Title: Breaking Point Rebooted

By: Shadows59 and Erico

Summary: With Vilgax gone, the watch off, and their heroing days behind them Ben and Gwen's only worry should be their new relationship, but the world hasn't stopped and the people who threaten it are closing in. It was never over.

Category: Ben/Gwen.

Rating: PG-13

Spoilers: Up to Secrets of the Omnitrix.

Disclaimer: Ben 10 is owned by Man of Action and Cartoon Network.

Chapter 1: Lost Coastlines

Gwen Tennyson's House

Bellwood, California

10:43 pm; August 15th, 2000

"You call that game, Doofus?"

Ben didn't look over at the challenge, but he couldn't help grinning just a little because nothing had changed. Not since that first summer started a lifetime ago with the perpetual pest he had at his side.

A pest that he ground away like the railing he caught with the wheels on his skateboard shooting the sparks as he flew down the staircase. Gwen humphed next to him, which was a win all on its own.

"Please, you wish that you were this good!" Ben laughed without even glancing at her as he leaned forward because what was she thinking? The night was always his time. It was when he felt the most alive, the most free, and the thrill went all the way down to his bones as he leaned forward and the world raced by. He'd gone faster before. He'd gone so much faster, but it didn't matter as he flew through the construction site and grinned when he spotted the length of pipe that was just hanging there waiting for him.

He reached it with a quick jump and made the perfect rail as he caught it with his skateboard and raced down it in a shower of sparks. One that went on forever as he leaned forward and then jumped again at the last second, catching the edge of the polished wood in his hand before he started spinning.

"Show off," he heard his Dweeb grumble from right next to him. He could almost hear her eyes rolling because that hadn't changed either as he tapped a button and turned the spin into a kick right before he landed and brought the points rolling in.

"You're just jealous!" He declared without turning, his whole focus on the controller in his hand and the TV in front of him. He'd moaned about the TV when they started because it was so much smaller than the one he had at home that he felt bad for his Gamestation when he hooked it up. Not that it mattered now. Now it was his whole world as he jerked this way and that with his character and brought the magic.

This was how they spent whole days over the last few summers when they weren't kicking butt in the real world. It mattered less than his math grade that they were doing it at her house instead of the Rustbucket right now because nothing had changed. Not after the weeks when he lost all of this and then the day at the lake when he got it all back.

When he thought that he got it all back.

He kept telling himself that as he heard the sniff that his Dweeb let out when he found a half-pipe and owned it without even a glance over. He didn't need to. Not when he was sure what he'd see; her in her pajamas with her arms and legs crossed and a sock-covered foot kicking because Jason Lee had nothing on him and she knew it.

But at least she wasn't still in her gi or else she might have been kicking more than air.

He kept thinking that even when he felt the couch shift. His eyes were locked on the gold points and bonuses that just kept coming because he rocked. He rocked hard enough that he laughed as he saw her foot still and her mouth drop from the corner of his eye because he knew that he had her!

"Cheating isn't going to help, Dweeb," he said, supremely confident even as he watched her push her hair over her shoulder like she always did when she meant business.

Not that it mattered. Not when he could still feel it tickle his ear like her breath as she leaned in close and murmured, "Ben, it's bad enough that you spent all weekend away at Soccer camp - "

Well, maybe it made his character wobble a little as he shivered from the sensation, but he recovered on the screen and in the real world. "I told you, it wasn't my idea! Mom and dad - !"

Not that it mattered. Not when Gwen didn't listen. She didn't even stop as she rolled right over him and destroyed even the idea of normal. "- but didn't anyone ever tell you that it's rude to ignore your girlfriend?"

Ben jumped because he was so, so wrong. Everything was different now. Even the green eyes that were watching him from only a few inches away. Eyes that always gave away how his Dweeb was feeling, and they weren't narrow at all right now. No, they were so wide that they glittered from the TV as she pouted at him.

"G-girlfriend?" Ben asked, his voice a squeak that he hated and he knew she loved just from the way her lips curled up when she heard it. Lips that became his world as the light played in the gloss he'd watched her put on after they'd finished their popcorn and she'd brushed her teeth and made sure that he brushed his, too, because she was a girl and she didn't make any sense.

If she did, or if she wasn't evil she would have done more than just hum at the word as a smile tugged at her lips. A smile that made him stammer, "I-it's not like I wanted to go." Not when he missed her more than he ever imagined that he would. Enough that he knew that he could never tell her, but it didn't matter. Not when she was a witch and she knew anyway. It was written all over her face as her smile got bigger.

Big enough that he couldn't help himself as she drew him in. His eyes closed as he puckered his lips so he could taste that gloss again just like he had at the lake and so many times after.

He should have gotten as tired of it as he did a stick of gum, but he didn't because nothing made any sense anymore. Not since everything changed.

No, not everything.

Especially not the smug laugh that filled his ears as the controller disappeared from his sweaty hands just as the game declared, "Wipeout!"

"So easy!" Gwen chortled as she spun back around to the TV with her knees brushing his leg as she drew hers up under her like a swan. Not that he cared about them as much as he did the tongue that slipped out from the lips that he'd almost kissed as she blew him a raspberry before she tilted her nose up and declared. "So sad!"

And Ben could just gape at her. "So evil," he whispered. It was the vilest thing he'd ever seen, and she just cackled

So much had changed this summer, but not the way he reacted to that. Not the way he pounced at her. "Wicked witch!"

"Ben!" She shouted with an outraged squeal that slipped out from between laughs as he wrestled her down and tried to grab the controller from her hands. A controller she pulled high up over her head with one hand as she swatted him with the other. "It's my turn, you Doofus!"

"Because you cheated!" He shouted right back as he chased the controller and she tried to buck him off.

He chased it until they were eye to eye again as he pinned her down. Until he felt her twist under him again as they wrestled like they had so many times before that he never would have thought about it if she didn't stop and bite her lip as she looked at him.

Then all the changes came crashing down and they both froze with him lying on top of her as normal disappeared.

"Ben!" Gwen gasped out, her voice strangled and her eyes blown wide again in the glow of the game. Wide and uncertain as she looked at him, and that seemed wrong because his Dweeb always knew what to do. Even when the Watch fell from the sky and everything changed in all the ways that school or her books couldn't prepare her for, she always knew what to do and she didn't have any problem making sure that he knew it, too.

And he didn't care.

Ben never knew what to do, and it didn't matter. He didn't think, he didn't plan. He didn't need to. He just did it and everything worked out because he was awesome.

Mostly.

Not now, though. Now he just froze as the controller slipped from her hands, and he never would have noticed if he didn't hear it clatter to the floor as she bit her lip and just stared up at him, her breath catching.

She was Gwen and a Dweeb and his cousin and a girl and not even the lake changed that. Neither did all of the months before it. when he just dreamed about having her like this. Of seeing her tongue dart out of her mouth as she licked her lips, the nerves written all over her face as her hair spilled out over the cushion under her head because she didn't know either, for all her teasing.

Not when she stammered, "A-aren't you going to…?"

And he swallowed hard as he tried to make his body do anything. "Did you want me to?" He was holding her down like they were in the movies and - and -

And she nodded! Not much, and her head jerked like a nervous bird's, but she did.

"O-Obviously! I've only been hinting like crazy! But you wanted to play video games and- "

"You were?! Okay, I just- I guess- never mind-" God, why did this have to be so hard? It was like using one of the maps Grandpa had, the ones that were as old as the Rustbucket itself.

And them.

Girlfriend, the girl he'd known all of his life said, and even if he was sure that she was just messing with him it would have made his train of thought derail. Girlfriend.

Not fair. He knew how to annoy her. He had a thousand tricks that would make her mad enough that she forgot all about ignoring him and some of the best times in his life were her screaming as she chased him, but none of them knocked her on her butt like she did to him right now with just that one word.

It was a word that was so big that he almost wished that he'd never said anything, that he'd never kissed her. Not at New Year's and not a few weeks ago. Back when things were so much easier when she was just his Dweeb and things made sense.

Girlfriend. She was his -

Saving the world was so much easier than figuring out what he should be doing. He tried to pretend that it meant doing what they always did, just with some kissing added on. And it was, but it was so much more than that, too. So much that he'd never imagined he'd be doing dumb stuff like watching her tongue slip out from between her teeth as she just looked at him and smiled. All that sense just melted out of him because she was beautiful.

"You're thinking too much, Doofus," Gwen whispered as she poked his nose and he laughed at her turning the tables. It wasn't a cool chuckle, but it still made her green eyes sparkle and her bottom lip disappear as she nibbled it with her perfect white teeth.

Perfect like the rest of her.

"Shows what you know," Ben murmured back because he knew this game. He was good at it. Good enough that they could keep it going all day. They'd done it before. "I'm not thinking at all - "

Then she cheated again as she tangled her hands in his hair and pulled him down. She was his girlfriend! He still couldn't wrap his mind around that fact even as their lips brushed and he tasted a whole new flavor of lip balm on her soft ones.

So soft…

Some part of him - the part that still sounded like it was ten - screamed Gross! And told him to push the Dweeb off of the couch. That part usually made sense, but even that one got quiet when the kiss finally ended and he opened his eyes and saw his Dweeb do the same thing, only hers were glittering as a smile played at her lips and a flush brushed her cheeks.

She was beaming instead of smacking him and screaming.

Nothing made any sense anymore and why did he spend all night playing video games?!

"Girlfriend?" He whispered when he had to breathe, the word slipping out from his tingling lips because he had to know.

"If you're good," Gwen shot back as she lifted her chin and looked at him with hooded eyes. and he just wanted to whoop because she sounded as breathless as he felt.

"Where's the fun in that?" Ben murmured as he sucked in a breath that smelled like her. He didn't know what to do with a girlfriend or how to be a boyfriend, but he was sure that they would figure it out together just like they did everything else.

