Stephen got a shaky night's sleep, woke up drenched in sweat, and was a nervous mess all through breakfast. Of course Jimmy noticed as soon as they picked him (and Briar Rose) up. Gathering the dog into his lap, Stephen blamed his mood on the latest stage of the benzo withdrawal, plus something personal that he promised to tell his BFF about soon.
Ned was at the morning meeting, where he and Brian talked about the band's long-term projects as well as their schedule for the day. They were recording a couple of new singles for a special-edition re-release of their Christmas album; in a few months they were going on tour; after that Stephen had his pick of several movie deals to jump into. Jon managed to stay physically between Stephen and his manager the whole time. Still, Stephen spent the meeting in a daze, nodding when it seemed appropriate and only catching maybe half of what was going on.
At last Brian dismissed them to go to their first practice sessions, and Jon said, "Actually, can me and Stephen talk to you for a couple minutes? Alone?"
"Of course," said Brian. "My office?"
Stephen accompanied them with the puppy in his arms, scratching behind her ears.
He'd made Jon promise to do most of the talking. Jon was the one who had thought to check on details like whether Stephen's emancipation would affect his legal age of consent (no, except with an adult he was married to, and Stephen's parents might turn a blind eye to many things but same-sex marriage wasn't one of them); Jon had helped Stephen write an email to his brother Ed that was vague without being incoherent. Even if Stephen had been gutsy enough to say anything knowing Ned was in the same building, Jon was the one who could think fast enough to say it right.
Brian raised an eyebrow when Stephen and Briar Rose sat in one of his nice dog-hair-free chairs, but didn't comment. He just took a seat behind his desk, looked between the two of them, and said, "Is this about what I think it's about?"
Stephen tensed. Did he know...?
But Jon only hesitated for a second. "Probably not," he said frankly.
"All right," said Brian, equally unfazed. "Go on."
Jon nodded. "Here's the thing: Stephen needs a lawyer. Someone he can hire directly, who won't have any ties to the rest of his family — no conflicts of interest, you know? And they have to be good, but they also have to be available soon. Like, in the next couple weeks, not six months from now. Can you help us find someone?"
"I can think of a few good candidates, yes." Brian produced a pen out of nowhere and scribbled a note to himself on Aladdin stationary. "I'll make some calls. Can I let you know by lunchtime?"
Jon checked in with Stephen, who figured he could handle this answer himself. "That would be great."
"But we need you to be discreet about it," added Jon. "This can't get back to anyone who...would prefer not to have Stephen represented by someone who didn't have their best interests at heart. Especially not his parents."
"Understood," said Brian. "Anything else?"
"Yeah, one more thing," said Jon. "He also needs a new solo manager. Again, within the next couple weeks at the most."
Brian frowned at Stephen. "Is Ned letting you go? I didn't think his contract was up that soon."
Stephen winced under the question, turning helplessly to Jon, who gave his wrist a quick squeeze before taking it on. "It isn't. So, again...if you could be discreet."
"I see." The pen hovered over the next line, not writing. "There are some folks I think would be a good fit...but it depends. What's your issue with Ned?"
For the first time, Jon faltered. "Why do you need to know?"
"I don't need to...but it would certainly help. I wouldn't want to recommend someone only to have them end up giving you the exact same problem," said Brian reasonably. "Ned's done a solid job finding and arranging work for you, and I know his commission is in line with the industry standard. Is that you don't like the kind of gigs he's finding? Or that you want to change your image in a way he's said he won't help with? If this is about how he hasn't gotten you a spot on Glee yet, I'm sure there are less drastic ways to deal with it."
"This is not about Glee," said Jon tersely.
"Now, hang on a minute, Jon." Brian held up a hand for silence. "I'd like to hear this from Stephen, if you don't mind."
Stephen hugged Briar Rose tighter; the spaniel licked his chin with what he liked to think was concern. Her fur seemed matted as he skritched her side. Had Jimmy brushed it out properly last night? He would have to put that on his to-do list. Item One: brush the dog. Item Two: anything other than volunteering to be known for the rest of his life as That Teen Pop Star Who Got Molested. "Don't wanna talk about it."
"There's nothing to be afraid of, Stephen. I promise, nothing you say has to leave this room."
