It wasn't like Jon was looking for excuses to go to Stephen's place, or anything. He wouldn't have knocked on Stephen's door late in the evening for some trivial, transparently meaningless pretext. But while he was straightening up after the Fourth of July party, he found Stephen's fifth tackiest star-spangled hat in the closet, and what was he supposed to do — make Stephen wait all the way until Monday to get it back?
...Okay, yeah, Jon was looking for excuses.
But he had a good reason! Namely, that over the past few months Stephen had stopped coming up with transparently meaningless pretexts for them to see each other. If Jon didn't pick up the slack, he might never make his way into Stephen's heart.
(Or pants.) (Mostly heart, but.)
He texted Stephen to suggest the hat ploy, and got a reply within minutes: yes, Jon should bring it to his apartment immediately. And then go away. Which would have been upsetting from pretty much anyone else, but with Stephen it was pretty much his shouty baseline.
So Jon took the elevator up to Stephen's floor and let himself in, armed with the hat and three separate jokes about how for him this was serious exercise.
The entrance hall was empty. Which is to say, it was filled with the kinds of gaudy junk Stephen loved, but completely empty of Stephen.
Jon put the hat on the nearest shelf next to a plastic statue of an eagle, highlighted in faint gold from the last bars of the summer sunset. Then he changed his mind and put it over the plastic eagle's head. It balanced on the outstretched molded wings like a bad cartoon metaphor. "Stephen! I'm here."
Jon took a few steps in, listening for any signs of life. He really thought, going by the text, that Stephen was at this place tonight. "Stephen? Lor? Gipper...?"
A muffled Stephenish yell, from somewhere in the depths of the apartment.
"Didn't catch that!" called Jon. "Are you okay?" What if Stephen had fallen on the stairs and thrown out his back in the five minutes it had taken Jon to get down here? It was the kind of ridiculous coincidence Jon wouldn't put past him.
That got him a slightly-more-coherent yell, some rattling and banging noises (banging like a door, not like Sweetness), and finally Stephen's familiar tread on the carpet in the next room. It stopped on the far side of the wall. "You brought the hat back? Okay? Great! You can go now."
"Uh, sure." Jon started retracing his steps backward, frowning. "Stephen, is anything wrong? I mean, if I'm interrupting something I'll go, but you've got me worried, here."
It must have touched the right nerve, because that brought Stephen out into the front hall...glowering, eyes narrowed. Probably because he wasn't wearing his glasses. In fact, a loose beige nightgown-y thing was all he had on. "I'm fine, stop worrying, just go home. Go on, get."
He didn't slow down as he got a hand on Jon's shoulder and pushed Jon back toward the elevator, pausing just long enough to squint at the shelves.
"You obviously need your rest, there are these huge bags under your eyes...where did you put my hat?"
"Over there." Jon waved. "On the...."
He was cut off by a noise that could only be described as sci-fi. Like a sparkle effect on top of a vworpp!
"Goddammit!" yelled Stephen, stamping his bare foot.
"What was that? What just happened?" Jon looked wildly around for the transporter beam, or the lightsaber, or whatever it was that had just switched on. It took him a few seconds, because the whatever-it-was turned out to be directly behind him: a forcefield, shimmery and blue, blocking the elevator from wall to wall.
"We're both shut in now, that's what happened," said Stephen darkly. "I set it to kick in a minute before sunset, which should have left you plenty of time, but noooo, you had to hang around and make small talk."
Jon felt his brain skipping, like a broken record, over all the bits of this that made no sense. At last he stammered, "Why are you forcefielding yourself indoors during the night?"
Stephen rolled his eyes. "Not every night, obviously. Just the full moon. I'm about eighty percent sure I'm a werewolf."
Jon was still mumbling something about werewolves not being real — "How do you know, Jon? Have you ever not seen one?" — as Stephen steered him toward the den. It had a full snack cupboard, an attached bathroom, and, most importantly, a lock. A hapless human could spend the night on the couch in there, with any vicious bloodthirsty monsters safely outside.
If Stephen was a werewolf, he would obviously be the vicious kind.
