When Ben decides to move to L.A., he likes to imagine that it was Rob's headhunting efforts that finally wore him down. Career-wise, L.A. is the obvious choice. The weather's better too, and Justin promised to give him a guided tour, which may or may not be a euphemism.
There are half a dozen reasons for Ben to pack up his things, hop on a plane and unroot his life. Good reasons. Valid reasons. Reasons that have nothing to do with the way Johnny's eyes crinkle when he laughs or how the memories of that kiss in Rob's driveway still make Ben's heart speed up.
It's like he told Johnny at the party: He's a big boy, who's done chasing after something he knows he can't have. He's not pathetic enough to move to the other side of the continent hoping for something that's as out of reach now as it was when he was a fumbling seventeen-year-old hopelessly crushing on the straight jock.
Except, maybe Johnny was right. Maybe wanting things you can't have really isn't something you ever outgrow. Maybe, Ben thinks, the trick is to accept the longing and acknowledge the impossibility of it.
And perhaps that's why he doesn't hit Johnny up like he said he would, why he chooses to let the last memory of Johnny be his smile as he drove off. Perhaps he's proving something to himself, or to Johnny, or to the universe.
Ben is on his way home after a long day at the office, rounding a corner a few blocks from the new apartment that doesn't quite feel like home yet, when he all but crashes into a guy precariously juggling two Starbucks lattes while typing on his phone, eyes glued to the screen.
One of the cups tumbles from the cardboard tray, and Ben quickly jumps back to avoid getting hit, but he's unable to evade the splash of coffee that stains his jeans as the cup crashes down and the lid bursts open. Shit. Just what he needed tonight.
"Hey, watch where you're—" When he looks back up, he finds himself face to face with a pair of familiar green eyes, distracted confusion turning into recognition. The old flutter in Ben's chest is back, drowning out the annoyance incriminatingly fast. "Oh. Johnny. Hey."
Johnny's smile is wry. He gives Ben a quick once-over, unapologetically lingering on the coffee stains for a few seconds.
"We gotta stop meeting like this," he says, in lieu of a greeting.
Four million people in L.A., give or take a few hundred thousand tourists on any given day, and Ben happens to run into the one person he's trying to avoid. And also probably the only person who pours coffee over someone and doesn't even bother to throw in a 'sorry'. It figures. Johnny never apologized for almost breaking his nose or his heart either. Ben doubts he's ever felt guilty for anything in his life.
"Yeah, I mean, what are the odds..."
"So, you live here now?"
Johnny's gaze pins Ben down, sharp and inquisitive. Ben can't shake the irrational stab of guilt because he never got in touch after Johnny told him to. It's silly; he's not even sure if Johnny really meant it in the first place, whether it wasn't just the kind of thing you offer out of social obligation and politeness.
He stuffs his hands into his pockets and shrugs. "Rob made me a good offer. I'm still settling in. L.A.'s... It's pretty different from New York."
Ben almost winces at the obvious cliché. It's the blandest, most small talk-y statement imaginable, but it's enough to earn him a chuckle from Johnny.
"You... could say that. But you get used to it."
There's something measuring in his eyes that makes Ben uncomfortable.
He bites his lip and Johnny's gaze follows the motion, darting down to his mouth. Ben's gut clenches, remembering the firm press of Johnny's mouth against his, the taste of him, the smell of chlorine and pot clouding his senses. Remembering and wanting, wanting too much.
The desire is old and familiar; he should be used to it by now. And yet every time it hits him, it feels like a sucker punch.
He watches Johnny take a sip from his remaining coffee, a familiar awkwardness settling between them. He rarely feels that way anymore, bumbling and out of place, like he did in high school. Only with Johnny.
He pushes through it the way he always did, turning the conversation sharp and personal. "Did you? Get used to it?"
If Johnny minds being put on the spot, he doesn't let on. "I don't know." He shrugs, looking as if he's giving the question some thought. "I guess I did? I like it here. Things are more... relaxed, I guess? More easy-going. The people are pretty chill."
