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And We Are Finally Home

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 ***

         It’s nearly midnight, and Benedick can’t sleep. It’s been a day and a half, since the confrontation with Bea, and it still won’t stop ringing in his ears.

He only made it as far as Vegan Fred’s almost comically large living room, before the tears came. There was no sobbing, no gasping for breath- just tears, hot and wet and humiliating, obscuring his field of vision. He still isn’t sure how he managed to get himself home, after… well.

He just remembers throwing his keys down onto a side table in the hall that was so shiny it almost looked new. No sense in leaving his flatmates stranded, though he can’t imagine they’d have minded, being stuck together on that pristine wooden deck with their neat little happy endings.

The whole place is like a furniture catalogue, like a palace, throwing into sharp relief the sheer inadequacy of their own flat’s pathetic attempt at hospitality. Even remembering it now is staggering to him, how he could be angry at Beatrice for choosing a mansion when all he could manage to give her was a bloody tent.

       Someone, at least, had tried to follow him- he had heard their footfalls on the kitchen tiles behind him as he’d slammed the front door, and by the time his pursuer had hit the front yard, Ben was off down a side street where they wouldn’t find him, his long strides putting not nearly enough distance between himself and the disaster he’d caused.

He had kept walking for who knew how long. Angrily blinking away useless tears as the pressure mounted in his chest and lungs, he had felt himself sinking into the cloud of broken-hearted self-pity and hatred that had threatened to overtake him every day since that stupid game of Sardines. I’m a failure, I’m a fuck-up, I deserve this, it was always going to happen…

Peter had promised and promised it would be okay, that Beatrice would understand, that she would know he had never meant to hurt her, that she would come around. Ben had known it was no use, but Peter’s forceful optimism had been so comforting, and he had wanted so badly for it to be true and now- It sounds like I’m ending it.

       The last good thing in his pathetic life, the last person who made it all okay, who made him happy, gone. He isn’t sure what exactly he could have expected. Her voice is ringing in his head, the conversation playing back over and over again, his quiet desperation, the bitter disappointment and resignation in her eyes as she delivered the death blow, over and over again inside his head, and the pain of it is blinding.

Ben gets home to the empty flat, and doesn’t leave his room for the rest of the day. In fact, the next he’s aware, it’s the middle of the night. His tears have dried, but he is wide awake, still sick with the fact that Beatrice clearly doesn’t love him anymore. In a year’s time, she won’t miss him at all.

       He can’t get back to sleep. All he can think about is how much it hurts, how he’s managed to push away everyone who matters. He should have known this was always going to happen- and something breaks inside his chest, something that needs to get out.

                                                                                                                              ***

       The bathroom door slams behind him, heedless of awakening his flatmates. Ben isn’t even sure whether they’re home. He hasn’t seen any of them since Vegan Fred’s. Someone is behind the stone-cold tea and toast he almost tripped over leaving his room just now, but other than that, he’s not surprised they don’t care.

It doesn’t take long to set up the tripod, and he slouches against the shower wall, tossing his pillow into the bath beside him. The recording light is on, opening him up to his comfort zone.

       “Uh, hi, Bea, or whoever is seeing this? Things… things are shit right now, and I’m just trying anything that can help me understand… fuck. Just, how?” He takes a wet, shuddering breath, dragging the back of his hand across his nose. He doesn’t feel better. “How could I have done this to us, Beatrice? How did everything go so wrong?”

How has he managed to mess everything up this badly? What message does Beatrice think she’s been receiving from him? Why doesn’t she understand how hard he’s been trying, all year, to make everything okay?

There’s only one way to find out.

        The last time he did this, watched back almost a year of his life in vlog form- she was with him. Beatrice was laughing in his ear, threading her fingers through his own, teasing and touching and realizing how stupid they both were, to almost lose each other. Which- well, mission accomplished, now. He’d do anything to go back.

Ben pulls up YouTube on his phone, finds his channel uploads list, and clicks play, allowing one long montage of the events of this last trimester to unfold. Cursing under his breath, he paws at his reddening eyes with one hand. This already hurts like hell.