Chest tight, hands buried in Briar Rose's thick fur, Stephen turned once more to Jon. Help me, Jon! Fix it!
"He's not saying, all right?" said Jon. "Because he doesn't want it getting out, and yeah, it would have to leave this room, if we started bringing up things that you'd be legally required to go to the cops about."
A long pause.
Expression still placid, Brian said, quite calmly, "That son of a bitch."
"Hey now," said Jon, as Stephen bent over to let the dog lick his face and tried not to cry with relief. "No need to bring his mom into this."
Olivia's house (for now), Friday night.
"Ooh, this is really cute," said Tina, pausing in the middle of working through Olivia's closet to hold up a blue top with a super-low neckline and only the thinnest of ribbons for shoulder straps. "Can I maybe borrow it some time?"
"What, that? I've got like three of those," said Olivia from the floor by her bookshelf. "You can keep it if you want."
"Oh, no, I really couldn't...."
Jimmy, who had been helping Olivia with the books and magazines, sat back to see what his girlfriend was checking out. "Whoa!" he said. "Um, by which I mean...you really could."
And at another set of shelves, where Kristen was carefully wrapping some of Olivia's more treasured items in tissue paper for safer packing, Wyatt held up the masking tape and a Sharpie and said, "So, what are we labeling this one?"
"Novelty Pen Collection," said Kristen. "Y'know, Olivia, for someone who's only moving across town, you are going to have the world's most organized boxes."
Hearing it out loud made Olivia feel warm and fuzzy all over again. She was really moving. Going to stay at her grandparents' home for a while, and Mom had even consented to the idea, without any more yelling than usual. The reason she needed so much help was because the movers (plus Sarah Beth, who was at college most of the time now, but was coming home during the weekend for moral support) would be here in less than twenty-four hours.
And if the others were unnecessarily alert as they went through her closets and drawers, well, she'd kind of brought that on herself. Just had to stay calm and let them see for themselves that she wasn't hiding any Grey Goose in her sock drawer.
(Unless there were any bottles lying around that she'd tucked away while too sloshed to remember. Which was admittedly not impossible.)
"I should get all of you to help me pack my luggage before the tour, too," she remarked, stacking her Superman/Batman trade paperbacks in a box Wyatt had already labeled Comics.
Jimmy pulled his attention away from Tina and went back to boxing up Olivia's Sailor Moon volumes. "You're going on tour soon?"
"I'm going on your tour, if everything works out," said Olivia. "It'll be just like the last tour, except instead of you guys being my opening act, you get to do most of the show. I'll just come out and do a song with you in the middle, to shake things up when the audience is starting to get bored."
Kristen finished swathing a necklace in bubble wrap and swooned dramatically across the bed. "Leaving me tragically, tragically alone back at home while she goes globe-trotting."
"Hey, at least if she's only doing the one thing she'll have time to call you in between," said Tina from inside the walk-in closet. "Last time Jimmy was on a real tour I didn't hear from him a single time until he got back."
"We weren't even dating then!" protested Jimmy. "It'll be completely different this time!"
"Don't worry, Tina," said Kristen. "You and me can start a Long-Distance Girlfriends Support Group."
"We can?" Now wearing the shoulder-baring, cleavage-revealing top, Tina came out with a fresh armful of blouses to fold. "That would be great!"
"I know, right? We can go out for ice cream...talk about how much our partners totally suck for being on the road all the time...maybe, late at night, turn to comfort in each other's arms...."
Tina turned bright red and fled back into the closet. "Not where I thought that was going!"
"But it sure is where I hoped it was going," said Wyatt under his breath.
"You know, there was a time when I would have taken those as fighting words," remarked Jimmy. "Now, though? As long as you're doing anything less than secretly filming them from across the street and then tweeting me the footage with a demand that I stop bearding and support them coming out, it's hard to remember why I should care."
"This is why I still leave my tweeting to PR," said Olivia, patting her box of books shut. "Sounds like you could use some headache tea. C'mere and help me brew a pot."
