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Words, Words, Words

Chapter Text

"Did you know that there are over a thousand bird species in Argentina? And they have flamingos! In the wild!” Ben says excitedly, flipping through one of a large stack of travel guides, entirely too wide-awake and chipper for such an early hour.

"You’re doing it again," Beatrice rolls her eyes tiredly; they’re sitting in the airport waiting on their flight, and Bea thinks she already knows so much about Argentina from weeks of Ben’s extensive pre-trip research that she might as well stay here, but she has to smile at his enthusiasm.

"Sorry, love, I just can’t wait! This is going to be an amazing adventure," he grins, and she plants a kiss on his cheek and rests her head on his shoulder as he chatters on about the flamingo species of South America, and she gets so lost in the sound of his voice amid her early-morning drowsiness that she almost doesn’t hear the boarding call. 

Chapter Text

"I don’t miss you, dickface."

"I don’t miss you, love."

That’s how they’ve ended all their Skype calls, ever since that first year when they were still just a little bit stubbornly in denial about how much they really cared. They both know, they’ve always known, it’s a complete lie, but it’s comfortable now, their little inside joke. Beatrice can’t believe they’ve been doing this for three years, long distance most of the time, pretending not to wish they were in the same city, then spending every break glued to each other’s side like they’d never left at all. 

Their first Skype call of the first term of their final year of uni is almost over, and she doesn’t want to hang up. They tell each other they don’t miss each other, and it feels less true than it ever has. “One more year,” Bea murmurs. “Can you believe it?” 

"One more year," Ben repeats softly, smiling. 

They both know how much things can change in a year, how hard this long distance thing has been, how different things will look when uni is over and done. Where they’ll be living, what they’ll be doing, whether they’ll still need Skype, remains to be seen. But they’ll be together. And hopefully someday, they’ll still say they don’t miss each other, and they’ll really mean it this time.

You can’t miss home if you’re already there, after all.

Chapter Text

John showed up promptly at seven to pick her up, palms sweating, the bouquet of yellow tulips almost slipping from his hand- he worried they were too much for a first date, too cheesy, and he was no good at this romance thing.

All he knew was that he couldn’t mess this up again, he couldn’t give Hero anything less than a perfect first date- and then she was there, a vision in her pale pink dress and excited smile, slipping her small hand into the crook of his arm and pressing a kiss to his cheek.

“They’re beautiful,” she said softly, taking the flowers.

John Donaldson never thought Hero Duke would give him the time of day, though he’d been fascinated by her since their Messina High days. There was still the ghost of their shared past between them, but John vowed that tonight, neither of them would think of that.

Tonight was about starting over, together. So they walked off into the night, away from the past, to find their new beginning.

Chapter Text

"Benedick Hobbes, before I met you, I honestly didn’t think love was worth it, and I’m so grateful to you for proving me wrong every single day. You’re my one and only, there’s no way I would ever be standing here with anyone else. I’m surprised even you could talk me into it, frankly. I promise to love you, to cherish you, and to let you win an argument every once in a while, in good times and bad, for the rest of my days… as long as you promise to never wear that flamingo tie again."

"Beatrice Duke, you are the light of my life. You bring me so much joy, and I’m so blessed that you’re still willing to put up with me after so long. You’re my one and only. I love you more than all the world, however strange and wonderful it is, and I’d like to remind you that you proposed to me, love. But anyway, I promise to love you, and cherish you, and trounce you in every argument, for the rest of my days. And might I point out the flamingo in your bouquet, darling? You can’t blame me for matching!”

- Bea and Ben’s wedding vows. You know, hypothetically. ;)

Chapter Text

"Aw, Balthy, c’mon, cheer up! Uh, hey, what do you get when you drop a piano down a mine shaft?" Pedro tries, and Balthazar doesn’t answer, doesn’t even look up, so he goes ahead with the punch line, "A flat minor!"  

Balthazar looks his boyfriend right in the eyes and says, with a completely straight face, "You aren’t allowed anywhere near my piano ever again, you know that, right?"

A moment passes before they both burst out laughing; when they calm down, Balthazar wraps an arm around Pedro.

"Thanks, I needed that laugh. Even if your jokes are terrible as always."

"They cheered you up, didn’t they?" asks Pedro, laughter still in his voice.

Balthazar leans in for a quick kiss. "Somehow, they always do."

Chapter Text

"See, the thing is," Pedro grabbed Balthy’s hand, and immediately felt much less nervous, "I’m bisexual. And, uh, Balthazar and I… well, we’re dating now, and we just wanted you to know that…" he trailed off, Balthy nodding along bashfully. 

"I knew it! Team Love Gods Part 2 is a success!" called Ben triumphantly, but calmed down when the happy couple shot him matching glares; "Sorry, sorry, I’m really happy for you two," he finished, as everyone else surrounded Balthazar and Pedro with similar words of congratulations, Hero beaming and pulling each of them into a hug, Meg squealing about how cute they are together, Ursula hugging Balthy while warning Pedro to be good to her best friend, Claudio clapping Pedro on the shoulder with a grin, and even Beatrice, whose friendship with Pedro was still strained and awkward, offering them a smile and saying she was glad they’d finally worked things out. 

Amid all the chaos of their loving group of friends, Pedro breathed a sigh of relief that everything had gone smoothly, that it was over; his eyes met Balthazar’s and he saw his own relief and happiness reflected back, and Balthy squeezed his hand, very much looking forward to later, when they could be alone in the quiet of their new relationship,this love that had finally set them free. 

Chapter Text

“We are not naming our daughter Olive- oh! She kicked again!” Beatrice put a hand to her rounded stomach.

“See, she likes it,” Ben insisted, resting his own hand gently beside his wife’s, unable to suppress a delighted laugh as he felt the kicking too. “Hello, little Olive.”

“That is absolutely ridiculous, Benedick, there is no way our unborn child can understand what we’re talking about, much less pick her own name-

“You have to admit, it has a nice ring to it, though,” said Ben. “Olive Duke-Hobbes…”

“It does not!”    

Chapter Text

"I always hated this part," Bea sighed. "Where I’m all packed and ready but I still have so much time before I actually leave. All that’s left is saying goodbye, but even that isn’tuntil tomorrow."

She looked around the little guest room,where she and Hero had been making a final once-over, checking for anything Beaforgot to pack, picking the blue sticky-tac off the walls where her posters had been. The room felt bare and oddly foreign to her already, with all of her stuff packed away, the walls blank and white, the floor fully visible for the first time in ages. Every trace of her had been wiped away. It was like Beatrice Duke had never lived in this room, had never been here at all.

 She was leaving tomorrow, after two years of living here, and even though she was so excited about the coming year, moving out was still just as bittersweet as leaving Wellington to live here had been- possibly more.

She’d grown and changed so much since then, and so many big and terrifying and amazing new things had happened in her life here, some of them in this very room. And now she was moving out.

"Doesn’t it feel just like when I had to leave at the end of the summer every year? We’d be miserable my entire last day here, remember?"

Hero nodded, sinking down onto the bed whose covers she’d just finished neatly arranging. “Didn’t we hide you under this bed once and try to convince your parents you’d been kidnapped by pirates and they should just leave without you?”

"Oh, yeah! But it was so stuffy and hot under there, I had to give up and come out before I died of heatstroke,” Bea laughed. “And then I had to go home.”

"I can’t believe you’re really leaving," said Hero. "It feels like you just got home from Wellington again, and now you’re off to see the world. I’m going to miss you so much."

"I’m going to miss you too," Beatrice replied. "Who’s going to remind me to be nicer and to keep an open mind now?"

"Who’s going to get me into all sorts of trouble and adventures now?" Hero grinned. "I guess I’ll have nothing much to do without you around, Bea!"

"Hero Duke, I knew I was rubbing off on you!"

They both fell silent for a moment, thinking of memories more resilient than the oldest bit of sticky-tac, filling every surface of the empty bedroom.

“Hey, Hero? Can I stay in your room tonight?” Beatrice asked suddenly, reluctant to spend her last night here feeling like a stranger in her old room.

Hero was smiling again. “Cousin Sleepover?” she asked excitedly.

“Cousin Sleepover,” Beatrice confirmed, bounding for the door. Hero followed her and turned out the light, and Beatrice closed the door on her old room for the last time.

                                                                                                                          ***

Bittersweet was definitely the word of the day. Hero’s room was still full of life and personality and posters on the walls, because she had some time still before she had to start packing herself for university. Everywhere Beatrice looked, she saw reminders of the days when they’d still been making YouTube videos. The memories were mostly good ones, and under those were more days like today, when Beatrice’s parents had tried to round her up to take her home to Wellington at summer’s end.

She and Hero had spent many a day hiding in here, giggling and whispering and knowing their parents would never be able to find them, so Bea would never have to go home. Crying, when they were found again in no time.

They didn’t cry this time, they were too old for that, but this was the same strange feeling, like having nostalgia for something that isn’t over yet.

