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Shout*For: Act II

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New York City.

"Now, I'm delighted to have both of you here," said the talk show host to Stephen and Jimmy, each in one of the comfortable armchairs facing his desk. "It's a real honor, don't get me wrong. But I have to ask...aren't you supposed to be the Shout Four?"

"I don't know, Lance," said Stephen solemnly, arching one eyebrow. "Are we?"

"Think about it for a second," added Jimmy. "Stephen's a pretty good actor, right?"

The Late Night audience burst into cheers of agreement. Stephen beamed for a minute as he soaked it in, then held up his hand and brought it down in a short, sharp motion. The applause quieted within a second.

"Hey, that's my audience," said Lance Bass, mock-affronted.

Jimmy grinned wide. "Not tonight, they're not."

In the wake of the appreciative laughter, Stephen picked up the thread. "And I think some of you might know that I have a movie coming out in a couple of months?" (More applause.) "In which the beautiful and talented Lisa Munn — spoiler alert! — plays two different characters? And yet you're going to be able to see both of them on screen at once, through the magic of film?"

"With you so far," said Lance.

"Well, in that case," said Jimmy, "who's to say that it isn't just the two of us in real life, and both Jon Stewart and Tucker Carlson are both characters that Stephen happens to play?"

The audience was laughing, but now that they'd gotten to this point in the script, Stephen felt a pang of uncertainty. Did Jon and Tucker still exist in real life? Think about it: they were all supposed to have been in New York City this whole day, and yet he still hadn't seen either one of them. Wasn't that just a little too convenient?

Jimmy kept the banter going, covering for Stephen's bout of existential insecurity, until Lance asked, "Something wrong, Stephen? You're awfully quiet."

"Well, now that you mention it...." Stephen's face fell, and it wasn't entirely acting, either. "Can I tell you something? I really wanted to be booked on Meet Miley Cyrus, to talk to Miley all about our new album...but she turned me down."

"That's awful!" exclaimed Lance, as the crowd booed (which lifted Stephen's spirits a little). "Although...I don't know if you've heard this, but me and Miley, we have kind of a rivalry going on. You see, we both have our own ice cream flavors from Ben & Jerry's, and she refuses to admit that Late Night Snack is superior to Sweet Miley Cyrus."

"Gosh," said Jimmy. "Sounds like we all have reasons to be mad at Miley."

"I know, right?" said Lance. "You know what we should do to get back at her?"

Stephen perked up. Sure, they'd done this in rehearsal, but maybe the answer had changed. "What?"

"We should give these people a totally awesome performance — the kind that will make her crazy with jealousy that you two came on my show and not hers!"

This was the cue for Stephen and Jimmy to reach behind their seats and retrieve a guitar and a keyboard, respectively. The already-clapping audience went wild.

"Now, since Jon and Tucker aren't here," added Lance — "or at least, not here for the studio audience, though we can add them in later using the magic of television — we're going to need to bring on two more musicians to round out the band. Sound fair?"

That had not been in rehearsal. Stephen froze. "What?"

"Depends on who you have in mind," added Jimmy cautiously. "Are they any good?"

"Let's bring them out, and you can decide," said the host with a smile. "Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome...Taylor Hicks and Dolly Parton!"

 

~*~

 

"...and then I completely screwed it up!" wailed Stephen over his chicken caesar wrap. "The very first measure, and I flubbed it. Not once, either! Twice in a row!"

"Wow," said Jon. "I mean, uh, that sounds rough. My sympathies."

After being split between various TV studios for most of the day, the band had finally been reunited at the rental studio, where they and their crew could have a quick dinner before jumping into rehearsal for tomorrow's performances. Jon had been shocked at first when Stephen insisted that they not watch his appearance on Late Night. Now it made more sense.

"Dolly Parton was very nice about it," confided Jimmy. "He was shy. She understood. She even thought it was cute. So did the audience, for the record."

"Easy for you to say, Jimmy Fallon!" cried Stephen. "You weren't shy at all. You didn't mess up anything! And one of your musical idols was there too!" He buried his head in his hands. "I've disgraced myself in country music forever. I will never be able to show my face in Nashville."

"Come on, Col-bert, it could be worse," said Tucker reassuringly, over his second cup of coffee. (He'd been booked on a morning show, so he'd had to wake up earlier than the rest of them, and unlike Jon he hadn't been on this coast long enough to adjust from LA time.) "Just imagine how Jon would react if you sprung a surprise guitar duet with Springsteen on him."

Jon was almost offended by how fast that calmed Stephen down. "Oh, geez, you're right. Jon would probably pass out."

"I would not!" protested Jon. "I mean, spontaneous orgasms, sure, but fainting?"

Tucker made a face. "Yuck."

"Oh, get over it, Carlson. I'm not being literal." (Hopefully.)

"So how did your taping go?" said Jimmy to Tucker, steering the conversation elsewhere. "Did you sing anything for them?"

"And did they make any claims of journalistic integrity, or have they given up on that by now?" added Jon, dunking a baby carrot in the swirl of veggie dip on his plate.

"Jon!" exclaimed Stephen, horrified by the disrespect or the baby carrot or both. "Don't be mean about the friendly friends over at Fox and Friends!"

"They were...nice," said Tucker. "Asked for my opinions on some things in politics. I said the news hadn't been the same since Crossfire got canceled. They thought that was pretty adorable."

Jon frowned. "What's Crossfire?"

Tucker shrugged. "This debate show I used to watch with my dad when I was like seven. And then, yeah, I did a song. It wasn't anything exciting. You don't have to watch."

"Sure we do!" said Stephen. "You think the segment's on their website yet? If it isn't, we can check again tomorrow...."

"I said, you don't have to watch!" snapped Tucker.

Startled silence. Jon exchanged looks with the other two, trying to gauge whether he could brush Tucker off like usual, or whether he had to actually be sympathetic. Stephen in particular looked anxious, and Jon knew he should hold his boyfriend's hand or something, but they were surrounded by people and he couldn't risk it.

"Did you screw up too?" asked Stephen, sympathetic. "Because you were so overwhelmed with fannish awe at Nate Cole, Gabe Combs, Jason Perry, Jeremy Mhire, and/or the brown-haired guy who isn't Jeremy Mhire?"

Tucker downed some more coffee. "The song went fine," he said shortly. "The interview wasn't great. Okay?"

Before they could ask anything further, Brian stepped into the conversation. "About time to finish up here, gentlemen. We need you at your instruments in five minutes."

The four scrambled to clear their plates and wash up before following their manager to the studio floor. On the way, Jon said, "Just for the record, my spot on Late Show with Paul McCartney went fine. I mean, it was pretty boring, and if you don't want to watch I'd understand...but if you do, I'm not gonna stop you."

 

~*~

 

"Stop!" yelped Jon.

Jimmy froze, tipping back the bottle he'd been emptying into one of the hotel glasses.

"The Internet says you need to use at least three parts Pepsi to one part Bacardi," reported Jon, reading off his phone. "So you should probably split that between two of us."

The band had been stashed in their usual type of suite for the night: a living area with a bedroom on either side, two queen-size beds per bedroom, every inch dripping with luxury. This particular hotel gave them long-stemmed flowers and art deco sculptures on the tabletops, gilded molding on the ceilings, furniture on the balcony...and eight different brands of alcohol in the minibar.

"Maybe we should forget about the Bacardi and have all parts Pepsi," said Stephen, cuddling up to Jon on one of the couches, while Jimmy knelt by the table in the middle and tried to sort the drinks out. "They're one of Shout*For's generous sponsors, after all."

"You can have straight Pepsi if you want," Jon assured him. "Nobody's gonna judge."

Stephen didn't really want straight Pepsi. He was, truth be told, kind of sick of Pepsi — in all its variations, from Original Pepsi to Pepsi Free to Pepsi Light Lime. On the other hand, he was painfully aware of how pliable he got after even one drink. "Jon? If I drink, you promise not to take advantage of me, right?"

"Mmm, depends," said Jon. "Would it mean we can't cuddle?"

"Cuddling is fine!" said Stephen quickly. "Kissing is also fine. Just in case you were wondering."

"Oh, good," said Jon, and pulled Stephen up straighter so he could press their lips together.

Jimmy ended up mixing drinks for everyone.

Stephen was halfway through a glass of Bacardi and orange soda, Jon casually nuzzling his neck, when a freshly showered Tucker emerged from the room on the right. "Hey, Col-bert, are you going to...oh, geez. You can't get drunk! It's not legal. We're all underage. We have to perform tomorrow."

The compromising position he'd been in made Stephen blush, but Jon didn't seem bothered at all, sitting up unselfconsciously and looping a protective arm over Stephen's shoulders. "Nobody's getting drunk, Tucker. We are getting lightly buzzed, to distract ourselves from the strain of being in the middle of New York City and completely unable to go outside and cause some real trouble."

"I'll make you one too, if you want," added Jimmy.

Tucker made a face like he'd tasted something slimy. "I'll pass," he said. "I just wanted to know if Stephen's moving his stuff out of my room, and if so, can he please do it now so I can get some sleep."

They had standing orders for people who handled their luggage: Stephen's and Tucker's bags went in one room, Jon's and Jimmy's in the other. (It had been worked out back in the early days of the band. At first Stephen and Jimmy had roomed together, but then it became clear you really couldn't stick Jon and Tucker in the same room and expect anything good to come of that.) In practice, what usually happened was that either Stephen or Jimmy would hang out in the other's room until as late as possible, and they ended up falling asleep in the same bed as often as not.

"Sure, I'll get it now," said Stephen, untangling himself from Jon and getting to his feet. It used to be that Jimmy tried to make sure they alternated whether it was Tucker or Jon who got a whole room to himself. But obviously these days Stephen would want to cuddle with Jon every time.

He was just dragging his suitcase across the threshold into the living area when he came face-to-face with Jimmy: also towing a suitcase, and headed in the opposite direction.

"Where are you going?" said Stephen stupidly.

"To...the other room?" said Jimmy. "I thought you and Jon would want your privacy."

"I thought we would too!" put in Jon, leaning over the back of the couch.

"You said you weren't going to take advantage of me!" exclaimed Stephen.

"I wasn't! I'm not! But you never said that meant we couldn't do anything that maybe our platonic friend doesn't need to be listening in on."

"You know what," said Jimmy, starting forward again at a gentle angle that moved him around Stephen, "I'm just gonna put all my stuff in here anyway. Because I'm sure you two will at least want to talk! As a couple! And this way, if Jon does get too handsy, you'll have a whole empty bed to push him into."

"Hey!" cried Jon. "I will be a saint, here. Stephen's virtue is perfectly safe."

"Oh my god," groaned Tucker, burying his face in his hands. "What did I ever do to deserve this much gay drama in my life?"

Jon held up the bottle. "Drinks are still over here if you need 'em."

 

~*~

 

"No, no, be honest with us, Stewart," said Tucker two drinks later. "You're alone in a dressing room. Th' door opens. It's the Boss himself, and he says to you, he says, listen, Jon Stewart, I, Bruce Springsteen, want to jump your bones. You would. You so would."

"Shut up, Tucker," said Jon. He thought idly about punching Tucker or something, but he would have to get up first, and that would disturb Stephen, who was lying across his lap. It was hard to be a mean drunk (or at least, a mean moderately-buzzed; Jimmy had put the bottle away, and, without Olivia around, nobody was getting out more) when you were busy being a pillow for your boyfriend.

"But you didn't say no," said Tucker. "I want that on the record," he added, pointing first at Jimmy and then Stephen from his own prone position on the next couch. "He did not say no."

"He did not," agreed Jimmy.

"Shut up, Jimmy, you're supposed to be th' sensible one," said Jon, playing with Stephen's hair. "Because that would never happen. You know that, right? That would never even happen. The Boss is a good man and a wonderful man and he is not a pedophile."

"Ephebophile," said Stephen from Jon's lap.

"Say again? You're slurring."

"Am not. Eff-eb-o-file," repeated Stephen, spitting out each syllable with careful enunciation. "Look it up. A pedophile is someone who wants to do it with prepab...for preabs...for kids who didn't do puberty yet. You are after puberty, Jon Stewart, which makes a grown-up who wants to do you an ephebophile. And that's the word."

"Sure. Whatever," agreed Jon. Stephen knew the most random things sometimes. "But it doesn't even matter, because he's not that either."

"But if he was."

"Stephen...." Jon fumbled for Stephen's hand, got it after a minute, and pressed it against his face. "You have to not get mad about...hypothetical ephebophile Bruce Springsteen."

Stephen squeezed Jon's hand and didn't answer. The blood had drained from his face, making him look kind of sick. Jon would have suggested that he lie down if he hadn't been doing it already.

"I said a stupid thing today," said Tucker out of nowhere.

Jon wished he was sober enough to say something witty to that. All he could come up with was, "Gosh, really?"

"Shut up, Jon," said Jimmy amiably. "Go ahead, Tucker."

"It was on Fox." Tucker closed his eyes. "I said they asked about politics, right? And...current events. And all that stuff."

"Uh-huh. With you so far."

"Dunno why they'd ask about that," muttered Jon. "We're teenage pop stars. They know we're teenage pop stars, right? Not, like, scholars. Not like people with opinions that matter."

"All of my opinions matter," protested Stephen.

"In part of it they asked about gay marriage," said Tucker, speaking over them both.

Startled silence, again. This time it was Jimmy who responded. "What did you say?"

"Stuff. Lots of stuff," said Tucker, waving one hand like he could grab his thoughts out of the air and drag them into line. "Like, how it's complicated, you know? And people have different opinions. And we should respect people and their opinions. And, like, religious freedom is important, and, and something about kids. Gotta do what's best for kids."

"But that's BS," said Jon. "You know it's BS, right? Gay parents aren't...listen, my dad...." No, he was definitely not drunk enough to start going into detail about his dad. "There's a whole lot of lesbians who would've been a way better second parent than my dad was. That's all I gotta say."

"Of course it's BS!" exclaimed Tucker. "I'm not proud of it. Why d'you think I don't want you watching?"

Jon glared at him. "You could've just not said it."

"No. Don't you even, Stewart. You don't get to be mad at me. Not for this."

"Why the hell not?"

"Because tomorrow," slurred Tucker, "tomorrow at th' launch party, your boyfriend is gonna be on the red carpet with Lisa Munn, an' they're gonna hold hands, an' they might even kiss, and are you gonna be mad about that?"

"No," said Jon. Then he corrected himself. "Yes. Mad about it, yes. But no, not mad at Stephen, no."

"Right. So."

"So we are not mad at you either," decided Stephen with finality. "Although I can't promise you will be invited to my wedding."

"Yeah," said Tucker. "Yeah, I can live with that."

 

~*~

 

As far as Stephen was concerned, the next morning should have been great. He wasn't hung over. Thanks to the magic of Vaxasopor, he wasn't even jet-lagged. He was recovering from the embarrassment of forever shaming himself in front of Dolly Parton, and today he got to do a special set at the Apple Store, the better to promote their new album on iTunes...as well as the new line of Shout*For iPhone cases.

Stephen had always liked Apple. They had given him a ton of free stuff these past couple of years.

Also, he would get to hang out with Olivia in the evening, and didn't have a single solo event to get to, meaning he would never be alone with Ned. So everything was shaping up to be wonderful, except that something was going on with Jon.

Breakfast was when Stephen first started to notice that Jon wasn't looking him in the eye. Well, it was early; he could have been still waking up. But then he flinched twice when Stephen touched him — not a sexual way, either, just ordinary in-public stuff, tapping his shoulder to get his attention, leaning against him when the photographer at the restaurant made them crowd together for a photo.

They were shepherded to Vanity Fair for the rest of the morning, handed off to a director of photography who put them all in black turtlenecks and kept telling them to look more serious. Stephen had a hard time repressing his excitement. "We look like real actors! From real theater!"

Tucker was more picky. "Not with our rings on. We can't vanish into character wearing something that specific."

And Jimmy wasn't impressed at all. "Honestly? We kind of look like rejects from a modern dance company."

"We do not!" complained Stephen. "We look classy. And black is very slimming. You think we look good, right, Jon?"

Again with the shying away from Stephen. "Sure," stammered Jon, unreasonably flustered. "We look fine."

That wasn't right at all. Jon should have said something like: We look like we should all grow beards and start lurking around coffee shops asking people to take a look at our screenplays.

Maybe he was just trying to make nice for the audience. Some guy was filming right now, after all, to release it as a bonus feature for the website; and there was a woman who kept asking questions in between shots, looking for a couple of good quotes to sprinkle in the blurb they'd write to accompany the pictures. Stephen had been urging Jon to snark less at these kinds of media people for ages now.

For some reason, he wasn't as happy about it as he'd expected to be.

"Jon, what's going on?" he demanded once they were back in the dressing room. "How come all of a sudden you're Mr. Flinchy?"

"What? Going on? Nothing's going on," said Jon. He was getting babble-y, the way he did when he was nervous. "I flinch sometimes. It's what I do. I'm a flincher."

"Not like this!" Stephen peeled the black turtleneck over his head. "You were fine up until last night! What happened?"

Jon glanced at Tucker and Jimmy, both tugging their socks off and politely looking at other things. He was getting out of his own clothes even more slowly than usual. "I really don't think we should talk about this here...."

"Why not?" demanded Stephen.

Jon stared at him for a long moment. "Stephen, do you — do you just not remember anything?"

"I remember lots of things," said Stephen crossly, but now he was getting nervous. Vaxasopor could do dodgy things to your memory while you were on it, and he didn't actually remember how he'd gotten to bed. It wasn't the first time that had happened; his doctor swore it was normal, nothing to worry about, as long as he made sure to take his pills directly before he was planning to sleep. "To be fair, after we heard Tucker's impromptu confessional everything kind of cuts out, but if I said something rude to you before we fell asleep, I'm sorry, okay? I didn't mean it. Probably."

"You weren't rude," said Jon. His whole frame had relaxed, like a weight had been lifted, though he still didn't look happy. "You went sleepwalking. It freaked me out a little. Don't sweat it. You're clearly awake now, I'll be fine, and we have to keep it together and go sell some 99-cent downloads."

Gathering up his street clothes, he broke for the showers.

Jimmy (now down to boxers and undershirt) was less abrupt. "Are you feeling okay?" he asked Stephen. "Sleepwalking can be pretty serious on Vaxasopor, I think. Have you gotten any other side effects?"

"Not as far as I know." Stephen shimmied out of the Vanity Fair pants. "Although, in the interest of full disclosure, I do not know what any of the others are."

"You could be dizzy, groggy, confused, depressed, or having hallucinations," said Tucker helpfully. "I think that's all the big ones. Unless you had an allergy, and I assume you would have noticed that."

"Oh. In that case, no, no side effects," said Stephen. "At least, I don't think so. If I was having hallucinations, how would I know?"

 

~*~

 

The limo holding Olivia and Lonny inched its way through the New York streets: aiming to arrive at the launch party fashionably late, but not quite as late as the stars of the night. Olivia made her bodyguard get a photo of her awesome silver-and-black cocktail dress — hey, it wasn't like he had anything better to do right now — which she texted straight to Kristen, terrible lighting and all.

 

<3 Olivia <3
Sneak preview b4 the paps put it up everywhere :)

Kristen (ಠ_ృ)
I hope you have a jacket on you girl because that is some scandalous shoulder you're flashing.

<3 Olivia <3
Dont worry babe, these shoulders = all 4 u.

<3 Olivia <3
cant say the same abt the collarbone area tho...

Kristen (ಠ_ృ)
You shameless hussy!

Kristen (ಠ_ృ)
Next thing we know you're going to be flashing your ankles, and then where will we be?

<3 Olivia <3
hey do u know who else is gonna b there? aside from me + the guys + coked-up industry/production people

Kristen (ಠ_ృ)
Hopefully some non-coked-up industry/production people!

Kristen (ಠ_ృ)
I know the company sent over Jaquie Brown and Serita Singh. And I think the Corddry Brothers? Nate might be a little young for that scene, though.

<3 Olivia <3
no such thing as 2 young. I was barely 13 for my 1st of these, remember?

<3 Olivia <3
Ok nvm, almost @ the club. Will let u know whos there soon.

 

She stashed the phone in her teeny purse, shrugged on the jacket, and was ready to step out when they pulled up to the red carpet.

It was mostly press and photographers thronged around the entrance to the club. The fans were back a layer, far enough that Olivia couldn't make out anything specific in the yelling and the waving of signs. She focused on smiling at the cameras, striking cute poses in front of a backdrop patterned with the big Shout*For logo and the logos of a handful of sponsors.

Given that there were, let's be real here, no teen pop stars bigger than her, the next limo had to be the guests of honor.

Olivia got out of the way at first, so as not to confuse the cameras. Sure enough, it was the band, looking wonderfully dashing. Wardrobe had put all their outfits together on a snappy black/white/navy color scheme: Tucker in his button-down and bowtie, Jimmy in a fitted tee and black jeans, Jon sporting a black leather jacket that looked depressingly non-fake, and Stephen in slacks that hugged his long legs with creases so sharp you could cut yourself on them.

All four purity rings were visible, but so were Stephen's and Jimmy's friendship necklaces. Olivia clamped down on a snicker. Intentionally or not, that little gesture was going to stir up a wave of the exact secret-gay rumors the network was trying so hard to squash.

It wasn't long before the photographers got bored of shouting different configurations for the guys to pose in, and started calling for shots of Stephen and Olivia together. She almost felt all right about sashaying back out...

...at least, until her heel caught on the carpet, and the world spun around her.

Stephen was kneeling at her side in an instant: helping her up, giving her something to brace herself on, through the touchy process of standing without flashing anyone in the process. By the time she was back on her feet she still had an iron grip on his shoulders, and his arms were firmly around her waist.

The cameras were going wild. Olivia flashed them her best isn't-it-cute-that-I'm-awkward grin. It would look good on Gawker, at least.

Stephen — who was way better at this, maybe because he was rarely self-aware enough to be awkward — dipped closer, put his lips next to her ear, and whispered:

"Don't worry, I have breath mints."

Oh. Apparently Olivia had drunk more before getting here than she realized. That would explain the falling, too.

"Thanks," she said weakly, and went back to striking poses, trying not to breathe too much in the direction of anyone in the press before they were finally able to get inside.

Chapter Text

The club was all pulsing red-and-gold lights between dark shadows, packed with industry people and a smattering of press, no more than a dozen teenagers to be found in the whole place. Brian ushered Shout*For up onto the club's stage, where he tapped the mic to get people's attention. Someone raised the lights on the platform; someone else cut the sound of the new album blaring over the speakers.

Jon barely heard how Brian introduced them. His mind was too full of the echoes of Stephen's utter confusion that afternoon.

Jon, what's going on? What happened?

Everything kind of cuts out.

If I said something...I didn't mean it. Probably.

Stephen was a champion of stubborn denial when he didn't want to deal with something, but it was always easy to see through him. There was no way he could be this convincing if it wasn't genuine. He didn't even remember getting up in the middle of the night, let alone...let alone doing anything that might leave Jon rattled and uncertain.

Maybe that was for the best? If Jon could shake it off and act like nothing had happened, and as far as Stephen was concerned nothing had happened....

You promise not to take advantage of me, right?

And Jon hadn't (had he?) — at least, he'd had every intention not to —

"What do you say, gentlemen?" asked Brian, breaking into Jon's thoughts. "Can you do a song for us?"

Stephen stepped over to take the microphone, cocking one eyebrow with an air of great solemnity. "I don't know, Brian," he said, voice down in the most serious part of his range. "Can you give us a beat?"

 

~*~

 

The live song — no instruments, just singing along with one of their karaoke tracks, so they could do all the dance moves — was evidently going to be the high point of Stephen's night.

Plenty of people wanted to congratulate the band, shaking hands and, in the cases of executive types who didn't work with them on a regular basis, asking for autographs ("for my daughter/niece/best friend's kid/bedroom shrine"). That was nice, no question, but Stephen kept looking over their shoulders — their families had all been invited, after all — until Papa pulled him aside and let him know that no, Mama couldn't make it (and Ed had a case, and Elizabeth had to go back home, and, and, and).

He made Olivia eat some pretzels and trail mix, and then danced with her. That was all right. Even though the soundtrack was 100% music he had spent the summer working on, and while it was nice to hear what the final effects and autotuning sounded like, he would have been able to appreciate them just a teeny bit better better with a longer break before having to hear them again.

Ned, who Stephen had really hoped would get the flu or something and not be able to make it, found him after a couple of tracks and explained that he needed to do some networking. The executive types were starting to get tipsy by this point, just enough that they were thrilled to talk to Stephen again, absolutely thrilled, and yes, they were sure to have opportunities for him. Stephen shook a lot of hands. Ned wrote down a lot of numbers, and guided Stephen from person to person with a hand on the small of his back.

At last Stephen got out of it by spotting Jimmy's older sister and declaring that he'd promised her a dance too. She was happy to play along. Must run in the family, Stephen decided, those being-a-good-friend genes.

They retreated to the VIP room afterward, where the music was slightly less pounding and the guests limited to the talent, their immediate families, and a tiny handful of essential extras. Brian was there, chatting with a woman in a power suit that Stephen vaguely recognized from other big events. Ned would probably come in later.

He wanted to sit and chat with Jimmy, but Jimmy was busy getting his ear talked off by Olivia's new film co-star...what's-her-face. Stephen joined their table anyway, and was treated to a long and detailed rant about how Serita Singh was a terrible career-sabotaging glory-hounding snake-in-the-grass who had it in for...not-Jackie-Clarke. When he finally asked if she could please remind him of her name, she stormed off in a huff.

"Jaquie Brown," said Jimmy, "with a Q, for some reason. How's your night going?"

"Amazing. Wonderful. A fabulous moment that makes me so proud we got here," said Stephen automatically. "Is it midnight yet?"

Jimmy handed him a menu. "Not even close. On the plus side, it looks like they have really good chicken wings. Want to split a plate?"

Stephen did. He also had a feeling Jon would be hungry by now. But when he scanned the VIP room, Jon was nowhere to be seen, and he didn't want to hunt through the entire body of the club looking.

"Sure," he decided. If Jon came in later, they could always offer him some.

 

~*~

 

Olivia, who had never heard most of these songs before, danced with whoever was interested until a man three times her age tried to shimmy up a little too close to her. Then it seemed like a good time to chill in the VIP room for a while.

Somehow she ended up getting introduced to Tucker's family. His little brother was all over the place, but his parents seemed like decent people, albeit sort of put off by her total new-money non-coolness. (Or maybe she just hadn't totally sobered up yet?) (Anyway, apparently Tucker was the heir to the corporate fortune of the company that invented the TV dinner, so at least if this singing thing didn't work out, he had a backup plan.)

Finally, finally, she got her hands on the dessert menu (courtesy of Serita Singh, who was Olivia's new favorite person, seriously), and what had Stephen been thinking, trying to make her eat pretzels? If he'd wanted her to get some food in her stomach, all he had to do was point out the seven-layer cookie bars, walnut-blueberry-citrus cheesecake, and chocolate-caramel tarts topped with sugared banana slices. Yeesh.

Speaking of dessert, one of the older lady VIPs looked way similar to one of the proprietors of her favorite pie place. Except that her smile was unnervingly sharp, in spite of the half-empty glass of champagne in her hand. Also, her suit was way more expensive than anything Jane would wear.

Olivia decided it would be rude to ask if they were estranged sisters or whatever, and settled in to ordering one of everything. As each dessert arrived, she snapped a photo to be sent to Kristen. The caption on all of them: You think we can get Gloria & Jane to make one of these?

And hey, since she was having so much food anyway....

 

~*~

 

When Olivia took a seat at the bar next to him and ordered a daiquiri without putting the word "virgin" in front of it, Jon did a double-take. "Wait, they'll let us...?"

"Well, yeah," said Olivia, nodding to Jon's glass, by now empty except for half-melted ice cubes and a few rinds of fruit slices. "I assumed that was how you got yours."

"No, this was non-alcoholic," said Jon. "Although it did come with two tiny umbrellas."

"Totally makes up for it," Olivia assured him. "So how's your night been?"

Jon shrugged. Boring as hell, frankly, given that he didn't feel like dancing and it was hard to get excited about the Grand Worldwide Premiere of songs you already knew so well you could play them in your sleep. "There were lots of people wanting autographs earlier, but they pretty much dropped off by the time the album finished its first run-through. And then some guy sat next to me for half an hour and talked about how the industry used to be so much better when it was managed by great men who really cared about music."

"Pretty sure that was my vocal coach," said Olivia. "Are you sure he said 'men'? Not 'people'?"

"Nope. He was pretty clear on the 'men' part. If it makes you feel better, he left when your manager came over and dumped her beer all over his shirt."

The bartender handed Olivia her daiquiri, and presented Jon with a fresh multicolored drink complete with orange slices, cherries, and three tiny umbrellas. Jon made a mental note to give her a massive tip.

"That's Will and Mac, all right." Olivia took a delicate sip of her drink. "At least tell me they were already high or something...."

It hit a nerve. "How should I know?" demanded Jon. "What, you think I have some kind of magic sobriety radar? Because obviously I don't, or half the time you'd be crashing it!"

Of course he regretted it. The instant she looked hurt, he wished he hadn't said it. But still! Where did she get off, asking him a thing like that?

"O-kay," said Olivia at last, pulling herself together. "Obviously you need some alone time for a while." She picked up her drink and hopped off the barstool. "And maybe a little something to help you chill out? Just sayin'."

 

~*~

 

"Sit up, son," ordered Papa, right before Stephen could reach for his first parmesan garlic chicken wing. "Do you remember meeting Leona Lansing?"

Stephen and Jimmy both instantly straightened their spines and tried to look professional. Sure, Stephen had recognized the woman in the sharp suit as someone important, but he didn't realize it was Division President Leona frickin' Lansing. "No, sir," he stammered. "It's a pleasure to meet you, ma'am. Um...re-meet you?"

"It's all right, dear," said Leona in a rich, warm voice. "Of course you wouldn't remember. You were such a tiny little thing back then. But you've grown into quite the handsome young man, haven't you, Stephen? You too, Jimmy."

"Thank you, ma'am," stammered Stephen, with Jimmy echoing the sentiment. Of course Leona would have been following them ever since they came under the network's banner, through That's So Rachel and Weekend Update respectively. Probably Stephen had met her at a party five or six years ago, when he was too young and innocent to understand what she represented.

"Leona's been telling me how you boys are now one of the network's top properties," said Papa proudly.

"We have sample packs of your latest merchandise being shipped to each of your houses," added Leona. "Have you seen the dolls yet? They're absolutely darling."

"No, ma'am," said Jimmy. "Do you think they actually look like us?"

"Oh, as much as such things usually do, I imagine," said Leona...

...and slid gracefully into Stephen's lap.

Stephen's cheeks went warm. This had not happened before. Granted, he hadn't been tall enough before to have a rich cougar gracefully sitting on him. Maybe the last time they'd met, he had sat in her lap. "I, um...."

Leona's perfectly manicured fingernails traced down the curve of his face. "Yes, I would say the dolls capture the general idea," she decided. "Enough to satisfy girls across the country looking for the image of their favorite teenage heartthrobs."

"Oh, ah, oh good?"

"But still...hardly a patch on the real thing."

This was the point when she kissed him.

And then did it again, as if to make sure he'd gotten the point.

Jimmy discreetly choked, Papa clapped his hands in hearty appreciation, and Stephen couldn't move a muscle. Everyone was staring, he could feel it. It was a wonder his face wasn't setting off fire alarms.

Where was Jon?

His rescue came not from his boyfriend, but from a pair of slender arms wrapped around him from behind, and Olivia's wonderful, loud, careless voice snapping, "Hey! Back off! He's taken."

"Easy, there, sweetheart," said Papa, chuckling, as an unruffled Leona removed herself from Stephen's lap like she'd planned to do it then anyway. "Your young man's popular. Take it as a compliment."

"It's not a compliment!" cried Olivia. Her dark hair fell in long, curling locks over Stephen's shoulder; Stephen dimly realized he was clinging to one of her wrists. "Who does she think she is?"

Through clenched teeth, Jimmy whispered, "She's Leona Lansing."

Olivia winced. "Ooh."

"Nice job, son," added Papa, clapping Stephen approvingly on the arm.

Well, Stephen wasn't one to turn down a compliment. And he did have quite the talent for sitting still while other people...admired him. "Thank you, sir."

 

~*~

 

Olivia made Stephen eat a seven-layer cookie bar — hopefully the sugar would perk him up — and pulled him back out onto the main dance floor. ("So nobody else can sit on you," she explained.)

The music had come back around to the slowest track on the album; Jon-over-the-speakers was crooning about how hard it was to watch over somebody you loved from a distance. Adults all around them had paired off and were slow-dancing like high schoolers at junior prom. Or at least, like TV high schoolers on TV junior proms. It wasn't like Olivia was ever going to get near a real one.

She rested her hands on Stephen's shoulders and asked, softly, "D'you think I drink too much?"

Stephen, hands on her waist, shrugged. "Dunno."

"Was it weird that I was already tipsy when I got here?"

"Maybe," said Stephen. "I mean, nobody else was, I don't think."

"But I had to have something," said Olivia. "Because I get anxiety. I get panic attacks. If it hadn't been a glass of wine it would've been a Vaxachillpill or two, and it's not like those things don't have side effects. So how is this different?"

"Olivia, I realize that as a member of a boy band I sing some pretty deep lyrics sometimes, but that doesn't mean I have answers for all your philosophical questions."

He made a good point. Olivia fell silent, and they swayed through the next verse without speaking.

"Do you think Jon's mad at me?" asked Stephen. The red and gold lighting was picking out eerie contours on his face, throwing most of it into shadow. "He was touchy all day, and I haven't seen him for hours."

"He was pretty touchy when I talked to him, too, and I didn't even mention you," said Olivia. "Maybe he's just in a bad mood."

"You talked to him? Where was he?"

"Over at the bar, ordering something fruity. Last I knew, he was planning to spend the whole night there."

"Was he...alone?" asked Stephen.

Olivia wrinkled her nose. "He sure was after he yelled at me, I can tell you that."

"When this song is over, I will tell him how you defended my virtue in his absence," declared Stephen. "I'm sure he'll be very apologetic once he knows he owes you one."

 

~*~

 

After he walked Olivia back to the VIP room, Stephen planned to go straight to the bar and find Jon.

Instead he found himself walking in the other direction, Ned's arm around him.

"Amazing job, as usual, buddy," his solo manager was saying. "Listen to that!" (The speakers were pumping out a track that was technically an ensemble song, but Stephen could pick out his own voice, and he knew Ned could too.) "You sound like an angel. I don't know where these other boys would be without you."

"Me neither, sir," said Stephen. He could barely hear himself over his autotuned-recorded-self.

"Stephen, Stephen, come on, enough with the 'sir' stuff. Call me Ned."

"Yes...Ned," stammered Stephen.

They veered around a corner and into the corridor that held the doors to the bathrooms. It was almost pitch dark here, except for the red light spilling around from the main room, and a row of LEDs along the floor on either side to help people avoid hitting the walls.

"Not here," whispered Stephen, half to Ned, half as a prayer. "Please, not here...."

"Settle down, sweetheart. Doesn't have to be here."

He pulled Stephen into a quick kiss that was a lot like Leona's — firm, matter-of-fact, not needing Stephen to do anything but hold still and submit.

(Nice job, son.)

"I've got a single for the night. King-size bed. You can tell your friends you want to stay with your father tonight. I'll take care of everything else. Make sure you get where you need to go in the morning."

Stephen shook his head. He was having trouble catching his breath.

"So fussy," murmured Ned. They were pushing through one of the doors now. "What do you want, buddy? You want candles and rose petals?" Not the men's room. The separate single-stall handicapped room. A lock went click. "You come on back with me, and I'll get you candles, I'll get champagne, I'll get all the flowers you want." He was caressing Stephen's chest with one hand, using the other to hold their bodies flush. "Whatever your spoiled little heart desires."

"I — I don't want — anything. Don't take me," pleaded Stephen. "Here is fine. Just don't make me go."

 

~*~

 

About an hour before midnight, Jon finally admitted that his crushing boredom was too powerful to withstand any longer. No matter how much awkwardness he had to overcome to do it, he had to go find his friends.

In the VIP room he found Jimmy, a sleepy-looking Olivia, and an almost-empty plate of chicken wings. "Hi," he said uncertainly. "Listen, I...Olivia, I was very rude to you back there, and I apologize...um, are you gonna finish those?"

Jimmy pushed the plate across the table. "Help yourself. Did Stephen find you?"

"Uh, no. Was he supposed to?"

A short conversation established that (a) Stephen had gone looking for Jon twenty minutes ago; (b) Stephen had thought he was at the bar; (c) Jon had not left the bar for at least that long.

"Maybe he got lost," suggested Olivia.

"Maybe he ran into Leona Lansing again," mused Jimmy.

Another conversation was needed to explain that one to Jon. He wasn't sure whether he should find the incident maddening or hilarious.

Not that I'd be mad at Stephen, obviously. It's not his fault someone climbed on top of him and — I mean, you can't blame a guy if —

Olivia yawned. "Text him," she said, poking Jimmy.

Jimmy tapped at his phone for a minute, then sat back and waited. What had people done in the days before cell phones? Gotten up and personally searched the whole floor of a building for someone? Madness.

It occurred to Jon that if Stephen had wandered into something unsavory, they might have to go track him down anyway. There were definitely harder drugs than booze floating around this place....

But no, thankfully, Jimmy's phone chirped before Jon's morbid fantasies could get any worse. He scanned the screen, blinked a couple of times, and turned to Jon. "Apparently he's...in the handicapped bathroom? And he wants me to send you over there, but just you."

"Aww," said Olivia, folded her arms on the table, and rested her head on them.

The phone chirped again. "He wants to clarify," reported Jimmy, "that he means the bathroom customized for humans with physical disabilities, not that the bathroom itself has a disability. In case you were confused on that point."

That was Stephen all over. Always trying to look out for others. "On my way," said Jon, shrugging off the leather jacket wardrobe had put him in. "You guys mind watching this for me? Uh, especially you, Jimmy."

"I want it on the record that I resent that," mumbled Olivia. "I am plen'ny lucid right now. Jus' resting my eyes."

 

~*~

 

At a couple of sharp knocks, Stephen pulled open the door and ushered a squinting Jon inside. The restrooms were maybe the brightest place in the club, though that wasn't saying much; burgundy tiles did a good job of swallowing up most of the light from the round white fluorescents dotting the ceiling.

Stephen had cleaned himself up as best he could. There was no restoring his hair to its perfectly sculpted gel formation at this point, and his jacket would have to stay hanging over one of the support bars until he cooled down enough to wear it again. But his hands were washed, his face scrubbed enough to keep his over-reddened lips from standing out, the rest of his clothes all in order...Jon probably wouldn't have the first clue what Stephen was covering for.

Or maybe Jon would. He was smart, after all. Smart enough to notice things. Stephen didn't know if that thought made him feel desperately hopeful, or scared out of his mind.

The music in here was a tinny echo of its full volume, so Jon could keep his distance and still be heard. "Stephen? Are you okay?"

"Fine!" squeaked Stephen. "I'm fine. I...Jon, can I dance with you? I know you're in a bad mood, and it may or may not be my fault, but could you just maybe stuff that in a box for a while and repress it so we can dance? Please?"

Sympathy filled Jon's face. If they had been in a movie, this would have been his cue to reply with something dashing and romantic, a heartwarming one-liner that would reassure his boyfriend in the moment and have audiences swooning in theaters everywhere.

What he came out with was, "Yeah, sure."

Fortunately, Jon-over-the-speakers was more on-the-ball. As Stephen settled into the real Jon's arms, the opening chords of A Whole New World started wafting through the air above them, and the recorded Jon sang, "I can show you the world~ / Shining, shimmering, splen~did / Tell me, princess, now when did you last let your heart decide...?"

 

~*~

 

The last chords of the song faded away, and Jon was ready to do anything but let Stephen go.

He felt so much better for being able to hold Stephen like this. It was a crime they couldn't just waltz out onto the main floor and dance like normal people.

(It was possibly also a crime for them to be holed up in here for so long. Jon hadn't seen anyone in a wheelchair or anything in the crowd...now he just had to hope there weren't any such people he hadn't spotted, or at least, if there were, that none of them had to pee.)

In a small voice, Stephen added, "A-are you going to go back to being mad now?"

"Wasn't mad. I swear." Except briefly, in the morning when he was afraid Stephen had been yanking his chain by not saying anything, but that didn't count.

Stephen's hands tightened in the back of his shirt. "Can you at least tell me what I did?"

It would be fine, Jon thought. They could handle it. Stephen loved him. He loved Stephen. "Um, first, do you know if you've sleepwalked before? Or maybe sleep-eaten? That's supposed to be really common...."

"I don't think so," said Stephen. "Wait...one time I woke up and there was a cheese plate on my desk. I guess I figured Consuela had brought it in. And that Briar Rose was the reason why half the crackers were eaten."

"And you didn't complain about your housekeeper possibly coming into your room while you were asleep?"

"...Should I have?"

Jon shrugged and let it go. Maybe housekeeper boundaries worked differently when you'd grown up with one. "Well, either way, you were eating last night. I woke up when you got out of bed, and I figured you were just going to the bathroom or something, right? But when you didn't come back, I couldn't get back to sleep, so I got up too...and it turned out you'd grabbed like four snack bars from the mini-fridge and gone out on the balcony."

"So...you were worried I was going to ruin my girlish figure?" guessed Stephen.

As if anything could kill Jon's interest in Stephen's figure. "I'd be more worried that you weren't going to leave any for the rest of us."

It had been a beautifully eerie scene out there. New York in the dead of the morning was still full of glittering lights: windows, the cars of late-night partygoers and travelers, the spotlights aimed at strategically placed billboards. But the noise of the city was down to a low purr, there was a cool breeze blowing, and a sleepy Stephen with a mouth full of chocolate looked as happy-relaxed as Jon had ever seen him.

"So I went out and sat with you there, on the couch, and we talked for a bit...."

"I don't remember any of this," interrupted Stephen. "What did I say?"

Jon shrugged. "It was three-AM sleepy small talk, I don't remember half of it. A lot of it was stuff about New Zealand. Hobbit references that I couldn't fully appreciate, that kind of thing."

"And...you've spent all day being deeply embarrassed at your lack of Tolkien knowledge?"