        He almost gives up when he gets to the video where he asks Peter to stop bringing people home so late. For the first time, he sees the way Peter recoils from his words, like a punch. He sees the anger and the hurt in his friend’s eyes, the hurt that he, Ben, has put there by talking about things that he has no business judging. He was just upset because he hadn’t slept that night, and he had a test that afternoon. It’s the noise that bothered him. He doesn’t have a problem with Pete being bisexual, honestly, he doesn’t- but that doesn’t matter.

 Whatever the fuck he meant to say doesn’t matter, because what he did say, what he’s been saying all along- God. Ben is so disgusted with himself, it’s hard to keep watching. He put the biphobia trigger warning in the description months ago, but it’s only now he really realizes the gravity of what he’s done, the things he’s said. And he never even apologized.

“…my girlfriend, Beatrice Duke…” the Ben on the screen says happily, and the words cut deep. He isn’t sure what the hell kind of sound he just made, hearing those words that are no longer true- like a gasp, a grunt of pain he didn’t know he could vocalize. The sound you’d make after a swift punch to the gut.

                                                                                                                            ***

        The rest of the videos feel much the same way. Ben can’t explain even to himself why he thought the rules were a good idea, why he couldn’t see all the damage he was doing, how much he was hurting Bea. He doesn’t even remember the moment he agreed to the rules, it’s just a blur of anxiety in his memory. Eerie, to watch it play out before his eyes.

When he’s dressed up as Benji, there’s this glaze in his eyes, like he’s gone, like there’s nothing left behind that false Irish accent and that grimace of a smile. Even when he’s just being Ben, he still doesn’t quite seem like himself. He’s so cheerful onscreen- Ben can’t remember the last time he honest-to-God felt cheerful. Not for real.

        And here’s what he’s been looking for. Beatrice pops up again in that stupid Prank Calls video, saying she loves him, then laughing at him. The look in her eyes when Meg brings up the Rules. “Ben ruins everything,” Beatrice says, and the bitterness in her voice assails him, takes his breath away.

As the videos go on, he watches himself embracing Beatrice, spending a whole vlog with his arms around her- then spending months pushing her away. Refusing to touch her, hardly talking to her, making her sleep in a tent lest his flatmates suspect him of breaking the rules. The whole time, she’d thought it was her fault, that he was just tired of her. That he didn’t want to be with her anymore.

I got the message. Of course.

Oh, God, and every time they’re together onscreen, Beatrice is smiling up at him like there’s nowhere else she’d rather be. It makes him sick with regret. She’s sitting there, putting up with it as he holds her at arm’s length, just trying to avoid ending up exactly where he is now- alone. For good.

        He watches himself clinging to the camera, hardly leaving home without it, never realizing that maybe not everyone is okay with being filmed. He watches himself, hiding behind Benji so he can feel brave enough to talk to Paige and Kit. He watches himself, making everyone around him miserable- and he can’t stop shaking. He squeezes his eyes shut, listening to Balthazar and Peter singing together onscreen, knowing what’s coming.

PUNISHMENT happens, and finally it’s all too much.

Watching himself back as he coldly destroys his friends’ privacy, he can’t breathe. He did that: the set of anger on Peter’s face, the panic and hurt in Balth’s eyes.

He did that, and still Peter had clapped him on the shoulder and tried to comfort him. Still, Peter had chosen him and Freddie over skipping out to Vegan Fred’s, had gone along with the rules. He had even forced Ben to send those chocolates to Beatrice because he, Peter, couldn’t stand to see Ben hurting. It’s unfathomable.

Ben breaks into fresh tears as the Peter and Balth onscreen storm away, and his onscreen self starts to wonder if he’s making the right call, and God, why did no one smack him and snap him out of it?

       All of this pain he caused, because Beatrice had been angry at him for rules of his own making, and he’d wanted to borrow the hard drive for footage to edit. To blow off some steam. He doesn’t understand how he could have gone through with it- how he could have become this person. Ben hates this person.

This person fucking deserves to be alone.

                                                                                                                            ***

       The embarrassment video with Beatrice- it hurts worst of all. Missing her is a palpable sensation, a void in his heart, almost like the chest pains slamming through him now in this uncontrollable anxiety. Ben has been living in fear of losing Beatrice to her travels for so long- but to have it actually happen is so much worse than he thought.