                                                                                                                           ***

The girls had a movie marathon and entirely too much chocolate, and Hero painted Beatrice’s nails bright orange just for fun, and they laughed and teased and talked for ages. It felt like a normal night between best friends, except that it went by so fast.

As she drifted off to sleep, Beatrice felt kind of like a kid again, hiding from the grown-ups, from the world, pretending she wouldn’t have to face it soon enough. She was hiding from the dreaded leaving moment, but like always, it came anyway.

The morning came, stern and sudden like a parent finally spoiling their fun. Time to go, enough dawdling now Beatrice, we have a long road ahead of us…

She was so excited for her world journey, but she was still really going to miss living down the hall from her best friend. 

Chapter Text

Pedro had discovered something about himself on this trip:he thrived best in warmer weather. The mountain where their cabin was perched was the polar opposite of “warmer weather”, and he didn’t intend that pun, either. There was more snow outhere than he’d ever seen in his life, and now it had trapped them in this tiny cabin, where they were probably going to die.

“Th-this stuff is evil,” Pedro chattered, gesturing to the blizzard outside the window. “And there is way too much of it. It’s pure, powdery white death! Going out there would be the last thing we’d ever do, I bet it would.”

“This is an o-o-ode, to sno-ow,” sang Balthazar, laughing at the indignant look on Pedro’s face.

“Snow doesn’t deserve an ode,” said Pedro.

“Hey, at least you tried it, right? You might still warm up to it,” quipped Balthazar, wrapped up in an oversized sweater, not to mention their bedspread.

Pedro grinned. “I know what kind of warming up I’d much rather do,” he said, joining Balthazar in bed and yelping when his boyfriend’s cold fingers brushed against the back of his neck. “Hey! You did that on purpose!”

The cold felt like it had seeped right through them. Luckily, they had each other to help them get thoroughly warm again.

Chapter Text

It was so weird, having Beatrice right here in the flat,interacting with his new uni friends, fitting right in, ignoring and insulting him just like old times. Ben had spent months missing her, and now she was here, and he had to act like he hated her again. Being broken up sucked.

Right now, they were in the middle of a big party that Pedro and Freddie had put together to welcome all their visitors to the flat. Freddie was chatting with Rosa and Kit, Costa was trying to look like she hadn’t been surreptitiously following Jaquie and Adrian around all night, Balthazar and Pedro were in the kitchen working on appetizers with Hero and John, and variousother people were milling around and socializing, drinks in hand. The party was in full swing, and of course,of course, Ben had somehow ended up squished onto the sofa right next to Beatrice.

All bickering had tapered off into an awkward silence, and it was kind of scary, honestly. It was like they were strangers again, and Ben didn’t know how to fix it. He’d been trying to get up the nerve to talk to her all night, but he kept getting interrupted or forgetting what he was going to say or deciding that she probably wouldn’t have anything more to say to him anyway. It was hopeless.

“So, uh, how have you been?” he started now, but before Beatrice could answer-

“Hey, Benedick! Who’s your friend?”

The speaker was Henry Holofernes, the TA in Ben’s English Lit class. Freddie had invited him. And how many times did he have to remind Holofernes to just call him Ben already?

Holofernes, though he’d addressed his greeting to Ben, was now pushing his glasses up on his nose as he stared avidly at Beatrice.

“Hey, Holofernes,” said Ben loudly, forcing the TA to look around at him. “This is-”

“Beatrice,” Beatrice cut in, smiling up at him. “Nice to meet you, uh-”

“Henry!” said Henry, shaking Beatrice’s proffered hand. “Henry Holofernes. Benedick here is in one of the Literature courses I’m doing this semester. I’m a teaching assistant. Well, a future professor, that’s the dream,” he laughed, and settled onto the only open space left: the arm of the couch.

“Wow, that’s great. Do you know what kind of literature you’d like to teach?” Beatrice asked. Ben rolled his eyes.

It was a miracle that Mr. ‘Future Professor’ managed not to fall off the narrow armrest space. In order to keep himself balanced, Holofernes had to rest one hand along the back of the couch, so his arm was, effectively, around Beatrice. He beamed down at her and launched into a detailed explanation of his projected career path. Ben glared.

Beatrice didn’t seem to notice how close Holofernes was sitting. She was laughing and her fingers kept brushing against his arm, and Holofernes was leaning closer as he described the way one student had summed up a certain classic book as ‘Terrible People Doing Terrible Things: The Novel’.

Like that joke was even funny. It only applied to almost every single book on the class syllabus. The TA ought to get some new material already.

Then the conversation, because it involved Beatrice and literature, naturally turned to sci-fi. Before long she and Holofernes were talking about Brave New World as though they’d been members of the same book club for years.

“Oh, I remember that one,” Ben cut in. “Wasn’t that the one where everyone was happy but also completely brainless and annoying?”

“There’s so much more to it than that, though,” Beatrice said enthusiastically, and Holofernes nodded.

“You might give it a reread, Benedick,” he suggested. “It might stick with you more the second time.”

“Henry’s right, you know,” Beatrice agreed. “Rereading gives you all kinds of new insights. The first time I reread Frankenstein…”

And Ben was forgotten again, just like that. “You might give it a reread,” he mimicked, making a face. “Henry’s right, you know. Whatever.”

Just because he didn’t remember every detail of a book he hadn’t read since year twelve of high school! What did Holofernes know anyway?

“Okay, well I think I’m just going to go see if Pedro needs help in the kitchen,” Ben announced, trying to break up the conversation. Henry and Bea ignored him.

“I’m going to steal a flamingo and keep it as a pet,” he tried. Still nothing.

“Did I ever tell you that I don’t like Frankenstein? Not even a little bit?”

Beatrice didn’t even flinch.

“I hate English Lit,” Ben said miserably, his words still falling on inattentive ears, and got up and stormed away.

When he looked back, Beatrice was still laughing at something Holofernes had said, and the taller, handsomer, smarter-than-Ben TA still had his arm around her. Perfect.

                                                         ***

The party was still going on, but between missing Beatrice, watching that jerk Holofernes chat her up, and dodging whatever drama was going on between Costa, Jaquie, and Adrian, Ben was just tired of the whole thing. The mature thing to do would be to sit out there and try to have a good time, even though he was in a shitty mood.

So of course, he went and hid in his room to sulk instead.

What was so great about Henry Holofernes, anyway? Sure, he was taller than Ben, a little older, with brown eyes and dark hair and the beginnings of a beard that should have made him look scruffy and unkempt but somehow just made him look more mature and rakishly handsome.

Big deal, whatever. Beatrice didn’t even like bearded guys, and besides, Holofernes was pretentious and annoying and had bad eyesight, so there. And he didn’t have a popular YouTube channel or an amazing sense of humor or a British accent, right? That was something!

It didn’t matter. All that mattered was that right now, Beatrice was out there having a wonderful time, not missing him, and Ben didn’t even know why he was surprised. This was his own fault; he was the one who had sworn off dating after all. He was the one who had given up on their relationship just because of one stupid fight.

He’d not been thinking about all this for very long when there was a knock on the door.

“Ugh, Pedro, for the last time, I don’t feel like- oh. It’s you.”

“It’s me,” said Beatrice, coming in and shutting the door behind her, muffling the noise of the party so they could talk. “Are you okay? You seemed upset.”

“I’m surprised you noticed, you were so busy with Henry,” said Ben bitterly. “Because he’s soooo interesting, right? Can’t get enough!”

“Okay, first of all, asshole, I am at perfect liberty to talk to whomever I want. We both like books. Get over it.”

Benedick flushed in embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I was out of line. I just feel like I can’t remember the last time we had a real conversation like that, and I guess I was… maybe I was a little bit…”

“I can’t hear you,” Beatrice said. “What was that? You’re jealous? Aww, I’m sorry, I’d never want to come between you and Henry.”

“Fine, yeah, okay, I was jealous. I know it’s stupid and you absolutely have the right to talk to anyone you want, and I want you to get along with everyone here, I do. I’m an idiot, I can admit that.”

“Yes, you are. Thank you,” said Beatrice, sitting next to him on the bed. And then, “You know, if Holofernes was actually hitting on me, I would just have told him the truth.”

“Wait, what? The truth?”

“That I’m not interested. That there’s someone else.”

“There’s someone else?” he asked, alarmed.

“Oh, yeah,” Bea said teasingly. “He’s here at this party, actually. Bit of a loser, to be honest, but still a total babe. You know I divorced Benedict Cumberbatch for him?”

They both laughed, finally easing the tension.

“Whoever he is, he sounds like a real catch.”

“If you like dorks with flamingo obsessions, maybe,” she teased.

“Do you like dorks with flamingo obsessions?” Ben asked hopefully.

“I like you,” Beatrice said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I love you, Ben, and I’m tired of being angry and I don’t care about the breakup or the ridiculous flat rules. I hate feeling like I can’t talk to you anymore. It sucks.”

