Author's Notes: Okay, I know that Ben is supposed to be more around 14, but a.) it's not like he acts 14, and b.) I really can't see God being so naïve as to think that a 14 year old could wander around the world in this day and age, so I see them as having aged in body, at east, to around seventeen or eighteen. that way they can, you know, drive at least, as well as be able to function in today's society more or less as an adult without getting hassled by truancy cops or shipped off into foster care.
Because really, that would just be so annoying.
The title is from Hamlet Act 1, Scene 2.
though Hell itself should bid me hold my piece
Writing this made me tired.
"I miss the eighteenth century," Ned said, prodding his nose miserably against the taxicab's dirty window. Ben grinned, tugging his drooped tail affectionately and giving him a light scratch under the collar.
"Oh yeah," he agreed teasingly, "There's nothing like no health care, constant dirtiness, and of course the lack of fast food."
The big black dog rolled his eyes, lolling forward with the constant stop-and-go of the car. "Don't sass me, boy. I'll take you out right here in the back of this satanic vehicle."
"Is that so? Well, then, gosh. I need to take you to the vet to make sure you won't pass on any diseases to me. What do you think, a couple shots, a good rectal thermometer—"
"Okay, okay!" The dog howled, putting his head in the boy's lap and looking up at him with his soulful liquid eyes. "I'm sorry, O Great Master. Be merciful, I'm begging you!"
Ben laughed, shaking his head as he stroked Ned's ear. The dog moaned happily and closed his eyes, falling almost instantly asleep under Ben's care. The boy looked out the window at the passing city—sometimes it still surprised him, to see what his world had turned into.
Four-hundred and five years of life, culminating in a slow, shaky trip down 4th and Main, his driver shouting foreign obscenities out of the window. In some ways, of course, Ned was right; Ben missed the eighteenth century, too. He missed travelling entertainers, and golden-hearted buccaneers; he missed village fairs and kind old sailor's wives; he missed sleepy little towns that learned only through experimentation to stand on their own two feet.
And funnily enough and most of all, he missed Luis. Though merciful memory loosened the ache of many of his old companions—Karayna and Dominic, Amy and Alex, Raphael Thuron and Winnifred Winn—that heartache was always fresh. Perhaps because he was the first, and perhaps he had been the father that Ben (or Neb, back then) had for so long been denied.
Who knows why the heart clings as it does?
"I miss them too," Ned said without opening his eyes. "Although I still think it's hilarious that Alex Somers married Regina Pudden-Face."
Ben grinned, knowing his friend was trying to shake his mood, and he let him. "Now there's a courtship I would have killed to see. D'you think good old Regina bullied him into it?"
The dog's voice raised an octave as he mimicked the girl. "Alex Somers, you get down on one knee right now. I'm sick of waiting for you, you great clod!"
"I wonder what Amy thought of that," Ben mused. "But then, she married one of Winnie's grandsons, didn't she?"
"Now there's a union. I'll bet the sweet old broad died the happiest woman in the world."
The companions smiled at one another, and as the cab jerked into its final destination Ben handed the remainder of his money to the front of the car. "Thanks a lot," he said in the driver's native tongue. The man started, his eyes widening as he thought back on all the nasty things he'd been saying. Ben grinned at him and winked once before stepping out of the taxi.
"Well," he said, shuffling around in his backpack for the tickets Jeanette Rollins had given him when she bid the pair a tearful goodbye from her high-rise apartment. (Sometimes, Ben thought, their angel really had a funny sense of humor. Sending them into the apartment of the richest lady in New York City had seemed a gift at first—the beds! the food!—but the pair quickly realized she had plenty of trouble of her own; her dinking, her spending; all of it was headed to a very dangerous place. It took them a month and a half to help the sweet but unstable lady to reconcile with her family and check herself into rehab. But, still, success is success no matter how long it takes), "All right. You'll have to be in the animal compartment, I'm afraid."
Ned sent him a wolfy grin. "That's just fine with me. You meet the most interesting people on trains. Or animals, I should say."
Ben shook his head, laughing as he tugged the dog's tail affectionately and shooed him into the proper compartment. "See you in a few hours. Let me just get settled and fed and then I'll come down."
Ned's tongue lolled out of his mouth as a shiny golden Labrador strolled passed. "Take your time," he joked, and with a happy bark let his friend shut the cage door. (Ben didn't lock it; he hated to see anything stuck somewhere without an escape route.)
