New York City, some time in the future.
Not as blatant as the iconic C that Miley Cyrus sat behind, but a nice touch all the same.
The crew was giving the countdown; the stage manager waved a rolled-up script in the air, signaling to the crowd to start cheering. And cheer they did, going wild along with the music, as the camera swooped in on the j-shaped desk.
Behind the desk, Jon tapped his script against the lucite to straighten it, then grinned at the audience, twirling his pen.
(The wardrobe and makeup techs at this place were basically wizards. He looked great in this suit.)
"Welcome to The Daily Show!" he exclaimed over the applause, prompting it to start dying down. "I'm Justin Bieber. We've got a great show for you tonight: our guest, former Republican Party chairman Michael Steele, here once again here in non-puppet form! But we begin tonight in the Middle East...."
At which point the actual Justin Bieber — doing a terrible impression of a teenager, all the while dressed in a Mets cap and a fake leather jacket that Jon had worn once, seriously, how it turned into a meme he had no idea — ran out onto the stage, brandishing the "cursed skull" that would let them "switch back to our original bodies, bro!"
"Justin" sat back in his chair, eying the figure of the fortysomething host with some reserve. "I dunno, Stewart," he said. "I'm kinda liking this body of yours."
"Well, I gotta get out of this body, dude!" cried "Jon". "It's like living in a haunted house — every time I move in it, something creaks! O-M-G, epic fail. Just touch the skull, come on!"
The teenage face on the monitors had to stifle a grin. "All right," said "Justin". "But can I just do one last thing, just real quick?"
And he ran his hands through his thick dark curls, while "Jon", whose hat didn't entirely disguise the way he was thinning on top, looked on in mounting tension.
At last "Justin" gave up and placed a hand on the skull. Lights and special-effect static noises zapped through the studio. Justin Bieber, playing himself again, touched his own hair and grumbled in resignation, stripping off the costume to reveal one of his usual trademark show-hosting suits underneath. "Yeah, all right," he sighed. "Jon Stewart, everybody!"
Jon had to leave the set in a hurry; Killer was waiting to escort him to the charter flight that would get him to Syracuse in time for the night's concert. He didn't have time to hear Justin deliver the next few punch lines, or encourage the viewers to go see the 3D Concert Movie Experience now in theaters nationwide. But he got a few last seconds to wave and smile at the Daily Show audience, and think about how they seemed pretty nice.
One week later, on the road.
Jon had retreated to their bedroom after a couple of bagels. Stephen went back there immediately, shimmied up the ladder past Tucker's bunk, and swung himself onto Jon's. "This is an outrage, Jon! A scandal! I won't stand for it! ...What are you so busy with?"
"Honors European History," said Jon. "At least, it's supposed to be honors. I don't even think they're pretending any more."
Stephen squinted at the pages open in front of him. "Are you sure? Because I think this book has even more text than the one you had last year." Did Jon still plan to go to college? Why else would you put yourself through this kind of torment?
Jon hummed and leaned against him. "How do you measure~, measure a year?"
"In people you threw out of your life, and people you brought into it," suggested Stephen. "Alternatively, in kisses."
Jon took the hint and pressed his lips to Stephen's temple, then the corner of his mouth, then his actual mouth. The textbook dropped between Jon's knees, closing with a thump. "Mmmm. So, what were you saying about an outrage?"
"Oh, right! A scandalous outrage," confirmed Stephen. "See, there was this magazine poll...Do, Dump, or Marry, with me, you, and Jimmy...and people would dump you!" He found his phone where it had fallen under their legs and navigated furiously to the graphic. "See?!"
"Huh," said Jon, distinctly un-scandalized. "Jimmy swept the 'do' category? We should send Tina congratulations."
"We should not!" hissed Stephen. "My boyfriend is so much more do-able than hers."
"Well, I assume for most people it was an extremely narrow choice." Jon nuzzled his neck. "Was Tucker just not in this poll, or...?"
"Jon, use your head. There were only three options. All four of us can't fit in only three options. That's just math! Back to business: do we tweet our followers to attack the magazine, or do we skip straight to blacklisting them?"
