Brian took a look at it for him. "Yes, that's about as much traffic as your account normally gets."
The band had finally been handed over the reins to their official @Shout4 Twitter accounts, after going through a PR crash course in what they were allowed to say. Stephen, Jimmy, and Tucker already had their own protected accounts they used with family and friends; as usual, it was only Jon who was learning the service from scratch.
"All I even tweeted was a picture of my mom's cat," protested Jon. How had that been retweeted 18243 times?
"Well, I did retweet you this morning," Stephen reminded him. "You got the benefit of the Col-bert Bump."
"Remember, you're not obligated to respond to anyone," said Brian. "Or to read them all. Or even to read them at all. Outside of our publicly scheduled Twitter answer-a-thons, of course."
Jon scanned the list of replies again. Declarations of love, breathless questions about trivia of his life, pleas for him to retweet them, lots of usernames like @MrsFallon and @JonsWife, lots of others that were either outright obscene or just ridiculously porny (seriously, @CarlosDanger?)..."I think I'll do that, yeah."
"Great. If there are no more questions...?"
Head-shakes all around the table.
"Next on the agenda: we're partnering with the Red Cross to encourage giving blood, and hopefully all of you will be able to donate. If not, we need to know ahead of time." Brian handed them each a folder full of papers. "You're all sixteen, or at least, you all will be by the time the event gets here...." A nod to Jimmy, who grinned at the reminder that his birthday was coming up fast. "...so you're going to need parental agreement. The permission slips are in here, along with the requirements for donation. Go ahead and read them."
This was actually important, so Jon sat back and took it in slowly, careful not to miss anything. Lots of medical questions. No, he'd never had cancer; no, never had a brain covering graft; no, wasn't taking any antibiotics. The rest of them were varied. No, he hadn't gotten a tattoo in the past year. No, he'd never been to Africa. No, he wasn't....
Seriously, the one that blocked gay men was still in here? It was 2011, for god's sake.
"I'm good," he said out loud, closing the folder.
Brian gave him a stern look. "I'm assuming you're all good. Of course, if you realize you might not be, you can let me know later in private."
Colbert residence, morning.
Sure enough...it wasn't Jon's aunt's car.
"Ohmigod," breathed Stephen, circling the sleek black Camaro convertible while Jon grinned at him from the driver's seat. Even in the dull light of what was turning out to be a grey morning, it shone. "Is this yours? Can I touch it?"
"Was gonna invite you to ride it," said Jon, with a roguish smirk.
And yeah, there was a twitch in Stephen's pants at that, but could you blame him? This car was hot.
"It's wild. I just emailed my mom yesterday to tell her I passed at the DMV," continued Jon, his more innocent enthusiasm taking over. "So this morning my aunt says, hey, your mom sent you a present. And I say, where is it?, and she says, it's still outside. And I, completely failing to connect the dots here, I say: geez, you couldn't even bother to bring it in?"
Stephen ran his fingers along the smooth chassis of the passenger-side door. "I wonder if my mom would get me a car if I learned to drive."
"Well, until then, mine is at your service," said Jon. "I even got a blanket in back, so the dog can come along. Where do you feel like going today? We could pick up Jimmy, and maybe Steve or Tina, hang out wherever...or, you know, we could just...go. If you wanted."
Oh, Stephen did not trust himself alone with Jon right now. Even with Briar Rose around to chaperone. "I'll call Jimmy and the others. You drive."
Before he could get in, though, there was a shout from the front door. "Stephen!"
Stephen stood up straighter. "Yes, Papa?" he yelled back.
"Don't yell, boy! Come here!"
"Excuse me a minute," said Stephen to Jon, and pulled himself together as he jogged back to the house. (His puppy stayed at the car, sniffing the tires.)
Papa was standing in the front hall, still in pajamas, but no less imposing for it. "Where are you going?"
"Out," stammered Stephen. "Jon got his license, so...out. Jimmy's coming too," he added, just in case Papa had guessed what effect the car was having on him.
"You remember that you have work this evening?"