Only with kissing now.

Just thinking that made him steal another one, enjoying pineapple for the first time ever. He even felt her shiver as he brushed his tongue over her lip so he could get a better -

"That's enough, you two."

The last time everything came crashing down, it was with a cruel, angry laugh that filled the air as he watched a fireball fill the sky instead of four soft-spoken words from the hallway. Not that it made any difference, or stopped the hands that shot from his shoulders to his chest and shoved. Not that he cared, not when he was already bouncing back to his feet even as his Dweeb forgot all about magic as she pushed herself back up and squeaked out, "Daddy?!"

The word was barely more than a thought made into noise as Ben felt his heard hammer. For a second he was glad he'd ignored his Dweeb when she told him to get changed. He even still had his sneakers on, so maybe they had a chance…

It was a thought that froze when he remembered that his Dweeb was just in her socks and died the second her dad stepped out of the hall and into the living room with a yawn so fake that even Wildmutt would have seen through it.

"Uncle Frank!" Ben tried for words as he jumped up and tried not to think about how the man was still a good foot taller than he was as he watched them both, his eyes lost behind the TV's reflection on his glasses. Ben swallowed hard even as he slipped in front of Gwen. "We weren't - I thought you went to bed!"

"I did," the looming man said as he gave the TV a bleary-eyed look through his glasses that didn't do a thing to stop the hammering Ben felt in his chest. "But there were a couple of juvenile delinquents down here breaking about three noise ordinances, so I thought I better see what was going on."

"We weren't doing anything!" Only they were, and Ben knew that the truth was written in the heat he felt all over his face. The heat that he tried to swallow down like Grandpa and three years of heroing in secret taught him to, but that was just lying about saving the world.

His Dweeb was so much more important than that.

Not that Gwen made protecting her easy as she dug her fingers into his arm as she tried to push him out of the way. As if. Ben was sure they were dead. Or he was. "It's… The game was cheating, Daddy, and - !" he heard her try after she slapped his arm when she finally figured out that he wasn't moving, her voice as desperate as her lie because that was all that they had left. They were going to take her away and - he couldn't breathe as she added, "And the Doofus was - !"

"The last time I heard an alibi that bad, the perp got three years." Uncle Frank snorted. "Are you sure you want to stick with it, Honey?"

Dead. So dead. Ben knew he was, but that was okay as long as she wasn't. That was why he nodded along as he shoved a hand over his Dweeb's mouth before she could say anything else and kept it there even after she made a sound like his mom's teapot when she left it on the stove for too long. "She's not lying! It's all my - "

There were worse things than being dead, and Ben was sure he'd found all of them the second he heard his uncle start chuckling.

It wasn't the big belly ones that Grandpa made, or the snorting fits that his dad got sometimes, it was so much quieter than that, but it was still real as his Uncle's face cracked into a smile. A smile that turned into a full grin as he clapped a hand on Ben's shoulder and he couldn't help flinching. "I'm just playing, Ben. But that's enough roughhousing for one night, you two. Some of us have to work tomorrow and it's time for bed anyway."

Ben felt his Dweeb's mouth drop under his palm as he just froze because he was sure that they were caught and that nothing would save them. Nothing but the Tennyson luck. Then she shook his hand off and squeaked out a single, "Daddy!" That held a whole world of emotion in it.

"I know it's summer, Pumpkin," Uncle Frank said with a shake of his head and another yawn, "And I'm glad that you're both that having fun with your sleepover, but we do not need a repeat of what happened Saturday. Not when your mother's already asleep." His eyes went to the cups and bowls and empty bags that surrounded the couch and for the first time, the man's nose wrinkled as he came over and pressed a kiss into Gwen's forehead. "Any of Saturday."

"Okay," Gwen said, her eyes still so wide.

But not as wide as Ben's felt as a hand clapped his shoulder and squeezed. "Your aunt's already turned down the bed in the guest room for you, Ben. I'll see you both in the morning." Then the end of the world just gave them one more smile before he turned around and made his way back down the hall and up the stairs with another yawn as Ben just stared and wondered if this was what a heart attack felt like.

He was sure he almost found out when he heard something clang at his feet. Something that turned out to be Gwen as she scooped up the empty bowls. Usually, he would have laughed. This time he just let a single word slip out of his numb lips as he did the one thing he never did because everything had changed. He leaned over and started to help because at least it was something to do. "Saturday?"

Gwen just shook her head at that as he put their cups in the popcorn bowl. It wasn't as bad as her hands were shaking, which only made him feel worse because he'd seen her fight things that were so much worse than her dad without even flinching.

No, nothing was worse than Uncle Frank. Except for Aunt Natalie and maybe -

"Michelle," Gwen said anyway. She swallowed like she couldn't believe that they were both still alive either. "Michelle was over and she brought her karaoke machine with her." Then some of her nerves were washed away in a scowl. "You were gone, so she spent the night and we didn't even have it that loud, but Mrs. Anderson came charging over anyway and - "

And Ben didn't need to hear any more. Not when he could see a breeze that he couldn't feel play with Gwen's hair or after he'd watched the lady get into Grandpa's face just for daring to park on this street. It was only the warning look that Grandpa Max gave him that kept him from using the Watch back then, or saying what he really wanted to.

He still couldn't use the Watch, not when it was halfway across town, but the word was still waiting on the tip of his tongue. It was the worst one that he knew and it made his Dweeb gasp and drop the dishes in her hands when it slipped out. "Ben!"

"That old bat is one!" Ben declared, not sorry at all. About the word or the dishes as he took her hands, pulled her back down to the couch, and didn't let go after.

"You still shouldn't say it," she said. Her nose was in the air even as he saw the grin pull at the corners of her mouth and he felt the flutter of her fingers around his as she held on. That was what made up his mind for him, even if he did hate how her grin went away as he let go of her hand so he could grab the remote. "Come on Doofus! Daddy said that we had to - "

"We can clean up later," Ben shrugged as he flipped the channel just so she didn't see his face as he made himself suck in a lungful of air because he almost...

He didn't even mind when his game disappeared, it wasn't like he could focus enough to play it anyway. But he did make himself find the volume button. "And I'll keep it down, but there's no way I'm sleeping now."

Gwen's mouth twisted at that with all the words he knew that she wanted to say. Words that never made it out of her mouth before she sighed and curled up again, but not next to him. A whole foot of empty air filled the space between them as she looked over at the hall again and even though he couldn't see her face he knew she was chewing on her lip as she eyed it. It was a look he hated as much as the space between them, and he took it out on the remote and the world raced by, one image at a time until she hated it too. And he knew it as he watched her kick her foot from the corner of his eye.

At least she did until he found the channel that he didn't even know he was looking for and they both froze again. " - pandemonium broke out today in Washington DC just moments after the Mayor of Phoenix started testifying - "

He stared as he watched the camera change from some stuffy old dude banging a gavel to the riot outside. A riot of colors and signs and fire as protesters threw things and the police tried to hold them back. Signs that read No More Aliens! And Remember Phoenix, Never Again! And the last, the one he read just before the man holding it went down and dropped his sign. Where Were You?!

It was the last one that made Ben's mouth go dry as he stared and reached for his left wrist. He reached for the spot that was just skin now even as someone called his name with every heartbeat because it was all -

"Doofus!" His Dweeb shouted right in his ear and he almost jumped off the couch again even as she ripped the remote from his hands. She said so much more after that, most of it lost in the noise in his ears as she changed the channel, but the worry in her face told him everything. That and the way she forgot all about her father and scooted over until her side was pressed against his as she took his hand and squeezed the life out of it like he was a Doofus or something.

His heartbeat only calmed down a little when she looked at him again. And more as she reached out and brushed a hand through his hair. A hand he didn't even know he leaned into until after he did and he heard her whisper. "It wasn't your fault, Doofus."

He just laughed because it was. Because he was the one who picked up the Watch. He was the one who still had it hidden deep in his closet at home. What was he thinking? What -

And then he felt lips press against his and all thoughts died until she pulled away, her own eyes wet. "It wasn't your fault, and Squid-face can't hurt anyone else anymore because of you."

Not after what Ben did to him, and that memory made him sick. But not as sick as seeing the wet in his Dweeb's eyes catch the light. "I know," he said, the lie rough in his mouth. "I just couldn't believe that the only thing on was the news. Lame."

"It so isn't," his Dweeb said, and she didn't roll her eyes so he knew that she didn't believe a word of it, but that didn't stop her. "You would know that if you actually watched stuff for a second before you changed the channel! See?"

And she really was a witch, because it only took a couple more clicks before he saw a Chinese kid who had a horrible taste in baseball teams yell, "No, can't leave Indy!" at a blond lady in an evening gown. One he already knew had the most annoying voice after all the times they'd watched these movies with Grandpa Max over the years, but he settled back anyway against the girl who he'd heard scream even louder so many times and wouldn't let him do anything else now as she put the remote out of his reach before she took his hand instead.

"Witch," he murmured to her as he squeezed back hard before he let go just so he could wrap his arm around her shoulders and pull her closer.

It left his Dweeb with two free hands to poke him with as she gave him another look. "Don't you forget it, Mister! And stop it! You're going to get us caught! Again!"

"Am not," Ben said as he stroked her arm even as she made that hot teapot noise again.

But his Dweeb really must have been like the cats that she always wanted, because that noise didn't last nearly as long as it should have before she allowed, "I guess not. It's just like watching movies when we're with Grandpa..."

"Exactly," Ben murmured as she curled up against him and put her head on his shoulder like they did this all the time. Maybe if they did, Ben wouldn't have felt his face go hot as her soft hair brushed against his cheek. Maybe he wouldn't have felt his heart race like he was facing an end boss. Except….

