"Heeey, Lisa!" exclaimed a bubbly voice, startling the well-dressed fourteen-year-old as she closed her locker. "How's it going?"
"Whoa, Sadie, you scared me!" stammered Lisa, nearly dropping her distinctive glitter-covered binder. "Don't leap out of nowhere, like that, okay?"
"Leap? Me? Nonsense. I'm very subtle." Her friend batted her lashes, unconvincingly. With big eyes and a wide grin full of teeth, plus a chirpy cartoonish voice that was almost as loud as her plaid sundress, she would have stood out anywhere. "Anyway, that's not the point! The point is: are you coming to see football practice tonight?"
It was Lisa's turn to be unconvincing. "Football practice? Why would I want to see football practice? I mean, whoa, is that tonight? I had no idea!"
They fell in step together walking down the hall, other students milling around them. "I guess you also had no idea that a certain Flint Adams will be there?"
"I d-don't know what you're talking about."
"Come on, Lisa, fess up." Her friend leaned over and revealed, in a stage whisper: "I saw the picture of him in your locker!"
"Well, Sadie, whatever you think you saw, I will definitely not make it to that practice. No matter who may, or may not be there. Hey, look at the time! I'm going to be late for math."
She waved and veered off down a different hall.
Wow, that was close. I have got to be more careful....
My name is Lisa Munn, and the truth is, I totally have a crush on Flint Adams. He's the captain of the football team, he's really nice, oh, and he has great hair.
But someone like me doesn't have time for crushes. You see, I'm not just a high school student and an up-and-coming singer here in sunny Malibu. I also live a double life....
"Great! Fantastic. Let's try that again, one more time, from the top!"
Olivia suppressed a groan and pulled off her headphones. "Can I get a drink first?"
"Someone get Lisa a drink!" yelled the producer. Into the recording booth he added, "Let's try to wrap this voiceover up soon, okay, doll? Jessica's in makeup, and we get like an hour to shoot her scenes before child labor comes down on us."
That cheered Olivia up a little. Six-year-old Jessica Williams, in the role of her sidekick's little sister, was too cute not to enjoy working with. Even if they always gave her the stupidest lines.
"Thanks," she said as a stagehand twice her age handed her a water bottle. Right. She was going to pull it together, and she was going to be a goddamn professional about this, and in a couple hours she would get to sit down with Kristen (who was about ten times less annoying than "Sadie", even though that was her natural voice) and work on their actual math homework and count the days until their contracts were up.
On a sound stage across the lot....
"Was that your line?" demanded Kilborn, once he was towering over Jon. "Was that anything like your line?"
"No, it was not," said Jon promptly. It was actually funny.
"And what did I say the last time you had trouble remembering your lines?"
Jon crossed his arms. It probably looked more wannabe-threatening than assertive given the leather jacket, but what the hell, he hadn't picked it. "I remember the whole script. You want to quiz me on it? Stephen's next line is 'But what if I still have a crush on Crystal?' Tucker's first line in the next scene is 'Hey, guys, why don't we go check out—'"
Kilborn groaned, lowered his voice to the point where nobody but Jon and his co-stars would hear, and hissed, "Is there anything about improvising in your contract?"
"No," admitted Jon.
"Is there anything about being a smartass in your contract?"
Jon bit back the temptation to say it's kind of an integral part of the image your PR guys picked out for me. "No."
"Good!" said the producer in a pseudo-normal voice, grinning like a skull and clapping Jon brightly on the shoulder. "Glad we understand each other. All right, places, everyone, we'll take it from the top of the scene!"
He jogged off-set. As Jon moved back into position, he caught the band's manager on the sidelines looking grim and felt an actual pang of regret. It was one thing to antagonize Kilborn, who had a default baseline of irritation that he had to work with real teenage human beings rather than some kind of robots, or maybe nice obedient CGI. But Jon respected Mr. Williams, and didn't like to disappoint him.
Fine. He would do the ridiculous scene, line for line, like it was Shakespeare. And if he couldn't totally fake the scripted enthusiasm, well, they all knew he hadn't passed his audition on acting skills in the first place.
"Do I have to?" whispered Stephen. He knew Jimmy was excited and all, but Jon was so...rebellious. No respect for authority at all!
