The club was all pulsing red-and-gold lights between dark shadows, packed with industry people and a smattering of press, no more than a dozen teenagers to be found in the whole place. Brian ushered Shout*For up onto the club's stage, where he tapped the mic to get people's attention. Someone raised the lights on the platform; someone else cut the sound of the new album blaring over the speakers.
Jon barely heard how Brian introduced them. His mind was too full of the echoes of Stephen's utter confusion that afternoon.
Jon, what's going on? What happened?
Everything kind of cuts out.
If I said something...I didn't mean it. Probably.
Stephen was a champion of stubborn denial when he didn't want to deal with something, but it was always easy to see through him. There was no way he could be this convincing if it wasn't genuine. He didn't even remember getting up in the middle of the night, let alone...let alone doing anything that might leave Jon rattled and uncertain.
Maybe that was for the best? If Jon could shake it off and act like nothing had happened, and as far as Stephen was concerned nothing had happened....
You promise not to take advantage of me, right?
And Jon hadn't (had he?) — at least, he'd had every intention not to —
"What do you say, gentlemen?" asked Brian, breaking into Jon's thoughts. "Can you do a song for us?"
Stephen stepped over to take the microphone, cocking one eyebrow with an air of great solemnity. "I don't know, Brian," he said, voice down in the most serious part of his range. "Can you give us a beat?"
The live song — no instruments, just singing along with one of their karaoke tracks, so they could do all the dance moves — was evidently going to be the high point of Stephen's night.
Plenty of people wanted to congratulate the band, shaking hands and, in the cases of executive types who didn't work with them on a regular basis, asking for autographs ("for my daughter/niece/best friend's kid/bedroom shrine"). That was nice, no question, but Stephen kept looking over their shoulders — their families had all been invited, after all — until Papa pulled him aside and let him know that no, Mama couldn't make it (and Ed had a case, and Elizabeth had to go back home, and, and, and).
He made Olivia eat some pretzels and trail mix, and then danced with her. That was all right. Even though the soundtrack was 100% music he had spent the summer working on, and while it was nice to hear what the final effects and autotuning sounded like, he would have been able to appreciate them just a teeny bit better better with a longer break before having to hear them again.
Ned, who Stephen had really hoped would get the flu or something and not be able to make it, found him after a couple of tracks and explained that he needed to do some networking. The executive types were starting to get tipsy by this point, just enough that they were thrilled to talk to Stephen again, absolutely thrilled, and yes, they were sure to have opportunities for him. Stephen shook a lot of hands. Ned wrote down a lot of numbers, and guided Stephen from person to person with a hand on the small of his back.
At last Stephen got out of it by spotting Jimmy's older sister and declaring that he'd promised her a dance too. She was happy to play along. Must run in the family, Stephen decided, those being-a-good-friend genes.
They retreated to the VIP room afterward, where the music was slightly less pounding and the guests limited to the talent, their immediate families, and a tiny handful of essential extras. Brian was there, chatting with a woman in a power suit that Stephen vaguely recognized from other big events. Ned would probably come in later.
He wanted to sit and chat with Jimmy, but Jimmy was busy getting his ear talked off by Olivia's new film co-star...what's-her-face. Stephen joined their table anyway, and was treated to a long and detailed rant about how Serita Singh was a terrible career-sabotaging glory-hounding snake-in-the-grass who had it in for...not-Jackie-Clarke. When he finally asked if she could please remind him of her name, she stormed off in a huff.
"Jaquie Brown," said Jimmy, "with a Q, for some reason. How's your night going?"
"Amazing. Wonderful. A fabulous moment that makes me so proud we got here," said Stephen automatically. "Is it midnight yet?"
Jimmy handed him a menu. "Not even close. On the plus side, it looks like they have really good chicken wings. Want to split a plate?"
Stephen did. He also had a feeling Jon would be hungry by now. But when he scanned the VIP room, Jon was nowhere to be seen, and he didn't want to hunt through the entire body of the club looking.
"Sure," he decided. If Jon came in later, they could always offer him some.
Olivia, who had never heard most of these songs before, danced with whoever was interested until a man three times her age tried to shimmy up a little too close to her. Then it seemed like a good time to chill in the VIP room for a while.