Except her warmth as she snuggled close felt better than winning any video game. Which made as much sense as the kiss he couldn't help pressing into her hair and didn't regret. Not even after she ducked away or after she looked up so she could give him her usual glare.

For what he thought was her usual glare before she surprised him with another kiss.

One that he felt down to his toes before it was over and went back to her spot on his shoulder with a happy yawn. "If I'd known that you were Wildmutt cuddly all of the time, Doofus…"

"S-shut up," Ben said, his cheeks hot again before he took his own advice because he didn't have any more words. None that felt as good as the grin he had on as he stroked her soft hair while he sort of watched a boy and an archaeologist who they could have met that first summer fight off bad guys in a plane soaring high over snow-covered mountains….

- o - o - o - o - o -

Cold.

White.

Infernal, white cold everywhere. A breath shuddered past Ben's lips as he moved one purple boot in front of the other through snow so high he knew it would have come up past his knees if it wasn't packed hard by time. He wanted to reach inside and use his mana to warm him, wanted to seek shelter in the towering mountain face on his right, but he needed that energy and he couldn't stop -

Not when he was so close.

Not when he could still hear the sounds of battle behind him. The cries and the clang of metal and the shrieks of something more. Something even more alien than everything else on this miserable planet that not even the howling wind and driving snow could muffle out.

And then he heard it.

Deep breathing came from the fog around him, too deep and too high to be anything good. His first instinct was to ask if it was Gwen, but he shook it off. Why would that annoying little witchling and her annoying little cousin be here of all places?

It wasn't time to deal with her yet. Her or her moron of a cousin.

But it wasn't them. It wasn't even any of the things that the little fool could turn into. He never moved as fast as the thing that approached. No, as the thing burst out of the haze in front of him in a flurry of claws that came so fast, he didn't even have time to shout. Not when it was all he could do to stay even a step ahead of the attack without falling off the mountain and he almost failed as he barely managed to stay in front of it, until with one last dodge he ducked under it and raced up the path.

But not as fast as it did. It seemed impossible, but he heard its heavy steps right behind him as he spun around again. His every instinct screamed at him to reach for his wrist. Instead, he raised a slender hand, carrying a flame, and waited.

Ben didn't know what was coming for him, he hadn't seen much but its claws, but he expected green armor and tentacles because it was always that monster -

Except it wasn't. Not when he saw white fur and flashing teeth charging out of the fog instead as he let the fireball fly, hitting the beast (polar bear? Except they didn't live here; a voice he loved and hated all at once told him, so prim and proper and sure that she was right that he could have shaken her either way) right in its chest. It was his best spell, but it only knocked the beast back a step before it raised itself to its full, tremendous height as it brought its paw - no, its hand - crashing down on him.

A hand that hit hard enough that it cracked the stone where his head had just been as he threw himself to the side and reached for more mana as he looked up and up and up.

And he realized that he knew the monster when he saw the almost human face lost in that white fur.

'A yeti! Ben thought with a dazed grin in the same moment that another voice - a girl's - said out of his mouth, "Terrific."

Then she was gone, replaced by pain as that giant paw came swinging back in a great backhanded swat that sent him flying. Terror came too late. Terror of falling off of the roof of the world mixed with the terror of what would happen if he didn't as the Staff of Ages fell from his suddenly numb fingers. Then the fear was gone. Not that the pain that took its place was any better. It was only slightly buffered by the spell he forced out of bruised lungs and the fact that he didn't hit stone or ice. Not that the frozen wood was -

Was -

"Wood?" Both of his voices in his head said together as Ben looked up even as the yeti bellowed again. Up at the door that he'd somehow slammed into. The wood felt as thick as his head. Thicker even. Maybe even too thick for Forearms to move considering there wasn't anything like a handle that he could see. There wasn't anything but a pair of rings carved into the door.

Rings he could barely see with all the ice piled on them, one surrounding the other. Protecting it. The marks were dark now, but he knew them anyway. He knew them from the hidden places he'd found them in and from the forbidden books that his Grandpa never knew he read.

They were the symbol of the king that would not reign and if it was here, then he was right. He'd found the heart that was kept hidden -

"Shut up," Ben started with a pained grunt as he shook his head at the rush of thoughts. "That's nerd stuff."

He wasn't the princess who would have dweebed out hard if she was here. Ben was as sure of that as he was that his world got stranger as the doors suddenly flung themselves open and he felt the rush of wind that was warmer than they ever should have been.

The noise behind him all stopped as he looked past the now split rings which were suddenly glowing, the violet surrounding the blue, and stared at the long hall on the other side. A hall that was somehow still dark even as torches started lighting themselves along its whole length and an impossibly old voice called out from the other end, "Benjamin Tenny - "

- o - o - o - o - o -

"-yson, don't you dare! You gave us your word!"

Ben bolted awake at the hissed words and twisted away from the wind and the cold that wasn't there. Not any more than the ache in his chest, but the memory was the only thing that kept him from screaming as he felt the world slip away from under him.

Again.

Not that he had enough time for more than a gasp before his fall stopped. Except this time it didn't hurt nearly as much as the snow and rock had. No, that wasn't anywhere near as -

Fuzzy?

It took Ben way too long before he realized that he was lying on a carpet. A thick beige one that matched the couch that he was lying next to.

It was a couch in a room that so didn't belong in his house. Not any more than the sun that was shining way too brightly through the windows. Not when the walls were covered with prints of paintings that looked like they came from his history book instead of the pictures and the little sculptures made out of rocks and wires that his mom said meant gunk like 'Hope' and 'Love' because she was weird.

But not as weird as the words that filled the air instead of the storm that should have been there. Words that were as hot as the wind was cold, even though he never would have guessed that anyone could keep their voices so low and even and still sound like they were yelling. "Mom! Stop it! You're going to wake up the - "

"Don't interrupt, Gwendolyn," Ben heard his aunt snap in the way she had that was so much worse than just yelling. "Honestly, I don't know what's gotten into you, but - !"

"Dweeb?" Ben croaked out as he pushed himself up because running was their only option when his aunt started sounding like that. He could figure out why when they were up the tallest tree he could find.

Not that it mattered. "Doofus?" He barely heard his name before there was just the sound of her feet racing towards and he almost laughed even as he heard his aunt shout again. "I knew she was going to - " Gwen started as she slid across the last few feet of the carpet on her knees and glomped him hard. Except usually she didn't gasp and pull away the second she touched him. He was sure that it was just because her mom was in the next room until she said, "Ben, you're freezing!"

"Duh," Ben whispered as he shook the snow from his thoughts. "What do you expect? Your brain is the best hot water bottle and it went away." The last was a whisper as he caught himself before he could pull her closer. And then he blinked because she wasn't in pajamas anymore because of course his nerd wasn't. No, she was in jeans and her new favorite shirt. The dark purple one that had a very familiar cat logo splashed across her chest…

It was a logo that he so didn't peek at when his aunt came around the corner still in her robe, hissing Gwen's name. A robe that his aunt hugged tightly when she saw him as something that almost looked like guilt flashed across her face, but it didn't stop her. Nothing could stop Aunt Natalie and only Uncle Frank was crazy enough to try. "I was wondering when you'd wake up, Ben," she said, her face set in the smile that he always saw her wearing, except this one wasn't anywhere near as fake as it usually was as she looked him over. "And honestly, we do have a guest room. You didn't need to sleep on the couch. Or in your clothes."

"But that room stinks," Ben said because it did. It smelled like the gunk slathered on after karate and he still used it sometimes in soccer, but never in front of his Dweeb or so much. "And it would be a shame to change when I look this good."

Not even the gobsmacked look on his aunt's face was better than his KISS shirt or the way his Dweeb preened as he brushed his hand over it. Preened even as she smacked his shoulder. "Ben! It does not! Mormor and Morfar just spent the night in it and they didn't complain!"

"Course not. He who smelt it dealt it!" Then he blinked as his mind finally got out of the mountains and woke up enough to realize what he'd said. "Wait a minute."

"Too late!" Gwen laughed.

A laugh that died like the retort Ben was sure he would come up with at the sound of his aunt sighing. "Be serious, Ben. And please go get cleaned up and changed. We can't go out with you - "

"Go out?" Ben asked, his stomach already falling even as the Dweeb at his side's face started to match her hair again as Gwen glared at her mother. "Why are we going out? Grandpa's - "

And if there was anything real in the smile on his aunt's face before, it disappeared right then and there. "Ben…." His aunt started as she gave him a look that made Ben freeze because he knew it was bad, but he didn't know it was this bad. It made him freeze, but - "Gwendolyn, where do you think you're going, Young Lady?!"

"Out!" Was all Gwen said and all the warning that Ben got before he felt the warm hand wrap around his and yank.

Ben didn't even remember that he was still wearing his sneakers until they were out the door as his aunt shouted after them. He was too busy grinning at the girl who stormed down the sidewalk next to him, her hands curled into fists and her face even darker than the clouds had been when they chased those megawatts into that huge one in Florida during that first summer. The one where the wind howled and rocked the Rustbucket so hard that he was sure that it was going to flip.

Which was awesome and terrifying just like his Dweeb. Especially when she turned that glare on him and snapped out, "What?!"

"...this is so weird from the other side. Usually, I'm the one getting yelled at." He mused, eyes on Gwen, taking in her angered and flushed appearance- and trying very hard not to worry about the second of those. That went just about as well as a math test, too, as he imagined what her mother saw when she came downstairs because the last thing he remembered was Gwen snoring in his ear and her head against his shoulder and something about a wicked roller coaster with mine carts. "I can't believe that your mom's that mad just because we fell asleep watching movies."

Well, he could. It was Aunt Natalie after all.

