Stephen woke with a start. It was still pitch dark out, and his boxers and sheets were soaked with sweat.
In the silence he couldn't figure out what had ruined his sleep this time, until Briar Rose at the foot of the bed let out another whistling snore. That would do it.
He didn't even try to get back to sleep right away any more. He just got up, texted Jon on the off chance that Jon was also awake (sometimes he got lucky, but not tonight), then climbed in the shower for a few minutes so he wouldn't have to feel icky on top of tired.
The doctor had told him that aside from rebound insomnia, there were no side effects associated with going off Vaxasopor. Which meant the night sweats, headaches, bouts of nausea, and the way his appetite disappeared every once in a while were all completely coincidental. Talk about bad luck! Stephen was considering putting his body On Notice.
Once clean, he opened his laptop and settled in to do something that would kill the time without forcing his fogged brain to think too much.
And then, after he was all caught up on Tumblr, he put on a Springsteen playlist and hit shuffle. Another week or two of quizzing himself with these, and he'd be about as much of an expert as Jon, he was sure of it.
"Now my boss don't dig me 'cause he put me on the night shift / It takes me two hours to get back to where my baby lives / In the wee wee hours my mind gets hazy / Relay towers, won't you lead me to my baby!"
"Living On The Edge Of The World," said Jon. "From Tracks...disc two, track seven, if you want to know."
All the pep Stephen had summoned to do the upbeat tune puffed away. "Show-off."
Jon smirked and mimed a bow in his seat.
They were on a charter jet in the air over California, off to San Francisco to do the last of their major album-signing events. Jon considered himself an old hand at flying by this point, but it still didn't feel right to spend over an hour on a plane and still touch down in the same state they took off from.
Since it was technically a work day, Charlene was riding with the rest of the crew, trying to keep the four band members focused enough to do their vocal exercises. Before Stephen could complain any more about Jon's clear mastery of the field, she sang another round of scales at him, and, after he'd repeated them back, moved on to Tucker.
"You have gotten way better at this, though," Jon told Stephen. He might not be the most sensitive guy in the world, but he did understand that if he made Stephen pout too long, he ran the risk of being turned down for kisses the next time they were alone. "I mean, I'm impressed, seriously."
"Jon," cut in Charlene, and sang at him, over the sound of the intercom announcing that they were beginning their descent. Jon automatically echoed the scale back to her.
"We can pick up the game on the way home," decided Stephen. He didn't add "after I've had a chance to review some more songs," but Jon figured it was implied.
There were the usual smattering of paparazzi waiting for them inside the terminal, eager for the first shots of the guys in their designer sunglasses and this afternoon's carefully coordinated outfits. Non-band members of the party, including Brian and Charlene, fell back to create clearer shots of the band, though Killer and the other bodyguards never got too far.
Outside in the parking garage, even though they had taken some pains to keep their exit route secret, a handful of fans were crowded by the door with flashing cell phones and handmade signs. "I love you, Jimmy!" yelled one teenage girl. "Marry me, Stephen!" cried another.
"No, marry Jimmy!" exclaimed a third.
Jon pasted on a smile and waved. The weird thing was, Stephen was doing the same. Usually he was all bouncing and blowing kisses, especially when his own name came up, and all the more so when he got a marriage proposal.
Unfortunately, it wasn't all fans. As the band was piling into their limo, to be joined by Charlene and two bodyguards, some dudebro unloading a sporty car a few spaces down yelled "Boy band fags!" to hoots of appreciation from his companions.
Jon had not actually planned to lunge at the guy, but when he clenched his fists and twitched in that direction, Killer wordlessly gave him a light push in after the others.
"The nerve of some people," hissed Jimmy, leaning briefly against Stephen.
Brian was on the phone and hadn't noticed; Killer and the other bodyguards, as usual, made no comment; but Charlene clicked her tongue in disapproval. "Don't worry about it, boys," she said, tossing her head in a way that would have tossed her dark hair if it weren't gelled in place almost as thoroughly as her cousin Stephen's. "Those assholes only wish they had as many potential girlfriends as you do."
Stephen was tired. But fine! He would sail through this, as always, with the help of audience adoration. Also, a caramel latte. Just to be safe.
The auditorium was huge, and filled to capacity. After flicking Shout*For wristbands to the first few rows of the crowd, the band took their seats in front of a backdrop patterned with the band logo, as well as the logo of their generous sponsor for the evening, Target. (Anybody who had made the mistake of buying their new CD at a non-Target store was not allowed in. This generously taught people the value of brand loyalty.)
For the first half it was pre-planned questions from celebrity interviewer Mo Rocca. Stephen nailed them all, mostly because he had been through them four times already. Questions from the audience were a little more spontaneous, but these were all people who loved Stephen and would never yell at him, so how hard could it be?
