A/N: Hello. I've had this fic idea for quite some time now, so I decided to write it down while it's fresh in my mind. If the reception is promising, I'll prioritize updating this above my other fics. A poll will be set up as to which fic you want me to focus on, including this one. I, however, recommend you give this story at least 2 or 3 chapters to gain traction before deciding.
Many thanks to Baku babe for agreeing to beta-read this fic. Her feedback was very insightful.
Chapter One: Complex
Today marked the first day of summer. And that meant only one thing: absolute freedom. The life of a college student hasn't been easy so far. In fact, it's been one stressful day after another. And those days seemed to drag on forever. Who would've thought growing up meant you had to put in some work to get somewhere—or anywhere for that matter? Those fun and carefree days feels more like a distant memory now.
Of course, there were some upsides to it, too. Meeting new people, having new friends, creating new experiences and memories; in spite of the huge burden of college life, having a few people you enjoy being with more than makes up for all those sleepless nights cramming in mountains of books worth of information, or trying your hardest not to fall asleep during the day, hoping you understood at least a quarter of what the professor had been teaching.
And that's not even counting the fact that you're literally hundreds of miles away from home, living independently in a small room of one of the university dorms, having to learn to take care of yourself and doing all the mundane everyday tasks that are usually reserved for mothers to do. How were you supposed to know not to mix in the whites with the colors anyway? Most awkward day of school, yet. But at least the fire department was much more understanding during the cooking incident. Since then, however, it was either instant noodles or a store-bought sandwich. Well, at least Erika offered to cook on some occasions. Otherwise, lasting through the entire year might as well have been impossible.
Nevertheless, on some aspects, trying to be responsible for oneself, albeit with a few difficulties, is still rather fulfilling.
And it doesn't hurt that there are some dependable people around you can turn to—and they're awfully nice, too, although, some are bit creepy, others maybe with a few screws loose, but they're all good-natured deep down, and almost everyone is hardworking. Even the slackers do some heavy-lifting from time to time. They say college is a place where only the fittest survives, but it's nice to know that people are willing to help each other out. It's a far cry from high school that much is for sure.
Ben smiled to himself as he tried to force his briefcase shut. Perhaps it was a no-go after all to put all the clothes you plan to bring in just one case. It seemed much less troublesome that way, but the briefcase seemed to already be pleading in agony to spare it from an extra shirt or two. He sighed in defeat as he took some of the clothes out. He should really be opting for a stroller bag anyway—much more conventional. But leaving behind his lucky briefcase is out of the question. Ben was never the superstitious type, but he swore that that one time he forgot to bring it, it was arguably the worst school day of his life ever.
Much worse than the time when he was a kid, and he accidentally single-handedly ruined his Aunt Vera's wedding. To this day, he swears it was Grandpa's stupid 'cologne' that caused all the trouble. I mean, why else would all those doves be flocking around him for absolutely no reason, causing him to run and crash into, and effectively destroying the entire buffet table? Gwen, however, claimed it was because his weird face was enough to provoke the birds to attack.
There was a knock at the door. Before Ben could answer, the person had already decided to open it and let herself in.
"Oh, you're still packing? You better hurry up. They'll be here soon," Ben's mother, Sandra, called out to him, her hand steadily gripped on the doorknob, as she watched her son sitting on the floor of his room, folding the remainder of his clothes.
"I know, Mom. I'm almost done," Ben replied without even looking, as he carefully flung the folded clothes on top of his bed.
"How many times do I have to tell you to call me Sandra, Ben?" she sighed. "Anyway, they've called not too long ago. It won't be long until they arrive. Make sure you bring along all the essentials, dear. I know you've become much more independent now, but I can't honestly stress how important a little protection is."
"Jeez, Mom, don't say it like that! Your words could easily be mistaken!" Ben exclaimed as he turned to her with a flustered expression.
"Ah, I'm sorry. I didn't realize. Well, anyway, you know what I mean. Come downstairs for breakfast when you've finished packing," Sandra innocently waved off with a smile, before closing the door behind her.
"That woman," Ben grumbled as he turned his attention back to the task at hand. "I swear sometimes she doesn't think through half the stuff she says." Ben neatly folded the last of his clothes and laid it on top of his bed. He plopped down and quickly sorted through all the items he was bringing with him. He shuddered at the thought of last time when he forgot to pack in his toothbrush. How inconvenient for a convenience store to be close that night. That's the last time he was gonna be sharing a toothbrush again.
However, this time he was sure he got everything right. Satisfied with the job he did, he stood up to briefly stretch as he took in the view of his room—something he haven't had the chance to do ever since he came back home three days ago. He wasn't sure what happened exactly, but his mother insisted that he collapsed to the floor out of exhaustion the moment he stepped inside. And naturally, the first thing she did was to take a picture of his lifeless form and hang it on the fridge. She is so not getting anything for Mother's Day next year.
"Hard to believe it's been almost a full year since I've been home. I see Mom's kept this room untouched all that time. Still, she could've at least dusted a bit, but this is Mom I'm talking about," Ben chuckled, shaking his head at the bits of dust that accumulated in certain areas and clutters of items sprawled all over. He himself would be the first to admit that he wasn't much of a neat freak as well, but still, it would be nice if his living space would at least look presentable. At least that's what Gwen always told him, anyway.