"What? No!" Gwen jolted away and sent her eyes shooting everywhere before she calmed down. Calm down, but not get closer or reach for his hand even as she brushed her hair from her eyes. "No. The sun woke me up just before she came down, which was what you were supposed to do!"

"But you were drooling up an ocean on my shoulder and I needed photo proof for Ripley's!" That ended with the punch and the sore shoulder Ben knew was coming and was so worth it. It sounded so much better than admitting that feeling her curled up against him as she snored in his ear…

It wasn't weird. Not at all and it should have been! So weird! As weird as the way that the corners of her mouth quirked up even as she smacked his arm. "Jerk."

And he just smiled. For a second, until his brain kicked in and he asked the question he didn't want to know the answer to. Not when it was this early. "I know that I didn't wreck her vase this time," he said as he tried to think. And he didn't wreck it last time either. Not when Uncle Frank glued it up as good as new. "So why was your mom yelling at you?"

"She wasn't!" Gwen grumbled because of course Aunt Natalie wouldn't yell. Just like he couldn't sprain his eyes just by rolling them, but he tried until his Dweeb crumbled and rubbed her elbow. "She wasn't. Not at me." And Ben knew it was bad the second he saw the look on his Dweeb's face. He just didn't know how bad it was until she mumbled, "Grandpa called and she pulled the phone right out of my hand because - because he's not coming today."

"What?!" Ben shouted as he stopped dead in his tracks and stared. "But - but he said he'd take us shopping!" Which was the last thing he wanted to do, especially for school. But they barely saw the man since they got home, except for those few days after the lake. Not after he -

Ben didn't rub at his left wrist. Not this time, not when he knew that he'd just feel skin instead of the alien metal that had been there for so long.

"It's Grandpa," Gwen said, rallying like she always did even though he could see the hurt that she couldn't hide. Not even with her hair in her eyes. Hair that she blew away with a sound he'd only heard his mom's teakettle make before. "But you heard mom. She'll take us and it'll only take us a minute to get my new uniforms, so we'll have all day - "

She said the words, but even her face twisted up around them as they tasted like ash.

"With your mom," Ben grumbled as he kicked at the cement. "This is gonna - " The words were right there, but Gwen was closer and for once he swallowed down everything that he was going to say even though it was about as much fun as actually being in a store with his aunt, but it was still better than seeing his Dweeb wince. "We'll make it work."

Then he made himself smile when she didn't and he added, "Besides, school starts next week. I'm sure we'll be seeing Grandpa plenty after that."

They always did. Usually right after his first test.

"Yeah…" Gwen said, but she didn't seem any happier to hear them. Not when her scowl got deeper as she looked down at her feet even though things should have been - not good, but better.

And it wasn't.

"So...shopping," Ben tried when she didn't say anything else, but he felt like he was floundering and he didn't know why.

"If we go."

"What?" Ben started because he was sure that he heard her wrong.

Especially as he watched Gwen shove a hand through her hair like she was mad at it before she let out a breath and didn't look at him as it danced down her back. Not at all. Not until after she added, "I don't care what she says. We don't have to go today. We still have a whole week and - "

And then she gave him a quick, nervous peek as her voice trailed off. Not that it mattered.

"Really?!" Ben asked with an excited yelp that should have woken up the whole neighborhood if she didn't have her hands over his mouth. Hands that he couldn't help smirking against as she hissed his name. And then reality came crashing back down in and he mumbled into her palm as he shot a look at her from over the tips of her blue fingernails. "Since when do you say no to the mall?"

"I say no! I say no all the - " Gwen started as she yanked her hands back and it looked like she was going to slap him, but she didn't. She just wrapped her arms tight around her middle and her face turned red like she was angry. But she never had a problem glaring at him right in the eye when she was before, and right now she wasn't even looking at him. "And I don't want to think about it today, okay?"

"Since when?!" Ben almost laughed at the idea. Almost. Maybe a chuckle or two slipped out before he caught them, but that was it. "You love school so much that you'd date it if you could."

"It would be a better boyfriend," Gwen shot right back, but the words didn't have the heat that they should. Not when she stared down at the toes of her sneakers before her hand darted over and surrounded his. "I just don't want to think about it today, okay? Not even if Grandpa did come. It's no big deal."

"Yeah, right," Ben scoffed as he looked around for the hidden cameras. "Who are you and what did you do with my - ?"

The words started as a joke before they stuck in his throat as hers sank in. Sank in and made his head snap back around so he could stare at the girl in front of him because things changed, but not this. His Dweeb would never -

'It's always the small stuff,' he remembered Grandpa saying that first summer after Charmcaster had switched bodies with his dweeb. The man had been so mad with himself after that, not that he let on. If Ben hadn't caught him staring at them both for a good week after that. Stare until he exploded at his Grandpa for it…

'I should have been paying attention, Ben. I knew that she was acting off, but… But you two were finally getting along and I didn't - didn't see all the little things that Charmcaster was getting wrong.' Things like blowing off shopping for school. Or kissing him, which his Dweeb would never…

Phoenix….

The thought made Ben feel sick and cold as he realized just what had happened and when, but that was weeks and weeks ago and he let it happen again! He let it happen because he was stupid a - and she must have been gone for weeks just because he liked kissing her!

He needed the Watch and Grandpa. That thought pounded through his head like his heart was in his ears as he reached for his pocket and the phone there, but he needed info, too. He needed to be sure. "Wh - " he started, his lips numb as he tried to remember the plan they made after Salem. "Where did you put Fuzzy Frank, anyway? I've been looking all over for that stuffed anteater and - "

"Fuzzy Frank? Who's Fuzzy Frank?" Gwen started, her face twisting as she looked up and reached for his face "Did you hit your head when you fell off the couch, Doofus? Or are you just trying to make your teddy bear jealous?"

"What's his name then?" Ben asked, the script already slipping from his thoughts. The one that said stay calm and play along, but…

But they'd taken his Dweeb and calm was the last thing he felt right now.

That made her cock her head and the little wrinkle in her brow came back. The one that made Ben feel sick because if Squid-face had her for long enough to copy that… "Furry Freddy is still with Grandpa and I told you that I was sorry I forgot him. Which I wouldn't have if you hadn't made me ride the Electric Drop Tower four times in a row! But I'm keeping him if you can't even - !"

Made her! Ben almost laughed at that. Like the real Gwen didn't love that ride, too! And Adrenaland! He would have laughed in her face if he didn't feel so sick. "Where's Grandpa?"

A second line appeared in Gwen's brow, then a third. "I don't know! He said he was going to get more parts for the… for his new RV, but - "

"What's it called?"

Something went through her face then. Something that Ben would have thought was hurt if the thing hugging itself in front of him was his cousin. He flicked up the phone in his pocket and his fingers reached for the Omnitrix symbol he knew was appearing on the screen now. "I'm not calling it the Rustbucket! I don't care what Grandpa says, that would just be weird. Not as weird as you, though. What's with all the quest - "

And then she stopped. Stopped as her eyes went wide and a whole roller coaster of emotions ran through them. One that started with confusion, did a loop de loop as she figured it out, and then hit the wall of shock at the end as hard as her foot did as she stomped it down hard on the sidewalk. "I'm not possessed! Why would you even - ?!"

"Because my Dweeb would be frothing at the mouth thinking about school!" Ben shouted right back because it sounded good, and because he couldn't stand to think about the real reason.

"Shows what you know, Doofus! Because I don't want to go!" That got a snort as Ben tapped the symbol once. Two more times and Grandpa would come running from wherever he was. Two more and - "But I don't even know why I care that we won't be able to spend any more time together if you're going to act like a - Ben?"

Ben swallowed so hard at that that even the dupe saw it. Stupid, he was so stupid imagining that this was real, that someone as smart as she was would -

"I'm me, Ben!" The fake said, her voice low as she looked at him all over, panicked and hurt now. "My Mom gave you Furry Freddy when we were three and you made a little bed for him and everything. We've been calling Grandpa's RV the Rustbucket since even before that and I don't remember why besides the obvious. You were afraid of clowns before you saved me from one because you're my hero and you're way too good on a guitar and we - we… You know, under the stars at Aunt Vera's andIcandothisallday,youDoofussoyoubetter - "

The words were an avalanche of facts that would have crushed him if he hadn't held his hands out. "Okay! Okay, you're the Dweeb, I believe you!"

"You better!" Gwen sniffed as she poked his chest. "Honestly, Ben, I don't know why you - " Then she stopped and took a deep breath. One he wished didn't make him look up, because he hated seeing the hurt that suddenly bloomed in her eyes. "Is it that hard to believe that I'd rather spend time with you than be in school?"

Ben just shrugged at that because if there were words he didn't know them. He couldn't say them either, not around the lump in his throat. A lump that almost got company on the back of his head as she glomped him again even harder than she had before. "You Doofus!"

There weren't words after that. Not as she hugged him, not as he let his head fall against her shoulder and just breathed her in. "You love school," he said finally.

"I - " she started as she pulled away. Then something flashed in her eyes as she jumped and her hand went to her hair. "I kinda like being around you, too, Dummy, in case you haven't noticed. And once school starts again - Friday nights won't be enough."

"We still have our phones," Ben said because they did. And he already knew that they wouldn't be. Not with him at soccer and her doing all the stuff that she did. Which was everything. "And I know you and your big brain. You've been working on it all summer."

"Well, if you won't go back to the dojo…." Gwen said, flushing a little at being caught out as she let it stop there, but she didn't need to finish because he knew just what she was talking about. Karate. But… but he just shook her head and hated himself because she closed her eyes at it. Closed her eyes, but her smile didn't go away. If anything, it got bigger when she opened them again and said, "Then there's only one solution. Gymnastics!"

"What?"

And she giggled. She actually giggled as she brushed a hand over her shoulders. "Come on, think about it! You know the basics already because of karate and you'd look so cute in a unitard!"

