"I don't mean to presume," said a round-faced brunette in a green-and-white paisley sundress, who somehow managed to come across as matronly despite being about half Jon's age, "but have you heard the good news?"
"Sorry?" said Jon, trying to remember whether there was anyone here whose pregnancy he should have known about.
The woman lit up. "Well, sir, you're in for a treat! You don't need to go on feeling empty or alone any more. There's Someone who came to Earth to save you, and He's always with you, even when you don't know it."
Oh. That good news. "Now that you mention it, I think I've heard this one before."
"Have you? Oh, I'm Chloe, by the way. Colbert by blood, Williams by marriage. Isn't it just the kind of story you can hear over and over and never get tired of it?"
Jon decided not to answer that. "Listen, I appreciate the offer, but my life doesn't really feel empty right now." Especially not when I'm full of Stephen. Yeah, better not say that either.
"Well, I'm sure you feel that way now," said Chloe graciously. "But when you take the Lord into your heart, you'll find that all Earthly concerns pale in comparison. You'll even stop feeling the need to explore unhealthy lifestyles in a subconscious search for fulfillment."
"Unhealthy lifestyles?" echoed Jon, raising his eyebrows.
"I hope you don't think I'm being indelicate!" exclaimed Chloe. "It's just, well, you haven't exactly made it a secret that you and Stephen are part of that community. You know, the..." She leaned closer, lowering her voice conspiratorially. "...mainstream media."
Then Stephen put his hands solemnly on Jon's shoulders and said, "Jon, I know my family isn't the most progressive group of people in the world, but if just for today you can be tolerant and nonjudgmental of their intolerance and judgment, we can have a not-terrible time."
That was the Stephen he knew, all right. "Well, I'm sold," said Jon, twirling a section of Stephen's (thankfully untouched) collarbone-length locks around his hand. "As long as we get to come back here and have gay sex afterward."
"Kinky gay sex?" asked Stephen hopefully.
Jon smirked. Kink was the only excuse the anxious, people-pleasing Stephen ever used to let himself get demanding and openly aggressive. As a constant thing it would have been annoying, but once Jon had gotten over the shock, he had discovered that the sex was infinitely hotter that way. "I think I could be up for that."
Logically, he knew that Jon was an independent adult capable of taking care of himself. It didn't stop him from feeling like he had dumped his boyfriend into a den of wolves and run off. The only thing that held him back from a frantic search was the knowledge that it would feel even worse if he let Mama down.
"Tommy, is that you?" demanded the formidable Mrs. Colbert from on high. "Have you seen Stevie? I told that boy to go get me a drink."
"It's me, Mama," said Stephen quickly, climbing the porch steps to his mother's rocking chair. Vanity prevented her from wearing glasses; a problem with dry eyes kept her out of contacts. He hoped that was the only reason for the confusion. "Here you go. Sweet tea, with plenty of ice."
His mother took a few long sips, while Stephen kissed his two oldest aunts on the cheek and allowed them to fuss over the length of his hair. At last she put the cup down and demanded, without preamble, "I didn't smother you, did I?"
"Of course not, Mama," said Stephen promptly.
"Only, your father was always so busy, and your brothers and sisters kept moving out...and you were always such a good listener. But I didn't smother. Time came to push you out of the nest, and I pushed."
"You sure did."
"Don't sound so ungrateful, boy."
Stephen hadn't realized he did. But it never paid off to second-guess Mama Colbert. "I'm sorry, Mama," he said, hands folded obediently in his lap.
"You're not sorry. You go on breaking your mother's heart, when all I ever did was raise you right. First you get involved in that lifestyle, then you bring one of them home?"
"He's not a 'them'," mumbled Stephen.
"Speak up, Stevie."
Stephen gathered his courage and raised his voice. "He has a name. It's Jon. And he's...."
The man I love. The person I want to spend my life with. Someone who lets me tie him up and gag him, without hesitation, because that's how much he trusts me. Someone for whom I am seriously reconsidering my philosophy of marriage as an outdated patriarchal structure to be avoided at all costs. Wonderful.
"...a guest like any other, and deserves to be treated like one. Excuse me, Mama, I've got to go figure out where he is."
The trail turned out to be surprisingly easy to follow. All Stephen had to do was listen for the sound of a high-pitched, girlish giggle as imitated by a teenage boy, then follow where that boy was pointing.