"Stephen." Jimmy gave him the half-reproachful, half-sad look that did Things to Stephen's heart. "You promised."
"Oh, all right." Squaring his shoulders, Stephen knocked on Jon's dressing-room door.
It wasn't Jon who answered, but the manager for everything to do with the band, who was for many reasons one of Stephen's favorite managers. Total professional, killer deadpan, perfect hair. Stephen broke into his sunniest smile. "Well, it looks like Jon's busy! We'll try again some other time."
"Hold on a minute," said Brian. "I'm sure Jon's not too busy to hang out. Is that what you were after, by any chance?"
"What a great guess!" exclaimed Jimmy, before Stephen could deflect. "We were especially hoping he liked the beach, and also smoothies. Isn't that right, Stephen?"
Grin frozen on his face, Stephen nodded.
Jon chose that moment to come into view. His downtime ensemble, in spite of all the teen clothing lines that would have happily donated any number of styles and colors to a member of Shout*For, was a grey T-shirt and khaki shorts. "What's this about smoothies?"
Jimmy subtly elbowed Stephen, who managed, "They're delicious and you should have one with us."
"They are pretty good," admitted Jon. He threw a nervous look at Brian. "Did you want to keep me longer, or...? I mean, I don't have to rush out of the studio any more, so there's no hurry."
Okay, that did it. Stephen had been dubious about this whole idea, but he was even less interested in putting up with Jon showing off how he had just turned sixteen, and could stay at work a whole hour longer before industry restrictions on minors kicked him off. "Oh, no you don't. Get your flip-flops on and follow us, Jon Stewart, unless you are afraid to meet the smoothie shop that will blow your mind."
Brian patted him on the shoulder. "Go ahead. Have some fun."
For a moment it looked like Jon was going to be contrary just for the sake of it. Then he shrugged, and his whole face relaxed into something downright normal. "Yeah, all right. Gimme a second to grab my wallet."
It was Jon's first winter in LA, and he couldn't get used to the climate. Especially by the ocean, where it was most blatantly the opposite of the Jersey shore. It wasn't natural. Beaches in early December were supposed to be cold and grey and unforgiving, as God intended.
This afternoon he was distracted by the even-more-unnatural spectacle of Stephen Col-bert, the world's most obnoxious career-TV-child-extra-turned-teen-heartthrob, trying to be nice. (To someone who wasn't Jimmy, anyway.)
"So how long have you two known each other, anyway?" asked Jon. "I mean, you obviously met before the whole...thing." He did a vague wave that was supposed to cover the whole Shout*For franchise, from the concert tour to the terrible TV show to the Doritos ads. The four boys had been thrown together for maximum marketability, so it wasn't like they were all required to be friends, but Jon was still kind of embarrassed that he'd been working with these two since spring and didn't know these basic facts yet.
"We met as co-stars on a highly respected educational children's television —" began Stephen.
"It was Barney and Friends," said Jimmy.
Jon snickered. Stephen glared. Jimmy took an innocent sip of his (bright green) smoothie.
"It was a natural next step in my acting career," said Stephen stiffly. The smoothie on the table in front of him was in layers of red, white, and blue, and he had been similarly miffed when Jon pointed out that it looked more like the French flag than the American one. "I was ready to move on to roles more substantial than 'Little Boy' and 'First grader #1' and 'Young Brandon in flashback'."
"He tried to make the rest of us do auditions to be his best friend," added Jimmy. "I was the only one who showed up. So he said I could have the position on a six-month trial period."
"Uh, wow," said Jon. "That's very...dedicated."
What he wanted to say was Did you get the crazy from your parents, or was that all you? But he had at least picked up that Stephen had Stage Parents, or at least a Stage Dad, and you couldn't help your parents' crazy.
"Thank you." Stephen puffed up, either ignoring or oblivious to the halfheartedness of the compliment. "What about you? You only got into the business this year, didn't you? What's it like being totally new to all of this? Aside from still having no idea how to behave on a set, I mean."
Okay, that did it. Jon opened his mouth to say something snarky, something cutting, something about how he had gotten here on raw talent put up against hundreds of other normal guys (and with next to zero parental support, no less) while Stephen had gotten an easy ride based on having some of the only parents in America willing to put their toddler on camera in bad TV.
What came out instead was, "Oh my god I hate it here."
Judging by the stares, neither of them had been expecting that either.
