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the world is too quiet without you nearby

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     Ben’s things have all mostly been unpacked- if by unpacked, one means “strewn haphazardly around the room”. It’s the first night in his new room, in his new flat. He has his own flat!

Well, to be fair, Freddie did sign the lease.

But it’s just as much Ben’s flat as it is Freddie’s, as it is Balthazar’s, as it is Pedro’s. They’ve actually done it. They’ve moved out, moved up, become proper adults. He’s almost sort of glad he missed out on a space in the dorms, now. Instead of rooming with a stranger, he gets to live with some of his best friends- and besides, the flat has the one thing dorming wouldn’t have. It’s a tiny bath, but at least it’s a bath. It would have been so boring being stuck with only a shower for the foreseeable future.

He’s so tired he almost wants to go curl up in the tub right now- only he’s pretty sure he can hear the water running, so someone’s beaten him to it. His bed’s probably more comfortable anyway, so he sinks onto the already-wrinkled comforter and closes his eyes.

He spent the afternoon putting up posters on the walls. He couldn’t handle the emptiness of those walls, staring at him, pressing in on him- he can’t imagine a lonelier fate than empty walls. They remind him of another empty room, the one he’d had when he first moved to Auckland as a kid, the one that was supposed to be a clean slate for him. Back then, like now, everyone had expected him to be more excited about that. To slide right into a new life without complaint, to make the best of it- it should be easy. There should be nothing to be afraid of… and yet…

There’s still an awful lot of blank space in this room, stark white and menacing, a reminder of the newness of it all- but he has plenty of stuff to stick up to fill it, to cover it with faces and pictures and colors until the empty room feels full enough that he almost forgets to be lonely. That’s tomorrow’s job.

He just wishes he had someone, anyone to talk to. He’ll have to round his flatmates up and get them to come with him in search of dinner later tonight. That should be fun, exploring new places, the four of them together.

Ben’s eyes flicker open and, seeing the Philosopher’s Stone movie poster with the turrets and towers of Hogwarts staring back at him from the wall, he almost feels like he’s home. He almost feels like nothing’s changed.

Of course, everything is different now.

 

        “There’s no way to tell you, how much I like you…” Beatrice’s voice fills the quiet room, ringing out from his phone. Ben still has the song set as his ringtone, and hearing it sends chills along his spine. She wrote those words for him. He can’t believe, sometimes, that she really feels so strongly. That she really loves him that much.

She’d seemed eager enough to part ways at first, when he told her he was leaving…

 

“You should do what you want to do, what will make you happy. We can’t make these decisions based on each other, Ben, we’ve talked about this…” Beatrice sighs, running her fingers up and down along his upper arm, trying to sound certain and reassuring.

Ben doesn’t feel so reassured.  “So you really aren’t mad?”

“Of course not, hey. I’m happy for you.” She closes her eyes, and her grip on his arms seems to tighten for just a moment. She takes a deep breath in, exhales, then blinks, before slowly looking back up at him and smiling. “This is a really good thing.”

“I kind of… think so too,” he admits softly, starting to hope, but he still can’t quite look her in the eyes. “Maybe… maybe you can come visit me sometime?”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. I’ll be busy with work, you’ll be busy with school…” she’s laughing, but she can’t disguise the serious undertone to her voice. They both know this won’t be easy.

“You’re certainly eager to get rid of me,” Ben teases, pushing back against this tension between them. He forces a smile for her benefit, and she smirks, genuine.

“Well, it’s not my fault you’re getting too close to uncovering my secret identity,” Beatrice says matter-of-factly, ducking out from where his arm was just wrapped around her, and spinning away so the only connection between them is their intertwined hands. Putting space between them, already.

Ben pretends to consider this. “Let me guess… Catwoman?”

“Shut up.” Beatrice drops his hand and rolls her eyes. “You’re only saying that because that would make you Batman.”

“Oh, I am so Batman, and you’re definitely Catwoman, this explains everything! Now you can’t get rid of me, I know too much!” Ben says dramatically, playing the part, maintaining the distance in case he has to run for it. Not that he’d actually ever want to try. Not with her.

“I don’t think that’s how that works-”

Too much, Beatrice. And there’s no way you can make me forget-” He grins as she finally corners him, a gleam in her eye.

“Oh, I’m pretty sure there’s a way…” she says, and she closes the distance at last, and there are no more words for a while.

“Hmm, what were we talking about again?” He asks a little later, dazed, bruised-lipped, his worries entirely out of mind. “I feel like I’ve just forgotten something very important…”

Beatrice smirks, knowing she’s won this round.

“Less talking, more snogging. Something tells me we have some future lost time to start making up for.”

 

 Okay, so maybe he is worrying for nothing. Maybe some things don’t have to be so different after all.

 

           “Hey,” she says, when he picks up the phone. “So, tell me! How’s Wellington? How’s the flat? I want to hear everything!”

“There’s not that much to tell, yet. I’m all moved in, Freddie’s already on draft three of a flat chore chart, Balthazar’s still sorting all his ukuleles…” Ben knows he’s rambling, but he almost can’t help it, he just has so much nervous energy. To her credit, Beatrice doesn’t sound like she minds at all. She listens, chiming in occasionally, until he’s all talked out, and only then takes her turn to complain about her new job and to fill him in on the tryouts Leo’s holding to replace the now-graduated members of the old football team. It feels weird, thinking about that. Like everything and everyone back home is slowly moving on, without him.

He tries not to think about the last time he left a home and it moved on without him, leaving him alone.

“I hope you don’t miss me too much,” Beatrice teases, and Ben can’t admit the truth, can’t let her or anyone else know how scared he is, how much missing people can feel like losing them.

“’Course not,” he says instead. “I’ve got Floyd, anyway.”

(Who is sitting on top of Ben’s dresser in his usual place of honor, by the way.)

“Well, I don’t miss you either,” Beatrice shoots back, sarcastic. “I’m far too busy for that sappy emotional stuff, you know me.”

“I do. Hey, call me again tomorrow? Maybe we can try out Skype this time- in case you do ever suddenly decide you have time for sappy emotional stuff?”

“Yeah, okay,” Beatrice says, and her voice is softer, almost sad. “You never know.”

“I love you,” he tells her, on impulse, hating that sadness, wanting only to make it go away.

“I love you too. Good luck tomorrow!”

“Oh, God,” he sighs, running a hand through his hair.

A few hours ago, he was filled with excitement, talking Freddie’s ear off about his Renaissance Lit class and how Christopher Marlowe would almost definitely be on the syllabus, and maybe he would meet some more Marlowe aficionados he could talk to about the homework.

Now, at the thought of those unknown classrooms and alarming syllabi and strange faces, there’s a knot in his stomach that’s far from excitement. It’s dread.

“Hey, you’ll be great. It’s only the first day, and if it goes too badly, you’ll have me to complain to later,” Beatrice says, correctly interpreting his momentary silence.

“You’re probably right,” Ben admits.

Beatrice sees her chance and gleefully takes it. “I’m always right.”

Yeah, he thinks. I hope so.

 

Chapter Text

      Beatrice has been looking forward to this Skype call all day. It’s the only thing that got her through her hellish double shift hostess-ing at the restaurant, and now it’s finally time. Seven o’clock at night, same as always- her daily Skype date with Benedick.

Being apart from Ben is so much harder than she thought it would be. It’s only been a few weeks now, and she feels ridiculous for just how much she already misses him. There’s absolutely no reason she should feel so sad, just because their conversations are partitioned by computer screens now, right? She still talks to him every day, after all.

Long-distance really isn’t that big a deal. She should be able to handle this. She has to be able to handle this- after all, she’s the one who’s planning to leave the country for a whole year once she has the money. Beatrice sighs, munching on a bit of dried fruit as she stares listlessly at the computer screen, waiting for the little green icon to pop up and tell her Ben is online. His contact picture is that one from their date at the zoo, where he’s standing on one leg in front of the flamingo enclosure. Such a nerd.

It sounds ridiculous and sappy and totally melodramatic, but as soon as Ben’s smiling face appears on her computer screen each night, it’s like a weight has been lifted right off of Beatrice’s chest. There’s nothing else for it; talking on Skype is a thousand times better than not being with Ben at all. This is their best option right now, the only option, and they’re making it work. Things are good, she reassures herself. She’s happy… they’re happy.

 

         Then, suddenly, the little bubble next to Ben’s Skype picture turns green. Beatrice instantly perks up and clicks Call, and Ben answers almost immediately. His webcam must be off, because the video isn’t connecting, so the first thing she hears is his excited voice.

“Bea! Hi! I miss you so much. How are you? How was your day? How’s Hero? And Leo? And Meg? And-”

As he’s talking, he figures out what button to hit, and the video call lights up, and suddenly he’s there- wonderful, dorky, smiling Ben, dark hair messy as ever, wearing his Messina leavers’ jacket over his old favorite hideous laser-cat t-shirt. Beatrice lets out a deep breath and grins back, allowing herself the momentary flutter of butterflies in her stomach at the sight of him.

“Whoa, hey, calm down, buddy. I miss you too,” she says fondly, maximizing the window so that all she sees is her boyfriend looking back at her, leaning closer to his screen to see her better. “Everyone’s fine, just like they were yesterday, remember? I’m fine, just glad to finally be home.”

“Aw, tough day at work?”

“It wasn’t that bad,” she sighs. “I’ve just literally never been so tired in my entire life, that’s all. It’s amazing how fast you burn out when they make you stand for six straight hours and seat the rudest customers in all of Auckland. Bleurgh.”

“Oh, no!” says Ben, but she can tell he’s trying not to laugh at her grumpy expression. “I’m sorry, that sucks.”

“I appreciate the sympathy, dickface. But whatever, work is work. So, what about you? Tell me- how's university life?"

 

          At that, it’s Ben’s turn to frown. "I don’t know. It’s all right, I guess. I'll be happy if I never hear the word 'syllabus' again. And no one's been shopping yet, so there's no food in this entire flat, and I am starving."

"Oh, you poor thing," Beatrice teases, reaching for the snack bag on the desk in front of her, out of the camera’s view. “It’s too bad we can’t share.” She takes out another bit of leathery orange fruit and waves it at him.

"Wait a minute,” he says in disbelief. “Bea, are those-?"

"Dried mango slices? Maaaaaaybe.” She grins mischievously. “They’re less messy this way.”

"I’m so jealous. You don't even like mango!" Ben is half delighted, half indignant.

"I don’t dislike it,” Bea admits. “I had a random craving, okay? And look-" she holds up the sliver of dried fruit and turns it to show him the other side. "No skin!"

"This sucks. You get mango slices and I don't, and you're so far away. Why did I think it was a good idea to move hours away and have to adjust to a whole new city all over again?" Ben looks genuinely upset now, propping his chin in his hands, his eyes downcast.

There’s a part of Beatrice that suddenly wants to throw the question back in his face. Why did he move to Wellington? He didn’t have to. He didn’t have to pick a school so far away, didn’t have to leave her behind. The bitterness rises in her throat like bile, but she pushes it down and away, knowing it won’t help matters. This is the way things are. He’s going to school, she’s going to travel, and they both have to get used to it. And she hates seeing Ben upset.

"I’m sure it’s just going to take time to adjust,” she reassures him. “You’ll get there. And go get your own mangos, they do have them in Wellington too, you know."

"Yeah, I guess. Shopping could be fun. Maybe I'll take Balthazar with me! I bet he’d like to get out for a while." 

        “How is the rest of the flat, anyway?” asks Bea.

“I think they’re okay, everyone’s been kind of quiet so far. Pedro’s out a lot, and Balth’s busy with his new job. They haven’t been keeping in touch?”

Bea shakes her head. She hasn’t heard from either Balthazar or Pedro in a while- not that that’s much of a surprise, considering. “I figured they were just busy.”

She looks away from Ben’s suddenly concerned face, noticing for the first time that he isn’t in his bedroom. “Is this your supposedly empty kitchen?”

“Oh, yeah. Hey, that’s right, you haven’t seen the flat! I should take you on a flat tour, so you can see everything!” Ben twitches the computer so that Beatrice has a wider view of the fridge and counter behind him.

“Flat tour, flat tour, flat tour!” laughs Beatrice. “You could vlog that, if you were still making videos!”

“Balthazar and I were thinking of filming some stuff this weekend. Maybe get him to do some ukulele stuff for Pedro’s new YouTube channel? I could definitely put a flat tour up there too…”

“But I thought you weren’t- Wait, does your refrigerator have googly eyes?”

"His name's Fridgris Elba," Ben says proudly. "Freddie found the eyes, but I came up with the pun myself."

"Good to see uni's teaching you the important things,” she giggles.

"Hey, I was already a pun expert before I came here. Freddie’s the one who needs work, her puns are awful."

"How punfortunate for her. So, when do I get to meet the famous Freddie?"

"Whenever she puts down her homework for two seconds, I guess,” Ben says darkly. “She’s so busy all the time. Everyone is. It’s like there’s no time for fun anymore, and we haven’t even been here a month yet! I mean, it’s university, shouldn’t it be a little less, I don’t know, boring?”

Beatrice points out that working every day and hanging out with Hero and Meg every night isn’t exactly the most exciting plan either. “I think maybe that’s just life, you know?”

 

         It’s the little things, after all, that make life interesting. For example, the next day at work, when Beatrice takes her break and checks her phone to see a Snapchat notification from Benaddicktion. The picture is of Ben, wearing a truly impressive pout and holding up a pear from the produce section, captioned “couldn’t find mangoes :(”. It’s kind of adorable.

This turns out to be the first in a series of increasingly silly snaps from Ben and Balthazar’s grocery shopping trip. Beatrice sneaks peeks at her phone on the rare occasion she has a free minute, following along every time Balth swaps out one of Ben’s intended purchases with more vegan-friendly options, to his chagrin. They keep her laughing all afternoon. Her shift goes by much faster today.

That night, she makes sure to have her own mango snack with her again when she Skypes Ben. The look on his face as she teases him, slowly enjoying what he can’t have, as he grudgingly laughs along- that’s definitely one of life’s little pleasures, for Beatrice anyway.

That, and candied mango slices.

Chapter Text

Ben comes home from classes to find Freddie and Balthazar sitting on the couch, staring at a medium-sized cardboard box that has been left on the floor in the center of the living room.

“It’s addressed to you,” Freddie tells Ben interestedly. “What’s in it?”

“Wish it was the rest of my instruments,” says Balth, and the others shoot him an incredulous look. “What? I’m still waiting on some triangles.”

“You’ve gotta have triangles,” says Ben, nodding sagely.

“We’d narrowed it down to a new set of lawn flamingos or those bookends you forgot to pack,” Freddie says, still squinting down at the box.

“I have no idea what it is,” says Ben excitedly, diving to the floor to get a closer look. “My parents would have told me if they were sending something." Not, of course, that he hears from them particularly often. But he can't think of anything they'd think to send. He looks closer. "Oh, wow !”

“What?” asks Freddie, leaning in. “What is it?”

“The return address, it’s Hero’s house. This has to be from Bea! But she never said anything about this. Weird. I have to call her!” Ben exclaims, and he picks up the box. It’s not nearly as heavy as it looks, and he can hear something loose sliding around inside.

“You have to tell us what’s in it! I’m curious now,” Freddie complains from the couch. “I never get anything cool in the post.”

Ben ignores her, going to his room. He shuts his door behind him, setting the box on his bed as he drops into his desk chair and pulls out his phone.

 

          He really hadn’t been very surprised the other week when Valentine’s Day had come and gone without any special recognition from Bea. Sure, it’s their first Valentine’s as a couple, but they’ve both been really busy lately, what with Bea working more and Ben settling into life in the flat. It’s hard to have actual date nights long-distance, and he knows how Beatrice feels about the holiday. She’s made it quite clear, with all her horror stories about being forced to decorate the restaurant with bright pink and red cutout hearts the week before Ben moved away. He seems to recall her exact words were “ridiculous, commericalistic, pink-splattered mess of a holiday”.

“And when I complained,” she’d groaned, “they were all ‘oh, you’ll change your mind this year’. As if I’m expected to buy into that bullshit just because I have a boyfriend? Fat chance.”

Now, though, it looks as if she’s had a change of heart. He can’t imagine why else she would send him a surprise present out of the blue, even if it is a little late. Ben can’t help but laugh. Great minds think alike, he supposes, glad he trusted his instincts on this one.

 

             Beatrice picks up on the first ring, but refuses to tell him what’s in the box. “I wanted it to be a surprise, but I thought it would take at least a few more days to get there. Hey, you should open it on our Skype call tonight, so I can see your face!”

“Aww,” Ben whines. “But I don’t want to wait!”

Ben ,” Beatrice says, and he can just imagine the stern look on her face. He laughs.

“Fine, fine. I’ll wait. I can’t believe you actually sent me a valentine!”

“Eww, no! It’s not a valentine!” Beatrice protests. “Valentine’s Day was weeks ago.” Her tone says, and thank God that’s over .

“But you still sent me a care package,” Ben says proudly. “And you mailed it in February . Because you care about me. Beatrice Duke, I knew you were a softhearted romantic deep, deep inside.”

“Shut up,” Beatrice says, but he can practically hear her smiling.

 

                                                                                                                      ***

 

              After hanging up with Beatrice, Ben leaves the package on his bed and takes out his German flashcards, determined to get some studying done. He gets about three words down the vocabulary list before his curiosity gets the better of him, and he turns around in his desk chair to stare at the box.

A few more flashcards are scanned and tossed aside, before Ben starts scooting his chair slightly closer to the bed, the better to look at his mysterious present. But no, he promised Bea he wouldn’t.

It’s hopeless. Next moment, the flashcards are lying in a heap on his floor and Ben is crouched in front of the bed, running a nubby fingernail along the tape on the top edge of the box. Maybe there’s a tiny loose place he can pry at, just a little peek…

His phone goes off, and he jumps about a foot in the air, pushing himself away from the box so quickly he loses his balance and slams into the desk behind him. Groaning, Ben reaches for his phone. Of course the text is from Beatrice- Don’t you dare, dickface.

He doesn’t even bother asking how she knew.

 

              Freddie and Balth are more than a little disappointed when Ben appears at dinner still unable to tell them what’s in the care package, and they spend the whole meal throwing out increasingly silly guesses, everything from a spare set of hobbit ears to a live hummingbird. Peter rolls his eyes at the others, eats quickly and stalks off to his room as soon as possible. Ben follows suit, promising to tell Beatrice that everyone in the flat says hello.

He completely forgets his promise once Beatrice picks up the call. Her face lights up when the video call connects, and she exclaims, “Finally! There you are!”

Beatrice is sitting cross-legged on her bed, her computer apparently positioned on her lap. She looks beautiful, her hair knotted in a messy bun on top of her head, her eyes as bright as her smile, and he’s so busy smiling back, his train of thought lost on how good it is to see her, that he almost doesn’t notice at first that she’s not alone.

“Look who’s decided to grace us with her presence!” Beatrice gestures with a flourish, and Ben registers that Hero is perched on the edge of the bed next to her, almost out of frame.

Hero and Bea both scoot in a little, and Hero waves at him. “Hi!”

“Hero! To what do I owe the pleasure?” Ben asks, and gives a jaunty little wave in return, just for fun.

Granted, they’re really only friends because of Beatrice, but it’s impossible not to love Hero Duke, and Ben misses her as much as he misses any of his Auckland friends. It’s only been a month or so, sure, but he has to admit it’s nice to see her again.