Somehow she ended up getting introduced to Tucker's family. His little brother was all over the place, but his parents seemed like decent people, albeit sort of put off by her total new-money non-coolness. (Or maybe she just hadn't totally sobered up yet?) (Anyway, apparently Tucker was the heir to the corporate fortune of the company that invented the TV dinner, so at least if this singing thing didn't work out, he had a backup plan.)
Finally, finally, she got her hands on the dessert menu (courtesy of Serita Singh, who was Olivia's new favorite person, seriously), and what had Stephen been thinking, trying to make her eat pretzels? If he'd wanted her to get some food in her stomach, all he had to do was point out the seven-layer cookie bars, walnut-blueberry-citrus cheesecake, and chocolate-caramel tarts topped with sugared banana slices. Yeesh.
Speaking of dessert, one of the older lady VIPs looked way similar to one of the proprietors of her favorite pie place. Except that her smile was unnervingly sharp, in spite of the half-empty glass of champagne in her hand. Also, her suit was way more expensive than anything Jane would wear.
Olivia decided it would be rude to ask if they were estranged sisters or whatever, and settled in to ordering one of everything. As each dessert arrived, she snapped a photo to be sent to Kristen. The caption on all of them: You think we can get Gloria & Jane to make one of these?
And hey, since she was having so much food anyway....
When Olivia took a seat at the bar next to him and ordered a daiquiri without putting the word "virgin" in front of it, Jon did a double-take. "Wait, they'll let us...?"
"Well, yeah," said Olivia, nodding to Jon's glass, by now empty except for half-melted ice cubes and a few rinds of fruit slices. "I assumed that was how you got yours."
"No, this was non-alcoholic," said Jon. "Although it did come with two tiny umbrellas."
"Totally makes up for it," Olivia assured him. "So how's your night been?"
Jon shrugged. Boring as hell, frankly, given that he didn't feel like dancing and it was hard to get excited about the Grand Worldwide Premiere of songs you already knew so well you could play them in your sleep. "There were lots of people wanting autographs earlier, but they pretty much dropped off by the time the album finished its first run-through. And then some guy sat next to me for half an hour and talked about how the industry used to be so much better when it was managed by great men who really cared about music."
"Pretty sure that was my vocal coach," said Olivia. "Are you sure he said 'men'? Not 'people'?"
"Nope. He was pretty clear on the 'men' part. If it makes you feel better, he left when your manager came over and dumped her beer all over his shirt."
The bartender handed Olivia her daiquiri, and presented Jon with a fresh multicolored drink complete with orange slices, cherries, and three tiny umbrellas. Jon made a mental note to give her a massive tip.
"That's Will and Mac, all right." Olivia took a delicate sip of her drink. "At least tell me they were already high or something...."
It hit a nerve. "How should I know?" demanded Jon. "What, you think I have some kind of magic sobriety radar? Because obviously I don't, or half the time you'd be crashing it!"
Of course he regretted it. The instant she looked hurt, he wished he hadn't said it. But still! Where did she get off, asking him a thing like that?
"O-kay," said Olivia at last, pulling herself together. "Obviously you need some alone time for a while." She picked up her drink and hopped off the barstool. "And maybe a little something to help you chill out? Just sayin'."
"Sit up, son," ordered Papa, right before Stephen could reach for his first parmesan garlic chicken wing. "Do you remember meeting Leona Lansing?"
Stephen and Jimmy both instantly straightened their spines and tried to look professional. Sure, Stephen had recognized the woman in the sharp suit as someone important, but he didn't realize it was Division President Leona frickin' Lansing. "No, sir," he stammered. "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am. Um...re-meet you?"
"It's all right, dear," said Leona in a rich, warm voice. "Of course you wouldn't remember. You were such a tiny little thing back then. But you've grown into quite the handsome young man, haven't you, Stephen? You too, Jimmy."
"Thank you, ma'am," stammered Stephen, with Jimmy echoing the sentiment. Of course Leona would have been following them ever since they came under the network's banner, through That's So Rachel and Weekend Update respectively. Probably Stephen had met her at a party five or six years ago, when he was too young and innocent to understand what she represented.
"Leona's been telling me how you boys are now one of the network's top properties," said Papa proudly.
"We have sample packs of your latest merchandise being shipped to each of your houses," added Leona. "Have you seen the dolls yet? They're absolutely darling."
