The first time Jon goes down on Stephen while he's in this particular headspace, Stephen comes harder than Jon has ever seen a man come in his life. And he's seen — well. More than people usually assume.
It leaves Stephen sprawled trembling across the bed, naked except for a rumpled polo, everything else scattered around the floor after Jon tenderly stripped it off him. Jon is still mostly dressed, but they can fix that soon. He licks his lips, blissed-out on the rush of control, loving that he can do this to Stephen, loving—
That's when Stephen bursts into tears.
It throws Jon for a loop — it would make sense in-scene for Stephen to be crying, but he can't tell, in the moment, how much of this is his real Stephen breaking through. Disoriented, worried, he remembers that this is why Stephen's not the only one who gets to hit the panic button. "Safeword," he says, and starts shaking himself back to normal.
He isn't sure whether Stephen is in a good space to be touched, so he crawls up to the head of the mattress. Almost instantly Stephen grabs a corner of his T-shirt and hauls him close, curling against his body. Jon wraps his arms around his boyfriend and lets Stephen sob into his chest.
Stephen always needs extra cuddling after a scene. Sometimes he gets shaky, too, and he's almost always quiet for a while, in contrast to his usual imperious self. That kind of emotional blowback is normal. Like being sore after a good workout, it just means you've done something strenuous and need to take care of yourself during the cool-down.
But he's never cried like this before.
"Was that too much?" asks Jon, rubbing Stephen's back as his own erection flags. (He's not bothered. Stephen will make a point of being attentive to him next time, and even if that takes a while, it's not like he can't handle himself in between.)
Stephen chokes on a laugh, shaking his head. "N-no. It was — it was amazing," he says wetly. "Prob'ly some liberal Feelings Conspiracy — Fight for 15 protests came around last weekend, bet they put something in the water —"
"Shhh," breathes Jon, into his soft hair. "Doesn't have to be. This is a physical thing, happens with an endorphin crash. It's normal."
"Uh-huh?" sniffles Stephen. "Normal. 'Course. Tell me how."
Just because Stephen isn't feeling loquacious doesn't mean he likes dead air. And for Jon, talking about his real-life interests doubles as a great way to work himself out of headspace. Normally that means a topic like the history of Batman villains, but he's done a lot of research on this too lately, for obvious reasons.
"Endorphins are these chemicals your body produces in response to pain or stress," he says, kneading at the knots in Stephen's shoulders. "Pleasure, too, which is why a lot of people get a boost out of adding a little pain or stress into something fun. Chemically speaking they're really close to morphine...which means when you've been on an endorphin high and then drop out of it, you can get the same symptoms as opiate withdrawal. Things like fatigue, melancholy, agitation...."
He talks and talks, until Stephen's sobs quiet and his trembling stills.
Even for the show, Jon has never thrown himself into studying an issue this hard.
He makes high-protein meals for before they dive into a scene, and has carbs with high glycemic indices ready to give a quick pick-up afterward. (Stephen likes orange juice, which the books recommend, with a shot of vodka, which Jon flatly avoids.) Between global warming and the New Jersey summer it's too hot to wrap Stephen up in quilts right now, but he has some light, soft blankets and a lot of plush pillows. He turns his phone off for the entire evening. If there are any breaking news alerts, he can worry about writing jokes in the car in the morning.
Most importantly, Jon asks what Stephen needs, and listens. Stephen's been doing this for a lot longer than Jon has, and when he feels comfortable enough to be honest it turns out he's surprisingly in-touch with what's going on in his own head.
"The world is full of terrifying things," Stephen had explained when he first rolled out the idea, on a beach in the Bahamas that marked their first vacation as a couple. He was stretched out on a flag-print towel, oversized sunglasses shading his eyes while the rest of him baked in the sun. "The government, terrorists, bears, aliens and predators...that want to hurt you or control you or kill you or eat you or all of the above. And it never stops. You always have to be fighting it, from all sides. It gets exhausting."
"I believe it." Jon appreciated that Stephen's sense of constant threat was genuine, even if his sense of its direction was about as reliable as the compass on a smartphone. "What I don't understand...I'm not criticizing, I'm just trying to make sense...is why you want to bring all that into something nice."