“It’s just been awhile, hasn’t it?” Hero says. “And I was hanging out with Beatrice this afternoon anyway, so I thought it would be nice to stay and say hello. And I wanted to see you open your care package, I hope you like it!”

“It was mostly Hero’s idea, anyway,” Beatrice says, blushing. “Because you hadn’t gotten any mail at your new address yet, and we wanted to fix that. It’s no big deal, really.”

“Of course it’s a big deal, it’s awesome . You guys are the best,” Ben says excitedly, hoisting the box up onto the desk next to his laptop.

“You don’t even know what’s in it yet,” Beatrice points out, smirking, as Ben starts to try and pull open the flaps of cardboard on top of the box, struggling in earnest now with the heavy-duty mailing tape holding it together.

“It’s still awesome. I still can’t believe you actually sent me a valentine , love. I never would have thought it of you,” he teases.

“I still hate the whole bloody holiday!” Beatrice protests. “I just… wanted to do something nice for you, that’s all.”

“So you don’t want to be my Valentine, then?” Ben grins, still struggling with the box. “Because if not, maybe you shouldn’t check your mail today.”

“Wait, did you…?” Beatrice’s eyes narrow, then widen in undisguised excitement when he nods. “I’ll be right back!”

“Aww, you two are so cute,” Hero says, turning to the screen to give Ben an amused glance.

“Aren’t we though?” Ben says happily.

 

            By the time Beatrice comes running back into the room with a long, flat cardboard box in hand, Ben has found some scissors, and almost has his own box opened.

“Yes! I was hoping it would be there,” he calls triumphantly, seeing that the gift he sent her - which is definitely a valentine, albeit a late one- has actually arrived right at the perfect time. Serendipity.

“I can’t wait to see what this is,” Beatrice says, simultaneously excited and sarcastic as she shakes the box, listening to see if anything slides around inside. Nothing does, Ben notes with satisfaction.

 

“I guess you’ll just have to open it and find out. So, Hero,” he asks, changing focus with a knowing smirk. “How was your Valentine’s Day? How’s Ursula?”

Hero blushes to the roots of her pale blonde hair, staring down at her hands. Beatrice crosses her arms, giving Ben a pointed look of her own, and he raises his hands apologetically, still holding the scissors.

“I mean, I didn’t mean to pry-” he hastens to add, recoiling under Beatrice’s quelling stare.

“It’s fine,” Hero says, smiling. “Ursula’s fine, she’s… she’s wonderful, actually. We had a very nice day, she got me flowers. She says hello, by the way.”

“Cool. I should text her sometime and say hi back,” says Ben. He’s never been super close with Ursula, but it couldn’t hurt to try to stay connected, if that's even possible. “Oh my God, are these cookies ?!”

 

He’s finally opened his present, and the first thing he sees inside is a plastic container filled with homemade chocolate chunk cookies, Hero’s specialty. Stuck to the top of the cookie box is a pink sticky-note that says ‘Surprise!’

“We had a baking day, just for fun, and I thought maybe you’d like some,” Hero says happily. “That’s when Beatrice decided to make you that little Valentine’s package.”

 

“It’s not a Valentine,” Beatrice cuts in, but no one listens.

 

The next moment, Ben cracks up laughing, holding up two packages of dried mango slices. “Beatrice, you shouldn’t have!”

“Yeah, well, you just looked so sad without them,” Beatrice grins. “Keep looking, there’s something else in there, as well.”

“Whoa!” Ben pulls out a little plastic sleeve with a kit inside to build an animal out of tiny colored Lego-like blocks. It is, of course, a flamingo. He rips open the bag, spilling little pink and black building blocks across his desk as he unfolds the instructions. “This is so cool!”

“Beatrice has a giraffe just like it, we found them in a crafting supply store when I was getting some new sewing things. Aren’t they cute?” Hero says, finding and holding up the blocky yellow giraffe figurine Beatrice has displayed on her desk, just outside of the webcam’s viewfinder.

 

Meanwhile, Beatrice has started on opening her own package.

“I see you went traditional,” she laughs, sliding out a heart-shaped box of chocolates with a bright yellow construction paper card stuck to the top. “Are you serious with this?”

“Don’t laugh,” says Hero firmly. “I think it’s sweet, Beatrice.”

“I’ve never given anyone a Valentine before,” Ben confesses, putting down the flamingo instructions to focus on Beatrice again. “So I stuck to the basics. Figured at least those would make you a great chocolate salad. I know it’s a little impersonal, but-”

“Oh my God,” Beatrice exclaims, pulling the card off the box. “Did you make this?”

 

The front of the card is covered in badly drawn black and yellow bumblebees, not a single pink or red valentine heart in sight. “ Bee my love”, it reads in black marker across the top. It’s honestly a bit of an eyesore, but he tried his best.

 

Beatrice can’t stop laughing as she reads the inscription. “‘ To my Bea -utiful girlfriend - wow, real original.”

“You know, I do try,” he grins. “Keep going!”

“Okay, okay!” She giggles through the entire thing, Hero and even Ben laughing along at the terrible puns that follow. “‘I still can’t bee -lieve how lucky I am to Bea with someone as wonderful as you. Hap- bee Valentine’s Day. And just Bea -cause you hate Valentine’s, doesn’t bee -n I can’t embarrass you with cheesy, predictable presents on a random day that definitely isn’t February 14th. Enjoy!’ Oh, my god, this is great,” she laughs.

“There’s one more thing you missed,” Ben says, pointing to the bottom right corner of his computer screen, where he can see the box sitting on Beatrice’s bed, the chocolates hiding the real present still undiscovered.

Beatrice picks the chocolate box up and looks underneath- and gasps.

“Yes! I’ve been meaning to read this!” She lifts up a hardback copy of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man . “Mary Shelley is the best!”

“So I’ve heard,” Ben nods. “So I figured, I’ll finally read the copy of Frankenstein you lent me, and you read The Last Man , and then we’ll swap, and we can discuss them. After all, I’m at uni now, I’ll have to get used to analyzing literature. It’ll be fun!”

“Ben, this… this is… I love it. Thank you,” Beatrice reaches out for him on impulse, but comes up short, stunning them both into remembering the screens and the miles separating them. “I would be hugging you so hard right now, if…”

“I’m just glad you’re happy,” Ben sighs, suddenly brimming with guilt. “I wish I could be there.”

 

“You are here,” Hero points out, calmly filling the sudden awkward silence. “And you had a lovely belated Valentine’s Day. Enjoy it! And then come visit us, soon!”

Beatrice nods her agreement, still holding tightly to her book.

 

“I’m counting down the days until break. Hang on,” Ben’s eyes go wide. “Hero just called it a valentine, and you didn’t say anything!”

Beatrice goes red. “I mean- it’s not like- I still don’t- Look, obviously if I was going to celebrate this stupid holiday with anyone- I mean, I can’t exactly help- you are my boyfriend, after all!”

“I’m also your valentine ,” Ben grins. “You just admitted it!”

“No! No, I definitely didn’t,” Beatrice insists.

“I’m your valentine,” Ben singsongs gleefully. “I’m your valentine and you loooove me!”


“Of course I do, but that doesn’t- I mean- You- Oh, my God, it’s March 3rd, you dork!”  

 

Chapter Text

“Promise me, Beatrice! Promise you’ll hold on, and never let go!”

Ben claws at the computer screen with one hand, making a show of losing his grip on what, thankfully, is not in fact a piece of doorframe floating on the open ocean. It’s actually just the edge of his desk.

The image of Bea’s face freezes on the screen and static cuts her laugh into so many jagged little pieces, ringing out through the speakers on his laptop.

Skype is the worst. This call has dropped so many times, and it’s so very late at night, that neither of them can even take anything about the situation remotely seriously anymore. Somehow the freezing Skype screen has become an iceberg, and they could lose the call at any moment.

“I’ll never let go, Ben!” The screen unfreezes just in time for him to hear Beatrice deliver the line in her best soppy, feeble Rose voice. She lasts about ten seconds before dissolving into peals of laughter once again.

He pretends to fall off the edge of the chair and, losing his balance, lands on the floor with a thump and a groan.

“Nooo! Come back, come back!” Bea hisses through her laughter, still making a valiant effort to stay in-character. When several moments pass with no sign or sound of Ben, she realizes and shakes the mouse, trying to wake up her screen. “Wait, shit, I think you froze again. Actually come back!”

On Beatrice’s end, the screen shows only the wall of Ben’s room, and she smiles at the sight of the Snoopy poster taking up one large space there. Only her adorable, ridiculous, comic-strip-reading boyfriend would still be that into the Peanuts at nineteen years old. She’s pretty sure there’s at least one Calvin and Hobbes strip tacked up somewhere on his walls, as well. Because of course there is.

Then, suddenly, the screen goes blue. Call Dropped. Damn.

Her phone, sitting on the edge of her bedside table nearby, lights up with a text.

Lost you again, sorry. Shall I call back or will you?

Instead of answering the text, Bea just presses the call button below his Skype icon, gazing tiredly at that silly little picture of him with the flamingos. She’s used to that picture now, she clicks it every day. She never feels further away from Ben than right before or after a call, when the screen goes dark and the room falls silent, like a sinking luxury liner that’s lost all power. She pulls her thin blanket closer around her shoulders, her mind wandering back to a certain scene from the movie, and she wishes Ben was here to warm her up instead.

It’s been two minutes since the connection was lost, and even still, Ben’s pretty sure his heart beats a little faster as he clicks, Accept Call, and Beatrice’s smile fills the screen. He thinks he misses her a little more every time he sees her face again.

“Oh good, so you survived,” Beatrice beams.

“Barely,” he whines. “That water’s cold, and you didn’t even try to give me any space on the raft. I’m beginning to think this ship didn’t sink by accident.”

“You know perfectly well that if both of us- if Rose and Jack both got on the door thing, it would just sink and kill them faster,” Beatrice points out.

“I know no such thing! There had to be more debris for one of them to cling to. I refuse to accept that horrible ending as fact.”

“You’re just embarrassed because you cry every single time you watch it,” she teases. “Nerd.”

“Hey! I am not ashamed of my emotions,” Ben says indignantly, but Beatrice can see the laughter in his eyes. “Okay, so I’m a hopeless romantic, you got me. I just think, not every ship has to sink, you know?”

“Even when they do, it can still be a happy ending,” Bea points out. “Rose got to live a full life and be happy with Jack in the afterlife, you know. And speaking of endings, I should probably go- work in the morning, alas.”

“You’re no fun,” Ben teases. “And neither is the afterlife. I should know, seeing as how I just sacrificed myself and fell into the ocean for you.”

“Whatever, I’ll talk to you tomorrow, dickface. Just no dying of exposure in freezing Atlantic waters in the next twenty-four hours, okay? I would miss you too much.”

“And no throwing diamonds overboard and dying of old age for you tomorrow either, I don’t think my fragile romantic heart could handle it,” says Ben.

“You are such a dork,” Beatrice tells him fondly, reaching out to lay her palm over her screen. On his end, Ben puts his hand up to the warm surface of his laptop screen as well, until it’s almost as if their palms were pressed together, bridging the distance between them, and they don’t let go.

“Goodnight, love.”

“Goodnight.”

Call Ended.

Chapter Text

         Freddie’s not opposed to her flatmates bringing people home, not on principle. It’s healthy to have a social life, of course. But the least they could do is to tell her when she’s to have her privacy and her schedule invaded. It’s the middle of the night, for goodness’ sake. Well- sort of. But the point is, Freddie needs her sleep, and she knows she can hear the soft rumble of at least two people’s laughter from down the hall.

She isn’t sure how Ben even managed to get someone through the flat and into his room without any of the others noticing, and it’s ten o’clock on a school night! Who makes plans at ten on a school night?

Freddie groans, climbing out of bed to go and shout at him, or at least meet this new friend of his. She hasn’t heard him mention anyone. Usually, if anyone, it’s Peter who disturbs her sleep, he keeps odd hours. She pads down the hall, rubbing at her eyes, and pokes her head in at Ben’s bedroom door, knocking a fist against the doorframe to announce her presence.

        “Ben? I heard voices, do you have someone over? Why didn’t you say-” Freddie trails off in confusion. Benedick is sitting alone at his desk, focused on his laptop. He’s leaning back in the chair so that she’s almost afraid he’ll topple over when he turns to look at her, his long legs outstretched, still in his street clothes. Despite all the noise of a moment ago, there’s nobody else in the room. Freddie narrows her eyes suspiciously. “I could have sworn I heard someone in here.”

Ben looks up from his laptop, grinning about something. “Oh! Freddie! Freds, Freds, Freddie-Fred-Freds! Where are my manners? I should introduce you!”

A snort seems to issue from the computer at his overexcited show of gallantry. Ben ignores this, turning the laptop so the screen is facing Freddie, who steps the rest of the way inside the room, checking behind the door for someone who might be hiding.

When she looks back at the computer screen a moment later, it’s to see a vaguely familiar-looking blonde girl smiling back at her, bemused.

“So this is the famous Freddie!” the girl exclaims.

“Aah!” Freddie jumps back in surprise, then fixes a triumphant look at Ben. “I knew you were talking to someone.”

“Freddie, meet the amazing, vivacious Beatrice!” Ben waves a hand in an excited flourish, adding proudly, “My girlfriend.”

“Don’t mind Ben,” says Beatrice exasperatedly. “He’s in an extremely weird mood tonight. And every night.”

“Hey!” says Ben.

“Nice to meet you, Beatrice. I hope you’re not planning to keep me up all night,” says Freddie. “I have an important lecture to be at, first thing tomorrow, Ben.” She glares at him.

“We’ll be quiet,” Ben promises, as Beatrice laughs onscreen.

“We won’t be too late, I have work in the morning anyway,” she says. “So, Freddie. I’ve heard so much about you, the famous signer of the lease.”

“That’s me! I- uh, yeah, I signed it!” says Freddie, face bright red. She’s never been good with surprise introductions. Freddie had known Ben had a girlfriend back in Auckland, but naturally she hadn’t thought she had to worry about Beatrice showing up unannounced in the flat. She hadn’t accounted for Skype, apparently. “I… I mean…”

“Freddie is our fearless leader, the King of the flat, the reason we’re all here,” says Ben. “She’s studying politics.”

“Cool,” says Beatrice. “Do you like university? Do you get much work done, living with this one?” She nods at Ben, who lets his chair fall back onto all four legs with a thump to match his indignant expression.

“We study together all the time, don’t we Freddie? I’m not that distracting!”

Freddie could argue there, but she’s embarrassed enough to catch Ben and Beatrice suddenly disagreeing.

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Bea snarks.

Freddie forestalls Ben’s next remark, afraid of further disagreement. Nodding quickly, she mumbles, “Oh, Ben’s alright, he studies. We- yeah, we have a group- we study. It’s good! We’re all passing our classes so far. I mean, I assume!”

“You see?” says Ben, and Freddie’s astonished to realize both he and Beatrice are still smiling. She’d expected them to be glaring at each other, for all their prickly tones suggest- but even when Ben continues on to point out that Beatrice is currently distracting him from his homework, so she’s one to talk, the expression on his girlfriend’s face is far from irritation. She looks shrewd, amused, like she’s planning her next move and thoroughly enjoying their deft exchange of words. Something warm and fond and gentle shines in her eyes as she watches Ben, something meant just for him. Freddie looks away.

Ben, too, seems to be having fun with the conversation. He’s wholly at ease, animated as Freddie’s ever seen him. Even when they move on to discussing Freddie’s major, and their opinions on her platform as a candidate for student government, he and Beatrice continue their sparring. Ben seems to think the campaign posters are the most important thing, and keeps coming up with slogans mostly centering around Freddie’s royal-sounding surname. Beatrice, on the other hand, points out that all the flashy advertisements in the world won’t make up for it if Freddie’s speech and policy ideas don’t measure up.

Freddie doesn’t point out that the election isn’t even until third trimester, and she doesn’t expect to get in as a second-year anyway. She mostly appreciates that she doesn’t have to carry the conversation.

The pressure is totally off, all she has to do is throw in the occasional comment or answer to one of Beatrice’s questions, and then Bea and Ben’s strong opinions and eagerness to outdo each other will float the rest of the conversation for as long as Freddie needs before she’s comfortable enough to interject again. Which she does, more and more often as the time goes on. Beatrice is maybe a little abrasive at first, but she’s really fun to talk to. And people are so rarely interested in actually talking about her political science studies. This is actually kind of fun.

           “Anyway Freddie, what were you-” Beatrice starts after Freddie’s been silent a while- and then suddenly, faintly, Freddie hears a knocking sound.

She turns towards Ben’s bedroom door- but the knocking is actually coming from the computer. That is, from Beatrice’s own bedroom door. In Auckland.

“Oh, Bea,” calls a girl’s voice, tough to make out through Ben’s weak little laptop speaker. “I’m heading home, just wanted to say goodbye to you and Ben!”

The door swings open, and Freddie can feel her mouth slide wetly open in shock. The girl who steps into the bright orange room onscreen is tall and willowy, the overhead light glinting off her long, glossy black hair. She’s… well. She’s stunning.

“Bye, Meg! Great to see you,” says Ben, waving to the girl.

“Ooh, who’s that?” asks Meg, coming over to sit next to Beatrice on her bed, and looking at Freddie curiously. Freddie’s heart beats faster in her chest, her palms suddenly sweaty.

“Ben’s flatmate, Freddie,” Bea explains. “She came in to yell at us for being noisy, and we ended up talking.”

“She’s cute,” Meg pronounces with a definitive sort of nod of her head, and Freddie can feel herself blushing again, thinks her cheeks must be almost purple, she’s blushing so deeply. She thinks I’m cute…

“I… I…”

 “Fred?” Ben is watching her, bemused. “Fred? You okay there, buddy?”

“HiMegit’snicetomeetyouIthinkyou’relovelyaswellthanks,” Freddie blurts, all in one go, then inhales a deep breath, looking down at her hands clenched tightly in her lap.

“Uh, cool, thanks, I think,” Meg says, and when Freddie sneaks a glance at her perfect face, she sees with a start that Meg is blushing too. Her dark pink lipstick and heavy eye makeup make her look mature, mysterious. Unconsciously, Freddie licks her lips, unable to tear her eyes away from Meg’s mouth.

“Anyway,” Meg’s saying. “Bea, are we still on for this weekend? You, me, Hero, Ursula? It’s gonna be ah-mazing!”

“Yeah, yeah, I can’t wait,” Beatrice laughs, an edge of sarcasm to her voice. “Text when you get home tonight so Hero and I know you’re safe, all right?”

“I can take a hint,” says Meg, raising both hands in farewell. “Enjoy your Skype date, babes! Bye Ben, bye Freddie!” She winks, waves her fingers lightly at the three of them, and with a flick of her dark hair over her shoulder, she’s gone. Freddie’s speechless.

Ben and Bea share an amused look, unnoticed by the smitten redhead.

       “Isn’t she in some of your old vlogs?” Freddie asks Ben, who nods.

“Yep! That’s Meg. Seemed like you two got along well,” Ben grins, prodding her arm with one finger.

“Hmm… I never did finish watching your videos, I should really do that,” says Freddie.

“Oh, God, don’t bother,” says Beatrice with a shudder. “Who wants to relive all that mess?”