It's not quite how Ben would have put it. L.A. people are shallower, more focused on the stuff he feels he's lacking. He doesn't feel like his achievements are worth as much here. Not with Rob or the people he works with; they're great. But outside of work, he finds it harder to connect.
"I'll take your word for it," he says, letting his skepticism shine through.
Johnny grins, as if he's taking it as a challenge. "Is this your neighborhood? I used to live around here before I moved in with Samantha. I can show you around a bit, take you to my favorite spots. If you got time."
The offer stumps Ben. He knows he should be saying no, make his excuses. Go home, order in, put some work into his latest project. But then he thinks of his bare, lonely apartment with the stupid white couch he'd impulsively ordered on his second day here, and the potted plants he'd brought from New York that are slowly dying, adapting to the change of scenery even worse than him; and he thinks of the empty fridge with his last Grindr date's phone number pinned to it, and the prospect of going back there is not at all appealing. Not when the alternative is spending a couple of hours with Johnny.
Still, he makes a last-ditch effort to curb the temptation, even if it's half-hearted. "Weren't you going somewhere? You looked like you were busy."
When he makes a vague gesture towards the coffee and the phone in Johnny's hands, Johnny looks down with a frown, like he's just remembered what he was doing before he crashed into Ben.
"Nah. Don't worry about it," he says, slipping the phone into his back pocket.
Ben finds himself nodding before he can talk himself out of it. "Okay, then."
The smile Johnny offers him is wide and brilliant, triumphant like he's won some battle of wills Ben wasn't even aware they were locked in, and Ben's heart clenches painfully and tight in his chest.
It almost surprises him how much he enjoyed himself, listening to Johnny recount stories about his early days in L.A. and mocking him when he stopped short in his tracks and realized that the sushi bar he used to like was now a strip club, or how his favorite diner had been turned into a beauty salon.
It was a fun night, the conversation and laughter flowing easily between them. Still, there's always something sharp underneath, the same thing that was there in the pool a decade and a half ago and at Rob's party: a one-upmanship of raw honesty that's at the same time exciting and draining, like they're standing too close to a ledge and daring each other to take another step towards the edge.
When the apartment's front door falls shut, Ben feels keyed up and restless, like he burnt through too much coffee on an empty stomach. He can still sense the phantom weight of Johnny's hand on his shoulder, giving it a firm squeeze when they said goodbye.
He unlocks his phone and quickly types a message, forcing himself not to over-think every word.
Thanks for the tour. I had a good time.
There. Friendly and to the point, no pressure, but open enough. He hits send and waits, staring at the screen. The three dots appear as Johnny answers, and the reply comes through almost instantly.
Ben pictures the smiley face as Johnny's grin, imagining the way it dimples his cheeks, the always slightly mocking slant of his mouth. His fingers hover over the touchscreen, scrabbling for a response.
Do you want to—he types. Deletes it. Starts again. How about—No, that's dumb. Needy, foolish. Setting himself up for disappointment.
Damn it, he needs to stop doing this to himself.
He shuts down his phone with a press of the thumb that's a little too forceful, staring into the distance. The little post-it on the fridge catches his eye, bright yellow against the silvery metal surface.
Nate, (216553) 555-1013. Call me!☺
Or maybe he's just looking for a distraction to stop himself from thinking about Johnny's hands and his eyes and his smile. Either way, he reaches for his phone again and quickly exits the messenger app where Johnny's name taunts him right on the top of the list of contacts, dialing Nate's number instead.
Or at least he thinks he is.
It's the birthday party Rob is throwing for his girlfriend Vanessa, and since she's friends with Johnny's girlfriend – no, his fiancée – of course the two of them would be there. Ben almost begged out of it, but Vanessa is a sweet, funny girl and Ben isn't willing to let his anxiety over an old high school crush dictate his social life. He refuses to let that be a thing.