"Not exactly...."

"Did I tell you I had a Middle-earth trivia-off against the consulting expert they're using to get the films right, and I won?"

"Yeah, I got that," said Jon. Of course Stephen had mentioned it last night. And on the phone a few days earlier. And via text. And on Twitter. And he'd emailed Jon links to some of the news articles that reported it, as well as reblogging them when they were quoted on Tumblr.

Stephen's face fell. "Did I annoy you by bringing it up too much?"

"What you did," said Jon, "was kiss me, okay? And then we made out for a while."

"...I don't remember," said Stephen, more uncertainly now.

"Yeah, well, that's because apparently you were even higher than I realized."

"You knew?" Stephen was tensing in his arms. "Jon, I told you. I told you not to take advantage of me."

"I didn't know then!" protested Jon. "You seemed sober! I thought you were sober, until —"

Stephen jerked sharply back out of Jon's embrace. "Until what?"

So Jon skipped ahead in the memory. Past the part where Stephen got on top of him, straddling his thighs, rocking gently against him. Past the way Jon had felt almost Zen in his low-burning arousal: not distracted by it, or wrapped up in it, or desperate to push it onward to a climax, just able to stay calm and present and enjoy it for what it was in the moment. Past how beautiful Stephen had been — his tousled hair, the loose lines of his shoulders, the whole of the city laid out glowing behind him.

And past how very much Jon had appreciated it, in those guilt-free minutes before it dawned on him that, oh, Stephen was high as fuck.

"Until you tried to give me a handjob," he said shortly. "That's when I figured something was up."

Stephen paled in the low light. His eyes were dark pools. "No. No, I wouldn't do that."

"You wouldn't do it sober," Jon corrected him. At least, not yet. And, god, Jon couldn't wait for that to change, because the fumbling feeling of Stephen's hand down his pants was burned into his brain. "I know that, okay? That's why I stopped you from doing it high."

"High on Vaxasopor!" cried Stephen. "Which I take every night! Are you saying I could be...doing that...any night?"

"How should I know? I'm not usually there!"

"You could be lying." Stephen straightened his back, eyebrows arching over narrowed eyes. "I don't remember any of it. You could have touched me first, for all I know. You could have done anything you wanted to me, and gotten away with it."

"Stephen, be reasonable," pleaded Jon. "Of course I couldn't have done anything. I had no idea you weren't going to remember it."

"So you would have done something if you had known you could get away with it? That's what you just said. Your words, Jon!"

"None of those are my words!" yelled Jon. With effort he reined his voice in — the beat outside was pounding and the walls looked pretty sturdy, but you could never be too careful. "Stephen, I would never — not intentionally — I'm not psychic, here, okay, but I did my best! I don't want you when you're too zoned out to know what the hell you're doing. I want you as you. I love you!"

"You could just be saying that!" Stephen's eyes were wet. "People say things, Jon, and then they go on and do whatever they want anyway, and they act like that makes it okay, but it doesn't! How do I know you're not just saying it?"

"I guess you don't!" shot back Jon. "I'm not telepathic either, I can't beam this stuff into your head, you just have to —"

In a sudden burst of inspiration, offered Stephen his hand.

"Do you trust me?"

"...What?"

It was even the right hand Jon was holding out. He was naturally left-handed, but Aladdin wasn't. "Do you trust me?" he repeated, not sure what he would do with himself if Stephen said no.

 

~*~

 

The inside of Stephen's head was a blur of voices.

Son, I want you to think very hard about what you're saying here. — Settle down, sweetheart. You love the attention. Don't start complaining now. — Look, Col-bert, I'm not saying this to be mean, but you're a flake, all right? — Here's the thing, I bet none of that is true. Remember that scene where it was all a big misunderstanding because he jumped to conclusions? — Aww, is someone turning out to be a red-blooded human male after all? You get that dick, boo. — Nice job, son.

People he wanted to trust, but whose opinions of him he couldn't live up to...people he didn't want to trust, but whose opinions he was scared, deep down, might be right...people he did trust, but even then, not completely....

And how was he supposed to handle any of them if he couldn't even trust himself?

"Jon, I'm scared," he said, hiccuping over the words.

"Yeah," said Jon softly. "Yeah, I get that."

Stephen grabbed for his hand.

"Shhh. You can go off the Vaxasopor, okay?" Jon pulled him close, trying to sound calm and soothing even as his voice cracked. "There are people who kick it after being on it for years. You can figure it out."

"Mmhmm," sniffled Stephen. "Jon, I...I trust you, but...."

"Hm?"

"But I wanna sleep in Jimmy's bed tonight."

One word of complaint from Jon and Stephen would have dropped the request, would have apologized for bringing it up and promised to sleep wherever Jon wanted, and whatever happened, happened. But Jon, though he looked hurt, didn't voice it. "Sure. Yeah. Might be a good idea," he said. "And hey, now it can be his turn to be the one you wake up."

Chapter Text

Shout*For studio, "Jon's House" set, a few weeks later.

"I don't know, guys," said Jon to the rest of the band, gathered around a table in his fake kitchen. "I really like Taylor and all...but as a friend, you know?"

"Cut!" yelled Craig from past the edge of the set. "Jon! Where in your script does it say anything about making the Baconnaise face?"

"Nowhere!" said Jon, inwardly seething. He had tried to fake some taste for that particular product, and was still embarrassed that his failure had pretty much tanked the advertising deal. Did Kilborn really have to keep bringing it up? "It's fine. I got this. Do the shot again."

He had an easier time with the scene where his character and "Taylor" were bonding. It was still full of insipid dialogue that went on and on without ever saying anything, but he genuinely liked Tina, so he could manage to look happy throughout.

Of course, that only got a surly Stephen accosting him in the dressing room. "You sure looked happy on set today," he said, while stepping out of his shoes.

Jon tried to shrug it off. "I know, right? Only way it could have been better is if they'd brought in an actual jar of Baconnaise."

"First of all, don't talk down about the great American spirit of capitalistic innovation, and second of all, I'm talking about Tina."

"Stephen, you can't possibly be mad that I'm getting a TV love interest. You've had two in the past year!" There was Stephen's on-again off-again girlfriend on the show, played by a perky blonde named Susie Sampson, and of course Olivia's character in The Princess And The Pop Star. "Three, if you count Olivia in real life."

Stephen threw his shirt carelessly off in no particular direction and scowled. "What do you mean, love interest? Your script just said you only like her as a friend! I mean how the real you really thinks she's pretty!"

Briar Rose was trotting back and forth around Stephen's legs, her little face scrunched up with confusion. Jon scooped her up before Stephen could trip on her. "How much sleep did you get last night?"

A plan to kick the sleeping pills cold turkey had fizzled out after Stephen suffered through a painful sleepless thirty-six hours, so he'd been trying to run on a half dose ever since. He was taking it easy with his friends' encouragement — he would spend his breaks at work lying down, with Jon or Jimmy keeping him company while the other one took the dog out, for instance — but there was still only so much he could cope with on only a few disconnected hours of light sleep per night.

"Not a lot," Stephen admitted. "So I'm clearly not thinking too fast, and the considerate thing to do would be to walk me through your feelings rather than brush me off."

Jon scratched under Briar Rose's chin and deposited her on the couch. "Well, when you put it like that...."

"Use small words," added Stephen.

"Fine. Yes: I think Tina's pretty. Because she looks like you! And I think you're pretty. In fact, I think you're the prettiest. So you can relax."

It did the trick. "Okay," said Stephen at last. "But only because you specified that I was the prettiest."

 

~*~

Gloria & Jane's, dessert time.

"Ohmagod, thish ish really good," said Tina through a mouthful of meatball sub.

"It is?" said Olivia. "I have honestly never tried that."

Her foolproof way of making a social get-together work, the non-alcoholic version, was to take your guest out for pie and explain you were picking up the check. (Even though Tina had made decent money as one of the Weekend Update kids, you never wanted to assume someone's parents weren't keeping a tight fist around their paychecks, if not spending the cash as soon as it came in.) She'd never had anyone upend the 'pie' part of the plan before.

"You had spaghetti last time we were here," Kristen pointed out. "So it's not like you don't know they serve real food."

"Yeah, well, knowing it and eating it are two different things..."

A camera went off. All three of them winced, and Olivia scanned for the perpetrator: no big paparazzi operation, it didn't look like, just some guy with a phone. Jerk.

Tina covered her mouth, cheeks reddening, as she finished chewing. "Geez, he could have at least waited for me to swallow."

"That's what she said," put in Kristen with a roguish grin. Olivia high-fived her.

"What...?" Tina looked between them, confused, then made a face. "Oh. Oh, ew. No offense."

Okay, no more semen jokes around the new girl. Olivia could handle that. "So, what are you into that isn't Disney?" she asked, dicing up her chocolate-raspberry swirl with the side of her fork.

The change of subject was an obvious relief. "Mostly Star Wars. Does that still count? I mean, the brands get super incestuous, I've got a Jedi Mickey figure on my bookshelf, but Disney hasn't outright bought them yet...."

"Awesome!" said Olivia. A beat too early, but oh well. So she was awkward. Tina was awkward too. They could all be awkward nerds together. "Wait, how much of a Star Wars nerd are you? Just the kind where you have a figurine or two lying around, or the kind where, you know, as a hypothetical example, you have a Princess Leia costume in your closet?"

Tina broke into a broad grin. "You too?"

"Me too!" squealed Olivia. "This is awesome! As soon as our contracts are up we've got to break them out and go tear up the town. I bet I can convince Kristen to get one by then too."

"Wait, what's that about our contracts? Is there some kind of copyright problem?"

"No, no, it's the morality clause. Well, my morality clause. Maybe yours isn't as strict, I dunno. I'm not even allowed to wear bikinis on vacation, isn't that crazy?"

"Ohhh," said Tina slowly. "You've got the Slave Leia costume."

Olivia deflated a bit. "That's the one I was thinking of, yeah. What's yours?"

"Iconic Leia. Well, the other iconic Leia. Long white dress." Tina patted the sides of her head with cupped hands. "My hair goes really well into the buns."

"Well, that's cool!" said Olivia hopefully. "Mine doesn't bun at all."

"And we can still totally go out as three Leias," put in Kristen. "She's got other outfits, right? Instead of all trying to match, I could be Rebel Leader Leia, or something, and then we'd have a full set."

"That could be fun," agreed Tina.

"Though it wouldn't get nearly as many guys to buy us free drinks," observed Olivia.

"And it might cause some complications in where we can go..." began Tina.

"...because Rebel Leader Leia wears padded winter clothes to withstand the ice planet of Hoth, and Slave Leia wears, well, a bikini," finished Olivia.

Kristen sighed. "Hashtag nerd problems."

 

~*~

Jon's real house.

"To starting our second season!" exclaimed Jimmy, took a long drag on the joint Steve had rolled for him, and promptly burst out coughing.

"Hey, watch it!" said Jon, keeping a nervous eye on Jimmy's shaking hand while Stephen rubbed his BFF's back. "No burning weed-scented holes in my carpet."

They had holed up in Jon's room for the afternoon, on the theory that if they were caught Stephen's father would be homicidal and Jimmy's parents would waste no time in making sure all their families knew, but Jon's aunt might be convinced to let them off with a warning. Stephen had brought Alice in Wonderland. Jon's flatscreen wasn't quite on par with Stephen's home theater, but it would have to do.

Jimmy managed not to lose his grip on the joint. He was still catching his breath as Stephen glared balefully at their Guest Marijuana Expert (who was cackling at the scene). "Oh, and I'm sure you were born knowing how to do this, Mister Big Shot."

It was Jon's first time in close quarters with the infamously "not acceptable" Steve Carell. He was even louder at this range. "At least I managed not to choke myself the first time! Here, I'll do another...Stewart, Col-bert, ready to make this DIY?"

Stephen eyed the loose pot warily, like he was afraid it might bite him.

Jon had no such hesitations. "Sure, I'll give it a whirl. You start it off like this, right...?"

The joint he ended up with was kind of sloppy and weird-shaped, but Steve seemed to approve. "Not bad! You've got pretty deft fingers for a short guy."

"Just because I'm short doesn't mean bits of me can't be long," grumbled Jon.

This time it was Stephen who burst out coughing.

"Whoa, Stewart! Just whip it out and wave it at us, why don't you!" exclaimed Steve, slapping Jon on the back. "On second thought, don't...." He slipped into an exaggerated Southern accent: "You might give poor contractually-heterosexual Stephen over here the vapors."

"Don't you make fun of my heritage, Caroselli," snapped Stephen.

Steve leered. "Nice try, Col-bert, but I know how you really feel about Italians."

Jon honestly couldn't tell if they were still friends, or if they had gone back to being sworn enemies and Stephen would be throwing Steve out as soon as they'd exhausted his Guest Expertise. And though he wouldn't have admitted it if you'd paid him, it was freaking him out a little. "Guys, come on, we're supposed to be doing a mellow thing here. Can I get a light?"

Steve lit up both of theirs, then offered his to Stephen. "C'mon, one hit won't kill you."

Stephen leaned away, backing against the low bookshelf that made up one side of Jon's bed. "Can't I be the designated driver?"

"You can't drive," Jimmy reminded him.

"The designated guy that calls the driver, then."

"You can do that high," pointed out Steve.

The term made Stephen wince, so Jon jumped in. "Not the kind of high where you hallucinate, or pass out, or run naked through the streets. You mostly just relax, and start thinking stupid things are really profound. And, listen, you could use a little relaxation, right?"

"No, Jon, I know what this is," said Stephen sternly, reaching across their little circle. "This is peer pressure." He caught the joint out of Jon's hand, and, wow, speaking of deft fingers. "And I'm not going to cave! I will remain strong and true to my principles." With perfect old-Hollywood finesse, he took a long drag, exhaled, and declared, "I've got an iron will."

Everyone stared.

"What?" asked Stephen. He wrinkled his nose. "And what is that awful smell?"

 

~*~

 

By the end of the movie, Stephen had added several hundred dollars' worth of scented candles to his Etsy cart. Well, technically, it was Jon's Etsy cart, since he was using Jon's laptop. But Stephen happened to know that Jon hadn't touched the account since ordering the "Always Be Yourself (Unless You Can be Batman, then Always Be Batman)" sign on his wall, so it was probably feeling neglected. Really, Stephen was doing it a favor.

"I'm doing your Etsy account a favor," he informed Jon from the desk chair.

"Cool," said Jon, sprawled on the bed. (The other two were chilling on the floor, having a deep conversation on the weirdness of toes.)

Thus approved, Stephen placed the order, wandered back over to the rest of the group, and curled up on the bed next to Jon, where he drifted off into the best nap he'd had all week.

 

~*~

 

Tina F.
Hey can I ask you a question about guys? or is that just way out of your area of expertise?

<3 Olivia <3
hey u! nothin 2 worry about, xpert on dudes here. in a friend way or a bf way?

Tina F.
Sort of kind of a bf way maybe?

<3 Olivia <3
whoa there boo dont go jumpin 2 conclusions

Tina F.
You're right, that was too far

<3 Olivia <3
no no Im messin w/ u

Tina F.
Oh!

Tina F.
Now I get it. Sorry!

<3 Olivia <3
np, np

<3 Olivia <3
oracular wisdom here, ready to dispense :)

Tina F.
OK, so, say you like a guy...but you know for a fact he's not a big Star Wars person...can you still get a worthwhile impact out of putting on the Leia metal bikini?

<3 Olivia <3
totally! there is not a male alive whos un-arrested by the Slave Leia outfit. altho if hes 100% gay itll probly b the wrong kind of interest.

Tina F.
AFAIK he's 100% straight.

<3 Olivia <3
awesome! & lucky 4 u :)

<3 Olivia <3
but theres a caveat:

<3 Olivia <3
u have 2 feel sexy abt it. like, if u put it on & feel like a sexy hutt-slayin vengeful badass, great! but if u feel awkward & uncomfortable & 2 nervous 2 move, its not the outfit 4 u. find somethin that shows what ur comfortable w/ wearin. itll be better 4 the sexy badass image in the long run.

Tina F.
Sounds great but what if I don't feel comfortable or sexy in anything?

<3 Olivia <3
then u show up naked? (this is a joke btw)

Tina F.
Thank you for clarifying :(

<3 Olivia <3
apologies but Im not an oracle of how 2 feel good about ur body

<3 Olivia <3
u must meditate on this, Padawan, & come to ur own truth

<3 Olivia <3
just remember that u gotta be u <3

Tina F.
I will

Tina F.
Thank you :)

 

~*~

 

"No way," said Jimmy, stopping mid-read and slapping his script down on the table. "Are we seriously doing this?"

Eyebrows raised all around the room. It was a big script read, including a large swath of their in-show classmates: Sam Bee, Jason Jones, Susie Sampson, Al Madrigal, Sarah Vowell, Tina, and of course the band. Even Brian, who as a running gag had a different background role every couple of episodes, was in with the group.

"What's your problem now, Jo—" began Craig from the head of the table, then did a double-take. Jon felt almost smug watching his confusion unfold. "...Jimmy? Great, now there are two of them."

"It's just this one line!" protested Jimmy. "This part. This stage direction. Where Tina takes off her glasses, and all of a sudden Jon starts to notice her? She looks fine how she is! Switching to contacts isn't going to make her more or less attractive, so why make her do it?"

"Because it's a tried-and-true trope, and she's a professional," said Craig. "You don't have a problem with this, do you, Tina?"

Tina grimaced. "I wasn't going to say anything, but...contacts do make my eyes itch."

"Exactly!" said Jimmy.

"Mine too," put in Al. "That's why I don't wear 'em."

Jon decided to throw his voice on the pile. "Listen, if you're going for realism, here, I think glasses look great, and I wouldn't suddenly be super-stunned after a person whipped them off. That goes for Tina and Al."

Granted, he probably wouldn't be super-stunned by the fancy hairstyle the script indicated either, or the new outfit. (Unless maybe it was a certain kind of tight and low-cut, which it wouldn't be, because that would give the network fits.) But as long as Tina wasn't objecting to those, he might as well not bring it up.

"Okay, look," said Craig with a sigh. "I don't care, Jon or Jimmy, what turns your crank in real life. Girls in glasses, men in fishnets, dancing ferrets, whatever, it is not relevant. But if it's going to be a physical issue, for a plot point that isn't big enough to bother working around it for, then sure, Tina, wear whatever you want."

"I..." Tina shook herself and sat up, and when she next spoke there was some force behind it. "I'll keep the glasses on, thanks."

 

~*~

 

Olivia was used to having Kristen on-set with her, to be ferried along to her house for the afternoon. She was still getting the hang of telling her driver to swing by an entirely different studio to pick Kristen up.

"Today was amazing," gushed Kristen as she bounced into the back seat. "This show is amazing. I get to be funny! Not cookie-cutter sitcom funny, but funny funny!"

"Hey, Star Girl is funny at least once a month," said Olivia sternly. "So how much can you tell me without breaking confidentiality?"

"Depends." Kristen cuddled up against her, nuzzling her neck. "How much can you swear not to tell anybody else?"

Olivia made a solemn vow of secrecy, so Kristen went off, describing Gravity Falls plots and reciting lines, trying to mimic the voices of her co-stars in the process. It was funny, all right. And more than that...it was making Kristen earnestly enjoy herself, more than Olivia had ever seen. Not that Kristen tended to be unhappy — she had plenty of fun — but it was usually fun snarking about things that were kind of stupid, not straight-up fun with liking something.

She was also excited enough to jump Olivia almost as soon as they were in the door, which was a pleasant bonus.

"Oof—" grunted Olivia when Kristen shoved her down flat on the mattress, only a few inches short of whacking against the headboard. "Geez, it's a good thing your aim wasn't off there, huh?"

"Aww, I would never hurt you," Kristen assured her. "Not unless you wanted me to. ...God, you're hot. So, anyway, how did your day go?"

The whirlwind of topics (plus the mental image of Kristen being even rougher) left Olivia dizzy. "Um. No complaints here," she stammered. "Hey, just out of curiosity, you don't have any secret tricks to feeling sexy, do you?"

Kristen sat back, on her knees straddling Olivia's hips, her skirt a rainbow pinwheel draped across Olivia's thighs. "Not really. Mostly I redirect any frustration into rage against the patriarchy. Why? It's not like you need it."

"Okay, that helps," said Olivia. "But you're my girlfriend, so you're contractually obligated to say it."

"Hey! I was being objective there. On an absolute scale of one to Miley Cyrus...."

Olivia raised her eyebrows. "Miley Cyrus is your standard for hotness? She's like fifty."

"Forty-six. And excuse you, she is the epitome of geek sexy. Her and Taylor Swift."

"A scale of one to Taylor, I could accept," said Olivia. She, like the rest of America, didn't understand how the star of 30 Rock got away with playing characters who were supposed to be plain. Awkward, sure; less-than-hot, no.

"Fine. On a scale of one to Taylor, you are...." Kristen trailed off, grimacing. "Well, I don't know what the units for that would be. But you're up there."

Olivia really did feel better now. At least, this wouldn't be one of the nights she carved out some time to look up forums with the Countdown Until The Minute Lisa Munn Turns Eighteen clock on the top, just to remind herself that her stepfather was wrong. "I'm okay with that," she said, and ran her hands up Kristen's thighs, sliding under the colorful skirt.

"Ooh." Kristen shivered under her touch, eyelashes fluttering. "Well, I'm okay with this, so I guess that makes us even."

 

~*~

 

Nobody should have been surprised when Stephen showed up the next morning with a pair of square, rimless frames perched on the bridge of his nose.

"I can wear contacts for taping, until you get around to writing a story about how my character needs to get glasses," he explained to Craig. Very generously, he thought.

During their post-instrument-practice break, he collapsed in the dressing room with his head pillowed on Jon's leg and tried not to think of everything that could go wrong with this plan. Like, what if he tried to whip his glasses off in a single dashing move, but messed up the angle and poked himself in the eye? Maybe he was courting disaster with this whole idea. Maybe he should call it off, ring up his doctor, get a nice strong anti-anxiety prescription, chase the first dose with two Vaxasopor, and have himself a good night's sleep.

Jon spent most of the break reading the first chapter of his new European History textbook, then wove his fingers through Stephen's hair and said, "If the plot calls for me to, I don't know, kiss Tina or something, you're gonna be able to handle that, right?"

Stephen wasn't sure he would. "You and Tina's character were supposed to be just friends."

"Believe me, if I was writing this thing, we would be," said Jon roughly. "But it's not like I can go up to Craig and say, dude, I can't pull this storyline off because it makes my boyfriend upset. For one thing, he'd just tell you to suck it up and be a professional."

Something about the phrase made Stephen feel more drained than ever. "I'm sick of being a professional."

He didn't mean it. Mostly.

"Well, any time you want to put an end to it all, let me know," said Jon.

Stephen tensed. He felt pretty bleak sometimes, sure, but not that bad....

"Because we can always leak some makeout photos, or make plans to drop the bomb in person at our next appearance, and once the dust settles we can get on with finding out what kinds of careers are out there for us as, you know, 'us'."

Tears sprang to Stephen's eyes, and not just because the glasses were giving him a headache. "Jon, you are the first person who's ever said they would give up being in a boy band for me."

"Yeah, well." Jon shrugged, being, as he so often was, far too modest. "Just thought you should know that it's a sacrifice I'm willing to make."

 

~*~

 

"I am so mellow right now," sighed Jimmy from one of the oversized beanbag chairs.

"Yeah," agreed Jon, sitting up for just long enough to snag another Dorito.

The four guys, the pot, assorted snacks (mostly taken from the piles they'd been gifted after shooting a couple of Frito-Lay commercials), and one confused dog were gathered in the Col-berts' home theater this time around. Stephen's father was guaranteed to be out for the afternoon, and as for the odor, well, they had set up a ton of scented candles.

"But seriously," said Jimmy. "If we all had some kind of mellow-off..."

"No, man, don't even," interrupted Steve, next to him. Briar Rose was curled up between his beanbag and Stephen's; Steve had been lightly petting her nonstop for about twenty minutes now. "I would win a mellow-off. Hands down."

Stephen swallowed his own mouthful of Dorito. "I," he said, "am so mellow that I would not even bother to enter a mellow-off. And doesn't that, really, make me the spiritual winner?"

"Wow," said Steve. "That's deep. He's deep."

"Real deep," agreed Jimmy.

"Was not expecting that," added Steve.

"Shut your face, Steve," said Stephen pleasantly, licking cheese dust off his fingers.

"Guys?" said Jon, cutting in. He'd come to a decision, and the fact that he wasn't internally roiling over it was proof, in his opinion, that he was out-mellowing the rest of them put together. "Guys, can I tell you something? Steve and Stephen?"

"That's so weird about our names, though," said Stephen with a dreamy stare. "You think it was, like, destiny or something?"

"You think it's gonna be Jon's destiny to ever finish his thought?" countered Steve.

"No, listen, it's that. That's the problem," said Jon, waving both of them down. "When you guys fight. When you're sober, anyway, so there's some bite to it. It freaks me right the fuck out, you know?"

"It does?" said Stephen, eyes widening with puppyish concern.

"You know we really like each other underneath it, right?" added Steve. "It's not like you and Tucker."

"Yeah, I know. Well, usually I know." That was what made it hard. At least with him and Tucker, he knew where they stood. "The thing is...my parents divorced, right? And for a good year before my dad walked out, they would go back and forth. They'd be friendly, or maybe fake-friendly, and then sort of play-mean, except when they didn't bother softening it up and just got mean-mean. So we were never sure — me and Larry — that's my brother," he added, for Steve's benefit, "what was really going on with them. If they were ever gonna work it out, or if...not."

And what if his parents hadn't been doing that whole dance in sync? Had there been times when Dad was faking nice, and Mom thought it was real? Or what about times when she was feeling genuinely forgiving, but said something that Dad took as a jab anyway, and then it all started falling apart again? This rabbit-hole was way too deep for Jon to figure it out all the way down.

"Wow," said Steve. "That's rough."

Stephen sniffled. Jimmy patted him on the shoulder.

"It's okay, I'm over it," Jon insisted. "It's just, when you guys are going at it and, like, I can't tell if you're serious? It's like being right back there. Except, y'know...shoutier."

The next thing Jon knew, he was being embraced by a teary Stephen and a tearier Steve, both of them alternately swearing he had nothing to worry about because they would be Best Frenemies Forever, and trying to work out which of them was the mom versus the dad in this scenario. Given that he didn't want to picture Stephen as either of his parents, Jon stuck to assuring them that he got it, they were the real deal, and he'd be able to keep that in mind from now on.

Chapter Text

Stephen woke with a start. It was still pitch dark out, and his boxers and sheets were soaked with sweat.

In the silence he couldn't figure out what had ruined his sleep this time, until Briar Rose at the foot of the bed let out another whistling snore. That would do it.

He didn't even try to get back to sleep right away any more. He just got up, texted Jon on the off chance that Jon was also awake (sometimes he got lucky, but not tonight), then climbed in the shower for a few minutes so he wouldn't have to feel icky on top of tired.

The doctor had told him that aside from rebound insomnia, there were no side effects associated with going off Vaxasopor. Which meant the night sweats, headaches, bouts of nausea, and the way his appetite disappeared every once in a while were all completely coincidental. Talk about bad luck! Stephen was considering putting his body On Notice.

Once clean, he opened his laptop and settled in to do something that would kill the time without forcing his fogged brain to think too much.

And then, after he was all caught up on Tumblr, he put on a Springsteen playlist and hit shuffle. Another week or two of quizzing himself with these, and he'd be about as much of an expert as Jon, he was sure of it.

 

~*~

 

"Now my boss don't dig me 'cause he put me on the night shift / It takes me two hours to get back to where my baby lives / In the wee wee hours my mind gets hazy / Relay towers, won't you lead me to my baby!"

"Living On The Edge Of The World," said Jon. "From Tracks...disc two, track seven, if you want to know."

All the pep Stephen had summoned to do the upbeat tune puffed away. "Show-off."

Jon smirked and mimed a bow in his seat.

They were on a charter jet in the air over California, off to San Francisco to do the last of their major album-signing events. Jon considered himself an old hand at flying by this point, but it still didn't feel right to spend over an hour on a plane and still touch down in the same state they took off from.

Since it was technically a work day, Charlene was riding with the rest of the crew, trying to keep the four band members focused enough to do their vocal exercises. Before Stephen could complain any more about Jon's clear mastery of the field, she sang another round of scales at him, and, after he'd repeated them back, moved on to Tucker.

"You have gotten way better at this, though," Jon told Stephen. He might not be the most sensitive guy in the world, but he did understand that if he made Stephen pout too long, he ran the risk of being turned down for kisses the next time they were alone. "I mean, I'm impressed, seriously."

"Jon," cut in Charlene, and sang at him, over the sound of the intercom announcing that they were beginning their descent. Jon automatically echoed the scale back to her.

"We can pick up the game on the way home," decided Stephen. He didn't add "after I've had a chance to review some more songs," but Jon figured it was implied.

There were the usual smattering of paparazzi waiting for them inside the terminal, eager for the first shots of the guys in their designer sunglasses and this afternoon's carefully coordinated outfits. Non-band members of the party, including Brian and Charlene, fell back to create clearer shots of the band, though Killer and the other bodyguards never got too far.

Outside in the parking garage, even though they had taken some pains to keep their exit route secret, a handful of fans were crowded by the door with flashing cell phones and handmade signs. "I love you, Jimmy!" yelled one teenage girl. "Marry me, Stephen!" cried another.

"No, marry Jimmy!" exclaimed a third.

Jon pasted on a smile and waved. The weird thing was, Stephen was doing the same. Usually he was all bouncing and blowing kisses, especially when his own name came up, and all the more so when he got a marriage proposal.

Unfortunately, it wasn't all fans. As the band was piling into their limo, to be joined by Charlene and two bodyguards, some dudebro unloading a sporty car a few spaces down yelled "Boy band fags!" to hoots of appreciation from his companions.

Jon had not actually planned to lunge at the guy, but when he clenched his fists and twitched in that direction, Killer wordlessly gave him a light push in after the others.

"The nerve of some people," hissed Jimmy, leaning briefly against Stephen.

Brian was on the phone and hadn't noticed; Killer and the other bodyguards, as usual, made no comment; but Charlene clicked her tongue in disapproval. "Don't worry about it, boys," she said, tossing her head in a way that would have tossed her dark hair if it weren't gelled in place almost as thoroughly as her cousin Stephen's. "Those assholes only wish they had as many potential girlfriends as you do."

 

~*~

 

Stephen was tired. But fine! He would sail through this, as always, with the help of audience adoration. Also, a caramel latte. Just to be safe.

The auditorium was huge, and filled to capacity. After flicking Shout*For wristbands to the first few rows of the crowd, the band took their seats in front of a backdrop patterned with the band logo, as well as the logo of their generous sponsor for the evening, Target. (Anybody who had made the mistake of buying their new CD at a non-Target store was not allowed in. This generously taught people the value of brand loyalty.)

For the first half it was pre-planned questions from celebrity interviewer Mo Rocca. Stephen nailed them all, mostly because he had been through them four times already. Questions from the audience were a little more spontaneous, but these were all people who loved Stephen and would never yell at him, so how hard could it be?

Early on, some girl asked Jon, "Is your jacket real leather? And if so, would you be willing to take a stand by promising not to buy animal-derived clothing in the future?"

The big screens on either side of the stage cut to a close-up of Jon's blank stare. "Uh," he said. "What jacket are you talking about, exactly?"

"Probably the one you wore at the release party," said Stephen helpfully. "It was very popular on Tumblr."

"Oh," said Jon. "I have no idea what that was made of. Someone else planned the outfit, and then after the event they took it away."

"We can ask the wardrobe people to avoid leather in the future, though," said Jimmy, half to Jon (who was on the other side of Stephen from him) and half to the audience.

"And you don't have to worry about Jon's personal spending habits," Tucker, from the end of the line, assured the girl in the audience. "The only way he'd be buying animal-based clothing in the first place is if someone discovered a way to turn leather into grey T-shirts."

A ripple of laughter went through the crowd.

Jon made an unamused face. Maybe he didn't get it. "It's funny because you can't dress yourself," Stephen explained.

"Yes, I got that," sighed Jon. "Who's next?"

Someone asked about their pets. Jimmy talked about his sister's rabbit, Tucker about the family dog, Jon about his mom's cat, and Stephen about his puppy and his fish.

Someone else asked what projects they had coming up. They threw out a few promo lines about the concert movie they'd be shooting next month. Jon mentioned he'd been invited to guest on one of ABC's teen dramas, and Stephen reiterated his disappointment that he hadn't been invited onto Glee yet.

The first curveball of the night came from a woman nearly old enough to be their mothers (well, not Stephen's mother, but any of the others). Their band wasn't very diverse, she said. In fact, the whole industry wasn't great at diversity. What did they plan to do about it?

"Not diverse?" deadpanned Jon. "Nonsense. You will notice that an entire one of us is not Irish."

This was not at all their pre-rehearsed answer for questions like that. Had he forgotten? Fortunately, Tucker and Jimmy remembered, and explained how the four of them just happened to be white, but that shouldn't discourage kids of any race from working hard and following their dreams.

"And besides," said Stephen, "Lisa Munn is currently the leading moneymaker in the teen pop industry. So doesn't that prove racism is over?"

Jimmy bumped his knee against Stephen's to make him stop talking, though Stephen wasn't sure why.

 

~*~

Meanwhile, back in LA.

Olivia was alone when she got dropped off at home that afternoon. Kristen had school today, both Wyatt and Tina had declined her invitation to come over after work, and of course the boys were up in San Francisco, in throwing distance of a hundred gay bars and unable to visit any of them. A tragedy.

Since she wasn't going to make it to any bars either, gay or otherwise, Olivia made a beeline for the liquor cabinet. She'd had a couple of nips throughout the day, but wanted something to keep her company while she went over some schoolwork. Or the Internet. Whichever.

For the first time, she forgot to make any safety checks before unlatching the glass-paned doors.

"Aha!" said a voice from across the room. "I catch you now!"

Olivia whipped back like she'd been burned. "Hi, Mom!" she stammered. "I was just, uh...."

Her mother had a strong Chinese accent at the best of times, and it only got thicker when she was angry. "You stupid kid!" she snapped, advancing on Olivia. "You no fool me. You steal from those bottles! Ooh, you make me so mad...."

Buzzed or not, Olivia knew better than to stick around. A couple of PR people had sat Mom down a few years back and convinced her that Tiger Mother discipline wouldn't play well with her daughter's mostly-not-Asian target audience, but as long as there was nobody around to see it, she had no qualms about socking a disobedient kid across the head. Olivia bolted for the stairs, yelling "There is a perfectly good explanation!" over her shoulder.

Mom, hot on her heels, wasn't buying it for a second. "You come back here! You big-shot pop star, you not too good to get a knuckle sandwich!"

"Seriously, Mom, no one says that anymore!" called Olivia. If she ever found out what movie or TV show had put the phrase in her mom's head, she was blacklisting everyone who helped make it.

She'd been aiming for her own bedroom door, but Sara Beth was helpfully holding the one across from it open, so Olivia ducked through and let her sister slam it shut with Mom on the other side.

The construction was sturdy, the lock strong; their mother could pound on the door all she wanted (and did, while yelling, for a good five minutes), but she wasn't getting through. "Good grief," said Sara Beth. "What did you do?"

"More like what did you not do," said Olivia in a low voice, after she'd caught her breath. "Have you been slacking on refilling the wine bottles?" Not that Sara Beth was 21 either, but she had a fake ID and a face that wouldn't be instantly recognized, so it was her job to keep the alcohol from running out.

"No, I've been topping them up just as fast as usual. Swear to god."

"You kids! What you talk about in there?"

"Nothing, Mom!" yelled Sara Beth through the door. "Just how—" She dropped her voice. "You do have schoolwork and stuff now, right?"

"Yep. My English tutor's having me read Lord of the Flies," said Olivia. "It's like, Child Actors: the Desert Island AU."

"Got it. —Just how Olivia has homework she needs to get to!"

"You have time for homework if you stop drinking!" countered Mom.

It was going to be a long afternoon.

 

~*~

 

The autograph session was a blur of smiles and short greetings and hand cramps. Stephen had been faithful about doing the stretching exercises he'd been assigned over the past few days, but was still feeling the burn as he scrawled his signature on CD after CD.

At least half a dozen people coming by in the line had already asked about their Tumblr usernames. Stephen's response was always instant and serious: "You will never find out."

Jon got super awkward when that question came up. Partly because he was the one who had let slip that at least he and Stephen were on Tumblr at all, but Stephen knew it was more than that: he had also recently figured out how to reblog things. Including a lot of Springsteen-related things. Including several pictures of the Boss from the days when he was young, lean, and apparently not yet rich enough to afford a shirt.

Some piles of merchandise were larger than others. A brunette woman in a Shout*For baseball cap (already autographed) had all four of their dolls, still mint in the boxes. As Stephen was signing the one of himself, she leaned in and said conspiratorially, "I just want you to know that you have a lot of supporters online! Whenever you want to come out, we'll be right behind you."

"I am not sure what you're talking about," said Stephen briskly, "but it's always nice to have fans!"

A second young woman in the same hat, with masses of fluffy dark curls, flashed them a white-toothed smile. "It's okay! We know you're not allowed to talk about it!" she exclaimed...addressing Jimmy. "Don't let PR get you down, though! You guys are obviously made for each other."

On the far side of Jimmy, Tucker suppressed an inelegant gigglesnort.

And Jimmy himself stammered, "I think you may be confused? We're best friends, but that's all. Anything else you've seen is just fanfiction."

The curly-haired woman clapped her hands to her mouth with an audible gasp, while her companion squeaked, "You read the fanfiction?"

"Um," said Jimmy.

"We know it exists," put in Jon. "I wouldn't say we read it."

(Stephen did. Sometimes. He decided not to admit it.)

"Wait, what is this?" asked Tucker.

"Don't ask," said Jimmy, at the same time as Stephen said "Nothing!" and Jon said "You don't wanna know."

The line was pushing the two women along, getting the Tucker doll's case signed at the end of the table while new CDs and merchandise were passed down by Jon at the start. "Well, then, you know how happy we are for you!" said the brunette, while Tucker scrawled in his name.

"You are even more adorable in person," said her friend in a breathless rush. "Love you!"

Stephen finished autographing the corner of a poster and passed it down. Jimmy took it without looking. "I'm not dating Stephen!" he yelled after the baseball-cap-wearing pair as they were shooed away.

"Well, that was surreal," muttered Jon, passing Stephen a CD.

"Don't you think that's a little homophobic?" demanded a new voice. It was a younger teen girl, displaying a veritable rainbow of wristbands as she handed Jon a folded shirt and another CD.

"Homophobic...that I'm not dating Stephen?" asked Jimmy, gaping at her.

"No!" said the over-wristbanded teen. "But why are you so defensive over it? Do you think there's something wrong with boys dating boys?"

Jimmy choked. Possibly on irony.

"All he's saying is that it isn't true!" said Stephen, getting cross now. "Which it isn't! Stop calling my BFF a homophobe when he's not one!"

He was automatically moving to sign her things anyway when he found them snatched out of his hands. "If you're more worried about being called homophobic than about people getting hurt by actual homophobia, then I don't even want your autographs." She swept off down the table, pausing only long enough to glare at Tucker and say, "I didn't want yours anyway."

Stephen's hands were shaking as he took the next copy of the album. Odd. Maybe he'd had too much caffeine.

They worked through a dozen more sets of merchandise by rote, brushing off another Tumblr inquiry and tossing out answers about their favorite types of candy. (Jon said fudge to that last one, which was weird, because his Teen Vogue profile clearly said Swedish fish. Stephen would have to investigate that later.)

Eventually Jon, too, found himself greeted with a conspiratorial smile and a too-eager stare. This time it was from a guy, a little older than the four of them, with a shaved head and a slightly uneven beard. "I have to tell you...I know."

"Really don't think you do," said Jon brusquely.

"No, don't worry!" exclaimed the guy. "I got all the messages you've been sending me through your T-shirts!"

 

~*~

Several days later, at the Star Girl studio.

The quirky-mismatched-sisters movie was really kicking into gear now, throwing Olivia into back-to-back shooting between the film set and the TV show. It was exhausting. Although to be fair, if everyone else was going to be busy, she'd rather be occupied than not.

No work on the film set tonight, though! Olivia closed herself in her dressing room, had a quick drink, jumped in the shower, then settled in to have a slow drink.

Not a lot of her co-stars really knew how grueling this was. Kristen had a clue, even with her Star Girl appearances cut back, because she had to juggle school along with Gravity Falls. And then there were Stephen, Jon, and Jimmy, who were working doubly hard to bank a bunch of episodes in advance so they could go on tour in the spring.

Thinking about the boys gave Olivia the vague sense that there was something she was supposed to be doing for them. Had she promised to get something ready for Stephen before their next "date"? Or to do some kind of favor for Jon? It wasn't clear.

Oh well. If it was important, it would come back to her later.

She curled up on the couch and let herself relax....

...Someone was pounding at the door. If only they'd go away. She was trying to sleep....

 

~*~

Across the lot.

"They're the Hollywood kids, each and every one," crooned Jon, in a gravelly, almost painfully slow voice. "With a high class smile and a little baby's tongue / Lonely hard-head losers dressed in the tinsel of the times / And learn all the latest lines and the order in which they come...."

The band and a handful of other cast members were killing time in a meeting room. Scripts for the big cameo episode had been passed around, the one scheduled to air a couple weeks before Stephen and Olivia's movie premiered, but nobody felt like getting ahead of themselves. Steve was there, joking around with Jimmy and regularly making Tina crack up, while Jon and Stephen were pushing ahead with the Springsteen-off.

"No," said Stephen, crossing his arms and glaring at Jon over his glasses. (Jon still couldn't get over how sharp he looked in those.) "I don't buy it. I've never heard that before, and anyway, it doesn't even sound like Springsteen. It sounds like someone trying to do an imitation of Springsteen, but totally not measuring up."

"Yeah," said Jon, unable to hold back a grin. "That's totally what it sounds like, isn't it?"

"So you admit it!"

"I admit no such thing." Not that Stephen was far off. The song was an early effort, from before the Boss had really settled into his sound, and it had only ever appeared on a limited release that got reviews like "none of these are all that good, but if you're a purist you'll want to pick it up anyway."