Jon tossed his arm across Stephen's stomach and stroked Stephen's hip. The angle made his forearm brush against dangerous places. Dangerously sexy places. "I say we throw out the whole survey as flawed data, and conduct our own studies in the matter. With plenty of repeat trials, to make sure the results are verifiable."
Why had Stephen ever thought it was pretentious and elitist when Jon talked smart? It was hot when Jon talked smart. "I guess we'll have to. For science."
They were necking enthusiastically when the door banged open.
"Oh, for the love of —" began Tucker, then shut the door firmly behind him. "You couldn't use the lock? No, forget that, I've got stuff in here too, you can't lock me out. But at least close the curtain!"
"Sorry, sorry!" stammered Stephen, yanking the curtain around Jon's bunk closed.
Then Jon swept it open again, clambering around Stephen's limbs and sitting on the edge of the mattress with his legs hanging in the air. "Actually, Tucker...do you have a minute?"
Tucker looked up from rifling through his duffel bag. "Depends on what it's for."
"Good enough." Jon squeezed Stephen's hand before swinging down to the floor, where he hooked his thumbs in his pockets and looked down at Tucker (which he could do as long as Tucker didn't stand up). "Listen, how much would it suck for you if we came out?"
After a slow pause, Tucker got to his feet (rough luck for Jon), holding the hat and earmuffs he'd apparently come in to retrieve. "Why? Are you planning to?"
Jon shrugged. "Thinking about it."
"Uh-huh. Thinking like daydreaming, or thinking like having a plan?"
"Thinking about maybe going a little closing-scene-of-a-Disney-princess-movie in Milwaukee."
Tucker frowned. "Why Milwaukee?"
"That's what I said!" put in Stephen from the bed. He had known nothing about Milwaukee before the tour. Until Jimmy corrected him, he had assumed it was in Canada.
"Turns out it has the venue where we've sold the most tickets," explained Jon.
"Oh, of course," said Tucker dryly. "Should've guessed."
"Hey, if we're going to do this, we're going to do it right," said Jon. "But that's if. We don't have to. I mean, we've talked about how we'd handle it, us two and Jimmy, but it's your band too, and if it's gonna screw things up for you to lose it then we can't just make it blow up in your face."
Tucker thought it over. "I'm not a homophobe," he said at last.
"Don't even start," snapped Jon. "Nobody ever says that unless they're about to say something homophobic."
"Oh my god, will you let me finish?" exclaimed Tucker. "I'm not a homophobe...and I'm sick of having to act like one. Go for it. Make some news in Milwaukee. And when my name comes up, you just make it clear that I don't have a problem with you, and never have."
"Oh," said Jon. "Um. Thanks."
Stephen hated to cut in on this tender moment, but — "You have too had a problem with us. You think Jon's a self-righteous smartass and I'm an unreliable, narcissistic diva."
"Well, yeah, but not because you're gay," said Tucker reasonably. "Or half gay, whatever," he added, tipping his hat in Jon's direction.
"Oh, thank god, you're being a dick again," said Jon with a sigh of relief. "For a second there, I was afraid we were gonna have to hug, or something."
The tour gave Olivia a healthy amount of down time, but the guys, not so much. She almost got more time with her friends back home than with the ones in the band. So it was a pleasant surprise when, halfway through the Midwest, Jon asked her to come hang with them in the hotel room after breakfast.
Less pleasant was the reason. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked.
"Positive." Stephen stopped pacing and made himself sit down on one of the couches, patting the cushions to invite his friends to join him. "And if it ends up being emotionally crushing, well, that's why I have three of you."
Jimmy took the cushion on the side of Stephen that let their connecting tattoos sit next to each other; Jon took the opposite. "Do you want to start with your mom or your dad?" he asked.
"I think...Mama." Stephen held his phone in both hands, working up the nerve to actually press some buttons. "Definitely Mama. Because I've already come out to her in person, so the rest of it will go faster. Also, because she'll probably let it go to voicemail anyway."
"Has she been letting everything go to voicemail since Thanksgiving?" asked Olivia. "Do you even know if she's listening to them?"
"Oh, I'm sure she is!" said Jimmy.
"Impressively convincing as you made that sound, I'm just saying! Stephen, if you're stressing yourself out here for nothing...."
