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That Last Summer High

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The summer air settles warm and heavy on Jon’s shoulders. It always takes a special effort to breathe on a day like this, Jon’s chest working against instinct to seize tight, and it exhausts him. He leans against the rough brick wall and raises the cigarette, cupping his hands about it, against a breeze that isn’t there, as he lights it, and draws deep. This probably isn’t helping, he’s smart enough to know that, but he can fool himself into thinking it does as the first burst of nicotine soothes his frayed nerves.

The morning had been busy in the worst kind of way – screaming children, already too hot in the morning sun and their fractured parents, Jon’s mindless peers, leaning against each other’s sweat-stained skin, aging women with leathery, sun-desiccated skin in visors and ill-advised bikinis – and every single one of them demanding Jon’s complete attention, concurrently, and expressing fury when he didn’t prove super-human.

Mr. Redstone had finally consented to give Jon a break when Denis hauled his lazy ass into the shop half an hour late. Jon had infuriated the customer he was “helping” by dropping everything and racing for the back room and the illusion of freedom offered by the wooden door that masked the back yard.

It’s only the second day of Jon’s summer job, a thick-aired July day, and Jon’s already ready to commit several accounts of felony, murder. Jon knows his Mom would laugh at him, ask when he ever feels any different, and he’d take the gentle mocking as it was intended. Jon looks up at the bright sky, bluer than anything should ever be, and sighs out a smoky breath.

He thinks he’s actually going to miss this.

A thudding sound imposes itself on Jon’s quiet, the loud slapping of shoes on uneven concrete, and Jon looks up with vague interest to see who’s being stupid enough to run in this heat. The harsh breathing that comes next tells Jon that the runner doesn’t make a habit of it, at least. Jon doesn’t know what he’s expecting – but it probably isn’t the bespectacled guy that crashes around the gate, torn polo collar and dirty khakis and wild hair, looking desperately for something.

Their gazes meet and Jon recognises the expression haunting those wide, brown eyes, knows that look from too much personal experience. He points wordlessly to his right and the guy’s implicit gratitude shakes him slightly. The guy dives across the yard and crouches down beside the skip, effectively hidden from view. Jon slides across and leans beside him, taking a slow drag on the cigarette, and watches the gate.

The thunderous sound of multiple heavy feet announces the arrival of a gang of guys Jon recognises, dickheads he and Denis have run off on more than one occasion when they’ve hung around the shop. They call themselves the Foxes and nobody knows why, it always makes Jon think of West Side Story. The leader, a surly, foul-tempered guy called O’Reilly, pauses and stares hard at Jon.

“You see someone run past, Leibowitz?” O’Reilly asks. Jon takes his time answering, taking a thoughtful drag on the cigarette.

“What’s it worth to you?” Jon asks back, ignoring the desperate look and half-reached out hand of his companion.

“We’ll lay off the shop for a week,” O’Reilly says after a moment.

“In that case,” Jon says, this time ignoring the violent shaking of his companion’s head. “Some dude in glasses went past about a minute ago. I think he was limping?”

“Yeah?” Hannity’s voice is sceptical. “I don’t trust him, Bill.”

“He’s got no reason to lie,” O’Reilly says, shrugging. Sweat shines on his forehead. “He doesn’t know Colbert.”

Ah. Colbert, hard T, lowers his hand, now, finally catching on to Jon’s plan.

“Never heard of him,” Jon shrugs. “But, like I said, some guy went past here. Didn’t stop.”

“Come on,” O’Reilly jerks his head at his gang and jogs off. Beck stands behind for a moment, staring hard at Jon.

“We’ll surround you,” he says, pointing, a warning. Jon stops himself from laughing with a drag on the cigarette. He blows out meditatively and levels a look at Beck.

“Fuck off, Beck,” he says. Beck takes half a step forward and Jon’s proud of himself for not flinching.

“Beck! Come on!” O’Reilly’s voice echoes down the alley. Beck sniffs and shakes his head, sweat droplets flying, before jogging sullenly after his leader.

Colbert shifts and Jon puts a hand on his shoulder, holding him back. He tilts his heads and listens to the sound of retreating feet until they’ve gone completely. He’s surprised to see his hand still pressed against Colbert’s shoulder when he looks down and pulls it back, stepping away from the skip.

Colbert stands and straightens his clothes as Jon takes one final pull on his cigarette. He stubs it out on the wall and flicks it at the bucket he and Denis use for an ashtray. Colbert clears his throat and Jon turns back to him. Out of the adrenaline fuelled heat-of-the-moment Jon can see the bruise blooming on Colbert’s jaw, the split lip leaking blood, the bloodied knuckles and the awkward way he’s holding his left arm against his chest. Despite all this Colbert is smiling and something about the smile makes Jon’s cheeks flush – he’s not used to that kind of adoration from strangers, he’s not Andy.

“That was –” Colbert stops, waving his good hand through the air, grasping for words “- awesome! The way you just – you didn’t even blink! And it’s not like all of those guys aren’t ten times bigger than you – but you just stood there and…wow. You’re my hero.”

“Oh, please,” Jon looks away, shaking his head. “I just pointed them in the wrong direction.”

“Yeah, but you probably saved my life all the same,” Colbert takes a step forward and holds out a hand. “Stephen Colbert.”

“Jon Leibowitz,” Jon says, shaking Stephen’s hand. He ignores the flash of electricity when their hands touch. Jon isn’t at home to that this summer.

“Thank you, Jon,” Stephen says fervently, releasing Jon’s hand slowly, fingers trailing across Jon’s palm. Jon also ignores the faint ghost of Stephen’s fingers. Stephen’s still looking at him with a sense of wonder and it’s making Jon uncomfortable. The sun pounds down on their heads and the air is still. Jon sighs - he doesn’t appreciate it when the universe forces a Moment on him.

“Come inside,” Jon says, jerking his head toward the door. “You can clean up before you have to go home and explain how you ruined your clothes.”

“Thanks,” Stephen says, voice a little small this time, clutching his left wrist against his chest. Jon finds his eyes lingering on Stephen’s long fingers and clears his throat.

“Is that broken?” Jon asks, nodding at the wrist. Stephen looks down and winces.

“Not broken, I think, but probably sprained,” he says, meeting Jon’s eyes again. Jon holds them a breath before nodding to himself.

“We’ve got a first aid kit,” Jon says, moving toward the door. “I should be able to strap it for you.”

“You got the degree for that?” Stephen asks and Jon is pleased to note that Stephen’s fallen in behind him.

“No degree,” Jon shakes his head and holds the door for Stephen. Stephen smells like the sun and grass and sweat and it’s not appealing. At all. “But my lifeguard friend taught me all the basics a few years ago.”

Back when Jon had his own personal demons, just as ugly spirited as Stephen’s, and each summer’s day was worse than the last. Andy got so tired of patching him up that he started showing Jon how to take care of himself. To be perfectly fair to Andy, though, he had got Jon dinner at Brian’s the day he passed his exam for: “Basically being the reason the instructor said I was almost professional when it came to injuries.”

“Which lifeguard?” Stephen asks, hopping up onto a bench when Jon points it out.

“Andy Cooper,” Jon says, digging around in a desk for the first aid kit. “You know – the guy with unnaturally pale skin for a fucking lifeguard.”

“I know the one,” Stephen says, laughing. “Okay then, I’ll trust you. He patched one of my friends up last year when he cut himself open on a rock.”

“I’ll be sure to pass that on,” Jon says, returning to the bench. At Stephen’s raised eyebrow he adds: “That his reputation precedes him. Rest your arm on this while I get some water.”

Jon hands Stephen an inflatable pool pillow and goes into the bathroom, grabbing a plastic bucket on the way. He stares at himself in the mirror as the water heats up.

“What’re you doing, Jon?” he asks himself, grabbing handfuls of paper towel and stuffing it into the pockets of his shorts. “You said you wouldn’t do this, not this year. Not this close to college.”

His reflection seems to quirk an eyebrow at him. He is cute, though, it seems to say. And you felt that spark, you know you did. Jon hates it when his reflection talks sense. Stephen is cute – in the way that tells you he’s going to grow up handsome – and he’s already testing Jon’s resolve with that smile.

“Yeah,” Jon agrees with his reflection. “I’m fucked.”

Jon fills the bucket from the sink and carries it back to Stephen, water occasionally spilling over the sides and if that isn’t a metaphor for something Jon’s been misreading the universe all his life. Stephen’s smile almost blinds him when he returns and Jon spares a thought for everyone who’s been blinded before him, he can almost see the string of broken hearts trailing in Stephen’s wake.

“Here,” Jon places the bucket and paper towels on Stephen’s right side. “Clean yourself up while I look at the wrist.”

Stephen’s occasional hisses of pain are the only sounds in the back room as Jon carefully probes at Stephen’s wrist. Stephen wipes smeared dirt from his face and lets out a little cry when Jon asks him to flex his fingers carefully. It would’ve been a lot louder had the hand been broken and Jon is happy to agree that it’s a sprain. He straps it gently, keeping an eye on Stephen’s steadily cleaner face for any sign of unintentional pain, moving his hands with practiced ease.

“Better?” Jon asks, settling the wrist against the pillow again.

“Much, actually,” Stephen says with a quiet smile. His face is pinkly clean, barring a stripe of dirt over one eye, and his split lip is clotting. Jon digs some aspirin out of the kit and hands it over, looking away as Stephen dry swallows it. Jon wets some towel and takes Stephen’s right hand in his, swiping gently at Stephen’s cut knuckles.

“You want to tell me why those guys were after you?” Jon asks, avoiding Stephen’s eyes, trying not to think about the way Stephen’s fingers reflexively tightened about his.

“Oh, you know,” Stephen says airily. “They’re from the wrong side of the tracks and I’m the rich kid who they blame for everything.”

“I think that’s a movie plot,” Jon says, pointedly raising an eyebrow at Stephen. Stephen drops his eyes.

“I’m a nerd, they’re bullies,” Stephen says, voice small again. “QED.”

“Yeah,” Jon sighs, a brief huff of breath, and releases Stephen’s hand. “Replace ‘nerd’ with ‘Jew’ and you’ve got the story of my life.”

They share the mutual silence of bullied people. It takes Jon too long to realise he’s still holding Stephen’s hand, thumb tracing Stephen’s knuckles over and over, and he lets go, reaching for the Neosporin. He applies it gently to the worst of the scratches and watches absently when Stephen raises the hand to blow across them.

“I thought the bullying was supposed to stop when high school does,” Jon says, assuming Stephen’s around the same age as him.

“O’Reilly and his cronies will never stop being bullies,” Stephen says, looking over Jon’s shoulder.

There’s a darkness in his eyes that Jon recognises as Stephen hiding something but he doesn’t really have the time to find out what. His eyes stray to the smudge of dirt on Stephen’s forehead. Jon absently takes a bit of damp towel and swipes it across Stephen’s forehead, raising his other hand to brush Stephen’s bangs back. Stephen’s mouth is partly open, as if paused mid-speech, and Jon has to bite his lip to stop himself from doing something stupid.

“Let me buy you dinner,” Stephen blurts out, cheeks flushing furiously red as he jerks his head away. Jon’s hands hang uselessly in the air before dropping to his sides, heart skipping several beats.

“That’s not – I don’t mean, like, a date,” Stephen adds rapidly. “I just mean – for helping me, hiding me, all that.”

Jon’s betraying head is nodding before he can decline and the way Stephen’s smile lights his face up makes the incoming heartache almost worth it.

“Sure,” Jon says, unable not to smile back. “Brian’s?”

“Great,” Stephen says, flashing a grin. “I get staff discount.”

“Great,” Jon repeats. Great. “Listen, Stephen, I’ve got to get back to work –”

“Of course you do,” Stephen says, taking Jon’s offer of a hand down off the bench. His side presses warmly against Jon’s and Jon bites his lip again.

“I’ll see you about seven?” Stephen hazards and Jon nods.

“Sounds good,” Jon says. Stephen shares another of those blinding smiles.

“I can, uh, show myself out,” Stephen gestures to the back door. “Thanks again for – for everything.”

There’s a breathless pause and then Stephen is hugging Jon one-armed, pressing tight and close. Jon has enough presence of mind to manage half a squeeze back before Stephen is bouncing away. Jon absolutely doesn’t miss Stephen as the door swings shut behind him.

“Keep telling yourself that, Jon,” Jon mutters to himself, tidying up the mess they’ve made. “Maybe you’ll believe it.”

“Hey, fuckhead!” Denis calls out. “You think maybe you could come do your fucking job now?”

Jon laughs weakly, shaking himself. Denis is apologising to a grey-haired lady with a smile and roguish wink when Jon joins him at the counter.

“What the fuck happened to you?” Denis whispers furiously between customers.

“Nothing,” Jon shakes his head. “Just lost track of time. How can I help you today, ma’am?”

Jon can feel Denis’ sceptical glare but he refuses to engage, wanting to keep Stephen secret for some reason. Seven o’clock seems a long way away and Jon decides he’s going to have to give up on hating himself for wanting to see Stephen again.

It’s all he can think about.

--

Jon swings by the beach after his shift ends, pretty certain that Andy and Erica are working, toeing his sneakers off before pressing his feet into the soft sand. He wasn’t born near the sea, had spent the first few years of his life in New York State, and that was the reason he normally gave for not being a summer person. It hadn’t been until he was thirteen that he began to understand the lure of the heat and the salt-scent of the sea.

That may have had something to do with his growing interest in girls and, to a very slightly lesser extent, guys. The bare chests and sun-drenched skin were a dream come true for a horny teenager and suddenly the beach was a pleasure as opposed to something Jon had to do because Andy liked it.

For the palest guy in the world (skin almost translucent in the sunlight with a premature white shock of hair and Jon would’ve been lying if he said he’d never thought about it – but it was Andy and that would be as weird as hitting on his brother. Or Denis) Andy is more than a little obsessed with the sea. Jon’s always tolerated it as one of Andy’s quirks and put up with the lifeguard training and the failed attempts at surfing with as much grace as he can muster.

The beach is buzzing; a sound made up from children’s shouts and parent’s words, from excited dogs and confused babies, and Jon wanders along it to the Tower. He avoids abandoned sandcastles and gambolling dogs, narrowly ducks a wayward Frisbee, and tries to be misanthropic but finds he can’t. Summer always makes him soft.

The sea is a blue sigh today, throwing the clear sky back against itself, and Jon feels it stretching out to him. He shakes his head and pulls his ancient Mets cap down against the sun, swinging his shoes from the fingers of one hand.

“Hey, you in the baseball cap,” an enhanced voice rings across the beach. “No indecent signs in this area, we don’t want to alarm the kids.”

Jon feels his ears redden as he, along with everyone else within hearing range, looks up at the Tower. Erica is waving gaily, megaphone dangling from one hand, and he can see Andy behind her, stifling his laughter. He waves back, knowing she’ll just continue if he doesn’t, and ducks his head down to avoid the stares of everyone else. He knows that Rachel put her up to that, was even there when they made the dare, and resolves to figure out a way to get payback.

Andy meets Jon at the base of the tower, still hiding a smile, and leans against one of the wooden support struts. Andy always smells strongly of sunscreen all throughout summer, and sometimes in spring as well, and it’s at the point now that Jon doesn’t really notice it anymore.

“Something happened,” Andy says, meeting Jon’s eyes briefly before turning his head to scan the beach.

“Something hasn’t always happened,” Jon protests. He drops his shoes by his feet and runs a hand through his hair.

“It’s the second day,” Andy points out. “It normally takes a week before you start coming here after work to complain about Denis being Denis and Redstone being a bastard.”

“Fuck you,” Jon says, because he knows Andy’s right. “So something happened.”

“Are you going to tell me what?” Andy quirks an eyebrow briefly.

“Not yet,” Jon says, still holding onto his secret.

“Ah,” Andy nods. “Boy or girl?”

“I – you,” Jon shakes his head wordlessly. “Fuck off, Andy.”

“Jon,” Andy turns his head so he can meet Jon’s eyes. “You can’t tell me to fuck off just because I know you too well.”

“I can,” Jon says petulantly.

“Okay – so you can,” Andy smiles. “But that doesn’t mean you should. It’s not like cursing is going to do anything to change it. I’ve known you way too long.”

Jon shifts awkwardly, well aware of just why Andy knows him so well, and wonders if it ever hits Andy as suddenly as it does him. Andy had mentioned once that the crush had become more like an itch he couldn’t quite scratch – Jon sometimes wished he could scratch it.

“I’m not supposed to be doing this,” Jon says, shaking his head and leaning against the strut with Andy, shoulders brushing together.

“I told you when you first said that,” Andy bumps Jon’s shoulder. “The universe doesn’t work like that.”

“Fuck the universe,” Jon grumbles and Andy lets out a sharp giggle. Jon sighs. “This is so unfair.”

“Oh, come on,” Andy bumps their shoulders together again. “This guy or girl obviously likes you well enough – why not have fun during your last summer?”

“Because I hate it when things end,” Jon says quietly, looking up at arching blue sky.

“God you’re depressing sometimes,” Andy says just as quietly. “Go and have a swim or something, lighten up, see this new person. Forget about endings before you’ve even begun.”

