Mom is gone again, back to see Grandma and Grandpa. Ben wanted to go this time, but Keith said (and Mom agreed) that Ben shouldn't be missing school. He'll get to go meet them this summer. He's looking forward to it.
While she's gone, Ben gets to cook. He's pretty good at it, after years of taking care of himself while Mom was off at work. Tonight it's spaghetti, which isn't even that hard. He dishes up the plates, then goes to knock on Keith's study door. "Dinner's ready."
"Sir. Dinner's ready sir," Keith corrects him absently. He's sifting through paperwork and waiting for a very important call, so he does not have an overabundance of time for Ben's screw-ups.
God, he never lets up. "Dinner's ready, sir," Ben says with only a tiny sigh. "I made spaghetti."
"Good, I'll be there in a minute..." Keith goes back to his papers for a few minutes and then washes up for dinner, arriving at the table with a distracted look on his face.
"Is everything okay?" Ben asks. "Sir," he adds hastily.
Keith grunts in response, eating the spaghetti without really tasting it. "Did you get your homework done? Including that report on the Czech Republic?"
"I wrote it, but I need to go over it again and make sure it makes sense," says Ben. "But it's not due till Monday."
Keith gives him a brief "don't argue with me" look and goes back to his food. The phone ring and Keith gets up to answer it. "Harry? Yeah, good... One sec." He glances at Ben. "Go to your room."
Ben looks down at his plate. He hasn't finished... but the frown on Keith's face makes Ben get up from the table without a word. He practically sprints upstairs and into his room. What's he done? Is this because of the report?
Keith goes back to his phonecall, unaware of Ben's distress. He talks things over with Harry, mapping out a plane to save their deal. It doesn't take all that long, but when it is over, all Keith wants to do is sit in his chair and relax in front of the TV.
Upstairs, Ben is frantically revising. Maybe if he shows Keith that it's done, Keith will let him off again. It's only Thursday. Three days early, that's not bad, right?
Keith forgets about dinner and Ben and just watches the news, feeling he has earned a rest after saving his job. It's nice to have a quiet house to relax in.
Ben waits nervously for Keith to come upstairs with the belt. He practices his lines over and over again. "Sir, you were right, so I went ahead and finished it. It's all done. See? I wrote an extra half-page." An hour ticks by. Ben jitters his leg and waits.
Keith finally gets up to get a beer out of the fridge, which is when he notices the dinner dishes have not been cleared. He starts to yell for Ben and then just decides to give the kid a break. Tired, he clears the dishes and starts to load the dishwasher.
By ten o'clock, Ben can't stand it anymore. It'll probably get him extra to come out of his room, but Keith's never made him wait this long. Ben will force the issue: leave his room, and Keith will get mad enough to take care of things then and there, and Ben can get over the pain and the crying before he goes to sleep. He takes a deep breath. It takes all his courage to open the door.
Keith turns on the radio and occupies himself cleaning the kitchen. Ben is not a bad cook, but he makes a hell of a mess. Cleaning can be very calming, though, so Keith idly works at it to settle his nerves.
Ben creeps down the stairs and to the kitchen. Keith has his back to Ben, cleaning the countertop. Ben almost runs back upstairs. Oh God, he's gonna be in so much pain... It takes a few tries for Ben's voice to come out. "Keith?"
Keith does not look up, focused on a stubborn spot of sauce burned onto the rangetop. "Yeah?" he asks, mre curtly than he meant.
Jesus. "Um. Am I in trouble?" Ben asks, voice so high it sounds like his balls haven't dropped yet.
Keith stops and gives him a frown. "Why? What did you do?"
"Nothing! I mean, I don't think I did anything, but I never know, and that's why I keep doing stuff-- is it because I didn't finish my report? Cause it's all finished now, you can check, I wrote four and a half pages, you were totally right so I finished it, it's still three days before it's due and that's good, right?" The words come spilling out of Ben faster than he can think.
Keith shook his head and went back to cleaning. "Don't be stupid Ben. I didn't send you to your room over a report." The panic in Ben's voice, the need for reassurance simply does not register with Keith.
Oh hell. Ben got it wrong. There's something else, something he's done or missed doing. "Then what did I do, sir?" Ben's voice shakes.
"You didn't do anything," Keith says, as if Ben were the dumbest person in the world for thinking he had. "I needed privacy for my phone call. Jesus, Ben, if you were in trouble, I would have told you."
It's like a car dying suddenly, the shock of fear doused. "I'm not?" Ben takes a couple cautious steps toward Keith. "But you told me to go to my room, so I thought--"
"I told you to go to your room so I could make my call in private," Keith cuts him off. "That was three hours ago. Have I ever made you wait that long to find out what you did wrong?"
"No, sir. I just thought..." That it was another way for you to torture me until you were ready to punish me. "I thought it was weird. That's why I came and asked."
Keith sighs and shakes his head. "No, Ben. I wouldn't make you wait to know why you're in trouble. Now, get yourself to bed."
"Yes, sir." Ben still can't believe that all those hours of gut-wracking tension were for nothing. "I did finish the report, if you want to check it over."
"Tomorrow, Ben. Email it to me and I will look it over." Keith goes back to cleaning. "When you cook, can you be a little more careful with the splatters? Looked like there was a food fight in here..."
"Yessir, I'll be sure to watch that." Ben runs a hand through his hair. The adrenaline is wearing off, leaving him groggy and kind of dizzy. "Um. Goodnight."
"Night," Keith responds, turning his back on Ben. Of all the things he had to worry about, this was not something he was going to waste his time on.
It's not clear to Ben, as he brushes his teeth, if this was a narrow escape or a complete waste of time. It's his own fault, though. He rinses and spits. If he were more like normal people, if he knew what actions would be big deals or not, he'd be able to negotiate these minefields better. So often he's punished for something he didn't understand was a problem to begin with-- how can he help it if he sees his own wrongdoing where it doesn't exist? If he were a better kid, he'd know. If he weren't so stupid.