The Zen and the Damaged

A fan site for fake newspeople

The Zen On January - 16 - 2012

For a Secret Santa exchange, prompt: Jon/”Stephen”, after a freak accident, he gains the ability to hear what the other is really thinking.

Rating: PG
Pairings/Characters: Jon/”Stephen”, Siri, Meg, Tad, Gipper
Contents: Wifeless AU, ear!kink, bread abuse
Disclaimer: #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement. The Report characters and their universe are property of Comedy Central. The real person(s) are used in a fictional parody context.

Stephen, anxious to know what Jon really thinks of him, stumbles on a way to find out for sure…which doesn’t go at all the way he planned. Turns out Jon has more secrets than he bargained for (and in the meantime, Stephen’s conscience just might be catching up with him).

Title is from the carol Blue Christmas.

“Siri! Call Jon.”

Stephen’s stunning artificially-intelligent new iPhone was turning out to be much less intelligent than expected. It couldn’t write his show, it couldn’t choose his wardrobe, it flat-out refused to teach him how to build a portable death-laser…in other words, it was basically useless. At least he could console himself with the knowledge that the robots wouldn’t be ready to rise up and overthrow their creators for a few more years.

The phone could still make calls, but it didn’t seem able to force Jon to pick up, so Stephen paced the length of the sparse IAVA green room until his JFF’s mild-mannered voice said, “What’s up?”

“Jon! Thank Steve Jobs’ ghost you answered. It’s an emergency!”

“What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

“Does navy or violet go better with my eyes?”

Jon’s reply was so long in coming that Stephen was afraid they’d be disconnected. “Stephen, if you don’t mind my asking, what kind of emergency is this, exactly?”

“A fashion emergency, Jon! I’m accepting an award from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans’ Association! I need to look good for these people, and my camouflage suit is in the wash! Should I wear the navy tie, or the violet?”

“You’re getting an award? Stephen, that’s tremendous. I’m sure they’ll be glad to have you no matter what.”

“You should pay more attention,” sulked Stephen, though his gut twinged uncomfortably. Could he have failed to announce this prize to Jon? How had it slipped his mind? If he stopped enumerating all the honors people saw fit to bestow on him, Jon might start to forget how impressive he was. “Come on, I know you’re a discredit to your people’s natural sense of style, but you must have absorbed something about nice ties in twelve-ish years of wearing them.”

“Honestly? I just wear whatever they throw over the door. It could be a clown suit, and – ”

“Oh, I forgot to mention! The blue tie has a thin stripe pattern, and the purple one has diamonds. Does that help with your decision?”

Jon sighed. “I guess go with the striped one?”

Stephen had a sneaking suspicion that Jon was humoring him. Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to chew the man out properly. America’s heroes were waiting. “Fine. But if our country’s finest are in any way less than overwhelmed by the figure I cut out there, it’ll be your fault for letting them down.”

Drip. Drip. Drip.

“Siri, fix my leaky faucet.”

“I found a number of plumbers fairly close to you.”

Stephen canceled the search before it could accidentally offer someone money. He was a national treasure, and his show a public service; surely he deserved a well-tuned sink in his office shower at no cost?

“Siri,” he said instead, kicking the shower room door closed and sprawling across his couch, “do you think Jon Stewart secretly hates me?”

“I’m hearing that you want information about Celebrity: Jon Stewart. Is that correct?”

“He acts nice and all, but maybe it’s just for professional reasons. Sometimes I get the feeling he doesn’t really care what I have to say. You heard him the other day at the award ceremony! He was clearly humoring me! And other times, he does things like make plans to hang out with other people, without even asking if I’m doing anything first. And what’s with the lack of tosses, huh? His interviews run over all the time anyway; why can’t he just stick another sixty seconds per night up on the web and say hi to me?”

“I’m sorry. Could you repeat the query?”

Stephen tightened his grip on the phone’s casing and enunciated: “How do you tell what someone really thinks of you?”

Siri didn’t answer. The crisp light of the New York autumn shone through the blinds and left striped reflections on a dark screen.

“C’mon, Siri, don’t be like that. I wasn’t doubting you.”

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Okay, now Stephen was starting to get worried. “What’s wrong, Siri? Is your battery low?”

Drip. Drip. Drip.

“Hang in there, Siri. I’ll charge you in a minute.”

Stephen flung the bathroom door open, nearly shattering the portrait frame on the facing wall (it would be fine; he had plenty of spares), and used the mirror to arrange his most authoritative Angry Face. It didn’t hurt that the sight of bags under his eyes added to his irritation.

The faucet was either too brave or too foolish to quail with respectful terror.

“All right, that’s it.” Stephen took the handle in a firm grip and shoved it down as hard as he could. “You – wouldn’t – listen – to reason – ” He stood on his toes, putting his whole weight plus the iPhone’s into the effort. “So maybe – this – will change – your – ”

With a wrenching metallic groan, a fine stream of water spat from the base of the handle.

Before Stephen could let go, the handle creaked and swayed, throwing off his already precarious balance. When a second jet of water burst forth to strike him square in the chin, his free hand shot up to block it, putting his phone directly in the path of the stream.