“I think it’s cool that we have all those memories to look back to,” says Ben, a little hurt. “Don’t you want to be able to remember how we finally got over ourselves and got together?”

“That’s all I want to remember,” Beatrice clarifies, softening for a moment. That look is back in her eyes as she smiles at Ben, and when Freddie looks round at her friend, she’s almost taken aback at the tenderness reflected in his own expression as well. She’s never seen Ben look at anyone like that before. Abruptly, Freddie realizes this is a memory that isn’t hers to share.

Also, she wants to make her escape before Ben can think to tease her any more for her embarrassingly obvious reaction to his gorgeous dark-haired friend.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it, then,” Freddie says awkwardly, backing away towards the door. “No shenanigans, it’s a school night!”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll be good,” says Ben. Freddie pretends not to see him crossing his fingers behind his back.

“Night, Freddie!” calls Beatrice. “Good to finally see your face!”

Freddie waves goodnight and creeps back to her room, a weight of sadness falling over her as she thinks about the loving look in her best friend’s eyes as he talked to Beatrice. No one has ever looked at Freddie like that, or at least, not that she’s ever noticed.

She’s cute, Meg’s voice rings out in Freddie’s head. She climbs into bed and smiles, her thoughts filled with perfect pink lips and deep dark eyes.

                                                                                     ***

           The next morning, Freddie is the first one awake. She’s brewing the coffee and nibbling on a biscuit when Ben pads into the kitchen, bleary eyed.

“I’m surprised you’re up so early,” Freddie says, and Ben just groans, his head in his hands.

“So that was Beatrice?” Freddie asks, and Ben sits up again, smiling, a faraway look in his tired eyes.

“Yeah, that was Beatrice.”

“She’s great,” says Freddie, and she means it. “How did you ever end up with someone like her?”

“Freddie, my friend, it’s anyone’s guess. Well, actually, it was a convoluted matchmaking plot, an entirely fabricated scandal, and a whole lot of unresolved sexual tension- but it’s a long story. One you would know if you’d bother to watch my videos… hey!” Ben winces as Freddie swats at his arm, laughing.

“I just- you’re lucky, you know? To have someone who loves you like that, who you can talk to so easily. I can see how much you care about each other. It must be wonderful.” Freddie tries not to sound wistful or jealous of what he has, because she really is happy for him.

“Yeah, I know,” says Ben blearily. “It really is. She’s wonderful.”

Freddie’s about to open her mouth again, to- to ask for Meg’s number? Ask whether she’d even really be interested, if she’s even into girls? If it’s even possible to start something from eight hours away…

Before she can ask, though, she notices the coffee’s ready. Ben’s still lost in thoughts of Beatrice. And anyway, it really wouldn’t be practical. She has her studies to focus on.

Freddie gets up to pour the coffee, and bites her tongue.

Chapter Text

It’s Saturday morning, and Ben is, as usual, up with the sun.

 

He’s always been a morning person, really. It’s his favorite time of day, these peaceful, quiet hours before the world comes alive again. Besides, sleeping is boring . He wakes up every day itching to be doing something, anything exciting. Most days, as soon as he’s conscious he can’t stay put for even a moment.

Lately, though, it’s been harder to find the motivation to actually get up and get out. All he’s had to look forward to have been long, boring lectures interspersed with lonely, unsatisfying meals in the flat kitchen- the result of his flatmates’ suddenly packed schedules and his own meager cooking skills. It’s not that he isn’t used to being alone in an empty house, it’s just that he was sort of hoping flatting with his friends would have solved that problem.

Balthazar and Freddie are always working or doing homework, and Ben feels like he hasn’t seen Peter in weeks. At least he’s probably having a good time, or he would be home more. Pete’s supposed to be coming to Balthazar’s open mic night tonight. Ben really hopes he decides to show up, if only so they’ll know for sure he’s still living here.

Tonight should make a nice change. Most of Ben’s weekends are pretty much all the same: doing homework, reading, going for walks to the bird sanctuary, alone. It was relaxing at first, but after so many weeks, the solitude is starting to get seriously old.

As it turns out, university life is really just like high school, but with more free time and less fun. And Ben doesn’t feel like he really fits into the uni crowd, with his dorky t-shirts and his messy hair. He still feels like some stupid high school kid, even if he does have his own place. It’s no wonder Peter never invites him to go out, and Balthazar doesn’t introduce him to the new friends he keeps making lunch dates with. Unless they’re actual dates, which seems unlikely. He’ll have to try to find out, come to think of it...

 

         On the bright side, the flat is peaceful this morning. Ben’s room is quiet, his bed is warm and comfortable, and he still has one more of Hero’s fantastic care package cookies hiding in a bag in his desk drawer. There was no way he’d have kept them in the kitchen and let himself be guilted into sharing with the others.

Ben pushes open the light blue curtains covering his window, to let the sunlight in. He grabs the cookie and his current book -one of his old Terry Pratchetts, a comfort re-read) from the desk and settles back in, propped up against his pillows, wrapped snugly in his red bathrobe and plaid blanket. The cookie is just on the edge of stale, but it still melts in his mouth, sugar and chocolate slowly replacing the cottony, bitter taste of sleep on his tongue.

He gets up a few chapters later to brush his teeth and make a cup of tea, then takes it and some toast back to his warm blanket cocoon to enjoy. Turning a page with his free hand, he disappears easily back into the story. This is nice. For the first time all week, he feels completely calm.

 

                                                                                                               ***

 

          The quiet lasts until he’s eventually distracted by his phone. The notification is for a new email from his History professor, but he can read that later. Ben smiles to himself as he notices it’s almost eleven o’clock already. Late enough to text Beatrice.

One of the first and most important lessons Ben’s learned about his girlfriend is that she is the antithesis of a morning person. Beatrice hates getting up early, and if you wake her up before she’s ready, she gets seriously mean. Even from eight hours away he doesn’t want to risk that kind of wrath, so he’s learned to be careful about when to text her.

Ben does miss being able to wake up next to her, though. The few nights they’ve spent together so far have meant the chance to wake up first, to watch Beatrice as she rests, peaceful, curled into his side, the sunlight glinting golden against her hair.

At least in Wellington he can’t make the mistake of coughing too loudly or shifting the wrong way in bed and waking her up. And Bea can’t throw pillows at him for his trouble. Silver linings are everywhere.

Anyway, he decides to risk it, and throws her a text: ‘Morning, love!’

 

A few moments pass before his phone vibrates again and he opens the message.

 

Beatrice: If I could groan at you over text message, I would.

Ben: Oh, shit, did I wake you? Sorry!

Beatrice: No, I was up. Today just kinda sucks already, that’s all.

Ben: What’s wrong?

Beatrice: Forget it, I’m just making a big deal out of nothing. :p

Ben: Want to talk about it? We could Skype?

Beatrice: Seriously, I’m fine. Not a talking kind of problem. Besides, I’m a sleepy mess right now.

Ben: I love you anyway.

Beatrice: Oh my God, you sap.

 

Ben grins and turns back to his book, but he knows what’s coming. And three… two… one…

 

Beatrice: You know what, fine. Call me in 15.

Beatrice: I love you.

 

He sends back a winky face and a sparkle heart emoji, carding a hand through his still sleep-tousled hair before settling in at his desk to wait, the blanket draped around his shoulders like a cape.

 

                                                                                                                    ***

 

            It’s actually about 20 minutes before he’s jolted back out of the Discworld by the sound of an incoming Skype call. He accepts the call and just barely holds back a laugh at the sight of Bea.

She’s lying on her side in bed, arms crossed tight, wearing her giraffe onesie and what Hero likes to call her Grumpy Cat face. Her nose is scrunched up, an exaggerated frown causing her forehead to wrinkle as she glares at him. “Don’t say a word,” she says fiercely.

“I wasn’t going to!” Ben promises, trying to keep the laughter out of his voice, and failing utterly.

“You know, I can hear you laughing right now, dickface,” Beatrice points out.

“I’m s-sorry love, it’s just-” he trails off. The fact of the matter is that grumpy looks cute on Beatrice, but saying so will just annoy her more, and he doesn’t want to do that. (How things have changed.)

“You sure you’re okay?” he says instead, calming down enough to stop laughing, though he can’t keep the smile off his face.

 

“Ugh,” is Beatrice’s only answer, and as she rolls to lie flat on her back, he sees that she’s clutching a heating pad to her midsection. “I hate cramps. This hardly ever happens to me, why now?”

Oh. Well then. Ben is certain his face has gone tomato-red. Oh, God… what are you supposed to say to a girl when… look, he has an idea of what cramps mean. He knows what the box Freddie keeps in the bathroom cabinet contains, because he sees it there every time he’s the one to fetch a new toilet roll or bar of soap, but that’s about the general scope of his knowledge on this, and he’s sort of floundering here.

Beatrice takes one look at his face and lets out a very undignified snort. “Oh, will you grow up? Boys are such babies.”

 

“I, ah… I’m sorry? I hope you feel better? I mean, if you need anything, I…” Ben mumbles, still blushing.

“Nothing you can give me from that far away,” Beatrice sighs.

“Oh, really,” he says suggestively, raising an eyebrow.

“Stop it, I didn’t mean it like that,” she says, exasperated.

“I, uh, it just slipped out! I didn’t- I wasn’t trying to- wait, we are still on the same page… about...?”

“Of course we are,” Bea says, softening. “It was fun and I don’t regret it at all, but I’m also okay to keep taking things slower, learning as we go.”

“Good. I feel the same way, I just want us both to be comfortable, whenever we are back in the same place.”

“You’re sweet. You know, I do wish you could come over here right now, and cuddle me and rub my back… that would be nice.” Her eyes flutter closed, imagining it, and a tiny smile creeps onto her face, despite herself. Her arms tighten their hold where they’re crossed over her body and she sighs.

“I wish I was there,” Ben says. “I would do whatever you needed me to. If you… um… need to complain?”

“God, no. I just need a distraction. What are you up to today?” she asks, turning carefully back onto her side and propping herself up on an elbow. She mercifully ignores his obvious relief at the change of subject.

“Not much, Balth has that gig later, the open mic night? Freddie and I are going.”

“Did Balthazar ever look up my friend Paige?” Bea asks. “She’s a musician, she performs all the time.”

“I think she’s going to be there tonight, yeah. They ran into each other at the last one, Balth says he’s going to introduce me to her. It’s so weird that you used to live here and I have to meet your friends without you.”

“I know, I feel so out of touch with everyone there, it feels so strange,” Beatrice says. “But at least I’ve still got Hero.”

“And Meg, and Ursula,” Ben points out. “What are they up to this weekend?”

Beatrice gives as much of a halfhearted shrug as she can manage lying down. “Dunno. And honestly, I don’t care. They could have the best plans ever and I’d still rather stay in bed today. Ugh.”

“All day? Don’t you have to work later?” Ben teases.

She groans. “Don’t remind me.”

 

          They both fall silent for a moment, a natural lull in the conversation when both their minds start to wander. Beatrice fiddles with her heating pad. Ben finds himself staring at the drawing of the lady knight in shining armor hanging behind her on the wall.

Suddenly they both start speaking at once.

 

“D’you maybe want to watch-”

“You don’t have to sit around with me all-”

“What?” they say in unison, and laugh.

 

Ben jumps in. “I was thinking, I know a good way to distract you. Remember that website I sent you the link to? The one for long distance couples or friends to watch movies on?”

“You really don’t have to do that,” Beatrice protests. “I’m boring today. There have to be a million more fun things for you to do on campus, right?”

Ben shifts uncomfortably. “I mean, I guess… but it’s really no big deal. I want to stay here.”

“You’re positive?”

“I would honestly rather spend today with you than do anything else, I promise.”

“Aww,” says Beatrice happily. “Well, if you're sure... I get to pick the movie, right?”

Hercules?” Ben guesses, giving her a knowing look.

“Of course, Hercules! Are you kidding? It’s only the best Disney movie ever!” Bea exclaims. "Next to The Little Mermaid, of course."

“Second best!” Ben protests. 

“What?!” Beatrice puts an offended hand to her heart. “Traitor!”

“Four words, love: Hunchback. Of. Notre. Dame.” He holds up a finger for emphasis with each word, and Beatrice looks confused.

“Never seen it,” she admits. “And does Notre Dame even count as two words? Isn’t there a hyphen?”

“You’ve never seen - oh, we are watching Hunchback. It’s happening. You don’t know what you’re missing!”

“Fine, then. Bring it on,” Beatrice says confidently, and together, they start the tedious process of figuring out how to use the streaming website, playful bickering and all.

 

                                                                                                          ***

 

           They do end up starting with Hercules, Bea’s choice, of course. She can’t help but sing along with the Muses, and things sort of go downhill from there as far as actually paying attention to the story goes. Bea and Ben are far too busy singing and dancing along rather terribly to the music.

There’s nothing quite like performing Go the Distance as an impromptu duet with your girlfriend over Skype to save a boring weekend, honestly. She laughs at him when his voice gives out on the high notes, but Ben doesn’t even mind.

I will find my way. I can go the distance. I'll be there someday if I can be strong. I know every mile will be worth my while. I would go most anywhere to feel like I belong.

The lyrics are like a push back against this weird loneliness he can’t seem to shake, against the distance growing between his flatmates, and the distance separating him from Beatrice, from home. It’s like the song reaches something inside him, that need to try something new, to have an adventure. Next weekend, he’s going to make plans. He is . He can feel it, the pure elation of knowing things are going to change.

(Next weekend, incidentally, will find him hunched over his laptop, hammering out a truly terrible essay. He doesn’t leave his room for two days. The only thing worse than his shitty writing is the heavy sensation of failure weighing on the center of his chest, a knot that even tea can’t dissolve. It’s only very late next Saturday night, lying in the dark, texting back and forth with Beatrice, that he starts to feel a little better.)

 

          “Okay, but why would you pronounce the letters in Roman Numerals though? That joke makes no sense!” Ben protests at the scene with the little trapped boys asking Herc to call VIIII-I-I for help, and Beatrice rolls her eyes.

“Will you stop overanalyzing, it’s a kid’s movie!”

“That’s no excuse for factual inaccuracies! How are the kids supposed to learn to read a clock with Roman Numerals if the movies teach them to say the letters out loud?”

“Hey, dickface,” Beatrice snickers when the hydra pops up. “That’s you!”

“What are you, twelve?” is his oh-so-intelligent comeback, until the hydra grows several meaner, uglier heads after Hercules cuts one off. Ben points to one. “Bea, there you are! The resemblance is uncanny!”

“Oh, shut up and watch the movie already, will you?”

“You started it!”

 

            Soon, Megara is left alone in the garden, and the Muses start singing again. He’s the earth and heaven to you, try to keep it hidden, honey we can see right through you, we know how you feel and who you’re thinking of!

“I wonder who this reminds me of?” Ben grins, looking pointedly at Beatrice.

“I have no idea what you mean,” she turns her nose up at him. “No chance, no way, I won’t say it, no no,” and she blends into the song, the Muses chiming in with their lines after her. Ben’s lip-sync of the “you swoon, you sigh, why deny it, uh-oh” bit is so ridiculous that Beatrice misses her next line from laughing too hard.

“I am not Megara in this scene!” she shouts through the giggles. “I refuse!”

“Well, you’re not anymore ,” Ben says with a self-satisfied smirk.

“Wish I’d actually found a Hercules,” Bea shoots back, arms crossed, in a huff.

“Did you know in the actual myth Heracles killed Megara and both their kids and fucked off back to Mount Olympus in the end?” Ben says as casually as he can manage.

“You should talk, bird murderer,” Bea teases.

“How dare you bring up such painful memories! I’m wounded, truly.”

“Then quit ruining my favorite Disney movie. Ohh, you made me miss the end of the song. Does this thing have a rewind button?”

 

                                                                                                              ***

 

By the time they get to Hunchback, they’ve calmed down considerably. The sing-alongs have also ebbed, because Beatrice doesn’t know the words this time. She starts Googling the lyrics and they’re off and running again by the time the Heaven’s Light scene comes on.

“That warm and loving glow, I swear it must be heaven’s light…” Ben trails off, letting Beatrice sing the rest of the short number.

 

The way she lights up when she throws herself into the song… it’s like when she sang Way to Tell You, face shining with embarrassed pride. It’s like when she cuddled up next to him in a dry bathtub and kissed his words away. It’s like the fire of the night, two days before he’d left for Wellington, when Beatrice had climbed in through his bedroom window and scared him half to death, before laughing, apologizing, entangling him in her arms…

 

“That’s it,” Beatrice decides. “I’m officially adding Paris, France to my travel year itinerary! …And possibly Greece, we’ll see.”

Ben tries his best to feel excited for her, but the glow ebbs, just a little. “Wish I could come with you.”

He still can’t believe it’s so easy for her, taking a two-year gap to work and go abroad before she even has to think about university. Just the idea of trying to explain a decision like that to his own parents…

“Are you paying attention?” Bea asks, already distracted by the first notes of Hellfire, the music taking a much darker turn. She opens her mouth and begins to sing.

Beatrice, as it transpires, does a mean Claude Frollo. It’s both hilarious and a little bit scary.



        “There, you see? Hunchback is the best Disney movie there is, I just proved it,” Ben says triumphantly as the credits roll.

“You proved that Esmeralda is a badass and every person ever born with a ‘Claud’ in his name is pure evil,” Beatrice says. “But Hercules is still way better.”

“Do you feel better, love?”

So much better,” she says happily. “This was a perfect Saturday, thank you for staying in with me.”

“Anytime,” he promises, and it’s the truth.

 

Maybe there are other things he could - should - have been doing today, if he wanted to push himself. But there’ll be time for that later. In this moment, the distance between Ben and Bea has never felt smaller. He thinks they’re already right where they belong.

 

Chapter Text

          Beatrice is sitting on her bed, frowning at her phone, which is playing this incredibly annoying cutesy music as little giraffes wearing pink hair bows parade across the screen. Her fingers are getting sore from all this tapping on the screen to make her baby giraffe character’s neck grow long enough to plant smooches on the noses of all the other giraffes coming his way.

It’s so sickly sweet she almost can’t stand it. The little star-shaped power-ups you have to collect, the way little hearts appear above the giraffes’ heads when they kiss - hadn’t she been perfectly clear back in February how much she hated little pink hearts? When she first started playing this game she kept losing because she was too busy rolling her eyes at it to actually score any points.

Of course, the giraffes totally save the whole thing. That’s why she’s been sitting here for the past half-hour, trying to beat her last high score. It has nothing to do with the fact that Ben texted her the link to the game the other day and signed it with a heart-eyes emoji, saying that he thought of her as soon as he started playing it.

Which really shouldn’t have such an effect on her. Honestly, what’s cute or romantic about an adulterous giraffe trying to get as many meaningless kisses as he can? It’s ridiculous- and yet she still feels a little thrill of pleasure, remembering the realization that Ben was thinking about her, missing her. Knowing for sure that he still cares, even when they aren’t Skyping, even as far away as he is… it helps. It makes her feel a little less sad.

It’s stupid.

She pounds the left-side button, extending her giraffe’s neck just in time to kiss a girl-giraffe whose neck was as tall as the entire tiny screen. The timer runs out. 21,300 points. Not bad.

 

            She’s halfway into yet another round of giraffe kisses when the door opens. Beatrice is so focused that she almost fails to notice Hero coming in and sitting on the edge of Bea’s bed, waiting.

“Hey,” Hero says. “Still playing that cute little game you hate?”

