Jon had been aware that Anthony had taken him up on the offer of free VIP concert tickets, and had chartered a car to pick his guests up. He hadn't realized that, when the band swung into the limo after a full morning of public events with Shout*For fans, he might nearly sit on Huma Abedin.
"Sorry!" he exclaimed, not quite registering who it was. Then he did a double-take at the dark-haired girl with supermodel cheekbones, stunning in a dark red dress whose neckline fell in a V right down to her belt. "Uh, hi." His brain fogged over for a second, but managed to register Anthony in a fitted T-shirt and a nice jacket next to her. "Huma?"
"Jon! So good to see you."
The other band members had all piled in onto the long seat after him, with Killer bringing up the rear. Jimmy and Stephen were still waving at the fans until their bodyguard pulled the door shut; Tucker, less distracted, also did a double-take at Huma. "Whoa! Did one of them sneak in?"
"No, I'm not a fan," said Huma quickly. "I mean, I am — I'm a huge fan — but...."
"She's my guest," said Jon. "Guys, this is Huma and Anthony. You probably remember Anthony from all my New Jersey candids, and Huma's his girlfriend."
Huma cleared her throat, shooting Anthony a look.
"Uh, we're actually taking a break right now," said Anthony. "But when we were actively dating I made a promise that I would take her to meet Shout*For, and now I am keeping that promise."
"So I guess you already know who the guys are," said Jon, indicating the rest of the band.
"Hi," said Tucker.
"Nice to meet you," said Jimmy.
And Stephen, fixated on Anthony, blurted, "Can I touch your pecs?"
Jon facepalmed. Sure, he was glad Stephen's mood hadn't (yet?) tanked entirely since his mother had basically frozen him out before, but come on.
"That was unprovoked!" exclaimed Anthony, addressing Huma. "You were watching, right? I did absolutely nothing to encourage him."
Except post half-naked pictures all over Twitter, Jon thought. For his friend's sake, though, he kept it to himself.
"It's all right," said Huma. "I would have absolutely no problem if you let Stephen Col-bert touch your chest. And if any of the rest of you want to join in...?"
"Oh my god," groaned Tucker.
"I think we'll pass," translated Jimmy.
"None for me, thanks," agreed Jon. "But Stephen, by all means, have at it."
Anthony sighed. "Okay, okay! But I want it on the record that I'm not going to enjoy it."
No matter what else happened to him, Stephen could still block out the worst of it and throw himself wholly into a show. And oh, was tonight's crowd more than delighted to receive him. Thrilling to the applause, he sang his heart out — even when he wasn't the lead singer, as with A Whole New World — which, since Stephen had been the one to introduce Jon to the joys of Aladdin in the first place, he felt he deserved most of the credit for anyway.
"How's everybody doing so far?" he called, reclaiming center stage from Jon as the latest round of ecstatic flailing died down. "You all excited to be here?" Shouts and cheers. "I hear tickets sold out in only a few hours. Wow! You all must be really big fans, am I right?"
Everyone from eight-year-old girls to sixteen-year-old girls cheered their approval. The first few rows, where people were so close that they'd had to sign releases promising they wouldn't get sick from the smoke-machine fumes, were practically hyperventilating. Stephen wanted to hug every single one of them.
"I don't know, though," he said, with a roguishly raised eyebrow. "Are you big enough fans to know everything there is to know about Shout*For? Huh? You think you could answer a few trivia questions?"
They could. They so could. Piece of cake.
"Fantastic!" crowed Stephen. "Let's do this."
He brought them through a couple of general questions about the band's work, then switched to the personal. You could gauge how popular each of the guys was with this crowd by how many people shouted the right answers for them.
"One for the Tucker fans! Where was Tucker born?...San Francisco, that's right! What's Jon's favorite food?" That got a jumble of answers; no wonder, since Jon himself could never keep it straight. "All of you who said pizza, give yourselves a pat on the back! Let's try another. When is Jon's birthday?"
This was the point where he broke away from the script they'd done in dress rehearsal. The crowd, oblivious, just yelled the date.
Stephen paused, feigning shock. "November twenty-eighth?" he echoed. "That's just a few days away! And I haven't even gotten his present yet!"
Mixed aww's and boos from the audience.
"I'm kidding, I'm kidding," grinned Stephen. "Of course we all have his presents ready! And so do a bunch of you, judging by the number of gifts our handlers have piled up backstage." (Cheers from the Jon girls. There were lots.) "We're having those shipped back to L.A. so he can open them the day of, but in the meantime...Jon?"
He spun on his heel to look at Jon for the first time all monologue. A few steps back on the stage, Jon was deer-in-headlights stunned. "Yeah?" he replied — then, at a meaningful nod from Stephen, stumbled forward to actually speak into the nearest freestanding mic. "Yes, Stephen, what is it? ...Can you all tell I didn't get to rehearse this bit?"
