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Meet Me Under The Bleachers

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“Can’t you change your schedule? Please, Nathan.”

“You asked this in September and I said no and I’m still saying no.”

“I thought you might have changed your mind.”

“Nope. I have the opportunity to have two study halls at the end of the day and I’m not going to screw that up, Ben. I didn’t think that would happen until next year, if I was lucky, and I get it junior year? I’d be an idiot if I passed this up. Why can’t you change your schedule?”

“I can’t. It would screw everything up. I need a study hall too.”

“Can’t you ask someone else?”

“I already have. Anna, Abigail, and Abe all have it seventh and they won’t change it because they get to go home afterwards. I can’t talk any of them out of it.”

“Then you’re going to have to learn to make new friends. You’re popular. People like you. It shouldn’t be a problem. I don’t have any real friends in my class and I’m not freaking out about it.”

“That’s because you don’t have to put up with John Simcoe, Akinbode and Will. The unholy trinity.”

“Once practice starts I will.”

“So I’ll have to deal with them for forty extra minute’s every day.”

“And you want me to share in that misery?”

“I thought maybe we could suffer together.”

The line goes dead for a long moment.

“I’m going to go.”

“Nathan.”

“You’ll be fine, Ben. Everyone knows you’re Coach Arnold’s favorite. He’ll side with you on anything.”

“That’s part of the reason why they’re so terrible.”

“You’ll be fine. It’s only for-.”

“The the rest of the year. Every day for the rest of the year and I have to deal with it by myself.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“You said that already.”

“I have to go.”

“Don’t hang up on me.”

“I really have to go, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“You’re supposed to be my friend, my teammate. We’re supposed to be like brothers.”

“Not until practice starts. I still got a few months. Bye.”

That’s why he’s sitting by himself in the middle of the gym floor on the first day of the new semester surrounded by freshman who are still trying to wrap their heads around this high school experience and juniors that just want the year to be over so they can celebrate being seniors.

He doesn’t know any of the freshman’s names but does remember a few of their faces from the freshman orientation that he helped out with over the summer. A few of the girls are staring at him and whispering to their friends and even though he’s not interested for a variety of reasons he doesn’t exactly hate the attention. He stretches his legs out in front of him and tries to hide the smile that spreads across his face when he hears one of them giggle.

He knows all the juniors but doesn’t consider himself friends with any of them. They’re acquaintances.

He worked with Robert Townsend on a Psyche project last semester. He’s very smart and driven and they got an A on it but besides an occasional nod in passing in the hall they don’t have any contact with each other.

Peggy and John Andre have been dating since seventh grade. A rumor went around earlier this year that they were secretly married. The truth was that John had given her a promise ring.

Akinbode is fine when John Simcoe and William Bradford aren’t around and Will and Simcoe are consistently terrible. They’re all on the baseball team with Ben Nathan and they’re the only ones he doesn’t get along with. Akinbode used to be friends with Ben all throughout elementary school but people change when middle school hits and Simcoe was the new kid that faced everyone on the first day with attitude and a scowl and for some reason Akinbode decided that he was his new best friend. By the time freshman year rolled around Ben figured out he was good enough to get on the varsity baseball team with of them, which did not sit well with Simcoe which meant it didn’t sit well with Akinbode and Will.

Coach Arnold strolls into the gym from his office, clipboard in hand, his Nike sneaks squeaking against the floor. He’s followed by a shorter kid with curly brown hair wearing black basketball shorts and a white t-shirt. Ben doesn’t recognize him but the hint of a beard lining his jaw means he can’t be any younger than Ben.

“Okay, everyone,” Arnold whistles and claps his hand against the clipboard to get everyone’s attention. “Listen up. Shut up. Eyes on me. This,” He shrugs his shoulder in the kids direction. “Is Caleb….” He looks down at the clipboard.

“Brewster. It’s Brewster,” The kid tells him.

“Brewster, right,” Arnold mumbles as he skims over the paper again, telling the class that he’s a junior and he moved here with his family from Indiana

Caleb Brewster has a relaxed, easy smile as he looks around at the group. He narrows his eyes briefly at Simcoe, Will and Akinbode who are whispering to each other, seemingly unimpressed with the new kid. Caleb rolls his eyes at them and Ben smiles up at him and for the first time feels like maybe there’s a chance this semester won’t be so bad.

Ben’s still smiling at him when Caleb notices him.

Caleb’s smile falls and his lips part slightly. His eyes widen as he looks away, looks back, and then looks away again. He shuffles his feet and there’s a line of tension across his shoulders that wasn’t there before. Ben doesn’t understand the sudden change and he doesn’t have time to figure it out because Arnold claps Caleb on the back and tells him to take a seat and Caleb smiles and nods.

He lowers himself down gracefully near Ben, angled slightly away from him.

“I want everyone to pair up,” Arnold tells them. The freshman all grab onto each other and the juniors just nod at their friends, Akinbode kicks at Simcoe’s foot. Simcoe kicks back a little harder. When it’s obvious to Ben that Will, Caleb, and himself are the only ones left without a partner Ben leans towards him and Caleb leans back just enough for Ben to start to feel offended.

“I’m Ben. I don’t have any friends in this class,” He whispers as Caleb very carefully avoids his eyes. “I tried to get them to switch into this period but none of them would do it so I’m glad you showed up. That’s Will Bradford,” He nods to Will who’s looking around and trying to find someone to be his partner. “He’s an ass, trust me, we should pair up to save ourselves.”

Caleb sighs heavily and Ben frowns. This isn’t what he expected.

“Bradford,” Arnold says. “Are you the only one without a partner?”

When Will nods Arnold pairs him up a pair of freshman boys, skinny and not athletic and Ben’s torn between feeling bad for them and wanting to laugh at Will.

“Okay everyone,” Arnold calls over the chatter that’s kicked up. “Take some laps.”

“For how long?” One of the freshmen asks.

“Until I tell you to stop.”

Ben only plays baseball for the school but he likes to think he’s a well rounded athlete. He runs every day to keep himself in shape for baseball in the spring (even though he’ll admit that he’s been slacking on that lately between studying for midterms and the SAT’s and trying to figure out which colleges he wants to apply to and it’s been cold lately and he’s not about to break an ankle or worse by slipping on ice) and he’s confident that there’s nothing that gym class could throw at him that he can’t handle with ease.

It’s not that he wants to impress Caleb but he can’t get over the way his smiled dropped clean off his face when he saw him. Caleb is Ben’s only chance at having anything close to a friend in this class and he’s not about to let it slip away before it can even start. He’s a clean slate.

But Ben finds out very quickly that Caleb is not going to be easy to impress. He takes off running and Ben struggles to catch up. It’s like Caleb’s sole purpose is to run away from him and sure, it’s been awhile since he’s done any kind of exercise, but he’s winded by the third lap from trying to keep pace with him and Caleb has barely broke a sweat.

Arnold makes them do ten turns around the gym and Ben feels like his heart is going to beat right out of his chest.

Caleb looks fine. He looks like he did when he walked into the gym, not a hair out of place, not a bit of sweat lining his brow.

Ben is panting and bent over with his hands on his knees trying to catch his breath. One of the freshman girls runs into him because he hasn’t moved out the way. He’s not sure he can. He apologizes and walks on shaky legs over to Caleb who has meandered back to the middle near Arnold.

“Do you uhhhh….” He blinks away double vision and takes a deep breath. “Do you run track? Did you? At your old school?”

Caleb’s not looking at him and Ben understands why. He knows he looks pathetic. Cheeks all flushed and sweaty. He doesn’t even think those freshman girls have a crush on him anymore. Its official, no one likes him in this class.

“You’re really fast,” He tells him. His mouth tastes vaguely of blood.

“No.” Caleb gives him quick glance then crosses his arms.

“You sure, because that was….” He pulls his shirt way from his body to help cool him down. Caleb stares at his shoes and Ben thinks he can finally see a faint shade of pink staining his face. “I’m usually not so…” He pauses to breath and gestures to his body. Caleb follows the motion closely then looks at his feet again. “I’m usually in better shape. I’m going to have to work on this before baseball starts because this is not good,” He laughs suddenly and Caleb takes a few steps away from him. “You’re sure you never did any track?”

“Yup.”

“You should think about doing it here. Arnold is going to try to talk you into it. If you show any kind of skill towards any sport he’s going to try to get you to join the team. He talked my friend Nathan into joining the baseball team after seeing him throw an apple across the cafeteria at Simcoe,” He tips his head in Simcoes direction. “Hit him right in the back, right where he meant to. Arnold got to him before the principle did. It was hilarious.”

“Hmmm.”

Ben’s breathing is starting to return to normal and he wants to ask Caleb a dozen other things so they can get to know each other so he doesn’t think he’s a total loser but Arnold tells each partner to stand on opposite sides of the gym and Caleb is gone.

They play dodge ball for the rest of the class and at the end it’s Ben and Akinbode versus Simcoe and Caleb and because this is absolutely not Ben’s day his narrowly misses a ball thrown my Simcoe which distracts Akinbode enough that he’s hit by a ball that Caleb throws and Caleb and Simcoe actually high five.

Ben doesn’t see Caleb in the locker room but manages to catch up to him in the hallway after the bell rings.

“Caleb, hey,” He touches Caleb’s elbow to get his attention. “Where are you going next?”

Caleb presses his lips together in a tight line as he looks at his schedule. “History. AP.”

“With Washington?”

“Yes.”

“Me too!”

Caleb flinches at his excitement and sighs again. “Great.”

“Washington is cool but he doesn’t accept any late work. No excuses. His tests are hard too. The wording on the questions can be tricky so you really have to study, take good notes, and know everything inside out. I spent 95% of my time studying for midterms studying for his test. I got a 92 though so I guess it was worth it.”

Caleb nods along.

“Can I see the rest of your schedule?” Ben asks and almost has to rip the paper out of Caleb’s hand. “You had astronomy with my friend Anna; about this tall with dark hair.”

“Think I know who you’re talking about.”

“What did you think of Mr. Hewlett?”

“He was okay.”

“Anna says he gets really into it. Should be an easy grade. It’s good to take those kinds of classes, especially this year. You’ll have civics with Abe and you should have lunch with all of us. Hey, you should sit with us,” He says as he hands the schedule back over and notices how careful Caleb is not to touch his hand. “If you want to. I don’t know if you were worried about that, I mean, I would be, but there’s plenty of room and everyone will be cool with it.”

“I’ll think about it,” Caleb folds the schedule up and puts it in his pocket. Ben takes it as a small victory.

“Nathan has history with us too. You know the one that chucked the apple at Simcoe?”

“Sure.”

The only open seat is the one behind Caleb and he rolls his eyes when he settles into it.

Nathan slips in looking a little frazzled right before the bell rings.

“Econ is crazy,” He whispers to Ben.

“You could be coming from gym right now.”

“I’m leaving after fifth period every day for the rest of the year. It’s worth it.”

“Gym might not be so bad,” He turns in his seat so he can introduce him to Caleb. “Caleb has it with me. Saved me from being paired up with Will Bradford. He just moved here from Indiana.”

“Thank god. I had to listen to him bitch about this since the beginning of the year. My grandparents live in Indiana. We visit them every summer.”

“Oh yeah, where do they live?”

Ben watches, dumbfounded as Nathan and Caleb casually chat about Indiana and how is grandparents only lived a half an hour away from where Caleb used to live and has he ever been to this restaurant because they have the best French fries he’s ever had and Caleb actually laughs at something Nathan says and he’s smiling all relaxed again like he doesn’t even know how to give someone the cold shoulder.

He’s so focused on the sudden change of his demeanor that he doesn’t even notice that he and Nathan have stopped talking so now he’s just staring at Caleb’s face. He’s not smiling anymore and Ben’s face heats up. He slowly turns around to face front where Mr. Washington is ready to begin class.

Caleb’s out of the room before the bell to dismiss them stops ringing.

“Caleb seems cool,” Nathan jams his book into his bag and starts to zip it up.

Ben’s already packed and leaning against his desk waiting on Nathan. Their next classes are right next door to each other. “Does he?”

“Yeah….”

“I don’t think he likes me.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Did you see how he sprinted out of class?”

“He’s probably nervous. It’s his first day here and he doesn’t want to be late,” Nathan swings his bag onto his shoulder and they start out the door and down the hall.

“It’s not just that. It’s the way he acts around me.”

“What’d you do to him?”

“Nothing, I don’t think. He said more to you in two minutes than he did to me all gym class. He wouldn’t even look at me. Arnold had us to laps and oh my god, Nathan, he’s so fast; he was literally running away from me. I must have looked like an idiot.”

Nathan laughs.

“I thought he was going to throw up when he found out we had history together. I don’t get it. Do I smell?”

Nathan sniffs the air around him. “I don’t think so.”

“Then what is it?”

“You sure you didn’t say anything to him that would upset him?”

“I don’t think so. I asked him if he did track because he was so fast but he was already ignoring me by then. It was an instant dislike from the moment he saw me. I saw the smile fall off his face as he looked at me for the first time.”

“Maybe he is nervous.”

“But he’s not like that with anyone else. Look at the way he was with you and he high fived Simcoe in gym.”

“Ugh.”

“I know. You should tell him he’s awful. He probably won’t listen to me. Hey,” Ben stops and grabs Nathan’s arm. “What if he drops gym?”

“Then you won’t have to worry about him anymore.”

“Then Arnold will pair me up with Will.”

“You have to decide what’s worse; being paired with someone that hates you or someone that hates you but you hate him too.”

Ben scrubs his hand across his face. “Both are terrible. I just wish I knew what I did.”

“Maybe he’ll come around.”

“Or maybe this will be the most painful gym class ever.”

“You’re too dramatic. Get to class, you’ll figure it out.”

Ben has his doubts.

***

“Who are you looking for?” Anna pauses with her pen above the paper, catching up on her English homework during lunch.

“Caleb Brewster, the new kid. We have gym and history together. I told him he could eat with us but I don’t think that’ll be happening.”

Anna smiles. “I have astronomy with him.”

“I know. I saw his schedule. Abe has civics with him. Where is Abe?”

“Who knows? Probably doing something to get himself in trouble just to make his dad mad. Caleb’s awesome. Why wouldn’t he want to sit with us?”

“You think he’s awesome?”

“Yeah, he’s hilarious but not in that douche bag way most guys are. He’s nice. Why wouldn’t he want to sit with us?”

“I think he hates me.”

“What? Why do you think that?”

“I’m mainly basing it on the way he acts around me, you know, like he hates me.”

“What did you do to him?”

“Nathan already asked me that and I don’t know,” Ben shrugs. “I didn’t even get to have a full conversation with him before he decided that he hated me.”

“Did he tell you that he hated you?”

“No. He didn’t need to. You should see the way he acts around me. It’s painfully obvious.”

“Maybe he has a crush on you, that’s why he acts so weird.”

“It’s definitely not that. I think he thinks I’m an idiot. I don’t blame him for thinking that. I kind of made an ass of myself in gym.”

“You failed at something in gym? That’s not like you.”

“I know. I was thrown off by him.”

“Maybe you have a crush on him,” She muses and Ben laughs.

“No way.”

“Why not? He’s cute.”

“He hates me.”

“But if you didn’t think he hated you…”

“I know he hates me. I don’t like him like that. I don’t think I like him at all. I don’t like that he’s a jerk to me when I didn’t do anything to him. Besides, I don’t have time for anything like that anyway, you know, with baseball and colleges and studying, it’s just not the right time.”

“You’ve already talked yourself out of it.”

“I never had to talk myself into it.”

“You seem defensive.”

“I’m not getting into this with you.”

“You like him,” She sing songs.

Ben rolls his eyes and sits down at the same time Abe swings his bag onto the table, a yellow detention slip in his hand.

“What are you we talking about?”

“Ben loves Caleb Brewster,” Anna says before Ben can change the subject.

Abe nods. “I have civics with him. Good choice, Ben. Do you know he used to live in Greenland and before that Italy?”

Anna laughs and Ben rests his forehead against the table, ready to give up.

***

But Ben tries; he tries so hard to win Caleb over.

It doesn’t work.

Caleb gives him one word answers to every question he asks and gym is either forty minutes of Caleb showing him up in floor hockey or volleyball or kickball or forty minutes of Ben getting flustered by how hard he’s trying to impress Caleb and screwing up when they play as partners in badminton or tennis and losing the game to Simcoe and Akin bode or Will and his scrawny freshman partners or the two freshman girls who barely even try.

It’s frustrating and infuriating because he doesn’t know what he did to make Caleb hate him like that. Sometimes he’ll spend his study hall doing nothing but playing back everything he said or did to him that first day to figure out if he said something offensive. It’s even worse when he has to hear about how amazing and funny Caleb is from all his friends and how they got together to study or see a movie over the weekend without inviting him. Ben feels like he’s losing his friends to the new kid and there’s nothing he can do about it.

“Do you want to hang out this weekend?” Ben asks Caleb out of the clear blue as he throws Caleb the ball.

Baseball practice doesn’t officially start for another three weeks but Arnold can’t wait and with four of his best players in one gym class he begins the baseball unit early.

Caleb throws the ball back hard enough to make Ben’s hand sting.

“I was going to do something with Anna and Abe, maybe Abigail too. If you to come with us that would be fine,” He tosses the ball back. “I know you guys do stuff together so…”

“So what?” Caleb throws the ball with enough force that Ben has to take his glove off his hand to shake it and flexes his fingers.

“Brewster, nice arm.” Arnold yells from across the gym and Ben rolls his eyes.

“I just thought we could all do something together.”

“Why are you pushing this so hard? Why can’t you just leave it alone?”

“I don’t-.”

Caleb interrupts. “Why can’t you leave me alone?” He’s getting angry now and Ben doesn’t have long to decide if he wants to back down or fight back. “Why are you so insistent that we be best friends?”

“I already have a best friend,” Ben tells him and immediately wants to take it back because it’s so lame. “I’m trying to be nice to you; you’re the new kid…”

“You don’t need to be. I don’t care, Ben. You don’t have to worry about me or think about me or want to spend time with me. You know this isn’t the first time I’ve moved somewhere new.”

“Yeah, I know but the only reason I know that is because you told my friends. Why do you hate me so much?”

“I don’t have to explain myself to you.”

“So you’re going to go on hating me for no reason.”

“I didn’t say that. I have a reason I just don’t have to explain it to you. All you have to do it accept it.”

“I don’t.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“Boys, what’s the problem?” Arnold is making his way through the class, correcting postures and techniques, paying close attention to the guys that are on the team. It had to be nearly impossible to miss Ben not throwing the ball. Ben hurls it back to Caleb, as hard as he can, but it doesn’t seem to faze Caleb. “That’s better.”

“I know it might be hard for you to believe but not everyone is going to like you.”

“I know that.”

“Then start acting like it. Leave me alone. Find someone else to bother. I’m sure any of the freshman girls would love for you to take an interest in them.”

If Anna heard that she’d call is jealousy but Ben knows better.

“Alright partners split up, opposite teams,” Arnold points to Caleb’s side. “Everyone on that side, you’re up first.”

Caleb takes off his glove and tosses it at Ben as he walks by .Ben can’t let this go so he reaches out to touch him on the shoulder.

Caleb avoids the touch and mumbles, “Fuck off” under his breath.

The anger that bubbling right beneath the surface helps Ben play better. It always has. Last season all he had to do is think about the time Simcoe tried to ask Anna out when he knew she wasn’t interested and he pitched a no hitter.