“No,” says Beatrice, letting her giraffe’s neck shorten a bit in order to smooch a medium height giraffe on the nose.

Hero laughs. “Whatever you say. Ursula says hi, by the way.”

“Hi Ursula!” Beatrice says, rather pointlessly since her friend’s not around to hear her. She catches a power-up, granting her a bit of extra time on the clock. Absently, she asks Hero, “So how was your date?”

“It was lovely as usual,” Hero says happily. “We took a walk in the park and then came back here and cuddled and watched The Notebook. Ursula’s going to grow up and become a director just so she can make romance movies that are 100% less straight. Things are good.”

“Ugh,” comments Beatrice, only half-listening. “Nicholas Sparks is so beyond gross. I’m way too greyro for that sh- shit!” The timer has finally run out, and she was just about to score a ton of points too. She sighs and puts down the phone, giving Hero her full attention.

“Hey, don’t knock it until you try it,” Hero says. “I think it’s sweet. It’s a love story.”

“That’s the problem! I mean, I don’t mind love. I just don’t want it to be the entire focus of the story,” Beatrice argues. “A little bit is fine as long as there are also space aliens or superheroes or strong female friendships or dinosaurs. Like, remember The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants? There’s romance in that, but the main focus is the friendship and coming of age and stuff. That’s much more interesting.”

“I don’t remember any dinosaurs in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, though,” Hero points out.

“No, but that’s exactly it! Every movie doesn’t need dinosaurs, just like every movie definitely doesn’t need romance. I’m right about this, okay?”

“I did used to love The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” Hero admits. “I mean, Blake Lively…” She’s blushing fiercely. Beatrice laughs.

“Ooh, someone’s got a crush!”

“I just admire her… acting, is all. I do! I’ve watched a lot of Gossip Girl with Meg!” Hero protests when her cousin just points at her with a gleeful ‘I caught you’ expression on her face.

“I wonder what Ursula would have to say about that, hmm?” Bea teases.

“The same thing Ben says about your little Cumberbatch obsession, probably.”

“Please, Hero. My days as Mrs. Cumberbatch are a thing of the past. The calm, simple, romance-free past. Ben knows that. He’s smug enough about it.”

In point of fact, Ben brings up her ‘divorce’ just about every time she mentions Sherlock or Smaug. She doesn’t let him see how much she enjoys his self-satisfied snarking about being the better Ben. She rolls her eyes and acts like it’s no big deal, like loving Benedick instead of lusting after unattainable celebrities isn’t one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to her.

 

            Pretending to have a crush on Benedict Cumberbatch had been safe, had allowed her to have an answer to Meg’s frequent queries of “Who do you like?” when there had honestly never been any real-life romantic crushes for Bea to share. Bea had been so certain of her identity before, certain that the delicious heat spreading outwards from her center to fill up her body when she thought too hard about her favorite British actors would never be accompanied by whatever fluttery couple-y romantic crush nonsense everyone else seemed to feel. She’d thought she was aromantic. She was into guys, but she’d realized at fifteen that she really didn’t want to date one. Ever.

And then Benedick had come back into her life, and she’d had to question things all over again, because for the first time since she was fourteen, she felt that embarrassing, uncomfortable, butterfly sensation, that itch to be around him all the time. At first, she’d absolutely hated it. Sometimes she still does.

She still feels guilty, some days. She worries she was lying to herself, that she isn’t aromantic enough to call herself aro-spectrum anymore because of her feelings for Ben- but the point is, she loves him, and they have fun together, and he doesn’t feel the need to push her into doing anything too overly romantic if she’s uncomfortable. And she hasn’t gotten sick of him yet.

That’s what had happened all two other times throughout her high school years when she’d flirted with boys she’d known from St. Miranda’s. Both of those guys ended up wanting more than casual kissing, and had turned into world-class jerks when she just couldn’t reciprocate that. It was incredibly annoying. She never understood why they had to make such a big deal of a couple of random moments of fun. It wasn’t like she hadn’t made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t looking to date.

With Ben, though, her feelings haven’t faded. They’ve changed. She’s still so attracted to him, but it isn’t just physical this time, somehow. She has romantic feelings for him, as unlikely as that seems, and she shouldn’t feel guilty about it. Ben makes her happy, but she was happy before, too. She didn’t need him. He just sort of… happened.

It’s been a change. But sometimes change is good, even if it’s weird at first.

 

                                                                                                                         ***                        

 

               Another change is waiting for Bea, in her nightly Skype chat with Ben later. When his face pops up on the screen, she genuinely does a double-take midsentence.

"So, what’s- oh my gosh!" Beatrice exclaims. “You- your hair!”

Benedick has, for basically the first time since she’s known him, changed his hair. Instead of sticking out in a flyaway mess, it’s much more styled and slick, held together in a sort of swooping, wavy shape, and it’s just so… unexpected.

There’s a pause. Beatrice realizes she might be just a little bit struck speechless.

It’s no big deal or anything, it’s just that Ben looks… well, he looks good. Really good. He’s even put on one of his button-down shirts, light blue like his eyes, and there’s the most endearing little nervous half-smile on his lips, and she can’t help it. She laughs, just a little bit.

She gets the giggles when she’s caught off-guard, it’s a whole thing. It gets her into trouble sometimes. 

Such as right now. That little smile quickly disappears from her boyfriend’s face, and he absolutely deflates, bowing his head and refusing to meet her eyes. She’s watching him through a computer screen, which makes it almost impossible to get him to look at her so she can fix this.

 

"You hate it," says Ben morosely.

"I don't-"

"You're laughing at me," he actually pouts, and Bea has to smile.

"I'm not. I was just surprised. What brought this on?"

"I dunno, I just figured I could use a change. Everyone on campus always looks so nice, and I still feel like some messy high school kid. So I thought I'd try... But if it looks stupid-"

"No, it looks-" Beatrice struggles to come up with the right adjective. "Fancy?"

They both laugh at that.

 

"You know what I mean," says Bea. "You look... distinguished? Kind of... more mature? It'll take some getting used to, but it suits you. I mean, it’s really- you look great."

"Really?"

"Yeah, of course. Not that I didn’t like it before, or… I don’t know. I like you however you look.”

This time Beatrice is the one not meeting Ben's eyes. It’s still a little embarrassing, her newfound tendency to say nice things about him. It’s weird, but it’s a relief, finally being able to look at him this way without having to pretend she doesn’t feel anything for him.

Ben smirks, insecurity finally giving way to his usual confident, cocky self. “You think I’m hot.”

Tilting her head slightly to one side, Beatrice surveys him, teasing. “You’re alright, I s’pose.”

He pretends to be offended, but it just gives way to laughter.

 

          Bea finds herself wondering how Ben’s new hairdo feels- if it’s sticky at all, or stiff with product of some kind. She’ll be disappointed if she can’t run her fingers through his hair anymore, when she kisses him…

Bea bites her lip, reminding herself not to actually reach out for him now. All she’d get would be a cold laptop screen beneath her hands, instead of Ben’s warmth.

 "I miss you," she admits quietly, scooting closer to the screen anyway.

"Me too," he sighs. "I miss you so much."

For a minute or two, they just watch each other, comfortably silent.

 

Ben really does look more grown-up with his new hair, more put-together. He runs his fingers through it absently, careful not to mess it up. Bea didn’t have anything to worry about there, she notes in relief.

When the conversation picks back up again, Bea learns that he’s been hanging out with Paige and Chelsey a little more recently, and even went out into the city with Freddie once or twice. Perking up, he talks her ear off about Freddie’s reactions to every single bird they’d seen on their last walk through Zealandia.

“I’ll have to take you if you ever come to visit me, Bea,” says Ben excitedly.

Even as she scoffs that that’s never happening, Beatrice is overwhelmed with a rush of affection for this absolute dork.

 

He’s so enthusiastic about even the smallest things, but he also asks how she’s doing, wants to hear about her life. He listens to her complain about work, and her parents always talking down to her, and Hero and Ursula being too sappy and couple-y to hang out with anymore. He can make her laugh after even the worst days, sometimes without even trying. She can talk to him about anything- well, almost anything. Ben is her best friend, and she is in love with him.

She isn’t broken or bad or lying about how she feels. She’s greyromantic. It all makes sense to her now that she has that word. It’s such a relief. She might never tell anyone apart from the people who already know- Hero and Ursula and, of course, Ben- but just knowing it herself… It’s really nice to be sure of things, for once. That’s all.

Beatrice Duke doesn’t need a romantic relationship in order to be fulfilled or real or anything ridiculous like that. She just happens to want this relationship with Ben, with all her heart. Of that, she’s absolutely certain.

Nicholas Sparks and giraffe-kissing games are still gross, though. She’ll argue that to the death… once she beats Ben’s high score, anyway.

                                                                                                                     ***

Chapter Text

***

       Talking to Beatrice is always the highlight of Ben’s day. It doesn’t feel right to end an evening without wishing her goodnight- and for a long time, he hasn’t had to. Thank goodness for Skype. Living in two different cities would suck even worse without it.

Somehow, though, there's always a palpable sense of relief when Ben clicks Accept Call and Beatrice appears on his screen. It's like he's expecting her to decide she has better things to do than to bother Skyping him so very often— which is silly, he knows. Beatrice loves their conversations as much as Ben does— but sometimes, he just can’t help doubting himself, questioning whether she’ll decide that long-distance isn’t worth it anymore. That he isn’t worth it.

He tries to tell her how he feels, just once. He’s had a bad day— classes were stressful and things with his flatmates have been getting a little tense lately— and when Beatrice is late to call, Ben just cannot stop worrying. What if she just doesn’t call tonight? What if something’s wrong? What if she’s upset with him for some reason?  

He doesn’t want to text her and ask, just in case she feels pestered or anything. They do still text a lot, but Ben is never sure how much is too much. It seems like all he ever wants to do is talk to Bea, so he’s forever fighting the impulse to reach out to her, just in case it gets annoying. There are only so many times you can tell someone you miss them, before they start to resent you for choosing to stay away.

There’s nothing to do but wait.

 

Ben spends the time scrolling Tumblr. Barely seeing any of the posts that pass by, he ends up mostly just sitting there, tapping his fingers nervously on the desk. When Bea finally calls, looking tired but happy to see him, Ben can’t suppress a sigh of relief, slouching in his desk chair as the air rushes from his lungs and the tension flows from his body. It’s hard to believe that Bea is only about five minutes late. It feels like so much longer.

“Ben, are you okay?” Bea raises an eyebrow.

 "I wasn't sure... I was afraid you wouldn't want to talk tonight,” Ben admits softly, not meeting her eyes.

"Of course I want to talk to you! Why wouldn’t I?" she says, surprised.

“I… no reason. It- it’s nothing, really. How was work?” he changes the subject, staring intently at his own tiny face in the bottom right corner of the screen. His tired, worried expression melts into a small smile. He was being ridiculous after all.

When he finally glances back up to Beatrice, she’s smiling back at him. She’s happy. She isn’t upset with him at all, and now they get to spend some time, as close to together as they can be. Everything’s just fine.

The very next night, though, Bea texts to cancel their Skype date. She’s working late.

 

Ben knows Bea is just busy, knows she has to pick up every shift she can if she’s going to afford an entire year abroad. He also knows it’s ridiculous, how afraid he feels at the thought of the trip, the idea of Beatrice putting even more space between them, eventually falling out of touch altogether. She would probably say that that’s impossible, tell him not to worry- but it is possible. More than possible. Ben knows from experience just how easy it is to lose people. Even the most important people.  The trip would make a whole two years apart from Bea, hardly keeping in touch, never seeing her, never being able to hold her close or spend time with her outside a screen at all. Sometimes it seems to Ben as though all they’ve ever done is lose each other, over and over again. 

He turns to his German homework with a sigh. Sprich mit ihr...  

It’s no use. It might as well be gibberish.  

 

***

 

Beatrice honestly kind of hates working late.

The customers are still rude, the hours are long, and being on her feet for ages leaves her exhausted and sore- not to mention the limitations on her social life that come from working what feels like the hours of two employees at once. She’d almost regret taking the extra hours, but at least she’s being paid overtime, getting the money she needs to pay for her travels next year.

The more money Beatrice puts into savings, the more real her impending gap year starts to feel, and that’s as exciting as it is terrifying. When she isn’t working, Bea is eagerly planning the American leg of her trip, starting with a visit to her mother’s family in upstate New York. It’s weird to imagine being in a totally new place, alone, staying with family she’s never even met before. She’s ready for the adventure, but it still won’t be easy to leave for a year when her support system is here at home. When her friends, her family, her life, are here. When her love is here.

Except, of course, for the fact that technically, Ben isn’t here at all. He’s in Wellington. Stupid, too-far-away Wellington. Beatrice has to laugh at the sudden thought that she isn’t sure whether her boyfriend stole her home city, or her home city stole her boyfriend.

When she took on the extra work hours, Beatrice had figured she’d just push her Skype dates with Ben until a little later each evening. He would understand. These things happen. But with all the studying Ben has to do lately, it’s harder than ever to find times their schedules overlap.

The Skype calls have dropped to only a couple of times a week, but their conversations are still wonderful. Last night, they talked for three hours, they got so carried away. Beatrice kind of wonders if she isn’t romanticizing a little, since she sees so much less of Ben these days, but the fact of the matter is that she hasn’t laughed so hard in a long time. She went to sleep early afterward, with a smile on her face.

Tonight, she’s sitting in bed, freshly showered and changed into a comfy t-shirt, her laptop balanced on her knees, waiting to talk to Ben. She’s texted him a couple of times, but he hasn’t answered yet, and his Status on Skype says he’s offline. Beatrice glares at the little white dot next to Ben’s picture, impatient. It’s already going on 7:30pm.

It’s a continual surprise, just how much she misses Ben, how wrong it feels not to be able to see him. It’s good practice, Beatrice tells herself. No couple can always be in the same place at the same time, that’s just life. She and Ben are independent of one another, both succeeding and thriving in their new post-high-school lives, and that’s a good sign. Great, even. She has no interest in the kind of creepy, unhealthy codependency Meg used to have with Robbie.

At the same time, it isn’t like it’s a crime to miss Ben. Hell, all she wants to do is talk to her best friend once in a while. And kiss him, and touch him, and hold hands, and be sappy and cuddly and gross…

Bea sighs in frustration as she scrolls through the text messages she and Ben have sent each other lately, little I-love-yous and screenshots of memes and silly selfies. He’s always sending her that ridiculous sparkle-heart emoji, even though she doesn’t like pink or hearts or sappy stuff. Somehow, though, she’s managed to get used to this one. She associates the little icon, not with sickly-sweet forced ideals of romance, but with laughing at Ben’s terrible jokes and endlessly flirting with him over text-message. It’s the only little pink heart that’s ever not made Beatrice want to be sick.

She wishes he would send her one now. He could at least have the courtesy to tell her he can’t talk tonight, instead of cold-shouldering her. This is not what she signed up for, this waiting around, impatient and tired and alone.

By 8:00, Beatrice has given up waiting. Ben won’t answer his phone, and he isn’t online.

In the end, it’s Balthazar who finally returns her messages, giving her the answers she’s looking for. Beatrice turns off her phone and sighs into the darkness of her room, resenting the quiet. It’s a long time before she sinks into a fitful sleep.

 

***

 

“There are three lengthy essay questions, to be written in Latin, German, and French, and a section of fill-in-the-blanks, with no word bank,” the professor drones. “Begin.”

Benedick stares in horror at his empty paper, the essay prompts written in some sort of gibberish he can’t even read. He didn’t study, he doesn’t know this material at all- and he doesn’t even speak French, much less write it!

The ticking of the clock gets louder and louder and everyone else is doing so well and the period is almost over and he can’t even find a pencil to write with. The teacher is glaring and Ben’s going to fail and he’ll have to repeat the course and stay at university for a whole extra year. He’s never getting out of here, never, oh God, he’s so incredibly fucked-

Ben jerks awake, breathing heavily, skin damp with a cold sweat. He can feel his heart hammering painfully in his chest as he struggles to inhale, sinking back down against the pillows. It was just a dream, he hasn’t failed… not yet, anyway.

The room is pitch-black, and he’s confused. He’s sure that when he settled down for a nap it was early afternoon, he was just resting his eyes before he returned to his homework. When did it become the middle of the night? Wasn’t he supposed to talk to Beatrice earlier?

Beatrice…

He imagines her laughing at him, telling him how silly he’s being. She would curl up next to him, her breathing slow and peaceful with oncoming sleep, and it would calm him. That would be nice.

Ben sighs and rolls over, drifting into sleep again. When he wakes up, the dream is a distant, foggy memory. The trickle of cold guilt down his spine when he realizes he slept through both Skype and dinner last night, however, is less easily pushed aside.

 

            “You should have told me you had an essay to write the other night, I would have understood,” Bea says, frustrated, the next time they talk. “And then you wouldn’t have been so tired you had to stand me up yesterday.”

“I didn’t have to tell you,” Ben argues. “I got the essay done, didn’t I? And I still got to see you. I can do both, it’s no big deal!”

“You stayed up all night and then slept through our Skype date! Just… try to get some actual sleep sometime, okay? That’s all I’m saying,” sighs Bea. “I hate long-distance.”

It’s like the bottom drops out of Ben’s stomach, hearing that. If Bea is unhappy, it’s all his fault. He’s the one who did the leaving, after all. And she’s right, he shouldn’t have procrastinated on his essay.

But she just frowns and says, “Stop looking at me like that, dickface. I don’t hate you. Which reminds me, you’ll never guess what Hero found out today. Claudio has a new girlfriend…”  

Ben lets Beatrice rant about how much she still hates Claudio, but he’s only half-listening. He’s too busy clinging to those words: I don’t hate you. Beatrice hasn’t given up on him yet. Thank God for that.

            The next few weeks get even busier for both of them. Beatrice’s hours at the restaurant are bordering on illegal at this point, and for Ben, end-of-trimester exams are looming. All of a sudden, Skype is almost totally out the window, and the two of them barely have the chance to speak to each other.

Ben is in class all day, barely managing to pay attention to the string of endless boring lectures from each of his professors. In the evenings, he has to do his flat chores, make dinner with Freddie and Balth and sometimes Peter, and then work on all the final essays and projects he has leading up to exams. When those are done, he’ll still have hours and hours’ worth of revising to do for the actual tests, and he’s tired just thinking about it.

He’s really trying not to procrastinate so much now that things are so down to the wire. He isn’t always successful, of course. He’s forever toggling back and forth between his essay of the moment and his Tumblr dash, it’s a problem. But the work is getting done, and he always manages to find a little time to stay in touch with Beatrice.

It’s mostly Snapchats and texts and sometimes Facebook messages back and forth. When they can, Ben and Bea manage a tiny little five-minute Facetime call just to see each other and say “I love you.” Five minutes to catch each other up on everything going on in their lives. Five minutes to apologize for being so busy and promise to call again soon. Five minutes, only to hang up and feel ever more distant.

Exams week arrives and drags along, and Ben is counting down the days. Studying is all he can think about, every spare moment spent revising with Balth and Freddie, the three of them holed up in Freddie’s bedroom, keeping each other calm and focused as best they can. He keeps meaning to talk to Pedro and Balth about what they’re doing over the short end-of-term break. They should really figure out their plans.

Days slip by, painfully slow. Exams begin to be checked off Ben’s extremely long list.

