Title: What We Do Instead
Pairing: Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert
Rating: R
Word Count: 4700
Warnings: unbetaed; please tell me if I have inadvertently done something terrible and/or grammatically incorrect
Summary: As of his junior year, Jon spends most of his weekends hanging around abandoned classrooms with nothing stronger than the occasional bottle of wine on the table. Stephen gets that, even if he doesn't know why. College AU
Notes: The first of many flashbacks.
Disclaimer: All television shows, movies, books, and other copyrighted material referred to in this work, and the characters, settings, and events thereof, are the properties of their respective owners. As this work is an interpretation of the original material and not for-profit, it constitutes fair use. Reference to real persons, places, or events are made in a fictional context, and are not intended to be libelous, defamatory, or in any way factual.

Chapter 1



In every group of friends, there's somebody who's never really around. Somebody who, in the college context, shows up to the table at the same time as everybody else for meals and is always on the list when you count off your friends but will leave dinner a little early or have work on the weekend or be too tired in the evenings or simply won't pick up the damn phone when the time comes for everyone to get together to go out.

Jon is that friend.

Or he was.

Then came Rachel.

The first Thursday in March – five months after Rachel lost interest in participating in school politics – five months after the last time Rachel got really drunk – five months after Jon said, “You owe me a favor, dammit, and I'm collecting” - there was no food in the cafeteria.

Or, rather, there was, but -

“Oh my god.”

“Holy shit.”

“Dude, is that - ?”

Jon reached out and plucked the object – a rough triangle, maybe two inches square – from John's disbelieving fingers. Silence fell as he held it up to the light, making a slow and thorough investigation.

“Rach, have a look at this,” he said. She was already leaning in.

“Hm,” she said.

“Interesting.”

“Very interesting.”

“Not so much - ”

“No, of course not. Just - ”

“Where is was found.”

“Right.”

“Oh, god,” John said dropped his face down his arms, tightly folded on the table. “Jon, what did I just almost eat?”

“John,” he replied. “I believe that's Plexiglass.” Over John's tormented moan, he added, “Rachel?”

She took it and held it up in turn.

“Definitely Plexiglass, Jon.”

“Tasty!” Sam opined.

John repeated, “Oh, god.”

“Well,” Jason said. “I think we're all in agreement.”

“Oh, yeah!” Sam punched the air. “IHOP, motherfucker!”

It was the kind of outing that Jon might not have gone along with six months ago, definitely wouldn't have gone along with after the kind of day he'd had – the kind of week. Six hours of sleep in sixty, too much coffee and too many cigarettes – a paper, a test, a pop quiz for Koppel. He was at the stage of exhaustion that passed by tired into physical pain and he wouldn't even have been at dinner if he hadn't had Poli Sci with Rachel right before. Rachel, who he couldn't just walk away from.

Even if she didn't talk about it, Jon knew she was still hurting. Jon knew she needed this. She needed normal and normal was an impromptu trip to IHOP with her friends and she needed Jon there with her because somewhere between the club and the car and the day he came to lunch to find her there with Sam and six open chairs and he took the one right beside her – somewhere along the way, between that day in the Attic and the promises Jon made, he had become her best friend. And she was his best friend, now, and more than that, she deserved normal and she deserved to feel safe in pursuit of normal. Somehow, Jon made her feel safe.

Jon had been and has been going without sleep for a lot of years. One dinner out wasn't going to kill him.

They took Sam's car. Boyfriend privilege got Jason shotgun so Jon ended up, inevitably, smushed in between John and Rachel in the back. Between the awkwardness inherent in making it from the middle back seat to the street and his own exhaustion, Jon tripped on his way out and, reeling, it took him a few long moments to realize it was actually Amy Sedaris, freshly emerged from the car across the empty space beside them, who had caught him.

It's a well-known fact that when given the opportunity to form a large and potentially unruly swarm in the public place, it is the right – nay it is the duty of all eighteen-to-twenty-five-year-olds to do so. Particularly in America. You can see where this is going.

