(1999) It's all true.
The new host reaches for Stephen's hand, and his breath freezes in his lungs.
It's not his Jonathan, the one whose heart he clawed from its ribcage and left flopping like a stranded jellyfish on the sand; but out of the limited vault of tribal features of the Chosen People this man has managed to lift the same crooked smile, the same divot in his nose like it thinks it's a cleft chin, the same infinitely mussable hair. He even has the name.
What kind of a cruel joke does the universe think it's playing, anyway?
There's no spark when their fingers wrap around each other, no warm swell of recognition as if the lines on their palms are mirror-images that have been searching for each other since the beginning of time. Nobody as ruthlessly moral as Stephen would be cursed with having to fight that off twice.
He resolves to pre-emptively hate the man anyway, just in case.
(2001) It's true...sort of...although heavily fictionalized in a way that only makes sense to Stephen.
Jon's mom is surprisingly chill about the whole visit. She makes an obvious effort not to coo over his well-oiled television-producing machine like it's a school science project, and gently turns down a few overeager co-workers in search of embarrassing baby stories.
Still, it's an hour later before he's decompressed enough to realize that nothing has exploded, melted, or developed a spontaneous oubreak of patriotic graffiti all afternoon.
"Has anyone seen Stephen?"
"I think he's sulking in our office," volunteers Steve, who is the ranking second-place contender for 'most ordinary office implements accidentally set on fire.' "He stormed off after meeting yo mama, and I haven't seen him since."
"You realize that sentences don't automatically become funnier by inserting the phrase 'yo mama', right?"
"Says you," counters Steve. "Hey, if he quits, can I have his chair? Mine doesn't spin."
Sure enough, Stephen is hunched in front of his computer playing what appears to be his own personal take on Minesweeper, in which the goal is to land on a mine as quickly as possible. Jon slides the free chair over next to him, its legs squeaking against the floor, and takes a seat. "Is anything wrong?"
"Good of you to notice," snaps Stephen, turning the board red and stabbing the frowny face with his mouse to get a new one.
"Can I help?"
"It's a little late for that, don't you think?"
Uh-oh. "Stephen, if there's something I've done...."
"I'll say there is!" exclaims Stephen. "Or weren't you listening to yourself when you introduced me to your mother? I wouldn't blame you. I never listen to you if I can help it."
Jon frowns, replaying the scene in his mind. Stephen's part, along with Mom's reply, will be sticking with him for a while now ("Can I call you Janet?" "Marian, dear, it's Marian." "But I like Janet!"), but his own introductions are all blurring together. "Uh, I think I said 'Mom, this is Stephen, he's one of my correspondents'. What's wrong with that?"
At last Stephen whirls to face him. "Really, Jonathan?" he snaps, sounding uncomfortably like Mom herself when he whips out the full name, eyebrows a perfect sine wave of condescension. "It's been two years! You can't bring yourself to introduce me as your 'friend' yet?"
The accusation hits Jon like a soggy halibut to the face. "I, uh," he stammers, "I didn't realize we were friends."
"Why wouldn't we be?"
Jon tugs uncomfortably at his collar. He can think of half a dozen reasons without even trying, and the list would probably spill over onto the floor if he sat down and really worked on it, but all of that shrivels into insignificance under Stephen's wilting stare. "Um. No reason, I guess. Listen, I'll give you the right introduction next time it comes up, okay?"
The whole shape of Stephen's face changes as he breaks into a grin. "Oh, good!" he exclaims, clapping Jon on the shoulder. "I was afraid this was going to come between us."
It's the first Jon has heard of "us", and after the way the other man reacted to "correspondent", he's a little worried that Stephen will see unfathomable layers of meaning into his agreement. On the other hand, it's impossible not to mirror that smile.
(2005) It's fictionalized, but only slightly.
The rumors flutter around the upper echelons of the city like tiny, vicious birds hopping around in foliage. You want the whole story? Good luck. The only people who know for sure aren't about to start talking.
But here's the executive summary.
It was definitely on the second of November. Some kind of pan-company party. Enough people swear they were there to be able to fill the whole hotel, let alone the grand ballroom. Used to be you could tell who was full of it because they didn't know about the cupcakes, or the terrible oboe player, but word has gotten around by now. So much for shibboleths.
Anyway. Definitely on the guest list: Colbert, flush with his recent success; and Stewart, his creative springboard or guardian angel or sugar daddy, depending on who you ask.
And some marketing genius with a few too many drinks in them thinks it's a bright idea to turn the question on Stewart.
You wish they had had one of those industrious fans with a hidden camera around, because everybody's got a different idea about the action. Did Stewart reach out and take Colbert's hand in his? Was there a soulful look exchanged between the two? Who knows? Everyone must've been wasted by that point who isn't in AA, and probably a few that were. And if a blush did rise to Colbert's cheeks, that could've been the wine.