One test down, five to go. Four to go. Three. Two…

 

***

 

         Ben should definitely be finished with exams by now, Beatrice is sure. She just doesn’t understand why he hasn’t been in touch. He hasn’t even bothered to tell her if and when he’s coming home for his between-trimesters break. He could be home as soon as this weekend if he really wanted to- but she can't expect Ben to just get in the car the moment his last exam finishes. It’s a long drive, and he only gets so much time off, she understands that. She’s really trying not to get her hopes up.

But leaving her hanging like this is just mean.

 

Ben canceled the last couple Skype calls because he was busy studying, so Beatrice hasn’t actually talked to him face to face for a few days now. She’s on the evening shift at the restaurant tonight, and she can’t concentrate for the life of her. The past three groups of customers through the door have had to come over and wave a hand in front of her face just to get her attention, because all she can think is that it’s seven o’clock and she should be home on Skype with her boyfriend right now.

The most annoying thing about being in a long-distance relationship is, far and away, the fact that you can never stop thinking about how you're in a long-distance relationship. It just makes Beatrice feel all sappy and frivolous and grumpy. Damn it, she misses Ben.

She can’t believe he could just forget to mention that he was planning on going radio silent for no apparent reason. He’s the one who keeps on making those big, sad puppy eyes when she tries to hang up on him on Facetime, shouldn’t he care more about staying in touch?

 

“Hey, Beatrice, is table six supposed to be reserved, or- wow, what’s wrong with you?” Kate, one of the waitresses, asks as she notices Beatrice’s frown.

“What? Oh- uh, nothing. Boys are the worst,” Beatrice grumbles.

“Can’t argue there,” Kate says darkly, rolling her eyes.

“Anyway, what did you need?” Beatrice sighs, trying to snap out of it.

 

She spends the rest of the night trying her best to be cheery and positive as she welcomes hungry patrons into the restaurant and leads them to their tables. By the end of her shift, Beatrice is worn out, and in a truly awful mood. She’s been on her feet all night, barely able to stop and take a breath.

Kate is nice enough, stopping to chat whenever she can, but Beatrice is getting tired of hearing her complain about the gross dude in her acting class who won’t stop hitting on her. She sympathizes, but thinking about how she’s unable to silence all the misogynistic fuckfaces of the world honestly just makes Beatrice angrier, and she can’t deal with that burden right now.

Finally, the restaurant starts to empty out, and the blessed beacon of closing time draws nearer. Beatrice rubs at her temples, leaning heavily on her hostess podium, shutting her eyes for just a moment.

When Kate runs by next, Beatrice manages to convince her to step in and hold down the fort while she runs to the bathroom. She just needs a minute alone to cool down.

A little cool water on her forehead helps soothe the headache, and in the silence, she can finally catch her breath.

It’s worth it, she reminds herself. When you’re road-tripping across America, drinking in an English pub, lying on a beach in France, this will all be worth it.

It won’t always be like this. This time next year, she’s going to see the world. That thought puts a smile on her face, as does the sudden buzzing sensation of the phone vibrating in her back pocket. That could be Ben, at long last! She pulls out her phone, leaning in close to the small screen, so hopeful— Oh.

It’s Hero. Wonderful, sweet Hero, just wanting to know when Bea is getting off work and whether she’d like to hang out and watch Game of Thrones when she gets home. That’s a yes, for sure.

From Ben? Still nothing. Absolutely nothing.

 

            Beatrice stalks back out into the restaurant foyer, brimming with exhaustion and disappointment. All she wants at this point is to go home, hug Hero, and fall asleep on the couch with a plate of cookies and the ever-bloody battle for Westeros raging on her television. Either that, or perform some decapitations herself.

Kate is sitting on the bench where customers sit when they’re waiting for a table. Beatrice sinks down next to her- the first time she’s been off her feet in hours. She sighs in relief.

“I know, wasn’t tonight brutal?” Kate sympathizes, leaning her head against the nearest wall. “Closing time, my favorite time of night.”

“Ugh,” Beatrice grumbles, forcing herself to get up again. Kate slowly follows her, and they begin the work of cleaning up and shutting things down, assisted by most of the rest of the waitstaff.

The kitchen is closed, so Beatrice doesn’t have to stay at her post. Instead, she begins gathering up any stray menus and unused silverware from the dining area, while everyone else bustles around her.

“Oh, no,” she hears Kate say. “Is that a person out there? Don’t they see the Closed sign?”

“There is nothing,” Beatrice declares, marching back out to her podium area, “that I hate as much as the kind of asshole loser who shows up at a restaurant at closing time, still expecting to be seated.”

“You want me to tell him to fuck off, then?” Kate asks, gesturing to a shadowy figure who appears to be leaning against the front window.

“No,” says Bea, relishing the opportunity to yell at somebody- her favorite way to expend excess energy. Well, okay, maybe not yell. Snap, at least. Anyway- “I’ve got this one,” she tells Kate, and marches to the door to give that shadowy would-be customer a piece of her mind.

Throwing open the door, she turns to the person whose face is still in shadow. “Excuse me, but can’t you see we’re closed? Go away. Now.”

“Really, I had absolutely no idea. Ten o’clock on a Friday night, with a giant Closed sign on the door, who could possibly figure out what that means?” he snarks.

Beatrice freezes, mid-return insult. She knows that voice like the back of her hand— and then he steps into the light from the doorway and she gasps.

 

        “Wh-What the hell are you- Why didn’t you tell me- Oh my God, you are such a dickface!” She can feel her anger softening with every word, and she throws herself into his arms with such force that they both come very close to falling over, right there on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. His arms around her feel so wonderful, so steady and real, she isn’t even worried about falling.

“We finished with exams earlier than I thought. I wanted to surprise you, love,” Ben laughs, her momentum forcing him to stagger slightly, spinning their bodies in a tight circle as they both regain their balance.

“So you just stopped calling me for four days straight? I hate you!” Beatrice gasps, pressing her nose into his shoulder, breathing him in. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

“I missed-” his words are cut off by her lips against his. Beatrice can’t wait another minute. She doesn’t give a thought to her anger or the fact that she should be helping close the restaurant or how shocked Kate probably is to see Bea embracing the not-so-mysterious loitering guy instead of kicking his ass. Well- the jury's still out on kicking his ass, to be honest, but there are more important things on Beatrice's mind.

All she cares about is doing what she hasn’t been able to for months. She threads her fingers through his beautiful thick hair, just as soft as always, thank goodness. Beatrice pulls Benedick as close against her as possible, kissing him deeply. The taste of his lips, his tongue, sliding against hers as he kisses her back; the feel of his hands on her body, gentle but firm; the pressure and pleasure of real, tangible, physical touch- it washes over her, intoxicating, breathtaking. Finally.

Oh, God, finally, there’s nothing to keep them apart. Nothing…

 

Beatrice gasps, gulping in air as she pulls away, resting her sweaty forehead carefully against Ben’s.

“I… I’m sorry. I have to…” she breathes. He understands without her having to finish the sentence.

“It’s okay… I’ll wait,” Ben promises. “I’ll be right here. Just… don’t send anyone else out to yell at me, yeah?”

Beatrice bursts into laughter, giddy with exhaustion and the overwhelming desire to kiss him again. “I’ll see you soon. I’ll clock out as soon as I possibly can, okay?”

It takes just about every ounce of self-control she has to pry herself away from Benedick and head back inside. She leaves him with a final peck on the lips and one more on his cheek, and he watches her as she slips back inside.

 

       She isn’t even that bothered by Kate’s teasing. “So much for hating boys, huh?” the waitress says as soon as Bea reappears inside. “That’s not how I would have dealt with a loiterer at closing time, I can tell you that right now.”

“Shut up,” Beatrice says, but she’s grateful for her co-worker, who takes on extra work so Bea doesn’t have to stay too much longer. Apparently she’s been more obvious about missing her long-distance boyfriend than she would’ve preferred to think. Bea promises to make it up to Kate the next time they open or close the place together, but she’s not at all too big to make a beeline for her stuff and race out the door as quickly as possible.

“Ben!” she calls happily into the night.

“I’m right here, love,” he laughs, pulling her into another hug. “I’m here.”

“Took you long enough, dickface,” Bea grumbles, squeezing him as tightly as she can. It’s a while before they even make it to his car, because she just can’t stand to let him go.

 

***

 

       Mum and Dad picked an excellent week to be out of town doing fieldwork, if you ask Benedick. They won’t be back at the house until Saturday night, so on Friday, all that space is just for him and Beatrice.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather go home? I know you just got off work, so my timing isn’t exactly ideal, and if you want to sleep-” he offers, suddenly a little nervous. He doesn’t want to be presumptuous or anything, and it’s not like he won’t still be here in the morning. He has to smile at that thought.

Beatrice gives him an incredulous look. “It has been months since I’ve seen you, Benedick. Months. I’m not going anywhere, except home with you. Now, drive. …Please?”

“I’ve missed your evil tyrant ways,” Ben says, looking lovingly at her.

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Beatrice declares with a smirk.

 

            The plywood walls in Ben’s old bedroom are empty and bare, making the small space feel even tinier. The same old blue comforter sits, wrinkled, on the bed, but the bookshelves are half empty and the whole space feels desolate and heavily silent.

Still, it feels, for both Ben and Bea, like coming home. It’s the place where they found each other. This old blue bed is the place where Beatrice cried about Hero’s heartbreak at Claudio and Pedro’s hands, and the place where Ben comforted her, awkward and unsure, yet gentle and kind. It’s a place that Ben once thought Beatrice would never, ever want to set foot in, not for a million years.

It’s the place, actually, where he realized he was in love with her. The place where she confessed that she didn’t hate him, after all. They’ve slept here, and laughed here, cried here and kissed here…

 

        “I’ve missed this,” Beatrice sighs, curling up against him under the covers. She’s clad only in a thin white tank top and underwear, her dirty restaurant uniform in a pile on the floor next to Ben’s red jeans. She pulls out the ponytail holder in her hair, letting it fall long across her shoulders and into her eyes. Ben pushes a few strands back behind her ear, feeling his pulse pounding in his veins as Beatrice tugs grumpily on his shirt. He pulls the shirt off, already breathing heavily, but pulls away from her next kiss.

“Are… are you sure about this, love?” he asks. “I mean, I know we said we’d take things slower from now on…” He’s cursing that promise right about now, her fingers tickling and ghosting across his chest and dipping lower, her softness and heat so temptingly close.

“Do you want to take this slow?” Beatrice raises an eyebrow.

“Not even a little bit,” Ben manages, his breath catching in his throat as she presses a kiss to the soft place right above his collarbone. “D-do you? Oh, my God, Bea…”

“Obviously not,” she confirms, and words are sort of off the table now that mutual consent has been assured. Words are the most necessary, but also the most arbitrary thing in the world, when they have each other.

        Beatrice is real and warm and here in Ben’s arms, not stuck behind a computer screen, miles and miles away. She sighs happily at his touch, the sound sending a pleasant thrill throughout him, gooseflesh rising where her fingers brush his own skin as she presses against him. It’s by no means their first time, so this is comfortable, familiar. But they’re still learning each other, figuring out what makes them both melt, what makes them soar.

Of the many embraces and kisses and nights that they’ve shared, Ben is pretty sure that this night is the best. Maybe it’s just the distance, the stupid, awful distance- but now that they’re finally together again, it’s just the best feeling in the world. After so many months apart, they’re close again, as physically close as two people can possibly be, and it’s bliss. It’s beyond rational thought. For the two of them, in this moment, it’s everything.

After, they lie awake in the dimly lit room, talking quietly, making up for all the Skype time they’ve missed these past few weeks. They laugh at each other, at how silly they’ve been to get so worked up about being apart. Still, Ben can’t help the way his fingers travel gently across Beatrice’s skin, caressing her arms and her stomach where he touches them as he holds her. She hums in response to his last comment, lays her hand on his chest as they decide how to spend the next two too-short weeks together.

It’s a long while before they sleep.

 

            In the middle of the night, exhausted with happiness and sated desire, Ben slips back into his room, fresh from a trip to the bathroom. He finds Beatrice awake, staring at him, eyes bright with the moonlight shining through the window.

“I woke up, and I was cold. You were gone,” she says. “I almost thought I dreamed you.”

“I’m right here, weirdo,” he rolls his eyes, climbing into bed. “I was coming right back to you.”

“Okay,” Beatrice says tiredly, shifting back into his arms. He holds her close, listening to her breath, feeling her heartbeat against his chest. “Fine. Just… don’t go, please? I want you here.”

“I love you,” Ben whispers into her hair, but Beatrice doesn’t answer. She’s already asleep again.

Ben allows sleep to claim him, his breath slowing to match that of the gorgeous girl in his arms. There will be time to talk more in the morning.

“Goodnight, Beatrice,” he whispers, and all is right with the world.

 

***

Chapter Text

       ***

        “Are you seriously where I think you are?” Beatrice asks, grinning and leaning in close to her screen to get a better look, so that Ben momentarily finds himself looking right into one huge blue eye that takes up the whole Skype window. The eye blinks, before Bea pulls back a little so the rest of her face is back in view.

Ben leans back against his pillows, lounging with his hands behind his head, elbows pointing up, and simply nods, his own smile big enough to crinkle the skin around his eyes and show all his teeth. He’s made a nice little relaxation spot in here. It’s kind of homey, in a way.

“As if you have a charger cord long enough to reach the bath!” Bea scoffs. She can’t see this, but in fact, Ben’s laptop charger is easily stretched across the room, plugging into the outlet above the sink.

“It is a very small bathroom, Beatrice. One of my favorite rooms in the flat, in fact. At least the bath is big enough.” He shifts, spreading his arms to show off the space he’d padded with towels and pillows before she called. Bea laughs.

“You are so weird.”

“It’s actually one of the reasons I agreed to move in here in the first place. I was thinking… in case you ever want to come visit…” Ben waggles his eyebrows suggestively, and Bea sighs in frustration.

“You know I don’t have the time, Ben,” she says. “I wish I did, though. It does look quite cozy in there…”

“Hah!” said Ben triumphantly. “I knew you would like it. Please come visit? I think Balthazar misses you. He keeps asking about you, you know.”

(This is true, though Ben’s pretty sure Balth is only trying to keep the topic of conversation off of himself by bringing up Bea. It’s very frustrating- not least because it usually works. Ben can’t help it if he finds Beatrice incredibly distracting.)

“Oh really? And have you told him I’m very busy earning my keep and making my way in the world?” she asks, raising an eyebrow.

“Sure, okay. Keep on trying to make working at the restaurant sound all fancy and fun. I’ll be right here in the bath, lamenting how little my girlfriend cares for me, that she doesn’t even want to see me anymore. I’m so cold, Beatrice!”

“You poor thing. You weren’t saying that in bed last weekend, though. I kept you plenty warm then. I’d even go so far as… hot?” she teases.

“You’ve got me there, love,” Ben admits. He wants to enjoy the memories sending fresh sparks of heat throughout his body, but they’re tinged with sadness. That final weekend in Auckland already feels so far away. He sighs. “I can’t believe break went by so fast. I think I miss you more now than the first time I left.”

“I know what you mean. New Girl marathons just aren’t the same without you around,” Beatrice says, resting her cheek in her left hand.

 

        Ben wishes he could rewind time, make it so that break could last longer. Ever since returning to Wellington, he’s felt more alone than ever. First trimester, Ben was caught up in all the changes university brings. He was getting used to navigating campus, moving into the flat, keeping up with classes and chores and Skyping Beatrice. He was so busy, he didn’t even realize he’d forgotten to make any new friends- at least, until he spent some time at home in Auckland, where everything was comfortable and easy. He’d had his parents around, had seen Meg and Claudio and Hero and everyone, and of course he’d spent as much time with Bea as possible, during the two-week break.

All that time surrounded by people he cares about, and then the second he got back to campus, he’d found himself completely alone. He mostly spends his free time hanging around the flat, latching onto anyone with a free moment to burn, hoping they’ll keep him company for a while. None of his flatmates seem very interested.

Outside the flat, things aren’t much better. All the extracurriculars at Elizabeth seem weirdly staged and stuffy, somehow, like something out of a catalog or a movie. Ben is pretty sure he’d just feel out of place if he tried to get involved, especially when so much of the school year has already gone by. Even in class, he feels like his classmates are always staring at him, thinking how weird he is. The new hair hasn’t helped much there; he still feels like a dorky high school kid next to most of the people on-campus. But he can push through that, surely.

It’s not like he’s really so unhappy here. He has his Marlowe lecture, and Gender Studies in Science Fiction. He has friends! He has his flatmates, absent as they are. He has Bea, and she’s more than enough. Ben doesn’t need sports or student organizations either- after all, he already has a perfectly good hobby, and he’s great at it. He can’t believe he didn’t think to go back to vlogging before. He can always talk to the Benaddickts, if there are any left.

 

                “I bet I miss you more than you miss me,” Ben says impulsively to Bea, now. “I’m wasting away here. University is a lonely place, you know.”

“Sure it is,” Beatrice laughs, taking this last for a joke and letting her competitive streak come out in force. “Come on. I give up my Friday nights for Skype dates, I’m that pathetic about you. The girls think I talk about you way too much, I never shut up. Just ask Meg, I clearly miss you more than you miss me.”

“But now you can watch my new videos and see me any time you want. I don’t have that luxury,” Ben points out. “So I definitely miss you more.”

“I still think vlogging again is a bad idea. And anyway, you see me plenty. I call you every night!”

“Well- that- that’s completely not the point!”

“Maybe I should just hang up on you and give Balthazar a call instead,” Bea teases. “Since he apparently misses me as much as you do.”

 

             Suddenly Ben hears a creak out in the hall- Balthazar, who happens to have been walking by, and stops at the sound of his name. Ben leans out of the bath to wave him over and Balthy approaches, confused.

“No need,” Ben says. “Hey, Balth! Come and say hi! Beatrice refuses to ever come to Wellington in-person again, but she’s here on Skype!”

“Hey, those are your words, not mine,” Beatrice points out, but no one’s listening.

Balthazar comes into the room, and seeing Bea on the laptop screen, he waves at her, his lips turned up in a wry little half smile. “Hi, Beatrice.”

“Finally, some decent company. It's good to see your face, Balthazar,” Bea waves back.

“Uh…thanks? No trouble in paradise, I hope?” Balth glances down at Ben, who’s intently watching Beatrice onscreen, waiting for her answer. She pretends to ponder the question for a moment.

“Not at all,” says Beatrice decisively. “Except we’re not in paradise, we’re on Skype. And someone seems to think he has the monopoly on missing me more than I miss him, which is just blatantly- what?”

Balthazar is laughing softly, staring down at his toes. “It’s just- only you two would turn dating into a competition,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Well, of course it’s a competition,” Ben grins, only half-joking, and exchanging mischievous glances with Bea. “There are categories, right, love? Who calls who first the most-”

“I’m definitely winning on that one,” says Bea proudly. “It’s like he’s afraid of the phone or something.”

“Who makes the other laugh more,” Ben continues, ignoring her. “Which I definitely win-”

“Allegedly.” Beatrice makes a face, as though she doubts it. “You’re not as funny as you-”

Ben cuts her off. “Who can be cutesy enough to gross the other person out, that sort of thing. The only thing we can’t figure out is who misses the other more, now that we’re long distance.”

“Which is a very serious problem,” says Beatrice, not sounding the least bit serious.