They got a corner booth, a proper one with a wrap-around bench, and Stephen got shoved in the middle nook between Jon and Amy. Jon was pushed up closer to him when Sam squeezed in on the other side of Rachel, leaving John and Jason to pull up chairs while Paul took Amy's left. Jon noted this wasn't the ideal arrangement for Stephen's bad ear but decided, in the blurry fashion of the overtired made suddenly warm, that that was okay because it would mostly be a problem for him and he didn't have much to say.

He remembers few specifics of what happened after that. He had started crashing in the car and the heat and support of bodies on either side of him – bodies of people he really liked – did nothing to keep him alert and he can recall being aware of this but thinking it was kind of nice. He was with his friends, after all. With his best friend and he hadn't had one of those in a while. And with his close friends and with the the first and only guy he'd been into since (that thing he doesn't think about) and he was next to Stephen and Rachel and Rachel was smiling and that was good. He remembers thinking that, those very words. This is a good thing. And, very vaguely, he remembers Amy goading John into a histrionic reenactment of the Plexiglass discovery and wondering if he was going to need to chime in and then – and then he remembers waking up.

He is assured that there was at least the illusion of consciousness for a few minutes after and there are impressions that probably come from that span of time, that but the next thing he can place chronologically is waking up.

Shifting and scooting sounds and a fading murmur and he heard Stephen saying, “Seems like a shame.” He was close, his breath ruffling Jon's hair, and Jon was sort of confused but very comfortable and Stephen was using a warm, quiet voice he'd never heard but hoped very much to get to know.

“Yeah,” said Rachel, also close, almost as close as Stephen. Jon thought they were talking over his head which made sense for reasons he couldn't quite remember. Thinking this, he missed the middle of what Rachel said. “ - until Monday or something.”

He felt her take his hand in both of hers, like he had that night at the club.

“This is a chronic problem?” Stephen said. Jon felt fingers – must've been Stephen's, because Rachel's were still holding his – he felt fingers brush through his hair and that was – beyond nice. He kind of melted and heard Rachel's quiet laugh.

“You could say that,” she said. “Didn't - ?”

A slight pause in which one of her hands drifted away and returned. Gesturing.

“It came up once or twice,” he said. “I didn't realize it was quite this – dramatic.”

“It happens.”

Another brief pause. Jon, who thought about either one of these two people more than any other single subject (aside from his narcissistic fascination with his own failings, of course) had sort of forgotten he existed, more interested in how they interacted in what he thought might be their first one-on-one conversation. It pleased him, on an unconscious level, that they were getting along.

Stephen, suddenly amused, said, “So, Rachel. How embarrassed is he going to be when he wakes up?”

What?

Rachel burst out laughing.

“Why do you think I had everyone else leave?”



Humiliation aside, that's one of the better evenings Jon can remember spending. Especially post-that-thing, post-Rachel, post-everything-that-ever-made-him-think-he'd-never-be-happy-again. The thing with John and Plexiglass really had been funny in a holy-fuck-not-cool kind of way and he liked being with his friends and he got to fall asleep on Stephen. (If he concentrated, he thought he could remember beginning to list and then a shift of weight next to him followed by the heaviness of Stephen's arm, casually affectionate, around his shoulders, a warmth he was far enough gone to slip closer to, to put his head on Stephen's shoulder and he was gone before the first joke could snap him out of it.)

And even aside from the 'on Stephen' part, there was something nice in the idea. They got to IHOP around seven-thirty and if he's charitable it was fifteen minutes before he fell asleep. The clock in the car glowed nine-sixteen when they left, again, and however you spin it that means he slept for something like an hour, pressed up to a person, surrounded by people, and nothing and no one woke him up. Their friends weren't – aren't – restrained people by nature. It feels egotistical to even think, but his logic brain knows how unlikely it is he could have gone undisturbed if they weren't making an effort. (Rachel even said it, much later: “Jon Stewart sleeping! It's a miracle! We tried not to screw up your miracle.”) He likes that thought, that they tried not to wake him, the seven of them at the table, all born performers with a receptive audience in one another, and is still touched that Rachel remembered his usual order and got it to go.