He slipped. He swayed. The iPhone sparked a brilliant blue.

The back of his head smacked against tile, and his own screens went black.

“Tad! He’s awake!”

“Go ‘way,” muttered Stephen. Meg’s voice was much too loud. Also, he felt stiff, his head ached, and he was damp in uncomfortable places. Not exactly the kind of waking his coffee commercials had promised.

“Thank god,” said Jon’s voice. “Yeah, he’s up. I’m gonna have to call you back.”

“Nngh,” said Stephen, meaning Why are you making small talk when my life might be in peril?

“Stephen?” Tad’s voice now. “You hit your head. How do you feel? Should we call an ambulance?”

“Police,” groaned Stephen. “Sic ’em on Jon.”

Uh-oh. Is he delusional, or just in one of his moods? Stephen, buddy, wake up. You’ve got a Nation to lead, remember?”

Stephen cracked open his weary eyes. He was laid out on the office couch, still wearing the red polo and slacks that had been decimated in his own personal splash zone. Meg and Jon were kneeling over him, while Tad stood at the foot of the couch with a wrench in hand. There was no spraying, not even a drip, to be heard.

“Good ol’ Tad,” sighed Stephen. “Good ol’ Meg,” he continued, feeling in a generous mood. “Jon, what are you doing here? My staff had this under control.”

“We got the news that you were hurt, and….”

Jon trailed off. Only he didn’t, exactly, because the words continued even though his mouth had stopped moving: “What was I supposed to think? I figured you’d told the staff to make it up as an excuse to drag me over here. Again.

Lips syncing up with the words once more, he continued, “I was worried.”

“Whoever’s dubbing you is doing a lousy job,” said Stephen.

That doesn’t sound good,” said Jon, biting his lip at the same time. Now that Stephen was paying attention, the voice in those moments had a distant, mechanical quality to it. As if Jon were speaking into a mic at the center of a bustling auditorium, with Stephen listening from the edge.

Normal once more, he continued, “You think he’ll be okay to do the show?”

“Are you kidding?” said Meg. “I’ve never seen him this coherent.”

“Jon?” said Stephen experimentally. “What’s your email password?”

MrMxyzptlk1964. What, am I getting coherency-tested too? I’m not the one that got knocked on the head.”

“We’ll have him up and running by showtime, Mr. Stewart,” Meg assured him. “You can get back to your studio with a clear conscience.”

As intently as he could, Stephen thought, JON! CAN YOU HEAR THIS?

“Thanks,” said Jon. “Stephen, make their job easy, okay?”

“Siri! Did you give me mindreading powers?”

“I’m sorry. Could you repeat the query?”

“Mind! Reading!”

“I’m hearing that you want to play Minesweeper. Is that correct?”

“I mean, it would have been a lot cooler if I could read everyone’s mind, but Jon’s is a good start. Just let him try to lie to me or manipulate me now! I’ll see through him in a hot flash.”

“I’m hearing that you want help with hot flashes. Is that correct?”

“Oh, go fry your circuits.”

The iPhone threw off a couple of sparks. “I’m sorry, but that would void my warranty.”

Whenever they split lunch in Jon’s office, Stephen made sure not to show up on time. Jon had a way of getting complacent about things (Stephen once found a panda magnet on his mini-fridge, and had to throw it down the fire escape to keep it from spreading its insidious pro-bear propaganda), so Stephen took it upon himself to keep the man on his toes.

Normally this meant arriving late, but today Stephen ushered himself in fifteen minutes early. If ever there was a golden opportunity to eavesdrop, this was it.

Jon was at his desk, phone against his ear, surrounded by a mountan of documents half as tall as he was. “Stephen?” he stammered, covering the receiver. At least he’s not late this time. “Listen, I’m in the middle of a critical bit here, so I don’t have time for – ”

“Not to worry,” said Stephen brightly. “I’ll wait until you’re done. Quiet as a mouse. You won’t even know I’m here.”

Yeah, right. “Forget it. It’s fine. Just give me a second to finish this call.”

“No!” exclaimed Stephen. “I can be quiet if I want! Why don’t you trust me?”

Oh, geez, he’s going to throw a tantrum either way. “Okay, okay. Whatever you want.”

He went back to the call, leaving a weak-kneed Stephen to sink onto the beat-up old couch and pretend to be absorbed in the CNN feed chattering away on the wall. Tantrums, really? That was completely unfair. Just because he wasn’t shy about expressing perfectly legitimate grievances, it didn’t mean he threw tantrums.

Did Jon really think so little of him?

Maybe this hadn’t been such a great idea. Maybe he was better off not knowing how deeply Jon secretly hated his guts. It was one thing to have suspicions about what Jon was too polite to say out loud, and another thing to know….