"It's just a radio appearance," said Stephen without thinking.
"What do you mean, 'just'?" snapped Papa. "You understand that your voice is your career right now?"
"Yes, sir! All I meant was, it won't mean doing a lot of makeup...I'll be back in plenty of time, I swear!"
"And you won't get yourself in any trouble?"
"Because if I hear you've started any more fights...."
Stephen didn't even try to explain the purpose behind his shouting match with Steve. No matter what started it, the strain it put on his vocal cords was the same, and that was what Papa really cared about. Besides, if Papa got the idea that Olivia might be a risk to Stephen's image.... "I'll be good! No fighting. No shouting. I promise."
Eventually his father was satisfied, barely, to let Stephen go.
He relayed his curfew to Jon in between entreating Briar Rose to stay on her blanket. They had to play this whole outing super careful. Couldn't risk giving Papa an excuse to veto the whole idea of Stephen going places with no adults around.
"Got it," said Jon, as they cruised along one of the winding roads on the slope that bordered the ocean. The water itself flickered in and out of sight in the view past his head, showing up between house roofs and palm trees and carefully-tended hedges. "So I guess we should leave the weed in the trunk, then."
Stephen let out a squeaky noise of dismay.
"I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" Jon's eyes were fixed on the road, but it was like he was smiling at Stephen anyway. "Didn't even bring it. Like I would risk driving my baby high."
Olivia was grounded. So very grounded. No going any farther than the end of the yard, no friends over, no phone except when she was at work, no nothing.
It was a good thing her mom didn't really understand how computers worked.
"I don't know why you guys even bother to argue about this," said Wyatt, his poorly-lit face pixelated in one corner of her screen. In the center was the video feed they were screensharing, currently on a recent episode of The Daily Show. "The hottest correspondent is Harry Styles. I'm a straight guy and even I can tell that."
"Harry Styles is so overrated," countered Kristen, whose face was right above his, and so washed-out it was hard to see. Apparently she was watching from the roof, which was bright even on a gloomy day like this. "People just like him because he has the British accent."
"Oh, come on, he's funny," piped up Tina from the top of the stack of faces. She paused, the way she still kept doing after she voiced an opinion; when nobody told her it was wrong, she elaborated. "I mean, I want Selena Gomez to get more of the credit she deserves as much as the next feminist fan of fake-comedy-journalism, but that doesn't mean Harry isn't funny."
Kristen just grumbled in disapproval.
"I'm not even talking about whether he's funny or not, I'm just saying," said Wyatt. "That on our screens right there is a very aesthetically pleasing human being."
The bit currently playing involved Harry and Britney, in "Team Mormon" and "Team Normal" T-shirts respectively, discussing whether Mitt Romney's religion was a dealbreaker in the presidential race.
"Sure is," said Kristen. "And next to her is Harry."
"They are all beautiful in their own way," declared Olivia. She picked up her root beer from the floor beside her bed, only to find the glass empty. "'Can we pause? I gotta go get a refill."
"Oh my god, you guys, it's a root beer float," groaned Olivia. "Give me some credit. Like I can't manage to be sober for a couple hours of watching TV with my friends? Besides, Mom cleaned out the liquor cabinet, and Sarah Beth won't buy any more."
Granted, the emergency stash in her room was still safely untouched, but they didn't need to know that. Besides, she hadn't touched it all day, so it wasn't like she was lying.
"And by the way," she added, before pulling off her headphones to go get more soda, "none of the correspondents have ever topped Miley for hotness, and I will fight you on that one."
It took less than an hour to find a nice spot up in the hills, on a low-traffic road surrounded by scrub-covered peaks and valleys almost as far as the eye could see. A slice of ocean was still visible in the V between two slopes.
Jimmy sat up on the back of the convertible's rear seats, picking out tunes on his guitar. Steve threw sticks for Briar Rose to play fetch with. And Jon, who had brought a soccer ball, tried to teach Stephen how to dribble. It was good weather to run around in — almost like LA was considering that it might be fall, though Jon knew it would give up the idea and go back to its eternal summer in a day or two.