"Maybe I should've done a little sprucing up, but there's hardly any time now. Gwen would probably freak if she saw all this."
Again, that name struck a chord deep within him. He bit his lower lip at the uneasiness that suddenly enveloped him. It's been a good eight or nine months since he last saw her—and almost about three years since they last spoke.
It all started with his decision to take off the Omnitrix. It wasn't necessary to keep it on, anyway. Threats were becoming minor, almost non-existent. Even deploying a group of novice Plumbers was enough. The Galactic Enforcers couldn't even buy a gig. It was peace time. Ben made it happen. And now, he just wanted to live the rest of his life out normally. Being a hero wasn't as spectacular as he once thought. It was a drag, actually. He now understood that the Supermans and Batmans didn't do it for the thrill; they did it because it they were needed.
And now he wasn't, and he was glad.
It took a lot out of him, and out of Gwen, too. They never complained about it openly, despite the obvious lack of sleep, the weariness, the many sustained injuries, their own social life slowly crumbling, but they both knew deep down that one day they would have to call it quits—before their mind and bodies gave in first. So Ben did the only rational thing - the best thing for both of them - he pleaded Azmuth to take it off, to take it back. Azmuth willingly agreed, and reassured him that he will keep it safe until he was ready to take on the burden again.
Everything went downhill from there. Ben's relationship with Gwen slowly fizzled.
It was the start of junior year—a new beginning. There were high hopes that things could only get better from here on out. But expectations were soon quickly derailed. Ben didn't understand what happened exactly, but he found himself growing more and more distant from Gwen. Missions accounted for a large part of them meeting up, and when the missions stopped coming, the team followed suit. Hanging out happened less and less, until it reached the point where they stopped hanging out completely. Turns out there was nothing much to talk about when it didn't involve anything out of the ordinary.
The both of them found no common ground without the watch.
Gwen became engrossed with her studies. Her grades had been slowly declining every year since she's been living a double life, and her parents were finally glad that their daughter was back on track on the "road of a more promising future". And what spare time Gwen usually mustered she spent on dates with her on-again/off-again boyfriend Kevin. Ben was none too pleased to be left out, feeling like an outsider.
He took his frustrations out on sports. He excelled in soccer, track-and-field, and baseball—anything that had to do with running and loads of stamina. He even did surprisingly well in wrestling. It was practically child's play compared to being out on the battlefield. These guys couldn't even hold a candle to new recruits. Ben quickly established himself as one of Bellwood High's top athletes. Scholarships from several universities piled up soon after.
But it never did help to fill the void. It was all empty bravado; a way to distract himself from his separation anxiety.
Family gatherings had become awkward. Even their parents were showing some general concern as to what exactly happened to the once inseparable duo, but they dare not prod. Teenage minds were a complicated matter. If a resolution was to be made, it would have to be between the two. Even Grandpa Max didn't dare say a word, but only silently watched in pain as the two ignored each other when they accidentally got too close. Not even so much as a simple hello. Max desperately wanted to do something about it, but hadn't found his chance yet.
"Maybe someday," he kept hoping.
Senior year. They both still tried their best to avoid each other as much as possible. At school. At gatherings. They even decided to celebrate their birthdays separately, much to the dismay of their parents. To everyone who had an idea of the bond they once shared.
Then there was the fallout between Gwen and Kevin. Their sporadic relationship finally ended after a heated argument one day. No one knew the exact reason, but everyone tried their best to console the deeply depressed Gwen—except for Ben. He heard about the news, too. People gossip too much for their own good. But what was he supposed to do? Gwen effectively shut him away, and seemingly denied his existence; that they once shared anything at all. Now, to be her hero when she needed one, that's just asking too much.
Things never did improve in terms of their relationship. Months came to pass.
Ben found himself accepting a scholarship in Colorado. Numerous scouts have raved about Bellwood High's star soccer player. He excelled in all facets of the game and everything seemingly came naturally for him. Several universities pushed hard to recruit him—even going as far as making ludicrous offers just to outbid each other. After all the flirting to draw Ben in, he finally managed to pick one. He did it randomly by blindfold. He didn't care where he ended up, as long as he can get away from Bellwood. Academics wasn't exactly his strongest suit, so why bother pondering over it too much? It was all about soccer, anyway.
Ben would find himself leaving for college very soon.
Then the day of his departure finally came. Everyone accompanied him to the airport—even Gwen showed up, though she mostly stood behind the other adults and hadn't uttered a single word the whole time. The atmosphere was very melancholic. Sandra couldn't bear to have her son taken away from her to a faraway place. Her husband, Carl, even had to wrestle her a bit to give up the one luggage she refused to hand over to Ben. He had quite a bit of luggage with him.
Max in his usual form, however, calmly wished the boy good luck and told him that he hopes that Ben could find what he was looking for in Colorado. Deep down, they both knew he wouldn't. It was never in Colorado to begin with.
Uncle Frank and Aunt Lili, on the other hand, did their best to not sound cliché with their parting words. Unfortunately, they were. Ben appreciated them, nonetheless.