"I'm not." Stephen took a deep breath, and spoke with uncharacteristic calm. "Maybe Mama will listen to it. Maybe she won't. But I am not responsible for making sure she takes the message. My only obligation is to give it."
Okay, Olivia could go with that. "Fair point."
"That was really profound," added Jon. "And, uh, kind of poetic. Like a little moment of Zen."
Stephen laced his fingers through Jon's, squeezed, and started scrolling through his contacts.
And then it was all down to Jon.
His brother picked up on the fourth ring. "This better be serious," he said by way of greeting. "You pulled me out of class."
"Sorry!" Jon hadn't even started, and already he was screwing this up. "It can wait. I mean, not forever, but it can wait until you're done."
"I'm already out here, so you might as well tell me," said Larry. "Besides, it sounds really impressive when I say I have to go take a call from Jon Stewart. It undercuts the whole thing if I come back in thirty seconds later."
"Okay, okay," said Jon. "The thing is...something's gonna happen tomorrow. It's nothing bad, but I wanted to give you a heads-up so you wouldn't get blindsided."
"Yeah, all right," said Larry. "Shoot."
Jon swallowed. "Well, uh, first of all...I'm kind of bisexual."
After a long pause, during which Jon didn't so much as breathe, his brother said: "Yeah, and?"
"You knew?" stammered Jon, confused for a moment, then starting to get angry. "Mom told you."
"What? No, she didn't tell me anything. I've known you were into guys ever since you had that massive crush on your seventh-grade science teacher. So, hang on, does this mean you're coming out?"
Jon had never simultaneously wanted to yell at someone and hug them so much.
"Smooth talkin'~, so rockin' / He's got everything that a girl's wantin'!" sang Olivia to the audience at the Marcus Amphitheater. She wore a spangly tank top and fashionably tight pants, her hair flew in artful waves every time she rocked hard enough, and there was a crowd of twenty-two thousand fans around to appreciate it. "And I think...he could be the one!"
She could feel the edge of a headache coming on, but she would be safely back in her trailer by the time it hit. It didn't get much better than this.
When the applause went up in the wake of the last chorus, her dancers melted off the stage, and she had a minute to bask alone before the boys came running back on. The fans were packed into banks of seats, and into the banks of bleachers that extended out past the cover of the roof, and on the grassy lawn behind the bleachers so far up and back that Olivia could barely see it. She waved in their direction anyway.
A fresh wave of cheering heralded the return of the boys. Someone had loaded them up with a fresh set of Shout*For wristbands, which they flung into the crowd from the edge of the stage before running back to their places.
"How come only Olivia gets backup dancers?" demanded Stephen, only half kidding, as he lifted his mic off the stand. "Haven't I been doing this long enough to deserve backup dancers yet?"
It was the same joke as every night, but it was delivered so adorably that Olivia still grinned. Pointing to the rest of the band, she said into her own mic, "I thought that's what these guys were for?"
Groans. Laughter. Multicolored spotlights sweeping over the stage.
"All right, you two, we're not doing a standup comedy routine here!" said Jon, guitar strap now slung over his shoulder. "Let's give these people some music."
The group rearranged one more time in the wake of the Stephen-Olivia duet. Instruments went away. Olivia disappeared backstage to go Skype with Kristen. The band lined up, deceptively casual, their feet ready to slide into identical dance positions the moment they were cued.
Jon moved like water as the delicate piano intro kicked in. He had an absurd amount of practice with this song. Could do the routine in his sleep. (Literally, he'd had dreams about it.)
Stephen had the first solo. "People say...we shouldn't be together~," he crooned into his mic. "Too young to know about forever~ / Well, I say that they don't know / What they're talk-, talk-, talkin' about...."
The first background vocals came in behind him, in perfect harmony.
"'Cause this love~ is only getting stronger / So I don't wanna wait any longer / I just wanna tell the world that you're mine, boy~...!"
Time seemed to slow down as he held the note.
By the time understanding started to sweep through the crowd, the band had already launched into the chorus, heartfelt as ever and gendered-pronoun-free. But this was it — halfway out and no going back — and Jon grinned as he caught Stephen's eye, an extra spring in his steps like he was walking on fireworks.