When they strolled back to the car (Jon's car, oh man) to get some water, Jimmy said, "You guys mind listening to something and telling me if you like it?"
So they ended up taking a break for a while, sitting around in the grass and providing the audience for what turned out to be the melody of an entire pop song, verses and a chorus and a nice stirring bridge to tie it all together.
"That's pretty good," said Steve at the end. "I mean, I don't know a lot about songwriting, so take me with a grain of salt, but, you know, I liked it."
"I love what you've done with the chord progression since the last time I heard it!" said Stephen. "Still think it needs more drums, though."
"None of us play the drums," Jimmy reminded him.
"Yeah, we should probably fix that," remarked Jon, absently taking the latest stick Briar Rose had brought back and throwing it as far as he could. (It wasn't far.) "I mean, we're not going to have Disney making sure we have a backup band for the rest of our lives, you know?"
"So you guys are all definitely sticking together post-Disney?" said Steve.
Jon froze. He'd kind of assumed it without realizing. Was he being naive? Or presumptuous?
"We haven't really talked about it," said Jimmy diplomatically.
"But it would be nice," said Stephen. "If we could. If we're not all signed by different labels the second the band is over."
"Besides, even if we are, it doesn't mean we can't get back together and do something down the road, right?" added Jon. He still had a hard time imagining Stephen and Jimmy deliberately working apart. And while it was possible to imagine himself and Stephen being separated, he sure didn't like the idea.
The dog came back with her stick, and pointedly avoided Jon to drop it in front of Steve. Great, even animals understood that his pitching arm sucked.
"And by that time, one of us will have learned the drums!" said Stephen triumphantly.
Jimmy didn't look reassured. "I was sort of hoping to play a finished version of this before then."
Jon raised his eyebrows. "What's the rush?"
"Wait wait wait!" said Steve, voice rising with excitement. "Is this for someone?"
Avoiding all of their gazes, Jimmy strummed a cautious-but-upbeat chord.
"This is so exciting!" cried Steve, while Jon and Stephen made various noises of congratulations. "Hang on — it isn't Stephen, is it?"
Spluttering all around.
"Okay, now this is getting ridiculous," said Jon. He wasn't mad at Steve, exactly, but his temper was definitely up. Stephen was his, dammit, and even though 99.9% of the world wasn't supposed to know that, was that any excuse not to respect it? "You actually know us! Why are you believing things you read in Internet fanfiction?"
Steve blinked. "Fanfiction...about you guys?"
"Well, yeah," said Jimmy. "Is there anywhere else you'd run into the idea that me and Stephen are having a secret love affair?"
"What would people even write you doing in fanfiction?" asked Steve, still stuck on the point.
"Having lots of sex with each other, going to Hogwarts, and/or hanging around in coffee shops," replied Stephen, and, wow, that was weirdly specific. Had Stephen actually been reading the stuff? "Answer the question."
Steve fidgeted in his spot on the grass. "Look, I'm not saying I took any of this a hundred percent seriously, okay? But, you know, someone in my European History class last year sent me these links, and it's just...it's wall-to-wall gifs of you guys being all over each other. Plus videos. Plus, like, quotes. With sources! And then you'll get other people trying to argue that it doesn't mean anything, but those are the same people who think Stephen and Olivia are totally in love and sexually attracted to each other, so what do they know, right?"
"That's a good point," breathed Stephen, brow furrowed.
"It is not!" cried Jimmy.
"It sort of is," said Jon. "I mean, they're barking up the wrong tree, but it's not totally illogical barking."
"So, just to be clear," said Steve. "You guys are definitely not an item."
"Definitely not," said Stephen.
"Not even close," said Jimmy with a groan. "How many other people are getting this idea? What if our PR team thinks it? What if Tina thinks it?"
"Well, Tina wouldn't," said Jon automatically, because she knew Stephen was taken, not that he should have even started bringing that up around Steve, whoops....