"Evil!" Ben hissed and she laughed and laughed. A hiss that should have sounded angrier than it did as he almost thought about it.

"Or I can just quit." Almost, until those words came out of her mouth and her smile went away. "Mom will… But then we could spend Saturdays together, too. And Karate… I should be focusing more on that anyway."

Her voice shook at that, and Ben didn't have to wonder why. "But you love that stuff." A year ago he never would have understood why. Karate at least made sense, but running around in a shining bathing suit to do something that has the worst class of the day right in its name?

But a year ago he hadn't watched her dance, not really, or saw how she glowed when she did.

"No." Then he took a breath. "Nah, that's stupid. There's only one thing we can do that makes any sense, and I can't believe that a dork like you didn't think of it already." He took a breath then and got ready for the laugh that was coming. "We're just going to have to go to school together."

And it didn't. Not yet. There was just shock and confusion and then her shoulders slumped. "Ben, we can't. Mom and Dad would never… I've asked, but - "

"I know. My mom and dad wouldn't listen either. They said that it would 'hurt my development' if they pulled me out of school now," Ben grumbled even though he knew that wasn't the real reason. And it was easier trying to prove them wrong than it was to imagine her going to his school. Why would anyone want to go there? "But we're both starting high school next year so that doesn't matter. And I'm sick of the dump I'm going to anyway, so I thought maybe Arcadia would be - "

This was when she'd start laughing. He knew it was. And he was right because he heard one slip out of her mouth as she rocked back, but it choked off after only a second and he didn't know why. Not when he was sure she'd be rolling on the ground by now because the whole thing was stupid. When he finally dared to look at her, he could see the thoughts racing through her head and none of them looked funny.

Just awed, which so couldn't be right. "That's why you were studying so much last year?" Gwen said, demanding and stunned all at the same time. "I thought that you were - How long have you been thinking about this, Doofus?!"

Ben just shrugged at that because it was better than admitting the truth. That he'd lasted a whole two weeks after their first summer before the thought popped into his head. One he just laughed about at first, but it never went away. It still didn't, even now as he shifted in his sneakers and rubbed the back of his neck. "But don't get a swollen head. It's not for you, I just care about my education and stuff - "

He didn't even know how he would finish that. He didn't get a chance. Not before he was rocked back again as her arms wrapped tight around him. "Liar," She said, and it wasn't angry at all. "But your friends and your teachers and - " Maybe he shouldn't have snorted at that, but it just made her switch tracks. "And you'll have to wear a uniform!"

Which was horrible, but there were worse things. "You're just mad that I'll make it look good!"

And it was Gwen's turn to make the noise in the back of her throat that said just what she thought of that. A noise that didn't stay around for long before she looked down at her shuffling feet as she thought, and then brushed a hair out of her face as she looked back up with those bright green eyes of hers.

Green and wet eyes.

"Oh, come on. It wasn't that bad of an idea," Ben said, the words tumbling out as his heart froze. He could live with being dumb, but not with her crying, and maybe if he said enough of them he could stop that wet from becoming tears. "It's not even in my top ten and I probably won't even be able to get in anyway. Mom said that I'd have to take tests and stuff, so - so don't cry!"

"I'm not!" She shouted even as her bottom lip quivered harder. But only for a second, only before she sprang forward like she was going to kill him. He would have let her, too, because he would have known what to do with that. But she didn't, even if it did take him a second before he realized she was hugging him and not trying to crush him as she buried her face in his shoulder and whispered, "And you could too get in, you Doofus!"

"Mixed messages," he squeaked out because if he really was as smart as she said then wouldn't he know what to do right now as he felt her crying in his arms? None of his heroing helped here. Neither did anything he'd watched Grandpa do. All he had was his Dad, and what did he know?

Nothing, but he tried hugging her back just like he'd seen the man do to his mom hundreds of times and he never knew why. It still didn't make any sense, but somehow it worked. Somehow it made his Dweeb laugh and lean back so she could wipe her eyes. Somehow it made her smile even as she shook her head as she brushed a hand against his cheek and repeated, "You need to get it through your head that you're my boyfriend now and nobody talks to him like that!"

"I'll talk however I want," Ben said, and he never realized how hard it was to talk without any air in your lungs, but he learned right then because of the way she was looking at him…

It took his breath away. Ben held his breath and he didn't know why as she looked at him for another moment. Then Gwen closed her eyes, pursed her lips, and leaned back in….

And then a brightly colored kite came crashing down out of nowhere right next to them a heartbeat before their lips met, and they both yelped and jumped apart.

"What the…" Ben started, and a second later, they heard a panicked man calling out nearby.

"Sorry! So sorry!" Ben spun around, his arms halfway up in a guard position for a fight, and he wasn't the least bit surprised to see that Gwen was doing the same thing. The panic ended up being for nothing because it was nothing but a guy older than his dad with short brown hair turning gray running towards them. He stopped only for the minivan that seemed to come from out of nowhere, one that made Gwen jump and glare as the old lady inside gave them a scowling look before she drove on.

And then the kite guy was there.

He was wearing brown pants and the kind of white sweater that only teachers fancier than any he ever had wore even though it was way too warm for it, even this early in the morning, and was holding on to a spool of thread in one hand. An actual wooden spool, like something out of an old Charlie Brown cartoon. "I'm afraid my kite got away from me there and broke the string while it was at it!"

The man spoke with an accent that sounded like it could have come out of one of the PBS shows that his Dweeb made Ben watch when she won a bet. One of the ones that she swore was funny and if she didn't laugh so hard when she saw them he never would have believed her. Not that she was laughing now. Not as she huffed and bent down to pick the kite up as Kite Man got closer. "I do hope it didn't strike either of you. Are you all right?"

"Yeah, we're fine, Professor," Ben said, staring at him as he hoped the man would get the hint, but for some reason, the man just grinned at the insult instead of storming off. Why were all of his Dweeb's neighbors weird? And - "Why were you flying a kite anyway?"

"Why?!" The Professor asked as his eyes shot wide like he'd never heard the question before. Then his hand went to his chin before he just nodded. "Well, it seemed a perfect day for it. You know, it used to be that when you told someone to go fly a kite, you were telling them off. I'm glad that's changed." The man smiled, holding his empty hand out towards them. "Might I take a look?"

"Of course," Gwen said, and she rubbed her thumb over the surface of the kite as she held it out so he could. The man nodded before examining the tail of ribbons and the frayed string dangling off the end.

"Oh, dear." He exhaled. "Well, this will take a bit of work. But anything worth holding onto does, I suppose."

"It's a nice kite," Gwen said as she struggled to look around the thing so she could see him. "You must not be from around here, though. They don't let people fly them on the streets, you have to go to the park to do that."

"Oh?" The brown-haired man said, and the wrinkles on his face widened when he raised his eyebrows and made a show of looking up and down the street. A street that was quiet now that most of the people who lived on it were already off to work.

Most of them anyway.

"Are you sure?" Kite Man asked as he wrinkled his nose, his mind as far from work as his eyes were from the houses. "The Maples here look dangerous enough. You could lose anything in those little copses." Ben blinked at the words and really looked at the tall trees that burst into the sky every few houses for the first time. The trees and the bushes around them. He barely noticed them before when he went Hero, but they made him grin as he gave his dweeb a side-eyed look now…

A grin that he almost lost when the man sighed.

"Well, rules are rules and there are eyes everywhere, so I suppose I should be heading that way then, or else people will think that I'm some kind of rapscallion and that just wouldn't do." He gave them another smile before he said, "Ah, not as bad as it looked," and he let his hand drop from the line.

The perfect line.

"How - ?" Ben asked as he looked for the knot because he was sure that it was broken a second ago, but the man didn't answer.

He just bowed his head and kept talking with a twinkle in his eye. "Well, thank you both again, Master and Miss…"

"Gwen." She said, nudging Ben with her elbow even as the lines came back in her brow. "And he's Ben."

"Young Master Benjamin and Miss Gwendolyn, hm?" He chuckled. "Well, it was lovely to meet you both again. Have a wonderful day, you two. Farewell." The man bowed slightly as he turned then started walking in the direction of the park, seemingly oblivious to the kite still in his Dweeb's hands as he played the string out. Ben huffed as he watched and looked over to Gwen.

"Again?' I guess that the sweater isn't the only proof that he's crazy," Ben muttered as he bounced between irritation that the kite man had ruined his chance at another kiss and the smaller feeling of thinking that he dodged a bullet as he looked around at all the houses around them. Houses that he knew were full of Mrs. Andersons who would just love to go running to his aunt. "Were you joking about not flying a kite around here?"

"I wish." Gwen rolled her eyes. "Neighborhood ordinance. Mrs. Anderson. Dad was grumbling about it a while back, she did that after getting rollerblades and skateboards outlawed." Ben blew a raspberry at that, and she shook her head at him as she called out after the strange man. "I still have your kite, Mister - " she started just as the man spun around and dashed right back their way and into the breeze.

"Of course, some rules are just meant to be broken, and you should always fly a kite with friends while you can!" The man's laugh was just as crazy as he was as he dashed by, Ben pulled his Dweeb away as she let out a squeak. The line went taut before he could do anything else, though, and it yanked the brightly colored kite out of her hands

Right into the sky.

It was a bright beacon that drew every eye around as the man disappeared behind the curve in the road. Every eye but Ben's. No, his went back to the girl at his side. The one who looked like such a Dork as she stood there, her eyes big as her grin as the crazy man startled a laugh out of her. Not that it hid the gears he could see spinning away behind them as her mind raced over it all. It was a look he knew way too well and one that he couldn't help grinning at even as he took her hand again. Or leaning in when she looked at him, her eyes wide because she knew just what he wanted as he pulled her close. "Ben! We - "

"You heard the Professor," Ben said, cutting her off. "Rules are made for breaking."