He’s struck everyone out (Simcoe included) and he feels like being petty and passive aggressively thanking Caleb for making him play so well.

Then Caleb steps up and hits a line drive that whizzes right past Ben’s head. He has to duck to get out of the way. It’s too close and he knows Caleb is talented enough to do that on purpose.

The next time, Caleb hits it over the fence and runs the bases, smirking at Ben each time he steps on a plate, while Coach Arnold chases him around asking him if he’s interested in joining the baseball team.

***

“Caleb Brewster is an asshole.” Ben drops his backpack onto the lunch table, almost knocking over Abe’s bottle of water.

“No he’s not.”

“I don’t want to hear about how awesome he is and how much you love him and all that. He’s an asshole. I tried being nice to him and he’s an asshole.”

“What happened?”

“I was trying to be nice to him like I’ve been trying to be for the past two months and he basically told me to go fuck myself.”

“That doesn’t sound like him.”

“That’s because you don’t know how he really is.”

“I haven’t heard anyone else say anything bad about him,” Anna tells him.

“That’s because he only hates me. He hates me and I can’t figure out why.”

“Have you asked me?”

“I tried that. That’s when he told me to fuck off. He said I should get out of his business and he doesn’t need a reason to dislike me, like that’s a valid reason and then he made me look like an incompetent idiot in front of Coach.”

“How’d he do that?”

“We’re playing baseball in gym this week and of course Caleb has to be awesome at it and he’s showing me up and making me look like I have no idea what I’m doing and I know he knows exactly what he’s doing because I told him- I told him Arnold tries to recruit people all the time and he knows how important this year is to me and that Arnold might be thinking about naming me Captain this year and now all he can talk about is how great Caleb is and Caleb doesn’t even want to play baseball. He doesn’t play any sports even though he could do them all so he’s only doing this to upset me.”

“Obviously it’s working,” Abe mumbles.

“You don’t like him because he’s better than you at sports?” Anna frowns.

“No, I don’t like him because he hates me for no reason.”

“Sometimes people just don’t blend well together.”

“We should though. We like all the same people,” He gestures Anna and Abe. “He likes Nathan. We hate the same people, I mean, he shows no mercy to Simcoe, Akinbode, and Bradford but he’s nice to everyone else in gym class. It’s just me. It’s personal. You can’t hate someone for no reason.”

“I think you need to cool off.”

“He drives me crazy,” He points a finger at Anna. “Do you still think I have a crush on him?”

“Kind of.”

“Oh my god.”

“I’ve never seen you this upset before. Usually when people don’t like you let it roll off your back.”

“The only ones that really don’t like me are those three assholes in gym and they’re awful so I don’t care.”

“You called Caleb an asshole.”

“Yes, I did so I’m gonna…” He takes a deep breath through his nose to calm himself down. It barely works. “I’m going to let this go. I’m not going to care. I can’t change the way he feels about me if he doesn’t have a reason for feeling this way. I don’t need him to like me. I need to get through the rest of this year without killing him. It’s only three months. I can do it.”

So Ben ignores Caleb like Caleb has been ignoring Ben.

They don’t communicate so they don’t work well together when they’re on the same team and don’t win a single badminton game. Arnold shakes his head at them and tells him he expect more from them. Ben hates feeling like a disappointment but it’s worth it. It has to be. He’s not going to give a little if Caleb’s not going to give anything.

They don’t make very good teammates but they make amazing rivals. It’s a constant competition for who can be faster, stronger and who can throw the ball further and harder, or who can make the most baskets or score the most goals. Arnold is delighted at their participation and has tried to talk Caleb into joining every sports team the school offers. Ben is constantly sore and annoyed because most of the time Caleb can do all those things better than him. It’s obnoxious the way Caleb’s hair sticks to his forehead with sweat and his breathing his heavy and his face gets red and warm. All of it makes him feel…something besides anger and he can’t even tell anyone about it because it’ll get back to Anna and he knows he’ll have to listen to her tell him about how sports are, and have always been so homoerotic.

It’s easier to shut him out in history class. He doesn’t even have to look at Caleb since he sits in front of him. Today he can’t resist dropping the stack of papers he’s supposed to be passing back before he knows Caleb has a grip on them. He hears the papers hit the desk and scatter to the floor followed by Caleb calling him an asshole under his breath and it’s the highlight of Ben’s day. Nathan watches the whole thing and helps Caleb gather the papers then flicks Ben on the arm. Ben acts like it doesn’t hurt.

Near the end of class Mr. Washington passes back a test they took the week before. Ben gets a ninety-four. It doesn’t surprise him. He’s had high honors since he started middle school. Ben’s always been eager to learn and doesn’t shy away from participating in class; always taking a chance on answering a question even if he’s not sure if he’s right. He’s ready to admit that Caleb might be better at him in gym but Ben’s going to beat him in history. Washington has never called on him to answer a question and he probably didn’t heed Ben’s warning about him not taking late work and the need to take extensive notes.

Like always, there’s a rush to get out the door when the bell rings and Caleb’s test slides off his desk and hits Ben’s foot. Caleb doesn’t seem to notice so Ben leans down with a heavy sigh to pick it up.

He might feel a little guilty about dropping the papers on him.

He can’t help but notice the grade and he really can’t help what comes out of his mouth afterwards.

“Whoa, man, a ninety-seven. That’s. I mean.”

“Don’t sound so surprised,” He snatches the test back and jams it in his bag.

“I’m not. I….you’re just so quiet in class.”

“Maybe that’s because I can never get a word in with you constantly raising your hand and yelling things out.”

He should have kept his mouth shut. He should have left the test on the ground.

“I’ve never seen you raise your hand.”

“That’s because I sit behind you.”

“Right. I’m sorry…”

“Whatever,” Caleb cuts him off, gives him a dirty look, and flees the room.

Well. Shit.

“That could’ve gone better,” Nathan’s trying not to laugh.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Ben mumbles.

The next day in gym Caleb hits Ben’s fastball right back at him. It’s so unexpected that Ben tries to catch it with his ungloved hand and has to go to the nurse to get ice.

***

A week later Ben’s in history completely distracted by the thought of baseball practice starting and the pressure of the test that Washington is going to give them on Friday and even though he’s trying not to he can’t stop thinking about the kid sitting behind him.

“Did you take any notes at all?” Nathan asks and Ben looks around. Apparently the bell has rung and everyone is packing up. His notebook is blank.

“Shit.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know. Got a lot on my mind I guess.”

“Get it together. If your grades dip too much you can get kicked off the team.”

“That’s definitely going to calm me down, thanks Nathan.”

“You can copy my notes,” He hands the notebook over. “Get it back to me before I leave today. I’m staying for fifth period study hall today so say you have to go to the bathroom during whatever you have then and sneak into the library to give it back to me.”

“Sure.”

“Don’t forget.”

“I won’t.”

Nathan’s all packed up and ready to leave, his foot is tapping against the floor impatiently. Ben’s still sitting at his desk staring at Nathan’s four pages of detailed notes and his blank paper. “You can go on, I’ll catch up.”

Caleb’s walking slowly in front of him and just as they’re ready to step out the door he turns. Ben doesn’t stop quickly enough and slams right into him.

“Watch where you’re going,” Ben snaps at the same time Caleb says “Do you want to study with me?”

Caleb’s blushing, there’s nothing else the color on his cheeks could be.

“What?”

“Do you want to study with me? You didn’t take any notes.”

“Nathan gave me his notes.”

“Yeah but….” Caleb rubs at the back of his neck with his hand. “It might help to go over it with someone.”

Ben doesn’t understand what’s going on. Is he kidding? Is he trying to set up a study date with him only to never show and waste his time?

“Why do you even need to study?” Ben asks. “You have the highest grade in the class. Is this just another way to make you look better than me?”

Caleb sets his mouth into a thin line and his eyes go cold. “Fine, forget it. I was just trying to help.” He turns back on his heels and starts down the hall.

“I don’t need your help,” Ben calls after him and a few people turn to look. “It goes both ways.”

***

In fifth period English Ben folds up Nathan’s notes and slides them into his pocket. Then he asks Mr. Lee if he can use the bathroom and goes to meet up with Nathan. He stands outside the door and waits until the librarian’s back is turned before he slips in.

“Your sneaking skills are getting a lot better,” Nathan says without looking up from his textbook or pausing his pen. He has a bag of Skittles spilled across the table. Ben sits down across from him and picks all the green ones out before handing his notes over.

“Thanks for letting me borrow that.”

“No problem. Did you snap yourself out of whatever was bothering you?”

“I don’t know. I think I’m stressed. There’s too much going on. Do you want do something tomorrow night? Go get food, or you could come over and watch a movie, maybe my dad will order pizza.”

“I can’t,” Nathan’s still not looking up but he’s stopped scribbling in his notebook. “I’m meeting Caleb in the library.”

“Why are you meeting Caleb in the library?”

“We’re studying,” He says sheepishly. “He said he asked you but you were a dick to him.”

“I was not being a dick to him.”

“So he didn’t ask you?”

“He did but-.”

“And you said no?”

“No, not exactly. I said something about how he didn’t need to study because his grade was so high.”

Nathan looks at him blankly. “Maybe his grade is so high because he studies a lot.”

“I was thrown off by him asking me,” Ben says in a hushed whisper. “This was the first time he talked to me outside of gym and he asks me to study with him, to willingly spend time together? I thought he was kidding.”

“Oh my god.”

“I didn’t know what to do. I panicked.”

Nathan shakes his head and zips up his bag.

“What was I supposed to do?”

“You’re supposed to get your shit together, Ben. He extended an olive branch to you and you threw it back in his face,” He glances at the time on his phone. “You should get back to class.”

“Will you ask him why he hates me?”

“I don’t want to do your dirty work for you.”

“I’ve tried to ask him and he won’t tell me. He likes you. Maybe he’ll tell you.”

“If you happen to come up in the conversation I’ll ask but I not bringing you up first.”

“Fine, that’s fine. I need an idea about what I did. I think we could be friends.”

“You hope so because you have a crush on him,” Nathan says once Ben’s back is turned.

Ben whips back around. “Stop talking to Anna about me.”

Nathan laughs so loud the librarian has to yell at him.

Chapter Text

“What did he say?”

Nathan jumps when Ben shows up next to him at his locker. He leans his shoulder against it and crosses his arms.

“What the hell did you come from?”

Ben ignores the question. “You didn’t answer any of my texts.”

“I’m going to get you a bell so you can’t sneak up on me.”

“He talked about me, didn’t he?”

Nathan slowly closes his locker. “No.”

“You’re lying.”

He finally turns to face Ben and sighs. “It’s really bad, isn’t it? Crap.”

“Ben.”

“Should I apologize? Just a blanket I’m sorry for whatever I did, please stop looking at me like you want to kill me?”

“I think it would be better if you said nothing at all.”

“Oh crap.”

“I think he would appreciate that more. Honestly, Ben, it would be in everyone’s best interest if you go on like you are now. Just try to ignore each other and don’t try to start shit, you know, like what you pulled with the papers in history? No. Don’t do that.”

“That wasn’t the most mature thing I’ve ever done, I’ll admit it.”

“No, it wasn’t.”

“So you want us to be uncomfortable and awkward around each other for the rest of high school? He’s friends with all my friends. How’s that going to work?”

“It’ll probably only be for the rest of the year. You know his dad’s in the army? That’s why they move around so much. He really doesn’t think he’ll be here next year.”

“His parents would relocate him senior year?”

“They don’t have a choice. They had to pack up and leave Indiana in the middle of the year. Caleb’s used to that. He said he’s never really had a home.”

“Now you’re making me feel bad for him.”

“Maybe that’ll stop you from being a dick to him.”

“I’m not!”

Nathan holds his hands up. “Please let it go. Its three more months and it’ll be over. Odds are he won’t be here over the summer. There are so many other things for you to focus on; finals,
applications, scholarships, practice.”

“I’m not looking forward to that. Simcoe, Akinbode, and Bradford have been kicking my ass in gym because Caleb and I cannot and apparently will not be getting our shit together. Their egos are out of control.”

“Can’t wait to deal with that.”

“I wish Caleb didn’t hate me.”

“He doesn’t hate you.” Nathan says quietly.

“He doesn’t like me.”

Nathan sighs, clearly exhausted with this drama. “Don’t tell him I said anything to you.”

“I won’t.”

“And you’ll let it go? Get through this year, focus on baseball. You know you’ve got a chance to be captain this year. Don’t blow it. That’ll shut those guys up.”

*****

Practice that night is a welcome distraction.

For two hours he’ll be able to push aside all his thoughts about Caleb and gym and any other worries that are hanging around in the back of his mind. All he has to think about is throwing the ball across the plate.

As he warms up before Coach Arnold officially starts practice he thinks about how much he’s missed this.

*****

“I am in hell.”

“Baseball sucks.”

Ben starts to laugh but every muscle in his body is screaming so he almost starts to cry.

He thought he was in better shape than this and judging by Nathan’s reaction so did he. But Arnold quickly reminded the whole team that he wouldn’t settle for anything short of perfection and ran them ragged.

The whole team left with their heads down and slightly limping.

“At least you don’t have gym with The Flash over here,” He jerks his thumb to Caleb’s empty chair. “Arnold is a douche who thinks it’s funny to make us all suffer so he makes us keep up with him. It’s making me feel camaraderie toward those guys. I hate it.”

“Where is Caleb?”

“Arnold held him back. I think he’s still begging him to join the team.”

“You think he’ll do it?”

“No. Why would he want to spend more time with me? Speak of the devil,” He raises his eyebrows towards the door where Caleb’s walking through it.

Nathan tries to punch him in the arm but he can’t raise it that high. “Knock it off.”

*****

“I’m assigning a group project,” Mr. Washington announces at the end of class. Ben slaps Nathan across the arm. Mr. Washington looks up from his desk at them as he says “I’ll be assigning them. I’m going to give each group a battle. I want you to research it from the perspective of the defeated side. I want you to decide what you would have done differently to change the outcome and what that new outcome would mean for the war. Would it have changed anything? Think about the number of troops you would need and what supplies would be needed. Create maps of troop movements. This isn’t an assignment you can put off until the last minute. Now for your partners.”

Ben’s on the edge of his seat as he listens to Washington rattles off the pairs. Mary is paired with Rachel, Selah with Philo, and Nathan with Billy.

“Ben and Caleb.”

“Ummm,” Ben hums and hears all of Caleb’s air leave his body from behind him. He turns to Nathan who is looking back at Caleb with sympathetic eyes.

“Can we switch partners?”

It’s the first time Caleb has spoken aloud in class and it takes Mr. Washington a moment to gather his thoughts.

“Do you have a problem with who I paired you with?”

Caleb bites his lips.

“I can assure you Caleb, Ben is a strong partner. You’ll do the assignment with him.”

Once the bell rings Caleb’s out of the door like a shot and Nathan struggles after him.

It takes Ben a minute to get out of the classroom but when he makes it out he sees Nathan trying to calm down a distraught looking Caleb. Nathan pats his shoulder a few times before Caleb takes off for his next class.

Nathan stares Ben down as he gets closer.

“Why are you looking at me like that? This wasn’t my idea.”

“Just remember what I told you.”

“Don’t kill each.”

“Don’t antagonize.”

“Easy with the SAT words.”

“Be nice,” Nathan tells him as he turns away.

Caleb steps right into the spot that Nathan left and Ben jumps. Nathan was onto something with the bell idea.

“What time should I be at your house?”

“What?”

Caleb sighs and shakes his head.“For the project.”

“Right.”

He presses his lips into a thin line and Ben already hates this project more than anything. “I figured we could work on it at your house. We could go to mine but my mom will be really embarrassing. She’s all worried about me not making friends so she’s going to be all over you and we wouldn’t get anything done.”

Ben frowns.

“But we can work there if you want. Or we could meet in the library, that’s fine too.”

“We can’t work in the library.”

“Why not?”

“I have practice until four thirty. The library closes at five. We can work at my house. You can meet at my house at four forty-five. I’ll be home by then.”

“No, I don’t have a car-“

“You don’t have a car?”

“I sold it before I moved here and haven’t gotten a chance to buy a new one.”

“Can’t your mom drop you off?”

“She’d hang around. She’d want to meet you.”

They’re running out of options.

“You can watch us practice.”

“Why don’t I work on it in the library until you’re done with practice and you can meet me there and we can go to your house?”

“You’re okay with that?”

“I don’t think we have a choice.”

“Fine, I’ll meet you in the library around four thirty.”

“Great.”

*****

Practice is a disaster.

All he can think about is how much every movement hurts and how in exactly two hours (an hour and forty five minutes, an hour and a half, a half an hour) he has to go get Caleb, drive him back to his house, and spend the evening working with him.

He doesn’t strike anyone out and doesn’t get a single hit when he steps up to hit.

“Being captain is slipping away from you, Tallmadge,” Simcoe yells after him as Ben sprints out of the locker room.

“Sorry I’m late.” Everything slips out of Ben’s hands on onto the table. His gym bag, backpack, glove, and water bottle scatters across the surface displacing several of the books Caleb has opened.

He’s a mess.

He’s a total mess and Caleb has to think it too because he’s barely looking at him. He’s sweaty and probably, definitely, smells. There are grass stains all over his uniform and he has serious hat head. He takes off his cap and runs the back of his hand over his forehead then pushes his hair back.

Caleb glances up. “You’re not late.”

“No shit. I could’ve taken a shower.”

“You didn’t shower?”

Ben raises his arms and points to his uniform and general state of disgust. “I thought I was late,” He starts to gather up his stuff. “I’ll shower at home. You ready to go?”

The ride home is silent and tense.

“My dad should have dinner almost done.”

“I’m not that hungry.”

There was a half eaten bag of trail mix on the library table.

“Well….fine.”

This was going to be a long night.

*****

“Dad.”

“In the kitchen.”

“I have a guest, don’t be weird.”

Ben toes off his cleats next to the door and Caleb takes off his sneakers.

“A guest? About time you brought someone other than Nathan home.”

Ben mouths I’m sorry to Caleb as his dad steps out of the kitchen.

Nathaniel Tallmadge is an intimidating figure. He’s a good four inches taller than Ben with a commanding voice and an imposing presence. But he also has the same clear, blue eyes and warm smile and Caleb looks like he’s not sure what to do.

“Dad, this is Caleb. We have to work on a history project.”

“After dinner?” Mr. Tallmadge asks.

Ben nods and starts to pull his jersey out of the waistband of his pants.

“I’ll set an extra plate.”

“I don’t want to be a bother,” Caleb speaks up.

“You’re not,” Mr. Tallmadge tells him.

“Dad always makes a ton of food.”

“You eat it all.”

“I’m growing.”

“It’s not any extra work, Caleb. Hamburgers okay?” He asks and Caleb nods. “Great.”

“We can put our stuff in my room.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Caleb.”

“You too, Sir.”

“Please, call me Nate, all Ben’s friends do.”

Ben smiles tightly at Caleb then grabs his bags and starts up the stairs with Caleb following. Ben’s legs burn so he goes slow.

“Your dad is nice.”

“He loves meeting new people.”

“What does he do?”

“He’s a reverend.”

“Really? Does he know how much you swear?”

“Where do you think I learned it from?”

“What does your mom do?”

“She died about ten years ago,” Ben hauls himself onto the top landing and stifles a groan as he does so. He doesn’t hear footsteps behind him because Caleb has stopped halfway down.

“Shit. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, you listened to me complain about my mom.”

