"And they'll find each other in the crowded streets and the guarded park~ / past the rusty fountains and the dusty trees with the battered barks...."
"I will never understand how you can sing and shave at the same time," remarked Jon from the sink beside Stephen, running a comb through his wet hair. He eyed his reflection in the mirror and decided it looked presentable. (Stephen would probably comment on his pallor and urge Jon to at least try a little foundation and mascara, but so far Jon had resisted the urge to let anyone who wasn't a paid makeup tech do complicated things to his face, except on special occasions.)
Stephen shrugged. The left half of his face was silky-smooth, the right half still bearded with foam. "You don't even understand how I can sing."
Jon opened his mouth to fire back, then let it go and sighed. "Okay, I walked into that one."
"Uh-huh." The grin Stephen flashed him was unfairly dazzling. "You could almost say that you danced into it...except that you can't do that either."
"Don't push it, babe." Jon picked up a fluffy folded towel. "If you weren't holding a bunch of very sharp metal edges right now, I would throw this at you."
"So you're trying to threaten me...with your pitching skills? I sense a flaw in this plan."
Jon smirked. "You weren't complaining about my pitching skills last night."
It was Stephen's turn to be left without a comeback. "Are you done here?" he sulked instead. "Then go away, unless you want me to throw a bunch of very sharp metal edges at you."
"All right, sir."
The singing started up again as Jon made his way down the hall.
He lost the thread of the music when the dogs converged on him: Gipper, the large older main dog, a black lab (named by Stephen, back in the days when he and Jon had barely met), and Barry, the emergency backup dog, a chocolate spaniel mix (also named by Stephen, during a particularly sloppy night of drinking in late '08 that he preferred not to remember). It returned while Jon was refilling their food bowls. "It's sharing little winks together, drinks together, kinks together / that make...marriage a joy~! / The hobbies you pursue together, savings you accrue together, looks you misconstrue together~... We have butter, right?"
"Back of the fridge," said Jon, then did a double-take when he realized Stephen had come down in hiking boots, cargo pants, and a shirt and hat straight out of the Brokeback Mountain aesthetic. "Doing something special today?"
"Not before breakfast," answered Stephen, heading for the pantry.
"Right. Um, is it going to take long? Remember, we're having some of the guys over for the game tonight...."
"Uh-huh. Sure." Stephen was pouring milk into a pot. That meant grits, which was what he cooked when he felt particularly rugged. "What game, again?"
"The football game...?" Jon gave Barry one last pat and took a seat across the island from Stephen. "Football's the one with the big brawny guys who jump on each other and wrestle."
Stephen frowned at him, eyebrows furrowing under the brim of the cowboy hat. "I thought that was wrestling."
"No, this is the one with helmets...."
But Stephen was already waving it away. "Don't worry about it. It's not important," he said, cranking up the heat on the burner. "I might not be back until late anyway."
Now Jon was starting to get worried. Long excursions that required special footwear were unnerving at the best of times, and all the more when his husband was the mastermind planning them. "Where exactly are you going?"
"I'll explain it all after it's set up!" Stephen assured him. "Right now I've got to see a bear about a job."
"You really don't need to be here," Stephen assured Ranger Dan, while unwrapping a delicious ham and cheese sandwich. "One might even say it's insulting. Speciesist, if you will."
"Afraid it's the law, gentlemen," said the park ranger who had been required to accompany Stephen's guest backstage. "Hey, did you bring that sandwich yourself? Or is there catering around here somewhere?"
"Neither. Got it out of Papa Bear's dressing room," explained Stephen. "He wasn't there when I visited, so I figured it was fair game. Was a real struggle getting it out of the Tupperware, but worth it." He started munching.
"Grnnnrrgh?" asked Stephen's guest. To a person fluent in Grizzly, it meant, There's another bear here?
"I believe that's his nickname for Bill O'Reilly," said Ranger Dan. (Stephen, mouth full, nodded.) "Who is...probably human."
"Rrraurrghnnrr!" objected the guest. (Speaking of speciesist! That's cultural appropriation, that is.)
Stephen swallowed, licking his chops to get all the crumbs. There was a weird aftertaste to it, probably from the salmon he'd slathered all over himself earlier (much to the chagrin of the makeup techs). "Now, now. This is not the time to fight over who's appropriating who. We're supposed to be coming together, remember? For America. And for...the very important cause which we are coming together to fundraise for."
"Graugh rranarrgh." (You don't remember what it is, do you.)
"Do so! It's that cause Jon is really into. He talks about it with me a lot, you know. And I listen very closely. So I'm pretty much an expert."
