Whisper, Snicker, Point and Jeer
Melodrama incoming! This is set in the time period between the original series and Alien Force. In addition to trying to bridge the character depictions between the two shows, this is partially an attempt to explain Ben's reaction to the 'Gwen leaving Earth to become a Star Trek energy being' dealio in AF, which threw me for quite a loop at the time the episode aired.
In the earlier, simpler years, Ben didn't really think about Gwen much. What was there to think about? She was the annoying loudmouth that the universe had seemed set on tying to him, a regular ball and chain. As though he couldn't possibly survive without someone yelling about how stupid he was and how he never thought about things enough all the time. Gwen sure thought so. And yet, whenever he was alone, he didn't spontaneously combust, wasn't that just freaking AMAZING? It wasn't so much that she wouldn't leave him alone as it was that they always ended up together regardless of what they were doing. And whenever they were together, she always found reasons to be mad at him, and he always found reasons to not care.
He didn't hate her, although it was fun to lie and say he did sometimes. They were like that. They said a lot of crap to each other that they forgot the next day. Nothing ever stuck. I am rubber, you are glue, boing. They talked a lot but almost never said anything worth remembering. Ben remembered her saying she loved him, which should have ruined the totally cool dramatic adventure atmosphere except he hadn't minded at the time for some reason. He remembered the way she laughed when she was really happy, too. And not much else. Sometimes he did wonder if she remembered anything he said, but decided it didn't matter. Not like it mattered.
When he got into sports, mentally he made a kind of link between the team and Gwen to help categorize her into something like a social norm. People needed categories and labels and stuff. She wasn't really a cousin, not the way most cousins were, but she was pretty much a teammate. Lots of locker room bull, but they'd cooperate in a heartbeat whenever they were out in the field and they were down by one point. Yeah, that was what she was, a teammate. So no wonder he didn't feel like anything other than totally himself when she was around. The way they hung out was natural, even if it was a bit different from most kids who weren't lucky enough to have magic or alien watches.
But the older he got, and the more he hung out with other kids, especially other boys, the more he realized that it wasn't natural. It was different, and so it couldn't be natural or normal by definition. He was different from other boys, his Grampa was different from other grampas, his cousin was different from other cousins. It was all different, and being different got more and more scary the older he grew. Little things that had been going on for years suddenly started to matter and worry him. He would sweat and fumble over words and wonder what the other kids thought. Ben started to get awkward around Gwendolyn for the first time in his life, not because she made him feel that way, but because he started thinking, long and hard, about what people would think about how she really made him feel, which was safe and content. Her and Grampa and him were basically one mini-family inside of another family as far as his emotions were concerned. And it made him feel guilty, a little, that he probably loved and relied on Grampa more than his own mom and dad.
He wasn't deaf. People talked a lot of crap they didn't know anything about, and he heard most of it one way or another. Sometimes he asked out of morbid curiosity, unable to leave it alone. Other times it was thrown in his face like a cold drink or a challenging gauntlet.
"Redneck cousin fucker."
(He'd never even KISSED a girl before. A good old-fashioned alien beatdown was what got his heart racing more than anything else.)
"Did you see how they were cuddling at lunch period yesterday?"
(Gwen had leaned against him, but only to steal some of his chips. And she'd stopped once she got the chips. She'd still kept sitting beside him after, but what was wrong with that?)
"They were absent Monday. Now she's got a hickie. You do the math."
(They'd been fighting a mutant bulldog with acid drool and tentacles, for Christ's sake! And the sucker on one of the tentacles had done that to her neck, not HIM!)
"See how they're always kicking each other's asses in sports? Lotta 'tension' goin' on there, if you know what I mean..."
(What, were they supposed to go easy on each other because they were related, or something? They played to win! What was the point of a game if you didn't try your best to win it?)
"I saw them passing notes in math. There was even a heart scribbled on one!"
(Okay, first of all, it was a rough map of the last place the latest superpowered bad guy of the week had been seen, NOT a heart! Secondly, all the notes were about said superpowered bad guy and how to deal with him! And Gwen's notes had been mostly insults telling him why he couldn't do any of the cool tactical ideas he thought up!)