“Remind me again exactly which journalism school you’re going to,” Jon says, grinning at Andy over his shoulder. “You sound more like a philosophy major the longer you stay out in the sun.”

“Fuck off, Jon,” Andy says but he’s smiling. He punches Jon lightly on the shoulder. “I’ll see you at Denis’ thing tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Jon nods, pushing away from the strut. “Say hi to Erica for me.”

“You got it,” Andy nods and moves over to the steps. “Hey, Jon?”

“Yeah?” Jon stops mid-crouch, hand on his sneakers, and looks up at Andy.

“Just – have some fun this summer, will you?” Andy says. “Serious, thoughtful Jon isn’t always my favourite type of Jon.”

Andy takes the steps two at a time as Jon stands, sneakers in hand, and shakes his head. Andy is too damned enlightened for his own good, sometimes.

He decides the swim is a good idea, though.

--

Brian’s is every teenager’s favourite diner. It’s down near the beach and makes cheap, tasty food. Somehow the neat 50s aesthetic that manages not to be kitsch and it’s staffed almost entirely by teens during summer, some from Jon’s school and others from the prep school out the outskirts of town. Jon’s had a hell of a crush on the owner for years, something his friends have found a never-ending source of amusement.

Jon’s leaning against the side of building, finishing a cigarette and letting a late rising sea-breeze ruffle his hair, when Stephen strolls around the corner. Jon’s insides flutter before he can tell them not to and he eases a smile out when Stephen catches sight of him. Stephen’s wearing a Captain America t-shirt and a fresh pair of khakis, and he still manages to make Jon feel under-dressed in his long shorts and worn blue t-shirt.

Jon’s eyes go to Stephen’s left hand as Stephen waves, and he’s a little surprised to see his bandage still in place. Stephen tracks his eyes and Jon thinks he sees Stephen’s cheeks redden for a moment. Stephen scrubs his right hand across the back of his neck as he comes to stop in front of Jon.

“Um,” Stephen says, watching Jon grind the cigarette out against the ashtray hanging off the wall. “The Doctor said the strapping was perfect, didn’t see any point in changing it.”

“Oh, that’s, that’s good,” Jon says, dropping the butt in the ashtray. He looks up from his task and meets Stephen’s eyes, finds something like caution there.

“Hey,” Jon says, quirking one side of his mouth up. Stephen’s smile comes quickly.

“Hey,” he nods his head then jerks it toward the entrance. “You want to go in?”

“Yeah, sure,” Jon motions for Stephen to go ahead of him and tries to control the rolling butterflies in his stomach.

“I just wanted to thank you again,” Stephen says as they locate an empty booth. “For – for the whole thing. It really meant a lot.”

“Anyone would’ve done the same,” Jon shrugs, sliding into the seat opposite Stephen.

“You know – I kinda don’t think they would have,” Stephen says, shaking his head. “You’re a good person, Jon.”

Jon ducks his head and looks out the window, feeling the blood rushing to his face, he’s never been good with compliments. Jon spreads his hands on the chipped table surface and tries not to flinch when Stephen’s foot bumps up against his. Someone taps him on the shoulder with a menu and Jon looks up to see Ed-from-History.

“Hey, Leibowitz,” Ed says, smiling briefly. “I didn’t know you knew Stephen.”

“We just met,” Jon says, lifting one shoulder. One of Ed’s eyebrows flicks up and he opens his mouth to speak.

“He saved me from O’Reilly and his idiots,” Stephen says, drawing Ed’s attention. “I figured the least I could do is buy him dinner.”

Jon would shoot Stephen a look of gratitude but he doesn’t really want to acknowledge what Ed was probably about to say. Instead he unfolds the menu, even though he always orders the same thing, and makes a show of reading it.

“Man – they’re after you again?” Ed asks. “What did you do this time?”

“I don’t know,” Stephen replies. “I guess I was guilty of being a geek in their line of sight.”

“You seriously need to get some self-defence lessons. You can’t always rely on someone else showing up and kicking their asses for you.”

“Well – we can’t all have Rob as our Knight-Errant protectors.”

“Two things – one: fuck you and two: it’s not like that.”

“Sure it isn’t. You’re just hetero lifemates, or whatever it is Jay and Silent Bob call themselves in the Asknewiverse movies.”

“I’ll say it again – fuck you,” Ed turns to Jon and takes his menu off him. “I don’t even know why I gave you this – you always order the same thing.”

“I can only think that you were distracted by my animal magnetism,” Jon says, chancing a smirk. Ed splutters.

“That was one time!” Ed says, flailing his hands. “And I was really drunk. You can’t hold me responsible for that.”

“I can and will,” Jon says, smirking outright now. “You brought it on yourself.”

“But – but I’m not gay,” Ed says, a note of pleading in his tone.

“Neither am I,” Jon says, leaning back. “Doesn’t mean I don’t like guys, though.”

“You know what? If this booth wasn’t assigned to me I’d pass you two off onto Steve,” Ed says, exasperated. “I don’t deserve being double-teamed.”

Jon’s giggle ends in a cough when Stephen kicks him under the table. He holds his silence for all of two seconds before the sudden look of horror on Ed’s face sends him over the edge again. All the pillows in the world wouldn’t be able to muffle Jon’s laughter.

“Oh my God,” Ed says, horrified. “I didn’t mean it like that. Oh my God.”

Stephen manages to quiet his own laughter long enough to tell Ed that he’ll have his usual as well, affording Ed the chance to escape, skin flushed a deep red. Jon lets his head fall forward to rest against the table, drawing deep breaths against the tightening in his chest, and tries to calm himself down.

“You okay, there?” Stephen asks. Jon feels a hesitant hand briefly touch the crown of his head and draws a final steadying breath.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” Jon says, sitting up again. “Sometimes when I laugh too hard my chest gets a little tight.”

“Asthma?” Stephen asks, honest sympathy in his eyes. Jon nods.

“All my life,” he says with another shrug. “It’s a pain in the ass but you get used to it.”

“Still – I guess it sucks,” Stephen says, tilting his head.

“Yeah. Hard,” Jon says, refusing to acknowledge to euphemism in his words.

Stephen looks at him curiously for a long moment and Jon’s one step away from asking what he’s looking at (and could he maybe stop because it’s doing weird things to his insides) when Stephen speaks.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Stephen says carefully. “But you wouldn’t be Jon ‘Bisexual Jon’ from Hughes, would you?”

“My reputation precedes me?” Jon asks, knowing perfectly well that it does. Stephen nods.

“Kinda,” Stephen says. “My best friends go to Hughes. Amy’s told me about you.”

“Wait – the same Amy that runs the cake stall thing opposite Garofalo’s during summer?” Jon leans forward.

“That’s the one,” Stephen smiles broadly. “You know her?”

“I think we shared an English class,” Jon says, nodding. “Also Janeane’s Dad is always complaining that she steals his customers and he can’t figure out how.”

“Hah!” Stephen laughs. “Amy’s been having her own private war with Mr Garofalo since she was eleven. She’s an amazing baker and just finds it hilarious that he sees her as a threat.”

“I know, right?” Jon shakes his head. “There’s a world of difference between cakes and things and ridiculously awesome ice cream.”

They share an easy smile and Jon’s really not that surprised to find himself enjoying this. It almost feels like he’s known Stephen as long as Denis and Andy – even though he’s only known him for barely five hours. Which is typical, of course, for the year Jon has sworn off the whole summer lovin’ thing.

Jon discovers that underneath Stephen’s geeky exterior is, well, a geek – but a geek with a huge heart and a sense of humour that matches up to Jon’s own. Stephen’s smart, too, the quality Jon admires in people even above the ability to be funny. The reason why Jon’s not really seen him before (though he has hazy memories of serving him in the shop once or twice) is because he attends Nelson Prep.

Ed interrupts their small talk with food, setting the plates down as fast as he can, glaring at Jon before taking off. Jon laughs into his hand and meets Stephen’s smiling eyes. They swap their plates and give up on figuring out which coke is diet before settling down to eat.

“So,” Stephen begins, picking at his food. “Are you going to college?”

“In September,” Jon nods. “Northwestern.”

“Northwestern,” Stephen repeats, his eyebrows shooting up. “As in – Chicago?”

“That’s the one,” Jon says between mouthfuls. “Looking at majoring in Psychology, maybe. And playing soccer of course.”

“Soccer?” Stephen’s eyebrows go even higher and Jon hides a smile behind his hand.

“Yeah, I know,” Jon waves a hand.

“I just – didn’t take you for the athletic type,” Stephen says, lifting one shoulder.

“The cigarettes would agree with you,” Jon says, ducking his head.

“They can’t be good for your, whatever, athletic ability,” Stephen says, waving his fork through the air.

“Probably not,” Jon agrees. “But tell that to my addiction.”

“I – I really can’t imagine you playing soccer up in Chicago,” Stephen tilts his head. “I mean – don’t soccer players wear shorts? Won’t it be freezing?”

“Once you’ve been running around for ninety minutes you’re pretty grateful for the shorts,” Jon says, smiling. “Besides – I spent the first few years of my life in New York State, I can do cold.”

“I don’t think I’d survive it,” Stephen shakes his head. “I actually looked at Northwestern at one point, went up there and everything. It was way too cold.”

“Where are you going, then?” Jon asks, covering a smile at the image of a shivering Stephen on the streets of Chicago.

“Hampden-Sydney. It’s in Virginia?” Stephen turns it into a question.

“I know where it is,” Jon says. “And, wow, could you be any preppier?

“It’s a good college!” Stephen protests, frowning. “It starts in August, though – I’m pretty much the only one out of my friends who has to leave so soon.”

“You’re going to miss them,” Jon says. It’s a statement because he knows he’s going to miss his own friends, spreading out across the country.

“Yeah,” Stephen nods. “I’ve known Paul and Amy all my life – and Steve and Tina since we were all freshmen. It’ll be weird not having them around.”

“I feel the same way about my friends,” Jon says. “I think Andy’s the closest – and he’s going to be in New York.”

“It kinda sucks, doesn’t it?” Stephen shares a sympathetic look.

“Yeah,” Jon agrees. “I suppose it’ll be worth it in the end? What’re you majoring in?”

“Ah – Philosophy, actually,” Stephen says, scratching the back of his neck.

“That’s cool,” Jon says, smiling. Stephen gives him an odd look. “What?”

“You’re pretty much the only person who’s ever said that,” Stephen says, shaking his head. “Everyone else laughs.”

“Well, okay, I mean – maybe philosophy isn’t brain surgery,” Jon leans forwards. “But it’s still interesting – and if you like it –”

“I really do.”

“Then what other people think doesn’t matter, does it?”

“It doesn’t, really,” Stephen admits. “It’s just…annoying, I guess.”

“Hey,” Jon hazards touching a hand to Stephen’s sleeve. “At least you don’t know someone who’s actually going to learn brain surgery.”

“Really?” Stephen arches an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” Jon nods. “Sanjay Gupta, one of Andy’s friends.”

“Now - that’s cool.”

“It kinda is – but it does make everyone else feel a little insignificant.”

“I can see that it would.”

“So, anyway – why Hampden-Sydney?” Jon asks, lifting hs head to look at Stephen. “Isn’t it a little –”

“Elitist?” Stephen quirks that eyebrow again.

“That’s not what I was going to say,” Jon says, even though he was thinking it.

“It’s okay – it is pretty elitist,” Stephen says, smiling. “Look – I figure, I haven’t been the world’s best student, it seems like a good school to go and learn about self-discipline.”

They eat in silence for a few moments, the food just as god as usual, while Jon tries to think of something else to say.

“What kind of movies do you like?” Stephen asks suddenly. Jon blinks at him before answering.

“I don’t know – anything really,” Jon shrugs. “Comedies, I guess, and action movies are pretty cool. I like real films as well, Oscar winners, you know? Pretty much anything that comes in trilogy form, too.”

The Lord of the Rings is obviously the best trilogy,” Stephen says. He’s deadly serious when he says it and Jon adds another thing to the list of things Stephen is a geek about.

“Um. Dude – I would say that’s Star Wars,” Jon points out. He’s loved those films since he was a kid. Even remembers watching them with his dad before he left.

“You’re forgetting the prequels,” Stephen says, shaking his head. “Even though the original trilogy is completely awesome – the prequels sully that.”

“‘Sully’?” Jon repeats. “That’s a bit unfair. They all have their moments.”

“Sure – the Duel of the Fates is cool,” Stephen says, nodding. “But it doesn’t make up for Anakin-as-an-annoying-kid.”

“I’ll give you that,” Jon says, grimacing.

Lord of the Rings doesn’t have that problem,” Stephen says, his eyes bright and, yeah, Jon might want to give in on this one. It’s clearly a battle he’ll never be able to win.

Jon does like Lord of the Rings, even if he likes Star Wars more, but he figures that telling Stephen he thought seventeen (approx.) endings was a few too many is probably a bad idea.

“What about music?” Jon asks, genuinely interested. He knows that this thank you dinner is quickly starting to sound like a date but he can’t help himself – Stephen’s just too appealing.

“Indie-folk stuff, mostly,” Stephen says. “Or anything with an interesting lyric – like Neutral Milk Hotel.”

“I genuinely have no idea who that is,” Jon says, shaking his head. Stephen sighs.

“Nobody does until I play their music for them,” Stephen says. He sings a few bars of something that sounds completely exotic to Jon’s ears. When Jon shrugs Stephen sighs again. “Maybe you could listen sometime? I think they’re pretty cool.”

“Sure, I guess I could,” Jon says, even though he’d promised himself earlier that he wouldn’t make any promises about seeing Stephen again. He half wants to hear Stephen sing again – there’s something likeable about the timbre of his voice that Jon can’t put his finger on.

“Cool,” Stephen grins and Jon’s heart flutters. “What about you?”

“I have always been and always will be completely devoted to the Boss,” Jon says without having to think about it.

“Bruce Springsteen?” Stephen hides a smile behind his hand. “Really?

“Fuck off,” Jon says, folding his arms across his chest.

“Born to Run and all that?” Stephen asks, humming part of the chorus.

“Yes,” Jon says, glaring at Stephen’s grin.

“How American of you,” Stephen says, obviously stifling a laugh.

“Again – fuck off,” Jon says, this time flipping Stephen off.

Stephen laughs and waves to Ed so he can order dessert and offers to buy Jon the most elaborate dessert Brian’s serves. Jon says he’ll be happy with pie and Stephen orders blueberry.

They fall back into small talk again while Jon watches Stephen devour an enormous sundae. It’s comfortable in a way that Jon doesn’t dare analyse for fear of having to admit something to himself that he really doesn’t want to think about.

There’s just something about Stephen and it’s driving him up the wall.

They’re drinking coffee at the end of the meal when Jon realises that this is probably the best date that he’s ever had. Even though it’s not a date. In any way at all. Despite the fact that their legs have been unconsciously pressed together under the table throughout the whole evening.

It’s not even been a day and Jon is already completely failing at self-denial.

“That was fun,” Stephen says when they leave the diner. He tilts his head up and closes his eyes as that sea-breeze lifts his hair. Jon’s breath catches in his throat and he forces himself to look away.

“Yeah, it was,” Jon says, nodding. Stephen snorts.

“Don’t sound so surprised,” Stephen says, touching a hand briefly to Jon’s arm. “I’ve been told I’m good company.”

Jon wants to come up with something witty to throw back but he’s got nothing. Stephen’s speaking the truth.

“You are,” he says instead, still staring at the ground. He scuffs his foot across the sidewalk, spreading bits of gravel and sand in a wide arc. Stephen makes a soft sound and Jon almost looks up but knows - knows - that if he does he’ll do something stupid.

“You’re not so bad yourself,” Stephen says after a moment. Jon can hear a smile in his voice. He looks up at last and echoes it.

“Wow,” Stephen says after a beat. “That was an incredibly homoerotic moment.”

Jon giggles, covering his mouth with his hand, and Stephen’s eyes light up a little. They’ve been doing that every time Jon smiles or laughs or says something that makes Stephen laugh and Jon really doesn’t want to think about what that means.

“Man, Colbert,” Jon shakes his head. “You’ve got some balls.”

“I just call ‘em as I see ‘em, Jon,” Stephen says, spreading his hands. He flashes a brief grin.

They lapse into silence again. The soft susurrus of the waves rolling up the sand infiltrates the silence and Jon cocks his head toward it, thinking if this was any other summer that he and Stephen would be walking along the beach by now and Jon would be wondering how to make a move.

“Listen,” Jon says, knowing he’s going to regret what’s coming next: “We should hang out some time, you know.”

“Yeah, yeah, we should,” Stephen says, eyes crinkling up when he smiles. “That’d be cool.”

“Well, cool,” Jon says, feeling so eloquent. “You, um, know where I work –”

“- and you know where I work,” Stephen adds, still smiling.

“So, whatever, swing by, we’ll talk,” Jon finishes, shrugging.

“Likewise,” Stephen says. “Although – I guess you already come to Brian’s pretty often, eh?”

“We do,” Jon agrees, nodding.

A pause hangs in the air between them, time stretching out elastically, and Jon doesn’t really know what to do with the expectation weighing things down.