Early on, some girl asked Jon, "Is your jacket real leather? And if so, would you be willing to take a stand by promising not to buy animal-derived clothing in the future?"
The big screens on either side of the stage cut to a close-up of Jon's blank stare. "Uh," he said. "What jacket are you talking about, exactly?"
"Probably the one you wore at the release party," said Stephen helpfully. "It was very popular on Tumblr."
"Oh," said Jon. "I have no idea what that was made of. Someone else planned the outfit, and then after the event they took it away."
"We can ask the wardrobe people to avoid leather in the future, though," said Jimmy, half to Jon (who was on the other side of Stephen from him) and half to the audience.
"And you don't have to worry about Jon's personal spending habits," Tucker, from the end of the line, assured the girl in the audience. "The only way he'd be buying animal-based clothing in the first place is if someone discovered a way to turn leather into grey T-shirts."
A ripple of laughter went through the crowd.
Jon made an unamused face. Maybe he didn't get it. "It's funny because you can't dress yourself," Stephen explained.
"Yes, I got that," sighed Jon. "Who's next?"
Someone asked about their pets. Jimmy talked about his sister's rabbit, Tucker about the family dog, Jon about his mom's cat, and Stephen about his puppy and his fish.
Someone else asked what projects they had coming up. They threw out a few promo lines about the concert movie they'd be shooting next month. Jon mentioned he'd been invited to guest on one of ABC's teen dramas, and Stephen reiterated his disappointment that he hadn't been invited onto Glee yet.
The first curveball of the night came from a woman nearly old enough to be their mothers (well, not Stephen's mother, but any of the others). Their band wasn't very diverse, she said. In fact, the whole industry wasn't great at diversity. What did they plan to do about it?
"Not diverse?" deadpanned Jon. "Nonsense. You will notice that an entire one of us is not Irish."
This was not at all their pre-rehearsed answer for questions like that. Had he forgotten? Fortunately, Tucker and Jimmy remembered, and explained how the four of them just happened to be white, but that shouldn't discourage kids of any race from working hard and following their dreams.
"And besides," said Stephen, "Lisa Munn is currently the leading moneymaker in the teen pop industry. So doesn't that prove racism is over?"
Jimmy bumped his knee against Stephen's to make him stop talking, though Stephen wasn't sure why.
Meanwhile, back in LA.
Since she wasn't going to make it to any bars either, gay or otherwise, Olivia made a beeline for the liquor cabinet. She'd had a couple of nips throughout the day, but wanted something to keep her company while she went over some schoolwork. Or the Internet. Whichever.
For the first time, she forgot to make any safety checks before unlatching the glass-paned doors.
"Aha!" said a voice from across the room. "I catch you now!"
Olivia whipped back like she'd been burned. "Hi, Mom!" she stammered. "I was just, uh...."
Her mother had a strong Chinese accent at the best of times, and it only got thicker when she was angry. "You stupid kid!" she snapped, advancing on Olivia. "You no fool me. You steal from those bottles! Ooh, you make me so mad...."
Buzzed or not, Olivia knew better than to stick around. A couple of PR people had sat Mom down a few years back and convinced her that Tiger Mother discipline wouldn't play well with her daughter's mostly-not-Asian target audience, but as long as there was nobody around to see it, she had no qualms about socking a disobedient kid across the head. Olivia bolted for the stairs, yelling "There is a perfectly good explanation!" over her shoulder.
Mom, hot on her heels, wasn't buying it for a second. "You come back here! You big-shot pop star, you not too good to get a knuckle sandwich!"
"Seriously, Mom, no one says that anymore!" called Olivia. If she ever found out what movie or TV show had put the phrase in her mom's head, she was blacklisting everyone who helped make it.
She'd been aiming for her own bedroom door, but Sara Beth was helpfully holding the one across from it open, so Olivia ducked through and let her sister slam it shut with Mom on the other side.
The construction was sturdy, the lock strong; their mother could pound on the door all she wanted (and did, while yelling, for a good five minutes), but she wasn't getting through. "Good grief," said Sara Beth. "What did you do?"
"More like what did you not do," said Olivia in a low voice, after she'd caught her breath. "Have you been slacking on refilling the wine bottles?" Not that Sara Beth was 21 either, but she had a fake ID and a face that wouldn't be instantly recognized, so it was her job to keep the alcohol from running out.
"No, I've been topping them up just as fast as usual. Swear to god."
"You kids! What you talk about in there?"
"Nothing, Mom!" yelled Sara Beth through the door. "Just how—" She dropped her voice. "You do have schoolwork and stuff now, right?"
"Yep. My English tutor's having me read Lord of the Flies," said Olivia. "It's like, Child Actors: the Desert Island AU."
"Got it. —Just how Olivia has homework she needs to get to!"
"You have time for homework if you stop drinking!" countered Mom.
It was going to be a long afternoon.