Point is, Colbert slaps the hand away — assuming there was handholding, which, like I said, can't swear there was — and shouts, loud enough for half the room to hear, No way, fag, I am NOT gay!
Turns on his heel and marches out, making enough of a scene that the whole room probably sees. Stewart has the sense to take off more quietly, but half an hour later he's gone too. Separate cars, though nobody was paying attention to whether they showed up together in the first place, so it's hard to say what that means.
No, I don't know if the cars wound up at the same home. I'm a gossip hound, not a stalker.
Now that would just be speculation. Maybe Colbert was stringing Stewart along until he got the show, and Stewart was just too much of a romantic to see it. Or maybe he really did love the guy, but ultimately couldn't reconcile that with being a right-wing homophobic nutjob. Who knows?
Oh, I'm happy to speculate all night. As long as you keep the drinks coming.
(2007) It's all fantasy.
Jon's lips drop a trail of kisses down his chest before taking him in, all warm wet tongue and just enough teeth in the right places to make Stephen whimper while the bedsprings squeak their disapproval.
Sometimes all they get is a stolen kiss under Jon's wall of televisions with the blinds drawn; once in a while it's a whole weekend at Stephen's apartment, where Jon has somehow found a way to convince Gipper to leave them alone for long stretches, and not chew the furniture in the meantime. Some nights he's fast and rough and leaves Stephen breathless, but tonight he's slow, gentle, like Stephen's skin is a cherished family heirloom on which to lavish the most reverent of attentions.
It's been much easier since he got his own show. Now Stephen can let his eyes glaze over with fantasy any time he wants, and not run the risk of the real Jon walking in on him.
He can't possibly tell Jon about these fantasies, of course. For one thing, Jon might mistake them for something, you know, gay.
Stephen doesn't feel like explaining the intricacies of his plan. How the long-term arc of the fantasy involves Jon falling for him, becoming wrapped around Stephen's finger, and then getting ruthlessly and heterosexually crushed under his heel. There's going to be an imaginary wedding involved, or at least one of those things the gays insist on calling weddings as part of a blatant frontal assault on the sanctity of the Russian mail-order-bride pamphlet waiting in Stephen's bureau, underneath the bridal catalog puffed with cost-cutting but fun-preserving tips like having tiers of cupcakes instead of a full-on cake. (You can even decorate them to look like little white dresses, although Stephen's partial to the ones clad in icing tuxedos, each topped with a spun-sugar bowtie.)
But none of that will have a grain of emotional impact unless there's buildup first! So you see, it's essential that Stephen first work his way through all the imaginary mindblowing sex. And the imaginary tender cuddling. And the imaginary nights he insists he's going to keep Jon company through the insomnia no matter how long it lasts, only to fall asleep on the living room couch at four AM, and wake up at noon still wrapped in the afghan that Jon tucked around him. And the imaginary confessions of feelings that runneth over, in front of the fireplace where the light is low enough that Jon can't see how much he's blushing.
And if, once in a while, he lets himself get swept away with the notion that Jon's whisper against his lips is real, that the emotion in those beautiful eyes is as depthless and anchoring and forever as a proper, God-sanctioned love—
—well, that just proves he's straight, doesn't it? Gay people don't want forever in the first place.
"Something on your mind?" murmurs his imaginary Jon, hand warm across his stomach. "You're awfully quiet tonight."
"I don't know what I would do without you," says Stephen out loud to the empty room.
It's impressive, his ability to stay in character: his voice breaks over the words, and his eyes are genuinely going misty as he presses them into the pillow and imagines Jon's thumb rubbing slow circles on his hip, Jon kissing his temple and whispering in his good ear that it's okay, he can fall asleep safely, Jon promises to still be there in the morning.
(2010) It's all true.
Stephen is curled up under his desk, on the fifth stair down where it always smells like Starbucks, when someone knocks on the top. He scrubs his eyes quickly and tries to shove his glasses on, but it's still all a blur; he only recognizes the man kneeling at the top of the steps because it's Jon, and he's known Jon for, what, ten years? He could pick out that silhouette in a blizzard.
"Go away," he chokes, because he knows Jon won't.
"Are you okay?" says Jon softly. Most of the studio lights are off, leaving him silhouetted against stripes of red. He looks a bit...drippy. Like he just tumbled out of his post-taping shower, or ran through a downpour without bothering to grab an umbrella. Maybe both.
Stephen shakes his head, snuffling against his wrinkled sleeve. "You saw the show?"
Jon's voice is soft and weird, in a way that Stephen can't be bothered to parse. "I forgot about it, Jon!" he cries, makeup leaving black streaks across the heel of his hand as he rubs his eyes again. "Years of my life — people, places, beaches, dances, the weird spot on the bedroom ceiling shaped like Abraham Lincoln, the time I got into a fistfight over whether South Carolina peaches were better than California oranges, that lady who bought us a whole set of steak knives after we groomed her schnauzer into second place at the regional championships — it was all just gone! How is that possible?"