A lot of awkward goodbyes were thrown around. Even Aunt Vera showed up just to remind Ben that one day, she might opt to make his wedding day hard for him, too. Of course, it might have been just a cruel joke when she then broke into laughter. Maybe.
Max then made a subtle nod to all the surrounding adults. They all looked at him firmly, and each one tried to slip his or herself out from the circle with some poor excuse. The best one definitely was about how the pregnant goldfish was needed to be taken to the vet. Frank and Lili didn't even bother with one, and just quietly disappeared in the middle of the commotion.
Ben looked around in confusion. Everyone around him was suddenly gone—everyone except for Gwen. Even the poor girl only now noticed how it was suddenly more spacious; she was too lost in thought to notice beforehand. Their eyes met, but Gwen's expression tightened at the sight of Ben looking at her with such fragile stare. Both teens suddenly looked down with nervousness, averting each other's gaze.
The situation has now become frustratingly clear.
Both of them wanted nothing more than to walk away from the spot right now and avoid having to deal with each other, but they found themselves completely frozen where they stood. They stayed silent for some time, shooting quick, nervous glances when they were sure the other wasn't looking. They fidgeted and unnervingly shifted their weight, tensely creasing the hem of their shirts as they desperately tried to start something.
That was the first in a long time Ben had ever heard Gwen's voice, and his head shot up both in surprise and curiosity. He saw her visibly struggle trying to find her words, her entire body trembling a bit no matter how hard she tried to hide it. She pursed her lips, still refusing to look at him, but her expression was soft, delicate...almost needy.
"Erm..." she mumbled under her breath again, but nothing followed after that. But Ben wasn't about let all this go so easily. It's been far too long for the outcome to stay the same.
"Gwen..." he called out to her with quivering lips. He himself was surprised at how weak he sounded. But his heart was beating too fast, and his breathing was heavy and chaotic. His mind was simply not cooperating with him. The palm of his hands felt very cold and he was sure his legs were going to buckle up under him at any moment. Everything was happening too quickly. It was insane.
But Ben knew he had gotten her attention. She might not be looking at him, but he could feel her anxiously waiting for something. But his words were failing, his body was completely stiff, and his mind spun around so much that he felt like he was going to vomit. He wanted so badly to reach out to her, to embrace her, and to ask her "why?" He wanted to let her know that even if she hated him, no matter the reason why she hated him, he just couldn't do the same. That she mattered too much to him—even if the feeling wasn't mutual anymore.
But he never gathered up the courage to. And Gwen never did manage to utter a single word. Ben cursed at himself mentally over and over again, his one hand visibly straining at the sling of his backpack as his expression grew more desperate. Please say something. Anything. He would gladly drop everything right at this very moment if she told him not to leave. He wouldn't even need to hear an excuse. He just wanted to be sure that there was a small part of her that still needed him.
"To all passengers of flight number four-two-two, the plane is now on standby and ready to be boarded. Please proceed to gateway fourteen in an orderly file with your tickets in hand. Vector Air will be departing for Colorado in half an hour. Repeat. To all passengers of flight number four-two-two, the plane is now on standby and ready to be boarded. Please proceed to gateway fourteen in an orderly file with your tickets in hand. Vector Air will be departing for Colorado in half an hour. Thank you."
The booming words echoed throughout the building, shattering the invisible walls that momentarily secluded the two from the rest the world. Suddenly, the noise was back. The whole airport came alive once again. Crowds formed in every direction. People were now restlessly lining up—everyone had a flight to catch. Reality had set back in.
"I-I have to go..."
Ben was suddenly jolted from his reverie by the muffled sound of his ringing phone. His eyes danced wildly as he scanned his room, trying hard to remember where he had placed, or misplaced it. The muffled tune playing quickly made its location evident, though, as Ben started digging through the pile of clothes that lay scattered on one end of his bed—the ones that didn't make the cut.
Sure enough, he found it lying beneath his old tracksuit as he hurriedly grabbed and answered it.
"Hello?" he called out almost breathless.
"I can already tell that you were in the middle of doing something. My timing's perfect as always," replied an all-too familiar feminine voice from the other end. Ben couldn't help but grin upon hearing her playfully smug tone.
"Not even a second off, Erika. So what's up?"
"I-it's nothing important. It's only been a while and I already miss picking up after you. I guess I got a little too used to it. It's too quite when you're not around, Ben-kun."
"Ah, I see. Well, you at least deserve some time away from me. Not to say that I don't miss you too, Erika, but you know..."
"Mmm, a whole year away from home must've been tough, but you were always so stubborn about going back home. Even on the holidays. And you never did tell me why. So mean of you."
"W-well, you see, it's kinda hard to explain, but I swear I'll give you the full details the very instant we meet again, promise."
"Eh? Assuming you managed to pass all the classes this year, Ben-kun." Erika's voice was a mixture of mild teasing and a little bit of worry.
"That was quite a harsh thing to say..."
"Uh, iie, don't worry! I'm sure you did fine! I was only joking around," she nervously laughed.
"So you say," Ben sighed. "Although, I'm positive I would've never lasted as long as I did if it wasn't for you. So, thank you, Erika. I honestly don't know what I would do without you."
