EPILOGUE: BOYS OF SUMMER
Staff-House, July 19, 2010
The morning sun had just peeked over the horizon, turning the sky pink, and edging the ocean a faint orange-green; in all, it was a typically perfect sunrise over Sunset Beach, but the groms, all sound asleep, missed it…
Just outside his, Reef, and Broseph's room, Ben, in his street-clothes, sat by the door, his laptop computer in his lap, as he put the finishing touches on his letter. 'And…there! Done!' he thought. 'Now, all I need is a printer…'
Powering down his computer, he folded it up, and crept back into his room, gathering his things into his duffel bag, taking his surfboard, before he crept back out. Heading towards the stairs, he turned to look over his shoulder, his expression turning sad as he looked towards Lo's room, before hardening as he walked downstairs.
'This is for the best,' he told himself. 'I was kidding myself; I don't belong her…with her…'
Coming into the living room, he quietly walked towards the entrance, and took one last look into the Staff House…
…and then walked out, heading towards the beach.
Keeping his eyes focused at the ground, Ben scrunched them shut, fighting the trickle of tears that burned in the corner of his vision. 'I don't have a choice; I have to do this,' he reiterated. 'I'd just be putting them – and her – in danger…and she doesn't even want me here…at least, not anymore…'
He should have known better – there was no room for a social life in his line of work.
He just wished that realization hadn't hurt so much…
Surfer's Paradise, July 18
The night air was warm over Surfer's Paradise Hotel as the hotel-staff and patrons poured back into the resort; with the bomb-scare over – officially declared a dud – it was now safe to return, to the guests' relief.
With so many eyes focused on heading in, nobody thought to look up; if they had, they might have spotted a lone silhouette, sitting on the edge of the roof, his knees pulled into his chest, all alone…which was exactly where Gwen found him.
Generating several foot-sized force-fields, Gwen used them as stepping-stones, walking across the air, to sit down next to her cousin. "Ben?" she greeted, smiling gently. "Hey…"
Looking up, Ben smiled weakly, before looking back down…although not so fast that Gwen didn't catch the tears in his eyes. "I did it again, Gwen."
Gwen just stared.
"I went and got my heart broken, again," Ben muttered, pulling his knees in closer. "I asked too much of a girl I liked, and…well, you can guess how it went."
Quickly fighting down her automatic anger at what Lo had done to her cousin, Gwen placed a comforting hand on Ben's shoulder. "It wasn't your fault, Ben," she soothed. "You didn't have a choice…"
"I should have learned my lesson, Gwen," Ben said bitterly. "I should have figured it out when Julie broke it off with me – there's no room for romance in what we do."
Gwen flinched. "Ben, don't think like that, okay?" she pleaded. "Remember when we were kids? My future self had to come get us to help out YOUR future self because he was acting all cold…"
"Gwen, did you ever wonder WHY Ben 10,000 turned out so harsh?" Ben asked. "I just found out!" He looked back down. "I don't get to be happy with anyone – not as long as I'm stuck with the Omnitrix – so I'd better just get used to it."
Gwen was almost in tears, herself. "Ben…"
"I can't stay here anymore, Gwen," Ben continued. "Right now, just…just being near her hurts." He looked her in the eyes. "Please, Gwen…get me out of here."
Gwen's expression was sad, but she nodded. "Okay."
Ben smiled faintly at that, before he looked back down. "Could…could I just…be alone for a while?"
Gwen hesitated. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I will be, Gwen," Ben muttered. "I got through Julie dumping me; I'll handle Lo, too."
Gwen didn't buy that. "Will you?"
Ben snorted. "I'll have to." With that, he cast his gaze back down towards the ground, looking out at the beach, and the waters that gleamed with the moonlight.
He was done talking.
Slowly, Gwen walked away, conjuring more force-fields to head back down, making sure Ben couldn't see the cold fury building across her face at the thought of what Lauren Ridgemount had done to her cousin…
As his memories faded away, Ben found himself on the beach, walking along the white sand, looking at the waves as they lapped against the coast. 'I'm gonna miss this place…'
"Hey, grom! What's happening?"
Turning, Ben smiled as he saw The Kahuna walking into the surf-shack, opening up for the day. "Hey, Kahuna," he said. "Just…saying good-bye."
The Kahuna blinked. "Somebody goin' somewhere, bro?"
"Yeah: me." Ben's smile faded. "I'm out of here, Kahuna – it's time to pack up and move along." With that, he handed his board towards the old surfer. "I just wanted to return this before I left."
The Kahuna frowned sadly. "Dude, bummer," he replied. "You sure?"
Ben nodded. "I'm afraid so, man," he said. "I don't think I'll be needing this, anymore."
The Kahuna shook his head, pushing the board back towards Ben. "Don't say that, grom; you've got the blood of the Madcap in you – surfing's a part of you, especially now!" he insisted. "I'd hang onto it if I were you; pretty sure you'll be needing it."
Ben sighed. "If you say so." He turned to go. "It was nice meeting you."
Ben had just been walking off when The Kahuna spoke, an enigmatic smile on his face. "Don't worry about that karma of yours, bro; yeah, it's funky…but after whatever happened yesterday, I'm getting one righteous vibe, now. I'm thinking you're in for one awesome summer!"
Ben chuckled dryly, before he walked off. "Kahuna, I really wish I could believe you…"
"Johnny, have you seen Ben at all, this morning?"
After donning her uniform in the change-room, Emma had been about to head to the DR, but decided to ask Johnny if he'd seen their fellow grom, since yesterday.
There hadn't been any sign of him since she'd woken up.
Sadly, Johnny shook his head. "Sorry, Em; neither I nor any of the guys have seen him, today," he answered. "When I checked, this morning, his stuff was all cleared out."
Emma looked stricken. "Do you think he's okay?"