Jon finished the call, which had been mostly in un-American elitist type words that Stephen was pretty sure were either legalese or French, and switched tracks to his laptop without missing a beat. Stephen tried to tune out the onrush of thoughts, with no success, though he relaxed when he realized they weren’t about him. God, I’m glad we have good laywers. Don’t people ever read the waivers before they sign them? Or at least spend five minutes talking to anyone who’s watched the show? Is “Perry and Thrust” a good pun for that?

Stephen realized with a start that the CNN talking heads were discussing Rick Perry. Had Jon been listening as well as thinking? Stephen barely had the attention span for either, let alone both at once.

Nah. Maybe if it was a sex scandal. Not that I want to think about a Rick Perry sex scandal. I can’t bump this piece back any further, it won’t be topical by next week….

And with that, Jon’s three-track mind went into what felt like a game of Tetris, scenes and jokes and segments rearranging themselves with such finesse that Stephen could barely keep up. There were guests to work around, and passages of tonight’s book to keep in mind, and upcoming events the show would have to cover, and Jon seemed to know them all without spelling them out.

I’ll tell Wyatt and the producer to cut it down by a minute, he concluded at last, the regret palpable as his concentration settled into something more linear. Damn shame, though. It’s comedy gold. These people make me wish the show was an hour long sometimes…not that we could keep that up, and of course Stephen would –

Oh, hell. Stephen’s here!

Through a Herculean effort of will, Stephen kept his eyes on the television.

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as Jon studied him. He actually pulled it off. Either he’s got a crush on Kyra Phillips, or I haven’t been giving him enough credit.

There was a soft sort of admiration in his mental voice that made Stephen’s insides squirm. But not nearly so much as the next line:

He really is handsome, when he slows down enough to let you appreciate it.

Followed by something too visual for Stephen to “hear” properly, but which he was about 85% sure involved indecent fantasies about the curves of his ears.

It didn’t last more than a second or two. Get a grip, Stewart. He’s in the room, for god’s sake. “Stephen? I’m, uh, ready to eat now.”

Stephen shook off a vivid imagining of Jon’s tongue molesting his ear. “Took you long enough! Mine has salsa, right? I won’t eat it if there’s no salsa.”

“Stephen, today’s caterer is the Chinese place,” stammered Jon, which Stephen knew, thank you very much, but it was the best distraction he could come up with on short notice. At least a debate about the relative merits of salsa versus duck sauce, and the feasability of each on pizza, was enough to distract Jon for a while. He could come up with a long-term plan later.

Jon didn’t hate him after all. Jon liked him. Jon liked him liked him.

There had to be some way to turn this to his advantage.

“Operation: Seduce Jon Stewart.”

The words popped from the top of the whiteboard in bold red-marker capitals, flanked on either side by a hand-turkey and a Snoopy. Stephen underlined the whole title with a bold slash of his pointer for good measure.

His audience followed the gesture with mild curiosity, then lost interest and started licking itself.

“You are a terrible co-conspirator,” huffed Stephen. “You didn’t help with the first version either, remember? And look how far that got.”

To be fair, the first version had been concocted in about five minutes. Another five minutes after that, Jon had politely informed Stephen that yes, he was gay, but no, it didn’t mean he was interested in getting it on with every guy he saw, and certainly not in exchange for professional favors, so would Stephen please stop giving him a sexy backrub now.

“To think, I believed him when he said he didn’t have the hots for me,” continued Stephen, chewing on the end of his pointer. “But even if he didn’t – which is possible, I’m like a fine wine, his taste for me could have needed to mature – I can’t use the same technique twice. This problem calls for finesse. Which shouldn’t be hard to come up with, right? I mean, I have a whiteboard! And strategic underlining! And mind-reading powers, which I can use to head off any of his lingering misgivings as I charm my way straight into his bleeding heart, which might be even more effective than his pants at getting him to do whatever I want.”

He joined Gipper on the couch, skritching the dog under the chin.

“Although it won’t be any loss on my part if we have to have sex somewhere along the line,” he allowed. “The man is a silver fox, or at least a grey bunny rabbit, which for our purposes is close enough. It’s brilliant, right? Bark once for yes, twice for no. Bear in mind that if you say yes, I’ll give you another drumstick.”

“Rrr?” said Gipper.

“I’ll take that as a woof,” said Stephen. “All right, let’s talk strategy. And no, before you ask, humping his leg is not an option.”

“My ear itches.”

“Wha?” said Jon, because there wasn’t much else you could say to a greeting like that.

“My ear,” repeated Stephen, nodding for him to come in and closing the office door behind him. “It’s really itchy today and I don’t know why.”

“Uh, okay? And you want me to…scratch it?” guessed Jon, flailing for any reason why Stephen would be leaning toward him so expectantly.

“No, Jon! I can scratch my own ear, come on.” Stephen rolled his eyes and unsubtly herded Jon over to the couch. “I need you to look at it. To see if there’s a rash, or something.”

“Stephen, it’s probably just a random itch. Odds are it’ll be gone by the time we finish this pizza.”

“And what if it doesn’t, huh? What if it’s the first sign of lupus? If I don’t get treated in time and end up dying, I’m blaming you in the will!”