"Ooooooh," cut in Stephen, interrupting Jon's panicky self-centered train of thought. Next thing they knew, Stephen had Jimmy wrapped in a hug that was only slightly hindered by the guitar, cooing, "This is so exciting! Congratulations! You are going to be so cute together!"
"Stephen, calm down!" pleaded Jimmy. "I don't even know if she likes me like that yet!"
"But obviously she's going to love you!" exclaimed Stephen. (Briar Rose had gotten wind of the excitement and was trotting in circles around the two of them, trying to sniff out a place to insert herself into the fun.) "Who wouldn't jump on this if they had the chance?"
Steve rolled his eyes at the pair. "See, this is why people think you're gay for each other."
Olivia had almost forgotten there was anything on her schedule that night until she heard voices arguing downstairs. One of them was Mom's, the other...was that Mac? Oh, geez, Mac had probably texted her about this, and obviously she hadn't been able to read it.
She abandoned her barely-touched social studies textbook and went down the spiral staircase that opened into the front hall. Mom was doing her embarrassing broken-English yelling again. "She no go anywhere. She grounded!"
"I understand that you want to discipline your daughter, but she has professional obligations!" countered Mac. "Which you agreed to. Those have to come first!"
"Hi, Mac!" called Olivia, pasting on an obnoxiously bright grin.
"Olivia! Why aren't you dressed? Didn't you get my text?"
"Mom has my phone. What's wrong with my outfit?" demanded Olivia. Sure, the top was lower-cut than they let her wear on TV, but..."It's only radio, right?"
"You put on any shirt you want, but you stay right here," snapped Mom.
"You took her phone?" asked Mac.
"Yeah, she did," said Olivia. "See if you can get it back while I change, okay?"
She practically flew back to her room, exchanged the tank top for a blouse that barely dipped low enough to show her collarbones, and grabbed a pair of heels that added a good two inches to her height. Not that she didn't kind of tower over Mom already, but every little bit helped.
There was no sign of her phone when she got back, just her mother, arms crossed, planted firmly in her way.
«I don't care what kind of work obligations you have,» snapped Mom, having switched into Chinese. «You are still my daughter before anything else, and you listen to me first.»
«Not your baby daughter, Mom!» shot back Olivia. «I'm a teenager. With a job. You don't get to pen me up like a two-year-old!»
«If you show the bad judgment of a two-year-old, then yes, I do!»
«And how are you gonna pull that off? Hit me in front of Mac? Handcuff me in my room?» Olivia pushed past her — she'd never tried it before, and wow, her mom was lighter than she'd realized— and made it to her manager's side without so much as a wobble on her heels. "All right, come on, let's go."
"We will bring her back here directly, as soon as she's done!" called Mac over her shoulder as she ushered Olivia out into the night.
On Air with Chris Matthews studio, evening.
"T-T-Tim," stammered the voice on the other end of the line, shaky in the headphones against Stephen's ear.
"Hi, Tim!" said Olivia brightly. Almost suspiciously so.
"Good to hear from you, Tim," said Stephen into his own mic.
"So, Tim, what do you want to ask these two?" added Chris.
"I h-had a question for Stephen," said Tim breathlessly. "Do you get to kiss Lisa a lot? And what's it like?"
"Whoa! Someone's not afraid to cut to the chase," laughed the host. "So, Stephen, how about it?"
"Well," stammered Stephen. He adjusted his glasses and fiddled with his collar to fill time, then remembered that visual things didn't fill any time on the radio. "It's...it's like...it's nice! Obviously it's nice. You would expect it to be nice, right? Um...oh, and I get to kiss her basically whenever I want. I mean, if she's okay with it! But I wouldn't want to kiss her when she isn't okay with it. You shouldn't do that to people."
He swallowed; sweat beaded on his forehead. They were both having unwanted kisses pushed on them, weren't they? It was okay when it was being filmed for the movie, but as for the rest, telling himself it was part of the job only went so far.
Stephen knew he should be grateful. As assigned-fake-girlfriends went, he could have had so much worse luck.