The boy grinned ruefully, making his way up to his seat. The train would take them from the City to God only knew where. They'd bought tickets for as far as the train could carry them, but maybe they'd get off sooner. They would just have to see.
Ben turned his head out the window, brushing his sandy hair out of his eyes. It was late afternoon, so the sun was sinking but still bright enough that he could clearly see into the city.
There was movement behind him; he looked up to see that a girl had taken the seat next to him. She had dark brown hair and startling blue eyes, but her face was more or less plain, with a smattering of freckles. Her fingernails were chewed to bits and painted dark blue; she had an iPod in and was tracing her thumb around the center.
She caught him looking at her and turned to face him, smiling a bit. "Hi," she said, taking one headphone out of her ear. "I'm Wendy."
Ben grinned back, offering his hand in a sort of mock gesture of politeness. "Hi, Wendy. I'm Ben. Where are you headed?"
The girl shrugged. "School," she said, her tone bored. "School starts in two weeks; I'm going to be staying with my aunt up in Providence."
Ben frowned, trying to remember which schools were in that area. Since he'd never actually gone to school, the names usually didn't stick. Eventually he gave up. College seemed a little silly to him; four hundred years of life experience suited him fine, he didn't feel overly desperate to learn calculus. "Which school is that?" He asked, with an embarrassed little smile.
"I'm a sophomore at RISD," she answered promptly, and at his blank stare she laughed. "Boy, you don't get out much, do you? The Rhode Island School of Design. I'm an artist."
Ned's voice entered his head from the animal compartment: "Ohhh. Artists are great scratchers! Come on, Ben, pick us up a babe."
Ben ignored him. The dog's sense of humor was growing more and more warped by the century. What had happened to insults like 'you walloping wartkisser' and 'chortled chin-dribbler'?
"What about you? Where do you go to school?"
Ben shrugged noncommittally. "Nowhere really. Couldn't afford it. Mostly I just wander around, finding odd jobs here and there. I haven't really found what I like yet, so I'm still—uh—taste-testing."
Wendy looked impressed. "Wow, cool. Wish my parents would let me do that. I mean, school is great, but I'm more about art-in-the-moment and not art-according-to-Professor-Lame."
"I was never much of an artist, myself," Ben admitted. "More of a… man of history."
"That's one way to put it," Ned thought.
Wendy smiled at him, vaguely horrified at the idea of anyone liking history, but she didn't speak her thoughts out loud. Instead she kicked her feet up against the back of the chair in front of her and started talking, nothing of great importance just smattering of conversation. Ben chatted back with her somewhat absently, caught now back in history's long fingers.
"—Anyway," Wendy was saying, "I'm big into old ghost stories these days, just get a kick out of them. My favorites right now are the Hookman and the Flying Dutchman, because man, those scare the crap outta me—"
Ben stiffened. "The Dutchman, huh?" He asked weakly. "Doesn't it put you off, um, sailing?"
"Yeah, because I was a huge sailor before," she retorted with an eye roll. "Dude. Look at me. Do I look like the sailing type to you? Nah. But it wouldn't scare me anyway." Her eyes widened. "Hey! If you're getting off at Providence, we should totally go!"
And Ben felt it, unmistakably. Just as he was opening his mouth to say thanks but no thanks his whole stomach flipped and his mouth said, "Providence, huh? Is there work there?"
Wendy shrugged, saying, "We can find you some, and you can live with some friends of mine. You're 18, right?" just as Ned yelped, "You cannot be serious!" But whether he was talking to Ben or the angel that had molded the words, neither really knew.
"Um," Ben thought weakly to his dog. "It wasn't my fault?"
The dog grumbled, "Sometimes, heavenly mandates really suck."
Ben closed his eyes. He thought about how long 400 years was, and where he could possibly belong in a world like this. Planes, computers, atomic bombs… where did an immortal boy and his dog fit in?
And then he thought of all who were be waiting for him, for them—Raphael and Anaconda; Karayna and Dominic and Adamo and Arnela and the kind old Comte; Amy and Alex and Winnie and Jon good old Mr. Braithewhite; Otto and Mummo and La Linde and . . .
He felt that familiar ache steal through his belly as the girl's face shimmered into his mind. She looked the same; perfect black skin and milky white teeth, her hair tied back in her red bandana. He could still hear her singing to him.
Can you imagine missing someone for over three hundred years? Because Ben would tell you—it sucked.