He tried avoiding her, not talking to her for a whole week, and it still didn't do any good. All it did was get his parents worried at him and force him to go through one of those nasty touchy-feely 'feelings' talks. Eventually he just got sick of her making faces and gestures at him without being able to do anything about it, blew up and cussed her out, and after he said he was sorry for that things went back to normal between them.
Being different meant being worse than some kids. The more different you were, the lower your standing and the smaller your own clique. Different enough and you could even end up totally alone, a freak all by yourself on the very bottom rung of the ladder. He used to think being different meant being special and better and cooler, but maybe it was about being worse.
Ben got tired of being different, which was something he never thought he'd feel, but there you go. He just wanted them to stop pointing and staring with suspicious squinty eyes and mumbling things behind their hands. He just wanted to be a kid like everyone else. He saved their butts all the time, from all kinds of scary stuff, but did they care? Did they care that Gwen helped him a ton of the time, even if she was a bossy mcbossyboss? No, they didn't care. All they cared about was that he and Gwen talked to each other like two regular human beings instead of however the hell you were supposed to treat a cousin.
Bitter and confused, he started caring about the schoolwork part of school even less than usual, his head filled with thoughts about how to get everyone to like him. His never better than average grades really started to tank, all the way down to big fat Fs. The sports games he usually enjoyed, he started to sit out on, and when someone bugged him into playing he didn't bother giving it his best. He still talked to Gwen, but he was quieter, and he stopped teasing her and yelling back so much. For some reason the fact that he was actually treating her nicely now seemed to make her sad.
Then came a day when he just didn't bother to get up out of bed, even though it was a Saturday and he was free to do whatever cool stuff he wanted. None of it seemed to matter anymore. His whole life was bogged down in a muddy pit of gossip and spite he couldn't climb out of, couldn't even fight his way out of. Things he couldn't fight his way out of scared the crap out of him. It would've been easier if all the kids were aliens to smash. Easier, maybe, to just give up on being a kid altogether. He could be a superhero all the time, get a costume, start doing speeches and poses, the whole nine yards. Yeah. Who needed all this being human bullcrap, anyway? It was for the birds! It was either go all the way Omnitrix, or ditch the stupid watch entirely, and everything that went with it. Be a freak or be normal. He had to pick one or the other.
His parents left him alone until suppertime, and when he didn't come down to eat because the thought of eating grossed him out, they bugged him and bugged him. He threw the covers over his head and cussed at them, said words he'd never said before, and told them to go back to leaving him alone because they didn't understand, they couldn't understand. They meant well, but they didn't know anything about his life or who he was or what he was thinking about.
The phone rang, and rang, and rang, and Ben picked it up just to get it to stop freaking ringing.
"Hey, dorkimus maximus, what's up?" came Gwen's voice.
What the hell was she calling him for? They didn't have anything to talk about! His cousin was the last person he wanted to talk to right now.
"Your head lice. Get lost," he said, and hung up, absentmindedly rubbing the Omnitrix that somehow felt so hot and heavy on his wrist.
It rang again, and he pondered smashing it. Then he figured it would be better just to tell her to stop calling.
"Lemme 'lone, I'm trying to take a nap," he lied into the reciever.
"Shyeah, right! What's the matter, is today your day to be emo, mister I think not washing my hair makes me look all rugged?"
Despite himself, he couldn't help but get drawn in a little. Old ways were hard to repress. "Shut up! Like you've got room to talk, I saw you popping that pimple on your chin last week." She said something equally mocking immediately back, but he didn't listen to anything except the tone, didn't comprehend anything except for how different this was from regular cousins talking, and he just couldn't keep it up. "I can't do it anymore, Gwen," he confessed, voice heavy as lead and thick as syrup. "I'm... I'm tired, okay? I'm done with it. Don't ask me why. I'm just done with it."
"Done with what, doofus?"
"All of it," he said with grim finality. This wasn't really the kinda conversation to have over the phone, but that was the way they were having it, and he wasn't going to run over to her place and tell her face to face when he couldn't even get up the enthusiasm to dress himself today. "You remember Grampa figured out a way to get the Omnitrix off, right? Well, I'm doing it. I'm gonna take it off, and let Grampa keep it, lock it up somewhere where I never see it again."