A stage manager ducked into the Colbert-Grizzly dressing room. "Mr. Colbert, Mr. Bear? You're on in five."
Ranger Dan hoisted his tranquilizer-dart gun. "Ready when you are."
Jon hadn't believed the bear plan when Stephen first proposed it, and still wasn't sure he believed it now, with Stephen and a full-grown grizzly strolling out onstage arm in arm.
Although he had to admit, it did fit the theme.
The two were trailing a vaguely rank smell, which Jon figured was a bear thing but which turned out to probably be the salmon, chestnuts, and blueberries Stephen was transporting in unmentionable places. And then Stephen was spraying himself with bear sex pheromones, which, wow, that was oddly appealing in a way Jon did not want to analyze too much. At least none of that would be conveyed to the viewers. Just the striking visual, the inspiring words of conciliation...plus another Sondheim melody.
"And another hundred people just got off of the train~!"
Jon's brain was still squarely in this-can't-be-serious mode. It was the only explanation he had for why he didn't panic, or at least call the whole show off, when the song broke down into roaring and yelling and a sickening, tearing snap.
The park ranger burst out of nowhere and fired. Stephen took a dart to the chest, and choked out "Please give generously!" before his lopsided silhouette toppled to the stage floor. It was unreal. Like watching a movie. Like any comedy skit.
Jon even gave the act a standard sendoff before thinking to run past the trail of blood and the (still full) severed sleeve to Stephen's side.
Stephen had felt pain before. This, though...this was a whole other level. This went so far off the scale that it transcended pain, leaving him in a place where he could see angels in the halo of every spotlight. It was both the worst feeling and the biggest endorphin high of his life.
He couldn't feel his arm. Neat, huh? Even if he had broken bones or puncture wounds, they couldn't bother him at all. Sure beat breaking his wrist.
Jon's face hovered over him, getting ever hazier as the bear-grade sedative began to kick in. "Are you okay?" he exclaimed, shaking Stephen by what was probably the shoulder.
"An' another hundred people just got off of the bus..." crooned Stephen with his last conscious breath, nuzzling his face against Jon's hand.
The family waiting room had complimentary coffee, and Jon was on his second cup when the surgical support nurse arrived. He'd come straight from the benefit, hadn't even changed out of the suit, though he had lost the tie and couldn't have said where if you paid him. Might still be in the car his PA had called to drive him over.
(It had been so easy to kid himself everything would be fine, at least for long enough to finish the show. Ridiculous, impossible situations always seemed to work out when Stephen was involved.)
"How's everything going?" he asked, standing to greet the nurse.
"Your husband and his arm are stable." Before Jon could think about relaxing, she continued: "Is there someone you can call on for support?"
"Yes!" said Jon, too loudly. "I mean, uh, yes, but it's not necessary. He's stable, right? So he'll be fine. Right?"
"We're confident he will recover." The support nurse's glasses were almost the same shape as Stephen's. It made it that much harder to focus on what she was saying. "Right now, Mr. Stewart, we're going to need you to make a decision."
Jon's heart turned to ice.
The explanation washed over him, phrases like nerve reattachment and crush injuries and muscle metabolism and artery microsurgery jumbling together into meaningless static. "I'm sorry," he said faintly, "can you start that over? And maybe use smaller words?"
The answer to both was yes. Jon added way too much creamer to his next coffee, and nearly dropped one of the paper sugar packets straight into the cup. The nurse took the neatly upholstered chair across from the one he'd been waiting in, professionally sympathetic. Framed paintings of flowers and peaceful forests stared at them from the beige walls.
(Never should have let Stephen bring a bear onstage.)
"You're saying maybe you can't save his arm," said Jon at last.
"You thought you could, but...?"
"But the nerve damage in his shoulder is more severe than we expected. If you want us to proceed with reattachment, we're going to need you to sign a waiver saying you've accepted the risks on his behalf."
"And there's no way you can wake Stephen up and let him decide for himself."
(Elvis Costello had been eaten by a bear and come out of it fine. Why did Stephen's miraculous luck have to pick now to fail?)
"In the time it would take to bring him out of anesthesia, get him lucid enough to make an informed decision, and re-anesthetize him, the arm would have died."
Jon stared at the floor.
"You can take some time to think about it," said the nurse gently. "Twenty minutes, half an hour, will still be well within the window of safety. Any questions you have, I'll make sure you get the answers. If you need to talk to someone...."
Jon's voice seemed to be coming from somewhere outside his body. "It'll be better for Stephen if you can start sooner, right?"
"Then get started."