If I protest too much, he’ll think something’s up, realized Jon in desperation. I can mess with his ears for ten seconds, right? Especially if there really is a rash. “All right, all right. Lean over, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Stephen retreated to the couch, tossed a star-and-striped pillow out of the way, and tipped his head toward the empty cushion. After a moment’s hesitation, Jon followed his lead.

Up close, paler strands of hair threaded through Stephen’s dark coif, especially at his temples. Jon brushed back the loose strands feathering over the tip of his friend’s ear, and ran questing fingertips along the curve. The skin inside was slightly flushed, but well-groomed and otherwise clear.

Holding his breath, Jon bent the shell downward to study the back. Nothing but smooth pale skin from the flushed tip to the dark arch of Stephen’s hairline. The cartilage was pliant at his every touch, folding to let him examine from the top down to the point where the soft lobe flowed into the jawline.

“You, my friend, are rash-free,” he said faintly.

Not content to let his torment stop there, Stephen grabbed his wrist as he yanked it away. “Good thing, too. Look at the state of these nails! When was your last mani-pedi?”

“Um,” said Jon. “Never?”

Stephen gave him a withering look, as if Jon’s lack of proper nail care was letting down his profession, his sexuality, and America all at once. Then he brightened. “Not to worry,” he said, patting Jon’s thigh. “Clear your schedule this Saturday. I’m taking you to my spa.”

After gloating to himself over Jon’s startled enjoyment of the manicure, the back-cracking session, the hot stone massage, and the deft use of several exotically scented oils, Stephen grinned at his friend over the gift bag he was loading up with sample bottles of hair gel. “So? How do you feel?”

Flowery. Polished. Lavender-fresh. Like I have the back of an almost-fifty-year-old agan, instead of the back of a prematurely-eighty-year-old. “Surprisingly good,” said Jon, rubbing the back of his neck.

The self-conscious gesture only intensified the smell of sandalwood.

Stephen’s lashes fluttered as he breathed in. He had never really thought of Jon as having a particular scent before, but the cologne here was definitely mixing with something, and he found he liked it.

Is he smelling me? thought Jon with well-hidden anxiety. Is that bad? Is it weird?

And then: Is this a – ?

He cut the thought short with Jedi swiftness. Quit overthinking things, Stewart. Just enjoy the moment.

If those worries developed too far, Jon might break this whole thing off while his heart was still mostly un-hooked. Time for Stephen to produce a lighthearted distraction. “Which of these shampoos should I take? Sweet Strawberry or Kickin’ Kiwi?”

Jon squinted at the matching labels. Are those fonts getting smaller, or am I just getting old? “Depends on what they smell like, I guess.”

Stephen arched an eyebrow. “Probably like strawberry and kiwi, Jon.”

“Ah. Well, uh…which one of those do you like better?”

Clearly the man was going to be no help whatsoever. “My gut says strawberry. I don’t trust those New Zealanders. What do they need so many sheep for, anyway?”

Jon looked blank. What do sheep have to do with…?

“People from New Zealand are called Kiwis, Jon.”

“Oh, right.” I did actually know that.

“How do you forget something so obvious?” said Stephen with a weary sigh. “Either you’re getting old faster than I thought, or you didn’t pay enough attention to the Making of The Lord of the Rings documentaries.”

How can a man so derisive be so adorable? “I, uh, haven’t watched any of them, actually.”

Though it cut to the quick of his honor as a fan, Stephen forced a non-derisive smile. “Not a problem!” he said, slinging his bulging gift bag over his shoulder. “Next Saturday you can come over to my place and I’ll guide you through them.”

“Now, hang on, Stephen – ” Is that another – ? Okay, seriously get a grip. Guy friends watch movies with each other all the time.

Stephen let his face fall into a doe-eyed pout that would have done a Kewpie doll proud. “You don’t have other plans, do you? Like with some other friend that you like better?”

Jon adjusted his grip on the bag in his own arms. “Nope. Saturday afternoon is wide open.” I am so screwed.

By the time movie night rolled around, Stephen was really getting the hang of this reacting-to-Jon’s-wishes thing.

When Jon was silently scandalized at the perfectly reasonable amount of salt Stephen had put on their popcorn, Stephen popped a handful into his own mouth, made a face, and announced that Islamofascists must have infiltrated the brand. (“They’re a-salt-ing our liberties, Jon!”) Switching off the lamp to watch the DVD prompted unvoiced worries about eyestrain; Stephen arranged to trip over something, complained that turning out the light wasn’t supposed make things so dark, and put it back on. And when the action got too fast or confusing for Jon to follow, Stephen made good use of his natural talents for shouting helpful things at the screen.

But there was so much more in Jon’s head than unspoken desires. Gone too, for the moment, were his intellectual juggling acts with the networks’ latest headlines and the vast background required to put them in context. He had shut that all down, allowing the simple joy of wizards and swordfights and dancing hobbits to shine through. He was having…fun.

Any other day, Stephen’s own attention would have been largely on his 62″ plasma screen, with some part reserved for his usual anxiety about the socialist pro-gay anti-apple-pie takeover of America. Today he was following the action only via nerd autopilot. The rest of him was luxuriating, for lack of a less froufy word, in the tangled glow of his friend’s mind.

