In the air, over the northeast.
Stephen was finding it so much easier to act natural these days. For one thing, he was (mostly) sleeping through the night again. For another, the last couple of weeks before their big New York trip had been almost totally packed with rehearsals and other band stuff, which meant Stephen didn't have a single free moment to go anywhere with Ned. Even his emancipation hearing had been put off until after the trip, on the grounds that if he could legally work more than eight hours a day, Brian would still find ways to fill his time.
And then there were the antidepressants, but he couldn't tell if they were doing anything or if it was just that life in general was looking up so much.
He surreptitiously paged away from his Tumblr app, just to make sure the cameras didn't pick up any identifying information. Jimmy, who had been chilling with his headphones on, pulled them off to keep an eye on what the film crew was doing. Jon, by the window, kept right on looking out at the clouds.
"Tucker, come on over," ordered the director, a man named Chuck. He seemed like a decent guy so far, even though he had questionable taste in sunglasses. "We want you all in the shot."
Their charter plane for the day had seats in groups of four, two facing two with a short table in between. Jimmy had taken the spot next to Jon, leaving Stephen on his own across from them, at least until Tucker reluctantly filled up the last seat.
"So, what has you most excited about this visit to New York?" asked the director.
"The parade!" said Stephen immediately. When he had first found out they were going to be on the Disney float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, he had practically fainted. And now it was tomorrow. He couldn't wait. "It's one of our country's most beautiful odes to the true meaning of Thanksgiving: capitalism and cartoon mascots."
"The concert for me," said Tucker. "We've been working on this thing for so long, it's about time we got to show people."
"Same here," said Jimmy.
Jon was still focusing on the clouds, and Stephen could tell by the small twitches in his face that he was annoyed. Worse yet, the kind of people who bought this DVD would all be accomplished Jon-watchers, so they would probably be able to tell too. "I'm having Thanksgiving dinner with my mom, so obviously there's that. Also, y'know, the weather. I'll get to wear a coat around outside! Like normal people do in November."
The part Jon was looking forward to was the part Stephen found most nerve-wracking, because he was going to that dinner too. Singing the same two songs over and over on a parade float, he could handle. Their Black Friday appearances at FAO Schwarz and the Times Square Disney Store were standard fare, no matter how crowded they got. And the concert that night was going to be great. But impressing three thousand adoring fans was no big deal. Impressing Jon's mom was on a whole other level.
Charlene chose that moment to cut in. "No more interviewing right now. The band is not allowed to over-work their voices two days before showtime," she ordered. "All right, guys, you know the drill. Travel days are still work days. Show me some posture, and we'll start with basic scales."
Jon was all set to be vocally annoyed until Stephen started singing "Deck The Halls." He couldn't begrudge anything that made Stephen happy these days.
(Besides, he wasn't going to be forced to croon many carols himself this year. Brian had let it slip that Jon's current marketing position involved keeping his roles as non-denominational as possible, in the name of looking tolerant. They weren't going to keep him 100% out of the Christmas stuff, because some people in Shout*For's target market would feel Jon was oppressing them otherwise, but it was at least an improvement.)
The band didn't bust into the minibar tonight; the parade was bright and early in the morning, and the last thing they wanted was to do it hung over. Jon found a football game on TV, and stuck it on mute so it wouldn't interrupt Jimmy and Stephen. The pair had Stephen's laptop open on a table and were working on a song: Jimmy testing the sounds of different phrases on his guitar, Stephen humming or mumble-singing lines to check whether they scanned.
"Okay, this is gold," said Stephen at last, after a flurry of typing. "Jon, listen to this, will you? Jimmy, can you play me in?"
"On it," said Jimmy, and strummed a jolly opening chord.
Stephen jumped in almost right away. "Ho! It's another Christmas song~," he chorused, reading off the screen and bopping his head to the beat. "Whoa! Get ready, brother / for another Christmas song! / They play for a month, ad infinitum / One day it struck me — someone must write 'em! / So! It's another Christmas song~!"
Jon had to clamp his hands over his mouth to keep from cracking up. The next verse was a trainwreck of random Christmas-carol imagery, patched together in an almost Frankensteinian shambles of holiday spirit.
And it just kept going. "Hey! It's another Christmas song~! / Yay! Another oft-returning, royalty-earning Christmas song! / I've got plenty more, so go buy a modem / Log into iTunes and pay to download 'em / Pay! For another Christmas song~!"
By the time it was over, Jon's sides hurt from the effort of barely suppressing laughter. "That's amazing," he said. "It's funny, it's catchy, it's the most scathing parody of this glurge I've ever heard."