As soon as Stephen figured out he had to learn those too, Jon could move on to stumping him with unreleased demos.

He didn't get a chance to declare victory properly, though, because four phones went off at once. When Jon pulled his out, he realized it wasn't a coincidence; Stephen, Jimmy, and Tina would be reading the exact same thing.

 

Kristen ╚(•⌂•)╝
This is a mass text. Olivia's going to be way late to the cameo episode. If any of you are at that rehearsal...STALL!

 

Stephen was on the move before Jon could even begin to work out a plan. He interrupted Steve's conversation with Jimmy and Tina to give the other boy a light shove, whispered something that Jon guessed was play along, then said, loudly, "Steve, that's a stupid thing to say, and you're a stupid person for saying it."

"Well!" exclaimed Steve, stuttering at first, but more confident with every word as he caught on to what Stephen needed him to do. "Well, gosh, Stephen, I can see why you wouldn't appreciate it, because you, Stephen...are a pompous windbag!"

The fight was on.

 

~*~

 

Olivia's hair was still dripping from the bucket of ice water Mac had dumped over it.

As their golf cart puttered across the lot, she tried to choke down another bite of the chicken wrap, left over from lunch, that her manager had foisted on her. Even though she wasn't hungry. And..."This wrap tastes like feet," she muttered.

"Well, gosh, if you had warned me ahead of time that you were going to need to be sobered up in a hurry this afternoon, I could have arranged for something fresher to be delivered," said Mac sharply.

Okay, Olivia didn't really have a good answer for that.

"I called in a professional to sweep the place." Mac turned the wheel, bringing them chugging around the corner of some production building or another. "Our story is that an unnamed person on your style team, who has of course been fired, was using your room and possibly others as a place to hide their stash. Plenty of people on the crew won't believe it for a second, but they'll pretend to, and that's all we need."

Not that Olivia cared what the crew thought. Most of them could be fired in a heartbeat if they gave her any grief. So she'd screwed up...once! How many professionals could say they'd never missed an appointment in their whole lives, honestly?

Yeah, now she just had to keep telling herself that.

Even worse, she'd caught sight of Kristen and Wyatt on the way out. She was passably sober by then, if you didn't look too closely, and Mac hadn't let her stop to talk to anyone, but those two knew her too well. They'd be so worried. They'd be so mad. Kristen would be ashamed of her.

"I'm in so much trouble," Olivia told her coffee cup.

"Yes, you are, young lady," said Mac. "Now drink up. You don't sound slurred, thank god, but in a few minutes you'll have to have enough focus to be reading. And we are talking about this afterward. You understand?"

The coffee was bitter and not at all creamy enough. Olivia forced herself to gulp it down anyway.

They pulled up to the Shout*For studio, flashed their badges at the front desk security, and made their way inside, Olivia mentally yelling at herself all the way. She was going to make up for her screw-up. She was going to be a goddamn professional about this, goddammit. No matter how tough it was to power through, no matter how much effort it took, she was going to find some way to be as professional as everyone else in that room....

Mac opened the room in question, and both she and Olivia jumped back in shock.

Security people were holding back both Steve and Stephen, who were thrashing and yelling at each other, surrounded by toppled chairs and what looked like the shredded remains of at least one script. Everyone else was plastered into corners or huddling on the far side of the U-shaped table. Olivia spotted Jon behind Jimmy and Tina, clutching an inhaler and looking about ready to pass out.

"I hate you!" roared Steve.

"I hate you more!" shrieked Stephen. "Your voice — oh, hi, Olivia — your voice is like a jackal picking at my brain!"

"Again, I am so terribly sorry we're late," said Mac to Brian, who happened to be in a nearby corner. "As I said on the phone, it was entirely my fault. How much have we missed?"

Chapter Text

Shout*For studio.

"Is this how it's supposed to look?" asked Jon doubtfully, turning his phone from portrait to landscape. The stream of @replies remained absurdly long.

Brian took a look at it for him. "Yes, that's about as much traffic as your account normally gets."

The band had finally been handed over the reins to their official @Shout4 Twitter accounts, after going through a PR crash course in what they were allowed to say. Stephen, Jimmy, and Tucker already had their own protected accounts they used with family and friends; as usual, it was only Jon who was learning the service from scratch.

"All I even tweeted was a picture of my mom's cat," protested Jon. How had that been retweeted 18243 times?

"Well, I did retweet you this morning," Stephen reminded him. "You got the benefit of the Col-bert Bump."

"Remember, you're not obligated to respond to anyone," said Brian. "Or to read them all. Or even to read them at all. Outside of our publicly scheduled Twitter answer-a-thons, of course."

Jon scanned the list of replies again. Declarations of love, breathless questions about trivia of his life, pleas for him to retweet them, lots of usernames like @MrsFallon and @JonsWife, lots of others that were either outright obscene or just ridiculously porny (seriously, @CarlosDanger?)..."I think I'll do that, yeah."

"Great. If there are no more questions...?"

Head-shakes all around the table.

"Next on the agenda: we're partnering with the Red Cross to encourage giving blood, and hopefully all of you will be able to donate. If not, we need to know ahead of time." Brian handed them each a folder full of papers. "You're all sixteen, or at least, you all will be by the time the event gets here...." A nod to Jimmy, who grinned at the reminder that his birthday was coming up fast. "...so you're going to need parental agreement. The permission slips are in here, along with the requirements for donation. Go ahead and read them."

This was actually important, so Jon sat back and took it in slowly, careful not to miss anything. Lots of medical questions. No, he'd never had cancer; no, never had a brain covering graft; no, wasn't taking any antibiotics. The rest of them were varied. No, he hadn't gotten a tattoo in the past year. No, he'd never been to Africa. No, he wasn't....

Seriously, the one that blocked gay men was still in here? It was 2011, for god's sake.

"I'm good," he said out loud, closing the folder.

Brian gave him a stern look. "I'm assuming you're all good. Of course, if you realize you might not be, you can let me know later in private."

 

~*~

Colbert residence, morning.

Stephen was still trying to settle on what cologne to wear when someone tapped on a car horn out front. It didn't sound like Jon's aunt's car, but he made a snap decision (one of the Star Trek themed scents) and hurried downstairs with Briar Rose at his heels, just in case.

Sure enough...it wasn't Jon's aunt's car.

"Ohmigod," breathed Stephen, circling the sleek black Camaro convertible while Jon grinned at him from the driver's seat. Even in the dull light of what was turning out to be a grey morning, it shone. "Is this yours? Can I touch it?"

"Was gonna invite you to ride it," said Jon, with a roguish smirk.

And yeah, there was a twitch in Stephen's pants at that, but could you blame him? This car was hot.

"It's wild. I just emailed my mom yesterday to tell her I passed at the DMV," continued Jon, his more innocent enthusiasm taking over. "So this morning my aunt says, hey, your mom sent you a present. And I say, where is it?, and she says, it's still outside. And I, completely failing to connect the dots here, I say: geez, you couldn't even bother to bring it in?"

Stephen ran his fingers along the smooth chassis of the passenger-side door. "I wonder if my mom would get me a car if I learned to drive."

"Well, until then, mine is at your service," said Jon. "I even got a blanket in back, so the dog can come along. Where do you feel like going today? We could pick up Jimmy, and maybe Steve or Tina, hang out wherever...or, you know, we could just...go. If you wanted."

Oh, Stephen did not trust himself alone with Jon right now. Even with Briar Rose around to chaperone. "I'll call Jimmy and the others. You drive."

Before he could get in, though, there was a shout from the front door. "Stephen!"

Stephen stood up straighter. "Yes, Papa?" he yelled back.

"Don't yell, boy! Come here!"

"Excuse me a minute," said Stephen to Jon, and pulled himself together as he jogged back to the house. (His puppy stayed at the car, sniffing the tires.)

Papa was standing in the front hall, still in pajamas, but no less imposing for it. "Where are you going?"

"Out," stammered Stephen. "Jon got his license, so...out. Jimmy's coming too," he added, just in case Papa had guessed what effect the car was having on him.

"You remember that you have work this evening?"

"It's just a radio appearance," said Stephen without thinking.

"What do you mean, 'just'?" snapped Papa. "You understand that your voice is your career right now?"

"Yes, sir! All I meant was, it won't mean doing a lot of makeup...I'll be back in plenty of time, I swear!"

"And you won't get yourself in any trouble?"

"No, sir."

"Because if I hear you've started any more fights...."

Stephen didn't even try to explain the purpose behind his shouting match with Steve. No matter what started it, the strain it put on his vocal cords was the same, and that was what Papa really cared about. Besides, if Papa got the idea that Olivia might be a risk to Stephen's image.... "I'll be good! No fighting. No shouting. I promise."

Eventually his father was satisfied, barely, to let Stephen go.

He relayed his curfew to Jon in between entreating Briar Rose to stay on her blanket. They had to play this whole outing super careful. Couldn't risk giving Papa an excuse to veto the whole idea of Stephen going places with no adults around.

"Got it," said Jon, as they cruised along one of the winding roads on the slope that bordered the ocean. The water itself flickered in and out of sight in the view past his head, showing up between house roofs and palm trees and carefully-tended hedges. "So I guess we should leave the weed in the trunk, then."

Stephen let out a squeaky noise of dismay.

"I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" Jon's eyes were fixed on the road, but it was like he was smiling at Stephen anyway. "Didn't even bring it. Like I would risk driving my baby high."

 

~*~

 

Olivia was grounded. So very grounded. No going any farther than the end of the yard, no friends over, no phone except when she was at work, no nothing.

It was a good thing her mom didn't really understand how computers worked.

"I don't know why you guys even bother to argue about this," said Wyatt, his poorly-lit face pixelated in one corner of her screen. In the center was the video feed they were screensharing, currently on a recent episode of The Daily Show. "The hottest correspondent is Harry Styles. I'm a straight guy and even I can tell that."

"Harry Styles is so overrated," countered Kristen, whose face was right above his, and so washed-out it was hard to see. Apparently she was watching from the roof, which was bright even on a gloomy day like this. "People just like him because he has the British accent."

"Oh, come on, he's funny," piped up Tina from the top of the stack of faces. She paused, the way she still kept doing after she voiced an opinion; when nobody told her it was wrong, she elaborated. "I mean, I want Selena Gomez to get more of the credit she deserves as much as the next feminist fan of fake-comedy-journalism, but that doesn't mean Harry isn't funny."

Kristen just grumbled in disapproval.

"I'm not even talking about whether he's funny or not, I'm just saying," said Wyatt. "That on our screens right there is a very aesthetically pleasing human being."

The bit currently playing involved Harry and Britney, in "Team Mormon" and "Team Normal" T-shirts respectively, discussing whether Mitt Romney's religion was a dealbreaker in the presidential race.

"Sure is," said Kristen. "And next to her is Harry."

"They are all beautiful in their own way," declared Olivia. She picked up her root beer from the floor beside her bed, only to find the glass empty. "'Can we pause? I gotta go get a refill."

Dead silence.

"Oh my god, you guys, it's a root beer float," groaned Olivia. "Give me some credit. Like I can't manage to be sober for a couple hours of watching TV with my friends? Besides, Mom cleaned out the liquor cabinet, and Sarah Beth won't buy any more."

Granted, the emergency stash in her room was still safely untouched, but they didn't need to know that. Besides, she hadn't touched it all day, so it wasn't like she was lying.

"And by the way," she added, before pulling off her headphones to go get more soda, "none of the correspondents have ever topped Miley for hotness, and I will fight you on that one."

 

~*~

 

It took less than an hour to find a nice spot up in the hills, on a low-traffic road surrounded by scrub-covered peaks and valleys almost as far as the eye could see. A slice of ocean was still visible in the V between two slopes.

Jimmy sat up on the back of the convertible's rear seats, picking out tunes on his guitar. Steve threw sticks for Briar Rose to play fetch with. And Jon, who had brought a soccer ball, tried to teach Stephen how to dribble. It was good weather to run around in — almost like LA was considering that it might be fall, though Jon knew it would give up the idea and go back to its eternal summer in a day or two.

When they strolled back to the car (Jon's car, oh man) to get some water, Jimmy said, "You guys mind listening to something and telling me if you like it?"

So they ended up taking a break for a while, sitting around in the grass and providing the audience for what turned out to be the melody of an entire pop song, verses and a chorus and a nice stirring bridge to tie it all together.

"That's pretty good," said Steve at the end. "I mean, I don't know a lot about songwriting, so take me with a grain of salt, but, you know, I liked it."

"I love what you've done with the chord progression since the last time I heard it!" said Stephen. "Still think it needs more drums, though."

"None of us play the drums," Jimmy reminded him.

"Yeah, we should probably fix that," remarked Jon, absently taking the latest stick Briar Rose had brought back and throwing it as far as he could. (It wasn't far.) "I mean, we're not going to have Disney making sure we have a backup band for the rest of our lives, you know?"

"So you guys are all definitely sticking together post-Disney?" said Steve.

Jon froze. He'd kind of assumed it without realizing. Was he being naive? Or presumptuous?

"We haven't really talked about it," said Jimmy diplomatically.

"But it would be nice," said Stephen. "If we could. If we're not all signed by different labels the second the band is over."

"Besides, even if we are, it doesn't mean we can't get back together and do something down the road, right?" added Jon. He still had a hard time imagining Stephen and Jimmy deliberately working apart. And while it was possible to imagine himself and Stephen being separated, he sure didn't like the idea.

The dog came back with her stick, and pointedly avoided Jon to drop it in front of Steve. Great, even animals understood that his pitching arm sucked.

"And by that time, one of us will have learned the drums!" said Stephen triumphantly.

Jimmy didn't look reassured. "I was sort of hoping to play a finished version of this before then."

Jon raised his eyebrows. "What's the rush?"

"Well...."

"Wait wait wait!" said Steve, voice rising with excitement. "Is this for someone?"

Avoiding all of their gazes, Jimmy strummed a cautious-but-upbeat chord.

"This is so exciting!" cried Steve, while Jon and Stephen made various noises of congratulations. "Hang on — it isn't Stephen, is it?"

Spluttering all around.

"Okay, now this is getting ridiculous," said Jon. He wasn't mad at Steve, exactly, but his temper was definitely up. Stephen was his, dammit, and even though 99.9% of the world wasn't supposed to know that, was that any excuse not to respect it? "You actually know us! Why are you believing things you read in Internet fanfiction?"

Steve blinked. "Fanfiction...about you guys?"

"Well, yeah," said Jimmy. "Is there anywhere else you'd run into the idea that me and Stephen are having a secret love affair?"

"What would people even write you doing in fanfiction?" asked Steve, still stuck on the point.

"Having lots of sex with each other, going to Hogwarts, and/or hanging around in coffee shops," replied Stephen, and, wow, that was weirdly specific. Had Stephen actually been reading the stuff? "Answer the question."

Steve fidgeted in his spot on the grass. "Look, I'm not saying I took any of this a hundred percent seriously, okay? But, you know, someone in my European History class last year sent me these links, and it's just...it's wall-to-wall gifs of you guys being all over each other. Plus videos. Plus, like, quotes. With sources! And then you'll get other people trying to argue that it doesn't mean anything, but those are the same people who think Stephen and Olivia are totally in love and sexually attracted to each other, so what do they know, right?"

"That's a good point," breathed Stephen, brow furrowed.

"It is not!" cried Jimmy.

"It sort of is," said Jon. "I mean, they're barking up the wrong tree, but it's not totally illogical barking."

"So, just to be clear," said Steve. "You guys are definitely not an item."

"Definitely not," said Stephen.

"Not even close," said Jimmy with a groan. "How many other people are getting this idea? What if our PR team thinks it? What if Tina thinks it?"

"Well, Tina wouldn't," said Jon automatically, because she knew Stephen was taken, not that he should have even started bringing that up around Steve, whoops....

"Ooooooh," cut in Stephen, interrupting Jon's panicky self-centered train of thought. Next thing they knew, Stephen had Jimmy wrapped in a hug that was only slightly hindered by the guitar, cooing, "This is so exciting! Congratulations! You are going to be so cute together!"

"Stephen, calm down!" pleaded Jimmy. "I don't even know if she likes me like that yet!"

"But obviously she's going to love you!" exclaimed Stephen. (Briar Rose had gotten wind of the excitement and was trotting in circles around the two of them, trying to sniff out a place to insert herself into the fun.) "Who wouldn't jump on this if they had the chance?"

Steve rolled his eyes at the pair. "See, this is why people think you're gay for each other."

 

~*~

 

Olivia had almost forgotten there was anything on her schedule that night until she heard voices arguing downstairs. One of them was Mom's, the other...was that Mac? Oh, geez, Mac had probably texted her about this, and obviously she hadn't been able to read it.

She abandoned her barely-touched social studies textbook and went down the spiral staircase that opened into the front hall. Mom was doing her embarrassing broken-English yelling again. "She no go anywhere. She grounded!"

"I understand that you want to discipline your daughter, but she has professional obligations!" countered Mac. "Which you agreed to. Those have to come first!"

"Hi, Mac!" called Olivia, pasting on an obnoxiously bright grin.

"Olivia! Why aren't you dressed? Didn't you get my text?"

"Mom has my phone. What's wrong with my outfit?" demanded Olivia. Sure, the top was lower-cut than they let her wear on TV, but..."It's only radio, right?"

"You put on any shirt you want, but you stay right here," snapped Mom.

"You took her phone?" asked Mac.

"Yeah, she did," said Olivia. "See if you can get it back while I change, okay?"

She practically flew back to her room, exchanged the tank top for a blouse that barely dipped low enough to show her collarbones, and grabbed a pair of heels that added a good two inches to her height. Not that she didn't kind of tower over Mom already, but every little bit helped.

There was no sign of her phone when she got back, just her mother, arms crossed, planted firmly in her way.

«I don't care what kind of work obligations you have,» snapped Mom, having switched into Chinese. «You are still my daughter before anything else, and you listen to me first.»

«Not your baby daughter, Mom!» shot back Olivia. «I'm a teenager. With a job. You don't get to pen me up like a two-year-old!»

«If you show the bad judgment of a two-year-old, then yes, I do!»

«And how are you gonna pull that off? Hit me in front of Mac? Handcuff me in my room?» Olivia pushed past her — she'd never tried it before, and wow, her mom was lighter than she'd realized— and made it to her manager's side without so much as a wobble on her heels. "All right, come on, let's go."

"We will bring her back here directly, as soon as she's done!" called Mac over her shoulder as she ushered Olivia out into the night.

 

~*~

On Air with Chris Matthews studio, evening.

"Congratulations, you're on the air with Stephen Col-bert and Lisa Munn!" exclaimed Chris Matthews, celebrity interviewer and host of the biggest Top 40 show on the West Coast. "What's your name, caller?"

"T-T-Tim," stammered the voice on the other end of the line, shaky in the headphones against Stephen's ear.

"Hi, Tim!" said Olivia brightly. Almost suspiciously so.

"Good to hear from you, Tim," said Stephen into his own mic.

"So, Tim, what do you want to ask these two?" added Chris.

"I h-had a question for Stephen," said Tim breathlessly. "Do you get to kiss Lisa a lot? And what's it like?"

"Whoa! Someone's not afraid to cut to the chase," laughed the host. "So, Stephen, how about it?"

"Well," stammered Stephen. He adjusted his glasses and fiddled with his collar to fill time, then remembered that visual things didn't fill any time on the radio. "It's...it's like...it's nice! Obviously it's nice. You would expect it to be nice, right? Um...oh, and I get to kiss her basically whenever I want. I mean, if she's okay with it! But I wouldn't want to kiss her when she isn't okay with it. You shouldn't do that to people."

He swallowed; sweat beaded on his forehead. They were both having unwanted kisses pushed on them, weren't they? It was okay when it was being filmed for the movie, but as for the rest, telling himself it was part of the job only went so far.

Stephen knew he should be grateful. As assigned-fake-girlfriends went, he could have had so much worse luck.

"She's one of my best friends," he continued. Had to find a balance between truth and what he was allowed to admit to. Call it truthiness. "We could be doing almost anything and it would be fun, you know? It's not even just about the thing, it's about knowing that it's making her happy."

But what if it was making her desperately unhappy? It sure felt like she drank more often before their scheduled dates or appearances than their genuine friendly hanging-out. What if Stephen, by not standing up for himself, was helping to keep her miserable? What if she never would have started down this spiral at all if, back before the charade started, he'd managed to keep his tongue in his own mouth in the first place?

"You are happy, right?" he said, blinking back tears.

"Aww, boo, c'mere," cooed Olivia.

Stephen was more relieved than he could say when she didn't pull him into a kiss, just touched her forehead to his and rubbed noses a little. He didn't have the presence of mind to smell her breath. Keeping his own steady was taking some effort.

"Oh, this is too cute, listeners. They're not scared at all to get a little cuddly in public! Young love — nothin' like it. Sends a shiver up my leg just watching," sighed Chris. "Thank you so much for your call, Tim. Coming up next: one of the big hits from Shout*For's latest album, right after this."

The RECORDING light snapped off as they switched to commercial.

Stephen was still having trouble breathing.

"Can I get a minute with my client?" cut in Brian's voice. To Stephen's ear it was like a choir of angels. He pulled off the headphones and let the Shout*For manager usher him out of the recording booth, where a cup of icy water was pushed into his hands. "Long day?"

"I'm f-fine," insisted Stephen. "Contact lenses...irritating my eyes. Th-that's all."

"Stephen, you're wearing glasses now."

"Wanted e-extra sharp vision," said Stephen stubbornly.

Brian sighed and handed him a couple of tissues...then tipped open a palm-sized box with Prescott Pharmaceuticals markings and handed Stephen a single plastic-and-tinfoil casing. "Vaxachillpill. Nothing too potent, non-habit-forming. It's just to knock back the anxiety you're getting from withdrawal."

"It's not from withdrawal," said Stephen, though he was already peeling off the tinfoil. He gulped down the pill, swallowed, and explained, "Vaxasopor withdrawal doesn't have side effects."

"I will keep that in mind," said Brian with perfect solemnity. "In the meantime, I'm going to have a talk with Ned about us cutting back on your workload for a while."

"No!" exclaimed Stephen. Papa had only barely cut him any slack when he unexpectedly collapsed. Now that the problem was fixable, if he tried to beg off work he would only end up with Papa standing over him every night, counting out two Vaxasopor and watching until he swallowed. "I can keep up! I swear I can keep up. Don't make me stop."

 

~*~

Night of Jimmy's 16th birthday.

Stuck at home again, although she'd managed to hang onto her phone by claiming she forgot it at work, Olivia hid out in her room and sent Jimmy a happy-birthday text, telling him to enjoy the party extra-hard on her behalf. Then she added a more generic tweet to the tens of thousands already deluging his Twitter account.

Basically everyone she knew (and liked) was going to the celebration. And the closest she was going to get herself would be when Kristen texted her a photo of the cake.

Or so she thought, until she got a text that didn't use the sound she'd associated with Kristen.

 

Tina F.
I know this is last minute but could you give me fashion advice maybe?

<3 Olivia <3
tbh I have stylists who do most of that 4 me but I can give it a shot!

Tina F.
I really just want to know if an outfit makes me look ummmm hot

Tina F.
Not that I think just because you like girls you would automatically find me hot

Tina F.
Not that I have such low self-esteem that I'm sure you would find me *not* hot

<3 Olivia <3
wow ok u gotta chill out here

<3 Olivia <3
just take a photo and send it, ok?

 

She sat back and waited for Tina to get it together enough to find a mirror, take a selfie, and figure out how to forward it.

Apparently Tina already had the photo waiting, because it showed up on her screen seconds later.

Olivia's jaw may or may not have dropped.

Tina was wearing a fitted black blouse with a satiny scooped neckline, not actually sheer but looking like it wanted to be. While her usual wardrobe fabric gave off the impression that her figure hadn't changed since her Weekend Update days, this was gathered in the front to show off a perky bustline Olivia hadn't realized she'd possessed. This was on top of dark jeans, just denim-y enough to be casual, but practically tight enough to be painted on. She'd done something with her hair to make it fall in spiraling brown waves, and had replaced her old glasses with a pair of slim black frames.

 

<3 Olivia <3
trust me on this one: u could not look hotter. go get ur man.

Tina F.
Who said anything about a man? I didn't say anything about a man

<3 Olivia <3
u didnt have to bb, ur cleavage said it 4 u ;)

 

It took a couple more texts for Olivia to convince Tina that this was a plus, but she was still feeling good. Sure, she might miss some of the night's events, but with at least one juicy detail she had gotten an exclusive sneak preview.

 

~*~

 

The turnout for cake and loud music at Jimmy's place was pretty good. Apparently he'd invited most of their fake classmates; Sam, Jason, Al, Sarah Vowell, and Susie Sampson had all made it, along with the more usual suspects of Tina, Kristen, Steve, Jon, and Stephen.

Jon had picked Stephen up to drive him over. In the sexy car. Stephen couldn't wait to catch Jimmy away from the non-it-getter crowd so he could gloat about it.

Speaking of sexy: Tina. Stephen might be gay, all right, but he wasn't blind. Plus, it wasn't like he could miss the way his BFF's gaze kept being drawn to various bits of her...and, to a lesser extent, his BF's gaze. He silently vowed keep Jon on a short leash tonight.

Everything went fine until he, Jon, Jimmy, Kristen, Sarah, and Al got into a musical-off.

Jon missed a song early and left the group, and of course Stephen couldn't just quit and follow him, especially not when Sarah turned out to have way more esoteric Broadway knowledge than anyone realized. And then Sarah beat him, so Stephen had to stick around and send as many good vibes as possible in Jimmy's direction, to make sure this usurper didn't beat both of them.

When Jimmy won, he accepted the applause and hugs, but kept scanning the room for a face that wasn't there. "Come on," said Stephen, grabbing his arm. "Let's go find Tina so I can tell her how you won."

"You really don't have to," said Jimmy, but he didn't fight all that hard.

No sign of her in the kitchen, the dining room, or the breakfast nook. Nobody on the deck out back.

A low light in the den. "Probably Gloria," whispered Jimmy. His older sister had joined them for cake, then taken off. "We shouldn't bother her."

"If it's her, we can still say hi," said Stephen, and pulled him across the threshold...

...to find Jon and Tina sitting alone together on a couch, sodas in hand and heads bowed towards each other, speaking in low, almost intimate voices.

Stephen cleared his throat. Loudly.

The cozy pair on the couch jumped away from each other, looking at him and Jimmy in the doorway. Was that guilt on their faces? Jimmy had frozen in place, and Stephen was holding his breath — he was not going to jump to conclusions, he wasn't going to be Bolt again, but what if — what would he do if —

Then Jon said, "Oh my god, I am not going to have my life devolve into bad-romantic-comedy shenanigans. Tina. Go. Do the thing, already."

"Yeah, no, I get it, I'm anti-shenanigan too." Tina stood up, strode across the burgundy carpet with as much conviction as Stephen had ever seen from her — took a deep breath — grabbed Jimmy — and kissed him. Hard.

Stephen backpedaled so fast he hit the wall.

Jimmy mmphed and flailed, and Tina had terrible form and kept the kiss going for way too long not to be awkward, but they sort of had their arms around each other by the time they pulled back (and Stephen could always give them more detailed pointers later). "I didn't even ask yet!" spluttered Jimmy. "I had all these great things to say — I wrote you a song!"

"Really?" Tina looked horrified. "Did I mess up your whole plan? Should we back up so you can play it for me first?"

"No!" said Jimmy breathlessly. "No, this is good."

Something touched Stephen's back, making him jump. He'd forgotten all about his own boyfriend. "You guys probably want to have some personal conversation here, so me and Stephen are gonna go grab some more cannolis," said Jon, squeezing his shoulder.

"Ooh, don't eat all of them, I want more of those," said Tina. "Also, thank you! For the encouragement. Probably should've said that first."

"Yeah, seriously, I owe you one," agreed Jimmy, grinning from ear to ear.

"Dude, no, think about that for a second." Jon let his arm fall possessively around Stephen's waist. "I'd say this makes us even."

Chapter Text

@Shout4StevieC
a spectacular view from my New Zealand trip!

Cloud-obscured view from a mountaintop

 

@Shout4StevieC
I did! you're welcome :) RT @FutureMrsColbert OMG what a masterful shot! @Shout4StevieC did you take that yourself?

@Shout4StevieC
of course! and he said they wouldn't come out. shows him! RT @AllIEverWanted76 so beautiful! was @Shout4JimmyFals at ur side when u took it?

@Shout4JStew
Uh, @Shout4StevieC, you know that shot is basically all clouds, right?

@Shout4StevieC
shut up @Shout4JStew they are very spectacular clouds.

 

~*~

Shout*For studio, afternoon.

It was Jon's turn to walk the dog during the break, while Stephen spent it lying on a couch and yearning for a nap. He plugged a hands-free headset into his phone, found Anthony's name in his contacts, then dropped the device in the pocket of his cargo shorts and focused on wrangling Briar Rose's leash.

"Jon!" exclaimed Anthony, when the call connected. "I'm surprised you have the nerve!"

"Would help if I knew what you were talking about, dude," said Jon cheerfully. Their calls took some planning to make the schedules and the time zones line up; if Anthony really didn't want to talk, he would've had plenty of time to let Jon know beforehand.

"You'll tweet about your expensive new car and your fancy Hollywood parties, but you can't even spare a follow for your own BFF? This is not in keeping with Shout*For's message of love and friendship."

The puppy stopped to inspect a parked car. Jon tried to encourage her to keep moving until they were on the shady side of the building, with no success. To Anthony, he said, "Okay, first of all, you are so full of it, and second? You haven't even told me your Twitter handle."

"Oh. I guess that would help," said Anthony, not even a little bit sheepish. Having a hot girlfriend was apparently doing wonders for his lack of shame. "It's CarlosDanger. All one word."

Jon sighed. "Of course it is. Should I out you as my friend, or do you want to keep under the radar?"

"Are you serious? Of course I don't want to keep under the radar! Do you know how many fakers are out there claiming to know one of you guys and lapping up the credulous-groupie spillover?"

"I try not to think about it," said Jon honestly. But yeah, now that Anthony mention it, obviously Jon couldn't let him get written off as part of that crowd. "A follow and a shoutout, coming up."

"About time," said Anthony. "Imagine how much spillover I'm gonna get when the groupies find out I'm genuine."

 

~*~

 

@Shout4JStew
My BFF's real name isn't @CarlosDanger...but he pretends it is on Twitter :) And yes, ladies, that icon *is* his real chest.

 

~*~

Star Girl studio, meanwhile.

The moment their lunch break hit, Olivia dragged Kristen back to her dressing room and shut the door. Kristen was back in school now, which meant she was only even in the studio every other week, and these days Olivia wasn't getting to see her after-hours.

"Mmph!" said Kristen, as Olivia pushed her against the wall and kissed the breath out of her. "I've missed you too."

"Everything is awful," moaned Olivia, burying her face in Kristen's neck and clinging to fistfuls of the taller girl's dress. "I'm having headaches and my hands keep shaking and Mom hasn't said anything nice to me in weeks and I don't get to see you. Mac even convinced Mom to let me keep going on these stupid fake dates, all the while I can't go out with my actual girlfriend."

"Shhh. It's gonna be okay," said Kristen hopefully, sweeping aside her hair to rub her shoulders. "Do you think we could convince Mac that we have some kind of very important practicing to do together off-set? Then let her deal with your mom."

"I dunno," said Olivia. Mac was clueless pretty often, but it wasn't something you could depend on.

"Or I could hit up Jon about fake-double-dating again. Maybe Stephen's mellowed about the whole idea. Or maybe Wyatt or Steve would go for it."

Olivia shook her head. "I wanna be with you without any of the guys around."

"Me too." Kristen thought about it, then said, "You know...none of the guys are around now."

"Whenever I'm alone in my dressing room, Mac sends someone to check on me every five minutes."

"Oh," said Kristen.

This was usually the point when she would say something about the injustice of it. Maybe make a reference to women's autonomy, freedom of choice, or discrimination against the young. Olivia waited for the speech; it never came. "Aren't you gonna get mad? Maybe talk about the larger ethical issues or whatever?"

Kristen squirmed in her grasp. "Well...yeah, but...you could've really hurt yourself, you know?"

"I don't believe this." Olivia wrenched herself away and glared at Kristen, who tried to do the innocent doll-eyes that were totally not winning Olivia over, not this time. "You make it sound like I tried to slit my wrists! People have a little too much to drink all the time. They sleep it off, they wake up the next morning and they're fine. That's all it was!"

"I believe you!" cried Kristen. "Your manager's overreacting!...Probably."

Olivia folded her arms. "You are a complete traitor."

Kristen batted her enviably long lashes. "But I'm a cute complete traitor...right?"

This was the point when a knock on the door interrupted them. It was Will, Olivia's vocal coach. "Hey there, girls. Olivia, I think I skipped an exercise with you earlier. Would you run through it with me real quick?"

"That is the lamest excuse I've ever heard," said Olivia. "Also, I'm pretty sure it violates child labor laws to make me do this on my break."

"Yeah, I know," said Will. "Can you just do it, so I can go back and tell Mac you did, and she won't hit me again?"

"You could tell Mac I did it either way."

"I'm pretty sure she can tell when I'm lying."

Olivia sighed. "Fine. Go for it."

Will sang a scale at her, mo-mo-mo-mo-mo-mo-mo. She sang it back. He thanked her profusely and left.

"Okay," said Kristen once the door was shut again, "I can see how that would get annoying real fast."

"Thank you," huffed Olivia. "Now come on, we've got about five minutes before someone else drops in, so let's make the most of it."

 

~*~

 

Just because the guys were only doing one full concert in the near future, that didn't mean Shout*For's dance coach was cutting them any slack. They had gotten away with not dancing in their smaller live performances recently: a talk show appearance here, a spot on an awards show there, nothing they couldn't handle with their instruments and their pretty faces. No more.

"Everything hurts," groaned Tucker as they staggered into the dressing room, clothes sticking to their backs.

"Maybe if you'd kept doing stretches, it wouldn't hurt so bad," suggested Jon. He peeled off his shirt, and Stephen tried not to stare, with mixed success.

"Maybe if you could manage to move in sync with the rest of us, Betty wouldn't keep us so late," shot back Tucker.

"We haven't even put together a routine yet! How out of sync can I be when we're doing one step at a time?"

"The standards for boy bands doing dance steps in sync are very high, Jon," Stephen reminded him. "It's so essential, the boy band from the '90s that launched Anderson Cooper even named itself after the requirement. You remember, 'ALL Together?"

"In my defense," said Jon, "my whole strategy for keeping up involves watching you and trying to match whatever you do."

Tucker rolled his eyes.

"Hey, don't knock it," said Jimmy, kicking off his shoes. "That was basically my strategy all through our Barney years."

"Great," said Tucker. "So if Jon only needed to keep up with a bunch of nine-year-olds, we'd be all set."

"Do you even realize who our core audience is?" demanded Jon. "The show that leads into ours is literally Mickey Mouse Clubhouse."

"I think maybe it's time to split you two up," said Jimmy. He nodded to Stephen, then cheerfully ushered Tucker through the door to the showers, while Stephen wrapped his arms around Jon's torso and held him back.

"You don't need to do that," grumbled Jon. "I was being more than reasonably civil."

"Maybe I just wanted to hug you," said Stephen. "Ever think of that?"

"Stephen, we're practically sticking together."

This was true. And kind of gross. Stephen pulled away, trying to pat down his chest with his balled-up T-shirt.

Jon, who had gotten more comfortable with stripping in the dressing room in direct proportion to Stephen getting more modest, hopped out of his shorts and stood there in nothing but boxers. Normally this was the point when he would have fled for a shower stall; instead he stared at the entryway until water started running, then said, "Hey, Stephen? About this Red Cross thing...."

"Uh-huh?" asked Stephen, who was holding most of his clothes in kind of a lump in front of himself.

"We're both just gonna not worry about the gay clause, right?"

Stephen started. "The Red Cross cares whether you're gay?"

"Well, they don't say it exactly like that, but...didn't you read the whole information thing?"

"I skimmed it," said Stephen defensively. "I would have read it all before the blood drive!" There were still a few days to go. Considering how he kept waking up at four in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep, he would have plenty of free time.

Jon sighed. "Right. Well. One of the questions they ask is...'Are you a man who has had sexual contact with another man, even once, since....' I don't remember the year, it's in the seventies."

Stephen froze up completely. He couldn't help it.

"No, it's okay!" insisted Jon. "They're using it to screen for HIV risk, right? Because that was so out-of-control thirty years ago with gay guys. And bi guys. And, you know, those guys who call themselves straight but still go around having sex with other men. But the whole thing they're worried about doesn't apply to us, because where are we gonna get an STI from? They don't spontaneously pop into existence. So we're not worrying about it. Right?"

"You said 'sexual contact'," said Stephen, mouth dry. "What does that mean? What's covered under that?"

"Dunno," said Jon with a shrug. "I think probably just, you know, blowjobs and, like, anal? I think. Nothing else is supposed to be risky. Even if we had anything to risk in the first place."

"If we don't have any risk, why did you bring it up?" hissed Stephen, clutching his clothes to his chest. He was scared, he was a hair's breadth from openly lying, and putting Jon on the defensive was the fastest way out he could think of. "Is there something you're not telling me?"

"What? No! I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page. Communication, openness, that's good, right?"

Stephen forced himself to nod, and concentrated on taking deep breaths.

With a sigh Jon turned and made a move toward the sounds of running water. Then he turned back. Then he reversed course and walked halfway to the entryway, before spinning on his heel and getting right up in Stephen's face. "Listen, I get that you're stressed right now," he said in a low voice. "And when it was just about Tina, I could deal with it. But now she's with Jimmy, and both of us are perfectly happy about it, and, and — and you've gotta quit accusing me of cheating on you, Stephen."

"I'm sorry!" squeaked Stephen. "I'm sorry. I know you won't."

Jon searched his eyes for a moment, then made a noise that might have been affirmative and disappeared into the showers.

 

~*~

 

@CarlosDanger
Hello, 15K new followers! Be the one to RT me the most times in the next 24 hours, and I will PM you @Shout4JStew's favorite variety of shampoo.

@Shout4JStew
Confidential to Twitter: Don't fall for @CarlosDanger's shameless lies. I don't even have a favorite shampoo.

 

Direct messages > with Carlos

@CarlosDanger
You do too. t.co/auk24m

@Shout4JStew
I am begging you not to spread this around.

@CarlosDanger
But a little harmless embarrassment is what friendship is all about!

@CarlosDanger
Besides, have you seen the traffic it's got me? You don't want to let all these loyal fans down, do you?

 

~*~

 

Olivia ended up getting to have a fake-double-date after all. It just wasn't any of the ones she had been hoping for.

They were at her favorite park, two photogenic teen couples and one adorable English toy spaniel, bodyguards hovering at a polite distance. Olivia and Stephen strolled slowly around the paths, occasionally stopping to let Briar Rose mark a palm tree, while Tina and Jimmy walked ahead of them, hand in hand.

"Does she have to giggle at everything he says?" asked Stephen under his breath. Like Olivia, he was hiding his eyes behind sunglasses, though his arched brows were expressive enough on their own. "Jimmy's funny, but he's not that funny."

"I don't think they've let go of each other's hands since we got here," grumbled Olivia. They had fallen maybe twenty feet behind the real couple, so she wasn't worried about being overheard. "Who needs to hold hands that much, seriously?"

Tina said something to Jimmy, gesturing with her free hand. He cracked up, then bent over to drop a quick kiss on her cheek.

"It's not that I mind them being happy," said Olivia. "It's just...do they have to flaunt their heterosexuality like that?"

"I know!" said Stephen, shaking his head in disapproval. "I mean, come on, we're in public here."

They took a detour to the edge of the lake to throw some bread for the ducks. At least, Olivia thought they were ducks. They might have been ugly swans, or something. She wasn't exactly a bird expert. "Hang on, let me take a picture of these birds and make Kristen look them up."

"Why?" asked Stephen, genuinely confused. "Who cares? They're just birds....No, sweetie, they're not for you," he added, hauling the dog backward.

Olivia glared at him. "This is why I'm texting Kristen about it, instead of talking to you."

"Well, excuse me for not measuring up," sulked Stephen. "It's not like I have Jon here either, you know."

They started walking again, Olivia wobbling along the path that traced the edge of the water as she focused on thumb-typing. With the message sent, she told her fake boyfriend, "At least you get to see Jon outside work. I'm still super-grounded, remember?"

"Right, right." Stephen frowned. "So...that means you could hang out with Kristen if it was work-related?"

"That's a tall 'if'."

"Maybe not," said Stephen. "My dad's having a party this weekend at our house. The kind where he's trying to network for me, so all the guests are bigwigs in different part of the profession that I get to show off in person for. What if you were invited? That would be work-related, right?"

Olivia perked up. "That sounds pretty convincing, yeah."

"Papa doesn't like me sharing my spotlight, so he probably wouldn't let me invite more than one person," added Stephen. "But maybe I had Kristen over that afternoon to watch a movie. And maybe she's still hanging out in my room when the guests start arriving."

The shriek Olivia made startled at least half a dozen ducks into panicked flight. "Ohmigod, you're the best!" she exclaimed, throwing her arms around Stephen. "I love you so much."

Moments later, they caught up with Jimmy and Tina, who had stopped walking to look at them in mild astonishment. "C'mon, guys, you don't have to overdo it," said Tina. "It's okay to be a little subtle, you know?"

 

~*~

 

The Red Cross promotional event was an unqualified success. Sure, Stephen got scared of the needle and had to have Brian come hold his hand while it went in, and Tucker briefly passed out at the snack table afterward (even Jon was worried about him for a moment)...but they all came out of it fine. The press got a bunch of photos of Shout*For showing off their matching bandages, and six excited raffle winners got to do a meet-and-greet with the band afterward.

"Probably shouldn't have let them stick the needle in my autograph-signing arm," reflected Jon on the ride home. They were strictly forbidden from driving for the next twenty-four hours, so they had all been ushered into the same limo for the trip.

"Does it hurt?" asked Stephen, directly next to Jon on the long bench of seats that ran along the side of the car. He seemed like he was trying to be extra-caring around Jon lately, which was all right with Jon.

"Kinda sore, that's all," said Jon. "Hey, listen...do you want to hang out tonight?"

