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Boys (and Girls) of Summer

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When Stephen is up, he loves everyone.

He flirts shamelessly with his audience; they lap it up. Even the ones who ask embarrassingly critical questions in the pre-show Q&A don't faze him. The regimented routine of the filmings, the way they're screened and filed in and filed out while he's being ushered through hair and makeup and takedown, is only reason he hasn't brought any of them backstage yet. Guests, meanwhile, are just sitting back there all the time, and if they balk at the invitation to some friskiness in the green room he laughs it off as a joke and moves on (it's easy; when he's up he's always fascinated with their book or movie or album or gadget or, hell, their very presence and willingness to say things to him). He dazzles and charms. So far he's never been called on it.

The staff, with few exceptions, never seem to agree that it would be fun to indulge him. It's a bummer. Tad is a very appealing man, but he's not the only one in the office with pillowy lips and soft hair that Stephen just wants to put his hands on.

Stephen's in a great mood when it strikes him that it would be a good idea to kiss Jon. They're at a nice club after hours — he's just won something or other and Jon invited him out to celebrate — when he throws his arms around Jon's neck and goes for it, until all too soon Jon's holding him back and saying, whoa there, buddy, how many have you had? Stephen hasn't even finished his first drink, and is prepared to swear it in front of a judge (Jon assures him he doesn't have to go that far). This was a totally clearheaded flash of inspiration. He's handsome, Jon's handsome, they always have fun together, and, come on, can Jon honestly say he's never thought about it?

Jon can't. But he holds Stephen back anyway, so Stephen pouts, briefly, before letting it go. It's not like he has any shortage of offers. The very next night he picks up a woman who's also smart and funny and has pretty silver hair, and they're beautiful together, mindblowing, leaving such an impression that it's several days before he forgets her name.

Lorraine is aware of her husband's escapades, and tries not to let them bother her. Stephen at his most affectionate has sex the way normal people hug each other, and if there's a way to keep him in check she's given up on finding it. When he does come home to her he emphasizes how much he loves her, even more than he loves everyone in that bar, and she knows he's in earnest and they use protection and it's okay, as far as such things can be.

She wouldn't want Stephen tethered to her all the time anyway. At times like these, he'd either explode with the strain of trying to keep close to her or wear her ragged forcing her to keep up. It's simpler for everybody is if she has the space to keep away from him until it's over.

 

 

Jon shows up at Lorraine's house with a box of the low-fat fudge his girlfriend used to swear by. She's made lasagna, which smells delicious. The table is set for two.

"Thanks for coming," she says, showing him to his seat. "It would be a crime to let this nice dinner go to waste because Stephen couldn't be bothered to show up."

"Happy to help," Jon assures her.

He's wearing a nice shirt and a blazer, hopefully nice enough to be respectable without striking the wrong tone for, well, dinner alone with his best friend's wife. He thinks Lorraine's in casual wear, but the subtleties of fashion are beyond him and he could be wrong. At least her hair's just pulled back in a ponytail, not done up or anything. And he doesn't think she's wearing much makeup, although not many people have the telltale pallor that he sees in the mirror without it.

After a few bites and some small talk, Jon ventures, "Do you have any idea where he is?"

Lorraine shakes her head. "He never calls when he gets like this. Just stumbles in at three AM and crashes for a few hours, if he makes it home at all. He always gets to the office in the morning, though, and his PA lets me know he's there."

"At least he's never gotten himself seriously hurt," says Jon, trying to clear some of the anxiety in the air. He can remember mornings when still-a-correspondent Stephen would shower in the office, and switch into clothes fresh from being purchased only hours before. For a long time he had assumed that Lorraine was throwing Stephen out of the house every once in a while, until the truth finally came together. "Odds are he's doing fine."

"That's true."

They work on their lasagna in silence for a while.

"I wonder who he's with," says Lorraine.

Jon discreetly chokes on his pasta sauce and cheese. He'd known she knew, but he wasn't expecting her to be so casual about it.

He's even more startled (and, fortunately, not eating anything this time) when she adds, "It's never been you, has it?"

"Um," stutters Jon. "I've, you know, kept him company while he's, ah, like this, but I've never, I mean, we haven't...."

"But he's asked," continues Lorraine.

Jon has no idea what she wants out of this. But he knows Stephen keeps secrets like a sieve keeps water, so Lorraine probably knows the answers already; she's testing, maybe, to see if Jon can be trusted. "Yes," he says, as shortly as possible.

Lorraine's staring at her empty plate. "I'm sorry to be so blunt about this."

"Listen, it's not that I don't get why you'd ask," says Jon, fighting a whole lot of reluctance to get the words out. "But I would never take him up on it."