Johnny chuckled, lowering his voice. "Emma, the guy can turn into a bunch of superpowered aliens; I don't think danger is something that he needs to worry about."
Emma shook her head. "Not physically, Johnny!" she said. "I mean, do you think he and Lo are okay? Ben looked majorly bummed after he and Lo talked yesterday, and when I saw Lo going for a morning surf-sesh with Fin, she was, like, in total denial!"
Johnny shrugged. "I wish I had an answer, Emma; I'm still trying to wrap my head around that…what was it called again? Omnitrix?"
Emma could only nod, as she remembered everything that had happened, yesterday. "Yeah." She took a deep breath. "I'd better get going; call me if you see or hear from him, okay?"
Turning, Emma started to head towards the DR, passing the hotel's print-center as she went…but paused, as a familiar glint of green caught her eye. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Ben standing in the print-center, his surf-board leaning against the wall, his duffel-bag over his shoulder, holding his laptop, with a USB-cable linking it to a printer, which whirred as it expelled a sheet of paper. "Ben!"
Ben had just unhooked his computer from the printer when he heard her call, looking surprised as he turned to greet her. "Oh…h-hey, Emma."
Emma smiled as she raced over to him. "Ben, where were you? You had all of us worried sick!"
Ben frowned. "I think you mean almost all of you," he muttered, before he shook his head. "Sorry about that; I just…needed to be alone, for a bit."
Emma's expression turned sad. "It's not…because of Lo..?"
Quicker than about his watch, Ben changed the subject. "So…you guys don't hate me?" he asked. "I mean…after I got you guys almost…"
Emma smiled, shaking her head. "I think you getting us out of it kinda makes up for that," she said. "Plus, while you and Lo were talking, Gwen filled us in on a few things." Her smile grew. "You…actually saved the universe? Twice?"
Ben chuckled, scratching his head. "Well, the first time, I figured it was the least I could do, since it was kinda my fault that the Omnitrix almost blew up," he said. "And as for the incident with the Highbreed, that was a team effort…"
Emma laughed. "Okay, for the record, most guys – like Reef – wouldn't be able to shut up about something even a tenth as awesome as that!" she exclaimed. "God, this place must be so boring to you!"
Ben smiled wearily. "Em, after the past few months, all I wanted this summer was a nice normal job, a little vacation, and maybe a chance to find a special girl," he said. His smile faded, as he folded up his computer, put it back in his duffel bag, and took the sheet he'd just printed. "But I guess you can't always get what you want, can you?"
It didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened between Ben and Lo, last night. "Ben, Lo was just upset, that's all," Emma pleaded. "She'll come around…"
"Emma, why do you think my last girlfriend ended things with me?" Ben asked, folding up his letter and slipping it into an envelope. "She couldn't handle me having the Omnitrix, and believe me, she tried. There's just no room for a social-life in my line of work. I was asking too much of her…and of Lo."
With that, he signed his name to the envelope, took his board, and walked out, heading towards the front desk, while Emma hurried after him. As they approached the desk, Emma spotted Bummer talking to Johnny; seeing them, Bummer turned towards them. "You're late, Tennyson!" he barked. "Get into uniform, pronto! Room 1113 needs room-service!"
His expression flat, Ben looked to Emma. "You know, Em, this might be the only part of today I'll actually enjoy." He turned back to Bummer. "No can do…Bummer."
Johnny had been taking a sip of his coffee as Ben said that; nearly choking, he almost sprayed it all over his computer.
Emma gasped, her hands flying to her mouth.
Bummer's eyes went wide, before they narrowed in pure rage. "WHAT did you just call me?"
"I think you heard me."
Bummer's damning pointer-finger was instantly in his face. "STRIKE!" he bellowed. "Now get to work, or you're FIRED!"
Ben just glared back at him. ""Fired," Bummer? You can't fire me!" he snapped. "Wanna know why?"
He threw the letter in Bummer's face. "Because I QUIT."
Emma went pale.
Bummer's fury died down. "You're serious?"
Bummer snorted. "Fine by me! Good riddance!" He turned to go. "I'll deliver this to Mr. Ridgemount; make sure your locker's cleared out within the hour!"
Ben snorted. "Boss, I'll never forget you…no matter how hard I try." Bummer just scowled back, before he turned, and strode off.
Emma was reeling. "You're…you're leaving?" she cried.
Johnny was just as shaken as Emma was. "Ben, aren't you overreacting?"
"No, Johnny, I'm not," Ben said firmly. "I had all night to think about this: putting aside the disaster between Lo and I right now, me being here is just going to draw all of you into the crossfire – trust me, I've made a lot more enemies than just the Forever Knights." He lowered his gaze. "At the moment, just being near Lo hurts. I don't belong here; not anymore, at least."
Emma shook her head. "Ben, Lo's hurting, too! If you leave, it'll crush her!"
Ben turned away. "She'll get over it," he muttered. He looked back over his shoulder. "It was awesome meeting you guys; I just wish it could've been under better circumstances." With that, he walked away, heading outside.
Panicking, Emma turned to Johnny. "Johnny, get the guys and stall Ben! Don't let him leave!" she cried. "I have to find Lo!" Johnny nodded in reply, as he sprinted off, while Emma dashed towards the locker room, hoping that she wasn't too late…
Locker Room, a few minutes earlier
"So, have you and Ben talked, yet?"
After her and Fin's surf-sesh, Lo and her fellow grom had quickly headed to the locker-room; Lo had just stepped out of her change-room, wearing her uniform when Fin asked that question. Her eyes narrowed. "Who?"
Sighing, Fin walked out of her own change-room, wearing her own uniform. "You know, Ben? Brown hair, green eyes, and superpowered watch? The guy you like?"