Stephen's smile froze on his face. "Parody?"
From the way Jimmy, on the couch beside him, suddenly frowned, Jon had a feeling Jimmy thought it was a parody too.
No dice. "This is a very serious expression of my holiday feelings!" cried Stephen. "How can you be so mean about it? How would you feel if I made fun of your favorite Hanukkah carols?"
"Um," said Jon. "We don't really have Hanukkah carols."
Stephen's eyes lit up in a dangerous way. "You don't?"
"It's not even that important," Jon tried to explain. "We kind of latch onto it out of defensiveness because it happens to come up in this season when a Christian holiday eats the whole country, but it's only like the twelfth most important Jewish holiday...."
It was no use; Stephen wasn't listening. "Jon, don't you see? This is an opportunity!" he exclaimed. "You could corner the market!"
"I don't really think...."
"I know you don't write songs," interrupted Stephen, bouncing over to sit on the arm of Jon's chair. "That's okay. I can take care of that part — for a reasonable cut of the profits, of course. You just explain the spirit of Hanukkah to me, and I'll work my magic and bam, we'll have a chart-topper in no time. Maybe even this year! When does the holiday start, anyway?"
Jon sighed. "Twenty-fifth of Kislev."
"Uh-huh," said Stephen seriously. "And...when is that?"
"I'd have to look it up."
"Oh." Stephen waved it off. "Doesn't matter. That's not the important thing. The important thing is...what are you commemorating? What profound holy event is being celebrated here?"
"Um." The thing was, Jon liked the background story, which was full of guerrilla warfare to liberate Jerusalem from an oppressive evil empire who had power-tripped on outlawing Jewish customs right and left. But he had too many bad memories of getting blank stares when he tried to explain the appeal to Christians. And this time last year Stephen had been chastising him for not putting enough enthusiasm into the Shout*For Christmas album, which wasn't encouraging. "There was this oil that was only supposed to be enough to last one night, and it burned for eight."
"Well, that's exciting!" said Stephen, trying to sound chipper. "In these days of high gas prices, a miracle that speaks to us all. And what do you do about it? What are your treasured traditions?"
"Well, I mean, we do get presents," admitted Jon. "All eight days."
"See, now we're getting somewhere!"
"...which in practice means one nice one, then a week of drek."
Stephen's face fell. "Jon? You do feel the Hanukkah spirit, don't you?"
"It's...not my least unfavorite time of year," hedged Jon.
"But~ it's not my least unfavorite time of year~!" trilled Stephen. "That's great! We can totally work with that."
"Maybe you could work with it some other time," put in Jimmy, to Jon's relief. "We're supposed to be saving our voices now, remember?"
With his teeth brushed and his pajamas donned, Stephen spent about ten minutes just staring at his pill case. Antidepressants in one compartment, the low-strength sleeping pills in another, a couple of Vaxasopor in the third.
The little organizer itself had been an impromptu gift from Jimmy, who was the only person aside from Jon and Papa that Stephen had told about his latest prescriptions. (He hadn't told Olivia; she had too much going on to worry about him. He'd stalled for a while before even deciding to tell Jimmy.) It was about the size of an old-fashioned pocketwatch, with an Alice in Wonderland engraving on the cover. It was great.
Stephen was really only staring at the Vaxasopor.
"Hey, you okay in there?" called Jon through the half-open door, startling Stephen enough that he nearly sent the pills flying.
"Great!" squeaked Stephen, snapping the case shut. "Just thinking."
He nudged the door the rest of the way open with his foot. Jon was wearing flannel pajama pants and a faded sweatshirt with ripped cuffs, his curls still damp from the shower.
"The doctor didn't renew my Vaxasopor," said Stephen, hand curled around the pill case. "So I'll run out soon. But she said I could stop earlier, if I wanted...and I want to stop, so we can cuddle in New York for real." He still didn't trust himself to fall asleep at Jon's side if the sleep was Vaxasopor-induced, and he didn't have a lot of other options, since they had decided not to risk bringing the pot cross-country. "But...."
"But you don't want to break out in a whole new level of rebound chills in the middle of The Shout*For 3D Concert Movie Experience?" guessed Jon.
"Well, how about this: You stay on the meds for now, for professional reasons, even if it means missing a special occasion. But you plan to quit for good on, let's say...Monday."
Stephen peered closely at him. "Isn't Monday your...?"
Jon gave him a roguish half-smile. "It would be a pretty good birthday present."