"And with - " His Dweeb started as the familiar line started in her brow and then she gasped as she figured out just what that meant. "Ben, no!" She shouted as she shoved him away, spun around, and ran. Which would have meant so much more if she wasn't laughing the whole time he chased after her.

He chased her down the street, across lawns, and over fences. He chased her through a group of kids who were screaming, "Get the alien!" before they burst through their game and left them yelling and laughing, too, and she never stopped. Not even when people who knew her called her name as he gained on her inch by inch, his whole world her.

It was why he never even glanced at the world around him until he finally caught her, his arms tight around her waist as he held her tight and she shouted his name again, delighted even as she pushed his face away even as he tried to kiss her.

"I thought we were going to - " Ben said, his voice a stunned mumble as his stomach fell to his feet because he didn't know where they were going, but he never imagined it would be here. He stared at the house that they'd stopped in front of. A house that he knew and it wasn't just because it looked like his Dweeb's, only flipped. Not when there wasn't another house in the whole neighborhood with a flag flying from an actual flagpole.

A flag that he'd buzzed the one and only time he'd been here before, but that didn't matter. Not as much as the lump in his throat or the worry in his Dweeb's eyes when he turned back and asked the obvious. "Is this - ?"

"Yeah," Gwen cut him off as she spun around in his arms so she could face him, her laugh still there but buried under a worry of her own because she knew it, too. "But - " she started and suddenly her arms were around her middle again as she just looked at him. It wasn't any of the looks that he usually got. If anything, it was like the one he saw sometimes when they were doing homework together and she found a question that did the impossible and somehow stumped her. Especially when she started to nibble on her lip. The look usually ended with a cheer as she figured out the problem - and a little dance sometimes that he always teased her about even as he hoped she never stopped doing it - but this time there was just a shake of her head. One that made a hair slip loose and fall in her face, and that she swiped away without even thinking about before words exploded out of her. "Didyoumeanit?"

"Wha - ?"

She took a breath then even as she slipped closer. "You said that you wanted to go to school with me, Doofus. Did you mean it?"

It was too real. The way she looked at him, excited and scared all at the same time. And how he felt for all the daydreaming he did for the last six months, when he was as sure that he needed to be around her as he was that he had to get away if he ever wanted things to be normal again.

But normal was boring. And even though he was sure her school would be a nightmare with all the preppy kids and teachers who expected things...so was his and he still wanted to go.

She'd be there.

"Duh, why else would I say it?" Ben asked and her eyes glowed. Actually glowed, with pink sparks dancing in them and everything, before she closed them as she leaned forward and kissed him.

This time it wasn't rushed or worried. It wasn't something that they snuck when no one was looking. This time it didn't taste like champagne and his heart wasn't hammering because he was sure that she would disappear the second he stopped. It was just her as he pulled her close and lost himself in the softness of her lips and the warmth of her body as she wrapped her arms around the back of his neck and hugged him back.

She was his Dweeb, and he hoped that would never change.

Ben wondered if this was what kisses were supposed to feel like even as he hoped it would never end. Too bad the world had other ideas, and it told him so with the sound of a slammed door.

One that made Gwen jolt away even though Ben wasn't even sure that the sound came from this street. And it made her say a word, too, as she leaned back in and pressed her forehead against his. "This is why we're here," she said, her voice breathy and sad all at the same time as her smile went away. "I want to tell someone, Ben. I want someone to know, someone who will be happy for us. I want - I want someone who will be worried that my complete Doofus of a cousin has used some kind of evil alien mind control gizmo to make me lo - like-like him so they can save me!"

"But - " Ben started to say as he made himself not look at the house or think about the girl waiting inside like she was cavities and not thinking about her would make her go away. "Grandpa knows!"

"Grandpa doesn't count!" Gwen shot right back with all her normal fire. A fire that flickered when she bit her lip. "And he's not here anyway. The kite guy was right. It's better with friends and Michelle's my best and she already knows - kind of - and - and - !"

"And she HATES me!" Ben finished for her with another groan that hid the all too familiar hurt of the first part of what she said before he focused on the second. That ended with him shooting one eye open so he could give his Dweeb a look. "I mean, she's always glaring at me and - and what do you mean, she already - !"

"She does not!" Gwen said with a sniff as she brushed back her hair. She was so confident until she wasn't as he just kept staring at her and she finally admitted, "And we… I… I talked about it with her before we even left and she - "

Ben just looked at her as his train of thought derailed and all the cars came to a crashing halt. All but one, and that was enough that he covered his face with his hands. "Since before we - ?"

That was as far as the thought went. He knew that if this was the other way around, it would just be the start of a nerd avalanche of questions. Questions he didn't need as he remembered the last time he'd seen the girl. "No wonder she was always giving me the evil eye!"

"She is not!" His Dweeb said, her voice hot with a whole rainbow of emotions because of course, she couldn't have just one. A rainbow that settled into something small as she added. "She's always asking about you."

"No way."

"Yes, way! For weeks and weeks now. Ever since we got back."

The thought made his brain glitch so hard that everything else just froze because that so didn't seem right, but he couldn't see the trap in it. "Really?"

If he didn't have one eye open he never would have seen the nod that the question got. And she wouldn't have seen him look away so she wouldn't have pounced. "Just talk to her, Ben! You two have a lot in common! She likes video games and music, too, and - and you both..." He didn't know what the other and was. His Dweeb swallowed the last word and it didn't go down well. What she said next wasn't what she was going to say either. Not exactly. It was written all over her face as she reached up and cupped his cheek. "You're my - my Doofus and she's my best friend and mom's psychology book says it isn't healthy to hide how you feel all the time. And aren't you tired of jumping whenever someone walks into a room?"

It wasn't the way that she said it that mattered, even though the rough whisper that her voice turned into at the end cut right through him. It wasn't even the puppy dog eyes. It was the way she grabbed onto his hand like a lifeline as she buried her face into his shoulder. He'd almost died before. He swore he saw his life flash before his eyes so many times it could have been in reruns, but somehow what he saw in her puppy dog eyes hurt more. "Not fair."

"I know." Gwen sighed at that and nodded before she pushed herself back up and brushed her hair back. "I know that it's stupid and I'm being greedy and - and the more people who know means that we'll just get caught and - "

"Duh," Ben said just because he should. "But that's not what I meant, you wicked witch. I'm supposed to be the one who comes up with the dumb plans, not you. Who's going to talk us out of it now?"

It only took his Dweeb a second to catch on, and the way she smiled when she did…

It almost made him feel bad when he added, "But you have to tell her the truth." Almost.

Especially as she squinted and a hand went back to her hip. "What truth?"

"That I'm just so awesome that you didn't have a chance."

A wild laugh exploded out of her at that. One that wiped away all the worry she'd been holding onto and it was beautiful and so worth the shove he got. "You are not!"

"You're right," Ben sighed like they were on a stage and this was his big break as he caught her in his arms again and pulled her closer. "I'm even more awesome than that. You can't handle how awesome I am."

And Gwen laughed just like he wanted. He couldn't help it. He never could. "So not."

"Are too."

"Prove it."

"When has Gwendolyn Rose Tennyson ever settled for anything but the best?"

Gwen opened her mouth to argue, but he knew he'd won when she huffed and gave up without saying a word. That was when he let himself smirk because she knew it, too. And she proved it with another kiss.

One didn't last anywhere near long enough before she broke it with a happy laugh. And he was a doofus because he focused on that and the way his lips tingled instead of her as she slipped out of his arms and started pulling at his hand before they were halfway to the porch and the door that was waiting there.

The door loomed, and he never imagined that a door could do that. "Dweeb," Ben said, digging his heels at the last second as the heat of the kiss just turned cold in his gut in a way heroing only managed to do once.

Not that Gwen noticed. Not as she was laughing. No, she didn't even slow down until they were at the threshold. And that was when her smile flickered just a little as she let go of his hand and gave him a little push to the side. "Mrs. Hallam is a little… traditional." Like that explained anything.

"Then maybe - " Ben started as he reached for his left wrist and wished he felt alien metal instead of skin as he listened to the noise inside his head. The noise that sounded like a mix of the screaming and the guitar riffs of all his best Metal albums and someone laughing and one of them stopped as his Dweeb knocked and he wished he could still go XLR8 or Big Chill as someone came running…

Heck, even being Ditto would be better right now. At least most of him would have had a chance, which was so much more than he had now.

And then even that died with the sound of a shriek as the door flew open and Army Girl came exploding out in a rainbow of colors and only a little of it was because of the purple dress and green leggings that she was wearing. "I knew that you'd come and save me, Crazy Girl!"

The words were a sound that only girls could make and dogs could really hear, Ben was sure of that. It was a sound his Dweeb nearly matched before she was tackled and the two went tumbling to the deck. "Save you?" His Dweeb laughed as she hugged the girl close and Ben couldn't help frowning at the sound of it because he was sure that he was the only one who could make her sound like that. "Save you from - Michelle!"

The last was a gasp as Gwen jolted away too late to do anything about the rainbow that now stained the front of her clothes, too.

"Sorry," Michelle said even though she sounded anything but. It certainly didn't touch her grin as she sat back and tried to wipe some of the colors from her face. "Don't worry. It's just fingerpaint and it all washes out. Matthew didn't get into the real stuff or my makeup this time, thank God, and it looks good on you!"

"Gee, thanks," Gwen said, her face not matching her words either. Neither did his because Ben never heard about this Matthew before, but he already knew he didn't like him. Not if just the mention of his name made Gwen smile like that. Even if it did look a little weird.

And kind of sad...