He tried to remember her alive and well, playing with Ned (Bundi, honestly) or accompanying La Linde, her little hands quick and light against the drums. He thought that she and Amy would have liked each other. They were a lot a like; it was what had drawn him to the Chapelvale native in the first place.
Wendy's hand stirred him; he blinked, only to realize he had fallen asleep. She was standing, backpack slung over one shoulder. "Come on, droopy, we're here."
"I've got to get my dog," Ben said, "I'll meet you on the platform."
The girl shrugged, heading down the isle; Ben went quickly to the animal car. Ned was sitting at the doorway, waiting for him. For a moment they just looked at one another.
With a deep breath, Ben asked, "You ready?"
The dog shrugged, as much as a dog can. "If you are, I guess."
The two left the train pressed close together, acutely aware that the sleepy little Providence train station would lead them farther than they'd ever meant to go. Wendy was waiting on the street, holding another cab for them. "I don't have any money," Ben said apologetically. "I can walk, if you want, just tell me where—"
She waved him away. "Get in the cab. What's the dog's name?"
They squeezed together, Ned sitting on Ben's lap and cheerfully sucking up to their hostess. "Ned," Ben told her, laughing out loud at the running stream of contentment flowing out of the dog's mind as Wendy scratched him.
"Ohhhh yes, I knew she'd be a good scratcher Ben, this is wonderful oh ohhh… a little to the left, sweetheart—ahh. Just the right spot. Mmmmmm."
"What's so funny?" Wendy asked.
"Nothing. Ned just really likes that."
The girl smiled smugly, tucking her hair behind her ear to reveal a long row of earrings, three on the lobe and four at the top. As they pulled into the parking lot of a quaint little house, Wendy paid the cab driver and made Ben carry her absurdly heavy duffle bag to the floor. "My aunt's not going to be home for a few hours," she explained as she took the key from under the welcome mat, "So I'll just set you up in the guest room with me. You're getting the floor though, cause hey, I'm not a saint."
"Oh, I am," Ben intoned with a straight face, and she laughed. "The floor's fine. I'm pretty used to it. In fact, a blanket is kind of an improvement over a lot of the places I've dragged Ned to."
Wendy cast him a curious look but politely didn't press; she simply tossed him a quilt and a pillow from the linen closet and let him get himself set up. "We'll have to eat with Jackie, but for an old lady she's pretty cool. I'd say we should probably sneak out around eleven-thirty or so, that way we have time to get to the beach and make sure we don't miss it. 'Course, it's probably all rubbish but, whatever. Hey, thanks for coming with me."
Ben blinked at the abrupt change on pace. "Uh—you're welcome?"
"Well," she blushed, "I just mean, you know, we just met on the train and, I know I'm a little…talkative, and you're just a pretty cool guy, so…" she paused thoughtfully. "And don't ruin it by turning out to be a total creep, okay? This is a murder and theft free house, and we'd like to keep it that way."
Ben snapped to attention and saluted cheerfully. "Sure thing, marm."
Ned groaned, covering his eyes with his paws. "Marm, Benny Boy? No one's said 'marm' since like… the fifties. Of the nineteenth century. In England."
Wendy laughed aloud at the word, her ring-and-bracelet laden hand covering her mouth. "Marm? Whoa. Whoa. Somebody raised you right."
Shaking her head, she left to shower while Ben relaxed. He lay back against his pillow and Ned rested his head on his boy's stomach. "I'm not sure what I'd have done all these years without you, Neddo," Ben said out loud, gently stroking the animal's head.
"Right back at you, Benno."
Wendy was right; her aunt Jackie was sweet. They ordered Chinese food for dinner because the stove was broken; Ben promised to take a look at it after dinner to see if he couldn't fix it.
The newcomer delighted Aunt Jackie, and she clapped her withered hands at her niece. "Excellent taste, my dear. There's something special about this boy, I can just feel it."
"He called me marm earlier," Wendy supplied teasingly.
"Oh, now that's manners," Jackie praised.
Even more than the boy, however, Jackie loved Ned. She ordered him his very own serving of Kung Pao Chicken and scratched him expertly behind the ears. "I've always wanted a dog like this," she sighed wistfully. "Big and strong! But poor Noah was always allergic and now I'm too old to keep up, I'm afraid."
"Noah's my dead uncle," Wendy whispered out of the side of her mouth.