Gwen didn't say anything for a long moment, and he was left staring at the tiny holes in the reciever, holes that seemed deep and dark as the abyss leading to hell. "Why?" she said finally, not accusing, but faintly upset.
"I told you. I'm tired."
"Tired of what?" her voice lashed like a whip, upset flaming into a kind of mournful, frustrated anger. "You love fighting crazy alien maniacs, and being a hero all the time, and all that stuff! And don't tell me you don't, 'cause we both know you'd be lying, Benjamin Tennyson!" She sounded oddly like his mother in that last part. "...did I do something?" she added hesitantly, her voice suddenly shrinking into a tiny, fragile thing.
"You didn't do anything," he comforted her immediately, a bitter smile twisting his mouth even though he didn't really want to smile. "It's... you know, well, you probably don't. But the other kids. I'm just sick of all the crap they say. If I take it off, maybe they'll treat me like Ben instead of just that weird kid with the ugly watch who hangs around his cousin all the time."
She was quiet again, and it wracked his nerves, made his insides tighten up and boil. He wanted to just hang up, but after all they'd been through together, he didn't want to do that to her. He owed her better. A real goodbye, something like that.
Then Gwen asked the thing he'd hoped she wouldn't ask.
"We're still friends, right?" It was the first time either one of them had actually acknowledged that weird thing between them by any kind of label. Friends, that seemed as good a fit as anything could fit. But the truth was, there were no labels that really did it justice, because there was no one else just like him and her, who'd gone through all the stuff they'd gone through together. They'd gone through wacky danger beyond wacky danger like a comic book series, and come out of it all alive and strong, and now he was gonna make her get lost because it was time to step outta the comic book.
"Y-yeah," he lied, licking his suddenly dry lips, wishing he had something to drink. His mouth was like a desert. "Yeah, we're friends."
But something in his tone must have twisted up, given her an idea of what he was thinking and feeling. Or maybe she was just that good at anticipating him by now. Either way, her reply just about cracked his heart up. "Is this like that time you stopped talking to me for a week? Is whatever it was that was bugging you still around? Because... I mean... I like being around you, Ben, but if you really don't want to... to hang out, then I won't talk to you anymore. If you don't want me to."
Definitely not the kind of conversation to have over a phoneline. But being face to face would only make it harder. God, he just had to rip the thorn out of his skin and get it over with. It would bleed, but so what. All wounds did, but you couldn't leave stuff in you or it would get infected, like he felt his freaking soul was infected right now. Infected with gloom and confusion and despair.
He flung his covers aside, suddenly hot, and flopped with his feet on his pillow and his head half-falling off the end of the bed, one hand still clutching the phone. "I'm just sick and tired of people saying stuff about us," he tried to explain, his voice a breathy exhale, weary about to death. Like someone who had played a million game levels all the same and still not won, so he was giving up instead to look for a different game. "You probably don't know, but the other kids, they say all kinds of crap... it's stupid, but..."
With that, Gwen seemed revitalized back into her comfortingly old spitfire self. "Is that what this is about? What makes you think I didn't know about any of that?"
"Well, girls are nicer than guys, and stuff," he mumbled dazedly, staring at a piece of lint on the floor as though it had personally betrayed him. Why was she making this so hard? Why couldn't she just, for once, let it go?
"Bullshit," she swore, and he blinked, astonished, while she followed up the unGwenlike bad language with a sharp, hard laugh. "Girls are nicer than guys? What planet have you been on your whole life, retardoboy?! Girls are TOTAL BITCHES! We don't fight as much as boys but that's because we've got tons of more subtle ways of hurting people! Do you have any idea the kind of hurtful stuff I hear every day in the girl's bathroom, in the locker room? Some girls will go from best friends to total enemies over a pair of shoes! People always talk. They always say stuff and it's always stupid. Why does it matter what losers like that say about who we are and what we do together? They don't know anything about us!"