At the Prancing Pony, Frodo caught the Ring and vanished, making Stephen jump. He’s seen this a million times, and even the commentary still gets to him? thought Jon. Maybe I should hold his hand. Or hug him. Or…but do I really need to risk setting off one of his big gay freakouts?

If only Stephen could tell him that there was nothing to worry about. It was only gay if you wanted it, after all. If you were trying to seduce your gay friend for purely exploitative purposes, and maybe enjoying his company and feeling that his happiness made you feel warmer than hot chocolate along the way, that was still safely heterosexual on your part.

I could lean over and whisper something in his ear, Jon mused. It could be comforting, and he wouldn’t take it as a come-on, even if I…no, that wouldn’t be fair. I’d be taking advantage of what he doesn’t know.

Stephen tried not to squirm too obviously in the low light.

Why couldn’t Jon have had a thing for feet instead? This would have been so much easier. Their heels (Stephen’s socks thick and red with a knit snowflake pattern, Jon’s a boring black) were propped on the same cushioned bench; it was practically a gift-wrapped opportunity to play footsie.

While the actors’ voices chattered over the Council of Elrond, Gipper wandered in and bounded up onto the couch, walking across Stephen’s legs to nose hopefully at Jon. His target didn’t speak, but a mental whogoo’boiiiii? nearly deafened…whatever sense Stephen was using for this instead of hearing.

The dog got a cheerful headrub for his trouble, while Stephen got a tail thumping his face until he finally convinced Gipper to lie down, scratching his flanks to keep him there. Jon settled into a routine of rubbing Gipper’s ears, which might have been a point of concern if he had been thinking anything more than obnoxiously syrupy puppy-talk along the way.

It wasn’t until the battle in the Mines of Moria that Jon’s mind took a sudden sharp turn. Stephen was absorbed enough in the epic imagery of the Balrog that he missed when it started, only to have his attention grabbed by one thing to have idle fantasies when you’re sure they’ll never in a million years come true, but this? He’s more than just a nice pair! He’s your friend – there’s no way you can have casual sex without bringing it into your relationship – and let’s face it, he’s not exactly boyfriend material, is he?

Stephen’s nails dug into Gipper’s fur. The nearby tail, appreciating the extra attention, kept right on thumping.

Not that he’s likely to settle for friends-with-benefits in the first place, continued Jon. Stephen doesn’t accept half measures from anything, least of all other people. If he…wants me, if that’s not a hopelessly arrogant thing to assume, he’ll demand love, time, comfort, devotion….

Admittedly, Stephen had been thinking more along the lines of “a bigger office, longer vacations, and my personal masseuse counting as a work expense.” But was that really too much to ask in return for a psychically catered kink buffet?

He’s plenty demanding already. These past couple weeks have been more calm than usual, but they don’t change who he is. If he makes a real proposition and I go for it, he’ll end up running me into the ground.

“You shall not pass!” came Gandalf’s muted roar.

It’s too bad, thought a despondent Jon. If only….

Every newly-telepathic neuron in Stephen’s head was straining to hear the rest. If only what?

But Gipper snuffled, and Jon’s brain switched to cooing about fuzzy sniffly good boys, and the thought was left unfinished.

While the rest of the staff ran around in a panic trying to deal with an unexpected flooding in the studio, Stephen bundled himself in a fur-lined coat and his iPhone in a snowman-painted casing and camped out on the roof for the duration. He didn’t want to be found until less than an hour before taping, when it was too late for Tad to yell at him about it being a “bad idea” to flush figgy pudding. After that, he could flee for home and not have to see any of them until after the break.

The air was cold and sharp and clear, humming with the noise of traffic and his most dedicated shivering fans. Even from this high above them, the grey-white sky looked far away, and he thought he smelled snow.

Jon’s building was only a couple of blocks away. If he were Spider-Man, he could swing over there in like thirty seconds.

“Siri,” said Stephen, “define ‘boyfriend material.'”

“That depends on whose boyfriend you are,” said Siri smoothly.

Stephen wondered who had programmed its pronouns not to default to heterosexuality. Or maybe, here in one of the beating hearts of liberaldom, its AI had picked that up on its own.

It wasn’t fair. He had gotten the ability to hear Jon’s thoughts, and all it had really told him so far was that he had no idea what Jon wanted.

“Siri,” he tried again, over the lump in his throat, “find – ”

“You may be right!” sang Siri, in Billy Joel’s voice. “I may be crazy! Oh, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for!”

Stephen jabbed at the phone, cutting off the ringtone and answering the call. “H-Hello?”

“Stephen?” said Jon. “Hi – sorry, are you busy?”

“No, it’s fine,” stammered Stephen. “I’m hiding, so I have plenty of time to kill. What’s up?”

“Hiding,” echoed Jon. “Okay then. Uh, I was just going to ask, do you want to grab dinner tonight? Celebrate another year of shows, and what have you?”