But all of that was comfort on reflection, retrospective salve for the physical ache of embarrassment over his public lapse. In the moment, he went from bliss to mortification in the time it took the right synapse to fire, every muscle in his body tensed for flight. He'd turned himself around, head back against Stephen's chest, and he would have wrenched himself up and away, possibly to Budapest, if Stephen hadn't anticipated him by that crucial half-instant. His eyes opened and he jerked forward but there were suddenly arms tight around his waist and chest, restraining him as Stephen laughed out a “Hey! It lives!”

He could see Rachel, now, facing them, half-kneeling on the bench, eyes shining, mouth failing to repress a smile, and even in his panic this somehow registered, far in the back of his brain, as a Good Thing.

Shaken, he twisted, trying to get a look at Stephen, who refused to loosen his hold.

“Fuck!” he said. “Shit, dude, I'm sorry, I - ”

“Jon!” Rachel said, cheerfully. “Good morning!”

“Oh, god.” He gave up struggling and buried his face in his hands. “Fuck, man, I'm sorry, did I really – shit!”

Possibly on random impulse, possibly to shut him up, Rachel chose that moment to break her moratorium on public displays of affection and pounced. How the hell you pounce from less than a foot away in a restaurant booth is a question worth asking but Rachel did it and in the next moment Jon's breath was gone, crushed out between her and Stephen, who gave a delighted gasp and released Jon to include her in his embrace, pulling them both in tight.

“Group hug!” he said, and he sounded so damn happy Jon choked on unexpected laughter.

Thus encouraged, Rachel managed to hook an arm over Stephen's shoulder even as her other hand closed on the crook of Jon's neck.

“Yay!” she cheered, softly, then tucked her mouth close to Jon's ear.

“We're keeping him,” she hissed, too quick and quiet for Stephen to have heard her over his own and Jon's continuing giggles. It set Jon off, again, triggering a fresh outburst from Rachel and for a few moments they remained there, piled like puppies, laughing hysterically at not much of anything and, even as his face burned, Jon was aware it was the best he'd felt in a long time.

“Where is everyone?” Jon asked as Rachel hauled him up out of the booth. Once they'd calmed and decided to stop disrupting business, Stephen's hands had come to a rest on his waist and there they remained until he was out of reach. Absurdly, Jon missed them. “Watching me snore not entertainment enough for them?”

Rachel smiled. Before Jon could step away, Stephen had slid out behind him and plastered himself abruptly against Jon's back, clasping his upper arms.

“Can't blame them,” he said, against Jon's temple. His leer was audible. “There are so many more interesting things you could be doing with your mouth.”

Rachel choked and turned red. It was never not adorable and Jon pressed a hand to his mouth, failing to hold back giggles.

“Rachel!” he said. “Did you tell him? You said that was our secret!”

“Oh god!” she laughed. “I'm sorry, Jon! He's just so – cute and trustworthy! Could you say no to that?”

Jon turned to Stephen and found him looking back, smiling like he had that night in the library, the first time they met. Beautiful, but there was something more to it, now. Something warmer and closer. This was how Stephen smiled at people he knew well enough to like. Flushing, again, Jon ducked his head and looked back at Rachel.

I'm not a lesbian!” he said.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Rachel asked as Stephen was saying, “Thank God!”

Jon looked between them as they looked at each other and was suddenly aware that Stephen was still holding onto him, fingers hooked gently around his bent elbows, and Rachel was still holding his hand. It did not occur to him at the time that they were involved in a property dispute but it really should have.

Stephen smirked.

“I'm irresistible,” he said.

Laughing, again, Rachel shook her head.

“Come on,” she said, and tugged once on his hand before letting go. At the same time, Stephen's hands slid from his arms. “We've disrupted these people's dinners for long enough.”