Lo shrugged. "I cannot recall anyone I like with that name," she said. "Unless of course you're referring to the two-faced – no, ten-faced – liar who's been leading me – all of us – around by the nose, this whole time!"
Fin frowned. "Okay, overreacting much?" she retorted. "Yeah, Ben kept quiet about that gizmo, but what else could he do? He couldn't put "changes into aliens" on his job application!"
"Uh, why are you defending him?" Lo snapped back. "You were all gung-ho about blowing the lid off this mystery!"
"Well, yeah," Fin admitted, "but that kinda fell to the wayside when Ben saved our lives!" Her expression turned guilty. "And then when you walked off, last night, Gwen and Kevin kinda told us about some of the stuff they did before Ben came here; Lo, if you had any idea what he's been through…"
Lo had had enough. "I so don't CARE!" she shouted. "I'm not interested in his lame excuses, Fin! Because of him, my own father thought I was crazy, and so did you, for a while! Then we all get dragged off and nearly killed by a bunch of psychos in armour, all because the guy we thought was our friend kept us in the dark!"
Fin's eyes narrowed. "Well, we've all gotten over it, Ridgemount; why can't you?"
"I am over him!" Lo declared. "I'll be perfectly civil to him on the job, and as long as he stays on his side of the hotel and the Office when off-duty, the rest of the summer will be just fine!"
Fin was about to respond, but her reply died away as a winded Emma dashed into the locker-room. "Ben…Bummer…letter…quit…stop!"
Fin arched an eyebrow. "Uh…sorry, Alberta, but we don't really speak Wheeze."
Emma managed to catch her breath. "Ben's leaving!" she cried. "Johnny and I just heard him say it! He's quitting!"
Fin's eyes bugged out. "WHAT?"
Emma nodded frantically. "He just gave Bummer his resignation letter; he practically told him to take that job and stuff it!"
Fin paled. "Okay, as much as I'd have loved to see Bummer freak out, we have to stop Ben!"
Lo was silent for a few seconds, but she recovered her frown fast. "Why? If Tennyson wants to punk out, let him!"
Emma looked stricken. "Lo, how can you say that? You two were so happy together!"
"That was before I found out the truth, Emma!"
Fin's eyes narrowed. "You know, yesterday Gwen said she wondered why Ben saved your keister, Ridgemount," she snapped. "Frankly, now I'm starting to wonder!"
Lo's eyes went wide at that, before she huffed. "Fine!" With that, she walked off, heading for the DR.
As Lo walked into the DR, heading into the kitchen, the first sight that greeted her was an annoyed Kelly. "You're late, Ridgemount!" she snapped. "Tables 2 and 7 are waiting on their orders!"
Lo sighed to herself. "I'll get right on it, Kelly…"
Kelly started to walk off, opening the door. "While you're at it, tell me what's taking Mackenzie so long; she's five minutes – HEY!"
Startled by Kelly's exclamation, Lo turned around, in time to see none other than Gwen walk into the kitchen just as Kelly was walking out. "Gwen?" she asked. "What are you doing here?"
Kelly was even less impressed. "EXCUSE me!" she snapped. "DR patrons are not allowed back here! Beat it!"
Gwen paid Kelly absolutely no mind; her eyes narrowed, she simply grabbed the door that Kelly had opened, and slammed it right into her face, knocking her out cold, before turning that coldly furious emerald gaze on her.
"You. Me. Talk. Now."
Lo was suddenly very conscious of the fact that she was now the only one in the kitchen besides the chef, who was far in the back, oblivious to what was happening. She took a deep breath. "I-In case you haven't noticed, I have work to do; I don't have time…"
Gwen did not let her finish – Lo's statement was cut off as a mauve energy-beam shot from Gwen's hand, wrapping around Lo like a fist and slamming her against the wall hard enough to knock the wind from her.
The green of Gwen's narrowed eyes was replaced by an inhuman mauve glow. "MAKE time."
Lo managed to catch her breath. "Okay, fine!" she snapped. Slowly, Gwen's energy-beam melted away, while the glow in her eyes faded. "I don't get why you're flavoured at me; I'm the victim, here! I got kidnapped by those kooks in tin cans because Ben lied to me!"
"Oh, get over yourself, Ridgemount!" Gwen hissed. "You're the victim? Who was it that the Forever Knights were really after? Who was it that walked right up to Connor and put his head on the line? It sure wasn't you!" Her fists clenched. "After what's happened to Ben in the past because of the Omnitrix, he doesn't owe anyone – especially some ungrateful, spoiled brat – anything!"
That point made Lo pause, but she was still too mad to back down. "Well, maybe it wouldn't have even happened if somebody had told me that I needed to watch out for armoured nutjobs, but I was flying blind!" she shot back. "How am I supposed to trust Ben after…"
"Shut UP!" Gwen exploded. "You don't know a single thing about him, Ridgemount! If you did, you'd never say that!" She calmed down. "Ben only told you half the story, Lo; yeah, he got the Omnitrix when he was 10, but he left out the worst part. Those first couple of weeks he had it? He spent them ducking an intergalactic warlord named Vilgax who wanted it for himself!" She snorted. "Let me repeat that: he was only ten years old, and he got rocketed right to the top of a warlord's hit-list!"
Lo froze. "W-What?"
Gwen kept right on going. "And this guy Vilgax was majorly nasty, Ridgemount – he probably moonlit as a boogeyman in his off-hours!" she said. "We're talking over fifteen feet tall, all muscle and cybernetics, red eyes, tentacles from his face, and a personality that could make Adolf Hitler look like Mary-freaking-Poppins! That's who was chasing after my cousin! He actually caught Ben once, and was going to take the Omnitrix from him! How, you ask? By ripping off his ARM!" Her narrowed eyes started to mist over. "Ben was even younger than your baby brother when all this happened, Ridgemount; what do you think your brother would have done?" She snorted. "Hell, what would you have done?"