"No, ma'am," said Jimmy. "Do you think they actually look like us?"
"Oh, as much as such things usually do, I imagine," said Leona...
...and slid gracefully into Stephen's lap.
Stephen's cheeks went warm. This had not happened before. Granted, he hadn't been tall enough before to have a rich cougar gracefully sitting on him. Maybe the last time they'd met, he had sat in her lap. "I, um...."
Leona's perfectly manicured fingernails traced down the curve of his face. "Yes, I would say the dolls capture the general idea," she decided. "Enough to satisfy girls across the country looking for the image of their favorite teenage heartthrobs."
"Oh, ah, oh good?"
"But still...hardly a patch on the real thing."
This was the point when she kissed him.
And then did it again, as if to make sure he'd gotten the point.
Jimmy discreetly choked, Papa clapped his hands in hearty appreciation, and Stephen couldn't move a muscle. Everyone was staring, he could feel it. It was a wonder his face wasn't setting off fire alarms.
Where was Jon?
His rescue came not from his boyfriend, but from a pair of slender arms wrapped around him from behind, and Olivia's wonderful, loud, careless voice snapping, "Hey! Back off! He's taken."
"Easy, there, sweetheart," said Papa, chuckling, as an unruffled Leona removed herself from Stephen's lap like she'd planned to do it then anyway. "Your young man's popular. Take it as a compliment."
"It's not a compliment!" cried Olivia. Her dark hair fell in long, curling locks over Stephen's shoulder; Stephen dimly realized he was clinging to one of her wrists. "Who does she think she is?"
Through clenched teeth, Jimmy whispered, "She's Leona Lansing."
Olivia winced. "Ooh."
"Nice job, son," added Papa, clapping Stephen approvingly on the arm.
Well, Stephen wasn't one to turn down a compliment. And he did have quite the talent for sitting still while other people...admired him. "Thank you, sir."
Olivia made Stephen eat a seven-layer cookie bar — hopefully the sugar would perk him up — and pulled him back out onto the main dance floor. ("So nobody else can sit on you," she explained.)
The music had come back around to the slowest track on the album; Jon-over-the-speakers was crooning about how hard it was to watch over somebody you loved from a distance. Adults all around them had paired off and were slow-dancing like high schoolers at junior prom. Or at least, like TV high schoolers on TV junior proms. It wasn't like Olivia was ever going to get near a real one.
She rested her hands on Stephen's shoulders and asked, softly, "D'you think I drink too much?"
Stephen, hands on her waist, shrugged. "Dunno."
"Was it weird that I was already tipsy when I got here?"
"Maybe," said Stephen. "I mean, nobody else was, I don't think."
"But I had to have something," said Olivia. "Because I get anxiety. I get panic attacks. If it hadn't been a glass of wine it would've been a Vaxachillpill or two, and it's not like those things don't have side effects. So how is this different?"
"Olivia, I realize that as a member of a boy band I sing some pretty deep lyrics sometimes, but that doesn't mean I have answers for all your philosophical questions."
He made a good point. Olivia fell silent, and they swayed through the next verse without speaking.
"Do you think Jon's mad at me?" asked Stephen. The red and gold lighting was picking out eerie contours on his face, throwing most of it into shadow. "He was touchy all day, and I haven't seen him for hours."
"He was pretty touchy when I talked to him, too, and I didn't even mention you," said Olivia. "Maybe he's just in a bad mood."
"You talked to him? Where was he?"
"Over at the bar, ordering something fruity. Last I knew, he was planning to spend the whole night there."
"Was he...alone?" asked Stephen.
Olivia wrinkled her nose. "He sure was after he yelled at me, I can tell you that."
"When this song is over, I will tell him how you defended my virtue in his absence," declared Stephen. "I'm sure he'll be very apologetic once he knows he owes you one."
After he walked Olivia back to the VIP room, Stephen planned to go straight to the bar and find Jon.
Instead he found himself walking in the other direction, Ned's arm around him.
"Amazing job, as usual, buddy," his solo manager was saying. "Listen to that!" (The speakers were pumping out a track that was technically an ensemble song, but Stephen could pick out his own voice, and he knew Ned could too.) "You sound like an angel. I don't know where these other boys would be without you."
