That's the thing that keeps coming back to Stephen's mind, after. Well, one of the things. It was a long night. But that part couldn't have taken more than five minutes.
A few minutes can be all you need. See: the time Jon said I love you, but I'm not going back in the closet for you, and Stephen opened his mouth and what came out (followed, the next day, by himself) was okay.
That incident, too, was still tripping him up for months afterward. He had Neil Degrasse Tyson on not long ago, and Neil asked how Jon was doing these days, and Stephen went through several rounds of "Jon? Who is this 'Jon'? Wait, is this with or without an H? Oh, you mean that guy I barely know!" before remembering that, oh right, it was public knowledge that they lived in the same house now. (Or same apartment, or same cabin, depending on whose property they were spending the week in. Stephen and Jon both have a toothbrush in all of them, is the point.)
Some changes came easily. Stephen already considered himself entitled to chocolate and flowers on Valentine's Day, for instance, so Jon had an easy adjustment there. Between Super Bowl parties and dressage tournaments and spontaneous Star Wars marathons, Stephen was acclimatized to finding Jon-shaped dents in his cushions. True, there was a new self-consciousness in the way they hung all over each other...for about a week. They got over it.
Stephen has people who filter the hate mail. And if he has to lock himself in the office and have a good cry every once in while after certain FOX segments, he does it safe in the knowledge that Jon will have seen the same footage, and know without being asked to be gentle tonight.
The massive defensive architecture in his brain is still intact, even if it doesn't know what to do with itself these days. The wheels that started turning at Neil's innocent question don't know that they've become superfluous. They remain ready for any cue to spin into action, the first line of defense in a war he's no longer fighting.
L.A. was his first trip anywhere without Jon since that day their hands locked together. The airport was his first time letting Jon kiss him in the open air without flinching.
It wasn't a cast party. The cast for the latest film to land Stephen (in an understated but clearly pivotal background role) was full of up-and-comers, subtle craftspeople, a couple of kids and a friendly atmosphere that persisted even when they went home.
(If he'd stayed—)
This was the kind of party that never would have let Stephen in if Tom Hiddleston hadn't owed him a favor. Not that it was Tom's house (Stephen called him Tom, because, y'know, they were buddies like that. And also because he would tell the cops about the thing with the ducks and the skateboard if Tom complained). The mansion belonged to...some bigshot director or bigshot producer or maybe some bigshot gaffer, Stephen wasn't sure.
Whoever it was, they had good taste in glassware. Stephen kept getting refills in a long-stemmed cup distinguished by a jeweled flag charm. One drink turned into three turned into enough to make Stephen forget that marijuana was a Satanic weed that would lure your children to untimely deaths when the joints went around.
(If he'd kept a clear head—if he hadn't been swept away by drinks and misguided patriotism and the sweet lure of Big Hollywood—)
The pool was a cerulean squiggle with more square footage than Stephen's set. A stone-tiled bridge led across the middle of it, it was that long. At some point an actress got picked up, kicking and play-screaming, and thrown bodily into the deep end by a director with remarkably manly stubble. She bobbed up, laughing, long blonde ringlets dripping down her face and nine-hundred-dollar blouse plastered to her chest; Stephen, buzzed and maudlin, spent a long minute appraising her now sharply-defined nipples before remembering he didn't have to do that any more.
(If he'd turned around right then and called a cab—)
A fuzzy-but-medium-ish stretch of time later, he jumped off the bridge into the shallow end, to general applause and the ruination of very few of his clothes. (He'd left everything but undershirt and boxers on the deck chair next to his umpteenth drink. He wasn't the only one.)
(Dammit, if he'd only kept his pants on.)
He doesn't dare flinch in public any more.
It's easier in private. He can flip into the mindset that used to carry him through clubs and bars, switching off all care for public opinion, replacing it with care only for the man he's currently climbing on top of.
"Wow, geez, Stephen." (It's a mild shock to hear his real name.) "What did you put in your cornflakes this morning? And where do I order a case of it?"
He stops. (All he did was shove Jon onto the bed. That's not weird, is it? That's a thing people do.) "Jon, if my manly forcefulness is too overwhelming for your pretty-eyed liberal ways, I can turn it down."
Jon's fingers bracelet his wrist. "C'mere," he says, and pulls.
Stephen kisses him, warm and wet, until his heart feels like it's going to tear itself out of his chest. On the point of breaking down, he flees for Jon's loins and nearly deep-throats himself a case of lockjaw.