Beatrice hates him again, just like before. She thinks he’s an annoying, selfish prick, and he can’t blame her. She should stay away from him. He loves Bea too much to keep dragging her into his mess- but he still can’t stand the idea of not loving her anymore. The second he hears her laugh, Ben slams the laptop closed.

He wants to scream. He wants to rail against himself, against his own utter idiocy, against the whole hopeless world. He wants to apologize, for so many things. And his eyes find the camera.

       “I don’t… know what’s wrong with me,” he says, and somehow, miraculously, his voice stays level. He can’t look into the camera, can feel himself cringing away from it, arms crossed tightly against his chest, making himself small in the glare of the lens.

“This-” he gestures limply to the camera, “it’s the only thing I was ever halfway good at, and all it’s doing is hurting people. I want to stop filming, but then- I’m so scared. I’m so scared I feel sick, all the time, and without the camera…”

He swallows, and the lump in his throat protests loudly.

“Everything I do is wrong. Everyone is going to leave me, and I know it because they always do in the end. I can’t breathe, I can’t think, I can’t stop it, and it hurts. I’m so sorry, everyone. You all deserved so much better. I’m an awful boyfriend, a terrible friend, a failed university dropout- I’m USELESS, all right? I should just fucking stop trying.”

       When this is edited, there’ll be a jump-cut here, Ben thinks automatically, bracing his hands against the porcelain sides of the tub, breathing heavily, squeezing his eyes shut tight. There is unstoppable, white-hot panic licking at the edges of his mind, and the camera doesn’t stop it. It isn’t working anymore. It hasn't been, for a long time now. He was just afraid to see it, because he doesn't know how to handle this alone.

That same ball of hot, thick pain swirling in the center of his chest, just like at Balth’s party, just like today on the walk home, his airway constricting, his mind filling with all the horrible truths he can’t fight down- he’s weird, he’s fucked, he’s broken. Ben doesn’t deserve anyone’s forgiveness or their friendship or their love, just these sharp breaths in and out and in and out as he clutches his chest. He can’t calm down.

He can’t stop shaking and it’s like he is coming apart at every seam and he can’t calm down.

      “I’m so sorry, Bea,” he hisses, forcing himself to look up at the cold blinking eye of the camera that’s stopped being able to take his pain away. “I ruined everything. I love you and all I do is hurt you, and I’m sor-”

He chokes on the words, his throat thick with snot and tears. He doesn’t even deserve the comfort of the camera. He’s sick of it staring at him, sucking in his lowest moments, archiving them for the world to see, and he finally knows exactly how his flatmates have felt, for all these months. In their own goddamn home. Because of him.

Fuck this, he thinks, in a haze of agony, and shoves the tripod away with all the force he has left.

      The camera crashes down against a pile of dirty towels on the floor. The recording light still blinks, the legs of the tripod sticking up at odd angles, and if anyone bothers to edit this footage, they’ll have to cut out the end— a long shot of the dingy speckled off-white ceiling, the overhead light flickering, the distant sound of labored, sobbing breaths emanating from the bathtub just out of frame.

He doesn’t know how long it takes before the anxiety breaks, and he finally just starts to shut down. As the last of his energy trickles away, the room begins to fade.

                                                                                                                          ***

      Not fifteen minutes later, Ben is wrested back into consciousness by the sound of the door opening, a groggy voice mumbling, “Shit, bro, what are you doing in here? You scared me.”

Peter is standing in the doorway, his blond hair tousled by sleep, squinting his eyes against the light. “Ben?” he tries again, so Ben is forced to pick himself up off the floor of the bath and retrieve the fallen camera. He turns it off, pulls out the memory card and turns to Peter.

“What-” Peter starts, confused, and Ben presses the memory card full of his pathetic pain into his flatmate’s hand.

“Watch this, alright?” Ben says, his voice hoarse from so much talking and crying. “Watch it and post it on the channel. It’s the least you can do. I deserve it. I fucking deserve this.”

Poetic justice, he figures. Peter just looks at him, forehead creased with sleepy confusion. Ben pushes past him and stumbles down the hall towards his room, towards his bed, just praying his stupid brain will actually see fit to give him some relief tonight.

                                                                                                                          ***