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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.

                                                                                                                          ***

Chapter Text

                                                                                                                        ***

         Ben sleeps for almost the entire next day, and it's the deepest, easiest sleep he's gotten in some time. He wishes he could do that more often, just shut down, drop instantly to sleep, and stop being. Just for a little while.

         The first thing that enters his mind as he returns to consciousness is Beatrice, and it takes him a few moments to realize why the thought of her is filled with so much hurt. And it all comes flooding back: what he's lost, how all of this is his own stupid fault. He forces himself to stop thinking, just stop- but of course, forgetting how much the girl you love hates you is easier said than done.

Pawing angrily at his eyes, Ben sits up. His head is swimming from the motion, his vision blurring for a moment. He must have fallen asleep with his mouth open, and there's the nasty cottony taste of sleep on his tongue, which is so dry that he coughs, licking his lips. Ben drags the back of his hand across his mouth and-

        There’s a text notification on his phone.

"Hey, I hope you don’t mind that I posted the footage, I just thought you’d want the viewers to know what happened. How you holding up, buddy? – Jaquie”

Ben hadn’t even realized Jaquie Manders had his phone number. Posted- what has she posted? Oh, no, Peter didn’t give her- Oh, god.

        In a panic, he pulls up the YouTube app and goes to the flat channel, searching desperately for a thumbnail of his own tear-streaked face, his humiliation uploaded for the whole Internet to laugh at- and there he is.

He and Costa, pressed up against the glass doors to Vegan Fred’s flat, waiting to be let in.

Ben exhales, a ragged gasp of relief, closing YouTube. He’s so tired and groggy and glad that the video isn’t what he thought it was, he almost forgets to be mad at Jaquie for posting the footage of Ben getting his heart stomped on in front of all his friends. Almost being the operative word.

From the video description and the thumbnail, he can tell how much Jaquie must be laughing at him right now. Really nice. He’s the court jester again, isn’t he? It’s so funny for her, watching Ben’s entire life fall apart. She doesn’t even know him, and she thinks he deserves to be hurt too. Well, at least someone’s enjoying this.

He doesn’t bother dignifying Jaquie with a response.

                                                                                                                         ***

         The flat seems quiet, the coast clear. He creeps out to the kitchen, planning to grab a glass of water before he returns to hiding in his room.

There are voices in the kitchen- Peter and Balthazar, talking softly. Freddie, laughing suddenly at something Pete just said, and the clink of cutlery on plates. At the thought of facing them all at once, Ben's heart starts skipping double-time, and he can't quite seem to catch his breath. He almost turns around and runs- but it's too late. Freddie spots him in the doorway and very nearly gasps out loud.

"Ben! Hey..." she says awkwardly, and both Peter and Balth fall silent. 

        Ben has little choice but to shuffle into the room with a grunted, "Hi." He crosses to the sink and fills a glass with water. Stands there, holding the glass, bloodshot eyes trained on the lone dirty plate at the bottom of the sink as he tries not to feel the others staring at him. 

Ben doesn’t want to turn around, doesn’t want to see their satisfaction or their pity. There’s no telling whether Peter's seen the footage yet. If he has, he doesn't mention it- doesn't say anything, in fact. Peter’s probably seen it and laughed, laughed like Jaquie. They’re all probably laughing at him. They’re enjoying this.

It's Balthazar who asks the question. "You okay, bro?"

         Ben finally turns to him, catches Peter shooting his boyfriend a bemused look at the word choice. Balthazar offers the tiniest of smiles and looks down at his hands. When they've had their little moment, Ben croaks, "Yeah, fine. Why wouldn't I be?" 

"It's four in the afternoon and you just  got out of bed," Freddie points out. 

"I like my bed," he snaps. "It's comfortable. Look, I'm going back there now, I know you don't want me around. I wouldn’t want to ruin the party."

"We never said-" Freddie starts, but Ben turns to leave, cutting her off. 

"It's fine. I get it." He can hear the dullness in his own voice, hollow and raw.

"Hey," says Peter before he can make his escape. "Don't wallow for too long, all right? It's not healthy."

"Like you care," Ben snaps, surprising even himself. The kitchen falls silent for a tense moment and then-

"No," says Peter, firing up. "You don't get to be an asshole to me anymore. I know you feel like shit right now, but you don't get to just take that out on people who care about you. It doesn't help, and it isn't right. I learned that the hard way, remember?"

Ben doesn’t understand him. "How can you care about me after what I did to you? How can you be nice to me, after the videos and the punishments and the fucking rules and- I know you don't care, so please just go be happy and leave me alone."

         "You apologized," says Peter simply. "Every time you messed up, you at least felt bad about it. And you're shit at apologies, but you never stopped trying. I kind of do get sick of you sometimes, if I’m honest- but holding grudges is what started this whole mess. It pushed John to do what he did to Hero last year. It’s what made me stupid enough to go along with him. And I don't care enough about your bullshit to start holding grudges for it again. So forget it. Apologize and move on, bro. Don't wallow."

"Why, Peter Donaldson, when did you get so wise?" Freddie says, impressed. 

"I dunno, maybe when you all stopped breathing down my neck about every little fucking thing," he answers, but the corner of his mouth turns up in a smirk. 

"I'm really sorry about that, Peter, Stan," Freddie says, cheeks pink with embarrassment. "The rules were out of line. I was out of line. I shouldn't have been butting into your lives like that, and I'm really sorry.”

"I know you didn't mean to-" Peter starts.

          "Doesn't matter if we meant it," Ben says, and his voice is still hoarse from crying. "It happened. We were really shitty to you, especially about your sexuality. I'm sorry, Peter. I shouldn’t have meddled in your personal life or forced you to put it online. I’ll delete anything you ask me to, I promise. And I’m researching biphobia, so I don’t screw up and say something offensive again. You don’t deserve that.”

"I appreciate it," says Peter seriously. "I'm trying to forgive you guys. I want to put this in the past and just be happy already- but don't you dare think you can ever pull that bullshit on me again. And stay the hell out of my love life."

He grins and slips an arm around Balthazar, who lets his head rest against Peter's broad shoulder. 

Freddie raises a hand in the air. "I swear. King's honor."

"I promise, bro," says Ben seriously. “Your love life is none of my business.”

"Good." Peter says. “I’m sorry about what a shitty flatmate I was, too. I’ll stop keeping you all awake now, promise.”

         Ben turns to Balthazar. "Listen, Balth. I owe you an apology too. For uploading that punishment video, for making you feel unsafe in your own flat, for all of it. I'm sorry." 

