"What is going on in here?" demanded Jon, finally opening the door on the source of the noise: two correspondents, with rolled-up sleeves and long-empty coffee mugs, yelling at the top of their lungs. "What are you guys even yelling about?"
Stephen sniffed in dismissal and smoothed back his hair, never mind that it didn't have a strand out of placce. "We are not yelling, Jon."
"We are having a serious discussion about a very important issue," added Steve, folding his arms.
"It just happened to get a little enthusiastic, is all."
"Only natural! What with it being such a deep and monumental subject."
"What's the subject?" asked Jon. If it had anything to do with comparative anatomy, then so help him....
Shifty eyes from both Stev/phens, until finally Stephen put on just a touch of a manly pout (indicating that, if Jon didn't agree with him on this, there would be some third-degree lip-wobbling to follow) and said, "How big is Jupiter."
"Oh, well, in that case," said Jon, relaxing.
Honestly, it was only natural. Everyone at the office had been preoccupied with all things space-related, ever since Stephen's latest long-term assignment had come together.
And, hey, speaking of assignments...."Steve, why are you even here? You're supposed to be undercover."
"He came back to congratulate me, obviously," said Stephen. "On getting the greatest, best, most incredible posting in the history of American journalism. Or Earth journalism. Or universe journalism. While he, tragically, was relegated to reporting from inside a paper factory in Nowheresville, Pennsylvania."
"The town is called Scranton, and I am deep inside the heart of the American manufacturing industry," countered Steve, gesturing firmly at Stephen with one of the coffee mugs. "You're the one who's going to the middle of nowhere."
"Traveling through the middle of nowhere, on my way to Jupiter."
"Which you're going to orbit for a week and then leave! And you'll only get to see a tiny fraction of it, because, as previously established, Jupiter is HUUU—"
"Okay, enough! And no more coffee for either of you," said Jon, taking their mugs. (Stephen's was captioned I'm Not Saying I'm Superman, I'm Just Saying You've Never Seen Me Without My Glasses. Steve's, apparently less-invested in maintaining a secret identity, simply read Reporter By Day, Vampire Slayer By Night.) "Stephen, the fact that you're going to be our Senior Space Correspondent is genuinely tremendous news, and we're all very proud of you. Steve, you can stick around for a while if you two are nice to each other. And if you help Stephen prep."
Stephen loved New York, he really did, but South Carolina had it whipped in the "how much of the night sky you can actually see" department.
Okay, so there were a few other things about the city he didn't like. Say, the East-coast latte-sipping lefty liberal types who were always ahead of him in the line at Starbucks. Or all the people who didn't unquestioningly support the President in everything he wanted to do...especially certain people at work who shall remain nameless and are probably trying to be unmemorable by wearing bland grey shirts all the time anyway.
But he thrived on the energy, not to mention the money and the fame, so Stephen just had to suck it up and deal with the fact that your hopes of getting a decent view of the Milky Way up here were basically zero.
To help salve the ache, he watched all the NASA news he could get his hands on.
Glorious high-resolution vistas of the Earth from a distance, wreathed in thousands of stars, like a beauty queen in a really expensive prom dress. Videos of American heroes (also Russian semi-heroes, and European and Japanese quasi-heroes, and Canadian, ugh, did he really have to acknowledge heroism in Canadians?) walking on the Moon, then floating from tethers in orbit around Mars. Alien vistas captured by distant satellites at the borders of the solar system: Neptune and its moons, Pluto and its buddies, long views of galaxies far far away.
Could you blame him, really, for sometimes co-opting studio equipment to stream and record this stuff? Even if it wasn't for the night's show? Or, strictly speaking, for any show at all? Surely the most epic dreams of humanity were worth taping over that boring speech at the UN that nobody wanted to watch a segment on anyway, Jon.
(Stephen's boss just didn't get it, that was the problem. The man was not an it-getter.)
The best part of getting selected to be a NASA journalist, as Stephen explained to Steve, was that he had a perfect excuse to do all the recording he was going to do anyway. "It's research. It's very important!"
"Of course it is," said Steve wisely.
