Shout*For studio, "Jon's House" set, a few weeks later.
"Cut!" yelled Craig from past the edge of the set. "Jon! Where in your script does it say anything about making the Baconnaise face?"
"Nowhere!" said Jon, inwardly seething. He had tried to fake some taste for that particular product, and was still embarrassed that his failure had pretty much tanked the advertising deal. Did Kilborn really have to keep bringing it up? "It's fine. I got this. Do the shot again."
He had an easier time with the scene where his character and "Taylor" were bonding. It was still full of insipid dialogue that went on and on without ever saying anything, but he genuinely liked Tina, so he could manage to look happy throughout.
Of course, that only got a surly Stephen accosting him in the dressing room. "You sure looked happy on set today," he said, while stepping out of his shoes.
Jon tried to shrug it off. "I know, right? Only way it could have been better is if they'd brought in an actual jar of Baconnaise."
"First of all, don't talk down about the great American spirit of capitalistic innovation, and second of all, I'm talking about Tina."
"Stephen, you can't possibly be mad that I'm getting a TV love interest. You've had two in the past year!" There was Stephen's on-again off-again girlfriend on the show, played by a perky blonde named Susie Sampson, and of course Olivia's character in The Princess And The Pop Star. "Three, if you count Olivia in real life."
Stephen threw his shirt carelessly off in no particular direction and scowled. "What do you mean, love interest? Your script just said you only like her as a friend! I mean how the real you really thinks she's pretty!"
Briar Rose was trotting back and forth around Stephen's legs, her little face scrunched up with confusion. Jon scooped her up before Stephen could trip on her. "How much sleep did you get last night?"
A plan to kick the sleeping pills cold turkey had fizzled out after Stephen suffered through a painful sleepless thirty-six hours, so he'd been trying to run on a half dose ever since. He was taking it easy with his friends' encouragement — he would spend his breaks at work lying down, with Jon or Jimmy keeping him company while the other one took the dog out, for instance — but there was still only so much he could cope with on only a few disconnected hours of light sleep per night.
"Not a lot," Stephen admitted. "So I'm clearly not thinking too fast, and the considerate thing to do would be to walk me through your feelings rather than brush me off."
Jon scratched under Briar Rose's chin and deposited her on the couch. "Well, when you put it like that...."
"Use small words," added Stephen.
"Fine. Yes: I think Tina's pretty. Because she looks like you! And I think you're pretty. In fact, I think you're the prettiest. So you can relax."
It did the trick. "Okay," said Stephen at last. "But only because you specified that I was the prettiest."
Gloria & Jane's, dessert time.
"It is?" said Olivia. "I have honestly never tried that."
Her foolproof way of making a social get-together work, the non-alcoholic version, was to take your guest out for pie and explain you were picking up the check. (Even though Tina had made decent money as one of the Weekend Update kids, you never wanted to assume someone's parents weren't keeping a tight fist around their paychecks, if not spending the cash as soon as it came in.) She'd never had anyone upend the 'pie' part of the plan before.
"You had spaghetti last time we were here," Kristen pointed out. "So it's not like you don't know they serve real food."
"Yeah, well, knowing it and eating it are two different things..."
A camera went off. All three of them winced, and Olivia scanned for the perpetrator: no big paparazzi operation, it didn't look like, just some guy with a phone. Jerk.
Tina covered her mouth, cheeks reddening, as she finished chewing. "Geez, he could have at least waited for me to swallow."
"That's what she said," put in Kristen with a roguish grin. Olivia high-fived her.
"What...?" Tina looked between them, confused, then made a face. "Oh. Oh, ew. No offense."
Okay, no more semen jokes around the new girl. Olivia could handle that. "So, what are you into that isn't Disney?" she asked, dicing up her chocolate-raspberry swirl with the side of her fork.
The change of subject was an obvious relief. "Mostly Star Wars. Does that still count? I mean, the brands get super incestuous, I've got a Jedi Mickey figure on my bookshelf, but Disney hasn't outright bought them yet...."
"Awesome!" said Olivia. A beat too early, but oh well. So she was awkward. Tina was awkward too. They could all be awkward nerds together. "Wait, how much of a Star Wars nerd are you? Just the kind where you have a figurine or two lying around, or the kind where, you know, as a hypothetical example, you have a Princess Leia costume in your closet?"
Tina broke into a broad grin. "You too?"