"B-but you never act like you know about it, or like it bugs you, or anything..." He was having a hard time wrapping his brain around the concept of Gwen going through the exact same stuff as him, and not caring.
"Because I know none of it's true. And so do you. Ben... you can't change your whole life just to please people who don't really care about you."
"Maybe I'm not doing it for them," he grumbled sulkily, just about out of verbal ammo. "Maybe I'm doing it for me."
She was quiet again, but he waited patiently, feeling a little calmer now. "Ben, you know me and Grampa and anyone else who knows and matters loves what you've been doing with that dinky little alien fashion accessory. And I feel like everything is great just the way it is. But if you don't feel that way... if you really don't feel happy, and want things to be different... then you just go do whatever will make you happy. Because I want you to be happy, and you deserve to be happy. You've done a lot of good in the world. You can take a break, stop forever if you want. You've earned it. Just take a break from... whatever..." Through the last few sentences, Gwen's voice broke up with a series of tiny, almost not there at all trembles and swallows, and as she fell silent he got the feeling it was more because she couldn't get herself to keep talking without making herself cry than because she didn't have anything else to say. She wasn't really crying or anything, but she sounded like she might start if he weren't able to hear.
Ben laid there with good old reliable gravity tugging on his head, eyes on the floor, listening to his cousin try to pretend like she wasn't incredibly upset and doing a pretty good job, but not good enough to really fool him. She didn't hang up, and he didn't hang up, and his brain just froze, floating in a void, everything in time seemingly suspended by the sounds coming through the phone.
And then, like a vision from God those religious people always talked about, or like an orgasm, he had a sudden surge of emotion and enlightenment that broke everything else up. How close were they, in this moment? How much closer than most people were most of the time, closer than some people ever got to be with other people in their whole boring, ordinary lives? Wasn't this the kind of passion and tragedy and crap that movies and poems were always supposed to be about?
Why would he ever want to give that up?
Gwen was a great cousin, the best cousin ever, and there would never be anyone else in his whole life he felt exactly the same about as he felt about Gwen. So why was he trying to make her go away?! How STUPID was he?! Why would he want to give all that away just so some people he didn't really care about would pretend they liked him?!
He was a freak. He accepted that, he embraced it. He was a tired freak, and he didn't like everything that being a freak brought along with it. But that baggage was the price he paid for all the awesome things in his life, and he wasn't gonna give it all up. No way.
By the time all this had gone through his head and he'd thought of exactly what to say, though, Gwen had hung up. He tried calling back, but she wouldn't answer, and by then it was too late to do anything but go to bed.
On Sunday, he went to visit Grampa, and got the Omnitrix off after a long, serious talk. But it was the talk he'd been ready for, the talk he'd had a script in his head for, so it wasn't so bad. The rest of the day he tried to think about exactly what to say to Gwendolyn, his brain running around in frantic circles. He couldn't come up with anything good.
Monday, when he went into class, he tried to look at Gwen without looking like he was looking. She gave his bare wrist, ringed with pale untanned skin from where the Omnitrix had been, a glance, and then looked away, face blank and smooth. And that could have been it for them, for the rest of their lives, except he'd decided it was too much of a shame to give up, even if she was strong enough to handle it.
Gwen'd given him the freedom to do what he wanted, and little birdy Ben flew back to the cage.
When he walked up to her and leaned against her desk and started a chat no different from any of their usual ones, she seemed stunned into statue-like motionless for a second. Then, just for a second, but a very important second, an expression of such totally immense, relieved joy and gratitude swept across her face that it gave Ben a kind of happiness that was very close to being a kind of pain. It was gone almost instantly, but it had been there. He'd seen it. They traded insults and quips and jokes and talked about random, meaningless things until class started.
And that was what they kept on doing, every class they had together, every day they were in school together, and all the days off when they had reasons to be around each other too. As they grew up more, they got less dependent on insulting and teasing each other to have good conversations, but the basic feeling of naturalness, of 'this is right,' never really changed or went away. And Ben never, ever forgot what she had offered to give up, the offer he had come so very close to taking her up on.
People still talked.
Benjamin Tennyson didn't give a shit.