Lo knew how George would have reacted: he'd have raced right under her bed…which was where she'd have been.
"Oh, you think that's all that happened, Lo? Think again!" Gwen said. "A couple weeks after that, the Omnitrix starts acting up; at first, we thought it was a glitch, until a friend of ours – Tetrax – stops by and tells us that the Omnitrix has triggered its Self-Destruct Mode, and if we don't find its creator fast, it's going to blow up and take Ben – and the entire universe – along with it! We had to road-trip all over the galaxy to track this guy down and convince him to stop the countdown, which almost ended with Ben getting fried from the watch's energy-surges!"
Lo didn't dare speak.
"And then, when summer was over, we managed to get the Omnitrix off of Ben, so he could finally have a normal life!" Gwen continued. "For a couple of years, it worked, until Grandpa Max disappears and Earth gets invaded by a bunch of racist, elitist aliens called the Highbreed, who believed that every other intelligent species in the universe was inferior, and had to be exterminated to make way for them! Ben didn't even hesitate to strap that watch back on – knowing full well that he might never get it off, again – and goes after them, which eventually ends up with us and our friends facing down the entire Highbreed armada and their Council, at which point Ben uses the Omnitrix to heal their entire race, saving Earth and the universe along with it! Again!"
Her eyes narrowed. "So tell me, Ridgemount: still feel entitled to Ben's secret?"
Lo was shocked silent.
Gwen snorted to herself. "But even then, Ben was still going to tell you!" she continued. "Despite what happened with his last girlfriend – despite my own common-sense advice – he was going to tell you the truth! Even before the Forever Knights came into the picture, he'd been planning to tell you, knowing full well you could freak out!" Her scowl grew. "Like you did."
Lo felt guilt clench at her insides.
"Why, you ask?" Gwen finished. "I mean, that's what I wondered!" She shook her head. "For some reason, Ben cares about you – so much that he was going to put his neck on the line! He thought that, in spite of everything, you were a decent person! That should tell you everything you need to know about him!" Her scowl returned. "So you know what? Go ahead! Be a spoiled little brat! Prove Ben wrong! You'll just be hurting someone who, for reasons I will never understand, cares about you, and disappointing four others!" She turned to go. "But so what, right? I mean, since when does Lauren Ridgemount care about anybody but herself?" With that, she walked off.
In a state of utter shock, Lo found herself alone again. Still numb, she felt herself pick up the orders for tables 2 and 7, before she walked out of the kitchen, delivering the orders, before she walked towards her next table, to take another order…only to bump into Emma as she ran into the DR. "Lo, what are you doing?" she cried. "Ben is getting ready to go! You have to talk to him!"
Lo's voice was a whisper, still reeling from what she'd heard. "I…I don't know…"
Emma's eyes narrowed. "Lo, are you kidding me? You're just going to let the guy who, in your own words, gave you the Best Kiss of Your Life – who could very well be your soulmate – walk out of your life?" she shouted. "Why? Just because he lied about something?" She kept right on going. "Well, let's just ignore that for now, Lo; does that one lie automatically cancel out all the wonderful things you know about him? No!"
Her voice dropped into a whisper. "And you're ignoring the truth about him, Lo: Ben is a real, honest-to-goodness superhero! He could be using that watch for so many other things – most of them involving get-rich-quick schemes – but he's using it to help people…like he saved you! Several times, in fact! Does that sound like a guy you want out of your life?"
Lo was still silent.
Emma sighed. "You know, I really thought you were better than that, Lauren," she said, "but I guess I was wrong." With that, she walked off.
Lo could still feel her feet moving, but she was miles away, her mind racing backwards…
"…I just thought you might help your friend!"
"You've got a bunch of real friends, now…we're not gonna leave you hanging…count on it…"
"That day I got hired…I didn't hurt you, did I…"
"You're awesome, Lo…"
"You never know what's right under your nose…even if it's absolutely amazing…"
"…I'm going to get you out of this…"
"I am not going to let anything happen to you…"
Shaken out of her memories of Ben, Lo turned towards that voice; somehow, she'd wandered over to her family's table, where her Mom, Ty, and George were sitting. "Lo, that's the third time Mom's called out to you," Ty said. "Everything okay?"
Lo's lip quivered, as she fought back tears. 'Oh, God, what's WRONG with me? H-How could I have SAID all that to him? And now he's…he's gonna…Ben's…'
Gloria noticed the tears forming in her daughter's eyes. Instantly standing, she put her hands on Lo's shoulders. "Honey, what's the matter?"
Lo felt her tears spill out of her eyes. "I…I screwed up, Mom," she sniffled. "Oh, God, I screwed up so bad!"
George snorted. "So what else is new!"
"George!" Gloria snapped, silencing her son, before turning back to Lo. "Oh, sweetie…"
Lo's tone turned frantic. "I-I have to fix it!" she cried. "I h-have to talk to Daddy! Please, Mommy, you have to let me fix it!"
Gloria smiled sadly. "Honey, I know you don't want to hear this, but I think you're going to have to accept working at the hotel for a while; your father's still dead-set on you learning responsibility. Now, you have been working hard, and he knows that, but still…"
"I'm not talking about the party, Mom! I'm talking about something worse!" Lo wailed. "I-I may have just made the biggest mistake of my life yesterday, and I have to fix it before it's too late!"
Ty's eyes went wide. "Whoa…sis, what'd you do?"
Lo ignored him. "Please, Mommy! You have to let me fix this! Please!"
Gloria was silent for a moment, before she looked to Ty. "Tyler, you have your penthouse key, don't you?" Ty nodded. "Your father should still be in his office in the penthouse; take your sister up to see him."
Ty gulped. "Mom, Dad'll go ballistic if I let Lo back in…"
"Just tell him I told you to do it," Gloria said. "Right now, your sister needs to talk to her father."