That doesn't stop his stomach from doing that weird little thing between a somersault and a clench, butterflies and queasiness mingling into a sweetly painful mixture when Johnny waves at him. Despite the instinctive urge to flee, Ben stays where he is and watches Johnny push through the other guests towards Ben, Samantha on his arm, laughing at something he said. For a moment, Ben imagines that they're joking at his expense. He wonders if Johnny ever told Samantha about the kiss, if he made fun of how a simple, chaste touch unsettled Ben.
But when they come over, Samantha's smile is genuine and free of malice as she stands back and watches him and Johnny exchange wry smiles and stilted hellos.
She leans in for a brief, warm hug. "Hi! Ben, isn't it? How are you? John said you've become a West Coaster now. I hope Rob isn't working you too hard. Vee always complains about his office hours."
The humor and fondness in her tone takes the sting out of her words, and Ben shakes his head with a smile.
"No, Rob's great. The whole team is amazing." Truth be told, work is the one thing keeping him sane these days. If anything, Rob's pushing him to spend less time glued to a screen and more time going out and mingling. "Jury's still out on L.A."
Samantha's nose wrinkles. "Yeah, it's an acquired taste. Especially when you're new in town and everyone pretends they're living the high life and are so much cooler than they really are. You should come over for dinner one of these days. Tell me all the embarrassing stories about John from high school."
"Hey! There are no embarrassing stories about me. I was always perfect," Johnny quips, and Samantha rolls her eyes at him before someone at the other side of the pool catches her eye.
"Sure, Mr. Perfect. I'll quickly go say hi to Emily. You two catch up."
She squeezes Johnny's arm and smiles at Ben again before she steps past him. He turns his head and watches her go, the bright yellow of her dress disappearing into the crowd.
"I like her," Ben says, surprising himself by how much he means it.
"Yeah, she's great. I don't know why she keeps putting up with my crap." Johnny looks down, poking at an odd little patch of moss between the stones with the tip of his shoe, and the curl of his lips is almost wistful.
It's baffling how Johnny can waver between easy confidence that's on the wrong side of arrogance and self-depreciation. That night in the pool, fifteen years ago, there had been a brief moment when Ben thought that this was the real Johnny: the sensitive one who was only hiding behind bravado and boasting. But that's too simple, the wishful thinking of a boy who thought a crack in the surface meant that he could slip in there. People are not that black and white, though, and Johnny's self-assurance is every bit as real as his moments of faltering.
Perhaps Johnny is right and he doesn't deserve Samantha. But that's clearly not how she feels about it. Ben's not an expert on relationships, but he knows what it looks like to smile at someone like they mean the world to you, to recognize their flaws and think they only make them more interesting. "I guess it's just what people do when they love someone. Putting up with their crap."
"You never let me get away with it," Johnny says with a sideway glance at Ben, a lopsided smile tugging at his lips.
Ben frowns, disbelieving. "Yeah, I kind of did."
Of course he did. He does. Even when he calls Johnny out on his bullshit, he still ends up letting him get away with it in the end. Otherwise, they wouldn't be having this conversation right here.
It takes him a few seconds too long before it hits him what Johnny just implied. He mentally rewinds the conversation, a sick feeling in his gut. Was this some twisted kind of test? Was he supposed to object to the assumption that this would apply to him in the first place, that he loved Johnny, rather than the rest of it? And what does it mean that he didn't?
He tries to ignore the apprehension, foregoing denial and defense by going straight for attack. "Are you happy?"
Johnny gives him an irritated look. "What kind of a question is that?"
"I don't know, man, you asked me first."
"I did, huh?" Johnny's lip curls into a smile like he knows exactly what Ben is doing. "But you didn't answer."
Ben shrugs. He's fairly sure his silence was answer enough.
"Am I happy?" Johnny parrots back. His forehead creases into a frown as he contemplates the question. "I don't know. Kind of a tall order, isn't it?"