In the seconds that followed Stephen felt his heart rate double. Why did this have to be the conversation they had when he was too far away for mind-reading, when he only heard what Jon wanted him to hear? “Where did you want to go? Is it fancy? You should know I don’t eat anywhere that lets men in the door without cufflinks.”

“I sort of didn’t have anywhere in mind,” said Jon sheepishly. “So I guess that could be up to you.”

“I know just the place!” said Stephen. He was babbling, spilling out words in double-time to keep from blurting questions like Is THIS a date? and Did you change your mind about me not being “boyfriend material”, or about me not being able to deal with casual sex? and Can this count as our third date, because I really, really want – “The food’s great, and they have a live piano playing while you eat, and this time of year they do everything up in Christmas decorations! I know you’ve got the whole Jew thing going on, but it’s still really, really pretty.”

“Sounds great. Where is it? Do we need reservations?”

“I’ll…ah…look up the address and text you,” stammered Stephen. “See you then!”

He cut off the call without waiting for Jon to say goodbye, and barked, “Siri! Find me a restaurant in town with four stars, a piano, and a Christmas theme. Then hack their reservation system to make sure they have an open table for two tonight at nine.”

The iPhone hummed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“May I take your coat?”

“Yeah, thanks. Uh, Colbert, party of two.”

“Your companion has already arrived, sir. Go right on in.”

Jon tried not to wince as he stepped into the dining hall. Stephen hadn’t been kidding about the decorations. Or the music – which was lovely, soft and jazzy and a perfect blend with the clink of forks and low murmur of conversation – but it was hard to appreciate while trying to sort through the greenredyellow deluge. How am I going to find Stephen in all this mess?

No sooner had he worried than a flash of motion off to the right caught his eye, resolving itself into a familiar figure weaving through the tables. Colbert to the rescue. Who would’ve thought it.

When they were a few arm’s-lengths short of side-by-side, Stephen paused to give his ensemble a nerve-wracking once-over. The clothes were drawn from a pile that had somehow ended up in the show’s wardrobe but didn’t fit the image they wanted to create for him on-air: a suit in dove grey over a charcoal button-down. (Jon only knew the colors’ technical names from reading the labels.) It looks decent, right? You’re not going to chew me out for not wearing a tie, are you?

…Is it just me, or are you blushing?

“Well, come on,” said Stephen briskly, turning on his heel before Jon could gauge the darkness of his cheeks. “The bread’s already served. I even got it unleavened, just for you.”

“That was…” …surprisingly… “…thoughtful of you, Stephen.” Maybe I should quit being surprised. This is why I decided to take a chance with him, isn’t it?

When they reached the table, Stephen pulled out his chair and nodded for him to sit down. It was still possible the man didn’t have anything romantic in mind, but it seemed unlikelier by the second.

And then Jon caught sight of the bread.

“Um,” he said, blinking several times. “Is that the…?”

Across from him, Stephen beamed.

“Because it looks like you just took normal dinner rolls and squished them.”

Stephen’s face fell. “…Is that not what ‘unleavened’ means?”

Jon started to giggle.

He tried his best to stifle it, but it was as if a dam had broken. Please don’t let him freak out, I’m not mocking him, it’s just…. Stephen’s wide-eyed earnestness, the poor squashed bread…Jon pressed his fist to his mouth, then let his whole head drop, shoulders shaking with barely-restrained mirth. You’re adorable. And there’s so much kindness in you, when you take the time to bring it out. His eyes were watering; his chest hurt from giggling. I think I might love you a little. Any second now, Stephen was going to start yelling. If only you knew….

At last he managed to stem the laughter, and wiped his eyes to find Stephen…broody. Not coldly furious, not sulking or ignoring him out of spite, but solemn-eyed and almost thoughtful.

“Are you okay now?” said Stephen, with a most un-Stephenish softness.

“Yeah. I’m…whew. I’m good.” Jon took a couple of deep breaths. “You’re not, uh, mad?”

Stephen cocked an eyebrow. “Should I be?”

“No! Not at all.” Jon fiddled with one of his cufflinks. “That said…there’s something we should talk about. Not a bad thing, okay?” At least, I hope not.

“In a minute.” Stephen shoved the drink menu at him, narrowly avoiding the candle in the table centerpiece. “I’ll be right back. Here, order yourself something swanky in the meantime.”

“Drinks in red are holiday-season exclusives!” Real helpful, guys….Cinnamon lime cocktail, seriously? Who in their right mind would….

Halfway across the parking garage, the echo of Jon’s mental voice faded away. Stephen stalked to the front entrance, pulled his coat tighter against the whipping wind, and tried to compose a text with rapidly freezing thumbs.

~*Stephen Freedom Colbert*~
9:14 PM
jon what is the thing people have that sounds like it should mean “against science” but is for some reason aligned with bleeding heart liberals?

JoHn Stewart
9:14 PM
? Do you mean conscience?