"The last couple full-moon nights, I've blacked out and woken up naked on the floor," he said, by way of exposition. "My clothes were ripped, other stuff was broken, and there were new scratches in the paneling. I'm talking quality paneling, Jon. The classiest fake wood texture you can buy! I Skyped Lorraine, and she said it definitely sounded like a long Russian word that means werewolf, although I didn't let her watch while I possibly-transformed. You know, in case Obama's NSA was tapping the feed."
Honestly, Stephen couldn't have landed a better wife than Lorraine if he'd made one up. She made him look convincingly heterosexual, without needing him to have sex or anything icky like that. All she asked was a marriage-based citizenship and a little respect for her degree in the non-reality-based sciences, which as far as Stephen was concerned were the only sciences worth doing.
"So what you're saying is...there aren't any witnesses," said Jon, latching on to the absolute least relevant detail here.
"What are you implying, Jon?"
"I'm not implying anything! And on another note, uh, have you been drinking more than usual lately?"
"No! Well, yes. But it's not related!"
They reached the den. Jon insisted on stopping in the doorway. "Have you been alone a lot? Where's Gipper? Has Lor been home at all recently?"
"Gipper is at the Montclair house with a very nice dogsitter, and Lorraine is, I don't know, Nevada or someplace. Call her if you want." Stephen leaned on Jon's side. When it didn't work right away, he considered the merits of strategic elbow use. "But do it from in here. I might be getting sharp and furry any minute now."
"I didn't bring my phone! I assumed I wouldn't need it during the five minutes I was planning to be out of my apartment." In spite of his unreasonably cranky tone, Jon backed into the den, saving Stephen the trouble of stomping on his feet until he moved. "Can I borrow yours?"
Stephen shut the door on him. "I'll slide it under in a few minutes! Assuming I still have a human consciousness. And opposable thumbs."
It said a lot about how long Jon had known Stephen that he didn't go straight back out to fiddle with the forcefields as soon as Stephen's footsteps were out of earshot. Instead he double-checked that the bathroom had toilet paper, then started folding out the couch.
It wouldn't be the first night he'd crashed at Stephen's place, or vice versa. And hey, at least it was more hospitable than the time he'd gotten locked overnight in the leftmost Starbucks under Stephen's desk.
("Why didn't you ask the lost tribe of Israel for a spare tent?" Stephen had asked, when he let Jon out. "They're your people, they should've had your back!" He was unimpressed with the explanation that Jon hadn't been able to find any lost tribes of Israel: "I know they're down there somewhere. Next time, look for the pyramids.")
He got the idea to program the TV to switch on in the morning, as a substitute for the alarm clock that would be playing Springsteen to his empty bedroom tomorrow, and was so absorbed in the task that he completely tuned out the noise in the hall.
A scratch at the door caught his ear. Jon instinctively got up to answer, knowing that Gipper was allowed everywhere in the apartment except the Emmy display room. It wasn't until his hand was on the knob that he remembered the dog was supposed to be in Jersey tonight.
"Stephen?" he said uncertainly.
Outside the room, low to the floor, something whined.
Every horror movie Jon had ever seen flashed helpfully through his mind. This was the point in the script where the most-doomed character would say something like ha ha, Stephen, quit crawling around making doggy noises to scare me!, and five seconds later get brutally mauled while the rest of the cast screamed and fled for the next part of the set.
On the other hand...whatever genre Stephen lived in, it was the kind where things usually worked out by the end. As long as Jon helped him when he needed it.
Trying to cover all his bases, Jon scanned the room for something that could pass as a religious symbol. More whining outside, a little snuffling, the click of doggy feet on the floorboards. He armed himself with a special-edition boxset of Jesus Christ Superstar, and cracked the door.
A big shaggy wolf, its head on a level with Jon's waist, looked up at him with pitiful honey-brown eyes.
Stephen's eyes. No question about it. Jon would know them anywhere, in any face.
Besides, it was still wearing Stephen's beige nightgown.
The wolf whimpered again and scratched at the fabric, which was already shredded down the front. Jon dropped to his knees and put down the DVD. "Hey, Stephen. Hey, buddy. You remember who I am? I can get that off, if you promise not to bite."
