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There And Back (And Back Again)

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This is how Matt knows that Ben’s a keeper:

He shows up at the door of Ben’s shithole apartment in Los Angeles, duffel bag slung over his shoulder, clutching forty-something crinkled sheets of paper to his chest, says, “I think I’ve got something here, I need your help,” and Ben looks at him evenly and says, “Okay.”

No questions, no hesitation. Just: okay.

He’s got a part in Geronimo that’s important, important enough to drop out of Harvard three months before graduation, anyway, but somehow this feels just as big, this first act of a script that he wrote over a few too many campus library all-nighters and handed to his playwriting professor with mixed trepidation and resolve. His professor had passed it back with a circled A+ and said, “I don’t care how much homework you have for your other classes, finish this script.

And he’d tried. He’d tried like hell, but there was something missing, and he didn’t realize what it was until he’d rummaged through an old shoebox shoved under his bed and found a joke script they’d written in middle school, about two very good-looking guys who become very rich and very famous, through mostly unclear means. It was a piece of shit, obviously, even his mom hadn’t bothered to read it, but on that night it hit him like a bolt of lightning, and he’d picked up the phone, used his dad’s emergency-only credit card, and booked a direct flight to LA.

Which landed him here. Fifty-two minutes on a bus because he couldn’t afford a taxi, wearing three too many layers in 70 degree weather because it’d been snowing when he’d left Boston and he hadn’t planned ahead. All of that feels like a convoluted math problem, which is something Unnamed Protagonist would enjoy, if he could get Unnamed Protagonist to do something other than drum up unnecessary backstory over and over again. It’d also be nice if Unnamed Protagonist could settle on a name.

“Welcome to La Casa Affleck, by the way,” Ben says. “Believe it or not, I got a very good deal on this place.”

Matt glances around. The living room—if you could call it a living room, as it looked more like a room where things went to die—is lined with dusty wallpaper, so there are tiny purple lilacs blooming all around. There’s a fist-sized hole in a closet door, which could’ve easily been a recent addition. Ben gets punchy when he’s had a few too many. And the carpet might’ve been white, or off-white, or maybe beige when it was first installed, but it’s none of those colors now, and probably hasn’t been for years.

“Nice,” Matt says graciously. “It really suits you.”

“Right? And thirty minutes from the beach, can’t beat that shit.”

Matt looks at Ben, really looks at him, and feels the same prickle up his spine that he’d felt when the ticketing agent had said, Okay, Mr. Damon, looks like you’re booked! The same prickle he’d felt for the first time riding a train to New York City, to compete against Ben for a part that neither of them really wanted, and Ben had fallen asleep slumped against his shoulder, his breath slow and measured and fire-hot against his neck. The same prickle when they’d drunkenly squeezed into a twin bed at Harvard and done fumbling, drunken things that were foreign and strange and yet almost too easy, like they’d somehow been practicing for its inevitability all along.

It was the same prickle he’d felt the second time it’d happened, and then the third, and the fourth—

“Made you up a bed,” Ben says, and Matt tears his eyes away to where Ben’s gesturing over by the couch, a sloppy heap of blankets and yellowing pillows that he’d mistaken for dirty laundry. He can’t tell if Ben’s kidding, and squares his shoulders.

“If you think I flew three thousand fucking miles to sleep on an infested pile of—” but Ben cuts him off, yanks him in by the shirt, laughs against his mouth before moving in to kiss him, long and hard and like he’d been waiting months and months to do this again.

Just like Matt had been.

He pushes into the kiss, doesn’t even hate that Ben’s breath smells faintly of Cheetos, doesn’t hate at all when Ben’s hand rubs a slow circle into his hip.

“Okay, fuck, come on,” Ben says breathlessly, and wrenches the script out of Matt’s grip. He tosses it onto the couch, silences Matt’s complaint with another bruising kiss, adds, “I’ll look at it later, I promise, first thing, tonight,” pulls him by the wrist towards the bedroom. “Good thing I sprung for the double bed, huh? It was only a little more expensive than the twin. Luckily, the bedbugs really lowered the value.”

“You’re disgusting,” Matt says, and shoves him up against the lilacs, trails his lips over Ben’s jaw teasingly light until Ben shivers and flips them around, tries to kiss him and frantically yank his shirt off all at the same time, which results mostly in his arms twisted above his head and Ben stumble-tripping over his own two feet.

Matt snorts and untangles his clothes, pulls the shirt off in one swift motion and drops it to the ground. “Have you always been this uncoordinated?” he asks, going for Ben’s shirt next. He makes quick work.

“No,” Ben says, “you just make me nervous,” and he’s full of shit, but Matt likes it anyway. Likes this, anyway. Likes them.

The bedroom’s faring better than the rest of the apartment; Ben’s bed is unmade but the sheets are at least from this decade, and there’s a big window with no blinds so the last of the day’s sunlight is softly streaming in, and he has an honest-to-god hamper, doesn’t just have his dirty clothes in a ball on the floor like he used to when they were kids. It’s not a child’s playroom. It’s not a sterile dormroom. It’s small, and it’s shitty, but it’s Ben’s.

Matt pushes Ben towards the mattress and he goes willingly, kicks his shoes off in the process. Matt crawls over him, lets his eyes rake across Ben’s body hurriedly, because it’d be weird to linger. That’s not what this is. Ben’s not as skinny as he used to be, which is surprising, because he’s a shit cook and it’s not like he has a dining hall right outside his door. He looks good, though. Of course he does. “You been working out?”