"Into us, you mean," said Stephen, beaming like a sunrise. He always gets so happy every time Jon says out loud that the relationship is going well. Like no amount of audience cheering could give him more genuine pride than Jon's approval.
"Into us," agreed Jon. "Into...you shouldn't have to fight like that when it's with me. I don't want to hurt you. Even if we're actually arguing, it's never supposed to hurt."
"I know, Jon. You're sweet." Stephen pulled himself to a sitting position. "I don't want to fight. I want to give up. Be controlled. Have the relief of knowing that I don't have to keep hiding, that I've been caught, that it's all—" In the hot afternoon, he shivered. "—over. Gloriously, painfully over."
"I mean, it's not like I would really give up," said Stephen quickly. "Obviously. Because I'm still here."
He touched Jon's face, fully in the shade of an umbrella. His fingers left lines of heat along Jon's jawline.
"I know you wouldn't really hurt me. That's why you're the perfect person to fake-hurt me. You'd be all done once the scene was over. You would stop, if something went wrong and I needed you to stop."
On request, Jon gets up to heat some mashed potatoes (glycemic index: 70) and grab a couple of chocolate granola bars (78).
When he returns to the bedroom Stephen has pajama pants on, from the clean outfit they laid out before starting, and is sitting up against the pillows. His arms are wrapped around his body, but the glass of cranberry juice (68) on his side of the bed is already half-empty. Jon sets down their plates and joins him.
Stephen's hands aren't shaking too badly to draw a soft blanket over both of them, and unwrap his own granola bar. "Does this help with...what's it called...endorphins?"
"No, this is for glucose, remember?"
"Oh, of course. You science-huggers have so many hormones, I lose track."
Jon's pretty sure sugar isn't a hormone. He doesn't press it, just lets himself have a quick drink while checking his boyfriend over. Aside from the still-red eyes, Stephen looks calmer. More stable. More like his functional everyday self, reasserted out of the scared, vulnerable state he only deliberately falls into with Jon.
He might be able to pull out of it alone, but it's easier with Jon's care and attention to help. And even after a milder scene Jon would relish the caretaking, the tangible re-establishment of their actual relationship. "How are you feeling now?"
"Better." Stephen rests his head on Jon's shoulder. "Thanks. For safewording."
A chill, and not the sexy kind, runs down Jon's back. He finds Stephen's leg under the blanket and squeezes it. "You scared me."
"Well, you didn't act scared. You acted...handled." Stephen nuzzles against him, craving the touch. "Were you okay? I mean, with the rest of it?"
"It was...intense," says Jon. And he loved it, right up until the end, which is what scares him most: what if he was still enjoying it after Stephen needed it to stop? "You promise you'll be okay?"
"Play with my hair," prompts Stephen.
Jon is happy to. He cards his fingers through Stephen's dark locks: soothing, tactile, gentle.
Stephen hums in appreciation. "I'll be okay," he says. "I will also, for the record, be furiously jerking off to those memories later. Just so we're clear."
Jon slumps back against the pillows. "Oh, thank god."
He's been having these moments of self-doubt and hesitation since the first time he held Stephen down (no roleplaying involved, no equipment, nothing but the weight of his own body pinning Stephen's struggling form against the couch) — and realized with a start that he liked it.
Not just the way it was making Stephen moan and arch against him, either. The act itself. Having Stephen in his power, knowing he could do just about anything...it was a rush, and a frightening one. He had to cut the night short then, to roll off of Stephen and catch his breath and process what had just happened.
Jon has a temper, is the thing. He knows it's there, he knows where he gets it from, and he tries not to let it out. Especially if your job involves running an office and managing a bunch of people, most of whom are not going to be okay if you blow up in their faces.
When he tried to explain his reservations, Stephen looked thrilled. "It's not healthy to repress things, Jon! I know that from experience. Much better to let them out in a controlled setting such as my bedroom right now. Do you have evil-boss, helpless-employee fantasies? Would you like some?"