"And it's hardly my fault if I end up wiping out the comments of some anti-American commentator who thinks we shouldn't indiscriminately start wars in Middle Eastern countries on the basis of questionable evidence. Jon's the one who should have taken precautions against that happening. Like hiring less bribe-able video techs."
"Hear hear! If Jon wants to do a segment about the war, he can always rerun that one Even Stevphen debate of ours, which was clearly the last word on the topic."
"Although I seem to remember you arguing the anti-war side of that debate...."
"I remember no such thing," said Stephen loftily. "And if you somehow manage to dig up that tape, I reserve the right to stick my fingers in my ears and yell loudly until you go away."
After an episode of particularly chaotic primary coverage, Jon grabbed a baggie of leftovers and climbed the stairs to the building roof. Honking cars, shouting New Yorkers, and the racket of pigeons fighting over a French fry sounded downright relaxing compared to what was going on inside.
Stephen was already up there, leaning on the railing and gazing up at the stars.
A few confused pigeons trotted around near his feet, knowing he wasn't the guy who usually brought them crackers, but living in hope that he might surprise them. Stephen paid them no attention. He didn't notice Jon right away, either; Jon wondered if it might be better to sneak back downstairs, and leave the man to his thoughts.
Then some of the birds spotted their favorite cracker-provider and trotted over, hooting and bobbing their heads. Stephen followed their attention, spotted Jon, and grinned. "Jon! Come to stare in envy at all the beautiful exotic celestial bodies you won't be visiting?"
Jon rolled his eyes, though he knew Stephen probably wouldn't notice in the low light. Couldn't the man just relax, stop trying to make a contest out of everything, and let people be happy for him? "C'mon, Stephen, it's not like you'll be visiting most of them either."
"Ah, but I'll be visiting the best ones," said Stephen, undeterred. "See that really bright one, right there, outshining everything around it? That's Venus! And the Independence is going to swing right around it, like a pole dancer, but using gravity instead of defying it. Doesn't that just blow your mind?"
Jon was not an astronomer, but he did spend a lot of time around Neil Degrasse Tyson. "Pretty sure that's really Sirius."
"Of course it's serious! It's space."
"No, I mean —"
"I know what you mean!" burst out Stephen. "Why can't you just stop picking and criticizing with your corrections and your facts and just pretend to be excited for me, huh?"
The sudden mood whiplash left Jon reeling. "Stephen, I — I am excited, I don't —"
"Save it," snapped Stephen. The birds scattered as he stomped past, retreating into the stairwell and slamming the door.
"Coo?" asked one of the pigeons, from a safe distance, in the suddenly-empty night.
Jon shrugged, and tossed it a consoling bit of BLT crust. "Don't ask me, buddy, I don't know either."
"...and he never apologized! The nerve of that man. Am I right?"
"Mr. Colbert, please, strap into your seat."
"Oh, come on, that's just something flight attendants say because they like torturing you. Besides, I want to look out the window!"
"Independence, do we have a problem?"
"No problem, Houston, just making final negotiations with Mr. Colbert —"
"Houston! Would you agree that a person has a right to be mad when another person is an unrepentant show-off?"
"Mr. Colbert, this channel is for essential pre-flight communications only. T minus three minutes."
"Of course, it's different when the person is showing off something legitimate, like being the first news correspondent to file a report from —"
"Dammit, Colbert, sit down and buckle up, or you'll be filing your reports from the NASA lobby!"
"Fine, fine. I don't have to put the visor down, though, right? Normally I only wear designer frames, and, well, not to be rude, but NASA could stand to hire someone with a sense of...."
"Do you want the G-force from liftoff to flatten your eyeballs into puddles of jelly in your skull?"
"All systems are go down here, Independence. T minus two minutes. Close and lock your visors."
"Okay, fine. But only because it would look bad if I got jelly on my spacesuit."
A thousand miles later, Stephen was gaping out the window at the cloud-strewn curve of the Earth retreating below them...and, to the relief of the rest of the crew, not saying anything about Jon. Or indeed anything at all.
Stephen's first off-planet report was live, but the script had been approved beforehand — and, to Jon's surprise, he actually stuck to it.