Stephen had drilled Jon on the names of the Colbert siblings and their spouses, and given him forewarning about a few people to avoid at all costs unless he felt like sitting through a sermon on the dangers of hellfire, or the folly of electing a secret Kenyan Muslim, or the evils of the Jewish-run media. It had been like trying to shore up a levee with a pillowcase. The yard was crammed with maybe a hundred different relatives, and while none of the ones Jon had talked to had been openly hostile, he was running out of graceful ways to turn down pocket Bibles.
A miniature book of saint histories and a matching collection of selected Psalms had made it into his pockets in spite of his best efforts. At least they could serve as a deus ex machina if one of the more hostile-looking gentlemen decided to try shooting him in the balls.
On a completely separate but no less frustrating note, it was hot enough to burn a witch on the sidewalk. To be fair, Stephen couldn't have known that the air conditioning at his uncle's house would be broken. Still, he might have tipped Jon off about the pool, just in case.
Jon was staring longingly at the water, hardly even put off by the fact that it was full of shrieking children, when Stephen yanked on his arm. A lot harder than necessary, too. Those waffles were going to be coming with a nice long backrub.
"Let me start introducing you to people properly," said Stephen overloudly, steering him toward a broad man with salt-and-pepper hair. "This is my cousin Bruce. He runs his own furniture business. Bruce, Jon makes furniture too, just as a hobby, but he's very good. See, you have something to talk about!"
"You like to build?" said Bruce, shaking Jon's hand. "What was the last thing you made?"
"Uh, well, lately I've been working on a couple of end tables that I wanted to have done for Stephen's birthday, but that obviously didn't happen, so I hammered together a flower box for one of his windows. And before that, a stepstool for my daughter's room. She's growing out of the age where we put things on high shelves to keep them away from her."
"Sounds like solid work." His tone was friendly, but his grip on Jon's hand didn't loosen. "Wouldn't've thought you had the wrists for it."
Jon held his gaze, keeping his own voice casual through force of will, and mentally deducted the backrub from Stephen's tab. "Well, I do get a lot of practice pounding things. As I'm sure you can imagine."
There was an art to the way Bruce let go instantly, without managing to seem abrupt about it. "Good talking to you," he said, genial but final.
"Likewise, I'm sure." Jon turned to Stephen, who looked ready to stamp his foot and demand that they talk it out. "Why don't we go find some more people for me to meet."
They had taken a few aimless steps when someone hollered in the direction of the pool: "Kids! Dinner!"
A sense of purpose reappeared in Stephen's stride. "Come on," he said in a low voice, guiding Jon toward the tables with a hand on the small of his back. "And don't let me lose you this time."
If Stephen was bothered by it, he didn't let on, or let it stop him from taking an ample helping of pound cake. Jon filled a bun with pulled pork and made some noncommittal noises to Aunt Hattie, who said with cautious interest that she had thought Jews didn't do that. There were also more than enough casseroles and cole slaw to go around, and Jon was relieved to see Stephen's vegetarian quiche made with organic local spinach and free-range eggs disappearing as quickly as anything else.
The conversation petered out quickly once Aunt Hattie figured out that Jon didn't make a habit of attending any kind of religious service, including "Jewish church." By the sound of it, Stephen was being grilled on the same topic by Cousin David on his far side. He mumbled a few phrases about universalism and connection to the cosmos and how it was all just energy anyway, then excused himself to refill Jon's sweet tea.
Searching for a safer topic, Jon turned to the woman next to him: closer to their age (though in this crowd she could have been an aunt, or a niece, as easily as a cousin), in yet another flowered sundress, with blonde hair in a ponytail about the same length as Stephen's. She came with the world's easiest, and hopefully safest, conversation-starter.
"Your son's cute," said Jon, nodding to the infant in the carrier with a miniature battery-powered fan clipped to its side.
The look the woman turned on him was icy. "Thanks."
"We haven't been introduced." Jon wiped off his hand, just in case there was any stray pork grease on it, and offered it to shake. "I'm Jon. Jon Stewart."
The blonde didn't take it. "I know who you are."
Well, this was going nowhere fast. "So, uh, how old is he? What's his name?"
"Eight months. He's called Rayford, after his father."
"They're sweet at that age," said Jon, wistful in spite of himself. "My son just turned seven, and in some ways I miss it already."
That at least stirred an original response. "And I suppose he has some fancy Hollywood name, like Coconut or Slovakia."
What had Jon been thinking? This topic wasn't safe at all. Not when it was the one area where he couldn't shrug off even the most velvet-gloved insults. "Nathan," he said, matching the blonde icicle for icicle. "After my grandfather."
