In all honesty, punching Zoomer wasn't the best thing to do at that moment. Ivan knew this; Zoomer did nothing to him. He didn't deserve to get decked. It was all Ivan and his stupid emotions. To be fair he immediately felt bad afterwards when Zoomer hit the ground. "..." All Ivan could do was just stare down at Zoomer. He thought 'This is it, I'm losing all of my friends in one day.' but it oddly turns out that wasn't true. Granted, Zoomer wasn't exactly thrilled about being punched. Still, he just stood up, dusted himself off, wiped the blood from his lip, and put his hand on Ivan's shoulder.
"... I'm so sorry, Zooms."
"I know. I should have come clean sooner; I'm sorry."
"No, no, I'm sorry!" Ivan suddenly wrapped his arms around Zoomer's shoulders and brought him in for a hug. "You're both right, I can be a bully at times to get what I want, and I'm sorry! I never mean to be! I know it doesn't help that I just punched the living shit out of you..." Ivan let go of Zoomer and shook his head as the guilt overcame him. Candace came up and lightly patted Ivan's shoulder.
"He told me a couple of hours ago, you needed to know," Candace told Ivan in a soft tone.
".. Thank you, Zooms..." Ivan finally thanked him. "I can understand why you wanted to keep this quiet now-"
"Hun?" Ivan's mom poked her head through the door. "We're all set up."
"Can Candace and Zoomer come along? They both know of Ben." Ivan asked his mom rather sweetly.
"Oh, they'd have to squeeze, but if they want to come then I don't see a problem with it." She smiled "Just be quick, the reserve is gonna be closing soon." She then left. Once she was gone and Ivan was sure it was safe enough he looked at Candace and Zoomer for a few seconds.
"Don't tell my mom." He whispered to them before turning and walking out.
So, they all huddled in the car pretty quickly. Ben on the right (in his tub), Ivan in the middle, Candace on the left, and Zoomer got the privilege of sitting up front.
Ivan looked back over at Ben and saw him now out of the water and looking out the window. Ivan could see Ben's eyes in his reflection against the glass, he looked in awe as the world passed by him. "Everything okay?" Ivan questioned once he touched Ben's shoulder.
It's pretty... and I'm kinda sad I didn't get to see more of your world..." Ben started as he looked out the window rather childishly.
"Well, I wouldn't call it a world... but... I'm sure yours is more beautiful; all of those fish and the pretty ocean-"
"No... nothing like this. I want to touch one of those big things!" Ben almost childishly clapped his hands and pointed out the window. He looked back at Ivan and gave him an excited smile. Ivan followed Ben's finger.
"A tree? But I found you in a creek... surrounded by trees!"
Ben chirped and kept his eyes focused on the trees passing him. "I never got to touch one... what am I touching now? This... clear thing?" Ben patted the window a few times with his palm.
"Close enough." Ivan chuckled out loud.
'I wish I could see more before I go.'
'Well, you're gonna be in the river, you can travel the world!"
"But... I'd still just be in the water... I couldn't see any of this or be with you..."
Ivan felt heat rush to his face almost instantly. He actually felt a little stunned at such a reply that he couldn't respond to it right away.
"So-" Ivan's mom's voice suddenly cut through the air causing Ivan to shift his attention away from Ben and towards his mother. "Eric how is your mother?" she asked Zoomer and Ivan quickly felt his blush fade as his blood turned cold in a second. "It's just such a shame she couldn't show up last Sunday."
Zoomer started to twist the seatbelt in his hands as the air around all of them suddenly became heavy. Obviously this didn't go unnoticed by Ivan's mother. "What?" She asked bewildered at all of them.
"She's fine..." Zoomer finally managed to squeak out.
"Oh? Will she be in this Sunday?"
"I... don't think so..."
Ivan's mother frowned a little but didn't push the issue. Instead, she finished it off with a rather tense "I see." The air stayed heavy and awkward for several seconds until- with a more chipper tone- Ivan's mother spoke again. "How about some music? Hm? To lighten the mood?" Without waiting for a reply, she turned the radio on and the middle of a pop song filled the ever crushing silence. Ivan didn't know who exactly was singing (If he had to guess he'd go with Taylor Swift as it sounded most like her.) Ivan was more of a rock guy, but whatever he could listen to some pop. Then he looked over at Ben.
Ben was perked up, head straight forward as the fins on the side of his head, his ears, wiggled. "What's wrong?" Ivan questioned.
"What is that noise?"
"Is that what it's called?"
"Oh, you're just pulling my leg now."
Ben looked down at Ivan's leg. "Clearly, I'm not."
Ivan wanted to just facepalm, but he stopped himself from doing so and just sucked in a breath. "You've never heard any music? Ever?" he questioned.
