The smell of chlorine sticks in Ben's nose, acidy and sharp, all the way home. It clings to his clothes, it won't come off his skin even after he takes a shower, it lingers when he goes to bed.
His hand drifts underneath the covers and into his boxers, and he brings himself off to the memory of Johnny's lips brushing against the corner of his mouth, the sight of Johnny stretched out on the cool tiles next to the pool, the salty taste of his water-slick skin.
He turns his head and squeezes his eyes shut, letting the pillow muffle Johnny's name when he comes.
Her hand on his arm is gentle, but he still jumps at the touch, belying his hasty reassurances. "Yeah, sure, I'm fine." He smiles an unsteady smile and hopes that she'll let it go.
He's been waiting for the other shoe to drop all day. For the whispers, the stares, the snickering. So you're a fag, Berger. Should have known. But there's nothing. No one's looking at him any different than they used to. No one's looking at him, period. Same as yesterday, same as last week, like he's invisible.
"Did Johnny say something?" he can't help asking Alexa, even though he knows he should keep his mouth shut.
She gives him an odd look. "About what? Did something happen last night?" Ben's pulse starts racing, but then she adds, with concern radiating off her, "Your nose... Were you guys fighting? Did he hit you?"
Ben shakes his head. "No. I told you, I hit my head on the ledge. It wasn't his fault."
He can tell that Alexa doesn't believe him.
At the other end of the corridor, Johnny steps out from one of the classrooms, surrounded by some of the other guys from the lacrosse team. Their conversation, boisterous and crude, carries over, and Alexa turns to look at them.
"Hey Alexa," Johnny says as he passes them, a cocky smile on his lips that's nothing like the wry, private one he gave Ben last night.
He saunters past them on his way to French (and really, it's pathetic that Ben has memorized Johnny's schedule when they barely share any classes, pathetic and stupid), and doesn't acknowledge Ben's presence at all. The dual feeling of relief and disappointment hits Ben like a fist in the stomach, each warring with the other, and Ben can't tell which one wins out in the end.
At least Johnny's keeping quiet about what happened.
He'd better, Ben thinks with a viciousness he doesn't quite feel. He can still taste the phantom touch of Johnny's lips ghosting against his cheek, his mouth. There are things about him I could tell, too.
But who'd listen to him? No one would believe him.
Sometimes, he wonders if it really happened or if he dreamed it all up. Maybe he really hit his head in the pool. Maybe all they did was run lines and drink and trash-talk each other.
A nasty smile curls Johnny's lips as he takes a step towards Alexa, up on the stage – but when he speaks the line, his eyes are raised towards the spotlights where Ben is standing.
It's just a moment, then his focus returns to where it belongs, but it's enough for Ben to feel the clench of fear and want churning in his gut, mirroring Blanche's reaction to the way Stanley's words toe the line between threat and dark promise.
Ben swallows. The spotlight almost slips from his grip, and his hand clenches on the handles so tightly that his knuckles start to ache.
During curtain calls, Johnny looks up again. The blinding glare of light should make it impossible for him to see Ben, but his lips twitch into a knowing smile that sends a hot flush to Ben's cheeks.
He wants Johnny and he hates him and he wants him and hates him, and he can't tell anymore where one stops and the other begins.
Alexa's parents have dragged her home almost an hour ago, offering to give Ben a ride. He doesn't know why he insisted on staying; it's not like he's got any friends around to spend time with.
He didn't expect anyone to track him down here, and he startles when Johnny's voice cuts through the dull thuds of music reaching them from the other room.
"Hey, light boy..." He sounds amused, like everything's a fucking joke to him.
"I have a name," Ben snaps.
Johnny laughs, and his voice drips condescension. "Aw, look at that, the kitten's got claws."
Embarrassment finally lets loose the anger that he's been hiding away for too long, and Ben puts his hand against Johnny's chest and gives him a shove. And then another and another and one more, watching with satisfaction as Johnny stumbles backwards until he hits a wall.
It's only then, once they've come to a halt, that Ben realizes that Johnny hasn't fought back, didn't do anything to stop Ben from pushing him. Even now, he makes no move to get away, even though it should be a breeze for him with his years of lacrosse practice to overpower someone as scrawny as Ben. But he just stands there, that infuriating smirk on his lips that seems to say, Your move, light boy. Show me what you got.
Another dare, just like in the pool.