~*Stephen Freedom Colbert*~
9:14 PM
yes thats the one

~*Stephen Freedom Colbert*~
9:15 PM
my conscience has informed me that it would not be fair to you for me to finish this dinner. even though the roast duck here is supposed to be delicious. if you have any trouble with the menu you can just ask for that. when we see each other after the break you can tell me how it tasted.

The iPhone buzzed four times on the taxi ride away. It also burst into one chorus of “You may be right!” before Stephen put it on silent.

A warm fire roared behind the grille, lighting up the gold thread trim on the stockings hanging from the mantel. Stephen sprawled across the couch and considered tearing them down.

Normally a stay at his cabin cheered him up, especially when it was choked to the brim with tinsel and wrapping. This time, even the dueling fragrances of pine and nutmeg couldn’t get his mind away from the memory of Jon’s cologne. And if that sounded kind of gay, well…maybe it was.

Why did he have to develop a conscience in this, of all seasons?

He was finishing off a marathon run of wallowing in misery, and gearing up to dig into a really good stretch of self-pity, when a familiar not-voice faded in. …cold as balls out here, if he’s not there I’m going to break in and steal his quilts, are those lights? Are they? Hah! Good, because in five minutes my fingers are going to freeze off….

Stephen rolled over and sat up, heart racing, rubbing his cheek where the couch pattern had imprinted itself into his skin. How had Jon found him? Aside from always spending Christmas at the same cabin, and purchasing it half a mile up the road from Jon’s, he hadn’t left any clues! And it was too late to kill all the lights and pretend to be a life-size cardboard cutout of himself until his visitor went away.

In the absence of a better plan, he waited on the near side of the door until Jon was within a snowball’s throw of the diamond panes, then said, “You shouldn’t have come, Jon.”

“Stephen?” came Jon’s muffled reply. How did he…? “Listen, I know this is sudden, but you weren’t answering my calls. Can I come in? It’s freezing out here.”

“You can come in long enough to warm up,” allowed Stephen, wrenching the door open and ducking away from the blast of cold. Jon’s gloved hand hung in the air where the diamond pane had been. “But then you have to go. Got it?”

In stumbled Jon, brushing the dusting of frost from his hair and shoulders. “Stephen, would you just – ” Were we dating? Did it start friendly and turn into dating at some point? Were you interested and I moved too slowly? Were you just being nice and I came on too strong? “Talk to me. Please. I – ”

“I can read your mind, Jon!”

The door closed behind him with a thump. “What?” What?

“Since last month, I can hear your thoughts. I’ve been using it to take advantage of you, and I don’t want to do that any more.”

“Stephen, that’s ridiculous. At least be honest when you – ”

“You use Superman villains as your passwords,” interrupted Stephen, not letting himself turn around. “You have a major ear fetish, but for only human ears, which both Gipper and I appreciate. Why don’t you tell people that you’re colorblind?”

Both Jon’s voice and his mind went utterly silent.

Then his mind started up again, clear as a bell: Oh, God, he can hear everything. Don’t picture your penis, don’t picture your penis…Damn!

“I can’t see what you’re imagining,” added Stephen quickly. Another curse flew through Jon’s head; it was the first time Stephen had responded directly to his thoughts. “I get vague impressions sometimes, but mostly I just hear the words. And when I’m talking that drowns it out. Go sit down and defrost.” He pointed helpfully in the direction of the crackling flames. “I’ll keep my voice going as long as I can, but you have to leave when it gives out.”

Half a dozen snarky comments flashed through Jon’s head. Stephen ignored them all and started into the first verse of Deck The Halls.

Jon’s coat hung over his shoulders as he held his hands up to the fire.

(“Don we now our gay apparel,” sang Stephen in the background. Not belting it out like a caroler on a front lawn, just unspooling the notes to himself, soft and sweet.)

This particular coat was blue, which he knew because it had been a gift from someone who confirmed the hue. According to the tests, he could see what other people called blue just fine; the catch was that purple looked no different. Everything above bluepurple on the spectrum, from green on up, showed up as duller or brighter versions of the world’s other hue: brightest at yellow, darkest at red. Some tints of the latter reflected no light at all that his eyes could see.

(“See the blazing Yule before us….”)

By day he lived in grey shirts, ordered in bulk from catalogs that had individual order numbers for each dye; by night he donned whatever a paid wardrobe specialist threw over his door. Other people drove him everywhere, making it a moot point that he couldn’t always count on seeing stoplights. He didn’t design his own graphics, or make oil paintings in his spare time, or march in pride parades, or do anything that leaned on a working knowledge of the rainbow.

Being Jewish, being short, being gay, being single: there were so many things he mined aggressively for punch lines, pushing his realities forward before anyone could take them as weaknesses. Being protanopic could have fallen into the same category, but he had only had the energy to defend so many things, and this one had been the easiest to let slip into secrecy.

(“Fast away the old year passes….”)

And Stephen, whose rhetorical claws had once latched onto every other point on that list, had yet to so much as rib him about it. Even his usual insults, now that Jon thought about it, hadn’t had any real malice behind them for some time. He wondered when things had changed.

To be fair, that question kind of came in second to the whole issue of how his friend had landed mind-reading powers in the first place.