"Which makes you about the only person in the tri-state area who wouldn't," sighs Lorraine. While Jon's still struggling how to answer that one, she adds, "If it's because he's not your type, then please, go ahead and forget about this entire conversation. But if it's any other reason...I just wanted you to know that it would be easier — on me — and probably safer, for him — if, sometimes, you did."

 

 

Stephen has the world's most brilliant idea for a movie script, or possibly a theme park ride, or maybe a line of collectible trading cards, and is fervently explaining the whole thing to Jon. It's hard, because Jon keeps telling him to slow down so Jon can understand what he's saying. Stephen thinks it should be Jon's job to keep up.

"Fine!" he snaps at last, throwing himself out of his chair. "I guess I'll just go find someone who appreciates my creative genius!"

"Stephen, hang on," says Jon, and then there are fingers looping around his wrist, Jon's body close at his side. "Stay with me. Let's...just stick with me tonight, okay?"

"No," huffs Stephen. "Tonight I want someone to listen to me without interrupting all the time, and then I want someone who will let me ride his cock like a drugstore pony, and you are obviously not adequate for either."

Jon searches his eyes for a few intolerable seconds, then rises up on his toes and kisses the corner of Stephen's mouth. "You want to get a hotel room and make sure?"

Stephen shrieks with delight like a child getting a new puppy, and throws himself around his best friend. "Yes yes yes!" he exclaims, rocking his pelvis eagerly against Jon's. "Forget the hotel. Let's do it right here!"

"Not in the office!" orders Jon. "I'll call a car. Grab your stuff. You don't have condoms on you, by any chance? ...No, don't worry about it," he adds, as Stephen starts turning out his pockets. "I've got a couple handy."

This is not the kind of night when Stephen can be contained by seatbelts. He spends most of the car ride straddling Jon's lap, tongue firmly in Jon's mouth. "What made you see the light?" he asks gleefully in one of the moments when his lips are free.

"Couple things your wife said," replies Jon, squeezing his ass through his pants.

Stephen shivers and grinds against him again. "What? What were they?"

"First, that she was okay with it." (Well, Stephen could have told him that.) "Second, that based on things you've said when you're not half out of your mind, she thinks you'll still be okay with it when this wears off."

Stephen bursts out laughing. This is never going to wear off. He could go to the moon on this kind of energy. But Jon has no grasp of the beautiful cosmic forces that Stephen is in tune with right now, so Stephen doesn't bother trying to make him understand, and goes back to kissing him.

 

~§~

 

With the big uncertainty between them settled, Lorraine and Jon might easily have kept their distance from each other. Instead they start to develop a kind of alliance.

It's nothing formal, just the reassurance that comes from a shared understanding, punctuated by the occasional tip-off. He was talking a mile a minute as of breakfast. He spent the last hour on YouTube, mainlining kitten videos and barely cracking a smile. He broke one of his expensive gadgets at work today; threw it against a wall. Just thought you might want to know.

 

~§~

 

When Stephen's down, he comes straight home and clings.

The audience still loves him, but it's fake and shallow and paper-thin, and he can't tell if they just have no idea what he's really like or know full well and are doing this to mock him. He's awful to Lorraine, if she had any sense she'd leave him, and she has so much sense, certainly more than he does, so she's bound to disappear any minute, right? He follows her around the house, lurking wherever she's working to make sure she hasn't evaporated. She repeats with quiet regularity that yes, she still loves him.

Sometimes he tries to help with whatever she's doing, but he's clumsy and stupid and always three or four steps behind. One time she asks him to chop zucchini for a salad, and he gets half a dozen uneven and mismatched slices before staring hopelessly at the cutting board and bursting into tears. She takes away the knife, and hasn't given him any tasks with sharp edges since.

She can't stay in with him every night. (He knows that, he shouldn't push her about it, there's a whole world out there of people so much more interesting and worthwhile and happy—) She has parties, dinner with friends, events to attend; she reminds him about the phone numbers to call in an emergency and sets him up with a marathon of The Bachelor and is off.

One weekend he's been lying on the couch for a couple of hours, a football game on in the background (he isn't taking in a word of it, isn't even sure if it's the same game that was playing when he got here), Lorraine says, will you be okay if I go out? He shrugs (the motion is exhausting). So she touches his forehead and says, I'm going to ask Jon if he can come over.

 

 

Jon brings a couple cans of soda, nothing alcoholic, and puts on the first-season box set of Game of Thrones. Even when the real world is flattening him just by existing, Stephen knows his fantasy worlds backwards and forwards, and can rouse his voice to explain intricacies of the backstory that Jon is struggling to follow.

He's still stretched across the couch under an afghan, but now his head is resting in Jon's lap.

It helps. It doesn't make him feel less awful, but it makes him less alone while feeling it. It even helps him track the action: Jon tenses and grumbles and gasps at the screen, providing emotional subtitles for the things Stephen wouldn't have been able to interpret on his own.