"Yes! Sure, of course!" exclaimed Stephen...and then, missing the point completely, turned to Jimmy. "You're not busy, are you?"

To Jon's great relief, Jimmy said, "Actually, I was invited over to dinner at Tina's tonight."

That seemed fast. But maybe Jon's sense of relationships wasn't the greatest. Maybe this was normal when you were dating someone openly, and lived in the same time zone as your parents.

"Congratulations," said Tucker from the far end of the line.

"It's just dinner," said Jimmy, though he couldn't hold back a really soppy grin. (Did Jon ever look like that around Stephen?) "Nothing we haven't done before."

Oh, right. Tina and Jimmy had also known each other for almost as long as Jimmy and Stephen had. That probably sped up the process too.

"So how about you, Tucker?" asked Jon. Maybe he was just lightheaded or something, but he was feeling genuine goodwill toward everyone in the car. "Gotten anywhere with what's-her-face? The hot blonde with the weird name?"

That might not have been the best way to phrase it. Tucker glared at him like a thundercloud. "If you mean Gretchen, we are just friends, and there is nothing wrong with her name."

"I didn't say anything was wrong with it! I'm just saying it's a little nonstandard," protested Jon. "And, let's be real here, you're probably not the best judge of names. I mean, 'Tucker Swanson McNear Carlson'? What were your parents trying to do, win a pretentiousness contest?"

"According to family tradition, my parents gave me both of their last names," said Tucker icily. "It's a very forward-thinking custom. You'd probably appreciate it more if you thought either of your parents were important enough to keep the name of."

Jon was sitting up straight in an instant, leaning towards Tucker with clenched fists, aware that both Stephen and Jimmy were bracing themselves to hold him down. "Take that back."

Tucker flinched, but held his ground. "Why should I? It's true!"

"The hell it is! You can make fun of me all you want, but you have no right to bring my mother into this. Take it the fuck back, or I swear we will throw down right here."

Abruptly, Jimmy stepped in, addressing Tucker. "Seriously, that was over the line."

Stephen nodded. "If you said I didn't love my mother, I'd probably try to hit you too."

"I didn't say —" But for once, it seemed to be sinking in for Tucker that he'd been an asshole. "I — okay, okay. Jon loves his mother, cares about her, respects her, I'm sorry I suggested otherwise."

It was enough to make Jon sit back. He kept his mouth shut, teeth grinding so hard it hurt. Silence was the nicest Tucker was going to get from him right now.

The limo stopped at Jon's house first; he and Stephen got out together. He didn't realize until Stephen tried to hold his hand that it was still tensed into a fist.

 

~*~

 

Stephen braceleted his fingers around Jon's wrist and pulled his boyfriend safely inside.

"Welcome home!" called the voice of Jon's Aunt Ruth from the kitchen. "How did it go? I made you some high-protein snacks...." She emerged into the front room, holding a tray of deviled eggs, cheese-and-deli-meat kebabs, and some kind of cookies. "...to help you get back up to full....Honey, are you okay?"

"Fine," said Jon tightly, and yanked out of Stephen's grip to head upstairs without looking at her.

Stephen stayed behind for long enough to relieve Jon's aunt of the food. "We're doing great, thank you, ma'am," he said politely, before carrying it after Jon.

He got to Jon's room just in time to see Jon kick the side of the bed.

Finding the nearest bookshelf, Stephen cleared away a couple of Star Wars action figures to make space to set down the food, and shut the door firmly behind them. "Jon...?"

"Do people really think that?" demanded Jon, now pacing the carpet. "I don't care about my dad's last name, seriously, fuck that name, but do people think that because I didn't take my mom's —?"

"No," said Stephen, without a second of hesitation. That was part of the basic Shout*For data set. Even if you were the kind of casual fan who could get their favorite colors or dream vacation spots mixed up, you couldn't miss that Jimmy and Stephen were best friends, and you couldn't miss that Jon cared about his mother. "Nobody thinks that. That would be stupid."

Jon turned to face him, eyes red. "Well, why didn't I?"

Stephen didn't know, and said so.

"It's not like it wouldn't have been an option," continued Jon. "It's Laskin. That's a nice neutral-sounding name, right? I mean, it's still pretty Jewish, but it's not, like, a -witz or a -stein. They might have gone for it. I didn't even ask."

His voice broke over the last word.

There didn't seem to be anything to do except pull him over to the bed, where they sat side-by-side on the navy blue sheets and Jon hid a couple of sobs in his hands. Stephen hated seeing him like this. For one thing, some people could cry in an attractive way, but Jon was not one of them. For another, it meant Jon was upset and Stephen couldn't do anything about it.

It didn't take long for Jon to pull himself under control. Stephen was relieved when Jon finally leaned against his shoulder; it meant Stephen was bringing something useful to the situation. He looped an arm around Jon's shoulders and said, "Did you think about it at the time? Using your mom's name, I mean."

Jon shook his head. "Didn't even occur to me," he hiccuped.

"Well, how were you supposed to ask for it if you didn't think of it? That doesn't make sense."

"But I could've thought of it," protested Jon. "People with divorced parents do it all the time. Isn't rocket science."

"But you didn't," said Stephen. "Jon, you are very smart, but even you can't know everything."

For a long moment Jon was quiet. "If there's one thing I hate about me, it's how much stuff I don't know."

It was a shock to Stephen's system. On top of being smart, Jon was supposed to be confident: you could call it "arrogant" or "self-righteous" if you wanted to be negative, but it wasn't like he never admitted he was wrong. He just didn't let it affect his underlying self-assurance. And he definitely wasn't supposed to hate anything about himself.

That was supposed to be left to people like Stephen. (And Olivia, he thought absently.)

"I probably know less stuff than you do," he said in a low voice. "Except when it comes to musicals. And The Lord of the Rings. And Catholicism, and playing piano, and the Disney animated canon, and...my point is, do you hate that about me, too?"

"No," sniffled Jon. "'Course not."

"Then you should stop it," said Stephen fiercely.

Some of the tension finally went out of Jon, letting his body relax against Stephen's. "I'll try."

It occurred to Stephen that he knew another way to help. "You know, now that we're both down a pint...I may not be a scientific expert, but I understand that when the body has less blood in it, that means certain chemical-type substances affect it more quickly. So if we wanted to use certain substances as efficiently as possible, now would be the time to do it."

Though his nose was still red and his eyes kind of bloodshot, Jon's smile was earnest. "Stephen! Are you actually suggesting we get high?"

"I'm pointing out a basic fact of science," said Stephen primly. "Whatever conclusions you draw from it are your own business."

 

~*~

 

@Shout4JStew
just fyi dear audience: my mom is the best

@Shout4JStew
also the best: these cookies omg. t.co/oa42t98

 

~*~

 

It was around midnight when Jon woke up. His own fault, letting himself take a "nap" in the early evening.

Stephen was still fast asleep in the bed beside him.

Jon would have gladly stayed there, but he was thirsty. Plus, a couple of scented candles, reduced to puddles of molten wax, were still burning on the windowsill. He blew them out, grabbed the last cookie from the tray of food he and Stephen had mostly demolished, and ate it on the walk downstairs.

Lights were on in the sitting room, along with some of his aunt's music. Jon had retrieved a couple of Pepsis from the fridge when she called his name, and he reluctantly followed the sound. "Yeah?"

Aunt Ruth was in one of the armchairs, apparently trying to knit something from a pattern on the laptop beside her. Or maybe it was crocheting, Jon didn't know. "When I saw you were out, I called your friend's house to say he was sleeping over," she told him, fiddling with the needles. "I think I got the maid. Nice woman."

"Thanks."

"You boys really should be more careful."

Jon's mind raced. Was she talking about forgetting to call Stephen's dad, or something else? She said she'd looked in while they were sleeping — he'd put all the weed away after Stephen dozed off, right? And thanks to the candles, the room smelled mostly of pumpkin and vanilla by now — although come to think of it, he should have blown those out, that was pretty stupid. Maybe she meant casually sharing a bed with Stephen? Though they'd both fallen asleep in their clothes, and even if they hadn't, he shouldn't have to worry about what he did with Stephen in his own house....

"You crashed my favorite recipe blog, sending it so much traffic," continued his aunt. "Maybe next time you could keep those links shared between friends, instead of telling all of Twitter?"

"Oh!" said Jon. "Yeah, okay. I can do that."

Chapter Text

Morning, the Star Girl studio.

"Oh, wow, Sadie," breathed Olivia, barely even acting. "You look beautiful."

Kristen — in the wardrobe designers' idea of a classy junior-prom dress, which was glittery and asymmetrical and totally not her style, but which she was making work for her regardless — blushed. "Gosh, Lisa, you think so?"

"I don't have to think," said Olivia. Okay, this part took a little acting, delivering such ridiculous lines with absolute sincerity. "I know so." On impulse, she caressed Kristen's arm, as they gazed into each other's eyes.

"Cut!" shouted Charlie from the director's chair. "Girls, girls, what is this? We are not filming softcore lesbian porn, here!"

Softly, so that their mics wouldn't pick it up, Kristen whispered, "We're not? Then what's the point?"

Olivia manged to keep it together long enough to do one more take, which Charlie decided was acceptable. When the shooting was done and they were back in their normal clothes, she rendezvoused with Kristen at lunch. "You should totally be writing for this show," she said as they dithered over which yogurt cups to grab. "You're so much funnier than anybody here."

"Only because there's no competition," said Kristen. "You've been watching Gravity Falls, right?"

"Are you kidding? I don't miss an episode. But I tend to zone out when Mabel isn't on screen."

"You are so missing out," Kristen chided her. "The stuff we rehearse that doesn't make it into the final cut is still ten times better than anything I can write. And believe me, I've tried."

She scooped up a chicken wrap and veered away from the dining area altogether, heading for the doors. Olivia grabbed the first sandwich she could get her hands on and trotted to catch up. "C'mon, can't you stay a little longer? At least have lunch at the studio."

Kristen grimaced. "I can't. Mom told school I'd be back in time for fifth period, and my lit teacher threatened to drop my grade if I show up late again."

"Hey, you're participating in creating literature! Sort of," said Olivia. Scripts that were written to be performed still counted as literature, right? It worked for Shakespeare. "That has to count for something, right? Tell her...."

"Tell her that I'm deconstructing archetypes and motifs from mythology, folklore, and classical horror literature and recontextualizing them in a modern narrative reflecting the sensibilities of 21st-century youth? I mean in Gravity Falls, not Star Girl, obviously."

"Obviously!" agreed Olivia with a nervous laugh. "And yeah, that sounds great! Try that."

Kristen shook her head. "That's the one I used last week."

"Oh."

They stopped in the middle of the hall; Kristen shifted her lunch-to-go and the associated plastic utensils into one arm, freeing up a hand to tuck some of Olivia's long dark hair behind her ear. "I don't like it either," she said, with that particular adorable pinup mournfulness she was unexpectedly good at. "But if my grades tank, my parents can totally pull me out of acting for the year. They can still do that, you know. I don't have crazy-powerful managers who can roll right over them like you do."

"Yeah," said Olivia glumly. It was too bad. Managers who could override her mom were basically making her life bearable right now. "See you tomorrow night, I guess."

"See you then."

After seeing Kristen off, instead of going back to the buffet, Olivia took her sandwich and yogurt to her dressing room. She'd settled on vanilla for the latter, which was just begging to have something with a kick added in. And since she'd started concealing her work stash of vodka in a couple of (well-washed) perfume bottles, Mac and Will and the rest still hadn't noticed that she was keeping it around again.

 

~*~

Meanwhile, at the Shout*For studio.

It was fine for Jon's TV character to get a romance with a character whose actress was officially unattached, but when Jimmy started dating Tina IRL, that plan went out the window.

The director of their show complained a lot about having to change all the scripts. Stephen didn't understand what the problem was. "See, Jon? Your character really did only like Taylor as a friend all along! Just like I said!"

Jon didn't understand what there was to complain about either. "Only because the writers took all my lines for the romance scenes and gave them to Jimmy! And then Craig has the nerve to act like we've screwed up his grand creative vision for these deep and well-developed characters? Give me a break."

It had barely taken one scene to redirect the arc. The gimmick with Jimmy's character was that he was always trying to matchmake his friends; all they had to do was show him extolling the virtues of "Taylor" to "Jon", and then to have "Jon" turn around and say, "Geez, Jimmy, maybe you should ask her out!" Just like that, now Jimmy and Tina were alone on one of the "school" sets, barely even acting, just being effortlessly adorable for the cameras.

(Jon and Stephen were hanging out on the sidelines watching. They were already dressed and made-up for the next scene, and didn't have anything else to do until then.)

"I don't know why you can't appreciate this amazing storytelling," grumbled Stephen.

"Hey, I appreciate some things about it," said Jon. Lowering his voice even further — they were already talking quietly, and everyone in the room was too busy working on filming to pay attention anyway, but it couldn't hurt — he continued, "I appreciate that I didn't have to kiss Tina after all."

"Oh, I'm sure that would have been fine," said Stephen, like he hadn't been the one distraught about the possibility just weeks earlier. "She's cute and she's nice, so you wouldn't have hated it, right? And considering what she looks like, it wouldn't have been hard to imagine a certain even-more-attractive face, which would help you sell it."

"Do people really do that?" asked Jon. "I feel like it would just be distracting, trying to stay in the moment and picture somebody else all at once."

"I've done it," said Stephen promptly. "Like, with Olivia in The Princess and the Pop Star, I —"

He stopped, and inexplicably clammed up. Jon scanned the area around them to double-check that nobody was too close. Sure enough, the crew were all still busy, and their chairs were close to the wall so it wasn't like anybody could sneak up behind them. "What is it?" he asked under his breath.

"Well, obviously it needed to be someone attractive," muttered Stephen. "And of a certain genetic configuration. And of the right, you know...height."

Jon frowned. "What guys do we know who are as short as Olivia?"

Stephen shot him an uncomfortable glance before averting his gaze, biting his lip.

"Oh, come on," whispered Jon. "I have at least four inches on her."

In a soft voice, Stephen answered, "She was wearing heels."

Jon opened his mouth to complain further — high heels be damned, Olivia was still tiny — when his brain caught up with what this meant. "Hang on. Back then, we weren't...I mean, that was like two months before we...."

"Well, I always knew you were objectively attractive," said Stephen, flushed even in the low light over here. "And like I said, it was mostly height-based."

Before they could get into it any further, someone really did come over to pick them up. "Come on, boys, it's time for audio checks. Let's get to the auditorium set."

They were doing yet another of the show's amazingly cutsey musical numbers: after "Jimmy" tried to tell "Taylor" how he felt, he would bring her to the "school auditorium", where his "three BFFs" were ready with their instruments to back him up as he sang her a love song. (One of Shout*For's latest hits, of course.) Jon alternated between thinking it was stupidly cheesy, and wishing he didn't suck at actual songwriting so he could do something like that for Stephen.

Tucker had been conjured up from somewhere, and the three of them lined up with their instruments: Jon and Tucker on their guitars, Stephen today on keyboard, freeing Jimmy up to do the solo.

Each of them played a scale or two. The sound guys reported that it all checked out. It wasn't long before Craig showed up, the actors were all ordered into their places, and the lights on the stage were dimmed. (Apparently "Jimmy" had also coordinated the whole stunt with people in his school's theater department. Not that it ever came up in the script. To watch the show, you'd think professional-quality stage lighting just magically appeared when people started singing.)

In the semidarkness, Jon fingered his E-string, tried to come up with things he could do for Stephen, and waited for his cue.

 

~*~

 

<3 Olivia <3
important non-tv-high-school question here:

<3 Olivia <3
is jr prom a real thing schools have?

Kristen ☜(゚ヮ゚☜)
I don't know about all schools, but mine does.

<3 Olivia <3
oh, ok

<3 Olivia <3
just a thought, stop me if Im bein crazy

<3 Olivia <3
would u invite me?

Kristen ☜(゚ヮ゚☜)
OMG are you kidding? In a heartbeat!

<3 Olivia <3
assumin Im even ungrounded by then ofc

Kristen ☜(゚ヮ゚☜)
If not, at least you'll be 18 by the time senior prom comes around, so you can do what you want.

<3 Olivia <3
& assumin Im not scheduled 2 be in NY or whatever

<3 Olivia <3
oh hey, ok, when Im 18 I can make my own schedule :)

<3 Olivia <3
if were even still 2gether. not that I dont want 2 b! but u know us crazy bisexuals, cant ever settle down w/ just 1 person...

Kristen ☜(゚ヮ゚☜)
Haven't you heard? The word bisexual is a problem because it reinforces the idea that gender is binary.

<3 Olivia <3
srsly?

Kristen ☜(゚ヮ゚☜)
Don't you pay attention on Tumblr at all?

<3 Olivia <3
u know perfectly well my tumblr xperience is srsly filtered against any1 likely 2 have opinions on whether Im a feminist role model

<3 Olivia <3
also afaict Im attracted to 2 kinds of ppl

<3 Olivia <3
the kind I can admit 2 & the kind I have 2 keep in the dark

Kristen ☜(゚ヮ゚☜)
Ooh, that's so insightful! Do you mind if I steal that for my next paper?

<3 Olivia <3
depends.

<3 Olivia <3
will ur teachers believe u if u say "full credit 2 Lisa Munn"?

 

~*~

 

Jon drove Stephen back to his place after work, but told Stephen and the puppy to wait downstairs. Alone.

Stephen did a bit of pacing. Jon's aunt passed them on her way out, exchanging a couple of hurried hellos — apparently she had a book club to get to — before disappearing without a backward glance. Briar Rose jumped up on the couch. Since Stephen wasn't sure if she was allowed to be there, he decided to play it safe and not tell her off.

Finally Jon called, "Okay, you can come up!"

The strange smell hit Stephen halfway down the hall. It wasn't bad, exactly, just impossible to place: not weed, not any other kind of plant he knew, not any food he recognized either.

Then Jon ushered Stephen into his room, and everything became clear. The blinds were down, the lights were off, and Jon had lined the place with the bright, fragrant flames of at least two dozen of those assorted scented candles Stephen had ordered for him.

"Figured I should at least try to use them," he said with forced nonchalance. "I, uh, probably should have tested the smell combination beforehand."

"I think they're wonderful," said Stephen. "Now sit down and don't move while I figure out which ones to blow out."

Jon sat politely on the edge of the bed while Stephen circled the room. Out went the mango candle in the tin on Jon's computer desk, the tall pine one standing between a couple of Batman figurines, the vanilla-coconut one burning on the windowsill. The honeysuckle in the glass jar on the shelf with his Springsteen records could stay, as did the prettily-colored lavender one on the low bookshelf against the bed, and the rose one carved in the shape of an actual rose.

"I'm like some kind of cool-candle-finding savant," he observed at the end of his task, collapsing backward onto the mattress.

Jon took a deep breath. "Oh, that's much better. Did you use some kind of cologne scent-combination principles or something?"

"Huh? No, I just blew out all the ones that weren't flowers. Especially the Christmas ones. Those are totally not in season yet."

"Wait, which ones were Christmas ones?"

So Stephen explained how gingerbread, pine trees, pumpkin bread, cinnamon, and peppermint were all totally the property of Christmas, and couldn't possibly be taken in a secular context. Jon made the occasional humming sort of noise of interest, which Stephen took for agreement and appreciation.

Until Jon lay down beside him and started kissing his neck. "Mmmm."

"Jon! Are you even listening to me?"

"'Course I was. You were being ridiculous," said Jon cheerfully. "You can keep going if you want. It's cute."

"There is nothing ridiculous about the pine tree being a Christian conifer," sulked Stephen.

Jon looped an arm over his chest. "Don't worry about it. If you weren't ridiculous sometimes, I might forget to appreciate it those times when you're really awesome."

With that, he nipped at Stephen's earlobe.

Stephen squeaked in surprise, and rolled to face Jon for some nice normal kissing on the lips. (With a brief pause to fumble off his glasses and set them down next to the rose candle.)

For a follow-up, Jon hooked a leg over Stephen's and rolled their hips together, sending a shock of heat through Stephen's body and making him writhe in pleasure. So far, so normal. Jon always did most of the sexual escalation, with Stephen happily following his lead. And if Stephen got anxious about turning his boyfriend down sometimes, it was okay, because Jon was so good about not pushing him too far.

Except that tonight, Jon didn't seem to be pushing at all.

He settled into the slow grind, and stayed there. It wasn't that he was having a hard time getting it up; Stephen could feel Jon's erection swelling just fine against his own. For some reason Jon just wasn't rushing to push his arousal to a climax. Unlike every other time they'd been together, he was staying calm and present, enjoying it for what it was in the moment.

It was gentle. It was loving. It was starting to drive Stephen crazy.

Wherever Jon had gotten this upwelling of Zen from, it wasn't contagious. Stephen wanted to pump his hips faster. He wanted to grab himself and stroke...or maybe to grab Jon's hand, and drag that down to handle the stroking instead. He wanted to grab Jon. What would Jon feel like, thrusting into his fist? How would it sound when he came in Stephen's grip?

The mental images went straight to Stephen's gut, glowing like coals. He clung to Jon's back, only to feel the muscles shift and the spine curve as Jon's body moved, which made it that much worse.

This time he was totally lucid, too. No Vaxasopor fugue or alcoholic stupor to mess with his head...which meant Jon had no reason to put on the brakes. Any time Stephen wanted, he could go for it, and it would happen. Right this second, even.

But if he gave in to his urges...well, he wouldn't be ruined by them (Jon said that was BS and Stephen believed him), but he'd be different somehow, and, and....

Shaking, he gave Jon a gentle push and wriggled backwards.

Jon let him go. Not that Jon himself stopped moving; he just started moving his hips in a lazy parabola against the bed, keeping up a slow but steady level of friction. "What is it?"

"I can't," said Stephen, and then waved frantically toward Jon's pelvis. "Do you have to do that?"

"Wha...?" Jon's face twisted in confusion. "You don't even want me to...Stephen, are you trying to kill me, here?"

Stephen felt miserable. Of course it wasn't fair of him to shut Jon down like that. Jon wasn't asking anything Stephen hadn't happily done with him before.

When he didn't get an answer, Jon said, "Is there something going on?"

"What?"

"I mean...if there was something wrong, you would tell me? If I did something wrong, or if you were worried, or...or anything."

With all the derision he could muster, which was plenty, Stephen said, "Jon, when was the last time you heard me not complain about something?"

"Just thought I would check," said Jon defensively. "Listen, if you're not in the mood...if you want to maybe run downstairs for five minutes, I could, you know, take care of it."

That was a compromise Stephen could live with. Especially if it gave him five minutes alone in a bathroom. "Yes, please."

 

~*~

 

On the night of the Col-bert networking party, Mac once again had to argue Olivia out from under Mom's clutches. At least this time Olivia was dressed and ready when her manager showed up. And since it wasn't a public event, she could get away with wearing a navy skirt that showed off most of her thighs and a lacy white blouse that undercut just a bit of cleavage.

Stephen's house was all lit up and surrounded by expensive cars. Inside, someone took their coats and showed them through to the main room, where Mac cooed in excitement at some of the guests. "Oh my, is that Lisa Lambert? I've been trying to convince her that a line inspired by your fashion sense would be a great opportunity for ages. Come on, let's go say hello!"

"You do that," said Olivia. "I gotta find Stephen, okay?"

With a brief trip to the sommelier first. There were a lot of important strangers around here, and she needed to be able to deal.

After downing a tall glass of red wine from a county in France whose name she couldn't even pronounce, Olivia was relaxed enough to rendezvous with Stephen. Her fake boyfriend and his creepy manager were talking with a toned, dark-haired Jewish woman, who didn't seem bothered by the way Ned kept running his hand down the back of Stephen's semi-formal jacket.

Olivia threw her arms around Stephen, incidentally knocking Ned away. "Hi, honey! Who's your new friend? Introduce me!"

"Olivia! Hi," said Stephen, blushing. "This is Allison Silverman. She writes people's autobiographies for them. Allison, this is Olivia Munn. But you probably knew that."

"Pleasure to meet you," said Allison, holding out a hand. She probably expected a handshake, but Olivia was too busy hugging Stephen to clue in on that until it was too late, and the ghostwriter tactfully withdrew. "Stephen overstates my job a little. All I do is talk to people who want to write an autobiography and help them get their thoughts in order."

"She'll have her hands full with Stephen," put in Ned. "He's got thoughts going all over the place, don't you, buddy?"

"Stephen is very thoughtful, yes," said Olivia sweetly. "Speaking of being thoughtful, sweetie, wasn't there something you promised to do for me tonight...?"

"Oh! Yes, of course," stammered Stephen. "Excuse us for a minute."

As they headed away, Olivia steered them to the left.

"The guest room Kristen's in is that way," hissed Stephen, trying to tug her to the right.

"And the sommelier is this way," whispered Olivia. "C'mon, it's a party! We gotta celebrate properly."

The makeshift bartender was happy to pour them each a fresh glass. Arm-in-arm, Stephen led Olivia around through a corridor that was mostly empty, and up one of the back staircases.

A series of vaguely-familiar eight-by-ten headshots, some of them featuring children and none of them older than maybe twenty, lined the upstairs hallway. "Wow, who are these people?"

"Well, that one's me." Stephen pointed to a startled-looking toddler. "And that one, and that one, and this one over here, and the other one...All the ones that aren't me are my brothers and sisters. Our parents frame a new photo whenever we start a major new project. That was me when I got my first commercial spot. Towards the end there is the one from when the band started."

"Gosh," said Olivia. "They must be really proud of you."

Stephen looked kind of affronted. "Of course they are. Why wouldn't they be? We're amazing."

He'd been using present tense this whole time, and it struck Olivia that this didn't match up. "All these photos are really young, though. Your siblings are a lot older than this by now, right? What do your parents do for the stuff they've accomplished after their twenties?"

"None of them stayed in showbiz after that."

"Yeah, but they must have done other stuff. Didn't one of your brothers pass the bar exam?"

"Lots of people pass the bar exam," scoffed Stephen. "But it isn't just anybody who can say they were on Barney and Friends." He knocked on a door, through which Olivia could hear the faint sound of a TV. "Kristen? I brought you a present!"

There was a scrambling sound, and the clicking of a lock. "For me?" exclaimed Kristen, swinging the door open and clasping her hands. "You shouldn't have!"

 

~*~

 

Stephen handed Kristen her glass of wine and took off, leaving her and Olivia to hang out together and watch TV and braid each other's hair and whatever else it was that two girlfriends did together. (He still wasn't totally sure. Even the fanfiction where he and Jimmy were "Stephanie" and "Jamie" hadn't done much to clear things up.)

Unlike Olivia, he was excited to get back down and rejoin the crowd. A few dozen people who all wanted to see firsthand how wonderful he was? What could be better than that?

He got lost in conversation with a brilliant director who talked at him about how to make a moving, heartstring-yanking romance, and dropped hints that his ideal eye-candy-for-the-ladies male lead would look a lot like Stephen-in-ten-years. Papa found them just in time to catch that last bit, mentioned that in his opinion Stephen's acting skills were worthy of any movie you could possibly throw them at, and moved on, leaving Stephen with a warm glow inside.

The glow lasted exactly up to the point when Ned's arm went around him again. "C'mere a minute, Stephen. We need to talk."

Stephen was not moving a single inch with his manager for anything less than the house being on fire. "We can talk here."

"It's confidential," said Ned. "Business. Just you, your father, and me."

Oh. That was different. As far as Stephen was concerned, "Papa wants you to be there" ranked right up there with "the house is on fire" in terms of reasons to go somewhere.

They met up in Papa's study, evocatively dark with only a few yellow lamps to throw light on the oak paneling and the leather furniture. "Congratulations, son," said Papa by way of greeting. "Allison Silverman is interested in a book deal."

"That's great!" exclaimed Stephen. "Wait, are we talking about a memoir? Or something else? Maybe a children's book? I have at least one idea for a bestselling children's book."

"We're talking about a memoir," said Ned, ruffling his hair.

Stephen tried not to wince. This was awesome news, after all. At sixteen and a half, he had a ton of memories to share, and the regular interviews he did with the band didn't do them justice. The world deserved better! "Sounds perfect. When do I start writing?"

"That's where we run into the problem," said Papa. "Allison's standard schedule doesn't fit into yours. There aren't enough hours in your day."

"Not while you're sixteen, at least," added Ned.

"Oh," said Stephen, not bothering to hide his disappointment. So much for his big dream of authorship. Even Papa couldn't change his age, or make time slow down so that he could get more done in an hour....

"Which is why I've suggested, and your father has agreed, that it's time you apply for emancipation."

Papa nodded. "Elizabeth did the same thing when she was around your age. Do you remember?"

"Kind of," said Stephen. That would've been during his That's So Rachel days. His sister had been in a musical or something, hadn't she? And they had needed her to work practically all day. That had been Elizabeth's last big project, before she abandoned the art world for business school. "I would be able to work full days, right? And...would I have to handle my own accounts and things?"

"I'll keep handling your finances and contracts," Papa assured him. "You won't have anything extra to worry about. And talking with Allison won't be physically demanding, although of course you can go back to your prescribed Vaxasopor dose if it does become too taxing."

That little complication hadn't even occurred to Stephen. "Can I have some time to think about this?"

Papa folded his arms. "Is there a problem, son?"

"No! Not a problem! I just...want to make a sober, rational consideration of my options?" The phrase sounded good in Stephen's head. Spoken, though, it wasn't making much of a dent in his father's disapproval.

"Go ahead and head back out," offered Ned, addressing Papa. "I'll talk to him."

 

~*~

 

"Bite me," whispered Olivia.

The only light in the room came from the TV, which was playing a nice soothing documentary of humpback whales to cover any noise they made. Shades of blue played over Kristen's face as she pouted. "Rude."

"I didn't mean that like 'you suck'," said Olivia crossly. Like she would risk interrupting things now, with Kristen down to her underwear and Olivia herself naked from the waist up. "I meant, like...would you bite me?"

"Ohhhh," breathed Kristen. "I get it now."

She kissed her way down Olivia's neck and sank her teeth into the soft skin of Olivia's shoulder, right where it would be concealed by the collar of her discarded top. The jolt of adrenaline made Olivia's whole body shiver. Oh, but that was good.

 

~*~

 

Stephen lay in bed, unmoving, staring at his fish.

He was still in his clothes. Hadn't even managed to kick off his shoes. The lights were out, but of course he hadn't taken any pills yet, so there was no chance he'd fall asleep. He just didn't have the energy to do anything.

(Briar Rose, not similarly affected, was snoozing peacefully at the foot of his bed.)

Time passed at a crawl. It might not have been passing at all, except that eventually he heard the rumble of cars starting up outside, the guests leaving.

It was stupid. Didn't make any sense. All Ned had done tonight was kiss him, which was practically one of the least awful things he'd put Stephen through. Certainly not bad enough to make him feel like there were lead weights strapped to all his limbs, like he was constantly sinking in spite of being on a solid surface.

That sure wasn't a problem for his fish. In the moon-bright water of the aquarium, Pluto, Perdita, Copper, Lady, Slinky, Zero, and Max paddled around without a care in the world.

Chapter Text

With half a concert's worth of dance routines under their belts and hair still wet from their post-practice showers, the guys (minus Tucker, as tended to be the case these days) hung out in the instrument room for their break.

Jimmy noodled around on the piano, waiting for Tina to show up. Jon browsed his Twitter feed, debating whether it would be worth getting into considerable trouble to retweet the link to a Buzzfeed article titled "21 Reasons Tucker Carlson Is The Worst Shout*For Member." (It seemed to be mostly gifs of Tucker looking like a killjoy compared to the rest of the band, which didn't nearly scratch the surface of his true dickishness, but you took what you could get.)

And Stephen...he was lying on the bench with his head pillowed on Jon's thigh, uncharacteristically quiet. He must have been more tired than usual.

At last Tina breezed in. "Hi, guys! Do me a favor and make sure you have me Facebook friended?"

"Sure," said Jon, finally breaking away from the temptation of staring at the Buzzfeed link. He didn't use Facebook much, since he was paranoid about weird family drama being screencapped and shared around the Internet, even with his profile locked down by as many privacy controls as he could figure out.

In his lap, Stephen didn't move, but grunted in assent.

"I know I already do," said Jimmy with a grin as Tina took a seat next to him on the piano bench. "Why? Something you're planning to share?"

"Um, not exactly," said Tina. "I'm just trying to lock out everyone who isn't a trusted friend. Y'know, as you do."

Jimmy's face fell. "Did something happen?"

"What? Hahaha, no, of course not. Why would you think that?" For all that Tina was a great actor on-set, her too-wide fake smile was convincing absolutely nobody right now.

"People being jerks on the Internet?" said Jon sympathetically. "I've blocked like ten people this week for tweeting at me about how I need to take an acting class. Also, one person for tweeting me fifty marriage proposals in less than an hour."

"Gosh," deadpanned Jimmy, "it must be so hard to be you."

"Hey, I would have been flattered if it was just one!" protested Jon. "But after the first half a dozen it just turns into spam, you know?"

Tina sighed. "Man, I wish my thing had been proposal spam."

"So there was a thing," said Jimmy, all worried attention back on her.

"Yeah, there was a thing," said Tina. "It just wasn't a big-deal thing, okay? Nothing to worry about! In fact, it was actually pretty funny. Hilarious, even."

For the first time, Stephen spoke up. "If it was so funny, how come you can't tell us?"

"Well...I...."

"You don't have to," said Jon, stroking Stephen's hair. Even if he could mostly shrug off the stuff he got online, he wouldn't want to stand up in front of a bunch of people and recite it.

Tina grimaced. "It wasn't even about me. All it is, is...I got a couple messages from people who are really overinvested in the idea that my boyfriend's secretly dating Stephen."

Jimmy's hands came down hard on the piano, playing a thundering chord that reverberated around the room.

 

~*~

 

@Shout4JimmyFals
Confidential to #ShoutFor fans: Please leave my girlfriend alone.

@Shout4JimmyFals
If you already are, thank you! Now take a minute to talk to your friends, and make sure they're not bothering her either.

@Shout4StevieC
yes, this! RT @Shout4JimmyFals Confidential to #ShoutFor fans: Please leave my girlfriend alone.

@Shout4StevieC
^ by which I mean leave Jimmy's girlfriend alone.

@Shout4StevieC
But leave @LisaMunnOfficial alone too!

@LisaMunnOfficial
Confidential to #Munnsters: Loving the new #Sephora lip balm. It's pretty, keeps your skin healthy, and it's a total bargain :)

 

Direct messages > with Jimmy

@Shout4StevieC
is LisaMunnOfficial a robot?

@Shout4JimmyFals
pretty much!

@Shout4StevieC
so pm'ing her for tips on how to smack down people making fun of your gf would not be helpful

@Shout4JimmyFals
nope :(((

@Shout4StevieC
btw what's Tina's real twitter?

@Shout4JimmyFals
she doesn't have one

@Shout4JimmyFals
for which I am v v glad right now

 

~*~

 

"...and that's why Tina is joining us today," finished Jon, ushering Steve into his room.

Jimmy was already walking Tina through the process of how to roll a joint. She was having an awkward time of it, but Stephen couldn't tell if it was genuine, or just a cute ploy to keep Jimmy's hands on hers for as long as possible. Stephen himself was busy picking out the scented candles for the night. He settled on a pair that were champagne-scented, and came in actual champagne flutes for bonus classiness.

They passed around the weed, the rolling paper, and Jon's super-classy R2D2 lighter. Steve and Jon broke out the Nintendo controllers and started a round of one of the Call of Duty games. Tina cuddled with Jimmy. Stephen sat on the bed and responsibly kept watch over the bowl of Doritos.

He had gotten up a light buzz by the time Steve said, "So, these Stimmy people. Have you thought about just trolling them? Because apparently nothing is going to make them see reason, so you might as well go for broke. Plus it sounds like it would be hilarious."

"No," said Stephen firmly. "No trolling. They already do things like bother my sister! Imagine how they'd be if we encouraged them!"

"Wait, slow down a second," said Tina. "I thought you were trolling them already. Pass me the chips?"

Stephen handed the bowl down to her, and licked orange dust off his own fingers. "Dunno why you'd think that," he said, over the sound of Jon grousing as one of his in-game drones got shot out of the sky.

Tina scrambled to manage her joint and the Doritos without spilling anything or setting Jimmy on fire. "The way you talk about each other? Saying things like how you sleep in the same bed when you're on tour...?"

"Nah, that's legit," said Jon, trying to mash buttons on his controller, though he was too mellow to do it properly.

For the first time, Jimmy seemed less than nonchalant about the idea. "We would stay up late talking. The beds were big," he hissed. "I'm secure in my heterosexuality, and, shockingly, I trust my best friend not to molest me! Why is that so hard for people to understand?"

"Sorry!" squeaked Tina, cringing a little under the arm around her shoulders.

Jimmy gave her a reassuring half-hug. "It's not you. It's just. People," he said bitterly.

Stephen stubbed out his joint and lay down. Instead of making him relaxed and dreamy like usual, it was leaving him with a vague, free-floating sense of guilt. He wanted a hug, but Jon was busy taking down a fictional digital Nicaraguan narco-terrorist, so he settled for wrapping his arms around the nearest pillow.

"I didn't think there was anything wrong with it," added Tina. "I think it's cute. I guess I just figured you guys were hamming it up on purpose to distract people from Stephen and Jon."

For someone who had not been drinking anything at the moment, Steve did a remarkable imitation of a spit-take.

Tina winced again. In a stage-whisper, she said, "Did he not know?"

"We were planning to tell him at some point," sighed Jon.

Steve's voice careened up the scale in shock. "Seriously? Seriously? How many secret gay relationships is this company sitting on?"

"As far as I know? Just the two," said Jon. "One with boys, one with girls. Isn't that neat? Nice and symmetrical." The speakers let out a loud, unfortunate noise as whatever he was currently controlling died. "Okay, I can't play this game right now. Reaction time is shot all to hell. You wanna put some TV on?"

"TV sounds good," said Steve, dropping his controller onto the carpet.

"Obviously you need to keep this a hundred percent secret," put in Stephen from the bed. It seemed like someone should mention that at some point.

"Chill out, Col-bert, I can handle it," Steve told him. "Unlike some people." (Tina groaned and hid her face in her hands.) "And hey, this saves me the bother of trying to figure out a way to help get you laid on the down-low."

The thought of secret sex made Stephen's stomach churn. "I don't want to get laid on the down-low," he said faintly.

"It's okay, babe, he's not gonna push anything on you," said Jon. "Anthony was trying to do the same thing for me before I told him."

"'Babe'?" echoed Steve. "Oh my god, you guys are disgustingly cute. How did I not see this?"

Jon got his Netflix selection up on the flatscreen, and there was a brief debate over what to watch. His own vote was for something from his ongoing Get Stephen To Watch Adult TV initiative, which he'd taken up when Stephen started to run out of Disney movies to show him. (It was having mixed success. Stephen still couldn't stand South Park, but he had bought all the box sets of House, M.D. after three episodes.) Tina suggested 30 Rock, which was voted down on the grounds that Taylor Swift's brilliant comedy was too smart for them to fully appreciate while stoned.

Stoner flicks it was, then. They found a list of stupid pot comedies, and picked one called Half Baked mostly at random. Stephen thought the cover image was pretty.

While the movie was loading, Steve said, "But seriously, though. How much have I been missing? Are you doing the whole, sexy-bandmates, getting-it-on-in-the-back-of-the-tour-bus deal?"

"Okay, first of all, we haven't done any touring since the start of the year," said Jimmy. "They didn't get together until spring."

"And second of all," added Jon, climbing up onto the navy-blue sheets to join Stephen, "unlike some of us idiots, Stephen is a good Catholic boy who takes his purity ring very seriously." He stretched out behind Stephen so they were both facing the TV, propped up on one elbow so he could see, his free arm resting gently over Stephen's torso.

"And third of all," finished Stephen, clasping Jon's hand, "didn't we tell you not to believe everything you read in fanfiction?"

"Whoa," said Tina. "I don't even know if I'm high yet, but the fact that you guys can go all hivemind like that is seriously tripping me out."

 

~*~

 

There was the usual throng of fans outside the studio of Professional Important News with Demetri Martin when the band's limo showed up. The guys stopped to sign autographs and toss some merchandise into the crowd, flanked by Brian and the usual security detail.

So far, so normal...until they got inside, and Jon realized with a start that Stephen was pale and sweating. When he tugged at his collar, it looked like his hands were shaking too.

"Stephen? You okay?"

"Fine!" said Stephen breathlessly. "Fine. Just a little hot. They'll have cold drinks in the green room, right?"

As usual, Jon waited for Jimmy to touch Stephen — in a supportive way, a bracing hand on the arm or something — before seconding the gesture. He was cautious about looking too touchy-feely with his boyfriend in public. When Jimmy went first, that established it as a friendship thing, which made it okay to join in.

But Jimmy, though he was keeping a close eye on Stephen, kept his hands by his sides.

It was Brian who stepped in. "Come here for a minute, Stephen. Let's duck into the bathroom and splash some cold water on your face," he said, squeezing Stephen's shoulder. "The rest of you go on ahead."

The band was reunited in makeup, where someone thoughtfully provided Stephen with a soda. Even taking the bracing effect of a little foundation and powder into account, he looked much better by the time they settled into the green room.

"Here, have first dibs," said Jon, pushing the fruit platter in his direction. "Did you skip breakfast or something?"

"No, I ate." Stephen picked a couple of grapes. "It's not a side effect!"

"A what?" asked Jimmy.

"Vaxasopor withdrawal doesn't have side effects," said Stephen firmly. "Anyway, Brian gave me a Vaxachillpill, so I'll definitely be fine for the show."

"What's the point of coming off one drug if you're just going to jump onto another?" said Tucker.

"Some drugs have better side effects than others," snapped Jon. He couldn't go into detail; he wasn't sure if Stephen had even told Jimmy the full extent of the Vaxasopor-induced sleepwalking, let alone Tucker. "And who says Vaxasopor withdrawal doesn't have side effects?" Did Stephen think the way he kept having night sweats, hot and cold flushes, and periodic anxiety attacks was just a coincidence?

"My doctor," said Stephen. He was still twiddling the grapes in his fingers, not eating them. Was loss of appetite one of the side effects Vaxasopor purported not to have? "I think he would know."