Suddenly aware that they were in public, Jon glanced around. Three tables occupied: five tired-looking men in loosened ties; a family of four in a booth; and, close by, two elderly women. The other tables were ignoring them but these last were watching with avid, amused interest.

“That's quite all right,” one of them said.

The other added, “Nothing like seeing our fellow man enjoying themselves. You have a nice night.”

“Thanks?” Jon said, bewildered, as Rachel said, “You, too.”

Stephen covered for their lack for enthusiasm.

“Very glad to have brightened up your evening, some, ladies. You enjoy the rest of it for us, now!”

Jon was pretty sure Stephen managed a bow. As they followed Rachel to the counter, he flung an arm around Jon's shoulders. Jon glanced up at him and discovered a level of self-satisfaction that would have been off-putting on anybody else. But maybe Stephen had a point. Maybe he was irresistible.

Which reminded him.

“Thank god?” he asked in an undertone.

“Hm?” Stephen looked back at him, smirk softening into something that sent a flutter of warmth up behind Jon's sternum.

“You thanked god I'm not a lesbian,” he said.

“Oh, that.” They came to a stop in front of the counter and stood back as Rachel settled her bill. Stephen grinned and leaned into Jon.

“If you were a lesbian,” he said, “it would be that much harder for me to get into your pants.” Jon laughed. Stephen persisted. “And seeing as getting into your pants has been the sole motivating force behind my every action since I saw you bend over in the library, that time - ” Jon laughed harder. Stephen threw up his arms and, in a very credible impersonation of a Southern revival preacher, announced, “Praise the Lord!”

As Stephen paid, they explained the others had all gone in Sam's car. It was Rachel's suggestion – or decree, in Stephen's words, prompting her to aim a half-hearted swipe at his elbow. She had stayed as Jon's designated Best Friend-Type Person and Stephen as the the person Jon was on top of. Also as the other person with a car on the premises. Which all worked out rather well.

An argument, of sorts, erupted at the door when Rachel put a styrofoam carryout box in Jon's hands.

“Rachel - ” he began.

“It's just dinner, Jon,” she said. “I'm not expecting you to put out.”

Stephen held the door for them. He didn't comment but Jon thought he caught a flash of a smile on his face.

“I'll pay you back,” Jon said.

Rachel scowled.

“You'll do no such thing,” she said. “I owe you a favor.”

“What?” He nearly stopped in his tracks but neither Rachel nor Stephen, now several paces ahead, slowed. “You do not,” he said, stumbling slightly to keep up. “How do you owe me a favor?”

“Sophomore Intro to Statistics,” she said.

Jon did stop. This time Rachel did, too.

“Rach,” he said. There was nowhere to go with it.

“Jon,” she said.

There was a weird impassivity in her voice that broke Jon's heart; instinct took over. He stepped in closer and took her hand. She laced them together and squeezed. For a long moment, they both looked, wordless, down at where their fingers entwined. Stephen had opened his car and was ever-so-casually clearing imaginary junk from the seats.

“Thanks,” Jon said at last.

He looked up through his eyelashes and managed something almost like a smile. Rachel returned it.

“No problem,” she said. She tightened her hand around his and let go. As they covered the last few yards to the car, she said, “I got that bacon thing you like. It shouldn't be too revolting reheated.”

Stephen turned from where he'd been leaned over the front seat. The part of Jon that would still be noticing Stephen's ass at his own funeral felt that this was a shame. But it meant Stephen was looking at them, now, with a new smile, something slow and almost shy Jon had never seen before and it made his heart shudder and melt. So on balance, that was okay.

He smiled back and, reassured, Stephen said, “Bacon, Jon? For shame!”

It was the same teasing but with likewise softened corners. There was yet an edge of fragility to the border around Jon and Rachel; they were progressing but hadn't quite made it, yet.

Jon went for the back seat, leaving Rachel shotgun. She needed more legroom and would point it out if he didn't defer.