"Me neither, sir," said Stephen. He could barely hear himself over his autotuned-recorded-self.
"Stephen, Stephen, come on, enough with the 'sir' stuff. Call me Ned."
"Yes...Ned," stammered Stephen.
They veered around a corner and into the corridor that held the doors to the bathrooms. It was almost pitch dark here, except for the red light spilling around from the main room, and a row of LEDs along the floor on either side to help people avoid hitting the walls.
"Not here," whispered Stephen, half to Ned, half as a prayer. "Please, not here...."
"Settle down, sweetheart. Doesn't have to be here."
He pulled Stephen into a quick kiss that was a lot like Leona's — firm, matter-of-fact, not needing Stephen to do anything but hold still and submit.
(Nice job, son.)
"I've got a single for the night. King-size bed. You can tell your friends you want to stay with your father tonight. I'll take care of everything else. Make sure you get where you need to go in the morning."
Stephen shook his head. He was having trouble catching his breath.
"So fussy," murmured Ned. They were pushing through one of the doors now. "What do you want, buddy? You want candles and rose petals?" Not the men's room. The separate single-stall handicapped room. A lock went click. "You come on back with me, and I'll get you candles, I'll get champagne, I'll get all the flowers you want." He was caressing Stephen's chest with one hand, using the other to hold their bodies flush. "Whatever your spoiled little heart desires."
"I — I don't want — anything. Don't take me," pleaded Stephen. "Here is fine. Just don't make me go."
About an hour before midnight, Jon finally admitted that his crushing boredom was too powerful to withstand any longer. No matter how much awkwardness he had to overcome to do it, he had to go find his friends.
In the VIP room he found Jimmy, a sleepy-looking Olivia, and an almost-empty plate of chicken wings. "Hi," he said uncertainly. "Listen, I...Olivia, I was very rude to you back there, and I apologize...um, are you gonna finish those?"
Jimmy pushed the plate across the table. "Help yourself. Did Stephen find you?"
"Uh, no. Was he supposed to?"
A short conversation established that (a) Stephen had gone looking for Jon twenty minutes ago; (b) Stephen had thought he was at the bar; (c) Jon had not left the bar for at least that long.
"Maybe he got lost," suggested Olivia.
"Maybe he ran into Leona Lansing again," mused Jimmy.
Another conversation was needed to explain that one to Jon. He wasn't sure whether he should find the incident maddening or hilarious.
Not that I'd be mad at Stephen, obviously. It's not his fault someone climbed on top of him and — I mean, you can't blame a guy if —
Olivia yawned. "Text him," she said, poking Jimmy.
Jimmy tapped at his phone for a minute, then sat back and waited. What had people done in the days before cell phones? Gotten up and personally searched the whole floor of a building for someone? Madness.
It occurred to Jon that if Stephen had wandered into something unsavory, they might have to go track him down anyway. There were definitely harder drugs than booze floating around this place....
But no, thankfully, Jimmy's phone chirped before Jon's morbid fantasies could get any worse. He scanned the screen, blinked a couple of times, and turned to Jon. "Apparently he's...in the handicapped bathroom? And he wants me to send you over there, but just you."
"Aww," said Olivia, folded her arms on the table, and rested her head on them.
The phone chirped again. "He wants to clarify," reported Jimmy, "that he means the bathroom customized for humans with physical disabilities, not that the bathroom itself has a disability. In case you were confused on that point."
That was Stephen all over. Always trying to look out for others. "On my way," said Jon, shrugging off the leather jacket wardrobe had put him in. "You guys mind watching this for me? Uh, especially you, Jimmy."
"I want it on the record that I resent that," mumbled Olivia. "I am plen'ny lucid right now. Jus' resting my eyes."
At a couple of sharp knocks, Stephen pulled open the door and ushered a squinting Jon inside. The restrooms were maybe the brightest place in the club, though that wasn't saying much; burgundy tiles did a good job of swallowing up most of the light from the round white fluorescents dotting the ceiling.
Stephen had cleaned himself up as best he could. There was no restoring his hair to its perfectly sculpted gel formation at this point, and his jacket would have to stay hanging over one of the support bars until he cooled down enough to wear it again. But his hands were washed, his face scrubbed enough to keep his over-reddened lips from standing out, the rest of his clothes all in order...Jon probably wouldn't have the first clue what Stephen was covering for.