This was the only real-time conversation they would be doing for the next month. The Independence was already far enough from Earth that there was a delay of a few seconds, and although Jon figured the audience would put up with a lot more for the sake of a live from space! conversation, the network didn't want to take any risks. Surely Stephen would jump at his last chance to say whatever he wanted, before he was limited to pre-packaged reports that would be at the mercy of terrestrial editors?
But no. Stephen complained about the workout regimen, demonstrated the weirdness of zero-gravity eating, and waxed poetic about the hum of the engines, all exactly the way the pre-taping treatment promised he would. The only unscripted detail was the way his body slowly spun relative to the camera, until he was talking upside-down into the lens. Jon wasn't even sure he knew he was doing it.
"Before we sign off," said Jon at last, "is there anything else that you want to tell the people stuck here on the ground?"
Stephen looked startled. It was hard to read, given the way his head was pointed at a thirty-degree angle from straight down, but that was Jon's best guess. "Anything?"
"Sure. Anything at all."
The lincolnish brow furrowed as Stephen thought about it.
"The Internet hasn't told me what it means for my horoscope when I'm in the seventh house," he said at last. "Ask Neil Degrasse Tyson that, the next time you see him, okay?" He tilted his neck with an air of newsmanly finality, unmistakable at any angle. "...Jon?"
Okay, that was classic Stephen. "Senior Space Correspondent Stephen Colbert, everybody! We'll be right back."
Venus, from this close, was awash in a single thick layer of golden cloud.
Five minutes of intensive research on Wikipedia had told Stephen that there were no oceans on the surface — no water at all. He could see how the atmosphere was drawn into brown and creamy strips, thousands of miles long, shaped by single gusts of wind that blew undeterred across the endless land. On and on and on they swirled....
"You okay, Colbert?"
Stephen realized he had lost all track of time, staring out the spacecraft window. "Fine! I'm fine," he stammered, pulling off his glasses. He had something in his eye. Something in both eyes. "Just...thinking about how much I want a caramel latte."
He was still wiping his eyes when there was a commotion among the astronauts, and they all came floating over to his window. "Better put those back on," said the woman who had first interrupted him. "The research probes are starting to hit the mesosphere."
Stephen did a lot of blinking, replaced the glasses...and felt his mouth fall open. A patch of Venus's cloudscape was glittering, pieces of human technology burning bright as they plunged toward the surface. Manmade shooting stars, released on an alien planet, and watched by their creators from above.
The sky in South Carolina had nothing on this.
"Are you watching that whole thing again?"
Jon started in his chair, blushed, and reminded himself that he wasn't doing anything wrong as he paused the video. Nothing weird about being so absorbed that he hadn't even noticed Sam enter the office. "Why not? I always do a final review of field pieces before they air."
"Sure, but you usually stop at one," pointed out Sam. "What is this, the fourth time? When was the last time you watched one of my final cuts four times in a row?"
"Without any disparagement to your skills as a reporter," said Jon, "you've never done a field piece with on-scene footage of another planet."
Sam strolled over to his desk and leaned against it, so they had the same view of the big TV. It happened to be paused on a frame of Stephen, with the space station interior in the background, and no sight of Venus at all. "The only planet-sized thing in that shot is Stephen's ego."
Resting his chin on his hand, Jon gazed wistfully at the scene. "You'd think so, right? But so far...I mean, he's almost been...humble."
Even in the uncut footage, Stephen hadn't gotten caught up in bragging or boasting. At the very least, Jon had expected some unsubtle jabs at his own expense (maybe "this is NASA footage and Daily Show footage, so certain people will just have to put up with it being stored in the Daily Show tape room" or "this time it's definitely Venus, Jon, are you happy now?"). But no! Stephen talked about the planetary slingshot with straightforward excitement, awe, and what sounded like genuine joy.
"You miss him, huh," said Sam. Not sarcastic or annoyed now, just honestly asking.
Jon sighed. "Yeah."
"You know what this reminds me of?"
"The way I feel when I'm here at work, and my husband is working somewhere else."
Jon did a double-take. "One, Stephen is not my husband, and two...what?"