“I'll repent,” he said, sliding in, and waited for Stephen to get into the driver's seat to continue. “I'll repent right after you tell your priest all those lustful thoughts you've been having about me.”

Rachel choked, again, and buried her face in her hands. Ostensibly to check behind as he backed out of the space, Stephen twisted around in his seat. He and Jon grinned at each other.

“And share your hotness with a man of the cloth?” Stephen asked, scandalized for as long as it took his brows to furrow. “Actually, he'd probably appreciate that. No way,” he concluded and actually began to reverse. “I'm keeping fantasy-you to myself.”

Jon thought Rachel might actually be dying.

“Can I take that to mean you'd be perfectly fine with real-me whoring it up with the clergy?” he asked.

Stephen stopped at the parking lot exit and shot Jon a filthy smile over his shoulder.

“If I haven't sampled the goods yet,” he said, “how am I supposed to know if I'm willing to share?”

“You know,” Jon said as he pulled out, speaking slowly and enjoying Rachel's strangled giggles, “you say shit like that. But I see you all the time and I gotta tell you – Can't help but notice you haven't ripped my clothes off once. I'm starting to think you're not serious.”

Jon saw him cast a glance at Rachel's still-shaking shoulders and smiled. This was why he liked Stephen. He was hot and he was funny and he was brilliant, yes, of course he was, and of course Jon liked that, too. But mostly it was this. Mostly it was that Stephen got it. On that night, Jon had no idea how much, if anything, he knew about what had happened in the fall but he also had the sense it didn't matter. Whether he knew the details or not, Stephen got that shit had gone down, that shit was still going down, at least in their heads, and he got that this, right now, this flirtation wasn't so much about them as it was about Rachel. He got that there might not have been anybody in the entire world who needed a laugh quite as bad as she did. He got that without question or explanation and then – and this was what Jon more than liked about him – then he delivered.

“Serious?” he said. “You doubt me? Get up here and I'll show you serious!”

He was taking the highway back towards campus and Jon could see the speedometer, pushing up to sixty-seven. Jon could also see Rachel, staring at Stephen with something close to genuine horror in her face.

“Okay!” Jon said and unbuckled his seatbelt as loudly as possible. Rachel turned in an instant and shoved him back as soon as he leaned forward.

“Hey!” she said. “None of that!”

“But Rachel!” he protested. “Stephen challenged me!”

“Yeah, Rachel!” said Stephen. “I challenged him!”

“I don't care,” she replied, striving to keep a straight face. “Put your seatbelt on,” she told Jon, then looked at Stephen. “As for you – if you really have to goad Jon can you do it sometime I'm not in the car? I love him but there are things about him I don't want to know.”

“I'm a bottom!” Jon lied, cheerfully.

“Are you really?” Stephen asked.

Jon didn't think he sounded hopeful or disappointed – just curious. He wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not.

“No,” he said.

“Are you finished?” Rachel asked.

Jon repeated “No” just as Stephen proclaimed, “Never!” He giggled and fastened his seatbelt.

“For now,” he amended.

“Thank you,” she said.

Thoughtfully, Stephen said, “Hey, Jon. I have the urge to say you're no fun. But, seeing as that would open the door to innuendo of a quantity and quality we could not in good conscious ignore, and since we do have Rachel's comfort and personal safety to consider, I think I'll refrain. Is that okay?”

“Unstated premise,” Jon said. “Vocalization of said innuendo would be detrimental to Rachel's comfort and personal safety. Fully explicated, this would likely be the conclusion of a subargument ultimately supporting your main conclusion, but we'll let it stand. I think you've got a valid argument, my friend.”

Stephen gave a quiet laugh.

“Sometimes I forget you're a philosophy major.”

“Clearly you don't spend enough time with him,” Rachel said.

“Is that a – thing I can't respond to without further innuendo. Foiled!”

“Sorry, Stephen.” She didn't sound sorry at all. “Look, do me a favor, okay? If you ever get around to doing whatever it is you keep claiming you're going to do to Jon, try and get him back to me in one piece. I'm still using him.”