"I'm sorry, too," says Freddie. “For enabling him.”

"It's going to take time," Balthazar says, looking pained. "For me to be... okay with you again. But Peter is right. I don't want to hold grudges either. We need to move on."

"Then... we're okay?" asks Freddie tentatively. "Friends?"

"Friends," the boys all say in unison, exchanging wary smiles. The events of the past few months are still a raw wound, and it's likely they'll never be the same again. Things are changing. 

But they don't hate him, Ben realizes with a flood of relief. He's still working on how not to hate himself for what he's done- but his friends don't hate him, not completely, anyway. Maybe he hasn't lost everything. Not yet.

         Ben has spent so many months lying awake at night, shaking and gasping against the irrational certainty that he was going to fuck everything up- and after all that worrying, his fears came true. Failing out of school, losing all his friends and the love of his life, because he never deserved anything good at all- that's his worst-case scenario. He's just lived through his worst-case scenario, and he survived it.

He's still standing here in this kitchen surrounded by smiling friends, and it just hits him.

A rush, a wall of emotion, crashing through him until his entire body is vibrating with gratitude and anxiety at the same damn time, and he bites his lip and shuts his eyes and forces a deep breath through his lungs. In, out. In, out. Breathe.

          He feels a hand clap him on the shoulder as two people sidle past him and walk away. When he opens his eyes, Peter and Balthazar have snuck off together, and there's only Freddie, coming over to lay a supportive hand on his arm. She’s the only one he’s ever talked to about… well, about having anxiety. He just didn’t have a name for it then.

"Ben?" Freddie asks softly. "You okay, buddy?"

"No," he says honestly, shaking his head, blinking back yet more tears. “I’m really not.”

"Hey, that's fine. You're gonna be fine. Calm, be calm, remember?" Freddie offers a small smile, looking pointedly at him until he sighs and nods his head, accepting the inside joke. 

           It’s the same thing he says to her, whenever she shares her worries and it’s the anxiety talking. There really is nothing so useless as telling a person having an anxiety attack to calm down, but coming from Freddie, it helps, because he knows she understands. She’s been there.

"Thanks, Fred," he manages, and then she's giving him a very un-Fred-like hug, holding him tight around the middle, leaving him no choice but to hug her back. It’s surprisingly comforting, if a little awkward. She’s so small, he has to stoop down just a little. “I'm really sorry about the videos, making you be in them when I knew you didn’t want to-"

"I know," says Freddie. "Thank you. You know you can always talk to me, right? I’m happy to listen, and tell you when your brain is being stupid."

"And boss me around," Ben supplies helpfully, pulling back from the hug. Freddie squeezes his shoulder.

"Of course, and boss you around," she says indignantly. "I am the king around here- but like I told the others, I do promise not to be a dictator anymore."

"You've been deposed in favor of democracy," Ben quips. "One without a constitution."

"I mean, I still think we ought to have some kind of rules. An enforced routine, or maybe just guidelines or-"

"Freddie.”

"All right, fine," she relents. "No rules, just mindless anarchy. Now, I have to..." She seems to catch herself, like she doesn't want to bring this up in front of him. "Meet someone. Unless... you need some company? I can stay if you want."

"It's Kit, isn't it?" Ben says, and Freddie blushes bright red. "You should go, I'll be fine. Hey, you know, I am happy for you.”

"Thanks," she smiles, a faraway look in her eyes, before snapping back into focus. "Remember, be calm. And brush your teeth, will you? You’re disgusting!" She wrinkles her nose and pulls away, heading for the door. 

"Thanks, Fred," Ben murmurs, watching her go. "Love you."

"I love you too, loser. Hey, what else are best friends for?”

           Ben waves her off, then carries his water and a bag of mixed nuts from their still-overflowing pile of vegan snack foods, back to his room. He settles into his own little space, blissfully by his lonesome, but finally knowing that, by some miracle, he isn't totally alone. His flatmates- his friends- still want him here.

(As far as doing something fun- when he finally does calm down, he pulls out his copy of The Complete Christopher Marlowe and reads poetry until, several hours later, sleep claims him again.)

                                                                                                                               ***

           The next few days are not at all easy. One little conversation with his friends isn’t enough to make everything alright again. Maybe he isn’t alone, but that doesn’t stop Ben from feeling like an absolute failure, and it doesn’t stop him having more of what he’s now pretty sure are anxiety attacks.

He feels constantly raw and exhausted, both physically and emotionally. It’s like he’s stuck in the comedown from an attack. At any moment he could burst into tears, or fall asleep, or become anxious all over again. He doesn’t even look at his exam scores when they start coming in. He isn’t in the right headspace.

           Beatrice is always in his thoughts. He wonders if she’s still in Wellington, if she stayed, or if she just couldn’t wait to put some space between them. She must be relieved to be shot of him, relieved to be free and clear to see the world without being tied down. He wants that for her, he does. Bea deserves this trip. But without her… it just feels wrong. Everything in his life feels all wrong, and Ben has no idea how to put it right.

His friends have been giving him space, saying he just needs time to try and get back on his feet- but this doesn’t feel like anything that can ever be fixed. He’s well aware of how melodramatic that sounds, which is why he keeps it to himself.

            Two days since the breakup, and Peter still hasn’t posted the footage from that night in the bath, still hasn’t taken his golden chance to humiliate Ben the way Ben did to him and Balthazar. Even though Peter is trying to forgive him, Ben is still sure he’s going to post the video. He’s actually sort of disappointed at how long it’s taking. If filming the damn thing was cathartic, it’s nothing to the pain he’s going to feel when the world can see him at his worst, and selfishly, masochistically, he wants it.

He wants to hurt, to punish himself. He wants to pinch his hand until he momentarily forgets the bigger pain in his heart. And still, Peter doesn’t post the fucking video.

           Ben lays on the couch, listlessly blowing through all his Doctor Who DVDs. No job, no school, nothing better to do anyway.

His phone is resting on his chest, still on silent mode. He doesn’t get many messages, but he has to keep his phone close because the volume cannot be turned on. Ben can’t risk hearing the song Beatrice wrote for him, not while knowing he’s thrown the love she proclaimed in it away.

Ben has already decided he isn’t going to be the one to initiate contact. Beatrice needs space. He doesn’t expect forgiveness. If she needs to move on, she needs to move on- as much as it hurts him like hell to think of it.