They had Stephen on the good drugs. He wasn't sure whether he was on a hospital bed or a particularly comfy cloud.
Lots of people in white came and went. Twice they let Jon in. It must have been at different times, because he was wearing different clothes. A discerning eye like Stephen's could tell the difference between one grey pullover and the next.
Jon said a lot of things like "I love you, sweetheart" and "You're going to be out of here soon" and "Everything's going to be okay."
Stephen tried to reply with things like "How does my hair look?" and "Take off those gloves, it's not like I'm contagious" and "Did they arrest the bear?" These things came out somewhat less than intelligible. Oh well. Once he was lucid again, he would say them properly, and Jon would give him all the answers he needed.
In the meantime, he was going to enjoy the fluffy cloud and the distant sensation of Jon touching him, latex or no latex.
By the second day of Stephen's post-op hospitalization, the dogs were nearly climbing the walls with anxiety. Sure, they liked Jon all right, especially since Jon was the one who usually fed them, but somehow Stephen was still their favorite.
"He'll be back tomorrow," Jon insisted, rubbing both furry heads. "Or the day after, at the very latest. I'm going to see him right now, okay? I promise."
When the driver dropped him off at the hospital (wielding a couple of get-well bouquets, chosen from the bounty that had been piling up at the Report studio courtesy of the Colbert Nation), he discovered that Gipper and Barry weren't the only ones freaking out. Stephen was apparently awake enough now to terrorize the staff, and had been doing so with relish.
"No, I will not calm down!" he shouted as Jon came in, then did a double-take when he realized who it was. "Jon! Thank goodness you're here. Tell these people they're not funny!"
He was alert this time, Jon saw with relief, the back of the bed well cranked so he was almost sitting up. There was an elastic bandage wrapped around his left shoulder, strips of it visible above the neckline of the lavender hospital gown, and a line running into his right arm from a pump with his current cocktail of pain meds; but the drains around the sutures were gone, as was the bedpan. He must have recovered enough for them to let him get up once in a while.
"Easy, babe. Whatever it is, we'll get it sorted out," said Jon. "The dogs say hi, by the way. What's going on?"
Stephen gave him a truly pitiful pout. "The doctors won't tell me when they're putting my arm back."
Jon's heart skipped a beat. "Stephen," he said cautiously, taking a seat beside the bed, "how much have they told you?"
"They keep saying they can't put it back at all!" cried Stephen. "Which doesn't make any sense, because doctors can do transplants, right? And this isn't even a transplant, it's my arm! All they have to do is stick it where God intended it to be, and let nature do the rest!"
This wasn't fair. Jon wasn't trained for this, he didn't know how to break this kind of news, he wasn't supposed to need to break this kind of news. Why couldn't Stephen trust the professionals for once in his life, instead of laying the burden of convincing him at Jon's inadequate feet?
"Jon...? It's okay," said Stephen, almost gently. "Medical incompetence is very tragic, yes, but you don't have to cry about it."
Okay, now Stephen was starting to get worried. He himself would burst into sobs at the drop of a hat, especially when it might guilt people into doing things for him, but when Jon started tearing up it tended to mean someone had been shot.
Stephen automatically tried pat him with the nonexistent arm on that side. (It didn't help that Stephen's body could still feel a weight there, kept getting flashes of texture against his absent palm.) Grumbling at the unfairness of the failure, he dragged his right arm across toward where Jon was sitting. The line in his artery tugged, caught on something; again he tried to untangle it only to find the untangling hand MIA.
"Stephen, don't — be careful!" exclaimed Jon, motioning as if to push Stephen back down.
"Get your hands over here, then," huffed Stephen. Jon hesitated, rubbed his eyes, then rested his hands on Stephen's chest, taking care not to put any pressure on the current round of gauze-stuffed bandages.
His wrist was solid in Stephen's grip. Even if that racing pulse couldn't be healthy.
"Jon," said Stephen, "can they really not put it back?"
Biting down hard on his bottom lip, Jon shook his head.
"Oh," said Stephen, feeling strangely blank. "Okay. Well. That's not a big deal these days, is it? I mean, it's the future. We have bionic arms by now, right?" Maybe he could get one with built-in lasers. It would be a great way to liven up boring production meetings.
"Probably not the kind you're thinking of," said Jon in a short breath.
"The lasers would be optional!" added Stephen.
Jon blinked several times. "Okay, definitely not the kind you're thinking of," he laughed — in a breathless, half-sobbing sort of way.
