Beatrice is silent, leaning against the window, wincing when they hit a bump and the side of her head knocks against the car door. Eventually, she switches position, leaning her head back against the headrest, her hair in its long ponytail falling over one shoulder.
She’s so still, he wonders if she’s fallen asleep. They were supposed to take this drive in shifts, but he’d never wake her. He doesn’t mind the extra time behind the wheel, time to think about everything that happened in Wellington. The minute they get outside the city limits, it’s like a weight has lifted off Ben’s shoulders. Thank God.
Several hours into the journey, the sun begins to set. Ben’s eyes start to go heavy, and the car is low on petrol, so he pulls over and gets out to refill.
When he comes back, Beatrice is awake. He isn’t sure what to make of the sad, strange way she’s looking at him. Her eyes are still red-rimmed.
“Hey-” he starts, cautious, but she cuts him off.
“Can I just ask… why?”
“I know we said we didn’t need to talk about this, we could just put it behind us- but I want to know. What’s been going on with you? Why couldn’t you just let the rules go, even after everyone else had given up on them?” Beatrice asks.
“Are… are you sure we should be talking about this now? It’s been a long day, you have enough on your mind, I don’t want to make it worse-”
“No. Please, I need to think about something else right now, something that’s not- I just want to know if you’re okay. You haven’t seemed… okay.”
“I was just… I was so scared. At the beginning of the year, everything was falling apart- I just needed something… normal. Something that felt safe, and the videos… felt safe. I thought- I thought they were all I had, all I was good at- and you were leaving anyway. I was so happy you were here, but it was always just a matter of time until you left again, and it was easier- not to- I just didn’t know how to tell you that I wanted you to stay, without sounding like I was asking you to. I was afraid- you’d come home, and you would hate me. Like… like Rosa does.”
It’s the first time that they’ve talked about this out loud, in person, and it’s so much harder than he thought. Ben wishes they were having this discussion on the road- it would’ve been an excuse not to look at her, not to see what she thinks of him, now that she knows how messed up he’s been.
“Don’t. Don’t say that," Bea insists. "You think you’re this terrible person, but I know you, okay? And if that was true, I wouldn’t be here. Whatever Rosa’s deal is, that’s just Rosa. I still don’t think she ever hated you-”
“Beatrice. She hated me. What happened at Peter’s party was all well and good, but I know how it feels to have someone hate you. I do have experience, remember?”
“Oh my God, you dickface,” she laughs, bitter. “How many times do I have to tell you that I have never hated you, for even one second? You’ve hurt me- we’ve hurt each other, a lot- but I never hated you. I wanted to, especially at Vegan Fred’s, but I… I couldn’t.”
For the first time, Ben cracks a tiny smile. “You couldn’t, huh?”
“Nope,” Beatrice says, blinking back the moisture in her eyes. “I guess I just didn’t have it in me.”
Ben reaches for her hand and squeezes, hoping the gesture will say what words can’t, right now. And then Beatrice pulls away again.
She’s getting up, opening the car door, and he isn’t sure what he can have done wrong this time- and she opens his door.
“Hey,” Bea says. “I’m so tired of things coming between us. Come here.”
She squishes herself onto his lap, just barely managing to close the door again once they’re both crammed into the driver’s seat and wincing as their elbows and knees bump and poke against each other.
“Okay, this seemed like a much better idea a minute ago,” she admits.
“I mean, we do have a history of cuddling in tight spaces,” Ben says, pressing a kiss to the crown of her head, and she lets out a laugh through her tears.
“I hate it when you do that,” she sighs, her voice muffled as she hides her face against his shoulder.
“Make me laugh when I’m supposed to be upset,” she answers. “You’re way too good at that.”
“I hate it when you’re upset,” he admits, running his fingers up and down along her arm, where his hand has managed to fall.
“It’s usually your fault,” she points out.
He knows she’s kidding, but the joke cuts at him like ice, like a sliver of broken glass in his heart.
“I’m sorry, Beatrice. I’m so, so sorry,” he breathes, and suddenly she’s not the only one whose voice is heavy with tears. He tries and fails to blink them away, but the long day and the immense weight of guilt take their toll. He feels like he is forever apologizing to her for some thoughtless mistake. No more of that, he vows.
The two of them are smushed together in the driver’s seat of the parked car, legs starting to fall asleep and arms growing sore. The discomfort is an afterthought as they sit there, crying together in the middle of the deserted parking lot.
“I love you,” she whispers into his chest. “So much.”
“I love you, too.”
“You know I’m going to hold this against you for the rest of our lives, right?”
“…For the rest of our lives?”
“Absolutely. You are never winning an argument again. I’ll just be like, “Oh, but remember that time you made me sleep in a tent for three months? Nope, I win.”
“I’m okay with that, love.”
“As long as we never stop arguing- er, no, I mean- you know what I mean.”
“Loser,” she says, and kisses him.
When they finally pull up outside the Dukes’ house, night has fallen, and the porch light is on. Beatrice takes one travel bag with her as she climbs the steps, Ben still unloading the other bag at the car. One quick ring of the doorbell and Beatrice can hear footsteps inside the house. Aunt Imogen opens the door, her face exhausted and wan, and immediately pulls Beatrice into a hug.
“Oh, Beatrice, you didn’t have to rush back home so quickly, I’m sorry,” she says, releasing her niece.
“Don’t be silly. How’s Leo?” Bea asks, as Aunt Antonia appears in the doorway behind her wife.