There were a million things he wanted to say. Bea was here and she still loved him and he couldn’t even think, he was so relieved. 

“I love you too. And I’m so sorry, love. About everything. I tried to talk Freddie out of the dating rule, but he insisted, and then I was so mad at you and at myself and it was easier to just agree to get him to shut up, and then you came back and I didn’t know…”

"I’m sorry too. Can we just start over? Just, pretend this never happened and move on?"

He grinned. “Pretend what never happened?”

"Exactly," Beatrice laughed, leaning in and kissing him. 

There would be time later to work it all out, to talk about the breakup and decide to give this another chance, to figure out what to do about the flat rules. 

For now, though, as he kissed her back, everything was forgotten.

Chapter Text

Another weekend, another party. It seemed to Ursula as though her friends and classmates were clinging closer together than they’d ever really been before, pretending that things weren’t really winding down for them at Messina High. They were realizing that high school was almost over, that they were about to be separated by distance and time, in most cases forever. So of course they were all over at Pedro’s once again, making the most of the time they still had.

Ursula herself still had another year to go before she graduated, as did Hero and John, and of course Dogberry and Verges had only just started their high school careers. She wondered if their next three years would be anywhere near as eventful as this year had been. Maybe they’d get some peace and quiet for a change.

Peace and quiet. That’s what Ursula wanted right now.

She felt a sort of obligation to come to these things, especially knowing her time with her Year Thirteen friends was short. Next year, they would be gone, and she would wish she had spent more time with them when they were here, before they had the chance to drift apart.

But at the moment, surrounded by sticky, slightly drunk teenagers who were still managing to make quite a lot of noise- well, Ursula was feeling a little overwhelmed. She’d been dancing with Hero for a little while, but then Hero had disappeared into the crowd, apparently in search of Beatrice (although Ursula had also spotted Claudio coming into the room right before Hero ducked out, funnily enough).
A few weeks ago she’d have been able to grab Balthazar to pull outside with her, get a bit of fresh air. These days, though, he was still a little preoccupied with Pedro. The last she saw of him, pink-cheeked and smiling brightly, he’d been tripping after Pedro towards the other side of the house, ukulele still dangling from one hand. She’d waved, amused. Called it. Knew it all along.

So Ursula was alone as she pushed open the door and stepped out onto the Donaldsons’ back porch. Stepping to the railing, she let the door close behind her and looked out into the night, taking a breath of cool air and enjoying the quiet as the sound of the party was muffled by the walls.

At that moment, she saw a dark shape out of the corner of her eye, moving to stand next to her.

“Hey,” said Meg, leaning against the railing too, face half in shadow, eyes bright. Ursula could picture her appearance as a scene in a film, the first glimpse of a new character, mysterious to the viewer who didn’t know her yet.

“Hey, I thought you were inside somewhere,” Ursula said in surprise. She knew Meg was still adjusting after everything that happened, and things were still tense in the group. She’d probably wanted a break from the others too, but Ursula wouldn’t have expected to see her out here.

“Parties are lame,” the shadow that was Meg shrugged. “Figured I would hang out here awhile instead. How about you? No one to dance with?”

“Hero ditched me. Balthazar ditched me. All my friends are leaving me!” she said with a grin and an exaggerated sigh. “Whatever will I do without you?”

“I, for one, can’t wait to get out of here,” said Meg. “If I have to hear Surf-Lifesaving Tony tell one more lifeguarding story, I swear to God-”

“The beauty of high school. Same stories, over and over again. I could film this party and get exactly the same stuff that happened at the last one, you know?”

“Don’t say that! You’ll jinx it, and I don’t think Messina can handle another party scandal this late in the year,” Meg pointed out, taking a sip of her drink. “There’s not even anyone cute to flirt with at these things anymore. Let’s go.”

“Go?”

“Go. There’s a whole wide world outside of Messina, Ursula! Discover it!” Meg laughed, swaying a bit as she ran out into the yard.

Ursula followed her out to the ancient swing set that still took up residence there. It didn’t look very safe, in fact she was surprised the Donaldsons had never gotten rid of it. It wasn’t the world, but the swings still worked, and they did get a spectacular view of a completely clouded, starless night sky. Oh well.

“We should restore these swings to their former glory! You could make a documentary about it, or something!”

“I, uh, don’t really do those anymore.”

“That sucks. Your videos are awesome, you shouldn’t stop.”

“I’m not. I’m just not filming my own life anymore. It’s better that way.” Ursula scuffed the ground under the toe of her shoe, swinging slowly.

“But don’t you ever want to be the center of attention? The star?” Meg spread her arms as if to indicate the sky, which was still entirely dark.

“That’s what I have you for,” Ursula teased. “Didn’t you say you wanted to be the star of the vlogs?”

“Aww, babe! You should make a documentary about me, then. To remember me by!”

“You’re graduating, not dying,” Ursula pointed out.

“To remember me by, when I’m all far away and famous, you know!” Meg continued excitedly.

“Okay, okay. Keep swinging.”

“You’re no fun.”

“Who else do you see risking her life on this rusty old thing?”

“The Queen, of course!”

They both laughed, twisting their swings around and around until the ropes were all tangled up. Meg let go of hers first, twirling out in a dizzy circle until the swing was facing its normal direction again, just barely avoiding kicking Ursula a couple of times as her feet flew by. “Your turn!”

She hadn’t done this since she was a kid. Ursula took a breath and let go of the ropes and was lost in a whirlwind of cool night air. Her vision blurred, the house and the yard and Meg running together in a mess of colors and shapes, and her head was spinning so she couldn’t keep from laughing again, calling out in a wordless exclamation of delight as, for a moment, the world danced around her, Ursula at its center, watching it all go by.

Chapter Text

It’s more than a little disconcerting, seeing snow on the ground. In December. In New Zealand. Inside the house.

The fake snow was the aunties’ present to Hero this year, made by mixing water with this weird white powder stuff until it crystallized and turned cold, just like real snow is supposed to feel. They’d had Leo hunt it up online and help them spread it all around their house as a surprise. They’d have put it outside on the lawn for the full effect, but they were afraid the summer heat would just melt it. Besides, Beatrice had pointed out, it would look ridiculous if theirs was the only house in town with snow on the ground, while everyone else had green grass and blooming flowers in their gardens.

Now, Beatrice steps over a small mound of the stuff to cross from the living room to the kitchen, to check on the cookies. She and Hero are planning on decorating sugar cookies tonight, in front of a marathon of old Christmas movies- a holiday ritual. Most of the movies are solidly set in the Northern hemisphere and are therefore blanketed with snow. It’ll be weird to watch them and feel like they’re really in the middle of the storm.

Anyway, she’s just taking the cookies out of the oven, savoring the silence of the empty house, when the doorbell rings.

She can hear the singing before she even reaches the door. Looking through the tiny window at the top of the door, she can see three faces, three guys she doesn’t quite recognize. The glass is frosted; it’s hard to make out features. They’re currently absolutely butcheringDeck the Halls.

“Not interested!” Beatrice shouts, and the singers falter for a moment. She smiles in satisfaction- until they start back up again with Jingle Bells. Honestly? Who even goes Christmas caroling in real life? She’s almost positive people only ever do that in movies.

And anyway, she’s not about to share her cookies with a chorus as annoying as those kids.

Beatrice returns to the kitchen and begins carefully sliding sugar cookies from cookie sheet to spatula to paper-towel-covered plate. She’s usually more excited to come to Hero’s for Christmas every year, but the last few years, it’s like there’s been a pall over all of Auckland, for her, a shadow of how terrible her fourteenth summer had been. But she’s seventeen now, and she’s past all that, and there is no reason not to be happy right now. Even when she drops a cookie and it breaks in half- at least that means she gets to sample one before decorating time.

She’s savoring the buttery sweetness of Hero’s perfect sugar cookie recipe, finally feeling almost Christmas-y again, and then-

The doorbell goes off again, this time twice in quick succession, and she can already hear another warbling voice. “Hark, the herald angels sing, gloooory to the newborn King!”

Totally off-key. Beatrice groans and opens the door. “I said, we’re not interested. Go away!”

“Sorry, can’t,” says the guy standing on her porch, apologetically. “I never back down from a dare.” And he launches back into the song, the part without words this time, just “Oooh ooo ooooh, oo oo oo ooooohh….”

It’s a basic self-preservation instinct, really. Beatrice is being accosted by some random guy in a Christmas sweater, with a voice like a dying flamingo- so it’s only natural that she picks up a handful of fake snow from the table by the door, and throws it directly into his face.

“Ahh! What the hell?” He coughs, steps back, almost tripping down the stairs. His hands spring up to cover his face as he brushes the cold wet stuff away from his eyes. There’s a whole bunch of it sticking to the top of his messy, thick dark hair. Beatrice cracks up laughing at the sight.