And then- ping! His phone is going off, and he snatches it up to see- oh god. Peter didn’t- oh no. Ben can feel his chest tightening up already, because Peter posted a video to YouTube all right, but not to humiliate Ben. To play matchmaker on him again.

         Beatrice is going to think Ben  did this, that he’s that desperate to keep her in a situation where she’s unhappy. No, he can’t let her see this and think he’d be so manipulative as to post a cover of that stupid song online at a time like this.

He doesn’t think about it, just presses Call. It goes straight to voicemail.

       “Bea, oh God, please don’t watch that video. I promise I’m not the one who posted it. I am so sorry. I won’t call you again, I just needed you to know that I… I accept your decision. I just want you to be happy. Okay, I’m sorry, I’ll leave now. Er- stop now. Alright, I lo- I mean, bye.”

        Ben hangs up and tosses the phone across the room. Then he sinks back onto the couch cushions, head in his hands, just trying to breathe.

                                                                                                                          ***

Chapter Text

                                                                                                                                 ***

Beatrice is numb.

After the confrontation, she sinks into a chair on the deck, at a complete and total loss for words. Whatever is going on around her, she can’t see it, can’t hear it. Her mind is white noise. The only thing she knows, like a sickness welling inside her, is that she cannot stand pity. And it’s creeping up around her from the eyes of everyone on this stupid expensive porch.

“Meg,” Beatrice says quietly. “Meg, please.”

And her best friend, her beautiful, strong best friend who has been through much worse than just dumping a shitty boyfriend, understands. Within moments, Meg has signaled to Vegan Fred, who obediently herds everyone back into the house and away. Bea is left mercifully alone.

“What else do you need, babe?” Meg says, sitting down and putting an arm around her.

Beatrice leans on her best friend’s shoulder and, for the first time since the night of Sardines, she allows herself to cry.

                                                                                                                                 ***

Meg Winter is an absolute star. Beatrice doesn’t know what she’d do without her. The two of them are now sitting on Vegan Fred’s expensive couch, having a Sherlock series one marathon. Beatrice is wrapped in blankets and clutching a bowl of chocolate salad. All her comfort items.

It isn’t helping at all.

Treating this breakup with chocolate is like treating an infected stab wound with a Band-Aid. It felt inevitable, she was so angry and hurt that Ben kept choosing Wellington and school and the rules over her, and not even considering her feelings. But Beatrice is disappointed to find that now she’s ended things, she doesn’t feel even a little bit better. In fact, she feels worse.

            “Maybe I should just get on a plane first thing tomorrow and go,” she sighs, eating another bite of chocolate. She imagines leaving everything behind, flying to America to start her travels- but it doesn’t sound exciting anymore. It sounds lonely.

“If that’s what you want, Bea,” Meg says soothingly. They go back to watching Sherlock in silence. Bea suddenly remembers being curled up with Ben, watching Sherlock to forget about Hero’s birthday disaster. Something in her chest lurches heavily.

She's so weak, she makes herself sick. She's been scared all along that she might do something stupid like give up her dream trip, because missing Ben has been eating away at her, so much she could hardly stand it, and now-

“He just looked so hurt,” Beatrice says. “Why do I fucking care so much if he’s hurt? Why can’t I just stop caring?”

“It’s a fresh wound, Bea,” Meg reminds her gently. “You’re allowed to be upset about a breakup for longer than one day.”

She'd rather not be upset at all.

                                                                                                                              ***

            The next day is more of the same. Grieving. Channel-surfing. Packing and unpacking her bags, trying to decide when to leave, losing her nerve. By evening, she’s exhausted. And she still misses Ben. Yesterday was the first contact they'd had in weeks. She and Ben haven’t gone so long without a proper conversation since they started dating. And every time she tries to focus on the trip instead, she just remembers I could come with you

Bea just can't stand the audacity. Or the fact that a few weeks ago, such an offer would have sounded like a dream. 

She’s in the same ratty t-shirt and shorts she’s been wearing all day, the closest thing she has to pajamas. All her other sleepwear seems to be old shirts she stole from Ben, because love has made her into an absolute cliché. He’s permeated all areas of her life, so that everything she owns just reminds her why she’s so miserable. It’s infuriating.

Well, she doesn’t have to allow herself to miss him. She erased him from her world once, she can do it again. Beatrice Duke doesn’t need anyone but herself to get by, and she won’t wait around for someone who can’t even decide whether he gives a shit about her anymore. She doesn't care about him anymore, she tells herself, and almost believes it.

            Bea crawls into bed again and listens to the angriest girl-rock music she has on her playlists and tries not to think at all. Slowly, her exhausted mind shuts down, and she focuses on her daydreams of what it must be like to fly in an airplane, to be surrounded by clouds on all sides. It must be very peaceful up there, surrounded by cool air and sky and a swooping feeling in your stomach to rival the one you get from driving down the hill outside Messina High.

She’s dozing off again, finally calm, and then- God, what is that annoying noise?

“Stop it, sleeping,” she grumbles, smacking her phone against the bedside table so it will stop making noise as it vibrates. Pulling it towards her, she opens her eyes and looks at the screen- and blanches.

           She flings the phone away in utter shock, and it topples off the bed and almost immediately starts vibrating again while she freaks out about what it means that there’s a new video on the Lovely Little Losers channel and her name is in the title.

“Oh, that bastard,” Bea snarls, leaping up to grab the phone, and suddenly she’s furious again. Thank God. Sadness is useless, but Bea can work with fury.

“I am going to end you for this, dickface,” she snaps as she roots around under the bed for her phone. “It’s always the fucking Internet, how self-absorbed and narcissistic and evil do you have to be, to constantly put our private business on- there you are!”

She snatches up the phone at last, and when she swipes at the screen, sees that she has a new voicemail.

And without thinking, she clicks it.

            “Bea, oh God, please don’t watch that video,” says Ben’s voice, and he sounds terrified. As he should. “I promise I’m not the one who posted it. I am so sorry. I won’t call you again, I just needed you to know that I… I accept your decision. I just want you to be happy. Okay, I’m sorry, I’ll leave now. Er- stop now. Alright, I lo- I mean, bye.”

The message ends, and Beatrice is left sitting on the bed, staring down at the empty screen.

Whatever the new video is, Ben didn’t post it. And he almost said- oh. Shit.

            There’s no way around it: Beatrice needs to watch this video. I just have to know how angry I should be about this, she rationalizes to herself. And who posted it.