The autograph session was a blur of smiles and short greetings and hand cramps. Stephen had been faithful about doing the stretching exercises he'd been assigned over the past few days, but was still feeling the burn as he scrawled his signature on CD after CD.
At least half a dozen people coming by in the line had already asked about their Tumblr usernames. Stephen's response was always instant and serious: "You will never find out."
Jon got super awkward when that question came up. Partly because he was the one who had let slip that at least he and Stephen were on Tumblr at all, but Stephen knew it was more than that: he had also recently figured out how to reblog things. Including a lot of Springsteen-related things. Including several pictures of the Boss from the days when he was young, lean, and apparently not yet rich enough to afford a shirt.
Some piles of merchandise were larger than others. A brunette woman in a Shout*For baseball cap (already autographed) had all four of their dolls, still mint in the boxes. As Stephen was signing the one of himself, she leaned in and said conspiratorially, "I just want you to know that you have a lot of supporters online! Whenever you want to come out, we'll be right behind you."
"I am not sure what you're talking about," said Stephen briskly, "but it's always nice to have fans!"
A second young woman in the same hat, with masses of fluffy dark curls, flashed them a white-toothed smile. "It's okay! We know you're not allowed to talk about it!" she exclaimed...addressing Jimmy. "Don't let PR get you down, though! You guys are obviously made for each other."
On the far side of Jimmy, Tucker suppressed an inelegant gigglesnort.
And Jimmy himself stammered, "I think you may be confused? We're best friends, but that's all. Anything else you've seen is just fanfiction."
The curly-haired woman clapped her hands to her mouth with an audible gasp, while her companion squeaked, "You read the fanfiction?"
"Um," said Jimmy.
"We know it exists," put in Jon. "I wouldn't say we read it."
(Stephen did. Sometimes. He decided not to admit it.)
"Wait, what is this?" asked Tucker.
"Don't ask," said Jimmy, at the same time as Stephen said "Nothing!" and Jon said "You don't wanna know."
The line was pushing the two women along, getting the Tucker doll's case signed at the end of the table while new CDs and merchandise were passed down by Jon at the start. "Well, then, you know how happy we are for you!" said the brunette, while Tucker scrawled in his name.
"You are even more adorable in person," said her friend in a breathless rush. "Love you!"
Stephen finished autographing the corner of a poster and passed it down. Jimmy took it without looking. "I'm not dating Stephen!" he yelled after the baseball-cap-wearing pair as they were shooed away.
"Well, that was surreal," muttered Jon, passing Stephen a CD.
"Don't you think that's a little homophobic?" demanded a new voice. It was a younger teen girl, displaying a veritable rainbow of wristbands as she handed Jon a folded shirt and another CD.
"Homophobic...that I'm not dating Stephen?" asked Jimmy, gaping at her.
"No!" said the over-wristbanded teen. "But why are you so defensive over it? Do you think there's something wrong with boys dating boys?"
Jimmy choked. Possibly on irony.
"All he's saying is that it isn't true!" said Stephen, getting cross now. "Which it isn't! Stop calling my BFF a homophobe when he's not one!"
He was automatically moving to sign her things anyway when he found them snatched out of his hands. "If you're more worried about being called homophobic than about people getting hurt by actual homophobia, then I don't even want your autographs." She swept off down the table, pausing only long enough to glare at Tucker and say, "I didn't want yours anyway."
Stephen's hands were shaking as he took the next copy of the album. Odd. Maybe he'd had too much caffeine.
They worked through a dozen more sets of merchandise by rote, brushing off another Tumblr inquiry and tossing out answers about their favorite types of candy. (Jon said fudge to that last one, which was weird, because his Teen Vogue profile clearly said Swedish fish. Stephen would have to investigate that later.)
Eventually Jon, too, found himself greeted with a conspiratorial smile and a too-eager stare. This time it was from a guy, a little older than the four of them, with a shaved head and a slightly uneven beard. "I have to tell you...I know."
"Really don't think you do," said Jon brusquely.
"No, don't worry!" exclaimed the guy. "I got all the messages you've been sending me through your T-shirts!"
Several days later, at the Star Girl studio.
No work on the film set tonight, though! Olivia closed herself in her dressing room, had a quick drink, jumped in the shower, then settled in to have a slow drink.
Not a lot of her co-stars really knew how grueling this was. Kristen had a clue, even with her Star Girl appearances cut back, because she had to juggle school along with Gravity Falls. And then there were Stephen, Jon, and Jimmy, who were working doubly hard to bank a bunch of episodes in advance so they could go on tour in the spring.
Thinking about the boys gave Olivia the vague sense that there was something she was supposed to be doing for them. Had she promised to get something ready for Stephen before their next "date"? Or to do some kind of favor for Jon? It wasn't clear.
Oh well. If it was important, it would come back to her later.