Of course, Stephen already had a perfectly fine present lined up, but this would go with it, no problem, "You are so smart," he gushed, and couldn't resist sashaying across the tiles to give Jon a minty kiss.
His boyfriend tensed a bit. "Uh, you definitely haven't taken the pill yet tonight, right...?"
"Sober as a judge," said Stephen. "Lemme kiss you again."
In matching jackets and color-coordinated hats, Shout*For stood on a slowly rolling platform under a truck-sized Mickey Mouse balloon and sang a cycle of their top three hits, plus their up-tempo pop cover of "Winter Wonderland."
"Love knows no sea~son, love knows no clime / Romance can blossom~ any old time! / Here in the o~pen, we're walking and hopin' together!"
Jon appreciated the attempt to be secular. He really did. (He had also hinted to Brian that he wouldn't mind being non-secular if they got the rights to cover the Springsteen arrangement of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," but no luck yet.)
No instruments today; their hands were all gloved anyway. Instead a row of oversized speakers thundered below their feet, while they crooned into tall microphones and deftly avoided the trailing cords as they danced. Their stage manager for this event — Bobby, who usually got the ones with the unconventional stages — supervised unobtrusively from the back of the float, and, in between tracks, shoveled up piles of lightweight Shout*For merchandise to throw into the crowd.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Every new block of buildings was exactly like the last; every fresh set of scarf-wrapped faces and waving mittened hands was full of clones of the ones they'd just passed.
"Later on, we'll conspi~re / As we dream~ by the fi~re / To face unafraid — the plans that we made / Walking in a winter wonderland!" chorused Jon for what could have been the fifth or fifteenth time, and wondered if this song had always been about making covert sex arrangements, or if he was just projecting.
And then it was over. They wheeled under the cover of a warehouse, packed with vehicles whose slowly-deflating balloons made it look like a trophy room for someone who hunted cartoon characters.
Jon cupped his gloves over his mouth and nose, trying to breathe some heat back into his numb skin. Stephen was red-faced from the cold, but grinning, swaying to the rhythm of the speakers still blasting on the next float behind them. Jimmy hit him up with a wool-muffled high-five.
"Stay right here for a minute, guys," ordered Bobby, while the driver and a couple of technical people extracted themselves from the base of the float. His own bare hands were busy on his phone. "One of your, ah, I guess guests? showed up. Brian's bringing her to meet us here."
Was Mom here early? As the tech people started taking down the mics, Jon craned his neck to see around them, not sure which direction Brian would be coming from.
He was the first of the group to spot their manager. That wasn't Mom along with Brian, though. It was an unfamiliar woman in an old-fashioned wool coat and glasses, her white hair permed into severe waves that framed her face.
Stephen sucked in a gasp.
Then, with a shout of "Mama!", he clambered down the side of the float and took off across the warehouse floor.
Chuck, the movie director, was brokenhearted that he'd missed the big reunion. "I don't suppose you can re-enact it at the restaurant?" he said hopefully in the van on the way to lunch, once Mama was mic'd up and ready to star in some behind-the-scenes features.
"I could!" said Stephen brightly. He was prepared to hug Mama a hundred more times. It felt like a waste that he wasn't hugging her right this second.
"We most certainly will not," said Mama, patting Stephen's hand and addressing Chuck. "You're getting nothing but authentic moments between me and my son. If you wanted footage of our first meeting, you should have been shooting then."
"We aren't allowed to shoot the floats for copyright reasons!" lamented the director.
This plan was fine with Stephen too. It left him and his mother more time to catch up. Felt like years since he'd last seen her face-to-face, and he wanted to personally describe everything that had happened since. Well, everything that didn't fall under the huge swaths of his life he was keeping secret from her, at least.
A handful of fans were gathered outside the restaurant when the vans arrived. The guys pulled off their gloves long enough to sign a handful of autographs before following the rest of the group — the film crew, management, and bodyguards, mostly — inside. They had a nice big room to themselves, with a lush buffet along one side; Stephen was telling Mama about his adventures on the set of The Hobbit by the time he got around to piling his plate with stir-fry.
The two of them were settling into their seats, and Stephen was talking about meeting Matthew McConaughey at a party (leaving out the detail that ol' Matt had given him the bag that turned out not to be oregano), when Jon's voice cut in. "Um, Stephen? I don't want to interrupt anything, but...can I just introduce my mom real quick?"
The Col-berts stood quickly back up.
"It's nice to meet you, Stephen," said the woman at Jon's side. "Jon's told me so much about you."