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cigarette, lighting it. Ben shakes his head when he's offered one, tempted to make a snarky little comment about how that's the second time now that he's made Johnny smoke. Instead, he watches Johnny take a couple of drags, mesmerized by the way his lips curl around the filter, the tobacco glowing faintly orange in the twilight.
"I'm not unhappy," Johnny finally says.
"That's not the same as being happy," Ben points out.
Johnny puffs out some smoke, craning his head back into his neck and watching the airplane trails in the cloudless sky above them.
The silence between them stretches for so long that Ben wonders if Johnny's waiting for him to understand that the conversation is over and Ben should fuck off. He's about to do just that when Johnny speaks again, tone quiet and wry.
"No," he says, and for once his gaze is hooded and unfocused. "No, I guess it's not."
But he's not in New York anymore and this is not that kind of neighborhood. So when the buzzer goes off the second time, Ben groans and rolls out of bed. He stifles a yawn as he makes his way to the door, his bare feet shuffling on the wooden floorboards.
He squints through the spy-hole and tenses up, taking a deep, steadying breath before he pulls the door open.
"Johnny. It's 2 a.m."
Johnny lounges against the doorframe, too casually, the nonchalance almost looking practiced. He doesn't seem at all perturbed by Ben's annoyance.
"You're the only one who still calls me that, you know that?" he says, like that's a normal thing to tell a guy whose sleep he interrupted. "Everyone around here calls me John."
Ben frowns. "Even the people who knew you when you were in school?" He can't imagine outgrowing a name. Then again, he never had a nickname. Not one he answered to anyway; the insults and sneering slurs don't count, not even the taunting light boy, no matter how much he liked the way Johnny's voice dropped when he called him that.
"I kinda lost touch with everyone. I wasn't really close with any of them anyway," Johnny says with barely a shrug, cool, unaffected. Like the fact that he's at Ben's door doesn't make Ben some kind of exception, doesn't imply that Ben's special.
Fuck this. Ben isn't awake enough to deal with Johnny. It's hard enough when he's alert and in full possession of his wits, more or less able to evade the pitfalls of both Johnny's inquisitiveness and his own feelings. But it's not fair, when he's struggled so hard to ban Johnny from his late-night fantasies, that he now has to deal with the real thing in the early hours of the morning.
"Did you come to see me in the middle of the night to complain about a nickname?"
He doesn't even know if Johnny's complaining or what point he's trying to make. Anyone else, he'd assume they're drunk, but he hasn't seen Johnny touch alcohol even once in those couple of months since their reunion, and despite the weird conversational digression, Johnny seems clear-headed and alert.
He's steady on his feet, too, as he pushes away from the wall and slips past Ben into the apartment.
Ben shakes his head and shuts the door. There's not much point objecting, he figures. If he hadn't wanted Johnny to come in, he wouldn't have answered the doorbell in the first place, and they both know it.
Johnny walks into his living room in sure strides, as confident as if he owned the place, and all Ben can do is follow. He crosses his arms, watching Johnny as he curiously looks around. He's eager to know what made Johnny decide to come over at this hour, what made him seek out Ben at all when all their past run-ins were pretty much coincidental. But pushing for it would only make Johnny clamp up and offer some vague half-truths or derail the conversation again, and Ben can't shake the idea that letting on his impatience would somehow show his hand. So he waits.
At last, Johnny turns back towards him.
"I broke up with Samantha."
He looks at Ben expectantly, like he came here less to get something off his chest and more to watch Ben react to the news.
That's—What exactly is he supposed to do with that?
His mouth is quicker than his brain. Before he can stop himself, the words tumble out. "Because of me?"
Johnny's mouth curls into a scoffing smile, the glint in his eyes a little too amused, and Ben regrets asking.
That's all he says, his gaze too intent and sharp, and Ben can't contain the surge of annoyance. "Why are you here, Johnny?"
He almost calls him John, just for the hell of it, just to see how he'd take that. But he's never going to be anything else but Johnny to him, no matter how old they get or how long they spent apart.