"I normally keep my distance from humans... I've never heard anything like this before. It's pretty... You have so many neat things." Ben then rested his head on his arms as he relaxed and just stared at the radio. This made Ivan feel kinda bad, all the stuff he's honestly taken for granted, Ben has never once witnessed. What does Ben see? Water and more fish, maybe a boat every now and then, but not the normal things a human sees.
It almost makes it funny as Ben was probably the only one to ever find beauty in such a vapid pop song.
"I wish I could have shown you more," Ivan confessed.
"You've shown me enough, and I thank you for it." Ben smiled. "That's why I've chosen to make you my friend the other night."
"Huh? I don't remember this."
"I tapped your cheek."
"Oh! The kiss?"
"Is that what humans call it? Well, for us- we call it tapping. It means friendship."
"..." So the kiss wasn't romantic after all? Ivan felt both relieved and a little (just a smidge) disappointed at the news. Bah, it wouldn't have worked out anyway. Ivan shifted in his seat so his left foot was resting under his right thigh and just sighed.
The song had ended and a new song played. Ivan really wasn't paying attention this time around. No, he just looked out of the nearest window and watched as he realized they were coming up to the reservation. A bit of sadness crept up into his chest, but he just swallowed it down. "You're almost free, Ben," Ivan spoke out loud this time around. Ben didn't respond, no, he was too interested in the radio.
Ivan felt another hand on his shoulder. Candace looked at him and smiled. Even though she didn't speak, Ivan knew what she was trying to tell him. "You're doing the right thing." Still, as he knew she meant it, he needed a real reminder as to why he was doing this. The water in Ben's tub was a little dirty, but he could still the grayed out scales and bitten tail.
He needs the ocean, if not he'll die. Ivan didn't want that. None of them did. That's why they were all here with Ben, to get him home and safe from the winter and Anthony.
The nature reserve wasn't much farther, but shockingly Ivan watched as his mother actually drove on by the reserve without a second glance. "Uh- Ma-" Ivan started as he watched the reserve go on by them while his mom went off of the highway and towards the next exit.
"I know what I'm doing, Ivan. The reserve, thought a good idea, would have gotten us caught as it's a popular place to visit, even in the winter. No, I'm going off the exit towards the bridge, we can release Ben under the bridge where nobody can see us." His mother told them all her plan.
"...Holy shit... that's brilliant!" Zoomer actually gasped out. "I never even thought of that, I was just thinking of the reserve and where the most hidden spots would have been- you're very smart!"
"Thank you." She smiled back at Zoomer.
After that Zoomer and Ivan's mom started making small talk, but Ivan really wasn't really paying attention. No, he was focusing on Ben. For the first time, Ben just seemed so relaxed. He had his head resting on his arms, his tail was curled neatly underneath him, and he had a complacent look on his face as he listened to the radio. Just knowing he made Ben just a little bit more at ease made Ivan happy.
For a few more moments his mother continued to drive until they got to the bridge. His mom parked in front of the massive steel beam hiding her car pretty well. She put in park and looked back at Ivan. Ivan felt a frown tug at his lips as he looked at Ben in turn. Ben, realizing that everyone was looking at him, not just Ivan and his mother, perked up suddenly. "Huh?" He thought, and Ivan realized he hadn't let go of Ben's shoulder since starting.
"It's time... you're going home," Ivan informed Ben with a rueful smile on his face. Honestly, Ivan was just trying not to cry right now. It felt awful, but he knew it had to be done.
With the help of Zoomer; Ivan managed to lift the tub and get it to the edge of the river. They all looked at the rapidly moving water and then at Ben. "Can you swim in that?" Ivan asked Ben nodded. "So, this is really it?"
"Yeah, it is, I'm going home." Ben let out a happy little chirp. "You're a good friend to me, Evan."
"Ivan. And I'm sad to see you go."
"I'll see you again, it might not be soon... but I'll come and see you once I heal. You, and your little pack."
Ivan chuckled slightly. He felt his mom's hands on his shoulders and looked at her. "Ivan." She gave him a little warning. "Hurry it up, please. The sun is setting."
"Right! He says goodbye; and that he'll try and see us all again, someday in the future."
Candace took a step forward. "I'm sorry I really never got to know you, but..." She trailed off for a moment. "... I'm glad to have met you, you opened my eyes, dude."
Ben gave a happy little chirp in response to her. "I'm glad you're proof that I haven't gone crazy. I knew I've seen other merpeople in the creek." Zoomer gave a little sheepish smile as he rubbed the back of his head. "and... thank you, if it wasn't for you... I don't think all three of us would be friends right now."
Ivan then got down on his knees and hugged Ben tightly. "Stay safe," Ivan whispered.
With that; Ivan let go of Ben, and with Candace and Zoomer's help, the three of them slowly lowered the tub into the water. The rapids would have taken them, but once he was close enough, Ben simply leaped out of the tub and into the water. Unfortunately, because of the sudden lack of weight, the tub was taken by the rapids, it couldn't be saved. For a moment Ivan worried that they did the wrong thing. That the rapids simply engulfed and killed Ben-
That was until Ben leaped out of the water with a shriek of happiness. Ben actually did a pretty impressive flip in the air before landing back in the water.