"Me too!" squealed Olivia. "This is awesome! As soon as our contracts are up we've got to break them out and go tear up the town. I bet I can convince Kristen to get one by then too."
"Wait, what's that about our contracts? Is there some kind of copyright problem?"
"No, no, it's the morality clause. Well, my morality clause. Maybe yours isn't as strict, I dunno. I'm not even allowed to wear bikinis on vacation, isn't that crazy?"
"Ohhh," said Tina slowly. "You've got the Slave Leia costume."
Olivia deflated a bit. "That's the one I was thinking of, yeah. What's yours?"
"Iconic Leia. Well, the other iconic Leia. Long white dress." Tina patted the sides of her head with cupped hands. "My hair goes really well into the buns."
"Well, that's cool!" said Olivia hopefully. "Mine doesn't bun at all."
"And we can still totally go out as three Leias," put in Kristen. "She's got other outfits, right? Instead of all trying to match, I could be Rebel Leader Leia, or something, and then we'd have a full set."
"That could be fun," agreed Tina.
"Though it wouldn't get nearly as many guys to buy us free drinks," observed Olivia.
"And it might cause some complications in where we can go..." began Tina.
"...because Rebel Leader Leia wears padded winter clothes to withstand the ice planet of Hoth, and Slave Leia wears, well, a bikini," finished Olivia.
Kristen sighed. "Hashtag nerd problems."
Jon's real house.
"Hey, watch it!" said Jon, keeping a nervous eye on Jimmy's shaking hand while Stephen rubbed his BFF's back. "No burning weed-scented holes in my carpet."
They had holed up in Jon's room for the afternoon, on the theory that if they were caught Stephen's father would be homicidal and Jimmy's parents would waste no time in making sure all their families knew, but Jon's aunt might be convinced to let them off with a warning. Stephen had brought Alice in Wonderland. Jon's flatscreen wasn't quite on par with Stephen's home theater, but it would have to do.
Jimmy managed not to lose his grip on the joint. He was still catching his breath as Stephen glared balefully at their Guest Marijuana Expert (who was cackling at the scene). "Oh, and I'm sure you were born knowing how to do this, Mister Big Shot."
It was Jon's first time in close quarters with the infamously "not acceptable" Steve Carell. He was even louder at this range. "At least I managed not to choke myself the first time! Here, I'll do another...Stewart, Col-bert, ready to make this DIY?"
Stephen eyed the loose pot warily, like he was afraid it might bite him.
Jon had no such hesitations. "Sure, I'll give it a whirl. You start it off like this, right...?"
The joint he ended up with was kind of sloppy and weird-shaped, but Steve seemed to approve. "Not bad! You've got pretty deft fingers for a short guy."
"Just because I'm short doesn't mean bits of me can't be long," grumbled Jon.
This time it was Stephen who burst out coughing.
"Whoa, Stewart! Just whip it out and wave it at us, why don't you!" exclaimed Steve, slapping Jon on the back. "On second thought, don't...." He slipped into an exaggerated Southern accent: "You might give poor contractually-heterosexual Stephen over here the vapors."
"Don't you make fun of my heritage, Caroselli," snapped Stephen.
Steve leered. "Nice try, Col-bert, but I know how you really feel about Italians."
Jon honestly couldn't tell if they were still friends, or if they had gone back to being sworn enemies and Stephen would be throwing Steve out as soon as they'd exhausted his Guest Expertise. And though he wouldn't have admitted it if you'd paid him, it was freaking him out a little. "Guys, come on, we're supposed to be doing a mellow thing here. Can I get a light?"
Steve lit up both of theirs, then offered his to Stephen. "C'mon, one hit won't kill you."
Stephen leaned away, backing against the low bookshelf that made up one side of Jon's bed. "Can't I be the designated driver?"
"You can't drive," Jimmy reminded him.
"The designated guy that calls the driver, then."
"You can do that high," pointed out Steve.
The term made Stephen wince, so Jon jumped in. "Not the kind of high where you hallucinate, or pass out, or run naked through the streets. You mostly just relax, and start thinking stupid things are really profound. And, listen, you could use a little relaxation, right?"
"No, Jon, I know what this is," said Stephen sternly, reaching across their little circle. "This is peer pressure." He caught the joint out of Jon's hand, and, wow, speaking of deft fingers. "And I'm not going to cave! I will remain strong and true to my principles." With perfect old-Hollywood finesse, he took a long drag, exhaled, and declared, "I've got an iron will."
