1. One that woke him up. (November 2000)
"That can't be right," mutters Jon.
He's pretty sure he's seen the same name on three different minor officials in Florida. Although it might just be that it's well after midnight and his eyes are going crossy.
One hand sifts through his notes for the umpteenth time while the other reaches for the pizza (greasy, but it's the only place that delivers at this hour), and another set of fingers brushes his.
"Oh!" exclaims Stephen, drawing back his hand. "Sorry. You can have it."
Jon looks from the lone remaining slice to the correspondent. Stephen's the only one of them who had the sense to change out of his on-air outfit once this thing started to drag on; instead of ruining a nice crisp suit, he's in an old T-shirt and jeans that have obviously been through much worse. The only odd bit is the silk tie holding back his scraggly hair.
"You sure?" asks Jon, rubbing his eyes. "We can split it if you want."
But Stephen insists that he doesn't mind, and Jon is too tired to argue.
He chews mechanically through half the slice, perks up enough to read in a straight line, and is about to start from the top again when Stephen's voice breaks in: "You've got some — here—"
A cheap paper napkin dabs roughly at his cheek; Jon flinches. "What are you doing?"
"You had sauce on you," says Stephen matter-of-factly, holding up the red-stained napkin as evidence.
Jon raises his eyebrows. "What are you, my mother?"
Stephen's brow furrows, as if he suspects this is a riddle but can't quite peel the words away from their underlying meaning. "...No?"
"Forget it," sighs Jon, and goes back to his notes. He knows something odd just happened, but they're all a little loopy by this hour. It's not worth following up.
People have been swinging by the office all day, offering cards and gift certificates and the odd little wrapped trinket in addition to the big novelty card sitting on the desk. So it's no surprise when Stephen drops in with a box papered with last week's Sunday comics.
"It's...a shower head."
"A low-flow shower head," corrects Stephen with a proud smile. "You'll save a ton of water."
Jon turns the box over appreciatively. He's never attempted a plumbing job that didn't end with something flooding, but this actually looks pretty simple. "It's a great idea, Stephen. Thanks."
"You want to install it now?" asks Stephen, nodding towards the bathroom.
"Wait, it's for here?"
"Well, yeah! I noticed you hadn't upgraded yet, so I thought—"
"Hang on," protests Jon. "When were you in my office shower?"
Stephen shrugs. "Last week?"
"How else was I supposed to find out if you had a low-flow shower head already?"
Jon must be wearing a pretty gobsmacked expression, because Stephen suddenly wrings his hands. "Do you not trust me in your office alone, Jon? You know it's not like I would take anything, right?"
"Of course not," stammers Jon. "That's not — I wasn't — it's just weird, okay?"
"Okay," says Stephen, but his shoulders are hunched like a puppy that doesn't quite understand why it's been shooed off the counter.
"Listen, don't worry about it too much." Jon pries open the box and extracts the shower head, encased in a protective exoskeleton of cardboard and plastic. "You think you can help install this thing...?"
"Jon! I wanted to ask—"
"Can it wait?" demands Jon. Maybe he's being harsh, but one of the stories playing on the TV across from him has just taken a turn for the unfunny, and if they're going to be decent human beings then they have to rewrite most of the first act. "I'm kind of stressed out right now."
"I know!" exclaims Stephen, letting himself in, though Jon is still hunched over his computer and being about as approachable as a turtle in a shell. "That's why I wanted to offer you a backrub!"
"Really not in the mood for a come-on right now, Stephen," groans Jon, fingers twisted in taut claws over the keyboard.
Stephen laughs. "You must have misheard! I said a backrub, not a blowjob. I used to give them all the time in college. Was pretty good at it, too."
He's the picture of innocent enthusiasm when Jon finally looks up at him. "Uh, Stephen? The whole reason college kids offer each other backrubs is to get in each other's pants."
"Don't be silly, Jon! Students are under a lot of stress, it's perfectly natural to...." Stephen's face falls. "Wait, are you serious?"
"As a heart attack."
"Are you sure it wasn't just the culture at your school...? No?"
He takes in Jon's slow, wordless shake of the head with dawning understanding.
"Huh. I guess that would explain why some girls seemed more frustrated after I finished."
In spite of everything, the man's earnestness makes Jon smile. And, well, his shoulders are getting pretty sore. "Hey, listen...if you've got a few minutes, I think I really would appreciate the effort."
"Really? Great!" Stephen starts to make his way into the office, then stops short. "Wait, did you want the version where a backrub really means a backrub, or the one where it secretly means a blowjob?"
"The first one."
"Okay. Because I'm completely open to a quickie in the shower, but I want to be clear up front—"
"Keep it G-rated, Colbert."
"Right, right." Stephen comes around the desk while Jon minimizes browser windows (not that any of them are particularly salacious, but he's a private person by nature and Stephen's presence kicks those instincts into overdrive). "Ready?"
Then Stephen's fingers are digging into his shoulder blades, and Jon lets out a sigh he didn't realize he had been holding in.