Ben swore he heard a gasp from the other end, followed by the sound of something hitting the floor. His listening ear picked up a few, rather unpleasant thuds, followed by brief static, and finally a muffled shriek that sounded strangely cute.
"Hey Erika, is everything alright?"
"Ah, gomen ne. I was careless for a moment and my phone slipped from my hands. It's kinda embarrassing, but I'm fine, though," Erika hastily replied. "Anyway, Ben-kun, I have to go now. I promised Mama I'd be preparing lunch today. It was nice hearing your voice again. Take care now, B-E-N-kun!"
"You too, Erika. Hope to see you soon."
And with that the line went dead.
Ben smiled at himself as he held up the phone in front of him. He stared at the glowing screen—her name appeared quite a lot in the call logs.
Erika was the first ever friend Ben made in college—and essentially his best friend. In fact, the two hang around together so much they were often mistaken as a couple around campus, despite the both of them having feverishly denied it time and again. Regardless, they were regularly spotted eating lunch together either under the shade of Evergreen Colorado University's famous "200 Year-Old Tree", or sitting on one of the school benches, with Erika having always prepared a bento box for Ben.
She still had trust issues with Ben's 'cooking skills' after the fire incident.
After club activities, they would always wait for each other just outside the main gate, and walk home together. On some occasions, Ben would play a cruel joke on her along the way, and Erika would end up chasing after him all the way back.
Ben would later treat her to her favorite Peach Paradise Vanilla Shortcake bought from Magdeline's as an apology. It has become quite a routine.
Erika's parents own the dormitory at which Ben stays at, which is located about almost a full kilometer-and-a-half westbound from Evergreen Colorado University; in a small suburban town at the foot of one of Colorado's mountain ranges. The path to school is usually a much smoother walk compared to the one back, as the town is at a much higher altitude compared to the school. Going home by bike was a nightmare. But the wonderful view of lush flora all around makes it almost worthwhile.
The dormitory itself is not that big, with a maximum tenant capacity of fifteen people. It has gained quite the reputation, however, of having a very home-like feel to it, and the hospitality is apparently quite remarkable. Every year, hordes of students flock in just to try to get a reservation. Ben only managed to get in because of Max's innate ability to pull together a few strings.
Ben wouldn't get to know Erika until much later, though, as they one day happened to run into each other one day. Before that, he had no idea he would be crossing paths with his landlords' only daughter—or that they even had a daughter to begin with. Ben was always oblivious like that.
During his first week of school he had heard gossip of the school's famous idol; the admiration of almost all, who was known for her beauty, charm, intelligence, and almost impossible degree of kindness. Her name was Erika Misaki. She was a second year student, Vice President of the Student Council, top of her class, and a consistent target of a lot of school clubs and many love struck teens, despite having turned down the offers time and again. She was supposedly a little clumsy and had a knack for spacing out at times, but that somehow seemed to only boost her appeal more than anything else. Apparently, she also had so many talents that it bordered on the absurd.
Ben scoffed at the rumors. They sounded too good to be true. This 'school idol' seemed almost perfect.
And then one afternoon, after having amazed everyone during school soccer tryouts and was promptly recruited, Ben was absent-mindedly walking back to his dormitory, duffel bag slung on one shoulder, staring wistfully at the clouds above. He's been feeling homesick a lot lately, and it didn't help that he was very much alone and far away from home.
Trying to make friends has always been an issue for Ben Tennyson, even in the past. Despite his outspoken and brash nature, he wasn't very popular in school—or maybe it was because of it. But even as he mellowed down over the years, he still found it tough. Somehow, when it comes to socializing, all that trademark confidence of his flies straight out the window. Consider it his Kryptonite. Even his overwhelming popularity as a star soccer player did very little to actually improve his reputation. Turns out athletic scholarships didn't really impress a lot of people.
And the experiment of acting like an uncaring bad boy on the first day of school failed miserably.
"Why did I ever think that would work? Jeez, what was I thinking?" he sighed, his head hanging low and his shoulders slumped as he recalled that painful day.
He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he failed to notice the sound of running feet quickly growing louder.
Ben lay on the concrete sidewalk, rubbing the searing pain at the back of his head. "Hey, watch where you're goi—!" he growled but stopped mid-sentence when he got a good look at the person who had just crashed into him.
"Kuu..." she moaned in pain, clutching her forehead with both hands, as she laid there in front of him with eyes closed, and her legs almost in an awkward kneeling position.
"Uhm..." Ben stared at the girl speechless, his eyes dutifully examining every inch of her. She was clad in the same uniform that the girls in his school were wearing. She wore long black stockings that ran up to her thighs. Her skin was cream white and flawless, and seemingly glowed as it basked in the light of the setting sun. She had an amazing figure, almost like a model, but with rounder curves. Ben looked on intently as her breasts bounced ever so slightly as she rubbed her forehead—they were magnificent, proudly straining against both the vest and the undershirt that held them captive. F-Cup? But what caught Ben off the most was how extremely cute this girl was—her face was soft and gentle, her lips supple and rosy. She sported silky chestnut hair that ran down to her neck; it parted in the middle with bangs that covered her entire forehead. Tied to each side of her head were little red ribbons with a round silver bell attached to it.