"She's one of my best friends," he continued. Had to find a balance between truth and what he was allowed to admit to. Call it truthiness. "We could be doing almost anything and it would be fun, you know? It's not even just about the thing, it's about knowing that it's making her happy."
But what if it was making her desperately unhappy? It sure felt like she drank more often before their scheduled dates or appearances than their genuine friendly hanging-out. What if Stephen, by not standing up for himself, was helping to keep her miserable? What if she never would have started down this spiral at all if, back before the charade started, he'd managed to keep his tongue in his own mouth in the first place?
"You are happy, right?" he said, blinking back tears.
"Aww, boo, c'mere," cooed Olivia.
Stephen was more relieved than he could say when she didn't pull him into a kiss, just touched her forehead to his and rubbed noses a little. He didn't have the presence of mind to smell her breath. Keeping his own steady was taking some effort.
"Oh, this is too cute, listeners. They're not scared at all to get a little cuddly in public! Young love — nothin' like it. Sends a shiver up my leg just watching," sighed Chris. "Thank you so much for your call, Tim. Coming up next: one of the big hits from Shout*For's latest album, right after this."
The RECORDING light snapped off as they switched to commercial.
Stephen was still having trouble breathing.
"Can I get a minute with my client?" cut in Brian's voice. To Stephen's ear it was like a choir of angels. He pulled off the headphones and let the Shout*For manager usher him out of the recording booth, where a cup of icy water was pushed into his hands. "Long day?"
"I'm f-fine," insisted Stephen. "Contact lenses...irritating my eyes. Th-that's all."
"Stephen, you're wearing glasses now."
"Wanted e-extra sharp vision," said Stephen stubbornly.
Brian sighed and handed him a couple of tissues...then tipped open a palm-sized box with Prescott Pharmaceuticals markings and handed Stephen a single plastic-and-tinfoil casing. "Vaxachillpill. Nothing too potent, non-habit-forming. It's just to knock back the anxiety you're getting from withdrawal."
"It's not from withdrawal," said Stephen, though he was already peeling off the tinfoil. He gulped down the pill, swallowed, and explained, "Vaxasopor withdrawal doesn't have side effects."
"I will keep that in mind," said Brian with perfect solemnity. "In the meantime, I'm going to have a talk with Ned about us cutting back on your workload for a while."
"No!" exclaimed Stephen. Papa had only barely cut him any slack when he unexpectedly collapsed. Now that the problem was fixable, if he tried to beg off work he would only end up with Papa standing over him every night, counting out two Vaxasopor and watching until he swallowed. "I can keep up! I swear I can keep up. Don't make me stop."
Night of Jimmy's 16th birthday.
Basically everyone she knew (and liked) was going to the celebration. And the closest she was going to get herself would be when Kristen texted her a photo of the cake.
Or so she thought, until she got a text that didn't use the sound she'd associated with Kristen.
I know this is last minute but could you give me fashion advice maybe?
<3 Olivia <3
tbh I have stylists who do most of that 4 me but I can give it a shot!
I really just want to know if an outfit makes me look ummmm hot
Not that I think just because you like girls you would automatically find me hot
Not that I have such low self-esteem that I'm sure you would find me *not* hot
<3 Olivia <3
wow ok u gotta chill out here
<3 Olivia <3
just take a photo and send it, ok?
She sat back and waited for Tina to get it together enough to find a mirror, take a selfie, and figure out how to forward it.
Apparently Tina already had the photo waiting, because it showed up on her screen seconds later.
Olivia's jaw may or may not have dropped.
Tina was wearing a fitted black blouse with a satiny scooped neckline, not actually sheer but looking like it wanted to be. While her usual wardrobe fabric gave off the impression that her figure hadn't changed since her Weekend Update days, this was gathered in the front to show off a perky bustline Olivia hadn't realized she'd possessed. This was on top of dark jeans, just denim-y enough to be casual, but practically tight enough to be painted on. She'd done something with her hair to make it fall in spiraling brown waves, and had replaced her old glasses with a pair of slim black frames.