Without waiting for an answer, he turned back just in time to see Stephen returning with the tea. It was probably heavily-sugared enough to kick his body into some kind of shock, but in this weather he would've swallowed arsenic if there was ice in it. "Thanks, babe. That was very thoughtful of you."
These dishes were decorated with a forest of toothpick-sized flags. Stephen normally wasn't in favor of displaying this many American flags without some kind of acknowledgment of the government's ongoing imperialist acts here and overseas, but he could always offset his enjoyment of the cobbler with a donation to Amnesty International later. That would express his beliefs without making a scene over it.
He had applied a similar principle earlier, when he'd gone to the grill for another bun with lettuce and ketchup (his push for a tofuburger option had once again gone unheeded; maybe next year), and ended up cornered....
"I hear your guest was making a pass at one of my nephews."
"Jon wouldn't do that. Although I apologize if it came across that way."
"Just keep your friend under control."
"'Partner', Papa. Can't you at least say partner?"
"Don't get smart with me, son. What you're meant to have is a helpmeet—someone who will complement you and support you, while submitting to your authority as head of the house. Now, I can't stop you from whatever it is you do with that man, but don't you expect me to insult every Godly relationship at this gathering."
"I respect your right to your opinion, and hope we can agree to disagree."
See? Nothing had changed, sure, but Stephen had said his piece without abandoning his principles of nonconfrontation. It was a moral victory.
The ice cream was gone all too soon, and the gathering began to break down into the usual cleanup patterns: non-guest women and older girls putting things away, young children retreating to the pool and the trees, men drifting together and breaking out cigars. Stephen wished he had remembered his pipe.
He was about to take Jon's arm when he was thrown off-balance by a hearty slap on the back. "Steve! You haven't introduced me to your guest yet."
"Your brother Eddie, right?" said Jon. Stephen's heart swelled with pride: some of the drilling had paid off.
"Just Ed, thanks." The brother in question squeezed Stephen's shoulder. "I'll watch him, don't worry. Go help your sisters and nieces with the cleanup."
"Now, hang on," protested Jon. "You know he's not, right?"
"Not one of the sisters. Just because you don't think everything he does is manly enough—"
"Jon, please," interrupted Stephen. "It's fine. I'm always ready to challenge gender role preconceptions."
"Believe me, we know," said Ed, in a tone that Stephen chose to take as lighthearted jibing. "Off you go."
Without once breaking his friendly, down-home cadence, he added, softly enough that only Jon would be able to make out the words, "I know you didn't make my baby brother the way he is, but if you get him involved in anything dangerous, I will look up all the folks who are just itching to sue you and start representing them pro bono until you'll need to take out a loan to get a cup of coffee."
"Duly noted," Jon muttered. "Sir," he added, figuring it was a safe bet with someone at least fifteen years older than him, same technical generation or not.
He had to let the fight go, for the sake of his boyfriend's reputation if not his own. Besides, it wasn't like he supported the gender divide in cleanup duties to begin with, was it? And he was an outsider here. If Stephen's time-honed strategy was to accept homophobia in order to challenge sexism, who was Jon to start second-guessing it?
As he and Ed merged with the rest of the group, the greetings were subtly but unmistakably different. A couple of song lyrics started playing on a loop in Jon's head: I hope Neil Young will remember / A Southern man don't need him around anyhow...
When a child's wailing broke in on the conversation, Jon's first thought was, Yeah, buddy, I know how you feel.
In his own younger days, Stephen had been lucky. With ten older siblings, there had been people willing to fuss over him well after the age when "comfort" started getting referred to as "babying," whether or not you still needed it. This nephew, little Kenneth, was around that age. There were twigs in his hair and blood running down his leg.
Well, Kenneth was about to get lucky too, because the first person in his trajectory was Stephen.
A hasty grab for a sheaf of napkins, a few long strides, and Stephen was dropping to his knees in the grass before the stumbling boy. "Shh, Kenny, it's going to be okay," he soothed. "I recognize and validate your pain. Now hold still and let Uncle Stephen clean you up."
Kenneth sniffled, dark hair flopping in his eyes, but he did his wobbly best.
Stephen gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze with one hand while patting blood off his scrapes with the other. "I bet that looks scary, huh? I wouldn't blame you if you were scared. But, see, it's not a big cut at all. It's good not to judge things by your first—"
"Kenny! Get over here!"
With a choked yes'm Kenneth pulled out of Stephen's grip and scurried over to his mother. She grabbed his wrist and yanked him the next few steps, seemingly oblivious to whether it would make a scene until they were behind his father, at which point she recovered enough to keep the boy's scolding to an urgent whisper.
