Ben's House

January 14, 2000

6:30 PM

Ben's Mom picked them up after karate, and after saying hello the rest of the drive home was mostly quiet, just some routine questions and answers about how she and her parents were doing. Dinner was also a little awkward, thankfully no one said anything about the party. His parents asked about karate and school, and Gwen would normally keep up her end of the conversation. But tonight she was polite and answered back, but didn't do much to keep any topic going. And Ben wasn't his usual talkative, obnoxious self. He wasn't that way at karate, either, she suddenly realized. If her aunt and uncle sensed the tension, they didn't show it. It was a relief when they finished, at least she got through that. But that just led to the next awkward situation - being alone with Ben for the evening. With the way she was feeling, not physically sick but still not feeling right, how was she going to deal with it? Depends a lot on how he did, she thought. His track record on that didn't fill her with confidence. Not that hers was much better. She wanted to be there, she meant it when she agreed to come, but she wasn't sure how to act, either. She hadn't felt uncomfortable being at his house for two and a half years now, and she didn't like it.

They helped clean up after dinner - his parents rules applied to her as much as him - and went up to his room like usual. Well, almost like usual. Instead of jumping on his bed to start playing a game or watch a movie, Gwen hesitated before sitting down at the edge. On the opposite side from where... She took a look around, and focused on his guitar by the desk. And grinned at it.

"You fixed the string!", she said, happy and a little surprised.

"Yeah, I had time to pick it up last week." Ben said. It made her wince a little, but he didn't seem to notice. The way he said it, he didn't mean it to be a dig. "I started learning a few new songs."

"Can I hear?", and she finally looked at him directly. He looked back, but hesitated and got a slightly panicked look. He had told her he only played for his parents a couple times before he did for her last October, so she knew he wasn't used to performing. For all his strutting after heroing and being able to talk to any stranger, he was acting awfully shy about this. She couldn't see why, he was pretty good at it. She thought he was about to make an excuse, so she cut off whatever he was going to say, and continued "I meant what I said when I gave you the strings, Ben. I really do want to hear you play some more." That memory made her smile.

He smiled back a little and said "OK, but I can't play as loud as the last time. Mom and Dad don't always appreciate my music. I usually use my headphones when they're home, but I only have one set." He set up the amplifier and sat in the desk chair as he plugged everything in. "Got any requests?" he said with a smirk.

"Play the first song you did that night." His smirk turned into another smile. That also made her happy.

Detroit Rock City. His song, he told her it was the first one he learned to play. It became their song to her that night, when his music got her to forget the trauma from the museum fight and got her to dance, to have fun. She knew he couldn't stop watching her that night. The way he smiled while she danced - it lit up his room then. He had a smile now, but it wasn't the same as then. She saw it, gave a little smile back, but she missed the one from that night.

He ran his fingers over the strings, and started. He stumbled a bit at first, but looked down at his guitar and quickly got the rhythm, and his confidence grew as he played. She didn't hear any mistakes, but something was missing. It wasn't like that night. It sounded like he was playing it right, but wasn't really into it. Maybe he was worried about being loud, maybe this wasn't one of the songs his parents appreciated - she had to admit, it was pretty rambunctious and noisy. She liked the way he put it, too! - maybe he was still a little embarrassed, but it wasn't quite him.

Ben finished the song, and started another one from that night. Same thing, he played it OK, but it didn't feel the same either. She started to wonder, was that night a one time thing, where she was only feeling the relief of the guilt he helped her get over? Did she only feel good with him after some crisis? Gwen shook her head slightly to make that idea go away, she knew it wasn't true. All she had to do was think about Christmas Eve to prove it. So why did it even pop into her head?

Gwen was going to tell him to stop after the second song, but before she could say it he started again. This time she didn't recognize it at first, but after several bars she caught what it was - Follow You Down. She loved this song when it played on the radio, she told him so when they heard it once, especially since it was from their decade and not an oldie like their parents listened to. She could see how it would be fun to play. There was a great guitar solo in the middle, and the melody was interesting and up beat. Ben must have thought so, too, because what was missing in the first two songs was coming out now as he did an amazing job mixing the vocal line with the driving lead guitar. Watching him play was so much better than listening to the radio! She didn't need to be a musician to know it was tricky to play, he was concentrating so hard as he alternated between looking at his fingers on the guitar's neck and the ones picking the strings over the pickups. Even so, she could tell he was enjoying it. He had that smile back when he looked up at her a few times, and he played the way musicians meant when they said 'play with feeling'. That feeling was infectious! Whether it was because of the music itself or watching him play, she couldn't say. It didn't matter. She got the same grin he had and couldn't help swaying and moving her arms with the music as she sat there. He looked up and saw her, and the Doofus' smile got bigger. And that made her happier. Maybe she shouldn't question what she felt about him after all?