It’s nothing to do with what Benedick almost said at the end of that message, because when you break someone’s heart like he’s done to her, that shouldn’t matter anymore. Even if she wants it to. So, before she loses her nerve, Beatrice clicks the video.

It’s a Balth in a Bath one, so it was filmed in February and- No. Not this.

It’s the song, and it’s honestly like being stabbed through the heart. Whoever uploaded this is some kind of evil, because Beatrice is trying to be angry and hurt here, and this is a video of Ben and Balthazar singing the love song he wrote for her last year.

They’re fucking terrible and it’s completely obnoxious but the Benedick on the screen is happy and laughing and so beautiful. And she’s crying again, because why did things have to be so good at first if they were just going to end in flames after all?

She swore she'd never cry over a boy again, especially not this boy, and here she is, still missing him after he broke her heart for the second time.

          Beatrice can't stand to be weak, can't stand to be a stupid love-struck girl who puts up with being treated like crap because it's better than being alone- but there's a hole in her chest, a tiny depression that's been growing by the day, every day that she doesn't hear from Ben. She loves him so much that it physically hurts her to know that he's chosen to push her away, and telling him to leave yesterday is the hardest thing she's ever done. She can’t  just undo that.

God, she doesn't want to love him. She doesn't want to open herself to this kind of pain and grief, doesn't want weakness beating in her heart every time she thinks of him. She wishes this wasn't happening, wishes she could be wrapped up in his arms right now, held as she cries.

          The first video in the Suggestions for You section is called RUSSIANFUDGE. The anger settles back into her chest, and she’s still crying a little, but she clings to that righteous fury because it’s the only emotion left that doesn’t make her feel pathetic. That flimsy excuse for a gift was supposed to make her forgive months of being neglected for some stupid flat rules?

Maybe seeing his side of that is what Beatrice needs to remind herself that she has to hate Ben right now. The best thing for her is to focus on how much he’s hurt her lately, to focus on hating him. So she makes an incredibly bad decision, and she clicks on the video.

The video in which Ben is crying over her, too.

           It almost breaks her, almost makes her call him right there- but no. Still not good enough. She clicks on the next one back, and then ACCOSTED, and then GUNGE. She watches Ben clinging to that goddamn camera, and dropping out of school, and looking completely miserable, and wow, he is really not okay.

Beatrice is still angry. She’s furious, she is, but this- Ugh. She hates herself for it, but seeing Ben like this just breaks her heart all over again.

                                                                                                                        ***

“Babes, Fred and I are ordering pizza, are you hungry?” Meg hollers from the kitchen, and Beatrice sighs and shuffles out to see her.

Bea knows she’s an absolute mess, but the tear tracks are only slightly noticeable now. She would just stay in her room, except the crying has made her so lightheaded she’s afraid she’ll pass out if she doesn’t eat something.

          Rosa Jones is standing in the kitchen with Meg, her hands on her hips. She raises an eyebrow at the sight of Beatrice. “Wow. You look like shit,” she says simply.

“Balthazar’s stuff is in his room, when you’re ready,” Meg tells Rosa.

“Thanks. I'm helping him move back to his flat, because my sisterly devotion knows no bounds," Rosa says sarcastically. "So, wait. What did I miss? Need me to kick someone’s ass for you?”

"Bea broke up with Ben. Because of the rules," Meg says softly, trying to spare her feelings. It doesn’t work.

"Oh, of course that idiot chose the rules," Rosa scoffs, sitting down next to Bea at the table and putting an arm around her. “Don't you worry about it, sweetheart. He's a dick anyway. You deserve better. You'll go off and see the world and fuck some hot French guys, and you'll forget all about him, I promise."

          Bea flinches violently at Rosa’s words, recoiling as if struck. She shakes her head, one hand covering her mouth, trying to hold in her tears. The idea of going out and having sex with random strangers is absolutely repugnant  to her. She isn't ready for that. It makes her feel sick to her stomach, the thought of letting just anyone touch her in such an intimate way. The way… the way that only Ben ever had. 

“P-please,” Bea says thickly, refusing to look up. “Don’t.”

        "Come on, you're a Queen, Beatrice," Rosa says. "You deserve a little fun. He was nowhere near good enough for you, I always said-"

“Don't," Bea says again. "Don't you dare talk about him like that. Don't you say a single word against him, all right?"

"Whoa, I'm just trying to help-"

"Well fucking don't, then! I don't want to hear it, I won't- ugh!"

The tears come, then, and she runs out of the room to ensconce herself in one of Vegan Fred's comically large guest rooms.

          Bea can’t believe her instinct is still to defend Ben, the anger coursing through her still directed entirely at Rosa. Instead of snapping back to her old normal and hating Ben, Beatrice is just sad for him, and worried, and she has to understand. She has to get that closure, to know why he pushed her away.

You don't fall out of love in a day. But maybe this is how she'll figure out if she should start trying or... not.

If we still miss each other, then we’ll know.

She picks up her phone and sends a message to Ben: I saw the videos. I think we need to talk.

                                                                                                                                 ***

Chapter Text

                                                                                                                                ***

Sure, I’m free, Ben texts back. So Beatrice calls him.

Waiting for him to answer is unnecessarily terrifying. It’s another indication of how wrong everything is right now- Bea is never this nervous about talking to Benedick.

The first thing she hears is a sharp intake of breath, and then—

“Uh, hey. Bea. How are you?” Ben says, and it’s almost a relief to hear his voice. 

           Bea doesn’t waste time. “Why didn't you tell me you were dropping out of university?"

"I did tell you, remember?" His voice is shaky, and she can hear him tap-tap-tapping some hard surface with his fingernails, working out the nervous energy.

"No, but before that! You never told me you were so unhappy here. Why didn't I know? I'm supposed to know these things, I'm..." she trails off, swallowing hard.

The weight of their last conversation presses down on her, and there's a tightness in her throat.

I'm your girlfriend, she had wanted to say.

Beatrice can't believe that once upon a time she had been so sure that word would never apply to her. She'd never thought she would want it to, so badly.

         Ben sighs. “I know I should have told you sooner, but I was embarrassed, and… well, I was scared. It’s like you said, it’s all my fault we had to go long-distance, and now I’m supposed to just tell you all of that time apart was for nothing, and I’m dropping out? I think I just figured, we were already on the outs, so why make it worse?”

“I would have wanted to know, though,” Beatrice says sadly. “I thought… we used to be able to talk about practically anything. What changed?”

“I don’t know,” Ben says, frustrated. “I fucked everything up, just like I’ve always done, and I’m sorry I hurt you, and I’m sorry Peter posted that bloody video, and I hope you’re okay. That’s all.”