Feeling sorry for the old woman, Ben said lightly, "Well, I'm kind of sick of Ned. Why don't you keep him?"
Jackie laughed, clapping her hand to her breast. "Oh! Oh. You are a funny young man. Imagine, giving up a dog like this!"
"Yes, exactly, Benno. What were you thinking, giving up a creature such as myself?"
Ben tugged his tail. "Obviously I wasn't, O Noble Ned."
Wendy had dish duty; Jackie wouldn't hear of a guest helping to clean up. "Not in my house, young man," she said sternly. "You will sit right here and allow yourself to be waited on. That's manners."
With a smile, Ben held up his hands up in a gesture of defeat. "All right, ma'am, you've convinced me. I won't move unless you physically pick me up and carry me."
Aunt Jackie squealed girlishly, delighted at the teasing, and lightly tapped his arm. "Oh, you! What a sweet young man."
"Ben, I'm not sure if I should be impressed or ashamed," Ned thought dryly. "Flirting your way into an old woman's good graces. You're going to break her heart."
"Aw, shut up, Ned. Look at her, she's loving it."
"Well, with a handsome devil such as yourself, how could she lot? Careful, you don't want to get tricked into some sort of marriage-slave agreement."
Ben laughed out loud at the dog's sarcasm; luckily for him, the old lady had been in the middle of some sort of funny tale, and she beamed at his apparent appreciation. Wendy's eyebrows went up as she returned to the table, to find her aunt glowing at her unexpected guest.
"How about you let Ben take a look at that stove now, Aunt Jackie?"
The old woman clasped her hands together. "Ah! Yes, yes, yes. There is a tool box around here somewhere—a-ha! There, left cupboard, top shelf. Noah always wanted the toolbox in the kitchen, don't ask me why…"
Ben retrieved the object and opened the stove's door. "All right," he said cheerfully, "Wendy, I'm going to need you to pass me tools as I as for them. Is that all right? I think it's actually a fairy easy fix, I think."
Jackie cheered happily and then made her excuses, claiming her inalienable right for sleep. "Imagine, an angel sent to fix my stove!" She mumbled to herself as she trundled towards the bedroom. "Oh, that's manners."
Wendy laughed as soon as her aunt had gone. "Well, you've certainly charmed your way into the Gordon family's hearts today, haven't you?"
Ben cocked his head. "Could you pass me a wrench? And what do you mean?"
"Aunt Jackie loves you!" Wendy said, staring dumbly down at the tool box. "Uhhh, Ben… I'm not… really sure which one that is."
Ned sighed, stirring from his bed beneath the table. "Tell her to give me the toolbox," he said. "Honestly, kids these days."
Ben grinned, glad Wendy couldn't see it in case she thought he was making fun. "Oh, that's okay. Just put the box on the ground and tell Ned to find the wrench."
She raised her eyebrows. "He can do that?"
"Oh, yeah! Ned knows all kinds of tricks. Watch." Ben crawled out from the stove and nudged the toolbox towards his dog. "Sorry about this," he thought before saying aloud, "Find the wrench, Ned! Find the wrench!"
"Treat me like a pup, why don't you," the dog grumbled good-naturedly, pretending to sniff around for a moment before grabbing the tool in his mouth and trotting it over to Ben.
"Good boy!" Ben crowed. "Ohh, Neddo, good boy."
Wendy applauded, delighted and impressed. "That's quite a dog," she declared. The next few minutes were spent in a show by Ned, showing off all the "tricks" he knew; shaking hands and playing dead and getting on two feet; Ben even pulled out the old (oooold) classic, putting objects in the middle of the floor and telling Ned where to take them.
The girl was mesmerized. Soon the stove was forgotten, as the pair sat in the middle of the kitchen floor talking. Ned had his head in Wendy's lap as she scratched him ("Mmmm, artists, Benno, the best,") and Ben found himself warming to the talkative art student.
"Yeah, well, my stepdad was a creep but eventually he ditched my Mom and me for some Las Vegas showgirl, which actually was the best thing he ever did for anybody. With the exception of the poor showgirl, I guess. What about you? What are your parents like?"
Ben hesitated. "I, uh, I don't have any, actually."
Her eyes were sympathetic. "Oh. Foster kid, huh?"
"More of a…on my own kid."
"Wow. Imagine someone so young having to figure everything out for themselves. I don't know what I'd do without my mom. But hey, at least you've got good old Ned, huh?"