“Is this snow?” The guy asks, and she realizes suddenly that his accent is different, English, maybe… oh, no. Oh, God, no way. “Where on Earth did you get snow?”

“Christmas magic,” she says hastily, moving to close the door on the last person she ever wanted to see again- but he rests a hand on the doorframe, and she doesn’t fancy getting sued for breaking his fingers. Even if the dickface does deserve to suffer for what he’s put her through.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he says, shaking his head so a bit of the white powder flies off. Most of it sticks, though, and the heat is starting to melt it into his hair. “Tell me more about this Christmas magic.”

He says it so flirtatiously that she leans down and picks up another clod of snow, just in case. He brings his other hand away from his face, to hold it up in surrender, and when their eyes meet, she forgets the biting insult she was about to fire off.

She’s done her best to avoid him, has barely seen him once in the past four years. Apparently, those years have been kind to him. His face is the same, just less round, a little more defined. There is a tall, lanky, smirking blue-eyed boy on her porch, and he happens to be her arch-enemy now, which is why it’s so infuriating that- she pushes the thought away as soon as it occurs to her, wrinkling her nose- he kind of got hot.

No. No, no, no, not even. He’s wearing a Christmas sweater covered in a pattern of alternating snowflakes and TARDIS-es, and his hair is still covered in slowly melting fake snow, and he’s completely and totally evil. She has to remember that. She hates him for a reason, after all, and she’s not stopping now. No matter what.

“Get off my porch, Benedick,” she snaps, ignoring his friends down on the street, going “oooohhhh!” like a couple of overexcited kids watching a friend get in trouble.

“So you do remember me,” he says, dripping satisfaction. “How are you, Beatrice?”

She raises the second snowball. “Do you really want to know the answer to that?”

“Look, I didn’t mean to disturb you, okay? It was Pedro’s idea, it was supposed to be a joke. We didn’t even know you were here. Can’t we just-”

“Hey, Ben,” shouts one of the boys in the street. “Don’t look up!”

So of course, both Ben and Bea immediately do look up- and see, directly above them, the sprig of plastic mistletoe that Hero likes to hang in a different spot every Christmas, just for fun. And for sadistic torture, apparently, thinks Beatrice, fighting the heat of a blush spreading across her stricken face.

“Absolutely not,” she snaps, and without hesitation, she beans him with the rest of the fake snow in her hand, knocking him back just enough that he lets go of the doorframe and she can slam the door in his face. That awful, smug, flirting face. 

She’s going to hate Benedick Hobbes forever. She’s never going to forgive him, let him win. Not in this lifetime.

Peace on Earth? Yeah, right. 

Chapter Text

Hero hums to herself as she strings up the fairy lights, positioning them carefully atop the tiny nails her Mum hammered into the rafters of the porch years ago, so they could line the porch roof with lights at the holidays.

Usually, Mum puts up the lights, while Mumma frets and holds the ladder so she won’t fall. This year, though, they’re both with Leo at the hospital. He fell while instructing some of his football players on their place-kicking, and he’s been feeling out of sorts, lately. Hero is sure it’s nothing. It’s fine, just a routine checkup today. She takes a deep breath and tries to put the whole thing out of mind- there’s no use worrying now.

Lately, it feels like worrying is all she ever does. She’s worried about her grades, and what she’s going to be doing next year, and whether she’ll get into any of the universities she’s considering. She’s worried about all her friends in Wellington, Beatrice especially; after the latest video, all she’s wanted to do is to enfold her cousin in a warm hug. She had to settle for a tearful Skype call instead, but she hasn’t heard much from anyone else. Anyway, Hero is worried, and out of all these worries, the most pressing is Leo- but there’s nothing she can do about that. She can’t dwell, not when they don’t even know if there’s anything to worry about, yet.

That’s why she’s up on this ladder. It’s not even a week into December yet, but Hero thinks a little holiday cheer will do everyone good, so she’s decorating the house as a surprise for when her family gets home. There are also cookies in the oven, set on a loud enough timer that she should be able to hear it even if it goes off while she’s still outside. A small old radio sits in the windowsill, playing instrumental Christmas music- the Nutcracker Suite. She’s even found a candy-cane striped scrunchie and tied back her long blonde hair, and the circle skirt she’s wearing is red with white trim.

Hero Duke is going to find some festive cheer in this glum situation, if it kills her. And then she’s going right back to studying for her upcoming end of term exams.

Finally, her mind is clear, and the only things she’s focused on are the lights, and the Nutcracker Suite. She’s humming along to the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, wishing she was on the ground so that she could twirl around to the music. Tchaikovsky just begs for twirling.

“Hello, Hero,” says a soft voice, and suddenly she sees a dark figure out of the corner of her eye. Startled, she drops the strand of lights with a shriek. “Oh! John, it’s you,” she gasps, recognizing the boy’s slight frame and wild hair.

“My apologies if I scared you,” he says simply. “Apparently, this mixing bowl belongs to your mothers, and Ann wondered if I wouldn’t mind dropping it by. I didn’t.” John sets a blue spun-glass bowl on the ground next to the box of extra fairy lights.

“Oh, that was awfully sweet of you, thank you,” Hero says, grasping at the fallen strand of lights, which is hanging on a nail just out of her reach. “Would you like to come- ahhh!”

Overstepping her balance, Hero starts to panic as she feels herself falling. She crashes off the ladder, but suddenly, instead of the hard wooden floor of the porch, she lands on something warm, soft and hard at the same time- the chest of John Donaldson. He tries to catch her, on instinct, but she’s too heavy, and they tumble to the ground.

“Oof,” John groans, sprawled on the ground, Hero draped over him, mortified.

“Oh my God, John, are you okay?” She quickly hauls herself off of him, moving away to give him space, wincing where she banged her elbow hard on the floorboards.

John sighs, picking his lanky body off the ground and using the handrail on the porch to haul himself to his feet. Holding out a hand to Hero, who has been kneeling nearby, he helps her up as well. When she looks up at him, he’s blushing. She’s just practically crushed him, and he’s the one who’s embarrassed. It’s cute, in a strange sort of way.

“I’m so sorry, I can’t believe I just did that,” she says.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m fine. Are you okay?” he asks, looking up at the fairy lights still dangling in the doorway. “Maybe you should move the ladder for the next bit.”

“That’s- probably a good idea, actually,” Hero nods, sizing up the ladder and the lights herself. “Hey, I can take care of all this later. Would you like to come in? I haven’t seen you in a while. We can catch up.”

“That sounds nice,” says John, picking up the mixing bowl again and following her into the house, where they spend the afternoon just talking. It’s nice, the awkwardness of the ladder mishap vanishing into the hum of easy conversation. He even helps her with the decorating, but first-

“Tea and cookies?” Hero asks. “It’ll be a minute.”

“Your speciality,” says John. “Perfect.”

The smile that he shoots her then is genuine. John is still guarded, quiet, but when he smiles at Hero, it’s like his whole being lights up, and despite all the grey and black he still likes to wear, he looks for all the world almost… angelic. Quite a change, from last year. He’s worked hard to be happier than he was last year, healthier. She’s so glad for him.

Hero just can’t help but smile back, and although she doesn’t know it, John is thinking that somehow she glows, when she smiles, almost brighter than the fairy lights.

Chapter Text

Their group of friends’ annual holiday party is at Hero and Ursula’s new flat this year.

Which, for Bea and Ben, means a very long car ride with a very fussy eighteen-month-old baby, and tempers running high. Between sniping at each other and trying to keep Olivia calm, they’re both in foul moods. By the time they actually get there, neither of them is entirely sure what they’re even angry about anymore. All Beatrice knows is that Ben is definitely wrong, and that this is one of those days where absolutely everything he does is incredibly annoying to her. Apparently, the feeling is mutual.

Thankfully, once they arrive, Hero swoops down upon the bleary-eyed Olivia almost instantly, giving her parents a bit of a break. “I hope the drive wasn’t too awful,” she says apologetically, adjusting the little red bow in the baby’s thin dark hair and kissing her forehead before looking back up at Beatrice, who just sighs exasperatedly.

“I’m just glad we’re here now. Some people are being absolutely insufferable today.”

“Yeah,” puts in Ben, equal parts irritated and amused, as he takes their offerings of an appetizer and a housewarming bottle of wine through to the kitchen. “Some people are.”

“I am not the one who actually likes Baby It’s Cold Outside, okay?” she snaps, following him.

“Look, I never said I liked it. All I said was, I’ve heard other interpretations. I was playing devil’s advocate!” He argues back as he hugs Ursula hello.

“I don’t want to know,” Ursula laughs, moving to greet Beatrice with a smile.

“You have an amazing place here,” Beatrice says, looking around. “Thank you for hosting. Don’t let Dickface spoil the fun with his terrible taste in Christmas songs.”

“I never said-” Ben starts again, then thinks better of it. “Oh, who cares? You’re right, we shouldn’t be arguing, it’s a party! I’m not going to let you provoke me anymore.”