Stephen had seen Jon's mother in photos now and then, including a few candids that had ended up on JustJared after the paparazzi realized Jon was in New Jersey. In stills, he didn't think she looked that much like her son. Different face shape; her shoulder-length hair was a lighter brown and in looser waves; her mouth was wider and her nose wasn't quite as long; and so on. But here in person, he could see that when she talked, her expressions and the way her face moved were eerily identical to Jon's. She could have been computer-generated, Gollum-style, from a Jon-based motion-capture recording.
"Hi," said Stephen, a little breathless, shaking her hand. "They're all good things, right?"
"They had better be good," said Mama with a knowing laugh. "That's my baby you're talking about. Lorna Col-bert, a pleasure."
"Marion Leibowitz, likewise." The moms shook hands too. "And yes, my Jon hasn't had a word to say against Stephen — not when they're...such good friends. Has Stephen said much to you about their friendship?"
"Of course," said Mama, because Stephen had mentioned Jon in plenty of his anecdotes...as a friend. "It's no surprise, Stephen does have a way of charming everyone he meets. Even if they're a little different! I think it's wonderful."
Jon winced. His mother either didn't notice the slight, or was better at not reacting. "Have you boys had a chance to sort out dinner plans?" she asked. To Mama she explained, "Jon had invited Stephen to join us for Thanksgiving dinner tonight, but of course that was before they knew you'd be here."
"We, uh, haven't really sorted anything out yet," admitted Jon. He had picked up a roll from one of the baskets on the table, and was getting crumbs all over his hand as he toyed with it.
"But of course I'll be eating with you, Mama," added Stephen quickly. It was terrible form — in spite of Ms. Marion's nice clever non-suspicious explanation, the fact was that he and Jon were supposed to be hosting her tonight — but he would rather be a bad host than a bad son.
"Now, sweetheart," chided Mama. "The Leibowitzes have been very generous to invite you, and it wouldn't be right to brush them off."
"It's fine, I swear!" said Jon. "We're not gonna be offended if he takes off to be with his own mom."
"You're very sweet, dear," said Mama, "but —"
"What if she ate with us?" blurted Stephen.
"Uh," said Jon. "We only told the restaurant three people...."
"But we reserved a private room. It's not like they can't pull in another chair."
"If it's what you want, I don't see a problem with it," put in Ms. Marion.
"It's what I want," said Stephen firmly. Sure, that setup would defeat the whole purpose of his planned real-talk-with-the-boyfriend's-mom dinner, but it would mean Mama had nothing to complain about. And wasn't that the most important thing?
Before anyone else could agree, another new voice cut in: one of the administrative assistants from the film crew. "Excuse me, ma'am, you just got here, right? Do we have a signed release to film you, Ms....?"
"Oh — for the movie special features? Yes, I mailed that to you last week," said Jon's mother. "It's Ms. Leibowitz — did you get it?"
The assistant was scrolling through something on her iPad. "Yes, you're all clear. Just need to set you up...." She raised her eyes from the screen and gave Ms. Marion a critical once-over. "What kind of underwear do you have on?"
"Hey!" barked Jon. "A little tact, please?"
"It's all right, dear," put in Mama gently. "The crew just need to figure out where to attach the microphone pack. It's quite standard. These Hollywood people just can't help being rude sometimes."
It had sounded like a routine, non-rude question to Stephen. He didn't bring it up, though. Mama would only remind him that he wasn't Hollywood, not really; he was, and would always be, a good Southern boy.
"I...see," said Ms. Marion. "Anything else 'standard' that I should know about?"
"You're practically film-ready as-is," the admin assistant reassured her. "We'll have to redo your makeup, of course, and I'm not sure about those earrings, but it won't take more than twenty minutes in the van to fix you up."
"Just do everything they say and it'll be over faster," Jon told his mom. "I'll save you some shrimp from the buffet in case they run out."
Getting to rehearsal was a relief. This was nice and straightforward. This, Jon could handle.
It was the first time they'd put together the whole concert, start to finish, all the musical and technical people doing their thing together. The lights strobed. The smoke machines poured. The backup band (lining the back of the stage, wearing all black, carefully unlit) supported the guys while they had hands on instruments, and played whole songs when they switched to dance numbers.
With his fingers comfortably against his guitar strings, Jon slid into full-on focused work mode, playing the chords he knew by heart and crooning into his freestanding mic with well-practiced emotion.
A few steps in front of him, Stephen sang the solo while Jon and the others na-na-na'd and oooh'd along. "Here I am, last of the romantics / Every time, I get caught in the sway / I'm just a fool~ for a love song / But I wouldn't have it any other way...."