“So, I’ll, uh, see you ‘round,” Jon says, waving a hand.

“Yeah, you will,” Stephen confirms. The smile is a little softer this time, a little shyer, and it does weird things to Jon’s heart.

There’s another pause and Jon’s about to turn away when Stephen makes a short noise and reaches out to hug him one-armed, clapping his good hand against Jon’s back. Jon returns the hug and finds laughter threatening to bubble up in his chest. Stephen pulls back and rests a hand on Jon’s shoulder for a moment, thumb skating dangerously close to the flesh exposed by Jon’s t-shirt.

“If I can’t hug the guy who saved me from the Foxes, who can I hug?” Stephen asks, lifting a shoulder in a one-sided shrug. He squeezes Jon’s shoulder and pulls his hand away. Jon fights the urge to grab it and pull it back.

“Fair point, my friend,” Jon says, hoping his smile isn’t as wobbly as it feels.

“See you later, Jon,” Stephen says, offering a short wave.

“Yeah, you too, Stephen,” Jon says finally turning away with a matching wave.

He manages to last to the corner before he chances a look over his shoulder. Stephen is looking after him and Jon thinks he can see the edges of a grin on Stephen’s distant face. Jon turns right down the street and shakes himself.

Jesus fucking Christ - the game is on whether or not Jon wants it to be on.

2

Redstone’s shop is a seasonal affair, opening in May to cater to summer vacationers, and Jon’s worked there for the past two summers. Denis joined him last year, for the first time, and Jon has to admits that he’s a little surprised Denis still has the job. He and Redstone don’t exactly get along. Quite the opposite, in fact, but it seems like the customers like Denis.

In particular: a certain brand of middle-aged vacationer, of either gender, seems to take to Denis’ charms. The amount of men and women, that should clearly know better, that flirt with Denis is more than a little worrying. Jon happens to know that Denis has actually taken a couple of the women up on their veiled offers, having something of a fondness for attractive older women, and Jon doesn’t even know what to do with that fact.

The shop itself used to have a name, Jon’s pretty sure of that, but for longer than he can remember everyone’s just called it Redstone’s or the Beach Shop. Old man Redstone is a tyrant and fucking annoying with it and the only reason Jon’s stuck for three summers, now, is because the guy actually pays well. Plus the hours are weirdly decent.

Jon’s summer days are divided pretty evenly between the shop and the beach, with an occasional break for a friendly soccer match with the guys from the team (not the guys from the team anymore, Leibowitz), and he thinks he can be forgiven for thinking his life is pretty good right now.

Jon is, of course, the worst beach-goer ever. He rarely actually swims in the sea, he doesn’t like the odd stickiness the sea-water leaves behind, and his paleness is a testament to how little he cares for tanning. On days that Andy or Erica are working he’s most often found in the shade under the Tower, reading a book and ignoring the people around him.

This summer he’s devoting a fair amount of time to reading psychology texts from the library, propping them carefully against his knees to avoid getting sand in them (that last time he got sand in a book the librarian banned him for a week), and wondering if he’s really as fascinated by the subject as he thinks he is.

On the weekends he gets together with Denis, Janeane, Andy and Erica and they head down to Brian Williams’ beach theatre. It’s like a drive-in and an open-air theatre combined into one and Saturday night is Old School night – an A-picture and a B-picture, and not always new movies. Jon thinks a good amount of the memories he’s going to take away from his high school summers will revolve around the theatre.

(His first hand-job and his first blow-job, giving and receiving, male and female. The time Andy’s infectious giggling got them in trouble during quite a serious film. Denis falling off the bleacher seating and nearly breaking his leg. Kissing Erica under the bleaches when they’d both convinced themselves that they liked each other like that way - they were wrong. Janeane cursing out a conservative protestor when Brian took a risk by showing Brokeback Mountain.)

They probably eat at Brian’s twice a week, Jon getting hell for his crush on Brian – something that Brian exacerbates by calling Jon by his first name and always making time to talk to him when he’s there. It’s friendly and there’s nothing underneath but gentle amusement, but it’s not really helped Jon’s crush at all over the years.

Jon and Denis spend most lunchtimes at Garofalo’s. Jon laughs as Denis and Janeane snipe at each other to such an extent that you’d be forgiven for not realising they were actually dating. Mr Garofalo tries his new ice cream flavours out on them and Jon reports back to Andy about which are the most awesome.

Jon likes his life as it is and Stephen is an unexpected variable.

--

When Jon extended the offer to hang out he didn’t realise just how relentlessly Stephen would take up his offer. A little over a week and Stephen’s already showed up at the shop more times than Jon can count.

Stephen sits on the counter when there’s no customers, entertaining Jon with a series of increasingly stupid jokes. (“What’s brown and sticky?” “What?” “A stick, of course. Why? What did you think the answer was going to be?”)

He gets things down from shelves Jon can’t reach. (“I don’t know how I ever managed without you, Stephen.” “Just doing my part to help out those less fortunate than I.” “You’re a dick.” “Is that anyway to speak to your helper?”)

He reads the paper aloud to Jon as Jon prices things (“Apparently drug crime is rising.” “Olbermann’s still fighting the good fight, then?” “Yeah – Sheriff Morgan says they just can’t find the supplier.” “If Sheriff Morgan says that it’s true.”) and Jon finds it endearing rather than annoying.

Denis gives Stephen dark looks for a few days, complaining often and loudly about his presence, until Stephen cracks a joke that makes him laugh. (“- it tells me, Watson, that someone’s stolen our bloody tent.” “Oh, man, I can’t believe you told Denis the Tent Joke.”) Denis looks just as surprised as Stephen does when it happens and that more than anything sends Jon into a fit of laughter that threatens to end with his inhaler.

Redstone rarely if ever checks on the store once summer gets underway properly and so is completely unaware of his new regular. (“Seriously, Jon, it’s like the dude is living here.” “What d’you want me to do about it, Denis? The customers really like him.”)

Stephen joins Jon on his breaks and they talk about anything and everything: –

Family history (“There’s something ironic about us both having missing dads.” “I don’t think it’s irony, Stephen.”)

Movies (“The new Indiana Jones movie made me so sad. Harrison Ford just looks so old.” “But you have to admit that he looks pretty good for guy in his sixties, Stephen.” “Okay – I’ll give you that one.”)

Books (“No – I don’t think it’s weird that 1984 is my favourite book.” “It’s kind of depressing, Jon.” “I always find it oddly uplifting.” “That’s because you’re weird.”)

Why Jon smokes (“Not peer pressure, actually. I just picked it up one day.” “By why do you keep doing it if it makes it really hard for you to breathe?” “It makes me relax.” “There’s better ways to relax.”)

How many times Stephen’s tried pot (“Two times too many, to be honest.” “Did you freak out?” “Sat in a corner and laughed maniacally for hours.” “I can see how that would put you off.”)

College (“You should see the length of the booklists Hampden-Sydney sends out. Gives Harry Potter a run for his money.”)

One afternoon Jon suddenly realises that he doesn’t smoke when Stephen’s around.

“I know what you’re doing,” Jon says, narrowing his eyes at Stephen. Stephen laughs.

“Do you?” Stephen says with a flick of an eyebrow and smile just this side of wicked. Jon shivers and fails not to think about what those eyes are promising.

--

Most afternoons Janeane can be found running an ice cream stand down by the beach. Jon has pronounced her the surliest ice cream vendor in the world, but kids love her despite the crankiness.

Jon meets Denis there one afternoon (ten days post-Stephen) an hopes that no-one will ask about Stephen.

“So – how’s lover boy?” Janeane asks. Jon should’ve known better than to tempt fate. Janeane’s eyes sparkle and Jon sighs.

“He’s not my – he’s fine, okay?” Jon gives up. “I haven’t actually seen him today.”

“And he’s been a cranky little fucker because of it,” Denis says, grinning. “You should see him on the days where the guy comes in late.”

“Fuck off, Denis,” Jon says, flushing red.

“Aww, I think it’s adorable,” Janeane reaches out and pinches Jon’s cheek. “He’s got you all twitterpated and it’s fantastic.”

“I’m glad it’s entertaining someone,” Jon grumbles, shoving his hands into his pockets and kicking at the ground.

“Seriously, Jon,” Janeane says, fixing him with her eyes. She really is serious. “Anyone that gets to you like this is worth taking a chance on.”

“Speak of the devil,” Denis says before Jon can respond. He points across the sands and Jon spots Stephen wending his way between kids and sandcastle towards him. He grins and waves when he sees that he’s been seen and Jon’s waving back before he can stop himself.

“What did I tell you? He lights the fuck up,” Denis shakes his head and Janeane laughs, wild and free.

“Hi, Jon,” Stephen says, joining them. He raises a hand then drops it again, something he does a lot when he meets Jon. He turns to Denis instead and exchanges a nod. “Denis.”

“Oh, hey, Stephen,” Jon says, knowing that his smile will be giving away how Stephen makes him feel. “This is Janeane.”

“Nice to meet you,” Stephen says pleasantly, a smile warming his face. Janeane actually shakes his extended hand and Denis shoots her a look of surprise. Jon hides a smile behind his hand.

“I’ve heard a lot about you,” Janeane says, leaning back against the cart.

“Yeah?” Stephen quirks an eyebrow. Jon’s pretty sure that his own eyebrow has never been able to rise that dramatically.

“Mostly Denis bitches about you distracting Jon all the time,” Janeane shrugs, shooting a wicked smile Denis’ way. “And therefore creating more work for him.”

“Oh, man, I’m sorry,” Stephen says and Jon’s no longer shocked by how genuine he sounds.

“Dude, don’t be,” Janeane says, shaking her head. “He’s a lazy fucker – this can only do him good.”

“Fuck you,” Denis says, glaring at Janeane. Janeane smiles back, her eyes sparking with mirth.

“So, um, Jon,” Stephen says, lowering his voice a little as Denis and Janeane start to bicker.

“Yeah?” Jon looks up at Stephen. Stephen’s shifting slightly on the spot, fingers twisting into the hem of his Fantastic Four shirt, and Jon realises with a start that Stephen’s nervous. Which is new.

“I was wondering if, I don’t know, maybe you’d like to go for a walk?” Stephen asks. He’s trying to keep his eyes blank, Jon can see, but a little bit of hope leaks out at the sides and Jon’s heart skips a beat.

“Well, I mean,” Jon tries to sound casual. He’s probably failing. “I’m not exactly doing anything important, here.”

“So – is that a yes?”

“Sure. That’s a yes.”

“Cool,” Stephen’s smile breaks slowly, as if he’s trying to hold it in, and that does a succession of interesting things to Jon’s insides.

“Listen, guys,” Jon raises his voice to be heard over the bickering fight happening beside them. “I’m just going to hang out with Stephen for a bit.”

Denis stares at Jon wordlessly as Janeane looks speculatively between Jon and Stephen. Jon shifts under their gazes and hopes that for once his face isn’t the open book it normally is. By the brief smirk Janeane lets slip he’s pretty sure he’s failed at that.

“You like ice cream, Stephen?” Janeane asks, turning to Stephen and looking up at him.

“Who doesn’t?” Stephen asks, eyes widening. Janeane smiles.

“Good – because Leibowitz is going to buy you one before you leave,” Janeane turns a sweet smile on Jon. “He owes me.”

“Man,” Jon grumbles, reaching into his back pocket for his wallet. “Come on, Stephen, what d’you want?”

“Do you have any of that honeycomb flavour?” Stephen asks, craning his neck to see the labels on the tubs.

“Of course I do,” Janeane says, reaching for a cone. “It’s our most popular flavour.”

“Really?” Stephen raises his eyebrow again. “You’d think that would be chocolate.”

“I know,” Janeane nods as she scoops the ice cream. “Chocolate is a total classic. But every time summer rolls around honeycomb always comes out on top.”

“What’re you having?” Stephen asks as Janeane hands him his cone. Janeane immediately starts scooping Jon’s ice cream.

“Mint,” Jon says simply.

“He pretends it’s because he likes the flavour,” Denis puts in, apparently having rediscovered his voice. “But we all know it’s because it masks the worst of the cigarette smell.”

“Fuck off, Denis,” Jon says, aiming a weak punch at Denis’ arm. Denis dodges and grins and on any other day Jon would chase him.

He takes his ice cream from Janeane and hands some money over. She pockets the change as a tip and Jon shakes his head at her. She grins and makes shooing motions with her hands.

“See you at Brian’s,” Denis says as Jon moves away. “I hear Andy has a new candidate for Most Ridiculous Vacationer.”

“Awesome,” Jon says, grinning. “I’ll see you guys later.”

Denis and Janeane wave and Jon follows Stephen away, walking down toward the beach. Jon focuses on his own ice cream because he knows if he looks at Stephen he’ll be distracted by a too-pink tongue sweeping around honeycomb ice cream. Jon’s not sure he’s strong enough to resist that.

“God, I love the sea,” Stephen says, hovering on the edge of the sands. He toes his sneakers off absent-mindedly and wiggles his toes in the sand. It makes Jon smile.

“You probably think I’m ridiculous,” Stephen says. Jon shakes his head and pushes his own sneakers off, stooping to pick them up.

“Just because I didn’t really get it until I turned thirteen doesn’t mean I don’t get it now,” Jon waves his sneakers at the beach, the sea, the vacationers, “

“It’s – romantic, I think,” Stephen says, collecting his own sneakers and joining Jon as he meanders across the sand. “It’s always there, constant, unwavering, never giving up on us even though we keep putting crap in it. Literally most of the time.”

“You’ve got a weird-ass view of romance,” Jon says, licking his ice cream contemplatively. He tries to ignore the way Stephen’s eyes flick to his tongue and back up to his eyes.

“Oh, yeah?” Stephen raises that eyebrow again, Jon’s starting to find that talent magical. “And you’re the most romantic guy around, I guess?”

“Fuck, no,” Jon laughs, shaking his head. “I wouldn’t be able to, whatever, ‘romance’ someone if it was that or my life.”

“You’ve got to have some sense of romance in you,” Stephen says, hiding a smile. “No-one’s completely unromantic.”

“I’ll let you know if I find some, how does that sound?” Jon tilts his head.

“I’ll wait for the call with baited breath,” Stephen says, humour in his eyes.

They walk around a sandcastle that must have taken hours to create, equally impressed by its size and the painstaking attention to detail the builder has shown.

“So – I have a boat,” Stephen says, apropos of nothing. Jon stops and turns to Stephen, not really sure where to begin.

“A boat?” Jon asks. Stephen had told Jon that the only reason he was at Nelson Prep was because his Dad had specifically left an inheritance to ensure Stephen could go to the best schools. How that included a boat Jon really couldn’t tell.

“It took me three summers to build it,” Stephen says with a small smile. “Saving up for the wood and the tools, you know. It was a – a whole big thing.”

“That’s, fuck,” Jon shakes his head. “That’s pretty fucking impressive, Stephen.”

“Thanks,” Stephen ducks his head, his ears burning red, and Jon’s heart skips a beat. “It’s not – it’s not like it’s huge, or anything, just about the right size for two people.”

“Still, wow,” Jon’s being completely honest. The whole idea of making something – of devoting so much time to something – is foreign to him. He hated ‘shop. There’s something a little romantic about it, Jon realises suddenly, and that makes him smile.

“And I was wondering,” Stephen stares out at the waves, watching the white crests rolling in. “I was wondering if maybe you’d like to come out on it sometime, with me. Might be fun.”

There’s no question at all about what Stephen’s offering here. Jon could pretend to believe that it’s just someone inviting a new friend to do something that he might like – but they both know the undercurrent that’s been pulling at them since the day they met.

If Stephen was just asking him along for fun he would be looking Jon in the eye.

“I -” Jon stops and pulls in a deep breath, knowing that this is the decision that will decide his summer.

Stephen turns to meet Jon’s eyes and the world of information there is a little overwhelming. Time draws out between them, pulling tight like an overextended rubber band waiting to snap. Jon’s eye flick briefly to Stephen’s lips, glossy from eating the ice cream, and something trickles down his spine.

Fuck it.

“I’d like that,” Jon says, rapidly before he can change his mind. Stephen’s eyes flicker briefly then his face creases up into that huge smile that warms Jon from the inside out.

“Awesome,” Stephen says. “How about, um, Wednesday? That’s your afternoon off, right?”

“Yeah,” Jon nods. “Is the weather going to be okay?”

“I checked – the whole week looks good,” Stephen says, smiling.

“Cool,” Jon says. He bites into his cone, enjoying the harsh snap, for something to do. He can’t quite look at Stephen when Stephen looks at him like that.

“I’ll get Paul to sneak something from Brian’s for us,” Stephen says, taking a wide lick of ice cream. “It’ll be fun.”

“I bet,” Jon says, smiling.

Stephen opens his mouth to say something more when his pocket starts ringing. He holds a hand up and pulls his cell out, answering with a huff of breath.

“Yeah, Paul?” Stephen rolls his eyes at Jon. Jon knows Dinello fairly well, they share Home Room, so he grins back at Stephen. “Slow down, man. Ed’s what?...You’re kidding?...I swear, only Ed could – yeah, yeah, I can – no…I’m not, not seeing – fuck off, Paul, it’s none of your business. Tell Brian I can come in. Yeah, yeah, I know – see you soon.”