Ben smiled, reaching out with his foot to gently prod his friend's full stomach. "Yeah," he said aloud, "Ned's my best friend."
The dog peeled open an eye to look at him. "Softie," he accused, with the animal's happiness was plain. Ben shook his head then, laughing at himself.
"Oops, the stove. Are you distracting me on purpose, Miss Wendy?"
"Yep," she answered cheerfully. "All that manly stove-fixing was just driving me bananas."
Ben laughed, crawling back into the broken appliance. "Wendy… er, Ned, bring me a screwdriver."
Ned obliged, digging the tool out from the bottom of the box. "That's incredible," Wendy murmured. "Ned, you're the freakiest dog I've ever met."
"Well, you're the freakiest girl I've ever met," Ned answered cheerfully, licking her hand.
Ben chuckled to himself. For a while they sat in a silence broken only by the clang of tools and the occasional request, but as the clock crept closer to midnight Wendy began getting antsy. "So you're probably gonna be on your way after we see the Dutchman, huh," she said a last, just as Ben was finalizing the little repairs he'd made. He froze.
"Probably," he said carefully, emerging into the kitchen with a wary look.
"Where you gonna go?"
"Dunno. I'll get on another train, I guess. See where it takes me. Why?"
She didn't say anything, just pursed her lips. "What? Why what? There's no why. I'm just wondering, okay, I was curious. Jeeeez."
"Wendy," Ben said softly.
The girl sighed. "I was thinking that maybe…I mean, if you wanted or didn't…mind, I could… I don't know. Go with you."
Both the boy and the dog blinked. "What?!" They both yelped at the same time, although Ned's came out more of a bark. "Wendy, you can't quit school!"
"Yes I can! I can always go back to school. I'm not young forever, you know? I want to actually see the world, not just… paint it from a stuffy old classroom with a professor going on about 'free thought' and wanting to 'harness my talent'. I don't want him to harness my talent, I don't want my talent harnessed! I want it to be free, and maybe that means that I won't be as perfect as I could have been but that's okay, you know? I don't have to be freakin' Picasso, 'cause a) he was an ass, and b) I never really wanted to be a big important artist, anyway. I just want to… I don't know, do it."
Ben shook his head. "You can't come with me," he said, firmly but not unkindly. "Okay? I'm sorry. But you've got the wrong idea about me, anyway. It's not the glamorous life you're imagining. Sometimes we don't eat for days, and we have to get awful jobs doing disgusting work, and not to even mention the dangers…a pretty girl like you, travelling alone aimlessly, eventually running out of money? You're shark meat, sweetheart."
Wendy pursed her lips and crossed her arms over her chest. For a moment, she looked so much like Karay—stubborn, fierce, furious—that Ben almost laughed; but he kept his features neutral. The clock struck eleven. "The stove's fixed," he said tentatively. "D'you wanna go, or…?"
"What, do you think I'm scared or something? 'Cause I'm not. Let's go." She stormed out of the house through the kitchen's door and Ben sighed, following more slowly with Ned.
"Well, I think that went well," the dog commented.
It took them a few minutes to catch up with the angry, fast-paced girl. By the time they caught up, much of the steam had cooled, and she was much friendlier, although both were still tense. "It's actually not really a good walking distance," Wendy murmured, a little embarrassed. "I was just so mad, I didn't… stop to think about it."
Ben laughed kindly, throwing an arm around her shoulder. "That's all right. We've got an hour. And if you're dainty legs get tired, I'm sure Ned wouldn't mind giving you a ride."
"Hey! Speak for yourself!" The dog interrupted, barking as Wendy and Ben laughed.
"What did he say?" She asked.
"He said, 'I can't wait,'" Ben told her with a smirk, and ignored Ned as he indignantly head-butted his side. Wendy laughed again and lightly bumped her shoulder against his.
She smiled sideways at him. "So…do you have a girlfriend somewhere, waiting for your travels to end?"
Both Ben and Ned thought at the same time: "Uh-oh."
"Tread carefully, boyo," the dog warned. "You don't want to hurt her feelings."
For a moment Ben didn't answer, thinking about what he would say; only once Wendy began to speak again did he answer. "She, um, she died," he managed.
"Oh," Wendy murmured softly. "What was her name?"
Ben took a breath. "Serafina."
"How did she die?"
"She … fell."
"So you must have really loved her, huh."
Ben's voice was clipped. "Yes," he said.