Then it was gone, washed away in the nervous energy that Ben knew meant that an avalanche of words was coming. Especially when his Dweeb took a breath first. "Michelle, I - "

" - can stay all day?" Michelle finished in a rush before Gwen could. "Yes! I haven't seen the Colonel all week and mom's still on the Welcome Wagon now that the base officially opened and I can't take any more babysitting!"

"No, I - " Gwen tried to break into the avalanche of words that was just like the ones that she usually started and seeing her get run over for once almost made Ben laugh. Almost, but he wasn't stupid even if he did soak in every moment of it.

Which is why he jumped when he heard another voice call out. "Who's he?" It was the words Ben knew he'd hear but pitched for rugrat and not a parent. Not that it was any kind of a relief when he turned and saw the half-pint who was standing in the doorway and glaring up at him with eyes every bit as dark and angry as his sister's.

"Elias!" Gwen said before Ben could do anything as she rushed over and took Ben's arm. "This is Ben and - "

"I don't care!" Elias said as he somehow got even angrier when he saw the touch. "What's he doing here? He's not supposed to be - !"

"Elias!" Michelle echoed Gwen, only her voice rang. "Inside. Now! Go keep an eye on Matthew while I deal with - "

Ben knew the look that that got. It was one of his favorites. Or it had been, but this was the first time he saw it from this angle as the boy spun around on his sister. "You're not supposed to have boys over when Mom's not home! I'm telling!"

"And I'll tell her where her Victoria's Secret catalog went, you little Goblin!" Michelle shot right back, her olive skin dark with emotion under the rainbow of colors that was splattered on it. A look that didn't go away even after her brother gasped and slammed the door. If anything, it looked uglier as turned on him. "But it's a good question, Crazy Girl. Is there something you wanted to tell me?"

It was the look Ben was expecting, but he felt his Dweeb rock back at it. "M-Michelle?" Then she took a breath. "Michelle, you know Ben. I just wanted to tell you that he was… Is… He's my - "

Ben heard the words get stuck in her throat and a part of him died with them, even as he raised a hand and wished that the girl in front of him was a boy because that would be so much easier. It would be just a quick arm punch and a 'hey' instead of all of these feelings, but girls always made things harder. As hard as Army Girl's eyes as she stood there with her arms crossed and her glare somehow made the rainbow of neon colors that were splashed on her face look like warpaint.

And no, the "Hey," didn't help at all.

No, Michelle just looked plain angry and hurt as she looked between them and nibbled on her lip before she looked past them and shook her head. "No, not out here. This isn't Springer. We're not putting on a show."

The last was said like she'd heard it said a hundred times before as she turned and marched them around the house and through a gate to the backyard. "You have a treehouse?" Ben blurted out the second he saw the thing hanging high in the air just because he couldn't take the silence anymore. "No fair!"

He thought he would get a sigh or a smack or at least a glare, but neither of the girls even looked at him. "Well, Crazy Girl?" Michelle asked softly. His Dweeb was almost curling in on herself trying to hide at the words now that she heard them, and Michelle's hands were clenched and shaking like she was bracing herself for a fight. Gwen sucked in a breath and looked over at Ben, and he found himself nodding back.

She was worried about this. For all of her bravado before, she was worried about this and Ben knew it. Not that it was new. Gwen worried about everything, it was part of who she was. Ben kept looking at her. He hadn't expected the secret of them to come out like this, hadn't expected it to come out at all, and if it wasn't for that stupid guy with the kite...

But maybe his Dweeb was right and it would be easier to let Michelle know. She usually was, and he was tired of hiding, too. So this time he was the one who reached for her hand, and she jumped a little when she felt it and again when she saw him nod, but it was enough.

"I'm sorry, Michelle. I should have told you. I'm - Ben's m - my boyfriend."

"Since when?" Michelle shot back heatedly, and Ben almost winced when the girl's brown eyes slipped over to pin him to the spot. "Because he wasn't when you left, Crazy. You were still on eggshells then. And it sure as hell wasn't after you got back because you were a mess and I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to get you back to normal." She sniffed once and her eyes were wet, but she didn't cry.

Army Girl was tough like that, nearly as tough as his Dweeb was. She just stood there like she was trying to decide to yell at them or smile or hug Gwen or come out swinging. She was too mixed up for Ben to figure out what she would do, and he pulled Gwen closer to him to protect her. "Never mind. I kind of figured something had happened a few weeks ago, though. When you finally remembered how to smile again."

Gwen blinked. "I thought...I thought you would be happy. You even helped me pick out my dress!"

Michelle nodded. "I was. I did." She finally looked away from Ben and back at Gwen again, and her shoulders drooped. Her voice cracked too. "I'm glad he's here for smooch time now, but where was he when you got back?"

He flinched at the accusation and backed up. He knew exactly where he was those first two months. Hiding in his room and too terrified to talk to Gwen because every time he looked at her or tried to call her, he saw her hurt because of him. "I…"

"NO!" Michelle cracked wide open and closed the gap between them. He held his ground and half-expected her to shove him away from Gwen, to poke at his chest with a finger. She didn't, her words did a lot worse. "No! I've never seen her like that! She was hurt, she was hurt so bad and you never even called! Not for weeks! You act like her boyfriend now, but where were you then?!" The tough act broke at last, and tears tracked down her face as she turned to Gwen and the words changed into something that tasted like butter and snails. And Ben had to shudder when he recalled how he knew what snails tasted like. "I'm sorry, Crazy. I know you like him, and that he was hurt in the wreck too, but he didn't even try to talk to you. He wasn't there when you were crying because your stomach hurt so bad or because you missed his selfish ass. He wasn't there, and I was left trying to keep you from falling apart any worse. He's your boyfriend, your family, and he didn't care. He didn't even call."

There wasn't anything that Ben could say to any of that because he knew he was right. That he'd been selfish, that it didn't matter that he spent nights up and looking at his phone as he tried to find the words.

There weren't any big enough, not for what happened in Phoenix because of him, and there weren't any now either as Michelle glared at him until he managed to force words out of his numb lips. "You took care of her?"

Michelle nodded. "I was. I did." She stopped then and glanced between Ben and Gwen, and then her eyes went wide. "Wait, you speak French too? Crazy! You didn't tell me that - no. No, not important right now." It was jarring, and Ben nearly smacked himself in the forehead for forgetting about his brain bugs and how he should've played dumb. Gwen twitched a little, but she was already pale, and he shook it off. Michelle had bigger fish to fry. Her shoulders slumped and her voice broke. "I wish I could be happy for you. I really do, but…"

Her voice trailed off then and the world went quiet. So quiet, but not as quiet as his Dweeb was as she just stood there like a statue and stared at him. "I know - " Ben tried, but words were never his thing. "I - I'm..."

And he didn't get a chance to find him. Not before his Dweeb whispered, "She's right."

The world kept changing and he couldn't stop it, but it never felt like it was dropping out from under him before and it did just that as he watched her eyes fill. "Dweeb?"

"She's right, Ben," Gwen said as her hand slipped out of his and she wiped her eyes.

"I..."

And he didn't get a chance to finish that either. Not before Gwen was hugging him tight as she buried her face into his shoulder. "I"m so sorry. She's right, I should have called. I knew that you were hurt. It didn't matter how mad I thought you were, I should have called."

"I tried," Ben said into her shoulder as he held her like the rock she was. "I swear I did."

"I know, Doofus," Gwen said as she pulled away so she could look into his eyes. Eyes she wiped with her thumbs and he didn't even try to pull away. "I did, too. Next time, no matter what?"

"No matter what." He nodded against her shoulder and felt her slump into him just like he did with her. For a moment it felt like they were the only thing keeping each other up and standing.

Then Gwen pulled back, sniffed twice, and spun around on Michelle. "And as for you!"

"I was just…" Michelle got out as she stumbled back with her hands up and her eyes wide. "I - Crazy, I'm sorry. I was just...he should have - I was so scared for you and he…"

"You're sorry?" Gwen finally let go of Ben's hand and stomped over to her, poking Army Girl in the shoulder. "You'd better be. The next time you see me doing something stupid, you tell me. You're the sane one in all of this, remember?"

"You're not mad?" Michelle asked, and the last bit of her control seemed to give out when Gwen hugged her. Army Girl could cry after all.

"Very. Your timing sucks." Gwen said as she held the crying girl close. "And no one yells at my Ben but me." Michelle nodded and hiccuped as she looked away, and for a second he was sure that they both forgot about him as he just stared at the girl who caused all of this.

He should have known better.

"Ben?" Gwen asked when she looked back at him, and Ben jumped. He saw doubt in Gwen's eyes and loads of worry in Michelle's. "Ben, are you mad?"

Ben had never liked Army Girl. He didn't understand her, and she was always looking at him and creeping him out. He realized that he had a chance here. If he threw enough of a fit, Gwen would choose him and tell Michelle to get lost. It would be so easy. Army Girl knew it. He could see it written all over her face. Like she knew that saying any of the stuff she did could get her thrown out of Gwen's life the second she opened her mouth.

And she'd done it anyway.

"You were there for my Dweeb?" Ben asked, his voice rough, and Michelle pressed her lips together tightly, giving him the barest nod. "Good."

Michelle blushed a little and ducked her head. "I didn't do it for you." She managed, and Ben chuckled once. It figured.

"I know." He scratched at the back of his head, wishing that Michelle was a guy. This would be easier if she wasn't a girl, he knew what to do when one of his guy friends did something for him. He ended up going with that and tapped her gently in the shoulder with a fist. "Thanks anyway. Thank you for looking out for my Dweeb."

"Ben!" Gwen huffed, and Michelle cracked her first honest smile at that.

"Well, somebody has to look out for you. You're so crazy, Crazy, you can't even take care of yourself."

"Michelle!" Gwen squeaked out, and Ben found himself laughing. Well, maybe Army Girl was good for something after all. It might be nice having someone else around who could rile up Gwen almost as good as he could. And keep an eye on her when he couldn't.