“You started it- Oh, come on, seriously? Mistletoe? That’s the best you can do?” Beatrice says disgustedly, noticing the sprig of white berries and green leaves overhead. They’ve stumbled into the doorway to the living room, somehow, and ended up right underneath it. She’s pretty sure she just heard Peter whistle at them from the next room, and makes a mental note to glare at him when she goes in there. “I am not going to change my mind because of a ridiculous supersition.”

“I didn’t do anything! The fact that we both happen to be underneath this mistletoe right now is a complete coincidence, I promise,” Ben insists.

“Well, either way, I’m definitely not going to kiss you. Hero! How could you allow me to get stuck under the mistletoe with this asshole?” Beatrice appeals to her cousin, but Hero just laughs, exchanging a knowing look with her girlfriend and putting a very squirmy Olivia down so she can try to walk around a little.

“By ‘this asshole’, I assume you mean your loving, supportive, totally babein’ husband? Father of your child? Love of your life, who is very, very sorry for getting us lost on the way here?” says Ben, stepping even closer to Beatrice.

“Talk yourself up all you want. I suppose I forgive you… but I’m still not kissing you,” laughs Beatrice. Suddenly, she’s kind of enjoying this, teasing him as he’s smiling down at her, pushing a loose strand of blonde hair behind her ear and letting his hand linger, gentle against her cheek. She and Ben haven’t had much time or inclination for romance, not for a while, and though earlier she was willing to hold onto her sour mood for as long as possible, she can’t deny that being so close to him can still set her head spinning, on occasion. Her hand comes up to rest against his chest, intent on putting him off, but their lips are just millimeters apart now, and it is holiday tradition… And then she notices the mischievous glint in his blue eyes.

“Who said I was going to kiss you?” Ben asks, raising an eyebrow, leaning away from his wife at the last second.

“Of course you were going to kiss me, dickface,” Beatrice rolls her eyes. “Come here.”

“Ohhh, no. No way. I apologized, love. Now, it’s your turn.” He winks, tripping backwards a few steps until she’s standing under the mistletoe alone. Beatrice licks her lips, trying not to let it show that she’s more than a little disappointed. She glares at her husband, resuming her anger. He’s still smiling. Of course.

My  turn? Today was completely your fault, and you know it. I have nothing to be sorry for,” she declares haughtily, crossing her arms in defiance.

“You just keep telling yourself that, Bea,” he says, and turns away to head out into the living room, where all their friends are waiting.

           It isn’t until nearer the end of the night, softened by good company and a little of the eggnog Peter and Balthazar brought with them, that Beatrice considers letting go of her pride. She’s gotten the grand tour of Hero’s new place, gotten to catch up with all their friends- it’s been a wonderful party, such a relief to do something simple and fun. And Olivia’s been blessedly calm all night.  Right now, Meg is bouncing the tiny girl on her knee, and Olivia is giggling happily. Beatrice smiles at the two of them and returns to her conversation with Freddie, which is starting to taper off, as conversations do. Bea realizes she’s thirsty, and offers to get Freddie something, but the other woman declines, holding up a half-full glass, so Beatrice wanders off to the kitchen in search of a glass of water by herself. It’s only on her way back out to the main party that she bumps into a familiar figure in the doorway. 


“Oh, there you are,” says Bea, smirking up at him. “Perfect timing. I never got my mistletoe kiss.”

“I had no idea you were expecting one,” Ben teases.

“Look, I’m sorry if I was mean earlier, but I just can’t find it in me to apologize for hating Baby It’s Cold Outside. It’s not happening, you’re just going to have to deal with it. It’s not even actually cold outside!”

“I have to admit,” says Ben seriously, meeting her eyes. “I honestly don’t care about Baby It’s Cold Outside. I was just messing with you.”

Beatrice groans, but it turns into a laugh. “Could you not have saved the pointless bickering for when we weren’t already miserable and lost and overtired?”

“Beatrice. We have a kid. We’re always overtired.”

“I know. I’m sorry,” she sighs. “Today was just as much my fault as yours, and I really am sorry.”

“I’m sorry too. Truce?”

Beatrice nods, then leans forward until she’s resting her head on her husband’s shoulder, and allows her eyes to drift closed for a moment. She feels his arms come up to wrap around her, and she draws back a touch to open her eyes and look at him.

“Hi,” she says softly.

“Hey,” he responds, as she snakes her arms around his neck and rocks up onto her tiptoes, her eyes finding the small green parasite hanging overhead.

“Oh, look,” she breathes. “Mistletoe.”

He kisses her then, soft and sweet and so worth the wait. She presses closer, deepening the kiss, and as he enthusiastically responds, everything else- the party, their argument, the whole awful day- just falls away. Beatrice doesn’t notice anything apart from her husband’s arms around her and his mouth against her own, until finally, she pulls away, remembering herself, and suddenly distracted by a tugging on her leg. She and Ben, still a little dazed, laughing, both look down to see Olivia sitting on the floor, looking curiously up at them.

“Hi, baby,” Beatrice says fondly, as Ben leans down to scoop Olivia up into his arms. Olivia, blue eyes bright,  reaches for the mistletoe, her arms too short to grasp it.

“No, no, you don’t want that, love,” says Ben to the baby, kissing her on the cheek. “It’s poisonous.”

“It has its uses,” Beatrice points out, pressing a kiss to her daughter’s other cheek and taking her little hands to keep her from grabbing at the decoration.

Ben laughs at that. “Yeah, I guess it does.”

Chapter Text

***

 

Sharing a bed with your significant other, Ben has learned, is not beautiful and serene and romantic like it is in movies. 

 

Most mornings, he either wakes up freezing cold, Beatrice having stolen all the covers, or he’s more than a little uncomfortable and overwarm where various limbs of hers are pressed up against him. Sharing space with another person so intimately isn’t always easy.

Today, Ben slips back into consciousness to find that Bea’s elbow is somehow poking him in the ribs, and one of her legs drapes over his as she sleeps on her side. The sun is shining through their window, the clock reading 9:00 am. It’s a Saturday, so they can afford to sleep in a little. Unfortunately, Ben kind of hates sleeping in.

Well, okay, the sleeping part is nice. Even waking up next to Beatrice is amazing- it’s been about a year since he almost lost her because of those ridiculous rules, and Ben is still grateful for every single day that he gets to spend loving Bea, every morning that she’s the first thing he sets eyes on. He’d just, you know, also love it if she was a heavier sleeper.

Beatrice Duke is not a morning person. Ben hasn’t missed that fact in their two years together, and now that they share a flat, it’s all he can do not to accidentally wake her up or piss her off somehow before she’s had her breakfast and plenty of caffeine. Early-morning Bea tends to be grumpy, especially when you wake her before her alarm goes off. His best bet right now is to remain perfectly still to avoid jostling her awake. But Ben can’t help it- Bea’s elbow is killing him, and also he needs to go to the bathroom.

 

Ben very gently and quietly eases Beatrice off of himself, doing his best not to wake her. Rolling out of bed, he starts to tiptoe across the wooden floor of their bedroom- and winces, as the floorboards let out what sounds like an absolutely deafening creak under his feet. Not bothering to look over his shoulder to see if his girlfriend has woken up, Ben makes a run for it, bolting for the bathroom down the hall.

 

When he gets back a few minutes later, he nervously slips into the room to find a bleary-eyed Beatrice glaring at him. Curled up on the mattress, her messy bedhead hair spread across her pillow, her blue eyes half-closed against the sunlight, she’s actually kind of adorable. Ben can’t help the little smile that turns up the corner of his mouth at the sight of her.

 

“Good morning, love! It’s a beautiful day,” he says happily, gesturing to the sunny morning outside.

“Dickface. You woke me up early,” Bea mumbles, running a hand across her eyes, rubbing away the crust of sleep gathered there. “I hate that. And I don’t like waking up alone anymore. Too lonely.”

“I’m sorry, Bea,” he says. “I tried not to-”

“C’mere,” Beatrice pats the empty side of the bed that Ben just vacated a few minutes ago. He crawls back in next to her, still smiling.

 

“You’re not going to hit me with your pillow again, are you?” Ben asks teasingly, leaving an exaggerated amount of space between them on the bed, just in case.

“That was one time,” Beatrice protests, reaching for him. “I apologized. And it was only because I was overtired from staying up late talking to Hero on the phone.”

“I’m kidding,” Ben admits. “I like waking up next to you, too. Makes it easier to do this.”

 

He leans in, cupping her cheek in his hand as he brings his lips to hers and she happily responds, in a soft, slow, lazy sort of kiss. When he pulls away, he wrinkles his nose.

 

“You taste like toothpaste,” Beatrice hums. “Minty.”

You taste like morning breath!” Ben sticks out his tongue in disgust.

“Oh, shut up, you. I’m only human.”

“You’re a human who really needs to brush her teeth, love. I say this because I care.”