Jimmy took solo for the second verse, and if there was a rumbling in the audience when he addressed it to a girl, Jon paid no attention. The chorus was even sweeter the second time through.
They traded off lead vocals for the bridge — line by line pealing out into the open air — before the instrumentals dropped to a minimum and the dancing stilled, letting Jon's voice go soft and intimate to carry the moment: "They don't know what we do best / That's between me and you, our little secret —"
He spun on his heel and sang the next line looking directly into Stephen's eyes.
"But I wanna tell 'em — I wanna tell the world that you're mine, boy~!"
This note he held long, soaring over the voices of the others as they plunged back into the chorus (They don't know about the things we do), steps electric (they don't know about the I-love-yous). A full measure — two — too long to miss and too clear to mistake, while he and Stephen broke from the line and danced as a pair (they don't know about the up-all-nights, they don't know I've waited all my life...). All those hours of practice made it second nature, Jon automatically gliding back every time Stephen swept forward and vice versa, circling the front of the stage and each other like ballroom dancers as their voices wove together, never missing a beat.
They came to a stop in the center as the music fell off for the last time, leaving nothing but the piano and Stephen's tenor: "...they don't know about us~...."
Jon curled his fingers around the back of Stephen's neck, rose up on his tiptoes, and went in for the kiss.
He was dimly aware that the crowd was a mess, that what sounded like a thousand cameras were going off, that with an audience this size it might really be a thousand cameras. Maybe Stephen only noticed that second, because his well-honed mid-performance poise collapsed into a shudder. Jon wrapped both arms around him and whispered shh, shh, you're okay into his good ear.
Stephen nodded and clung to him and laughed against his shoulder. Both of them were sweaty and breathless, Jon could feel Stephen's heart pounding against his own chest, and there wasn't much he could do except kiss Stephen's face a whole bunch of times, then lean into it when Stephen kissed him on the mouth again.
The audience showed no sign of figuring out what to do with itself until a firm throat-clearing rang out from the speakers, encouraging at least part of the happy/angry/scandalized/turned-on cacophony to simmer down. Over the rest of the noise, Tucker added, "Okay, I'm pretty sure they know about you now."
"No, keep going!" exclaimed Jimmy. "There might be some really hardcore Stimmy fans who don't get it yet."
December 12, 2012:
Eight months later.
"You guys are in good company," said Tad, impressed. "Hey, look! It's The Who!"
Stephen followed his gaze. "I don't know, I don't recognize them."
"It's the name of the band, babe," said Jon with a grin.
"I don't know! That's why I'm asking!"
"Why don't you guys go on down to lunch," sighed Tad, shooing them along. "I'll be right behind you once I make sure everything's ready for your set."
"Uh, sure," said Jon uncertainly. Two weeks into being eighteen, he was still getting used to being technically in charge of everything in his career. Good thing he had Stephen, who was basically an expert at this running-your-life thing by now, to help show him how it was done.
Stephen held Jon's hand as they made their way to the buffet line, only letting go when one of the servers asked shyly for their autographs. The shock of sudden independence wasn't the only reason Jon might need moral support over the next couple of days. For one thing, this whole concert was a benefit to support victims of Hurricane Sandy, which had torn up the coast of Jon's beloved New Jersey. To be vividly reminded just how bad the damage still was (even though Stephen himself had thrown quite a lot of money at the problem!) couldn't be easy.
And for another thing —
"Stephen! You're here!"
"Jimmy!" exclaimed Stephen, nearly tipping over his plate in excitement. "Yes, we're here, we got in early — I texted you! Why didn't you answer?"
"Oh! Sorry, my fault, I turned off my phone for rehearsal and forgot to turn it back on," said Jimmy, falling into line beside them. He had a new haircut, making him look like an actual young adult instead of an eternally-young boy-band moppet. "I saved you seats."
"Awesome. So how's Broadway treating you? Tell me everything."
"Stephen, we literally talked about rehearsal yesterday."
"Pretend I forgot," ordered Stephen, grabbing a bag of chips. He was doing the best he could with this long-distance friendship thing, but it was hard, not being on the same coast as his BFF. Talking over the Internet for no more than a few hours a day just wasn't the same.