That didn't sound good. All Stephen's other expectations had been perfectly reasonable. (Hadn't they?) "I have to have a working arm, Jon!" he protested, as close to panic as the drugs would let him get. "How else am I supposed to play piano? Or go cross-country skiing? Or operate the controls of a fighter jet?"
"Stephen...you've never done any of those things."
"And now I'm never going to learn, am I?!"
Jon wrapped Stephen's remaining hand in both of his own. (There was a thing Stephen had been able to do, and now couldn't. Along with the rare but sometimes necessary Double Wag of the Finger, and holding himself steady while he rode a dressage horse, and that particular dance move that involved hoisting one partner onto each hip, and....) "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I'm so, so sorry...."
"Don't you apologize!" protested Stephen. "I hate it when people do that, stupid liberal guilt, always thinking people should apologize for things they had nothing to do with...."
"I know," rasped Jon, hospital fluorescents glittering off the wetness on his cheeks. "But I. I did."
The live-in nurse they hired for the first week was young, blond, and strong enough to haul Stephen around in a princess carry if the need arose.
Jon did not seem thrilled about this. Stephen didn't care. As far as he was concerned, Jon had forfeited all right to protest anything that made Stephen happier.
"I'm definitely going to need help in the bath," said Stephen brightly while they showed Hans around the house. He would have been arm-in-arm with the man, but his bad ear was on the arm side, and the satisfaction of making Jon watch him cuddle wasn't worth the drawback of not being able to hear. "Scrubbing those newly hard-to-reach places, you know?"
Jon kept his face neutral, his comments short and to the point. "Here's the kitchen," he said as they passed the fridge. "Help yourself to anything."
"Much appreciated, Mr. Stewart," said Hans. "And speaking of helping, it's about time to change Stephen's bandages. How about if you sit in, get an idea of how it works?"
"Does he have to?" blurted Stephen.
The nurse glanced from him to the still nonreactive Jon, then answered, "Sorry, my misunderstanding. If you're not comfortable, he doesn't have to."
"It's fine," said Jon with a shrug. "We can keep paid caregivers on hand for as long as Stephen needs. I won't ever have to learn if that's not what he wants."
"Probably wouldn't do it right anyway," added Stephen. "Run along now."
Jon nodded and slunk out of the room.
He should have been grateful he could leave, Stephen thought bitterly once the old bandages were unwrapped. The surgery site was supposed to be getting better every day, but Stephen had a hard time imagining that this hot mess of uneven swelling, blotchy colors (here too pale from poor circulation, there an angry red from chafing), and thick black sutures going in and out of his flesh in a messy stitched circle could be an improvement over anything.
Before putting on the new wrapping, the nurse started into a gentle routine of tapping and rubbing. Stephen had gotten the same treatment from the aides in the hospital: desensitizing the area to touch and sensation, they said. Apparently his body was still under the impression it had the right not to be poked in certain places, even though those places were no longer on the inside.
"When am I going to know if they got the donor skin the right color?" he asked, pretending to look at the site, focusing in reality on the way Hans' scrubs fell over his washboard abs. "It'll be so embarrassing if, once it's healed, that part tans better than the rest of me."
"Unlikely," said Hans. "The new skin here was yours to begin with."
"Really? Then how come I don't have a patch missing on my leg, or my back, or...."
He trailed off as he thought that sentence through.
"Hans? Did they slice this off of my arm before they threw it out?"
"It's a fairly common procedure," said Hans mildly.
Okay. Good. Stephen was not going to freak out about this. It was a fair trade, anyway, since he understood there'd been a while when they kept his arm alive using blood transfusions from the rest of him. And it was nice that he'd managed to keep at least part of the thing, right? He had a duty to look at it. To pay tribute to the noble surviving vestige of the once great Republic of Lefty.
The sutures stretched and tugged as the nurse's fingers massaged a line of flesh below them.
Stephen twitched and turned his head away. Jon owed him forever.
A few days later, Jon managed to finagle things so that he was the one taking Stephen to the prosthetist, Hans-free.
Stephen had been acting like a pampered spa guest, luxuriating in the ability to order the simplest tasks done for him, but Jon could see the genuine exhaustion close under the surface. He hadn't broken into random snippets of melody since coming out of the anesthesia, for one thing. Not that it would have been wise to sing and shave when someone else was doing the shaving, but that didn't explain the rest of his days.
Five minutes away from the house, Stephen fell asleep in his seat.
Once the car was parked, Jon spent a few moments just taking him in: slumped against the window, face drawn and pale, the near sleeve of his pullover tied in a stylish figure-eight knot. The bandages were visible under the fabric; the seatbelt he had taken four tries to buckle was stretched over it. His right hand lay bare in his lap. He hadn't gotten back in the habit of wearing WristStrong bracelets, and while the surgeons had saved his ring, he hadn't started wearing that on any of the fingers remaining.