“Yeah,” Ben says, plucks the button on Matt’s jeans open quickly. “Had to, for that fucking after-school special I did. The one where I was on 'roids?”

“Oh, right. The football thing.” He traces the outline of Ben’s abs, one finger at a time, making his skin flare with goosebumps. “Steroids really agree with you.”

“You know, I thought the same thing. If this acting thing doesn’t work out...”

“Your mom would be so proud.” Matt leans down and captures Ben’s lower lip between his teeth, light, the sort of move that threatens to lead into something more, but he reluctantly pulls himself away. “I’m serious about this script, Ben, I think it could really be something,” he says. He hadn’t jumped on a plane just to jump Ben’s bones—though he might’ve, if it was something they’d ever put into words, if Ben had ever been bold enough to ask him to. But this project, too, looms big over his head, because it could be theirs. It could be theirs, and it could be great.

“I can’t wait to read it,” Ben answers, earnest, and he pulls Matt closer by the beltloops and goes in for another kiss, this one heated and messier, his fingers tugging at Matt’s hair. He tilts his face away abruptly to add, the words slightly muffled by Matt’s lips, “But I’m a liiiiiittle more excited about this right now.”

Matt grins and it’s not even weird that this is the kid he’s known since he was ten, that he’d once seen a young Ben cry over a twisted ankle, that he’d once thrown up birthday cake all over Ben’s bedspread. Because that was them then and this is them now, and even when they were all the way across the fucking country, they’ve grown like vines, their lives blooming wild and in so many different directions, but somehow always intertwining, always ending up at this.

“Excited?” Matt repeats, and glides his hand down between them, palms Ben through his jeans. “Oh. Yeah. Definitely excited.”

“You’re such an asshole,” Ben says, laughing, but Matt tightens his grip and the laughter dies out of his throat and then they’re kissing, again, and moving together, and Ben’s got his pants shoved down first and then Matt’s, and they’ve been drunk so many times before but they’re not, now, but it’s the same sort of feeling, all exhilaration and heavy breathing and Ben’s hips and Matt’s mouth, and only a little bit of awkward fumbling. Even that is good.

Afterwards, Ben lights a cigarette, and Matt stubs it out against the war-torn bedframe, because he knows it’s just for show. They shoot the shit and watch as the sun sinks, inch by inch, along the far wall. Ben asks about Matt’s Harvard friends (good dudes, but they’re not Ben) and Matt asks about Ben’s California friends (okay dudes, nowhere near Matt). Other than the occasional accidental elbow rub, they don’t touch.

When the room is almost entirely dark, Matt climbs off the mattress and hastily redresses, trying not to think about how it’s so much easier to take his clothes off in front of somebody than to put them back on. He wanders towards the living room and comes back, a few short minutes later, with a tub of rocky road and the unfinished script.

“You really fucking need to grocery shop,” he says, sitting carefully on the corner of the bed. The easiness of the past half hour isn’t gone, but the air is different. Thicker. He shoves a spoonful of ice cream into his mouth and hands the stack of papers to Ben.

“Jesus christ, you have a one-track mind,” Ben says, amused.

Matt looks pointedly at Ben, who is still naked and covered only loosely by his sheets. “Really, you’re gonna go there?”

“Okay, okay. Touché.”

Ben yawns and stretches his arms out over his head, reminding Matt that he is the same awkward lanky guy he spent every day in seventh grade with, and gingerly sets the script on his nightstand. “Okay. I may not have food but I do have beer in the fridge. You bust out a six-pack, I’m gonna hop in the shower, and then I’ll get down to it.”

Matt nods; he’s had an itch for half a semester, now, it’s not like he couldn’t go another hour without scratching it. “Fine. I’m ordering pad thai.”

“Yeah? On whose dime?”

Matt digs a credit card out of his pocket. “My dad’s,” he says, without a trace of guilt. This definitely qualified as an emergency.

***

Matt’s halfway through his second beer and a heaping plate of food when Ben gets out of the shower, joins him in the living room with just a towel around his waist, smelling clean and woodsy and very Ben-like. The smell of Ben’s body wash is as familiar as his own.

Except that he’s immune to his own, now. He doesn’t even smell it anymore.

He is not immune to Ben.

Ben reaches across and grabs a handful of noodles straight from Matt’s plate, uses his fingers like a fucking caveman, and Matt listlessly smacks his hand away. “Swear to god, you move to LA, get yourself a bachelor’s pad, suddenly you’ve regressed a hundred years. When’s the last time you washed your underwear?”

“Stopped wearing underwear,” Ben says through a mouthful of tofu. “My balls have never felt freer.” He chews, swallows. “Besides, I’m not the college dropout in this room, asshat.”

“I’ll go back,” Matt says, sounding more confident than he feels. “I mean, obviously, I’ve put this much time in. I might as well get the diploma.”

“So you can do what? Staple it to your headshot? Casually whip it out while you’re sucking some casting director’s dick?”

“No, but I really do appreciate your faith in me. I wouldn’t suck a dick to get a job. A little nipple play, sure, but no blowjobs.”

“No blowjobs ever?” Ben questions, his eyebrows lifted high. Goddamn him.

“What is it that Jesus said? ‘It’s more blessed to give than receive’?”

“I don’t think Jesus was talking about BJs, dude.” He’s obviously gotten tired of stealing noodles from Matt, because he reaches over and takes the whole fucking bowl for himself. He pauses to consider with his next bite halfway to his mouth. “Or, hell, maybe I was just going to all the wrong churches.”