"Maybe," said Jon. He didn't have as much confidence in Stephen's doctor as he'd used to. "But I'm thinking you should get a second opinion."

 

~*~

 

Jon S.
Hey, when you get back from the doctor, wanna go somewhere?

Stephen*Colbert
depends. where is it?

Jon S.
It's a surprise :)

Stephen*Colbert
not fair

Stephen*Colbert
you know I can never resist a surprise

 

~*~

 

The hills rose up around them as the daylight faded, the shadows making it effectively twilight for the two of them even as it was still not-quite-sunset in the city. And, oh, that city. Stephen started catching glimpses of the L.A. skyscrapers out past his side of the car, between the high slopes, standing out against the dimming sky.

In fact, this particular view of the skyscrapers was getting awfully close to one of the ones on all the postcards.

"Are we going to the sign?" he asked over the wind.

"The what?...Oh, that sign," said Jon. Like there was more than one giant iconic sign people might drive to see in Hollywood. "Do you want to go there? The view's probably great and all, but I was hoping to strike a balance between a nice view and, you know, not so many tourists."

Stephen caught his breath as he figured it out. "You're driving me to Makeout Point."

The place they ended up designating that night's Makeout Point was far up enough that nothing stood between them and the city, but far back enough that the skyscrapers were barely a row of matchsticks in the distance. Jon pulled onto an empty stretch of grass on the side of the road, broken only by power lines and the occasional halfhearted attempt at a fence. Their wheels were on a level with the tops of the next row down of trees; past them Stephen could see the nearest road, maybe a hundred feet below, lined with doll-sized houses.

Jon switched off the ignition and leaned over to nuzzle Stephen's neck. "Help me get the top up?"

Between the fading light and the tinted windows, it was dark and cozy in the back seat. "It's like being in a blanket fort," said Stephen, sliding across the fake leather to lean against Jon. "Only with horsepower."

"And here I was trying to do something special," said Jon dryly. His fingers lifted Stephen's glasses out of the way.

"It's totally special," said Stephen, and let Jon cup the base of his skull to draw him into a kiss.

They sat side-by-side like that for a while, mouths locked together, hands all over each other. Stephen moved to plant a string of kisses down Jon's neck, and got a rush of pride at the way Jon groaned and shivered in his arms. As for Jon, he murmured "Can I...?" with his hands on the hem of Stephen's shirt.

The next thing Stephen knew, they were both bare-chested: his BFF pendant on the floor, Jon's heart beating hard against his hand.

"You're really pretty," said Jon softly, with that ragged edge to his breath that made him sound as turned-on as Stephen felt.

Loath as Stephen was to argue with that, he couldn't help pointing out, "You can't even see me right now."

The vaguely Jon-shaped collection of shadows beside him laughed. "Yeah, well, I have a memory that goes back more than fifteen minutes, you know? Don't think you've changed that much since this afternoon."

Seemed over-confident to Stephen. "Maybe I have. You don't know!"

"Hmmm...." Jon kissed the corner of Stephen's mouth, the curve of his cheek, his forehead, one eyelid, the tip of his nose. "Feels the same to me."

He caressed the line of Stephen's neck, then traced one hand down the center of Stephen's chest, soft touch dividing Stephen neatly in two. Leisurely to start with, the motion slowed even further as Jon's fingers brushed his navel, because Stephen was more than half-hard and Jon's wrist was resting lightly against him.

"Mostly the same," amended Jon, breath hot on Stephen's ear.

Stephen fumbled for Jon's hand and pulled it away, but painted a couple of messy kisses around Jon's chin and jawline to demonstrate that Jon's enthusiasm was appreciated.

There was some jockeying for position as they found their way to horizontal across the seats. Usually this was the point when Stephen climbed on top of Jon, which tended to work out well for all involved. As it was, though, it was easy for Jon to push Stephen over and there was no space for them to roll without somebody falling off the side, so it was Stephen who ended up flat on his back on the fake leather. His legs were twisted, hanging off the edges; Jon only had one knee up on the seats.

"Gotta say, I did not expect this to be so inconvenient," muttered Jon, when he was more-or-less on hands and knees above Stephen. "The media lied to me."

"The media is usually targeted at non-filthy-rich people," Stephen reminded him. "This kind of setup probably seems like heaven when you're not used to having a big bed, in a big house, with frequently-inattentive guardians."

"Mmm," said Jon. "I love it when you're suddenly insightful."

He lowered his hips to grind against Stephen's, the sensation leaving Stephen dizzy. Even through the layers of fabric, his cock was firm and heated and insistent.

Stephen had never let Jon hold him down like this before.

It was good. It was so good. It was —

— well, it was being pinned in a car while someone rutted against him, but this time it was because he'd invited it. Jon wasn't strong enough to trap Stephen if he wanted to get away. Not that Jon would try in the first place. He wouldn't ignore Stephen's begging and —

Stephen twisted underneath Jon, suddenly frantic. "Jon, get off!"

"Oh, I will," purred Jon, nuzzling under his good ear. "I — wait, did you mean get off get off, or —"

A choked noise of despair was all Stephen could manage.

Jon sat up so fast he bumped his head on the roof with a thump. "Sorry! Was I crushing you? Are you lying on a seatbelt or something?"

No, but that would be a much more logical complaint. "Crushing me," said Stephen meekly.

"Sorry, sorry." Jon was a shadow with a faint silver outline, hanging on to the headrests so he wasn't putting any weight on Stephen. The seats creaked as he sank back onto his knees and carded his fingers through the nearest lock of Stephen's hair. "Is this better? Or do you just wanna be on top?"

Stephen's wordless attempts to claw his way upward would have to count as an answer. It was awkward and uncoordinated; he actually did jab himself with the buckle of a seatbelt at one point, and he was pretty sure he nearly missed kneeing Jon in the balls. But at last they were sitting side-by-side again, both catching their breaths.

"Stephen...?"

There was a lump in Stephen's throat too heavy to talk around. He sniffled instead.

"Oh my god, Stephen," breathed Jon. "I'm so sorry. What did I do?"

Jon hadn't done anything. Jon had been smart and sexy and perfect and Stephen loved him. He pulled Jon into a fierce hug and tried to convey all of this by sobbing into Jon's chest.

 

~*~

 

All right, Jon was officially freaking the fuck out.

One minute he had been getting frisky with his boyfriend, in a situation that was theoretically romantic even if the practical elements were taking some work, and the next he had an armful of crying Stephen with no clue where it had come from or what he was supposed to do about it. He held on to Stephen and made some vague shushing noises — although if Jon himself had set Stephen off, that wasn't going to help — but surely the fact that Stephen was clinging to him for comfort meant that he wasn't the problem here — didn't it?

God, at least when Jon had the occasional meltdown, he gave his loved ones some kind of hint about why

His foot was in one of their T-shirts; in the dark he couldn't tell whose. Snagging it with his toes, Jon managed to maneuver it upward, finally getting it in hand so he could try to dab at Stephen's tears. He had tissues in the car — of course he had tissues — but they were up front, which didn't do a whole lot of good right now.

Stephen's shuddering, gulping breaths were making it sort of hazardous for Jon to poke around at his face, so it was a relief in all sorts of ways when he commandeered the fabric to scrub at his own eyes. Was he coming down? Please, let him be coming down.

At last Stephen burrowed his wet face into Jon's neck and choked out, "The new doctor said...I'm having side effects."

"That's good, right?" said Jon, rubbing Stephen's back. "I mean, that they aren't in denial about it? Now you can get treated." And if withdrawal was behind his tearful breakdown, Jon could stop freaking out. It had an explanation; it could be fixed.

"Uh-huh." Stephen swallowed. "She prescribed me some stuff."

With the way Stephen was on top of it, Jon's leg was falling asleep. He tried to gently rearrange Stephen to make the pressure let up. "Not more Prescott Pharmaceuticals concoctions?"

Clutching the damp shirt against his chest, Stephen backed obligingly away. "Nuh-uh. A different sleep thing — milder — for the...rebound insomnia. Use it so I don't have to relapse with the Vaxasopor. Then I come off that too...has its own side effects, but...not so many."

"That sounds great," said Jon earnestly. "Sounds really promising." He caressed Stephen's arm in the darkness.

Stephen sniffled. "And...and one more thing," he said in a thin voice. "A-antidepressants."

"Yeah, that makes sense," said Jon. "Because of the anxiety attacks, right? And...and the things like this."

"Maybe," whispered Stephen. "Or maybe just 'cause."

Well, wasn't that a kick to the gut.

"She said she wasn't sure," added Stephen. Like he wasn't sure either. Like he didn't realize that he was (normally) one of the most excitable, vibrant, easily-delighted people Jon had ever met.

"She doesn't know you." Jon realized he'd started gripping Stephen's arm much too hard, and forced himself to relax before he left bruises. "She's only ever seen you in the middle of benzo withdrawal, so how would she know? You're going through some stuff, that's all. You're fine. Trust me."

"O-okay." Swallowing hard, Stephen leaned against him, much calmer by now. "Sorry I messed up your romantic evening. And your T-shirt."

Jon kissed his ear. "You didn't mess it up. We can always put the top back down and check out the view. I bet the stars look great from up here. And how do you even know that's my shirt?"

"Because mine was a V-neck," said Stephen, like it was obvious. The confidence that had returned to his voice was the sweetest thing Jon had heard all day. Topped only by the note of cautious hope as Stephen added, "Maybe now we can go to the sign?"

Chapter Text

In the air, over the northeast.

"Don't mind us, gentlemen," said the apparent head of the camera crew, as her colleagues aimed three different lenses at the guys' seats in the plane. "We just want some footage of how you're feeling on the way in, for the DVD extras. Act natural."

Stephen was finding it so much easier to act natural these days. For one thing, he was (mostly) sleeping through the night again. For another, the last couple of weeks before their big New York trip had been almost totally packed with rehearsals and other band stuff, which meant Stephen didn't have a single free moment to go anywhere with Ned. Even his emancipation hearing had been put off until after the trip, on the grounds that if he could legally work more than eight hours a day, Brian would still find ways to fill his time.

And then there were the antidepressants, but he couldn't tell if they were doing anything or if it was just that life in general was looking up so much.

He surreptitiously paged away from his Tumblr app, just to make sure the cameras didn't pick up any identifying information. Jimmy, who had been chilling with his headphones on, pulled them off to keep an eye on what the film crew was doing. Jon, by the window, kept right on looking out at the clouds.

"Tucker, come on over," ordered the director, a man named Chuck. He seemed like a decent guy so far, even though he had questionable taste in sunglasses. "We want you all in the shot."

Their charter plane for the day had seats in groups of four, two facing two with a short table in between. Jimmy had taken the spot next to Jon, leaving Stephen on his own across from them, at least until Tucker reluctantly filled up the last seat.

"So, what has you most excited about this visit to New York?" asked the director.

"The parade!" said Stephen immediately. When he had first found out they were going to be on the Disney float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, he had practically fainted. And now it was tomorrow. He couldn't wait. "It's one of our country's most beautiful odes to the true meaning of Thanksgiving: capitalism and cartoon mascots."

"The concert for me," said Tucker. "We've been working on this thing for so long, it's about time we got to show people."

"Same here," said Jimmy.

Jon was still focusing on the clouds, and Stephen could tell by the small twitches in his face that he was annoyed. Worse yet, the kind of people who bought this DVD would all be accomplished Jon-watchers, so they would probably be able to tell too. "I'm having Thanksgiving dinner with my mom, so obviously there's that. Also, y'know, the weather. I'll get to wear a coat around outside! Like normal people do in November."

The part Jon was looking forward to was the part Stephen found most nerve-wracking, because he was going to that dinner too. Singing the same two songs over and over on a parade float, he could handle. Their Black Friday appearances at FAO Schwarz and the Times Square Disney Store were standard fare, no matter how crowded they got. And the concert that night was going to be great. But impressing three thousand adoring fans was no big deal. Impressing Jon's mom was on a whole other level.

Charlene chose that moment to cut in. "No more interviewing right now. The band is not allowed to over-work their voices two days before showtime," she ordered. "All right, guys, you know the drill. Travel days are still work days. Show me some posture, and we'll start with basic scales."

 

~*~

New York!

The guys' hotel for the weekend, where they were stashed after dinner with the crew (interrupted by only three groups who wanted photos with the band), was already bedecked in an insane amount of Christmas cheer. Every flat surface in the lobby seemed to sport a poinsettia; there were white-and-gold bows practically growing from the walls.

Jon was all set to be vocally annoyed until Stephen started singing "Deck The Halls." He couldn't begrudge anything that made Stephen happy these days.

(Besides, he wasn't going to be forced to croon many carols himself this year. Brian had let it slip that Jon's current marketing position involved keeping his roles as non-denominational as possible, in the name of looking tolerant. They weren't going to keep him 100% out of the Christmas stuff, because some people in Shout*For's target market would feel Jon was oppressing them otherwise, but it was at least an improvement.)

The band didn't bust into the minibar tonight; the parade was bright and early in the morning, and the last thing they wanted was to do it hung over. Jon found a football game on TV, and stuck it on mute so it wouldn't interrupt Jimmy and Stephen. The pair had Stephen's laptop open on a table and were working on a song: Jimmy testing the sounds of different phrases on his guitar, Stephen humming or mumble-singing lines to check whether they scanned.

"Okay, this is gold," said Stephen at last, after a flurry of typing. "Jon, listen to this, will you? Jimmy, can you play me in?"

"On it," said Jimmy, and strummed a jolly opening chord.

Stephen jumped in almost right away. "Ho! It's another Christmas song~," he chorused, reading off the screen and bopping his head to the beat. "Whoa! Get ready, brother / for another Christmas song! / They play for a month, ad infinitum / One day it struck me — someone must write 'em! / So! It's another Christmas song~!"

Jon had to clamp his hands over his mouth to keep from cracking up. The next verse was a trainwreck of random Christmas-carol imagery, patched together in an almost Frankensteinian shambles of holiday spirit.

And it just kept going. "Hey! It's another Christmas song~! / Yay! Another oft-returning, royalty-earning Christmas song! / I've got plenty more, so go buy a modem / Log into iTunes and pay to download 'em / Pay! For another Christmas song~!"

By the time it was over, Jon's sides hurt from the effort of barely suppressing laughter. "That's amazing," he said. "It's funny, it's catchy, it's the most scathing parody of this glurge I've ever heard."

Stephen's smile froze on his face. "Parody?"

From the way Jimmy, on the couch beside him, suddenly frowned, Jon had a feeling Jimmy thought it was a parody too.

No dice. "This is a very serious expression of my holiday feelings!" cried Stephen. "How can you be so mean about it? How would you feel if I made fun of your favorite Hanukkah carols?"

"Um," said Jon. "We don't really have Hanukkah carols."

Stephen's eyes lit up in a dangerous way. "You don't?"

"It's not even that important," Jon tried to explain. "We kind of latch onto it out of defensiveness because it happens to come up in this season when a Christian holiday eats the whole country, but it's only like the twelfth most important Jewish holiday...."

It was no use; Stephen wasn't listening. "Jon, don't you see? This is an opportunity!" he exclaimed. "You could corner the market!"

"I don't really think...."

"I know you don't write songs," interrupted Stephen, bouncing over to sit on the arm of Jon's chair. "That's okay. I can take care of that part — for a reasonable cut of the profits, of course. You just explain the spirit of Hanukkah to me, and I'll work my magic and bam, we'll have a chart-topper in no time. Maybe even this year! When does the holiday start, anyway?"

Jon sighed. "Twenty-fifth of Kislev."

"Uh-huh," said Stephen seriously. "And...when is that?"

"I'd have to look it up."

"Oh." Stephen waved it off. "Doesn't matter. That's not the important thing. The important thing is...what are you commemorating? What profound holy event is being celebrated here?"

"Um." The thing was, Jon liked the background story, which was full of guerrilla warfare to liberate Jerusalem from an oppressive evil empire who had power-tripped on outlawing Jewish customs right and left. But he had too many bad memories of getting blank stares when he tried to explain the appeal to Christians. And this time last year Stephen had been chastising him for not putting enough enthusiasm into the Shout*For Christmas album, which wasn't encouraging. "There was this oil that was only supposed to be enough to last one night, and it burned for eight."

"Well, that's exciting!" said Stephen, trying to sound chipper. "In these days of high gas prices, a miracle that speaks to us all. And what do you do about it? What are your treasured traditions?"

"Well, I mean, we do get presents," admitted Jon. "All eight days."

"See, now we're getting somewhere!"

"...which in practice means one nice one, then a week of drek."

Stephen's face fell. "Jon? You do feel the Hanukkah spirit, don't you?"

"It's...not my least unfavorite time of year," hedged Jon.

"But~ it's not my least unfavorite time of year~!" trilled Stephen. "That's great! We can totally work with that."

"Maybe you could work with it some other time," put in Jimmy, to Jon's relief. "We're supposed to be saving our voices now, remember?"

 

~*~

 

With his teeth brushed and his pajamas donned, Stephen spent about ten minutes just staring at his pill case. Antidepressants in one compartment, the low-strength sleeping pills in another, a couple of Vaxasopor in the third.

The little organizer itself had been an impromptu gift from Jimmy, who was the only person aside from Jon and Papa that Stephen had told about his latest prescriptions. (He hadn't told Olivia; she had too much going on to worry about him. He'd stalled for a while before even deciding to tell Jimmy.) It was about the size of an old-fashioned pocketwatch, with an Alice in Wonderland engraving on the cover. It was great.

Stephen was really only staring at the Vaxasopor.

"Hey, you okay in there?" called Jon through the half-open door, startling Stephen enough that he nearly sent the pills flying.

"Great!" squeaked Stephen, snapping the case shut. "Just thinking."

He nudged the door the rest of the way open with his foot. Jon was wearing flannel pajama pants and a faded sweatshirt with ripped cuffs, his curls still damp from the shower.

"The doctor didn't renew my Vaxasopor," said Stephen, hand curled around the pill case. "So I'll run out soon. But she said I could stop earlier, if I wanted...and I want to stop, so we can cuddle in New York for real." He still didn't trust himself to fall asleep at Jon's side if the sleep was Vaxasopor-induced, and he didn't have a lot of other options, since they had decided not to risk bringing the pot cross-country. "But...."

"But you don't want to break out in a whole new level of rebound chills in the middle of The Shout*For 3D Concert Movie Experience?" guessed Jon.

Stephen nodded.

"Well, how about this: You stay on the meds for now, for professional reasons, even if it means missing a special occasion. But you plan to quit for good on, let's say...Monday."

Stephen peered closely at him. "Isn't Monday your...?"

Jon gave him a roguish half-smile. "It would be a pretty good birthday present."

Of course, Stephen already had a perfectly fine present lined up, but this would go with it, no problem, "You are so smart," he gushed, and couldn't resist sashaying across the tiles to give Jon a minty kiss.

His boyfriend tensed a bit. "Uh, you definitely haven't taken the pill yet tonight, right...?"

"Sober as a judge," said Stephen. "Lemme kiss you again."

 

~*~

 

In matching jackets and color-coordinated hats, Shout*For stood on a slowly rolling platform under a truck-sized Mickey Mouse balloon and sang a cycle of their top three hits, plus their up-tempo pop cover of "Winter Wonderland."

"Love knows no sea~son, love knows no clime / Romance can blossom~ any old time! / Here in the o~pen, we're walking and hopin' together!"

Jon appreciated the attempt to be secular. He really did. (He had also hinted to Brian that he wouldn't mind being non-secular if they got the rights to cover the Springsteen arrangement of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," but no luck yet.)

No instruments today; their hands were all gloved anyway. Instead a row of oversized speakers thundered below their feet, while they crooned into tall microphones and deftly avoided the trailing cords as they danced. Their stage manager for this event — Bobby, who usually got the ones with the unconventional stages — supervised unobtrusively from the back of the float, and, in between tracks, shoveled up piles of lightweight Shout*For merchandise to throw into the crowd.

Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Every new block of buildings was exactly like the last; every fresh set of scarf-wrapped faces and waving mittened hands was full of clones of the ones they'd just passed.

"Later on, we'll conspi~re / As we dream~ by the fi~re / To face unafraid — the plans that we made / Walking in a winter wonderland!" chorused Jon for what could have been the fifth or fifteenth time, and wondered if this song had always been about making covert sex arrangements, or if he was just projecting.

And then it was over. They wheeled under the cover of a warehouse, packed with vehicles whose slowly-deflating balloons made it look like a trophy room for someone who hunted cartoon characters.

Jon cupped his gloves over his mouth and nose, trying to breathe some heat back into his numb skin. Stephen was red-faced from the cold, but grinning, swaying to the rhythm of the speakers still blasting on the next float behind them. Jimmy hit him up with a wool-muffled high-five.

"Stay right here for a minute, guys," ordered Bobby, while the driver and a couple of technical people extracted themselves from the base of the float. His own bare hands were busy on his phone. "One of your, ah, I guess guests? showed up. Brian's bringing her to meet us here."

Was Mom here early? As the tech people started taking down the mics, Jon craned his neck to see around them, not sure which direction Brian would be coming from.

He was the first of the group to spot their manager. That wasn't Mom along with Brian, though. It was an unfamiliar woman in an old-fashioned wool coat and glasses, her white hair permed into severe waves that framed her face.

Stephen sucked in a gasp.

Then, with a shout of "Mama!", he clambered down the side of the float and took off across the warehouse floor.

 

~*~

 

Chuck, the movie director, was brokenhearted that he'd missed the big reunion. "I don't suppose you can re-enact it at the restaurant?" he said hopefully in the van on the way to lunch, once Mama was mic'd up and ready to star in some behind-the-scenes features.

"I could!" said Stephen brightly. He was prepared to hug Mama a hundred more times. It felt like a waste that he wasn't hugging her right this second.

"We most certainly will not," said Mama, patting Stephen's hand and addressing Chuck. "You're getting nothing but authentic moments between me and my son. If you wanted footage of our first meeting, you should have been shooting then."

"We aren't allowed to shoot the floats for copyright reasons!" lamented the director.

This plan was fine with Stephen too. It left him and his mother more time to catch up. Felt like years since he'd last seen her face-to-face, and he wanted to personally describe everything that had happened since. Well, everything that didn't fall under the huge swaths of his life he was keeping secret from her, at least.

A handful of fans were gathered outside the restaurant when the vans arrived. The guys pulled off their gloves long enough to sign a handful of autographs before following the rest of the group — the film crew, management, and bodyguards, mostly — inside. They had a nice big room to themselves, with a lush buffet along one side; Stephen was telling Mama about his adventures on the set of The Hobbit by the time he got around to piling his plate with stir-fry.

The two of them were settling into their seats, and Stephen was talking about meeting Matthew McConaughey at a party (leaving out the detail that ol' Matt had given him the bag that turned out not to be oregano), when Jon's voice cut in. "Um, Stephen? I don't want to interrupt anything, but...can I just introduce my mom real quick?"

The Col-berts stood quickly back up.

"It's nice to meet you, Stephen," said the woman at Jon's side. "Jon's told me so much about you."

Stephen had seen Jon's mother in photos now and then, including a few candids that had ended up on JustJared after the paparazzi realized Jon was in New Jersey. In stills, he didn't think she looked that much like her son. Different face shape; her shoulder-length hair was a lighter brown and in looser waves; her mouth was wider and her nose wasn't quite as long; and so on. But here in person, he could see that when she talked, her expressions and the way her face moved were eerily identical to Jon's. She could have been computer-generated, Gollum-style, from a Jon-based motion-capture recording.

"Hi," said Stephen, a little breathless, shaking her hand. "They're all good things, right?"

"They had better be good," said Mama with a knowing laugh. "That's my baby you're talking about. Lorna Col-bert, a pleasure."

"Marion Leibowitz, likewise." The moms shook hands too. "And yes, my Jon hasn't had a word to say against Stephen — not when they're...such good friends. Has Stephen said much to you about their friendship?"

"Of course," said Mama, because Stephen had mentioned Jon in plenty of his anecdotes...as a friend. "It's no surprise, Stephen does have a way of charming everyone he meets. Even if they're a little different! I think it's wonderful."

Jon winced. His mother either didn't notice the slight, or was better at not reacting. "Have you boys had a chance to sort out dinner plans?" she asked. To Mama she explained, "Jon had invited Stephen to join us for Thanksgiving dinner tonight, but of course that was before they knew you'd be here."

"We, uh, haven't really sorted anything out yet," admitted Jon. He had picked up a roll from one of the baskets on the table, and was getting crumbs all over his hand as he toyed with it.

"But of course I'll be eating with you, Mama," added Stephen quickly. It was terrible form — in spite of Ms. Marion's nice clever non-suspicious explanation, the fact was that he and Jon were supposed to be hosting her tonight — but he would rather be a bad host than a bad son.

"Now, sweetheart," chided Mama. "The Leibowitzes have been very generous to invite you, and it wouldn't be right to brush them off."

"It's fine, I swear!" said Jon. "We're not gonna be offended if he takes off to be with his own mom."

"You're very sweet, dear," said Mama, "but —"

"What if she ate with us?" blurted Stephen.

"Uh," said Jon. "We only told the restaurant three people...."

"But we reserved a private room. It's not like they can't pull in another chair."

"If it's what you want, I don't see a problem with it," put in Ms. Marion.

"It's what I want," said Stephen firmly. Sure, that setup would defeat the whole purpose of his planned real-talk-with-the-boyfriend's-mom dinner, but it would mean Mama had nothing to complain about. And wasn't that the most important thing?

Before anyone else could agree, another new voice cut in: one of the administrative assistants from the film crew. "Excuse me, ma'am, you just got here, right? Do we have a signed release to film you, Ms....?"

"Oh — for the movie special features? Yes, I mailed that to you last week," said Jon's mother. "It's Ms. Leibowitz — did you get it?"

The assistant was scrolling through something on her iPad. "Yes, you're all clear. Just need to set you up...." She raised her eyes from the screen and gave Ms. Marion a critical once-over. "What kind of underwear do you have on?"

"Excuse me?"

"Hey!" barked Jon. "A little tact, please?"

"It's all right, dear," put in Mama gently. "The crew just need to figure out where to attach the microphone pack. It's quite standard. These Hollywood people just can't help being rude sometimes."

It had sounded like a routine, non-rude question to Stephen. He didn't bring it up, though. Mama would only remind him that he wasn't Hollywood, not really; he was, and would always be, a good Southern boy.

"I...see," said Ms. Marion. "Anything else 'standard' that I should know about?"

"You're practically film-ready as-is," the admin assistant reassured her. "We'll have to redo your makeup, of course, and I'm not sure about those earrings, but it won't take more than twenty minutes in the van to fix you up."

"Just do everything they say and it'll be over faster," Jon told his mom. "I'll save you some shrimp from the buffet in case they run out."

 

~*~

 

Getting to rehearsal was a relief. This was nice and straightforward. This, Jon could handle.

It was the first time they'd put together the whole concert, start to finish, all the musical and technical people doing their thing together. The lights strobed. The smoke machines poured. The backup band (lining the back of the stage, wearing all black, carefully unlit) supported the guys while they had hands on instruments, and played whole songs when they switched to dance numbers.

With his fingers comfortably against his guitar strings, Jon slid into full-on focused work mode, playing the chords he knew by heart and crooning into his freestanding mic with well-practiced emotion.

A few steps in front of him, Stephen sang the solo while Jon and the others na-na-na'd and oooh'd along. "Here I am, last of the romantics / Every time, I get caught in the sway / I'm just a fool~ for a love song / But I wouldn't have it any other way...."

In the wake of imaginary applause, spotlights sweeping across them, Stephen yelled a few things to warm up the nonexistent crowd. He might or might not improvise new things tomorrow, depending on how inspired he felt. Either way, he included the pauses for applause.

They launched into the obligatory fame-hasn't-changed-us tune, which was a string of platitudes so trite that Jon didn't even feel guilty spouting such blatant lies. "Living life, life in the fast lane / Not that bad, no one can complain / Who's to say that we won't keep it real?" he chorused with the group. "Hold on tight, don't you dare let go / Now's the time to let the whole world know / You can shine bright but still keep it real!"

Down went the instruments. The techies would do some rearranging behind them during the first dance number. Not Jon's job to worry about. He just had to grab the mic off its stand, remember his steps, and sing.

It was an ensemble song, the four of them trading off solos and coming together for the chorus. Stephen sang the opening, Tucker picked it up, and Jon followed with his own lines: face passably entreating, feet perfectly in sync. "Did I do something stupid? / Yeah, girl, if I blew it / Just tell me what I did, let's work through it / There's got to be some way / To get you to want me / Like before...."

It was Jon's turn to wait through the predicted applause, and work the mostly-nonexistent crowd. (Some of the staff were in the seats. Plus the family members, although Jon knew this was when the film crew would be pulling them aside to do one-on-one interviews.) A few snarky comments drifted through his mind, but right now it wasn't hard to let them pass by unsaid. He was in the zone, in a way he could never get with acting.

The lights went violet and blue, Jon made a quick hand signal, and Jimmy, now at a grand piano with Tucker and Stephen wielding guitars on either side of him, launched into the opening chords of A Whole New World.

Instead of a duet, it was arranged as another ensemble song, the four of them (but mostly Jon) working together to serenade the audience. "A whole new world —" (Tucker: "Every turn a surprise~") "With new horizons to pursue —" (Stephen: "Every moment red-letter~") "I'll chase them an~ywhere / There's time to spare / Let me share this whole new world with you~..."

It was the only part of the concert where Jon let anything bleed through from the parts of his life not allowed to his well-scrubbed public persona. He thought about Stephen: not the full extent of the complex, moody, sexy, frustrating, loving, funny, eager-to-please Stephen that Jon adored, but just enough to dive past their PR images and give the emotion in his voice some depth.

And on it went. There was the song about being willing to do anything "for you, girl." The song about how great it was to follow your dreams. The song about unexpectedly falling for the girl you'd been friends with for years. Interspersed with a balloon drop, with Stephen quizzing the crowd on Shout*For trivia, with a couple of short conversations about how happy they were to be in New York with their "best friends."

At last they got to Walking On Sunshine — "I used to think may~be you loved me — now baby, I'm su~ure!" — a triumphant note to end on before they cut to intermission. "Thank you!" trumpeted Stephen, while they waved at all the empty seats of Madison Square Gardens. "We love you all!"

Backstage was a flurry of activity. Water bottles were pressed into their hands; makeup techs dabbed the sweat Jon hadn't noticed until now from their faces; the film crew swarmed around to get shaky-cam shots of the four guys catching their breaths.

They got a quick pep talk from Brian. It wasn't much more than "You're doing great. Keep it up."

The clock was ticking down its last few minutes, and the guys were doing their second round of warmup stretches, when Jon's mother found them. She'd come to a couple of concerts before, when the band was in the area, but never seen rehearsal like this. "How are you doing?"

He was too focused to spare much attention for her right now. "I'm good, Mom."

"I don't think I ever appreciated just how...disciplined you boys are."

"Well, yeah," said Jon, leaning forward on one knee, counting off fifteen as he felt the burn in his hamstrings. "It's work."

Mom said something about how good they were about looking spontaneous during actual concerts, and how the atmosphere backstage during the prep wasn't as relaxed or happy as she had expected, especially considering how much fun he'd had with music when he was a kid, and was it always like this? Their stage manager, Bobby, said they were on in two.

Jon tried to sift his mother's comments through the rigid fog of notes and lyrics and motions that was taking up most of his brain. "It's not...listen, singing and instruments and everything are fun, definitely, but this is still a job, you know?" He was only dimly aware that a camera was rolling about ten feet behind him. "Fun isn't the point. We can't just fuck around and do whatever and expect to get a useful product out of it. I mean, we have schedules to keep, here."

"Of course, of course," said his mother. "Sweetheart...have I told you lately how proud I am of you?"

The emotion of it would sink in later. In the moment, all Jon said was, "Hang on to that until we're finished the second act."

Chapter Text

"Well!" said Jon's mother as soon as they were alone in the car, with a closed window between them and the driver. (Stephen and his own mom had gotten a second car to the restaurant. Apparently Mrs. Col-bert needed her space.) "Your boyfriend's mother is...really something."

"Yeah, I'm getting that idea," muttered Jon. Honestly, what had Stephen been thinking? It was fine for the guy to love his own mom unconditionally, but it was quite another to volunteer Jon for a whole evening of playing squeaky-clean platonic friend, not to mention gritting his teeth every time the woman got subtly anti-Semitic.

"We got to talking while you boys were occupied. I understand she sees Stephen even less than I see you. Am I right in thinking she doesn't know about you two? I made sure not to say anything suspicious."

"Thanks," said Jon. "And yeah, Stephen isn't even out to his mom. Or anyone else in his family."

Mom sighed. "That would explain why she seemed so earnest when she showed me those photos of Stephen with your friend Olivia."

"Well, to be fair, they're a very photogenic couple," said Jon, trying to shrug it off.

"Not as photogenic as you are, sweetheart," said Mom automatically. "But I'm sure it's nothing to take personally. She just wants to believe her son is happy. And I can hardly blame her for missing the obvious, considering...."

Jon tensed. "What? Considering what?"

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about," his mother assured him. (Not that Jon would be embarrassed! There was nothing wrong with being the kind of swishy dramatic fashion-conscious gay guy that Stephen was. Jon just wasn't that, okay? He was totally masculine. He played soccer and was uncomfortable with emotion and everything!) "It's just, in retrospect, you were so clearly starry-eyed over your seventh-grade science teacher."

"Mr. Tyson?" said Jon in disbelief. "I did not get starry-eyed! He was a good teacher. He made the material engaging! Just because that's the one class I actually paid attention in...."

"At the time, all I thought was that it was wonderful you were finding good adult male role models." She kept a careful eye on Jon as she said it — like she thought Jon might be too emotionally fragile for a little candor about his father issues. When Jon didn't burst into tears, or whatever she was worried about, she went on: "So I completely failed to connect it to the way you paid attention in Mrs. Goodwin's history class the year before."

Jon could feel himself turning red. At least he could blame it on still being bundled up in his coat.

Sure, at age twelve he'd had a massive crush on Mrs. Goodwin, but with Mr. Tyson it was totally different! All Jon had wanted there was to learn everything in the books about astronomy and geology...to ace all the tests and know what to say when he got called on in class...to get his teacher's approval, and attention in general, and to enjoy the warm fuzzy feelings he got when Mr. Tyson smiled at him, and admittedly the man had been pretty handsome, and....

Oh, god, at thirteen Jon had totally been crushing on his male science teacher.

Oh, god, two years later he had acted exactly the same way around Brian. Could Jon's manager tell the difference between a child of divorce eager for positive father-esque attention and a confused proto-bisexual driven by hormones he didn't even recognize yet? "When students...do that...I'm not saying I did, I'm just saying...do teachers, uh, notice?"

"If yours did, they were perfectly professional about it," said Mom. "Occupational hazard of working with young people. Part of our job is to ignore it."

And Brian had been working with young stars for a long time. Fuck. "Maybe I should just flee civilized society and spend the rest of my life in a nice little isolated cabin upstate," groaned Jon, burying his face in his hands.

"If you like, dear," said his mother. "I hope you'll at least wait until after we eat."

 

~*~

 

The little private room at the restaurant was wonderfully homey. Painted landscapes on the walls, upholstered chairs circling the small round table; live ficuses potted in the corners and a tiered chandelier hanging overhead.

Stephen finished telling Mama about his trivia-related triumph on the Hobbit set just in time for the four of them to open their menus. Jon's mother commented that she was impressed, which Stephen took as a good sign. He would have to share more stories that made him look good. Maybe after they ordered.

"So, Stephen," said Ms. Marion as the waiter left. "You're originally from South Carolina, is that right?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"What was it like for you when you transitioned to Hollywood? Or were you young enough that you didn't notice?"

"Oh, I never actually lived in South Carolina," explained Stephen. "I mean, there have been vacations at the old house, but by the time I was born most of the family was living in L.A. already. So that's where I grew up, except for the years when I was in Texas taping Barney and Friends. There was one time when it looked like I might move to New York, but then I got a part on That's So Rachel, and the rest is history."

Jon perked up at the mention of his favorite city. "You never told me you might have moved to New York."

"I was doing Broadway auditions," said Stephen proudly.

"When he was eight, he made it to the final round of callbacks for Chip in Beauty and the Beast," added Mama.

"Uh, wow," said Jon, in the middle of buttering a roll. "When I was eight all I sang in was the elementary school choir."

"Perfectly respectable," Stephen assured him. "Besides, if nobody lived boring lives, how would we know to appreciate the people who have interesting ones?"

"Back up for a second," said Ms. Marion. "You've never lived in South Carolina?"

"Being a proud South Carolinian isn't about living there," said Stephen patiently. He was always having to explain this to people. "It's a state of mind."

He ended up laying out the whole SparkNotes version of his soon-to-be-ghostwritten autobiography. His family was originally from Charleston, of course; he vaguely remembered vacationing there once or twice, and some of his siblings had even lived there in person.

But by the time Stephen was born they had already moved. Up until he was seven he'd lived in the L.A. house with a crowd of brothers and sisters — the exact number wasn't constant. Sometimes one of them would get a role across the country and Papa would take them to live there for a while; other times they would go on personal vacations or private retreats; and of course the older ones kept going to college, then moving out entirely.

It all changed after Stephen got the job in Texas, where it was just him and Papa. When he got back, Mama moved to the Charleston house permanently — followed by his two next-oldest brothers, given that after 10-year-old Stephen got his big break Papa no longer had time to work on advancing their careers. That was why it was just him and Papa now, too.

When he was a kid, though, it had been Mama who held down the house. She made sure Stephen always got to auditions, for commercials and for his earliest tiny TV roles. She managed his piano lessons, listened when he sang, and taught him her favorite acting tricks.

"I still remember the first thing she taught me," he said proudly. "Want to see?"

Jon's mother, who had been listening with interest, said, "Sure."

So Stephen pushed back his chair and got up. Good thing the room was carpeted; that would make it easier. He took a few steps...

...and tripped over nothing, tumbling in a perfectly-staged fall to sprawl painlessly on the ground.

Jon sucked in a gasp. "Stephen! Can you get up? Forget the trick, just sit back down, all right?"

"That was the trick!" said Stephen, swinging easily to his feet again. "Was I convincing, or what?"

Mama and Ms. Marion clapped, both beaming. Stephen soaked it in.

Jon, though, glowered at him. "Give a guy a little warning, will you? I thought you'd collapsed again."

"Collapsed?" echoed Mama. "Sweetheart, what's he talking about?"

Stephen broke into a nervous laugh. "Nothing! Nothing at all. I had a little unplanned fall on the set one day earlier this year, and Jon here is such a worrier, aren't you, Jon? Total hypochondriac. He's got like ten different medicines in his coat pockets right now, I bet."

To his relief, Jon didn't say anything else that might tip Mama off about Stephen's less-than-perfect health. Instead he went along with the subject change. "Five. And if you happen to come down with a headache, sore throat, congestion, upset stomach, or mild-to-moderate aches and pains while we're here, you'll be thanking me for it."

 

~*~

 

The food, when it came out, looked delicious. Jon and his mother had both gotten the turkey course; Stephen went with the salmon, while Mrs. Col-bert had the foie gras. That last one was technically an appetizer, prompting Stephen to try to add some of his own meal to his mother's much-smaller plate. "You have got to try some of this ratatouille, Mama. It's delicious," he said, while shamelessly swiping Jon's cornbread.

Jon let it go. Mom raised her eyebrows, then nudged her own cornbread in Jon's direction. "Would you like mine, honey? I'm never going to eat all this."

"Don't mind if I do."

"Good to see the boys with such healthy appetites," said Mrs. Col-bert. "They grow up so fast, don't they?"

"Tell me about it," sighed Mom. "Especially when they're away from you so much. You see them on TV in the meantime, of course, but it isn't the same....You've gone through this with a lot of your kids, right? How do you adjust?"

"Hey, I see Mama plenty," said Stephen, punctuating it with a firm gesture of his fork. "When you consider that she has eleven of us all around the country to keep up with, a few visits a year is practically all the time."

"It never really gets easier," added Mrs. Col-bert. "You just have to resign yourself to the knowledge that they all have to leave the nest eventually."

It sounded to Jon more like the nest had left Stephen. And when he was ten, no less. Not to mention, Stephen's estimate of "a few visits a year" was seriously high as far as Jon could tell. He only remembered Mrs. Col-bert coming around once before in the entire tenure of the band.

Apparently Mom wasn't convinced either. "I was resigned to them leaving at eighteen, at the earliest. I still wonder if I did the right thing, throwing Jon into the middle of all this when he was barely fifteen."

"Mom!" protested Jon. "You didn't 'throw me into' anything. You've never had to push me if it was about music, remember? I practiced, I signed up for auditions, I took the bus to lessons...I bought my own guitar, for crying out loud."

It was Mrs. Col-bert's turn to raise her eyebrows. "You made your son buy his own guitar?"

"He was eleven at the time," pointed out Jon's mother. "I wasn't going to spend upwards of a hundred dollars on something that, for all I knew, he would get bored with in the next six months."

"When I was eleven, all I had for instruments were hand-me-downs," put in Stephen. "If Jon had had ten musical older brothers and sisters, I bet things would have been different."

"And I did get him a harmonica," added Mom. "That was the other instrument he wouldn't stop talking about. Springsteen plays it, you know."

Jon nodded. "Mom was plenty supportive once she figured out I was serious." Pulling together the money for guitar lessons and musical summer camp, comforting him after his first few failed auditions at local theaters, insisting he wasn't crazy for wanting to try again — she'd eventually backed him up as much as any kid could ask for.

(Because of that, he refrained from pointing out that the first harmonica she got him had turned out to be a four-inch-long plastic toy.)

 

~*~

 

"What do you mean, 'emancipated'?"

Oops. Stephen hadn't meant to mention that. "Just a legal thing," he told Jon. "No big deal. Hey, did you tell your mom about how you did a guest part on —"

"As in, emancipated minor?" interrupted Jon. "I knew your dad could be pretty rough, but I didn't know it was that bad!"

"Papa isn't rough! He's firm and disciplined," added Stephen, horrified. Had he really come across as so disrespectful of his parents that Jon thought he would throw them off for real? "It's nothing to do with him."

But now Jon was glaring at Mama. "And where are you in all this? You can't even bring yourself out of parenthood-retirement long enough to take custody?"

"Well, I never!" exclaimed Mama.