“No, I’m not okay,” Beatrice says. “And I don’t think you are, either. I saw the rest of your videos. You’ve been pulling away from me for months, and I still don’t know why. Please, I need to understand.”

         “I… I didn't mean to pull away," he says softly. “I felt like I was losing my flatmates, my friends, and you were always working towards leaving me too, like it was just a given. So the rules- well, I guess I just… did what I thought I had to do, to make it hurt less, and to keep everyone else happy and close. So I wouldn’t end up alone.”

Beatrice isn't even sure what to say to that. “Ben, that makes no sense! You weren’t alone. You didn’t need the rules! Why couldn’t you just talk to your flatmates? Why couldn’t you talk to me?”

“Because I have anxiety,” Ben blurts, and everything goes silent.

“Wait,” Beatrice says, confused. “What?”

         “I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” Ben says. “And it makes sense. I’m like Freddie, but also different. I freeze up in large group settings, I worry that no one actually likes me, and sometimes I have panic attacks. I have social anxiety. I’ve never said that out loud before.”

 “So,” Beatrice asks. “So, like at Balthazar’s party? When you spent all that time in a corner by yourself, and you couldn’t tell me why?”

“Yep, that would be anxiety,” Ben sighs. “I didn’t want to tell you like this. I’m not trying to justify anything, I promise. I know I made a lot of really shit decisions this year and they were all my fault. I suck.”

“No, I… well, I don’t understand,” Beatrice says. “But I’m trying to. Thanks for telling me.”

“You’re welcome.”

         There’s a pause. She can hear him breathing on the other end of the line, like Hero trying to stave off one of her own panic attacks. So this is actually happening, she realizes. Poor Ben.

“Is there anything I can do, or…?” she asks softly.

“I’ll be fine,” Ben says. “It’s really not that bad at the moment.”

“I, um. I’m really sorry you’re going through this,” Bea says, and she means it.

“Thanks.”

         “So this is going to sound awful, but… You really didn’t spend all this time ignoring me because you wanted to break up?” she asks.

“Bea, no," Ben says. "I swear, I never  wanted this for us. I was afraid you’d want to break up, either because of the rules, or because you’d got abroad and realized how boring I am. And I couldn’t face that. So I just didn't start the conversation, and I hoped the problem would go away.”

“Because that worked out so well for us when we were fourteen,” Beatrice snarks. She kind of can’t help it.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m not proud of myself,” Ben says.

“We talked  about my trip, though,” Bea points out. “I told you I wanted to keep trying for long distance, Ben. What about that says breakup?”

          “You know Orlando, my best friend from primary school in England?” Ben asks suddenly.

“Who?”

“Exactly. When I first moved to New Zealand, he sent me one e-mail, and then I never heard from him again,” Ben says. “That’s what happens when I try to keep in touch with people from the UK. I guess I just got used to the idea that it’s impossible.”

“Of course it’s possible,” Beatrice says, frustrated. “We could have done it. I can’t believe you really didn’t think I’d even try.”

"What I think is that I wouldn’t blame you if you realized there’s more in the world for you than being stuck with me,” Ben admits. “I couldn't take that. Not with everything else in my life falling apart at the same time. I was scared."

        “I was scared too, you know,” she says, quiet. “Leaving the country, all on my own, for a whole year? God, if you had asked me to stay, I… I might’ve said yes.”

“You would have regretted it,” Ben says heavily. “You would have resented me for stopping your dream, and I would have hated myself for that. You deserve this trip. And you deserve better than me.”

“No,” Beatrice says. “You’re wrong. The last stop on my travel itinerary was you. I do deserve better than the rules, but I was always planning to come back to you. I should have made sure you knew that.”

        “I’m so sorry, Bea,” Ben says automatically. “I should have talked to you. I should have binned the rules, I should never have signed them, and I take full responsibility for that.”

“Thank you,” Bea sighs. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you how upset I actually was about long-distance and the rules, until it was too late. And I guess it was a little hypocritical of me to hold Wellington against you, when I was planning to go even further away. I'm sorry for that.”

"You don't have to apologize-"

"Ben."

“Okay. Thanks, then. So… what happens now?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” Beatrice says sadly. “I wish I could say something else, but- I can't. I'm just not ready to forgive you right now. And I can't give up my plans."

“Right. I understand.” Ben says, trying not to sound disappointed. Beatrice can relate; she’s disappointed, too.

         “Can I call you again, though? Soon?” Bea asks, suddenly unable to say goodbye without opening this last possibility. God, she misses Ben.

“I’d like that, Bea. A lot,” he says, relieved.

“Good. Please take care of yourself, okay?”

And before she can second-guess herself, Beatrice hangs up.

                                                                                                                               ***

         After that, she spends a couple of days going back and forth in her head, trying to make sense of this swirl of emotions and figure out what she should do.

She’s still in love with Ben. That much is certain, but whether she can really put aside everything that’s happened this year, how much he’s hurt her- it’s like she’s afraid she might be sacrificing too much, by forgiving this.

The pain that Beatrice felt when she was fourteen, and she thought Ben had rejected her- it was something that had stuck with her, ever since. He’d broken something in her heart. Almost irretrievably. The past few months have felt the same- only worse.

This time, she knows exactly how vividly, impossibly happy Ben made her, at first. And she knows how much worse it is to have that ripped away when it’s a real relationship, and not just a crush. Ben did that to her, tossed her aside without a second thought- except he did have second thoughts.

         He’d been just as torn up as she was, that’s the hard thing. And yeah, okay, he didn’t mean to hurt her. He has anxiety, which is something Bea is still trying to get her head around- but she can’t just forget this kind of betrayal.

She’s supposed to do the independent thing, be a feminist badass who needs no one. Beatrice has always known it’s ridiculous to make your life decisions based on who you’re dating. She was never going to be that girl- and yet.

Bea can’t help picturing herself and Benedick, happy again, seeing the world together. Sneaking into each other’s cheap hostel beds to snuggle at night, kissing as much and as often as they want, walking down a street in Paris holding hands, with nothing and no one ever keeping them apart. And she wants  that.

         If she walks away now, she does so knowing that Ben still loves her. That she’s deliberately throwing away what could be their last chance, because it’s what she feels like she’s supposed to do.

But she doesn’t want to ruin her dream trip, either. She needs to talk this one out.

Or find someone to talk her out of it.