Matt cracks open his third beer. “Nah, it’s all in the subtext,” he says. “You know, you gotta read between the lines.”

They manage to eat about nine servings between the two of them, and the first six-pack magically disappears, and they’re making great work on the second, when Matt rolls onto his back and tips his head up to look at Ben. “So, about that script…”

Ben’s face is smashed against the couch cushion, and he doesn’t bother lifting his head. “I’m a little buzzed. You’ve been here all of twenty seconds. Tomorrow morning, okay? I’ll set an alarm, swear to god. We’ll have a business meeting at lunch.”

Matt grins in spite of himself. They used to have “business meetings” in middle school, when they thought they were hot shit. They’d never let other kids sit at their table. They’d bring briefcases. God, they were pompous.

“Yeah, okay,” he agrees. “Pass me another beer.”

***

Ben probably wouldn’t have forced Matt to sleep on his shitty carpet, with just a threadbare blanket thrown across his body, but they stay up way too late talking about nothing and everything and getting progressively drunker, and pass out shortly before dawn, so he ends up sleeping there anyway.

He’s jolted awake a few short hours later by the front door jerking open, and Ben’s little brother strolling in like he owned the place. He drops his backpack on the ground, kicks his flipflops off, and jumps right on top of Matt without a single shred of decorum. “Matty D!” he says, ruffling his hair. “Had no idea you’d be here. What’s up, buddy?”

Matt groans and shoves Casey off of him. It’s too damn early for this. “Aren’t you supposed to be in high school? What the hell are you doing here?”

“Spring break, baby! Wouldn’t miss the chance to spend a week at the beach with my favorite big brother.” Ben’s barely stirred on the couch, but Casey crawls over and plants a loud smacking kiss on his cheek. “Get up, you lazy asshole. Bring on the bikinis.”

“It’s nine o’clock in the morning,” Ben grumbles into the cushion, without even opening his eyes.

Exactly,” Casey answers, very seriously. “The ladies will just be arriving. They haven’t sunscreened up for the day yet. They’ll need someone to help with those hard-to-reach places.” He leans back on his knees and puts a solemn hand over his heart. “Guys, I could help. I could reach those hard-to-reach places.”

“You look prepubescent,” Ben says, and throws a pillow at his head. “They won’t ask you to rub their sunscreen in. They’ll ask if you know where your mommy is.”

Casey looks intrigued. “I could say she’s dead,” he says, thoughtfully. “Girls do love a tragic backstory.”

“Wow, I really can’t believe you’re single.” Matt struggles to sit up, because he knows Casey would sooner dump a pot of burning coffee on his head than let him go back to sleep, and scrubs a hand through his hair. He and Ben used to have sleepovers, when they were kids, and Casey would pester the shit out of them, never leave them alone for a second, always eavesdropping or butting in or crying to their mom when they wouldn’t let him play.

It’s crazy how shit never changes.

“Benny told me about the Native American movie,” Casey says, turning back towards Matt. “Very cool. Now, tell me you’re not playing Geronimo. Cause, I mean, you’ve got the attitude, but not so much the looks.”

“Jesus, Case, do you ever stop talking?” Ben rubs his eyes blearily and kicks his blankets to the ground. Before noon, even, which is probably a first. “Did Mom say it was okay for you to come out here?”

“Of course she did. She practically encouraged it, when I told her much wholesome brotherly bonding we’d be doing. Plus, I think she thinks I can convince you to move back home. She’s on that kick again.”

Ben looks at Matt and explains, “The in-case-acting-doesn’t-work-out-what-WILL-you-fall-back-on? kick.” He shrugs. “I don’t know what she’s worried about. Obviously, my fallback is prostitution and drug lording.”

Matt lets out a short laugh. “Yeah, my mom about had a stroke when she found out about Harvard. I told her, Tom Hanks doesn’t have a college degree. Liam Neeson doesn’t have a college degree.”

“Your mom loves Liam Neeson,” Ben says, with a knowing nod.

“She really does.”

“Alright, we can braid each other’s hair at the beach,” Casey cuts in, throwing a towel over his shoulder. He’s already wearing swimtrunks, and probably has been since he’d left the east coast. He points to Matt, says, “You could really use a tan,” and then turns his gaze to Ben, scrunches up his forehead, and adds, “And why aren’t you wearing pants?”

***

Casey makes a beeline for the water before Ben’s even turned off the car, kicking sand up as he goes. “Ten bucks says he has no idea how cold the Pacific is,” Ben says, and sure enough, Casey doesn’t even slow down.

They grab towels and sunscreen and two bags of potato chips, beach necessities, before scouting out a spot a good distance away from the tide. Casey was right about one thing: there are mostly spring breakers here, and, of course, the occasional old man looting for lost coins with a metal detector. “That’ll be me one day,” Ben says, nodding towards a particularly eager gentleman, “except we’ll probably be on hoverboards by then. And I’ll be half-bionic.”

“Now that sounds like a movie I’d see. You fall in love with another cyborg, but as it turns out, she was just in it for the loose change.”

“Played by Michelle Pfeiffer.”

“Good call. And who would play you?”

Ben looks at Matt very seriously. “Me, Matthew. No one can play me better than me.”