“That didn’t sound great,” Jon says, tying not to read between the lines.

“Ed has managed to break his arm,” Stephen says, shaking his head. “Tripping over a rake.”

“Oh, man, you’re right – only Ed,” Jon shakes his head, muffling a laugh. “Is he okay otherwise?”

“His ego’s a bit bruised, apparently,” Stephen says. “But that means he can’t work his shift – we started about twenty minutes ago.”

“You have to go,” Jon says, hoping his voice doesn’t sound quite so plaintive out loud. Stephen nods.

“I’m sorry.”

“Man, don’t be, Stephen. We’re just walking.”

“Still – I was enjoying talking.”

“Yeah. Me, ah, me too,” Jon ducks his head away, his cheeks reddening.

This is why he doesn’t see Stephen move, doesn’t hear his footsteps in the sand, doesn’t know where Stephen is until Stephen is pulling him close in another tight hug. The surprise comes from the minute brush of Stephen’s lips at the corner of Jon’s, the deep smell of honeycomb and Stephen flooding his nose, before Stephen settles his chin on Jon’s shoulder.

“I don’t really know what game we’re playing,” Stephen says, lips almost brushing Jon’s ear. “But I’m going to win it.”

Stephen pulls back and brushes Jon’s bangs off his forehead, looking deep into his eyes, and Jon can tell from that stare that Stephen means every word. Jon inclines his head slightly and Stephen nods, the corner of his mouth twitching up for a moment before he turns and strides away with a wave.

Jon watches him go, tracing the lines of his shoulders through his shirt, eyes settling on his waist and the curve of his ass before going back up to the back of Stephen’s head. Stephen turns his head to look over his shoulder when he reaches the path and Jon smiles.

“I hope so,” he says, mostly to himself, a little bit to whoever might be listening.

3

“Hey Leibowitz,” Jon looks up as he passes Garofalo's on his way to the marina. Amy Sedaris is waving at him from her cake stall. Amy is one Stephen's friends, a good one from what Jon can tell, and Jon already knows her from his English class.

Jon waves back and she beckons for him to cross the street. He sighs and figures he's got enough time to be interrogated by Amy before he meets Stephen. He's already been interrogated by Paul, the last time he and Andy were at Brian's, and managed to pass through relatively unscathed.

Amy's cake stall has been a permanent fixture opposite Garofalo's for years, now, and Jon's pretty sure he doesn't know a single person who isn't addicted to her cupcakes. It's brightly coloured and homemade and always reminds Jon vaguely of Lucy's stall from Peanuts - all that's missing is the 'Doctor is [in]' sign.

“What are your intentions toward our Stephen?” Amy asks without preamble when Jon joins her. Jon blinks.

“Uh, I don't really have any?” he suggests and Amy frowns at him.

“That just won't do at all,” Amy says, shaking her head. “I can't have him chasing after someone who'll break his heart.”

“Wha -” Jon blinks again.

“Things would go much easier for you if you did have intentions toward him,” Amy continues as if Jon hasn't spoken. “I'd really like if you did.”

“Amy – I'm not sure -” Jon stops and shakes his head. “It's not that I don't like him – I just - I'm not meant to be, you know, hooking up with anyone this summer.”

“You don't hook up with Stephen,” Amy grins. “You just hold on and enjoy the ride. That wasn't actually meant to sound as dirty as it did.”

“I'll believe that when I see it,” Jon says, lifting an eyebrow for a second. Amy aims a punch at his arm.

“Wait – so you do have feelings for him?” Amy says, backtracking. She wiggles her fingers on 'feelings' and Jon stifles a laugh.

“I'd probably have to be crazy not to,” Jon admits with a shrug. “But that doesn't matter because I'm -”

“Not getting involved with anyone this summer,” Amy nods then smiles wryly. “Thing is, Jonny, Stephen's what you call an irresistible force and you don't exactly look like the immovable object type, you know?”

“It's that obvious?” Jon asks, looking down at himself.

“It is if you know what you two are up to this afternoon,” Amy winks. Jon sighs. “You might as well just give in and enjoy it while it lasts. You never know what might happen.”

“Are you sure your name isn't actually Lucy?” Jon asks, leaning back to look up at her sign suspiciously. Amy laughs, big and loud.

“You think I should get a sign?”

“I think it might serve as a decent warning – if you buy cakes here be prepared to be psychoanalysed.”

“I'll leave the psychoanalysis up to you, Jonny boy, I just know people.”

Amy smiles again and ducks down behind her stall. She reappears moments later with a genuine picnic basket, covered with a cloth and everything. She offers it to Jon who takes it with a small amount of suspicion.

“Just some stuff for you guys,” Amy explains, waving a hand. “Nothing inappropriate, don't worry.”

“I wasn't worrying,” Jon protests. Amy gives him a look. “Okay, so I was a little worried.”

“You better get going,” Amy says. “Don't want to be late for your second date.”

“We haven't even had a first date!” Jon says.

“Sure – you just let him buy you dinner that first night because he was treating you like a hero,” my rolls her eyes. Jon stares at her for a moment before shaking his head.

“You,” he points with the picnic basket, “are unreal.”

“I try my best,” Amy grins and turns to serve a little girl who has bounded up to the stall.

Jon resumes his journey to the marina with the basket dangling from one hand. He almost feels set up. He wouldn't at all surprised, either, Stephen's been sneaky since the day they met. Working his way into Jon's heart the way he has. It's a small miracle that Jon hasn't given in yet. Jon's so lost in thought that his feet carry him automatically down along the seaside, the marina sparkling in the distance.

“I knew you were a fucking liar, Leibowitz,” Hannity’s voice snarls at Jon and makes him stop in his tracks. He turns to find Hannity pushing away from a wall, anger lining his face.

They’re outside Limbaugh’s - a shit heap seaside dive that Jon and his friends avoid. No-one likes Rush Limbaugh, a grossly overweight and unkind man, and his excess of predominantly illegally acquired wealth is obvious in everything that he says and does. Keith Olbermann, the local reporter who mentored Andy and Rachel last year, hates him with the passion of a thousand fiery suns.

Jon realises as Hannity saunters toward him that he's seen the Foxes hanging around Limbaugh's more than once during the summer. That is probably not a good thing.

“Why am I liar this time?” Jon asks, tilting his head and hoping he sounds braver than he feels. His stomach itches.

“You're dicking around with Colbert,” Hannity says, folding his arms and looming over Jon. Jon resists the urge to lean back.

“What exactly makes you think that?”

“He's been hanging around Redstone's like a bad smell.”

“Maybe he's just interested in our fine array of seaside novelties.”

“Or maybe he's sucking you off in the backroom.”

Jon feels just a little like he's been slapped in the face. He blinks at Hannity and stops himself from scratching at his stomach. Suddenly he feels reckless.

“Maybe I thought to myself – 'hey, if O'Reilly and his dickwads are after him maybe he's my type',” Jon says, forcing his voice not to shake. “We all know how you guys feel about dirty queers.”

Jon's going to have to wash his mouth out after this. He resists a shudder when Hannity leans into his face.

“You won't think it's so fucking funny when we finish the job Beck started,” Hannity growls.

“Just fucking try it,” Jon says, tilting his head up. “I'm not some weedy sixteen year-old any more.”

“There's three of us and only one of you,” Hannity counters, not backing off. “One day Leary and Cooper won't be around to save you. I'm going to enjoy sinking a knife into your stomach.”

“You know,” Jon says, hoping his trembling isn't obvious. “There's something amazingly homoerotic about your obsession with sticking things into me.”

Jon flinches back when Hannity raises a hand and really wishes he hadn't picked this fight.

“Hannity, what the fuck are you doing?” O'Reilly catches Hannity's fist. Jon has never been happy to see O’Reilly before in his life.

“He -”

“I don't want to hear it,” O'Reilly growls. “Look around you, dickhead.”

Jon's focus widens as Hannity looks around and he spots Deupty Tuchmann striding confidently down the pavement, drifting closer to Limbaugh's. He gives a good impression of not noticing Jon, Hannity and O'Reilly but Jon catches the way his eyes flick to one side as he walks. Jon lets out a breath he didn't even realise he was holding.

“This isn't over, Leibowitz,” Hannity says, spitting at Jon's feet.

“It never is,” Jon shakes his head. “You really have to stop sublimating your crush with these violent urges.”

Jon dances out of the way when Hannity lunges and runs off down the street as O'Reilly bodily hauls him back. Jon knows he's going to pay for it, probably soon, but a couple of bruises are worth it for the look on Hannity's face.

--

Stephen really does have a boat. Jon reflects, sprawled out on his back on the deck, that he’s not really all that surprised. Stephen’s draped across the deck next to Jon, head propped up enough to watch out for other boats, and his arm brushes Jon’s every time he moves.

Stephen really has no concept of personal space. Not that Jon thinks that would matter – he can read the intent in Stephen’s eyes every time he catches Stephen staring at him. Jon figures he’s put up a pretty good defence so far – but if Stephen makes a move he’s certain that his defences will crumble.

Part of him hopes Stephen will make a move.

“When did you know?” Stephen asks, rolling his head toward Jon. Jon wonders if he should pretend he doesn’t know what Stephen’s asking just to hear Stephen say it.

“Since I was a kid, really,” Jon says. He’s given up pretending that he can’t understand Stephen. “Liked my favourite baseball players in more than one way, you know? What about you?”

“More, sort of, recent, for me,” Stephen says, staring up at the clouds scudding overhead. (Jon had been assured that the clouds were nothing to worry about – even though Stephen had said the weather was going to be fair.)

“Yeah?” Jon prods, interested.

“Maybe recent isn’t the word,” Stephen admits, shaking his head. “I think I’ve probably always known. But so many things told me it was wrong, you know, and I didn’t want to be wrong – I had a hard enough time in school as it was, didn’t want to make it worse.”

“I thought like that until I was about thirteen,” Jon says, tracing a finger over the wood grain of the deck. “Then decided – fuck it, you know? They were already beating me up for being short and weedy and a little too Jewish looking – what was one more thing going to do? Make them hit me harder?”

“I remember Amy telling me about you a few years ago,” Stephen says, rolling onto his side to look down at Jon, head propped on one hand. “She was pretty impressed with how little you cared about what people say about you.”

“Yeah, well, fuck ‘em,” Jon shrugs. “If they can’t deal with it it’s their problem. Do you – does your school know about you?”

“Sort of,” Stephen says, tilting his head. “Though I’m pretty sure they’ve just collectively decided that I’m gay – even though I went out with Tina pretty steadily for a year or so.”

“What about your family?” Jon asks, flicking his eyes toward Stephen. He knows that Stephen’s family is pretty Catholic and idly wonders if they’re the kind of Catholics that have problems with Jews. He doesn’t think so, based on Stephen, but he’s been burned before.

“My brothers are too busy making fun of me for studying something ‘soft’ like Philosophy to think there’s anything weird about me liking girls and guys,” Stephen says, grinning. “My sisters are cool with it too. Mom says she doesn’t care – so long as she gets grandchildren of some sort one day.”

“You want kids?” Jon asks, raising an eyebrow.

“One day,” Stephen nods. “Maybe not as many as Mom. She also said that as long as her grandchildren were loved – she didn’t care what I got up to in the bedroom.”

“She actually said ‘bedroom’?” Jon asks, stifling a laugh. Stephen’s ears redden. “Hello awkward.

“Yeah – that…that was not a fun talk,” Stephen says, ducking his head against his chest for a second.

They lapse into a comfortable silence, Jon trying to imagine Mrs. Colbert (and seeing as he hasn’t met her his only image of her appears to be of Mrs. Cunningham from Happy Days) talking to Stephen about how she would love his gay babies as much as his straight babies and trying not to laugh.

Jon is just wondering if the clouds overhead are moving faster and looking a little greyer than before when one of Stephen’s hands lands on his chest, over his heart. Jon shoots him a look.

“Jon,” Stephen says. He looks so serious. “Can you honestly tell me you can’t feel what’s happening here?”

Jon meets Stephen’s eyes helplessly, heart suddenly hammering under Stephen’s hand, and licks his lips nervously. Of course he can feel it – it’s under every word they say and in every gesture they make.

“I –” Jon wants to tell Stephen everything. About his plan to not hook up with anyone this summer, about not wanting to go away to college hurting, about needing this to not happen. About how Stephen has systematically knocked down all of those barriers.

The boat lifts under them suddenly and stops Jon’s words in his throat. Stephen’s brow creases for a moment and he pushes himself upright, taking his hand away from where it was lying warmly on Jon’s chest, leaning over to fiddle with his radio.

“Huh, that’s not – not good,” Stephen says, clearly discerning something in the static that Jon can’t hear.

--crzzt—freak storm---fzzt--

Freak storm?” Jon pushes himself up and looks in the direction the quickly moving clouds are coming from. The horizon is a sudden dark line of cloud, smudging the blue with bruises. The sea looks grey.

“Uh, Jon, give me a hand, will you?” Stephen jumps to his feet and pulls Jon up after him. He heads straight for the anchor. “We need to get back to the marina as soon as possible.”

“Guess it’s a good thing the wind’s blowing in that direction?” Jon asks nervously, taking the rope Stephen hands him. Stephen doesn’t acknowledge the bad attempt at humour and Jon swallows thickly.

“We should head up the beach to Brian’s when we get in,” Stephen says tightly, working the rudder and bringing them about.

“Why can’t we shelter in the, fucking, thing – the yacht club?” Jon asks, waving his freehand.

“Because I don’t have the right,” Stephen says. “I can barely afford the moorage fee.”

“Dickheads,” Jon says, leaning against the boat as it turns.

“Yeah, they are,” Stephen nods. “Jon?”

“Yeah?”

“We’ll be okay – you don’t have to grip the rope quite so hard.”

Jon looks down at his white knuckles and eases his grip with conscious effort.

“Trust me, Jon,” Stephen says, holding Jon’s eyes for a beat. “I know what I’m doing.”

“I believe you,” Jon says. To his surprise he really does.

--

The clouds are sweeping overhead thick and fast by the time they’re pulling Stephen’s boat safely into its mooring. They make quick work of securing her tightly, working together like it’s something they’ve done a thousand times before, and Jon loses himself in the momentum.

They run breathlessly along the beach as thunder begins its early rumblings, the sky hanging heavy and grey above them, thick with the water it wants to unload. Stephen pulls on Jon’s arm when he lags and they both shout in surprise when the first big drops of rain splatter against them.

“There’s no way we’re going to get to shelter in time,” Stephen says. Just as the sky opens above them and what feels like all the water in the world falls onto them.

Fuck,” Jon releases as the rain pounds down against him, soaking him through to the skin in an instant. Now he’s the one leading Stephen along, taking him by the arm and dragging him along the beach as the rain renders Stephen’s glasses useless. The small mercy is the warmth in the water, heavy and cloying on Jon’s skin, and the lack of discernible wind.

“There’s a shed,” Stephen shouts as another roll of thunder echoes above them. “They used to keep all sorts of beach shit in there. It shouldn’t be far away.”

Jon nods, save his breath for the running, and squints against the rain to see if he can spot it. He catches sight of a blur of red in the distance and remembers the shed Stephen’s thinking of. As he twines his fingers about Stephen’s he’s a little shocked to find himself enjoying this. Obviously Stephen is affecting his sanity.

It takes Jon a few yards to realise that the other sound he can hear above the pounding of his heart is Stephen laughing. It’s breathless and a little crazy and Jon can feel it filling him up. He looks over his shoulder and catches Stephen’s eyes, unable to stop the grin. Stephen returns the grin and squeezes his hand before singing a brief snatch of Singin’ in the Rain which is stolen away by the storm.

They stumble upon the shed earlier than Jon expected and crash into it with an echoing bang. Surprisingly enough they are the only one’s seeking shelter, possibly because one side of the roof is leaking so heavily it might as well not be there. The rain hammers against the roof, the thunder of a thousand marching feet, and Jon slumps against a wall, breathing deep.

“You going to be – okay?” Stephen asks, drawing his own deep breaths. Jon nods wordlessly, leaning over slightly and pressing his hands against his thighs, concentrating on his breaths.

He is exhilarated. Which is actually a pretty unusual feeling for Jon.

He looks up when his breathing is calmer and meets Stephen’s grinning eyes. He starts laughing and Stephen follows suit, his eyes creasing up with happiness. Jon thinks that he hasn’t really had this much fun in years and that maybe Andy was right about Stephen.

This is the last thing Jon has time to think because in two short steps Stephen is across the shed and pushing him against the wall again. His eyes look deep into Jon’s, one hand smoothing Jon’s hair back out of his eyes, the other sliding along Jon’s cheek to lay against his neck. Jon holds his breath for the barest of seconds before Stephen ducks his head and closes the last bit of distance between them, lips grazing Jon’s in the briefest of kisses.

Yes,” Jon breathes against Stephen’s lips, brings his hands up to bury into Stephen’s hair and pulling Stephen against him in a proper kiss.