"Must have been nice," Wendy mused, but at Ben's expression quickly closed her mouth.
They walked in silence for a while. But Wendy—as both Ben and Ned were learning—wasn't very good at keeping quiet, and soon she was talking again; commenting on passing cars or houses, on the stars and Aunt Jackie and Ned's many talents.
"Well, she's got good taste in dogs, anyway, though her taste in boys is highly questionable," Ned said, earning a light bump from Ben's hip. Soon they could see the ocean, rolling in and out against the pretty, moon-pebbled beach. With a girlish whoop, Wendy took off, racing with Ned towards the dark waves. Ben grinned, taking more time to follow. She stood at the edge, arms thrown open as if embracing the entire ocean, toes in the water. She giggled, letting the waves chase her up the beach. Ned, barking happily, nipped at the white bubbles on the sand.
"I don't know who's worse," he joked, watching the two playing like children. "At least Ned has an excuse, Wendy, he's just a dog."
"Just a dog!" Ned howled, "I'll show you!" With a warning bark, the dog tackled his master onto the ground; they wrestled playfully until, with one last determined shove, Ben rolled into an oncoming wave. It swept over him and hugged around his middle, soaking him from head to toe.
Wendy cheered, applauding the dog's effort, and giggled as Ben resignedly to his feet. "Good boy, Ned!" she cooed, patting the dog's head.
Ben smirked, stalking slowly towards her. "Ohh, Wendy, I'd hate to be you right now!" Ned cried, and hurried farther along the beach. The girl noticed Ben's approach and narrowed her eyes at him.
"You keep away from me, Ben from Nowhere," she ordered, crossing her arms over her chest. "I've got new cigarettes in my pocket and they are not cheap, buddy. So you just—eeee!" With relative ease, Ben swept her up and threw her cavalierly over his shoulder. Wendy fought and kicked but he held on with grim determination. "You're going to drown me, aren't you? I knew you were an axe murder!"
Ben chuckled. "An axe murderer who kills using water. Interesting. Are you ready?"
She stopped fighting and rolled her eyes. "Well," she said just before he flipped her into the water, "At least you're a polite sociopath," and then gave a yelp as she slipped beneath the waves.
She scrambled quickly to her feet, glaring fiercely at the laughing Ben. Ned joined in, howling cheerfully in the background.
Both humans paused and turned to look at the dog at the same time. Ned very abruptly went silent. "Oh, no, mate," the dog begged, "come on, it was just a little joke… you don't have to—no!"
Ben and Wendy took off after the dog, laughing all the while. Eventually they gave up—Ned was quicker than most dogs and didn't tire easily; only after the pair collapsed did he stop his frantic running, and sat a safe distance from them, tongue lolling outside of his mouth.
"Hah! You're easier to wear out than a newborn pup," the dog mocked cheerfully.
"Brat," Ben muttered affectionately, head rolling in the sand as he turned to look at the dog. "I'm going to have you euthanized."
"Liar. You'd be utterly lost without me."
"Very true, old friend," Ben said, this time in the privacy of his head, and stretched out a hand to pet the dog. As soon as his fingers touched skin, both froze. Wendy sat up abruptly, eyes wide.
Her face reflected green.
Ben went stiff, shooting to his feet. It took everything he had not to run as the horrible-looking ship, lit by St. Elmo's terrible fire, approached. Without seeming to move, the ship got bigger and bigger, nearing the beach.
Wendy, to her credit, did not scream; but her hand grabbed Ben's and clutched tight. "It's real," she breathed. "I didn't think it was real…"
"It's real," Ben said grimly. "Come on, Ned. We've got to—"
"Shhh," Ned hissed, "Listen."
The voice of the angel was loud—out loud, though Wendy went limp as soon as the words began. Ben caught her carefully in his arms and set her gently in the sand. For the moment, he wasn't afraid—who could be afraid of his angel? They were safe as long as it was there, looking out for them.
"Your time has come, my precious son,
your endless battle's almost done.
Just one more fight, to earn repose—
put an end to the legend that everyone knows."
And then it was gone.
The Flying Dutchman inched forward.
Somehow, stupidly, all that Ben could think was: it's got no anchors. "Ben," Ned whimpered. "Wendy."
The girl was hovering several inches above the sand, and she, too, was bathed in the sickening green light. Ben started, and tried to grab for her; but abruptly she was shooting away from him, towards the ocean, towards the horizon, towards the ship.