He raised a slow, nonthreatening hand toward the collar, which had been unbuttoned and loose on Stephen-the-human, but looked uncomfortably taut around the wolf's furry neck. Stephen tracked the hand with his eyes, sniffed it, seemed cautiously accepting...then raised the corners of his mouth when Jon went closer, showing off some impressive fangs.
"It's okay, boy. It's fine. Not gonna hurt you." Jon backed off, part of him marveling at how easy a mental shift it was to address Stephen like a nervous dog. "I can take your shirt off. That's what you want, right? Like this."
He grabbed a handful of the back of his own T-shirt. Good thing it was July, because this demonstration would get a lot more confusing if he'd been dressed for the depths of winter.
Stephen-the-wolf watched with narrowed eyes as Jon pulled it over his head and let it fall in a soft grey heap next to them. Werewolves were supposed to be more intelligent than normal canines, right? Did he get it?
Stephen bent his front legs and sank down to present Jon with the back of his neck.
Oh, good, he got it.
The Person took the Hateful Thing away!
There wasn't usually a Person, so Stephen hadn't been sure what to make of it. Even though it smelled like it went with all his other favorite smells — like it belonged here. Now at last he knew: the Person was Friendly.
"Whoa, okay, easy boy." The Person made a lot of noises as Stephen licked its face. "You're not so scary after all, huh? Guess I can sleep in a normal bed after all. Heck, I could sleep in your bed."
It scratched around and behind Stephen's ears. That sure did feel good. Stephen thumped his tail against the floor.
"You like that? Maybe, if you woke up and figured we'd already...I mean, if you thought the ice had been broken...nah, you'd probably still freak out. Although, hey, at least you haven't been avoiding me because of gay panic, you've been avoiding me because of furry panic. I still have a shot! Assuming you haven't eaten me by morning...y'know what, let's go check whether you have food."
The Person got up and started moving. At first Stephen followed, in case it was going somewhere interesting. Then they went through a room with a window, and he sensed Enemies outside, so obviously he had to stop and Howl.
"I don't know if you should be getting up on the chairs like that," noised the Person. "I feel like, uh, morning-you won't be happy about it."
Stephen ignored it. If it wanted to join the Howl, it would have to be louder.
He let off a couple of good barking yowls into the night, and didn't stop until a whole chorus of canines had joined in, plus some less-familiar creatures that he was happy to dub honorary canines because of how loudly they honked. It was a good Howl.
Once he was satisfied that their Enemies had gotten the message, he trotted off to find out why something smelled delicious.
Turned out the Person was putting lots of tasty shredded prey in a bowl. Stephen got up on his hind legs for a closer sniff, balancing on his front paws on the counter.
"Hey, careful, I'm gonna put it on the ground in a — good lord, you really are huge. Uh, no offense. I just mean, I think you're taller now than you were as a human...which means that sure, you can eat wherever you want." The Person sighed. "There are a whole lot of jokes I could make right now, but you'd have to be verbal to appreciate them."
It showed it was Friendly again by respecting Stephen's right to eat first. It even scratched behind his ears some more. Stephen thumped his tail, this time against the Person's leg.
Jon got his chance to fiddle with the barriers after all. It got him absolutely nowhere. They were probably coded to Stephen's fingerprints, or something. Trust Stephen to pick the most inconvenient times to do something sensible.
The cell phone Stephen had been trying to retrieve when his hands went MIA was in Stephen's bedroom, as Jon found out when it broke into a loud chorus of "All The Single Ladies." (Yes, that was the ringtone for his wife calling, and no, he hadn't chosen it to be ironic. Stephen wouldn't know irony if it whacked him with a two-by-four.) The phone was also set to respond to Stephen's fingerprints, but if those didn't work it would unlock for a four-digit code. Jon guessed "1776" and it opened right up.
"Lor? Hey, it's Jon. Stephen's, uh, indisposed right now."
"Ah!" said Lorraine, in her vaguely Slavic accent. "I forget, is very late in New York. He is [something indecipherable], yes?"
"If that's the long Russian word that means werewolf, yeah." Across the apartment, Stephen started howling again. "That's him now. Any advice? As long as it doesn't require us to get anything in the studio, because we're kinda locked in."
"Oh, I have cure. Highly effective chant. Can be done remotely. Is he friendly, or does he bite?"