"It's called a fugue state," murmurs Jon. "I thought it might be—"
"Spare me your ivory-tower psychobabble!" cries Stephen. "There's no excuse for forgetting him!"
"Jonathan." The name in his mouth unlocks another cascade of memory, a poorly packed box collapsing out of his mental attic and spilling its contents over him in a bruising wave. "He was everything, Jon! You don't understand, he stuck with me through the withdrawal and the kidney stone and that Christmas my father said I wasn't welcome home until I gave him up, he laughed at my jokes and he never made fun of me for rolling around in the dirt playing with the dogs, the sex was amazing and the kisses were like marshmallows in hot chocolate and I loved him! I loved him, I wanted to marry him, I wanted to raise children with him, of all the stupid far-fetched sacreligious ideas, and then I put his heart through a shredder while his entire family watched! I don't deserve to forget that, Jon! I don't care if it was protecting marriage, I deserve to feel like this. Every day. Every minute. For the rest of my life!"
He buries his face in his arms as a sob wracks his whole frame. The humiliation of having Jon see him like this is a drop in the ocean; his weakness could be splashed across every television in the country right now and he's not sure he could bring himself to care, especially not if there was any chance of it reaching Jonathan and chipping away at Stephen's incalculable debt.
"Oh, Stephen," murmurs Jon, half to himself, before speaking up. "Stephen! You still don't recognize me?"
Stephen gulps back another sob. "You're Jon," he hiccups, too short of breath to launch into a proper screed on the arrogance of Jon expecting everyone to know who he is just because he's famous and has employed them for years. "What does it matter? There's only one person who ever mattered, and I threw him away like yesterday's newspaper industry."
A hoarse and slightly hysterical giggle wrests its way up from Jon's lungs. "Stephen, it's me. It's always been me me. Your Jonathan, Jon, we're the same person. The man you left on the beach — it's me."
Stephen hauls his head up and peers at the other man through bloodshot eyes.
"You're not Jonathan," he croaks. "Jonathan had brown hair."
"Ten years ago, maybe. Not anymore."
"And he didn't have a beard!"
"Stephen, I grew this last month!"
While Stephen fumbles for words, Jon swings down onto the top step, still above Stephen but well within the purview of the golden floor lights that trace a breadcrumb trail down the curving staircase. They give his eyes a blue-green sheen. Like peacock feathers.
"There were times I really figured I'd lost it," he continues, his own voice starting to go swimmy. "That I was looking at some poor unsuspecting stranger and hallucinating your face. Or maybe that I'd made the whole thing up in the first place. I already tore up all the photos, sold the ring, hauled off your clothes to Goodwill...and then here you were, in the flesh, acting like you'd never seen me before."
The building blocks of Stephen's heart, already cracked and crumbling, begin to topple into new formations.
"You screwed with my head twice over, Stephen Colbert," says Jonathan weakly. "Three times, if you count today. What am I going to do with you?"
One of Stephen's hands reaches out of its own volition, a mascara-smeared doubting Thomas aching for a brush of this too-solid ghost.
"You were here," he breathes, as if hearing it out loud will make it less unbelievable. "All this time, you were right here....Why don't you hate me?"
Jonathan meets him halfway, fingers clasping hard enough to bruise. "I did," he admits, thin and choked, nails slicing into Stephen's palm. "For a long time. Did you mean it? Everything you said?"
"Everything. Every word." The idea of forgiveness is too enormous to fit in Stephen's numbed mind; penance offers itself as a low-cost alternative. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, oh, God, Jonathan, I'm so sorry—!"
"Enough!" In one rough motion Jonathan hauls Stephen up to his level; time seems to pivot on that moment as they crash together, fitting against each other with a practiced grace that links up with a hundred separate memories, from the wholesome-as-a-Christmas-card to the not-fit-for-print. "Stephen, if you ever loved me, then for once in your miserable life stop talking and just hold me!"
He's shaking as he buries his face in Stephen's chest, something Stephen cannot reconcile with either of his dueling sets of memories, Jonathan calmly soothing a flea-bitten stray tom while Stephen cowers on a table nursing fresh scratches or Jon rubbing his back on the cab ride to the hotel not half an hour after Stephen's tipsy declaration that he was a talentless hack who didn't deserve that little golden statue. But his hands remember better than he does, wrapping around the other man's shoulders and finding the spots they used to massage when he wanted Jonathan to quit yelling at the television and come pay attention to him for a while; so Stephen bites his tongue and lets them have free rein, resolving to keep quiet forever if he has to, or at least as long as it takes until his Jon stops trembling.