“I’m sure,” Balth says dryly.

“Oh, it is!” Ben exclaims, clutching his heart in false pain. “It’s a heartbreak too deep to quantify!”

Bea laughs, then hisses, “Damn it, Hobbes! You got me again.

“Yessss,” Ben says happily. “Another laughter point for me! See, you do think I’m funny!”

"Yeah, I s'pose I do," Bea admits, smiling. "It's one of many things I love about you."

"I... uh, thanks," Ben beams, the compliment warming him from the inside out. "I love you too."

 

“Well,” Balth coughs when the moment has passed, “I have that history project with Pete to work on, so I’ll just-”

“Go, go!” Ben waves him off. “Have fun with Peter.”

“Fun?” says Bea. “They’re studying, Ben. Where’s the fun in that?”

“You know, I keep forgetting you don’t have to do homework anymore. Lucky,” says Ben. “But studying can definitely be fun. Remember that physics test you helped me revise for last year?”

Beatrice considers that for a moment, then grins, recalling exactly what that study session, well… touched on. “Oh, yeah. That was fun.”

“And I’m out,” says Balthazar, blushing. “Later, guys.”

“Have fun, Balthazar!” Beatrice laughs as Ben waggles his eyebrows again. “Bye!”

“Both of you lay off, alright?” Balth mumbles, backing up towards the open door.

“I think we scared him off,” Ben says in a loud stage-whisper. Then, when Balthazar continues to look uncomfortable, Ben has the grace to look ashamed. “Sorry, Balthy. It’s none of our business. We’ll stop, I promise.”

“Say hi to Ped- to Peter, for me, okay?” calls Bea, and with a little nod and another wave, Balthazar is gone.

 

                “Wait, are you not still keeping in touch with Pedro?” Ben asks her, slipping on the name change again. He’ll never get used to that. Peter  just sounds too weird.

“He hasn’t texted or called me back in ages,” Beatrice says. “I don’t know how many more times I have to tell him I forgive him for last year before he’ll talk to me.”

“It’s not just you. He’s hardly home anymore, unless he’s bringing home a hookup. Freddie and I are getting a little worried, honestly,” Ben admits.

“Do you think it’s Balthazar?” Bea asks. “I mean, is Peter still pining for him? Why doesn’t he just ask him out?”

“That’s what I don’t get either. I think after Balth had such a rough time during exams week at the end of last trimester, Pedro must have decided Balth didn’t need any more stress, so he backed off. I’m not sure if he’ll make another move on his own, especially after the whole Damien thing,” Ben says thoughtfully. This whole situation has been on his mind a lot.

“I know you and Meg think we should do something to help them,” Beatrice says. “Maybe she can come over tomorrow when I call you, and we’ll make a plan.”

“The videos!” Ben insists. “That’s what brought everyone closer together last year. If Balth and Peter remember what that was like, how well they got along- I think it could help them. It’s a way to drop hints, at least.”

“I still don’t like the vlogging,” Bea says grudgingly. “I guess it couldn’t hurt- but let’s not go full Love Gods on them just yet, okay? I think Meg has some great ideas, she’s a master at this.”

“And I’m a master at this!” Ben crosses his arms and flaps his hands like the mouths of chirping birds. “Secret code, Meg and I invented it.”

“Subtle,” Beatrice teases. “I like it. Hey, if we’re done planning our Pedro and Balthazar mission, I think we have a score to settle.”

“What’s that?”

“How much sappier and mushier and more desperately in love I am than you, sweetheart,” Bea says, and then actually flutters her eyelashes. Like a cartoon character.

Ben cringes and cracks up laughing.

“Yes! Double points! I made you laugh AND grossed you out. If this relationship is a competition, then Benedick Hobbes, you are going down!” Beatrice tosses a fist triumphantly into the air.

Ben sticks his tongue out at her. He has a sneaking suspicion that this particular contest won’t be easily won.

“I still miss you more, though,” he protests.

“Oh, like hell you do!”

 

Yeah, they’re going to be here a while.

 

***

 

Chapter Text

 

***

 

Beatrice is hanging out with Kate in the tiny break room where they take their half hour off for lunch in the afternoon. They’ve just about finished eating, with about ten minutes to spare, when Beatrice’s phone goes off in her bag in the corner. She knows it’s hers because, of course, the little room is suddenly filled with Ben’s voice, singing that goofy love song he wrote for her last year. She still melts every time she hears it, she’s so gross and sappy these days.

As she dives for the phone, Kate smirks at her.

“It’s nothing,” Beatrice says, silencing her phone and reading the text. It actually is from Ben, just wondering what she’s up to. Kate can tell by the slight smile on her face, and Beatrice groans when the other girl winks and tells her to “have fun with that, Beatrice. See you in a few!”

It’s not as if this isn’t a perfectly innocent conversation, after all… at least, she thinks it is.

 

Beatrice: I’m just at work. On break. You?

dickface: Bored, in class. I miss you.

Beatrice: No shit. You know you’ll see me tonight. :)

dickface: Oh, will I? Good. Some amorous rites or other are neglected by us. ;)

Beatrice: ????

dickface: So beauty sweetly quickens when tis nigh, /But being separated and removed, / Burns where it cherished, murders where it loved.

Beatrice: Oh my God, tell me you aren’t sexting me with Marlowe quotes rn.

dickface: Marlowe is romantic! And also he’s kind of my homework tonight.

Beatrice: Nerd. <3

 

At which point, Beatrice hears her supervisor yelling for her, and has to put the phone down. She hopes the customers won’t notice if she’s a little flushed for a while. Ben’s Marlowe quoting may not be very original, but it is pretty cute. She’ll have to brush up on her Elizabethan poetry sometime soon.

 

***

 

When she gets off work, Bea checks her phone again, to find that Ben has messaged her another quote: “Sweet are the kisses, the embracements sweet/ When like desires and affections meet, / For from the earth to heaven is Cupid raised/ Where fancy is in equal balance peised.”

 Below that is another message, an emoji. Is that…?  Yep, definitely a little picture of a white, claw-footed bathtub. Followed by a question mark.

 

Beatrice: …Does that mean what I think it means?

dickface: Depends on what you think it means…  

Beatrice: Ohh no. The bath emoji cannot be our code. Too weird.

dickface: You’re no fun.

Beatrice: Just tired. Going to relax for a while.

dickface: Have the house to yourself tonight?

Beatrice: Yeah…

dickface: Perfect. I have an idea that might help you unwind.

Beatrice: What are you up to?

dickface: Know you not that creatures wanting sense/ By nature have a mutual appetence/ And, wanting organs to advance a step, / Moved by love’s force, unto each other lep? ;)

 

Beatrice thinks she has a pretty clear idea of what that means, and it sends a squirming, excited, illicit feeling coursing through her stomach. She feels warm all over at the thought. Whatever this is, it's going to be good.

 

         "I'm just saying,” Ben points out that evening on their video call. “Baths can be very soothing and relaxing after a long day. It's been a very long day, for both of us. You have a bathtub... and I have a bathtub... and my flatmates are all out for the night..." He waggles his eyebrows suggestively, his cheeks flushed pink with the thrill and slight embarrassment of flirting, and Beatrice cracks up laughing. 

"Oh, my God, Ben!" she shrieks, face bright red, Skype turning her laughter to static. 

"So you're saying you don't want to..."

"Oh, I never said I didn't want to," she says, grinning, suddenly flirtatious too. "Tell me more."

"Well, I was thinking..." Ben starts, leaning closer to the screen, but at that moment, a door slams down the hall. "Shit, that'll be Freddie, I'll text you when she's gone." 

"You'd better," says Beatrice, delighted, and hangs up the Skype call. 

 

        She moves her computer to the bathroom and begins getting ready, wrapping up in a fluffy white towel. After a few minutes in which she starts the bath water running, her phone buzzes on the sink. Opening the message, she sees Ben has sent her one thing: the bathtub emoji. Again.

Bea sighs and moves to press call on her laptop screen. When Benedick accepts the call, for a moment the screen is filled with his naked torso as he adjusts his laptop, and she stares with appreciation before he backs away enough that his face is in-shot again. He really is gorgeous, beaming at her from the tiny bathroom in his flat. She doesn’t want to look away.

"So, Beatrice, how are you? Enjoying yourself yet?" Ben teases, stretching and flexing his admittedly rather twiglike, skinny arms. But he wouldn’t be Ben if he wasn’t about 90% limbs, after all. It’s cute on him.

"Oh, yeah. This is very nice, I feel better already," Beatrice admits. "Seriously, though, the bath emoji is NOT going to be our code, okay?" 

"But it’s discreet, so no one will know what we’re talking about, and it just fits us so well, don't you think? Cuddling in the bath is our thing! And they don't have a flamingo emoji, or a mango, so-"

"Ben, I will hang up on you right now," she threatens, but she's smiling as she slips off her towel.

 

"Please, God, don't hang up," he says, eyes wide, watching her in awe. “You are so beautiful, love.”

 She lowers herself slowly, slowly, into the hot water, savoring the hitch she's just caused in her boyfriend's breath at the sight.

"It is me you like and not the bath, right?" she teases, ghosting her fingers along her stomach and enjoying the little tickles of skin on skin. 

"I dunno. What do you think?" asks Ben playfully, on the other side of this damn computer screen, and submerges himself, much too quickly for her taste. Benedick sighs deeply as the water envelops him, and the sound makes Beatrice bite her lip in frustration. 

Oh, she wishes she was there with him right now. Bea desperately wishes the heat on her skin could be coming from his hands touching her, his body against hers, she aches for him- but there's only her own cool fingers against her skin, only the scalding water here to hold her close. 

At least there's more room in the bath when she's soaking alone, Bea consoles herself. At least she and Ben are here together, if only online. 

 

"Oh, Ben, you were right," she sighs. "This is heaven."

 

"Almost heaven," he whispers back, hating the glass and plastic and hours and miles that separate them from one another. 

 

"We can do better than almost," she grins, dipping her hands gently below the waterline, watching Ben as he does the same.

 

By the time they hang up, their laptop screens and mirrors laced with fog as they fall down from cloud nine, Beatrice has never felt so relaxed. 

 

***

 

        (Several months later, morning dawns on the day of Balthazar’s birthday party, and Beatrice gets a text from Ben. It isn’t Marlowe this time, just plain old wonderful modern English.

dickface: Morning, love. Breakfast? I’ll be waiting. I promise, today I’m all yours.

She texts back, before scrambling to get ready, and even as she crouches in the tiny tent, struggling to pull on fresh clothes, she can’t help but smile to herself. She’s missed him so much.

 

        In the kitchen, Ben breaks into laughter, startling a groggy Balth and Freddie as they stumble around him. He doesn’t bother to hide the screen from them. He doesn’t have to.

On his phone is Bea’s reply- an emoji of a smiling blonde face peeking out over the top of a white bathtub. And a question mark.

 

Fuck the rules. Today’s going to be a very  good day.)

 

 

 ***

                                                                                                                                 

Chapter Text

***

         Lately, it seems to Ben like being apart from Bea is harder than ever. All he can think about is the last time they were together, tangled in the sheets on his old bed, Beatrice pressed against him, warm and welcoming and real. His thoughts flicker to that Skype call a few days ago, the steam of their baths, and Beatrice teasing him, stepping into the water on her side, slow, slow. Whenever he thinks of her, he’s impressed all over again by the bleak reality that she’s not here. She’ll never be here, she doesn’t want to be- and that hurts. A lot.

Hell, before he knows it, she’ll be jet-setting around the world without him, and Ben will be alone with his memories, waiting for it to be evening in whatever time zone Bea finds herself in, if she has any time to call him at all.

He’s really trying not to think about it, not to worry about what kind of a strain that would put on their relationship, if being a few hours apart is already this difficult. It used to be that watching Beatrice’s old videos helped him feel just the slightest bit closer to her, but even that’s gone now. Editing that montage of last year’s events for Freddie, Ben had left out any emotional, romantic, and kissing-related footage of himself and Bea, because watching it back just made him too sad. The distance between Wellington and Auckland has never felt so far.

         Ben has mostly been distracting himself with his Marlowe readings and with pestering Freddie to hang out with him more often. They’ve mostly just been marathoning In the Flesh and talking about how stressful school is and how rarely they see Balthazar and Peter anymore.

Balth seems to be doing better than he was around exam time. At least the worst of his nervous breakdown is over- but it doesn’t help that Peter keeps waking up the whole flat by coming home in the middle of the night, always with a new partner on his arm. It strikes Ben as very insensitive of him, knowing as he does about Balthazar’s not-so-subtle crush on Peter. Ben knows what it’s like not to be able to see the person you love, but he can’t even imagine constantly having to see and hear Bea hooking up with other people, how much that would hurt. He feels so awful for Balthazar, but whenever he tries to cheer the musician up, Balth pleads homework and shoos Ben away. And as for Peter- well, he isn’t even really home often enough to talk to anymore.

So things are difficult with his flatmates, and even though the new term is just starting, Ben already feels like he has twice as much homework as last trimester. It’s shaping up to be another difficult, boring, lonely few months. The only thing that’s even started to cheer him up is making videos. When he’s in front of the camera, Ben finally feels like himself again, and it’s wonderful. He’s been waiting and waiting for Bea to respond to his invitation to join his new channel, but several days later, she’s still completely silent.

         Maybe that’s why he gets so excited this evening, when Bea randomly Snapchats him, opening with a cute selfie adorned with a sticker of a smiling bumblebee and honeycomb, pink cursive spelling out “Hi honey!”

Ben is filled with that familiar, overflowing happiness unique to when Beatrice does something sweet and affectionate. There’s no feeling like this, he thinks, and throws back a selfie of his own featuring a confused, teasing expression, a smiling sloth sticker, and another pun in the caption- “you’re such a sap, love.”

“*Groans*. Yeah, but I’m also totally badass. Guess who finally got that promotion?” read the captions on her next two snaps, the first an excited, bug eyed, open-mouthed expression that cracks Ben up, the second a picture of her new employee name tag.

“Calling you right now!!!” he snaps back, over a picture of the Skype icon on his computer screen. She picks up almost immediately, propped up on pillows in her bed, long hair spread out behind her. Bea lifts her hands triumphantly, still laughing.

          “This is so amazing, congratulations, Bea! You work so hard, it was about time they really started rewarding you for it. You’re awesome.”

“Thanks,” Bea blushes. “I’m really excited. The money’s great, I’ll have enough for my trip in no time at this rate! This is the best thing that could have happened. I’ll probably be able to leave even sooner than I thought.”

So much for cheering up. Ben swears he can actually feel his heart sinking all the way down to his toes. “…Oh. So you’re already making plans, then?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, I know I want to do America and England and France at a minimum, but I still need to have some sort of itinerary. My mum says I should plan exactly what I want to do and where to stay in each place, so I’m prepared, but I think it might be more fun to just see what happens, have adventures. Play it by ear! What do you think?” Beatrice is in full gap year planning mode now, her eyes lighting up with excitement. Ben tries to ignore the dull ache forming in his chest at how happy she seems.

“Uh, I dunno, I haven’t done much traveling,” he mumbles, looking down at his hands.

“But that’s the thing about traveling, isn’t it?” says Bea, reaching for a notebook on her bedside table and flipping it open to the first of pages upon pages of her year-abroad plans so far. “You don’t know what to expect until you’re really there, do you? Anyway, I’ve been talking to my mum and her relatives in New York about what to do in America, and I think I have that covered…”

And so Ben ends up listening and halfheartedly nodding along as Beatrice walks him through the six months she’s planning to spend in America. Some of it sounds fun- seeing a Broadway show in New York City, road tripping down to Disney World in Florida, road-tripping through various states and cities and national parks. It’s just a long list of cool things that Beatrice is going to do without Ben, and the longer she’s away, the more she’ll see how boring and useless his existence in Wellington is. It’s no wonder she doesn’t want to waste her time visiting him here.

           Ben is so lost in worry and self-pity, he almost tunes Bea out completely. And then suddenly she’s saying his name, and he snaps out of it. “Huh?”

“I said, could you maybe tell me a little bit about England? I have no idea what to do there, and I thought, since you’ve actually been…” Beatrice says hopefully.

“Sure, I s’pose. I dunno how much help I’ll really be, though.” Ben shrugs. Most of his memories of England involve kicking a football around either his back garden or the field outside his old primary school. Somehow, he doesn’t think that’s exactly what Bea has in mind.

“Come on, I want to know your ideas. You must know something about London, at least. You lived there!” She says it excitedly, a gentle push- but the request chafes against something inside him that just wants to be petty and mean right now. Bea can’t honestly expect him to be happy about the prospect of her going far away, forgetting about him even as she wanders around a place that should be his, a place he can hardly even remember calling home.

“Yeah, okay, so I lived in London- about ten years ago! I moved away when I was nine years old, Bea. Nine! I was a little kid; I didn’t exactly spend a lot of time sightseeing before I left. What do you expect me to tell you?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Beatrice snaps, her entire expression changing, heat and color rising in her cheeks. “How about ‘Bea, I’d be happy to talk through your travel itinerary with you even though I haven’t lived in England in a while, because I want to help you, I’m still a lot more familiar with England than you are, and it’s possible I might remember some of the places that are already on your list’!”

Ben honestly doubts that, and he says as much. After all, he would only have been to whatever London-area museums and parks and zoos were child-friendly at the time, and that doesn’t seem to fit the elaborate, adult gap year Bea wants to have. He says as much- and immediately regrets it.

“Quit being so condescending, you dickface. So I want to enjoy my life while I can, so I want to do something exciting, why is that so wrong? At least I’m doing something more than sitting alone at my computer editing vlogs all day!” Beatrice shouts.

“Wow, okay. Really nice, Beatrice,” Ben says sarcastically. She sees him wilt in his chair, his jaw set, cold hurt in his eyes, and immediately backtracks.

“No, wait, I didn’t mean that, I just- I’m excited about this trip, and I’m trying to share that with you. You’re my boyfriend! Why can’t you just be glad for me?” Bea says, frustrated.

Wow, I don’t know, maybe because every single stop on your itinerary is one more place you’d rather be than here, Ben thinks bitterly. Out loud, he simply sighs.

“I’m sorry, okay? It’s not that I’m not happy you’re excited. It’s just- it’s been a long day, and I genuinely don’t remember much from England. At least not unless you want to practice your place-kicking or visit my gran.”

That gets a laugh out of Beatrice, just what he was hoping for. “Yeah, no, maybe not.”

“See? I’m no help at all here. Hey, maybe I can ask my mum and dad the next time I talk to them, I bet they’ll know some cool places. They both lived in England for over thirty years before coming here. I can even send you their email address- but right now, can we please talk about something else?”

Ben puts on his sad puppy eyes, and Beatrice reluctantly softens.

“Fine. I really appreciate that, actually. Your parents are so cool,” Bea says, earning a snort from Ben. “Shut up, they are. So, what do you want to talk about, if not my European adventures?”

          “Adventures, that reminds me… you haven’t, by any chance, seen my new video on Pedro’s channel yet? The last couple minutes in particular?” Ben asks, and now it’s his turn to be excited.

At least, until Bea shakes her head. “I think I missed it, I’ve been so busy. YouTube isn’t really my thing anymore, you know that.”

“…Oh,” Ben says, disappointed. “Then I take it you wouldn’t be interested in joining my channel?”

