from the one Stephen's ascended to. And they have rules. Treaties. Stuff about secrecy. Hypothetically. So any world that our scientists think might have life on it, please don't push the subject too much with Stephen, because if you lead him into saying something he's not supposed to reveal...."
He was interrupted by a commotion happening in the next room. Breaking news from the probe coming on-screen. People around them grabbed half-filled plates, or just left their dishes on the nearest flat surface, and hurried out to see.
Under his breath, Neil said, "I won't put Stephen's position in jeopardy. I swear on Pluto's continued status as a dwarf planet."
Of course Jon clapped a lot as his daughter walked across the stage in her cap and gown, and his wife did the same with even more vigor, but "Uncle Stephen" was the one whooping and pumping his fist in the air.
The spans between his visits kept getting longer. Or maybe the days just seemed slower and more serene these past few years. Used to be Stephen regularly dropped in for Jon's birthday, and maybe Christmas (wearing his bright red coat and a hat with bells, and carrying presents wrapped in blue-and-silver paper, "because Santa wanted to honor the long and troubled history of the Jewish people, which is best done through appropriate color schemes"). This past year, extra gifts had appeared under the tree overnight on the 24th, but Stephen hadn't appeared in person. He'd missed the birthday party, too.
How many times had Jon seen him since the first kid graduated...? Once? Twice, at most?
Not that you would know to look at him. As always, Stephen didn't appear a day older than he had during the Report's final broadcast.
Well, Jon was clearly getting older. He sent the rest of his family on ahead to save seats at the party on the quad, and followed at a slow walk, Stephen at his side in case he needed something to lean on.
"That was a good commencement speaker," said Stephen. "Not as good as me, but, you know, passable. Was she on The Daily Show at some point?"
"Correspondent," confirmed Jon. "Dunno for how long. She was after my time."
It still felt like a dream sometimes. Wouldn't be long now before he'd clocked as many post-show years as he had years hosting, but every once in a while he expected to wake up with tomorrow's guest's book in his lap, ready to go back in tomorrow. To watch five new channels at once, all the time. Go up to the roof and feed the pigeons. Maybe do a toss.
His kids were older than some of his correspondents had been. Where did the time go?
"Well, the speech was good," repeated Stephen. Not on a screen from the next studio over, but beside him in the flesh (such as it was). "I liked the part about not being afraid."
"That was a nice part."
"I used to be scared all the time, you know. "
"You helped. A lot. Even before I was unshackled from the shared human fear of our inevitable mortality."
"The Rally," agreed Jon. When they had shared a stage in Washington DC, Stephen arguing for a state of perpetual panic while Jon called for sanity and moderation...and the rough shambling colossus that was Stephen's fear had manifested on-stage. They were tied so closely together that Stephen himself had pretended to be dead after Jon helped take it down.
"Yeah, that. But in general," said Stephen now. "That was satisfyingly dramatic and all, but it was an artificial death...you remember, it came back afterward. And then over the next few years it went out naturally. Because of you. You were my beacon of sanity."
Jon was never comfortable with this much sincerity. Maybe it was one reason they had bonded so well: although Stephen was loud and straightforward about so many things, he usually kept his adoration of Jon wrapped in a protective layer of sarcasm or bossiness. Or he was indirect, letting it show through in the way he trusted Jon to help when his life was in turmoil, the way he shared things with Jon that he wouldn't (at the time) admit to anyone else.
"Sounds like I should be using you as a cane more often, here," said Jon out loud, taking Stephen's arm. Brushing it off. Making it a joke. "Give you a chance to start paying me back."
Most of the time, Jon didn't watch the news, and didn't miss it for a minute. The only time he caught live broadcasts, other than when a seriously cool scientific discovery was being made, was on election night.
This one was a tight race. Late into the night, he was the only person in the house still awake, watching the anchors breathlessly report the votes being counted in smaller and smaller districts, winning by thinner and thinner margins. The I VOTED sticker on his breast pocket shone in the glow of their red-and-blue graphics.
Stephen appeared in the foyer and let himself in. "Scoot over, old man."
Jon scooted. "Oh, sure, flaunt your youthful vigor."
"I've missed you too." Stephen snuggled into place, pressing a kiss to Jon's cheek. He was wearing a warm knit sweater in all the colors of fall leaves, and smelled like a wood fire. "Who's winning?"