He gets drunken cheers as he's hauled out of the pool, a bathrobe from one unusually helpful person and backslaps from the rest. (One of these hits low, on his sopping butt; he forgives, shrugging on the robe Bartlet-style, glad someone thinks he still has a butt worth slapping.) (Well, there's Jon, but Jon loves him and therefore doesn't count.) Then someone else jumps in, or maybe falls, and the cycle of high entertainment begins anew.
At some point (they're back on the deck chairs now) the actress who got tossed in earlier flirts with him. It takes Stephen a bit to notice what she's doing, to understand why her hand is on his thigh.
"I," he says, and pauses to look up at the sky to collect his thoughts. Stars are so beautiful. Can't see many through the lights in the yard, but that's not the point. "I have a boyfriend."
She backs off, immediately but politely. She didn't mean to impose. She is, Stephen is informed, a great friend of the gays.
He shivers as the water lifts off his skin into the warm L.A. night, and talks with her about stars and other gay things (it makes sense at the time) until she has to leave. She has work in the morning. But she had such a lovely night, they really should do this again some time.
"Gonna take my iPad down to the pool and do some reading. That, or drop it in, depending on how coordinated I'm feeling today. You coming?"
"How dare you?"
This is hardly the most trivial thing Stephen has ever shouted at him over. (It's about the 2594th most trivial thing, not that anyone's counting.) Jon allows himself a mild blink before saying, "Sorry?"
"I do not accept your apology! Those are sensitive electronics, Jon! You have to be careful with them! You can't just hurl them into the water like they're some sort of—of—!"
"Stephen, relax! I was kidding. My iPad is in good hands, I swear."
"They're not good if you can joke about something like that!" roars Stephen. "Steve Jobs would be ashamed of you!"
"Babe...I hate to tell you this, but...."
"I know he's dead! And you are spitting on his grave!"
He's risen to his feet now, red-faced, eyes blazing. Jon takes this in for a moment, then puts the iPad down on the foyer table and says, "Stephen? Is everything okay?"
"I—" Stephen chokes. "I just—"
(Oh god, are those tears? And, more importantly: are those real tears, or—)
"I just love Apple technology so much," says Stephen brokenly, and waves away Jon's attempts to proffer a shoulder for him to cry it out on.
He remembers explaining to a bored-looking screenwriter the highly important 538 reasons (and counting) why Jon Stewart should not be judged by his film career.
He remembers stumbling into the house looking for a bathroom, passing by a lounge where a handful of guests were doing lines, and mercifully having the sense to keep going.
He remembers being half-carried into the house by a person who didn't, as far as he could tell, actually do anything with movies besides give oodles of money to anyone who made the kind his wife liked. (There were werewolves involved, or possibly cinema verité. Stephen wasn't listening so great at that point.)
What hotel are you staying at? That's what I thought. You better crash here, Phil's fine with it, come on. This couch look good?
Jon's couch is warm and slouchy and well-worn and, best of all, narrow.
"Stephen? What are you doing down here?"
Stephen sinks farther into his cloud-print pajamas. "Sleeping. What's it look like?"
Jon clicks on the floor lamp and leans over the back cushion. The warm light makes him look less washed-out than usual, even if it does nothing for his eyes. "Babe, you don't have to...it's not like this is the first time you've yelled at me, you know? Just because I snapped back this time...I didn't want...."
"Maybe you should."
Stephen rolls over on his other side. There are no stars above as he turns, just flecks of paint on the vaulted ceiling. "Maybe if you made me sleep on the couch more often, I would learn my lesson and stop yelling at you so much."
He can hear the smile in Jon's voice, the fondness drifting over him like snowfall, undeserved. "You know, if you're looking for punishment, there are some more fun things we can—"
"Don't be disgusting," snaps Stephen without thinking.
Jon collapses. "Sorry."
It's awful, how clearly he means it.
Jon puts in a halfhearted plea for Stephen to take one of the beds. Stephen turns it down. He needs to recalibrate, to play Etch-a-Sketch with the images wired into his brain so that he stops freaking out when Jon pulls him across the mattress.
The couch was wider than a twin bed, all clean lines and creamy leather. Stephen hugged his balled-up clothing like a stuffed animal, wondered briefly where his glasses had run off to, then closed his eyes and forgot about it.
He drifted back in being kissed by someone he thought was Jon.
The pregame show is playing in the living room, while Jon putters around in the kitchen mixing popcorn and mini-pretzels and nuts and M&M's. Stephen finds him diligently picking the green candies out of the bowl, one by one.
"You're humoring me," says Stephen, jabbing Jon in the back with one accusatory finger. "Why are you so nice to me?"
Jon shrugs. "Maybe I'm not. Maybe I just want to keep all the green ones for myself."