In a better world he could have slept as long as he needed. In this world, Jon patted Stephen's cheek to wake him up. Stephen nuzzled his hand for a fleeting instant before snapping back to full consciousness. "Wha-huh?"
"C'mon, babe. We're here."
They sent Stephen home with a claw.
Okay, it had a flesh-toned rubber "glove" that went over the metal end, but that wasn't fooling anyone. Besides, the rubber was the wrong shade of peach, and it was missing all of Stephen's favorite freckles. Anything he used now was temporary, they kept saying — it had to use a less-sturdy design because it couldn't press against the surgery site yet, had to be light to keep from over-stressing him, they could move on to heavier and more sophisticated models in a month or so — blah blah blah, whatever, the only important thing was that it meant all his options were terrible.
He didn't feel up to conversation with Jon yet, but it was a long car ride and Stephen was not patient enough for that much silence. "You were wrong, you know," he started, drumming his fingers on the hinge of the arm lying in his lap. It wasn't much more than a couple of parallel strips of metal with a hinge, the claw on one end, and a harness on the other. "They totally have bionic arms for sale."
"They do," admitted Jon. "You caught the part where it would mean more surgery, right? How the nerves have to be moved around before the arm can be wired into them?"
"Of course I caught that!" snapped Stephen, who hadn't. "I wasn't saying I needed to get one right this second! Just that I was right and you were wrong!"
"Okay," said Jon, voice gone flat again. "I'm sorry."
Hearing him admit it was not as satisfying as Stephen would have hoped. "Did you catch the part where the lady said I could do basically any daily task with just a pinchy metal thing?"
"So now that I have this," Stephen patted the ugly fake hand, "I'm pretty much set to go back to a normal routine. No reason we can't both be going back to work on Monday."
"The woman also said it takes practice," Jon reminded him as they turned off the main road toward the community gates. "That's why you're scheduled to focus on physical therapy right now. In between doctor visits."
Stephen groaned and slumped in his seat. There was silence as they buzzed through the gate.
"You know what I wouldn't need any practice at all to use?" said Stephen. "My real arm."
A touch of bitterness crept into Jon's relentlessly level tone. "You wouldn't have been able to move your real arm."
Stephen had been paying excellent attention when that little gem was explained, first from Jon and then from the doctor. Reattached, his arm would have stayed alive — blood pumping, cells renewing — but wouldn't have been able to move or feel anything until new working nerves grew in. Best-case scenario, it would have taken years for the feeling to get back down to his hand, and even then the arm would never have been the same. Worst-case, the nerves wouldn't have grown in right at all.
"Maybe I wouldn't have cared," said Stephen, pitch rising as they pulled into the driveway. "Maybe I would have been happy just to have it, in any form. And maybe you should have known that!"
"Hey, I did the best I could!" snapped Jon. "If you weren't prepared to deal with me making decisions like this, then maybe you shouldn't have married me!"
Small mercies: undoing a seatbelt one-handed took no time at all. Stephen was out of the car a few seconds before Jon, storming up the stone walkway to the house without looking back.
It did kill the momentum a bit when he had to stop at the front door, because Jon had the key and Stephen couldn't have unlocked anything while carrying the stupid prosthetic anyway. He stood back and waited while Jon got it open, then, when Jon waved him in with sarcastic reverence, shouldered past. "Nurse!" he yelled. "Is it time for my next pill yet? I'm suddenly feeling a lot of pain!"
Somehow it hadn't occurred to Jon until he arrived at the studio that people might send him flowers.
He made it through the morning production meeting like a functioning human being. The setting was comfortably normal, there were stories to go over and assignments to hand out, conditions were perfect to give him the Pavlovian reaction of focus and productivity. Then he got back to his office and lost more than ten minutes staring at one of the bouquets (soothing purple chrysanthemums, a few glorious white roses the size of his hand, and sprays of tiny white blossoms like a dusting of snow), while his TVs droned on unheard.
It was Sam who came in and sat with him to snap him out of it. Maybe by office vote, or maybe she'd volunteered: after all, she was the only correspondent left who had worked at Stephen's side.
"So how's he doing?" she asked once they were both comfortably on the couch.
Jon shrugged. "No worse than you'd expect. You know, considering."
"That's good," said Sam. Sounded like she meant it, too, which was all the more meaningful from someone with such a highly developed sarcasm-voice. "How about you?"
