"It's incense, Jon!" wailed Stephen.
Ignoring his protests, Jon heaved open the office window and switched on a fan. "Stephen, I know you think I'm more square than...um...."
"...Tienanmen?" suggested Stephen.
"Sure, let's go with that. The point is, I did a lot of pot in college, and I do remember what it smells like."
Stephen fell back onto his couch and folded his arms in a huff. "You're disrupting my efforts to appreciate other cultures by learning about their sacred rituals and then only doing the fun parts," he accused.
"Cultural appreciation or not, you're still not allowed to smoke anything illegal on business hours."
"It's only illegal because the Man is more interested in perpetuating the system than allowing the little guy to expand his mind and envision something better."
Jon rolled his eyes with gentle affection. "Stephen, you're a rich white Christian male who hosts a late-night talk show. You are 'the Man'."
"Stop trying to pin me down with your little labels!" cried Stephen, tossing a lock of his long dark hair over his shoulder with one hand and pointing with the other. "Sure, I happened to be born a white man, and I happen to have enough money to fill an Olympic swimming pool with dollar bills and wallow around in it, but I identify first and foremost with the oppressed and downtrodden peoples of the world. I have the soul of a Thoreau, Jon!"
"Would you like to have the salary of one?" teased Jon.
Stephen sighed theatrically. "Never try to write poetry, Jon. You obviously don't understand metaphor."
"It's not my fault they're repressed," he complained to Jon at lunch, in Jon's office this time. "I was only helping them break out of society's limiting notions of sexuality! Specifically, the limit that says you're not allowed to explore it with your handsome and dashing boss."
"You know, Stephen, sometimes limits can be a good thing," offered Jon. "Everyone needs safe and healthy boundaries."
"All boundaries do is deny people their rights," countered Stephen. "What if I had a boundary that said I didn't want any women working within fifty feet of me?"
"That wouldn't be healthy. That would just be sexism."
"Or a boundary that said teachers shouldn't get it on with their underage students?"
Jon snapped to attention. He was almost certain Stephen had never been a teacher. "Stephen, when you say that...."
Stephen steamrolled onward before Jon could finish the question, or indeed figure out exactly what he was asking. "Or a boundary that said my boss must never, under any circumstances, bend me over his desk and have your wicked way with me?"
"That one wouldn't be a problem," said Jon dryly. "Your boss is married, remember?"
"Well, maybe my boss needs to explain to his wife that monogamy is not a natural state for the human male. We're biologically hardwired to sleep around; it's in our genes. That's just science!"
"Oh, like you've never rubbed one out in your office before," said Stephen when he finally let Jon in.
"Yeah, but I lock the door," Jon pointed out. "There's such a thing as appropriate for the workplace...."
"There's nothing inappropriate about it!" insisted Stephen. "It's a healthy and normal activity, and nobody should be ashamed of it!"
Jon sighed. "Just tell me you washed your hands."
They didn't need to. He wouldn't shut up about it.
"Marriage is a heteronormative sham anyway," he told anyone who would listen. "I can no longer support an institution that denies our gay brethren and sistren equal rights."
When he said it to Jon, it was hard to make out the exact words, because he was also sobbing into his takeaway curry.
Jon handed him another tissue. It was a measure of how upset Stephen truly was that he forgot to ask whether they were biodegradable.
Jon's pen clattered to the floor.
"Stephen," he stammered, trying to compose himself, because what Stephen meant and what he appeared to mean were often two vastly different things, "why do you say that?"
"Because men don't get in touch with their feelings often enough," pronounced Stephen. "Also, it's International Friendship Day. So I'm going around to tell all my friends that I love them."
"How many of us are there?" asked Jon cautiously.
Stephen did a quick calculation on his fingers. "Forty-seven so far. You'll be number forty-eight. And it's going to jump by one point three million this evening, when I say it to the whole Colbert Nation."
"Don't you think the phrase loses a little meaning if you say the exact same thing to that many people?" faltered Jon.
"Don't be silly," said Stephen, tossing his hair dismissively over his shoulder. "Love should be shared with as many people as possible! The more you give, the more you get in return. If you ever feel sad or lonely or rejected, it just means you're not loving enough. But if I love everybody, there's no way I can go wrong."
"Have you ever tried being a little more, ah, discriminating about who you love?"
That set Stephen off. "Don't be such a bigot, Jon!" he shouted. "Discrimination is bad! That would be like saying some people are inherently more deserving of affection than others! Like with certain special people you worry about what they think, and try to impress them, and lose sleep at night over whether you're good enough for them, but everyone else, oh, their opinions don't even matter? How dare you?"
He broke off, out of breath, wild strands of loose hair framing his face like some mad desert prophet.
"I'm sorry," said Jon quietly, after giving him a moment to compose himself.
Stephen took a few deep, calming gulps of air. "It's okay," he said at last. "I forgive you."
"I'm sure they had a good reason," he would say. "I'm sure at the time they thought it was the best thing they could do. Punishment will only breed resentment! We have to start from a position of forgiveness and love, and everything will work out in the end."
Jon had a pretty slow temper himself, but when something actually got to him, Stephen's relentless passivity made it worse.
"They mismanaged our economy into the ground," he pointed out one day, through gritted teeth. "Jobs are being lost left and right, businesses are folding like origami, families are being thrown out of their homes, all because a bunch of rich, greedy bastards decided to take the retirement funds of hardworking people and gamble them away."