"What?" asked Stephen. He wrinkled his nose. "And what is that awful smell?"
By the end of the movie, Stephen had added several hundred dollars' worth of scented candles to his Etsy cart. Well, technically, it was Jon's Etsy cart, since he was using Jon's laptop. But Stephen happened to know that Jon hadn't touched the account since ordering the "Always Be Yourself (Unless You Can be Batman, then Always Be Batman)" sign on his wall, so it was probably feeling neglected. Really, Stephen was doing it a favor.
"I'm doing your Etsy account a favor," he informed Jon from the desk chair.
"Cool," said Jon, sprawled on the bed. (The other two were chilling on the floor, having a deep conversation on the weirdness of toes.)
Thus approved, Stephen placed the order, wandered back over to the rest of the group, and curled up on the bed next to Jon, where he drifted off into the best nap he'd had all week.
Hey can I ask you a question about guys? or is that just way out of your area of expertise?
<3 Olivia <3
hey u! nothin 2 worry about, xpert on dudes here. in a friend way or a bf way?
Sort of kind of a bf way maybe?
<3 Olivia <3
whoa there boo dont go jumpin 2 conclusions
You're right, that was too far
<3 Olivia <3
no no Im messin w/ u
Now I get it. Sorry!
<3 Olivia <3
<3 Olivia <3
oracular wisdom here, ready to dispense :)
OK, so, say you like a guy...but you know for a fact he's not a big Star Wars person...can you still get a worthwhile impact out of putting on the Leia metal bikini?
<3 Olivia <3
totally! there is not a male alive whos un-arrested by the Slave Leia outfit. altho if hes 100% gay itll probly b the wrong kind of interest.
AFAIK he's 100% straight.
<3 Olivia <3
awesome! & lucky 4 u :)
<3 Olivia <3
but theres a caveat:
<3 Olivia <3
u have 2 feel sexy abt it. like, if u put it on & feel like a sexy hutt-slayin vengeful badass, great! but if u feel awkward & uncomfortable & 2 nervous 2 move, its not the outfit 4 u. find somethin that shows what ur comfortable w/ wearin. itll be better 4 the sexy badass image in the long run.
Sounds great but what if I don't feel comfortable or sexy in anything?
<3 Olivia <3
then u show up naked? (this is a joke btw)
Thank you for clarifying :(
<3 Olivia <3
apologies but Im not an oracle of how 2 feel good about ur body
<3 Olivia <3
u must meditate on this, Padawan, & come to ur own truth
<3 Olivia <3
just remember that u gotta be u <3
Thank you :)
"No way," said Jimmy, stopping mid-read and slapping his script down on the table. "Are we seriously doing this?"
Eyebrows raised all around the room. It was a big script read, including a large swath of their in-show classmates: Sam Bee, Jason Jones, Susie Sampson, Al Madrigal, Sarah Vowell, Tina, and of course the band. Even Brian, who as a running gag had a different background role every couple of episodes, was in with the group.
"What's your problem now, Jo—" began Craig from the head of the table, then did a double-take. Jon felt almost smug watching his confusion unfold. "...Jimmy? Great, now there are two of them."
"It's just this one line!" protested Jimmy. "This part. This stage direction. Where Tina takes off her glasses, and all of a sudden Jon starts to notice her? She looks fine how she is! Switching to contacts isn't going to make her more or less attractive, so why make her do it?"
"Because it's a tried-and-true trope, and she's a professional," said Craig. "You don't have a problem with this, do you, Tina?"
Tina grimaced. "I wasn't going to say anything, but...contacts do make my eyes itch."
"Exactly!" said Jimmy.
"Mine too," put in Al. "That's why I don't wear 'em."
Jon decided to throw his voice on the pile. "Listen, if you're going for realism, here, I think glasses look great, and I wouldn't suddenly be super-stunned after a person whipped them off. That goes for Tina and Al."
Granted, he probably wouldn't be super-stunned by the fancy hairstyle the script indicated either, or the new outfit. (Unless maybe it was a certain kind of tight and low-cut, which it wouldn't be, because that would give the network fits.) But as long as Tina wasn't objecting to those, he might as well not bring it up.