“You mean, making videos again?” Bea says, surprised. “God, no. What would I even talk about? My travel plans? The bars Meg takes me to? My job? No, thank you. I don’t need an audience for any of that.”

“I just thought it would be nice for us to see more of each other, that’s all,” Ben says, finding himself on the defensive again at the implication that he’s only in it for the views. “I miss you, and we hardly ever get to Skype for more than an hour these days. If you started vlogging again, it would just be another way for us to keep in touch.”

“We see each other plenty. We’re talking right now, and I don’t really want the whole Internet listening in on our conversations, do you?”

“But that’s not what I- oh, forget it. Just… please think about it, will you? We’d be like the VlogBrothers! Except… dating. I don’t know. Making videos is less fun if I don’t have someone to share it with,” Ben says softly.

Beatrice’s smile is almost perfunctory as she shakes her head. “Okay, I’ll think about it. But I’m telling you now, vlogging makes me uncomfortable. If you still like it, fine. But I really don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“I don’t want to argue with you right now,” he sighs. “Let’s just drop it.”

“Yeah, okay,” says Beatrice, fidgeting in her seat.

        They both fall silent for a long moment. Ben doesn’t know what’s going through his girlfriend’s head right now, but all that he can think about is how every word he says seems to annoy her today. Every topic they broach ends in disagreement. Their words all have these rough edges pushing up against each other, rubbing each other raw.

“So, how was your day-” she starts.

“Do you have any weekend plans- ?” he stumbles over her.

“You know what,” Beatrice says, taking a deep breath, trying desperately to sound as though everything is completely normal. “I actually have an early shift tomorrow morning. So… it’s been fun, but I should probably let you go?”

“Oh! Uh, sure, that’s fine. I…” Ben mumbles, caught between the twin monsters of disappointment and relief. "I love you."

“I’ll speak to you tomorrow, then. Sleep well!” Beatrice says hurriedly, and Ben can hardly get a word in edgewise before she clicks off.

Suddenly, the room feels cold. Ben is left with the distinct impression that Beatrice hadn’t wanted to talk to him tonight at all. Maybe she’s getting tired of him. Maybe long-distance is finally taking its toll.

He tries and tries to push these thoughts away, to dismiss them as irrational, stupid- and he almost succeeds. He almost manages to ignore whatever it is that’s bothering him.

It isn’t until much later, when Ben is lying awake in the dark bedroom, that he realizes. Tonight, for the first time in a long time, Beatrice had hung up without telling Ben she loves him. She didn't even think to say it back. 

 ***

Chapter Text

         ***

            Beatrice has a plan. She’s always had a plan- finish high school, work for a year, go traveling and figure out what she wants to do with her life, come home and start working towards that goal. It’s just- life has a way of complicating things. More specifically, of course, Ben  complicates things.

It isn’t like she wants to go another whole year without ever seeing him. In fact, the idea of that feels wrong, somehow, leaving a cold little ache in her chest and behind her eyes when she thinks too hard about it. She and Ben have been through so much together, and Beatrice needs that to mean  something. She needs to know that she didn’t open her heart up to weakness for nothing. Bea doesn’t do  things like that. She doesn’t risk her heart, and she doesn’t change her plans for anyone. She’s going on this trip, no matter how scary it is, because it’s her dream. And she’s trying to include Ben in that, at least in some small way. Why doesn’t he get  that?

It’s so frustrating. She pushes Ben about her trip, and he just closes off on her. Bringing it up is just making things worse between them. Bea wants whatever time they have left before she leaves to be happy, and she doesn’t want to lose him. Possibly the only thing worse than spending a year away from Ben is the thought that he might not be waiting for her when she comes back. Maybe the best way to deal with things for now is just to leave them be. So that’s what she’s trying to do. Bea just keeps Skyping Ben every night, talking about work and friends and family and which season of Game of Thrones is the best so far. Ben seems on edge, distracted, hardly able to keep still- but at least he’s still trying to be there for her, somehow.

Bea saves the trip-planning talk for Meg and Hero, who are more than happy to exclaim about the sights of Europe with her. Ben passes along his mother’s phone number, so Bea can call and ask her advice about visiting England, but that’s the last time she talks to him about any of that. Not sharing her excitement with Ben hurts, yeah- but not as much as the alternative.

          “Hey!” She beams, as he appears on her computer screen one evening. It’s been a good day, and the setting sun puts the bright orange walls of her room to flickering like gentle flame. Ben’s room, onscreen, looks dark, blue-tinged. He smiles tightly, waving a hand, hello.

“What’s up?” she asks. “Did you see-”

“Meg’s video? Yeah, it was great! I think it’s going to be a lot of fun, vlogging with her,” Ben says, and his excitement about Meg seems genuine enough. “Thanks for asking her for me, Bea.”

If Bea has backed off the travel topics, Ben has also stopped pestering her about making videos again, and she appreciates it. They’re respecting each other’s wishes, avoiding picking fights, staying mature about it all. Bea tells herself it’s good, this is more proof that they’re going to be just fine.

“I’m happy for you,” she says, smiling back, leaning into her laptop screen to be as close as comfortably possible, like they used to do. He leans in too, propping his chin in his hands, and it’s so strange-looking, Bea can’t help but laugh a little. “I can’t wait to see how you two work as vlog buddies.”

Ben shrugs. “Yeah, well. I’m sure it will work out fine.”

           They both trail off again into silence. Bea is left staring at Ben, who is looking pointedly over her shoulder at that burning orange wall behind her. His stripey shirt and the sharp lines of the bookcase behind him make Bea feel that they’re speaking from different sides of a prison cell wall, trapping them in their own heads, keeping their conversation at bay.

“What’s happening to us?” Beatrice murmurs, so softly she doesn’t expect that Ben will hear her.

But he turns his attention back to her immediately. “What do you mean?”

“This whole time we’ve been talking, you’ve barely even looked at me. Are we fighting right now? Still?” Bea asks worriedly. “Is this about the videos again?”

He sighs, reaching up as though to run his fingers through his hair, then thinking better of it and dropping his hand. “I’m sorry, Bea. I didn’t mean- I didn’t realize I wasn’t making eye contact, I promise. I just- I was afraid you were mad at me. About all of it. I mean, you didn’t even bother to tell me your decision about the videos. You just let Meg post hers without warning, and I felt like… like you didn’t want to talk to me at all.”

“Well, I do, okay? I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about Meg’s video. I guess I was kind of mad at you, but I should have just been honest about it. I hate it when we fight like this. I miss you enough as it is,” Bea admits, and now she’s the one carding her fingers through her hair, letting it fall halfway across her face, to hide her expression.

“I miss you too.” Ben looks up then, looks her right in the eye with a tiny, tiny smile, and it fills her with hope.

 “So… we’re okay, right?” Bea asks. “You’re okay?”

           Ben nods, pushing the subject aside. “Yeah, fine. How are you? Did my mum and dad help with your trip planning at all?”

Bea fidgets in her seat. First the vlogging, now her trip- they’re really venturing into dangerous territory today. She’s bothered by how easily Ben seems to brush all this tension between them aside, but if he’s okay, she has to be okay with it too. They aren’t arguing anymore, that’s the important thing.

“Yeah, actually,” she admits. “Your mum had some amazing ideas and suggestions for things to see. I’m going to call her again tomorrow to run my full itinerary past her. It’s nice having someone to talk to, who doesn’t just focus on the boring stuff like traveler’s insurance and finding safe hostels like my mum does.”

“I’m glad you guys get along… I think,” Ben says, slightly uncomfortable. “You didn’t talk about me, did you?”

“Just a little bit,” Beatrice teases. “All good things, I promise!”

“Oh, no,” Ben says, pretending to be horrified. “I’m never going to live this down.”

“Relax, you dork, she just wanted to know how you were. She said she’d been meaning to call you this week, so check your phone, okay?”

“That’s the thing about my parents, though,” Ben snorts. “You’re not right in front of them, they forget you exist. I’ll call her later. Otherwise I’ll never hear from her, and she’ll blame me for it. Just what I need, for yet another person in my life to be angry at me.”

"No one is-" Bea starts, but Ben shakes his head.

"They are. I know  they are," he snaps.

“Whoa, okay! Are you sure you're all right?” Bea asks, worry furrowing her brow. “The flat doesn’t seem like the easiest place to be right now, and your videos... they don't seem...”

“Aha! So you do  watch my vlogs! What do you think?” Ben perks up.

           Bea rolls her eyes. “Quit changing the subject! Of course I watch your vlogs whenever I can, they’re great, okay? Now tell me what’s going on over there.”

“Mostly just Ped- Peter being a dick to everyone and Balthy pining after him. But you saw that in the videos, if you’ve been watching. Hey, do you think you could tweet about me, help get the word out? I want to make sure all my Benaddickts know about the new channel, but I lost my old password,” Ben says.

“Be nice to Peter, okay? You were out of line with the stuff you said about his sexuality. You know that, right?”

“Maybe you could post something on your old channel for me!” Ben says excitedly, still distracted.

Ben. About Pedro? Shit, no, I mean- you know what I mean. Peter. Whoever.”

“Fine, yes, I know I messed up with Peter! I was trying to help, but I said the wrong things, and then I apologized, I promise. I think he’s still mad at me though, when he’s not too drunk to see straight. Balthy is going out of his mind worrying about him, but they’re both still refusing to just talk about their feelings. It’s mad!” Ben throws up his hands in frustration.

“Yeah, well,” Beatrice says. “Feelings are bleurgh. We know that. They’re probably just scared to be honest with each other.”

“Which is why we need the Pedrazar Project! We just have to keep dropping hints and pushing them together, until they do feel ready to talk. You’ll still help me with that, right? Even though you’re not vlogging?” Ben asks hopefully.

“Whatever will help those two stop being such sad-sacks. Thanks for backing off about the videos, by the way.” Bea sighs.

“Are you sure you don’t want to make just one more? For me?”

“Not gonna happen, dickface.” Bea crosses her arms.

“Please?” Ben pouts, and she can’t help but laugh.

“No!”

“Aw, come on, Bea, it’s only one video,” Ben pouts, his eyes huge and pleading. “I’ll never ask you for anything ever again,” he promises, that adorable sad expression on his face, and who is Beatrice to refuse?

            She gets out the camera right there and then, turns it on for the first time in months. It’s the oddest feeling- part of her looks at this camera and feels all the anger and misery of the aftermath of Hero’s birthday, rushing back to haunt her. But the other part of Bea turns on the camera and immediately feels right at home again.

Bea smiles into the lens, announcing to whatever remains of her subscriber count that they should really check out Ben’s new channel. He’s all smug about getting his way, telling her she’s the best. She offers her strongest smirk and informs him that she knew that already, but it does still make her insides flush with warmth.

High-fiving over Skype is just as unsatisfying as holding hands over Skype, or blowing kisses over Skype, or… other things, over Skype. But it is, Beatrice knows, better than nothing.

“Anyway,” she says, when the camera is turned off and put away. “What were we talking about?”

“No idea,” Ben laughs. “I’m too distracted by your fantastic Lovely Little Losers advertising pitch.”

Losers is right,” teases Bea. Inside, though, she’s flooded with relief, because somehow, she seems to have gotten the real Ben back. This feels good, normal. They’re teasing, and laughing, and talking about how much they hate long-distance. They're a team again- and to think, once upon a time, Bea was viciously against Ben's YouTube ventures. Now, she's recommending them to her old viewers, and rewatching all the parts where he mentions her. Of which there are many. 

            In the next few days, Ben is so eager to talk to Bea that he finally starts calling her first for once. Their conversations are more wonderful than ever. It’s always like this, after a fight or a rough patch. Once the worst is over, they can’t get enough of each other. There’s nothing, not Elizabeth University nor the Queen herself, that can keep them apart.

When finally an evening comes that they have to skip their Skype call, it’s because Ben has plans with his flatmates. He’s risen to Meg’s challenge beautifully, planning to vlog himself, Freddie, Peter, and Balth, wandering around Wellington at night. It’s all he’s been able to talk about. Beatrice tries to show them up by making her own plans with Meg, who teases her all night about whether she misses the Bene-dick and how she survives without it (she rolls her eyes and informs Meg that she’s doing just fine, thank you very much. She conveniently leaves out all mention of bathtubs, though.)

           Instead of staying the night, though, Beatrice pleads exhaustion and makes the short walk home through the gathering dusk, using the time to do something so sappy, Meg would never let her live it down. Bea decides to call Ben’s cell phone, just to hear his beautiful voice. He picks up on the first ring, sounding tired, but happy. The background noise of the Wellington nightlife is overbearing, so they don’t say much to each other beyond have fun, be safe, I miss you, I love you— but it’s enough. It’s more than enough.

Bea goes home, laughing at the Snapchat pictures Ben keeps sending her- Freddie wide-eyed on the trolley, Peter tossing peace signs at the camera, Ben and Balth playing Titanic on the rim of a familiar-looking fountain. Just to tease Ben, she responds with a snap of the bath she’s running, before sliding in. She's in that sort of mood tonight.

          “I wish you were here”- the words echo across two cities, 650 kilometers apart. Benedick, stumbling home, watching arguments break out amongst his roommates, chaos taking over. Beatrice, calm and reassured, toweling off, then falling asleep with a smile on her face.

***

Chapter Text

 ***

            “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shiiiiiiit,” Ben mutters under his breath, pacing back and forth across his room. He tugs at the collar of his pajama shirt, then struggles out of his fluffy red bathrobe so he can breathe again.

Has this bedroom always been so small? It’s like the space is constricting itself around him, choking off his air supply. Everything feels wrong, too close and hot and awful. He’s boxed in, and it’s all his own fault.

The flat meeting had been going really well until the end there. Ben had thought everything would be perfect. The rules would help keep Peter safe and in control of himself, they’d help Balthazar stay calm about school and take the pressure off both of them to constantly be acting out and keeping secrets to prove that they didn’t need each other. Everyone would stop fighting, Freddie would stop being so annoyed all the time, it would be fine.

It is, in a word, not fine.

It’s not fine, because Peter is still mad at him and the others are probably laughing at his predicament and he’s meant to be Skyping Beatrice in no less than twenty minutes. He’s in love with her and now he’s going to have to hurt her and fuck this was such a huge mistake.

He still doesn’t understand how it happened. It’s like the whole flat meeting is one giant blur in his memory, Peter’s smug face and Freddie taking away the camera and Ben being forced into a corner and it hurts.

It’s happening again, this crazy, physical and mental loss of control. It just keeps happening to him, and he doesn’t understand it, how a simple social event or flat meeting can leave him struggling to breathe, clutching at his chest where a burning, blooming patch of pain takes hold and his head hurts so bad and she’s going to hate him, it’s all over, they’re over and he can’t stop it, he can’t do anything, and, and, and…

He’s shaking, head in his hands, praying something will come up, hoping for the first time since he’s lived here that Beatrice won’t call.

Ben is sprawled out uselessly on his bed, waiting. His breathing is finally slowing again, arms folded tight across his chest, steeling himself for who knows what- and then the laptop in the corner of the room lights up blue.

            Ben drags himself off the bed, rubbing at his eyes, trying to feel- to be- normal again. He moves from the bed to his desk chair, thumping down into his seat and forcing himself to click Accept Call.

“Hey, weirdo, what’s the big secret?” Beatrice says as soon as he picks up. “You don’t usually send multiple I-love-you texts at once, should I be worried?”

“It’s… about the flat meeting, this morning,” Ben starts nervously, licking his lips.

“Oh, yeah, how did that go?” Bea says. “Did Peter and Balthazar agree to the rules?”

“Well, yeah, actually,” Ben says, looking down at his hands. “I mean, they signed it, so I guess they’re in, now. We all are.”

“That’s awesome! I hope it helps you guys. What is it, curfew, flat bonding, vlogging, and…?”

“No relationships,” Ben rasps, his mouth suddenly very dry. He swallows painfully, trying to clear the lump from his throat. “Also veganism, that was Balthy’s idea! Should be an interesting change. I’m not fussed what I eat, really, and it might be fun to do some cooking if Balthy will let me, I’m not very good at it but it’s worth learning, I mean-”

“Wait,” Beatrice says. “What’s the rule about relationships?”

“Well, remember how I said maybe if we got Balth and Pete in close quarters with no other crushes around, maybe they might finally get over themselves and admit they love each other?” Ben winces as he says it. Here it comes.

“Yeah, and?”

“I had to make sure they couldn’t date anyone else, so I made it a rule, but they wouldn’t agree to it unless I…  I… I-had-to-sign-the-contract-too-and-now-we-can’t-be-romantic-anymore-please-don’t-hate-me!” Ben gasps, the words all running together, and he presses his fingertips hard into his temples, afraid to look up at his girlfriend.

“Wait… what?” Bea’s laughter dies in her throat. “You’re joking, right?”

 There’s a dull ache in Ben’s chest that won’t go away; he repeats himself, slowly this time. It’s agonizing.

“They wouldn’t agree to no romantic relationships unless… unless I said I’d do it too.”

           “I’m sorry,” says Beatrice, her voice high and strangled with hurt. “I don’t think I’m understanding this right- you promised to stay single… even though you’re already dating me?”

“I… yes?” Ben says nervously, running a hand along the back of his neck. “I mean… no! It’s not like that, I-”

“Then… but we… Tell me the rule again?” Beatrice is looking at him, bewildered, expectant, and he closes his eyes in pain.

“No romantic relationships. No flings, no kissing, no hugging or cuddling, no sex. With anyone. For any of us.” The finality of it settles, cold and heavy in his stomach.

“But not for you, right? Like, they aren’t seriously expecting you to just dump me? They know this rule doesn’t apply to you?” Bea demands. “Ben. Tell me it doesn’t apply to you!”

“Bea, I… Look, we can’t do any of that stuff anyway! You’re so far away, and I had no choice. Freddie was going to throw away the camera, and Pete and Balth… I had to!” Ben protests. Rationalizing this to someone outside the flat is like trying to hang onto sand as it slips through his fingers. He has to make Beatrice understand. “I didn’t want to! I didn’t have a choice!”

“Oh my God… You’re- you’re serious about this.” For the briefest flicker of a moment, Beatrice looks genuinely shocked, and so sad. It almost breaks him- and then the soft lines of her face settle back into hardened anger, and he honestly doesn’t know which is worse. “This is bullshit! You can’t- fucking- don’t even- I can’t believe-”

It takes a moment for Ben to realize Bea’s Skype window is freezing up, cutting off her words.

“…should just break up?” is the last thing he hears her say, her face bright red and blotchy with emotion. The worst possible words, the last he ever wanted to hear her say. That’s it. Done.

Call Dropped.

And then his screen goes black, and Ben is left alone.

***

            The rest of that afternoon is pure torture, plain and simple. Beatrice texts him, saying not to try calling her back. She may or may not call him tonight at their usual time, but she needs to cool off first.

Oh, God, she definitely hates him. Again.

Ben can’t concentrate on anything, can’t think of anything other than Beatrice, and how much he cannot handle losing her. She has to understand, has to know he didn’t mean to hurt her, doesn’t want to stop being with her at all.

He has to hold himself back from sending her any more texts trying to apologize. He wants to say it any way he can, until she listens- but she said she needed time.

So he climbs into bed and covers his eyes and tries to pretend this shitty day never happened, and he leaves Beatrice alone.