"You don't have to pretend," put in Jon, as they broke away from the buffet line and went to find their tables. "I actually don't know, and would like to hear it."
So Jimmy told Jon how the Broadway rehearsals were coming along. In return, Jon talked about the latest of the singing-acting cameo roles he'd been taking to kill time while he waited to hear back from the conservatories he'd applied to. Both of them already knew what Stephen had been up to, but he didn't want to feel left out, so he shared the latest details of the movie he was working on and some of the plans for his soon-to-debut solo act.
"And once the movie wraps, you move to New York, right?" prompted Jimmy.
"Once the movie wraps, I'm moving to New York," said Jon. "He's not gonna have much of a choice."
"I will too have a choice!" cried Stephen. "And I will choose not to deprive you two of the glory of my presence. Especially since both of you have to join me for at least one song on my first —"
"Excuse me, are you the young men from Disney?"
"Ex-Disney," said Stephen...and managed to stop himself just in time before offering an autograph.
They were being addressed by an older man with a friendly face and a receding hairline, wearing a plaid work shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a pair of sunglasses hanging from the collar. "Ex-Disney, of course," he said. "Not for lack of talent, though! It's really nice that you could all make it here tonight."
"Mguh," said Jon.
"You're Jon, right?" added Bruce Springsteen, holding out a hand to shake. "I understand you're a bit of a fan."
Jon made a noise at the kind of pitch normally reserved for summoning dogs...and passed out in his seat, leaving Stephen and Jimmy scrambling to catch him before he hit the floor.
"It's all right! He's okay," exclaimed Jimmy, helping Stephen push aside the chairs to lay Jon flat on his back. "We, um, we actually had a feeling something like this might happen. He's a really big fan."
"We didn't have a feeling of anything," Stephen corrected him. "I had a feeling this might happen. You owe me fifty bucks."
Excerpts from 'Q&A: Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart', Rolling Stone, November 22, 2012.
SC: No, Jon just forgets to wear his most of the time.
JS: And when I do wear it, it isn't for the purity symbolism, it's just to be fancy. I couldn't replace it with some other nice ring, because this is the one Stephen picked out for me.
SC: I could pick you out a new one. Classier. More expensive.
JS: This one was like two hundred dollars.
SC: I stand by my statement.
JS: And Stephen doesn't wear his to broadcast that he's avoiding certain actions to stay 'pure'. I'm not telling you how far we've gone, that's nobody's business, but as far as the people who run the purity movement are concerned, we're headed way out into non-pure territory just by being a couple of guys and making out with each other. So when he wears it, it's kind of an act of reclamation. Saying that they're wrong, that he's still allowed to call himself pure no matter what he's done, or been through, or with who.
SC: Also, because it's pretty and shiny. But mostly what Jon said.
You're not the first LGBT teen stars to work for Disney. Did you get to know any others working there who are still under contract, and haven't come out yet?
JS: Well, now, that would be telling. Seriously, let the hypothetical rest of us come out on their own time. We'll be stealing each other's thunder if we mess up each other's schedules.
SC: [whispering] Jon, you're the B, right?
SC: What's the T?
JS: I'll point her out next time we watch Glee.
Why did you two choose to come out when you did?
JS: Oh, fame, money, controversy, attention...the usual reasons.
And do you think that putting your relationship out in public has made it stronger, or have things gotten more difficult?
JS: Uh, it's messed with our lives a lot, but I don't know that our actual relationship has changed.
SC: Stronger. Right?
JS: There's a lot more people out there who want to hassle us now. But, y'know, we deal with it.
SC: You might say it's... [Whips off glasses, raises one eyebrow very seriously.] ...just the way we roll.
JS: I'm through accepting limits 'cause someone says they're so.
SC: Rain and storm and dark skies? Well now, they don't mean a thing if you got a boy that loves you, and who wants to wear your ring.
JS: [Starting to sing.] I'm like a shooting star — I've come so far, I can't go back to where I used to be....
SC: [Also singing.] There is joy to be claimed in this world — you even might wind up being glad to be you!