It wasn't really a two-person job, but she had several good reasons for asking. First, having a white person or two in the room gave her some insurance against Mom's more enthusiastic tiger-mothering tendencies (though it was a nice warm evening and Mom was out by the pool right now, so she was probably safe). Second, Jimmy could attest that she hadn't slipped anything extra in with the teabags. And third, once they were alone in the kitchen, she could ask:
"Speaking of secret gay relationships...you know what Jon and Stephen are up to? Because I invited them, and they both bowed out, and they totally wouldn't give me a straight answer about why. No pun intended."
Jimmy looked...distressed? "Some kind of legal thing," he said, over the bubbling of the kettle. "They've been staying late all week to work on it. Past our allowed work hours, so either it's legitimately personal or they're just spitting in the face of child labor laws."
"Whoa." Olivia laid down a row of mugs and started tearing open the teabags. "You don't think they're strategizing how to come out, do you?"
"If it was about that, Stephen would have told me," said Jimmy firmly. "You know I was the first person he came out to? I...I think I might be the first person Jon came out to! They wouldn't leave me out of something like that. Right?"
"No way," agreed Olivia.
"Besides, whatever it is, it's really about Stephen. He's just having Jon help. Or something. I'm assuming it's related to the emancipation...but I don't understand how Jon can help with that and I can't!"
"Hang on. The what now?"
Jimmy outlined the details, while Olivia boggled that she hadn't heard a word about it until now. These things didn't just come together overnight, right? How out of it had she been lately? And could she have overlooked something else going on with Stephen, even if it was so monumental that he didn't feel able to talk about it with his own BFF?
Apparently so. God, she was a terrible friend. "This all sounds really complicated, but I'm sure Stephen will talk to you when he feels up for it, okay? Have some faith in him," she said, which seemed to be back on the right track, because Jimmy sighed and muttered in reluctant agreement. Olivia poured him a mug of tea and handed it over. "You're doing okay too, right? I mean, personally, not just in terms of worrying about him."
"Sure, no complaints here," said Jimmy. "Except...it would be nice if this Stimmy madness would hurry up and die out. If I never get sent another graphic sex scene with my head Photoshopped in, it'll be too soon."
And back around to Tuesday.
As he was pulling out of the Fallons' driveway, though, Jimmy's phone buzzed.
Jon tried to keep an eye on Jimmy's reaction in the rearview mirror, but he really had to focus on the road right now. Instead he gave the guy a few moments to read, and, when the only reaction was a sharp gasp, said, "Is it from Stephen?"
"Yeah," said Jimmy, in a tight voice. "He...he says you know."
Remembering how hard Jimmy had taken it when Stephen faltered under nothing more insidious than overwork, Jon tried to channel all his anger on Stephen's behalf into confidence. "We're getting him away from it," he said. "Today."
He carded his way into the Col-berts' gated community, using the long-term visitor pass he'd had for a while now. When they got to the house, Stephen was already on the front porch; he and Briar Rose practically flew down the steps and lunged into the back seat, an unusually-stuffed messenger bag hanging heavily on his shoulder.
"Stephen!" exclaimed Jimmy, a little breathless.
"Jimmy!" panted Stephen, throwing his arms around his friend.
Rocky! thought Jon, and barely managed to keep it from coming out of his mouth. (He might be a little buzzed on adrenaline right now.)
"I've got keys for you," added Stephen, slightly muffled by the hug. "Just emailed you both the hotel information, and a list of the things you have to pick up. Anything else, I can wait on...and, if worst comes to worst, I can replace. But take as much of it as you can fit in the car anyway, okay? You have executive permission to judge which things you think are most important."
Jon hadn't realized that needing to replace anything was a possibility. He'd mostly been thinking of grabbing clothes for the next few days, maybe some reading material and a comfort object or two.
Jimmy, meanwhile, didn't sound surprised at all. "We're on it. You can count on us. You could always...Stephen, if you'd said something...!"
"I know. I know! But you know now." Stephen untangled himself from his bag, and fumbled with the seatbelt. "And you're the best BFF a guy could ask for, which is why I know you won't complain when I ask one more favor...."
"Anything. Oh my god, Stephen. Whatever you need."
"I know this is short notice," said Stephen, with deep contrition, "but...remember when you said you would take in my fish?"