“Everyone complains about their parents.”

“I know but….”

“You didn’t know.”

“I know but I should’ve known. I see you every day.”

“We don’t really talk about, well, we don’t talk.”

They stare at each other. The only sound is Nate singing in the kitchen, unknowingly trying to break the tension. It works as Ben laughs and Caleb follows.

“He’s embarrassing.”

“Just a little bit,” Caleb takes the remaining stairs two at a time and laughs at the look on Ben’s face.

Ben dumps his bag on the bed, which he thankfully made this morning. He has her jersey unbuttoned and is pulling it off his arms leaving him in his baseball pants and a white t-shirt. When he turns around Caleb is lingering in the doorway, staring at his back. His eyes snap up when it registers that Ben has turned around.

“I’m going to take a shower, I’ll be quick,” He bends down and peels off his socks. “You can wait here or go down with my dad.”

Caleb doesn’t look thrilled with either option. He’s still holding his backpack.

“I’m sure my dad would love the company,” Ben starts to pull his shirt over his head and Caleb throws his bag in the general direction of his bed.

“I’ll be downstairs.”

Caleb is out of the doorway and down the stairs before Ben has his shirt all the way off.

He finds both of them in the kitchen, chatting quietly about the classes that Caleb is taking. Caleb is tearing lettuce into a bowl and his dad is watching the burgers on the stove. They’re laughing, of course, because Caleb can get along with anyone that isn’t him.

Ben goes to the freezer and pulls out a Ziploc bag full of ice and bangs it on the table a few times to break up the bigger bits then lays it on his shoulder.

“Your arm okay?” Nate asks as Ben sits at the kitchen table.

“It’s fine.”

“Arnold isn’t working you too hard? You’re moving like an old man.”

“It’s fine.”

Caleb focuses on the salad because they both know Ben’s aches and pains are more from keeping up with Caleb than they are from practice.

“Fine? I have a hard time believing a seventeen year old kid should be that uncomfortable. Do you want me to talk to him?” He points his spatula at Ben. “You know I’ll go down there and talk to him.”

“I know you would. We don’t need another incident.”

“There was an incident?” Caleb perks up. “Are you on some kind of watch list at the school? You can’t enter or something?”

“Please don’t tell that story,” Ben pleads.

“But it sounds like a good one.”

“Oh,” Nate turns to him. “It is.”

“Dad, please,” Ben can feel the tips of his ears turn red. Caleb looks like he loves it. “Please don’t.”

“Now you gotta tell me.”

Nate leans towards Caleb and stage whispers. “I’ll tell you later.”

“No.”

*****

Ben grabs a bag of chips after dinner and before they head upstairs.

“How can you still be hungry?”

Ben shrugs.

“Don’t eat the whole bag.”

“No promises.”

He tucks a couple of cans of soda under his arm.

“At least take these with you,” He tosses a bag of baby carrots at them which Caleb catches one handed without even looking.

Ben cracks open the bag of chips and grabs a handful as he lays on his stomach on his bed. Caleb sits at his desk and looks up at Ben’s trophies.

“So you’re really good at baseball?”

“You’re surprised? I’m a lot better than gym class makes me look, than you make me look.”

Caleb laughs. “I like to be a challenge.”

“Is that what you call it?”

Caleb laughs again and Ben can’t help but smile.

“Most of them are for participation anyways.”

Caleb stands to get a better look. “MVP, state championship, MVP, MVP, rookie of the year. I don’t see any for participation.”

“Look at the little league and T-Ball ones.”

“You weren’t a star back then?”

“Not much pitching in T-Ball. You know you could have a few of those if you joined the team.”

“Nah. Don’t know if I’m much of a team player.”

“How hard did Arnold try to convince you to join the team?”

“He followed me around for a week. He even waited for me outside of a few of my classes.”

“He’s determined.”

“What’s his deal anyways?”

“He used to play. He was really good; he even had major league scouts looking at him. Then he tore his ACL and he never really got better.”

“So now he teaches.”

“Yup.”

“And gets yelled at by your dad.”

“I bet her never thought he’d end up having to deal with that.”

*****

Ben drives him home around 9:15. They managed to get a lot of work done and Ben starts to think that maybe this won’t be as bad as he built it up to be.

The ride is still quiet but it has lost some of its awkwardness.

Caleb has the door open before Ben can put the car in park.

“Tomorrow at the same time?” He gets out of the car and swings his bag onto his shoulder.

“Yeah, sure.”

Then the awkwardness hits.

“This was…” Ben starts but the porch light flicks on and Caleb’s out the door.

“You have to go; my mom is going to want to meet you.”

“I’ll meet your mom.”

“Get out of here, please.”

“Fine, fine, but I’m going to meet her eventually. I have to now that I know how much you don’t want me to.”

“That’s a dick move.”

“What do you expect from me at this point?”

In the dim light Ben can just make out Caleb’s smile.

“Goodnight, Ben.”

“Caleb’s nice,” His dad tells him when he gets home.

He’s about to laugh and rolls his eyes because, yeah right, but, this was a nice night.

“Yeah, I guess.”

****

In the morning Nathan finds him before the bell rings.

“How did it go?”

“Oddly fine. My dad likes him. He likes my dad.”

“You didn’t fight?”

“No, we talked. He’s actually pretty cool when he’s not pissing me off.”

“Okay.”

“He’s coming back over tonight so we’ll see how it goes.”

*****

“Dammit.”

Ben hates lacrosse. He hates that his team made him the goalie and that he sucks at it. He hates that Caleb’s on his team so every time Simcoe scores on him he’s letting him down.

“Dammit.”

He hates that he’s sitting with his legs tucked beneath him with his lacrosse stick across his lap, the ball is in the back corner of the net and Simcoe is high fiving with his stick with Akinbode.

“Get up Tallmadge,” Arnold calls from the sideline. “Get over it.”

Ben leans back to grab the ball and when he turns back around Caleb’s standing in front of him with his hands on his hips, his lacrosse stick behind him.

“I get it,” Ben tells him as he hurtles the ball towards the middle of the field. A freshman catches it easily and takes off. Ben stays on the ground because that’s where he belongs. “I’m terrible at this and I’m costing us the game.”

“I wasn’t going to say that.”

Ben rolls his eyes and starts to stand but stops when Caleb sticks his hand out.

“Come on,” He curls his fingers and Ben slowly reaches out to take it and lets Caleb haul him to his feet. “Let me take over.”

“You do think I’m terrible.”

“I think you’re worth more out in the field,” He lets go of Ben’s hand. “Go out there and accidentally trip Simcoe.”

“Okay. If you think you can do a better job.”

“I couldn’t do worse.”

Ben gives him the finger as he runs into the fray.

Caleb’s laugh carries across the field.

*****

That night they have spaghetti and in between work on the project they talk about Ben’s brother who is away at college and how Caleb is an only child.

The next night it’s tacos and how Ben is definitely going to college but not to play baseball and Caleb’s planning on skipping it to travel.

“You’ve been traveling your whole life.”

“Not on my own. I want to decide where I want to go, how long I want to stay and when I want to leave. I’ve got some money saved up. Why do you think I haven’t bought a car yet?”

When the weather starts to warm up Caleb brings all his books outside and watches practice from the bleachers.

Every time Arnold praises something Ben has done he looks to see if Caleb has been watching.

He always is.

*****

Arnold does make Ben captain.

He pulls Ben into his office at the end of practice and asks him if he’s ready to take on the responsibility.

Ben graciously accepts and answers Simcoe’s look of revulsion with his own smug smile.

The next day in gym Simcoe’s elbow connects squarely with Ben’s face as he tries to stop Ben from scoring the winning goal as they play soccer.

It’s enough of an accident that Arnold doesn’t take any disciplinary action but there’s blood on Ben’s shirt coming from his nose and his mouth tastes like metal.

Caleb guides him through the empty halls by the wrist. He yells at him three times to ‘keep your head back, you ass’ before Ben gives up and accepts being babied.

Caleb shoves him, gently, into the chair that Miss. Dandridge points to before she runs off to grab an ice pack.

“What does Simcoe have against you this week?”

“Oh,” Ben tips his chin down to speak but Caleb has his fingers against his jaws to move it.

“Keep your head back.”

“I’m trying to answer you. You want me to answer you or keep my head back?”

“Both.”

Ben rolls his eyes. “He’s mad that coach made me captain over him. He thinks he deserves it more.”

“That’s it?”

“He’s a douche,” Ben says simply. “You don’t think it’s broken do you?”

Caleb’s fingers wrap around his wrists and he gently pulls his hands away from his face. Caleb winces and Ben tenses.

“Oh god, how bad does it look?”

Caleb sucks in a breath through his teeth.

“Caleb,” Ben’s alarmed and ready to bounce out of the chair to find a mirror.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Caleb laughs. “It’s not broken. You face is as perfect as ever.”

Caleb’s face immediately blushes bright red.

“You know, it’s almost impossible not to hear what the girls in class say about you. They go on and on,” He rolls his eyes and shakes his head but the scarlet color on his cheeks spreads down his neck and curls around his ears. He still has his fingers wrapped around his wrists.

“Okay hun…” Miss. Dandridge stops short when she sees the two of them and smiles slyly when she sees how quick Caleb removes his hands from Ben’s. “Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“It’s nothing,” Ben says at the same time Caleb says “You didn’t.”

“Alright then,” She’s still smiling and they’re both blushing as she hands the ice pack to Ben. “That should help. Do you want to stay and wait with him, Caleb?”

He stands so fast he almost smacks Ben in the face with his hand. “I should go. I have to get to class.”

“Oh, it’s fine; I’ll write you a note.”

“I don’t know if Mr. Washington will accept that.”

“Oh him,” She smiles and shrugs her shoulders. “He isn’t as bad as he seems. Once he sees it’s from me he won’t question it. Just between the three of us he’s got a real soft spot for me.”

She heads back to her desk and Caleb sits back down with his hands tucked between his knees.

When Ben and Caleb walk into history everyone stares at them. Miss. Dandridge didn’t think Ben would get a black eye but he does have a split lip. Caleb still has the faintest hint of a blush across his cheeks.

“I hope you boys have a good reason for interrupting my class,” Mr. Washington says from the front of the room. Caleb wordlessly hands him the note and Washington’s stern looks fades away to a small smile when he reads the signature at the bottom. He schools his expression and nods towards their seats. “Go sit, you’ll have to take notes from someone else to catch up on what you’ve missed.”

“What the hell happened to your face,” Nathan frantically whispers to Ben before he turns to Caleb. “Did you do this?”

“It wasn’t me, I swear.”

“I’ll tell you about it later, let us copy your notes,” Ben whispers back, not taking his eye off the board and not thinking about how referring to him and Caleb as us makes him feel.

*****

Caleb is in the middle of a rant about something “Mr. Lee did when he realizes that Ben missed the turn.

“This is not the way to your house.”

“We’re not going to my house, we’re going to yours. This is the last night we’ll be working on it, this is my last chance.”

Caleb makes a grab for the wheel but Ben fights him off.

Ben thinks Caleb’s mom is awesome.

Sarah Brewster is barely five feet tall with curly brown and warm brown eyes. She pulls Ben into a hug with force that does not line up with her slight frame and practically bounces as she releases him.

“It’s so nice to meet you, finally. Well, I actually feel like I already know you with how much Caleb talks about you.”

“Mom.”

Caleb looks like he wants to die and Ben loves it.

Sarah waves a hand at Caleb and guides Ben by the elbow to the kitchen table. “So tell me, how was practice?”

Caleb’s dad is still working so Sarah and Ben dominate the dinnertime conversation. Caleb continues to look mortified as they talk about the trouble Ben’s having in calculus and how his family used to take a trip down to Disney World every summer.

As they work she keeps a steady supply of grilled cheese available and sends Ben home with two dozen freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

“Your mom is great; I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ben tells him on the way to his car. Sarah insisted that her son walk him out.

“I thought she was going to break out the baby pictures.”

“I think that’s next time.”

“I don’t think so. We hand the project in tomorrow.”

“Well I’m definitely coming back. I don’t need you,” He’s already eaten four cookies and he’s working on his fifth. “Tell her these are really good.”

“Save some for your dad.”

“Yeah, yeah,” He pops the rest of the cookie into his mouth and wipes his hands against Caleb’s shirt. Caleb angles his body away but doesn’t take a step back. “Do you want to come over Friday night?”

“Why?”

“I thought we could hang out, maybe watch a movie?”

Ben got his first kiss in the seventh grade. His palms were sweaty and his stomach was flipping but he feels more nervous now just asking Caleb over for a movie.

“Just the two of us?”

Ben crams his fifth cookie into his mouth.

“Yeah, I hadn’t invited anyone else. I could-.”

“Okay,” Caleb interrupts. “I’ll be over. After practice?”

Ben shakes his head. “Coach is giving us the night off because our season opener is Saturday. He wants us to rest up. Hey, you should come to that. You’ve been watching us practice. You should see what we’re practicing for. Invite your mom.”

“Oh god, she’d probably make a banner and wear an I Heart Ben t-shirt.”

“Well now she has to come.”

“She’ll probably make me wear one.”

“Hey, even better.”

The silence that settles over them is warm and comfortable. Ben feels like he should say more. He should tell him that he couldn’t have asked for a better partner for this project. That he’s going to miss hanging out with him every night and that watching a movie on Friday is not enough.

He feels like he should say that he wants more.

The thought is so sudden and overwhelming and Ben promptly freaks out.

“So I’ll see you on Friday.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Right,” Ben laughs nervously and tries to make a quick escape but his door is locked and his keys are in his pocket. He puts the cookies on the hood so he can find the keys, yanks the door open and slides inside. He tries to close the door but Caleb’s holding it open.

“Don’t forget the cookies,” He hands him the Tupperware.

“Right, right,” Ben puts them on the passenger seat and fumbles with the keys to start the car. “Don’t forget the project.”

“I won’t,” Caleb’s still holding onto the door and Ben wants to reach out and pull it closed. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Ben.”

“Okay,” Ben says, all breathless and stupid.

“Do you think you could give me a ride home tomorrow? I have to study for civics so I’ll be around.”

“Yeah, sure, no problem,” He finally gets the key in the ignition. “Have a good night.”

Caleb closes the door without another word.

When Ben gets home his dad is still up watching TV.

Ben drops the container of cookies in his lap.

“Caleb’s mom make these?”

“Yup.”

“Did there used to be a lot more of them?”

“Yup.”

“Are you okay?” He calls to Ben’s retreating form.

Ben’s halfway up the stairs when he answers back “Yup.”

He lies awake for the better part of the night trying to talk himself down from the ledge. This is not what he thinks it is. Even if it was Caleb doesn’t like him like that. He was only being nice to him and getting along with him because he needed to get a good grade on this assignment. He only agreed to watch a movie with him on Friday because he needs a ride home from him tomorrow. Caleb understands that sometimes you need to give a little to get what you want. Plus Caleb probably won’t even be here next year. There’s no point to feeling this way.

Tomorrow at school will be just like any other day.

It is.

In gym they’re still playing soccer but Arnold puts them on different teams. Ben finds himself on defense and Caleb on offense so they aren’t even on the same side of the field at the same time.

They hand in the project and Mr. Washington starts teaching a new topic.

Caleb sits behind him silently just like he’s done every day since he showed up.

Ben’s able to breathe a little easier.

*****

Ben hits a solid double and as he’s nearing first base Bradford crowds the plate.

It’s a combination of Ben not being able to change direction quick enough and Bradford not so subtly pushing him in the chest that sends Ben to the ground, hard.

He still has his batting helmet on so it softens the blow but his head still hits the dirt with enough force that everyone, including the cheerleaders that are practicing in the next field over, turns to look.

The play stops and Arnold bolts out from the sideline with the athletic trainer following after. Nathan hurries in from right field and shoves Bradford back. Caleb stands from where he’s been sitting on the bottom bleacher and links his fingers through the fence.

Arnold tells Will to run a mile on the track.

“But Coach-”

“A mile and a half,” He snaps over the sound of Ben’s pathetic sounding moans. “You want to join him, John?” He says to Simcoe who is trying and failing to cover his smile.

Nathan and Arnold hover over the trainer as he checks Ben over.

Caleb’s gripping the fence so tight the metal is starting to cut into his hand.

Ben finally sits up slowly. “I’m fine, I’m fine. I just got the wind knocked out of me,” He starts to surge up but there are three people pushing him back down. “Where’s Bradford?”

“He’s taking laps, chill.” Nathan tells him, a hand still on his shoulder.

Once Ben answers all the trainers questions; it’s Tuesday, I don’t have a headache, I don’t feel like I’m going to throw up, you’re holding up three fingers, I already told you it was Tuesday, Nathan helps him to his feet and walks him to the dugout. Caleb meets them there.

“I’m fine,” Ben tells him before Caleb can ask.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“He’s lucky he had the helmet on,” Nathan says and bats at the helmet before he jobs away to rejoin practice.

“You spend a lot of your time with your ass on the ground, Tallmadge. Maybe you should always wear the helmet.”

Ben laughs softly as he pulls the helmet off and drops it to the ground at his feet.

“Will’s kind of a douche.”

“Yup,” Ben rolls his shoulder and ignores the way Caleb watches him.

“Is your arm okay?”

“Yes, dad,” He points a finger at Caleb. “And don’t tell my dad about this or you’ll be walking home,” He watches Bradford run around the track then looks back at the books Caleb left on the bleachers. “You know I can help you with civics. I took it last semester.”

“I’m having a hard time memorizing the names of some of the people.”

“Yeah but I’ve got tricks to help with that.”

“Do you have time? I was going to ask Abe.”

“Please, I am way better than Abe.”

“I’m not arguing with that.”

When Caleb looks up at him he’s smiling and Ben blocking out the sun from in front of Caleb so just the faintest hint of light glows around Caleb’s head. He starts feeling like he did last night, all warm and happy and he realizes that it wasn’t just a onetime thing. It wasn’t a fleeting thought. It’s sticking around and hitting him hard.

Without a doubt he's falling for Caleb.

Chapter Text

“I like Caleb.”

Nathan doesn’t even look up from the bag of skittles. “Good, me too.”

Ben has snuck into the library to talk to Nathan on his study hall.

“No, I’m having…” He presses his lips together and Nathan lifts his eyes from the food to Ben. “I’m thinking about kissing Caleb.”

Nathan chokes. “No,” He coughs.

“Oh yeah. Big time.”

“No Ben. What the hell?”

“I can’t help it.”

“Yes you can. The last time we talked about him I told you stay away and leave him alone.”

“I couldn’t. Mr. Washington put us together.”

“And then you kept hanging out with him.”

“I liked spending time with him.”

“Obviously. How did this happen?”

“It just kind of….happened. It hit me. It was after you brought me over to him at practice yesterday.”

Nathan points a finger. “Don’t you put this on me.”

“We were talking and he was worried about my arm and the sun hit him…”

“The sun?”

Ben shrugs, helpless. “What do I do?”

“Nothing.”

“I want to kiss him.”

“I don’t care.”

“Shouldn’t I tell him? Doesn’t he deserve to know?”

“No. Telling him will get you nowhere. This is just a stupid crush anyways, right? No big deal. It was the sun,” He scrunches his face. “And you had just hit your head. Cool it. Maybe don’t spend so much time with him.”

“I asked him to come over and watch a movie with me on Friday.”

“Uninvite him.”

“I can’t do that. I also invited him to the game Saturday.”

“Uninvite him.”