"Okay, look," said Craig with a sigh. "I don't care, Jon or Jimmy, what turns your crank in real life. Girls in glasses, men in fishnets, dancing ferrets, whatever, it is not relevant. But if it's going to be a physical issue, for a plot point that isn't big enough to bother working around it for, then sure, Tina, wear whatever you want."
"I..." Tina shook herself and sat up, and when she next spoke there was some force behind it. "I'll keep the glasses on, thanks."
Olivia was used to having Kristen on-set with her, to be ferried along to her house for the afternoon. She was still getting the hang of telling her driver to swing by an entirely different studio to pick Kristen up.
"Today was amazing," gushed Kristen as she bounced into the back seat. "This show is amazing. I get to be funny! Not cookie-cutter sitcom funny, but funny funny!"
"Hey, Star Girl is funny at least once a month," said Olivia sternly. "So how much can you tell me without breaking confidentiality?"
"Depends." Kristen cuddled up against her, nuzzling her neck. "How much can you swear not to tell anybody else?"
Olivia made a solemn vow of secrecy, so Kristen went off, describing Gravity Falls plots and reciting lines, trying to mimic the voices of her co-stars in the process. It was funny, all right. And more than that...it was making Kristen earnestly enjoy herself, more than Olivia had ever seen. Not that Kristen tended to be unhappy — she had plenty of fun — but it was usually fun snarking about things that were kind of stupid, not straight-up fun with liking something.
She was also excited enough to jump Olivia almost as soon as they were in the door, which was a pleasant bonus.
"Oof—" grunted Olivia when Kristen shoved her down flat on the mattress, only a few inches short of whacking against the headboard. "Geez, it's a good thing your aim wasn't off there, huh?"
"Aww, I would never hurt you," Kristen assured her. "Not unless you wanted me to. ...God, you're hot. So, anyway, how did your day go?"
The whirlwind of topics (plus the mental image of Kristen being even rougher) left Olivia dizzy. "Um. No complaints here," she stammered. "Hey, just out of curiosity, you don't have any secret tricks to feeling sexy, do you?"
Kristen sat back, on her knees straddling Olivia's hips, her skirt a rainbow pinwheel draped across Olivia's thighs. "Not really. Mostly I redirect any frustration into rage against the patriarchy. Why? It's not like you need it."
"Okay, that helps," said Olivia. "But you're my girlfriend, so you're contractually obligated to say it."
"Hey! I was being objective there. On an absolute scale of one to Miley Cyrus...."
Olivia raised her eyebrows. "Miley Cyrus is your standard for hotness? She's like fifty."
"Forty-six. And excuse you, she is the epitome of geek sexy. Her and Taylor Swift."
"A scale of one to Taylor, I could accept," said Olivia. She, like the rest of America, didn't understand how the star of 30 Rock got away with playing characters who were supposed to be plain. Awkward, sure; less-than-hot, no.
"Fine. On a scale of one to Taylor, you are...." Kristen trailed off, grimacing. "Well, I don't know what the units for that would be. But you're up there."
Olivia really did feel better now. At least, this wouldn't be one of the nights she carved out some time to look up forums with the Countdown Until The Minute Lisa Munn Turns Eighteen clock on the top, just to remind herself that her stepfather was wrong. "I'm okay with that," she said, and ran her hands up Kristen's thighs, sliding under the colorful skirt.
"Ooh." Kristen shivered under her touch, eyelashes fluttering. "Well, I'm okay with this, so I guess that makes us even."
Nobody should have been surprised when Stephen showed up the next morning with a pair of square, rimless frames perched on the bridge of his nose.
"I can wear contacts for taping, until you get around to writing a story about how my character needs to get glasses," he explained to Craig. Very generously, he thought.
During their post-instrument-practice break, he collapsed in the dressing room with his head pillowed on Jon's leg and tried not to think of everything that could go wrong with this plan. Like, what if he tried to whip his glasses off in a single dashing move, but messed up the angle and poked himself in the eye? Maybe he was courting disaster with this whole idea. Maybe he should call it off, ring up his doctor, get a nice strong anti-anxiety prescription, chase the first dose with two Vaxasopor, and have himself a good night's sleep.
Jon spent most of the break reading the first chapter of his new European History textbook, then wove his fingers through Stephen's hair and said, "If the plot calls for me to, I don't know, kiss Tina or something, you're gonna be able to handle that, right?"