The latest episode cuts to the credits, which Jon mutes because the music is always way too loud. Stephen takes the opportunity. "I'm really glad you're here."

Jon strokes his hair. (It's greasy, it must be, he has to notice. Stephen showered yesterday, but that feels like about a year ago.) "I'm glad I'm here too."

"I should...I want to do something. To thank you," adds Stephen haltingly. What he should do is invite Jon back to bed, because that's about the only thing he can imagine Jon wanting that he's smart enough and stable enough to offer.

"Shhh. Don't worry about that, okay? If you want to do something when you're feeling better, we'll talk about it then."

Sex right now feels like so much work, though. Maybe Jon could bring himself off, and get to hold and kiss Stephen while doing it? Would that make it better for him? Or would he just be put off the wreck that Stephen is right now?

"We've hit the end of the disc. You want to take a break for dinner?"

Stupid. Of course he'd be put off. Why would Jon put up with someone like Stephen for anything less than mindblowing sex? He can't give Jon commitment or consistency, any more than he can Lorraine. Even less so, in fact, since the few paltry vows he's managed to keep are all Lorraine's, which means that offering the same to Jon would wreck it for both of them.

"Stephen? Are you hearing me?"

"I'm sorry," says Stephen weakly.

"It's okay. You didn't do anything wrong."

He didn't do anything right, either. He's worthless. Helpless. A few hot tears run sideways down his face, soaking in where his cheek is pressed against Jon's pant leg.

"Hey, now. Easy there. It's gonna be fine." Jon threads his fingers through Stephen's awful unstyled hair. "Stay right here for a couple minutes. I'm going to get up and get some food, and then we're both going to have some. You don't have to eat much, just get some vitamins in you."

Okay. He's giving directions. Stephen can handle those. Much easier than making decisions on his own, or believing Jon's reassurances...and besides, following Jon's directions is one way he can show that he's grateful. "I'll eat."

 

~§~

 

When he gets the diagnosis, and the prescription, it's Lorraine who makes sure he takes the pills.

Now that she's thinking of change as possible, it turns out there's a whole list of things she wants the meds to fix. She fights to keep her expectations in check. This whole time she's thought of her husband as basically the person he appeared to be when they first met, just caught up in an unpredictable whirlwind of brilliant, volatile, heartbreaking moods and habits that have grown over the years. If they can pare away the layers that were only produced or exacerbated by brain chemistry gone wrong, she's bound to find out that some of the elements she'd thought of as "extra" aren't going anywhere.

He described himself as straight when they met. Part of her feels stupid for only questioning that now.

 

 

Jon listens, provides an extra sounding board for Stephen's moods as they settle into new patterns, and feels horribly selfish that he's less than perfectly enthusiastic about what might come of it.

Even if Stephen's bi (which is very likely; the way he approaches sex with men rings differently to Jon than any of his more transient manic obsessions), that doesn't mean he has to be active about it. Once he develops the impulse control to rein himself in from having affairs — which, let's face it, Jon still is, albeit the most well-coordinated one — he'll be able to settle comfortably back into his wedding vows, where Jon knows he's wished he could stay all along. Unless Stephen was never able to fit those vows in the first place, and the disorder has been a convenient mask for that all along...in which case, when the dust settles, he might end up with Jon. But that would break both Stephen's and Lorraine's hearts, and shatter her partnership (friendship?) with Jon, and he can't see any of them walking away from that happy.

Every time a bright-eyed Stephen shyly describes being attracted to someone, even flirting, but being able to stop there (he doesn't torture Lorraine with this stuff, only Jon and the therapist), Jon tells him that sounds promising, and tries not to draw his attention to the incongruity the next time Jon takes him home for the evening.

 

~§~

 

Stephen's...okay.

He isn't sure he knows how to be just "okay."

But the show keeps coming together. He'd go off the meds in a heartbeat if it seemed to be suffering, but so far, so good. Not only that, he's starting to think the staff are happier, and one day he realizes he's actually finished a couple of those long-term projects he's been dreaming of for years, instead of abandoning them halfway through when he gets distracted by an even better idea or gives the whole thing up as pointless.

He's not missing so many parties, or awards shows, or friendly get-togethers. He's not getting himself uninvited from so many get-togethers by disappearing for half an hour with the hostess' cousin, or starting a (mock) (usually) fight that ends up with someone tipping over the buffet table.

Sex with Jon isn't as explosive, but it sticks with him longer. Jon talks to him after (and before...and during), and he can hold on to that longer too. It's been a while since he's had the energy to get up in the middle of the night and rearrange all of Jon's closets for maximum efficiency and style-consciousness, but Jon hasn't complained about his slacking, so he figures he won't look a gift horse in the mouth.

Sex with Lorraine is...nice. He's had better. He'd rather spend more fully-clothed time with her, be it out and about or just around the house, and he adores that she's allowing it more often. The first time they successfully team up in the kitchen long enough to make zucchini bread, the way she looks at him when they've gotten the pan in the oven, that's magical.