She curled up on the couch and let herself relax....
...Someone was pounding at the door. If only they'd go away. She was trying to sleep....
Across the lot.
The band and a handful of other cast members were killing time in a meeting room. Scripts for the big cameo episode had been passed around, the one scheduled to air a couple weeks before Stephen and Olivia's movie premiered, but nobody felt like getting ahead of themselves. Steve was there, joking around with Jimmy and regularly making Tina crack up, while Jon and Stephen were pushing ahead with the Springsteen-off.
"No," said Stephen, crossing his arms and glaring at Jon over his glasses. (Jon still couldn't get over how sharp he looked in those.) "I don't buy it. I've never heard that before, and anyway, it doesn't even sound like Springsteen. It sounds like someone trying to do an imitation of Springsteen, but totally not measuring up."
"Yeah," said Jon, unable to hold back a grin. "That's totally what it sounds like, isn't it?"
"So you admit it!"
"I admit no such thing." Not that Stephen was far off. The song was an early effort, from before the Boss had really settled into his sound, and it had only ever appeared on a limited release that got reviews like "none of these are all that good, but if you're a purist you'll want to pick it up anyway."
As soon as Stephen figured out he had to learn those too, Jon could move on to stumping him with unreleased demos.
He didn't get a chance to declare victory properly, though, because four phones went off at once. When Jon pulled his out, he realized it wasn't a coincidence; Stephen, Jimmy, and Tina would be reading the exact same thing.
This is a mass text. Olivia's going to be way late to the cameo episode. If any of you are at that rehearsal...STALL!
Stephen was on the move before Jon could even begin to work out a plan. He interrupted Steve's conversation with Jimmy and Tina to give the other boy a light shove, whispered something that Jon guessed was play along, then said, loudly, "Steve, that's a stupid thing to say, and you're a stupid person for saying it."
"Well!" exclaimed Steve, stuttering at first, but more confident with every word as he caught on to what Stephen needed him to do. "Well, gosh, Stephen, I can see why you wouldn't appreciate it, because you, Stephen...are a pompous windbag!"
The fight was on.
Olivia's hair was still dripping from the bucket of ice water Mac had dumped over it.
As their golf cart puttered across the lot, she tried to choke down another bite of the chicken wrap, left over from lunch, that her manager had foisted on her. Even though she wasn't hungry. And..."This wrap tastes like feet," she muttered.
"Well, gosh, if you had warned me ahead of time that you were going to need to be sobered up in a hurry this afternoon, I could have arranged for something fresher to be delivered," said Mac sharply.
Okay, Olivia didn't really have a good answer for that.
"I called in a professional to sweep the place." Mac turned the wheel, bringing them chugging around the corner of some production building or another. "Our story is that an unnamed person on your style team, who has of course been fired, was using your room and possibly others as a place to hide their stash. Plenty of people on the crew won't believe it for a second, but they'll pretend to, and that's all we need."
Not that Olivia cared what the crew thought. Most of them could be fired in a heartbeat if they gave her any grief. So she'd screwed up...once! How many professionals could say they'd never missed an appointment in their whole lives, honestly?
Yeah, now she just had to keep telling herself that.
Even worse, she'd caught sight of Kristen and Wyatt on the way out. She was passably sober by then, if you didn't look too closely, and Mac hadn't let her stop to talk to anyone, but those two knew her too well. They'd be so worried. They'd be so mad. Kristen would be ashamed of her.
"I'm in so much trouble," Olivia told her coffee cup.
"Yes, you are, young lady," said Mac. "Now drink up. You don't sound slurred, thank god, but in a few minutes you'll have to have enough focus to be reading. And we are talking about this afterward. You understand?"
The coffee was bitter and not at all creamy enough. Olivia forced herself to gulp it down anyway.
They pulled up to the Shout*For studio, flashed their badges at the front desk security, and made their way inside, Olivia mentally yelling at herself all the way. She was going to make up for her screw-up. She was going to be a goddamn professional about this, goddammit. No matter how tough it was to power through, no matter how much effort it took, she was going to find some way to be as professional as everyone else in that room....
Mac opened the room in question, and both she and Olivia jumped back in shock.
Security people were holding back both Steve and Stephen, who were thrashing and yelling at each other, surrounded by toppled chairs and what looked like the shredded remains of at least one script. Everyone else was plastered into corners or huddling on the far side of the U-shaped table. Olivia spotted Jon behind Jimmy and Tina, clutching an inhaler and looking about ready to pass out.
"I hate you!" roared Steve.
"I hate you more!" shrieked Stephen. "Your voice — oh, hi, Olivia — your voice is like a jackal picking at my brain!"
"Again, I am so terribly sorry we're late," said Mac to Brian, who happened to be in a nearby corner. "As I said on the phone, it was entirely my fault. How much have we missed?"