At a loss for a follow-up, Jon folded his arms on the table and put his head down. He didn't know what he was thinking: maybe that the other two would slink away and save them all some embarrassment.
What he got instead was a few awkward pats on the shoulder from Jimmy, and Stephen doing something that made his phone chime, saying, "I'm getting us a car. Just keep it together until it shows up, okay? But even if you can't, I've got extra sunglasses. Hang in there."
Across town, at Olivia's place.
Wyatt, who was riding the green dragon (that wasn't a metaphor for anything, he was just in the pool with the inflatable tube shaped like a dragon), pushed down its head to get a better look at her and said, "That means vodka, right?"
"Shh!" hissed Kristen, thwapping him over the head with a foam noodle. ("Ow!" moped Wyatt.) "Plausible deniability, remember?"
"Don't worry," said Olivia, mixing herself some hard orange soda. "Either of you get fired, I've got you covered. Kristen, you can have the lunch box money. Wyatt, the charm bracelets would keep you in style."
She threw it out there like it was a joke, but in all seriousness Olivia had no idea what she would do without a couple of actual friends involved in her work days. Go full-blown underage alcoholic, probably. Rehab at sixteen, MTV special about her struggles and inspirational recovery at eighteen, and why was she even thinking about this? What she drank was mostly soda anyway. Just with a little something thrown in to take the edge off from being called "Lisa" all day.
"Nah, you don't need to worry about me," said Wyatt calmly. "I'd just get an early start on the thing I have planned for after all this anyway."
"Yeah?" Olivia handed a Sprite with orange schnapps to Kristen, who had paddled over to the edge of the pool. "What's your plan?"
Wyatt grinned and patted the inflatable dragon-head. "Puppets."
"Puppets?" echoed Olivia, raising her eyebrows.
Kristen had no such skepticism. "Ooh!" she exclaimed. "Can I do one of the voices?"
"Man, if I am ever running my own puppet empire, you can do all the voices."
"Hey, no fair." Olivia sat on the edge of the pool and dangled her legs in the water. "You can't monopolize Kristen. She's too awesome to be stuck in voice acting. No offense."
Kristen took another gulp of her drink and set it on the tile. "Maybe I want to do voice acting. Maybe that's my dream career. We can't all be high-powered triple-threat megastars like you, Leading Lady Lisa."
"You take that back!" ordered Olivia, splashing her. She was stuck with Lisa as far as PR went by this point, but that didn't mean she was going to put up with it from her BFFs.
Sticking out her tongue, Kristen kicked off the edge of the pool and sailed out of Olivia's reach. "Make me!"
"Ooh, you're gonna regret saying that," said Olivia, and leaped into the water.
Night, behind Stephen's house.
There was a lot to get through. A year ago Jon had been one more disaffected Jersey latchkey kid who had no real friends and played guitar because he couldn't think of any more cliché way to work out his teenage angst. Then he'd gone and nailed that audition, and all of a sudden he was trying to finish the ninth grade with a tutor in between nonstop rehearsals of manufactured pop songs (even if some of them were kind of catchy) with two guys who were already buddies and one who was a total dick, and oh by the way he'd better not swear anywhere a camera might catch it, or kiss anyone who wasn't company-approved, and he could either pick a less-Jewish stage name for himself or they would pick one for him (granted, Jon hadn't been real big on sharing his dad's last name for a few years now, but it was a change he'd expected to be able to ease into). On top of which, once they got through the summer touring season it would be time to start recording the Christmas album, which he would do unironically in between filming the world's worst-written TV show and reading TMZ interviews with his former classmates about what close friends they had been.
He'd wanted to quit so many times. But he also wanted to save up enough to buy his mom a new house, and to eventually move on from his contract with the Mouse with a reliable work ethic to show off to future non-terrible potential employers. Besides, by now he was in so deep that backing out would only make things worse: it would be a Story, the kind the paparazzi would pounce on with teeth.
Sitting on the beach that constituted the end of Stephen's back yard, finally able to relax and act like a human being rather than an emotional wreck, was the first time in months that Jon had thought maybe this wasn't so bad.
"It's nothing to be embarrassed about," Jimmy assured him. "I had a whole emotional meltdown right on the set about a year after I got into this business. They had to call my mom and everything. Remember, Stephen?"