“I can’t! I did this before I figured it out. He’d want to know why I cancelled and I can’t tell him the truth.”

Nathan blows out a deep breath. “Just keep it together. Try to keep it in your pants.”

*****

Ben has this under control.

He’s excelling in gym right now, flying down the field with no one ahead of him, no one trying to stop him. The thing he’s focusing on is getting the ball past Akinbode and into the net.

Akinbode gives it his all to stop it. He ends up flat on the ground as the ball sails past him and into the back corner.

When he turns around haft the class is laughing at him and the other half looks disgusted. It’s because Akinbode was on his team. He scored in his own goal.

Caleb jogs up laughing. He has to put a hand on Ben’s shoulder to keep his balance. “What the hell was that?”

“I…um.”

Akinbode jogs past him with the soccer ball in his hands, intentionally brushing against Ben’s shoulder as he goes by.

“That was hilarious,” Caleb’s still laughing, still has his hand on Ben’s shoulder and Ben is blushing from his head to his toes. “You can’t even blame me for that one. That was all you,” He squeezes his shoulder before he runs off.

Ben’s blaming him for this.

*****

Ben does not have this under control.

Studying with Caleb has taken a sharp and uncomfortable turn.

Caleb sits close on the couch in his living room as they pour over notes and textbooks. They’re pressed hip to knee and Caleb keeps leaning over Ben to grab pretzels out of the one of the bowls Sarah dropped off earlier.

Once he gets home places a frantic call to Nathan.

“He was like, leaning into me the whole time. Like, he’d reach across my lap, Nathan. My lap. I had to move the bowl of pretzels to the other side of me to stop him.”

“Chill out.”

“I can’t chill out. His hair looked so soft and curly and he smelled so good. His mother was in the next room, Nathan. The next room. His mother. I can’t do this anymore. It’s physically painful.”

“I really don’t need to hear how this is physically affecting you.”

“Have some sympathy.”

“I do. I understand that this is hard for you, no pun intended.”

“Nathan.”

“I couldn’t resist.”

“None of this is funny. What am I supposed to do when I’m totally into someone who hates me?”

“He doesn’t hate you.”

“He doesn’t feel the same way.”

Nathan is quiet for a long time.

“I should never have said that I would study with him. I shouldn’t have invited him over Friday or told him anything about the game. How am I supposed to concentrate?”

“I don’t know but you better figure it out because I am not losing to those assholes.”

*****

“Have you been listening to me?” Caleb puts his hand on his shoulder and Ben immediately shakes it off. Caleb drops it back onto his lap. “Are you okay?”

By some miracle Ben has made it through the rest of the week without any serious screw ups. He gets the ball in the right goal in gym and maintains a system of getting up and going to the bathroom or getting something to drink every time Caleb gets too close while they study. He spends more time walking around than actually studying but it’s worth it.

Now he’s driving Caleb to his house and trying to figure out how he’s going to survive the evening without books and notes to distract him.

“I’m fine. I’m tired.”

“Oh. You know you can just bring me home. We don’t have to do this.”

“No, no, no, I want to,” He does. He really does. He can’t think of a better way to spend a Friday night. He just wishes he was able to enjoy it outwardly. “I think I’m just nervous about the game.”

“I don’t think you need to be.”

“They’re our biggest rival. We lost the championship to them last year.”

Caleb laughs. “Oh shit, really?”

“Yes.”

“What a way to start the season, playing the last team you lost to.”

“It’ll certainly set the tone for the rest of it.”

“I still don’t think you have anything to worry about. I’ve been watching you guys practice. You’re really good. I’m not just saying that.”

“Thanks Caleb. I really appreciate that.”

When he looks over at Caleb, Caleb’s looking back.

*****

Before dinner Ben starts his usual routine of icing his shoulder.

“You can both stop looking at me like that,” He tells his dad and Caleb. “I do this every night.”

“That’s why we’re looking at you like this,” Caleb tells him as he stirs a pot of soup on the stove.

Ben rolls his eyes and re-positions the bag. It keeps slipping.

“I liked it better when you were ganging up on me.”

“I like him better when he’s on my side,” Nate takes the spoon from Caleb and steers him to the table.

Caleb grabs the bag of ice from Ben’s hand and Ben sits very still as Caleb hooks a finger around the collar of his shirt and slides the bag right against his skin. His knuckles bump across Ben’s collarbone.

“I’m tired of watching you fight with this thing,” He tells Ben quietly. “The fabric will keep it in place.”

All Ben can do is gaze up at him.

*****

“I’m hungry.”

An hour after dinner they’re in the basement watching Mad Max. Caleb is lounging on the couch with his feet tucked beneath Ben’s thigh and his arms stretched back over the arm of the couch, comfortable and relaxed.

Ben’s sitting up straight and trying really hard not to notice the way Caleb’s shirt rides up.

“We just ate dinner.”

“So what?”

“I think there are some French fries in the freezer.”

“You got cheese?”

Caleb preheats the oven as Ben tosses the bag of fries on the counter and loots the fridge.

“Cheese,” He throws the bag blindly in Caleb’s direction trusting that he’ll catch it. “Jalapenos.”

“Yes.”

“Green onions.”

“Yes.”

“Salsa?”

“Maybe, bring it out, I’ll think about it.”

Ben dumps the fries on a baking sheet as Caleb sits on the counter next to him swinging his legs and looking at his phone.

“You know Robert Rogers?”

“He’s the pitcher for The Rangers.”

“Yeah, I had to ask some people at school who it was and then stalked him on Facebook which made me feel creepy but whatever and look-.” Caleb holds up the phone. Rogers is holding a bottle of beer in one hand and a red solo cup in the other. “This is happening right now. There are others too. Can you believe this idiot? He’s going to be so hung-over tomorrow. He’s going to play like shit. Look at you, you went to practice, came home, had dinner, and relaxed.”

“Now I’m going to be eating an entire bag of French fries with cheese and god knows what else.”

“Half a bag. I’m eating too. You’re carbo loading. You’ll probably run three miles in the morning and burn this off anyways.”

That’s exactly what he was planning on doing.

“My point is that this guy doesn’t have shit on you. You’re going to do fine tomorrow. More than fine. You’re gonna kill them. I know you can.”

“You looked this guy up just to make me feel better about myself?”

“You’ve been acting weird all week. I wanted to make you feel better. I think the whole team is there. Hey, look at this one,” He laughs and holds the phone out and in one, swift motion Ben knocks his arm (the phone hits the floor), steps between his legs and kisses him.

Ben has his palm flat on the side of Caleb’s neck with his fingers curled around the back of his head, winding into his hair. His hands are cold from pulling the fries out of the freezer. Caleb shivers.

It’s not a soft or gentle kiss. He’s past that. If he kissed him like he wanted to at practice (it would’ve been him and the sun kissing Caleb’s face) or while they were studying (salty like the pretzels but sweet to because it’s him, it’s the two of them) he would’ve taken his time. But now it feels like he’s been waiting to do this forever and he’s not wasting any more time. Caleb inches forward on the counter and Ben is desperate for more contact so he gets a hand to Caleb’s hip, tucks a finger into a belt loop and pulls. Caleb gasps and Ben could die happy. He could lose the game by fifty tomorrow and not care.

Then Caleb has a hand square in the middle of his chest, pushing him back and Ben can’t focus on any one thing. Caleb’s pupils are blown wide. Wet, red, lips. He’s breathing heavy. He has his right ankle tucked around Ben’s left knee. The oven beeps. His dad coughs in the living room. His dad is one room away,

“Caleb.”

Caleb’s jaw sets. He extends his arm and pushes him further away.

“He wasn’t supposed to say anything to you.”

Ben blinks.

“What?”

Ben is sluggish, it’s like he’s swimming through sand when Caleb hops off the counter and grabs his sweatshirt off the back of the kitchen chair. He doesn’t even turn around to watch him leave but he hears the door close and then his father’s footsteps.

“Where’s Caleb going?”

He left his phone. Ben bends down to pick it up then has to steady himself against the counter as he turns to his dad.

“Are you okay? Does Caleb feel okay?”

“I…I…”

“What’s going on? Is he going home?”

“I…”He can’t pull himself together. “Yes, I guess.”

“Are you driving him?”

He ran away.

“No.”

“Is someone picking him up?”

“No.”

“He can’t walk. Ben?”

“What?”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.”

“Go get him. Give him a ride.”

“No.”

“Ben.”

“I can’t.” He can’t even move.

Nate points his finger at him. “You’re going to tell him what happened,” he says before he grabs his keeps off the hook and heads out the door.

*****

When his dad comes home Ben is in bed, facing the wall with the covers pulled over his head pretending to sleep. He hears his footsteps stop outside of his room and then wait there.

“You could’ve at least turned the oven off.”

Ben tenses then pulls the covers tighter.

*****

Ben is up at 6:30.

His dad gets up at 5:45 so when Ben stumbles down the stairs in a t-shirt and running shorts with his sneakers barely tied, Mr. Tallmadge is sitting at the kitchen table sipping his second cup of coffee and reading the paper.

Ben tries to slip by.

“Benjamin.”

It doesn’t work.

He backtracks and stands in the hallway.

“I’m going for a run.”

“Don’t you think you should rest up for this afternoon?”

“No.”

“Do you think you should tell me what happened last night?”

“No.” He puts his ear buds in and runs out the door with Caleb’s phone in his pocket.

Caleb’s house is approximately 3.5 miles away. He makes it there in a little less than a half an hour. He catches his breath at the end of their driveway and tries to figure out what his next step is. He came all this way; it would be a waste to run all the way back with the phone. Knocking on the door is risky so he decides to put it in the mailbox and take off.

“You’re up early.”

Sarah Brewster is coming out of the house in a robe and slippers. There’s a newspaper at Ben’s feet. He picks it up.

“Too excited to sleep?” She’s smiling. Obviously Caleb didn’t tell her what happened. “Did you run all the way here?”

He has to start answering her questions.

“It’s just a jog.”

She laughs again and takes the paper. “A jog is 4 miles to you? I am clearly not cut out for exercise.”

Ben’s mouth tastes like metal and his legs feel like jello.

“It’s not so bad once you get used to it.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Caleb’s still asleep but you’re more than welcome to come in for breakfast.” She’s so nice. God, did he screw this whole thing up.

“I’m fine. Can you give this to Caleb for me?”

The phones a little sweaty so he wipes it on his shirt. Sarah doesn’t comment on it when she takes it.

“He left it at my house last night.”

“I usually can’t get him away from the thing.”

Ben shrugs.

“I should go.”

“You sure you don’t want to come in? Not for some water?”

“I’m okay, promise,” His breathing has just started to even out. “Will I see you at the game?”

“Oh yeah, wouldn’t miss it. I think I might be more excited than Caleb is.”

Ben forces a smile before he waves and runs home.

*****

“I kissed him,” Ben whispers to Nathan in the locker room. Nathan stops tying his shoes and shakes his head. “Last night. I kissed him.”

“Holy shit.”

“It was bad. It was amazing but he freaked out on me and took off. My dad had to drive him home. He would’ve walked home in the dark to get away from me.”

“Why did you kiss him when I specifically told you not to?”

“I couldn’t help it.”

Nathan slams his locker shut. “Ben.”

“He kissed me back. It was nice, perfect, and then I don’t know. He pushed me away and said something like he shouldn’t have said anything or whatever. Is he talking about you?”

“I can’t believe I’m involved in this.”

“What aren’t you supposed to tell me?”

“I promised Caleb.”

“I’m your best friend.”

“And you’re mine and you didn’t listen to me. I begged you to let it be and you kiss him? You figure this out for yourself,” He grabs his glove off the bench. “I can’t waste my time getting mad at you, it’s only going to screw the both of us so I’m not talking about this now. Or ever.”

“Nathan.”

“Save it.”

*****

Anna tries to get Nathan’s attention as they hit the field but he runs by.

“What the hell is his problem?”

“He’s nervous. Have you guys seen Caleb?”

“No. We’ve been looking,” Abe says. “He hasn’t shut up about this game all week.”

“If you see him just….tell him I need to talk to him. Don’t let him leave until I talk to him, okay?”

“Yeah, fine,” Abe agrees. “Now go kick Rogers’s ass.”

*****

Ben plays fine until the bottom of the 7th.

They’re ahead by six runs and all he has to do is strike out three more people and they win. It shouldn’t be a problem; Rogers and the rest of the team have been playing weak and sloppy, hung-over just like Caleb said they’d be. But then he spots Sarah in the crowd and he knows that she knows. He can see it on her face but she’s still there. She’s so nice and caring and he’ll probably never spend any more time with her or Caleb because he’s an idiot who didn’t listen to his best friend.

He’s so screwed.

He falls apart.

The next kid that steps up hits a home run. The next a triple, then a double, then another home run.

Nathan has a hand on his hip and is shaking his head. Simcoe’s yelling ‘come on Captain’, in the same tone he’d used to say ‘fuck you’ and Arnold comes running out with the freshman backup pitcher, Newt, right behind him. Newt looks equal parts excited and terrified.

Arnold speaks to him in one long breath: “You doing okay? Do we need to pull you out? Does your shoulder hurt? You gotta work through it. Do you want to be replaced in the 7th inning? You can go sit down if you’re tired, are you too tired to play? You’re the captain; you want to act like it?”

He gets angrier and angrier as he sees his victory slipping away. Newt is in no way prepared to handle this kind of pressure. His life depends on Ben getting his shit together.

“I can do it. It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?”

Ben looks at Newt. He’s wide eyed and shaking.

“I’m sure.”

Arnold stalks off with Newt trailing behind.

The crowd it silent until Sarah stands, cups her hands around her mouth and shouts, “Come on Ben!” and he can feel Caleb dying of embarrassment from miles away.

She gets the crowd going and everyone stands and cheers and The Rangers look like they can’t stomach the extra noise.

He strikes out the next three players, no problem, and the crowd rushes the field like they just won the state championship. Nathan slings an arm around his shoulder, Anna throws her arms around his neck, and Abigail kisses his cheek. Even Simcoe pats him on the back.

Once the pandemonium dies down Sarah seeks him out and hugs him.

“Congratulations,” She releases him and squeezes his arm then shifts her focus to Nate. “You must be Ben’s father. I’ve heard a lot about you,” She offers her hand and Nate shakes it. “I’m Sarah, Caleb’s mom.”

“It’s nice to meet you, I’m Nate. I want to thank you for the cookies you’ve been sending our way. Ben’s nice enough to save one or two for me,” He jokes as he slaps Ben on the back.

“I’ll be sure to pack extras next time,” She takes a step back and her smile falters. “I’m so sorry Caleb couldn’t make it. He’s not feeling well. He missed a good game. I’m sure he’d be happy for you.”

Ben’s not sure if he buys that but it’s a nice thought.

“I should head home, check on him.”

“Mrs. Brewster,” Ben calls as she turns away. “Tell him I hope he feels better.”

“Of course, dear.”

*****

Sunday is lackluster. His dad doesn’t wake him for church so he sleeps until noon then lies in bed and stares at the ceiling until one. He’s not even hungry when he drags himself down the stairs to pour at bowl of cereal. His dad doesn’t say anything as he climbs back up the stairs. He eats his cereal, finishes up what’s left of his homework, and goes back to bed.

*****

“I don’t feel well.”

Nate presses the back of his hand to Ben’s forehead.

“You don’t feel warm.”

“It’s my stomach.”

“It’s a big lie. Since you won’t tell me what’s wrong you’re going to have to go out there and face it on your own. I can’t help you if I’m kept in the dark.”

Ben stares down at his bare feet.

“Go get dressed. You don’t want to be late.”

*****

It’s raining so gym is inside. Arnold’s already set up the badminton nets and announces they’ll be playing as pairs with their partners.

Ben knows they can’t avoid each other but Caleb is going to try.

“When will you talk to me?”

“Never.”

“Nathan didn’t-.”

Caleb points the racket at him and cuts him off. “Nathan was supposed to keep his mouth shut.”

“He didn’t tell me anything about you. He told me I should stay away from you.”

“And you didn’t listen.”

“I don’t understand why you two are so upset with me.”

“Hey,” Jessica, one of the freshmen they’re playing against calls over the net. Amy, her partner, taps her racket against the tip of her sneaker. “Can you two continue your bitch fit somewhere else? We’re trying to win the game.”

“I’m sorry I kissed you.”

“Oh shit,” Jessica says.

“I shouldn’t have done that.”

“No you shouldn’t have.”

“You kissed me back.”

“Oh shit,” Amy slaps Jessica on her arm with the back of her hand.

Caleb cuts them a dirty look and Ben steps closer. Caleb immediately shoves him back.

“Stay on your side of the court.”

“Gentleman, badminton is not a contact sport.”

“Let’s get this over with,” Caleb tells him as he hits the birdie back over the net. Jessica returns it easily and Ben lets it fall next to his feet. “Let’s go back to the way it was before that project.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I don’t care about what you want.”

“You’re my friend-.”

“I’m not your friend. I never wanted to be your friend,” He leans down to grab the birdie but Ben is quicker. He picks it up and holds it above his head. “Don’t be a dick.”

“I might have miscalculated some things,” He holds the birdie higher when Caleb makes a jump for it. “Maybe I misread some signs but there were signs.”

“No, there weren’t.”

“You sat so close to me. You reached over my lap, Caleb, my lap.”

Jessica bursts out laughing while Amy rolls her eyes and mumbles something about boys being so dense.

“Give me the birdie,” Caleb jumps again but he still can’t reach it.

“This is the dumbest conversation ever,” Jessica says. “Do you two even hear yourselves right now? Mr. Arnold, Ben and Caleb are being stupid.”

“What’s going on here?” Arnold asks from a few courts over.

“Ben kissed Caleb and apparently Caleb isn’t handling it very well but he totally should be because there have been signs, very obvious signs. Everyone here has seen it. You two are into each other.”

“See-,” Ben nods to Caleb. “Thank you Jessica. I didn’t kiss you out of the blue; I had a reason behind it.”

“Wait,” Akinbode wanders over from where he’s been playing a court over. This is officially a class discussion. “You guys kissed? When?”

“Can we stop talking about this?” Caleb asks as Ben says “Friday.”

“Friday? Is that why you sucked on Saturday?”

“We won.”

“Yeah, barely. Get this sorted out before tomorrow for all our sake.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do.”

“How many times do I have to tell you I don’t want to talk to you about this?”

“So you’re never going to talk to me again?”

“Boys,” Arnold is standing right next to them now. “Could you please discuss this after class? Keep your private lives private.”

“I’m trying,” Caleb says then lunges for the birdie in Ben’s hand.

Ben’s balance is off and he stumbles backwards. Caleb can’t catch himself in time and they end up on the ground.

It’s an accident but Caleb’s racket smacks into Ben’s jaw and Ben’s elbow collides with Caleb’s mouth. Ben shoves him off and Caleb shoves back. Ben knows that they must looks stupid and immature so he doesn’t put up much of a fight when Akinbode lifts him off the floor. Arnold has Caleb by the arm and is yelling at the two of them to knock it off. The rest of the class is either stunned into silence or trying not to laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Simcoe is openly laughing.

He lets Caleb go without a comment but he can’t let Ben slide by.

“Nice job, Captain. If you’re still the captain after this.”

Caleb manages to wriggle free of Arnold’s grasp and punches Simoce right in the face. He crumples to the ground while Arnold regains control of Caleb, tells someone to get the nurse, and drags Caleb out of the gym

*****

Arnold and Akinbode sit them down in chairs outside the principal’s office on opposite sides of the hall.