“I could play you better than you.” Matt clears his throat, rolls up his sleeves, transitions very smoothly into the Ben impression he’s been working on for the better part of ten years. “I want the leading role,” Matt-as-Ben says. “The longest lines. No, all of the lines. Give me every line in the script. And make sure there are shirtless scenes. I’ve been doing fake steroids for three months now, so I’ve got to show off. It’s charity, people. Charity.”

Ben laughs and punches Matt in the shoulder. “God, I hate you,” he says. “I get that that’s how you see me, because I always did get the leading roles, but I didn’t ask for them, Matt. I was chosen.”

“I was chosen,” Matt-as-Ben repeats, and they laugh together, and it feels good, to be here. Matt doesn’t think it exactly counts as living together when he’s been there less than twenty-four hours, but it’s on the road to living together, and Matt’s wanted to do that for years.

They don’t leave the beach until nearly sundown. Casey’s red as a lobster and didn’t talk to a single girl all day, except for the third grader that kept asking him to help her build sand castles (“she thinks you guys are the same age,” Ben explained, and Casey did something with his hands that caused the little girl’s mom to gasp) and Ben had taken a few breaks to do situps, and pushups, and even fucking lunges, which he said was for his career, but Matt didn’t miss the way he angled his body towards a group of giggling college girls.

He also didn’t miss the careful distance Ben was keeping between them. How he’d plop down next to Matt in the sand and then subtly, but consciously, scoot a few inches away without ever breaking stride.

Which wasn’t—it wasn’t like—

Matt keeps his mouth shut.

Casey insists on Mexican food for dinner, because “when in Rome, or, well, almost-Mexico, I guess,” and their mom had slipped an envelope of cash into Casey’s carry-on, so Ben takes off for a restaurant he’d heard about from a friend of a friend. Ben keeps swerving on purpose, and Casey bumps his sunburnt shoulders against the window and lets out a colorful string of swear words every single time.

This isn’t exactly how Matt pictured spending his first full day in California. Casey’s great, obviously, has always felt like his own little brother, but the last time he and Ben had been together, a few days after Christmas in his childhood home, they’d navigated the space between them with a lot less caution. And the way Ben had looked at him last night. For a second there, he’d thought, okay, maybe they were doing this. Whatever this was. Whatever it could be.

But then again, maybe not.

They wind up at some hole-in-the-wall place with big booths and low lights. Ben slides in next to Matt, but not too close, and asks for two extra baskets of the free chips and salsa before they’ve even started in on the first.

“So tell me about Geronimo,” Casey says, reaching for a chip. “Is it going to make you rich and famous? You gonna leave us little guys in the dust?”

“Rich, no,” Matt says, but he can’t exactly admit that it feels like it could be a breakthrough role, that maybe it’ll be the start of something big. “And I left you guys in the dust years ago. I’m only here because Ben begged for a photo op.”

“Don’t forget whose floor you’re sleeping on,” Ben says warningly.

Casey stirs his straw in his glass. “Oh good, you’ve got floor? I call shotgun on the bed.”

“Make sure he washes the sheets first,” Matt says, and then he pauses before anyone can raise any questions and points a chip at Ben. “How long’s it been? Weeks? Months?”

“You’re supposed to wash sheets?” Ben asks, looking alarmed.

***

They stay up late that night, again. Ben doesn’t have cable but he does have an old TV he’d found in someone’s dumpster and a stack of VHS tapes he’s collected through the years, and they put a movie in at random and talk over it the entire time. Casey starts to drift off somewhere around the climax. “Aw, Casey’s bedtime,” Ben says in a singsong voice. “Little high school boy can’t hang with the big kids.”

“You’re just upset because getting beauty sleep never worked for you,” Casey says back, and he gives Ben an affectionate shove as he disappears into the bedroom.

Matt stretches his arms out over his head, like he’s apologizing to his muscles in advance. “Guess I am sleeping on the floor again.”

“Sorry,” Ben says, pulling a face. “Had no idea he’d be here. Maybe we can steal some of Mom’s money tomorrow to invest in a blowup mattress. And I could…” He trails off mid-thought, glancing around the room.

Matt’s not sure where he was going with that. He could sleep with him on the floor? So that Casey could walk out in the morning to find them spooning on the ground? He could offer up a complimentary handjob to help him sleep better that night?

He’s not going to be an asshole. He double checks to make sure the bedroom door is closed and then leans in, kisses Ben softly on the lips. Just once.

Ben kisses him back, but shortly. He pulls away, and his expression is strange, like there’s an intense mental struggle going on inside his brain. He looks back at the door. “I don’t think we can,” he says, which is the closest they’ve ever come to addressing it while entirely clothed.

“I know,” Matt says. “It’s cool. I was kind of thinking we could—”

He doesn’t want to sound like a nag, hasn’t brought up the script all day, but filming starts soon and he doesn’t know how much untethered time he’ll have once it does. If Ben could just look at it—

“I have an idea,” Ben cuts in. When Ben gets one of his ideas Matt knows well enough to shut up and go along with it, so he climbs to his feet and follows Ben, curiously, out the front door.

It’s dark outside, and slightly chilly, but Matt doesn’t say anything as Ben leads him down a flight of stairs, left, and then into an unlocked door at the end of the complex. It’s a small, dingy laundry room. Matt lifts his eyebrows.

“If you came to wash your sheets, I think you forgot a crucial component,” he points out, but Ben closes the door behind him, turns around, and kisses Matt hard.

“The door doesn’t have a lock,” Ben says, “so you’re going to have to be quiet.”