But that wasn't Jon's stubble, and that was definitely not Jon's jawline.
"Ngh. Don't...go 'way...."
"Go back to sleep, party boy. Won't take long."
Hands in his robe; a knee between his legs.
The right team wins. Jon kisses him in celebration; Stephen, who has spent most of the game trying not to drip tears on his mini-pretzels, shudders and holds him off with salty hands.
He's a wreck and a disgrace and the shame of it has leeched under his skin and Jon wouldn't want to touch him if he knew. Wiping out the facts with truthiness isn't working. He can't stop feeling this as true.
He couldn't fight. He barely had the strength to move. His swimming head throbbed afresh every time he tried.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
It became a chant, a mantra in time with the rhythm of the grunting above him.
"Let me wash my hands first," he says, half out of breath. "You gotta have standards, Jon."
He can't keep this up for much longer, but Jon deserves enjoyable sex for the duration. Stephen can give him that, at least.
The sun beats down on the back yard; there's a breeze off the water and a halfhearted flapping atop the flagpole. Stephen stalks down the grass toward the dock.
"Will you just tell me what's going on?" demands Jon from a few yards up the slope.
Stephen's been freaking out again. But if Jon will only leave him alone, he can pull himself together. If only....
"Did we do this too fast? Should we walk it back? Should we maybe take a break?"
"Stop it!" yells Stephen. The wood thumps hollowly under his feet. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry!"
"I don't want you to apologize, I want you to stop needing to apologize!"
"Well, I can't!"
Jon stops where the dock hits the stiff grass. He doesn't need to close the distance; short of unmooring the boat, there's nowhere for Stephen to go.
"I can't," repeats Stephen. "I didn't mean to—I wanted to be better than this, I did, I swear—but it happened, and—"
His voice is starting to hiccup. Jon's brow furrows. "Stephen? What are we talking about?"
"L.A.," says Stephen. "When I did the movie."
Sitting in the studio in sunglasses, hoping people would assume he was hung over (which he was) and not that he'd been crying (which he had), so thankful it was animation, shamming like a champion for the microphone.
"There was. There was someone."
"Someone," Jon echoes. "Is that, like. A sex someone?"
"I didn't mean to!" He's facing Jon now, all wide stance and clenched fists and the muscles in his neck seizing from how hard his jaw is grit. "I wouldn't let it happen again. You have to believe me, Jon. Please believe me."
"Oh my god." Jon deflates, though somehow he still seems more imposing than Stephen, who feels about four feet tall. "Who was it? Do I want to know?"
"I...I didn't get his name...."
"Some director, I think...we'd been drinking, and...Jon, I'm sorry...." His vision blurs, hot with tears. "He wouldn't stop...."
The sun is oven-hot on the nape of his neck. Sticky heat clings to his body and burns its way up through the soles of his bare feet.
"I don't understand," says Jon at last — drained of affect — any quieter and he'd blend into the wavelets lapping at the posts. "Stephen, you—you have to say this clearly. Did you cheat on me? Or. Or were you raped?"
Stephen can't make sense of the question. "Isn't...isn't it both?"
"...oh, sweetheart," says Jon with gentle despair. "No. Stephen, honey, no. Come here. It doesn't work like that, you hear me? Come on back inside. It's not your fault. Anything someone forced on you — I would never — it's not your fault."
Fireworks are already exploding out over the point when Stephen jogs down the beach, flip-flops sending up a spray of sand in his wake. Jon follows, a towel over his shoulder. When Stephen turns back to double-check, there's a blue-green shower hurtling through the air behind him, its sparks bright in Jon's eyes.
"Here," he announces, pointing to a likely-looking dune. "Let's watch from here."
The towel Jon spreads beneath them is a formality; there's sand in both their shorts and hair moments after lying down. At least it's cool, as is the wind blowing in off the bay. Stephen snuggles up to Jon's side and watches a gold sparkler whizzes through the air until with a sharp crack it splits into fragments on fragments.
I love you. It's not your fault. My Stephen. Of course I still love you.
They've only had sex twice since the admission. The rest of the time Stephen hasn't felt well enough, and Jon's been okay with it. He's been okay with everything, which Stephen doesn't understand and half the time struggles to believe, but clings to for all he's worth.
A purple starburst goes off over the water. As the explosion dies down, Stephen sulks, "Needs more American colors."
Jon takes his hand. "Hang in there, babe. I'm sure it'll get better."
The next firework is already whistling through the skies. Sure enough, it goes off red and silver, spiraling through the air undimmed by the clouds of smoke already billowing around it. Stephen clasps Jon's hand delightedly against his chest and feels, just for a moment, that maybe things will be okay.