Age, thought Jon. Out loud, he said, "Right now? CNN's sponsors."
They watched another graphic unfold across the screen. Next to it, a harried modern anchor with her jacket off and her sleeves rolled up to the shoulder explained that these were the exit-polling numbers from triracial neo-coastal 24-to-48-and-a-half-year-olds with jobs in cybertech fields.
"Brings back memories, huh?" said Stephen fondly. "That long, late election night in 2000...falling asleep in random corners, or next to the phones...."
"Trying to scan the latest wire reports for any sign of something new, only to have your eyes crossing," remembers Jon. "Both of us reaching at once for the last slice of pizza."
"Mmm. Did you feel the sparks too?"
"Nah. Not then. It started later. After you got the Report, and I started realizing how much I missed having you yell at me in person. Even if the things you were yelling were...."
"Stupid?" suggested Stephen.
Jon leaned against him. "Well, in a charming way."
The idyllic scene was interrupted by the sound of a doorbell. Not the sound Jon's doorbell made, but the stock bell-ringing noise out of a sound catalog.
"That'll be the pizza," said Stephen. "Sit up for a minute while I go get it."
A distinct refrain of '80s porn music followed him to the front hall. Jon wondered if the pizza delivery person (being? phenomenon?) was also from the world Stephen belonged to now, summoned by incongruously sex-related magical forces that Jon couldn't possibly understand...or if Stephen had contacted a real-world pizza place, for old times' sake.
"If that person was a muggle, I hope you paid them in cash, not just immortal makeouts," he said sternly, when Stephen returned with a box. It was warm and smelled delicious. Like cheese and sausage and the New Jersey seafront, but in a good way.
"Jon, if I paid them in immortal makeouts, they wouldn't have enough cash in the whole pizza joint to make change."
They watched the election. They ate pizza. Or rather, Jon ate pizza; Stephen only had a few bites, then wiped his fingers on Jon's weathered khakis ("those are old rags, right?") and settled in to massaging the aches out of Jon's old shoulders.
It felt good. Really good. After a while Jon wasn't even hearing the news anymore; it was all a comforting blur of slick graphics and bright colors, underwritten by the touch of Stephen's eternally-young hands. He closed his eyes.
"Hey, Jon," said Stephen presently. "I gotta tell you something."
"The stuff I do...the duties I have, immortality-wise...it isn't all sexy pizza delivery and distributing gifts to good children and playing guardian angel to our fellow rainbow-hearted brethren. They started me off on the fun stuff, and that's what I share with my mortal friends, but I worked up to the more serious jobs too."
"I bet you're good at them," said Jon. Stephen wasn't good at everything he tried (economic policy, figure skating, and push-ups came to mind), but he'd always had an affinity for the fantastic, even when he was an ordinary human. All the magical work Jon knew about, Stephen had taken to like a fish to water.
"I am." Stephen rubbed the back of Jon's neck with one hand, and rested the other on Jon's leg. "And, look, you remember how I originally became immortal by killing Death?"
Jon opened his eyes and took a new look at his visitor. Either it was a trick of the light (his eyesight wasn't the best these days), or Stephen's sweater, in fact his whole outfit, had turned jet-black.
"When you kill Death," he said, "do you become Death?"
Stephen balked. "I never told you that! How did you know? Did one of the Muppets give it away? I swear, those furry little monsters can't keep their mouths shut."
"Just made a good guess," Jon assured him. "Does that mean...is it time for me to...?"
"You are ruining all my good dramatic reveals, here."
By now Stephen was cupping Jon's face, stroking Jon's cheek with his thumb. After however-many decades of seeing him filled with joy whenever they met, it was strange to look at him now: biting his bottom lip, eyes big and golden-brown and full of uncertainty.
"I'm not scared, or anything," said Jon quietly. He closed his hand over Stephen's, the skin bone-white and chilly under his palm. "Not if it's with you."
"Can I at least stay long enough to see who wins the election...?"
"It's...a little bit against the rules," admitted Stephen. "But what's the point of having a Best Immortal Friend Forever if they won't re-tune the fabric of space and time for you once in a while? Sure. Let's do it. You stay on this side, and I'll keep you company, until we see who wins."