Ben's fingers clench in the threadbare cotton of Johnny's shirt. Underneath the flimsy material, he can feel Johnny's heart racing. He takes a step closer on shaking legs, closing that last bit of distance between them before leaning in and pressing his lips to Johnny's.
For a moment, they just stand like that, mouth against mouth, frozen in this terrifyingly, wonderfully intimate position. Johnny's heartbeat is rabbit-fast, and Ben feels light-headed, dizzy. He breathes against Johnny's lips, counting the seconds as they stretch out into tiny eternities.
When Johnny starts moving, Ben braces himself for him to break away, braces himself for the shove or the punch he's sure will follow. He can already feel the metallic taste of blood swirling in his mouth. He flinches as Johnny raises his hand, but it only settles against Ben's cheek, gentler than he thought Johnny was capable of.
He angles his head and kisses Ben properly, all tongue and lips and wet heat, and Ben arches against him and realizes that the kiss in the pool was nothing, just a poor approximation. It didn't check 'being kissed' off his list.
This one, though: it's overwhelming and scary and amazing, and Ben wants for it to never end.
It does, of course, too soon. They're both flushed and out of breath, and Johnny's smile is still smug and teasing, but for once it reaches his eyes.
"You still owe me a blowjob."
Ben huffs out a surprised, shaky laugh. "Yeah? You gonna give me another bloody nose?"
A minuscule flinch ripples across Johnny's face, and it takes Ben a long moment to identity the emotion he catches a glimpse of as guilt. It startles him. He didn't think Johnny did guilt, and certainly not over him. Not over something as inconsequential as a bruised nose and some blood in the water.
"Come on, I didn't mean to. You know I didn't. 'S bad enough that Alexa keeps giving me the evil eye since the other night."
He laughs, like the idea of him as a schoolyard bully who pushes the unpopular nerd around is entirely ridiculous, like the boys in the glee club don't go out of their way to avoid him and his buddies on the way home, like he doesn't have a certain kind of reputation.
But then, it's like Johnny said the night at the pool: Ben doesn't know him. He only knows the facade he puts up, the tough guy image, the posturing and bragging about his conquests that Johnny already admitted is fake. In all the years Ben's known him, watched him, he's never seen him deliberately hurt anyone; he's certainly never laid into Ben, even when he would have been an easy victim. Johnny's not too bad at play-acting the bully, but he's no Stanley, and Ben's not Blanche.
Ben holds Johnny's gaze and licks his kiss-bruised lips. He can still taste Johnny, wants to taste more of him, wants so much that it makes him feel queasy and sick. Before he can talk himself out of it, he drops to his knees, graceless and clumsy, and his fingers are shaking when he fumbles with the buttons of Johnny's jeans.
"Shit," Johnny breathes, stunned surprise in the gasp of his voice when Ben pulls his pants down, like he was only bold enough to ask for it but didn't believe that Ben would actually follow through.
Gotcha, Ben thinks, and swallows him down.
"Don't just stand in the way, light boy," Johnny calls out as he hurries past him.
Ben scowls at him. It's the first time Johnny has acknowledged him all day. He didn't really think things would be different, but that doesn't mean he can't be disappointed. "Maybe you should be watching where you're going," he shoots back and shuts his locker with a little more force than necessary, metal banging against metal.
Still, he can't stop himself from watching Johnny as he pushes through the crowd of students towards his lacrosse friends. They slap each other on the back and laugh, and Ben wonders if they're laughing about him. Unlikely, he knows. Most of them probably don't even know he exists, and it's better that way.
Suddenly Johnny looks up and catches his eye, the familiar smirk teasing at the corner of his mouth. When Ben glares at him, he raises an eyebrow, his gaze deliberately shifting down to the outside pocket of Ben's jacket.
With a frown, Ben reaches inside, and his fingers brush against a piece of paper that Johnny must have slipped him when he barged into him. He pulls it out and unfolds it.
8 p.m., my house? Stay over, if you can get your parents off your back.
Ben quickly crumples the note and puts it back in his pocket, before anyone can see. Across the corridor, Johnny's still looking at him, eyebrow cocked, waiting, and Ben realizes that it's uncertainty that he can see on Johnny's face. That for all his attitude and his posturing and his arrogance, this thing between them is every bit as new and frightening and exhilarating for Johnny as it is for him. That Johnny wants it, maybe just as much as he does.
He smiles and offers Johnny a nod, a silent, I'll be there.