Ty sighed. "Okay, okay!" he relented, standing up. "Come on, Lo…"
Lo was already in motion, grabbing her brother's wrist. "Thank you, Mommy!" she exclaimed, before she bolted off, dragging her brother behind her.
After an elevator-ride that took way too long, the elevator stopped at the penthouse level, prompting Ty to use his key to open the door. "Okay, Lo, we're here, so this better not be some scheme to get back in…"
But as the elevator doors opened, Lo had already darted off, racing past their amphitheater-sized living-room, complete with plush couch and 50-inch plasma-screen TV, past her room with its feather-soft bed and closet full of designer clothes, and stopped outside her father's office. Reaching for the door, she paled as she heard him: "This…this really surprises me, Andrew; you say that Ben gave you this?"
Bummer's voice answered him. "I'm 100 percent positive, sir! He handed me his resignation, himself!"
Her father's voice turned somewhat sad. "Well…if you say so, Andrew; I must say, I'm disappointed to hear…"
Without thinking, Lo threw the office doors open, her scream already leaving her throat. "NOOOOOOOOO!"
Bummer nearly leapt out of his uniform, while James' eyes narrowed angrily, with Ben's opened letter in his hand. "Lauren? What are you doing here? I thought I told you…"
"I know, Daddy! I know I'm not supposed to be here!" Lo cried, rushing up to her father's desk. "You can punish me for it however you like: make me clean toilets, scrub pools, or clean up the beach! I'll even work as a janitor!" She sniffled. "Just…just get rid of that letter! Tear it up, shred it, turn it into a paper airplane, burn it – I don't care!" Tears flowed down her eyes. "Just…just act like you never saw it, Daddy; I'll do anything if you just forget whatever Andy just told you…"
James just stared at Lo for a few long seconds, and then frowned. "Lauren, I just finished reading it," he answered. "I was quite disappointed."
At those words, everything in Lo just stopped; her breathing, her thinking, and even her heartbeat all stood stock-still, her entire world tottering, ready to come crashing down, as tears leaked from her eyes…
James took a deep breath, and sighed. "I mean, honestly, did Benjamin use a faulty printer, or is his penmanship that bad? I can't make heads or tails of this letter!"
Lo's heart started beating again, cautiously, almost not daring to believe what she'd just heard. "W-What?"
Bummer was just as shocked. "S-Sir, it…it's as plain as day!" he said, smiling nervously. "I-I can see it from here…"
"I know how to read, Andrew," James admonished flatly. "If I say that a letter's unreadable, then it's unreadable. Are you calling me a liar?"
Bummer flinched. "N-No, sir! Never!"
"Good." Turning towards his daughter, James gave one brief knowing wink. "Well, Lauren, if Ben has something he has to say to me, he can say it to my face," he said. "You make sure to tell him that."
Lo's tears turned joyful as a radiant smile crossed her face. 'Oh, THANK you, Daddy! Thank you, thank you, THANK you!' "I will, Daddy!" she exclaimed. "I-I'll go tell him, right now!"
With that, Lo turned and raced out of the office, passing by Ty on her way out. "So…you were freaked out over Ben quitting?"
Lo paused, sighing. "I don't have time for this, Tyler!" she said. "Right now, I have to go fix an even bigger mistake than that party!" Before her brother could respond, she zipped into the elevator, taking it back down.
Some time ago, she'd thought getting kicked out of the penthouse had been the worst day of her life…but she'd been seriously wrong.
The worst day of her life could very well be today, if she didn't fix this; she only hoped she wasn't too late…
A few minutes earlier
"Dude, aren't you kinda overreacting?"
Emerging from the lobby, Fin was just in time to hear Broseph's inquiry. Walking up next to where Broseph, and Reef stood, she fixed Ben with an imploring gaze as their fellow grom waited for his two pals, his gear in hand. "Ben, can't we all just talk about this?"
His expression forlorn, Ben looked at her over his shoulder. "There's nothing to talk about, Fin; I've already handed in my resignation."
Reef frowned. "You're quitting over a betty, bro?" he asked. "I mean, come on! If that's what's up your butt, just leave it to the Reefster – I'll have you hooked up with a new honey in no time…"
Ben rolled his eyes. "I'm leaving, Reef, because I was stupid to think I could fit in here."
Fin scowled. "So one little hurdle comes up, and you just punk out?" she snapped. "That's weak, States!"
Ben fixed her with a firm eye. "Fin, have you ever had your heart stomped on twice in less than six months?"
Fin hesitated. "No."
Ben sighed. "Then no offence, McCloud, but you don't get to have an opinion."
Fin folded her arms. "Well, forgive me for being flavoured that one of my best friends is leaving!"
Ben looked just as sad as she was. "I'm not fussy about it either," he replied, "but this is how it has to be."
Broseph frowned grimly. "But, dude, think of all the choice waves you're passing up!" he urged. "I mean, we get to surf the Office, bro! How can you walk away from that?"
"Because I have to, Broseph," Ben said. "It was irresponsible of me to put you guys in danger; I'm not going to do that again."
By then, Gwen and Kevin had pulled up in Kevin's car; as Ben stashed his duffel bag in the trunk, and then strapped his board to the roof, Gwen leaned out the window. "You ready to go?"
"Almost, Gwen," Ben answered. "I just…need to say my good-byes."
As Ben turned back towards them, Emma, in uniform, ran out of the hotel. Seeing Ben step away from the car, she sniffled. "You're…you're really doing this, Ben?"
"I really have to, Emma," Ben answered. His expression saddened. "I guess Lo's not coming." Emma could only stare forlornly. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised."
As Ben walked towards him, Broseph sighed sadly. "Guess it was kinda dumb for us to think a real-live superhero would stay here, bro," he said. He gave Ben a brotherly hug. "Rock on, Hero Dude."