Stephen got to his feet, struggling to clamp down on his automatic guilt impulse as he met Kenneth's father's gaze. "It's just a scrape," he said, crumpling the used napkins in his fist and holding out the stack that remained untouched. "If you'd like to use these—"
"We'll manage," said the other man briskly. "Excuse us."
Swallowing, Stephen nodded. "Feel better, Kenny."
Kenneth squeaked and hid behind his mother's skirt, peeping out at his uncle with one wide eye.
As the boy was ushered away from Stephen, his awareness, contracted by the crisis of the moment, ballooned outward again. The whole crowd, not just Kenneth's parents, suddenly felt a lot closer.
A few people were staring openly, while the rest were very pointedly not-staring, which was almost worse. Even the skinny fair-haired teenager who had spent the whole afternoon ignoring the gathering in favor of a book was peering at him over its spine. The only sounds in the near distance were scandalized whispers, the mutterings of a pair of teenage boys who earlier had cracked up over some hot-dog-enabled miming while the other adults weren't watching, and a full-volume order from the unperturbed Mama Colbert for one of her boys to refill her sweet tea.
Jon didn't so much walk out of the crowd as materialize in front of it.
"So, ah, it turns out I overdid it a little on the cobbler," he said, the words mild but his voice carrying across the stillness. "Anywhere around here I can get something for a stomachache?"
"Y-yeah." Stephen swallowed. "Inside. I'll show you."
Jon nodded. His thumbs were hooked in his pockets, and they stayed there when he started off before Stephen had quite reached him. Stephen fell in step a few paces behind, not trying to take his hand or even guide him by the shoulder; and thus they walked, not so much together as in the same direction, toward the house.
"Bathroom's this way," said Stephen, taking the lead. They passed through the kitchen, dark except for the indirect sunlight peeping through the curtains, hot even in front of the lone fan buzzing on the counter. "There'll be something for indigestion in the medicine cabinet. Or maybe—"
"My stomach's fine, Stephen."
"What?" Stephen stumbled to a halt. "You're joking, right? Not that I would judge you if you had lied. But why would you lie?"
"Because I figured you could use a few minutes alone with someone who understands that you're not a child molester."
Stephen cringed. His response was stiff, automatic: "It's not our business to challenge their methods of parenting."
"But it's their business to judge you for something you've never done?"
"It's okay, Jon, really. I can handle it."
"How is it okay? It's why you didn't tell me about the pool, isn't it? We'll get judged even for looking in that direction. And it's why at dinner I got the third degree for mentioning that a baby was cute! In what world is that okay?"
"I've upset you." Avoiding Jon's eyes, Stephen commandeered a hand towel printed with frolicking kittens and soaked it under the faucet. "I'm sorry. It wasn't okay for me to pressure you to put up with this. I won't ask you to come back. Here, put this on the back of your neck."
It took considerable willpower for Jon to push the dripping towel away. "Stephen, you're avoiding the issue."
"Am I?" stammered Stephen. "I'm sorry—I thought—aren't you hot?"
"Sweltering. I'll soak my own towel, okay? Just give me some idea why you put up with this."
Stephen pushed his hair aside to drape the kitten towel over his neck while Jon soaked its twin, this one decorated with roughhousing puppies. "Can't you believe that I like visiting my family?"
"Stephen, your family has you so beaten down that I'm this close to begging you to fuck me on your parents' bed just to bring your mojo back." Jon noted the flash of color in Stephen's cheeks, and filed it away to work with later. "Listen, I believe you love them. I even believe that, under all the prejudice and the distortions, some of them love you right back. But you cannot convince me that you're having fun right now."
Stephen slumped against the dishwasher. "Maybe not. But I'm glad someone's here, and if that someone has to be me, it's worth it."
"Someone queer! Or at least, someone who's out about it." Stephen swallowed. "There are kids down here who are scared, and think they're alone, and it'll really help them to see a successful, fulfilled adult who isn't either straight or fighting it."
In spite of the pangs in his heart, Jon almost laughed. "Stephen, call me crazy—"
"I wouldn't do that, Jon. That would be disrespectful to the differently sanitied."
"—but that sounds an awful lot like challenging these people's methods of parenting."
Stephen's face fell, horrified.
"Stephen. If you're about to apologize, stop," said Jon. Sure enough, his boyfriend's mouth snapped closed. "I don't blame you. You hear me? Not for a second. But these kids aren't growing up in the same world you did. They have the YouTube. They watch Glee. You're not their only lifeline to the gay adult world. And if you keep visiting like this, they're not going to see the gay guy who made it out and has a great life, they're gonna see the gay guy who keeps coming back even though it makes him miserable."