Stephen makes a little sound in his throat and then opens his mouth to Jon’s cautious tongue. It’s all heat and slick tongue and a hint of teeth and it shoots straight through Jon’s body to earth in his cock. Jon’s moan is a little needy as Stephen pulls away enough to trace a line of hot kisses down his jawline, nipping at the point where it meets his neck before soothing over with a tongue. Jon can taste rainwater and Stephen on his own tongue and he shifts weakly against Stephen in an effort to find some friction.

Stephen chuckles against his skin before licking a swipe up Jon’s neck from the hollow to the point of his chin. Jon shivers and pulls Stephen’s head up for another kiss, this time inviting Stephen’s tongue into his mouth and sucking a little, enjoying the breathless moan that escapes Stephen’s control.

Stephen’s free hand slides under Jon’s t-shirt, fingers stroking restlessly over the damp skin before coming to rest on the waistband of his shorts. Jon nods encouragingly and almost sighs as Stephen uses both hands to push his shorts down. Jon’s hands find their way down from Stephen’s hair to settle at the front of Stephen’s khakis, waiting for permission.

“God, please,” Stephen murmurs against Jon’s mouth before catching his lips again. This kiss is almost fevered as Jon works Stephen’s pants open, reaching in to stroke the hard line of Stephen’s cock through his boxers. Stephen’s mouth puffs open as his hips rock against Jon’s hand.

“God, Stephen,” Jon says, resting his forehead against Stephen’s and breathing Stephen’s breath. “Are we really doing this now?”

“Oh, God, yes,” Stephen whispers fervently. “I just might die if we don’t.”

“O-okay,” Jon’s breath stutters as Stephen traces his cock from root to tip through his boxers.

They break apart enough to work their boxers down and free their cocks, coming back together with cut-off moans. Jon kisses Stephen again, pulling Stephen down to meet him, and wraps his left hand around Stephen’s cock. The heated flesh almost jumps in his hand and that sends a powerful jolt of arousal to Jon’s centre. Jon swallows Stephen’s first moan as he drags his hand up length, rubbing a thumb across the foreskin, and his own curses are stolen away when Stephen takes him in hand.

Stephen’s hand is calloused, Jon guesses from summers building a boat, and that extra roughness makes him tingle. The rainwater is apparently lubrication enough as Stephen’s hand glides up and down the length of Jon’s cock and Jon has to break the kiss to curse loudly.

Stephen’s maybe a little bigger than Jon, a little thinner too, and it takes Jon a few experimental strokes to find the perfect rhythm. If Jon has any talent at all he often speculates it’s in his left hand – years of practice makes perfect, after all – and Stephen clearly approves, his mouth grounding at the junction of Jon’s neck and shoulder. Jon turns his head to kiss whatever part of Stephen’s cheek he can reach and enjoys a brief rasp of stubble against his own.

Stephen discovers a twist of his hand that makes Jon thrust against him, an almost guttural moan leaking from his mouth, and Jon buries his forehead against Stephen, gasping.

F-fuck, Stephen,” Jon manages, hips rocking forward again of their own volition. “Don’t – don’t stop.”

“Wasn’t – uh, fuck - wasn’t planning to,” Stephen’s words beat a staccato rhythm against Jon’s ears.

Curling, spiralling heat begins to coalesce in the base of Jon’s spine, spreading in gentle waves throughout his body, making him tingle in ways he’s pretty sure he hasn’t before. He wonders absently if Stephen might be magic as he grazes a thumb over the head of Stephen’s cock. Stephen cries out, which is interesting, and his hips snap forward.

“Jon, Jon – I – I need,” Stephen’s words dip and rise with the rain still drumming on the roof and Jon thinks he knows, maybe, what Stephen needs. He lifts his head with effort and captures Stephen’s mouth in a wet, open kiss, dropping his right hand down Stephen’s side.

He bats Stephen’s hand away for a moment, even though his cock protests, and urges Stephen closer, sliding his right hand under enough to take Stephen’s balls between his fingers. He rolls experimentally and Stephen breaks the kiss to gasp his name into the storm air. Jon can feel Stephen tensing against him and lets his head fall back against the wall to watch as Stephen comes apart in his hands.

Stephen comes with Jon’s name on his lips, cock jerking in Jon’s hands, and Jon thinks it might be one of the most beautiful things he’s ever seen. He guides Stephen gently through the after shocks, hand slick and easy, and Stephen mumbles ‘thank you’ over and over again against his shoulder.

Before Jon can even hazard a ‘you’re welcome’ Stephen’s dropping to his knees. Before Jon can even begin to say ‘you don’t have to’ Stephen’s wrapping one hand around his cock and sliding his mouth down over the head. Stephen’s tongue rasps around the head and that’s enough to end Jon there and then, crying out wordlessly, Stephen’s name a dying sigh on his lips.

Jon’s knees hold out as long as it takes Stephen to swallow and pull off and he drops down in front of Stephen, scraping his knees on the rough floorboards.

“Holy shit,” Jon whispers, pressing his forehead against Stephen’s again.

“Yeah,” Stephen breathes and he tilts his head up for a kiss, sweet and chaste.

Jon can feel himself trembling and that must be why Stephen wraps his arms about him, drawing him close and burying his head in Jon’s neck.

“I –” Jon doesn’t even know where he’s going with this. “I really –”

“Shh,” Stephen mumbles against Jon’s skin. “I know.”

Jon knows he knows too. He just – can’t figure out what it is that he knows.

--

The storm passes after an hour or so. Jon and Stephen spend that hour talking about anything and everything that crosses their minds, leaning against each other and touching each other whenever solely because they can.

They walk back along the beach under breaking clouds and Jon holds Stephen’s hand and feels deeply content. Which, you know, is a pretty big deal for him. For this moment in time, this walk, there’s nothing in the world but Jon and Stephen and what passed between them. Jon could live in this moment for a lifetime.

“So,” Stephen says slowly, drawing Jon’s eyes away from the seagulls wheeling joyfully overhead. “Are you doing anything this weekend?”

“We normally go to the movies,” Jon says, kicking a loose stone across the sand, watching as it skips and bounces.

“Oh, cool,” Stephen says, squeezing Jon’s hand briefly. “You, um, want to go with me instead?”

“Like a – a date?” Jon asks, quirking an eyebrow at Stephen.

“I kinda think we’re beyond dates, now,” Stephen says, waving a hand back toward the shed. Jon blushes.

“You’re, uh, probably right about that,” Jon admits, ducking his head. Stephen touches a finger to Jon’s chin and tilts his head back up.

“That was – that was okay, wasn’t it?” Stephen asks, searching Jon’s eyes. “You’re not going to, I don’t know, think less of me or something?”

“God no,” Jon shakes his head hard, catching Stephen’s hand an pressing a brief kiss to his knuckles. “That was – that was amazing. You’re amazing.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” Stephen tries, but his smile isn’t quite what he wants it to be and his ears are red.

“So we’d – we’d be going together as a –” Jon pauses, looking for the words. He unconsciously traces a hand through the air as if that’ll make them come faster. “As a Jon-and-Stephen?”

“If you – you don’t mind,” Stephen says, his voice small and shy.

“I’d, um, I’d like that,” Jon says, just as shyly. Stephen’s grin could fight back an eclipse.

Stephen pulls Jon’s head up to kiss him, tongue gently exploring Jon’s mouth, and Jon slides a hand into Stephen’s hair. Stephen makes soft, wordless noises against Jon’s lips and they trickle down Jon’s spine, making him warm.

This is – this is ridiculous, whatever this is, but Jon’s pretty sure he’s never felt this precise mix of emotions and lust and whatever before. He wants whatever he can have of Stephen before Stephen has to leave for college, even though he knows it’s going to hurt in the end.

4

Jon barely has time to register Andy and Erica before Erica barrels into him, knocking the breath right out of his chest. He wraps his arms about her in an effort not to over balance and tries to ignore Andy’s giggling.

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this,” Erica says, breath hot on Jon’s neck as she squeezes him for all he’s worth.

“I don’t have to tell you everything,” Jon manages. “Besides – it’s sort of new.”

“You have to tell me important things, Jon,” Erica says, finally pulling back. Jon draws a deep breath and clutches his sides.

“You think I’m important?” Stephen asks, rubbing one hand between Jon’s shoulder blades. Erica grins.

“Totally important,” Erica nods. She’s practically vibrating on the spot. Jon really doesn’t know why she’s so excited about this but it’s pretty infectious. Erica smacks him on the arm.

“Hey! What the hell was that for?”

“Sort of new? This has been going on for weeks.”

“I don’t know how a few weeks of ignoring the obvious counts, Erica.”

“C’mon, Erica, leave him alone,” Andy says, snagging Erica’s elbow and tugging it gently.

“Thanks, Andy,” Jon shoots Andy grateful smile.

“- If he wants to deny it, well, that’s his own decision,” Andy grins at Jon, that ridiculous giggle of his edging his voice. “I’m Anderson Cooper, by the way, I think we have a class together?”

“Spanish,” Stephen nods, taking Andy’s hand and shaking it. “With Senor Chang.”

“I thought so,” Andy smiles. He steps back as Denis and Janeane appear, bickering loudly, and discretely raises his camera.

“I’ve always meant to ask,” Jon hears Stephen say as he turns to greet Denis, “what’s with the camera?”

“He’s got this thing about documenting his life,” Jon says, nodding at Denis and submitting to a hug from Janeane. Their bickering picks up again the moment Jon turns back to Stephen.

“It’s not a thing, Jon,” Andy shakes his head at Jon before addressing the rest of his words to Stephen. “I thought it would be interesting, you know, to be able to look back one day. Remember what this was all like.”

“What do you film?” Stephen asks, unconsciously leaning against Jon. Jon tries to stop himself from smiling.

“Anything, really,” Andy waves his free hand. “Everything. I don’t keep all the footage, obviously.”

“His favourite subject is Jon,” Erica says, threading her arm through Andy’s and dragging him toward the beach theatre. Andy blushes and looks away.

“That’s not – that isn’t true,” Andy says, mostly to Stephen but a little to Jon.

“Hey – I made peace with my sheer animal magnetism years ago,” Jon says, waving a hand. “It’s not your fault that you’re drawn to me.”

“Like a moth to a flame,” Erica says, grinning. Andy catches on at last that he’s being made fun of and scowls slightly.

“You know you guys aren’t funny, right?” he grumbles. Jon laughs.

“So what’s on tonight?” Denis asks, falling in beside Jon. Denis has Janeane’s hand in his, which means the fighting is over for now, and his eyes are sparkling. Jon’s pretty sure that if they didn’t fight so much they wouldn’t have anything to say each other.

“Lethal Weapon double-bill,” Stephen provides. “One and two.”

“Cool,” Denis grins. “Those movies are awesome.”

“How’d you know?” Jon asks, tilting a look at Stephen. Stephen shrugs.

“Two of my friends work here,” Stephen says. “Steve and Tina.”

“Oh, I know Steve,” Jon says, nodding. “He works as an usher most of the time, doesn’t he?”

“Yeah,” Stephen nods.

“Is Tina the one with the glasses and the wicked Sarah Palin impression?” Janeane asks, leaning around Denis. Jon blinks.

“Yeah,” Stephen says, cheeks reddening slightly. “She’s um, also my ex, I guess. Though we split up over a year ago.”

“Oh my God,” Erica breathes before bursting into laughter. Jon can feel his cheeks burning. “Oh my God, Jon, this is hilarious.

“It really isn’t,” Jon says, shaking his head furiously, but Denis is already laughing after a brief conference with Janeane and he can feel Stephen’s confusion beside him.

“Jon?” Stephen asks when Andy bursts into a fresh bout of giggles after Erica whispers in his ear. “Why are your friends laughing?”

“Uh,” Jon runs a hand through his hair and doesn’t look up. “I sort of had a feeling when you mentioned her the other day – but I never knew her name, so…”

“Jon,” Stephen touched a hand to Jon’s jaw, tilting his head up. “What is it?”

“A couple of years ago, I guess?” Jon looks to Erica, who remembers everything like this, and she nods. “I was at a party, there was beer and, well, weed, and I sort of made out with this girl. But I never got her name and by the time I saw her again I was too embarrassed to say anything to her.”

“You’re the guy from the beach party,” Stephen says, pointing at Jon with wide eyes. “You’re Tina’s first kiss.”

“Um, maybe, I guess?” Jon wishes that Stephen would let him look away.

“Oh my God,” Stephen says, suddenly covering a laugh with his hand. “That is hilarious.”

“I really don’t see the funny side of it,” Jon says, folding his arms and scowling. The others start walking, still laughing, and Stephen tugs at Jon’s elbow until he follows.

“I just think it’s sort of – funny that we were kinda connected before we met,” Stephen says, smiling warmly. Jon can’t stay annoyed at that smile.

“It’s sort of weird, though, don’t you think?” Jon asks, raising an eyebrow.

“I don’t know,” Stephen shrugs. “Just because it means we all know what it’s like to kiss each other – doesn’t make it weird.”

“Have I mentioned that you’re a weird dude, Colbert?”

“Frequently.”

“Just thought I’d check.”

“This isn’t going to become a weird thing between us, is it?”

“I thought you just said it wasn’t weird?”

“The situation itself isn’t weird – but you strike me as the kind of guy who’d make it weird.”

“That’s not – no, you’re right, that’s totally fair. If you promise not to let it be weird? I’ll try not to make it weird.”

“Deal,” Stephen grabs Jon’s hand and shakes it. He darts a covert look about before ducking his head to press a kiss to Jon’s temple. Jon feels stupid for the way it warms him through.

--

“Hey, Tina,” Stephen grins at her as he and Jon take their turn at the box office.

“Hey, Stephen,” Tina smiles back.

“I’ve found the guy from the beach party!” Stephen nudges Jon forward with a shoulder and only widens his grin when Jon glares at him.

“I, uh, I know,” Tina says, tilting her head away for a moment.

“I’m sorry,” Jon says, flexing his hands uselessly. “I never got your name and then I was way to embarrassed about it to say anything to you when you started working here.”

“No, it’s okay,” Tina says, waving a hand. “It, uh, actually gave me the courage to ask Stephen out.”

Stephen chokes slightly and it’s Jon’s turn to laugh. Stephen frowns at him and Jon laughs harder, clutching his sides.

“I – I told you so,” Jon says, pointing a finger at Stephen. “It’s weird.”

“Weird?” Tina arches an eyebrow. She looks from Stephen to Jon and back again and her eyes widen. “Oh, no way, this is the guy you hooked up with?”

“Just – give us two tickets, will you?” Stephen’s ears are so red Jon thinks you could probably cook something on them. “Then Steve can get his teasing over and done with.”

“This is kinda brilliant,” Tina says, smiling to herself as she runs their tickets up on the aging register. “This town is so small sometimes.”

“Tell me about it,” Stephen grumbles, waving Jon away when he tries to pay for his ticket. “No – you paid for dinner.”

“Stephen – you don’t have to –”

“I want to, Jon. Besides – we both have pretty decent jobs.”

“Oh, wow, you guys are adorable,” Tina says, eyes bright as she hands Stephen his change and the tickets.

“Nice to see you,” Stephen says, though the way he says it makes it sound like it was anything but. Tina laughs at him.

“It was nice to finally get it out in the open,” Tina leans in and says to Jon as Stephen stomps off. “It’s sorta been bugging me for years – I always thought you were pissed at me.”

“No – I wasn’t,” Jon says, rubbing a hand through his hair. “I was pissed at myself for never finding out your name. I don’t normally just make out with people without knowing their name.”

“I didn’t think you did,” Tina says, smiling the soft smile of what could have been. “You were pretty high and I was a little drunk.”

“Still – I’m sorry,” Jon says, needing Tina to realise he means it.

“Me too,” Tina says, leaning back. “It’s not like I couldn’t have said something in the last couple of years.”

“I guess so,” Jon says, turning away.

“Jon?” Tina’s voice sounds hesitant. Jon looks over his shoulder and raises an eyebrow. “Be good to Stephen, okay? He’s a really great guy.”

“Yeah, I, uh, I figured that out,” Jon says, feeling his cheeks redden. Tina smiles and waves him away, turning to her next customer.

Jon smiles at Stephen when he joins him and the scowl fades away from Stephen’s face, replaced by that fantastic grin. It warms Jon right down to his feet.

--

Mel Gibson is sitting on a toilet that will explode when he gets off it when Stephen wraps his hand around their joined cocks and strokes up slowly. Jon can see the reflection of the flickering images in Stephen’s eyes and it should be weird but it isn’t.

He thinks that Stephen’s tucked his glasses into his back pocket and is mindful of that when he grabs Stephen’s hips and pulls him closer. Jon thrusts up into Stephen’s tight grip and buries a moan in Stephen’s shoulder. The glide of their cocks together shorts out any thought process Jon thought he had.

The shouldn’t be doing this here, Jon knows, but every time Stephen’s leg had brushed against Jon’s it had driven the latent arousal Jon was carrying around with him up to a new level. Jon had leaned into Stephen’s side and whispered right into his good ear (finding out Stephen was deaf in one ear was an odd moment, a moment where Jon had no idea what to say) that he was in danger of making a mess in his shorts.

Jon has a feeling that he’ll never get tired of the sight of Stephen’s dark eyes veiled with lust.