Stephen let the appreciative laughter run its course before answering. "It just so happens, Jon, that when your wonderful and talented bandmates were packing for New York, we happened to throw our birthday gifts for you into our suitcases. In case you wanted to open them early."
"Um," said Jon. "Is that even allowed? What am I supposed to say?"
In a stage whisper, Stephen hissed, "Say you want presents!"
The audience, clearly quicker on the uptake than Jon, cheered their approval.
Out came a couple of stagehands, boxes at the ready (with gifts that had actually been planned and vetted almost entirely by Brian, but the crowd didn't need to know that). "From Tucker" came a couple of authentic high-quality replica lightsabers. Jimmy had "picked out" a jacket painstakingly molded to mimic the Dark Knight Rises body armor. And "Stephen's gift" was a limited-edition Springsteen LP, framed and autographed.
"And one more thing...." said Stephen, appropriating the final, tiny, lightweight box. This one, he actually had picked out himself. It was the cheapest of the lot by at least a factor of twenty. (Assuming Stephen understood correctly what "a factor of" meant.)
"Oh my god, there's more?" said Jon, with a breathless laugh.
"Last one, I promise."
Jon reached for the box. "Well, come on, hand it over."
"Hang on, I need to set this up!" Stephen turned to the giggling audience. "You people know who my Best Friend Forever is, right?"
Jimmy's name echoed around the arena.
"That's right! And we have the friendship necklaces to prove it." He pulled his own out of his shirt, flashing the half-heart at one of the cameras to make sure it could get the close-up, then addressed Jon again. "So, Jon, I am sorry to say that that role is taken. Which is why I thought, perhaps, as an alternative...."
He opened the box. The big display screens on either side of the stage jumped to the close-up of another pair of corresponding half-heart pendants: one jet-black with the Batman logo, the other dark blue and stamped with the Superman S.
"...we could be Best Superfriends Forever?"
Jon couldn't answer right away: he was too choked-up to speak. Clearly, he understood how significant this relationship upgrade was. After all, even the best orgasm had while grinding against your boyfriend's leg was fleeting, but a plastic charm for your boyfriend that fit into one of yours? That was forever.
(If there was any justice in the world, Tumblr's "colbewart" tag would be on fire by tomorrow.)
Jon spent the rest of the concert on some kind of otherworldly in-the-zone performance high. He sang, he warbled, he strummed, he rocked; he floated through intermission, barely tasting the (sponsor-provided) Gatorade Brian made them drink, and flew back out onstage.
Phantom guitar strings were still vibrating against his fingers when he and the others retreated backstage for the last time, trading high-fives with the staff and the production team, cheering even though it was going to make their voices all the more hoarse tomorrow. The arena had separate dressing rooms for each of them, compact fluorescent-lit spaces attached to tiny-but-individual bathrooms; Jon threw his stage clothes over a chair and showered with the pendant from Stephen still around his neck.
He was pulling on a T-shirt as he opened the door, wondering if he could duck into Stephen's dressing room for a few minutes and get some making out done before they went to the after-party, and nearly walked into Brian.
"Hi!" said Jon, tugging down his shirt in a hurry, but too buzzed with success to let it bother him much. "How's it going? Some show, huh? It was awesome. We were awesome. Nothing's wrong, is it?"
"No, nothing wrong. Walk with me," said Brian, nodding in the general direction of the room where the food and champagne would be.
No chance for private time with Stephen, then. Oh well. "What's going on?"
By the time they reached the celebration, Jon's good mood was seizing up like someone had stuck a knife in it. He ignored several requests for high-fives, looking desperately around for his friends. He didn't want to talk to Mom right now. Was Stephen dressed yet? What about Jimmy? And where was —
"Jon!" Ah, there was Anthony, materializing out of the crowd with a glass of something fizzy in one hand and Huma's purse in the other. "Jon, it was great. We got interviewed! Is this going to be on the news? What is this for?"
"DVD special features," said Jon automatically. "Both of you, really?"
"I told them I'd only ever gone to school with you for a couple of months," said Huma. Her dark hair was tousled, her makeup still perfect. "They seemed to think that was enough to go on."
"And I told them that they should interview Huma no matter what," added Anthony, tipping his glass in her direction. "Because she's the most brilliant, well-spoken, interesting person in our whole school. If not our whole state!"
Huma was fighting not to smile. It wasn't working so well.
Jon leaned in and lowered his voice. "Listen, I don't know what this idiot did, but he really does like you."