"I..." Jon shivered, throat tight, the stems of this poor bouquet getting crushed under his hands. "I don't know if he's ever gonna forgive me."
Sam sat back and considered this. When Jon made no move to elaborate, she said, "Did you know we used to have a betting pool on how that man was going to irreparably injure himself?"
The surprise knocked Jon halfway back to normality. "...I did not."
"Yep. Dissolved it by mutual agreement in '06. Which is good, because my money was on something with explosions."
"No, no, stay with me, I have a point!" insisted Sam. "So, okay, Stephen's been putting himself at risk for serious bodily harm since forever. He could've lost a limb and ended up being punted between doctors all by himself, maybe had life-or-death calls left up to some family member across the country he barely talks to. Instead he has a sensible husband who would do anything for him. So you can quit beating yourself up over whatever it is, because even if you're not perfect, he's seriously lucky to have you."
Jon shifted uncomfortably in his seat. The flowers rustled in his hands. "I guess."
Sam patted him on the arm. "Ask him when he's gonna feel ready to have friends over, will you? I sent a couple emails, but he hasn't gotten back to me."
"He, uh, can't really type yet," Jon reminded her.
"Oh," said Sam. "That's probably why."
They downgraded from Hans' 24/7 care to a day nurse, who went by Finn, admitted when Stephen pressed that it was short for Finnegan, and spent the whole afternoon dodging Stephen's attempts to engage him in conversation about Irish identity.
Like Hans, Finn doled out Stephen's pain meds on a carefully controlled schedule and kept them well hidden the rest of the time, just because someone had let it slip that Stephen had gotten a teeny bit excessive with similar pills five years ago. In between he was annoyingly persistent about making Stephen try everything at least once before doing it for him. Granted, when first forced to shave himself Stephen managed it one-handed and only nicked himself twice, but the Toothpaste Incident was a disaster best forgotten.
Stephen got in the habit of hiding in the bath when Jon came home. He could handle that alone now, even do all the necessary massaging while he was in there, and not come out until there was just enough time to get the bandages re-wrapped and his pajamas put on before the nurse clocked out.
Once the prosthetic came off to bathe, it stayed off for the night. Stephen's hate for the thing had yet to diminish. It was rigged with a single cable that controlled the grip, elbow joint, and shoulder joint, so he could only adjust one at a time, and in between had to to manually switch which one he was trying to move.
It takes patience, his PT kept saying. As if she expected him to have any.
"You know, I can help with that...."
"Don't...need your help...Jon!" huffed Stephen, hopping past the foot of the bed and doing another complicated wriggle. He had been trying to get his pajama pants on unaided for two minutes now, while Jon and Barry watched anxiously from their spots on the covers. (Gipper was already asleep, and missing the whole thing.) "I got this!"
"Can I at least grab you the arm?" pleaded Jon. It would mean getting Stephen's shirt off again to doff the harness, but once it was on he could get both shirt and pants on better two-handed, surely...?
"No!" yelled Stephen, lost his balance, and careened backward into the closet.
Barry yipped in panic, while Jon threw himself out of bed and ran to Stephen's side. He shoved a couple of garment bags and a long ruffled cloak out of the way to find Stephen's head and shoulders planted in a pile of shoes, face white, breathing in thin and ragged gasps.
Jon sank to his knees and got a hand under Stephen's left side. "Gonna turn you towards me now, okay?" When Stephen nodded, Jon pulled, twisting him onto his right and getting the bandaged shoulder up off the faux-Napoleonic boot it had come down on. The empty knotted sleeve trailed behind him. Jon couldn't see anything bleeding, but that didn't mean much when there was a whole layer of professionally done gauze it would have to bleed through.
"I've got you," he murmured, rubbing Stephen's back. "Shh, babe. It's okay. Tell me what you need."
Stephen made a grabby-hand motion at Jon's chest. "P-pull me up?"
With Jon's embrace tightening around his torso, Stephen was able to haul himself upward until he could fall against Jon's chest. "Pants," he gasped against Jon's collar. They were mostly on by now; it was just a matter of hiking the waistband up over his butt. A couple seconds of Stephen lifting his boxer-clad hips off the floor, and Jon had it done.
Clothed, Stephen pressed his face against the front of Jon's threadbare sweatshirt-turned-pajama-top and quivered. "I hate this," he choked, before the tears started.
"I know," whispered Jon, cradling him, kneading the muscles of his back and shoulders. "I know. I'm sorry."
Stephen's whole body — or what was left of it — shuddered in Jon's grip. "Want my arm," he sobbed, clawing desperate handfuls of Jon's shirt.