“Principle Scott said he’s already called your parents so you two just sit here, shut up, and wait for them to deal with you. They don’t pay me enough for this bullshit.”

Once they clear the corner Ben leans forward in his chair and hisses, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe it. Do you know how fucked up this is?”

Caleb winces across from him and his hands tighten on the arm rests.

“If I’m suspended I’m not going to be able to play in tomorrow’s game. They could kick me off the team. I could lose a scholarship over this. I’m supposed to go to Yale; I need all the help I can get. I can’t believe this,” He drops his head into his hand, mindful of his jaw. “What the hell, Caleb? Why did you hit Simcoe?”

Caleb closes his eyes and tips his head back.

Miss. Dandridge shows up with a frown on her face as she hands Ben an ice pack for his jaw and dabs ointment on Caleb’s busted lip and scraped up knuckles.

Nate appears out of nowhere and grabs Ben by the elbow, forcing him to his feet. “Let’s get this over with,” He says, voice icy and dripping with disappointment.

“Caleb,” Sarah’s making her way down the hallway followed by a man dressed in a crisp army camouflage uniform. It has to be Caleb’s father. Ben hasn’t met him yet, they both explained the he usually works late and often misses dinner. This is a terrible first meeting. They both stop in the middle when she sees Ben and Nate. “Ben? You got into a fight with Ben?”

“I’m just as surprised as you are,” Nate tells her. “It’s nice to see you again Sarah,” Then sticks his hand out to Caleb’s father who shakes it. “I’m Nate Tallmadge, Ben’s father.”

“John, it’s nice to meet you.”

“Yes, I wish it was under better circumstances but…” He sighs. “Let’s get this over with, please,” He gestures to Principle Scotts door. “After you.”

*****

“We do have a zero tolerance policy for violence here. Each of you will be suspended for three days. Ben, you’ll miss the next five baseball games, it could be more if Coach Arnold decides. If it were up to me you’d be off the team.”

Principle Scott is scribbling furiously on the appropriate paperwork to suspend the both of them. He likes to make things official and keep them orderly.

“That seems a little harsh,” Nate says.

“Your son got into a brawl in the middle of gym class.”

“I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a brawl,” Sarah speaks up.

“It was an accident,” Ben defends the both of them.

“Students and Coach Arnold heard you verbally arguing and then saw Caleb attack you.”

“He didn’t attack me.” He wishes Caleb would stick up for himself but Caleb’s looks to be content to sit there and take it.

“It got physical. You’re lucky I didn’t have the police called in.”

“Now that’s way too far. I know boys will be boys is not an excuse but these two are friends. They study together every night. This wasn’t a brawl. It was a misunderstanding.”

“Zero tolerance policy,” Scott repeats. “I don’t care what the reason behind it is. Considering your reactions to this I don’t believe either of you will be pressing charges.”

“No,” Sarah says as John shakes his head.

Nate says “of course not,” and crosses his arms and legs and leans back in the chair.

“Fine,” Scott sounds genuinely disappointed. “But, Mr. Brewster here also struck a second student.”

“Who did he strike?”

Scott skims over the paper in front of him.

“Simcoe,” Ben mumbles and Nate laughs.

“Oh lord. I don’t need to know the reason behind that one. Mr. Scott, you and I both know that whatever Simcoe did to get hit, he deserved it.”

“Mr. Tallmadge,”

“I’m surprised that kid isn’t getting hit every day. Good for you Caleb. I fully support you in this.”

“Mr. Tallmadge. Now I see where Benjamin gets his personality from.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment. Can we leave now?”

“You and your son can leave. Mrs. Brewster, I’m going to have to ask you to stay until John Simcoe’s parents get here.”

As they leave Caleb looks up at Ben. Ben’s never seen him look so defeated.

*****

“I’ll follow you home,” Nate tells him then walks off to his car.

“You’re not going to yell at me?” Ben calls after him.

“What would that accomplish?”

*****

In the driveway Nate sticks out his hand. Ben drops his keys into it.

“Haven’t I been punished enough?”

“Not even close. Imagine how I felt getting a call from the school telling me my son has been in a fight. And will Caleb of all people. The boy you’ve spent every evening with for months. You should know that I’m always on your side but this is pushing my limits.”

Ben kicks a crack in the pavement and doesn’t make eye contact. Nate watches him closely.

“You know you can tell me anything, right? Anything?”

“I know.”

“Anything you’re feeling. Good, bad, new. Even if you think I won’t understand, I promise I’ll understand. All you have to do is be honest with yourself and with me and I’ll never stop loving you. Do you know that?”

Ben eyes him suspiciously. “I know.”

“So if you’re feeling something for someone that maybe you haven’t had feelings for before and you’re worried how I’ll react I promise it’ll be a non-reaction.”

Ben flattens his back against the side of the car. He got the official birds and the bees talk when he was ten and this feels more awkward. “What are you doing right now?”

“It’s okay if you have feelings for Caleb.”

“Oh god.”

“Beyond platonic.”

“Oh my god.”

“If you’re worried about how I’ll react to it you don’t need to be. I mean, I’ve been expecting to have this conversation with you about you and Nathan for years now.”

“Oh my god please stop,” He tries to walk to the house but Nate puts a hand on his arm and keeps him in place.

“It’s okay. It doesn’t change anything.”

“I know.”

“Then why won’t you talk to me about it? You might feel better if you do.”

“I’ve talked to Nathan but he got mad at me.”

“He got mad at you?”

“Not in the way you think. He doesn’t care about that, it’s complicated.”

“Then uncomplicate it.”

At the kitchen table Ben tells his dad everything he’s done and everything he knows.

Nate listens to the whole story without interruption. He starts with the first meeting in gym and how cold Caleb was to him, tells him about getting partnered with him for the history project, how they clicked and started to have fun with each other, the way he felt looking at Caleb after practice that day (he doesn’t leave out Bradford pushing him-even though he should have because Nate swears he’s going to have a word with Bradford’s parents), the kiss in the kitchen (he stares at the counter by the stove as he talks about it), and what happened in gym today.

Once he’s finished Nate nods a few times then stands to make dinner.

“You know when I was your age all I had to do was ask the girl I liked to go to dinner with me. Kids today have it so rough.”

“That’s all you got for me?” Ben explodes. “That’s your advice? I just pour my heart out and you tell me kids today have it rough?”

“My advice is that you should ask him out to dinner. Talk to him.”

“I tried that. We ended up in the principle office.”

“Try it without an audience next time.”

*****

While they’re eating dinner there’s a knock on the door. They both pause with their forks above their plates and stare at each other.

Nate sighs and slides his chair back. “I’ll get it.”

When he opens the door Nathan is standing there with a pile of books in his arms.

“Hi Mr. Tallmadge.”

“Mr. Tallmadge? What happened to Nate?”

“I have to ask you for something and it doesn’t feel right.”

“You want to talk to him?”

“I want to drop off his history homework. And then I want to talk to him. Just for a minute. It’s important. Please.”

Nate steps back and reveals Ben who is waiting behind the door.

“Make it quick.”

“Thank you Mr. Tallmadge.”

Once he’s out of earshot Nathan turns to Ben.

“Jesus.”

Ben cradles his jaw in his hand. “You should see the other guy,” He tries to joke.

“I just came from the other guy. He looks like shit too.”

Ben leans against the wall and rubs his hand over his face. “Shit, Nathan.”

“I know.”

“I didn’t listen to you.”

“No you didn’t.”

“I couldn’t help myself.”

“Mmmm.”

“It’s bad.”

“There’s a rumor going around at school that the cops were called.”

“No, no one’s pressing any charges,” Ben straightens as a horrible thought rips through him. “Except Simcoe. Caleb hit him. Pressing charges is something he’d do.”

Nathan shakes his head. “No. Akinbode told me he was so embarrassed Caleb got the drop on him he pretended like nothing was wrong. Miss. Dandridge had to come out to him. I his nose is broken.”

“Akinbode talked to you?”

“Yeah, your drama is really bringing people together.”

“God.”

“Ben, you know why this happened, right?”

Ben peaks out at him from behind his fingers. “Because I kissed him and he hates me.”

Nathan rolls his eyes and heaves a sigh. “He doesn’t hate you. How many times do I have to tell you that? Ben, Caleb likes you. A lot.”

“A lot?”

“A lot.”

Ben presses his fingertips to his temple.

“Caleb’s crazy about you. He has been since the beginning. Everything you’ve said about him I’ve heard him say about you.”

“But…”

“He was dying to talk about you that first time we studied. Once he started he couldn’t stop. He said he knew it from the moment he saw you but he didn’t wan to get close because his family moves so much. He didn’t see the point. It was easier to push you away so I was like, okay, I’ll keep that secret for you and help you out but then you started liking him back and that made everything more complicated. Now I had to keep him away from you and you away from him but I couldn’t because that damn history project and the two of you started getting along so well because you both liked each other and I was stuck in the middle, not sure of what to do. I couldn’t say anything to you because I promised Caleb and I couldn’t say anything to Caleb because that would be cruel, you know?”

“You should’ve told me.”

“Why? So it could escalate from a crush to something real so you’re all mopey and shit when he leaves? I was trying to protect you. I thought you’d get over it.”

“So why tell me now?”

“I figured things couldn’t get any worse than they are not. This is a shitty situation and I’m tired of being in the middle of it.”

“So what do I do now?”

“I think you should talk to him.”

“He’s not going to want to talk to me.”

“You don’t see the way he stares at the back of your head in class. He’s dying for you, man. He’s trying to protect himself and you. He always wants to talk to you.”

*****

A little after midnight Ben swings his legs over the side of the bed and stands up. Moving as quietly as he can he pulls on his sweatshirt and shoes. He pops open his door and get one step into the hallway, careful to avoid the board he knows squeaks, when Nate’s door swings open.

“Where are you going?”

“To the bathroom.”

“You put your shoes on to go to the bathroom?”

“Yes.”

“Your keys are back on the hook. Tell Caleb I said hello.”

“Thanks dad.”

*****

He parks his car on the street a few houses down. He loops around to the back of the house to Caleb’s window.

He knocks twice then waits. The light flicks on and Caleb opens the window and presses his face to the screen.

“What are you doing?”

His split lip looks a little better. Ben can’t stop himself from looking at it.

“You could’ve used the door.”

“I didn’t know if I’d be let in. It’s late.”

“My parents are still up and my mom still loves you.”

“More than you do?”

Caleb leans back and Ben is horrified.

“I’m sorry. That was…that was really stupid. You make me really stupid.”

“Come to the door.”

They sit on the porch steps with a good foot of distance between them.

Caleb has his hands shoved into the front pocket of his sweatshirt.

“You talked to Nathan?”

“Yup. My dad and then Nathan.”

“Your dad knows?”

“I think everyone knows now. Anna called it from the beginning.”

“That sounds about right.”

Caleb eyes the bruise against Ben’s jaw and reaches out a his hand- he stops halfway then keeps going, and gently cradles his palm against the bruise. His thumb rests right below his bottom lip.

“I’m sorry about this,” He says; thumb moving slowly back and forth.

“I’m not exactly innocent. I can’t believe you hit Simcoe.”

“Someone had to.”

“My dad thought so.”

“The look on Scott’s face…” Caleb’s smile threatens to reopen the wound on his lip. His hand slides slowly off Ben’s face and his mouth tugs down into a frown. “My dad could get a call tomorrow and we’d have to be gone by the end of the week. There’s nothing I could do about it.”

“Or that wouldn’t happen and you’d stay.”

“That’s not how it’s happened before.”

“Have you ever felt this way before, because I haven’t?”

Ben feels a smug sort of satisfaction when Caleb shakes his head no.

“I thought it would be easier if you hated me. You’d be happy to see me go.”

“Too late for that,” Ben says as he scoots closer, Caleb has his hand on the step so Ben lays his pinkie over Caleb’s, testing the waters. Caleb pulls his pinkie away then covers Ben’s hand with his own.

“This could be a disaster,” Caleb says quietly, staring down at their hands.

Ben shifts even closer and uses his free hand to tip Caleb’s face up to his. “It’s already a disaster. Shouldn’t we try to enjoy it while we can?”

Caleb closes his eyes when they kiss. Ben tries to be mindful of his busted lip but Caleb is encouraging him to press harder with a hand on the back of his head, scratching through his short hair.

"My dad says I should ask you out to dinner," He's a little breathless when they finally part and can feel Caleb's breath dance across his lips when he laughs.

Caleb angles his head and kisses him again. "Just tell me when and where."

Chapter Text

Sarah opens the door holding a rolling pin like a weapon.

“Oh thank god,” She drops it down to her side not caring that they were just making out on the steps. “I knew I heard something out here. I thought it was a burglar. Your father thought it was raccoons.”

“What's going on?” John calls from inside.

“It's your son and Ben. They finally pulled their heads outta their asses.”

*****

They're still suspended and still grounded so they don't get to date right away.

Ben's grounded for a week, Caleb for two. (“You hit twice as many people”- his mom explained) but everyone knows they're together when they get back to school three days later.

“I knew it, I knew it, I called it. Didn't I call it?” Anna smacks Abe on the arm. “You should've listened to me; I could've saved you a lot of time.”

Jessica and Amy stand up and applaud when they enter the gym.

Akinbode nods. “As long as we win, man.”

*****

They go out to dinner after they’ve finished their house arrests.

Ben drives.

Caleb holds his hand as they walk into the restaurant.

It's a few towns over so no one recognizes them. It's nice. Comfortable. Caleb makes Ben laugh so hard soda comes out of his nose. It gets him a dirty look from the woman sitting across from them which just makes him laugh harder.

Ben pays and Caleb kisses him slow and dirty before he gets out of Ben’s car and goes inside and away they go.

*****

Ben sees Caleb's baby pictures first.

Photo albums are spread out on the coffee table when they get home from school. Caleb looks at them incredulously.

“Did you call ahead? How are these out?”

Ben pushes past him to sit next to Sarah.

“I'll be in my room working on physics if you need me.”

Ben waves him off and they crack open the first book.

*****

Caleb beats Ben to the door of his house the next day.

“Nate!” He calls. “Please tell me you have baby pictures. Give me all of them. I'm talking bath tub with a bubble beard.”

“You know I think I have that.”

******

They get to the championship. The whole team says it’s because of his relationship with Caleb. Ben has someone to impress now so he’s going to make sure he wins. Ben can’t disagree with them.

As they’re heading out to the field from the locker room for the big game Caleb grabs his wrist and pulls him out of the line, pushes him against the wall and kisses him, knee between his thighs and hands in his hair.

The team catcalls and Coach warns them to break it up but keeps walking.

“Hi,” Ben says, stupidly when Caleb pulls away.

Caleb smiles with lust filled eyes. “Just something for you to think about,” then he walks away.

******

Ben pitches a no hitter.

*****

“Here's to us,” Akinbode says as he raises his glass of soda. They’re at the after game team celebration. Just the team and Arnold. “Here's to Bradford hitting that triple. Here's to coach. And here's to our captain who kicked ass because he's finally getting some ass.”

Ben turns red as the team hollers. It takes Arnold a full five minutes to settle them all down.

Ben doesn't correct them or deny it.

******

“Caleb and I haven’t had sex.”

Nathan chokes on a pretzel. They’re studying for their history final at Caleb’s and he’s left to go refill the bowl. Snacks go a lot quicker when there are three people instead of two.

“Why do you tell me these things?”

“Who else am I supposed to tell? Abe? The whole school would know in five minutes. You know he can’t keep a secret.”

“Why do you have to tell anyone?”

“It’s about what the team said,” He drops his voice even lower so Caleb can’t hear from the kitchen. “They all think we’re doing it and…”

“You’re not.”

“No. I mean, we’ve done…..stuff,” He remembers kissing in Caleb’s bedroom on Caleb’s bed until their hips were stuttering against each other, they were moaning into each other’s mouths between kisses and they both ended up with mess in their boxers. “But…”

“He hasn’t had his hand on your dick.”

“Nathan,” Ben hisses out. “Shut up.”

“You brought it up. You want to talk about it, talk about it.”

“I want to know if it’s normal. We’ve been together for a couple of months.”

“It’ll happen when it happens.”

“Should I have told the team we haven’t….”

Nathan laughs. “Nope. You absolutely should not have done that.”

“He shouldn’t have done what?” Caleb comes back into the living room with the pretzels and the chips. He hands another can of soda to Ben.

Ben stares at Nathan with wide desperate eyes.

“He shouldn’t have said he would get a better grade on his exam than I will.”

Caleb narrows his eyes.

“Because now it’s a competition and I just can’t lose.”

“Okay,” Caleb says slowly.

“Now I will make it my job to beat him,” Nathan explains as Caleb looks suspiciously from him to Ben. Finally he shrugs and knocks his shoulder into Bens.

“You two can bet all you want. I’m guaranteed to get the highest grade. You can fight it out over who’s going to come second.”

“Going to come second,” Nathan repeats thoughtfully. “What an interesting choice of words.”

Ben gives him the finger behind Caleb’s back.

*****

“What are all of these?” He asks as he sorts through the atlases and travel books on Caleb’s desk. He can’t even see the wood beneath them. Road Trip USA. The Most Scenic Drives In America. Complete National Parks of the United States. “I thought you were going to Europe. Or South America.”

“Or Australia.” Caleb rests his civics book on his chest and looks over at him from his bed. “Those are for my trip next summer. I promised my mom I would take a road trip in the U.S. before I took the big one.”

Ben frowns. He’ll have to say goodbye to Caleb a lot sooner than he thought he would.

“You don’t have a car.”

“That’s what I keep telling her. I’ll have to do something about that,” He mumbles as he picks the book back up.

Ben clears off a small spot for him to work on.

*****

Sarah is reading a book on the front porch swing when Ben walks up the driveway.

“Hi, Ben.” She smiles and offers to pour him a glass of lemonade.

“Hi, is Caleb inside?”

She shakes her head and hands the glass over. “Caleb went out with his dad early this morning.”

“Huh. He texted me and told me he had something to show me.”

“You can go and check in his room. Maybe he left it in there?”

Before he can move John’s Ford truck pulls into the driveway followed by a beat up yellow, for door Jeep that rattles with Caleb behind the wheel. He parks it next to the truck but doesn’t get out.

“What is this?” Sarah asks as she descends the steps to stand in the driveway.

John kisses her on the cheek as he run into the garage and comes back with two wheel chocks. He shoves them beneath the back tires then Caleb kills the engine and climbs out. Or tries to. The driver side door doesn’t open all the way.

“What is this?” Sarah repeats.

“My new car,” Caleb’s smiling and looking at Ben. “Do you like it?”

Sarah looks at Ben and Ben puts his hands up. “Don’t look at me. I had nothing to do with this.”

“Your new car. You let him buy this?”

“It was a steal.”

“It looks like it was stolen.”

“It was a good deal. It’s a little older but it really doesn't have that many miles on it. It works, generally, I mean, I had to get out and push it a few times and it stalled at the light in the middle of town but…the brakes work….for the most part.”

“You let him drive this home?”

“It’s safe.”

“Why the blocks then?”

“Sometimes it rolls on hills,” Caleb explains quickly. Sarah makes a distressed sound. “What do you think?”

Ben thinks if he looked at it for too long the paint would peel off on its own.

“It’s really something.”

“What is he supposed to do with this?” Sarah asks.

“I’ll fix it up.”

“By yourself?”