"Was that okay?" asks Stephen quickly, pulling back.
"Fine," gasps Jon. "Better than fine. Do that again."
The hands return to his shoulders, kneading them with a firmness Jon would never have thought to associate with Stephen, but it's exactly what his tired muscles need. He can feel his shoulders sagging with relief as Stephen's hands massage their way in towards his neck.
At first Jon fights not to make too much noise. Then both thumbs at once push into the same knot, and that battle ends not with a bang but an embarrassingly pornographic whimper.
Stephen, mercifully, doesn't comment. Maybe it's out of discretion, but more likely he just doesn't realize that these sorts of moans of pleasure are normally reserved for people you're about to jump into bed with. Either way, Jon counts his blessings as Stephen moves down his back, and settles for trying not to be too loud.
"You can tell that you're left-handed," remarks Stephen, voice low as his hands massage Jon's left shoulder, focusing in on a particularly tight spot. "Feel that?"
"When you write, it builds up tension right...around...here."
"Oh yes," groans Jon. He's only half listening, but at the moment he's ready to agree with pretty much anything Stephen says, would probably commit to a year at a monastery in Tibet if it got him five more minutes of feeling his muscles loosen under Stephen's touch. "Right there."
Stephen squeezes a path down to his lower back, on the other side. "And on your non-dominant side, you get knots...ah," he murmurs, as Jon gasps softly and leans forward to give him better access. "What did I tell you? Right there."
"Ngh," says Jon cleverly. "Ahh...."
Oh, this is good. It's criminal how good this feels.
He stays slumped forward as Stephen's fingers ply their way down his spine, remaining just above his hips for long enough that he starts to think maybe he should object. But he hasn't mustered nearly enough irritation before Stephen's sure touch moves back up again.
"Mmmm," he moans again, as the hands lift from his shoulders.
"How's that?" asks Stephen softly. "Better?"
Jon straightens his spine and tries an experimental stretch. All the tension in his back seems to have unwound, leaving him practically boneless. Even the crick in his neck is gone.
How did your college friends not jump you after that? he thinks, but even as a joke it will give Stephen false hope. You ought to charge for these, he thinks, but that will set Stephen off on a rant about materialism. That was tremendous, he thinks, and this seems innocuous enough, so he says it out loud.
Stephen lights up like an energy-saving fluorescent bulb. "It's really not that hard," he protests, fluttering with pleasure. "Anyone can learn. Do you want a lesson?"
"Maybe later." Jon shakes out his hands. "Gotta save these for typing."
"Oh!" exclaims Stephen. "Are your hands sore? Do you want me to take a crack at them, too?"
Jon has to stop himself from begging for it. There's no way he can let himself start moaning like that while Stephen is in a position to look into his eyes. Not that Stephen has ever cared about doing what's appropriate, but one of them has to.
"I'll manage," he says instead. "But seriously, Stephen, that was really fantastic. Thank you."
"I didn't know what to get you this year," confesses Stephen, holding out the envelope.
"Don't sweat it," says Jon quickly. "It's not like there's a whole lot I need."
"Well, there are probably simple ways you could save energy around the office. But I haven't spent much time in the new building, so I haven't been able to check."
"We had pretty high standards for the remodelers," Jon assures him, fishing through his desk drawer for a letter opener. "Listen, you don't have to feel bad if you just got me a card."
"I felt bad anyway, though," protests Stephen. "Especially with everything you've done for me...the show is like a dream come true, and it's all thanks to you...."
"Hey now. You're the one carrying this thing."
Stephen shuffles uncomfortably. He's even more awkward about praise than Jon is, and that's saying something. "Point is, I finally just wrote a check in your honor. To the Autism National Committee. I heard they were your new favorite, ever since I showed you that Powerpoint presentation on all the reasons Autism Speaks is highly problematic."
Sure enough, the card falls out of the envelope accompanied by a thank-you letter, which Jon unfolds to see the familiar puzzle-piece logo in the corner. "Hey, thanks!" he says brightly, unfolding it. "They're an excellent organiholy—"
The number on the page stares unassumingly back at him. It can't be right. It has far too many zeroes.
"Wow," croaks Jon. He swallows and tries again. "Wow."
"You like it?" asks Stephen hopefully.
"Like it? Stephen, this is — it's got to be most of your last paycheck."
"Er." Stephen squirms. "All of it, actually."
And if someone had sent in that kind of donation without the "in honor of" attached, Jon probably would have showed up on their doorstep to thank them in person.
So where is this nagging sense of discomfort coming from?
"It's not like I needed it," continues Stephen. "And even if I did, they probably needed it more than I do. So I figured it was the least I could do."
There's no way Jon can tell him off for this — never let it be said that Jon Stewart would discourage charitable giving — but all at once it hits him that his friend is a black hole of guilt, which no amount of donation is ever going to fill.
"Hey," he says softly, holding out a hand. "You're a good man. You know that?"