Everything Jon had heard and read since the night Stephen's blood had sprayed across the stage, the statistics and anecdotes about what was safest, who recovered best, who was most active and had the easiest time coping, collapsed under the heartbreak in his husband's voice. He squeezed his eyes shut, held Stephen until the first wave of grief seemed to ebb, then whispered, "Did I make the wrong choice?"
Stephen had to gulp for air a couple of times before he had the breath to respond. "Wasn't you," he panted. "Don't want a, a no-feeling d-deadweight arm — want it like it was, before I was so s-stupid—!"
"You're not," breathed Jon, as Stephen broke down into a series of little hiccuping sobs. "Not stupid. Can't beat up on yourself like this."
"Stupid!" insisted Stephen in a wail. "Useless — helpless — h-how can you stand me?"
"You're not, you're none of that, and I love you. I love you," said Jon fiercely, because hell, Stephen wasn't the only one who could do the anger-to-fight-back-the-tears trick. "Doesn't matter how much you can do, doesn't matter how many pieces you're in...I will always, always be able to stand you."
Jon slept in. He didn't have to be anywhere until his appearance at a hastily thrown-together stage show to benefit the Report staff during their impromptu vacation, and that wasn't until evening.
When he finally dragged himself out of bed and wandered downstairs, it was still too early for Finn to have shown up, but he was greeted by the fragrance of...was that salmon?
Stephen was standing at the island, a pot of grits bubbling on one of the burners and a pan of salmon fillets sizzling beside it. A neat line of utensils and food items trailed down the counter to his right. He hadn't bothered with the prosthesis; his empty sleeve was still in the knot Jon had tied the night before. When he heard Jon approaching, he glanced up, coughed, and muttered self-consciously, "Jon, will you put some of these things away?"
"Sure," said Jon, blinking back the wonder. "No problem."
Milk and butter went in the fridge, salt and olive oil in the cupboard, used measuring cups in the sink. Stephen switched off the heat under the pan, picked up a sturdy carving fork he'd had waiting, and started calmly hacking the fish into shreds. He was humming under his breath as he worked.
"Anything else?" Jon asked at last, leaning against the counter across from him.
Stephen gave the pot one last stir and held his hand over the steaming dishes, considering. "No, I got this," he decided. After forking the salmon bits into a heap at the edge of the pan, he was able to pick it up and dump the whole thing seamlessly on top of the grits.
Stephen banged the pan back down on the counter with a gasp. "Gonna have to start lifting weights," he muttered.
Jon settled into a chair, rested his chin on his hand, and watched Stephen fill a bowl with grits-and-salmon one careful ladleful at a time. "What's that you were humming?" he asked. "Didn't recognize the song."
"You don't have to tell me," added Jon.
Sticking a spoon in the bowl, Stephen pushed it over to him. "Eat your grits," he said simply.
Gipper wandered in not long after that. Stephen got out the dog biscuits, passed Jon the bag to un-ziploc, and took it back to fumble a few of them out. "I don't like working with the fake arm," he announced with forced briskness, while the old labrador was crunching his treats off the tile. "I want a pretty one to wear on special occasions, but I don't want to have to do stuff with it."
"All right, sir."
Stephen relaxed a fraction. "And I don't want to go back on TV until it's ready," he added. That would be another month or so, while the surgery site finished healing and settling into a final shape to mold the prosthesis against. "But maybe, on Wednesday...my stitches come out on Tuesday, you know...maybe on Wednesday we could ask some people over? Just friends. Just for dinner."
"Any of them would be glad to hear it," Jon assured him. Sam wasn't the only one who had been asking.
"And after that, maybe some appearances." Stephen swirled the grits and salmon in his bowl. "A couple more of these stage things. Once my staff's all taken care of, I could bring some new attention to the WristStrong foundation. This whole thing was basically a derivative of wrist violence, if you think about it."
Jon raised his eyebrows.
"Well, I can't start a whole new campaign at this point," huffed Stephen. "Besides, the name ArmStrong is taken."
Jon settled into a warm smile. "Fair enough."
Stephen hopped off of his stool and circled the island. When Jon moved to get up and join him, a warning tch from Stephen kept him down. So he stayed in place, giving Stephen the opening to come up from behind and mold himself against Jon's back, arm slung over Jon's right shoulder to lace their fingers together and head tucked over his left to form a lopsided more-than-half-hug.
Bringing up his left hand, Jon caressed Stephen's face, completing the circle.