                                                                                                                              ***

        “This trip is a milestone in your life, Beatrice,” Hermione Duke says, her tone clipped, impatient. “It’s something you’ll always remember. You want those to be happy memories.”

Beatrice sighs. “I know, Mum, but-”

“Honey, first boyfriends hardly ever last. Don’t you think you might regret it, if your only memories of this trip are of you fighting with some boy? No, you made the right decision. It would have been a big mistake to let him invite himself along.”

         Mum is so sure of herself. It’s so easy for Mum to brush Beatrice’s heart to the side in the name of her travel plans. Practical. Obvious. Bea can feel herself bristling against it.

“Mum,” she says through her teeth. “I haven’t made the decision yet. That’s why I asked what you-”

“You broke up with Benedick, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but I-”

“Then the decision is made, Beatrice. I’m just being realistic,” Hermione says. “I know you’re hurting, and I hate to see my daughter in pain. But sometimes the right thing for you is to grow up and move on.”

        “What if I changed my mind?” Beatrice bursts out. “What if I don’t want to be realistic about this?”

“Then you make your own mistakes, and you learn from them,” her mother answers. “You’re the one paying for this trip, so I can’t stop you. But I don’t like it. Traveling with someone you can’t rely on is a very bad idea.”

“But I do trust him,” Bea snaps. “Why is that so wrong?”

“I’m not going to fight with you on this, Beatrice,” her mother sighs. “You know my thoughts.”

        Beatrice ends the call as quickly as she can, then sighs, falling back against the wall next to her bed. So much for that.

                                                                                                                            ***

       Meg’s thoughts are a lot more comforting. Beatrice asks her that afternoon, when they’re just lounging around her room at Vegan Fred’s, talking.

"I’m afraid of making the wrong choice,” Bea admits. “I hate that I've been stuck here just waiting on a guy. I mean, who does that? Last year, I never would have done that!"

"I don't think you did that this year, either, babes," Meg says, and Beatrice lets out a breath, sharp, like she wants to argue, but Meg gets there first.

"No, seriously. Think about it. All boyfriends aside- You like living in this amazing vegan palace as much as I do, right?"

"Well... yeah." She hopes Meg missed her involuntary wince at the b-word. From the smug look on her face, though, no such luck.

        "Tell me, Bea," Meg says in her best magazine interviewer voice, pinching two fingers like she's holding a pencil and pretending to take notes on her other palm. "Why did you stay in Wellington this long? Are you having fun here?"

"I mean, yeah," she repeats herself, thinking. "It's cool being on my own, living in a flat with you and Kit and Balthazar and Fred, being back in my hometown. I really like working at Boyet's, it's so much better than waitressing back in Auckland was, I can't stand how rude people are to service-"

Meg gives her a Look, and Bea stops herself. Meg has heard that particular rant before.

"Fine, okay! I would have been doing the same stuff in Auckland, just with different people and with my aunts in the next room. This has been a nice change. I stayed here because I wanted to, for me. Now I know I can survive on my own, you know?"

Meg grins, spreading her arms excitedly. "There, you see? Not waiting on a guy."

"But I didn't," Bea says slowly, looking down at her hands. "I didn't only stay because it was fun... Those aren't the only reasons."

"Oh?" says Meg mischievously.

         Beatrice sighs. "I wanted to leave, the night we played Sardines. I hated the idea that I was putting anything on hold for him. I mean, it's not like I didn't know there was a chance we wouldn't last, but I just- it's Ben, you know? I've never felt this way about anyone else. And if I left Wellington... I wanted there to be a chance for us, Meg. I didn't want it to be over. So... I'm still here. And I thought I made the right call, but now... I don't know anymore."

“Well, that’s okay.” Meg shrugs. “Feelings are weird. Decide when you’re ready.”

        “So I’m… I’m not weak, or antifeminist, or whatever, if I forgive him?” Bea forces herself to ask, looking down at her hands.

“Oh, my god, no!” Meg laughs. “Babe, your decision is yours. No shame necessary. As long as he isn’t pressuring you, or anything. And I will happily kick his ass for you, if he is.”

“No,” Beatrice says. “He didn’t even ask me to take him back or anything. I think he thinks it’s over for good, and he’s okay with that. If it’s what I want.”

“Is it?” Meg asks simply.

"I- No. I don't know exactly what I want, but it's not... It's definitely not this." Beatrice murmurs, and her chest fills with heat, thinking about how true that is.

“Well, there you go,” Meg grins. “You’re welcome.”

        Beatrice accepts a hug from Meg, who smells strongly of flowery perfume. It reminds her, suddenly, of Hero, and she makes a mental note to call her cousin. It's been a weirdly long time since they've talked. But things have been busy lately. It's nothing to worry about.

"Thanks, Meg." Beatrice says, pulling away from the hug. "You're my best friend, you know?"

"You're my best friend, too," says Meg. "I want you happy."

        Beatrice smiles back as Meg bounds up and over to her makeup bag where it sits on a large and expensive wooden writing desk in the corner of the room.

"Now, can we talk about something else and you'll let me do your nails for once? You can call Ben-the-dick tomorrow, if you still want to. Tonight you need to relax. Besides, boys are boring. Who needs them? Apart from you, apparently."

"Hey!" Bea laughs. "Anyway, you can't talk. I know you've been texting Jaquie nonstop lately. What exactly is that about, hmm?"

Meg can't hide her blush. "You promised you wouldn't tease me when I told you I was bi!"

"I would never tease you about being bi!" Beatrice says. “Just about having a crush, that’s all.”

Meg groans. “She’s just a friend, but that's okay with me. I'm happy just to finally be out of the closet."

"That's great," says Bea, allowing Meg to apply the first coat of deep red to her nails. "This really was one hell of a road trip, wasn't it?"

"Oh, definitely," laughs Meg. "See? Aren't you glad you listened to me?"

                                                                                                                              ***

So there it is, Beatrice realizes. She’s alone in the empty flat, it’s just before dinnertime, and it’s been a week since she broke up with Benedick. Two awkward phone calls and a few texts, that’s all the contact they’ve had. But it’s enough.

           Forgiving someone isn’t antifeminist, Beatrice knows that. Wanting to try again doesn’t make her a weak or foolish person. Being in a relationship has never compromised the rest of her life before. After the breakup, she’d still had friends and work and travel plans to focus on.

She’s always been strong and independent, and she’d stay that way, if she and Ben got back together. And she’d still be going abroad, just amending the plan instead of scrapping it completely.