"Jon, stop it!" said Stephen. "Nothing's going to change! My parents are doing a great job, and they're going to keep right on doing it. I told you, it's a legal thing."

In his coat pocket, his phone played a couple of notes. He ignored it. Whoever was texting him, it could wait.

And now Jon's mother had latched on to the idea. "What kind of legal thing? If there's a contract you want to enter into that your parents won't sign for, I'm sure it can wait a few more years."

"Neither I nor my husband would ever hold our children back like that," said Mama testily.

"Oh, I didn't mean — of course you wouldn't hold him back. But the boys have their whole working lives ahead of them. They deserve the chance to be kids while they can."

Stephen wanted to jump to Mama's defense, but found himself at a loss for words. How could he explain to Ms. Marion that she had it backwards — that his parents, in fact, were more excited about the emancipation than he was — without sounding like a bad son?

His phone chimed again.

"And no child deserves to have his talent repressed because of his age," countered Mama. "Stephen's going through this process because we want him able to enter into more contracts. He's looking forward to being able to work enough hours that he can write that memoir, aren't you, sweetheart?"

Oh, good, something Stephen could say with a clear conscience. "I'm really excited about the memoir, Mama. Gosh, dessert sure is taking a long time to get here, isn't it?"

"Hang on," said Jon. "You're only doing this so Stephen can work more hours? You know he —"

"— can't wait for that pie!" said Stephen loudly. "Pecan, oh boy! Haven't had that in way too long."

Jon sat back in his chair, folding his arms. "Nobody except Olivia is genuinely that enthusiastic about pie."

Another chime from Stephen's coat. This time he grabbed for it. "Better see who that is. It might be important."

 

<3 Olivia <3
well bb i hope ur fam8ly dinnr is goin ebtter than mine

<3 Olivia <3
mom tihnks im some kinda corprat whore + sarahbeth says i hqve a pblm

<3 Olivia <3
yeah i have a problm, whch is: f7ck alll this w. a rusty spoon, ok?

 

Uh-oh. "It's Olivia," said Stephen, without elaborating. "I think she really needs to talk. Do you mind...?" He was already getting up. There had to be an unused room around here that he could duck into for a private conversation.

"For that sweet girl? Go right ahead," said Mama with a warm smile. "You tell her I said hello."

 

~*~

 

In the cabin of the Small Wonder, still at the dock but with the doors safely bolted, Olivia was mixing an impromptu cocktail in preparation for sending another text when her phone rang.

"Stephen, babyyy," she crooned into the receiver. "Whassup? Does your night suck? 'Cause my night, my night sucks."

"My night could be better," said Stephen on the other end. "Olivia, where are you? Are you with anyone?"

"Me? Onna boat. I mean, not just any boat, I mean my boat....What was the other question?"

She managed to explain to Stephen that she was alone, that she'd had a few drinks, that she was pulling from the stash that had been concealed in the Small Wonder this whole time. (It was probably a bad idea to tell him that, but she was so proud she'd kept the secret this long, and someone ought to appreciate it, dammit.)

"Is there food out there too?" asked Stephen. "You should eat something. Do you have something to eat?"

"Already ate plenty," said Olivia. "We had the big dinner early. Worked out real well, that did. Ugh, I'm so full...." With one hand on the inner hull to keep herself steady, she walked herself over to the recessed bed and collapsed onto the mattress. "I'm okay. Sitting down now. So how 'bout you? How's your night?"

"Great! Fine! Absolutely perfect," said Stephen. "My mom says hi. Did you know that my mom showed up?"

"Uh-huh. Saw your tweet."

"And sure, it's hard work keeping up the façade for Mama that you and me are a happy heterosexual couple with a total of zero chemical dependencies between us...plus I'm pretty sure Jon's mom has spent all night judging my lifestyle — I mean the Hollywood one, not the gay one...but other than that? Everything is wonderful."

"Well, congrats on that," said Olivia. "Nice work on the...façade thingy. Shoulda kept that up over here, maybe."

On the other end of the line, Stephen sounded hopeful. "You told your family?"

"Not everything. Not about Kristen yet. Just told 'em you an' me are faking it." Olivia sniffled, fighting a fresh upwelling of tears. "That's when Mom said the thing — how I was selling myself. Said it wasn't how she raised me."

"Olivia, that's terrible."

"I know!" wailed Olivia. Her stomach was acting up; she carefully slid herself into a lying-down position, which helped. "I mean, I mean, what the fuck, right? I don't even wanna do it! She could at least try to understand!"

"Shhh, c'mon, it's going to be okay," said Stephen. "We're going to stop soon, remember? The movie drops in three weeks. We can stop right after that."

Olivia gulped hard, scrubbing at her eyes. "Mac said we can't. She says it'll look too — too tranpar—, transap—, too see-through. If we stop right then. We can't." Besides, even after the premiere there were more sales to think of, and the DVDs and Blu-Rays, and the sequel Mac had hinted about a few months ago, and, and....

"We can too," insisted Stephen. "I'll do it. I'll break up with you. That way your manager can't get on your case about it."

"You promise?" sniffled Olivia.

"I promise! Cross my heart, I will dump you as soon as I can."

"You are the best," said Olivia, and meant it. "I love you so fuckin' much, Stephen Col-bert. I mean, like...in a platonical fashion."

"Same here, Olivia Munn," said Stephen. "Look, your sister's at the house too, right? She didn't call you a corporate so-and-so, did she?"

"Uh-uh. She jus' called me an alcoholic."

"The nerve! I don't know where she would have gotten that idea." Without a hint of irony, Stephen went on: "Anyway, will you call her to come get you? I can't stay long, but I don't want to leave you alone in case you pass out again."

"I've drunk this much without passin' out," protested Olivia. "Done it plenty. You know that."

"Yeah, I know. But if I hang up, you're probably gonna drink more."

Couldn't really argue with that. "How come you can't stay? Maybe you could put Jon on too. Maybe we could all watch a movie or somethin'."

Stephen hesitated. "Jon and I are both still in the middle of dinner."

"Ohmigod, really?" Now Olivia felt awful. "An' your mom is there and everything! I'm so sorry. I'm the most terrible person."

"You are not at all a terrible person," said Stephen. "Just get your sister, okay? And have her contact me after, because I can't spend all night worrying about you! I have a show to do tomorrow."

"Uh-huh. Okay. I'm gonna text her now." Olivia swallowed. "Thanks. An' good luck with the show. An' the dinner. An' everything. You know."

They said their goodbyes, and soon enough Olivia found herself struggling to focus on tiny lines of text, wincing against an oncoming headache. She double-checked that it was Sarah Beth's name at the top, and hit send.

 

<3 Olivia <3
in the cabin of 6he boat can u cmoe get me? i think i have a problm.

 

~*~

 

Dessert came while Stephen was still out. Jon's mother managed to redirect the conversation to a comparison of her and Mrs. Col-bert's childhoods, freeing Jon up to pick at his slice of chocolate cake and worry in peace.

He sat up straight the instant Stephen finally came back in. "What took so long? Is everything okay?"

"Fine! Olivia's...." Stephen had his phone cupped tightly in both hands; it chimed with one more text as he sat down, which he scanned before relaxing. "It's cool, she's fine."

"It's perfectly normal for a young man to talk for a long time with his sweetheart. Doesn't mean there's anything to worry about," Mrs. Col-bert admonished Jon. To her son, she added, "Especially when it's your first love! I'm sure you and Olivia would talk for hours if you could."

"Yes, Mama."

"You'll understand one day, Jon," added Stephen's mother. "Or...maybe you have some idea already? Is there a young lady you have your eye on? The magazines name a new one every other week, but I don't take any of that too seriously. They'll print anything if it sells."

Jon had to bite back a whole lot of sarcastic answers about all the (essentially) Stephen/Olivia fanfiction the magazines were churning out. "Nope! No young ladies here," he said brightly. "I'm perfectly happy where I am."

"Ah, you say that now," said Mrs. Col-bert. "But just wait. One of these days you'll meet a girl who turns your head, and the next thing you know —"

"Or a guy," said Jon.

Stephen's mother looked blank. "Come again?"

This might be a bad idea, but what the hell. It wasn't like Jon had anything to lose — when it came to Mrs. Col-bert's extremely conditional respect, he could take it or leave it — and he wanted to be honest about something after sitting through this faceful of aggressive heterosexual propaganda. "I could meet a girl or a guy. You don't know."

A dark cloud of disapproval settled over the woman's face. "I know it's the big thing these days with young people to be politically correct about homosexuals, but that's going a little far, don't you think? It's okay to be straight and proud."

"Listen, I have no problem with straight people being proud," countered Jon. "Some of my best friends are straight. I'm just not one of 'em."

"And I'm very proud of my bi son," added Mom, with a gentle hand on his arm.

"Well!" Mrs. Col-bert blinked several times; you could almost hear the clanging as her train of thought jumped tracks. "Stephen, did you know about this?"

Stephen's hands were folded in his lap as he looked away from her, back straight and face carefully blank. "Yes, Mama."

"Well!" said his mother again. "I do hope you and Olivia are setting a good Christian example for him."

"No, Mama."

"You're so — I'm sorry, what?"

"I'm gay, Mama."

There went the full-blown screeching of mental brakes. Jon held his breath, fiercely glad his own mom was there with him. Not to mention there for him.

"What's this about, Stephen?" asked Mrs. Col-bert at last, peering at her youngest son with tender concern. "Are you having some kind of trouble with Olivia? Even if she's not the right girl for you...."

"It's been a fake relationship for publicity purposes since day one, Mama," said Stephen, still quiet and deferential and expressionless. "And for purposes of covering up the fact that...again...I'm gay."

His mother was shaking her head. "Don't say that."

It struck a nerve; Stephen turned to her, eyebrows arched, hands tensing. "Why is it so hard to believe?" he demanded. "I'm crazy about musical theater. I can coordinate my own outfits. When I was six I told you my life's ambition was to be a Disney princess!"

"You like other things too," protested his mother. "Like those Lord of the Rings books, remember? When you were seven you had switched to wanting to be a Ranger."

"Mostly because I was madly in love with Aragorn!...It's a guy's name, Mama."

"Honey, you can't confuse a little fictional admiration with —"

"I've been going steady with Jon since May."

Mrs. Col-bert looked with a start at Jon, then at his mother. "You didn't think it would be appropriate to mention this to me?"

"I thought the boys should be allowed to tell you when they were ready," said Mom, with laser-guided serenity. Her grip never left Jon's arm.

Now that everything was on the table, Jon took a deep breath and tried to make the best of it. "I'm really crazy about your son, ma'am...."

"Yes, yes." Mrs. Col-bert was already pushing back her chair. "Excuse me. I need to go re-powder my face."

And she was off, heading for the door without even bothering to shoulder her purse first.

(How many times had Stephen deflected a conversation by announcing he needed to, say, re-gel his hair, then taking off without the hair gel? Now Jon knew where he got it from.)

As for the younger Col-bert, he was still tense all over, lips pressed tightly together, eyes bright behind his glasses. Jon didn't think twice about finally pulling away from his mother to scoot his chair up next to Stephen's. "You okay? C'mere."

Stephen threw his arms around Jon and clung, chin digging into Jon's shoulder. He was shaking now. Maybe it was another bout of withdrawal tremors, but somehow Jon doubted it.

"Shhh," he murmured, rubbing Stephen's back. "It's okay. It's over! And, look, you got through it."

"I — I was rude," choked Stephen. "At the end. I should've been — should've done —"

Oh, no, guilt. How was Jon supposed to talk Stephen out of it? Obviously Mrs. Col-bert was going to be offended by the gay thing no matter what, but if Stephen couldn't see that, if he was stuck on the idea that he could counter his parents' homophobia by being "good" enough in other ways....

"You didn't do anything wrong, Stephen," said Mom. "You gave her a shock, that's all. I've never been in your shoes, but I've been in hers, and I can tell you that it takes a while to adjust — longer for some of us than for others. It doesn't mean she won't come around eventually."

Stephen gulped. "Y-you think?"

"I think you're a remarkable young man, and your parents should be nothing but proud of you. Try to give her some time."

"Uh-huh." Stephen's grip relaxed; he was able to sit back, though he kept one arm locked around Jon's shoulders, rubbing his eyes with his free hand. The diamonds of his purity ring glittered on his finger. "Thank you, ma'am."

"Would it help if I talked to her?" added Mom. "I won't push if you don't want me to."

Jon vaguely recognized his own tendency to follow a problem around and keep hammering at it, long after it was obvious he wasn't making any difference. "C'mon, Mom, what could you say?"

His mother smiled. "Well, for one thing, I could finally have a chance to show off all these handsome photos I've been collecting of you two."

Stephen thought it over, then said slowly, "Could you...show me, instead?"

"Of course!"

They dragged the chairs back around, and Mom pulled out her tablet.

(She hadn't been kidding about the collection. The photo folder she opened had a couple hundred items. What had she done, raided the entire Zimbio archives? Jon didn't know whether to be flattered or mortified.)

"I'm still not always sure this job was the healthiest thing for Jon," said Mom to Stephen (as if Jon wasn't sitting right between them!) as they scrolled through images from a Gap photoshoot. "But, honey, I don't regret for a minute that he got to meet you."

Chapter Text

Jon had been aware that Anthony had taken him up on the offer of free VIP concert tickets, and had chartered a car to pick his guests up. He hadn't realized that, when the band swung into the limo after a full morning of public events with Shout*For fans, he might nearly sit on Huma Abedin.

"Sorry!" he exclaimed, not quite registering who it was. Then he did a double-take at the dark-haired girl with supermodel cheekbones, stunning in a dark red dress whose neckline fell in a V right down to her belt. "Uh, hi." His brain fogged over for a second, but managed to register Anthony in a fitted T-shirt and a nice jacket next to her. "Huma?"

"Jon! So good to see you."

The other band members had all piled in onto the long seat after him, with Killer bringing up the rear. Jimmy and Stephen were still waving at the fans until their bodyguard pulled the door shut; Tucker, less distracted, also did a double-take at Huma. "Whoa! Did one of them sneak in?"

"No, I'm not a fan," said Huma quickly. "I mean, I am — I'm a huge fan — but...."

"She's my guest," said Jon. "Guys, this is Huma and Anthony. You probably remember Anthony from all my New Jersey candids, and Huma's his girlfriend."

Huma cleared her throat, shooting Anthony a look.

"Uh, we're actually taking a break right now," said Anthony. "But when we were actively dating I made a promise that I would take her to meet Shout*For, and now I am keeping that promise."

"So I guess you already know who the guys are," said Jon, indicating the rest of the band.

"Hi," said Tucker.

"Nice to meet you," said Jimmy.

And Stephen, fixated on Anthony, blurted, "Can I touch your pecs?"

Jon facepalmed. Sure, he was glad Stephen's mood hadn't (yet?) tanked entirely since his mother had basically frozen him out before, but come on.

"That was unprovoked!" exclaimed Anthony, addressing Huma. "You were watching, right? I did absolutely nothing to encourage him."

Except post half-naked pictures all over Twitter, Jon thought. For his friend's sake, though, he kept it to himself.

"It's all right," said Huma. "I would have absolutely no problem if you let Stephen Col-bert touch your chest. And if any of the rest of you want to join in...?"

"Oh my god," groaned Tucker.

"I think we'll pass," translated Jimmy.

"None for me, thanks," agreed Jon. "But Stephen, by all means, have at it."

Anthony sighed. "Okay, okay! But I want it on the record that I'm not going to enjoy it."

 

~*~

 

No matter what else happened to him, Stephen could still block out the worst of it and throw himself wholly into a show. And oh, was tonight's crowd more than delighted to receive him. Thrilling to the applause, he sang his heart out — even when he wasn't the lead singer, as with A Whole New World — which, since Stephen had been the one to introduce Jon to the joys of Aladdin in the first place, he felt he deserved most of the credit for anyway.

"How's everybody doing so far?" he called, reclaiming center stage from Jon as the latest round of ecstatic flailing died down. "You all excited to be here?" Shouts and cheers. "I hear tickets sold out in only a few hours. Wow! You all must be really big fans, am I right?"

Everyone from eight-year-old girls to sixteen-year-old girls cheered their approval. The first few rows, where people were so close that they'd had to sign releases promising they wouldn't get sick from the smoke-machine fumes, were practically hyperventilating. Stephen wanted to hug every single one of them.

"I don't know, though," he said, with a roguishly raised eyebrow. "Are you big enough fans to know everything there is to know about Shout*For? Huh? You think you could answer a few trivia questions?"

They could. They so could. Piece of cake.

"Fantastic!" crowed Stephen. "Let's do this."

He brought them through a couple of general questions about the band's work, then switched to the personal. You could gauge how popular each of the guys was with this crowd by how many people shouted the right answers for them.

"One for the Tucker fans! Where was Tucker born?...San Francisco, that's right! What's Jon's favorite food?" That got a jumble of answers; no wonder, since Jon himself could never keep it straight. "All of you who said pizza, give yourselves a pat on the back! Let's try another. When is Jon's birthday?"

This was the point where he broke away from the script they'd done in dress rehearsal. The crowd, oblivious, just yelled the date.

Stephen paused, feigning shock. "November twenty-eighth?" he echoed. "That's just a few days away! And I haven't even gotten his present yet!"

Mixed aww's and boos from the audience.

"I'm kidding, I'm kidding," grinned Stephen. "Of course we all have his presents ready! And so do a bunch of you, judging by the number of gifts our handlers have piled up backstage." (Cheers from the Jon girls. There were lots.) "We're having those shipped back to L.A. so he can open them the day of, but in the meantime...Jon?"

He spun on his heel to look at Jon for the first time all monologue. A few steps back on the stage, Jon was deer-in-headlights stunned. "Yeah?" he replied — then, at a meaningful nod from Stephen, stumbled forward to actually speak into the nearest freestanding mic. "Yes, Stephen, what is it? ...Can you all tell I didn't get to rehearse this bit?"

Stephen let the appreciative laughter run its course before answering. "It just so happens, Jon, that when your wonderful and talented bandmates were packing for New York, we happened to throw our birthday gifts for you into our suitcases. In case you wanted to open them early."

"Um," said Jon. "Is that even allowed? What am I supposed to say?"

In a stage whisper, Stephen hissed, "Say you want presents!"

The audience, clearly quicker on the uptake than Jon, cheered their approval.

Out came a couple of stagehands, boxes at the ready (with gifts that had actually been planned and vetted almost entirely by Brian, but the crowd didn't need to know that). "From Tucker" came a couple of authentic high-quality replica lightsabers. Jimmy had "picked out" a jacket painstakingly molded to mimic the Dark Knight Rises body armor. And "Stephen's gift" was a limited-edition Springsteen LP, framed and autographed.

"And one more thing...." said Stephen, appropriating the final, tiny, lightweight box. This one, he actually had picked out himself. It was the cheapest of the lot by at least a factor of twenty. (Assuming Stephen understood correctly what "a factor of" meant.)

"Oh my god, there's more?" said Jon, with a breathless laugh.

"Last one, I promise."

Jon reached for the box. "Well, come on, hand it over."

"Hang on, I need to set this up!" Stephen turned to the giggling audience. "You people know who my Best Friend Forever is, right?"

Jimmy's name echoed around the arena.

"That's right! And we have the friendship necklaces to prove it." He pulled his own out of his shirt, flashing the half-heart at one of the cameras to make sure it could get the close-up, then addressed Jon again. "So, Jon, I am sorry to say that that role is taken. Which is why I thought, perhaps, as an alternative...."

He opened the box. The big display screens on either side of the stage jumped to the close-up of another pair of corresponding half-heart pendants: one jet-black with the Batman logo, the other dark blue and stamped with the Superman S.

"...we could be Best Superfriends Forever?"

Jon couldn't answer right away: he was too choked-up to speak. Clearly, he understood how significant this relationship upgrade was. After all, even the best orgasm had while grinding against your boyfriend's leg was fleeting, but a plastic charm for your boyfriend that fit into one of yours? That was forever.

(If there was any justice in the world, Tumblr's "colbewart" tag would be on fire by tomorrow.)

 

~*~

 

Jon spent the rest of the concert on some kind of otherworldly in-the-zone performance high. He sang, he warbled, he strummed, he rocked; he floated through intermission, barely tasting the (sponsor-provided) Gatorade Brian made them drink, and flew back out onstage.

Phantom guitar strings were still vibrating against his fingers when he and the others retreated backstage for the last time, trading high-fives with the staff and the production team, cheering even though it was going to make their voices all the more hoarse tomorrow. The arena had separate dressing rooms for each of them, compact fluorescent-lit spaces attached to tiny-but-individual bathrooms; Jon threw his stage clothes over a chair and showered with the pendant from Stephen still around his neck.

He was pulling on a T-shirt as he opened the door, wondering if he could duck into Stephen's dressing room for a few minutes and get some making out done before they went to the after-party, and nearly walked into Brian.

"Hi!" said Jon, tugging down his shirt in a hurry, but too buzzed with success to let it bother him much. "How's it going? Some show, huh? It was awesome. We were awesome. Nothing's wrong, is it?"

"No, nothing wrong. Walk with me," said Brian, nodding in the general direction of the room where the food and champagne would be.

No chance for private time with Stephen, then. Oh well. "What's going on?"

Brian explained.

By the time they reached the celebration, Jon's good mood was seizing up like someone had stuck a knife in it. He ignored several requests for high-fives, looking desperately around for his friends. He didn't want to talk to Mom right now. Was Stephen dressed yet? What about Jimmy? And where was —

"Jon!" Ah, there was Anthony, materializing out of the crowd with a glass of something fizzy in one hand and Huma's purse in the other. "Jon, it was great. We got interviewed! Is this going to be on the news? What is this for?"

"DVD special features," said Jon automatically. "Both of you, really?"

"I told them I'd only ever gone to school with you for a couple of months," said Huma. Her dark hair was tousled, her makeup still perfect. "They seemed to think that was enough to go on."

"And I told them that they should interview Huma no matter what," added Anthony, tipping his glass in her direction. "Because she's the most brilliant, well-spoken, interesting person in our whole school. If not our whole state!"

Huma was fighting not to smile. It wasn't working so well.

Jon leaned in and lowered his voice. "Listen, I don't know what this idiot did, but he really does like you."

"Only things that I deeply, deeply regret," said Anthony. "And just to be clear, it was nothing physical! It was limited to Twitter...and Facebook...and email...and OKCupid...and one time on the phone. The point is, none of it meant anything! Not like she does."

Before Jon could figure out a supportive way to call his friend a dick, they were interrupted by Stephen and Jimmy, both still riding high. "We did it!" cried Stephen, throwing his arms around Jon. "We did the movie!"

"It was perfect. I can't believe it was all so perfect," added Jimmy, bouncing in place. "I kept waiting for something to go wrong, and it didn't!"

"Are you still wearing your necklace? I'm wearing mine! I think I'm going to put your charm and Jimmy's on the same chain, so it's easier to...Jon? Are you okay?"

"Fine!" said Jon, forcing a grin. "We sure did great, didn't we?"

"You were amazing," cut in Anthony. "So how come these two are so much happier than you are? You've earned it."

"I'm happy. Really. I'm very proud. It's just...." Jon grimaced. "Apparently my dad's outside."

Anthony, who knew best what that meant, got serious in an instant. "Dude, are you okay? Are you gonna let him come in?"

"No way in hell." (Stephen, who had been hanging off of Jon's arm, flinched away.)

Anthony handed Huma back her purse. "Can you give us a minute?" he asked.

"I'm fine," said Jon tersely. "I'm not gonna have a breakdown or anything, I just...."

"Jon? I don't know if you've noticed, but...the camera people are still here."

 

~*~

 

The dressing room with Stephen's name on the printout taped to the door was the largest, so they all ducked in there: him and Jimmy, Jon and Anthony. No sooner was the door closed than Jon snapped, "But seriously, where the fuck does he get off? No warning, no asking for permission, just shows up at a concert and expects me to invite him in like a VIP?"

"It's entitled as hell, is what it is," said Anthony. "You don't owe that man anything."

"At least he had the class to wait until after the show, right?" Jon paced, leaned roughly against the plain wooden table, then braced his hands on the edge and hefted himself up to sit on it. "Didn't try to shake us down for tickets...and oh my god, if I had known he was watching...!"

"Was he? Do you know if he actually bought a ticket?"

"No. No, I don't," admitted Jon. "You're right, there's no reason to assume he did. Bastard couldn't even be bothered to pay for my bar mitzvah — why would he shell out for a concert ticket?"

Stephen, bewildered and upset, couldn't hold in his disapproval any longer. "Don't talk about him like that! And if he wants to see you, he deserves a chance. He's your father!"

"Yeah, and that plus two dollars will get him a Coke," snapped Jon. "He's not my legal guardian. He gets absolutely zero say on anything I do."

"Maybe not according to the law. But what about according to what's right? He finally found the time to come visit you — why would you shut him out? You have to honor and respect your parents, no matter —"

"Look, Col-bert, you seem like a well-intentioned guy," said Anthony. "But do you actually have any idea what you're talking about here, or are you just trying to beat your boyfriend over the head with as many platitudes as possible?"

In spite of himself, Stephen took a step back. "Jon, are you going to let him talk to me like that?"

"Yes," said Jon flatly.

"He might have a point," put in Jimmy. "Let's just sit down, okay?"

Stephen and Jimmy took a couple of chairs (black metal with cheap cushions, a far cry from the nice plush ones in their dressing room back home). Anthony just leaned against the wall, arms folded. "You say the word, Jon, and I'll throw them both out of here."

"No. Though I appreciate the offer." Jon's knuckles were white as he gripped the edge of the table; his feet kicked at the air. "Listen, Stephen, this isn't like with you and your mom, okay? You wanted to see her, and she knew it. A visit from her was a nice surprise! From my dad? It's...it's an ambush."

"Good word," said Anthony.

"And the timing!" Jon pounded a fist against the tabletop. "How convenient can you get? He pays the bare minimum in child support so he has more cash to pamper the secretary he ran off with, while Mom is struggling to keep the house, let alone send me to music lessons — but now that I'm a millionaire, he just happens to want back into my life? I am not that goddamn gullible!"

He was panting for breath, face ashen. "Jon, hey, breathe," urged Jimmy. "Is your inhaler around?"

"Dressing room." Jon waved vaguely toward the next room down.

"I'll go grab it," said Jimmy, and squeezed Stephen's shoulder on the way out.

For his part, Stephen was paralyzed with confusion. Five minutes ago he'd been so sure of his morals and principles, and now he didn't know what to think.

Anthony assured Jon that he had the right to mistrust his father's motives, and no obligation to let the man jerk him around, even with the best of intentions. It sounded like the furthest thing from honor and respect on Jon's part. But it wasn't sitting wrong in Stephen's gut, either.

The new best-superfriendship pendant hung heavy around his neck.

A hand knocked at the door — but it didn't ring like Jimmy's, and then the muffled voice of Ms. Marion was saying, "Jon? Are you in there?"

Jon nodded to Anthony, who called, "He's here! Come on in."

It wasn't just Jon's mother at the door. Brian and Killer were with her, and Stephen even caught a flash of red from Huma's stunning dress behind them. The whole pack would never fit in this room; everyone else hung back while Ms. Marion ran to her son. "Oh, honey! I heard — and then you weren't in the room, and we couldn't find you, and — Jon, you're hyperventilating, where's your inhaler?"

"Right here," said Jimmy from the hall, squeezing his way in. "Catch!"

Soon Jon was feeling much better: enough to complain loudly about being the focus of so much worried attention, when all he had done was work himself up into "a very minor asthma attack." Under other circumstances Stephen might have tried to help by drawing everyone's attention to himself, but right now he was too preoccupied with trying to get his head on straight.

Leaving Jon in the care of his own BFF for the moment, he pulled Jimmy aside.

 

~*~

 

Anthony apologized to Huma for abandoning her so suddenly. Huma replied that he'd had a good reason, and one of her favorite things about him was the way he stood up for his friends. When Jon saw them off for the night, they left holding hands, and through the tinted windows of the charter car he was pretty sure he caught them going for a kiss.

Stephen didn't apologize, exactly, but he didn't push Jon any more about the whole honoring-your-parents thing. Most of the rest of the night he spent hanging around with Jimmy to talk alone. Hopefully Jimmy could talk him into seeing the issue on a more case-by-case basis.

As the crew was starting to pack it in and depart in groups for the red-eye back to L.A., Jon got up the nerve to ask his mother one last thing. "Does it bother you at all that I went with Stewart? Like, as a new name? Instead of Laskin?"

"Not at all," said Mom. "Does it bother you that I'm still using Leibowitz?"

Jon hadn't even thought about that. "Uh, I guess I just figured you didn't want to deal with all the paperwork to change it."

"That's about right. Although at this point I guess it would be easy to hire someone to take care of it...but, Jon, as long as you're happy with Stewart, I'm happy with it too." She pulled him into a hug. "It's still a name I gave you, after all."

 

~*~

 

The only two still awake on the overnight flight, Jimmy and Stephen spoke in whispers.

"No, I really don't," said Jimmy, in answer to Stephen's question about whether he thought Jon had done wrong. "I believe in respecting your parents, but it's their job to do a respectable job at parenting too. Don't you remember the moral of Tangled?"

Stephen's head hurt. "Jimmy? Do you remember...when my dad used to kill my fish?"

"Hard to forget," murmured Jimmy. "Although I guess that was the point, huh?"

"That's right. It had a point. It wasn't for no reason," said Stephen weakly. "I was being unprofessional. Sometimes it was the only thing that got me to stop throwing a tantrum when I was supposed to be doing an audition. And it worked, and it led to some great performances, so...that counts as respectable parenting, right?"

"I...don't know."

"I can sort of see, I guess, how it would be a problem that Jon's dad didn't care at all about supporting his career. And the mom Rapunzel grew up with in Tangled was always trying to hold her back, and telling her she wasn't good enough. But my parents did care! They believed in me, and supported me a hundred and ten percent. So it's a completely different thing. Right?"

"It's different," admitted Jimmy. "But, Stephen...there's such a thing as pushing someone too hard, you know? I went to the same kind of auditions that you did, and if I was being a troublemaker my parents would take away my Playstation for a week or send me to bed without dessert. They never killed any of my pets." His face fell. "Stephen? Has your dad threatened any of them recently?"

"He doesn't need to! I take my career much more seriously now."

"Because if you think there's a chance...if they're in any danger at all, I'll take them in. You know I will. As long as you need."

"So you think it would be wrong."

"I guess so," whispered Jimmy. "I mean...even if something helps your career, that doesn't automatically make it okay. They don't have a right to hurt you just to make you a better actor."

"You're saying I don't have respectable parents," hissed Stephen. "You think I should cut them off completely like Jon has with his dad. Your words, sir!"

"Those are not my words!" Jimmy was kind enough not to point out that, as of last night, Mama had basically cut him off already — or at least, it could be anywhere from days to years before she decided to speak to Stephen again. "What I'm saying is...I guess it's...you have to decide for yourself. But you get to decide! If you just want to be mad at your dad over those fish, you're allowed. If you want to move out the day you turn eighteen...."

"Not the relevant date any more."

In the tiny bright circle of the plane's individual seat-lights, Jimmy frowned. "Why? Wait, are you going for emancipation? Like your sister?"

Stephen nodded.

"So the new relevant date is...?"

It seemed much closer now that Stephen's plan for how to handle it was so thoroughly muddled. "If everything goes to plan? The Tuesday after next."

Chapter Text

<3 Olivia <3
hey bb, u there? got some news, dont want u 2 freak out

Kristen ಠ෴ಠ
Well by saying that, you sure have ensured that I'm not pre-emptively freaking out at all!

Kristen ಠ෴ಠ
Seriously, what's up?

<3 Olivia <3
apparently on thxgiving I got blackout drunk & told Sarah Beth where all my stashes are

<3 Olivia <3
so if I seem super stressed on Mon. now u know why

Kristen ಠ෴ಠ
Oh babyyyyy. Are you stopping for good now?

<3 Olivia <3
idk, maybe?? do I have 2 go cold turkey? (haha, thxgiving pun.) will they make me go 2 meetings? Im really not into meetings :((

Kristen ಠ෴ಠ
At least they would get you out of the house?

Kristen ಠ෴ಠ
I'm bringing you leftover pie on Monday, btw!

<3 Olivia <3
ooh. what kind?

Kristen ಠ෴ಠ
Was going to be a surprise, but I want you to have something to look forward to <3

Kristen ಠ෴ಠ
Maple pecan. Homemade.

Kristen ಠ෴ಠ
It's vegan!

<3 Olivia <3
oh sure but how many maple trees did u cruelly bleed out 4 this pie?

Kristen ಠ෴ಠ
Keep talking like that and I won't bring you any of the herbs we murdered to make natural headache-relief & anti-anxiety remedies.

 

~*~

Star Girl studio, morning.

Not only did Kristen bring the goods, she was waiting outside the studio with an armful of ribbon-wrapped boxes when Olivia's car dropped her off Monday morning.

"You are definitely not supposed to be here right now," said Olivia. She was mixed up about a lot of things right now, and the way her head was throbbing in defiance of a generous dose of aspirin didn't help, but she knew Kristen's work schedule by heart.

"Hello to you too," said Kristen with a fond grin. "I'm gonna catch a cart over to the animation building in a couple minutes." She handed Olivia the boxes. "This one's tea. Good for headaches, good for your liver. This here is a multivitamin, which is always a boost, and these pills are supposed to relieve stress. In this one is kudzu extract, which is supposed to help with cravings — I threw in a measuring spoon, so just follow the directions on the bottle. And the pie is for mood and energy, obviously."

There was one box she hadn't named, and she took this one back. "Hey!" exclaimed Olivia. "What's that one for?"

"Jon." When Olivia just looked blank, Kristen giggled. "For his birthday, silly! I told my mom most of these were for Jon when I was picking them out, so I figured I should get something he would actually like."

"You think of everything," sighed Olivia.

"Nah. Mostly just you," said Kristen. "Okay, I gotta go. Have a great morning!"

Olivia's headache felt like it was already lifting as she signed herself in.

The shine wore off a bit when Mac directed a strange woman in a grey security uniform to search all her packages, not to mention pockets. After everything passed the test, Olivia sent the woman down to the cafeteria with a teabag (plus orders to bring a fork). In the morning meeting, as Mac called up her schedule for the day, Olivia sipped a fresh cup of non-FDA-vetted headache-relief tea and dug into her maple-pecan slice of heaven.

To her credit, Mac apologized profusely for the fuss. "I know this can't be fun, Olivia, but we're going to try to make everything work as smoothly as possible. Quick checks in your dressing room and on your person, thorough but not too intrusive. We only want to do what's best for you."

"Are you gonna make me go to meetings?" blurted Olivia.

"I was thinking...perhaps one-on-one sessions with a counselor? Someone with whom you can unburden yourself, work out coping strategies to keep you from relapsing, and perhaps see if there are any prescriptions that can make things easier." She eyed Olivia's tea. "Although I'm sure your...St. John's wort, or whatever, is going to be a great help."

Olivia huddled defensively over the mug. "Ginkgo and peppermint. From Kristen."

"Yes, yes, of course." Her manager waved away the details. "Now, along with —"

She paused. It was a heavy sort of pause. The kind where you could hear mental wheels turning.

"Olivia?" Mac leaned slightly across the desk and lowered her voice, though of course they were the only ones in the office. "Do you happen to remember a conversation, some time ago, in which you told me that you were not a lesbian?"

"What does that have to do with the price of ginkgo in China?"

"I just had a thought. And please don't be offended," said Mac. "Are you by any chance bisexual?"

This would have been a great time to launch into Kristen's lecture about how the term "bisexual" upheld the oppressive notion of a gender binary. Unfortunately, Olivia couldn't remember any of it right now. "I...might be."

Mac's no-nonsense posture didn't change, but her expression softened. "I suppose this will have made things rather hard for you."

Olivia didn't answer. It was just the hot tea making her eyes water. Had to be.

"You realize, of course, that making your sexuality public would terminate your Disney contract."

"I know!" snapped Olivia. "You think I don't get that?"

"Give me a moment and let me play this out," said Mac gently. "You would lose your contract, and a good portion of your current target audience...but in a way that is greatly sympathetic to an ever-growing subset of Americans. Now, it would still be quite a shock to you, and you might take a few months out of the public eye to regroup. When you felt ready to step back into the spotlight, I have no doubt I could get you your pick of sufficiently prestigious roles."

All of this took a moment to percolate through Olivia's withdrawal-stricken brain. "You're offering me an out."

"Am I?" asked Mac, brimming with innocence. "I suppose that's one way to put it."

She could probably get Olivia a hefty set of ongoing royalties out of the shattered pieces of her contract, too. You wouldn't know it to look at her, especially on a day like today when she was wearing two different shoes, but take-no-prisoners negotiation was Mackenzie McHale's specialty.

On the other hand...was that what Olivia wanted?

Kristen's voice flashed through her mind: This is not the plan! The plan was to play this gig through to the end. To leverage everything she could out of the market saturation...the sway over her target demographic...all the shampoo and wall decals with her face on them. To wear a stupid superhero costume and rescue her girlfriend from rubber-masked monsters for as long as they would let her.

But Kristen wouldn't want her to keep on the way she had until she ran herself into the ground, either.

"Can you get me out of my mom's house?" she burst out.

"I can certainly try," said Mac. "Did you have an idea of where you wanted to go?"

Olivia hadn't even thought about it. "My grandparents live in the area," she said, voice shaking. "We could...ask them?"

"I'll start there. Are there other things you need?"

"You — you can't make me date any more boys." That could have gone on the top of her list. "Not even Stephen again, when we're doing publicity for the Princess and the Pop Star sequel."

"No more fake relationships. I promise," Mac assured her. "But, Olivia...there's not going to be a sequel."

"What?" That didn't make sense. The pre-release buzz was enormous. And now that her "mismatched stepsisters bond on a road trip" movie was in the can, what was she going to do next? "No, you were talking about that. I swear you were."

"Well, yes. At one point, we were." Mac covered one of Olivia's hands (the non-fork-holding one) with her own. "I've been postponing things or pulling them off your schedule entirely for several months now."

Oh. Of course. Just because Olivia had only said yeah, all right, this is out of control a few days ago didn't mean Mac's plans hadn't been accounting for it for ages. She swallowed hard, eyes burning. "I wanna fix it. Work back up to normal...well, maybe not all the way back up, but somewhere close. Can we do that?"

Her manager smiled, shoulders relaxing like a long-time weight had been lifted from them. "Absolutely."

 

~*~

Jon's place, that evening.

After a rowdy and appreciative birthday dinner, starring all Jon's L.A. friends (even Olivia made it) plus the occasional restaurant-goer who came over looking for a picture, he ended up in his own room with a pile of presents...and Stephen to help him open them. Jimmy had taken the dog for the night. It was just the two of them.

"More Batman stuff," sighed Jon, tossing a yet another Batarang-wielding action figure onto the stack of its fellows. "Never should've let Anthony tweet about that shampoo." The gifts collected at the concert had been seriously repetitive: half Anthony-inspired, the other half from people who must have heard about the Dory plushie he'd left behind at the boardwalk, and decided he must be really into Finding Nemo.

"Another marriage proposal in the card!" reported Stephen. (These had all been screened by Shout*For's security, checking for anthrax or something, so all he had to do was pull them out of the pre-opened envelopes.) "Ooh, and it has a little drawing of you! How cute!"

"You know, I was thinking about tweeting a photo of myself surrounded by all the fan gifts," said Jon. "But now I'm just afraid it'll make people feel bad."

"Draw yourself surrounded by the cards? Not a lot of repeats there." Stephen held up the next one. "Look, this one's handmade!"

"Good idea." Jon looked over the remaining pile of boxes with some despair. "Okay, ten-year-old me would be horrified to hear this, but I'm burned out on presents for a while."

"Totally understandable," said Stephen. "Want to unwrap something more exciting?"

"Uh, maybe. What is it?"

Stephen waggled his eyebrows. "Something...exciting."

"Yeah, but what...oh! Oh, did you mean you?"

"Look, if you're not interested, I've got a long list of people here who would love to take over the role," said Stephen, tapping the stack of cards.

Jon shoved them aside in a flurry of cardstock and kissed him.

In spite of the mess on the floor, the bed was still clear. Slowly, delicately, Jon stripped off Stephen's turtleneck, to reveal the friendship necklace with its new addition where it hung just below his collarbones. Jon ducked down to press a few kisses around there too. "God, you smell good."

"New Prescott fragrance," panted Stephen. "I got you a bottle! I'm sure you'll find that box eventually."

They shed clothes piece by piece, until they were down to boxers: black for Jon, green with Christmas trees for Stephen. Jon teased him for jumping the gun on the season; Stephen rolled his eyes and made sure their "friendship" pendants were interlocked where they sat on the bookshelf.

Rolling around on the covers with Stephen's skin all over his was Jon's idea of perfection. Stephen, though, he wasn't losing himself to the moment, and in a lull when he was on top of Jon he got serious. "Sing me something?" he asked.

"Sure, babe," said Jon. "Any requests?"

Settling onto the mattress next to him, Stephen said, "Long Time Comin'?" Then, softly, as if Jon couldn't guess: "Second verse."

Ah. Well. Not exactly a grinding song, that one. But right now, Jon thought maybe he could handle it.

He settled onto the mattress next to Stephen, rested a hand on his boyfriend's waist, and sang. "Well, my daddy, he was just a stranger / Lived in a hotel downtown / Well when I was a kid he was just somebody / Somebody I'd see around / Somebody I'd see around...."

Stephen's eyes fluttered closed.

"Well now down below and pullin' on my shirt / Yeah I got some kids of my own / If I had one wish for you in this god forsaken world, kid / It'd be that your mistakes will be your own / That your sins will be your own... / It's been a long time comin' my dear / It's been a long time comin', but now it's here...."

As the lyrics petered out, Stephen kissed his throat. "Thanks," he whispered. "My turn?"

"Go for it."

The song Stephen launched into was slower, but much better at settling them into the mood. "I've been watching you a long time / Tryin' to figure out where and when," he crooned. "We've been moving down that same line / Time is now, maybe we could get skin to skin...."

Jon started rocking his hips to the lazy rhythm. Stephen, whose breath control was basically superhuman, didn't miss a beat. His fingers trailed through the fur down Jon's chest.