They’ve fooled around in dorm rooms, in bedrooms, even on his childhood bed, but never somewhere open like this. Public. It’s wrong, for so many reasons, but the challenging look in Ben’s eye, the way his hands are grazing the small of Matt’s back, and the idea itself is so fucking hot that Matt pulls Ben tight against him and says, lowly, “No promises.”

Ben tugs him into another kiss, and it’s not at all sweet, not a kiss for the sake of kissing; they’re on borrowed time, and Ben kisses him like he’s got an endpoint in mind. He edges a knee between Matt’s legs and presses it against him, his hands running everywhere, over clothing and under clothing, as deftly as he can. Ben presses his nose into Matt’s neck and says against his skin, “Say something.”

Matt knows what he means. He runs a finger lightly up Ben’s chest, up to his chin, tips it up so he’s looking him in the eye. “Unzip my pants,” he says, like an order, and Ben swallows hard and obeys. This is what he likes—had drunkenly admitted, once, that the only bad part about being with girls is that they often found it weird if he asked them to, so Matt’s glad that he can do this, at least. The effect it has on Ben is infectious.

“Take your shirt off,” Matt adds, and Ben shrugs out of it at once, drops it on the floor. “And mine.” He’s wearing a button-up today, and Ben doesn’t rip it open, but he pulls the buttons free quickly like he wishes that he could. Matt places a hand against Ben’s stomach and pushes him backwards lightly, until he bumps up against a dryer.

“Turn around,” Matt says, and Ben looks surprised but he does.

Matt steps up against him, reaches around and unbuttons Ben’s shorts, slips a hand inside. “God, this is hot,” he says, and he wraps his hand around him, twists his wrist torturously slow. With his free hand, he tilts Ben’s face back towards him, catches his lips in another messy kiss.

This isn’t a step they’ve often traversed to, but Matt’s feeling bold, and so he pulls his hand out of the front of Ben’s boxers and slides it, instead, to the back. He reaches in and tests the waters, grabs a playful handful of Ben’s ass, and Ben laughs and threads his fingers through Matt’s hair, which he takes as a good sign.

“Yeah?” Matt asks.

“Yeah,” Ben agrees, and his legs inch apart.

Matt’s hand moves lower, experimental, and Ben breathes out sharply through his nose. The sound shoots straight to Matt’s dick and he wants to pull more of those sounds out, whatever the fuck it takes. “You ever do this to yourself?”

Ben’s eyes flutter shut. “Mm. Sometimes, yeah,” and then his hips jerk a little bit when Matt presses in, but he bumps up against the dryer and groans again. “I pretend it’s your hand, though. Always.”

“Good,” Matt says, trailing his lips to the bare skin on Ben’s shoulder. He bites down lightly and Ben’s breathing increases. His finger moves in a slow circle, tempting, wondering if he could get Ben off from this alone. Wishing they were better prepared. There’s not a lot to work with in a poorly-lit laundry room. “Ben, I don’t have any lube…”

“Back pocket,” Ben says immediately, and Matt reaches in and finds exactly what he’s looking for.

“You’ve been thinking about this all day?” he questions, tearing the packet open with his teeth, wasting no time. “Were you hoping I’d fuck you at the beach?”

“Maybe,” Ben says, and braces his arm against the dryer. “Are you going to fuck me here instead?”

They’d done this only a handful of times, so the idea was new enough and exciting enough that Matt had to bite down on the inside of his cheek to keep himself in check. “Yeah,” he says steadily, “I am,” and he shoves Ben’s shorts down to his knees, pulls in a deep breath. He squeezes some lube onto his finger and moves in again, kisses the side of his mouth, and then watches his face carefully as he slowly pushes in.

Matt tries to remember the exact point in their relationship when it would’ve stopped being weird for him to have a finger in Ben’s ass, but he figures it doesn’t actually matter, because they’re here, and here is so, so good.

Ben’s eager and encouraging, even though he’s breathing heavily, quiet groans pulled out of him in waves.

“Jesus, I hope your neighbors don’t need to do laundry,” Matt says, working at a second finger, and Ben drops his forehead to the dryer and says, “Even if they do, don’t you dare fucking stop.”

He asks Ben four or five times if he’s ready, just to make sure, but after several resounding yes’s and one I swear to god Matt if you ask me one more time he rolls a condom on, slicks himself with lube, and grips his shoulder tightly. He tries to imagine doing this with someone else. It’s not completely inconceivable—he’s seen enough porn to paste his own face onto any number of guys—but it wouldn’t be like this, couldn’t possibly be this easy, this right.

His whole life had been like that. Nobody could ever fill the Ben-sized hole except for Ben himself.

And now he was pushing into him into a laundry room in Los Angeles, and even this doesn’t seem quite so unexpected.

When he gets close to finishing, he presses his mouth anywhere he can reach: the side of Ben’s jaw, the skin below his ear, sucking hard against Ben’s neck with total abandon. He tightens his grip around Ben and jerks quickly, wanting to bring him to the edge, too, because the idea of Ben not finishing is unthinkable, and Ben moans, low and needy from the back of his throat, just as Matt snaps his hips forward one last time.

Afterwards, he leans weakly against the dryer and Ben finds a stray clean sock to clean themselves off with. “Guess I’ll finally have to do a load tomorrow,” Ben says, wrinkling his nose at the sock and dropping it back into a washing machine. He hands Matt his shirt from the floor.