Awful, familiar laughter punctuated the cry; the Flying Dutchman came, at last, to a rest. Ben and Ned were frozen; they wanted to move, to run, yes, and abandon Wendy to her terrible fate; but they could do none of these things. They could not even blink.
"Neb…" Vanderdecken's voice was scratchy and hoarse as Ben remembered, cruel and mad from failure. "I don't know how you escaped me, four hundred years ago…Nebuchadnezzar…my little kitchen slave. You are mine, boy…mine."
And then Ben realized that he was no longer watching the ship approach; he was on the ship, Ned glued to his side. Wendy was collapsed in the center of the deck, eyes wide and mouth frozen in a silent scream.
The name startled Ben, and suddenly he felt mute once more. It was as if no time had passed and he was still the kitchen boy, a slave to Petros' cruel whip, hiding under the table on a bed of old meat sacks.
"You are mine," Vanderdecken hissed again.
Scraggs, his face purple and twisted, rope still slung around his neck, took a step towards the trembling Wendy. "And you've brought a gift," he snarled.
"D-Don't," Ben whispered.
The sound of the mute boy's voice froze Scraggs for a moment; he turned then, and crossed the space between himself and the boy with a furious, twisted expression. He raised a hand and for a second Ben couldn't believe that it was happening; he was on this ship again; and nothing had changed, somehow—it was the same as it had been, not as bad as his dreams. On board he could see the faces, and he knew them. He knew Scraggs, the coward; and Petros the fat, greasy cook; he knew Vogel, with the hole in his forehead; and Vanderdecken himself, eyes wide and mad.
Ned growled ferociously at Scraggs as the man approached; for once, he seemed undisturbed by the sound. "I'm already dead, dog. You can't kill me."
The man howled flung his fist into Ben's face.
And in it went; through; Scraggs stumbled forward and emerged on the other side of the boy. The crew went still, staring at the surprised Englander. Ned took a protective step closer to his boy.
"You are mine," Vanderdecken screeched, furious at the turn of events.
The silence was oppressive; Ben clutched his fists and Ned bared his teeth. Both thought of the four hundred years that had passed since that fateful day aboard the Dutchman. They were no longer the same boy, or the same dog; more had changed than their names. It was not his voice or his ability to speak with the dog that was changed; it was him. They had lived, for four hundred years. They had memories and people they missed. There were great chunks of history untouched by the Dutchman.
"No," Ben said, and was surprised to find it true. "We're not."
He looked the crazed man in the eye. "You cursed the Lord, Captain," he murmured. "Your blasphemy destroyed the lives and deaths of every other creature on this ship." He looked at Wendy, her face contorted with fear. She was just a girl—just a terrified teenager who was dragged into a terrible curse she couldn't possibly understand. "Let the girl go," Ben ordered, his voice quiet.
"I am the Captain of this ship!" Vanderdecken roared.
"And you've done a spiffing job," Scraggs snapped back suddenly. "Look at where we are now!"
"Let the girl go," Ben said again, louder this time.
"I want payment for her," Vanderdecken said, his voice icy cold. "What will you give me?"
Into the silence, the boy looked down at his dog. "I go where you go," Ned said. "Wherever that may be."
"You're a good friend, Ned," Ben murmured, and took a deep breath. "I give you me," he promised, very quietly. "I'll stay aboard the Dutchman, and willingly."
Vanderdecken smiled, cruelly and horribly, and stretched out a hand. Ben hesitated.
Then he closed his eyes and took it.
As soon as their flesh met, several things happened at once. Wendy screamed, her body flinging through the air and into the ocean; Vanderdecken yanked away as if Ben had burned him; and the ship splashed, for the first time, into the swell of the ocean.
The green glow of St. Elmo's fire dissipated from the ship and with it, Scraggs, Petros, Sindh, and Vogel. The rigging around them crumbled, but none of the crew could move—they reached and scrambled, but remained stationary.
They would, Ben realize, go down with the ship.
He bent and clung to Ned, the dog sunk his teeth into Ben's shirt and pawed frantically at the deck, trying to make it as far as the side; but they, too, were stuck. The water rose as the Flying Dutchman sunk, victim at last to 400 years of storms.
Ben closed his eyes, and let the water swallow him.
"Ben! Ben! Oh God oh God oh God, Ben… can you hear me? Can you hear me? Ben. Wake up. Please please please wake up…"
A giggle. Hi.