"Totally friendly," said Jon, relaxing. Technology, that was the real magic here. Any expert in the not-quite-sciences could break a curse, but in the olden days you couldn't do it long-distance over satellite. "A little growling when I make him nervous, that's all. Mostly he's a big puppy dog. Would you believe it, he was so worried about being dangerous, he didn't just lock the doors, he set the forcefields to come on all night...."
"Forcefields are up?" cut in Lorraine. "You know this is to keep him in? Not to keep other things out?"
The hairs on the back of Jon's neck stood on end. "Uh, he said it was for him. I didn't get much of a chance to quiz him before he went wolf."
"Do other things know there is wolf in residence?"
Jon winced. The howling probably carried for blocks — he was sure he'd heard it before, come to think of it, just assumed it was somebody's dog. There were probably other things listening in, with a more sophisticated ear than his. "If they didn't before, I bet a bunch of them have figured it out."
"I will leave him wolf tonight," decided Lorraine. "As long as he is not dangerous to you, is good to have him dangerous in general. Perhaps make sacrifice to comedy gods for protection. I call back tomorrow."
She had already hung up.
"This is just not my night," muttered Jon.
After the second Howl, the Enemies seemed to have learned their lesson and gone away. Stephen prowled around his territory for a while, double-checking that everything smelled on the up-and-up.
Mostly it did. Eventually he smelled smoke.
Stephen followed his nose to the living room, where the Person had lit a small fire in a pan. He whuffed in disapproval from a safe distance.
The Person made more noises. "Hi again. I hope you weren't saving these candles for an important birthday or something. They were the only ones I could find, except for the fancy ones with pictures of saints or whatever, and I wasn't sure it was smart to go mixing religions like that."
It sounded reassuring. And it didn't seem to be on fire. Stephen trotted closer.
"I'm almost certain Lor was messing with me," continued the Person. "But then, earlier this evening I was almost certain you had gone way up the wrong creek...which, to be fair, is a thing you do...and then you got all fangs-and-ears on me. So I'm gonna play it safe. I mean, relatively safe. I did pull the batteries out of your smoke detectors first."
It held a piece of paper over the flame. Stephen jerked back in distrust as the page flared bright, showing his teeth just in case.
Fortunately for the paper, it didn't attack. The flames were too small to be warm, which was good on an already-hot summer night, and the scent of the smoke wasn't bad. Once you got used to it, it blended with the smell of the Person in a way that was kind of nice.
Stephen flopped heavily down on the carpet next to the Person, letting himself relax.
The Person kept making quiet noises as the smoke rose up, and burnt flakes of ash drifted into the bottom of the pan. "This is like one of those, whatchacallits, ancestral memories. Something we were all doing ten thousand years ago, so it feels right, you know, in our DNA. Just a guy and his dog, sitting around the fire...."
Something hit the window with a THUMPzap!-flash.
The Person squawked in alarm, while Stephen sat bolt upright, ears pricked — but it didn't smell like an Enemy, or a thing to be scared of. Probably just some dumb prey flying into the wall. He relaxed.
When the Person kept smelling like fear and panting like it had to flee, Stephen scooted over to it and licked its face.
"Whoo boy. You think that was nothing, huh? How sure are you? No offense, but I'm gonna go lock myself in the guest room and hide under the covers."
Ten minutes later, Jon unlocked the room before Stephen-the-wolf could scratch right through the door.
He stepped daintily up onto the mattress next to Jon, turned around in a circle three times, and flopped down right across Jon's legs.
"Oh, come on," muttered Jon. "I know you're too big to get banished to Gipper's doggie bed, but this is ridiculous. What if my legs fall asleep? What if I have to pee in the middle of the night? And you know you're gonna yell at me about this in the morning."
One of Stephen's ears twitched — they were lopsided even in this form, which was adorable — but he showed no interest in moving.
"At least...let...me...." Jon could stretch just far enough to grab the phone.
Stephen sniffed the device, relaxed when he evidently realized it wasn't edible, then did his jump-and-whuff-in-surprised-disapproval routine when it flashed.
"Oh, don't get mad, it's a photo," said Jon. "You love being in those. I promise."