"Yep," said Stephen. "Although of course, you were nine at the time."
"Well, I got it together with only you idiots for help, so it evens out," said Jon. He was actually getting the hang of bantering with Stephen. As long as you assumed 90% of what he said was meaningless bluster, and kept in mind that he was a decent guy underneath it, you could even see it as sort of cute.
Stephen snorted. "Nice try. You realize there are a hundred thousand nine-to-fourteen-year-old girls who would kill for the chance to cry about their problems on my shoulder, right?"
Jon grinned. "Only because they've never actually met you."
It made Jimmy laugh, which meant Jon was safe from Stephen getting seriously offended. Sure enough, Stephen gave him a friendly sort of shove and left it at that.
One week later, on the road.
He killed a little more time browsing Shout*For-related tags on his secret Tumblr (unicorngirl18) (used mostly for reblogging sparkle-covered manips of himself) before he got up to hit the bathroom and realized there was a light on in Jon's bunk behind the half-closed curtain.
When he got back to the bedroom, Stephen shimmied up the ladder past Tucker's bunk and swung himself onto Jon's. "What's keeping you up so late?" he asked, leaning over to examine his book and squinting at the pages illuminated by the booklight. That was a lot of text.
"Honors US History," replied Jon quietly. "At least, it's supposed to be honors. The last quiz seemed way too easy."
"You know you don't have to do that, right?" said Stephen, concerned. "Legally all we have to get through is seventh grade, and then we're through worrying about all that learning and facts nonsense."
Jon raised his eyebrows. Lit from beneath, it looked downright ghoulish. "Yeah, well, some of us actually want to go to college one day. Make sure we've got more career options than just this."
"What do you mean, 'just' this?" demanded Stephen under his breath. He waved his hand in front of Jon's face. "As long as you stick with competent marketing people, this is all the career option you need! Girls all across America want to be your boyfriend. You could milk that dry and retire on it if you wanted!"
"...Want me to be their boyfriend," corrected Jon.
"That's what I said," agreed Stephen. "Besides, what are you ever going to need to know all this for?" He scooted up far enough to see the pages right-side-up, and poked an infographic about...American movements for social change in the 1900s-1920s? Some of those looked an awful lot like socialism, too. "The basics of American history are all covered by middle school, and everybody who doesn't become a history teacher forgets the rest of it by the time they're grown-ups anyway."
Jon sighed. "All right, I'll bite. What are these basics?"
"Christopher Columbus discovered it, George Washington kicked out the limeys, they wrote a Constitution which is perfect and divinely inspired except for that bit about the slaves but that's no big deal because Abraham Lincoln freed them, we saved Europe in World War II, the first Catholic president inspired us to go to the Moon, Reagan singlehandedly ended the Cold War, and now we are the only remaining superpower and the greatest most perfect country God gave man on this Earth. The end," said Stephen proudly.
Jon stared. Speechless with awe, Stephen was sure.
"Oh, right, and something about women getting the right to vote was in there," he added as an afterthought. "Which is good, because can you imagine our chances of winning the Kids' Choice Awards if they only counted votes from the boys? There aren't nearly enough gay guys out there to make up the difference. And even if there were, a lot of them would still be swayed by how fabulous Lisa Munn is."
"Just out of curiosity," said Jon, "is this how your conversations with Jimmy usually go?"
"No," said Stephen. "Jimmy usually has the sense to agree with me from the start, instead of putting up a fight until he has to admit that I've nailed him."
Satisfied, Stephen settled back against the head of Jon's bed and considered the textbook again. At least the socialist infographic was pretty.
"Hey, don't take this the wrong way," said Jon, "but why are you awake?"
"Can't find my pills," shrugged Stephen.
Jon appraised him for a minute. "Hey, uh...you wanna take one of mine?"
Stephen perked up. "Can I?"
"Don't see why not," said Jon. "It's the same dose, and I'm not supposed to take any more for a couple weeks anyway. And you've got some solo thing to do tomorrow, right? All I have to do is sit around and do mic checks."
"You are my new second-favorite person," declared Stephen, squashing Jon into a hug. "How would you feel about being my Best Jewish Friend? On a trial basis, obviously."
With a quiet sigh, Jon leaned into the hug. "Oddly enough, I think I'd feel pretty good."