Or maybe Jon would. He was smart, after all. Smart enough to notice things. Stephen didn't know if that thought made him feel desperately hopeful, or scared out of his mind.
The music in here was a tinny echo of its full volume, so Jon could keep his distance and still be heard. "Stephen? Are you okay?"
"Fine!" squeaked Stephen. "I'm fine. I...Jon, can I dance with you? I know you're in a bad mood, and it may or may not be my fault, but could you just maybe stuff that in a box for a while and repress it so we can dance? Please?"
Sympathy filled Jon's face. If they had been in a movie, this would have been his cue to reply with something dashing and romantic, a heartwarming one-liner that would reassure his boyfriend in the moment and have audiences swooning in theaters everywhere.
What he came out with was, "Yeah, sure."
Fortunately, Jon-over-the-speakers was more on-the-ball. As Stephen settled into the real Jon's arms, the opening chords of A Whole New World started wafting through the air above them, and the recorded Jon sang, "I can show you the world~ / Shining, shimmering, splen~did / Tell me, princess, now when did you last let your heart decide...?"
The last chords of the song faded away, and Jon was ready to do anything but let Stephen go.
He felt so much better for being able to hold Stephen like this. It was a crime they couldn't just waltz out onto the main floor and dance like normal people.
(It was possibly also a crime for them to be holed up in here for so long. Jon hadn't seen anyone in a wheelchair or anything in the crowd...now he just had to hope there weren't any such people he hadn't spotted, or at least, if there were, that none of them had to pee.)
In a small voice, Stephen added, "A-are you going to go back to being mad now?"
"Wasn't mad. I swear." Except briefly, in the morning when he was afraid Stephen had been yanking his chain by not saying anything, but that didn't count.
Stephen's hands tightened in the back of his shirt. "Can you at least tell me what I did?"
It would be fine, Jon thought. They could handle it. Stephen loved him. He loved Stephen. "Um, first, do you know if you've sleepwalked before? Or maybe sleep-eaten? That's supposed to be really common...."
"I don't think so," said Stephen. "Wait...one time I woke up and there was a cheese plate on my desk. I guess I figured Consuela had brought it in. And that Briar Rose was the reason why half the crackers were eaten."
"And you didn't complain about your housekeeper possibly coming into your room while you were asleep?"
"...Should I have?"
Jon shrugged and let it go. Maybe housekeeper boundaries worked differently when you'd grown up with one. "Well, either way, you were eating last night. I woke up when you got out of bed, and I figured you were just going to the bathroom or something, right? But when you didn't come back, I couldn't get back to sleep, so I got up too...and it turned out you'd grabbed like four snack bars from the mini-fridge and gone out on the balcony."
"So...you were worried I was going to ruin my girlish figure?" guessed Stephen.
As if anything could kill Jon's interest in Stephen's figure. "I'd be more worried that you weren't going to leave any for the rest of us."
It had been a beautifully eerie scene out there. New York in the dead of the morning was still full of glittering lights: windows, the cars of late-night partygoers and travelers, the spotlights aimed at strategically placed billboards. But the noise of the city was down to a low purr, there was a cool breeze blowing, and a sleepy Stephen with a mouth full of chocolate looked as happy-relaxed as Jon had ever seen him.
"So I went out and sat with you there, on the couch, and we talked for a bit...."
"I don't remember any of this," interrupted Stephen. "What did I say?"
Jon shrugged. "It was three-AM sleepy small talk, I don't remember half of it. A lot of it was stuff about New Zealand. Hobbit references that I couldn't fully appreciate, that kind of thing."
"And...you've spent all day being deeply embarrassed at your lack of Tolkien knowledge?"
"Did I tell you I had a Middle-earth trivia-off against the consulting expert they're using to get the films right, and I won?"
"Yeah, I got that," said Jon. Of course Stephen had mentioned it last night. And on the phone a few days earlier. And via text. And on Twitter. And he'd emailed Jon links to some of the news articles that reported it, as well as reblogging them when they were quoted on Tumblr.
Stephen's face fell. "Did I annoy you by bringing it up too much?"
"What you did," said Jon, "was kiss me, okay? And then we made out for a while."
"...I don't remember," said Stephen, more uncertainly now.