"Only things that I deeply, deeply regret," said Anthony. "And just to be clear, it was nothing physical! It was limited to Twitter...and Facebook...and email...and OKCupid...and one time on the phone. The point is, none of it meant anything! Not like she does."
Before Jon could figure out a supportive way to call his friend a dick, they were interrupted by Stephen and Jimmy, both still riding high. "We did it!" cried Stephen, throwing his arms around Jon. "We did the movie!"
"It was perfect. I can't believe it was all so perfect," added Jimmy, bouncing in place. "I kept waiting for something to go wrong, and it didn't!"
"Are you still wearing your necklace? I'm wearing mine! I think I'm going to put your charm and Jimmy's on the same chain, so it's easier to...Jon? Are you okay?"
"Fine!" said Jon, forcing a grin. "We sure did great, didn't we?"
"You were amazing," cut in Anthony. "So how come these two are so much happier than you are? You've earned it."
"I'm happy. Really. I'm very proud. It's just...." Jon grimaced. "Apparently my dad's outside."
Anthony, who knew best what that meant, got serious in an instant. "Dude, are you okay? Are you gonna let him come in?"
"No way in hell." (Stephen, who had been hanging off of Jon's arm, flinched away.)
Anthony handed Huma back her purse. "Can you give us a minute?" he asked.
"I'm fine," said Jon tersely. "I'm not gonna have a breakdown or anything, I just...."
"Jon? I don't know if you've noticed, but...the camera people are still here."
The dressing room with Stephen's name on the printout taped to the door was the largest, so they all ducked in there: him and Jimmy, Jon and Anthony. No sooner was the door closed than Jon snapped, "But seriously, where the fuck does he get off? No warning, no asking for permission, just shows up at a concert and expects me to invite him in like a VIP?"
"It's entitled as hell, is what it is," said Anthony. "You don't owe that man anything."
"At least he had the class to wait until after the show, right?" Jon paced, leaned roughly against the plain wooden table, then braced his hands on the edge and hefted himself up to sit on it. "Didn't try to shake us down for tickets...and oh my god, if I had known he was watching...!"
"Was he? Do you know if he actually bought a ticket?"
"No. No, I don't," admitted Jon. "You're right, there's no reason to assume he did. Bastard couldn't even be bothered to pay for my bar mitzvah — why would he shell out for a concert ticket?"
Stephen, bewildered and upset, couldn't hold in his disapproval any longer. "Don't talk about him like that! And if he wants to see you, he deserves a chance. He's your father!"
"Yeah, and that plus two dollars will get him a Coke," snapped Jon. "He's not my legal guardian. He gets absolutely zero say on anything I do."
"Maybe not according to the law. But what about according to what's right? He finally found the time to come visit you — why would you shut him out? You have to honor and respect your parents, no matter —"
"Look, Col-bert, you seem like a well-intentioned guy," said Anthony. "But do you actually have any idea what you're talking about here, or are you just trying to beat your boyfriend over the head with as many platitudes as possible?"
In spite of himself, Stephen took a step back. "Jon, are you going to let him talk to me like that?"
"Yes," said Jon flatly.
"He might have a point," put in Jimmy. "Let's just sit down, okay?"
Stephen and Jimmy took a couple of chairs (black metal with cheap cushions, a far cry from the nice plush ones in their dressing room back home). Anthony just leaned against the wall, arms folded. "You say the word, Jon, and I'll throw them both out of here."
"No. Though I appreciate the offer." Jon's knuckles were white as he gripped the edge of the table; his feet kicked at the air. "Listen, Stephen, this isn't like with you and your mom, okay? You wanted to see her, and she knew it. A visit from her was a nice surprise! From my dad? It's...it's an ambush."
"Good word," said Anthony.
"And the timing!" Jon pounded a fist against the tabletop. "How convenient can you get? He pays the bare minimum in child support so he has more cash to pamper the secretary he ran off with, while Mom is struggling to keep the house, let alone send me to music lessons — but now that I'm a millionaire, he just happens to want back into my life? I am not that goddamn gullible!"
He was panting for breath, face ashen. "Jon, hey, breathe," urged Jimmy. "Is your inhaler around?"
"Dressing room." Jon waved vaguely toward the next room down.
"I'll go grab it," said Jimmy, and squeezed Stephen's shoulder on the way out.
For his part, Stephen was paralyzed with confusion. Five minutes ago he'd been so sure of his morals and principles, and now he didn't know what to think.
Anthony assured Jon that he had the right to mistrust his father's motives, and no obligation to let the man jerk him around, even with the best of intentions. It sounded like the furthest thing from honor and respect on Jon's part. But it wasn't sitting wrong in Stephen's gut, either.
The new best-superfriendship pendant hung heavy around his neck.