Stephen pulls Jon’s head up to kiss him, tongue pushing insistently against Jon’s, and Jon makes a noise in the back of his throat. He breathes through his nose and focuses on running his fingers up Stephen’s spine, rucking his shirt up in an effort to get at Stephen’s skin. They haven’t done this since Wednesday and Jon’s been feeling a little desperate.

Jon can smell the wood of the bleachers, the support strut digging into his back, and the salt sea shifting restlessly beyond the theatre. He feels the sand moving under their feet and the heat radiating from Stephen’s skin. His ears ring with the breathy sounds Stephen’s making. Stephen, who tastes like raspberries and summer, and is currently the only thing Jon wants in the entire world.

God,” Jon gasps when Stephen breaks the kiss to move down his neck. Stephen traces a haphazard path with tongue, sucking a little at Jon’s pulse point when he finds it, and Jon’s fingers dig into his back.

“You – you’re so –” Jon almost growls in frustration, his words completely lost, and instead moves a hand down to join with Stephen’s.

Their fingers lace together around their cocks and Jon speeds the pace, smiling to himself when Stephen swears right into his skin. He flicks his thumb over the head of Stephen’s cock on the upstroke and Stephen shudders against him.

“F-fuck,” Stephen breathes and Jon can barely hear him over his own gasped breaths. “Fuck dating like grown-ups.”

“Oh, yeah?” Jon asks, turning to press a kiss against Stephen’s hair. Stephen had suggested it over dinner, making an effort to behave like normal people instead of just fucking like the horny late-teenagers they were.

“Yes, fuck that shit,” Stephen lifts his head with what looks like supreme effort and fixes his eyes on Jon. “I want as much of this as I can possibly get before I leave.”

“Thank fuck for that,” Jon says, gasping when Stephen touches that spot on his cock. “Because I don’t know how long I could be a gentleman.”

“You were thinking about throwing me down and having your way with me?” Stephen asks, hips snapping as Jon retaliates by pressing a thumb into the slit of his cock.

Now I am,” Jon admits, vivid images of Stephen’s naked flesh appearing in his mind. “But I was pretty certain after, like, two - holy shit - two dates I’d probably end up blowing you in the alley behind Brian’s.”

“I’m not sure Brian would’ve appreciated that,” Stephen says, grinning. “Even if he does find it funny that you’re sweet on him.”

Sweet on him?” Jon exclaims. “Who even talks like that anymore?”

Stephen’s grin widens and then he’s kissing Jon again, sucking Jon’s tongue into his mouth and making indecent sounds. Jon doesn’t have to increase the pace this time and he lets his head fall back, panting for breath, to rest against the strut behind him.

“God, you’re good at this,” Jon says, sliding a hand into Stephen’s hair and pulling his head up so he can see his eyes. “How are you so fucking good at this?”

“Practice,” Stephen says, leaning into brush his lips over the hollow of Jon’s throat. “You’re not - God - not so bad yourself.”

“I’ve probably had a lot more practice than you,” Jon says, corner of his mouth twitching up. Stephen gives him a look. “I masturbate. A lot.”

Stephen’s eyes go darker, if that’s even possible, and Jon swallows.

“That’s the sort of thing that makes it hard for a guy to sleep at night,” Stephen observes, twisting his hand around the heads of their cocks. Jon rocks forward.

“Lucky for me that I’m an insomniac, then,” Jon says, twitching the other corner of his mouth up.

This time Jon captures Stephen’s mouth with his own, stroking his tongue against Stephen’s as their hands glide over their cocks. The sensation is almost unbearable, Jon’s whole body thrumming with the need to release, and Jon thinks he’s close to begging.

Jon uses his thumb just so and Stephen gasps against his mouth, breaking the kiss. With a half twist Jon has Stephen coming, the slickness spreading between them and making Stephen’s tightening strokes into something extraordinary. Jon bites his lip and barely stops himself from crying out as he comes on the upstroke, whole body jerking with the force of it.

Jon’s really not sure how either of them end up on their knees, grasping each other’s shoulders in an effort to keep upright, but he finds himself staring into Stephen’s eyes and feeling like he’s seeing the future. It fucks with his head a little so he shakes it, leaning forward to press his forehead against Stephen’s so he doesn’t have to keep looking at those eyes.

Wow,” Stephen breathes and the breath tickles Jon’s face.

“Yeah,” Jon’s pretty sure he can’t feel his legs. He’s not sure that he wants to right now. Here is where he wants to be.

“I – can’t really move,” Stephen says, fingers flexing on Jon’s shoulders.

“I know,” Jon says. “I think maybe we should stay here. Maybe until the movie ends.”

“If we do I’m going to end up doing something like that again,” Stephen observes. Jon pulls back and smiles at him lazily.

“That’s something I can get behind,” Jon says. Stephen smiles back and leans in to catch the corner of Jon’s mouth.

Jon thinks staying right where they are is a totally awesome idea.

--

Jon leans next to Stephen, close enough for their shoulders to brush together, while they wait for everyone else. His skin still feels flushed and every accidental movement against Stephen sends trails of sparks through him. Stephen keeps catching his eyes and grinning loosely, mouth all red with kissing, and Jon’s heart beats double-time.

“Hey, Colbert!” Jon’s head snaps up as O’Reilly approaches, Hannity and Beck on either side of him.

Jon stands up straight, taking a half-step in front of Stephen on instinct, and one of Stephen’s hands comes to rest on Jon’s back where the Foxes can’t see.

“And Leibowitz,” Hannity adds, sneering. “Told you so.”

“Shut the fuck up, Hannity,” Beck snaps, jerking his head.

“We need to have a little talk, Colbert,” O’Reilly says, moving closer. “I’m sure Leibowitz won’t mind if we borrow you.”

“Fuck off, O’Reilly,” Jon says, sounding more confident than he feels. “He doesn’t want to talk to you.”

“Brave guy in front of the boyfriend,” Beck sneers. “You weren’t so brave two years ago.”

Jon blinks and sees silhouettes on the inside of his eyelids, dark figures against a rain soaked sky and the flash of a knife in the darkness. He swallows dryly and resists the urge to touch his fingers to his stomach.

“Listen, Leibowitz,” O’Reilly says in what Jon is sure he thinks of as a reasonable voice. “We just want to talk to him for five minutes. It’s got nothing to do with you – so just walk on and let us get it over with.”

Hannity takes a step forward and Jon doesn’t flinch, Stephen’s hand flexing in the material of his shirt.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” Denis’ voice cuts out of the darkness. He steps into the pool of light, just to the left of the Foxes, with Anderson beside him.

Four against three is better odds, though Jon’s pretty sure that he and Stephen would be next to useless in a proper fight. Jon watches as O’Reilly and Denis exchange glares, Denis’ hands curling into fists at his sides, and Andy looks on impassively, looking unearthly cast in light and shade.

“Come on, guys, we don’t want any trouble,” someone calls out from above them. Jon looks up to see Stephen’s friend Steve leaning over the railing about ten feet above them, watching the scene.

O’Reilly looks up too, eyes narrowing when he sees the radio in Steve’s hand, and makes a deep sound of annoyance.

“This isn’t over,” O’Reilly says, focusing on Stephen. “It’ll never be over.”

Stephen’s hand twists deeper into Jon’s shirt and Jon wants nothing more than to turn to him. O’Reilly stalks off into the darkness, trailing Beck. This time it’s Hannity that stays that little bit longer, favouring Jon with a long stare.

“You had one chance, Leibowitz,” Hannity says. “You blew it.”

Hannity disappears after O’Reilly and Beck and Jon lets out a breath he didn’t realise he was holding. He turns to Stephen at last and grips one of his hands between his, holding Stephen’s eyes. Stephen lets out a shaky breath and rests his forehead against Jon’s for a moment.

“I’m sorry,” Stephen says. “I still can’t tell you – you’re wrapped up in this enough.”

Stephen,” Jon puts all his frustration and worry into the name and Stephen flinches slightly.

“I’m sorry,” he says again, pulling back. Jon sighs and runs a hand through his hair.

“You two all right?” Denis asks when joins them. Jon makes a non-committal noise and meets Andy’s eyes. They’re narrow and vivid in the artificial light, like Andy’s trying to pierce Jon’s mind with the power of his eyes alone. Jon turns away.

“The Foxes have really got it in for you, haven’t they?” Andy asks, turning his gaze on Stephen.

“They’ve always enjoyed beating the crap out of me,” Stephen says, shrugging. “I figure they’re trying to make up for all that time I’m going to be away at college.”

“Just let me know, next time,” Steve says, joining them in the pool of orange light. “I can totally have them thrown out.”

“My hero,” Stephen observes, rolling his eyes. Steve aims a punch at Stephen’s shoulder as Erica and Janeane appear from the opposite direction.

“Seriously, guys, are we leaving any time tonight?” Janeane asks, raising her eyebrows.

“This place is great, it really is,” Erica adds. “But I don’t exactly want to spend the night, you know?”

“Jon and Stephen needed rescuing,” Denis says, holding an arm out. Janeane curls herself against his side and presses a kiss to the underside of his jaw.

“Yeah, he’s a real hero,” Jon says, offering his own eye roll. Denis grins and flips Jon off.

They make their slow way to the exit, Steve chatting animatedly with Andy and Erica, Denis and Janeane leading the way. Jon and Stephen lag behind, walking close enough for their arms to brush together, and Jon tries to figure out what the hell to say.

“Please – don’t worry about me, Jon,” Stephen says, touching Jon’s elbow for a brief moment. “I’ll be okay.”

“You won’t, though,” Jon shakes his head. “You’re forgetting that I saw what you look like after they beat you up.”

“Just – believe me, Jon,” Stephen says, tilting his head up to the night sky. “Everything’ll be okay.”

“I wish I could,” Jon says, looking down at the ground as he scuffs his shoes through the sand.

“Can I – walk you home?” Stephen asks after a moment. Jon sighs. Stephen’s changing the subject again and he’s too tired to fight it.

“Of course you can,” Jon says, letting Stephen take his hand as they move from the bright lights of the theatre to the moonlit darkness of the beach.

Jon squeezes Stephen’s hand and tugs on it to increase their pace, aiming to catch up with the others. They’ve shed Steve, Jon guesses he has to help close up, and Janeane is walking backwards, waving her arms as she talks.

“Your friends are kind of awesome,” Stephen says.

“Yeah, I know,” Jon shoots Stephen a quick grin and gets a relieved smile in return. Jon thinks Stephen knows perfectly well that they’re nowhere near Jon genuinely dropping the subject of what the Foxes want with him but for now he’s happy to call truce.

5

Jon looks up at the next customer and is surprised to see Paul. Paul is breathing hard and flushed and there’s a tenseness about him that immediately makes Jon’s chest tighten.

“What –” Jon gets out before Paul speaks.

“Stephen’s missing,” Paul says, eyes wild.

“What do you mean – ‘missing’?” Jon’s heart tightens along with his chest.

“I mean missing, gone, lost – he, I’ve looked everywhere I can think of, I’ve called him, like, a hundred times – he isn’t anywhere,” Paul’s voice is skirting dangerously close to panic and Jon can feel it affecting him.

Jon shoots Denis a look and Denis nods, jerking his head toward the backroom. Jon leans around the counter and grabs Paul’s elbow, pulling him through the back.

“Slow down and start from the beginning,” Jon says, settling Paul into a chair. Paul runs a hand through his hair before speaking.

“We were supposed to meet up this morning,” Paul says. “We had some stuff to do before my afternoon shift at Brian’s. Stephen can be late for things, he gets caught up in something that he’s reading, or he sees something interesting on the way, but he’s never more than fifteen minutes late.

“So I call him and it goes straight to voicemail. I figure – maybe he’s in a blackspot, then I remember that this whole fucking town gets good signal. I call Amy and she says she hasn’t heard from him either.”

“I wait a little longer before walking to his house along the route he would’ve taken and there’s no sign of him. I check Brian’s, I check with your friend Andy, hell, I even check my own house. No sign.”

“You were hoping he would be here?” Jon asks. Paul nods, running a hand through his hair again.

“Jon – I’ve got a really bad feeling about this,” Paul says, shaking his head. “This isn’t like him. And the Foxes –”

“Have really been after him,” Jon says, nodding. “Fuck – you don’t think they’ve done something, do you?”

“I don’t know at the moment,” Paul says. “I can’t even really think straight.”

“I think – I think I know someone that might be able to tell us if they would do something like this,” Jon says thoughtfully. Paul looks up at him with hope.

“Really?” Paul asks.

“Yeah, really,” Jon nods. “If anyone can help us – it’ll be him. But I should – I should probably go by myself. He owes me.”

“O-okay,” Paul stands, gripping Jon’s shoulder. “I’m going to try a few more places. Call me if you find anything out.”

“I will,” Jon promises. Paul holds his eyes for a moment then heads for the rear entrance, disappearing back into the summer heat.

“Denis,” Jon begins when he walks back into the shop.

“Don’t even bother,” Denis shakes his head. “Just go and find him, I can handle this.”

“You’re sure?” Jon asks. He feels a little numb, lost.

“Yeah, of course, man,” Denis touches a hand to his arm. “This is Stephen, right?”

“Yeah, Stephen,” Jon nods, his resolve fixed. “If Redstone asks –”

“I’ll tell him the truth, to a point,” Denis says carelessly. “Even he’s not so much of an uncaring fuck to not get why this is important.”

“Thanks Denis,” Jon squeezes Denis’ shoulder and moves away.

“Jon,” Denis calls out as Jon reaches the shop entrance. Jon looks over his shoulder. “You’ll find him, dude, I know it.”

Jon nods once more and steps out into the August sun.

--

Shepard Smith used to run with the Foxes but that all changed last summer when Shep outed himself and got into a very public fight with Beck on the beach. It had been one of best things Jon had ever seen. Now he has a job at the video store and is the subject of much discussion whenever Erica tries to set Andy up with someone.

“You got a minute?” Jon asks when he catches Shep’s attention. Shep looks around the mostly empty store and gives Jon a pointed shrug of his shoulders. It makes Jon smile despite the worry wrapped tight around his spine.

“What d’you want, Leibowitz?” Shep asks, hopping up onto the counter. Jon leans against the counter beside him and tries to think of how to begin.

“Why did you stop running with the Foxes, Shep?” Jon asks, passing a hand over his eyes.

“You want the honest truth?” Shep asks, meeting Jon’s eyes. Jon nods and Shep holds his eyes for a moment before returning the nod. “Okay. Because they started pushing for Limbaugh.”

“Fuck off,” Jon says, genuinely shocked.

“It’s the truth, Jon,” Shep says, shaking his head slowly. “O’Reilly thinks it makes him a big man.”

“That’s – that’s really fucked up, Shep,” Jon says.

“That’s why I got out,” Shep says simply. “Why’re you asking?”

“You know Stephen Colbert?” Jon asks, tilting his head toward Shep.

“Sure,” Shep smiles, a big honest smile. “He’s a good guy. But you already know that.”

Shep winks and Jon feels himself blush. He always underestimates the inter-school grapevine.

“What about him?” Shep asks gently, taking pity.

“He’s been in – some kind of trouble with the Foxes for a few weeks,” Jon says, pressing a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose. “That’s how I met him. He’s – we can’t find him. He’s not answering his cell, he’s not at home or work or anywhere else anyone can think of. I just – I’m worried –”

“- That the Foxes have, what? Kidnapped him?” Shep asks. There’s not a single note of indulgence his tone, just honest curiosity.

“I don’t know – is that something they’d do?”

“I suppose – if Limbaugh has a big enough hold on them, and if Stephen saw something he shouldn’t – I wouldn’t put it past O’Reilly.”

Fuck. I don’t believe this,” Jon says, pushing away from the counter. “How the fuck does this shit happen in the real world? This isn’t a movie with Zac fucking Efron and Robert fucking Pattinson trying to be real fucking actors. How can this be happening?”

“I – I don’t know, Jon,” Shep says, reaching out and putting a hand on Jon’s shoulder. “But if this has happened – you’ve got to tell the police.”

“I’ve got no proof,” Jon says, shaking his head. “I don’t want to have to wait until his – his fucking body turns up somewhere.”

“Then, okay, okay, listen,” Shep says, rubbing soothing circles into Jon’s shoulder with his thumb. “If they’ve got him he’s probably at the bar. Limbaugh’s got this – this sort of false wall in the cellar. I think there’s an office behind it – probably where he keeps the drugs – if Stephen’s anywhere, he’s there.”

“Thank you,” Jon says, gripping Shep’s hand for a moment.

“Don’t mention it, really,” Shep says, shaking his head. “If I can make up in anyway for –”

“Yeah,” Jon nods, thinking of the scar that runs red across his stomach. “That was never your fault, Shep.”

“I could’ve stopped him, I should’ve,” Shep shakes his head more vigorously.

“It doesn’t matter any more – you’ve given me a chance at saving Stephen,” Jon says. “That’s what counts.”

“Limbaugh’s is closed until about four,” Shep says, looking at his watch. “And Limbaugh doesn’t get there until three. That gives you about an hour to get in and out.”

“Thank you, again,” Jon says, squeezing Shep’s hand once more before turning and running from the shop.