Editing the footage from this morning is the only thing that keeps his brain from constantly repeating Bea’s heartbroken face on loop and freaking out. Ben uploads the video and spends the rest of the evening refreshing it for any sign that Bea has seen it, seen how panicked and upset he was to have to agree to the rules.

She’s going to break up with him. He was basically asking for it, signing their relationship away like that. Oh, God, she’s really going to break up with him. It doesn’t seem real. None of this seems real.

Suddenly it’s 9:00pm, and Ben is exhausted, but there will be no hope of sleep if Beatrice doesn’t call to put him out of his misery, and then-

His speakers ring with the incoming call tone of Skype.

              Ben almost drops the laptop in his haste to pick up the call. Beatrice’s glowering face on the screen is about the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, in this moment. “You called! I can’t believe you called! I’m so sorry, love-”

"I saw the video," glowers Beatrice, cutting him off. "I refuse to let you off the hook that easily, Dickface. I am NOT letting you just dump me over these stupid rules. We’ve been through too much together to give up now."

"Bea, please, I- wait. Wait, you aren’t breaking up with me?" Ben perks up, almost daring to hope.

"What, and let you and your idiot flatmates win?” she scoffs. “Let anyone besides you and me have any say in my love life? No way. You're going to have to do a lot better than that to get rid of me."

"I never wanted to!” Ben exclaims. “I really, really don’t want us to break up, I promise. I honestly didn't think that rule would apply to us. I know it was stupid, I should have tried harder to get out of it, but it’s too late now. If I back out on the rules, so do the others.”

“Okay,” Beatrice says, skeptical. "Do you honestly think these rules will help Peter and Balthazar sort out their shit? Is this really the best way to keep everyone happy?"

"Yeah... Yeah, I honestly think it is. The four of us are making each other miserable, and I don't know what else to do. And, uh, I sort of need the vlogs for my sociology homework, so..."

"Ben. Please tell me you didn’t just risk our relationship to start drama on your vlog," Beatrice says dangerously.  

“Of course not! The rules are supposed to cause less drama for everyone, not more. I would never do that to you,” Ben says honestly. “This wasn’t supposed to affect us, Bea. It doesn’t have to change anything, okay?”

She snorts in disbelief, but Ben needs to believe it’s true, so he goes on.

“It doesn’t! We can still Skype every night, and I can still tell you that you’re the most amazing girl I know and I’m so in love with you, and if I could, I would be in Auckland with you right now. But I need to be here, and the flat needs these rules. I don’t know what else to do. I just want everyone to be happy.”

Silence falls, icy and terrifying, while Beatrice considers him. Finally, Ben can’t stand it any longer.

“Please tell me you aren’t angry at me anymore,” he says worriedly.

“Of course I’m angry,” Beatrice says. “I’m allowed to be angry. I really thought… Just please don’t scare me like that again, okay?”

“Okay,” Ben says. “I won’t. I swear.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow. And don’t put this conversation online.”

“I wouldn’t dare,” Ben promises, putting a hand over his heart. “It stays between us.”

“Good. Okay, goodnight. And Ben? I’m really glad we’re not broken up,” Bea admits, softening a bit.

“Yeah, me too,” Ben tells her.

And miracle of miracles, she actually cracks a smile.

***

Ben is creeping back to his room with a glass of water when Peter gets home from the bar that night. He’s stumbling slightly and reeks of booze, but it’s just before curfew, and he’s alone. No rules broken yet.

“Good to see you home, buddy,” Ben says, clapping him on the shoulder as he walks past.

“Ooh, look at me, I’m following the fucking rules,” Peter sneers. “What about you? Did Beatrice dump your ass yet?”

“I would deserve it if she had,” Ben says, thinking back to earlier and shuddering. “But she wants us to stay together. Just, nothing physical for now, because of the rules. I got lucky this time.” 

“Everything’s always so fucking easy for you two, isn’t it?” Peter grumbles. “Dick.”

“Goodnight to you, too,” Ben calls after him, trying not to feel too guilty.

All he wants is to help his friends be happy. He’s doing a good thing here. He is.

…Isn’t he?

 ***

Chapter Text

***

           “So then, he goes around the classroom, reading everyone’s paper proposals out loud and just criticizing them in front of everyone!” Ben exclaims. “He was all, ‘What is this drivel? Have none of you been paying attention? Are you really this incredibly dull-witted?’”

Ben says all this in an amazing impression of his teacher’s slow, perpetually irritated voice, and his expression- well, Bea can’t even look at the Skype window without losing it.

“Oh my God,” she hisses through her laughter. “Why is your professor actually  Severus Snape?”

“He is!” Ben punches the air. “That’s who he was reminding me of, thank you! ‘Drivel, nonsense, asphodel and wormwood, dull, dull, dull,’ every single second of every single class. It’s mad!”

“Full offense, but your Kiwi accent still sucks,” Beatrice says, wrinkling her nose.

“And your thesis needs work, Ms. Duke,” Ben says in that same terrible Kiwi Snape voice that Beatrice literally can’t not laugh at. “Get to it!”

“How do you not just die every time this guy opens his mouth?”

“It’s a gift. A very… dull… gift…,” Ben says, drawing out his words, pausing for what seems like forever in between each one. He’d make Alan Rickman proud.

“Oh my God, stop,” Beatrice laughs, clutching at her sides. “I can’t take it anymore!”

“Okay, okay, sorry,” Ben holds back a smirk. “Change of subject, then. How was your day, Bea?”

           He listens to her description of work and cleaning her room and making dinner with Hero and Leo… and all of a sudden, there’s this gleam in his eye, and she just knows what’s coming.

“Don’t you dare-”

But he’s already broken out the weird Kiwi Snape accent again. "Oh, how incredibly dull, my dear."

Beatrice shudders, still laughing. "Ugh! Don't you ever call me your dear again, it's just creepy."

"Wasn't planning on it, love," Ben says, in his normal voice this time.       

It’s music to Bea’s ears. "That's more like it."

"Is it really? Noted, love." Ben winks, putting undue emphasis on the nickname.

"Well, now you're just saying it on purpose, it's less charming that way!" she laughs. “You’re awful.”

 "Are you criticizing my romancing skills or my vocabulary? Because I don’t have to call you ‘love’ all the time. I could change things up a bit, you know... darling." Ben pronounces the word with a flourish, waggling his eyebrows in what’s supposed to be a flirtatious expression. It’s completely unappealing.

"Ugh, stop that,” Beatrice groans. “You sound like my grandmother. And I thought you weren’t allowed to romance me anymore, anyway.”

“What d’you- oh,” Ben says, realization dawning. “No, no, that’s not in the rules at all!”

Beatrice crosses her arms against the sudden uncomfortable atmosphere, anger and hurt rising up in her chest again. Fucking rules.

“No romantic relationships?” She points out.

“Okay, yeah, but we’re already in a relationship! We’re the exception. Obviously, I can’t touch you, but no one is expecting me to just fall out of love with you, I mean, that’s ridiculous,” Ben says, and then actually has the nerve to laugh.

“It isn’t funny!” Beatrice snaps.

“I’m really-”

“Sorry. Yeah, I know.” She finishes the sentence, letting silence fall between them.

             It’s been rough, finding out about this rules thing. The idea that Benedick would actively choose flatmate drama over dating her- she can’t help being hurt by that. Bea would never admit it, but the night that Ben first broke the news, she was so furious she cried. She’d felt so stupid, so easily pushed aside. What kind of asshole would agree to never date anyone, if he already had a girlfriend? Meg’s theory is, the kind who doesn’t see his girlfriend often enough to be reminded just how good he has it. Bea isn’t so sure that would help much, at this point.

            "I'm never going to get a pet name that's not also a dick joke, am I?" Ben asks gloomily, breaking the silence.

“Nope,” Beatrice says. “Not until you stop acting like one, anyway.”

 Ben makes a face and pretends to close his laptop on her. “Hey!” she protests, and he stops.

“I’m kidding,” Ben says, holding up his hands. “I just wondered what it would be like, you know. If you gave me a cute nickname like that. I’ve never had one before.”

"Pet names are weird, though,” Bea points out. “Why would I want to talk down to you like that? You're my boyfriend, not a little kid or a cute animal or whatever."

 "I do have a stuffed animal here, though," Ben points out, holding up the plushie ram that lives on his bed, as if that’s somehow relevant.

 "Of course you do, honey," Bea says in an exaggeratedly saccharine tone.

         Ben sticks his tongue out, making a retching noise. "Bleurgh, never mind. Please, stop.”

“Aww, I’m sorry, baby,” Beatrice laughs, trying on the soppiest smile she can muster. “Is this not what you wanted, sweetheart?”

“No way,” says Ben emphatically, shaking his head. “You’re right, this is gross. I think I actually prefer just being ‘dickface’.”

"I'm sorry... I'm right? Did you actually just admit out loud that I am right?! Yes! This feels amazing, wow.”

"It has to happen sometimes, love."

          "Hey, you said it again," observes Beatrice happily. “You called me ‘love’. That’s kind of a pet name, but I definitely don’t hate it.”

"Well, I mean, that’s different. Calling you ‘love’ isn’t supposed to infantilize you, or be all weird and possessive. It’s just me stating a fact. You are the girl I love, and I guess my subconscious mind figures it might as well make me tell you so as often as it can. I really can try to stop if you want-"

"No!” she exclaims, too quickly. “I mean- no, don’t stop, please. Thanks for asking, but… it’s kind of nice. It helps with this whole rules thing, knowing you still love me enough that you can't stop saying it out loud.”

“I do, I really do. I never meant to hurt you, Bea.” Ben says it softly, guiltily, blue eyes wide, and for the first time since the Rules happened, Beatrice feels certain it’s the truth. Maybe Meg is right, they just need less distance, not more.

          She sighs. “Just… tell me it’s going to be okay. Please tell me we’re going to get through this together. It’s just some stupid thing your flat is doing, that has nothing to do with us. Right?”

“Right,” Ben says, and swallows hard, clearing his throat. “The rules are no big deal. You’re still my girlfriend, and I’m still going to Skype you every day, and you can call me whatever stupid nicknames you want. Nothing is going to change between us, Beatrice. I promise.”

And maybe it’s just that she misses him so much, that she wants so badly to believe him. Maybe it’s just that long-distance gets harder every day, and she needs  it to be worthwhile. Maybe it’s just love that makes Beatrice put on a brave face, and nod.

“Okay," she murmurs. "I trust you, babe.”

“More pet names?” Ben groans, but he looks much more relieved than grossed out, this time.

Bea just laughs. “Hey, you asked for it!”

***

Chapter Text

***

       “Hey!” Beatrice beams, waving from the screen enthusiastically as soon as Ben’s video feed starts working. He grins back. Things have still been a little on the rocky side between them lately, but right now it’s like nothing happened at all.

“Hi! You look awfully happy, love,” Ben says. “What’s up?”

“Okay, fine, I can’t wait anymore! I was going to wait and tell you when we know the dates for sure, but I can’t help it, it’s going to be so good to see you-”

“See me? Wait… no! You don’t mean-?!”

Bea nods, and she’s practically bouncing on her bed with excitement. “I’m coming to Wellington!”

        There’s a rushing in Ben’s ears, like it takes a minute for the words to compute. Beatrice… coming to Wellington. Beatrice, here. Not eight hours away- right here, for real. And he isn’t even dreaming.

“Seriously? That’s amazing! When?” Ben asks. “I thought you’d never come here. You said!”

“You know I was kidding,” Bea says. “I miss you too much to stay away! And Meg’s coming, she thought it’d be good for both of us to get a change of scenery, have an adventure. We’re road-tripping it!”

“Aw, that sounds so cool. I can’t even believe this, it doesn’t feel real,” Ben exclaims. “We have to make plans, I’ll show you around the flat and our favorite Wellington spots, and you can meet Freddie- again, I mean, in person. She still has trouble believing you exist, sometimes. And you won’t be behind a computer screen anymore!”

“I know! I am gonna hug you so hard, dickface,” Beatrice laughs. “You won’t know what hit you.”

“God, yes, please,” he smirks. “It’s been way too long. I can’t wait- oh. Shit. What about the rules, though?”

A trickle of unease and disappointment snakes through him at the thought. No touching. How much worse it will be, staying distant from Beatrice when she’s here, for real, in person. Fuck.

          Bea sighs. “Can we not talk about that, actually? Please? Let’s just be happy and excited right now. We’ll work around the rules when Meg and I get there. Nothing changes between us, remember?”

“Right,” Ben says, pushing away his worries for once. “Nothing changes.”

“Good,” says Beatrice. “So, we were thinking of staying for a few months, actually. Might be fun to get the lay of the land, really give ourselves time to enjoy this. What are your next few weeks like?”

          The rest of the call is spent happily planning for when Beatrice gets here. Still, Ben can’t quite shed his unease about the whole situation. If only he’d known about this trip a few weeks ago, maybe things could be different- but it’s fine. We’re fine, he tells himself.

Bea even ends the Skype call that day with reassurance. “Hey, I love you, okay? I’ll talk to you tomorrow. And I’ll see you so soon! Ahh!”

How can he be worried, after that?

***

                “What if she hates it here?” Ben asks, flopping down on Freddie’s bed. The best friend in question is sitting at her desk, trying to do homework.

“Didn’t she literally grow up here?” Freddie points out. “I’m sure she’ll feel right at home.”

“You know what I meant. She’s coming to visit me and I can’t even hold hands! What if she’s mad at me because I’m neglecting her? What if she breaks up with me, Freddie?”

“What if I don’t get this essay done because my flatmate wouldn’t stop freaking out in my study space?” Freddie says. “Rules are rules, you can’t change them now. Be calm, right?”

“What if I really, really can’t do that right now?”

“Then at least stop asking questions, you’re making me anxious now. Maybe you should tell Beatrice not to come, if it’s getting you this worked up-”

“No!” Ben bolts upright.

“That’s what I thought,” Freddie shakes her head. “Let me finish this and we can watch some In the Flesh to get your mind off things.”

“Thanks, Freds.”

“Don’t mention it.”

***

            “How can you be this annoying?” Peter complains later that week, flopping onto the couch with a comic, after catching Ben vacuuming the living room for the third time. “Bea’s not your mum, she doesn’t give a shit how clean the flat is.”

It may be true that Ben’s a little  bit hyper about the upcoming visit.

“But I want everything to be perfect!” he protests. “Bea just forgave me for the rules, the least I can do is make sure she feels welcome here. She’s your friend, don’t you want to see her?”

“Sure. And  I definitely don’t have to see you two being gross,” Peter smirks. “Silver linings, mate.”

“Fuck off,” Ben grumbles, vacuuming right under Peter’s legs.

Peter flips him off and goes back to his comic book.  

***

         That’s basically how it goes, in the week before Bea arrives. She keeps him updated on her plans, and in turn, Ben is increasingly overwhelmed at the prospect of seeing her again. Suddenly, he doesn’t know how he’s survived without her.

Every time Beatrice calls, she seems happier and more excited than last time. She sends him snaps of her suitcase from empty to fully packed, Hero baking cookies for the girls to take on the road, the restaurant on Bea’s last day of work there.

They’re constantly texting, keeping each other up to date. They talk every day, and it all feels normal. Ever so slightly, Ben relaxes.

         Beatrice is coming here. His amazing, gorgeous girlfriend is going to be right here, in person, in a matter of days. It’s excitement and happiness that make his skin crawl and his heart race when he thinks about seeing her. Of course it is. He can’t be dreading it.

In the dark and the quiet of his room at night, his entire being vibrating with worries and hopes and wishes, Ben convinces himself that excitement is the only reason he can’t sleep.

The silence and stillness and the possibility of it all is crushing him a little. But that’s a good thing.

Beatrice. Here.

It’s a very good thing.

***

Chapter Text

***

She’s nervous.

It’s ridiculous, really. It’s just Ben. Beatrice knows him, she loves him, it’s going to be fine- but she can’t shake the nerves that have been bubbling up inside her, more and more, the closer she gets to Wellington, to seeing him again. She barely slept last night, just tossed and turned, impatient to be gone.

Meg thinks she’s being silly, thinks the rules will be forgotten as soon as they arrive. Ben won’t be able to resist at least kissing Bea hello, and then he’ll get punished, and that will be the end of it. Beatrice will be right there, in the flat, and there will be nothing else for it. The flatmates will have to let them be together. They’ll find another way to matchmake Peter and Balthazar.

           Bea leans back against the passenger seat of Meg’s car, clicking her phone open to look at the lockscreen. Herself and Ben and Hero, sprawled in the grass on a summer day in Auckland, all beaming and laughing together. She runs her finger along the screen near Ben’s smiling face, thinking how, after this photo, she had rolled over and into his arms, laughing all along.

Her finger slips, and the picture disappears, leaving behind the black screen where she enters her code to unlock the phone.

           She sighs, looking out the window as rolling green hills and blue sky rush past. Bea loves road-tripping through the New Zealand countryside. It reminds her of being small, counting sheep with her dad and bouncing up and down with glee, knowing she’d soon get to play with cousin Hero in Auckland for the rest of the summer, and it was all just a car ride away. This trip is in the opposite direction, back to Wellington. The ride that usually went with tears and tantrums and sulking, leaving her friends behind. Everything is backwards now.

When she went home after summers with her cousins, Beatrice had forgotten them absurdly quickly. She’d been a kid, distracted and busy with school and her year-round friends. Summer was temporary, easily forgotten. She missed Hero and Leo and Peter, sure, but she wasn’t a lonely kid. Life was still full of light and fun and football practice, and summer would come again.

Being left behind in Auckland was a new experience for Bea, and it came with a different kind of loneliness.

           Thinking about her lockscreen picture, Bea can still feel the sensation of Ben’s warm body against hers, shaking with laugher but holding her steady, too. The absence of that warmth is a ghost that follows Beatrice wherever she goes, except when she’s on Skype with him. It’s a silence that’s very hard to break, when the person you most want to talk to is just out of your reach.

She thinks of last night, Skyping with Ben for the last time before Wellington, trying to combat the emptiness of her room with the sound of his breathing, the whisper of his voice. Bea remembers drifting off with Ben’s voice still in her ears, falling asleep just like they would if they were actually in the same room. This morning, her laptop had died with the Skype window still open.

“I’m wasting my time in Auckland,” Beatrice had told Ben, last night. “It’s like I’ve hit a rut— I want my life to start already, but I’m afraid to really let it. Meg’s right. I need to start the trip now. And anyway, I’m sick of being stuck here, without you.”

           It’s true, and Bea feels it every second of the car ride, in every song that she and Meg sing along to on the radio. In every moment that she watches the clouds go by, and every second of the amazing conversation they have with their new friend Kitso Harper, when they pick him up by lucky chance, hitchhiking back to town.

“Oh, so you’re the one who’s dating Ben,” Kit says in his easy, offhanded way. “He talks a lot about you. What brings you to Wellington?” He laughs, but his tone says, man, good luck.

Beatrice beams. So, Ben talks about her enough that Kit knows who she is. Kit thinks the rules are funny, something to roll his eyes at, something that won’t last. It's fine.

“Just visiting,” she says. “How about you?”

         “It’s too quiet without you around,” she remembers telling Ben, in one of those first Skype calls after he moved away. The noise in the car fills her head and her heart. She’s nineteen years old and laughing on a road trip with her friends, and she’s going to see her boyfriend, and it’s good.

Bea can feel her loneliness and worry getting smaller and smaller, like a sad little town in the rearview mirror.

She texts him: Almost there.

***

The End