Stephen's voice cracked so much during vocal warm-ups that Charlene finally sent the rest of the band off to instrument practice instead, and sat down with him and a glass of water. "Nervous about this afternoon, kiddo?"
"Uh-huh," said Stephen miserably.
"You want to go over any of it with me?"
Stephen shook his head. Papa had already gone over the judge's most likely questions with him a dozen times.
(What about his education? He hadn't given up on that, of course, but come on, California was full of smart, successful people who had gotten where they were by quitting school to focus on their passions. Was this true that he had a mental health condition? Your Honor, he was compliant with his medication and under the care of a very good doctor, and none of that was going to change, so he shouldn't be discriminated against for it. Was he being pushed into this by overbearing stage parents? No, this was definitely, totally, one hundred percent his own idea.)
"If it helps, I don't seriously think you'll get turned down," said his cousin. "This is exactly the kind of thing you're best at. All you have to do is be charming and confident, and let the evidence speak for itself."
"Thanks," said Stephen. It was hard to overstate just how badly he really, really didn't want to get turned down.
"Anything else I can do?"
Stephen took a moment to game out the events of the next few hours. Very soon Papa would be coming over in the car to pick him up...which would also be the car to pick Ned up, because they needed Ned present to assure the judge that yes, as a millionaire pop star, he could support himself. "You could come with me?"
"I don't think I would make any difference with the judge," said Charlene. "I'm not your parent, and I'm not in a position to talk about your income...."
"You would be moral support!" countered Stephen, warming to the idea. "I'm like Tinkerbell — belief is what sustains me! Also, I sparkle, and I have great legs. C'mon, please? I am confident it would work magic."
"All right, all right," laughed Charlene, putting her arm around him. "I'll be there."
Jon swept down the buffet table, Jimmy right behind him, grabbing stuff they could eat on the road. A couple of wraps, granola bars, bottles of soda.
The car had just come to pick up Stephen — along with Ned, and, as a last-minute addition, Charlene. Stephen's father was supposed to be riding along with them, but apparently he'd gone straight to the courthouse. If Stephen hadn't convinced their vocal coach to join the group....
Well, Jon wasn't going to think about that. He exchanged a nod with Jimmy, then looked down at Briar Rose and nodded to her too, and got a smile out of it when she actually bobbed her head in return.
They left the cafeteria to no comment. It wasn't like they were restricted to the room until lunch was over, after all. In silence they headed down the hall....
"Where are you guys going?"
"Walking the dog," snapped Jon, as Tucker jogged up behind them.
"I don't believe you," said Tucker. "You're sneaking out, aren't you? Just because Stephen isn't working this afternoon, you think you get to play hooky?"
"Whoops, guess you caught us," said Jon. "Yeah, we're planning a heist."
"Look, do you remember the end of Tangled?" put in Jimmy.
"My god," said Tucker. "Would you guys take this job seriously for one minute? You have a responsibility —"
"We take it plenty seriously," said Jimmy. "But there are things more important than our jobs, and right now? We're going to do one of them."
"It doesn't pay as well," added Jon. "But you can sleep at night."
"Now, are you going to peacefully get out of our way?"
"Or are we going to settle the Jersey versus KidzBop thing once and for all?" added Jon, clapping an open palm against his fist. "Because I'm in the mood to make it quick."
"Or," finished Jimmy, "are you going to get in your own car and come along?"
They had reached the door to the front lobby, where Jon, Jimmy, and the dog came to a halt, waiting for an answer. Tucker stumbled to a stop beside them, confused and angry. Jon stuck a hand in his pocket and wrapped it around his keys, just in case.
Finally Tucker took a step back. "What the hell. Go for it," he said. "If anyone asks, I never saw you."
The two of them said a quick hi to the security guard and scanned out, nothing suspicious here. As they stepped out into the sunshine, Jon muttered, "For a second there you had me thinking he might actually come."
(Then it really would have been the end of Tangled. Jon as the roguish bad-boy love interest. Tucker as the obnoxious horse. Jimmy could be the chameleon, or something.)
"Could've been worse," Jimmy reminded him.
"Yeah, I know." Twirling the keyring (complete with the key to Stephen's front door) around his finger, Jon couldn't resist adding, "He's still a dick."
"He doesn't know," Jimmy reminded him. "We've both done stupid things when we didn't know."