"Anger never solved anything, Jon," said Stephen philosophically.
"Maybe we deserve to be angry anyway!"
"I've forgiven them," countered Stephen. "So it's all right now."
"You don't get to do that," hissed Jon. "There are people whose new budgets make them choose between medication and groceries. You don't get to grant anyone absolution on their behalf."
Stephen sighed. "I forgive you for yelling at me, too," he said. "I know it's only because you're conflicted over your painfully repressed mesexuality."
If anything, he did the opposite, wringing his hands and getting tears in those big brown puppy-dog eyes whenever someone expressed the slightest discomfort.
He was just totally convinced that the best (the only?) way to deal with any kind of pain was to forgive, forget, and move on.
(Jon still hated the patronizing tone of the conservative commentators who alluded to "people who have forgotten how we felt on 9/11", but this seemed to be one of his friend's actual goals.)
He almost didn't recognize Stephen at first. They had needed to give the man a shave to deal with the jaw injuries, and someone must have decided to get his hair out of the way too, so all he had left was a greying five-o'clock shadow and a shaggy bowl cut that barely reached his ears.
"Jon! Good! You need to sign my cast," he declared, pointing to the elevated leg. "But make sure you leave plenty of room. I'm going to try to get President Obama and J. D. Salinger this time."
"Sure," agreed Jon, taking the chair beside him and accepting the proffered marker.
Stephen chattered happily on while Jon added a loopy green signature across his ankle. "I'm trying to decide who I want to donate the funds to. The ACLU, like I did with my wrist, or someone else?"
"It's up to you. Listen, Stephen...are you okay?"
"High as a kite," said Stephen, giving him a slightly lopsided grin. "They've got me so jacked up on Miss Emma, you could stab me in the gut right now and I wouldn't feel a thing. I should get beat up more often."
Jon shuddered. "Don't even joke about that. This never should have happened in the first place."
Stephen's smile faded, leaving the swelling in his cheeks more apparent. "I'm sure they thought they had a very good reason."
"It was a hate crime! There's never a good reason for that!"
"Maybe they have a very strict religious creed. We have to respect values and belief systems that are different from our own."
"It goes both ways! Fundamentalists don't have to like it when they see two men out on a date, but they don't get to break your leg because of it!"
"Or maybe it was personal!" countered Stephen. "Maybe they're repressing their own desires, out of perfectly justified fear that their families will disown them, and my presence was triggering for them, and they didn't know any more constructive way to deal with their feelings! We should have sympathy for them, Jon, not condemn them!"
"They still have no excuse for attacking you! No matter what their home lives are like!"
"Well, I forgive them," announced Stephen, tossing his head, though the gesture only ruffled his newly shorn hair. "And you can't say I don't have the right to this time."
"Maybe not," admitted Jon grudgingly. "But I'm still mad at them."
"You don't have anything to be mad at them for."
Jon scooted his chair up to the head of the bed and leaned in. Once he had Stephen's full, if puzzled, attention, he took a deep breath.
"Of course I do," he said, using one hand to smooth an unruly lock of hair out of the other man's eyes. "They hurt my friend. They took someone I care about — someone I love — and put him on a morphine drip. And if they want any chance at being forgiven for that, they're going to have to work for it."
"How are you doing?" asked Jon conversationally.
Stephen shrugged. His beard was back in order, but his hair wouldn't reach his shoulders again for months, maybe years. "Not bad."
Jon joined him on the couch. "Something on your mind?"
Staring at his toes, Stephen traced circles on the ground with his free foot. "Jon? You have boundaries, right?"
"That's right," said Jon uncertainly, wondering where he was going with this.
"Like how you won't let us shower together, even though it would save water and energy and also let you nail me up against the wall without having to worry about leaving a mess. That's a boundary."
"Uh, yes. Yes, it is," agreed Jon, now wondering whether he should try to stake out a line around "casually referring to us in sexual situations", or whether it would be more trouble than it was worth.
"But people still like you," said Stephen.
Jon started, flustered. "Well, sure," he stammered. "I mean, some of them do. Plenty don't."
"Well, I like you," declared Stephen. "I mean, obviously I love you, because I love everyone, but...I like you, too."
It was the oddest way Jon had ever heard it put, but he understood. "Thank you," he said softly. "I like you too."
Stephen was quiet for a long moment. Jon wasn't sure if he was meant to break the silence, but he didn't know what else to say.
"I was thinking about something," blurted Stephen abruptly, speaking very fast. "I was thinking of maybe not forgiving everyone. I mean, obviously I don't want to become one of those angry, hate-filled people who attack every little thing they disagree with, like Bill O'Reilly or something. But maybe I could ration the forgiveness just slightly. Like maybe I won't let people break my limbs, even if it does help resolve their own crushing internal conflicts. Or maybe I'll stop calling home once a month to let Mom spend an hour telling me how sodomites go to Hell, even though I understand that she only does it because she loves me and is trying to do what she thinks is best for me." He took a breath. "Do you think I should try it?"
It took a few beats for Jon's comprehension to catch up with his hearing. When it did, he had a hard time mustering any kind of smile. But he did his best to give Stephen an encouraging one as he replied, "I think it's worth a shot."
Stephen fairly glowed with relief, then looked anxious again. "Jon? Would it, uh, violate your boundaries if I hugged you right now?"
"Just don't try to cop a feel while you're at it."
To his surprise, Stephen cuddled against him with perfect innocence. Putting an arm around his shoulders, Jon let him stay.