“You say it,” Beatrice challenges, cuddling up close and resting her head comfortably on his shoulder, “because you just want to kiss me some more, without it tasting bad.”

“And what if I do?” He presses a kiss to the top of her head to punctuate the question.

Beatrice drapes an arm across his chest, and the warmth of her body lulls him to distraction as she returns the favor with another quick peck on his cheek.

“You don’t hear me complaining,” Bea says lazily, enjoying the cuddles. “Mmm.”

 

“I still can’t believe we actually have our own place,” Ben admits softly, leaning his head against hers, savoring the feeling of Beatrice in his arms. After last year, he knows too well that this is something to treasure. “…Bea?”

She’s already asleep again, her breath warm and slow against his neck.

 

Ben settles in, figuring he’ll give Bea at least a few more minutes before he tickles her awake and they head, laughing, out to their kitchen to make a late breakfast together.

Their kitchen. Their flat. Theirs. Team B, together.

Yeah, okay. Forget morning breath and pillow fights. Ben could get used to this.

 

***

Chapter Text

Beatrice arrives home from work late, exhausted to the bone. It’s a Friday night, so at least it’s finally the weekend. She has no obligations, no plans. She’s been feeling off all day and she just wants to lie down. But there’s a surprise waiting for her when she crosses through the kitchen.

“Beatrice! The woman of the hour!” Benedick, beaming, looks up from the stove, where several different things appear to be cooking. “How was your day, love?”

Bea narrows her eyes at him, dropping into a seat at their little grey dinner table, which has been decorated with a blue patterned tablecloth and two place settings. There are even candles lit for a centerpiece. Something’s up.

It’s almost like Ben already knows- but he couldn’t. It’s literally impossible for him to know. Bea herself only found out yesterday, and she hasn’t figured out how to tell him- no, it has to be something else.

“What is this? Why are you being weird?” she asks. Normally, she would be elated to find Benedick waiting for her with dinner on the table after a long day at the office, but today just the idea of eating is almost enough to send her running to the bathroom.

“I’m not being weird!” Ben protests. “What, I’m not allowed to be proud of my badass lawyer wife?”

“Your overworked law clerk wife, you mean?” Bea shoots back, but she can’t help smiling. Ben’s enthusiasm has always been infectious that way.

“Exactly. I figured you’d be too tired to go out, but we have so much to celebrate, I wanted to do something special for you. So I’m making dinner, and we can crack open that new bottle of wine from Peter and Costa, and just enjoy a night in, in our new place. Sound good?” Ben asks hopefully.

Beatrice would still prefer to sleep, but she can’t stand the thought of the disappointed look on Ben’s face if she were to turn down his surprise, and this is awfully sweet of him. She sighs and nods, yes. It can’t hurt to humor him, and anyway, he’s so cute when he’s excited.

He won’t let her help with the cooking at all, so Bea spends the next half-hour fondly watching her husband as he happily bustles around their kitchen, telling her all about his day at the high school where he’s finishing up his student-teaching hours. Just hearing Ben’s voice is soothing enough that some of Bea’s worry and exhaustion seems to fade, and she’s calm, at least for a little while.

               “All right,” Ben says, when he’s served them both plates of eggplant parmesan and poured the red wine their friends had brought to the housewarming party for this flat. “Before we get started, there’s something I’d like to say.”

“Okay…” Bea says, bemused. Ben’s acting like he’s preparing to address a crowd, even though it’s only the two of them, alone in their little kitchen.

“Beatrice, we’ve been through so much together. Two years of vlogging and matchmaking shenanigans with our friends, an amazing adventure traveling the world together, and then seven more years living and loving and laughing together after that- and we’ve never stopped arguing. You’re a natural at it, and even though we still can’t agree on the Great Flamingo Debate, all that arguing is finally paying off for you. Now, you get to take your skills into court, and argue for justice instead of just to annoy me, and I am so proud of you, love. I’m looking at the newest certified practicing attorney admitted to the High Court of New Zealand, and I’m not even a little bit surprised that you went out and made your dream happen. A toast to Beatrice Duke, Attorney at Law!” Ben exclaims, raising his wine glass high.

Laughing, Beatrice picks hers up as well, clinking it against his. “Thank you, thank you!”

She pretends to take a bow. Then, remembering herself, she quickly puts her glass down, unsipped. And she was really looking forward to opening that bottle, too, damn it.

Ben looks confused, now. “You’re not going to drink to your own officially-a-lawyer toast? I know it was a little cheesy, but it seemed like a good idea at the time-”

“It was a wonderful idea- ohh,” Beatrice groans as another wave of exhaustion hits her, and she sinks back into her chair. Ben doesn’t miss her discomfort this time. In a moment, he’s out of his chair and hovering by her side, worried.

“Bea, are you-”

She reaches up and takes his hand, bracing herself to say the words. Everything’s going to be different now.

“I’m pregnant.”

Ben goes perfectly still and silent, his hand still gripping hers, his face expressionless.

“Ben?” Beatrice shakes his hand a little, hoping to snap him out of it. “Look, I’m scared too, and I know we didn’t plan this, but I’ve been freaking out since yesterday and I really need you to just-”

“Oh my God,” Ben breathes, and, incredibly, suddenly, he’s smiling. “Oh my God, are you serious? I- wow.”

“I know,” Bea says shakily, smiling back. “I’m kind of in shock too. But you’re happy about this? Because I… we have a lot to figure out, and this timing is shit, and I really don’t want to stop working just when I’m finally certified, but… yes, I’m terrified, but I think I might be happy about this, too.”

“Of course I’m happy, love,” Ben exclaims, leaning down to kiss her, gently touching her still-flat stomach in amazement. “I’m ecstatic, I’m going to be a father! I- wow.”

“You already said that,” Bea teases. Suddenly, Ben’s eyes snap back up to hers, and they’re alight with happiness, but also slight annoyance.

“Way to beat out my surprise, Bea,” he teases. “How is dinner supposed to compete with this?”

“It’s not like I did this on purpose!” she says. “In fact, this is at least half your fault, you know.”

“Oh, I know. This explains everything, I knew something was wrong when you didn’t tease me more for that toast. If you weren’t distracted, you’d have been merciless.”

“I would not!” Bea protests. “I thought your toast was very sweet. And you should be nicer to me, since I’m literally carrying your child.”

“Oh my God, that’s so weird,” Ben says. “I need to lie down and process this. This is surreal.”

You need to lie down? Try being me,” Bea says, rolling her eyes, but she follows him to their bedroom.

Cuddling and talking and processing major terrifying life changes first. They can reheat dinner later.

Chapter Text

Peter sighs in frustration, staring up to the ceiling and away from his laptop. His final portfolio for his Advanced Poetry Writing class is still only half-finished, and it’s due in two days. Having such strict deadlines is tough for him; he’s a slow writer and a perfectionist, a deadly combination. He can’t turn in shitty drafts for a final project, he’s a better poet than that.

Costa’s no help, either. His revision strategy is to loudly perform the problem scenes from his latest play ad nauseum, until he figures out what about the plot isn’t making sense. It seems to work for Costa- but it’s extremely distracting for anyone else who happens to be in his vicinity.

“Babe,” Peter sighs as his boyfriend leaps across the living room like a… fairy? Water spirit? Something like that. Costa’s a fan of fantasy. Peter can take it or leave it, to be honest. “Is there any way you could— I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but— tone it down a bit?”

“It’s just that I have to figure out this character’s motivations, Peter! Is he trying to win back his immortal soul? Does he have a family to support? Does he even subscribe to human concepts of gender roles? No, definitely not- but why is Ariel working for Prospero? What’s his backstory? I need to know!” Costa exclaims, twirling and miming his ideas for the water spirit’s blocking onstage.

“Shouldn’t you focus on getting the shipwrecked nobles off the deserted island, first?” Peter points out.

“The deserted island is what’s so genius about the piece! I’m thinking we should perform it on the actual beach, for authenticity’s sake, what do you think?”

“No one will be able to hear anything over the sound of the ocean, genius,” says a familiar and exasperated voice, and Peter hears the door opening behind him. He sets his laptop on the coffee table and turns around to grin and wave hello to his and Costa’s girlfriend and third flatmate, who is peeling off her raincoat and tossing her bag to the floor haphazardly.

“Jaquie!” Costa cries happily. “We’ve missed you! How was your audition?”

Jaquie makes a face, tromping over to the couch and falling into the spot next to Peter. “Can we just… not talk about it?”

“Ah, no! You didn’t get it?” Peter asks, slipping a comforting arm around her. “Those casting directors don’t know what they’re missing.”

“Then why can I only get parts in Costa’s shows? No offense,” she clarifies, as Costa looks scandalized.

“I simply appreciate your dazzling theatrical talent, darling,” he says, holding out a hand. “Want to run lines with me? Would that make you feel better?”

“Sure, whatever,” Jaquie says, but it’s Peter who grabs Costa’s hand, pulling him onto the couch on top of them both.