“Yeah, how hard can it be? I know the basics.”

“He has over a year to work on it,” John reasons. “He needs a car. I know we were going to buy one for him if we needed to but now we don’t have to. It saved us some money.”

“It looks like a death trap.”

“I can fix it.”

“I think there are some books in the library I can pull for him,” Sarah looks at Ben like she’s been betrayed. “And you can find anything online. I can help.” He stares at his shoes wondering if he should’ve kept out of this family drama. But Caleb grabs his hand and presses it against, palm to palm.

Sarah sighs heavily. “It has to be inspected before you leave.”

*******

They're making out on the couch in Ben's living room.

They both finished their first set of finals this morning and were let out of school early. Ben knows he did great on them which is going to look great to colleges and Caleb has 3 jobs lined up this summer already- one of them being the garage in town which he hopes will help him with working on the jeep.

They’re supposed to be studying for tomorrow’s finals but Ben’s dad is at the store and Ben is wearing that blue shirt that brings out his eyes….

He was wearing that shirt.

Ben’s shirt came off 5 minutes ago and Caleb’s a few minutes before that. Hands are everywhere, Caleb has a thigh between Ben's and he's holding him down, warm and solid and working a very impressive mark into the side of neck with his teeth and tongue and lips that Ben will not be able to hide. Caleb's thigh shifts a little bit higher and Ben's arching and wining and he doesn't know what to do with his hands so he works them between their bodies and tugs at Caleb's fly.

He leans away from Ben and for a moment he's afraid he's pushed Caleb too far. But then he's smiling, lazily and kissing him again.

“Do you want to go upstairs?” He asks, right into Ben's ear.

Ben nods, isn't able to speak, and just as Celeb lifts his body off him the front door opens.

“Oh shit,” Caleb's half scowling half giggling as he grabs his shirt off the coffee table and pulls it on, lighting fast. Ben's is nowhere to be found, thanks to Caleb, so he's sitting on the couch halfway undressed when his father comes into the living room.

“Hey guys,” He's looking down at the mail, glances up then back down. Then up again. Caleb's curls are everywhere. Ben finally spots his shirt in the chair in the corner. They're both red with their hands crossed over their laps.

“I'm guessing you thought I wouldn't be home so soon?”

“I didn't…”

“Umm.”

“I should go.” Caleb's on his feet and leans in to kiss Ben goodbye. Ben shuts his eyes and shakes his head and Caleb settles for putting his hand awkwardly on his shoulder. “Bye Mr. Tallmadge.”

Nate waits until the door is closed before he turns to Ben.

“Well that was…”

“Sorry.”

“I guess I'd rather you be here than off God only knows where. Do you remember what we talked about when you were ten? Do you need a refresher?”

“I have to go upstairs now.”

******

“How are things between you and your dad?” Caleb asks from beneath the jeep.

“Awkward. Haven't made eye contact since then.”

“Makes sense”

“I'm afraid he's going to give me the talk. Again.”

“Do you need the talk, again?”

“Nope. The first time is burned into my brain. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.”

“Okay,” He swears at something in the undercarriage. “Do you want to come over tomorrow? My dad has this ceremony thing in the city. My mom's going with. They won't be back until late. Really late. Guaranteed. No surprises.”

Caleb has a smudge of grease on his cheek when he climbs out from underneath. His white shirt is so worn and thin it's almost transparent.

Ben swallows down the desire to jump him right there in the driveway.

“Sure.”

******

The next day Ben eats dinner with his father slowly, pushing the meatloaf on his plate back and forth. His nerves have overtaken his appetite.

“Everything alright, Ben?”

“I’m going over to Caleb’s tonight,” He blurts out. “To study, we have to study. Caleb has civics and I have math and we’re going to study.”

“Okay,” He puts his fork down and looks like he’s trying to pick his words very carefully. Ben braces for impact. “I want to make sure that you’re thinking this through, the studying. That you don’t feel pressured to study with Caleb when maybe you’re only ready to study on your own.”

Ben covers his face with his hands.

“I want you to know that if you have any questions or concerns that I will do my best to answer them. I know we aren’t taking the same class but-.”

Ben stands so fast he almost knocks over his chair. “I think I’m just going to go now.”

He drops his plate in the sink and grabs his keys off the hook, his dad dropping all metaphors to call out and tell him to use protection.

He’s still blushing when he knocks on Caleb’s door.

Caleb opens it with a confused smile. “Why did you knock?”

“I don't know.”

Caleb shakes his head and grabs Ben's wrist to drag him inside, through the house, and into his bedroom. He locks the door, even though they're all alone, and then shoves Ben towards the bed. The only light that's on is the desk lamp.

Caleb jumps on him, kissing him and sliding his hands beneath his shirt.

“I kind of expected candles and music.”

“Nope. Wanted to hear you.”

“Oh fuck.”

Caleb purrs, “there ya go” and Ben is so far gone.

They lose their shirts and Caleb's pants. He has Ben's jeans unzipped and he's slowly kissing his way down his chest when Ben grabs his shoulders and pulls him back up so they're face to face again.

“Wait, wait.”

“What's the matter?” Caleb doesn’t know where to focus. His eyes keep moving from his mouth to his eyes to his exposed neck.

“I've never done this before.”

“Which part?”

“All the parts.”

“Oh.” Caleb drops onto his elbow. “Do you want to?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Because you can tell me if you don’t. It’s okay. No pressure.”

“I know that,” Ben says, frustrated and pawing at the waistband of Caleb’s boxers. Caleb gathers his hands in his and holds them between their chests.

“Slow down, you have to tell me if you don’t like anything.”

Ben rolls his eyes. “I don’t think that’ll happen.”

“Promise me you will. It’s important.”

“I promise, I promise,” He whispers as he strains up to kiss Caleb’s jaw. Caleb swings his leg back over him. “Just,” Ben breathes out and Caleb’s back off him. “Go slow because I think if you go fast this is going to be over very quickly.”

“I told you,” Caleb says as he picks up where he left off, kissing down Ben’s chest. “My parents are gone all night. No one is saying we have to do this just once.”

*****

“You should send a picture of us to Nathan.”

“That's a really weird thing to say after having sex with me for the first time.”

Technically it’s their fourth time. Ben never had a reason to stop Caleb so they kept going. Caleb has already padded into the kitchen and brought back a bag of chips and a couple of bottles of water for them.

“I heard you idiots talking about how we hadn't done it yet. You weren't quiet at all.”

“You heard all that? Why didn't you say anything?”

“I didn't want you dying of embarrassment on my couch. It'd be a hell of a thing to explain to my mom. You're still embarrassed.” He laughs and rolls on top of him. “How can you be embarrassed after I have had my mouth on every part of your body? You’re blushing right now.” He buries his face into the crook of Ben’s neck. “You’re adorable. Never change.”

Ben wraps his arms around Caleb’s back. “You get real clingy after sex, huh?”

“Do you want me to give you some space?”

Ben tightens his grip. “No, never.”

******

Four days later school officially lets out and they all head to the beach to celebrate.

It’s after dinner and the crowds during the day have started to die down and soon they’re the only ones left.

Abe has a cooler full of drinks, beer hidden beneath a layer of ice beneath a layer or water and soda.

Caleb says he'll be the designated driver which shocks everyone including Ben.

“It's okay; my dad will kill me if he smells alcohol on me.” He hands Caleb his can, only half full. He takes it but puts it down in the same between them.

“Don't worry about it. Relax, have fun, let me get you home safe.”

Ben only takes sips from it.

Only two hours and three beers later Anna suggests they all strip down and jump in the ocean. It's a nice theory but the water is 40 degrees and they come out shivering and significantly more sober than they were when they dove in.

“Blanket. In my car. Trunk.” Anna says through chattering teeth as and Abigail try to pull their jeans on over wet skin. Abe and Nathan's fingers are shaking too much to button theirs.

“I'll be back.”

“I'll help you.” Ben's freezing and thinking the walk to the car will help him warm up.

There are 3 blankets in the trunk and Ben pulls out the biggest, wraps it around himself and tugs Caleb against his chest, his chin resting on damp, curly, hair.

“This is why you wanted to help me? So you could feel me up. You didn't have to jump in the ocean like an idiot to do that.” But he wraps his arms around his waist and rests his head against his chest.

The sun is going down rapidly. Anna and Abigail are running in circles trying to get the blood flowing back into their extremities. Nathan and Abe are trying to set a piece of driftwood on fire using Abe's lighter.

The pavement is still warm under Ben's bare feet and -

“I'm in love with you.”

Ben thinks it was him who said it. He certainly feels it and has been thinking it. It sounds like something he'd say and he always thought he'd be the one to say it first. Caleb is more tactile. Ben is more verbal. Plus Caleb isn't reacting so he's ready to repeat himself when Caleb lifts his head to look at him.

“Did you hear me? I said I love you.”

“Oh.” Ben says, like an idiot. He's supposed to be the verbal one.

“Oh.” Caleb parrots back and starts to unwind his arms from where they're tucked against Ben's back.

“No, god, no…” Ben springs to life feeling deliciously warm all over and flips them so Caleb's against the car. The blanket falls off his shoulders as he gets his hands cradling Caleb's jaw, adjusting the angle so he can kiss him like he loves him back.

He loves him back.

Caleb's mouth is cool beneath his and they taste like salt when Ben swipes his tongue against them.

“I'm in love with you. I love you.”

“Anna,” Abe drunkenly slurs. “We should warm up like that.”

Anna pretends to barf into the sand.

*****

Ben’s brother comes home for summer break.

Sam is full of boundless energy. He tears into the house like a hurricane, suitcase thrown over his shoulder, NYU sweatshirt on.

He skids to a stop when he sees Caleb in the kitchen.

“Caleb, right? God, I heard a lot about you. Really put this one through the ringer, huh? Finally found someone that can put him in his place athletically.”

Caleb lights up.

Ben will never survive the two of them together.

Over dinner Caleb gives them all an update on the jeep and Sam takes a special interest in it.

“I can help you with that, if you want. I’ve got nothing but time on my hands.”

“You could get a job,” Nate tells him dryly. “Start paying me back for your education.”

Sam waves a hand at him. “I have plenty of time for that,” He says and Nate rolls his eyes. “What do you say, Caleb?”

“You have no idea what you’re doing?” Ben laughs. “He built one go-cart in the 6th grade and now he thinks he's a mechanic.”

“Well you're one go-cart ahead of me. I could use any help I can get.”

*****

Caleb gets paid under the table at the local mechanics and by Mrs. Flick, an 80 year old widow who needs help doing handiwork around the house. He's legitimately paid by the diner in town to bus tables. He soaks up as much knowledge as he can at the garage to help him fix his jeep himself and his skins deeply tanned and freckled from doing so much work outside for Mrs. Flick. Usually Ben meets him at the diner where Caleb slips him free fries and they make out against the brick wall out back during his breaks.

Ben gets a part time job at the library sorting books and putting away returns. The pay is awful but it's air conditioned and he's basically left to his own devices. Caleb comes in when he can and sits at a table near the back and reads the owner's manual for his jeep because surprise, surprise, his was missing when he bought it, and looks over maps and travel books, both domestic and abroad. “I've had this trip planned for years but they keep coming out with more books. There's always more to do.” He says, overwhelmed but mostly excited. “There's always more I want to do, ya know?” Ben thinks he does. He wants to go to Yale and learn all he can. He wants to turn around and teach it to others. He wants to move; go to a city, New York, D.C, or Boston. He wants to have in depth conversations and politics and social issues. He wants all of that. But he also sees the appeal of staying right here with Caleb for the rest of his life. The only problem is Caleb's already put inserted himself in those books and maps he's committing to memory.

“Yeah, I know.”

Caleb looks up at him like he's forgotten what they're talking about, he's been busy sticking post its onto pages of a book about the Czech Republic, but he smiles all the same. He keeps reading and Ben keeps sorting until Caleb sneaks up behind him, grabs him by the belt loop and pulls him through the rows to where they keep the old, out of date encyclopedias and kisses him until he forgets what he was worrying about.

*****

They leave Sam to work on the Jeep with John while Caleb, Ben, and Nate drive up to New Haven to visit the Yale campus.

They walk around for hours checking out the dorms and classrooms and lecture halls.

“Are you going to cry? It’s okay if you cry.”

They’re sitting on a bench outside of a dorm that looks like it should be a museum housing precious art. His dad is across the green pretending to appreciate the architecture but really trying to give them some privacy.

“This is a big deal.” Caleb continues.

“I probably won’t get in.”

“You’ll get in. Who are you kidding? I don’t even know why you’re applying to the other schools.”

“Just as a backup.”

“You don’t need it.”

“I’m going to be in debt for the rest of my life.”

“Well, yeah. But that’s half the fun of it.”

“What if don't fit in? What if I can't keep up?”

“Of course you'll fit in. Of course you'll keep up.”

“You won't be here to challenge me.”

“You'll find tons of people a lot smarter than me. Plus Nathan will be here.”

“If he gets in. If I even get in. I could be worried over nothing.”

“You'll both get in.”

“What are the odds both of us from the same town and same school who have been friends since kindergarten getting into Yale at the same time?”

“About the same as my dad having to move east, plunking us down in the middle of nowhere Long Island where we would be in the same gym class and you'd love me like I love you even after all the bullshit we put each other through. Things happen how they're supposed to.”

******

Caleb’s parents tell him he can keep one of the jobs when school starts.

“And it’s not going to be the garage.”

Caleb objects immediately.

“They’re underpaying you.”

“Technically I’m not even on payroll so they’re not.”

“You’re not on the payroll? Why didn’t I know about this? John, did you know about this?”

He nods his head. “It was harmless.”

“It sounds illegal.”

“They’re taking advantage of your. They demand too much of your time. Senior year is too important.”

“I need any money I can get.”

“Which is why you can keep one of the jobs. You should keep working at the diner. Mrs. Flick does have grandchildren in town, you know.”

“Work at the diner for four hours after school. That should be enough. You need to focus on your classes this year.”

“Everyone makes such a big deal about senior year.”

“It’s a big deal. Ben, aren’t you quitting your job?”

Ben shoves a forkful of lasagna in his mouth and sinks down in his seat. He wants to be left out of this.

“Don’t drag Ben into this.”

He loves Caleb.

“Ben’s different. He’s going to college. He could slack off this whole year and still get in.”

“I wish you would reconsider-”

“We’ve had this conversation a million times.”

“And I keep hoping it’ll end differently.”

“Not everyone goes to college.”

“I know, I know.”

“We don’t want you working your senior year away. We want you to enjoy it.”

“I’ll work hard now and enjoy it later.”

“There might not be a later.”

“We’re not moving again are we?”

“No, not that I know of but as you know, anything can happen at any time.”

“That doesn't make me feel better.”

Caleb looks over to Ben who is on his third helping chewing and trying to keep himself busy and out of the conversation. Caleb takes pity on him and covers his knee with his hand beneath the table.

“Can we talk about something else, please? Ben is obviously uncomfortable.”

“I am not.”

His mouth is full so it comes out garbled and it’s enough to break the tension, outwardly but he can tell by the way he squeezes his knee and the slight downturn to the corners of his mouth that this is still bothering him.

After dinner Ben and Caleb clean up; Ben rinses the plates and hands them to Caleb to put in the dishwasher.

“My boys,” Sarah squishes them together in a hug then pats them on the back. “There are brownies in the microwave. Your father already cut into them.”

Caleb passes but Ben has never turned down dessert so he cuts himself a piece and follows Caleb into his room where he sits cross legged on Caleb’s bed and watches him pace around ranting about his parents, his jobs, and his future.

“They’ve known I’ve wanted to do this since I was a kid. They used to be fine with it- maybe they were just indulging me but I’d rather them fake it then have them treat me like a child.”

Ben takes a huge bite to stop him from saying something stupid like, they’re right.

“I can handle work and school. I have a ton of money saved up- you know I’ve been saving up since I was a kid?”

You are still a kid.

“But I can always use more. Just to have as a safety net. You know how well I do at school. It’s no problem for me. I could do that work with my eyes closed. I could swing it. What do you think they would do if I dropped out?”

Now he’s got to speak up. “How would you do that?”

“I turn 18 in a few months.”

Ben’s eyes widen. Caleb laughs. “I’m kidding. I think.”

“Caleb.”

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding. I’d probably find myself homeless if I did that and I’m not willing to waste my money on an apartment yet. Could I stay with you?”

“I think my dad would side with your parents on this.”

“Well what do you think about it?” He flops on the bed next to him. “You haven’t said much.”

Ben shrugs.

“You have nothing to say?”

“This brownie is really good. Do you want some?”

Caleb looks unimpressed.

“I think they’re worried about you.”

“They don’t need to be.”

“That’s what parents do. They worry.”

He holds the last bite of brownie out to him. Caleb eats it right out of his hands, lips closing around the tips of his fingers to get all the chocolate off, eyes straight fire.

“You still look stressed,” Ben says as he puts the plate on the bed behind him and sinks down onto the carpet between Caleb’s knees. Caleb opens them easily. “Can I help you fix that?”

Caleb bites his lip to hide a smile. “My parents are right outside.”

“Then you’re going to have to be quiet.”

Ben slides his hands up and unzips his jeans. Caleb supports his weight on his elbows so he can watch until he needs to cover his mouth with his hands to keep himself silent.

******

“Make yourself useful.” Caleb hands him a screwdriver, cranky from not being able to figure out why the horn suddenly stopped working. He and Sam have been working on it for hours and haven’t gotten anywhere. “The passenger seat won't adjust. Figure out why.”

Ben ends up lounging across the back seat on his stomach so he can work on it. His tools have grown from the screw driver to a hammer, wrench, wire cutter, and duct tape. He and Caleb are listening to Sam go on and on about college life.

“Can you shut up, please?”

“Caleb laughs from his spot under the hood.

“I think you owe me a little more respect. I’m already in college. I could help you out.”

“You got into my safety school.”

“We can’t all be Ivy League snobs.” He elbows Caleb in the ribs.

“Don’t I know it?” Ben’s directing it at Sam and only Sam, (only ever Sam) but he doesn’t miss the way Caleb flinches before he slams the hood down.

“I gotta go find a part.”

“You need me to drive you?”

“Nah, I’ll walk. Keep working on the seat.” He grabs his ankle as he walks past.

Ben throws an empty water bottle at Sam who doesn’t duck out of the way in time.

“What’s that for?”

“You’re an asshole.”

Sam doesn’t even question it. Just rolls his eyes, mumbles something under his breath and goes back to work.

******

When Sam leaves to go back to school at the end of September they’ve only made a small dent in what needs to be done to the jeep.

*****

The start of senior year is a rush. Ben's running around getting transcripts and applications and recommendations. He's studying harder than he ever has before.

Caleb takes a lot of electives.

*****

“You should apply somewhere.”

“It's going to be hard for me to go to college while I'm in Europe. Or South America. I haven't decided yet. Australia has its appeal.”

“Maybe just for fun? Apply to Yale. See what happens.”

Caleb laughs from where he’s stretched out lying on Ben’s bed, tossing a baseball into the air. “I'm not going to get into Yale.”

“You and I took the same classes. Your GPA is a point higher than mine.”

“Not that you care about that, right? You have been doing extracurricular activities since kindergarten. Planting trees, helping old ladies cross the street, beautifying cemeteries, tutoring. I haven't been in one place long enough to join anything.”

“You're worldly. Use that in your essay. They'll love it. How many languages do you speak?”

“I can tell you to drop it in 6 different languages.”