"Is there anything else you think I should know?"
"Yes," said Stephen. "Have you ever had a TV show?"
Judge Stephanie Tubbs Jones fixed him with a puzzled look. "Excuse me?"
"A TV show." Stephen waved around the small courtroom, empty except for some kind of recording officer in the corner and the people who had come in with him in the seats. "Like this, only on camera, and with commercials?"
"I have to say, I have not."
"Well, you should think about it!" exclaimed Stephen. "There's a real unfilled niche in the market for TV judges who are neither needlessly sassy nor certifiably insane. You could call it 'Judge Tubbs'. I can see it now." He tried to demonstrate the flashy intro in his mind via jazz hands. "All rise...for Judge Tubbs! Dun-dun!"
"This is all very flattering, Mr. Col-bert, but I was asking about things I should know in order to make my final decision."
"Oh," said Stephen, deflating a bit. "Then, I guess, no. None of those."
"Well then." The judge re-stacked the papers from his petition: the main form, the declarations of intent he'd written, the proofs of income, the statements of support from various adults. "Mr. Col-bert, you are clearly a driven and opinionated young man, and you have impressed me with your energy and dedication. Your petition is granted."
It took several seconds for the image of her scrawling her signature to register in Stephen's mind. When it did, he clapped both hands in front of his mouth just in time to muffle a shriek of delight.
Charlene was the first one at his side. "It's okay, I do the same thing when the Dodgers win," she said. "Congratulations!"
"Don't forget, you've got to file these with the clerk before it's official," said Papa, picking up the papers and handing them to Stephen.
"I know, I know," said Stephen, and ducked out of the way of the congratulatory petting Ned had been about to give him. "Thank you, Your Honor!"
It had been just the three of them along with him in the courtroom, but Stephen had seen two familiar faces while checking in, and they were still present in the waiting room as he skipped back out to the clerk: a curly-haired man in a tan jacket, and a man in a sharp black suit with a super-professional silver coif. As the clerk was filing the original documents and printing Stephen some certified copies, the man in the suit came up to him. "I take it you were successful?"
"I was!" Stephen clasped his hand. "And I never could have done it without you."
Charlene, who had seen this man around the studio over the past week or so, wasn't surprised. Papa, who had probably never seen him before at all, did a double-take. "Son, who is this?"
"Oh, I haven't introduced you!" exclaimed Stephen. "Trevor, this is my father. Papa, this is Trevor Potter. He's my new personal lawyer."
"Well, actually..." said Trevor.
"Easy there, buddy," said Ned to Stephen. "Sounds like you're getting a little ahead of yourself."
"If I could finish?" said Trevor. "As I was saying...Stephen, you've only been legally entered into contracts for about two minutes. You haven't had a chance to sign mine yet."
"Oh, right, sure," said Stephen. "When can I do that?"
"As it happens...." The lawyer flipped open his briefcase. "I happen to have the contract right here."
"Hold on, Stephen," said Papa. "You don't know anything about this person. Is he even a lawyer? What's in that contract? Being emancipated means that if he's taking advantage of you, there's not a lot I can easily —"
"Trevor has a distinguished background in media law and advocacy for minors," said Stephen. "He came highly recommended by Brian, as well as by several independent groups I called on to back him up. And I've been over every clause in the contract with Brian and one of the lawyers on our Disney team, who confirmed that it's legitimate. Trevor, this is the same contract we went over, right?"
Trevor flipped to the end of the contract. "As you can see, Stephen, here's the line where I signed it while you were watching, and the line where your band manager signed as a witness. Do you need a pen?"
"Yes, please. Charlene! Do you mind being my witness here?"
Charlene looked from Papa and Ned to Stephen and Trevor, then said, "Where do I sign?"
Ned had the nerve to start talking again while Stephen put the contract down on the clerk's counter and signed, then handed the pen to his cousin. "Guess it can't do much harm," he told Papa. "Stephen here wants to feel like a grown-up, have his own lawyer, why not let him have his fun?"
"Ned, you're fired," blurted Stephen.
That shut him up.
"Stephen, your existing contracts are still in force," said Papa sharply. "You understand that, right?"