Ben smiled wearily. "I'll try."
Seeing Ben approach, Reef looked forlorn. "Look, I'm not gonna go all mushy, okay, bro?" he said. "It was just…cool having you around." He simply raised his fist.
Chuckling, Ben did the same, tapping his knuckles to Reef's. "I'll miss you too, Reef."
Fin's arms were folded as Ben walked towards her. "I still say you're making a huge mistake."
Ben sighed, as he held up his wrist with the Omnitrix. "It wouldn't be the first time."
Her expression turning sad, Fin snared him in a bear-hug. "You'd better come visit me up on the East Coast, sometime," she warned, "because if you don't, superpowered watch or not, I'll catch the first flight out to Bellwood and kick your butt up and down the road!"
Ben chuckled. "Count on it, Fin," he promised, which just made her hug him harder.
As Ben stepped away from Fin, Emma sniffled more as he walked towards her. "P-Please, Ben, don't do this," she pleaded. "Lo's just upset; she'll come around…"
"No, Emma, I don't think she will," Ben said sadly. "It wouldn't be fair of me to expect her to, after what happened; it's better this way."
Emma sniffled again. "But…you don't have to leave…"
Ben's smile was wistful. "That's how it goes, Em; when the battle's won, the hero just walks off into the sunset." He chuckled as he glanced at the noon sun. "Or at least they do if the sun is setting; I guess I timed it wrong." Now it was Emma's turn to chuckle, as she pulled him into a good-bye hug.
Sitting in the driver's seat, an annoyed Kevin rolled down the window. "Ben, can we wrap this up, already?"
In the passenger seat next to him, Gwen frowned. "Kevin! A little sensitivity, please?"
Ben half-smiled at the exchange. "I guess that's my cue," he said. "It was awesome, meeting all of you."
Broseph nodded sadly. "Likewise, bro."
Ben's face turned truly sad, now. "And…tell Lo…I'm so sorry all this happened," he whispered. With that, he opened the back door, and got in. "Kevin…punch it." With a smirk, Kevin pulled out of the parking lot, driving onto the highway…where he gunned the engine, driving off at speeds that could make a NASCAR driver envious.
Ben was gone.
Watch Kevin's car go, Reef whistled. "Man, that car's got some serious horsepower."
Fin frowned, elbowing him. "Our friend is gone, and that's all you can say?"
"What? It does!"
Before anyone could say anything else, a familiar voice called from inside the lobby. "Ben! Ben, wait!" Seconds later, Lo raced out of the lobby. "W-Where's Ben?"
Emma sniffled. "He's gone, Lo. He and his friends just left."
Lo's hopeful smile collapsed. "W-What? No…no, he can't be!"
"He is," Fin muttered. "I sure hope you're proud of yourself, Princess." At that, Lo flinched, before her expression turned determined, as she darted off, back into the hotel.
Broseph just sighed. "Man, all this harshness is bumming me out big times, bros…" he began, but he paused, hearing a motor revving. "Hey, you guys hear that..?"
Seconds later, Lo's jeep roared out of the hotel garage, with Lo in the driver's seat. "Which way did they go?"
It took Fin a few seconds to respond. "They…they headed east!" she said. "They're probably heading for the wharf to get the ferry; that's the only way off the island!"
Reef nodded. "Yeah, but they're probably halfway there by now; that car had some wicked horsepower!" he exclaimed. "You'll never catch them!"
"I will if I use a shortcut!" Lo declared. With that, she gunned the engine, peeling out and racing away from the hotel, onto the highway, before taking a sudden left…going off-road.
Fin just blinked…and then smiled. "Huh; there's hope for that girl, yet…"
"Feeling lonely? Heartbroken? Depressed? Just call 1-800-55…"
Click! "Ohhh…you're gonna lose her…"
Click! "How could you have dumped me, Anne? I thought we had something…"
Click! "This one's for all you jilted lovers out there…"
Leaning his head back against the back seat, Ben groaned. "Next."
Kevin frowned as he clicked the radio's dial. "Look, Ben, will you just pick something already?"
Gwen's hand on his arm quieted him. "Kevin," she chided, before she looked back to her cousin. "Are you sure you're okay, Ben?"
Ben sighed. "Oh, sure. I'm just aces." As he spoke, the current radio-station began its next song: Don Henley's "Boys of Summer." "There; that's as good as any."
Kevin shrugged. "If you say so."
Groaning again, Ben looked out the window, taking in the sight of the azure sky above the sparkling blue of the waves lapping the shore, letting the music of the lone Eagle drift across his mind…and bringing thoughts of her with it…
Lo angrily huffing at him as she stormed out of her father's office, that first day…
Lo looking so surprised when he saved her from Kelly's hot-oil treatment…
Lo challenging him on the Office after those kooks had been scared off…
Lo reassuring him – in her own way – after his disaster of a date with Cecilia…
Lo crying and upset after Heidi had ditched her…and smiling after he'd reassured her…
Lo looking at him when they'd been supposedly stranded…and when they'd been alone in that geode…
Lo inching up to him, inviting him to…
Ben groaned to himself, shaking his head to clear it…and failing – even now, he could practically see Lo's image against the sky, her chestnut hair waving in the breeze as she smiled…
Not even memories of Julie had tormented him like this.
'I have to forget her,' he told himself. 'I'll feel better once I put some distance between me and Surfer's Paradise, that's all.' "Kevin, how long until we reach the ferry?"
Kevin glanced over his shoulder. "Just a couple more minutes, Ben; after that, it's bye-bye Sunset Beach…"
His remark was cut off by tires screeching to their side, as a jeep barrelled out of the brush, almost plowing into them; by reflex, Kevin swerved to avoid the jeep, spinning out and coming to a stop facing the opposite direction, while the jeep stopped in front of them. Kevin's eyes narrowed. "What the hell?"