         The point is that when Bea thinks of the next year of her life as it is, she sees months on end of being totally alone, thousands of miles away from home. The sightseeing is still exciting, but the rest of it sounds kind of miserable.

And when she thinks of Ben? She still thinks of inside jokes and flamingoes and mangoes. She remembers endless silly arguments and cuddles and thoughtful texts. She thinks of so many afternoons curled up in his old bed, or petting the Hobbes family cat, as Bea poured out her anger and hurt about Hero and Claudio and Peter, while Benedick just listened and promised her it would be okay. Skype calls and bathtubs and the feeling of knowing and being known by someone so completely, in every describable way. She thinks of a thousand happy memories from this past year, and knows that one year is not enough.   

When it comes down to it, Beatrice has a choice: See the world with Benedick by her side, or go alone and lose him, probably forever.

And that's not a choice at all.

          At that moment, she realizes she can't wait anymore. She's going over to the other flat to set this right, and get her boyfriend back.

                                                                                                                                ***

"Ben, we're a thing," Beatrice says happily, pillow fight raging around her, and when he grins and hugs her tight, all she feels is relief, and calm, and certainty. 

 

And then Hero arrives.

                                                                                                                                ***

 

Chapter Text

***

           Everything is quiet. The living room is still a bit of a disaster area, but Ben has been able to clear a comfortable seat on the couch, wrapping himself in his red bathrobe and a blanket, leaning back against several slightly sad-looking, partially deflated pillows from earlier.

Ben hadn’t seen any of this coming. He’d barely been holding his head above water, keeping busy, his spirits higher since the phone calls with Bea. How had filming a music video and a Pedrazar interview turned into a pillow fight, Bea forgiving him, and then… this?

Now, in the semidarkness, he squints at his laptop screen, trying to cut together the mountains of pillow fight footage from before Hero arrived.

It isn’t going well.

Just like filming, editing video has lost its ability to comfort and distract Ben. Every time it starts to calm him down, he remembers his unhealthy dependence on the camera and recoils from it. And besides, he’s too busy worrying about Beatrice to pay attention to the footage anyway.

        She and Hero had been too exhausted to go all the way back to Vegan Fred’s, after everything. Hero is being put up in the room that used to belong to Balthazar- who, of course, was more than happy to share Peter’s bed for the night. (At least that seems to be working out, even if Ben knows now that it was really never any of his business.)

Beatrice is sleeping in Ben’s own room right now. He’d insisted that she have it, while he slept out here on the couch. It’s comfortable enough out here, and Beatrice needs rest and quiet right now. He can’t even imagine how she’s feeling, getting that kind of news when everything else in their lives has already been in turmoil for weeks.

Ben’s pretty sure that he and Bea are at least back together, thank goodness, but he doesn’t want to push her about it. She deserves her space.

He fights the urge to skip ahead in the video and edit their conversation- “Ben, we’re a thing” - just to be sure that it really happened. That she really smiled at him like that, and took him back, and hugged him like she hadn’t ever wanted to be apart.

Ben feels selfish for even thinking about that, now.

But if he thinks about video editing, he might get anxious, and if he thinks about Leo, he’ll definitely get anxious, start worrying and imagining the worst-case scenario and- no. No, it’s all going to be fine. Stop yourself. Stop thinking.

Ben takes a few deep breaths, centering himself again, just barely calming down. He stares at the closed door, hoping that, somewhere on the other side, Beatrice is managing to get more sleep than he is.

         Ben isn’t sure how much time goes by after that- all he knows is that one moment he’s distracting himself, staring blearily at the Pedrazar footage from this evening, and the next moment, he’s waking up. He must have dozed off- but the flat is still pitch-dark. Even the laptop screen has gone cold now.

Ben is leaning over to put the laptop on the coffee table when he notices that his bedroom door is open.

“…Ben?” Beatrice whispers, her voice raspy from crying. She comes in from the kitchen behind him, clutching a glass of water.

“Beatrice. Are you… okay?” he asks, seized with anxiety, like his voice might startle her away.

It doesn’t. Of course Bea’s too strong for that nonsense. She takes a sip of water, walks over to the couch.

“I’m fine. I… couldn’t sleep. Can I-?”

“Of course,” Ben whispers, pulling back his blanket so she can settle onto the other side of the couch, draping part of the blanket over her own lap.

         “I never even closed my eyes,” Beatrice admits. “I’m worried about Hero, and I can’t even think about- the rest of it. I’ve mostly been lying in there wishing I didn’t have to be alone right now.”

“Hey,” Ben says, and he wants to reach out and take her hand, but fear and caution stop him. “You are not alone, I promise you that.”

“Okay,” she answers, a hitch of emotion in her breath. “God, I hate that everything feels so weird. What happened to us?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry, Beatrice.”

“I wish you’d stop saying that,” she sighs, shifting closer to him, until their legs are almost touching beneath the blanket. “I just want this whole thing to be a bad dream. I want it to be over.”

“I know,” Ben says, and he’s never felt so helpless. “I know.”

Beatrice sighs. “Can you… can you please just hold me, for a while?”

       “Bea… are you sure?” Ben squeaks, terrified of overstepping, of making more mistakes, of somehow hurting her again, as she moves to rest her head against his shoulder.

“Ben, I’m sure. You don’t have to be afraid to touch me if I ask,” Bea says. “You’re my boyfriend.”

“Alright then,” Ben whispers, so relieved to hear that amazing word. “If that's what you want. I’m here for you, for as long as you want me.”

And in this moment, it’s like they were never apart at all. Their bodies know exactly what to do, Benedick wrapping his arms tightly around Beatrice, who crosses her own to take each of his hands in hers, like she used to do, before the rules. Her head is pillowed on his chest, her legs draped over his, until she’s almost sitting in his lap, and it’s perfectly comfortable and warm, her heartbeat pounding against his, together.

 “Ben?” Beatrice whispers a moment later. “Thank you. I’m so glad you’re here.”

They stay like that, cuddled together on the couch, and it is everything they’ve both been missing, these last, touch-starved months. For the first time all night, Ben feels calm.

        The next morning, Freddie is the first to stumble out of her room and towards the kitchen. She smirks at what she sees in the still-trashed living room. One less thing to worry about.

Beatrice and Benedick are sleeping peacefully on the couch, still entwined in each other’s arms.

***

         As soon as he wakes up, Ben knows it’s going to be a hard day. Beatrice is still asleep, warm against his chest, and he wishes she didn’t have to wake and remember that she’s grieving now.