Matt wonders if he should say something, but it doesn’t seem necessary. What they have is nice, actually. Uncomplicated. There’s no fretting over labels or worrying who should pay for dinner or timing phone calls to obey some unwritten law. They hang out, they have sex, they hang out. Lather rinse repeat.

“Hey Matt,” Ben says, and his stomach clenches a little, because maybe, oh, they are going to have that talk after all.

“Yeah?”

“Do you think… you could, uh, wait a few minutes to come up after me?”

Matt glances at Ben, surprised.

Ben shrugs. “I mean, we look so… Just in case Casey woke up, you know?”

Matt’s not exactly sure what it’d help. Instead of walking in looking like they’d just banged each other, they’d walk in a few minutes apart looking like they’d just banged LA hookers. So much better.

“Sure,” Matt says, and tries to smooth out a wrinkle in his shirt, but that seems pretty useless, too.

Ben grins. “You’re the best,” he says, and he heads out the door. Matt doesn’t have the heart to tell him that his fly’s still unzipped.

***

Matt wakes up before either Affleck the next morning, and messes around with the coffeemaker in the kitchen first thing, gets a pot going. He pulls his script and a pencil to the coffee table with a steaming mug, because he feels like writing, but he has to keep rereading lines because he gets distracted thinking about last night.

Casey’s up next, which means it’ll probably be another day of no writing with Ben. Casey drops blearily onto the couch next to Matt with his own cup of coffee, winces when his sunburn hits the cushion. “I don’t know how you woke up before me,” he says, stifling a yawn. “Where’d you guys go last night?”

Matt pauses with the tip of the eraser in his mouth. “What do you mean?”

“Heard the door open a few times. Ben didn’t come to bed until, like, hours after I did.”

“Oh, uh, that was just Ben. He had to do a load of laundry.”

Casey nods, accepting that easily. “Thank fuck,” he says, leaning back against the couch. “I didn’t want to have to tell him, but dude was starting to smell a little ripe.”

***

Today Casey wants to check out the boardwalks. Not because he has actual interest in them, he claims, but for irony’s sake. Matt’s pretty sure Casey does a lot of things in the name of faux-irony.

“I think I might sit this one out,” Matt says. “I really want to try to do some more writing today.”

Ben grabs the script for the first time, which fills Matt with false hope, for a minute, but then he tosses it onto a desk in the hallway. “Come on,” he says. “We’ll put Case to bed early and work on it tonight. Don’t make me go with him alone. Please.”

Matt has never been good at saying no to Ben.

Obviously.

***

The boardwalk is just as much fun as Matt had imagined it would be, which is to say, not at all. It’s overcrowded and overpriced and the smell alone is enough to clog his arteries, although it’s not an entire waste of a day. Ben gets the funnel cake girl’s number, and Casey gets yelled at by a fannypack-toting dad when he knocks an entire tray of nachos onto the ground.

Ben also keeps a good three foot distance between them at all times, but Matt’s not sure if that’s on purpose or if he’s making it up in his head. He can’t stop thinking about the laundry room, wonders if Ben’s thinking about it at all too. At one point he actually has to dip into a port-a-potty and think about hideous unsexy things until he’s sure he’s family friendly.

They head back to Ben’s place early, with a large pizza and Jack Daniel’s riding shotgun, blaring rap music loud enough to make the car shake. Inside the apartment, Casey’s got half a slice of pizza down before the box even makes it to the table, and Ben goes off in search of cups, which are surprisingly difficult to find, considering he’s the only one that lives there. He comes back with a washed-out pickle jar and a Mardi Gras plastic beer stein.

“One of those better be for me,” Casey says, through a thick mouthful of cheese and crust. (“He’s on this vegetarian kick,” Ben had explained at the pizza shop. “Guarantee it lasts a month, max.”)

“You’re underage,” Ben retorts, pouring out two equal measures of whiskey.

“You are too, dumbass.” Casey grabs for the bottle, but Ben snatches it out of his reach with remarkable reflexes.

“Yeah, but I’m a lot closer to 21. You probably don’t know this, but in California, there’s a proximity clause. I’ve been allowed to drink for months.”

“You are so full of shit.”

Matt makes an executive decision and grabs both drinks while they’re arguing, decides to be the bigger person and passes the jar to Casey. Off Ben’s betrayed look, he says, “Don’t act like we never drank in high school. You ever tell him about Jenny Carson’s party?”

“What happened at Jenny Carson’s party?”

Ben looks between the two of them a few times, then snaps, “Shut up and drink your fucking liquor,” before heading back to the kitchen to scrounge up a third clean glass.

“What happened at Jenny Carson’s party?” Casey repeats, lower, though just as eager.

But Matt shakes his head. “You know how people always say ‘I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you’? Well, your brother would tear us both apart.”

It’s Casey’s idea to play a drinking game, Never Have I Ever, and they both agree; Ben easily, Matt reluctantly. He tries to bring up the script, because some of Ben’s best ideas have come after a tall glass of whiskey, but Ben waves him off and says, “I want to, man, I do, but you know Casey wouldn’t shut up long enough for me to get through a page.” So instead, they’ve arranged themselves in a circle in the living room, fingers raised in the air.

They’re all tied at two.

“Never have I ever cried after sex,” Casey says, sounding smug.

Ben rolls his eyes. “Maybe not, but you sure as hell have cried about not having any.”

Matt’s eyes had gotten watery, once, when he’d jammed his finger on a bedpost mid-act, but he doesn’t think that counts. “Never have I ever followed a girl across the country,” he says, and turns pointedly to look at Ben.