“He’s sleeping,” Antonia reports, hugging Beatrice too. “You can see him tomorrow afternoon, but he’ll be very weak, he has another round of chemo in the morning.”
“You’ll let me know what I can do to help out?” Beatrice says, trying not to cry. “For you, for Leo. Anything at all.”
“Thank you, dear,” Aunt Antonia says. “Right now, though, I think we all need sleep- oh. Benedick, hello.”
Her tone turns noticeably colder, detached, like she doesn’t know quite how she’s supposed to react to him. Auntie Imogen looks uncomfortable, too. Ben, who has just come up behind Bea with the other duffel bag, silently stares at the floorboards, ashamed.
Clearly, the aunties have heard about their little breakup.
“Oh!” Bea says, reaching back for Ben’s free hand. “No, whatever you heard, it’s all okay now. Ben and I are still together, and I’m happy about it, really happy. Please don’t worry about me, not right now, okay?”
“All right, honey,” Aunt Imogen says tiredly. “As long as you’re happy. Benedick, thank you for helping Beatrice make the drive back. You’re welcome here any time.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Duke and Mrs. Duke. I’m… I mean, my best to Leo. If there’s anything I can do…” Ben mumbles, awkward as ever, but inside his heart is lighter than it’s felt in days.
“Thank you,” Aunt Antonia says. “Tell your parents we said hi, all right? And thank your mother for the casseroles.”
The aunties take their leave, going to check on the sleeping Leo. Beatrice leads Ben upstairs, back to her old orange room. They leave the bags on the floor, and Bea sinks down to sit on her bed.
“I’m scared,” she admits, voice so low it’s barely audible. “To see Leo tomorrow, I mean. What if he’s… I just don’t want to see him hurting, and I don’t want him to feel bad about me feeling bad for him, and I don’t know what to say, I just…”
“Hey,” Ben says, sitting down next to her. “It’s going to be fine. It’s just Leo. You get along great with Leo, you always have. That hasn’t changed.”
“You’re right,” Bea sighs, pulling him into a kind of odd sideways hug. “Thanks, Ben.”
They sit like that for a moment, until they both start to feel their eyes drooping, the exhaustion of the long drive finally hitting them.
“Should-” Ben yawns. “Should I go? For the night?”
“No,” Beatrice says sleepily, clinging to his side. “Stay.”
It’s early in the morning when Beatrice awakes, pleasantly sleepy and warm. It takes her a moment to realize where she is, and why. At first, all she recognizes is that she’s in bed, and she’s with her boyfriend, who is lying next to her, an arm draped across her stomach in his sleep. Ben is so beautiful when he’s sleeping, full lips slightly parted, his face peaceful and calm.
Luxuriating in her freedom to snuggle as close to him as possible, Beatrice can only think that this is exactly what she’s dreamed of waking up to for months now. Waking up in Ben’s bed, his face the first thing she sees in the morning- that’s what she’d wanted, so bad she could taste it, ever since she arrived in… in Wellington.
They were in Wellington yesterday, and now they aren’t. The walls are orange like the sun, and the bed is her own. Bea and Ben are in Auckland again, together, and… And Leo has cancer.
It crashes down on her head all over again, and Beatrice must be getting closer to acceptance, because she feels sad, and worried, and angry- but also, calm. The kind of sad you feel when you’re all cried out and you know all you can do is to be there for your family member when they need you.
But they don’t need her right this moment.
“Bea?” Ben mumbles, awoken by her movements and sharp intake of breath at these thoughts.
“Good morning,” Bea says, managing a tired smile. “I’ve missed waking up next to you.”
He beams at her, blinking the sleep from his eyes. “Me too, love. So… everything okay?”
“More like, I’m trying to be okay with the fact that things aren’t okay,” she admits. “Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, of course,” Ben says, propping himself up on one elbow. “What would help you feel better?”
He’s so earnest, completely ready to give her whatever he can. It’s endearing, and sweet. And she’s going to cry again. To stop herself, Bea leans in and quickly kisses him.
“That helps,” she says with a tiny smile. “I mean, if you don’t mind-”
“If I don’t mind?” Ben says incredulously, and soundly kisses her back.
After that, all thought is lost, and Beatrice savors the press of his lips against hers, the silk of his mouth moving down along her neck as he edges on top of her. Bea pulls him in for a kiss on the lips again, and she feels him, hard against her thigh, and fuck, it’s been too long.
But he breaks the kiss and says, breathing heavily, “Let me show you how much I never stopped loving you, Bea.”
“And how do you plan to do that, Dickface?” Beatrice says- then gasps, as his hand slides gently between her legs.
“I have a few ideas,” Ben whispers.
“Let’s never be celibate again,” Bea says happily, a while later.
“Never,” Benedick whispers against her mouth. “I would do anything for you, you know.”
“Just be here, okay? And promise you won’t leave again?”
It’s silly, she knows. A promise that can’t be kept- he has to go back to his parents’ house before noon anyway. But Ben doesn’t pull away, just smiles and whispers into her hair.
“I promise, love.”
When he does head home, too soon, Beatrice is left sitting on the porch, sun tickling her skin. It occurs to her in that moment, how empty this house has felt all year. She doesn’t belong here, and she didn’t belong in Wellington, and she certainly didn’t belong in Australia with her parents. None of those places were home. Not anymore.
Waking up next to Ben this morning, though- and now, luxuriating in the afterglow of making love? That was when she felt like she belonged. Right here, in his arms, she was home.
They were finally home.