"Yeah, well, that's because apparently you were even higher than I realized."
"You knew?" Stephen was tensing in his arms. "Jon, I told you. I told you not to take advantage of me."
"I didn't know then!" protested Jon. "You seemed sober! I thought you were sober, until —"
Stephen jerked sharply back out of Jon's embrace. "Until what?"
So Jon skipped ahead in the memory. Past the part where Stephen got on top of him, straddling his thighs, rocking gently against him. Past the way Jon had felt almost Zen in his low-burning arousal: not distracted by it, or wrapped up in it, or desperate to push it onward to a climax, just able to stay calm and present and enjoy it for what it was in the moment. Past how beautiful Stephen had been — his tousled hair, the loose lines of his shoulders, the whole of the city laid out glowing behind him.
And past how very much Jon had appreciated it, in those guilt-free minutes before it dawned on him that, oh, Stephen was high as fuck.
"Until you tried to give me a handjob," he said shortly. "That's when I figured something was up."
Stephen paled in the low light. His eyes were dark pools. "No. No, I wouldn't do that."
"You wouldn't do it sober," Jon corrected him. At least, not yet. And, god, Jon couldn't wait for that to change, because the fumbling feeling of Stephen's hand down his pants was burned into his brain. "I know that, okay? That's why I stopped you from doing it high."
"High on Vaxasopor!" cried Stephen. "Which I take every night! Are you saying I could be...doing that...any night?"
"How should I know? I'm not usually there!"
"You could be lying." Stephen straightened his back, eyebrows arching over narrowed eyes. "I don't remember any of it. You could have touched me first, for all I know. You could have done anything you wanted to me, and gotten away with it."
"Stephen, be reasonable," pleaded Jon. "Of course I couldn't have done anything. I had no idea you weren't going to remember it."
"So you would have done something if you had known you could get away with it? That's what you just said. Your words, Jon!"
"None of those are my words!" yelled Jon. With effort he reined his voice in — the beat outside was pounding and the walls looked pretty sturdy, but you could never be too careful. "Stephen, I would never — not intentionally — I'm not psychic, here, okay, but I did my best! I don't want you when you're too zoned out to know what the hell you're doing. I want you as you. I love you!"
"You could just be saying that!" Stephen's eyes were wet. "People say things, Jon, and then they go on and do whatever they want anyway, and they act like that makes it okay, but it doesn't! How do I know you're not just saying it?"
"I guess you don't!" shot back Jon. "I'm not telepathic either, I can't beam this stuff into your head, you just have to —"
In a sudden burst of inspiration, offered Stephen his hand.
"Do you trust me?"
It was even the right hand Jon was holding out. He was naturally left-handed, but Aladdin wasn't. "Do you trust me?" he repeated, not sure what he would do with himself if Stephen said no.
The inside of Stephen's head was a blur of voices.
Son, I want you to think very hard about what you're saying here. — Settle down, sweetheart. You love the attention. Don't start complaining now. — Look, Col-bert, I'm not saying this to be mean, but you're a flake, all right? — Here's the thing, I bet none of that is true. Remember that scene where it was all a big misunderstanding because he jumped to conclusions? — Aww, is someone turning out to be a red-blooded human male after all? You get that dick, boo. — Nice job, son.
People he wanted to trust, but whose opinions of him he couldn't live up to...people he didn't want to trust, but whose opinions he was scared, deep down, might be right...people he did trust, but even then, not completely....
And how was he supposed to handle any of them if he couldn't even trust himself?
"Jon, I'm scared," he said, hiccuping over the words.
"Yeah," said Jon softly. "Yeah, I get that."
Stephen grabbed for his hand.
"Shhh. You can go off the Vaxasopor, okay?" Jon pulled him close, trying to sound calm and soothing even as his voice cracked. "There are people who kick it after being on it for years. You can figure it out."
"Mmhmm," sniffled Stephen. "Jon, I...I trust you, but...."
"But I wanna sleep in Jimmy's bed tonight."
One word of complaint from Jon and Stephen would have dropped the request, would have apologized for bringing it up and promised to sleep wherever Jon wanted, and whatever happened, happened. But Jon, though he looked hurt, didn't voice it. "Sure. Yeah. Might be a good idea," he said. "And hey, now it can be his turn to be the one you wake up."