“Oh, fuck you,” but he takes a drink and his finger goes down, leaving just one left.

The middle one, of course.

“For the record, I broke up with her,” he adds, as if that makes it better. Then he scratches at his chin. “Never have I ever dropped my dead grandmother’s urn and then lied and tried to vacuum up the ashes before my mom got home from work.”

Casey lifts his eyebrows. “That’s specific,” he says, but Matt’s already lifting the stein to his lips.

“It was my great-grandmother,” he says, after he’s swallowed, wipes his mouth with the back of his arm. “And it was only some of the ashes.”

They’re both down to one, and it’s Casey’s turn. He considers, taps his cheek with his two remaining fingers. Finally, he sits up straighter and clears his throat. “Never have I ever... fooled around with my best friend.”

And then a heavy silence in its wake.

There’s another prickle up his spine, but not a pleasant one, not this time. It crawls all the way into his ribcage, makes it a little harder to breathe. Matt doesn’t look at Ben, but he can’t look at Casey, because that would’ve been a dead giveaway, so he stares at the wall like there are secrets written in Sanskrit on there. He’s pretty sure Ben’s not looking at him either. Neither of them say a word.

“Well, I’ve gotta hit the toilet,” Casey announces, and jumps up. His smirk’s a mile wide. He knows—Matt doesn’t know how he knows, but he knows—exactly what he’s just done. And then, just like that, he’s gone.

“Did you—” Ben starts, finally, but then cuts himself off like he knows it’s a stupid question.

“Yeah, because that would’ve been a really fun conversation.”

“Well.” Ben draws himself up, and they exchange uneasy glances. “I didn’t.”

Matt can’t tell if he sounds accusatory or if he’s imagining it. The tiny-ass room seems so much smaller, and he feels like he might actually be depleting the apartment of oxygen. It’s just Casey, and it doesn’t mean anything, but they’ve never even talked about it before. Hearing it from someone else is a shock to the entire system they’re built upon.

“I’m just saying,” Ben adds, his voice more hollow. “He might’ve, you know, picked up on something.”

Matt looks at him in disbelief. “What is that supposed to mean? I haven’t done anything. I haven’t touched you all day.”

“Yeah, but—”

“No,” Matt says, because all at once, he is so fucking tired of this. “I came to your apartment to ask you to help me with a script. Because I thought, no one could do this better than you. No one in the world could understand what this means to me, other than you. And you haven’t even fucking glanced at it, not once. You haven’t even asked what it’s about.”

He lowers his voice, because if he’s going to wager a bet based on the rest of the charming apartment amenities, the walls are probably paper thin. And Casey may know, or think he knows, or, hell, know that he knows, but they haven’t confirmed anything yet. So Ben can at least hold onto that. “So don’t act like I came out here sex-starved, or like I’ve been begging you to hold my hand in public all day. You started this, Ben. You kissed me. The laundry room was your idea.”

In the other room, the toilet flushes, the faucet turns on, and Ben doesn’t say a word. Matt’s vaguely aware that they look like they’re having an old western faceoff, like he should be twirling a pistol through his fingers, but doesn’t move.

Casey comes back to the living room. If he’s aware of the heavy tension in the air, he doesn’t acknowledge it. “I feel so much better,” he tells them, one hand on his stomach. He holds up a stack of papers with his other. “Started reading this script I found in the hallway, though. This shit is really fucking good.”

Matt lets out a soft, humorless laugh, and then brushes past them both.

***

He sleeps in the living room for a third time that night, thinks maybe he’ll look into a hotel tomorrow; filming doesn’t start for another week, and hopefully his dad hasn’t checked his bank statements just quite yet. Ben and Casey have already gone to bed.

The couch is almost as hard as the floor, and Matt has trouble staying asleep, his body stiff, trying to roll over or stretch out or do something to get more comfortable. The fourth time he wakes up in the middle of the night there’s a light on in the kitchen, so he figures Casey’s going after a midnight snack, but then he wakes up a fifth time and the light’s still on, and then a sixth time, and on the seventh time curiosity gets the best of him, so he tugs his blankets off and quietly heads that way.

Ben’s sitting on the linoleum floor, back against a cabinet, reading something intently.

His script.

“What’re you doing?”

Ben rips his eyes away from the paper, startled, to look up at Matt. “Oh, hey,” he says, but almost guiltily, like he’s been caught. “Couldn’t sleep, and this is the only room with a good light.”

Matt takes a step forward and holds a hand out. “You don’t have to read it,” he says. “Obviously, you didn’t want to. It’s not a big deal.”

“I want to read it.”

“Seriously, you don’t have to.”

“Matt,” Ben says firmly. “I want to read it. It’s—I’m almost done with it, actually. I couldn’t put it down.”

Matt crosses his arms over his chest. Ben stands up.

“Look, I’m sorry I kept putting it off. I know it was important to you. I just thought—”

“That it would suck?”

Ben laughs, quiet but genuine. “No. The opposite, actually. You’ve always been the better writer, man, and I just thought I was going to open this thing up and it would be publish-ready and perfect and that you wouldn’t need my suggestions, and then you’d get all famous and...” He blinks towards the fridge, like he’s embarrassed, but shrugs his shoulders. “...you know, leave me behind in the dust.”

That is not what Matt was expecting. He takes a second to digest it, eyebrows raised in surprise, but he’s pretty sure Ben’s not just blowing steam up his ass. He’s not the type to do that, never has been. “Seriously?”