"Contracts can be canceled early," said Trevor calmly, sliding the newly-signed one back into his briefcase. "Of course, there are usually severance terms."
"Great. Did this one have any?"
"C'mon, buddy, how would he know?" said Ned soothingly. Like he was trying to calm an anxious puppy. "It's a private business contract between myself and your father. There's no way he could have seen it."
"Quite true," said Trevor. "I have not, myself, seen this contract."
Stephen nodded. "But...?"
"But, as you know, Stephen, your brother Ed is a copyright attorney. He was kind enough to look over this particular document and report back to me, free of charge, as a brotherly favor to you. He told you not to expect those on a regular basis, by the way."
"I wouldn't dream of it," said Stephen. "So, about these severance terms?"
"Monetary compensation. That is to say, payment of a certain amount, designed to cover your ex-manager's losses."
"Uh-huh. And how do I pay him?"
Trevor opened his briefcase again. "I just happen to have a check of the agreed-upon amount right in here."
Well-trained by years of thousand-fan signing sessions, Stephen scribbled his autograph in under two seconds flat and shoved the check at Ned.
His soon-to-be-ex-manager came forward...but instead of taking the check, he tried to rest a hand on Stephen's shoulder. "Now, buddy, don't —"
Stephen shot backward so fast he nearly hit the wall.
"I don't believe you're authorized to touch my client," said Trevor smoothly.
Papa's face was thunderous. "Stephen! What have you been telling this man? Even if Ned wasn't your manager, he would deserve more respect than this. You're being absolutely disgraceful."
Again, Charlene took the measure of Papa and Stephen in turn, then stepped over to Stephen, getting between him and the others. "I've got this," she said, lifting the check out of his shaking hand and presenting it to Ned once more. "I don't see any disrespect here. All Stephen is doing is fulfilling the terms of his contract."
"I'm not taking that money," snapped Ned.
"As is your right!" Trevor assured him. "Charlene, would you mind putting the check on the floor at this man's feet?"
Charlene didn't mind at all. Ned just stared. "What's this?"
"Stephen has no responsibility to make sure you take the severance payment," explained Trevor. "His only legal obligation is to give it. And there are plenty of witnesses around here to attest that he has."
"This is absurd!" Papa shouldered his way through the group. "And don't give me any 'not authorized' nonsense — this is still my son," he snapped at Trevor on the way past. "If you won't think about your family, boy, think about your career. Where do you expect to find someone else who can represent you as well as Ned has?"
"Is this where I come in?"
It was the voice of the man with the curly hair. Standing, he was closer to Jon's height than Stephen's, and he wore dark glasses over a pleasant smile.
"Perfect timing," said Stephen weakly. "Papa, everyone, this is Tad! He's also very highly recommended in his field. In fact, Jon was so impressed that he's in talks to hire Tad too. Anyway, Tad is my new solo manager."
"Once you sign my contract," Tad reminded him.
"Ah, yes. Where can I find —?"
Trevor was already opening his briefcase.
"You really want to exercise all the rights of emancipation on your own?" demanded Papa, looming over Stephen as he signed this too. "Then you get the responsibilities, too. Starting with arranging your own housing. And remember, this all can be rescinded if it turns out not to be in your best interests after all."
"Stephen, you can stay with me," said Charlene. "As long as you need to."
"Charlene, favorite cousin, I am truly thankful for the offer," said Stephen, handing his new manager one copy of the contract and his new lawyer the other. "Trevor...?"
"Don't tell me he has a mortgage in that thing," said Papa.
"I'm afraid Stephen hasn't had a chance to go house-hunting yet," said Trevor. "But, Stephen, that message you asked me to take so that you wouldn't be interrupted during the hearing? It arrived. Your friends were successful."
"What the hell is he talking about?"
A dizzy grin spread across Stephen's face. This was it. He'd had a long mental checklist, and every last box on it had just been checked. "Jon and Jimmy came by the house to pick up a few of my things. Don't worry, I'll send professionals for the rest once I get more permanent housing! In the meantime, I've booked this gorgeous suite at the London. Speaking of which: the hotel has an amazing rooftop restaurant, and guests don't need to make reservations. Tad, Trevor, Charlene, would you like to join me and the guys for dinner? My treat."