“It doesn't have to be Yale.”

“It's not going to be anything.”

“I'm not trying to upset you.”

“I can't believe you're siding with my parents.”

“I'm not siding...I'm on your side. I'm just saying-”

“Well don't.” He gets up and drops the baseball on the desk in front of Ben. “I have to go.”

“Are we going to the movies later with the guys?”

Caleb doesn’t respond.

******

Caleb ignores him.

Ben texts and calls and they all go unanswered.

He goes to the movies anyways because he's not about to late Caleb's bad mood ruin his fun.

He buys a bag of Skittles but doesn't eat them.

After he finds Caleb beneath the jeep swearing softly to the muffler. Ben hooks his foot under the creeper and drags him out then drops the Skittles on his stomach.

Caleb immediately pulls himself back under the car.

“How was the movie?”

“Fine. How's the jeep?”

“Sucks.”

Ben laughs and crouches down next to him. Caleb rolls back out.

“You'll figure it out.”

They share the bag of Skittles in the driveway.

*******

Caleb flicks on the headlights and whoops when he sees them reflected in the garage door. He twists to kiss Ben who has been doing English homework in the backseat.

“Got it right, finally.”

He gets out, closes the door, and the side mirror falls off.

“Son of a bitch.” He kicks the mirror and kicks the tire. “Nothing in this piece of shit car works.”

“Back seat seems to be working fine.” Ben tells him around the pen cap he's chewing on. He keeps his eyes on the book in his lap as he opens the door and sticks his hand out. “Why don't you come up here and see for yourself.”

Ben's books hit the floor as Caleb climbs on top of him.

*****

Winter slows the progress on the jeep but it’s not unusual to find Caleb lying in the driveway while snow falls until Sarah or Ben drag him out and into the house for hot chocolate.

*****

Ben applies to Yale, Columbia, Dartmouth, and NYU, for safety.

*****

Between Caleb's job at the diner and working on the jeep he doesn't have time to watch Ben practice.

Ben can't believe he's jealous of a car. But Caleb is almost finished with it. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel even though it’s bumpy and jagged and sometimes smokes when you turn the ignition.

Newt is a lot better than he was last year so Arnold lets him rest his arm more and more. It feels better but he still complains about it to Caleb so Caleb will give him back rubs.

*****

Ben is sitting sideways in the driver's seat as Caleb changes the tires. They got it to stop squealing when the key turns last week and twice tire as the last essential thing that needs to be fixed.

“Nathan got his acceptance letter three days ago.”

“I know. He told me.”

Ben continues chewing his nails down.

“It's nothing to worry about.”

“I know that. I don't think you do.”

“I'm happy for him but why couldn't I have gotten mine first.”

“What are your plans for this summer?”

“Probably freaking out about my future.”

“You wanna take this trip with me? Could be fun. I could use the company.” He says instead of saying I’ll miss you.

“Are you serious?”

“I wouldn’t ask you if I wasn’t.”

*****

“You didn’t get the mail?” Nate asks from the kitchen.

Ben drops his bag and slips his cleats back on, the backs crushed beneath his heel. “No, shit, I’ll go get it.”

“Don’t bother, I got it. There are a few things for you if you’re interested.”

There are four large, thick envelopes stacked on the table.

*****

Ben speeds (he tells his dad he won’t but he can’t help it) to the diner where he knows Caleb is still working. He’s got the Yale acceptance letter with him and as he skids into the diner with a singular goal in mind.

Caleb is behind the counter so Ben vaults his way over it to him, he thinks the owner yells at him but Caleb has him by the elbows and is shaking him trying to figure out what’s wrong. It takes him a second to recognize the envelope in his hand since Ben is shoving it right in his face.

“You got in?”

“To all of them,” He gasps. “But its Yale, I’m going to Yale.”

“Obviously.”

“I’m going to Yale,” He repeats, quieter, calmer, with Caleb looks at him like he’s made out of gold.

“I know you are. I knew you would be. I’m so proud of you.”

*****

“I’m so glad you’re going with him, Ben,” Sarah tells him. “Thinking about him out there all on his own would keep me up at night.”

“What? You don’t trust me?” Caleb tosses an overnight back onto the kitchen table almost knocking over Ben’s glass of iced tea. “I’m all packed and everything. I’m way ahead of schedule.”

“That’s all you’re bringing?”

“Yup. I can get a lot of mileage out of a couple of shirts and pants. That’s all I need.”

Ben cringes.

“I’ll bring a bottle of Fabreze. What is all this stuff?” He gestures to the various bottles of medicine spread out in front of him. Advil, Alka-Seltzer, Band-Aids.

“It’s for the trip. It’s like a first aid kit. Please go pack more clothes.”

“The more clothes you have the more you have to wash. I can rinse a shirt out in a bathroom sink, it’s so much easier.”

Ben locks eyes with Sarah, both of them horrified.

“I’m going to be washing regularly.”

“It’s a waste of money.”

“I think I can spare a few extra quarters here and there.”

“Fine, fine.” He grabs his bag back off the table. Sarah stands and pats Ben’s shoulder as she leaves the room.

“I’m so glad you’re going with him Ben.”

Caleb drops his head into his hand and watches Ben sort medication and tubes of antibacterial ointment.

“We don't need all that.”

Ben lifts Caleb's arm showing him all the scratches he's gotten from working on the jeep; scratches from jagged metal that Ben had to clean and bandage for him.

“That's nothing.” His voice drops low as he leans into Ben's space. “As far as I'm concerned the only things we need to bring with us are condoms and lube.”

“I'll let you take care of that.”

“What do you think is really in the bag?”

*****

Setauket High wins the championship again.

“Three out of four ain’t bad,” Nathan tells him over the din of the crowd that’s stormed the field.

*****

Ben and Caleb both graduate in the top 10 of their class. They don't know who is ahead of the other but Ben thinks he's behind Caleb. He's surprised to realize he's more proud of him than anything else.

*******

They take off at six in the morning, jeep fully loaded, and an extra two hundred dollars in the glove compartment just in case from their parents who are standing at the end of the driveway waving them off.

They get to the end of the street before the gas light comes on and starts beeping.

“Uh oh.”

“It’s not the car. I forgot to get gas.”

“You didn’t fill up the tank before a 2,800 mile journey.”

“I forgot.”

“Man, it's gonna be a long trip.”

It is. They get stuck in traffic so it takes them twice as long to get to Philadelphia. Ben sleeps the whole way, because he hasn’t slept since school started last September, so Caleb is bored and irritated.

They go to see the Liberty Bell but it’s packed with kids and parents who are doing nothing to wrangle them, letting them run wild and free. They look at each other like they’re ready to call it and go home.

But they persevere. They buy cheese steaks and eat them on the steps of the Museum of Art where they watch people run up them like Rocky until Caleb finishes his sandwich, stands, and says “I just gotta do it,” and takes off. Ben films it on his phone. Caleb comes back breathless and sweaty.

*******

By the time they get to D.C for the night they’re exhausted. Ben checks into the hotel with Caleb leaning his forehead against his shoulder blades.

He has to manhandle him into the shower and after a moment of consideration hops in with him.

It’s enough to wake Caleb up.

In the morning they explore the city. Ben has been here once on the field trip in middle school and Caleb lived here for six month when he was fourteen.

They tour the monuments and museums and go to the zoo, spending a whole hour watching the pandas.

******

They eat biscuits and gravy in Nashville. It gives Caleb heartburn and Ben has to dispense Tums. Caleb rolls his eyes when Ben asks him ‘aren’t you glad we packed all this stuff now?’

*******

It rains harder than they've ever seen while driving from Memphis to Jackson. It's early and Caleb's pulling the first shift and Ben cradled against the window and his hand.

“You want to climb in the back and lie down? I can pull over and rearrange some stuff.”

“It's not safe.”

“I'll drive slower.”

He puts his hand on Caleb's knee. “Like it up here.”

******

In New Orleans Caleb produces two fake IDs seemingly out of thin air.

“Where did these come from?”

“Do you really want to know or do you want deniability?”

Ben slips the ID into his wallet and says nothing else.

He wants to get a drink and lie low.

Caleb wants to get a drink and let everyone know they're in town.

By the third bar (no one looks twice at their IDs) Ben is up on the bar with him, people on either side of them.

They spend the next day nursing their hangovers in bed and deciding not to drink that much again.

When their headaches subside they head out and eat enough catfish, beignets, gumbo, and oysters to last them the rest of their lives.

******

They make it to the Grand Canyon on a Tuesday.

A storm is just rolling out leaving the canyon filled with fog. It’s nothing like what they thought it would be as they stand on the edge and stare into a cloudy abyss.

“I thought it would be better,” Caleb says.

“We have to wait for the fog to lift. We have time.”

******

They get lunch at a diner a few miles down the road but they both order pancakes. Just as the waitress sets their plates down Caleb's phone rings. His mom's picture pops up on the screen.

“I should get this. I haven't talked to her in awhile.”

“When was the last time?”

“What's today?”

“Tuesday.”

“Okay so Sunday. Not the last Sunday but the Sunday before that.”

“Caleb, I talk to my dad every day.”

“I know. I feel like the message is being passed along. She knows I'm not dead or anything. You know they've started to go to church on Sunday?”

“Are they praying for you because they need to start?”

“What else would they pray for?”

The phones stopped ringing.

“Well. There's that.”

Ben pulls his plate away from him and pushed the phone forward. “Go call her back.”

“But the pancakes.”

“Go.”

He comes back ten minutes later. Ben has showed restraint and only eaten one of his own pancakes.

“My parents are moving to California.”

“You're kidding. When?”

“My dad insisted on staying until I get home so they have a few weeks.”

“They want you to help pack?”

“Yeah, and get rid of things I don't want anymore.”

“Do you want to go home now?”

“Why would I do that?”

“Your parents are moving.”

“They move all the time.”

“You're moving.”

“I'm 18. I'm right where I want to be.” He nudges Ben's shin beneath the table.

“You're not going with them?”

“No. It'll work out. We’ll get home, help them pack, and then I'll take off for Europe.”

Ben puts down his fork. They haven't talked about Europe in a while. Ben was selfishly hoping that this trip would be enough. Caleb would change his mind. Want to stay put for once. Ben cannot follow him to Europe. He's not sure Caleb would want him to.

“Something wrong with your food?”

“I'm full.”

“You ate one pancake. I've seen you wolf down six.”

“It's the off season. I'm not working out.”

“Lucky for me it's always the off season so I don't care. Slide that over here, atta boy.”

******

“Are you awake?”

Ben opens his eyes to looks at the clock on the night stand. It's 3:45.

“Yes.”

“Get up.”

“Fuck off.”

“No.”

The bed shifts as Caleb stand up and yanks the quilt off the bed.

“What is your problem?” Ben sits up and yells but Caleb is pulling on his shoes, the quilt bunched up beneath his arm. “Get up, meet me in the car. You don't have to get dressed but grab a sweatshirt.”

He lies there for 5 minutes after Caleb leaves the room before he gets up and follows.

He can see his breath outside but Caleb has the jeep running and the heat on.

“Finally.”

Ben flips him off and scrunches against the door and closes his eyes.

The jeep stops in a parking lot.

Ben climbs out wordlessly after Caleb and has to jog to catch up to him passing a sign for the Grand Canyon on the way. It says it's open from sunrise to sunset.

“We shouldn't be here. It's not open yet.”

Caleb marches on, unperturbed.

“This is federal land. We could get arrested. Go to jail. I won't be able to go to Yale. You won't be able to travel.”

“You worry way too much.” Caleb reaches behind him to grab his wrist. His fingers slide down to tangle together. “It'll be worth it. Trust me.”

For better or worse Ben does and follows behind him silently the rest of the way.

The moon is bright enough to light the way and Caleb spreads the quilt out in the grass near the edge of the canyon. He sits down and pats the spot next to him. Ben sits close. It's cold.

“I was reading about how busy this place gets around sunrise. I thought it might be nice to beat the crowd.”

“Very early.” Ben says around a yawn as he rubs his forehead against Caleb's shoulder.

“Go back to sleep. I'll wake you up when it's time.”

He hums and turns his face out over the canyon. The view is endless. The stars are brighter than he's ever seen and Caleb is sitting right next to him; warm and cozy and wrapping his arm around him and pulling him even closer. He'd be crazy to want to sleep through this.

*****

The sunrise is beautiful.

The way the light brings out the red in Caleb’s hair is even better.

*****

“Ya know,” Ben’s driving and Caleb has his window down and his feet hanging out. “We could swing by San Diego and see where your parents are moving to. I mean, we’re this close already.”

“We don’t have to do that.”

“It could be fun.”

“It’s just a house.”

Ben frowns and pulls his sunglasses off Caleb’s face and puts them on. “It’s a good thing I’m driving then.”

*****

“Right on the water,” Ben comments, staring up at the house. “I wonder if that's a bedroom up there. Could be yours.”

“It'll be a nice place to visit.”

“It's a nice home.”

“It's just a house. Let's go find a burrito.”

*******

They drive up the California coast. It’s sunny and warm the whole way.

*****

In Portland they lose each other in Powell’s City of Books for hours. Caleb checks out with an arm full of travel books.

They eat fresh food for the first in weeks at the farmers market.

Then they undo it by eating maple bacon doughnuts from Voodoo Doughnut.

*****

In Seattle they go up in the Space Needle and rest their foreheads against the glass and look down.

Then they start to head east back home.

*****

In Chicago a few days’ later Ben Google’s how far they are from home.

854 miles.

Thirteen and a half hours.

They could drive straight through now and get there later tonight.

This could be over tonight.

They stay in Chicago for four days.

*****

They had planned to stay in New York City for a night but hit traffic right outside the city.

It’s late and they just want to go home.

Caleb drops Ben off at his house at quarter after one in the morning.

“Are you okay to drive home? You can stay if you want to.”

“I’m alright. I can make it. Do you need any of your stuff?”

Ben groans at the idea of unpacking. “Keep it, I’ll see you tomorrow,” He unbuckles and opens the door. “Text me when you get home.”

“Sure, hey,” Caleb reaches across the car to grab his wrist then slides his hand up to the back of his neck to reel him in for a kiss. “Did you have fun?”

“Of course I did. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

He missed his house and his bed.

As lies there awake staring at the familiar ceiling he realizes how much he misses sleeping besides Caleb.

He rolls over and knows he has to get used to it.

*****

Work starts on packing up Caleb’s parents for the move the next day.

Ben is in the bathroom putting soaps and towels into boxes. Next he has to take down the shower curtain.

Caleb’s in his room packing up and throwing out anything he doesn’t want anymore. He has more boxes meant for the trash than he does for storage. He hears his footsteps go past the bathroom and into the kitchen and it’s impossible for Ben not to eavesdrop.

“I've taken everything that I might want to take with me to Europe and put it in a box in the jeep.”

“Europe?” Sarah questions. He can imagine her whipping around from where she’s standing at the counter. “You just got back.”

“Yes and you're moving across the country, now's the best time to go.”

“I don’t understand what the rush is. Why don’t you cool your heels here a little bit? You can get a job and replenish your funds….”

“I have plenty of money and I’m not going to waste it on rent for an apartment.”

“Maybe Ben can help you look for one near Yale.”

Ben freezes at the mention of his name.

“I’m not doing that.”

“It could be fun. I know the two of you aren’t ready to live together yet…”

“Mom.”

“I know he has a dorm room that he’s paying for but…”

“We’re not living together. I’m going. There’s nothing keeping me here.”

Ben can’t breathe. He sits down on the edge of the tub.

After a long pause Sarah says “He loves you, Caleb.”

Caleb’s “So what?” comes much quicker and Ben feels like he just got hit.

“Caleb,” Sarah says sharply. “What is wrong with you?”

Ben can’t hear Caleb’s answer so he coughs as a way to announce himself and tries to make as much noise as possible as he walks down the hall and into the kitchen.

“I packed up the bathroom.” He pulls out the kitchen chair next to Caleb and sits. Caleb doesn't look up from where he's stuffing newspaper into glasses.

Sarah doesn't turn from packing picture frames into boxes.

It's awkward and Ben has to pretend he doesn't know why.

******

Caleb books his flight to Germany and starts to pack his bag. He goes over and over the routes that he'll take but stresses to his mom that anything could change at any time. He could spend all his time in Germany. He could extend the trip into Asia. He might not come home until he's out of money and God knows how long that'll take. He's wide eyed and excited about all the possibilities, almost vibrating out of his skin every time he tells Ben something new about what he wants to do.

Ben is buying books and school supplies. He's figuring out if he wants to bring his Setauket High sweatshirt or to buy a Yale one there to save room in his bag. He's buying shower caddies and laundry baskets and making sure he knows where his classes are in relation to his room and the dining hall. E already has the start of Christmas break marked on the calendar. He's nervous he won't adjust well. He's worried it'll be too much. He's afraid he won't keep up.

They’ve turned into very different people going in very different directions.

******

Their friends throw a going away party for Caleb.

It’s at Abe’s because Mr. Woodhull was called into court for an emergency hearing. Abe has cracked open the liquor cabinet and they’re sitting in a circle on his bedroom floor drunkenly telling stories about Caleb and by extension, Ben.

“I knew from the beginning that you two would get together. I could feel it,” Anna rambles on. “You were meant to be. What a story to tell your grandchildren.”

Caleb smiles weakly and Ben gets up to get another drink.

No one but Nathan seems to notice their demeanor but he doesn’t say anything.

*****

John and Sarah take him and Ben out for dinner the night before Caleb leaves.

It goes marginally better than the party at Abe’s.

They eat steak and have chocolate cake for dessert and Caleb spends ninety percent of the time with his hand on Ben’s thigh beneath the table.

His parents drive them home and Ben kisses him chastely in the back seat.

*****

A few hours later Ben is sitting at his desk running down the list of things he still needs to get before he starts class in a week when Caleb knocks at his window.

“What are you doing? My dad knows we're together, you could've texted me and I would've let you through the door. Or you could've let yourself in. I know you somehow got a hold of a spare key.”

“I know, but….I wanted to see you again.”

“I'll see you tomorrow.”

“You don't have to come over to say goodbye.”

“Sure I do. I wish you'd let me drive you.”

“It's a long ride to the airport.”

“And you'll have to do it after a ten hour flight when you get back. You can park the jeep here. My dad won't care. He'll start it every once in awhile just to make sure it still works.”

“I don’t want you to have to worry about it.”

“It’s not-.”

Caleb cuts him off with a rough kiss, warm calloused hands under his shirt immediately. “Come on, come on,” He murmurs against his lips.

Ben goes with it, twisting them around so Caleb’s back hits the bed and Ben climbs over him. Caleb starts to tug on Ben’s sweatpants while Ben kisses the column of his neck. Caleb slips a hand into his pants finally and Ben hisses then bites down. Caleb moans and surges upwards.

“Sorry, sorry, that's gonna leave a mark.” He thumbs at the red mark on the side of his neck.

“S’okay. Keep doing it.”

“Okay but you gotta be quiet.”

Caleb nods. “Go slow. We have all night.”

*****

In the morning Caleb is gone.

*****

Ben’s walking down the porch steps with his keys jingling in his hand when Caleb pulls into the driveway.

“Hey, I was just on my way to you.”

“I thought I’d save you the trip.”He looks sad and Ben steps forward to hug him, hooking his chin over his shoulder. It takes a second before Caleb's hugging him back hard enough to start to hurt.

“I'm going to miss you.”

“Me too.”