Ben couldn't believe his eyes. It was as if he was looking at some sort of angel.
The girl had finally opened her eyes, only to see a rather dumbfounded Ben Tennyson lying in front of her, his mouth wide open like a little boy locked inside a toy store. Her eyes were a brilliant blue. Like the ocean, only better.
"Ah..." she gasped in panic as she hurriedly bowed deeply before him. "Gomennasai! I'm so very sorry! I was looking through my phone while running and I didn't see you. I didn't mean to—"
"N-no, it's alright. It was an accident after all," Ben quickly reassured her. Deep inside, he almost melted at the sweet sound of her voice. He stood up and dusted his pants before picking up the phone she dropped earlier and extending it to her.
The girl looked on for a moment before finally cracking a smile, as she gladly took the phone from his hand, their fingertips brushing against each other in the process. The brief contact was enough to send wonderful jolts of electricity through Ben's spine. He shook away the feeling as he then offered his hand at her, helping to pull her up. Her hands were very soft, he quickly noted to himself.
Now standing face to face, he noticed that she was a few inches shorter than him, her height at just barely above his nose level. Impressive, considering that he stood at about five-ten-and-a-half
"You seemed to be in quite a hurry. Were you running late for something?" Ben asked, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, as he watched her straighten her clothes out.
"H-hai, I was held up in a meeting and it went on longer than I expected. I have to get back home before it gets dark or Papa will get worried again." Despite sounding anxious, her voice was still so soothing.
"Wait... meeting? And the uniform she's wearing. Plus, her looks, her personality... Nah. Could just be a coincidence…"
"Well, I wouldn't want to leave a poor girl out here at dusk by herself. And it seems I've cost you a bit of time as well, so would you mind if I offered to walk you home?" Ben smiled at her, nervously rubbing the back of his neck.
There was a tinge of red on the girl's cheeks as she looked a bit unsure for a moment, before finally returning his smile. "N-no, I don't mind. But it's quite the walk back, and I don't want to bother you. Nuevo Serra is still a bit far off from here."
"Well then, it looks like everything will work out just fine because that's where I also happen to be going," Ben grinned at her as he picked up the duffel bag lying on the cold, hard concrete and slung it on his shoulder.
"Is this what they call a 'fated meeting?'" the girl mumbled to herself with a half-smile.
"Huh, did you say something?" Ben tilted his head at her.
"Uh, no, no, it was nothing!" she quickly responded waving her hands in front of her, her face looking a bit flustered. "A-anyway, we should probably get going."
"Yeah, I guess. By the way, I'm Ben. Ben Tennyson."
"Pleased to meet you," she bowed a little towards him, before flashing a very warm smile. "My name is Erika. Erika Misaki."
"Ben! You've been up there a long time! Is everything alright?!" Ben heard his mother yell out from downstairs.
"Crap," he mumbled to himself as he looked at all the items he's yet to pack. "I'll be down in a sec, Mom!" he yelled back as he hurriedly brought out a stroller bag, unzipped it, and began wildly stuffing it with his belongings.
"I hope you weren't stuck daydreaming about this Erika person again!"
"Kidding! Just kidding!"
After a few minutes, Ben came downstairs and entered the kitchen lugging along a stroller bag and a suitcase with him. He was wearing his usual black top, but instead of his classic green jacket over it, he sported a black aviator jacket with two parallel white lines that ran from the shoulder down to the sleeves. Around his neck was a silver chain pendant with a little cross insignia etched on it. He also wore dark-colored jeans and black sneakers with the white soles and undercuts.
He's been into dark-colored clothing for some time now, but it has little to do with the bad boy image he once tried to pull off. Dark just seemed kind of cool, somehow.
"My, my, any darker and we might just get mistaken for a vampire. Is this all the rage with kids these days?" Sandra nonchalantly said as she glanced at her son out of the corner of her eye before returning back to her cooking.
"I think it has something to do with all this "Twilight" I keep hearing about nowadays. I'm surprised our Ben is into it, too. Well, trends and all," her husband, Ben's father, Carl, pitched in as he sat at the dining table with a newspaper spread in front of him.
"No, not really, both of you are wrong," muttered Ben with a sigh as he placed his belongings underneath the table and pulled up a seat across his father.
"Ah, it's so nice to have us all together at this table again, though, it appears it's short-lived. It didn't take long and Ben already has his bags with him again," Sandra chuckled as she placed a plateful of food in front of Ben. Despite trying to sound cheery, there was no hiding the subtle tone of hurt in her voice.
"Well, you know, a hatchling's bound to fly off its nest sooner or later. Our Ben is now a college student after all. A man has to learn how to live on his own is what I always say," Carl responded, grabbing his mug and taking a sip of coffee, and without really even taking his eyes off the newspaper.