“I thought I could, I don’t know… delay the inevitable. But it wasn’t because I didn’t want to read it. I’ve actually been dying inside. It’s like I’ve been holding in a bigass sneeze.”

Matt nods, slowly, because he understands that. Because he’d conveniently forgotten to ask Ben how his auditions had gone, before, because he’d made up excuses to avoid running lines for parts Matt hadn’t gotten. Because he’d never wanted the gap between them to widen. Because he wanted Matt-and-Ben to stay Matt-and-Ben for as long as it possibly could.

“So…” Matt climbs up on the kitchen counter, hoping it doesn’t crumble underneath his weight. “What do you think?”

“I was wrong,” Ben says immediately. “It needs a ton of work. So much. I mean, it is nowhere near perfect—”

“Okay, jesus, I get it,” Matt laughs, and Ben leans against the counter beside him, so they’re touching, but barely. Ben doesn’t scoot away.

“I have a million ideas already, though. First off, your main character needs a loyal best friend.”

“Obviously, how could I have forgotten that?”

“And maybe a good sex scene.”

Matt turns his head to look at Ben.

“I know I started it,” Ben says, “and that we’ve never actually talked about what it is, but if you don’t want to… I mean, I’d totally understand…”

“I want to,” Matt says, quickly, probably too quickly. “I pretty much always have.”

Ben looks relieved.

“So,” Ben says, “should we start writing?”

Matt hops down from the counter and reaches for Ben’s hand, which is new, and Ben tugs him towards the living room but changes his mind halfway there, in the dim hallway of his shitty LA apartment, turns around and kisses him, slow and deep and sweet. That’s new too.

“Your brother’s sleeping right there,” Matt whispers against his mouth, but Ben just shrugs and kisses him again, slips a thumb into his waistband.

“He already knows, somehow,” he points out, “and besides, I walked in on him humping a pillow once, we’d totally be even.”

By the time they make it to the couch, Matt’s not really in the mood to write. He sets the script down, himself, on the coffee table, doesn’t even spare the papers a second glance.

“We’ll get to it,” he says, and climbs over top of Ben.

“You know, the first time,” Ben murmurs, while Matt’s unbuttoning his pants, “that first time, in your dorm room, that next morning I thought you’d wake up and not remember any of it, so I didn’t—I didn’t want to say something, in case you were trying to forget—”

“I remembered it perfectly,” Matt says, dipping a finger below his waistband. “Just didn’t want to scare you off.”

“I guess we’re pretty big idiots then, huh?”

“The biggest,” Matt agrees, steady and sure, and for the first time he doesn’t feel like he has to rush, feels like he can look all he wants and touch all he wants and not have to blame it on raging hormones, or animal magnetism, or whatever excuse they might’ve come up with inside their own heads. They can just be.

Matt pulls away from Ben’s lips to press soft kisses against his jaw, his cheek, whatever he can reach, but stops short when he gets to the left side of his neck, sees something that would’ve probably been glaringly obvious if he hadn’t spent all day forcing himself not to look directly at Ben.

“What?” Ben says, and Matt lifts his fingertips and traces the outline of a hickey he hadn’t even realized he’d left.

“I think I know how Casey figured it out,” he says, and Ben’s hand lifts to cover the spot, amused.

“Seriously? What are you, a middle school boy?”

Matt directs his mouth for the right side of Ben’s neck, instead. “I could give you a matching one, balance things out?”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” Ben says, but his eyelashes are fluttering shut, and his breathing stutters, so Matt figures, what the hell.

***

This time, afterwards, they halfheartedly clean up (“this is where I entertain guests, after all,” Ben says, and Matt doesn’t point out the stain on the carpet or the broken leg of the coffee table, just to be nice) and throw some clothes on (Matt feels less modest, somehow, and it’s strange how that works) and then they stay up the rest of the night talking about the script.

Ben understands, automatically, what Matt’s trying to say, and he can articulate it in a way that Matt never could’ve, and they’re both furiously jotting down notes and sipping warm whiskey and talking through scenes over and over again, until the morning light filters in through the window and their voices are getting hoarse.

Casey pads out into the hallway a little after eight, and they’re still up and going, verbally reworking a scene, and he blinks at them tiredly. “You guys kiss and make up, then?”

“Shut up, Case,” Ben says, but he doesn’t deny it, or even sound particularly annoyed.

Casey sits on the couch beside them and tugs the well-worn papers out of Matt’s hand, flips through the pages. He pauses to take in their appearances—it’s probably still too dark to see the actual damage, but Matt’s hair is a fucking mess, and they’ve accidentally switched shirts, so it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist. He rolls his eyes. “I want a part in this movie,” he says, “once it gets made.”

Matt nods, because it seems pretty unlikely, at this point in life, but a decently fair trade.

“And,” Casey adds, “half a million dollars, all of the donuts I can eat, and if my dressing room is anywhere near you two, a soundproof door.”

This is how Matt knows that Ben’s a keeper:

Ben grabs Casey by the scruff of his neck, throws him back into the bedroom and closes the door, then turns and kisses Matt square on the mouth, one hand on his cheek, the other carefully holding the first page of the script that they’ve rewritten, the two of them, together. He knows he’s a keeper because Ben pulls away after a second, smiles and rests his forehead against Matt’s, then says, completely honest, “Your morning breath is fucking rank, man, please go brush your teeth.”

And that, Matt thinks, is exactly what he needs.