He’s never known anyone with a diagnosis like this before, never had to comfort someone with this kind of fear for a loved one’s life. What happens now? What if Ben says or does the wrong thing? How does he support Bea through this, without overwhelming her? What if…

        “Hi,” Beatrice mumbles, awake. She doesn’t say anything else, doesn’t move from her position in his arms, like staying still might make the day’s difficult tasks just pass them by.

“Hey,” Ben says, holding her close, and all his frenzied thoughts melt into one: whatever you need, love.

***

        Beatrice sleeps in, and then Ben gives her a ride to Vegan Fred’s to start frantically packing her stuff. What she needs now is for Ben to get out of the way and leave her to be angry, because fuck  cancer.

Back at the Losers Flat, Ben makes himself useful, jumping into the therapeutic task of cleaning the living room from last night’s chaos. Meg and Hero help him, and then Hero sees Ben carrying the camera and laptop off to his room, and gets an idea.

        It is unbelievably hard, finishing the last vlog. Instead of being his happy place, filming immediately makes the ball of burning pain in Ben’s chest flare to life again, reminding him of all his many mistakes.

When Beatrice needs him again, this time to hold her and promise he’ll go home to Auckland with her, Ben is glad to forget about the video. Bea is where he belongs right now. He’s more than just a face behind a camera to her, and she deserves his full attention.

Bea eventually leaves them to it, and Ben, Meg and Hero end their final video a few minutes later.

      “See you later, guys. Live good lives and stuff,” Ben says to his remaining viewers, trying to stay positive, and then he feels Meg’s hand on his arm.

“Go. I’ll take care of this, babe,” she says with a supportive smile, nodding towards the camera, and he’s grateful.

It isn’t going to be easy for Benedick, giving up filming, and Meg knows that. She’s seen how much it meant to him, to have this emotional and creative outlet, before it started to become so toxic- and now the best thing to do is to rip off the bandage, quick and sharp, cold-turkey. No more cameras. Maybe ever.

He nods, rises. “Thanks, Meg,” he whispers, before turning away and leaving the room, and he doesn’t look back.

It’s better this way.

***

        Ben and Bea leave Wellington a few hours later. It’s already late afternoon, with an eight-hour drive ahead. Ben and Hero try to convince Beatrice to just stay in the flat one more night, and she can leave in the morning- but she doesn’t want to rest. She won’t hear of being away from home for a second longer than she has to, now.

        The goodbyes with their friends feel like they take ages, but it’s really only about fifteen awkward minutes of hugging and “drive safe”-ing and promises to keep each other updated. It isn’t like this is the last time they’ll see one another. Ben still has to come back for the rest of his stuff, after all.

Freddie’s already in the process of boxing it all up. Kit has decided to keep rooming with Vegan Fred and Meg, for the time being, so Freddie, Peter and Balth are looking for a new flatmate.

Ben had thought that this news would make him feel replaced, unwanted, unloved- but it doesn’t. He feels… like someone they’ll miss, maybe.

        Peter pulls him into a hug, pats him on the back. Balthazar’s embrace is short, almost perfunctory, but his sad smile is genuine as always as they shake hands. When the goodbyes are done, Balthazar slips his hand back into Peter’s, their fingers knitting together, and squeezes. Peter can’t suppress a smile. Ben’s happy for them. It’s about damn time.

He can’t help but think Peter and Balth must be glad to see the back of him, though he’s taken down the PUNISHMENT video and taken on extra chores around the flat to give the two of them a little more private downtime for the past few weeks. It’s the very least they deserve after this year.

Ben knows he has to work to earn their trust again, but whenever he starts to panic about them hating him forever, he remembers Peter clapping him on the shoulder and pushing him forwards in the days when he thought he’d messed everything up with school and Beatrice and the rules- Peter, sending the fudge to Bea when Ben couldn’t even think her name without tearing up, much less even consider facing her again. He remembers Balthazar checking up on him that first night after the confrontation at Vegan Fred’s, leaving Ben some tea and alcohol, when he should’ve been off cuddling with Peter, really.

Ben doesn’t think he deserves their forgiveness, but Pete and Balth have both told him they don’t have time to be angry anymore, about any of it. It’s time to move on.

They all deserve to move on.

        Freddie almost cries, pulling him into a hug and reminding him not to stay up too late or forget to eat, and just because the rules are gone, doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t try to live by a regular schedule. “Routine is important,” she says, stepping back.

“Love you too, Freds,” he teases, but he promises to take care. He’s really going to miss her. He’s going to miss all of them, and their silly little flat. It’s weird, how you can miss something, even if, in the moment, it really kind of sucked.

“Call me if you need anything, Freddie,” he tells her. “And keep calm.”

“Shut up,” she says, cracking a smile, and promises she’ll try.

       Hero hugs first Bea, then Ben, not saying a word. The moment she pulls back, Meg wraps an arm around her, and Hero rests her head on the older girl’s shoulder. Ben can only imagine how hard it was for her to come here, how much harder it will probably be to come home again, where there’s nothing more she can do for her brother. She has a return plane ticket scheduled for tomorrow. Bea almost insisted that she drive with them, but Hero stood up for herself. She needs some time alone, to recharge before going back to be with her family.

       Beatrice folds herself into the passenger seat, closing her eyes, letting Ben drive for once- that’s how you know things are bad, he thinks wryly, and immediately feels like shit for making light of this even to himself. It’s kind of how he survives, never taking anything too seriously- but he should work on that.

It’s this weird secondhand sadness- he’s upset about Leo, but he isn’t sure how upset he’s supposed to be, because Leo is a friend, a former coach, but not family. This isn’t about Ben at all, and it isn’t his place to grieve too much. Because Leo’s going to be okay. He has to be.

       In the driver’s seat, Ben glances at the rearview mirror and smiles slightly to see his flatmates and Hero and Meg standing in the driveway, waving them off. They stay there until the car has vanished into the distance.

Ben imagines them trailing quietly back into the house, and although the goodbye is bittersweet, it does him good to think his friends are together and mostly happy. It’s funny how it’s only now that he can trust that the little family he has in Wellington is a real one.

      Still, he’s doing the right thing, leaving. He looks over at Beatrice, and knows it with absolute certainty. This – she – is the only choice he could possibly imagine making.

***

Chapter Text

                                                                                                                                        ***

           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?”

“What-”

“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.

“What?”

“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.”

“Really?”

“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.”

“Anytime.”

        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.”

Ben stays.

                                                                                                                                       ***

         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.

***