“Promise to write. Call me when you can. Or email. Anything to let me know you're okay. Take lots of pictures.”

“Sure, sure.”

“Try not to get locked up abroad.”

“I think we should break up.”

Ben pulls back just enough to see his face.

“What?”

“Don't you think….”

Ben stops touching him, runs a hand through his hair. “What?”

“It’s the smart thing to do.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re going off to college.”

“You’re leaving the country.”

“Exactly.”

“Why didn't you do this last night? I wouldn't have followed you home. I wouldn't have made a scene. I'm not pathetic.”

“I know.”

“You could've left and never had to have seen me again.” He eyes the mark just barely visible beneath the collar of his shirt. “Did you just want to get fucked before you left? Because for that's all that I was good for I think I would have rather you had gone somewhere else.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“How long have you been thinking about this?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Yes it does.”

“Awhile.”

“Awhile? Is this why you didn't want me to take you to the airport? Because you wouldn't have a ride home? Now you're silent, you have nothing to say? Usually I can't shut you up and now you have nothing to say for yourself?”

“What do you want me to say? I think this is for the best.”

“That's what you really want?”

“Yes.”

“This is junior year all over again. You can't just let yourself be happy? Trust that something's going to remain a constant?”

“That's doesn't happen with me.”

“It's not just you anymore, asshole, it's me too. We're something. I thought that meant something to you but I guess not.”

Caleb doesn't make a move to defend himself. Or their relationship.

“I love you. You're the only person I've ever loved like this. I'll wait for you but I'm not going to beg you.”

“I don't expect you to.”

“Fine. Fine.” He reaches around Caleb and yanks open the door. It creaks. The jeeps had a rough life. “Have fun. Hope you have a good flight. Hope you have a good life.”

Caleb gets in, wordlessly and starts the car.

Ben leans into the window, says “I still would've picked you up from the airport,” then turns and walks away, careful to keep his head up and eyes forward as Caleb start the car and pulls away. He should've seen this coming. That conversation with his mom, how quiet he's been- Ben knows high school sweethearts are rarely a thing. He got too far ahead of himself. Caleb had one foot out the door and Ben was picking out what kind of dog they'd adopt when they got their own place. This whole thing, the way Caleb acted towards him in the beginning, the way Ben acted in return, that kiss in the kitchen, how they finally got together, the road trip during the summer, how he broke his heart and fled the country- it’s a story he’ll tell his future...whatever. Maybe they’ll laugh at how dumb teenagers can be. Or it’ll all come out as a quiet confession one night when there’s nothing else to talk about. It’ll be a memory. Maybe Caleb will forget the whole thing and replace it with new experiences in every corner of the world.

He's pulling his sleeves over his hands so he can wipe his eyes when he hears a car horn behind him. The jeep is backing down the street, fast, swerving slightly. He's lucky no one else is on the road.

The jeep stops a few feet from Ben. It hits the curb and narrowly misses the mailbox.

Caleb comes spilling out, face red and eyes watery and collides with Ben with enough force to knock him back.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” he repeats over and over and Ben digs his fingers into Caleb's hair as he babbles against the side of his neck. “I didn't mean it, I swear, I promise. I'm sorry.”

“Okay, okay, you're okay.”

“Ben.”

“It's okay.”

They sit on the back bumper until Caleb calms down. He wraps his arm around Ben's and rests his head on his shoulder.

“You're going to be late for your flight.”

“No. I budgeted in time for me to cry in the gas station parking lot.”

Ben laughs sadly.

“I don't want to go.”

“Yes you do. You've always wanted to go.”

“Things are different now.”

“Yeah but….things...things don't have to change. You and me, I'm serious about this. I'll be here when you get back.”

“I feel selfish.”

“You're not. But if you are then so am I because I thought about asking you to stay.”

“If you asked me I would.”

“I'm not asking.”

******

That night at dinner Ben watches the clock that's hanging in the dining room. At 6:05 he tells his dad that Caleb's flight just landed. He takes a deep breath and tries to be okay.

******

Yale looks twice as big now as it did on the summer visit. He gets lost three times on his first day. He's late to his classes and everyone turns to stare at him.

His roommate is standoffish. He rarely ever sees him. Ben's not sure what he did but held pretty sure he guy hates him.

He tells Caleb all that. Sends an email to an account he has no idea if Caleb will ever see. Still feels good to get it down.

*******

“Where is Caleb anyways?” Nathan asks. He dragged Ben to a party in his building.

“Well last time I talked to him he was in Prague but that was 2 weeks ago so-” he shrugs and knocks back the shot. “Who knows?”

Nathan looks at him for a long moment before he takes the empty glass from his hand. “Let's get you another.”

There's a girl next to him on the couch. Petite, pretty, brunette. Very flirty. She touches his arm and laughs even though he doesn't say anything particularly funny. She's smart. She wants to be a lawyer. Her favorite movie is The Green Mile. She leans in close to him to be heard over the music and the group of people enthusiastically playing beer pong.

“Where's your phone?”

Ben pats all his pockets. “I think I left it in my room.”

“What's your number?”

Ben has had the same number since he got the phone in middle school but he's had a lot of whatever has been in the cups Nathan has been handing to him and for a million dollars he couldn't say what his number is.

He shrugs. She rolls her eyes, hits him playfully on the arm and grabs a slightly used napkin and a sharpie. She scribbles her name and number down. Amanda.

“My friends are leaving but you should call me sometime. We can hang out. Get coffee, study.-” she drags her eyes over him. “Whatever. Call me.”

******

“I hate myself.”

“You didn't do anything wrong.”

“I took her number. I shouldn't have done that. I should've told her no.”

“You're too nice to say no.”

“Caleb.”

“Caleb would find this hilarious. Hell, he'd probably be proud of you.”

“I don't know where Caleb is. Or what he's doing or who he's doing it with. He's in Europe with European people doing European things and I'm here.”

“Here is not a bad place to be.”

“I'm getting girl’s numbers.”

“And then talking about your boyfriend afterwards. You did nothing wrong.”

“I should’ve told her about him. I've got a hundred different stories. It's all I think about. It's amazing I get anything else done.”

“Next time.”

“I don't want there to be a next time.”

“Then there won't be a next time. It's all up to you.”

“I don't know what Caleb is doing.”

“Probably exactly this.”

“Getting numbers from girls.”

“Jesus. He's probably missing you.”

“Then why doesn't he call me?”

“I don't know Ben.”

“You know we broke up before he left? We got back together like, right away, but it was his idea. I used to think he was worried about me. He said I was going off to college and he didn't want to hold me back and I said he was an idiot.”

“Sounds like the two of you.”

“I thought he was worried about me but what if he was worried about himself?”

“Don't do this to yourself.”

“Why not? He could be doing anything.”

“You don't know.”

“Go to sleep, Ben.”

“I love him so much.”

“He loves you too. Go to sleep.”

“Wait.” He pulls the napkin from his pocket and hands it over. “Take this, throw it out. I don't want it.”

“Sure.”

“Not in here. Outside. At your place. I don't want it in here.”

******

Ben’s phone starts ringing as he’s trying to get his door open. He’s got a pile of books in his arms and balancing a latte in his hand. He finally gets the door open, drops the books on his desk and digs out his phone.

“Hello.”

“Are you alone? Please be alone. If not get somewhere alone right now.”

“You know if I didn't know who this was it would be really creepy. Where are you?”

“I am alone in a hotel room- not a hostel with 10 other people, not in a train station-”

“You've slept in a train station-”

“I've slept a lot of places but never one with a bed and a locking door. The rest of the place is shit but I don't care because it's private, semi clean, and I have you on the phone so please, are you alone?”

“Yes.”

“Alright. Now get your hand down your pants and fucking talk to me.”

“Oh. How much is this phone call costing me?”

“Ben. Promise I'll make it worth it. I'll pay for it. I don’t care.”

“Alright, alright.” Ben jumps on the bed and settles against the pillows, then tucks the phone between his shoulder and ear. “What do you want me to say?”

Caleb moans.

“Have you already started?”

“I'm already halfway there. Catch up.”

“You're lucky I like a challenge.”

“If that's what you want to call it.”

******

“Are you not like, getting up to clean yourself up?”

“I am alone for the first time in months. I'm lying here for as long as I want.”

“Ewww.”

“You love it. Where is your roommate?”

“He's hardly ever here. His girlfriend lives across campus so he technically lives here but in reality he lives with her. I couldn't ask for a better arrangement.”

“That's good. Last thing you want is someone who never leaves.”

Ben bites his lip.

“You know, a total shut in?”

That's basically what Ben is. The last time he went out socially was when Nathan dragged him out for coffee a week ago.

“I’m thinking about joining the baseball team.”

“Thought you said you weren't playing anymore. How's your arm doing?”

“My arm is fine. I probably won’t even play that much if I even make the team. The kids that play in college have scholarships. I’ll be a backup if I’m lucky. I like playing. It’ll give me something to do. It’ll keep me out of trouble.”

“What trouble could you get into?”

Ben thinks about Amanda. And that guy that was giving him some serious eyes in the library. Nathan finally got sick of it and snapped ‘He has a boyfriend.’ The guy apologized and took off.

“Ben?”

“Some girl gave me her number a few months ago. I never called it. Threw the napkin away. Actually I had Nathan throw it away. I was drunk and wanted it as far from me as possible.”

“That's good.”

“Have you…”

“No Ben. It's only ever you.”

******

He starts getting postcards every week. Estonia. Denmark. Ireland. Poland.

Caleb is crisscrossing across Europe and he's starting to take Ben with him.

They're simple at first; talking about what he's done and seen and what he's been eating. Then the content slowly disintegrates into smut that makes the kid at the mail desk blush and avoids Ben's eye line when he hands over his mail.

*****

Caleb-

I appreciate your cards, I really do, and I'd never ask you to stop sending them but you have to ease up on the explicit stuff. There's a guy that works in the mail room who has a serious baby face that you are scandalizing. I'm serious. If I get one more I think he's going to turn me in for sexual harassment and I don't blame him. If you have to get that out do it on here. Much more private and I won't feel like we are responsible for corrupting the youth of America.

But yes. To all of that. We're going to be doing all of that when you get back.

*****

Caleb doesn't email him back but he does stop the writing and opts for graphic and anatomically correct doodles. A few of them include the kid that works in the mail room as either as passive observer or an active participant.

*****

Caleb-

The kid who works in the mail room doesn't work there anymore. He quit. Now it's a forty year old woman who tries to flirt with me every time I go in there. I think she wants to meet you. Please don't draw her.

And about that last drawing there is no way you can bend like that. I paid close and careful attention to you in gym junior year and I’m telling you its wishful thinking. But you're always welcome to try to prove me wrong.

******

“Where in the world is Caleb Brewster?"

Sam came home for Christmas. It’s nice having him back, almost like when they were kids.

“London, last I heard.”

“London at Christmas. Must be nice. Have you talked about going to visit him? You have some time off.”

“I can’t afford that right now.”

“Maybe dad will chip in. Hell, I’ll chip in. It’ll be your Christmas present. That would help me out a lot because I haven’t gotten you anything yet.”

“We haven’t talked about it. Maybe it’s better if I don’t.”

Ben knows the look Sam is giving him now. It’s the same one Nathan gave him a month before.

“You know I think dad has some rum around here,” He knocks his glass into Ben’s.

It’s like they’re reading off a script.

*****

He was in London for Christmas. Ben gets a postcard with a snow covered red telephone booth with Big Ben in the background. Caleb had written Merry Christmas on the back along with the usual doodle, this one getting into the holiday spirit with an original and inappropriate use of mistletoe.

******

“Are these all from Caleb?”

“Yup.”

Ben can’t find his left shoe.

“He really stepped up his communicating game.”

“We talked.”

“On the phone?”

“Yup. Nice long, talk.”It’s a good thing he’s stretched halfway beneath the bed trying to grab his sneaker or else Nathan would see the blush on his face.

“That’s good. I’m glad this is working out. These are all amazing. I’m jealous of your boyfriend.” He removes one from the bulletin board and starts to read. He doesn’t make it more than three sentences in before he’s flipping it over. “Whoa, what the hell?”

“I didn’t tell you to read them.”

“That got graphic.”

“Don’t read them.”

“It’s a post-card. How do you not?” He pulls off another one. “Damn. I would love to see the look on the mailman's face.”

“He shouldn’t be reading them either. But the look on the kids face down at the main office was pretty good. Until he quit, I can’t prove it was because of this but the timing was funny. Now it’s that woman. She appreciates them. I think Caleb is sending them just for her.”

“No, no, these are definitely for you.”

Nathan moves on to the one he sent from Istanbul. He flips it right back around. “I can’t believe they let this into the country.”

“Land of the free.”

“He’s a good artist.”

“I’ll let him know you think that.”

“He’ll send me a postcard won’t he?”

“Depends, you want one?”

******

Ben-

Paris is amazing. I kept reading about how it was overrated and I should skip it and focus on Caen or Toulouse but those people are just jaded or bitter. I still plan on going to those places but I’m glad I didn’t skip it. I saw six people get proposed to in front of the Eiffel Tower. It made me think of you. I don’t. I don’t know how I meant that. You should know I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes trying to figure out how I meant that. It was nice. They looked happy. I think about you. I took a ton of pictures and I sent you a postcard. I real one this time that won’t make anyone blush or flirt with you. One that you can show your dad. I should start writing some to him. I’m going to be sending out three different versions from now on. You and the mail kid get the X-rated one, your dad gets PG and my parents get the G rating. They don’t even need to know about how I got mugged in Edinburgh, chased the guys down and got my stuff back. That’s between you and me and now your dad, if I can trust him to keep it to himself.

******

Caleb-

My dad is pretty cool. As long as you didn’t get stabbed or anything he should be able to keep a secret. We got a foot of snow here on Tuesday and I was accidentally involved in a snowball fight. I think about you too.

He writes then deletes but I know how I mean it a half a dozen times before he hits send.

*****

Ten days later the postcard shows up. It’s the Eiffel Tower lit up against a dark blue sky. True to his word he’s kept it PG, only writing wish you were here. I’ll have to come back with you someday, and nothing else. He shows it to his dad and to Nathan and then he zips it into the inner pocket on his winter coat so he can always carry it around with him.

*****

Caleb-

I forgot to tell you last time that Arnold is a traitor. He was passed up for a raise and took all of our signals and training courses with him to his new job with The Rangers. I trusted him.

*****

Ben-

I never trusted Arnold. He used you way too much. He's why your shoulder is so screwed up now and don't say that's how it is for every pitcher or that I'm turning into your dad because you know we're right. I hope your coach now is better. I hope your shoulder is okay. I hope you're not sitting there struggling to get ice on it like you used to before I gave in and started helping you. Is that when you decided that you loved me? Because I helped you. Holy shit. Can you imagine if Arnold pulled that when you were playing for him? He would've killed him and buried the body somewhere it would never be found.

*****

Caleb-

That is how it is for every pitcher. Pitching is an unnatural movement. Of course it's going to screw up your shoulder. Every athlete has something that bothers them. There's nothing you can do. But my dad absolutely would've killed him. And I'm icing my shoulder myself just fine.

I was gone on you before that. You remember when I hit my head and I sat next to you on the bench? We talked about studying for civics. It was then. I told Nathan it was the way you looked when the sun hit you. But now I don't think that was it. I think it could've been pouring out and I still would've loved you.

*****

On a Friday in early April Caleb calls him from Ibiza. He’s out with some of his classmates from his Econ class. It’s too loud to hear inside the bar so he takes it outside.

“Sorry it took me so long to answer. It was loud.”

“Are you at a party?”

“No, just some…thing with some guys I know. We all have a class together and we handed in a paper today.”

There’s dead air and Ben’s afraid he’s lost him.

“Caleb?”

“I’m tired. I think I’m done.”

Ben kicks at a loose chunk of concrete on the sidewalk. “Is tired code for broke?”

“No, tired is code for I’m tired of traveling. I’m tired of sleeping in a new place every night and forgetting to switch what language I have to speak so I have to say everything all over again. I miss you. I’m ready to come home.”

“Then come home. I’m sure your parents would love to see you.”

******

Caleb-

I forgot to tell you but I'm starting in the game on Friday. Allen threw out his arm in practice and has to have surgery. Sucks for him and honestly, I'm probably only a few pitches behind him but I'm excited to play. I'm probably rusty and I'll lose the game by a lot but oh well.

******

Nate comes up to watch the game and he's too excited to see him to be embarrassed. It's a hard fought victory but a victory nonetheless. Ben plays great. The coach pats him on the back and tells him to start coming to practice a half an hour early for extra training.

His dad wants to celebrate, take him out to dinner and Ben has had enough of fast food and the same things from the dining hall so he readily agrees.

They're halfway across the parking lot when Caleb comes running toward them.

“Did I miss it? Damn it I missed it. Did you win?” He looks at them expectantly then to the scoreboard that's still lit up behind them. Home: 6. Away: 4. “You won, Ben, that's great.”

“Caleb?”

“Who else would it be?”

“What are you? Why are you? How?”

“Wow, you are not getting your money's worth out of this school. Can you get a refund?”

Ben drops everything and flies into his arms.

Caleb feels more solid, it's what carrying an 80 pound pack on his back every day for eight months will do to you. His beard is trimmed short and he's pale and warm and here and Ben could cry.

“I'm sorry I missed your game.”

Ben is definitely going to cry.

“Caleb, Ben and I were just going out to dinner. You'll be joining us, my treat.”

“God, I'm not turning that down. Long flight. Terrible food.”

“You'll be riding with Caleb?”

“Do you want me to drive?”

“Yes, please,” he hands the keys over and get the door for Ben. “I'm exhausted and shocked this thing still runs.”

“Losing faith in the jeep.”

“Never had faith in the jeep.”

“Quiet, she'll hear you.”

“I'm really in no shape to go to a restaurant. I was just on a plane for 10 hours and I look it.”

“Caleb, would you look at me?”

“Oh I am. Your butt still looks great in those pants.”

“Stop.”

“I'm serious. I have been all across Europe. I've seen the water in Santorini. I've seen the Eiffel Tower all lit up. I’ve seen Aphrodite’s Rock in Cyprus and nothing compares to your ass in those pants.”

*****

They get to the restaurant before Nate and have some time to kill so Ben hauls Caleb against him. He’ll never get tired of this feeling.

“I can't believe you're here. I can't stop smiling.” Ben laughs, giddy in a way he hasn't been in months.

“I wanted it to be a surprise.”

“It is. God. I didn't think I'd see you for...I don't know how long.”

“Ben,” He looks like has something important to say.

His dad pulls up beside him and honks the horn.

“My dad is hungry.”

“Me too.”

******

“You can get anything you want, Caleb. My treat.”

“Thanks but I've been craving a burger and fries for months. I want to thank you for not telling my parents about what I wrote to you on your postcards.”

“How do I know I didn't?”

“Because if you did my mom would've had my dad have the entire US army sent out to find me and drag me home.”

“So what's next for you, Caleb?” Nate asks, he’s not nearly as friendly as he could be. There’s an undercurrent of hostility there. Nate knows how hard these last nine months have been on his son.

“I should probably go see my parents. Do you have a break coming up?” He asks Ben.

“Over the summer, wait, you haven’t seen them yet?”

“No, I came straight here from the airport. Then after I get back maybe Ben can help me look for an apartment. Maybe close to campus?”

“Close to campus? You’re staying here?”

“Of course. I told you I wanted to come home, didn’t I?”