In the wake of imaginary applause, spotlights sweeping across them, Stephen yelled a few things to warm up the nonexistent crowd. He might or might not improvise new things tomorrow, depending on how inspired he felt. Either way, he included the pauses for applause.
They launched into the obligatory fame-hasn't-changed-us tune, which was a string of platitudes so trite that Jon didn't even feel guilty spouting such blatant lies. "Living life, life in the fast lane / Not that bad, no one can complain / Who's to say that we won't keep it real?" he chorused with the group. "Hold on tight, don't you dare let go / Now's the time to let the whole world know / You can shine bright but still keep it real!"
Down went the instruments. The techies would do some rearranging behind them during the first dance number. Not Jon's job to worry about. He just had to grab the mic off its stand, remember his steps, and sing.
It was an ensemble song, the four of them trading off solos and coming together for the chorus. Stephen sang the opening, Tucker picked it up, and Jon followed with his own lines: face passably entreating, feet perfectly in sync. "Did I do something stupid? / Yeah, girl, if I blew it / Just tell me what I did, let's work through it / There's got to be some way / To get you to want me / Like before...."
It was Jon's turn to wait through the predicted applause, and work the mostly-nonexistent crowd. (Some of the staff were in the seats. Plus the family members, although Jon knew this was when the film crew would be pulling them aside to do one-on-one interviews.) A few snarky comments drifted through his mind, but right now it wasn't hard to let them pass by unsaid. He was in the zone, in a way he could never get with acting.
The lights went violet and blue, Jon made a quick hand signal, and Jimmy, now at a grand piano with Tucker and Stephen wielding guitars on either side of him, launched into the opening chords of A Whole New World.
Instead of a duet, it was arranged as another ensemble song, the four of them (but mostly Jon) working together to serenade the audience. "A whole new world —" (Tucker: "Every turn a surprise~") "With new horizons to pursue —" (Stephen: "Every moment red-letter~") "I'll chase them an~ywhere / There's time to spare / Let me share this whole new world with you~..."
It was the only part of the concert where Jon let anything bleed through from the parts of his life not allowed to his well-scrubbed public persona. He thought about Stephen: not the full extent of the complex, moody, sexy, frustrating, loving, funny, eager-to-please Stephen that Jon adored, but just enough to dive past their PR images and give the emotion in his voice some depth.
And on it went. There was the song about being willing to do anything "for you, girl." The song about how great it was to follow your dreams. The song about unexpectedly falling for the girl you'd been friends with for years. Interspersed with a balloon drop, with Stephen quizzing the crowd on Shout*For trivia, with a couple of short conversations about how happy they were to be in New York with their "best friends."
At last they got to Walking On Sunshine — "I used to think may~be you loved me — now baby, I'm su~ure!" — a triumphant note to end on before they cut to intermission. "Thank you!" trumpeted Stephen, while they waved at all the empty seats of Madison Square Gardens. "We love you all!"
Backstage was a flurry of activity. Water bottles were pressed into their hands; makeup techs dabbed the sweat Jon hadn't noticed until now from their faces; the film crew swarmed around to get shaky-cam shots of the four guys catching their breaths.
They got a quick pep talk from Brian. It wasn't much more than "You're doing great. Keep it up."
The clock was ticking down its last few minutes, and the guys were doing their second round of warmup stretches, when Jon's mother found them. She'd come to a couple of concerts before, when the band was in the area, but never seen rehearsal like this. "How are you doing?"
He was too focused to spare much attention for her right now. "I'm good, Mom."
"I don't think I ever appreciated just how...disciplined you boys are."
"Well, yeah," said Jon, leaning forward on one knee, counting off fifteen as he felt the burn in his hamstrings. "It's work."
Mom said something about how good they were about looking spontaneous during actual concerts, and how the atmosphere backstage during the prep wasn't as relaxed or happy as she had expected, especially considering how much fun he'd had with music when he was a kid, and was it always like this? Their stage manager, Bobby, said they were on in two.
Jon tried to sift his mother's comments through the rigid fog of notes and lyrics and motions that was taking up most of his brain. "It's not...listen, singing and instruments and everything are fun, definitely, but this is still a job, you know?" He was only dimly aware that a camera was rolling about ten feet behind him. "Fun isn't the point. We can't just fuck around and do whatever and expect to get a useful product out of it. I mean, we have schedules to keep, here."
"Of course, of course," said his mother. "Sweetheart...have I told you lately how proud I am of you?"
The emotion of it would sink in later. In the moment, all Jon said was, "Hang on to that until we're finished the second act."