Jon steered him into slightly different scenarios, just in case. And still regularly needed to take a break and freak out about how easily he was taking to them. Tying Stephen up and watching him struggle against a gag — leaving bruises that were still there the next morning — agreeing that 'pumpkin patch' would mean 'stop', so that he was free to ignore Stephen's cries of no, please, don't — what did it say about him, that he was getting so good at hurting someone he loved? What did it say about him that he enjoyed it?
"It says we're doing it right," Stephen huffs when the subject comes up. "I don't want you to spend this time yawning and checking the clock and waiting for me to hurry up and get off, already. It's a lot more fun if...." He usually gets a little glazed at this point, imagining Jon in the middle of his current favorite fantasy. "...you smile."
So Jon has learned how to let himself relax, at least most of the time, and enjoy his part in these stories Stephen dreams up for them.
Jon runs a hot bath. Stephen adds bubbles.
The bubble bath is some unique extra-robust formula from a Prescott Pharmaceutical subsidiary, with a block of tiny legalese on the back that promises no major damage to human tissue as long as it's correctly used. The tub is a massive claw-footed relic Stephen fell in love with while antiquing; every couple of weeks he trims its claws, a fact Jon always tries not to think about while sitting in it.
Washing Stephen's back, both of them sitting in water that comes halfway up their rib cages plus generous mounds of bubbles, he realizes there's something he has to ask. "Stephen...the reason this hit you so hard, it isn't because...."
The words trip him up. He's good with words when he gets a script and a few hours of prep time, but not so much on the fly. He tries again.
"That is...ageplay, for you, is it...more realistic than usual?"
Jon can't articulate why it should make a difference. No matter what happened to him as a child, Stephen is now a grown man who is capable of organizing and consenting to his own fantasy scenarios. But even so....
"Oh, geez, no," says Stephen self-consciously. "At least, not in the sense I think you're thinking of. You're asking if I was really assaulted as a child, right? No. I mean...not like that, no."
The idea must have been weighing on Jon's subconscious for longer than he realized, because it feels like a weight lifted off his heart. He sloshes forward through the water to wrap his arms around Stephen from behind, pressing his face against the wet skin of his boyfriend's neck.
Stephen leans back, and they end up settling against the edge of the tub, Stephen resting against Jon's chest while one of Jon's elbows drips over the edge. "I did get...hurt. In some ways. And I was supposed to be brave and strong and shake it off and not have feelings. Which is one thing for a grown-up, but...maybe not so much for children."
Jon hums in understanding. It explains why Stephen in his regular submissive headspace might still be holding something back, something Stephen during ageplay feels like he's allowed to let go.
(At least one study has found that actively kinky people are, on average, more emotionally healthy than the general population. Jon can believe it. He can't imagine Stephen thinking about this stuff, much less trying to work through it, if he was still too mired in denial and repression to admit to having fantasies in the first place.)
"And I think, on some level, I knew...." Stephen plays with a handful of bubbles. "If something sexual happened and I didn't like it, it wouldn't have been safe to tell anyone. Other kids like me didn't get protected. Some of them got disowned. Thrown out on the streets, you know? It might've left me with a lot of unprocessed existential terror."
The matter-of-fact tone makes Jon giggle, in the same moment as he's on the verge of tearing up. Stephen has that effect sometimes.
"If you don't want to do the thing again," adds Stephen, head starting to droop, "it's okay."
It takes Jon a minute to figure out his answer. "I don't want to set off your, uh, existential terror again. I don't want to make you cry — not like that, anyway."
Stephen shrugs, making ripples in the water. He's all sleepy eyes and bubbles in his hair. "Well, maybe it won't. Maybe I got it all out of my system. You never know."
Jon nods, feeling the warmth as it goes deep under his skin. "And it isn't as if I don't want to...that is, we don't have to completely rule out...I did like the rest of it." He offers Stephen a shy smile. "You were making the most incredible noises."
Wrung-out as Stephen is, he fumbles for Jon's hand and gives Jon's fingers the faintest of squeezes. He's not shivering or restless now, none of the big indicators that he's still in the grip of sub drop. He's going to sleep soundly tonight, with the peaceful exhaustion that means Jon has done his job. "Then we should try'n do it again. With less terror, and more incredible."