He wrapped it up with a flourish, and stopped to catch his breath. Gwen couldn't help herself and laughed and clapped a couple times, and his cheeks started to get red. "I just got that one down a couple days ago." he told her, grinning despite the flush. "It always gets me pumped!"

"I can tell!" Gwen said with another laugh. She had been trying to hear the lyrics in her mind as he played and got most of them. Was there a message there, or was it just the music that got him going? That didn't matter, either. They were more like that night! She wanted to hear more now.

"Do another new one!"

His grin froze and faded, and he hesitated again as he thought that over. "Umm, ... I... it's kind of personal, I don't think you-" Ben was stammering, as if he was at war with himself over telling her something. Like it was some embarrassing thing? So not like him, he usually just blurted out whatever popped into his head, even the personal stuff.

"Come on? I promise I won't won't make a big deal if you don't get it perfect!"

He made a decision with a shrug and got kind of a distant look, and said cautiously "OK. There's only one more. I'm still working on it, so it'll be a little rough."

He nodded to himself and started. The guitar intro started off sounding sad, and Gwen took a few seconds to link the melody he was playing to lyrics for the song. It was a few years old, but it still got radio air time once in a while ...

Don't let yourself go

'Cause everybody cries

And everybody hurts ... sometimes

She finally got it - the R.E.M. song - and sucked in a sharp breath.

He seemed to know it better than he let on. He didn't need to concentrate on it like the first songs, so Ben closed his eyes as he played. She watched and listened and slowly understood - what he couldn't say, he was playing.

And the way he played, his music and the lyrics in her head created a picture of his confusion, loneliness and hurt. It hurt to hear, but she didn't want him to stop, either. It may have been personal to him, but the music brought out feelings she had been holding back, too. He was gathering all the hurt he felt since New Year's Day into his fingers, almost like she did with mana, and released it through the strings. She closed her eyes too, and let the music wash over her. He got to the end and played softer, making the volume dissipate until he let the last chord fade away to the whisper hum of the amp.

He'd let Gwen see how broken he felt. She knew he didn't plan to, showing emotion was so not him, which made it even more raw. What had she done to him?

Gwen opened her eyes to see him looking intensely at her. His eyes glistened, and were full of pain and guilt. She wondered if he saw that she felt it, too. If she had asked him to tell her what he was feeling since New Year's, he never could have put it into words, but his music said it.

She'd only seen him cry once since before they were in kindergarten, in Kenny's bedroom with her last summer, but he was on the ragged edge of it now, and it shook her. He sat there for a few seconds, stunned by his emotions, before he turned beet red and turned away. She caught a flash of light reflected below his eye, before he brushed the tear off his cheek.

Neither one said anything for a while. She wanted to rush over and hug him, and feel him hug her back, and take away each other's hurt and know everything will be OK. She was afraid of how he'd react, though, so she held back, and it made her miserable. Why was that? They'd done it before without a second thought - the time when he was Wildvine at the old Plumber base flashed through her thoughts. Isn't that what friends were supposed to do? She'd done it with Michelle, why was that OK but doing it for her cousin wasn't? Just because he was a boy?

The Poodle's words from the summer hit her like an avalanche then. I'm going to leave. And it's all because of you. Because you aren't brave enough. She let them affect her badly then, and thought she was being brave by hurting Ben on purpose. It was the start of their mean prank escalations before they had to cut their road trip short. If it hadn't been for that, would he have left her by now?

That thought, and knowing what a jerk Ben 10,000 had become, scared her beyond both New Year's situations.

Kissing Ben, regardless of how or who started it, was one. Sleeping in his bed cuddled together was another. Both happening in one night, and realizing she liked both, even if only the one time, and not knowing what Ben felt, had been so overwhelming she had ignored him for a full week so she could try to get a grip on her feelings. So far that hadn't worked out. She hated every day of it. It drove him so crazy he ended up throwing the slush ball at her, where Michelle and everyone else there saw it and their confrontation afterwards. It couldn't have been more embarrassing if he tried, and she was furious! At first.

If he hadn't taken the chance then and asked her to come over tonight, that day might have been the last time they saw each other for a long time. If he hadn't, or if she didn't, would that have made him leave? The idea was so awful to her that she had to do something to try and make them right again. She still wasn't able to figure out the kiss and cuddling, but she couldn't live with not seeing him.

Gwen did what she first wanted to do, and jumped to the desk. He had let the guitar slip out of his hands and fall to the floor, and buried his face in them with his elbows on his knees. She knelt down next to the chair, and whispered "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to...", then her voice broke and she wrapped her arms tight around him, and pressed her head against his. She felt him tense up, then he nodded and put his arms around her, and they sagged into each other. They didn't cry, but there were a few sniffles while the hug lasted for a while. They didn't need to say anything, just knowing they didn't hate each other was enough.