Stephen wasn't sure he would. "You and Tina's character were supposed to be just friends."
"Believe me, if I was writing this thing, we would be," said Jon roughly. "But it's not like I can go up to Craig and say, dude, I can't pull this storyline off because it makes my boyfriend upset. For one thing, he'd just tell you to suck it up and be a professional."
Something about the phrase made Stephen feel more drained than ever. "I'm sick of being a professional."
He didn't mean it. Mostly.
"Well, any time you want to put an end to it all, let me know," said Jon.
Stephen tensed. He felt pretty bleak sometimes, sure, but not that bad....
"Because we can always leak some makeout photos, or make plans to drop the bomb in person at our next appearance, and once the dust settles we can get on with finding out what kinds of careers are out there for us as, you know, 'us'."
Tears sprang to Stephen's eyes, and not just because the glasses were giving him a headache. "Jon, you are the first person who's ever said they would give up being in a boy band for me."
"Yeah, well." Jon shrugged, being, as he so often was, far too modest. "Just thought you should know that it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make."
"I am so mellow right now," sighed Jimmy from one of the oversized beanbag chairs.
"Yeah," agreed Jon, sitting up for just long enough to snag another Dorito.
The four guys, the pot, assorted snacks (mostly taken from the piles they'd been gifted after shooting a couple of Frito-Lay commercials), and one confused dog were gathered in the Col-berts' home theater this time around. Stephen's father was guaranteed to be out for the afternoon, and as for the odor, well, they had set up a ton of scented candles.
"But seriously," said Jimmy. "If we all had some kind of mellow-off..."
"No, man, don't even," interrupted Steve, next to him. Briar Rose was curled up between his beanbag and Stephen's; Steve had been lightly petting her nonstop for about twenty minutes now. "I would win a mellow-off. Hands down."
Stephen swallowed his own mouthful of Dorito. "I," he said, "am so mellow that I would not even bother to enter a mellow-off. And doesn't that, really, make me the spiritual winner?"
"Wow," said Steve. "That's deep. He's deep."
"Real deep," agreed Jimmy.
"Was not expecting that," added Steve.
"Shut your face, Steve," said Stephen pleasantly, licking cheese dust off his fingers.
"Guys?" said Jon, cutting in. He'd come to a decision, and the fact that he wasn't internally roiling over it was proof, in his opinion, that he was out-mellowing the rest of them put together. "Guys, can I tell you something? Steve and Stephen?"
"That's so weird about our names, though," said Stephen with a dreamy stare. "You think it was, like, destiny or something?"
"You think it's gonna be Jon's destiny to ever finish his thought?" countered Steve.
"No, listen, it's that. That's the problem," said Jon, waving both of them down. "When you guys fight. When you're sober, anyway, so there's some bite to it. It freaks me right the fuck out, you know?"
"It does?" said Stephen, eyes widening with puppyish concern.
"You know we really like each other underneath it, right?" added Steve. "It's not like you and Tucker."
"Yeah, I know. Well, usually I know." That was what made it hard. At least with him and Tucker, he knew where they stood. "The thing is...my parents divorced, right? And for a good year before my dad walked out, they would go back and forth. They'd be friendly, or maybe fake-friendly, and then sort of play-mean, except when they didn't bother softening it up and just got mean-mean. So we were never sure — me and Larry — that's my brother," he added, for Steve's benefit, "what was really going on with them. If they were ever gonna work it out, or if...not."
And what if his parents hadn't been doing that whole dance in sync? Had there been times when Dad was faking nice, and Mom thought it was real? Or what about times when she was feeling genuinely forgiving, but said something that Dad took as a jab anyway, and then it all started falling apart again? This rabbit-hole was way too deep for Jon to figure it out all the way down.
"Wow," said Steve. "That's rough."
Stephen sniffled. Jimmy patted him on the shoulder.
"It's okay, I'm over it," Jon insisted. "It's just, when you guys are going at it and, like, I can't tell if you're serious? It's like being right back there. Except, y'know...shoutier."
The next thing Jon knew, he was being embraced by a teary Stephen and a tearier Steve, both of them alternately swearing he had nothing to worry about because they would be Best Frenemies Forever, and trying to work out which of them was the mom versus the dad in this scenario. Given that he didn't want to picture Stephen as either of his parents, Jon stuck to assuring them that he got it, they were the real deal, and he'd be able to keep that in mind from now on.