It's satisfying to watch Johnny lose some of that certainty. His eyes flit away; his shoulders go tense. "I don't know," he admits. Beneath the frustrated edge in his voice, he sounds... lost.
It's that glimpse of weakness that stops Ben from showing him the door. He runs a hand through his hair, trying to gather his thoughts so he won't blurt out any more embarrassing questions. He can't believe he asked Johnny if he broke up with his fiancée for him.
"Look, if you don't have anywhere else to go, you can stay here tonight. The guest room isn't really done yet, but you can have the couch."
Johnny regards the white monstrosity in the middle of the living room before looking up, his eyebrow quirked, and Ben steels himself for some dig or an insinuation. But whatever happened with Samantha earlier, it seems like Johnny isn't in the mood to keep poking holes in Ben's armor tonight.
His smile looks almost contrite. "Sure. Thanks. I really appreciate it."
In hindsight, Ben would have preferred some kind of taunt. Johnny being sincere and friendly unnerves him, always has. It shrinks the distance between them in ways that make Ben want to reach out, that make the impossible seem a little more available.
He rubs his neck and offers a smile that probably looks more like a grimace. "Okay, I'll get you a blanket. Make yourself at home."
The question he can't shake is: How is he supposed to get any sleep tonight, knowing that Johnny's in the next room, newly single and sprawled out on his couch?
He pauses in the doorway of the kitchen, gripping the wall with whitening knuckles. The sight that greets him temporarily disables his brain functions: Johnny, barefoot and shirtless, leaning over his stove. He's wearing nothing but a pair of dark blue boxer shorts, and his hair is still shower-wet and mussed. The sweet, warm smell of frying batter hangs in the air.
There's a moment, a few precious seconds, when Johnny remains unaware of Ben's presence, and Ben uses the chance to observe him, unashamed and without hurry, allowing his eyes to linger longer than they did before.
Johnny turns around and sees him, his smile so bright and soft that it almost makes Ben's heart stop.
"Oh, hey. Good morning!" He motions towards the pan on the stove top. "I made pancakes. I wasn't sure if you like them, but you had all the ingredients, so I figured why not."
The domesticity of the moment leaves Ben aching with longing. He can't remember the last time someone who wasn't his mom cooked for him.
Brushing the pain aside, he steps further into the kitchen. "I love them. But you didn't have to."
Johnny shrugs. "Come on, it was the least I could do."
For what? Ben wants to ask because he doubts Johnny actually feels guilty for showing up like that last night.
Before he can make up his mind whether it's a question he wants an answer to, Johnny speaks again. "So, who's Nate?"
At Ben's frown, he motions towards the fridge with the sticky note. Oh. Right. Nate. Ben really needs to take that thing down. Nate was fun, but they had very little to talk about, and neither of them was genuinely interested in finding out if they had things in common outside of the bedroom.
"Just a guy."
Johnny's eyebrows go up. "Boyfriend?"
"You think I'd pin my boyfriend's number on a post-it to the fridge? Seriously?" Ben scoffs.
"I thought maybe it had... sentimental value." Johnny's voice mockingly curls around the words, and even though Ben has no particularly strong sentiments about Nate or the number on his fridge door, he feels absurdly caught.
He senses the blood shooting up to his cheeks in an embarrassed flush and quickly shakes his head. "He's just someone I hooked up with a couple of times. He doesn't matter."
Johnny's still taxing him with sharp-eyed observation, like he's waiting for Ben to slip up, and Ben doesn't know what the hell Johnny wants from him. They're standing too close, and Johnny keeps looking at him, and Ben can't—
His mind goes blank when Johnny's hands come up to cradle his neck, and Johnny leans in, bridging the remaining distance between them so fast that Ben doesn't have a chance to raise his defenses.