“Stephen?” said Jon, interrupting a line of fa la la’s. “This ability you have. Can you hear everyone’s thoughts, or just mine?”

“Only yours. I’m sorry for that. Fa la la la la, la la la la,” sang Stephen.

“Where did it come from, exactly?”

“I don’t know! I think my iPhone. Fa la la la la, la la la la.”

“Seriously? How did that happen?”

“Well, some time last month I asked it – ” Stephen broke from the tune, looking up from the (closed) piano where he sat. “Remember the day I hit my head? Right before that I asked Siri how I could tell what you really thought of me. And then the faucet was broken, and it got water on it, and I got shocked, and when I woke up I could hear you worrying about me, even when you weren’t doing it out loud.”

Lousy dubbing, remembered Jon. And then, In romantic comedies, when this sort of thing happens, it gets better after the protagonist learns the lesson he was clearly begging for when it began. “Why did you ask Siri that in the first place? Can you tell me?”

“I wanted to know if you secretly hated me,” blurted Stephen.

Taken aback, Jon could only stare. Hate you? You have some issues, sure, and I don’t always agree with you, but I could never….

“Sure, I know that now!” exclaimed Stephen. His eyes widened in horror, and he turned away. “Fa la la la la, la la la la….”

So much for expecting real life to work like a romcom. “Where’s your phone now?” yelled Jon over the chorus.

Stephen pointed to the front closet and sang louder.

When he ran out of verses, both real ones and ones invented on the spot, Stephen traded fa la la’s for pa-rum-pa-pum-pum’s while Jon rifled through his coat pockets.

The iPhone was in the pocket of a tailored burgundy coat that Stephen thought was sleek and eye-catching and Jon probably thought looked like mud. Stephen quashed the natural urge to order him not to break the gadget, or get fingerprints on it, or breathe too hard in its direction, while Jon scrolled through the apps.

“I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pa-pum-pum,” Stephen sang, which kept him from hearing whatever reaction made Jon’s hand pause and eyes go wide. “That’s fit to give our king – ”

Jon held up the phone. Even at this distance Stephen could see the icon that didn’t belong: an electric-blue tangle, its colors pulsing slightly, glowing and twirling and barely contained by its little box in the grid, or even the screen itself.

Mouth going dry, Stephen gestured for him to investigate.

He was trying vainly to keep up the carol when Jon spoke. “It has one option. A toggle between two positions.”

How had Stephen managed to miss this? “Turn it off!” he exclaimed.

“I can’t. The positions are On and, um….” Reverse.

“I heard that,” Stephen informed him. “So if you wanted to toggle it and pretend it was an off switch, you missed your chance.”

“Stephen, I wouldn’t!” I already know these last few weeks were fake; I don’t need telepathic confirmation. Besides, you did this by accident…I think. It would be horrible to make you feel this vulnerable on purpose.

Stephen straightened his back, squared his shoulders, and tilted his head into its most heroic angle. “You should,” he said, with all the conviction he knew how to fake.


“You don’t know what to trust right now, right? It wasn’t all fake, I swear, but there’s no point in telling you the truth – ” That I admire you now more than ever, that Gipper and I both want to cuddle with you more often, that I maybe love you a little too. ” – unless you have some way of knowing when I mean it. Do it, Jon. Flip the switch.”

Makes sense, thought Jon, and touched the screen before he could ponder it any further.

Sparking a brilliant blue, the phone zapped him. Jon cursed and grabbed his hand while the gadget clattered to the floor. Forgetting all else, Stephen flew to his side.

Jon turned his still-stinging hand over, checking for damage. Stephen pounded across the hardwood, nearly kicking the iPhone in his haste.

Then he grabbed Jon’s hand between his own, and the world changed.

“Are you okay?” panted Stephen. “Are you hurt? At least you didn’t get knocked on the head. I came back from that just fine, but you might not – liberal heads aren’t nearly as hard. I didn’t know it was going to do that, I promise!”

Their eyes met: Stephen’s appearing black, as always, and fathoms deep.

“I don’t want you to get hurt ever again,” said Stephen fervently. “I won’t ask you to any more restaurants that are done up in red and green. I can redesign my whole house if you like, so it’s in colors you don’t have to be afraid of tripping over! I like doing what you want. I like it when you’re happy. If that involves playing with my ears, say the word and you can do it for hours on end. All I want for Christmas is you! Or Hanukkah; I’m not picky. Unless you’re too good to be a Hanukkah gift, which you probably are – you’re probably too good for me, but if you still think you could love me even a tiny bit, then please – Jon, you can tell that I mean this, right?”

Jon swallowed. “Stephen? Look at my hand again.”

Stephen’s head snapped down. “Where does it hurt?”

It didn’t. Jon still couldn’t hear Stephen’s racing thoughts, either. But something of Stephen’s mind was undoubtedly flowing into his.

“Huh,” he said, voice weak as he stared at his palm. “So that’s what pink looks like.”

Mouse over illustrations to switch between Stephen’s view and Jon’s. Credit: Color Blindness Simulator

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