Ben picked up his head first and said in a rough voice "I don't think I can play any more right now. ... We should start the movie if we want to finish it before your Mom comes."

Gwen nodded, and brushed at her eyes while she stood up and got the movie out of her stuff. She had remembered it was her turn to pick. "What lame thing did you bring?" he asked with a shaky voice and a weak grin.

"I think you'll like it" she said with a small grin back, trying to be upbeat. He was sitting on the floor against his bed. "It's the Sumo Slammer movie from last summer", and the grin got a bit bigger as she remembered how much he liked it, and holding his hand when they saw it in the theater. Then she cringed at the rest of that memory, and looked down at the ground and waited for the explosion. He only gave a short laugh.

"Don't worry, you only zapped one of my boxers. I had plenty." He almost pulled off the smirk.

Then it was her turn to feel her face burn, but she walked over and sat next to him. He looked at her a little funny, and she felt the necklace chain catch on her collar and bunch it up and realized he saw it. She un-snagged it and put it back under the collar, but didn't think anything more about it.

He did, though. "How did you get your charm back on? You didn't have it during karate. I figured you'd left it at home."

She didn't understand that, of course she put it back on afterwards.

"I put your necklace back on when we cleaned up for dinner. Before karate started back up I hadn't taken it off. It's my favorite Christmas present." That didn't change after...

"I thought you knew that." She felt a little sad that he doubted it.

He looked in her eyes and she could almost see him thinking before he said in a quiet voice "What's going on?"

"What do you mean?" She wasn't really ready to talk about it...

Ben ducked his head, and rubbed the back of it with his left hand. "I... I'm sorry about the snowball. I needed to get your attention, but that was the wrong way to do it." He looked miserable.

"Yeah, it was."

He nodded. "Now that I have it, ... will you tell me what I did wrong? Besides the snowball. You tell me the necklace is your favorite present. You came here after pretending I didn't exist for a week. You just heard me unload, and didn't tease me about what I said or how I did, like you could have."

He hesitated, and then kept going "I don't know what's happening, and I don't know how to fix it. Tell me?" he pleaded.

Gwen looked down. "You said you wanted your Dweeb back. I want that too." she said softly.

She paused, then "I'm sorry I ignored you. I was... you know wh-..." She was staring at her feet.

"I don..." he started, and she quickly cut him off.

"I can't explain yet, I ... I'm not mad. ... Give me some time? Please?" She felt more miserable than he looked.

"I... You... " he stammered.

"OK... " His shoulders slumped. "Do you want to go home?"

"No. I want to watch the movie. With you." They both looked up at each other with a little smile.

She stood up and said "But the floor is really not comfortable."

She arranged a couple pillows like usual on his bed and sat down into one. Ben got up and settled into the other, next to her but leaving some space, and started the movie. They did a few of their usual snarky comments about a character or two and the story, and then just watched. About twenty minutes in Gwen moved closer to him. He edged back until his shoulder bumped against hers, and she leaned against him. They stayed that way for the rest of the movie, and she realized with a barely noticeable sigh that she felt ok being there after all. She wanted to take his hand, too, but she was afraid of making things worse.

Gwen's Mom came for her at 10 and she gave Ben a smile goodbye like usual when they went to the car. Other than saying yes when her Mom asked if she had a good time, Gwen was quiet on the ride home, but she couldn't stop how her mind was racing. Thinking about what he said outside the ice rink, and about tonight. Were they only playing a game? Is that all the last two years amounted to, like he said? That didn't feel right, especially after tonight, as hard as some of it was. Why didn't she believe him? If that's all it was, why wasn't he teasing her mercilessly? Or even ask her to come over? Was it wrong to feel like she did about him? If he didn't believe what he said, what should she do about it? Why was she so messed up about New Year's? Was what he did, what they did, so bad?

What did she want?

Why is this so hard?

They got home and she said goodnight to her parents and went upstairs to her room. She sighed, and wondered again if going to his house was the right thing to do. She got the Keystone out and held it, and decided it was. She liked listening to her Doofus play his guitar, the first new song was a blast! The second one had been a revelation that was as needed as it was painful, but she really didn't want to repeat it any time soon. Still, neither of them spent another Friday night missing each other, when they were so used to being together. It wasn't one of their best movie nights, but it was way better than the last week had been.

Gwen glanced at her desk and saw her phone's message light was blinking. She didn't know what to expect as she opened it up.

-Want to do it again next Friday?

It arrived about five minutes earlier, he sent it while she was on the way home. She didn't have to think about her answer.

-Yes

I miss you, too, Gwen thought.

-Good, we never got to play my new game. Be ready, I'm gonna kick your butt!

-You are such a Doofus!

-Dweeb!

"It's a date, Doofus" she whispered to herself and smiled.