"Yes, I miss Jason terribly," continued Sam, with a wistful sigh of her own. "You should hire him. He's very funny! Also, ruggedly handsome, and let's face it, this show could use more female viewers, right? It's just a smart business decision for you to make with the eye candy."
"You know we don't have the time or resources to do auditions right now," said Jon sternly. "Wait until election season is over. Now, if that's the only thing you wanted, scram and let me finish this important and definitely-not-superfluous footage review."
The flight toward Jupiter involved long weeks of empty space.
Stephen had expected some excitement when they got to the asteroid belt, but it turned out not to be nearly as crowded as the movies had promised. One day the mission commander just up and announced they were through! And there hadn't been a single time he'd needed to take over the controls and execute any daring feats of ship-saving.
"I didn't even get to see any asteroids," he complained to the astronaut who was watching him run on the treadmill. (They had started supervising him to make sure he did it. Unnecessary! Just because he skimped on the exercise regimen two or three or ten times....) "In this one single aspect, space is overrated."
"Far as I'm concerned, all the rest makes up for it," pointed out the astronaut. "Ready for me to raise the speed?"
"At least give me some better music first! I checked yours out, just like I promised, and now I am ruling it insufficiently inspirational."
"You did give the Mozart a fair shot," the woman admitted. "How about some Springsteen?"
"I'll take it."
The rough voice and strumming guitar got Stephen's blood pumping. Jon would have loved this. Would been disciplined enough to run every day, keeping up his bone density and muscle mass by cycling through every Springsteen album.
...assuming Jon could have passed the physical tests to get into space in the first place.
(Lost track of how far I've gone, crooned the Boss. How far I've gone, how high I've climbed...)
Why had Stephen been so touchy with him, back down on the surface of their home planet? All the fears and concerns that had driven him, everything that had seemed so worth yelling about at the time, seemed so petty now. Stephen should have been gentler. More generous. More aware how lucky it was that he got to be up here.
The camera on the hull of the Independence sent back beautiful video of the marbled orange disc of Jupiter. At this distance it looked like an alternate-universe version of Earth's moon, set in a field of unfamiliar stars.
It came to the studio with a voiceover from Stephen, and instructions for the graphics team on where to start adding lines. When the field piece was mostly-packaged and ready for review, Jon made up an excuse to have Steve sit in with him. There was an audible gasp halfway through, as Steve realized what Jon already knew from his footage review: Stephen was tracing constellations they had heard of, but never would have recognized, not from this angle that nobody on the planet had ever seen.
The image cut back to a fluffy-haired Stephen, floating (mostly-upright, now) in the center of the frame, holding a marker as if he had been scribbling on the footage live. He gave it a little twirl and let go; it floated, spinning, in the air beside him.
"As you can see, this is amazing and incredible and we need to triple our Space Budget, like, yesterday," he beamed. "Which I believe is possible, because quantum mechanics means you're getting this before I send it, right? I think that's what the science nerds said. This is great, is the point. It's...it's so...."
He trailed off. (Steve, at Jon's side, didn't bother to hide a smirk.)
When Stephen shook himself, a handful of barely-visible teardrops broke away from his face, little round globules that floated gently around the corners of his eyes. "Jupiter is really great," he repeated. "Back to you, Jon."
The video froze as the playback ended.
"He's such a sap," said Steve, smug but proud.
"So, uh," said Jon. "You think he's...okay?"
"Um, yeeeess. Why wouldn't he be? He's in heaven! Almost literally! And it sounds like it's living up to his expectations, the lucky jerk."
"But, I mean...there were tears, there," stammered Jon. "Some of them even got caught in his hair, did you notice? Didn't help that he's stopped bothering to gel it down. And have you noticed that he hasn't yelled in any of the bits we've played lately, about anything? Should I be worried? Should I maybe warn NASA?"
"Jon. C'mon. Relax." Steve clapped him on the shoulder. "It's a pre-taped bit. If Stephen didn't re-shoot it to send you a more-gelled, less-blubbering version, that just means he doesn't mind letting the world see him for the aforementioned huge sap he is. Shows you what a case of Space Perspective can do to a guy's worldview, eh? The not-yelling is fine too. He only yells at someone when he gets scared that he's not impressing them enough."