As if unable to stop himself, Stephen said, “Kinky.”

Rachel laughed.

“Not remotely.”

“She makes me get her coffee,” Jon said, sadly.

“I stand by my original evaluation,” Stephen replied, “and hope you will bring the same skills to bear once I've completed negotiations for your custody.”

Jon looked between them.

“Does this not count as innuendo?” he asked.

“Of course not,” said Rachel.

Stephen added, “This is business.”

“I can't believe you're whoring me out.”

Rachel shrugged.

“He's irresistible, Jon. I didn't think you'd mind.”

“That - ” Jon stopped. “That – is not the point at all.”

Once they were done laughing at him, Jon thought to ask, “Are we going back to campus?”

“Yes?” Stephen said. “Did you need to go somewhere else?”

“No.” Jon shook his head though no one could see him and looked out at the darkened silhouettes of trees, failing to block out the lights of distant plazas. “Just wondering what was happening.” Which was as close as he could come to asking if there were plans to meet up with the others or do something else or if he would be going off alone, when they got back, to not-sleep as solitude leached the lingering warmth of their affection from his skin. You can't just say things like to that people – begging to not be left alone is never, ever cool.

“If you were plotting against me in my vulnerability,” he added.

“Of course!” Rachel said.

“That's a given,” Stephen agreed.

“Okay. Good. I'll guard against it accordingly.”

Still contemplating his prospective (not really) abandonment, trying to remember if the fan was on in his room and how cold he could expect it to be, his phone buzzed in his pocket. Text from John. He looked up to see if Rachel had gotten it too, but no. Just him. He felt special. Smirking, he slid the phone open and checked to see what John had to say. And then he burst out laughing.

“What?”

“Jon?”

When he looked up, Rachel had half-turned in her seat. Wordless, he passed her the phone, still giggling. She looked it over and gave a huff of amusement.

Stephen said, “Don't mind me, I'm just the guy driving your ungrateful asses home.”

Rachel giggled and read aloud.

“From Oliver,” she said. “Caps lock – HALP ABDUC. Lowercase – sorry jon borrowing this bbs love amy.”

Stephen laughed. At the same moment, his phone lit up in the cup holder.

“Yours,” she said.

“Check it for me? Bet it's Amy.”

“It is,” Rachel announced. “Want me to read it?”

“Please.”

She opened his phone – Jon found it irrationally endearing he still had a little flip phone – and he could see her grin reflected in the dim glow.

“Says she and Paul are test-driving a new pretty geek with glasses and an accent. Don't wait up.” She looked over at him. “You've been holding out on us.”

Stephen slipped into the South, again, more Scarlett O'Hara than Jim Baker.

“That is slander, Miss Rachel!”

Jon doubled over, shoving a fist up to his mouth to stem the tide of giggles. In front, he could see Rachel doing much the same.

“Hey!” she said, recovering suddenly. “Your friends stole our pet Brit!”

“Slut,” Stephen replied. It sounded like agreement.

“Amy or Oliver?” Jon asked.

“Both,” he said. “Guess you'll have to make due with me.”

Rachel turned around, again, to exchange a look with Jon.

“Hmm,” she said. “I guess we could do that.”

Jon shrugged. “I'm biased,” he said. “I'm after his ass. Your call, dude.”

Rachel bit back a smile.

“Well, in that case. What do we do with him?”

“Something John won't do?”

“That must be a short list,” Stephen observed. “I think I'm nervous.”

They ignored him.

“We could watch Mary Poppins,” Jon said, “and praise Dick Van Dyke's performance.”

“Or Kevin Costner as Robin Hood,” Rachel replied.

“John threatened to deball him,” Jon said, for Stephen's benefit. “Austin Powers?”

“Maybe,” Rachel said. “We could do that. Or.”

She grinned. Jon blinked then grinned back.

“Or,” he said.

They cracked up.

“Good Lord,” Stephen said. “Are we seriously watching Harry Potter?”



Chapter 3
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