The kiss is different from the first one. Johnny's lips are more demanding, hungry. He angles Ben's head towards him with gentle force, and when Ben gasps, surprised and breathless, Johnny licks into his mouth. It feels like—Like he's staking a claim. His tongue in Ben's mouth, his fingers curling against the nape of Ben's neck, his body crowding Ben's against the fridge until the cool, steel door presses firmly against his back.
Ben can't remember when he reached for Johnny, but the sensation of warm, naked skin under his fingertips startles him enough to push through the haze of passion and yearning. He pulls back, breathing hard, his hands clenched tightly around Johnny's sides. They won't obey his brain when it tells them to let go.
Closing his eyes, Ben takes a few steadying breaths.
"You can't—You can't keep doing this. I don't—You're straight."
He hates the pleading, desperate tone his voice has taken on. Nothing's worth that broken feeling, not even the few moments of bliss at sinking into Johnny's kiss, the fleeting make-believe that Johnny wants him.
"Am I? I don't know." Johnny frowns, and for a moment, Ben hates him. Hates him and loves him and doesn't know how he'll ever get over him. Johnny's hands are still on his face, his fingertips moving against his skin in a soft, hypnotic way that makes Ben want to let his eyes drift shut and lean in again. "I just know that ever since you showed up here in L.A., I'm questioning everything. You ask me if I'm happy and when I realize I'm not, I break up with my girlfriend and the first thing I do afterwards is come see you. I keep thinking about you all the fucking time. Hell, I get jealous at some random dude who left his number on your fridge."
"That doesn't mean you're into guys," Ben argues.
It doesn't mean Johnny is into him. It just means—Fuck. He doesn't have the faintest idea what it means.
"It means something," Johnny says, insistent, like he's reading Ben's mind.
Ben shakes his head, and he isn't sure who he's trying to convince. If someone had told him fifteen years ago that one day, the boy he spent too many sleepless night thinking about would be pressed against him in his kitchen and Ben would be trying to talk him out of kissing him again, his teenage self wouldn't believe a single word.
But he's not seventeen anymore, and he's been through too much heartache to deliberately settle himself with more. "I—Johnny, I can't be your experiment." He tries to convey that he's already in too deep without actually saying the words.
Johnny's lips slope into a faint, lopsided smile, but if there's mockery in it, it doesn't seem to be aimed at Ben. "Isn't that what all relationships are? Some trial and error bullshit. You take a chance, see if it fits."
"That's not the same thing," Ben protests. He took a chance fifteen years ago, but all it left him with was a bruised nose and memories that still haunt him a decade and a half later.
"It kind of is." Johnny looks away, licking his lips, and Ben can't stop his eyes from tracing the way Johnny's tongue soothes the kiss-bruised skin. "I told you, I don't have shit figured out. My entire life's a mess, and if that's a deal-breaker, hey, I get it. I'm not sure about anything right now. But this, here? That's the thing I'm least unsure about."
The words are a stronger argument for turning his back on this than for giving in, but there's something about Johnny's bold honesty that disarms Ben. Always has, but never before has Johnny offered it quite that freely or that unabashed.
No half-truths, no justifications, none of their quid pro quo.
And the thing is, Ben's life is a mess, too. He's done well for himself, he's done so much he never thought he would when he was seventeen. But he's not happy. He doesn't have things figured out any more than Johnny has. Johnny, who's looking at him expectantly, waiting, his eyes impossibly blue in the early morning sunlight. His hands are soft against Ben's cheeks, and his body is warm and solid against Ben's.
Maybe, Ben thinks, this is worth taking a chance on.
He swallows, and it gives him a little thrill to watch Johnny's eyes dart down to his throat, following the bobbing of his Adam's apple.
"Okay," he says. "How about we figure shit out together then?"
It's a cheesy line, but at least it's not 'Whip it out!', and it's worth it just to see Johnny's eyes crinkle with laughter and a tension Ben wasn't aware of bleeding out of his shoulders.
Johnny's voice rumbles with contained laughter and he lets Ben pull him closer, leaning down. For the first time since that night at the pool, Ben is prepared for the kiss.