"Right," Ben chimed in softly, as he stared at the plate of food in front of him with downcast eyes. The room instantly fell silent. Sandra was quietly washing the dishes and Carl was still fixated on his newspaper. Suddenly, the home that Ben knew started to not feel like a home. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
"Listen, guys, I'm sorry for being away for so long. I should've...I know I...and I didn't mean—"
"Ben, stop," Carl interrupted him, finally lowering the newspaper and setting in on the table, as he turned to his son, with a smile of all things. "For what reasons you have, you don't have to apologize. You're home, that's all that matters. And to want to stay in Colorado for an entire year, it can only mean there was something there that made you happy; that inspired you. As your parents, there's nothing more we'd want for you than your happiness."
"And if anything we should be the ones apologizing, Ben," Sandra added. "Before you left for Colorado, we both knew you were unhappy for some time now. As parents, it should've been our job to look out for you, but we didn't. We knew there was something hurting you and we didn't do anything. And for that, we are really, really sorry. To be that irresponsible..," Sandra's words shook as they escaped her lips. She smiled at Ben regardless of how fake it looked. Even now, she always tries to keep her composure no matter the situation.
"No, it's my fault, too. You guys are my family. To not come home on Christmas...on New Year's Day, it's inexcusable. I was...just scared. I didn't want to confront my own problems here—not when I can forget about them in Colorado. I tried avoiding them instead of facing them like I should've done from the beginning. But I've come to terms with that now, so really, I should be the one sorry for being a horrible son. But still, you guys kept tabs on me, and were behind me one-hundred percent, so thanks," Ben smiled at both of them.
Sandra and Carl stared at him for a moment stunned, looked at each other briefly, before breaking into laughter.
"Well, it seems we're just a horrible family overall," Carl laughed, folding both his arms.
"You know you don't have to say that..." Ben and Sandra both said deadpan in unison.
"Ah, sorry, I'm sorry."
Ben smiled, feeling relieved, as though a huge weight has been taken off his shoulders. He looked at both his smiling father and mother as they playfully argued over something, though, he didn't really bother to listen to what it was. He only now noticed to cup of coffee that has been in front of him for some time and decided to take a sip.
"So, Ben, dear, you really must tell us more about this Erika person you keep mentioning on phone calls," Sandra said with a smirk.
Ben instantly spat the coffee in his mouth in surprise, his face looking very red.
"My, what an honest reaction—this girl must be something," Sandra grinned as she leaned with both hands on the table.
"How long have you two been going out? More importantly, is she easy on the eyes, son?" Carl chimed in with a smirk of his own.
"I-it's not... That is... we're not... She's just a friend..." Ben stuttered, raising both hands shoulder level in denial, as beads of sweat formed on his face.
"Oh, she's not your girlfriend? How boring. You know you should take action while you can. There's no telling who might sweep her off her feet if you don't," Sandra declared in a sort of mock Romeo gesture.
"I agree. If she can have this kind of effect on our Ben, I can tell she might be quite the catch. If so, stop lollygagging, son! You must answer the call of your heart. Make her fall for you like only a Tennyson can!" Carl exclaimed standing up and pointing his right hand skyward.
"Ah, how sweet young love is. Next thing you know, I'll have a grandson, or a granddaughter, or both! Ahh! But I'm too young to be a grandmother!" Sandra smiled with her palms on her cheeks, as she shook her head excitedly.
"Could you two please act like normal adults?!" Ben growled at them both as his parents tried to suppress their laughter.
Suddenly, the sound of a honking horn caught the attention of the three, their little ruckus immediately subsiding as they turned their heads towards the sound.
The horn honked three more times in quick succession, as if letting them know that the car owner was waiting for them outside. The sound of the horn itself was all-too familiar to Ben, as he slammed both his hands on the table at the realization and immediately stood up from his seat, narrowly avoiding bumping his knee on the table in his haste.
"They're here!" he exclaimed a little too eagerly, as he quickly grabbed his belongings and headed for the door.
"But Ben, what about breakfast?" Sandra called out to him from the kitchen.
"I'll order out!" he shouted back as he grabbed the doorknob and turned it, swung the door open, stepped outside, and closed the door behind him with a bit of unintentional force.
His parents flinched somewhat at the sound of the door being slammed shut, but smiled regardless, as they looked at each other.
"Quite too eager to see her again, isn't he?" Carl hummed.
"Some things never change after all, I guess," Sandra chuckled with folded arms, as she shook her head.
Ben stood in his front yard, hands gripped tightly on both his stroller bag and his suitcase, as he looked on nervously at the parked vehicle just a few meters in front of him. He swallowed hard the lump in his throat as he stood there almost in anticipation of what's the come.
The car door then slid open as a rather hefty-looking man stepped outside before sliding the door back close. To any other normal human being who saw him, his frame would've been intimidating. He was almost as wide as two people and probably weighed just as much—but Ben's face didn't waver in front of him for even the slightest bit as the both of them eyed each other down. Then, the man's face shifted to that of a smile as he waved lightly at Ben.
"Hey there, kiddo, it's been a while." His demeanor was the complete opposite of what his appearance would've suggested.
Ben stared at him for a few more seconds before his expression finally softened, a mixture of overwhelming emotions flowing within him, as he quickly dropped the bags he was holding and running up towards the man.
"Grandpa!" Ben yelled out as he wrapped his arms around his grandfather, Max, almost toppling him over with his momentum.