Stephen looks like he wants to disagree, but all he does is clasp Jon's palm with exaggerated fervor. "It's very kind of you to say so."
Jon wakes alone between unfamiliar sheets.
It's the same way he's woken up every morning for the past couple of months, so he isn't too eager to jump out of bed. Then he tries to shift position, feels a weight tugging on the bedclothes, and opens his eyes to see Barry curled in a contented little ball next to his feet.
Of course. He's not in the apartment, its grey walls all but bare. He's at Stephen's house, surrounded by brightly colored artwork from every culture in the world. Also, his thighs feel like they've been sandpapered, and something smells like waffles.
All things considered, not a bad night.
Scanning the room for last night's clothes, Jon spots a chair with a grey bathrobe draped over the back and matching bunny slippers perched on the seat. He wiggles out from under the sheets as best he can without disturbing the puppy, and is pulling the clothes on when Stephen pushes open the door.
"Ah! You weren't supposed to be up yet!"
"Oh, sorry!" exclaims Jon, eyeing the tray in Stephen's hands with interest. The waffles smell even better up close, and it looks like there's sliced fruit involved too. "If I get back in bed, do I get some of that?"
"That's the plan." Stephen grins, then adds quickly, "But you don't have to. I made it for you either way. Wherever you want to eat it is fine."
Barry whuffs indignantly about being disturbed, but Jon climbs back into bed and lets Stephen settle the tray across his knees. Those are the most impressive waffles he's ever seen outside of a restaurant: drenched with syrup and piled high with whipped cream, blueberries and raspberries sprinkled over them while sliced oranges and grapes trace circles around the edge of the plate.
"You really did not have to go to all this trouble," he insists weakly, all but drooling.
"Well, I wanted to," replies Stephen matter-of-factly, handing him a fork.
Jon carves himself a mouthful of waffle. It's heavenly. Light and sweet and fluffy. A man could die happy eating this stuff.
He savors a few more bites before Barry trots over to investigate. "Sorry!" frets Stephen, scooping up the puppy just as two curious paws are planted on Jon's thigh. "I'll get him out of here. Back in a minute."
Jon's expecting Stephen to return with a plate of his own, after setting Barry up with a bowl of something less syrupy and more kibble-y. When the man returns empty-handed, Jon looks awkwardly down at the half-finished stack on his own tray. "Are you going to want any of this?"
Stephen blinks at him in slightly wounded confusion. "I made it for you...."
"I know, and it's delicious. But did you make yourself anything? I feel bad, eating when you're not."
"Oh, don't do that." Stephen hauls a chair over to the side of the bed. "I'm fine."
Jon makes it through a few more bites while Stephen watches him in silence, perched on the chair like a scruffy, long-haired Thinker.
"Come on," he protests eventually. "It can't be that interesting to watch me eat."
"You'd be surprised."
With an uncomfortable grimace, Jon reaches for an orange slice.
"Hang on." Stephen licks his thumb. "You've got crumbs — here."
Jon flinches, more out of surprise than anything else, as Stephen dabs at the corner of his mouth. "Why do you do that, anyway?"
Stephen jumps, suddenly skittish. "Was it wrong?" he blurts. "I'm sorry. I know you could have done it yourself. Am I being patronizing? I don't mean to be patronizing...."
"Whoa, whoa, slow down!" Jon holds up a hand, and Stephen clamps his mouth shut. "Quit apologizing for a second, okay? You never do anything without a reason, and obviously it isn't that you think I'm some kind of helpless waif. So what is it?"
"Of course you're not a helpless waif," echoes Stephen dutifully. "I know. You're an independent human being with your own agency and self-determination who doesn't need anyone's help to be a complete and fulfilled entity and achieve self-actualization, but I — I — I like taking care of you, Jon!"
Jon can feel his eyebrows making a break for his hairline.
Stephen's right: he's always been the independent type. Self-assured, slow to trust, content with his own company, and more than a little prickly when he feels like he's being talked down to.
So when he says "I don't mind," it catches them both by surprise.
Stared down with the full force of Stephen's most penetrating gaze, Jon ducks his head, feeling a flush rise in his cheeks. "I mean, you obviously can't go doing it 24/7," he stammers, toying with his fork. "But if you, uh, get a charge out of fussing over me once in a while...and I get waffles and backrubs out of the deal...I'm not exactly going to complain, if you catch my drift."
"I think so," breathes Stephen, practically glowing. "I think I catch it, yeah."
He cups Jon's chin in both hands, tucking back a few stray locks of hair with his thumbs. Jon braces himself to be pounced on, or something equally enthusiastic; but Stephen just holds him firmly in place, pressing a tender (if bristly) kiss to his forehead.
"Do you catch mine?" he murmurs anxiously. "Because I can spell it out if you need me to. In really big letters, too, if that's what you want. Do you like skywriting? I can do skywriting...."
"Easy there." Jon nuzzles Stephen's neck. "Don't worry about it. Right now, this is all I need."