The spasms and throes of Stephen's transformation woke Jon up long before any alarm. He scrambled back against the head of the bed — he could hear bones cracking and muscles seizing, the last thing he wanted to do was kick something out of place while it was still realigning — then tossed the sheet over Stephen for modesty as the last of the fur melted away.
At last the heaving breaths of Stephen's chest were the only thing left of the physical chaos. Everything outside was still cool pre-dawn grey, almost silent except for the baseline beeps of traffic and the occasional overachieving early bird.
Stephen picked up a corner of the sheet and slowly, cautiously moved it sideways until he could see who was in bed with him. "Hi?"
"Hey," said Jon muzzily. Definitely Jon. Scruffy, tousled, in a T-shirt and boxers, Jon. "Remember anything?"
"Hah!" exclaimed Stephen. Very convincing, he thought. Didn't sound terrified at all. "If something happened, which it did, that led to me waking up naked in bed with you, which I..." He took a quick peek under the sheet. "...am, and I just forgot, why, that would be...that would be ungentlemanly."
"It was the werewolf thing," said Jon in a hurry. "Lor says she has a fix, but didn't want to use it in the middle of the night for reasons, and in the meantime you really wanted to sleep here."
"Oh." Stephen tried not to look relieved. Then he tried to decide if he felt relieved.
"I got pictures," added Jon, waving vaguely at the phone.
He ducked out for a bathroom break, leaving Stephen to sit up, wrapping the sheets around him like a pastel monk, and look through the evidence. When Jon got back, Stephen was still looking at the photo of a himself as a giant wolf. He looked appropriately terrifying, all right. Sleepy but terrifying.
"I think I might remember things after all," he said slowly. Now that he had visuals to work with, they were jogging memories in other senses. "Just...mostly as smell?" He wrinkled his nose. "Was something on fire?"
Jon scratched his neck, looking sheepish. "I, uh, made a burnt offering of one-liners."
"Are you making some convoluted pun about comedy roasts?"
"...listen, the important thing is, I did not take advantage of you while you were indisposed."
"Of course not!" exclaimed Stephen. "See previous comments about being ungentlemanly."
Jon took a half step toward the bed, rocked back on his heels, moved his hands like he wasn't sure where to put them. At last he folded his arms loosely across his stomach and said, "Stephen, you know...if you ever want me to take...."
The answer was out of Stephen's mouth before his sense of self-preservation had a chance to catch up: "I know."
His grip on the phone tensed, eyes focusing on a particularly fascinating spot on the wallpaper. It would be very reasonable of Jon to take that as an invitation. And maybe, if they just went for it without Stephen taking the time to psych himself up first, he would realize afterward that he hadn't needed to? But his skin still didn't feel like it was on quite right, and he had no idea if Jon's touch would make that better or worse....
"Yeah, all right," said Jon gently. "Listen, I gotta go home and get dressed, but after that, do you want to grab coffee?"
Jon was already in the lobby when Stephen swished out onto the carpet, his outfit topped with a flag-patterned baseball cap. Not as flashy as the hat he'd gotten returned last night, but it still put Jon's simple Mets logo to shame. He held up a finger for Jon to wait while he finished a conversation, then pocketed his phone and hopped down the last few stairs to reach Jon's side.
"Lor did the chant," he reported, as they emerged into the warm summer morning. "From now on, barring any future accidents, I should be furry-little-problem-free. And totally uninteresting to any Werewolf Enemies lurking in New York."
"Oh, good," said Jon, falling into step beside him without having to think about it. "Although I'm pretty sure you had nothing to worry about there. The biggest threat we had all night was a bird hitting the —"
He walked right into Stephen's suddenly-outstretched arm, and stopped with an oof.
There was a lumpy soot-black figure on the curb just ahead of them, something he'd mistaken for a trash bag in his peripheral vision, especially since it was too big to be a bird. But on a more direct look, it had feathers. And fur. And...fingers?
"I'll just call the Illuminati and have them pick that up," said Stephen in a strained voice.
"Sounds like a plan." Jon put a hand on Stephen's waist to guide him away. And if his touch lingered a bit longer than necessary, well, he had a feeling they could both use it. "In the meantime...maybe we should get the other kind of coffee. You know, the kind they make in the other direction."