Jon raised an eyebrow. "Are you telling me Stephen cares a lot about impressing you?"
"As well he should!"
"And you, in turn, care about...."
"Noooooooo! I yell at him because he's usually wrongity-wrong-mcwrongface. Try to keep up, Stewart."
Jupiter was in Leo, not that the crew of the Independence could see it, because right now the disc of the planet filled their entire window.
Stephen discovered he could spend hours at a time watching the motion of planet-sized alien storms. It made his soul feel lighter, somehow. One time he started humming — and gave the astronauts in the compartment a nasty shock, because he'd been so quiet before that they hadn't noticed he was there.
When the nerd squad started making a point of engaging him in conversation, Stephen wondered if something was up. Maybe he was being too quiet. Maybe they were concerned about the warning signs of Space Madness. But he had no trouble answering them like a normal person, which seemed to make them relax. Just because he wasn't making sure everyone knew he was recording the most incredible field reports the galaxy had ever seen, didn't mean he wasn't happy to preen about it when they asked.
"I'm not doing this for the fame and the glory," he assured them. "Those mean nothing in the grand scheme of the universe! And anyway, they're already guaranteed. No, I'm doing this to share the joys of space with...uh, with all the people who will never make it up here."
"That's very thoughtful of you, Colbert," said whichever astronaut he was talking to at the time. "Now, I know the view is inspiring, but you haven't done your exercises yet."
"Oh, fine," sighed Stephen. "Put on the Springsteen."
Come on up for the rising / Come on up, lay your hands in mine...!
The broadcast version of the field piece included the teary scene. You could hear the audience holding their breaths, hanging on to every last word. To Jon, it seemed like even the studio cameras had stopped humming.
Other clips, they kept back. The magic, Jon reasoned, would probably fade if they gave the audience an overdose of Space Perspective. Although it didn't stop him from copying more than a few of them to his home computer, where he could rewatch them at leisure.
"It's not like this would make for good TV," he explained to his cat, which had noticed the netbook sitting in his lap and decided to claim a place there for itself, half of which involved being draped across the keyboard. "It's just a static shot of Jupiter, see? The ship's moving away from it, but not fast enough that you can tell in a ten-minute video. None of this is even flashy enough to use for B-roll."
The cat yawned and flicked its tail.
"And the voiceover is all quiet and meandering," added Jon. "Stephen never meanders! He's always impeccable with the news-y speed-patter, and here he is, pausing for five minutes at a stretch. I don't think he meant for this to be broadcast in the first place, you know? I think he just...wanted it on the record somewhere."
"He does sound happy, though. Steve's probably right, this is healthy for him. And hey, if he's figured out he doesn't have to start snapping at people every time he feels vaguely maligned, that's going to make my life a whole lot easier, right?"
Since Jon couldn't reach the touchpad through all the fur, the program got to the end of the clip and went right on to the next one. It was something NASA had sent around to all the news shows: a time-lapse video of the Independence transiting the Sun.
"It doesn't mean he's stopped caring at all," muttered Jon. "He's not going to let himself get so zen that he won't be able to reconnect with boring ol' stuck-on-the-ground people, once he gets back down into the atmosphere. Maybe part of the reason he's sending all this extra footage is because he wants to stay connected with me! That would make sense, right? Back me up, here."
The cat, in a noncommittal way, snuffled.
Jon sighed and scratched its ears anyway. "Lot of help you are."
"Stephen!" exclaimed Jon, voice crackling in Stephen's earpiece. "Welcome almost-back!"
Stephen waved, and there was distant cheering from the studio. He was finally in range to do real-time reports again. They even had the camera angled so the audience could see an extremely-long-distance view of themselves over his shoulder.
Jon asked a few questions about the progress of the mission. Stephen talked about comets and meteors, about the scientists' new data on sulfuric rainfall and spring storms from an alien hemisphere, about how the volcanoes of Io and the shifting icebergs of Europa more than made up for only getting to eat freeze-dried food for months on end.
"So, what's it like to be within throwing distance of the homeworld again?" asked Jon at last.
"The view," said Stephen, "is unbelievable."