<3 Olivia <3
trust me on this one: u could not look hotter. go get ur man.
Who said anything about a man? I didn't say anything about a man
<3 Olivia <3
u didnt have to bb, ur cleavage said it 4 u ;)
It took a couple more texts for Olivia to convince Tina that this was a plus, but she was still feeling good. Sure, she might miss some of the night's events, but with at least one juicy detail she had gotten an exclusive sneak preview.
The turnout for cake and loud music at Jimmy's place was pretty good. Apparently he'd invited most of their fake classmates; Sam, Jason, Al, Sarah Vowell, and Susie Sampson had all made it, along with the more usual suspects of Tina, Kristen, Steve, Jon, and Stephen.
Jon had picked Stephen up to drive him over. In the sexy car. Stephen couldn't wait to catch Jimmy away from the non-it-getter crowd so he could gloat about it.
Speaking of sexy: Tina. Stephen might be gay, all right, but he wasn't blind. Plus, it wasn't like he could miss the way his BFF's gaze kept being drawn to various bits of her...and, to a lesser extent, his BF's gaze. He silently vowed keep Jon on a short leash tonight.
Everything went fine until he, Jon, Jimmy, Kristen, Sarah, and Al got into a musical-off.
Jon missed a song early and left the group, and of course Stephen couldn't just quit and follow him, especially not when Sarah turned out to have way more esoteric Broadway knowledge than anyone realized. And then Sarah beat him, so Stephen had to stick around and send as many good vibes as possible in Jimmy's direction, to make sure this usurper didn't beat both of them.
When Jimmy won, he accepted the applause and hugs, but kept scanning the room for a face that wasn't there. "Come on," said Stephen, grabbing his arm. "Let's go find Tina so I can tell her how you won."
"You really don't have to," said Jimmy, but he didn't fight all that hard.
No sign of her in the kitchen, the dining room, or the breakfast nook. Nobody on the deck out back.
A low light in the den. "Probably Gloria," whispered Jimmy. His older sister had joined them for cake, then taken off. "We shouldn't bother her."
"If it's her, we can still say hi," said Stephen, and pulled him across the threshold...
...to find Jon and Tina sitting alone together on a couch, sodas in hand and heads bowed towards each other, speaking in low, almost intimate voices.
Stephen cleared his throat. Loudly.
The cozy pair on the couch jumped away from each other, looking at him and Jimmy in the doorway. Was that guilt on their faces? Jimmy had frozen in place, and Stephen was holding his breath — he was not going to jump to conclusions, he wasn't going to be Bolt again, but what if — what would he do if —
Then Jon said, "Oh my god, I am not going to have my life devolve into bad-romantic-comedy shenanigans. Tina. Go. Do the thing, already."
"Yeah, no, I get it, I'm anti-shenanigan too." Tina stood up, strode across the burgundy carpet with as much conviction as Stephen had ever seen from her — took a deep breath — grabbed Jimmy — and kissed him. Hard.
Stephen backpedaled so fast he hit the wall.
Jimmy mmphed and flailed, and Tina had terrible form and kept the kiss going for way too long not to be awkward, but they sort of had their arms around each other by the time they pulled back (and Stephen could always give them more detailed pointers later). "I didn't even ask yet!" spluttered Jimmy. "I had all these great things to say — I wrote you a song!"
"Really?" Tina looked horrified. "Did I mess up your whole plan? Should we back up so you can play it for me first?"
"No!" said Jimmy breathlessly. "No, this is good."
Something touched Stephen's back, making him jump. He'd forgotten all about his own boyfriend. "You guys probably want to have some personal conversation here, so me and Stephen are gonna go grab some more cannolis," said Jon, squeezing his shoulder.
"Ooh, don't eat all of them, I want more of those," said Tina. "Also, thank you! For the encouragement. Probably should've said that first."
"Yeah, seriously, I owe you one," agreed Jimmy, grinning from ear to ear.
"Dude, no, think about that for a second." Jon let his arm fall possessively around Stephen's waist. "I'd say this makes us even."