"Someone to need you too much~..." sang Stephen, low and soft even this close to Jon's ear. "Someone to know you too well~ / Someone to pull you up short, and put you through hell, and give you support, for being alive...."
It was the tune he'd been humming. Jon let his eyes fall closed.
"Someone to crowd you with love~ / someone to force you to care," continued Stephen. "Someone to make you come through, who'll always be there —" He tightened his fingers in Jon's. "— as frightened as you, of being alive~ / Being alive...."
He trailed off into silence. The only sound left was his breath (and, across the room, Gipper slupping at his water bowl).
"...is the song from earlier," he said. "So now you know."
The day they brought home the semi-permanent prosthesis, Stephen made Jon carry it across the threshold.
"It's wearing your ring," he pointed out. "You have to do the right thing and make an honest arm of it."
This was patently false. The ring Jon had given Stephen had found its new home on a chain that hung under his shirt. "It's only wearing a molded replica of —"
"Shhh!" hissed Stephen, clapping his hand over Jon's mouth. "It doesn't know that!"
Jon rolled his eyes, but took the arm from Stephen and bore it inside.
In his own home, in front of his own mirrors, Stephen had to put it back on and try it with a dozen different shirts. He could don and doff the harness himself (a figure-eight over his shoulders from behind, with a clasp in the front that could be hooked one-handed), but dealing with sleeves was another matter, so for a while Jon was kept busy pulling fabric up and down his arms.
The prosthesis was mostly hollow, sturdy but light; it was mostly nonfunctional, but the hand had a grip Stephen could adjust and use for simple tasks, about the equivalent of always carrying around a wrench. Its skin was cool and softly rubbery to the touch, and kept startling Jon with how familiar the tones were. If you wanted to get an artificial limb designed for realism, it paid off to have had your whole body catalogued for translation into a Madam Tussaud's figure about six months earlier.
At last Stephen paused between outfits and decided he was done. He fell back onto the bed, unhooked the front of the harness, and slipped his arm out of the loop as he sat up. All that remained above his pants was the white nylon undershirt that kept the harness from chafing, sewn closed on the left to form a gentle socklike liner between his skin and the polyresin socket. When Jon had hung the last of the fashion-show shirts back in the closet, he turned to see Stephen, watching shyly, pat the mattress between his spread knees.
Jon didn't need to be invited twice.
With hands clasped around his torso for support, Stephen could and did kiss Jon with fervent abandon, secure in the knowledge that Jon wouldn't let him lose his balance. For a minute Jon just reveled in the warmth of it: Stephen's fingers curling through his hair, Stephen's mouth soft and yielding under his. Then he tugged gently at the hem of Stephen's shirt. "Can I...?"
It wasn't like they'd been celibate all this time, but whether Stephen was comfortable being shirtless for the occasion was always an open question. Tonight he hesitated, then pulled on Jon's sleeve. "You first."
Jon stripped obligingly out of his own shirt, then slid Stephen's slowly up his chest until the ring dropped down from underneath it. Once the fabric went over his head, Stephen shook it the rest of the way down his arm and tossed it aside unaided. Jon smoothed back his tousled hair, caressed the slope of his neck, and kept the gentle touches moving on down.
Clean as the original tear had been, the new topography under Jon's palm wasn't smooth. It bulged over the knob of Stephen's scapula, dipped underneath where it had pulled inward as the swelling went down, puckered around the line where the stitches had been. Jon went in for another light kiss while tracing the pale curve of the scar.
"Jo-on," complained Stephen, pushing him off with a light shove and scooping up the ring. "Not while this is still on! The chain is an authentic movie prop, and if you get too rowdy and break it you will be in huge trouble."
"Duly noted," said Jon, and lifted the chain (which Stephen had indeed somehow wheedled directly out of Peter Jackson) from his husband's neck. There was plenty of space on the bedside table; Jon let it pool into a gold-glinting heap between Stephen's new arm and his old glasses, then turned his attention back to Stephen and nodded to the molded end of the arm. "Hey, uh, you're gonna wash that thing tonight, right?"
"Eventually!" protested Stephen. "I was kind of in the middle of something! Are you okay with that?"
"Oh, god, more than," said Jon quickly, easing him back onto the bed. "I was just checking."
Stephen stuck out his tongue. "You should know that my phantom hand is flipping you off right now."
After the first three items on the table of contents, Stephen turned to face the final camera.
"We're back on the air after an unplanned break!" he announced, drawing a few premature whoops and smatters of clapping out of the crowd. "And I don't want to make a big deal out of this or anything, but you might notice something a little different...." He beamed. "I lost ten pounds. This...is The Colbert Report!"