He'd had a brief moment of panic when he was convinced they had come back wrong — flown through some kind of wormhole and been transported to an alternate universe, where the continents were upside-down. When he tried to warn the astronauts, one of them gave him a gentle push, making him spin in place until his head was pointing north again.
So, yes, that was home, with its clouds and cities and oceans and chicken dinners and late-night comedy shows, and Stephen's heart swelled in his chest every time he looked at it.
"Anything look different since the last time you saw it?" prompted Jon.
"Everything looked different the first time I saw it," said Stephen softly. "Now, it's just...more so. It's...it's like...."
He trailed off. Static let him know that Jon was waiting.
"I don't think I can explain how it feels," he said at last. "They tried, you know — the people who went into space before we got here — but I never understood. You have to see it, the whole planet laid out in front of you, to really get how big it is. It's so big!...and so small. You have no idea how small we are...."
In the back of his head, a voice whispered, Well, some of you have an idea.
Could've been a snappy one-liner, but somehow it didn't seem important to get the dig in. It did make a sudden warmth bloom in Stephen's chest. The audience would just have to guess why his wistful expression turned adoring; he should probably hold off until he could talk to the reason in person. "...Jon?"
"What, you want me to be the substitute Daily Show host while you go down to Houston to meet the returning astronauts in person? I would love to!" exclaimed Sam. "Nice to see that, in the sausagefest that is this election, somebody is looking at our country's most influential positions and thinking 'let's see what a lady can do with that'."
"Okay, first of all, this isn't influential, this is basic cable," said Jon from across the writers' room. "Second, this isn't 'our' country, you're Canadian. Third, uh, I was actually going to ask you to cover the returning astronauts."
"But you want to be there yourself, right?"
"I know when my husband is doing on-location shooting that takes him out-of-town...."
A few of the other correspondents and writers choked back snickering. Jon sighed. "Sam, we've been over this...."
"Plus I'm applying for dual citizenship, we feel enough of the fallout from your crazy politics that we should probably get honorary voting rights anyway, and I promise, I would take very good care of the —"
"Okay!" burst out Jon. "Okay, you can host. You're right, I want to be there. And I'm sure you'll do a tremendous job."
"Hooray!" Sam clapped her hands. "You are not going to regret this."
The wild thing was, Jon felt good about it too.
"And any replacing of the theme song with genderpunk Canadian electroclash will be totally temporary."
Once the Independence was parked in a stable orbit, Stephen and the first round of returning astronauts dressed up in the world's puffiest outfits — basically, airbags in suit form — and crammed themselves into a high-tech tin can with a parachute attached.
Four hours on the claustrophobia express later, they crashed down in a desert in the middle of Nowherestan, where a swarm of experts pulled them out.
Stephen tried to smile whenever he thought someone was paying attention, but he was too out-of-it to do anything else. He was so heavy. With that whole grueling interplanetary exercise regime, shouldn't he have lost a few pounds? Instead he felt like his limbs had been filled with lead, and someone had replaced his head with a bowling ball.
The professional spacegoers had friends, even family, in the crowd that greeted them. Between the medical screenings, there were greetings, hugs, a couple of kisses, for everyone but Stephen. Not that he felt like holding up his bowling ball long enough to get a kiss anyway, but it was the principle of the thing.
Whoever was in charge must have thought this was great, because the next thing Stephen knew, he was cleared to fly...on a boring old terrestrial airplane, gravity and all.
This is good, he told himself, especially when he woke up in the middle of the flight with his hands clamped around his super-first-class pillow. You get to go to Houston. Jon said he'd be there. You're going to see Jon. And in the meantime, you're not going to float out of bed anymore! Stop getting all panicky just because you "forgot" to strap yourself in.
Mission Control (well, Rehab Facility Control) promised they would let Jon visit Stephen's room as soon as it was an option. His own idea of "soon" didn't quite overlap with theirs, so the coffee was lukewarm and the genuine South Carolina fried chicken had gone cold by the time they finally sent him in.
Stephen, lying in bed on a stack of well-fluffed pillows that would do a Southern belle proud, looked different. A little less otherworldly, without the weightless drifting of his hair and clothes. Less ethereal without the unfiltered starlight framing his smile. But he grinned when Jon came in, and held out his arms, and Jon put all the food down and went in to enjoy an unselfconscious hug.