Mildly shaken, Ben looked out the window…and did a double-take. "LO?"
Getting out of her jeep, a distraught Lo looked pleadingly at them as Ben, Gwen, and Kevin got out of the car. Kevin was not amused. "You better not have dinged my car, princess."
Frowning, Lo put her hands on her hips. "If I did, just send my dad the bill; he can take it out of my wages!" she answered. As she met Ben's gaze, her expression turned forlorn. "We need to talk."
Gwen's eyes narrowed. "Haven't you already done enough?"
Lo sniffled. "Please?"
Ben sighed. "Fine."
Gwen looked worried. "Ben…"
"I'm a big boy, Gwen; I can look after myself," Ben said. "This probably isn't going to take long."
Gwen didn't look entirely convinced, but she nodded. "We'll be over here." Taking Kevin's hand, she led him a few feet back, towards the trunk of the car.
Keeping a flat expression, Ben folded his arms. "You wanted to talk?" he asked. "So talk."
Lo smiled nervously. "Can't we both talk?"
"I got nothing to say," Ben muttered. "After being told we shouldn't have even started dating is kind of a conversation-killer."
Lo flinched. "I…I deserved that," she sniffled. "Ben…I…I know it sounds so lame, but I'm so…"
"So what, Lo? Sorry?" Ben snapped. "Why? You were absolutely right!" He held up his left wrist. "This is why Julie broke up with me; she wanted a normal life…which is the one thing I can't give, no matter how much I want to!" He lowered his head. "You didn't know what you were getting into, Lauren."
Lo sniffled. "Maybe not," she agreed. "But now I do…"
"Yeah, you do!" Ben said. "And you freaked out, just like Julie basically did! It just didn't take you as long!"
"I'm not freaking out now, Ben!" Lo cried. "I…I had time to think about it! I was wrong to say that, Ben! God, I was so wrong!"
"Well, what about the next time, Lo?" Ben shouted. "What about the next time one of my enemies comes calling? Or how about when some new threat to Earth pops up? How long before you go running for the hills like Julie did?"
Lo stiffened. "I won't!"
Ben's eyes narrowed. "You can't promise that, Lauren," he said firmly. "You can't know the future." He folded his arms. "How can I believe that you aren't going to start wanting a normal life, the next time abnormal comes calling?"
Lo looked stricken, as she struggled for the right words…and found them. Her eyes narrowed firmly, as she looked him in the eye. "Because Ridgemounts never settle, Ben!" she declared. "Maybe this Julie chick did want a normal life, but I am not her! I'm not settling for just "normal"; I want the big picture, and everything in it! And yes, I don't know the future, okay? I don't know what that big picture is going to be…but I do now that, at least for today, I want you in it!"
She started to sniffle. "I just forgot that for a minute, okay? I got freaked out by seeing my boyfriend change into an alien superhero! I got scared by something no-one in Sunset Beach has ever seen before, and it made me forget how absolutely awesome and romantic and wonderful you are! I'm human! Sue me!" she said. "I made a mistake! God, I have made so many mistakes in my life before now, it isn't even funny!"
Her sniffles grew, as her eyes turned misty. "But I don't want my latest mistake to be…to be saying goodbye to you," she whimpered. "So, p-please, Ben…p-please, I'm begging you…"
Her lower lip quivered, while tears streamed down her eyes. "…d-don't go…"
When Ben had left Surfer's Paradise, he'd been ready to put dating and romance behind him forever; he didn't need it – didn't need the drama, the heartbreak, or any of it. Dealing with the aftermath of Julie had been tough enough; dealing with losing Lo would have been the straw to break the camel's back, and he'd been ready to tell Lo that…
…but now, staring into her hurt, pleading, beautifully tear-streaked face…
…he just couldn't.
Ben flinched, his eyes scrunching shut. "But you…I was almost…arrgghh!" he muttered, looking away. He looked back. "I thought…how can…ARRGGHH!"
Calming down, he looked into Lo's pleading amethyst eyes…and he was lost.
He knew what he had to do.
Turning to Gwen and Kevin, he just shrugged. "It's official: I am the biggest, dumbest kook in Sunset Beach."
Gwen blinked. "Ben..?"
Turning back to Lo, he sighed, smiling. "So, can I get a ride back with you, or should I ask Gwen and Kevin for one?"
The radiant smile that shone from Lo's face, refracted through tears, told Ben that he'd made the right call.
Before Ben could even move, Lo practically pounced on him with a kiss, her arms wrapping around his neck as she pulled him down to her; enfolding her in his arms, Ben returned the kiss, deepening it, and allowing her to lift her feet from the ground, easily supporting her.
Gwen groaned. "Uh, boy."
Kevin slapped his forehead. "Like I said: here we go again."
As their kiss died away, Ben held Lo close as she nuzzled into his chest. "I'm sorry, Ben," she whimpered. "I am so, so sorry; I was being a total brat…"
Ben just hugged her closer. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you," he whispered, "and I'm sorry I almost left…"
And then the realization of what he'd done hit him. "Oh, God…" he groaned. "Lo, I am an idiot; before I left, I told Bummer I quit, right to his face…"
Lo giggled. "I wouldn't worry about that," she cooed.
Ben blinked. "Huh?"
"That's why I didn't come see you when you were leaving!" Lo said. "I was taking care of that!"
Ben started to smile. "What did you do?"
Lo giggled. "Come back to the hotel and find out!"
Ben grinned. "Okay."
After Gwen and Kevin had gotten back in the car, while Ben hopped in Lo's jeep with her, they all drove back to the hotel; as they arrived, Ben saw the others – all looking quite surprised to see him – standing at the entrance, along with Bummer, Johnny, and Mr. Ridgemount. Seeing Ben hop out, followed by Lo, Gwen, and Kevin, James frowned, holding up Ben's letter. "Andrew said this was from you, Benjamin."