--

The indignity of it all is that Jon doesn’t even make it into the bar before Hannity catches him and knocks him out. The world flashes white and fades to black and Jon knows nothing for an eternity.

He wakes slowly to murmuring voices and feeling of a jackhammer on the back of his head. He blinks his eyes against murky light and tries to move. Unsuccessful and after a while he realises that he’s tied up or tied to something. Maybe both.

“Fuck,” he grunts as a lance of pain shoots through his head.

“Good, you’re awake,” says the familiar irritating voice of Rush fucking Limbaugh. Way to go, Leibowitz. “I was beginning to worry that we’d started the killing too early. Don’t look so disappointed, Hannity, you’ll get your chance.”

Jon’s eyes finally focus enough to see Limbaugh and the Foxes ranged in front of him. He turns his head cautiously and finds Stephen beside him, looking at him with eyes full of so many things that Jon can’t even begin to parse the meaning there.

“Fuck you,” Jon spits, turning back to Limbaugh. Limbaugh laughs.

“You weren’t kidding,” he says to Hannity. Hannity grins and Jon hates him just a little more. Limbaugh steps forward and Jon fights an urge to draw back – Limbaugh is pale and sweaty in the poor lighting, his receding hairline showing far more of his forehead than Jon ever wanted to see.

“So, Leibowitz,” Limbaugh says conversationally. “You could’ve just walked away from this but you had to go and put your dick where it wasn’t wanted.”

The Foxes laugh collectively and the rush of anger and hatred through his body startles even Jon.

“I say again – fuck you,” Jon says, twisting his face up.

“I don’t think so, Leibowitz,” Limbaugh shakes his head. “I’m not a part of your deviant lifestyle.”

“No – you’ve got a whole deviant lifestyle of you own, you sick fuck,” Jon jerks his head toward the pile of cocaine bricks he can see on the desk behind Limbaugh.

“Come on, Leibowitz,” Limbaugh laughs. “I know just as well as you do how much pot you’ve smoked over the years. This is just the next logical step.”

“You’re an asshole, Limbaugh,” Jon says. He knows he wouldn’t be acting so brave if Stephen wasn’t there – but Stephen believes there’s more to Jon than what the world sees and, fuck it, Jon intends to live up to that.

“As much as I’d like to continue trading insults with you, kid,” Limbaugh says, moving toward the door. The Foxes part around him like a wave. “I’ve got a bar to open.”

“Sir, I thought we were –” Beck is silenced by a glare from his boss.

“Is there something about ‘this room is not soundproof’ that you don’t understand?” Limbaugh snaps. “It’ll have to wait until the bar closes down tonight.”

The Foxes follow Limbaugh out of the room and disappear into darkness. Limbaugh pauses in shutting the door and grins.

“Sit tight, boys,” Limbaugh says. “Talk about your perversions, if you like, I don’t care. You won’t be my problem for much longer.”

The door shuts and there’s a click of a lock followed by a scraping sound that Jon guesses has something to do with the false wall Shep mentioned. Trapped.

“Jon, I’m so sorry,” is the first thing Stephen says when the door is shut.

“It’s not your fault, Stephen,” Jon says, shaking his head. He tests his bonds and finds them tight. No wriggling free then.

“Of course it’s my fault, Jon,” Stephen says sharply. “If I hadn’t seen them bring that –” he jerks his head at the cocaine “- into the bar we never would’ve been in this mess.”

“And you’d never have run into the yard while I was smoking and I never would’ve met you and there’d never have been a ‘we’ to begin with,” Jon says over the top of anything else Stephen tries to say.

“We would’ve met eventually,” Stephen says quietly.

“But it might’ve been too late,” Jon says, just as quietly.

“I’m still sorry,” Stephen says, holding Jon’s eyes. “I should’ve told you.”

“No. You should’ve told Sheriff Morgan,” Jon points out. He doesn’t enjoy the flash of guilt across Stephen’s eyes but they both know it’s the truth.

“I was scared,” Stephen says, looking away from Jon. “Can you blame me?”

“No – I can’t,” Jon shakes his head. “Beck practically tried to kill me two years ago – I never told anyone.”

Stephen stares at Jon with shock and Jon ducks his head, unable to look into those eyes. He focuses instead on testing his bonds again, shifting himself from side to side. Trust Beck to have been a fucking scout.

“Jon, I –” Jon shakes his head when Stephen starts talking.

“It was two years ago,” Jon says. “Ancient history.”

“That’s what the scar really is, isn’t it?” Stephen asks, raising an eyebrow. Jon nods. “I always thought it was in the wrong place to be an appendectomy scar.”

“I’m sorry I lied to you,” Jon says.

“I’d say that makes us even,” Stephen says, his voice warm. Jon lets out half a laugh.

“Oh, God, why didn’t I tell anyone where I was going,” Jon says suddenly, startling Stephen. “This is the kind of shit I yell at movies for.”

“I’m sure someone’ll figure it out,” Stephen says but Jon can tell from the shake of his voice that he doesn’t really believe that.

Silence descends over them as Jon contemplates his own stupidity. Too eager to be the hero for once, Leibowitz. It’s just cost your life. Stephen’s too.

“Jon?” Stephen’s voice is barely there. Jon lifts his head and meets Stephen’s eyes. “I’m scared.”

“Me too, Stephen,” Jon says, his voice breaking on Stephen’s name. “Me too.”

6

Jon loses track of time in the room. He and Stephen try their best to distract each other but their usual topics pale in comparison to their current situation. Stephen tries quoting vast tracts of Lord of the Rings and when that fails they end up quoting Star Wars at each other.

“Jon – we should have that talk,” Stephen interrupts the greatest hits of Anakin’s poor attempts to woo Padmé. Jon shoots him a look.

“Oh. That talk,” Jon says, drawing an inward breath.

“Jon – I leave for college in a week,” Stephen says, sighing. “But you –”

Whatever Stephen was going to say is cut off by thud against the wall. They both look up in anticipation, edged with a little bit of fear, and Jon finds himself holding his breath. There’s something like a muffled swear word and then that scraping noise from earlier. The door handle rattles then the lock clicks half a dozen times. Jon exchanges a look with Stephen.

“I’m pretty sure Limbaugh would be able to unlock his own door,” Jon says, raising his eyebrows at Stephen.

The door cracks open at last and Andy’s white head pokes around it. His eyes widen as he straightens and steps into the room, pushing the door behind him.

“Oh, man, I’m a glad to see you guys,” Andy says, leaning against the door. “Denis has been going crazy.”

“It’s not been awesome for us, either,” Jon says. This is possibly the happiest he has ever been to see Andy in his entire life. “How did you find us?”

“I spoke to Paul,” Andy says, crossing the room to investigate Jon’s bonds. “He said you said something about knowing someone who could help – and that this guy owed you one. I put two and two together and got Shep.”

“Shepard Smith?” Stephen asks, raising an eyebrow at Jon.

“Yeah,” Jon nods. “He, uh, blames himself for what happened. Back then. I figured he was the best person to speak to.”

“I always liked Shep,” Stephen says. “I could never figure out why he hung out with O’Reilly.”

“He was misguided,” Andy says, somewhere behind Jon. Jon feels a tugging on his wrists.

“No, Andy, stop,” he says suddenly.

“Are you crazy, Jon?” Andy asks, voice rising an octave. “I’ve got to get you two out of here before anyone comes down.”

“Have you got your camera on you?” Jon asks, twisting his head to look at Andy. Andy’s hand goes to the bag slung over his shoulder.

“You know I always have it,” he says. “Why?”

“This – this is never going to stop unless someone does something about Limbaugh,” Jon says, turning to look at Stephen again. “Sheriff Morgan keeps saying in the paper that they just don’t have the evidence to do anything about the drugs –”

“So – we just tell the Sheriff when we get out of here,” Stephen says, the tremble in his voice belies the words.

“You know that won’t work,” Jon shakes his head. “As soon as they see that we’re missing they’ll move all the coke. No – we have to be smart.”

“You want to film it?” Andy asks. “That still won’t work – they’d need Limbaugh onscreen…Oh my God.”

“Come on, Andy, you know I can do it,” Jon twists his head to catch Andy’s eyes again. “I’ll get him monologuing. On film.

“Jon – I don’t know,” Andy says slowly, but his hand is reaching for his bag.

“Okay, okay – let’s do it this way: you set up the camera somewhere he won’t see it and hide out in the cellar. When he comes down you give me five minutes and then call your guy at the station, he’ll trust you. No matter what we’ll get out of here – hopefully with what Sheriff Morgan will need.”

“You’re insane,” Stephen says, awe in his voice. Jon blushes.

“You know you love it,” Jon shoots back. Stephen makes a noise of assent.

“I could call Olbermann, too,” Andy says. “He’d – he’d get a kick out of covering this.”

“See, you know this’ll work,” Jon says, grinning. He’s putting far more confidence into his words than he actually has but he knows this is the only way to keep Stephen safe.

“Five minutes,” Andy agrees. “And then I call the Sheriff’s department.”

“Five minutes,” Jon nods. “It’s all I’ll need.”

--

“You are trying my patience, Leibowitz,” Limbaugh snarls as he slams his way into the office.

Jon’s quite impressed – he’s only been making a racket for fifteen minutes and here’s Limbaugh himself.

“I want to make a deal,” Jon says, avoiding Stephen’s eyes. He just hopes Stephen is a good enough actor to play genuine shock.

“A deal,” Limbaugh says. “And what kind of deal would that be?”

“One that’ll get you a bunch of new - new clients,” Jon says, words skipping.

“What makes you think I need new clients?” Limbaugh asks, eyes darting to the pile of cocaine.

“Here’s what I see,” Jon says, leaning as far forward in his chair as he can. “Stephen reckons that you haven’t even sold a fifth of what he saw your stooges bring in. I’m betting that’s because of your dealers.”

“I have more pushers than O’Reilly and his pals,” Limbaugh says, shaking his head.

“But they’re like them, aren’t they?” Jon asks. “The other dealers?”

“So what does that have to do with anything?”

“O’Reilly and people like him are only going to be able to sell so much stuff – they’re already known as trouble-makers and shitheads. Higher class people aren’t going to risk coming anywhere near them unless they’re desperate.”

“You reckon you can do better?”

“I know I can. Who’s going to suspect that nice Leibowitz kid?”

“And you also think you can sell more than the others.”

“Double,” Jon says emphatically. “I’ve got a hell of a way with words and I know people in those neighbourhoods. That’s got to be worth not killing me.”

“See how fickle the heart can be, Colbert?” Limbaugh asks, sneering at Stephen. “They always choose their own life over you in the end.”

“I can’t believe you,” Stephen says. His voice breaks and his eyes widen and he even has a few tears lurking in the corners there. Jon is impressed.

“Such is life, kid,” Limbaugh says before turning back to Jon. “Okay, Leibowitz, you’ve got a deal. You come good on this and you’ll make a lot of money.”

Limbaugh takes a step forward just as the door bursts inward. Splinters of wood flutter through the air as Deputy Tuchman breaks the door down, followed by Sheriff Morgan. Jon’s pretty sure he can make out the tall form of Keith Olbermann behind them.

“Well, isn’t this interesting,” Sheriff Morgan says, taking in Limbaugh, Jon and Stephen and the pile of cocaine bricks. “I bet you’ve got a hell of an explanation for this one, Limbaugh.”

Limbaugh’s mouth opens and shuts a few times and Jon barely stops himself from laughing. Limbaugh looks like a hooked fish.

“I had no idea, Sheriff,” Limbaugh says, suddenly finding his voice. “Those – those kids, O’Reilly and his friends, they said they just wanted to use the cellar for some school thing and when I came down I found –”

“Save it for your lawyer, Limbaugh,” Tuchman says, raising a hand. “We know what’s really going on here.”

“Oh, yeah?” Limbaugh’s attitude changes as swift as a breeze. He sneers. “The word of two kids against mine? A pillar of the community?”

“Just who’s community would that be?” Olbermann asks over Morgan’s shoulder. “It sure as hell isn’t mine.”

“Give him his rights, Tuchman,” Morgan says, shooting a warning glance at Olbermann. “He’ll be wanting to call his lawyer. You kids all right?”

“Better than you might think,” Jon says, letting out a shaky breath.

“Andy,” Olbermann says. “You should get the –”

“Oh, yeah,” Andy pushes past Morgan and Olbermann and crosses to the shelf he’d stashed his camera on, skirting widely around Tuchman and Limbaugh.

“You have got to be fucking kidding me,” Limbaugh says when Andy pulls his camera down. “My lawyer will have something to say about that.”

“I’m sure he will,” Morgan says, smiling for the first time since entering the room. “But I have faith in ours. Jeffrey has a score to settle.”

Andy rewinds the tape and hands the camera to Morgan. Morgan watches for a moment, smile getting bigger. Limbaugh scowls at Jon and Stephen as Tuchman drags him from the room.

“You kids’ll pay for this one day,” Limbaugh says, fulfilling his role as villain in its entirety. “And you too, Cooper, don’t think the family money can protect you from me.”

“Your lawyers aren’t even in the same league as my Mom’s,” Andy says dismissively, grinning at Jon.

Morgan hands the camera back to Andy, for ‘safekeeping’, and he crosses the room to untie Jon and Stephen.

“That was brave thing you did, Mr Leibowitz,” Morgan says as he frees Jon’s hands. “You too, Mr Colbert. Mr Cooper tells me that you saw the delivery?”

“I did, sir,” Stephen says. He hesitates before continuing: “I’m sorry, sir, I should’ve told you right away but I was –”

“It’s understandable, Mr Colbert,” Morgan says, moving to untie Stephen’s hands as Jon bends to untie his feet. “O’Reilly and his friends have always been dangerous.”

Morgan shares a significant look with Jon and this time Jon does put a hand to his stomach, rubbing the scar lightly. Morgan had found him in the alley two years ago – Shep doesn’t know that Morgan told Jon that he was the one who reported the stabbing.

“Come on, Andy,” Olbermann says. “I’ll give you a ride to the station. Leibowitz, Colbert – I’m going to want to interview you at some point.”

“Of course you are,” Jon says, rolling his eyes. He shares a look with Stephen. “We’d be happy to oblige, Mr Olbermann.”

Olbermann nods and Andy follows him out of the room, giving Jon a thumbs up before exiting. Morgan stands and presses his hands to Jon and Stephen’s shoulders.

“I’ll give you two a moment to collect yourselves,” Morgan says. “We want you to get checked out for any injuries – and then there’s a whole host of your friends waiting for you.”

“Thank you, Sheriff,” Stephen says, smiling up at Morgan.

Morgan pulls the door behind him and leaves them in silence. Jon is rubbing his wrists in an effort to regain some feeling when he hears a brief sob break out of Stephen’s chest.

“Fuck, Jon, I was – I was sure they were going to –” Stephen shakes his head, unable to finish the sentence.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” Jon says, rising on wobbly feet and going to his knees in front of Stephen. “We’re okay, all right? Everything’s going to be okay.”

Stephen leans his head forward to press his forehead against Jon’s. Jon breathes with Stephen until Stephen’s breathing calms.

“Okay,” Stephen says, ducking his head a little to press brief kiss to Jon’s mouth. “But I really don’t know how you’re so fucking calm.”

“Believe me,” Jon says, shaking his head as he stands. “It’s the calm before the storm – I’ll probably fall apart when I get home.”

“Jon,” Stephen says when Jon pulls him up. “Jon – is it all right, do you think it would be okay if we – if we stayed together tonight?”

Jon looks down at their joined hands and rubs a thumb over Stephen’s fingers before lifting Stephen’s hand to kiss it, a light brush of his lips.

“Yeah,” Jon says, voice tight with emotion. “I think that’ll be okay.”

--

Jon sits on the hood of Stephen’s car as Stephen and a few of his brothers load it with everything Stephen has decided is absolutely necessary for college. Jon’s pretty sure that the two boxes of comics aren’t going to be essential to life at Hampden-Sydney but who is he to question Stephen’s logic?

Jon would be helping but Stephen’s brothers insisted that he ‘just sit there and look pretty and wistful’. Jon was a little amazed by how easily the Colbert’s adjusted to their son’s/brother’s boyfriend – sometimes Jon wonders how much he owes to the misapprehension that he somehow saved Stephen’s life.

Stephen is the one who saved Jon, after all.

The past week has been one of the oddest of Jon’s life – dealing with the attention of the town after Olbermann’s article declared them heroes and Sheriff Morgan refused to deny it. Their friends have got a lot more entertainment out of it than they have.

Jon and Stephen ended up mostly hanging out at each other’s houses, not that Jon was complaining. Particularly the night Stephen came in through his window at two a.m, knowing Jon would be awake, and proceeded to have his way with Jon.

Despite all the happiness, though, Jon’s heart has been aching for days. He can’t really identify exactly what he’s feeling, just that it’s not something he’s felt before, but he knows it’s because Stephen is leaving, a month before Jon has to do this himself.

He doesn’t want Stephen to go.

“Well, I reckon that’s about it,” Stephen says somewhere behind Jon. Jon’s heart clenches.