"Don't know when this chance might come again / Good times got a way of comin' to an end / Don't know when this chance might come again / Good times got a way of slippin' away / Baby, let's be frie~ends...."

That touch was going awfully low....

All of a sudden Stephen's hand was between them, and Jon's cock leaped up to throb almost painfully hard against his boyfriend's palm. "Oh my god. Oh, fuck, Stephen —"

"I'm not high," whispered Stephen, curling his fingers loosely around Jon through the dark fabric. "I haven't taken anything. I just — I want to, Jon. Can I?"

Now, Jon didn't know whether Stephen was trying to break free of his parents' standards, racing against some more general fear of their future, or whether this was just a divine miracle — but he was seriously considering thanking Jesus just to make sure he had all his bases covered. "Yes, yes, Stephen, babe, don't even ask, just — oh, god, yes."

 

~*~

 

There was nothing wrong with Stephen.

He wasn't bad. He wasn't unnatural. He wasn't dirty or broken or ruined, he had nothing to be ashamed of, and if he wanted to jerk off his boyfriend, he was damn well going to go for it.

Stephen's hands made swift work of Jon's boxers, stretching the elastic over his hard-on and rolling the fabric down his legs. At a gesture Jon rolled onto his back, spreading his legs to let Stephen kneel between them, and then there it was: just the normal equipment, maybe a little smaller than Stephen's but who was counting, flushed dark and warm to the touch as Stephen palmed it.

"You like it?" panted Jon, blushing and grinning. "'Cause it sure likes you."

"It has good taste," said Stephen fiercely, and flexed his wrist.

He was exploring at first, experimenting — and reveling in every detail that made Jon different from Ned. They added up thick and fast, from the leanness and muscle that dancing had given Jon's legs to the baby-deer flailing those legs did whenever Stephen tried something unexpected, from the blue streak of curses tumbling out of his mouth to the way he held his fist in front of it as if to hide the evidence that he was anything less than perfectly composed.

As he dissolved into incoherence, Stephen had to coax directions out of him: faster or slower, rougher or lighter, was this touch good, should he do that again, was he doing good? Every stuttered yes, Stephen, so good lit Stephen up under the skin like a Vegas billboard. He curled his body over Jon's and sucked on the fingers of his free hand — and either Jon had already been close to the edge or the sight shoved him up to it, because before Stephen could try any more slick caresses Jon thrust up hard into his fist and came like a shot all over his chest.

Stephen clambered forward, throwing a leg over Jon's so he could rock against Jon's thigh. Glazed blue eyes struggled to focus on him; the whole solid form beneath him was limp except for little aftershocks. "God, Stephen, so hot — did I...? Sorry —"

"Don't care," said Stephen, and meant it. Another difference: Jon hadn't ruined any of his clothes. "It'll wash, Jon, Jon, touch me —"

Jon didn't even try to get Stephen's boxers off, just fumbled open the button and took him firmly in hand. The first touch short-circuited something in Stephen's brain. The second...faltered. "Oh —"

"What d'you mean, 'oh'?" panted Stephen. That was not the reaction you were supposed to have the first time you saw your boyfriend's dick!

"Nothing, nothin' important," said Jon, hand sliding upward to cup Stephen's balls. When Stephen managed an incoherent hiss of disapproval (hips rolling against Jon's touch to emphasize that it wasn't disapproval over that), he stammered, "I was — it's stupid — I didn't realize you were cut, and I was curious about — you know."

Well, excuse me for not having the exotic gentile body of your fantasies, thought Stephen, and then Foreskin is overrated, and then Jon was working him over with slow, confident pulls, and all that came out was "Oh my fuck —"

Jon stroked him and soothed him all at once, swearing that he wasn't missing out on a thing, that Stephen was gorgeous, that his cock was gorgeous, that it handled so well and was flushed such a sexy color and the way it curved was fucking calligraphic. Stephen was weak to the flattery, weaker still to the rhythm Jon somehow found without even having to ask, and came so hard his vision whited out.

 

~*~

 

Still half in a post-orgasmic haze himself, Jon guided Stephen down onto the covers beside him.

They were both sticky messes by now. They'd need to jump in the shower or something. Just...not yet. Not before he'd had his fill of cuddling with his Stephen.

Best birthday ever.

 

~*~

 

Blissed-out and barely verbal, Stephen was too overwhelmed for a while to do anything but cling to Jon and breathe.

Presently Jon whispered into his good ear, "You liked that, huh?"

Stephen nodded hard against the pillow.

He had loved it. And that was okay! Wanting it was okay, doing it with Jon was okay, if he felt like being Jon's that was his right as an American —

— and I'm one step closer to having a screaming breakdown the next time Ned touches me.

In the quiet, Jon added, "You wanna maybe...shower together?"

Yes. Desperately so. But right now, even more, Stephen needed a stretch of time alone to do something he so rarely did: think beforehand about how to put his words together. "Me first."

 

~*~

 

When Jon got out of the shower, towel around his waist and the vague scent of lavender hanging around in the air, he found his dark blue pajamas with the pinstripes laid out on the bed and his Stephen sitting on a windowsill.

More than a few items of Stephen's clothing had migrated into Jon's closet over the last half-a-year, and he was wearing a couple of these now: a short robe, or maybe technically a smoking jacket, belted over soft cotton pants in a matching dark grey. He looked strangely adult as he gazed up at the stars, with a silhouette like a businessman in a suit. (The fact that all the blonde had grown out of his hair probably helped.)

"So, it's still early," said Jon as he pulled on the pajamas, topping it off with his new pendant. "We could do somethin' else? There's always more presents. Or TV. Or whatever you want."

"It looks nice out," said Stephen, face still turned to the window. "Can we go outside?"

"What, like, run around in the back yard? Sure."

"Maybe on the balcony?"

There were a couple of different balconies along the sides of this house, but Jon had a feeling he knew which one Stephen meant. "Sure."

The hallways were quiet; Jon's aunt was either watching TV in her room, or already asleep. He led Stephen down to the balcony where he'd been standing, six-ish months ago, texting with Jimmy about his embarrassing secret attraction and waiting for Stephen to arrive in the driveway. L.A. seasons being as identical as they were, the view was exactly the same: same green lawn, same potted plants lining the front walk, same iridescent blue in the next-door neighbors' pool.

Well, some of it was different. Jon's car was in the driveway, for one. There was a loud party in the house across the street, and a quiet darkness down the block where one family had moved out. Also, most importantly: this time Stephen was already up here with him.

These were the mellow, sentimental, romantic thoughts he was getting ready to voice when Stephen blurted, "Jon, I need to tell you something."

"Yeah, all right," said Jon, paying attention to him but not worrying, not yet.

"And I'm nervous, and scared, and I don't know how to say it," added Stephen. "So do you mind if I sing it, instead?"

Fully expecting a love song, Jon said, "Go right ahead."

He leaned against the balcony railing to listen.

And Stephen sang, in a clear, measured voice, "There's a part I can't tell / About the dark I know well...."

Jon recognized the title, but wasn't sure of the rest. If it had come up in a musical-off, he wouldn't have gotten it.

"You say, Time for bed now child," crooned Stephen, low and slow, watching the stars. "Mom just smiles that smile / Just like she never saw me / Just like she never saw me... / So I leave, wanting just to hide / Knowing deep inside / You are coming to me / You are coming to me...."

This was going nowhere good.

With a rush of force Stephen plunged into the chorus. "You say all you want is just a kiss goodnight / Then you hold me and you whisper, Child, the Lord won't mind! / It's just you and me~ / Child, you're a beauty~!"

Clenching his fists, he tore into the lines, a vicious deconstruction of the affected sweetness the character would have heard them in —

"God, it's good – the lovin' – ain't it good tonight? / You ain't seen nothing yet – gonna treat you right / It's just you and me~ / Child, you're a beauty~!"

Jon was having a hard time breathing. "Stephen —"

His boyfriend turned away, robe flying with the twirl as he stepped out of reach, voice dropping again. "I don't scream, though I know it's wrong / I just play along / I lie there and breathe / Lie there and breathe...." Hands gripped the railing for support. "I wanna be strong / I want the world to find out / That you're dreamin' on me / Me and my 'beauty' / Me and my 'beauty'...."

Slowly Jon approached, and now Stephen let him — or maybe didn't even notice him —

"God, it's good – the lovin' – ain't it good tonight? / You ain't seen nothing yet – gonna teach you right / It's just you and me / Child, you're a beauty~!"

— and then he was looking Jon in the face, wild-eyed and strained and clearly in no shape to get through the final refrains, so Jon didn't wait for him to try. "Who? When —?" (The song was specifically about incest, god, would Stephen's father have —)

"Ned," whispered Stephen, and Jon should have fucking known, the man had always been low-grade creepy and it had finally escalated, except that the next thing Stephen said was, "Since Vancouver."

Sharp thoughts tore through Jon's mind in waves (that would only have been a few days after Stephen had first kissed him) (all this time and he hadn't noticed) (and nobody had noticed?) (god, that one time Stephen had blown up at Ned for touching Jimmy, and Jon had said he was overreacting) (he must have felt scared and alone already and they'd made it worse) (god, Jon had lectured Stephen on the problems of purity culture with the blind assumption that Stephen had never even thought about rape survivors, let alone —), leaving him with a strange, blank clarity:

"I'll kill him."

"Jon, no."

"Yes! Goddamn pedophile —"

"Ephebophile —"

"— child molester thinks he can — for six months! What's he — how bad is —?"

"It's never been sex," said Stephen, pale as a sheet and leaning heavily on the railing. "I mean, not by the Red Cross definition. But — but other than that — he kisses me and he touches me and he makes me touch him and he ruined my favorite cardigan by coming all over it —"

There was a rushing in Jon's ears, blood pounding in his skull, and his vision literally went crimson. "— and he is fucking dead."

"Stop it! Killing villains isn't the Disney way!"

"Fuck the Disney way. I'm gonna take a leaf out of Broadway and have him run into my knife ten times! He has it coming!"

"Jon, you are not helping!" screamed Stephen.

The ear-splitting pain in his voice hit where nothing else had. Jon made himself shut up and breathe; the blood-red filter faded from his vision, making him realize that Stephen was genuinely flushed and had tears running down his cheeks. No, Jon wasn't helping. Unadulterated rage might be easy and straightforward and feel way better than the powerlessness it was covering, but it wasn't going anywhere realistic, and it was shredding Stephen in the process.

"Okay," he said, soft and hoarse. "I'm sorry. No murder. I swear."

Stephen choked back a sob and nodded.

"But we've got to get you away from that man." And he was not ruling out self-defensive violence as a very last resort.

"I — I don't know how."

Jon bit down on a dozen obvious-seeming answers. He didn't know what Stephen had tried already, or if there were things Stephen had good reason to avoid, and he wasn't going to be any use at all unless he stopped jumping to conclusions and listened.

"We'll figure it out," he said instead, cupping Stephen's cheek, waiting to make sure his touch was appreciated before thumbing away the tears. The last thing he wanted to do was make things worse. How could anyone want to touch Stephen if they knew it would hurt him? "I'll help you. Talk to me. I swear to you, we'll find a way to make it so he can't — so he's never allowed to — so he won't even get near you. Never again."

Chapter Text

Tuesday morning.

Stephen got a shaky night's sleep, woke up drenched in sweat, and was a nervous mess all through breakfast. Of course Jimmy noticed as soon as they picked him (and Briar Rose) up. Gathering the dog into his lap, Stephen blamed his mood on the latest stage of the benzo withdrawal, plus something personal that he promised to tell his BFF about soon.

Ned was at the morning meeting, where he and Brian talked about the band's long-term projects as well as their schedule for the day. They were recording a couple of new singles for a special-edition re-release of their Christmas album; in a few months they were going on tour; after that Stephen had his pick of several movie deals to jump into. Jon managed to stay physically between Stephen and his manager the whole time. Still, Stephen spent the meeting in a daze, nodding when it seemed appropriate and only catching maybe half of what was going on.

At last Brian dismissed them to go to their first practice sessions, and Jon said, "Actually, can me and Stephen talk to you for a couple minutes? Alone?"

"Of course," said Brian. "My office?"

Stephen accompanied them with the puppy in his arms, scratching behind her ears.

He'd made Jon promise to do most of the talking. Jon was the one who had thought to check on details like whether Stephen's emancipation would affect his legal age of consent (no, except with an adult he was married to, and Stephen's parents might turn a blind eye to many things but same-sex marriage wasn't one of them); Jon had helped Stephen write an email to his brother Ed that was vague without being incoherent. Even if Stephen had been gutsy enough to say anything knowing Ned was in the same building, Jon was the one who could think fast enough to say it right.

Brian raised an eyebrow when Stephen and Briar Rose sat in one of his nice dog-hair-free chairs, but didn't comment. He just took a seat behind his desk, looked between the two of them, and said, "Is this about what I think it's about?"

Stephen tensed. Did he know...?

But Jon only hesitated for a second. "Probably not," he said frankly.

"All right," said Brian, equally unfazed. "Go on."

Jon nodded. "Here's the thing: Stephen needs a lawyer. Someone he can hire directly, who won't have any ties to the rest of his family — no conflicts of interest, you know? And they have to be good, but they also have to be available soon. Like, in the next couple weeks, not six months from now. Can you help us find someone?"

"I can think of a few good candidates, yes." Brian produced a pen out of nowhere and scribbled a note to himself on Aladdin stationary. "I'll make some calls. Can I let you know by lunchtime?"

Jon checked in with Stephen, who figured he could handle this answer himself. "That would be great."

"But we need you to be discreet about it," added Jon. "This can't get back to anyone who...would prefer not to have Stephen represented by someone who didn't have their best interests at heart. Especially not his parents."

"Understood," said Brian. "Anything else?"

"Yeah, one more thing," said Jon. "He also needs a new solo manager. Again, within the next couple weeks at the most."

Brian frowned at Stephen. "Is Ned letting you go? I didn't think his contract was up that soon."

Stephen winced under the question, turning helplessly to Jon, who gave his wrist a quick squeeze before taking it on. "It isn't. So, again...if you could be discreet."

"I see." The pen hovered over the next line, not writing. "There are some folks I think would be a good fit...but it depends. What's your issue with Ned?"

For the first time, Jon faltered. "Why do you need to know?"

"I don't need to...but it would certainly help. I wouldn't want to recommend someone only to have them end up giving you the exact same problem," said Brian reasonably. "Ned's done a solid job finding and arranging work for you, and I know his commission is in line with the industry standard. Is that you don't like the kind of gigs he's finding? Or that you want to change your image in a way he's said he won't help with? If this is about how he hasn't gotten you a spot on Glee yet, I'm sure there are less drastic ways to deal with it."

"This is not about Glee," said Jon tersely.

"Now, hang on a minute, Jon." Brian held up a hand for silence. "I'd like to hear this from Stephen, if you don't mind."

Stephen hugged Briar Rose tighter; the spaniel licked his chin with what he liked to think was concern. Her fur seemed matted as he skritched her side. Had Jimmy brushed it out properly last night? He would have to put that on his to-do list. Item One: brush the dog. Item Two: anything other than volunteering to be known for the rest of his life as That Teen Pop Star Who Got Molested. "Don't wanna talk about it."

"There's nothing to be afraid of, Stephen. I promise, nothing you say has to leave this room."

Chest tight, hands buried in Briar Rose's thick fur, Stephen turned once more to Jon. Help me, Jon! Fix it!

"He's not saying, all right?" said Jon. "Because he doesn't want it getting out, and yeah, it would have to leave this room, if we started bringing up things that you'd be legally required to go to the cops about."

A long pause.

Expression still placid, Brian said, quite calmly, "That son of a bitch."

"Hey now," said Jon, as Stephen bent over to let the dog lick his face and tried not to cry with relief. "No need to bring his mom into this."

 

~*~

Olivia's house (for now), Friday night.

Olivia had friends visiting again, and it was glorious.

"Ooh, this is really cute," said Tina, pausing in the middle of working through Olivia's closet to hold up a blue top with a super-low neckline and only the thinnest of ribbons for shoulder straps. "Can I maybe borrow it some time?"

"What, that? I've got like three of those," said Olivia from the floor by her bookshelf. "You can keep it if you want."

"Oh, no, I really couldn't...."

Jimmy, who had been helping Olivia with the books and magazines, sat back to see what his girlfriend was checking out. "Whoa!" he said. "Um, by which I mean...you really could."

And at another set of shelves, where Kristen was carefully wrapping some of Olivia's more treasured items in tissue paper for safer packing, Wyatt held up the masking tape and a Sharpie and said, "So, what are we labeling this one?"

"Novelty Pen Collection," said Kristen. "Y'know, Olivia, for someone who's only moving across town, you are going to have the world's most organized boxes."

Hearing it out loud made Olivia feel warm and fuzzy all over again. She was really moving. Going to stay at her grandparents' home for a while, and Mom had even consented to the idea, without any more yelling than usual. The reason she needed so much help was because the movers (plus Sarah Beth, who was at college most of the time now, but was coming home during the weekend for moral support) would be here in less than twenty-four hours.

And if the others were unnecessarily alert as they went through her closets and drawers, well, she'd kind of brought that on herself. Just had to stay calm and let them see for themselves that she wasn't hiding any Grey Goose in her sock drawer.

(Unless there were any bottles lying around that she'd tucked away while too sloshed to remember. Which was admittedly not impossible.)

"I should get all of you to help me pack my luggage before the tour, too," she remarked, stacking her Superman/Batman trade paperbacks in a box Wyatt had already labeled Comics.

Jimmy pulled his attention away from Tina and went back to boxing up Olivia's Sailor Moon volumes. "You're going on tour soon?"

"I'm going on your tour, if everything works out," said Olivia. "It'll be just like the last tour, except instead of you guys being my opening act, you get to do most of the show. I'll just come out and do a song with you in the middle, to shake things up when the audience is starting to get bored."

Kristen finished swathing a necklace in bubble wrap and swooned dramatically across the bed. "Leaving me tragically, tragically alone back at home while she goes globe-trotting."

"Hey, at least if she's only doing the one thing she'll have time to call you in between," said Tina from inside the walk-in closet. "Last time Jimmy was on a real tour I didn't hear from him a single time until he got back."

"We weren't even dating then!" protested Jimmy. "It'll be completely different this time!"

"Don't worry, Tina," said Kristen. "You and me can start a Long-Distance Girlfriends Support Group."

"We can?" Now wearing the shoulder-baring, cleavage-revealing top, Tina came out with a fresh armful of blouses to fold. "That would be great!"

"I know, right? We can go out for ice cream...talk about how much our partners totally suck for being on the road all the time...maybe, late at night, turn to comfort in each other's arms...."

Tina turned bright red and fled back into the closet. "Not where I thought that was going!"

"But it sure is where I hoped it was going," said Wyatt under his breath.

"You know, there was a time when I would have taken those as fighting words," remarked Jimmy. "Now, though? As long as you're doing anything less than secretly filming them from across the street and then tweeting me the footage with a demand that I stop bearding and support them coming out, it's hard to remember why I should care."

"This is why I still leave my tweeting to PR," said Olivia, patting her box of books shut. "Sounds like you could use some headache tea. C'mere and help me brew a pot."

It wasn't really a two-person job, but she had several good reasons for asking. First, having a white person or two in the room gave her some insurance against Mom's more enthusiastic tiger-mothering tendencies (though it was a nice warm evening and Mom was out by the pool right now, so she was probably safe). Second, Jimmy could attest that she hadn't slipped anything extra in with the teabags. And third, once they were alone in the kitchen, she could ask:

"Speaking of secret gay relationships...you know what Jon and Stephen are up to? Because I invited them, and they both bowed out, and they totally wouldn't give me a straight answer about why. No pun intended."

Jimmy looked...distressed? "Some kind of legal thing," he said, over the bubbling of the kettle. "They've been staying late all week to work on it. Past our allowed work hours, so either it's legitimately personal or they're just spitting in the face of child labor laws."

"Whoa." Olivia laid down a row of mugs and started tearing open the teabags. "You don't think they're strategizing how to come out, do you?"

"If it was about that, Stephen would have told me," said Jimmy firmly. "You know I was the first person he came out to? I...I think I might be the first person Jon came out to! They wouldn't leave me out of something like that. Right?"

"No way," agreed Olivia.

"Besides, whatever it is, it's really about Stephen. He's just having Jon help. Or something. I'm assuming it's related to the emancipation...but I don't understand how Jon can help with that and I can't!"

"Hang on. The what now?"

Jimmy outlined the details, while Olivia boggled that she hadn't heard a word about it until now. These things didn't just come together overnight, right? How out of it had she been lately? And could she have overlooked something else going on with Stephen, even if it was so monumental that he didn't feel able to talk about it with his own BFF?

Apparently so. God, she was a terrible friend. "This all sounds really complicated, but I'm sure Stephen will talk to you when he feels up for it, okay? Have some faith in him," she said, which seemed to be back on the right track, because Jimmy sighed and muttered in reluctant agreement. Olivia poured him a mug of tea and handed it over. "You're doing okay too, right? I mean, personally, not just in terms of worrying about him."

"Sure, no complaints here," said Jimmy. "Except...it would be nice if this Stimmy madness would hurry up and die out. If I never get sent another graphic sex scene with my head Photoshopped in, it'll be too soon."

 

~*~

And back around to Tuesday.

Jon knew that Stephen had been planning to get in touch with Jimmy at some point before the day of reckoning hit. Now it was here, and while Jon was seriously considering asking to bum one of Stephen's anti-anxiety pills to get through the day, the Jimmy he picked up to drive into work seemed exactly as chill as ever.

As he was pulling out of the Fallons' driveway, though, Jimmy's phone buzzed.

Jon tried to keep an eye on Jimmy's reaction in the rearview mirror, but he really had to focus on the road right now. Instead he gave the guy a few moments to read, and, when the only reaction was a sharp gasp, said, "Is it from Stephen?"

"Yeah," said Jimmy, in a tight voice. "He...he says you know."

Remembering how hard Jimmy had taken it when Stephen faltered under nothing more insidious than overwork, Jon tried to channel all his anger on Stephen's behalf into confidence. "We're getting him away from it," he said. "Today."

He carded his way into the Col-berts' gated community, using the long-term visitor pass he'd had for a while now. When they got to the house, Stephen was already on the front porch; he and Briar Rose practically flew down the steps and lunged into the back seat, an unusually-stuffed messenger bag hanging heavily on his shoulder.

"Stephen!" exclaimed Jimmy, a little breathless.

"Jimmy!" panted Stephen, throwing his arms around his friend.

Rocky! thought Jon, and barely managed to keep it from coming out of his mouth. (He might be a little buzzed on adrenaline right now.)

"I've got keys for you," added Stephen, slightly muffled by the hug. "Just emailed you both the hotel information, and a list of the things you have to pick up. Anything else, I can wait on...and, if worst comes to worst, I can replace. But take as much of it as you can fit in the car anyway, okay? You have executive permission to judge which things you think are most important."

Jon hadn't realized that needing to replace anything was a possibility. He'd mostly been thinking of grabbing clothes for the next few days, maybe some reading material and a comfort object or two.

Jimmy, meanwhile, didn't sound surprised at all. "We're on it. You can count on us. You could always...Stephen, if you'd said something...!"

"I know. I know! But you know now." Stephen untangled himself from his bag, and fumbled with the seatbelt. "And you're the best BFF a guy could ask for, which is why I know you won't complain when I ask one more favor...."

"Anything. Oh my god, Stephen. Whatever you need."

"I know this is short notice," said Stephen, with deep contrition, "but...remember when you said you would take in my fish?"

 

~*~

 

Stephen's voice cracked so much during vocal warm-ups that Charlene finally sent the rest of the band off to instrument practice instead, and sat down with him and a glass of water. "Nervous about this afternoon, kiddo?"

"Uh-huh," said Stephen miserably.

"You want to go over any of it with me?"

Stephen shook his head. Papa had already gone over the judge's most likely questions with him a dozen times.

(What about his education? He hadn't given up on that, of course, but come on, California was full of smart, successful people who had gotten where they were by quitting school to focus on their passions. Was this true that he had a mental health condition? Your Honor, he was compliant with his medication and under the care of a very good doctor, and none of that was going to change, so he shouldn't be discriminated against for it. Was he being pushed into this by overbearing stage parents? No, this was definitely, totally, one hundred percent his own idea.)

"If it helps, I don't seriously think you'll get turned down," said his cousin. "This is exactly the kind of thing you're best at. All you have to do is be charming and confident, and let the evidence speak for itself."

"Thanks," said Stephen. It was hard to overstate just how badly he really, really didn't want to get turned down.

"Anything else I can do?"

Stephen took a moment to game out the events of the next few hours. Very soon Papa would be coming over in the car to pick him up...which would also be the car to pick Ned up, because they needed Ned present to assure the judge that yes, as a millionaire pop star, he could support himself. "You could come with me?"

"I don't think I would make any difference with the judge," said Charlene. "I'm not your parent, and I'm not in a position to talk about your income...."

"You would be moral support!" countered Stephen, warming to the idea. "I'm like Tinkerbell — belief is what sustains me! Also, I sparkle, and I have great legs. C'mon, please? I am confident it would work magic."

"All right, all right," laughed Charlene, putting her arm around him. "I'll be there."

 

~*~

 

Jon swept down the buffet table, Jimmy right behind him, grabbing stuff they could eat on the road. A couple of wraps, granola bars, bottles of soda.

The car had just come to pick up Stephen — along with Ned, and, as a last-minute addition, Charlene. Stephen's father was supposed to be riding along with them, but apparently he'd gone straight to the courthouse. If Stephen hadn't convinced their vocal coach to join the group....

Well, Jon wasn't going to think about that. He exchanged a nod with Jimmy, then looked down at Briar Rose and nodded to her too, and got a smile out of it when she actually bobbed her head in return.

They left the cafeteria to no comment. It wasn't like they were restricted to the room until lunch was over, after all. In silence they headed down the hall....

"Where are you guys going?"

"Walking the dog," snapped Jon, as Tucker jogged up behind them.

"I don't believe you," said Tucker. "You're sneaking out, aren't you? Just because Stephen isn't working this afternoon, you think you get to play hooky?"

"Whoops, guess you caught us," said Jon. "Yeah, we're planning a heist."

"Look, do you remember the end of Tangled?" put in Jimmy.

"My god," said Tucker. "Would you guys take this job seriously for one minute? You have a responsibility —"

"We take it plenty seriously," said Jimmy. "But there are things more important than our jobs, and right now? We're going to do one of them."

"It doesn't pay as well," added Jon. "But you can sleep at night."

"Now, are you going to peacefully get out of our way?"

"Or are we going to settle the Jersey versus KidzBop thing once and for all?" added Jon, clapping an open palm against his fist. "Because I'm in the mood to make it quick."

"Or," finished Jimmy, "are you going to get in your own car and come along?"

They had reached the door to the front lobby, where Jon, Jimmy, and the dog came to a halt, waiting for an answer. Tucker stumbled to a stop beside them, confused and angry. Jon stuck a hand in his pocket and wrapped it around his keys, just in case.

Finally Tucker took a step back. "What the hell. Go for it," he said. "If anyone asks, I never saw you."

The two of them said a quick hi to the security guard and scanned out, nothing suspicious here. As they stepped out into the sunshine, Jon muttered, "For a second there you had me thinking he might actually come."

(Then it really would have been the end of Tangled. Jon as the roguish bad-boy love interest. Tucker as the obnoxious horse. Jimmy could be the chameleon, or something.)

"Could've been worse," Jimmy reminded him.

"Yeah, I know." Twirling the keyring (complete with the key to Stephen's front door) around his finger, Jon couldn't resist adding, "He's still a dick."

"He doesn't know," Jimmy reminded him. "We've both done stupid things when we didn't know."

 

~*~

 

"Is there anything else you think I should know?"

"Yes," said Stephen. "Have you ever had a TV show?"

Judge Stephanie Tubbs Jones fixed him with a puzzled look. "Excuse me?"

"A TV show." Stephen waved around the small courtroom, empty except for some kind of recording officer in the corner and the people who had come in with him in the seats. "Like this, only on camera, and with commercials?"

"I have to say, I have not."

"Well, you should think about it!" exclaimed Stephen. "There's a real unfilled niche in the market for TV judges who are neither needlessly sassy nor certifiably insane. You could call it 'Judge Tubbs'. I can see it now." He tried to demonstrate the flashy intro in his mind via jazz hands. "All rise...for Judge Tubbs! Dun-dun!"

"This is all very flattering, Mr. Col-bert, but I was asking about things I should know in order to make my final decision."

"Oh," said Stephen, deflating a bit. "Then, I guess, no. None of those."

"Well then." The judge re-stacked the papers from his petition: the main form, the declarations of intent he'd written, the proofs of income, the statements of support from various adults. "Mr. Col-bert, you are clearly a driven and opinionated young man, and you have impressed me with your energy and dedication. Your petition is granted."

It took several seconds for the image of her scrawling her signature to register in Stephen's mind. When it did, he clapped both hands in front of his mouth just in time to muffle a shriek of delight.

Charlene was the first one at his side. "It's okay, I do the same thing when the Dodgers win," she said. "Congratulations!"

"Don't forget, you've got to file these with the clerk before it's official," said Papa, picking up the papers and handing them to Stephen.

"I know, I know," said Stephen, and ducked out of the way of the congratulatory petting Ned had been about to give him. "Thank you, Your Honor!"

It had been just the three of them along with him in the courtroom, but Stephen had seen two familiar faces while checking in, and they were still present in the waiting room as he skipped back out to the clerk: a curly-haired man in a tan jacket, and a man in a sharp black suit with a super-professional silver coif. As the clerk was filing the original documents and printing Stephen some certified copies, the man in the suit came up to him. "I take it you were successful?"

"I was!" Stephen clasped his hand. "And I never could have done it without you."

Charlene, who had seen this man around the studio over the past week or so, wasn't surprised. Papa, who had probably never seen him before at all, did a double-take. "Son, who is this?"

"Oh, I haven't introduced you!" exclaimed Stephen. "Trevor, this is my father. Papa, this is Trevor Potter. He's my new personal lawyer."

"Well, actually..." said Trevor.

"Easy there, buddy," said Ned to Stephen. "Sounds like you're getting a little ahead of yourself."

"If I could finish?" said Trevor. "As I was saying...Stephen, you've only been legally entered into contracts for about two minutes. You haven't had a chance to sign mine yet."

"Oh, right, sure," said Stephen. "When can I do that?"

"As it happens...." The lawyer flipped open his briefcase. "I happen to have the contract right here."

"Great!"

"Hold on, Stephen," said Papa. "You don't know anything about this person. Is he even a lawyer? What's in that contract? Being emancipated means that if he's taking advantage of you, there's not a lot I can easily —"

"Trevor has a distinguished background in media law and advocacy for minors," said Stephen. "He came highly recommended by Brian, as well as by several independent groups I called on to back him up. And I've been over every clause in the contract with Brian and one of the lawyers on our Disney team, who confirmed that it's legitimate. Trevor, this is the same contract we went over, right?"

Trevor flipped to the end of the contract. "As you can see, Stephen, here's the line where I signed it while you were watching, and the line where your band manager signed as a witness. Do you need a pen?"

"Yes, please. Charlene! Do you mind being my witness here?"

Charlene looked from Papa and Ned to Stephen and Trevor, then said, "Where do I sign?"

Ned had the nerve to start talking again while Stephen put the contract down on the clerk's counter and signed, then handed the pen to his cousin. "Guess it can't do much harm," he told Papa. "Stephen here wants to feel like a grown-up, have his own lawyer, why not let him have his fun?"

"Ned, you're fired," blurted Stephen.

That shut him up.

"Stephen, your existing contracts are still in force," said Papa sharply. "You understand that, right?"

"Trevor?"

"Contracts can be canceled early," said Trevor calmly, sliding the newly-signed one back into his briefcase. "Of course, there are usually severance terms."

"Great. Did this one have any?"

"C'mon, buddy, how would he know?" said Ned soothingly. Like he was trying to calm an anxious puppy. "It's a private business contract between myself and your father. There's no way he could have seen it."

"Quite true," said Trevor. "I have not, myself, seen this contract."

Stephen nodded. "But...?"

"But, as you know, Stephen, your brother Ed is a copyright attorney. He was kind enough to look over this particular document and report back to me, free of charge, as a brotherly favor to you. He told you not to expect those on a regular basis, by the way."

"I wouldn't dream of it," said Stephen. "So, about these severance terms?"

"Monetary compensation. That is to say, payment of a certain amount, designed to cover your ex-manager's losses."

"Uh-huh. And how do I pay him?"

Trevor opened his briefcase again. "I just happen to have a check of the agreed-upon amount right in here."

Well-trained by years of thousand-fan signing sessions, Stephen scribbled his autograph in under two seconds flat and shoved the check at Ned.

His soon-to-be-ex-manager came forward...but instead of taking the check, he tried to rest a hand on Stephen's shoulder. "Now, buddy, don't —"

Stephen shot backward so fast he nearly hit the wall.

"I don't believe you're authorized to touch my client," said Trevor smoothly.

Papa's face was thunderous. "Stephen! What have you been telling this man? Even if Ned wasn't your manager, he would deserve more respect than this. You're being absolutely disgraceful."

Again, Charlene took the measure of Papa and Stephen in turn, then stepped over to Stephen, getting between him and the others. "I've got this," she said, lifting the check out of his shaking hand and presenting it to Ned once more. "I don't see any disrespect here. All Stephen is doing is fulfilling the terms of his contract."

"I'm not taking that money," snapped Ned.

"As is your right!" Trevor assured him. "Charlene, would you mind putting the check on the floor at this man's feet?"

Charlene didn't mind at all. Ned just stared. "What's this?"

"Stephen has no responsibility to make sure you take the severance payment," explained Trevor. "His only legal obligation is to give it. And there are plenty of witnesses around here to attest that he has."

"This is absurd!" Papa shouldered his way through the group. "And don't give me any 'not authorized' nonsense — this is still my son," he snapped at Trevor on the way past. "If you won't think about your family, boy, think about your career. Where do you expect to find someone else who can represent you as well as Ned has?"

"Is this where I come in?"

It was the voice of the man with the curly hair. Standing, he was closer to Jon's height than Stephen's, and he wore dark glasses over a pleasant smile.

"Perfect timing," said Stephen weakly. "Papa, everyone, this is Tad! He's also very highly recommended in his field. In fact, Jon was so impressed that he's in talks to hire Tad too. Anyway, Tad is my new solo manager."

"Once you sign my contract," Tad reminded him.

"Ah, yes. Where can I find —?"

Trevor was already opening his briefcase.

"You really want to exercise all the rights of emancipation on your own?" demanded Papa, looming over Stephen as he signed this too. "Then you get the responsibilities, too. Starting with arranging your own housing. And remember, this all can be rescinded if it turns out not to be in your best interests after all."

"Stephen, you can stay with me," said Charlene. "As long as you need to."

"Charlene, favorite cousin, I am truly thankful for the offer," said Stephen, handing his new manager one copy of the contract and his new lawyer the other. "Trevor...?"

"Don't tell me he has a mortgage in that thing," said Papa.

"I'm afraid Stephen hasn't had a chance to go house-hunting yet," said Trevor. "But, Stephen, that message you asked me to take so that you wouldn't be interrupted during the hearing? It arrived. Your friends were successful."

"What the hell is he talking about?"

A dizzy grin spread across Stephen's face. This was it. He'd had a long mental checklist, and every last box on it had just been checked. "Jon and Jimmy came by the house to pick up a few of my things. Don't worry, I'll send professionals for the rest once I get more permanent housing! In the meantime, I've booked this gorgeous suite at the London. Speaking of which: the hotel has an amazing rooftop restaurant, and guests don't need to make reservations. Tad, Trevor, Charlene, would you like to join me and the guys for dinner? My treat."

Chapter Text

The first time Stephen went to sleep in his brand new bed, in the house he had just taken out a mortgage on, in the same neighborhood as his best friend and on the same block as his boyfriend...he woke up at three AM in a cold sweat, and with a bad case of the shakes.

Right. Just because he'd gotten away from the worst of his problems didn't mean everything was going to be easy.

He texted Jon, but Jon wasn't up. He took a look at Tumblr, only to find some of the Shout*For blogs he followed had taken the plunge into long photo posts dedicated to "proving Stimmy" by comparing "how Jimmy smiles around Stephen" with "how Jimmy smiles around Tina." Along with admonishing their followers that "Jonphen can't be real" because "Jon is a good guy who would never take Stephen away from Jimmy."

Stephen pressed the unfollow button a few times, spent a while in the "colbewart" tag spitefully liking and reblogging everything he could find, then left the site entirely to go browse interior design retailers.

He still had a dozen rooms here to decorate, after all. Starting with the den...which he was already planning to do in loud flashy colors, exactly the opposite of Papa's dark wood and serious old-fashioned leather. This beautiful bright-blue C-shaped desk seemed like a good start.

 

~*~

 

@Shout4StevieC
decided me & @LisaMunnOfficial were better off as friends. no hate, ok fans? she's still a princess, just not *my* one true princess.

@LisaMunnOfficial
Premiere of #ThePrincessAndThePopStar 2NITE! So excited, #Munnsters! Come see me & awesome BF @Shout4StevieC on the big screen!

@Shout4StevieC
looks like @LisaMunnOfficial on twitter didn't get the memo, but trust me, @LisaMunnOfficial irl knows.

@Shout4JimmyFals
To everyone who's asked: no, Tina & I are not "next."

 

~*~

Tumblr.

colbertshair

"To everyone who's asked: no, Tina & I are not "next.""

—@Shout4JimmyFals, desperately lying through his teeth now that his bf is 1000% done with the bearding game

#stimmy is real #jimmy fallon #just come out already
8,342 notes | X &Rarr; ♥

 

~*~

Downtown, premiere night.

Olivia had a wonderful time at the premiere of The Princess and the Pop Star.

She got to show off on the red carpet, hang out with Stephen with zero pressure hanging over her head, and gleefully explain to reporters that she was only a tiny bit heartbroken, honest. Her mother (in attendance, and staying mellow since they were in public) actually told her that she looked great, before asking when she was going to start working on another movie. And when the house lights dropped and a long shot of the L.A. coast lit up the screen...well, it was still kind of a ridiculous movie, but her own performance? That, she was happy with.

Finally, when the lights came up and the applause died away...she got to leave. No having to socialize, no dealing with large groups of frequently-important people while sober; she just said goodbye to her friends, snuck out the back with Lonny along to be chaperone/bodyguard, and settled into the car with music on her headphones and Kristen on the line.

 

<3 Olivia <3
houston, we have liftoff

Kristen ヽ( ≧ω≦)ノ
Congrats! How was the movie?

<3 Olivia <3
a masterpiece of modern cinema, obvs

<3 Olivia <3
no srsly Im pretty sure Jon was sniffling during Stephen's 1st big emotional love-confession scene

<3 Olivia <3
(the one where hes confessin 2 the wrong 1 of my characters, oops)

Kristen ヽ( ≧ω≦)ノ
That's really cute!

Kristen ヽ( ≧ω≦)ノ
And we're never going to let him live it down, right?

<3 Olivia <3
as long as we can mock him w/o it soundin like an insult 2 Stephens acting

<3 Olivia <3
he emoted v v strongly during that scene dont u know

Kristen ヽ( ≧ω≦)ノ
I can imagine :)

<3 Olivia <3
hey speaking of emotional things

<3 Olivia <3
do u want 2 come over 4 a pre-xmas-type dinner w/ my family?

Kristen ヽ( ≧ω≦)ノ
Yes!

Kristen ヽ( ≧ω≦)ノ
Wait, just dinner, dinner?

Kristen ヽ( ≧ω≦)ノ
Or "by the way, just so you know, Schaalmunn is canon" dinner?

<3 Olivia <3
(a) sort of a prelude to the "btw..." dinner? I dont want 2 give it up 2 soon b4 the tour, in case we get deprived of essential makeout time

<3 Olivia <3
(b) does that have 2 b our smushname? it sounds like a fish.

Kristen ヽ( ≧ω≦)ノ
It's already our official smushname on Tumblr, as used by all two people who ship us.

Kristen ヽ( ≧ω≦)ノ
Besides, Stimmy sounds like a cutesy name for a sex toy, so I say we come out ahead.

 

~*~

Later in December.

"I'll be there in a minute!" hollered Stephen as the doorbell went off yet again. He bounded down the stairs, checked outside the picture window — sure enough, it was Tad — and threw open the door. "I'll be ready in two minutes, I swear. Come on in! But not too far. And don't look in the kitchen!"

So saying, he ran back upstairs to put on a shirt.

True to his word, it took him under two minutes to find the shirt he wanted to wear to the big-record-label Christmas party, realize it needed to be washed, come up with a second choice, find the second choice, and put that on. He stumbled wearily back down (it would be fine, he hadn't slept well but he could nap in the car) to discover Tad...in the kitchen.

"I told you not to look," said Stephen miserably from the entryway.

On the far side of the pile of pizza boxes and takeout containers, Tad was checking out the empty cabinet under the sink. "I take it you haven't gotten a chance to hire a housekeeper?"

Stephen shook his head.

"It's okay! Don't be embarrassed," said Tad, getting to his feet. "You haven't been living on takeout this whole time, have you?"

"Charlene brought me groceries right after I moved in." By this point, they had all either been eaten, or started to smell funny.

Tad opened one of the cupboards, wrinkled his nose as the smell hit, and closed it in a hurry. "Let me show you how to get those delivered," he said. "And I'll pick you up some trash bags while you're at the party. When's garbage day in this neighborhood?"

Was Stephen supposed to know that?

"Would you, ah, like a little help figuring this out?" added Tad.

"Yes!" cried Stephen. "Yes, please, I don't know how any of this works! Consuela used to handle it all, but Papa won't let me hire her, not even super-part-time. And I don't know how to get anyone else!"

"Hey, shh, it's okay. Come here, sit down." Tad tried to clear a stack of pizza boxes off of one of the kitchen chairs, and looked for a couple of dubious seconds at the seat underneath. "Okay, never mind, let's go out there and sit down."

The living room was in mostly-good shape. One of the couch cushions was visibly upside-down because Stephen had flipped it over after spilling Pepsi all over it, but other than that? Everything was fine. Tad took one chair, Stephen took another, and his new manager made absolutely no move to touch him along the way. It was incredibly refreshing. Stephen was only tearing up because he was so happy, honest.