You could stay, if you wanted.
Yes. We have been waiting a long time for you, mister. But…
Well, it's just that…I don't mind waiting.
I don't understand. I want to stay. I want to be with you. I don't want to keep…I want to be with you. I have missed you for a long time.
Yes, three hundred years. Too long. Every day I watch you and it makes me miss you more. But I watch anyway.
I want to be with you. Wherever you are.
Ben…my Ben. My handsome, brave, silly Ben. You are already there. You have always been with me. Don't you see?
I am everywhere you are. Your angel lets me follow you. Even if you can't see me. I'm every girl you have ever met—Amy Somers and Karayna and even that funny Wendy lady. I am all of them, and still I am in you and Ned and—and I am here, too, with Mamma and Otto and—another giggle—Raphael Thuron. He's funny, I like him.
She paused. Though he could not see her, Ben felt her touch his cheek.
You can't leave your Ned, she whispers. He is not ready to go. Would you abandon the Great Bundi?
We have all the time there is, my Ben.
I want—I want you to be alive. Just for one lifetime, I want—
Ben, my Ben, my Ben. Shh. I would rather have a hundred lifetimes with you this way than only one in any other. I will sing to you.
Wait—Serafina. Will you answer a question?
He can feet her smile. She is laughing at him again. Yes, but only one.
Did you know? At the convent, with Al Miserata—you said if I left you would stay at the convent forever. Did you know what was going to happen?
No. I knew then only what I know now: any lifetime without you in it is no lifetime at all.
His heart is aching. I love you.
Go to sleep, silly boy. I love you. Now be quiet and just listen…
"Benno, Benno…Ben, my Ben, please wake up, please please please…oh lovely angel, I'll do anything, anything, please please don't let him be dead—let him wake up, perfect angel, don't take him from me now… not now…"
Ned licked his face frantically, leaping on top of the barely-conscious boy and barking joyously. His tail wagged so furiously that it shook the bed Ben was lying on. "BenBenBenBenBenBenBen…you're alive! Lovely angel, lovely lovely angel, thank you thank you thank you!"
The boy groaned, shifting slightly as he peeled his eyes open. "Unnnnghhhh," he muttered, and to Ned, "Gerroff, you great overgrown puppy! I can't breathe!"
Ned left off hastily but could sit still, leaping around the room with unconcealed joy. Ben struggled to sit up but was pushed down forcefully by a hand—a hand with very chew fingernails.
"Uh-uh," Wendy said forcefully, but her grin was so wide it split her face, "I don't think so. You stay in bed until I say it's safe to do otherwise. That's manners."
Ben laughed at the impression, and he smiled warmly at Wendy. "Thank you," he said quietly. "I don't know what you…remember…"
The girl waved a hand. "Let's put it this way. No more ghost stories for me." She paused. "And, you know, it's totally cool with me that you're…like…a thousand years old. A little weird, okay, because you probably like dated my greatest granny way back when, but hey. I'm fairly liberal-minded; I think I can learn to deal."
Ben rested his hand against the pillow as Ned leaped onto the bed and curled in a tight ball at his side. It felt almost painful not to be touching the dog; he absently stroked Ned's back. "I'm going to have to go once I'm deemed recovered," Ben told Wendy. "I guess you know why."
"Yeah," she said. "I was thinking…you know. Maybe I'd stay in school for a bit. Get a degree and then unharness my talent and let it do…whatever."
Ben smiled at her. "I think that's a good idea."
They left two weeks later. Wendy saw them to the station, skipping classes for their sake. She kissed Ben once, quickly, before he got on the train, and handed him a slip of paper.
"It's my number and my email," she told him sternly. "I know you know how to use a computer, so…"
He grinned at her. "I'll keep in touch," he promised, meaning it for the first time in his long life. "Thanks for everything, Wendy."
She smiled at him and shrugged, crouching down to plant a big wet kiss on Ned's forehead. "You have a nice, long life young pup," she ordered sternly. "Find some nice golden lab and makes lots of little Ned puppies. And be sure that I get one!"
Both boy and dog laughed; Ben hugged the girl once, quickly, and got on the train.
She followed the train, waving until they were out of sight, and then Ben settled beside his dog in the animal compartment. They watched the world whirl by and Ben closed his eyes.
"Where to, mate?" Ned asked, biting into the complementary bone.
Ben smiled. "God only knows, my friend," he said with a laugh.
"God only knows."