"Oof! It's great to see you too, Ben," Max wheezed as he felt the air suddenly being forced out of his lungs, as he ruffled his grandson's hair.
Ben flashed a grin at his grandfather before pulling away with his arms folded, as he looked at him with a dubious face.
"You know, I've been hesitant about this ever since you made the call a week back. And I know you're not as oblivious as you like to make yourself seem, Grandpa. I sensed an ulterior motive from the very start, am I right? Still, I didn't think you could've actually pulled it off. I would've rejected the offer if I hadn't given it some thought," Ben mused, scratching the side of his head with his forefinger.
"Ah, well you caught me, kiddo," Max raised his hands in defeat. "You're sharper than I thought. Still, can't blame an old man for trying now, can you? And believe me, the hardest part of all of this was actually getting you to say yes."
"What do you—?"
The two then heard the high-pitched creaking sound of a door opening a few good meters away.
"Oh, hey, Dad, great to see you," called out Carl as both he and Sandra stepped out of their home. "Finally found some time off from work?"
"Uh, yeah, convinced the guys upstairs that summer time is my special time for my grandkids," Max chuckled, rubbing the back of his head as he approached the two of them.
"The life of a plumber seems really tough, yet they're greatly underappreciated. It's seems unfair. There should be a "National Plumbers Day", I say," Sandra sighed, to which both Max and Carl just faked a laugh.
"Speaking of which, where is Gwen, anyway?" Carl then asked.
"Oh, she's still in the RV. She was in her bunk the last time I checked. Dozed off about an hour ago, so I just thought I'd give her some shut eye. I'll go wake her up now."
"I'll do it, Grandpa," Ben suddenly volunteered as he then started to reach for the handle of the car door.
"Wait, Ben, there's something I have to tell you about Gwen," Max said with an outstretched arm, as if trying to stop him.
As Ben shifted his gaze towards him, he found Max's expression to be quite surprising—his face almost dead serious. This was very unnerving, especially concerning Gwen. Was the extent of their relationship to now that bad, or has it even worsened during his absence? Did she swear her eternal hatred towards him upon learning of this trip? If so, why even agree to come in the first place? Ben tried to push away such disconcerting thoughts as he shook his head vigorously. Clearly, there was only one way to find out...
"I can handle it, Grandpa. Trust me," Ben replied, turning to Max with a confident, albeit forced smile, as he gave his grandfather a thumbs up.
He then turned towards the car door in front of him. Suddenly, all that false confidence seemed to have been sucked right out of him. To face her after such a long time; what was he supposed to say exactly? How will she respond to seeing him again? Suddenly, his aforementioned worries started to resurface. The multitude of negative scenarios and outcomes raced in his mind. His hand froze just inches away from the handle, his eyes staring blankly at the door in front of him.
"Oh, dear..." Sandra murmured, her hand on her mouth, as the three of them watched Ben stiffen up almost to the point of looking like a statue.
"Do you think we should—?" Carl started before being interrupted by Max.
"Nah, I think he'll be fine," he stated in a tone that betrayed his serious expression.
"So what was it you were going to warn Ben about Gwen?" Carl then asked, raising his eyebrow at his father. Sandra then turned to Max with an equally confused look as well.
Ben could feel his own heart slamming against his chest as it raced uncontrollably, the frantic beating resonating in his head as though it were the sound of gunshots. He clutched at his chest with one hand as he drew out one long breath. He closed his eyes and exhaled deeply, repeating this a few more times until he felt his heart rate gradually returning back to normal.
"Well, you see, Gwen is... erm..." Max started, scratching the back of his head nervously.
"Is..?" both Carl and Sandra voiced out almost simultaneously.
"Okay..." Ben thought to himself as he opened his eyes, looking very determined as he reached out for the handle again.
"Gwen is...uh...how should I say this?" Max said, looking very hesitant.
"Just spit it out already, Dad. It can't be that bad, right?" Carl replied, almost impatiently, as he worriedly glanced at Sandra and then at Ben.
Before Ben could get a grip on the handle, the car door suddenly slid by itself all the way open almost instantly. Then a flash of scarlet caught Ben's eyes, as they widened in shock at the sight before him.
"B-E-N!" the redhead shouted enthusiastically, as she suddenly leaped towards the very surprised Ben with arms wide open.
"G-G-G-Gwen?! Wait!" Ben shouted as he feverishly shook his hands at her, before desperately trying to shield himself for the inevitable collision.
The resounding impact was enough to send a flock of birds from some nearby trees wildly fluttering in all directions.
"H-hey, wait! What're you doing, Gwen?!" Ben cried out as he found himself lying on the grass with Gwen on top of him, trying hard to break free from her grasp as she wrapped her arms tighter around him.
"Ben, I missed you so much!" she gushed, completely ignoring his struggling, as she nuzzled her head on his neck affectionately.
"C'mon, Gwen, let me go!" Ben gritted as he squirmed helplessly underneath her anaconda-like grip. He then felt something soft press against him and suddenly his face turned bright red.
"Uwaa! Gwen, i-it's touching! It's touching!" he yelped in panic, struggling even more to break free.
"Oh, so you're into those kinda things? Jeez, Ben, you pervert!" Gwen cried out blushing, as she pressed against him even more. The feeling was incredible. It felt like heaven. This was so wrong but...