"You don't know that," protested Stephen weakly. "You can't know that. You don't have any experience here. You're...you're Yankeesplaining, is what you are."
"I don't think that's a word."
"It will be. Just give me the chance to make a couple of blog entries."
"Don't you threaten to sic the blogosphere on me. If you want to shut me up, fine, but do it yourself."
Stephen perked up like a startled prairie dog. "What, here?"
"You realize this isn't even my parents' house, right? And if we had sex on the bed, we would be validating half the stereotypes they have about us in the first place."
"And probably get heatstroke in the process," agreed Jon, dabbing at his forehead with the rapidly-warming wet towel. "I guess you'll just have to be creative."
"Well, um," said Stephen. "Now that you mention it...there's something I've been thinking about that it just so happens would be really good for overheating...."
"Go for it."
"You haven't even heard what it is yet."
"Yeah, well." Jon met his eyes and shrugged. "I trust you."
Jon stayed quiet and facing forward as directed, even when the sharp crack of ice coming unstuck from the tray was made him flinch. Behind him, Stephen paused for a few moments of silence, letting the suspense drag out.
Then he pressed the flat of a frost-coated ice cube to the side of Jon's neck.
Jon flinched away, drawing a sharp breath. Stephen kept the ice against his bare skin, demanding in a low voice, "Green?"
"Green," agreed Jon. "Oh, god, so much green. Bright, neon, begging-for-it green."
Stephen could work with that.
One of the edges of this ice cube had frozen sharp and rough; he could feel it dragging against Jon's throat as he moved it in slow, tight circles. The roughness melted too quickly, smoothing itself against a patch of skin that had to be burning with the cold. Stephen's fingertips were feeling it, and he could switch hands whenever he liked.
When the cube had dwindled to a sliver too small to wield, Stephen dropped it into one of Jon's curved palms. "Hold that," he ordered, and shielded his own fingers with the kitten towel before picking up the next one.
"Did you know that your wrists are one of the best places to help you cool off?" he remarked, kneeling at Jon's back and circling the ice against the inside of Jon's wrist. "It's because the blood vessels are so close to the surface. You vent heat there more efficiently."
"Remind me never to hike the Grand Canyon without you," said Jon. The breezy words were belied by the tremor in his voice, the way his arm kept twitching against Stephen's touch.
"It isn't just wrists, though. It works with any pulse point. You know where the rest are?"
"I have a feeling I'm gonna find out."
"Mouthy," smirked Stephen. "You're doing very well at holding still. I need you to keep that up. You can hold on to the chair if you have to."
"Sure. Uh, I mean. Thank you, sir."
The voice of obedience never came naturally to Jon, but he tried, and Stephen loved him for it. He stood and rewarded Jon for playing along with a kiss on the still-cool back of his neck.
"I'm glad you're wearing shorts," he remarked, retrieving the tray of ice cubes before moving to crouch in front of Jon. "You should do it more often."
"Just what the world needs," muttered Jon. "More uncovered hairy old-man legs."
Stephen slid a fresh ice cube along the arch of Jon's foot, glad he had cajoled Jon into wearing (leather, perfectly nice) sandals. "Some of us like your legs."
"Some of us also try to wear assless chaps to court proceedings. Doesn't mean it's a good idea."
"That was different." Stephen set into another round of slow circles against the inside of Jon's ankle, on the soft skin just next to the bone. A drop of water rolled down the side of Jon's heel, catching on the sandal's leather strap. "I hate it when you put yourself down, Jon. I know sometimes you're just kidding, but hipster self-deprecation is still self-deprecation. Even if it is so adorable that it makes people want to put you in their pocket and take you home with them."
Jon flushed an agreeable shade of pink. "Stephen? Do you really believe it doesn't matter if I'm joking? Or are you just saying so because you can't always tell when that is?"
"Can you always tell?"
The words were out of Stephen's mouth before he had a chance to second-guess them to death. "Green?" he added apologetically.
"Green," sighed Jon. "Sure, I can be a little neurotic, but my self-esteem is not a terminal case, I promise."
"Then repeat after me: 'I have nice legs.'"
Without warning Stephen pushed the ice between the bottom of Jon's foot and the sole of the sandal. Jon flinched again, ticklish and sensitive; Stephen grabbed his ankle to hold him in place. "Say it."
"I have nice legs," stammered Jon, hands locked around the frame of the chair.