 

 

One night, long after Stephen's breathing has gone soft and even, Jon whispers I love you against the back of his neck. Had to get it out some time.

The next morning, while Jon's shaving, a still-scruffy Stephen calls his wife. "Hi, honey. Yes, I'm fine, didn't get in any trouble, didn't cause any property damage, didn't wake up in a stranger's bathtub. Oh, come on, you know I haven't gone running around on you in ages. I'm still right here at Jon's."

There's a long pause while that one lands.

"Uh-huh," says Stephen at last. "Yes. Okay. Yes, I do. ...Any time. Yes! Can we make spaghetti? Okay. Yeah, I'll ask. Of course! See you then."

He puts the phone away and joins Jon. "You're invited over for dinner tonight," he announces, pulling out the spare razor he's been keeping over Jon's sink. "Lor wants to talk to you."

"Yeah," sighs Jon. "I figured that was coming."

Stephen considers him for a minute. "Jon? You know how when I was up I would have hundreds of great ideas, and there wasn't ever time to do them all properly, and sometimes I'd get pretty far into one and it would turn out to be not such a great idea after all?"

Jon offers him a rueful smile. Their relationship being Exhibit A, presumably. He gets it. "Kind of hard to forget."

It hits a little harder than he meant it to, but Stephen doesn't go down so far these days, and absorbs the implicit disapproval without crumpling.

"Listen, Stephen...if this is it for us, I just want you to know, it's been...a privilege," adds Jon. "Even if it wasn't always fun. I'm really glad I could be there for you, and no matter how this ends, I'd do it all over in a heartbeat."

"Who says anything's ending?"

Jon blinks at him.

"What I was saying," continues Stephen, "is that you really were. A great idea, I mean. And I think Lorraine thinks so too, although it's hard to tell, because people's actual emotions are confusing, but I know she likes you, and you like her too, right? So you can stop moping around like me in the winter now. I don't know what we're going to do either, but we're definitely going to come up with something."

 

 

Stephen refuses to touch even the low-calorie fudge, claiming it'll go straight to his hips and ruin his chances at making Maxim's 100 Hottest Women again. Jon earnestly tries to convince Lorraine that Game of Thrones isn't so bad, and that she should at least watch long enough to be able to appreciate her husband's favorite character, who has depth and subtlety and isn't just Stephen's favorite because she has dragons, honest.

When they get in front of the TV Stephen stretches across them like a cat, feet in Jon's lap, head in Lorraine's. She puts up with it for the first episode, then pushes him up. "You need to change position now. My leg's falling asleep."

Stephen makes wounded-puppy eyes at her. "Jon's leg never falls asleep."

Jon swoops in and defuses the tension almost before it can start. "Yeah, it does. I'm just a pushover who lets you get away with it."

Lorraine throws him a thankful smile over Stephen's head. Jon was shyer than usual when he got here, and she wasn't exactly a model of confidence herself, but after she got through telling Stephen it looks like we can't have the marriage everyone expects, but I like the one we've ended up in, and would like to keep it, if that's not too weird, they seem to be settling back into quiet understanding again.

It's...nice. A comfortable balance. Would've been a crime to let it go to waste.

With a theatrical groan, Stephen slumps across Jon's legs. "That's it! You're my new favorite. Pack my things, Lor, I'm moving into Jon's apartment. Well, not all my things. I'll need a toothbrush for the nights I come back. And some changes of clothes. And...."

"Pack them yourself," chides Lorraine. "You'll come crying back to me after three days of Jon never managing to put his clothes in the hamper, I guarantee it."

Jon starts. "How did you know...?"

"I may have mentioned it once or twice," mumbles Stephen, shifty-eyed.

"You never complain to me about her," grumbles Jon.

"I'm complaining right now! She won't let me lie on her lap! It's cruel, I tell you."

"Oh, get up, you." Jon gives him a push. "I'm done letting you take advantage of my good nature. And you can't move in with me, you'd drive me crazy when you started doing stuff like rearranging all the silverware again."

Lorraine frowns at her husband. "You've never rearranged our silverware."

"Of course not!" says Stephen. "Ours makes sense. That's why I rearranged Jon's to match it."

They eventually start the second episode, which Lorraine has decided is worth giving a chance after all. At first Stephen is sitting up nicely on the middle couch cushion, but halfway through the credits he starts to slide like melting butter, and a few scenes later he's solidly in Jon's lap again. Jon curls his fingers through Stephen's hair and leans in to explain a subtlety of the storyline that Lorraine had completely missed. And she thinks that if she had the choice, if she could trade in Stephen's newfound relative sanity for the heterosexuality he'd passed off so convincingly all these years, she wouldn't have to think twice about keeping things exactly like this.