"Soft..." Ben thought to himself, his eyes spinning, as a trail of blood ran down his nose.
"Huh, Ben? Are you alright?" Gwen tilted her head as she waved a hand in front of his face, but there was no response. He was out.
"Erm, what the heck just happened here, Dad?" Carl blinked at what had just transpired in front of him as he turned towards Max.
"Well, I'm not too sure myself, but all I know is Gwen's been 'eager' to see Ben, to say the least, ever since I picked her up. Wouldn't stop asking about the boy the whole trip to here, but this is at least better than before...I guess," Max sighed as he watched the two with a small smile.
"Well, it's certainly... interesting," chimed in Sandra, her eyes twitching as she watched Gwen sitting on top of her unconscious son and wildly shaking his shoulders.
"It's like she did a one-eighty," added Carl with a nervous laugh. "We might have to ask Frank and Lili about this."
"Well, at least they're not fighting anymore," Max said quite low as he cleared his throat. "Gwen, honey, why don't you, uh, bring Ben's bags inside the RV and let the boy have a bit of a breather, eh?"
"Okay, Grandpa," Gwen said hesitantly as she glanced worriedly at her lifeless cousin before getting off of him as she hurriedly ran to pick up his bags and running back and disappearing inside the RV.
"Ben, you go help her unpack; it's your stuff after all," Max ordered Ben when he noticed the boy come to, as he sat up grimacing in pain from his earlier assault.
"What?! No way!" Ben shouted back as he quickly stood up. "Did you see what happened back there?! Gwen's totally lost it!"
"She's just... excited to see you again, Ben. It's been a long time, after all," Sandra smiled at him as she gestured her son to go after Gwen.
"Well, she's making the effort—a lot more than we would expect. You owe it to her to do the same, son," Carl said as Max and Sandra nodded in agreement.
"Try to think of it as her way of saying sorry, Ben," Max added.
"Fine, fine. I guess you're right," Ben sighed in defeat as he entered the RV, begrudgingly mumbling something to himself as he did so.
"Make sure not to miss a single, interesting moment," Sandra then whispered to Max as she handed him a camera.
"I can only imagine where this is headed," Carl groaned as he slapped his forehead.
"I'll do my best to make sure they'll last more than a week," Max smiled as he waved the camera around.
Ben shifted his gaze left and right as he examined the interior of the RV. The lights were off, and it was quite dark inside, save for the weak sunlight that shone through the drawn-out curtains of the nearby windows—it made for quite an eerie sight. Ben, however, was more concerned of what actually was in the darkness rather than the darkness itself.
"Gwen, where are you?" he called out but there was no response. He made his way past the familiar couches and table that both he and Gwen spent so much time arguing on when they were younger, using his right hand to skim pass the objects as a guide, and also to savor a bit of the nostalgia.
He knocked twice at the bathroom door, and when no answer came, he turned the doorknob and slowly opened it, covering his eyes with one hand, only looking through the tiny slit he made with his two fingers. Nothing.
He closed the bathroom door softly, and headed for the bunk beds. He smiled a bit as he remembered all the crazy stuff that has happened here in the past; the fighting, the arguing, the tender moments, and, of course, the sleeping.
"How time flies," Ben whispered to himself with a grin. Then he felt something poke his shoulder, startling him a bit, as he quickly turned around, only to see Gwen smiling brightly at him.
"Huh, Gwen, so there you are," Ben stated nervously, taking a tiny step back as he eyed her with caution.
"Remembering the past, hmm? It's nice to reminisce of fond memories. But there's something even better, you know," she innocently pouted, bringing her forefinger up to her lips.
"I-is that so? And what might that be?" Ben had a feeling he would regret asking.
Gwen lowered her head and closed her eyes, tucking her arms behind her, as her body slightly swayed back and forth.
"Making new ones, of course," she said quite low, her face blushing as she looked up at him with the cutest of smiles.
"I-I see," Ben replied as he found himself blushing as well. "Well, I'm looking forward to it," he said smiling back at her.
"... We should make one right now and kiss!" Gwen exclaimed passionately with eyes shining, clasping her hands together.
"W-wait, Gwen. We shouldn't! I mean...this is..!" Ben stammered as he tried to distance himself from the advancing Gwen. With no more room left, his legs bumped against the edge of the bunk, and he found himself falling back and now lying on the bunk and at the mercy of Gwen. He continued to back up until he literally felt his back against the wall.
"There's no need to be shy, Ben. It's just the two of us, after all," she cooed as she crawled up on the bunk and on top of him, tracing the contours of his chest with her finger before cupping his face with her hands.
"G-Gwen, h-hold on! What if Grandpa or my parents see us?!" Ben gasped out as he felt his body stiffen up under her touch.
"You worry too much, Ben. For now, let's just live for the moment, okay?" Gwen lustfully smiled at him before leaning in, her lips slowly inching towards his.
"Wh-what the hell is going on?!"
A/N: For more tidbits on chapter 1 visit my profile. I will post facts for each current chapter published. I tried my best to snoop out all spelling and grammar errors and re-publish this so I hope everything looks good for you guys.