"That's right." Stephen switched to the other leg and ran a new piece of ice up the curve of Jon's calf. This time he was already holding Jon in place before pressing the chill against the back of Jon's knee. "I've got to get you in short-shorts sometime. Not in public if you're not comfortable with that, just around the house. Just so I can enjoy looking at you."
Jon's knuckles were starting to go white. "A-are we still doing pulse points? Or is this just an excuse to feel me up?"
Stephen blinked. "You think I need an excuse?"
"I guess not. Uh...no, sir."
"Exactly." Stephen dipped his hand inside Jon's overly-baggy khaki shorts to trace cold swirls on his inner thigh, reveling in the way Jon's breathing went ragged. "Can do whatever I want with you. Once we get back to the hotel—"
"God, yes," groaned Jon. "Air conditioning."
"—I'm going to strip you down, tie you to the bed, and spend about an hour just playing with your legs. Followed by the rest of you."
"You have such faith in my stamina," said Jon dryly.
Stephen took a breath, summoned his own version of the old familiar accent, and said, "Ain't your stamina Ah'm worried about, boy."
"Ohgod," gasped Jon. Before Stephen could ask, he added, "Green."
"That's better." Stephen pressed the latest bit of ice under the curve of Jon's thigh, pushed his legs apart to lean in between them, and rose with the next cube to return to his jugular. "Only question is, should I smack you every time you get smart with me, or stuff something in your mouth so you won't be able to?"
He twisted his free hand in Jon's hair, forcing his head to the side to get a better angle for icing the thin skin below and behind Jon's ear. The soft noise Jon made in the back of his throat sent a delicious thrill down Stephen's spine.
"Look at me," he snapped. Jon strained to meet his eyes in spite of the angle. "There's an idea. I can gag you, and still get to slap you for looking away...."
Jon's clear blue eyes snapped into frightened focus.
For a moment, color code or no color code, Stephen was terrified that he had done something very wrong. Then he heard the click behind him.
"Let him go," snapped a familiar voice. "Now."
And now she had a hunting rifle to back that up.
Stephen released Jon's hair and turned to face her, visibly befuddled. Jon unhooked his arms from the chair and held up his hands in surrender—the gun didn't seem to be aimed at him, but he wasn't taking chances. "Listen, it isn't what you think."
"Jon, relax," said Stephen, entirely too calmly. "The idea that Southerners shoot people at the drop of a hat is a tired stereotype that I'm sure you're above." He tried to stroke Jon's hair, soothing the patches he'd been yanking at.
"Don't touch him!" ordered the woman. Stephen's hand jerked back. "I know what I heard."
"I know what you heard too," said Jon. "But it's not what it sounded like."
"Although you probably wouldn't approve of what it was, either," put in Stephen.
The hand on the rifle grip twitched. Jon's heart twisted. "You're not helping!"
"Why are you defending him?" demanded the woman. Her finger was well away from the trigger, but the barrel remained pointed at Stephen's torso. "You have enough money to print it all up and build a house out of it. You don't have to put up with him!"
"Now, Charlene, that's just—"
"It's a sex thing! Okay?"
Both Stephen and Charlene broke off, looking down at him with very different flavors of astonishment.
"Our plans for the evening," continued Jon, "are a kinky immoral East-coast New-York gay liberal sex thing, entirely safe, planned out, nothing happens to me or Stephen that we can't deal with. Now I'm sure this plays into all sorts of terrible stereotypes for you, but we would really appreciate it if you not spread this little gem around, and also if you would put the gun down? Please?"
"It's...a kink thing," echoed Charlene slowly.
"You've got some kind of...arrangement. Like in that Fifty Shades of Grey book."
"Close enough," said Jon (cutting off Stephen before he could start detailing the BDSM inaccuracies in the Fifty Shades series). "A private kind of arrangement. I'm very sorry if it makes you uncomfortable—believe me, if I had expected anyone to walk in...."
"What brought you in here, anyway?" added Stephen. "And can I get you a glass of water or something?"
He gestured toward the kitchen door. Jon cringed, certain the motion was inviting a bullet wound to the torso...
...but no, Charlene was lowering the muzzle. "You must think I'm a damn fool."
Jon collapsed back into the chair with relief.
"You had good intentions," said Stephen soothingly. "I'm sure I would have taken comfort in them if you had actually shot me. If the gun were loaded, I mean."
It was Stephen's turn to be gaped at. "It's not loaded?" exclaimed Jon. And: "You couldn't have told me that?"