And that was that. There was no big battle between Anthony and Ben, no big bad car chase, nothing. They all simply piled back into the car. Even though Ivan was feeling rather worn down by the whole ordeal, he just couldn't help but he had an underlying feeling of being complacent. Ben was safe, and that's all that mattered, right?
Life got a little harder along the way.
Ivan never saw Anthony again, though Ivan did keep tabs on his twitter it seemed he was still publishing books.
Ivan's mother and father wound up divorcing, it wasn't a shock really, they were always fighting and just seemed unhappy all the time, and of course the cheating thing. Ivan never did tell his mother, but it seemed his mother wasn't exactly dumb either. She knew his father was unfaithful and only stayed for Ivan's sake. Still, the divorce wasn't the end of it.
At 18 Ivan and Candace, yes, Candace. Thought getting together at such a young would be a good idea.
They had a kid. A little boy. This boy has Ivan's bright hair color, Candace's honey eyes, and Ivan's pale complexion with freckles all over his body. They named him Joel. (Candace refused to name him Ben.) So, a compromise was made. Joel Benjamin Newlands. A mouthful, but it was the only way Candace would budge.
Ivan had to drop out of high school to help care for Joel and Candace started becoming rather manic about everything.
Honestly, the problems between them were just starting when Joel was born. They fought constantly and at one point it even got violent. Ivan wouldn't dare put his hands on Candace, but Candace sure as hell had no qualms about slapping the shit out of him when it came to it.
So, they added another kid to the mix, because they solve things between fighting couples right? Two years after Joel, Erica was born.
Erica also inherited Ivan's hair color, but not his freckles. She did get his green eyes though. Something Ivan was rather happy to see be passed down.
Little Erica was honestly the straw that broke the camel's back between the two of them. Candace started becoming more and more unhinged with each day and Ivan was getting more irritated with her. A day didn't pass where they didn't fight. It became more hectic caring for two children. Ivan was constantly going from job to job unable to hold anything down for too long and what's worse? Candace didn't get a job because someone had to stay at home to watch the kids. Bills became tight and everything just seemed to be down the drain for Ivan.
Candace left Ivan when he was 22.
Truthfully, if she didn't leave, he would have.
There wasn't a fight between them when it happened. He just woke up one morning to find Candace gone along with all of her things. She left the kids though. Ivan had no choice but to move back in with his mother.
When he was 25 his mom was diagnosed with leukemia. She's still kicking, but having a hard time doing so. It tore Ivan up inside once the news hit him. Ivan took over the house when his mom went to live at the hospital for her treatments. Ivan took up work as a roofer to keep up with the bills and honestly he managed to keep this job down and do a pretty good job at it as well. That didn't mean he was making bank. He still had to pay for a sitter and bills. This left him with very little by the time payday rolled around.
That's not the worst of it really: Zoomer, (also age 25) due to a rather horrible mistake made in the past, joined the army to avoid going to prison. If Ivan is lucky he might see Zoomer once every year or two. He could only wish Zoomer the best.
Now, at age 28. Here Ivan was. Still, in the same house, he grew up in. No contact with Zoomer or Candace (not since she left those years ago in all honesty.) Ben, in all honesty, feeling like a week-long fever dream at this point in his life. Ivan was starting to question if Ben was real or not. If that merman he found hibernating in the creek out back was just him having a psychotic break when he was just a teen from the stress of his parents fighting all the damn time.
Well, Ivan got his answer one late night. His kids were asleep in their beds, their stuffed animals guarding their dreams for the night, and Ivan was sitting on the couch watching the late-night news. Debating if he wanted to spend some money on a pay-per-view 'movie' or not when the next bit started.
"In local news today, a young boy was found nude at the Salt River-" Ivan blinked and looked up at the TV. The scene flickered to the next reporter reporting on duty at the river. Ivan, for some reason, felt his skin start to tingle as an uncomfortable wave of emotions suddenly hit him out of left field. Salt River? Isn't that where they went?
The reporter at Salt River, a young African American woman, took a moment before speaking into the microphone. "-Yes, Jeff. It's here that a young teenage boy was found here, he had no ID, no parents around, and didn't even utter a word when found. Police are asking anyone who knows this young man to come forward-"
A picture was posted on the screen and Ivan nearly jumped from his seat when he looked at it.
It's been a good twelve years now, but he knew Ben when he saw him. Those electric blue eyes were a dead give away. It was Ben and... he had legs. Granted he wasn't fully nude on the screen, he had a blanket wrapped around his shoulders that reached the floor, but he was clearly standing!
Ben was real, alive, and clearly doing well, though odd- it honestly didn't look like he aged a day in the years that passed.
Mermaids were just so full of interesting little wonders and Ivan was still learning a little more all these years later.