A hand knocked at the door — but it didn't ring like Jimmy's, and then the muffled voice of Ms. Marion was saying, "Jon? Are you in there?"
Jon nodded to Anthony, who called, "He's here! Come on in."
It wasn't just Jon's mother at the door. Brian and Killer were with her, and Stephen even caught a flash of red from Huma's stunning dress behind them. The whole pack would never fit in this room; everyone else hung back while Ms. Marion ran to her son. "Oh, honey! I heard — and then you weren't in the room, and we couldn't find you, and — Jon, you're hyperventilating, where's your inhaler?"
"Right here," said Jimmy from the hall, squeezing his way in. "Catch!"
Soon Jon was feeling much better: enough to complain loudly about being the focus of so much worried attention, when all he had done was work himself up into "a very minor asthma attack." Under other circumstances Stephen might have tried to help by drawing everyone's attention to himself, but right now he was too preoccupied with trying to get his head on straight.
Leaving Jon in the care of his own BFF for the moment, he pulled Jimmy aside.
Anthony apologized to Huma for abandoning her so suddenly. Huma replied that he'd had a good reason, and one of her favorite things about him was the way he stood up for his friends. When Jon saw them off for the night, they left holding hands, and through the tinted windows of the charter car he was pretty sure he caught them going for a kiss.
Stephen didn't apologize, exactly, but he didn't push Jon any more about the whole honoring-your-parents thing. Most of the rest of the night he spent hanging around with Jimmy to talk alone. Hopefully Jimmy could talk him into seeing the issue on a more case-by-case basis.
As the crew was starting to pack it in and depart in groups for the red-eye back to L.A., Jon got up the nerve to ask his mother one last thing. "Does it bother you at all that I went with Stewart? Like, as a new name? Instead of Laskin?"
"Not at all," said Mom. "Does it bother you that I'm still using Leibowitz?"
Jon hadn't even thought about that. "Uh, I guess I just figured you didn't want to deal with all the paperwork to change it."
"That's about right. Although at this point I guess it would be easy to hire someone to take care of it...but, Jon, as long as you're happy with Stewart, I'm happy with it too." She pulled him into a hug. "It's still a name I gave you, after all."
The only two still awake on the overnight flight, Jimmy and Stephen spoke in whispers.
"No, I really don't," said Jimmy, in answer to Stephen's question about whether he thought Jon had done wrong. "I believe in respecting your parents, but it's their job to do a respectable job at parenting too. Don't you remember the moral of Tangled?"
Stephen's head hurt. "Jimmy? Do you remember...when my dad used to kill my fish?"
"Hard to forget," murmured Jimmy. "Although I guess that was the point, huh?"
"That's right. It had a point. It wasn't for no reason," said Stephen weakly. "I was being unprofessional. Sometimes it was the only thing that got me to stop throwing a tantrum when I was supposed to be doing an audition. And it worked, and it led to some great performances, so...that counts as respectable parenting, right?"
"I can sort of see, I guess, how it would be a problem that Jon's dad didn't care at all about supporting his career. And the mom Rapunzel grew up with in Tangled was always trying to hold her back, and telling her she wasn't good enough. But my parents did care! They believed in me, and supported me a hundred and ten percent. So it's a completely different thing. Right?"
"It's different," admitted Jimmy. "But, Stephen...there's such a thing as pushing someone too hard, you know? I went to the same kind of auditions that you did, and if I was being a troublemaker my parents would take away my Playstation for a week or send me to bed without dessert. They never killed any of my pets." His face fell. "Stephen? Has your dad threatened any of them recently?"
"He doesn't need to! I take my career much more seriously now."
"Because if you think there's a chance...if they're in any danger at all, I'll take them in. You know I will. As long as you need."
"So you think it would be wrong."
"I guess so," whispered Jimmy. "I mean...even if something helps your career, that doesn't automatically make it okay. They don't have a right to hurt you just to make you a better actor."
"You're saying I don't have respectable parents," hissed Stephen. "You think I should cut them off completely like Jon has with his dad. Your words, sir!"
"Those are not my words!" Jimmy was kind enough not to point out that, as of last night, Mama had basically cut him off already — or at least, it could be anywhere from days to years before she decided to speak to Stephen again. "What I'm saying is...I guess it's...you have to decide for yourself. But you get to decide! If you just want to be mad at your dad over those fish, you're allowed. If you want to move out the day you turn eighteen...."
"Not the relevant date any more."
In the tiny bright circle of the plane's individual seat-lights, Jimmy frowned. "Why? Wait, are you going for emancipation? Like your sister?"
"So the new relevant date is...?"
It seemed much closer now that Stephen's plan for how to handle it was so thoroughly muddled. "If everything goes to plan? The Tuesday after next."