Charlene got over her astonishment more quickly. "Should have known you'd work it out. As if Poppy would leave a loaded gun in reach with grandkids over."
"Your acting was very convincing, though!" said Stephen. To Jon he added, calmly as if relating the weather forecast, "For future reference, if I thought it was loaded, I would have been in front of you."
The two men had to leave separately, Charlene had advised; otherwise the rest of the family would start to talk. Stewart had been faking sickness, so Stephen would build on that, letting it be known that he needed to have a bit of a lie-down. Once her cousin was out of earshot, though, Charlene told Stewart, "If there's anything you felt you couldn't say in front of him, now's the time."
"Geez, you're good at this," said Stewart ruefully. "Don't worry, it was all on the level. When it comes to actually acting this stuff out, believe me, Stephen's more afraid of me getting hurt than I am."
Charlene adjusted her grip on the baby. Stewart was careful to avoid looking. Thoughtful of him, really, though she wasn't worried: whatever else you could say about his sort, they didn't stare. "Good to hear."
She'd always felt bad for Stephen, more than in the distant, impersonal way that a homecoming queen was supposed to feel bad for the high-school social strata. When he ran off to the big city and started to make something of himself, she was relieved enough not to fuss too much about his increasingly bizarre politics, or the crowd he had come to associate with. For a while she had almost envied him: not for the particulars, but for being able to live out a dream that seemed to make him happy, while she'd dropped out of college to have Cam and hadn't gotten much of anywhere since.
"Hey, so you knew him as a kid, right?" Stewart said presently. "Was he always...like this?"
Yes. Most definitely yes. Not that Charlene would ever be rude enough to say so. "Can't say I know what you mean."
"Of course you can't," sighed Stewart. "Listen, it isn't...I love him, okay? And I don't mean that in a 'bless his heart' kind of way, I mean I adore that man. But I wish I knew when he stopped being aware that 'by the way, I would jump in front of a bullet for you' is a hell of a bomb to drop in casual conversation. Or if he never realized it in the first place."
Charlene chose her words carefully. Just because Stephen wasn't hitting the man without permission didn't mean his hands were necessarily clean, after all. "Seems to me he might be plenty aware, and be saying it for the reaction."
Stewart snorted. "No, trust me, he has no idea." He took another gulp of ice water. "Stephen doesn't jump to self-sacrifice to play the martyr, or to make drama. It's a reflex to him. Even when it's not the most appropriate option, sometimes it's honestly the only one he thinks of. Worries me like hell, but I take it you don't have any input on how to deal with it, so please don't worry about it. Just forget I ever said anything."
The baby let go of her nipple and smacked his rosy lips in contentment. Charlene wiped away the dribble and re-hooked the strap of her sundress before putting him over her shoulder. To Stewart she said, "I didn't know him that well. Maybe...maybe I should have. Not that I'm saying it's my job to fix him, mind. Or yours, either."
"I want to be good for him, that's all," said Stewart quietly. "Heaven knows he's been good for me." He glanced out the window. "You two want to head out first? I'm thinking me and you leaving at the same time would be less scandalous than me and Stephen, but not by much."
"That's a good plan."
"And, ah, thanks for earlier." He rose politely from Aunt Verna's lace-trimmed settee as she got up from the recliner, made a reflexive attempt to shake her occupied hand, then caught himself and nodded instead. "Maybe this is Stephen's influence talking and you'll think I sound ridiculous, but as far as you knew, you really went to bat for me in there. And you don't even like me."
"I may," allowed Charlene, "have been a bit hasty in my judgment."
Still, Stephen kept fretting until Jon emerged in person. And then he nearly panicked, because the door that Jon had come through emptied straight onto the grandmothers' porch.
When Stephen arrived to the rescue, Jon was yes-ma'aming like his life depended on it, while Stephen's mother and aunts lectured him on...it sounded like...
Yes! Jon's shirt, it seemed, was not tucked in properly. Also, he was slouching. And neither of those things, as far as Stephen could tell, had been blamed on Obama yet. (Although part of that might have been because Mama Colbert kept calling him Leon.)
"Excuse me! Sorry! Should've introduced you sooner," said Stephen, interposing himself into the conversation. "Mama, this is Jon."
"Jon Stewart." Stephen put a hand on his shoulder. "My partner. Jon, this is Aunt Annie, Aunt Hannah, and my mother."
"Pleased to meet you," said Jon automatically. "Ma'am, ma'am, Mrs. Colbert."
Stephen's mother squinted hard and looked him over again. "You're Stephen's young man?"