"I have a suggestion, if you're interested," said Tad once they were settled in. "Finding a housekeeper is easy. Call your lawyer and tell him you need one by January, and he can help you work out the details. In the meantime, I'll run out and pick you up a full set of cleaning supplies — garbage bags definitely included — and go through the kitchen for you. And, um, anywhere else in the house you think needs a look. And maybe anywhere you don't, too. Just in case."

Stephen was simultaneously thrilled and suspicious. "Cleaning services are not in your contract. How much will you bill me?"

"All you have to do is reimburse the cost of the shopping." When Stephen was unconvinced, Tad added, "Look, my kid is almost your age. And if something happened to me so Geoffrey had to live on his own, I'd want him to have people looking out for him. So think of it as a karma investment."

"That would be...nice." Stephen hiccuped, pulling off his glasses to rub his eyes. "Really nice. Shouldn't I at least do something like add 'building manager' to your job title?"

"Deal," said Tad. They shook on it. "Speaking of management...there's nothing wrong with being fashionably late, but are you sure you want to go to this party? It's just a social thing, not a contract appearance or endorsement. And don't take this the wrong way, but you look dead on your feet."

"I can nap in the car," said Stephen. And, "Networking is very important."

"Well, sure, it's important," agreed Tad. "For people who are trying to make connections, and work their way up in the world."

"...yes, and?"

His talent-and-building-manager raised his eyebrows. "Stephen, you do realize that you're the fifth richest teenager on the planet, right? Industry people come to events like these because they want to network with you."

 

~*~

And later still.

On a warm and sunny Christmas afternoon, Jon and his aunt showed up at Stephen's place with a nice pumpkin pie, gingerbread cookies, and eggnog. (All store-bought, but it was the thought that counted.)

Stephen had refused to talk about whether he had chosen to avoid the regular Col-bert family festivities, or whether he had been quietly uninvited. Whichever it was, Charlene had opted to spend the day with him, and his sister Elizabeth had driven over from their father's house for the afternoon. They were singing around Stephen's new piano when Jon let himself in. Nothing religious — not even a secular-ish carol — but RENT's Seasons Of Love.

"Jon!" exclaimed Stephen by way of greeting. "Ms. Ruth! So glad you could make it."

"It's not like we had anything else to do today," said Jon. "Where do we put the food?"

"Dining room's right over there. Kitchen is through the door, if anything needs to be refrigerated. And presents go under the tree! You did bring presents, right? Because I got presents for you. Hanukkah's going on right now! I checked! Although I couldn't find anything about where to put Hanukkah presents, so those are under the tree too. I hope that's okay. I put a Star of David on top of it, just in case that helps."

Following him into the kitchen, Jon's aunt said under her breath, "Don't look now, but I think that boy might have some romantic interest in you."

"Mmm." Jon stuck the eggnog in the fridge, next to a carton of apple cider.

"You already knew? Don't get me wrong, I'm glad you're taking it so easily...the boys in my day!...but Jon, it's about time you let him down easy, isn't it?"

Jon sighed. Why did everyone assume he was playing with Stephen's feelings instead of returning them? "It really isn't."

His aunt took a moment to consider that. Then she said, "I'm getting the sense I should stop letting you two have sleepovers."

"He has like a hundred close relatives, and only two of them are here," said Jon flatly. "On Christmas. Don't you think he's got enough people shutting him out right now? Besides, I don't know if you've noticed, but even if you go for it...he kind of has his own house now."

"And you'll be back on the road in a month and a half anyway," sighed Aunt Ruth. "At least promise me you're being safe. Do you need me to pick up some condoms next time I'm out?"

"Not necessary!" exclaimed Jon, turning red. He'd gotten Steve to smuggle him a box. "Mom already gave me that lecture. It's taken care of! Talk to her when you get a chance, by the way. She's got a bunch of pictures of us that I think she's dying to show off to someone."

They were coming back into the piano room when Stephen yelped, "Stop!" Both Jon and his aunt froze. "Not you, Ms. Ruth, you can come in. Jon, stay right there."

He sprinted across the carpet, with both Charlene and Elizabeth Col-bert staring after him in obvious confusion. Something like understanding might have flashed across Charlene's face, but then Stephen was standing with Jon, panting, eyes sparkling, and how was Jon supposed to pay attention to anything else?

"Oh, look!" said Stephen too-loudly, pointing at the ceiling. "We're standing under the mistletoe."

Jon followed his gaze. So they were.

"Well!" Stephen flashed him a genial grin. "This is awkward."

It sure was. But Stephen's relatives, at least the non-homophobic ones, could hardly make things more awkward than Jon's did. "Could be worse," he said, and pulled Stephen's mouth down to his.

 

~*~

And on into January.

The tech guy finally finished hooking up Stephen's new media center so that everything would respond when he pressed the right buttons. He celebrated by having Jimmy over for a movie night. No Jon or Tina along, just the two of them, having some quality friendship time.

They had to pause midway through Tangled, when Stephen had a minor anxiety attack on the second verse of Mother Knows Best.

Jimmy put on some smooth jazz and held Stephen's hand while Stephen gibbered about how he didn't know what he was doing, how maybe it would be best for everyone if he moved back in with Papa and stop trying to play grown-up. He drew the line at working with Ned again — and Papa had stopped pushing him toward that particular nightmare — but every time they talked Papa reminded him that he was supporting about half of his immediate family, and what if he forgot to make a payment? What if he slept in and missed a call time because Papa wasn't there to wake him up? What if he made terrible choices and lost all his income and became one of those child stars who files for bankruptcy in their twenties and had to go work in fast food for a living?

"Stephen, you shouldn't have to worry about any of this," said Jimmy soothingly. "You pay other people to worry about it for you, remember? That's what money's for. And now you've even got a person who makes investments with that money, so you'll never run out."

This was a solid point. Stephen started to calm down. "You're a good friend, Jimmy Fallon."

"You're a good person to be friends with, Stephen Col-bert."

Stephen squeezed his hand. Who cared if most of his brothers were either giving him the cold shoulder or outright telling him not to be so reckless? BFFs were clearly superior to brothers anyway. On top of never taking your parents' side against you, BFFs never put gum in your hair.

"...But I'm a terrible friend."

"What?"

"I am!" exclaimed Jimmy. "A good friend would have noticed there was something wrong, instead of letting you go through...that...on your own, for months. A good friend wouldn't get shy about dancing with you in public just because there's a whole Internet subculture based on misinterpreting things like that!"

He pulled out his half of their BFF necklace, hand taut around the charm.

"I'm a lousy excuse for a friend. I — I don't deserve to wear this."

Stephen sat up straight and tried to push it back into Jimmy's shirt. "Stop that! Stop it right now. Nobody else noticed either!"

(Except Papa, and he still didn't understand how bad Ned had gotten. At least, that was how Stephen chose to interpret "Ned would never do something like that...unprovoked." Because the only other way to hear it was that Papa thought Stephen had invited everything Ned had done to him. And Papa couldn't possibly.)

"So nobody deserves this pendant," translated Jimmy, trying to yank it away —

With a tiny metallic snap, the chain broke.

Jimmy stared at the strings of golden links hanging in pieces over his fist. Stephen stared at the red marks it had left on Jimmy's neck.

"I didn't mean it," said Jimmy faintly. "We can get another chain —"

"No," said Stephen. "No, you know what? Let's forget about the pendants. Who wears BFF pendants at our age, anyway? What are we, twelve?"

"Stephen, I never —"

"Let's get BFF tattoos."

Jimmy looked blank as he took this in, then startled, then, slowly, thrilled. "Really?"

"Really!" They had very good fake IDs, and were excellent tippers. They could totally swing this. "As long as they're not tattoos of our faces. When I get old and decrepit, it's just gonna be depressing if I can see my handsome younger self staring back at me from your torso all the time."

 

~*~

Shout*For studio, on break.

"Okay, I've gotta hand it to you guys," said Jon. "This looks cool."

They were chilling in the music room, Jimmy and Stephen and their significant others, taking a look at the prospective design to be inked into their arms. Jon wasn't sure if tattoos were technically allowed under their contracts, but what he had done with Stephen that morning in the shower was definitely not allowed, so he wasn't going to be the one to shut them down.

Besides, this looked legitimately classy. If Stephen had tried to let his gaudier instincts run wild, Jimmy must have reined them in. A musical staff with a couple of flourishes, designed to start on Jimmy's right arm and finish on Stephen's left, bearing the first few measures of....

"What's the song?" asked Tina. "No, wait, don't tell me, just play it. I want to hear that it sounds nice, and isn't the musical equivalent of the Chinese character for half-off sushi."

Stephen set the printout against the piano's music stand, and held it in place while Jimmy played.

"Oh, hey, it's the friendship theme from The Fox and the Hound," realized Jon. "That's seriously cute."

"I think I saw a vid of that with you guys once," added Tina.

Jimmy sucked in a breath and yanked his hands away from the keys.

"A friendly vid, right?" said Stephen hopefully. "Because it's a friendly song."

"I...um, I don't remember," stammered Tina. "Probably? It was a while ago. Sorry!"

"There's probably fanfiction where we get matching tattoos and then bang, too," said Jimmy darkly. "Or vice versa."

Stephen fidgeted. "Is that a problem? Because there's fanfiction of us doing everything and then banging. ...Or so I hear."

Jon put a hand on Stephen's arm. He didn't want to hear about Shout*For fanfiction (even though he understood that he was getting a better shake in it these days, no longer the go-to antagonist who stood angrily between Stephen and Jimmy's true love, but the go-to snarky yenta who brought them together). And he didn't want an idea that clearly meant a lot to Jimmy and Stephen derailed by the fear of what the Internet would think. And he didn't want to keep sitting back and shutting up through this whole mess any more. "Would it be easier if we just came out?"

Dead silence.

"It would take the pressure off," added Jon, feeling compelled to fill the quiet with something, and not having an instrument of his own handy. "They can't keep believing management is hiding your big gay relationship if we start being open about our big gay relationship, right?"

"Whoa there, Jon, hold on," said Tina. "That's a big deal — all kinds of risks — you don't have to do that just for us!"

"Not a lot of risks from where I'm standing," said Jon. "Everyone who's important in my life knows by now. Except my brother, and that's mostly because I haven't gotten around to telling him yet. Stephen's family won't be happy about it, but they can't punish him for it — they can't do anything to him except be mad at him —" Which could be a pretty big deal all by itself. Jon caressed Stephen's back, trying to convey that he got that. "— and I know that sucks, but they're doing it plenty already, so why not go all in?"

"They'll dissolve the band," said Jimmy. "You realize that, right? Nobody's ever come out while they were a Disney teen star. Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, they held off on it for a reason."

"We can do other things," protested Jon. "Start our own band. Either of you could do Broadway! Stephen's a teenage actor who can work adult hours — that's gold, anyone who doesn't want to settle for casting a twenty-year-old in a high schooler's role will be jumping at the bit for him. Hell, we can call up Rachel and Anderson, they'll probably be happy to help us out — especially Rachel, if her former TV little brother is the one asking."

"Jon, stop!" exclaimed Stephen. "Even if we could maybe cope on our own, we definitely can't risk losing the band now. Olivia has to tour with us! What if we bail on her and she has a relapse?"

That took some of the wind out of Jon's sails. Stephen was right. They couldn't hang Olivia out to dry.

Leaning against Jon's side, Stephen added, "Maybe...after the tour?"

Jon caught his breath.

"You know, if you really want maximum impact for this," added Tina, "you could pick the venue with the biggest turnout and come out on stage."

 

~*~

 

"This is an insane idea," said Olivia. "You get that, right?"

"Of course we do," scoffed Stephen, fiddling with the sound system. "Totally outrageous. We probably won't even do it. That's no excuse not to rehearse."

He had just finished refurbishing one of the house's unnecessary extra bedrooms into a quality dance studio. Mirrors down the wall, padded mats under their feet, the best speaker system money could buy. It still had a touch of that new-paint smell.

"Just tell us if the moves suck," said Jon, who was stretching on the mat, over where they had put down the standard masking-tape rectangles to help them dance in place. "And keep in mind that I'm trying to learn these on top of remembering the real moves for our normal rehearsals, so if I do the wrong thing, try to ignore it."

"Don't listen to him," said Stephen. "He's learning my brilliant choreography just fine." (And by "my brilliant choreography" he meant "the way I modified our dance coach's choreography so that Jon and I end up facing each other.") "Okay, the track's all queued up — give us a minute to get in position, then hit play."

 

~*~

Still at Stephen's, on to February.

They didn't need to bother with scented candles in this house. Jon lit a couple of the rose ones anyway, just to make it feel like a special occasion.

Jimmy was trying to figure out how to operate an intimidatingly artsy bong based on YouTube videos when a car that was hopefully Steve's pulled up outside. Sure enough, a minute later Stephen ushered Steve into the lounge, showing off the new notes inked along his arm.

"Well, come on, let me see 'em together!" said Steve. Jimmy obligingly went over to line up his forearm with Stephen's. They had run out of family members and regular co-workers to wow with the design; maybe it was a good thing they hadn't found time to have Steve over recently.

"Jon wanted to get something too," Stephen informed him as they settled in. "We had to hold him back from making an impulse buy."

"Especially an impulse buy of the giant head of Bruce Springsteen," added Jimmy.

"I did not want a giant head!" protested Jon. "I wanted lyrics, thank you very much." And if the first Springsteen-lyric design in their portfolio also happened to feature a hot rod, a guitar, some roses climbing your bicep, and the Boss's signature over your shoulder blade, well, who was to say he wouldn't have liked it? He totally might have.

They lit up; they passed around the snacks; they shot the breeze.

Eventually Jon was mellow enough to admit that he was kind of nervous, now that his actual first trip out of the country (the tour's fifth stop was in Paris) loomed on the horizon. Steve said he'd be fine, as long as he was careful not to kiss any hot French guys "at least, not when Stephen's looking." Stephen, who had ended up half in Jon's lap at some point, threw a Dorito at Steve.

"Aw, c'mon, you owe him a little adventure," laughed Steve. "Jon's probably never even made out with anyone but you, amirite? While you got to have your first kiss with some exotic nameless European hottie."

"I did not!" exclaimed Stephen. "I —"

He cut himself off mid-word, flushed, and hid his face against Jon's leg.

Uh-oh. Jon put down the bong and petted Stephen's hair. "He means real kisses, babe, not...stage kisses, for example." Or forced kisses...although Vancouver had been after Venice, so Stephen couldn't be thinking about Ned...right?

"I know. Shut up," said Stephen, muffled.

"Ooh, I think Mr. Purity's embarrassed," cooed Steve.

"Hey, lay off him." Jon looked to Jimmy for backup...and discovered that his friend's face was bright red. "Uh, Jimmy? You okay?"

"Just peachy," muttered Jimmy, averting his gaze.

"Oh my god," said Jon, as it clicked. "Was it you?"

"It barely even counts," said Stephen stubbornly. "It was just once. And Jimmy didn't like it."

"And the Internet can never, ever know!" added Jimmy. "Obviously it didn't go anywhere, and it's not that I regret — you know, letting him try — but you have to understand...I live in terror of a certain online subculture picking this up." (Steve and Jon both swore in the name of whatever they could think of that Stimmy fandom would not hear about it from them.) "And, just for the record? My first kiss was Rachel Dratch."

That wasn't a name Jon had heard before. Just when you thought you knew a guy, he pulled out a secret past ex. "You've never even mentioned her."

Jimmy relaxed against the couch. "Yeah, well, ours was an intense but brief romance. She had just done a spot for Super Gymnast Barbie; I was on my way to rep the Hot Wheels Shark Park. We met backstage, and the chemistry couldn't be denied."

 

~*~

Meanwhile, at Olivia's.

"So I just...yank on it?"

"I think so," said Olivia, flat on her back on the bed with her shirt and bra somewhere on the floor. Kristen was straddling her hips with one hand clutching a fistful of her hair. "It's not like I've done this before, you know?"

Between Kristen's school nights and Olivia's red-eye flight, it was the last night they were going to get together before Olivia disappeared to distant lands (starting with Tampa). And by god, she was going to make it count.

"But what if I hurt you?" asked Kristen, babydoll lips in an uncertain pout. "I mean for real. Shouldn't we have a safeword or something?"

"Can't my safeword just be 'stop'?"

"Oh," said Kristen. "I guess that makes sense."

Then she was pulling on Olivia's hair with one hand and teasing her through her jeans with the other, and whoa, Olivia wouldn't have said stop if you'd put a gun to her head. She came in record time, twisting on Kristen's fingers, catching her breath every time Kristen whispered something deliciously lurid in her ear.

They retreated onto the balcony afterward, sweaty and heavy-limbed and glad to be out in the cool night air. Olivia's grandparents' place wasn't on the waterfront, but it was on a nice steep slope with a view of Hollywood proper in the distance; even from here, you could see its golden glow rising up over the skyline.

"Look at that city," sighed Olivia, sitting back on the wicker-and-waterproof-cushion patio loveseat and putting her feet up.

Kristen snuggled in on the seat next to her, head resting on her shoulder, looking straight up. "Forget the city! Look at those stars."

"Yeah." Olivia twirled her fingers in Kristen's curls and thought about saying how they would always be looking at the same stars, no matter where she was. Except that wouldn't work, because they were playing a couple of venues in Sydney and Perth. Instead, all she said was, "Yeah, I will."

Chapter Text

New York City, some time in the future.

The studio was beautiful: sleek and blue, full of crisp lines and shimmering lights, the backdrop splashed with a map of the world and a huge screen currently showing Washington DC at night. At the center of it all sat the desk shaped like a lowercase J.

Not as blatant as the iconic C that Miley Cyrus sat behind, but a nice touch all the same.

The crew was giving the countdown; the stage manager waved a rolled-up script in the air, signaling to the crowd to start cheering. And cheer they did, going wild along with the music, as the camera swooped in on the j-shaped desk.

Behind the desk, Jon tapped his script against the lucite to straighten it, then grinned at the audience, twirling his pen.

(The wardrobe and makeup techs at this place were basically wizards. He looked great in this suit.)

"Welcome to The Daily Show!" he exclaimed over the applause, prompting it to start dying down. "I'm Justin Bieber. We've got a great show for you tonight: our guest, former Republican Party chairman Michael Steele, here once again here in non-puppet form! But we begin tonight in the Middle East...."

At which point the actual Justin Bieber — doing a terrible impression of a teenager, all the while dressed in a Mets cap and a fake leather jacket that Jon had worn once, seriously, how it turned into a meme he had no idea — ran out onto the stage, brandishing the "cursed skull" that would let them "switch back to our original bodies, bro!"

"Justin" sat back in his chair, eying the figure of the fortysomething host with some reserve. "I dunno, Stewart," he said. "I'm kinda liking this body of yours."

"Well, I gotta get out of this body, dude!" cried "Jon". "It's like living in a haunted house — every time I move in it, something creaks! O-M-G, epic fail. Just touch the skull, come on!"

The teenage face on the monitors had to stifle a grin. "All right," said "Justin". "But can I just do one last thing, just real quick?"

And he ran his hands through his thick dark curls, while "Jon", whose hat didn't entirely disguise the way he was thinning on top, looked on in mounting tension.

At last "Justin" gave up and placed a hand on the skull. Lights and special-effect static noises zapped through the studio. Justin Bieber, playing himself again, touched his own hair and grumbled in resignation, stripping off the costume to reveal one of his usual trademark show-hosting suits underneath. "Yeah, all right," he sighed. "Jon Stewart, everybody!"

Jon had to leave the set in a hurry; Killer was waiting to escort him to the charter flight that would get him to Syracuse in time for the night's concert. He didn't have time to hear Justin deliver the next few punch lines, or encourage the viewers to go see the 3D Concert Movie Experience now in theaters nationwide. But he got a few last seconds to wave and smile at the Daily Show audience, and think about how they seemed pretty nice.

 

~*~

One week later, on the road.

Stephen was browsing Shout*For-related tags over breakfast when he came across an outrage. A scandal. He wouldn't stand for it.

Jon had retreated to their bedroom after a couple of bagels. Stephen went back there immediately, shimmied up the ladder past Tucker's bunk, and swung himself onto Jon's. "This is an outrage, Jon! A scandal! I won't stand for it! ...What are you so busy with?"

"Honors European History," said Jon. "At least, it's supposed to be honors. I don't even think they're pretending any more."

Stephen squinted at the pages open in front of him. "Are you sure? Because I think this book has even more text than the one you had last year." Did Jon still plan to go to college? Why else would you put yourself through this kind of torment?

Jon hummed and leaned against him. "How do you measure~, measure a year?"

"In people you threw out of your life, and people you brought into it," suggested Stephen. "Alternatively, in kisses."

Jon took the hint and pressed his lips to Stephen's temple, then the corner of his mouth, then his actual mouth. The textbook dropped between Jon's knees, closing with a thump. "Mmmm. So, what were you saying about an outrage?"

"Oh, right! A scandalous outrage," confirmed Stephen. "See, there was this magazine poll...Do, Dump, or Marry, with me, you, and Jimmy...and people would dump you!" He found his phone where it had fallen under their legs and navigated furiously to the graphic. "See?!"

"Huh," said Jon, distinctly un-scandalized. "Jimmy swept the 'do' category? We should send Tina congratulations."

"We should not!" hissed Stephen. "My boyfriend is so much more do-able than hers."

"Well, I assume for most people it was an extremely narrow choice." Jon nuzzled his neck. "Was Tucker just not in this poll, or...?"

"Jon, use your head. There were only three options. All four of us can't fit in only three options. That's just math! Back to business: do we tweet our followers to attack the magazine, or do we skip straight to blacklisting them?"

Jon tossed his arm across Stephen's stomach and stroked Stephen's hip. The angle made his forearm brush against dangerous places. Dangerously sexy places. "I say we throw out the whole survey as flawed data, and conduct our own studies in the matter. With plenty of repeat trials, to make sure the results are verifiable."

Why had Stephen ever thought it was pretentious and elitist when Jon talked smart? It was hot when Jon talked smart. "I guess we'll have to. For science."

They were necking enthusiastically when the door banged open.

"Oh, for the love of —" began Tucker, then shut the door firmly behind him. "You couldn't use the lock? No, forget that, I've got stuff in here too, you can't lock me out. But at least close the curtain!"

"Sorry, sorry!" stammered Stephen, yanking the curtain around Jon's bunk closed.

Then Jon swept it open again, clambering around Stephen's limbs and sitting on the edge of the mattress with his legs hanging in the air. "Actually, Tucker...do you have a minute?"

Tucker looked up from rifling through his duffel bag. "Depends on what it's for."

"Good enough." Jon squeezed Stephen's hand before swinging down to the floor, where he hooked his thumbs in his pockets and looked down at Tucker (which he could do as long as Tucker didn't stand up). "Listen, how much would it suck for you if we came out?"

After a slow pause, Tucker got to his feet (rough luck for Jon), holding the hat and earmuffs he'd apparently come in to retrieve. "Why? Are you planning to?"

Jon shrugged. "Thinking about it."

"Uh-huh. Thinking like daydreaming, or thinking like having a plan?"

"Thinking about maybe going a little closing-scene-of-a-Disney-princess-movie in Milwaukee."

Tucker frowned. "Why Milwaukee?"

"That's what I said!" put in Stephen from the bed. He had known nothing about Milwaukee before the tour. Until Jimmy corrected him, he had assumed it was in Canada.

"Turns out it has the venue where we've sold the most tickets," explained Jon.

"Oh, of course," said Tucker dryly. "Should've guessed."

"Hey, if we're going to do this, we're going to do it right," said Jon. "But that's if. We don't have to. I mean, we've talked about how we'd handle it, us two and Jimmy, but it's your band too, and if it's gonna screw things up for you to lose it then we can't just make it blow up in your face."

Tucker thought it over. "I'm not a homophobe," he said at last.

"Don't even start," snapped Jon. "Nobody ever says that unless they're about to say something homophobic."

"Oh my god, will you let me finish?" exclaimed Tucker. "I'm not a homophobe...and I'm sick of having to act like one. Go for it. Make some news in Milwaukee. And when my name comes up, you just make it clear that I don't have a problem with you, and never have."

"Oh," said Jon. "Um. Thanks."

Stephen hated to cut in on this tender moment, but — "You have too had a problem with us. You think Jon's a self-righteous smartass and I'm an unreliable, narcissistic diva."

"Well, yeah, but not because you're gay," said Tucker reasonably. "Or half gay, whatever," he added, tipping his hat in Jon's direction.

"Oh, thank god, you're being a dick again," said Jon with a sigh of relief. "For a second there, I was afraid we were gonna have to hug, or something."

 

~*~

 

The tour gave Olivia a healthy amount of down time, but the guys, not so much. She almost got more time with her friends back home than with the ones in the band. So it was a pleasant surprise when, halfway through the Midwest, Jon asked her to come hang with them in the hotel room after breakfast.

Less pleasant was the reason. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked.

"Positive." Stephen stopped pacing and made himself sit down on one of the couches, patting the cushions to invite his friends to join him. "And if it ends up being emotionally crushing, well, that's why I have three of you."

Jimmy took the cushion on the side of Stephen that let their connecting tattoos sit next to each other; Jon took the opposite. "Do you want to start with your mom or your dad?" he asked.

"I think...Mama." Stephen held his phone in both hands, working up the nerve to actually press some buttons. "Definitely Mama. Because I've already come out to her in person, so the rest of it will go faster. Also, because she'll probably let it go to voicemail anyway."

"Has she been letting everything go to voicemail since Thanksgiving?" asked Olivia. "Do you even know if she's listening to them?"

"Oh, I'm sure she is!" said Jimmy.

"Impressively convincing as you made that sound, I'm just saying! Stephen, if you're stressing yourself out here for nothing...."

"I'm not." Stephen took a deep breath, and spoke with uncharacteristic calm. "Maybe Mama will listen to it. Maybe she won't. But I am not responsible for making sure she takes the message. My only obligation is to give it."

Okay, Olivia could go with that. "Fair point."

"That was really profound," added Jon. "And, uh, kind of poetic. Like a little moment of Zen."

Stephen laced his fingers through Jon's, squeezed, and started scrolling through his contacts.

 

~*~

 

And then it was all down to Jon.

His brother picked up on the fourth ring. "This better be serious," he said by way of greeting. "You pulled me out of class."

"Sorry!" Jon hadn't even started, and already he was screwing this up. "It can wait. I mean, not forever, but it can wait until you're done."

"I'm already out here, so you might as well tell me," said Larry. "Besides, it sounds really impressive when I say I have to go take a call from Jon Stewart. It undercuts the whole thing if I come back in thirty seconds later."

"Okay, okay," said Jon. "The thing is...something's gonna happen tomorrow. It's nothing bad, but I wanted to give you a heads-up so you wouldn't get blindsided."

"Yeah, all right," said Larry. "Shoot."

Jon swallowed. "Well, uh, first of all...I'm kind of bisexual."

After a long pause, during which Jon didn't so much as breathe, his brother said: "Yeah, and?"

"You knew?" stammered Jon, confused for a moment, then starting to get angry. "Mom told you."

"What? No, she didn't tell me anything. I've known you were into guys ever since you had that massive crush on your seventh-grade science teacher. So, hang on, does this mean you're coming out?"

Jon had never simultaneously wanted to yell at someone and hug them so much.

 

~*~

 

"Smooth talkin'~, so rockin' / He's got everything that a girl's wantin'!" sang Olivia to the audience at the Marcus Amphitheater. She wore a spangly tank top and fashionably tight pants, her hair flew in artful waves every time she rocked hard enough, and there was a crowd of twenty-two thousand fans around to appreciate it. "And I think...he could be the one!"

She could feel the edge of a headache coming on, but she would be safely back in her trailer by the time it hit. It didn't get much better than this.

When the applause went up in the wake of the last chorus, her dancers melted off the stage, and she had a minute to bask alone before the boys came running back on. The fans were packed into banks of seats, and into the banks of bleachers that extended out past the cover of the roof, and on the grassy lawn behind the bleachers so far up and back that Olivia could barely see it. She waved in their direction anyway.

A fresh wave of cheering heralded the return of the boys. Someone had loaded them up with a fresh set of Shout*For wristbands, which they flung into the crowd from the edge of the stage before running back to their places.

"How come only Olivia gets backup dancers?" demanded Stephen, only half kidding, as he lifted his mic off the stand. "Haven't I been doing this long enough to deserve backup dancers yet?"

It was the same joke as every night, but it was delivered so adorably that Olivia still grinned. Pointing to the rest of the band, she said into her own mic, "I thought that's what these guys were for?"

Groans. Laughter. Multicolored spotlights sweeping over the stage.

"All right, you two, we're not doing a standup comedy routine here!" said Jon, guitar strap now slung over his shoulder. "Let's give these people some music."

 

~*~

 

The group rearranged one more time in the wake of the Stephen-Olivia duet. Instruments went away. Olivia disappeared backstage to go Skype with Kristen. The band lined up, deceptively casual, their feet ready to slide into identical dance positions the moment they were cued.

Jon moved like water as the delicate piano intro kicked in. He had an absurd amount of practice with this song. Could do the routine in his sleep. (Literally, he'd had dreams about it.)

Stephen had the first solo. "People say...we shouldn't be together~," he crooned into his mic. "Too young to know about forever~ / Well, I say that they don't know / What they're talk-, talk-, talkin' about...."

The first background vocals came in behind him, in perfect harmony.

"'Cause this love~ is only getting stronger / So I don't wanna wait any longer / I just wanna tell the world that you're mine, boy~...!"

Time seemed to slow down as he held the note.

By the time understanding started to sweep through the crowd, the band had already launched into the chorus, heartfelt as ever and gendered-pronoun-free. But this was it — halfway out and no going back — and Jon grinned as he caught Stephen's eye, an extra spring in his steps like he was walking on fireworks.

Jimmy took solo for the second verse, and if there was a rumbling in the audience when he addressed it to a girl, Jon paid no attention. The chorus was even sweeter the second time through.

They traded off lead vocals for the bridge — line by line pealing out into the open air — before the instrumentals dropped to a minimum and the dancing stilled, letting Jon's voice go soft and intimate to carry the moment: "They don't know what we do best / That's between me and you, our little secret —"

He spun on his heel and sang the next line looking directly into Stephen's eyes.

"But I wanna tell 'em — I wanna tell the world that you're mine, boy~!"

This note he held long, soaring over the voices of the others as they plunged back into the chorus (They don't know about the things we do), steps electric (they don't know about the I-love-yous). A full measure — two — too long to miss and too clear to mistake, while he and Stephen broke from the line and danced as a pair (they don't know about the up-all-nights, they don't know I've waited all my life...). All those hours of practice made it second nature, Jon automatically gliding back every time Stephen swept forward and vice versa, circling the front of the stage and each other like ballroom dancers as their voices wove together, never missing a beat.

They came to a stop in the center as the music fell off for the last time, leaving nothing but the piano and Stephen's tenor: "...they don't know about us~...."

Jon curled his fingers around the back of Stephen's neck, rose up on his tiptoes, and went in for the kiss.

He was dimly aware that the crowd was a mess, that what sounded like a thousand cameras were going off, that with an audience this size it might really be a thousand cameras. Maybe Stephen only noticed that second, because his well-honed mid-performance poise collapsed into a shudder. Jon wrapped both arms around him and whispered shh, shh, you're okay into his good ear.

Stephen nodded and clung to him and laughed against his shoulder. Both of them were sweaty and breathless, Jon could feel Stephen's heart pounding against his own chest, and there wasn't much he could do except kiss Stephen's face a whole bunch of times, then lean into it when Stephen kissed him on the mouth again.

The audience showed no sign of figuring out what to do with itself until a firm throat-clearing rang out from the speakers, encouraging at least part of the happy/angry/scandalized/turned-on cacophony to simmer down. Over the rest of the noise, Tucker added, "Okay, I'm pretty sure they know about you now."

"No, keep going!" exclaimed Jimmy. "There might be some really hardcore Stimmy fans who don't get it yet."

 

~*~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

~*~

December 12, 2012:
Eight months later.

Backstage at Madison Square Gardens was more hectic than Stephen had ever seen it, with several dozen performers from all around the country trying to get their acts together. He spotted Alicia Keys humming scales, and Eric Clapton arguing over whether he could get something sent to his dressing room.

"You guys are in good company," said Tad, impressed. "Hey, look! It's The Who!"

Stephen followed his gaze. "I don't know, I don't recognize them."

"It's the name of the band, babe," said Jon with a grin.

"What is?"

"The Who."

"I don't know! That's why I'm asking!"

"Why don't you guys go on down to lunch," sighed Tad, shooing them along. "I'll be right behind you once I make sure everything's ready for your set."

"Uh, sure," said Jon uncertainly. Two weeks into being eighteen, he was still getting used to being technically in charge of everything in his career. Good thing he had Stephen, who was basically an expert at this running-your-life thing by now, to help show him how it was done.

Stephen held Jon's hand as they made their way to the buffet line, only letting go when one of the servers asked shyly for their autographs. The shock of sudden independence wasn't the only reason Jon might need moral support over the next couple of days. For one thing, this whole concert was a benefit to support victims of Hurricane Sandy, which had torn up the coast of Jon's beloved New Jersey. To be vividly reminded just how bad the damage still was (even though Stephen himself had thrown quite a lot of money at the problem!) couldn't be easy.

And for another thing —

"Stephen! You're here!"

"Jimmy!" exclaimed Stephen, nearly tipping over his plate in excitement. "Yes, we're here, we got in early — I texted you! Why didn't you answer?"

"Oh! Sorry, my fault, I turned off my phone for rehearsal and forgot to turn it back on," said Jimmy, falling into line beside them. He had a new haircut, making him look like an actual young adult instead of an eternally-young boy-band moppet. "I saved you seats."

"Awesome. So how's Broadway treating you? Tell me everything."

"Stephen, we literally talked about rehearsal yesterday."

"Pretend I forgot," ordered Stephen, grabbing a bag of chips. He was doing the best he could with this long-distance friendship thing, but it was hard, not being on the same coast as his BFF. Talking over the Internet for no more than a few hours a day just wasn't the same.

"You don't have to pretend," put in Jon, as they broke away from the buffet line and went to find their tables. "I actually don't know, and would like to hear it."

So Jimmy told Jon how the Broadway rehearsals were coming along. In return, Jon talked about the latest of the singing-acting cameo roles he'd been taking to kill time while he waited to hear back from the conservatories he'd applied to. Both of them already knew what Stephen had been up to, but he didn't want to feel left out, so he shared the latest details of the movie he was working on and some of the plans for his soon-to-debut solo act.

"And once the movie wraps, you move to New York, right?" prompted Jimmy.

"Once the movie wraps, I'm moving to New York," said Jon. "He's not gonna have much of a choice."

"I will too have a choice!" cried Stephen. "And I will choose not to deprive you two of the glory of my presence. Especially since both of you have to join me for at least one song on my first —"

"Excuse me, are you the young men from Disney?"

"Ex-Disney," said Stephen...and managed to stop himself just in time before offering an autograph.

They were being addressed by an older man with a friendly face and a receding hairline, wearing a plaid work shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a pair of sunglasses hanging from the collar. "Ex-Disney, of course," he said. "Not for lack of talent, though! It's really nice that you could all make it here tonight."

"Mguh," said Jon.

"You're Jon, right?" added Bruce Springsteen, holding out a hand to shake. "I understand you're a bit of a fan."

Jon made a noise at the kind of pitch normally reserved for summoning dogs...and passed out in his seat, leaving Stephen and Jimmy scrambling to catch him before he hit the floor.

"It's all right! He's okay," exclaimed Jimmy, helping Stephen push aside the chairs to lay Jon flat on his back. "We, um, we actually had a feeling something like this might happen. He's a really big fan."

"We didn't have a feeling of anything," Stephen corrected him. "I had a feeling this might happen. You owe me fifty bucks."

 

~*~


Excerpts from 'Q&A: Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart', Rolling Stone, November 22, 2012.

I notice you're both wearing the purity rings you got during your time in the band. Jimmy Fallon hasn't been seen with his recently, and neither have you, Jon, aside from today. Stephen, though, you're regularly spotted wearing yours. Is that an ideological rift between the two of you?

SC: No, Jon just forgets to wear his most of the time.

JS: And when I do wear it, it isn't for the purity symbolism, it's just to be fancy. I couldn't replace it with some other nice ring, because this is the one Stephen picked out for me.

SC: I could pick you out a new one. Classier. More expensive.

JS: This one was like two hundred dollars.

SC: I stand by my statement.

JS: And Stephen doesn't wear his to broadcast that he's avoiding certain actions to stay 'pure'. I'm not telling you how far we've gone, that's nobody's business, but as far as the people who run the purity movement are concerned, we're headed way out into non-pure territory just by being a couple of guys and making out with each other. So when he wears it, it's kind of an act of reclamation. Saying that they're wrong, that he's still allowed to call himself pure no matter what he's done, or been through, or with who.

SC: Also, because it's pretty and shiny. But mostly what Jon said.

[...]

You're not the first LGBT teen stars to work for Disney. Did you get to know any others working there who are still under contract, and haven't come out yet?

JS: Well, now, that would be telling. Seriously, let the hypothetical rest of us come out on their own time. We'll be stealing each other's thunder if we mess up each other's schedules.

SC: [whispering] Jon, you're the B, right?

JS: Right.

SC: What's the T?

JS: I'll point her out next time we watch Glee.

[...]

Why did you two choose to come out when you did?

JS: Oh, fame, money, controversy, attention...the usual reasons.

And do you think that putting your relationship out in public has made it stronger, or have things gotten more difficult?

JS: Uh, it's messed with our lives a lot, but I don't know that our actual relationship has changed.

SC: Stronger. Right?

JS: There's a lot more people out there who want to hassle us now. But, y'know, we deal with it.

SC: You might say it's... [Whips off glasses, raises one eyebrow very seriously.] ...just the way we roll.

JS: I'm through accepting limits 'cause someone says they're so.

SC: Rain and storm and dark skies? Well now, they don't mean a thing if you got a boy that loves you, and who wants to wear your ring.

JS: [Starting to sing.] I'm like a shooting star — I've come so far, I can't go back to where I used to be....

SC: [Also singing.] There is joy to be claimed in this world — you even might wind up being glad to be you!

JS: [It's all singing from here on out.] Together, Stephen, we can live with the sadness — I'll love you with all the madness in my soul!

SC: I'm looking for a lover who will come on in and cover me....

JS: Oh, lover — I'll cover you...!

SC: Lived a life of cheesy stardom, never knew it had a lack / But now I've tasted kosher, and I've never going back!

JS & SC: 'Cause without love —

JS: Life is like a beat that you can't follow

JS & SC: Without love —

SC: Life is like a pill too big to swallow

JS & SC: Without love —

JS: Life's a run-down car that you just can't start

JS & SC: Without love —

SC: Life is like my parents at a pride march!

JS & SC: Darling, I'll be yours forever / 'cause I never wanna be / Without love / So, darling, never set me free!

JS: [Speaking voice again.] Uh, did any part of that answer your question?

 

~*~

 

The first thing Jon saw when he woke up was Stephen's face, which was one of his favorite things to wake up to. "Hey, babe," he said with a groggy smile. "I just had the greatest dream. Bruce Springsteen said I was talented."

Stephen bit his lip. "Uh...Jon?"

The scene around them, which was definitely not any of their bedrooms, came into focus. Jon's smile faded. "Was that...not a dream?"

Stephen shook his head.

Oh, god. "Is he...still here?"

Eyes flickering to something on the far side of Jon, Stephen nodded.

So Jon peeled himself up off the floor — while Stephen shooed away a small crowd of security, worried lawyers, and gawkers, assuring them that Jon was fine, which was probably true as long as he didn't spontaneously combust with embarrassment — and somehow ended up sitting in the chair right next to Springsteen. Jimmy was on the other side, apparently telling the Boss about their Springsteen-offs, and being impossibly chatty and relaxed while Jon was spinning his wheels trying to remember if he'd figured out an eloquent, non-crazy way to sum up the sentiment of hello you are my favorite person in the world and your music basically saved my life and sometimes I reblog shirtless pictures of you.

(He probably didn't need to include that last part.)

"You look like you're feeling better." Springsteen smiled at Jon, and it was probably the standard polite smile he gave to everyone, but still. "I'm glad your friends convinced me to stay around."

"You know we're all autotune, right?" blurted Jon.

Stephen let out an offended squawk.

"Well, not these two," added Jon, nodding to Stephen and Jimmy, "voices like songbirds, both of 'em, and, you know, I like to think I'm not completely devoid of talent, but if all you've heard is our singles on the radio or whatever, you have no idea...."

"Looked at a few clips on your YouTube channel," interrupted Springsteen. "The personal one, not the band one."

"...okay, you may have some idea." The stuff Jon put up on YouTube had a director and a production crew and professional sound, obviously, and it was mostly (legally-cleared) covers of other people's compositions, but when he was getting the thing started he had laid down a few ground rules. His own instruments. His own voice. Definitely no autotune.

"He's very good, Mr. Boss," piped up Stephen from behind him.

Jon aimed a kick at Stephen's shin, without turning around. "But everything I've done, I can draw a line back to you," he stammered. "Because you — you introduced me to the concept of, you get in the car or you get on a plane and you take a chance, and you can work to get away from your circumstances — and there's no guarantee, sometimes you show up on the other side and you get shot, but you know, the joy is in the chasing, so — so that was my inspiration."

The world tunneled briefly as he remembered being just-barely-fifteen, never been away from home for more than a few weeks at a time before, standing in the airport hugging his mother and feeling like he was about to jump off a cliff. Sure, he'd ended up sticking the landing — or learning how to fly, depending on what metaphor you wanted — but he hadn't known that then.

"So I just want to thank you — personally — from the bottom of my heart — you gave me something to put in my knockoff iPod when I got on that plane to go from New Jersey to LA, and I just, I —"

A quiet gesture from his idol cut him off. He'd started gesticulating at some point in there, and now his hands stilled on the table, at just the right distance for the Boss to clasp one of them in his own. "All I can say is...."

He squeezed Jon's hand, affected a light accent:

"You have done well, grasshopper."

Jon felt dizzy all over again. "This is the best day of my life."

"Well, sure, you think that now, but you're young," said Springsteen reasonably. "Your lives are just getting started."