The founding of the Super Suicide Society had made Phineas more energetic than ever; by the time I finally fell into bed, the lights long since out across the dormitories, I knew it would be some time before he stopped talking about it.
But, naturally, Finny would never deign to be that predictable. In the middle of listing the boys who would be our first initiates, tomorrow night, he executed one of those famous conversational u-turns.
"Say," he said, "you remember you were telling me that I looked like a fairy?"
"I guess," I admitted, reluctantly.
"Why would you say that, then?" he asked, with genuine curiosity.
"It was just that shirt," I protested. "You know. The color of it."
"And nothing else?" Phineas pressed.
I was not in the mood for this. What was I meant to say? So I retreated to humor, as I often did. "If you were wearing the shirt and nothing else in public, you shouldn't be surprised to be accused of all manner of indecency," I replied, hoping it would lay the conversation to rest.
"Is it really all that indecent?"
"That shirt? I'm afraid it is pretty offensive, yes; I don't think anyone else in the school could have survived the day in it."
"No, Gene," sighed Phineas. He propped himself up on one arm to look over at me, maybe hoping I would get lost again in those green orbs and somehow magically divine what he was on about. He just took it for granted that I would be looking in his direction, even though he had been in his customary position on his back staring up at the ceiling.
Of course, I knew exactly what he was on about, but I wasn't going to say it. Not only was there the tiny but devastating possibility that I was wrong, that his wild mind had gone on some other tangent entirely, and this time I would be plunging to the bank without an arm to catch me - even if I was right, I wanted him to be the first to say it.
"What?" I asked, the very picture of aggrieved innocence.
"Don't be a dope, Gene," Phineas warned me. "You know what I'm talking about."
The situation was getting ever harder to salvage. I yawned conspicuously. "I'm really sleepy," I complained. "Can't we talk about this in the morning?"
"Will we talk about this in the morning?" he asked, gently.
"No," I admitted. "No, we won't. And I think I might like it like that."
"If you're sure," he said, with that tiny shadow of disappointment in his eyes that he knew I would not be able to withstand.
"Ugh," I replied, defeated. "Okay. We'll talk about it. But you've got to start."
"Never backed away from anything in your life?" Finny teased.
"Never backed onto anything in my life, either," I muttered darkly.
His sparkling eyes danced with merriment at my retort. "There, I knew you had it in you. Or, as you're about to say, haven't had it in you, either?"
It was no good; I couldn't stay hidden behind the bunk-slats after that. I propped myself up on my arm, too, to get a better look at him.
"Why, have you?" I dared him. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I dearly wished to take them back; I was beginning to realise, in a place that dared not rise up into my conscious thought, how desperately I did not want the answer to be yes.
"Well, no," admitted Phineas, airily. "I mean, not anyone else's, anyway," he casually amended.
I couldn't help it. My eyes scrunched up in the act of imagining what he was describing. "It wouldn't reach," I complained. "Not even yours."
"I meant fingers, you nutcase," he retorted. "I mean, really?" he continued, looking somewhat confused - and more nervous than I ever remember seeing him. "Really, you haven't? I mean - I thought - doesn't everyone?"
"Isn't that…" I stopped, because I didn't know where I was going. Dirty? Since when had we cared about a little dirt? Disgusting? Well, so was the more conventional sort of masturbation, if you thought about it, but certainly every boy of our age indulged in that from time to time. Sinful? Again, the chapel-masters would be suitably scathing about the Sin of Onan however we chose to prosecute it, never minding that certainly the unmarried among them must do precisely the same thing on occasion.
"I know," replied Phineas, thoughtfully. "I think that must be some of the attraction of it, to be perfectly honest. That and the logistics of it, of course. It's easier in a nice warm bath, but here we've just got showers and even those are communal."
"Phineas," I said, and to his credit he did stop talking, to hear me use his full name like that. "Are you expecting me - to be some kind of lookout - in order to carry out your sexual deviancy?"
Phineas looked slightly hurt at that remark, and I wished I could have taken it back.
"I was hoping…" he began, and he gave me such a searching look, as if he was really uncertain over whether to proceed - as if he was trying to see inside my mind to anticipate how I would take his next suggestion without having to actually utter the words.
"...that I might want to join in?" I finished for him, unable to take the depths of honest seeking in those eyes, which almost seemed to be glowing in the moonlit darkness.
"Yes," admitted Phineas, his eyelashes briefly shielding me from his gaze. "Yes. That's… that's what I was trying to get at. I mean. If you."
I savored the moment briefly; I was certain it was the only time I would ever find Phineas lost for words. Even after I was finished savouring, though, I found that I did not know what to say. The silence stretched on and I was afraid the moment would become even more awkward than it already was. So, like I have always done, I played for time.
"I'm tired, Finny," I complained. "I don't want to think about this now. I don't mind you talking about it, but just… go to sleep."
I collapsed back down into my usual sidelong position, watching his next move carefully through the slats. He remained upright for a few moments, gazing at me in a slightly admiring, slightly wistful sort of manner, and then also subsided.