"Well." Mama Colbert pursed her lips with unmistakable finality. "I'll have you know that I do not approve."
"We know, Mama," said Stephen, and took Jon's arm. "Now please excuse us."
He dragged Jon down the porch steps without waiting for a reply.
Stephen raised his eyebrows in a delightfully authoritative way. The accent he put on this time was nothing less than pure Newsman Voice, complete with a well-timed tilt of the head: "Do you...want to stay?"
Jon grinned. "No, sir."
"Are you sure?" said Stephen in his normal voice. "I mean, if you wanted to stay around until the fireworks or anything, I would put up with it."
"Oh, I expect fireworks," said Jon. Of course Stephen started to turn around, so he had to add, "That was supposed to be innuendo! C'mon, let's get out of here. Are you good to drive?"
There were six or eight cars jumbled in the dusty driveway, and Jon thanked his lucky stars that their eco-friendly rental was at the very end of it. It gave an adorable beep as Stephen unlocked it, and Jon's hand was on the passenger door when a familiar voice said, "Do you have room for one more?"
Jon and Stephen both stopped short.
Charlene was standing between two of the vans, not carrying little Ray now, but leading a teenager with short blond hair. The teen was one Jon had noticed earlier, if only to wonder that such a slender, delicate boy and/or flat-chested, dress-avoidant girl (he hadn't actually figured out which) didn't seem to be a target for the same kind of jabs he and Stephen had. It probably helped that the kid seemed to have spent the whole time with his/her nose buried in a paperback book (currently dangling from one hand), avoiding conversation and generally trying to disappear. S/he was half-trying to hide behind Charlene now, although with Charlene standing two or three inches shorter, it wasn't working very well.
"Not for me," added Charlene, pulling the teen forward. "For Cam. My eldest. I'm not asking for charity," she added, appealing to Stephen. "I'd send spending money, clothes, birthday presents. You can take a round of things from the house to start with. Cam's very well-behaved, aren't you, sweetheart?"
The teenager nodded, looking between Jon and Stephen with wide, uncertain eyes. "I am. She's not just saying that 'cause she's my mom."
"This isn't a good place for someone like Cam to grow up," continued Charlene, appealing to Stephen. "Isn't healthy. I don't know as much about your kind of people as I might, but I know that. All you'd have to spare is a bit of space, for the last two years of high school. I know even that's a lot to ask, but please...."
"Give us a minute?" said Stephen. Leaning across the hood of the car, he added what Jon had known was coming since the moment Charlene spoke: "Jon, I won't make any promises on your behalf, although I know you are a good and generous person who would probably be happy to help in any way you can. But I have space. I have a ton of space. And if you object to my taking in a family member in need, I will have no choice to remind you that—although I believe the concept of personal property is deeply problematic to begin with—my house is still my house."
Jon held up his hands. If they'd been living together it might have been different; but Stephen's place in Jon's life was shaped around Jon's kids and the home he kept for them, and there was no reason Jon couldn't adjust to giving Stephen the same sort of space in return. "Okay. I mean, we'll have to talk about it, work out boundaries and stuff...but okay."
Maybe it was just sunburn, but Stephen practically glowed. "Charlene, Cam is welcome to make use of all the free space I've got," he declared. "And I'm not kidding when I say there's a ton of it. Do you and Ray Junior want to come too? It's not like you wouldn't fit."
Cam turned hopefully to Charlene, who shook her head. "You know I can't, baby. You have your house key on you?" (Cam nodded.) "All right. Fill up the good suitcases, and if you forget anything important, email me and I'll have it shipped later."
"Okay, Mom," said Cam faintly.
Charlene pulled her firstborn into a tight embrace. There were sniffles. Jon looked away, not wanting to intrude, and ended up focusing on Stephen. I sure hope you know what you're doing.
"So, uh, Cam," said Jon, displaying clear signs of the discomfort with challenges to the gender binary ingrained in him by a cissexist society. "Is that short for anything?"
"It's Cameron," said the kid. "But call me Cam. Everyone does."
Jon looked to Stephen for help. "What Jon's trying to ask," said Stephen over the comforting blast of the AC, "is, which pronouns would you prefer?"
"Pronouns," said Cam, "are an oppressive sexist construct that only serve to perpetuate the anglo-linguistic kyriarchy."
Jon burst out laughing.
"Don't worry," said Stephen over the racket, "he's not laughing at you. I think. Jon, you're not laughing to be dismissive of what Cam said, are you?"
"I'm laughing because it was amazing," Jon corrected, still giggling so hard he had to wipe away tears. "And you were worried."