JS: [It's all singing from here on out.] Together, Stephen, we can live with the sadness — I'll love you with all the madness in my soul!
SC: I'm looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me....
JS: Oh, lover — I'll cover you...!
SC: Lived a life of cheesy stardom, never knew it had a lack / But now I've tasted kosher, and I've never going back!
JS & SC: 'Cause without love —
JS: Life is like a beat that you can't follow
JS & SC: Without love —
SC: Life is like a pill too big to swallow
JS & SC: Without love —
JS: Life's a run-down car that you just can't start
JS & SC: Without love —
SC: Life is like my parents at a pride march!
JS & SC: Darling, I'll be yours forever / 'cause I never wanna be / Without love / So, darling, never set me free!
JS: [Speaking voice again.] Uh, did any part of that answer your question?
The first thing Jon saw when he woke up was Stephen's face, which was one of his favorite things to wake up to. "Hey, babe," he said with a groggy smile. "I just had the greatest dream. Bruce Springsteen said I was talented."
Stephen bit his lip. "Uh...Jon?"
The scene around them, which was definitely not any of their bedrooms, came into focus. Jon's smile faded. "Was that...not a dream?"
Stephen shook his head.
Oh, god. "Is he...still here?"
Eyes flickering to something on the far side of Jon, Stephen nodded.
So Jon peeled himself up off the floor — while Stephen shooed away a small crowd of security, worried lawyers, and gawkers, assuring them that Jon was fine, which was probably true as long as he didn't spontaneously combust with embarrassment — and somehow ended up sitting in the chair right next to Springsteen. Jimmy was on the other side, apparently telling the Boss about their Springsteen-offs, and being impossibly chatty and relaxed while Jon was spinning his wheels trying to remember if he'd figured out an eloquent, non-crazy way to sum up the sentiment of hello you are my favorite person in the world and your music basically saved my life and sometimes I reblog shirtless pictures of you.
(He probably didn't need to include that last part.)
"You look like you're feeling better." Springsteen smiled at Jon, and it was probably the standard polite smile he gave to everyone, but still. "I'm glad your friends convinced me to stay around."
"You know we're all autotune, right?" blurted Jon.
Stephen let out an offended squawk.
"Well, not these two," added Jon, nodding to Stephen and Jimmy, "voices like songbirds, both of 'em, and, you know, I like to think I'm not completely devoid of talent, but if all you've heard is our singles on the radio or whatever, you have no idea...."
"Looked at a few clips on your YouTube channel," interrupted Springsteen. "The personal one, not the band one."
"...okay, you may have some idea." The stuff Jon put up on YouTube had a director and a production crew and professional sound, obviously, and it was mostly (legally-cleared) covers of other people's compositions, but when he was getting the thing started he had laid down a few ground rules. His own instruments. His own voice. Definitely no autotune.
"He's very good, Mr. Boss," piped up Stephen from behind him.
Jon aimed a kick at Stephen's shin, without turning around. "But everything I've done, I can draw a line back to you," he stammered. "Because you — you introduced me to the concept of, you get in the car or you get on a plane and you take a chance, and you can work to get away from your circumstances — and there's no guarantee, sometimes you show up on the other side and you get shot, but you know, the joy is in the chasing, so — so that was my inspiration."
The world tunneled briefly as he remembered being just-barely-fifteen, never been away from home for more than a few weeks at a time before, standing in the airport hugging his mother and feeling like he was about to jump off a cliff. Sure, he'd ended up sticking the landing — or learning how to fly, depending on what metaphor you wanted — but he hadn't known that then.
"So I just want to thank you — personally — from the bottom of my heart — you gave me something to put in my knockoff iPod when I got on that plane to go from New Jersey to LA, and I just, I —"
A quiet gesture from his idol cut him off. He'd started gesticulating at some point in there, and now his hands stilled on the table, at just the right distance for the Boss to clasp one of them in his own. "All I can say is...."
He squeezed Jon's hand, affected a light accent:
"You have done well, grasshopper."
Jon felt dizzy all over again. "This is the best day of my life."
"Well, sure, you think that now, but you're young," said Springsteen reasonably. "Your lives are just getting started."