There’s the sound of Stephen hugging his brothers with lots of manly backslaps and laughter and cautions to behave himself because he has someone to come home for. One of the brothers (is it Eddie? Jon can never remember all of their names) winks at Jon when he walks past, the other gives Jon the thumbs up. They disappear back into the house.

The car depresses on it’s uneven shocks as Stephen joins Jon on the bonnet. Stephen sits close enough to touch but doesn’t, instead staring at the same far off point that Jon is.

“You know – I never thought Mom’s azaleas were that exciting,” Stephen says, nudging Jon with a shoulder. Jon ducks his head and smiles.

“It’s not that bad, Jon,” Stephen says, leaning comfortably against Jon now. “I should be able to come down for a weekend before you go to Northwestern. And we’ll see each other for Thanksgiving.”

“I know,” Jon says, shaking his head at himself. “I just –”

“I know, Jon,” Stephen touches a hand to his knee. Jon detects a twitch of a curtain in the wide windows in front of them.

“You think maybe we could go somewhere that your whole family can’t see us?” Jon asks, waving a hand at the window. He’s rewarded with another curtain twitch that somehow manages to look guilty.

Stephen laughs and slides off the car, pulling Jon after him. He leads Jon up to the rear of the car and installs himself on the rear bumper. Now the trunk is shielding them from the house and Jon feels safe enough to lean in and kiss Stephen soundly.

Stephen makes a soft sound into Jon’s mouth and brings a hand up to tangle into Jon’s curls. Their tongues twist briefly around each other and Jon makes his own noise to match Stephen’s before pulling back. Stephen pulls Jon to him in a tight embrace, Jon’s head resting against Stephen’s chest, and Jon tries to memorise Stephen’s heartbeat.

“Fuck, I’m going to miss the way you smell,” Stephen says, breath puffing across Jon’s hair.

“I’m – I’m just going to miss you,” Jon says, hands clenching in Stephen’s shirt. Stephen huffs out a gentle laugh.

“And you say you’re not romantic,” Stephen says, pressing a kiss against Jon’s hair. “So what’s in that bag?”

Jon pulls back and grins at Stephen before bending to retrieve the bag from beside the rear wheel. He hands it to Stephen and watches as Stephen tears the wrapping paper from his going away gift.

“Is this – this is –” Stephen turns the tin over in his hands, smiling.

“It’s, uh, all the different versions of Blade Runner,” Jon says, running a hand through his hair. “You said you can never decide which one is your favourite, so you didn’t know which one to take with you. Now you can take all of them.”

“You’re a genius,” Stephen says, pulling Jon’s head forward to press a kiss against his cheek. “Thank you.”

“I have my moments,” Jon says, shrugging.

“And I didn’t get you anything,” Stephen says, making an exaggerated sad face. “Actually, no, I’m lying – there’s something I – I want you to have.”

Stephen tucks the tin into the top of a box of books and DVDs and pulls a folded bundle of cloth out of a bag. He hands it to Jon and watches him expectantly as he unfolds it. It’s a t-shirt. It’s the t-shirt.

“This is – this is the Captain America t-shirt you were wearing on our not-date,” Jon says, holding it up.

“Yeah, I, um, wanted you to have it – to, you know, remember me by when I’m not here,” Stephen says, taking his turn to rub a hand through his hair in embarrassment. “I know it’s probably way too big for you but I – I want you to have it.”

“It’s – it’s brilliant, Stephen,” Jon says, embarrassed by the way his voice breaks on Stephen’s name. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it,” Stephen says, voice tight. “And don’t you dare fucking cry, Leibowitz. I refuse to cry.”

“No, I’m not, I’m just –” Jon stops and holds Stephen’s eyes. He wishes he could articulate what is he’s feeling – but he doesn’t even know what it is. “I just – I’ll miss you. Every fucking day and I don’t care who knows that.”

Stephen smiles and pulls Jon in for another kiss. Jon tries to put everything he’s feeling into this kiss, something for Stephen to remember him buy, and from the way Stephen’s hands tighten on his sides he thinks he succeeds

“Boys!” Stephen’s Mom shouts. “Stephen needs to leave now if he wants to beat traffic.”

Stephen sighs against Jon’s mouth and presses their foreheads together. Jon has a feeling that’s starting to become their thing and he doesn’t mind, it makes him feel close to Stephen.

“I’ve already said my goodbyes to everyone else,” Stephen says, trailing a hand down Jon’s arm. “You’re the only person left.”

“Don’t say goodbye,” Jon says, shaking his head. “It’s just – see you later, you know? It’s not goodbye.”

“You’re right, it’s not,” Stephen says. He runs a hand through Jon’s hair once more, ruffling it, and finally moves them away from the car. He slams the trunk shut and walks up to the driver’s door.

Stephen waves to his family, now clearly visible in the window, and his Mom, standing on the porch. He bends to steal one more kiss from Jon, to catcalls from his brothers, and climbs into the car. Jon pushes the door shut for him and leans down to the open window.

“Have a good journey, Stephen,” Jon says, gripping his arm for a moment. Stephen covers Jon’s hand with his own and squeezes it.

“See you soon, Jon,” Stephen says, starting the engine.

Jon waves until the car disappears around the street corner. He stares after it for a moment before turning and saying goodbye to Mrs Colbert. She smiles a knowing smile at him and offers him a wave.

Jon turns down the street, his feet setting him on an automatic path for the beach, and tucks his hands into his pockets. It’s weird, he thinks, not finding a packet of cigarettes in there, but he promised Stephen he’d try to quit before moving up to Northwestern.

He could really use a cigarette right now. They’re practically made for these moments. Instead Jon fishes a packet of gum out of his pocket and pops a strip in his mouth, chewing steadily and enjoying the burst of mint.

“Okay,” he says, nodding to himself. “I can do this.”

And he really believes he can.

Epilogue

Stephen,

Northwestern is phenomenal, man, I can’t get over this place. Chicago is fucking cold, by the way, you probably wouldn’t last a day here. Still – it’s awesome. The soccer team is actually pretty good and my classes seem cool.

Jon,

My college is – well, full of guys. You’d like it. ;) No, really, it’s beautiful in its own way and I’ve met a few cool people. I’m willing to bet that it’s way colder there than it is here – you brought it on yourself for picking Illinois.

Jon tucks his hands further into his sleeves and slides further down into his bed. His laptop is making his legs overheat but his arms are freezing. He can’t reply to the e-mail at this time of night, his roommate barely deals with his insomnia as it is, but it makes him smile.

Stephen probably doesn’t have to wear two layers on every part of his body.

--

Stephen,

We won our match 3-1. I even managed to set a goal up, which was a pretty cool experience for me, and we all got very drunk when we got back to the dorms. Everything was going pretty well until this dickhead in a bowtie called the campus security on us and we had to scatter.

I might’ve torn the Captain America shirt…

Jon,

But – but – what will happen if the Avengers cross from Earth 616 into our world? What if they need our help? How will we signal to them that we are available to be awesome?

(Seriously, though, don’t worry about it. It’s not like there’s not more out there. Besides – you had an adventure!)

Jon reads the e-mail quickly before running for class and laughs at the image of the Avengers needing him and Stephen to help save the world. He doesn’t doubt for a minute that Stephen’s actually thought about that, though.

Stephen is a fantasist of the highest order.

--

Stephen,

Remember when I told you about the Cap shirt? You’ll be happy to know that a guy on my floor, who’s pretty fucking handy with a needle, sewed the tear up for me. Looks practically as good as new.

This semester has been pretty awesome but I’m really looking forward to the Thanksgiving break. I hope you can guess why.

Jon,

That is excellent news! Now when Cap calls for the Avengers to Assemble we can be there. (Btw, I can hear you calling me a geek from here so, just, quit it – I know your tricks.)

I’m looking forward to going home. I mean, I love it here, I do, I just…I miss home and I miss you. Laugh all you want. From the amount of e-mails you send me – I can tell you miss me just as much.

Jon’s eyes flick down to the clock in the corner of his screen and taps his fingers against the keyboard. Fuck it, he thinks, his paper can wait. He opens AIM up and grins when he sees Stephen’s username.

AllYourHobbitsAreBelongToUs (02:31:46): i knew you missed me
WhatWouldBruceDo (02:32:01): I should be writing a paper.
AllYourHobbitsAreBelongToUs (02:32:15): and i should be learning lines. or sleeping, really. bet you have a better idea.
WhatWouldBruceDo (02:32:37): No, Stephen, I will not have cyber sex with you.
AllYourHobbitsAreBelongToUs (02:33:02): you’re no fun anymore

Jon grins in the darkness and looks over at the empty bed on the other side of the room. Maybe he can have some fun.

--

Jon can’t sleep. For once it’s not because of insomnia – though he thinks this might be worse. The raging hard-on is slowly unravelling his brain.

Mindful of the slumbering John on the other side of the room, he grabs the new phone his Mom gave him when he was home and opens his e-mail up.

Stephen,

That – that thing you did, with your – can I just say that it’s torturing me? I’m finding it really hard to sleep and my roommate isn’t enjoying my habit of running to the toilet to beat off every few hours.

I take back all those Thanks that I Gave.

The reply comes back quickly enough that Jon’s pretty sure Stephen’s having the same problem he is.

Jon,

You – you – you bastard! That’s so completely unfair! Now I can’t sleep either! I can’t stop thinking about your hands and your mouth and…

Fuck. There it goes again. You can’t take back your Thanks – I take mine back instead!

Is it Christmas yet?

Jon snorts into his blankets and fires off a reply.

We are seriously one step away from cyber-sex, aren’t we? This is just sad.

(Less than a month!)

Oh my God, we’re that long-distance couple, aren’t we? How embarrassing.

(I’m counting the days.)

“You know – I’d rather you kept the cyber sex for when I’m not in the room,” John grumbles, rolling over heavily.

“We’re not –” Jon stops himself. “I wouldn’t do that with you in the room.”

“Sure you wouldn’t,” John’s words drip with sarcasm.

“Fuck off, John,” Jon sighs, rolling over. Sometimes having a British roommate kind of sucks.

--

Stephen,

I got your package (stop it, I know you’re laughing). I, uh, didn’t realise I’d left that at your place. I hope your Mom didn’t find it. I wanted to thank you again for including me in your whole Christmas spirit thing – it’s not really my time of the year but I had a lot of fun.

One of my lecturers had to leave over the break, apparently he was fucking a student, so his TA is running the class until they find a replacement. Dude is crazy! And missing half a finger on one hand and, frankly, he terrifies me.

Jon,

Oh, don’t mention it. I also got the books you sent down for me – it, um, meant a lot that you were thinking of me enough to buy them. And Mom loved having you for Christmas – I think you’ve charmed her somehow.

That TA sounds kind of awesome, though. I bet there’s an awesome story about the missing finger.

Jon types up the story of Emanuel’s missing finger, a story that was told on the first day the guy took the class in an effort to ‘avoid stupid fucking questions’, and sends it off, knowing Stephen will get a kick out of it.

He grabs his bag from the back of his chair and, looking around cautiously, brushes his fingers over the framed picture Mrs Colbert had given him before he left to come back. It’s of Jon and Stephen, taken without Jon’s knowledge, and it makes his heart tighten every time he looks at it.

Jon misses Stephen like he would miss a limb.

--

Stephen,

Man, I can’t believe that our spring breaks aren’t going to line up – that fucking sucks. I guess I’ll just have to go have all that fun without you.

(Seriously, though, Stephen – I’m really pissed off about it. I hope you don’t mind if I hate on your school for a while.)

Jon,

Hate away – I’m pissed off too. But for more reasons that that – I’ll tell you some of them when I call on the weekend. Let’s just say that I don’t think I’m finding what I want here.

(Maybe I can get away for the weekend – it’s not that far by car to where you’re going to be)

Jon wonders what could have turned Stephen so suddenly sour on Hampden-Sydney. Then he realises that Stephen’s e-mails have had less and less about the actual college in since just before Christmas. Stephen spends a lot of time talking about theatre, now, and Jon’s starting to wonder if Stephen’s changed his mind about philosophy.

He scribbles a note on a post-it to remind himself that Stephen’s going to call on the weekend. He knows that if Stephen wants to wait until the weekend to speak to him that it’s something pretty major – otherwise Stephen would just call him when they were both out of class.

Spring break is going to suck without him.

--

March

“You know – you should convince your other half to come up here, next year,” John says. He’s spinning a red ball from one hand to the other. Jon’s been told that it’s a cricket ball and has discovered that it can make some mean bruises if thrown with enough force.

That had been the end of their experiments with teaching Jon how to play cricket.

“Oh, yeah, spring break in Chicago,” Jon says, making ‘rawk’ signs with his hands. “I can’t think of anything more exciting for him.”

“No need for sarcasm,” John says reproachfully. “I was only making a suggestion. Admittedly it was more for my sake than yours, really, given that you’ve spent most of this month and the one before acting like a bear with a sore head.”

“Stephen would hate that,” Jon says. John gives him an odd look. “Stephen doesn’t like bears. It’s almost a phobia.”

“Huh,” John says. He pushes his glasses up his nose. “Americans are weird.”

“Thanks,” Jon throws a pillow at John. For a moment it looks like John’s about to retaliate when they’re interrupted by a knock at the door.

“I’ll get it, will I?” Jon asks when John doesn’t move. John lazily flips him off. “Man, I thought Brits were supposed to be hard-workers, for Queen and Country and all that shit.”

“We can’t all be stereotypes, Jon,” John says as Jon reaches the door.

Jon pulls the door open with a put upon air that disappears the moment he sees who’s knocking.

Stephen?” Stephen looks weary but he’s grinning that massive smile and Jon’s never been so happy to see him in his life.

Stephen grabs Jon by the arms and pulls him close, bending his head to catch Jon’s lips in a bruising kiss that tells Jon exactly how much Stephen has missed him. Jon backs them into the room and kicks the door shut. Stephen releases him and presses his forehead against Jon’s.

“Hi,” he says quietly, still smiling.

“Hi, yourself,” Jon says, reaching up to run a hand through Stephen’s hair. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“I’m Northwestern’s newest transfer student,” Stephen says, lifting his head.

“Fuck off, you’re kidding,” Jon says. He doesn’t dare hope.

“I shit you not, my friend,” Stephen says and, if possible, that grin broadens. “I’m transferring for performing arts – I’m going to be an actor.”

“What happened to being a philosopher?” Jon asks, still not quite grasping what’s happening.

“I found out that I’m not really a philosophy guy,” Stephen shrugs. “I got roped into this drama club thing and I just – I guess this is what it must have felt like for you when you put those boots on for the first time.”

“You are – unbelievable,” Jon says, shaking his head. He can’t stop smiling and Stephen doesn’t stop smiling back. Jon holds onto Stephen’s arms as if convinced that Stephen will disappear if he lets go.

“Well, don’t mind me,” John says from his bed. “Just get on with the ravaging while I try to avoid being mentally scarred for life. I’m assured that the cupboard is a very nice place to hide.”

Jon laughs and Stephen breaks eye contact long enough to notice John. John’s sitting up on the bed now, feet planted firmly on the floor, and looking at Jon pointedly.

“Stephen – this is John Oliver,” Jon waves a hand. “John – Stephen Colbert.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Stephen says, and Jon knows how strong Stephen feels when he doesn’t let go of Jon to shake hands with John. “But it’s Col-bear now.”

“Colbert,” Jon repeats, dropping the ‘t’. “I thought you were afraid of bears.”

“I’m a whole new me, now,” Stephen says, lifting his head. “New school, new life, new Stephen.”

“Well – I hope you haven’t changed too much,” Jon says, touching a hand briefly to Stephen’s cheek. “I liked you a lot the way you were.”

“Don’t worry,” Stephen says, leaning into Jon’s touch and grinning. “I’m pretty sure I kept all the parts you like.”

“Oh – okay, that’s it,” John says, jumping to his feet. “This is something I simply can’t be around for, I may be sick or irreparably mentally damaged. I’m going to find Riggle – you two enjoy your…happy ending.”

Jon meets John’s eyes and sees the underlying current of genuine happiness beneath the words and smiles. He nods and John returns it before grabbing his jacket and leaving.

The moment the door clicks shut Stephen’s kissing Jon again, pressing in with his tongue, and Jon runs his hands up Stephen’s back to bury in his hair. Jon pulls back and lays his hands either side of Stephen’s face, brushing his thumbs over Stephen’s cheeks and drinking in the sight of him.

“I love you,” Jon says and something breaks at last inside of him, his heart flooding with something that threatens to overwhelm him. Stephen’s lips curve into a small, shy smile.

“I know,” he says quietly. They meet again in a chaste kiss, a bare flicker of tongue from Stephen against Jon’s lip.

“Geek,” Jon whispers against Stephen’s lips and Stephen chuckles.

Stephen presses Jon back toward the bed, kisses becoming more and more heated, and Jon lets himself fall when his knees hit it. He pulls Stephen down with him and places a kiss to Stephen’s pulse point, smiling against Stephen’s neck when Stephen shudders.

“You wouldn’t want me any other way,” Stephen says, lifting his head to meet Jon’s eyes. Jon pulls Stephen’s glasses off and puts them, folded neatly, on his bedside table.

“No,” Jon says, pulling Stephen down again to whisper against his ear. “I wouldn’t.”