“I have a better idea,” Peter takes charge, kissing first Costa’s stubbly cheek, then Jaquie’s soft, smooth one. “I’ve been working and revising all day, and so have both of you. What do you say we take a break? It’ll be fun, and that way we’ll be refreshed when we start working again. Yeah?”

“Fine,” Jaquie concedes. “I’m tired, anyway. I could use some cuddles and a cheesy sitcom or two.”

“But I was just getting to the good part of this scene,” Costa protests. “I have too many ideas, I can’t just sit here and not explore them!”

“Yes, you can,” Peter and Jaquie say in unison, each grabbing hold of one of Costa’s arms.

“Fine, but you have to help me with the readthrough, after we rest!”

“The hell we do,” Jaquie snorts.

Costa laughs and pretends to struggle as Jaquie tries to tickle him, running her fingers along his side, but quickly gives in. None of the three of them can resist a good cuddle pile.

Peter sighs, and listens to Jaquie and Costa teasing each other affectionately. Costa’s hand in his, Jaquie’s hair tickling his ear, the warmth of his partners’ bodies calming him already— he can sense their poetry, humming within him, and he longs to reach for his laptop again and write this feeling down.

Just another moment of respite, here in this warm living room, and then he’ll ace this portfolio, no problem. He has the best inspirations he could ask for.

Chapter Text

        Ben bursts out onto the back porch of the flat, a tiny little spot just outside the kitchen, with a small overhang for protection from the elements. That might come in useful— the sky has been growing darker and darker all afternoon, heavy clouds threatening rain. 

He ignores the cold and the wind that musses his hair and leaves goosebumps along his arms. He sinks down onto the porch steps, his head in his hands. Sure enough, as soon as he does so, the sky opens, the thrum of wind and rain drowned out by the irrational but persistent worries in his head.

It’s very weird for Ben, being back in Wellington. Bea thought it might be a fun jumping-off point for their trip, and at first, Ben agreed. They’d both missed their friends here, and were overdue for a visit. They’re staying with Meg and Vegan Fred, but today they’ve stopped by Ben’s old flat to visit Kit, Freddie, Peter and Balth. And clearly, he can’t handle being here at all.

         It’s been about seven months since Ben left the capital city for good, escaping all the bad memories of his first and only year at Elizabeth University. His old room in the flat is filled with Kitso’s things now. There are no posters on the walls, no signs that Ben has ever lived there before, but that doesn’t change a thing, not for him. All he sees is the place where every day he became more desperately unhappy and unthinkingly cruel—  the home of the very worst version of Benedick Hobbes. He never wants to be that person again.

But since seeing his old room, he can’t shake this insidious fear— what if he can’t help it?

        He tries his best to breathe, to distract himself by focusing on his physical surroundings, like he’s been learning in therapy. He can see the green grass and the trees down below, feel the cold grey concrete beneath him, hear the pounding of the rain. His mind is clear- except for one persistent worry, causing his heart to jump in his chest.

       “Ben?” Beatrice’s voice calls from behind him, the porch door creaking open. “Ben, are you all right?”

He feels her sit down next to him, but doesn’t look around or answer. She doesn’t press him, just raises a hand to rub his back in a comforting circular motion. It’s quiet for a moment as Ben struggles to compose himself.

“You really hate being back here, don’t you?” Beatrice says softly, comprehension dawning. “We can go back to Meg’s, if you need some space-”

“Do you ever wish that you hadn’t stayed with me?” The question comes out before Ben can stop himself. It’s one that haunts him, especially tonight.

Beatrice’s face is only partially illuminated by the porch light, but he can see her forehead wrinkle in confusion as she gives an incredulous little laugh. “I’m sorry, what?”

“Being back here… it just reminds me of all the stupid mistakes I made,” Ben sighs, scuffing the toe of his shoe against the concrete steps. There’s a frightening tickle in his nose and behind his eyes, but he shoves it down, determined not to get emotional again. “I was such a shit person when I was living here. I mean, I really hurt you. I pushed you away. You deserve better than me, you always have.”

“Don’t say that,” Beatrice says sharply. “Not ever, all right? It’s not true. You’re a good person who fucks up sometimes, but so am I. Both of us have owned up to our mistakes and apologized. It’s in the past. And fuck what I supposedly deserve. I want you. I get to decide that.”

“I just don’t ever want you to feel like I’m limiting you, or holding you back,” Ben sighs. “I mean, you could have been in America by now, if it wasn’t for-”

“If it wasn’t for Leo’s cancer,” Bea finishes. “Which is obviously not your fault. My family needed me. That’s why I chose to postpone, but my plan was always to work for a year, then travel for a year, and I haven’t changed that. Since when do I let anyone hold me back?”

She bumps her shoulder gently against his, flashing him a sidelong grin illuminated by the golden yellow porch light. He forces a laugh, but his anxious skepticism just makes it come out hollow, humorless.

“You’re still worrying, aren’t you?” Bea asks, taking his hand to stop it shaking.

“I just… I’m so scared that I’m just going to mess everything up again, Bea. Do you think we’re going to regret this? Do you really think this trip is going to end in tears? Because if you’d rather go it alone-”

“Benedick. Look at me,” Bea orders, and he forces himself to look up. Her eyes are calm, serious. She doesn’t look away for a moment, doesn’t even blink. She’s so beautiful, so strong. He could look at her forever, if he wasn’t so scared of what she’s going to say next.

        “I don’t know what’s going to happen on this trip,” Beatrice whispers. “I don’t know how we’re going to feel in a year, how the world will change us. But I know that I want to see it all with you. I’m in love with you, and I want you with me, okay? You’re not a burden, you’re not annoying me, and if you were, I would talk to you about it. Everything’s fine, I promise. I love you.”

Her words send a rush of warmth through Ben that can’t be dampened even by the cold and wet Wellington weather tonight. Beatrice reaches up to cup his face in one hand, running her thumb gently across his cheek. He leans into the touch, closing his eyes.

“I love you too,” is all Ben can manage to say. “I’m so lucky to love you.”

Beatrice kisses his cheek. “Feel better?”

“No,” he sighs. “Not just yet. But I will.”

 

***

 

Several months later…

 

       England, as Ben knows from prior experience, is nearly always rainy. He’s the one who used to live here, he really should’ve thought to bring an umbrella.

Ben and Bea are out walking, exploring the streets of London, when the sky opens up, drenching them instantly. He reaches for her hand, and they start running through the rainstorm towards the closest little café, where they can take shelter and grab a cup of proper English tea.

“This is even worse than Wellington weather, oh my god,” Beatrice gasps, clinging to Ben as they fall into a booth together, shucking off their soaking wet jackets. He laughs, feeling her shivering against him, and rubs her arms to warm her up. Her hair is sticking wetly to her forehead, and her cheeks are so pink with cold and happiness, Ben can’t resist pressing a quick kiss to one of them.

He leans his head on Beatrice’s shoulder, and she squeaks as his own damp hair drips icy rainwater down her shirt. She retaliates by squeezing out the end of her short ponytail- right into his lap. Ben yelps in surprise and proceeds to tickle her sides for revenge. The barista behind the counter raises an eyebrow at their roughhousing, but they don’t pay him any mind.

By the time their tea is ready, Ben and Bea have gotten the silliness mostly out of their systems, and are focusing on sharing their body heat, cuddling close together in their booth by the window and listening to the calming sounds of the rain.

“So,” Ben asks, sipping his tea, feeling it warming him through. “What’s the verdict so far, love? Was this trip the worst mistake of your life, or what?”

He’s kidding, but Beatrice turns to look him in the eyes, perfectly serious. “More like the best decision I’ve ever made. I’m so glad you’re here with me.”

“Me too,” he grins, leaning in close to meet her lips in a kiss that tastes of Earl Grey and raspberry scone and raindrops, as they settle in to wait out the storm.

Chapter Text

***

“Hey, Ben, I know this isn’t the best time, but will you marry me?”

Beatrice didn’t plan to pop the question this way, standing in the bathroom doorway and watching as her boyfriend finished cleaning up after their sick toddler- but she couldn’t help herself, not when she saw how tenderly and patiently Ben had taken care of Olivia tonight, had finally managed to ease their child’s discomfort and get her to sleep, and Bea didn’t think she’d ever loved him more.

“I mean it,” Bea said. “You’re my best friend and the love of my life and you are an amazing dad to Olivia, and it feels weirdly too casual just calling you my boyfriend after all this time. I know I want to be with you forever, and it will make tax season loads easier, and will you please stop laughing?!”

Ben was positively beaming at her as he answered, “Love, the only reason I haven’t already swept you into my arms and kissed you senseless is that I’m still half covered in toddler sick. Let me have a shower and we’ll take this precious milestone moment from the top.”

“Or,” Beatrice said exasperatedly, “you could take that disgusting shirt off and just answer me right now. Do you wanna marry me or not?”