"I'm still re-learning to talk," warned Stephen. "Who knew humans carry so much weight in the tongue? So if I pronounce something wrong and you make fun of me, you're being astrophobic."
"I would never." Jon clasped Stephen's hands between his own. "I'm so glad you're back!" Did that sound a little over-eager? "I mean — obviously you had a great time out there, I was happy for you, I don't want to take away from —"
"I missed you too."
That caught Jon completely off-guard. "...Oh."
To his continuing surprise, Stephen looked almost...ashamed? "Was I that mean? Did you think I didn't appreciate you at all?"
"No! No, it's not that. I just...I didn't expect you to admit it out loud."
A few more unidentifiable expressions shoved their way across Stephen's face.
"I guess I wouldn't have," he said softly. "Everything is so...heavy, down here, y'know? I used to think I was handling it so well, too! Then I got into orbit, and it started lifting away, and I realized I had no idea." He gave the edge of the bed an offhand pat, and, when Jon sat, went back to holding Jon's hands. "Meanwhile, all these other people look like they don't even feel it. Waltz around like there's nothing in the world dragging them down. I don't know how they...you...do it."
"Hey now." It was one thing for Stephen to be nice and non-defensive, but this was practically admiring, and if he kept it up Jon was gonna start blushing. "I'm just as weighed-down as any other neurotic Jewish liberal surviving through the Bush administration. I'm not that special."
Okay, now Jon was definitely turning red.
"Some of the stuff I sent back wasn't for TV," added Stephen. "It was just for you. Did you get that? Because I kept wishing you were up there with me, and sharing as much of it as I could was the next best thing."
"I, uh, sort of hoped," admitted Jon. So it hadn't been wishful thinking after all! The cat would be so pleased.
"Did you...like it?"
With a little more fervor than he'd intended, Jon said, "I loved it."
Stephen beamed with such unabashed joy that Jon had to keep himself from turning around, making sure one of those windows to the glory of space hadn't somehow opened up behind him. Overcome by a wave of gentleness, and maybe a couple of other feelings too, he bent down and pressed a kiss to Stephen's cheek.
It was Stephen's turn to be flustered. "You, um...you could go ahead and do that on the lips if you wanted."
Some time later, one of the nurses knocked on Stephen's door. "Mr. Colbert, you're going to be late for — oh."
Reluctantly, Stephen wrenched his tongue out of Jon's mouth and twisted his head to the side for a glare. "Can't you reschedule?"
The nurse coughed politely. "Regular physical therapy is important for your reacclimation to Earth, Mr. Colbert."
"This is important too!" protested Stephen. "I did some PT earlier this morning. I haven't been able to do anything with Jon for six months."
"Besides," said Jon helpfully, "this is also pretty physical."
As promised, Stephen re-adjusted to gravity. It wasn't long before he got back into the habit of standing unaided, and by election night he was running and jumping and sleeping peacefully through the night, and had almost stopped breaking things because he would let them go in midair and expect them to float.
Jon kept expecting him to adjust all the way back to his touchy, pompous, aggressively-poorly-informed pre-spaceflight temperament. It didn't happen. Sure, his ethereal serenity faded a little as the annoyances of everyday life reasserted themselves...but he had gotten the hang of being humble and open in the face of the unknown, and month after month went by without him losing it again.
There was a minor media firestorm when the gay thing broke. Not only did Stephen not panic, he was able to shrug it off even faster than Jon did. "It's so weird that I used to think this would be a big deal! You know what's a big deal? Jupiter."
"A gigantic deal, even," said Jon. They were on a rooftop again, of his penthouse this time, enjoying the night sky before retiring to the same bed. "A humongous deal. A huuuuge —"
"You hush. We are literally star-crossed lovers, here, don't ruin it by being mean."
Jon giggled and slung an arm around his waist. Not because there was any risk of them floating apart, just because he wanted to. Which was more than okay with Stephen. "C'mon, babe, you know I love you."
And the really mind-blowing thing here, thought Stephen as he leaned into the embrace, was that he did.