Ben gulped. "Uh, yeah…about that, sir…"
"You suddenly forgot how to type in English?"
Ben blinked. "Huh?"
"You call this typing? It looks like chicken-scratches?" James muttered, tearing it up. "If you have anything to say to me, you can say it to my face! Well?"
Slowly, Ben glanced at Lo, who just shrugged prettily. Smiling, he turned back to Mr. Ridgemount. "I thought I did, sir…but as it turns out, I don't."
Bummer paled. "B-But, sir…Tennyson quit! I heard him! He said it right to my face!"
Smiling, Emma quickly caught on. "I didn't hear anything."
Bummer glared at her, before turning to Johnny. "Johnny, you were there! You heard Tennyson quit! Tell him!"
Johnny blinked, looking nervous, until he caught Emma's pleading gaze. "Uh…actually, sir, I was looking at my console while you were talking to Ben; if he did say that, I didn't hear him."
Bummer almost choked. "B-But…but he..!"
"Andrew." Mr. R.'s hand was on Bummer's shoulder. "Isn't it possible that you just misunderstood Benjamin?"
Bummer looked ready to cry. "I…I suppose so, sir."
"Good." His gaze turning stern, James looked at all of them. "In that case, I think it's time all of you got to work."
Ben grinned. "We're on it, sir."
Lo nodded. "We will, Daddy."
As Mr. Ridgemount and the distraught Bummer walked off, Emma squealed with joy as she hugged Johnny. "Thank you, Johnny!" she exclaimed. "You totally saved the day!"
Johnny smiled stupidly. "Hey, I may not have a superpowered watch, but I have my moments."
Broseph grinned. "So, does this mean you're staying, bro?"
Ben chuckled. "If you guys are willing to hang out with a one-man freak-show."
Fin laughed. "Sorry, States; that position's been taken by Chowderhead, here. You're gonna have to settle for "resident superhero.""
Ben groaned. "Guys, I am not a superhero."
Kevin chuckled. "We're actually somewhere between intergalactic saviours and space-legends."
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Thank you, Captain Modesty."
Reef smirked. "Yeah, you can still hang with us," he said. "One thing though." He grinned. "Next time some bad guy shows up…mind if I try using that watch?"
Ben, Gwen, and Kevin all went ghostly pale. Ben recovered first, his eyes narrowing. "Hell. NO."
Fin rolled her eyes. "Are you serious, kook? You actually thought he'd lend the most powerful device in the universe to you?"
"What, you think he'd lend it to a betty?"
Gwen huffed. "Excuse me?" she snapped. "What is that supposed to mean, you chauvinistic moron?"
"Thank you!" Fin declared.
"Guys!" Emma exclaimed. "We're forgetting the most important part!" Beaming, she glanced to Ben and Lo. "Are you two…okay?"
Blushing, Lo laced her fingers with Ben's. "What do you think?"
Emma was about to squeal again, but she was drowned out as the police-scanner in Kevin's car flared to life. "…all units be advised: the suspension-bridge to the east industrial sector is collapsing; establish roadblocks to and from the eastern sector, and mobilize all medical units…"
By reflex, Ben's left wrist was already in motion; popping up the control-dial, he started cycling through it, selecting Jetray…before he stopped, retracting the dial. "Uh…"
Johnny shrugged. "I think I can tweak the schedule so you go on break a little early."
Fin nodded. "And if Bummer asks, we can keep him diverted long enough for you to get back."
Broseph grinned. "So go on, bro: do your hero thing."
Ben smiled. "Thanks, guys." He turned to Gwen and Kevin. "I'll meet you guys there, okay?"
Gwen and Kevin had already gotten back in the car. "Got it," Gwen agreed.
Kevin grinned. "And now the vacation can really start!" With that, the two of them drove off, while Ben darted to the side, slipping out of sight.
Once he was safely hidden behind some of the hotel's hedges, Ben was about to pop up the dial, when a familiar voice interrupted him. "Does this happen often?"
Looking over his shoulder, Ben smiled back at Lo. "Pretty much."
Lo's smile grew. "You just hear the call to action, and race off to save the day?"
Ben shrugged. "If you want out, now's the time to say it."
Lo sighed. "I suppose I can deal."
"Good to know." With that, Ben popped up the control-dial, which showed the image of a new alien – one with two curved spikes growing from his shoulders, and a levitating head. "Huh, never saw him before; I'll have to try him out later," he mused, selecting Jetray. "Okay, Lo; you'd better step back."
Smiling, Lo did so. "See you afterwards?"
Grinning, Ben nodded. "Count on it, Lo; this boy of summer isn't going anywhere!" With that, he lifted his right arm. "Hero time!"
And he slammed it down.
And there you have it: the end of the first part of the Hanging Ten saga! For those of you who have asked, I do plan to do a sequel; in fact, I have a number of sequels planned for this story! I still have a lot of material I want to cover, so you can all rest easy; the story of Ben, Lo, and our favourite groms isn't over yet!
Having said that, I'm afraid I probably won't be able to start posting the next story in this saga until August at the earliest. There are three reasons for this: One, I haven't gotten started on the next story, and I prefer to start posting once I have several chapters ready to go; Two, I may be going out-of-province to work for the summer starting in May, and I'll need all my energy to get Last Son finished before then; and Three, I am just TIRED. Rest assured, I WILL continue this series; I just need a bit of a breather!
In closing, I would like to thank all of you, my readers, for all of your support! Because of all of you, my experiment with Hanging Ten was a resounding success! There will be many more stories to follow this one! In the meantime, you can check out the names of future stories in this saga on my profile page, to whet your imaginations for things to come!
Again, thank you all! Later!