“Yes, Beatrice, of course my answer is yes. I’ll marry you,” Ben said happily, tossing the soiled shirt into a hamper and holding out his arms to her. “We can just shower together, at least that might salvage the least romantic proposal of all time, hmm?”

“Oh, fuck off, it was spur of the moment, okay?” Bea laughed, and stepped forward into her future husband’s waiting arms.

***

Chapter Text

***

It was another cold, dark night in the city that never sleeps, and Freddie Kingston asked for another drink like withered flowers ask for rain; Meg almost felt a pang of sympathy, but she shook her head–no detective worth her salt should be distracted on the job by a prime suspect.

No matter how much she wanted to let herself be.

And anyway, Meg didn’t see how Freddie could possibly be the mob boss- she was clearly in deep, based on the fact that she was in this particular bar, passing information to the shady bespectacled man who mixed all the drinks, but the girl had absolutely no poker face, and everyone knew it. You wouldn’t trust Freddie Kingston with a secret, not if you knew what was good for you.

If the redhead figured into the mobster murder case somehow, Meg was going to get to the bottom of it- and if that meant staring at her covertly from afar like a teenager with a crush, well, who was Meg to complain about the view?

Her martini was running low, so Meg raised a hand to call the bartender, and as soon as he turned to get the liquor bottle to make her refill, she deftly pinched Freddie’s note from his apron pocket, secreting it away next to the wad of cash in her brassiere.

Further down the bar, Freddie was obviously checking out the hot lounge singer who had just waltzed in – Paige Moth, her name was, and she was dating her manager Chelsey, so not a real threat for Freddie’s affections – and Meg smirked triumphantly, savoring the fresh evidence as much as the knowledge that the girl she liked, also liked girls.

At least that was one more mystery solved.

***

Chapter Text

***

“Wh- why are you covered in peanut butter?” Beatrice asked, shocked into laughter at the sight of her ridiculous, adorable boyfriend.

Ben was sitting on the couch in Bea’s aunt Persephone’s living room, with a thick stripe of peanut butter across one cheek and more covering both of his hands, and he was also laughing, because Aunt Persephone’s dog was licking his fingers enthusiastically.

“Bea! I was waiting for you to wake up,” Ben exclaimed. “Your aunt said I could give Honey a treat, and it got a little out of hand.”

“I can see that,” Bea said, amused, then backed up when Ben reached out a hand. “Ohhh no, don’t even think about it, dickface.”

“Come on, Bea, don’t you trust me?” Ben asked, and the gleam in his eye and the knowledge that he was as jet-lagged and silly as she felt right now did give her pause. “I just need you to distract Honey so I can go clean up.”

“Oh, fine, you’re lucky you two are both so cute,” Bea said, sitting down next to Ben- who immediately leaned in and kissed her cheek, smearing her with peanut butter, too. “Hey!” she protested, but she was still smiling.

***

Chapter Text

***

Some clichés are true, Beatrice thinks.

      She’s 25 today. The sunlight streams in, filling the bedroom with the warm glow of morning. There is nothing so simple, so comfortable as a lazy morning in bed with her boyfriend, naked skin on skin.

“Happy birthday, love,” Ben whispers, his voice blurry with sleep. She kisses him.

It doesn’t feel much different from the last few birthday mornings- same relationship, different apartment, less embarrassment, more normal, average, boring routine. It’s nice.

     “Do you think you’re a different person than you used to be?” Bea asks, breaking the easy silence.

“Last year?”

“Any year. Five years ago, I don’t know. Are you different?” She runs her hand along his chest, the soft hairs and smooth flesh there. She knows him like she knows herself, by now.

“Yeah, I reckon. I mean, I hope so,” Ben says, worry creasing his brow. “Why? Do you feel different? Does 25-?”

“No. I don’t know. I guess it makes me wonder- life is so different now than five years ago. What comes next?”

       Ben makes a noise of confusion, shifting to face her in bed, his hand on the small of her back. He still likes to hold her close, to feel her and know she isn’t leaving. He’s still anxious. That hasn’t changed.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“Well, our jobs might change, our families and friends, our living space. What we spend time and money and energy on. There’s a lot we’ve left behind.” Beatrice is angling towards something, the question on the tip of her tongue.

“There’s a lot we haven’t,” Ben counters, his fingers on her breast now, caressing and making her gasp, a welcome sensation.

      “I think,” she sighs. “I think- You know how we never believed in destiny, or stupid things like that?”

“Yeah- true love is bullshit,” Ben says, kissing her neck. “Are you trying to tell me something, Beatrice?”

“Just… I think it’s real if you make it real,” she says, pulling back. “I don’t believe each person has one true love. But sometimes we don’t have time to find another one.”

“This is a defining-the-relationship talk,” Ben laughs, meeting her eyes. “That’s how you want to start your birthday? Wow.”

“Shut up,” she grumbles. “I’m trying to tell you I changed my mind. Remember, when we were 20, we were at your cousin’s wedding- stop laughing, dickface- we were at the wedding, but we skipped the reception. And on the ride home, I told you how I never wanted to get married, as long as I lived, and you said-”

‘Fine by me’,” Ben supplies, grinning. “You changed your mind.”

        Bea can feel herself blushing. She’s an adult woman enjoying a birthday lie-in with her boyfriend of nearly eight years, and feelings can still make her blush. Disgusting.

“I’m just saying, when I look at my future, when I picture the chain of birthdays up ahead, they all start just like this. I can’t see my life without you in it. And I still don’t fancy wearing rings, or planning parties, but I just… It’s not a hard ‘no’ anymore, okay?” Beatrice admits, and she can’t help smiling. “I want you to know that.”

“Thanks for telling me,” Ben says, grinning back. No pressure, no further discussion. “And just so you know, love- I feel the same. You’re my future, I know that for sure.”

“Well, if that’s settled,” Beatrice smirks, matter-of-fact, her hand sliding further down beneath the blankets as she moves closer. It’s Ben’s turn to feel his breath catch in his throat.

       Benedick is her future, Beatrice knows, as she kisses him deeply, rolls on top of him, skin on skin, still wonderful.

And he’s her present, too.

***

Chapter Text

***

         “Aw, come on, Freddie,” Meg sighs.

Freddie is hyperaware of Meg sprawled out on the bed beside her. She stares even more determinedly at her phone, willing herself not to blush or show her embarrassment.

“You are just as interesting as anyone on that stupid app, now stop moping, please?” Meg continues. “We’re supposed to be hanging out tonight, and it’s rude to be on your phone when your friend is right here trying to have a conversation. Don’t you have a rule about that?”

          Freddie sighs, daring a glance at Meg. Her dark hair is piled messily into a bun atop her head, and she’s biting her lip, probably getting bright red lipstick on her teeth. Meg’s amazing. And Freddie is… well, she’s Freddie. Well-trained not to expect much for her often Herculean efforts.

Her socials are filled with Balthazar killing it at gigs, Bea and Ben posting incredible scenery from their travels, and Freddie’s old high school mates partying and landing internships and declaring majors. She feels like the only person in her friend group who isn’t doing cool, exciting, youthful things that look great on Instagram. What is she going to post? An artsy picture of her poli-sci textbook lounging on the beach?

         “I mean, why don’t I have a thriving local music career or a popular travel Instagram of me having globetrotting adventures with my boyfriend? Right?” she bursts out.

Meg stares. “Freddie, you’re a lesbian with stage fright!”

“You know what I mean.”

But she meets Meg’s dark eyes and suddenly they’re both laughing, loud and exuberant, and Freddie’s chest aches. In a good way.

          “Stupid,” Meg says, shoving her shoulder playfully. “How can you be so down on yourself, with a perfect laugh like that?”

“It’s not perfect.” Freddie protests, and Meg sits up and pulls her into a hug from the side, grinning into Freddie’s hair. Warmth swells in Freddie’s chest, comfort like she hardly ever feels spreading throughout her body.

“Babe. It is. I’ve never seen anyone look so happy. It’s beautiful. My best friend is beautiful,” Meg says, proud. Certain.

“I thought Bea was your best friend,” Freddie can't help but protest, however half-heartedly.

Meg hums softly, ruffling Freddie’s messy red curls. “I have lots of best friends. But you’re different. I only have one Freddie.”

“Yeah,” Freddie murmurs thickly. It’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to her in a long time. Meg is the nicest thing that’s happened to her in a long time. If only she could find the words to say it. But she doesn’t need words to lean further into Meg’s embrace, to lace their fingers together. She can feel the other girl’s breath, warm against the cup of her ear.

          “Now, are you going to let me take you out tonight, or what?” Meg murmurs, giving Freddie goosebumps.

Freddie nods, awash on a surge of hope. Maybe her life is about to get interesting after all.

“Good,” Meg says, pulling her up and out towards the front door of the flat. “Let’s go.”

           And even when they’re well on their way, she doesn’t let go of Freddie’s hand.

***