Like now, as a glare touched those dark brown eyes again. "But if you hurt her…" There wasn't anything more that needed to be said after that, so Ben just nodded.

"Good," Michelle said as she wiped her eyes and got her bearings back because she looked between them and put on a false scowl. "But from now on, no more of this hiding stuff from me, all right Crazy? I was the first one you told about your little crush and I was rooting for you."

Ben saw the moment when Gwen's smile turned plastic at Michelle's demand for telling her the truth. She wiped it away by pulling the other girl in for another hug. "Fine. I promise I won't lie to you about Ben anymore."

They'd gotten good at lying, Ben realized as he watched the grin stretch across Army Girl's face and felt sick. Or hiding behind half-truths. Then the ache in his gut went away as he realized that it wasn't. Not anymore. He wasn't wearing the Omnitrix, things were quiet, and school started way too soon. There wasn't anything left to lie about anyway.

Or that was what he thought before the dark eyes turned back to him. "W - was there anyone there for you?"

Yeah, Ben almost said. It was even almost true. The guys showed up for a few games of Sumo, Paul came by a couple of times so they could talk about music, and his parents…

He couldn't make his parents leave him alone, but even he knew it wasn't the same. The lie was right there, but it never would have slipped out of his mouth if Gwen didn't look like she was about to start crying again as he just stood there. "Nah, but I was fine," he whispered.

A lie that his dweeb gasped at, but she wasn't the one who almost knocked him over in a hug. One that made Ben freeze as Michelle squeezed him hard, and there must have been something on his face because it made Gwen smile even as he freaked. And then Army Girl did, too, as she bolted away. "I'm sorry!" She said, and he knew it wasn't for the hug.

But girls were weird and Ben knew he'd never figure them out.

"Come on," Michelle said, breaking up his thoughts even as she proved them right by tugging on his arm while she held onto Gwen with the other. She pulled them out towards the shade of the tree and the tiny house built up in it. "I want to hear all about Watch Boy, and I mean the good stuff this time, Crazy Girl!"

"I don't have the Watch anymore," Ben grumbled as he rubbed at his left wrist anymore and wondered when it would feel normal again.

"Like that's how you got the name," Michelle scoffed as she settled down . "Now, spill! And you can start with when it was that you taught him French on the sly and didn't tell me."

Ben bit back a sigh as he got comfortable because he was never one for words and he didn't think he had any left. Not today. Not for feelings anyway, but he could listen to his Dweeb all day. Especially as she settled in between his legs and grinned as he wrapped his arms around her. So many things had changed already that he was just waiting for the giggling mess all the girls at his school turned into when they were like this.

He really should have known better. "The first thing you have to know about my Doofus is that he's been a complete pain in my butt ever since he stole my birthday."

"Hey!"

"Like it isn't true!" Gwen said as she turned and stuck out her tongue at him like she always did, but this time Ben was the one who changed things by surprising her with a kiss that stole her breath away instead of fighting back.

He didn't anyway, Michelle did it for both of them instead as she giggled into her hands, "Ew! Gross! Stop it! Get off your boyfriend, Crazy Girl! You're going to make me sick!"

"Y-you heard her, Doofus," Gwen said as she pushed him away, her face flushed and her lips twitching with the grin she was desperately trying to hold back. Tried and failed and he was sure she was going to hide her face in her hands when she did and he didn't even care. He loved the fact that he was the only one who could make her like this.

"Please," he breathed and he knew he sounded every bit as happy as the cat on her shirt. "Like I pay any attention to either of you."

That got the laugh and the shove that he expected and a quick peck on the lips that he didn't before she turned back. "Okay, maybe he didn't completely ruin my birthday, but still..."

There were more words after that. Words Ben half-listened to just to hear her voice, and he still felt like he was lost in a sea of changes. But not all of them were bad and maybe this wasn't the summer he was expecting - maybe it wasn't even close - but it was still a good one.

Sure, the Omnitrix was put away and Grandpa was off doing whatever it was that he was doing, but he had his Dweeb and someone else could save the day for a while...

- o - o - Omake - o - o -

Fort McAuliffe

Bellwood, California

8:47 am; August 19th, 2000

Jonathan Hallam felt his headache get worse as he saluted the third set of guards he'd left here and reached for the doorknob.

It was the kind of skull-splitting pain he usually only got when he was stuck in the Pentagon, not on his base. But he'd never seen his men so nervous here either as their eyes kept going back to the door they were supposed to be keeping everyone else out of and their fingers twitched for the triggers of their rifles. It was a hurt that the rumble and whine of the tanks and helicopters that he could hear patrolling on the other side of the thick cement walls didn't help.

But at least he got the alarms silenced.

Silenced, but not stopped as the spinning red lights that filled the hall on the other side of the door made everything seem even more like a horror movie. It was enough that he didn't even know he was reaching for the pistol at his side until he felt the rough grip under his palm.

Felt it, and let it go as a lifetime of training kept his voice level. "This was the last thing I expected on American soil," he said to the man who was walking next to him. A man in a blue-gray jumpsuit instead of fatigues. The man who didn't salute when they met.

But Plumbers didn't have to. He didn't take off his helmet either. They never had, not in any of the times Jonathan dealt with them.

"No one expects these things, Colonel," the big man said next to him, his voice an electric rumble as it came through a speaker that Jonathan couldn't see. The badge he'd flashed said his name was Luther Albright and claimed that he was a Colonel, too, but he didn't know if either was true.

Not that it mattered. If things had gone sideways enough that Plumbers showed up then they outranked generals when it came down to it and everyone knew it. "Run me through it again."

Jonathan tried to pretend that it was a request, but he knew better. "We've been noticing odd spikes in computer activity as we set everything up, but we didn't think anything of it until we got an alert from the Pentagon that someone was accessing the personnel files from our server room. And when I went with security to check it out…" It was a spur-of-the-moment decision to go with the security team on his part. A chance to pretend he was going to see action again after a year of cooling his heels. He never imagined…

He took a breath as he thought about the shaped bit of alien tech that he had locked up in the safe in his office. The white mask almost felt like it was made of the same stuff as the fancy plates that his wife loved so much. Except he'd never seen porcelain that could stop a bullet with just a couple of cracks, or that was stuffed full of tiny silver hairs.

Not even twenty years in the field could keep him from jumping when he heard the thing that was wearing it let out a roar that cut through the door at the end of the hall. Seeing the Plumber at his side do the same thing only helped a little. "We found the Lieutenant alone in the server room. Or the thing that was wearing his face anyway..."

"It's him," Albright intoned, his voice flat enough that Jonathan knew that it was true. "Under all of that, it's him."

"Can you - ?"

"No."

That time not even the speakers could hide the pain in the other man's voice as he said that one word and Jonathan couldn't even imagine how he knew. He wanted to be sick, but he'd been in the army too long for that. It didn't even touch his voice as the rest of his report just poured out of him. "We found him trying to unhook something from the computers. From the looks of it, it was just testing our system. At least we got it before it could start going after whatever it was it really wanted." That should have been his biggest worry because it wasn't like aliens would give a damn about sixty years' worth of names and addresses. It should have been, but it was one of his soldiers that they took. "I don't know how I missed it."

"I was told that you just had your brigade reassigned to you, Colonel." The Plumber's words lost some of their edge at that, and it only made it worse.

"That's no excuse," Jonathan said with a shake of his head. "I should have seen it." If he was around he might have, but he'd been here instead, building a base that didn't have any point in a city that was barely worth the name. Even the urban combat exercises that they'd been running non-stop could have been done better somewhere else. "His supervisor said he'd been acting differently for a while, more withdrawn, but he was with us in Bosnia and…."

And that was enough to change anyone. What they saw there changed him, and it wasn't just the scars that still pitted his arm. Scars that ached when it got cold and throbbed now.

"Where his records say he went missing…."

"For three days," Jonathan nodded. "His caravan was caught in an ambush and it took us three days to find him, but we did." He thought that they did. He still remembered the thrill of it when they pulled the man out of the little farmhouse that he'd been dragged into, none the worse for wear. "He passed all the physicals after." And if the little com geek was quieter….

Well, who wouldn't be?

And who would even imagine the thing that was hiding behind a mask that projected his face with a hologram better than the eggheads ever dreamed of?

Unless that was how. He'd thought that it was just a hologram of some kind, one that died in a flash of light after the bullet broke whatever was making it. "I wish I knew what was in that mask. I - "

"We'll be taking the IDMask with us. And the device it was using on your servers," Jonathan just nodded because he didn't expect anything else. He just hoped that was all they took as he crossed the last few feet and reached the door.

The cell on the other side was quiet and there wasn't anything inside that he couldn't see on the video cameras that were watching everything, but he still reached up for the cover of the little viewport that was built into the thick steel and shoved it aside anyway.

And that was when he saw it again.

The thing with its yellow-green bodysuit and purple skin of the octopus and brain mix that it called a head. Things he only saw out of the corner of his eyes as he stared into the blood-red one that the alien had. It was the same thing he'd seen in Bosnia and not all at the same time. It had the same cyclopean head, even if the one that he'd seen over there hadn't been the least bit human. No, if anything it looked a little like the husky he'd had as a kid.

A husky the size of a grizzly, but still...

It wasn't a man he'd seen around the base. It wasn't someone he'd gotten reports from and talked about families with. It wasn't a man trapped inside a monster.

His man, right there and -

A hand caught him as he leaned in closer. "Careful, Colonel, these things spit - "

"Acid, I know," Hallam muttered, and he was surprised by how distant his voice sounded as he absently rubbed at his left shoulder and the pockmarks under his shirt. The still-red scars that would never go away and almost ended his career. And that was just from the splatter after the thing missed and caught the wall he'd been using for cover. If he'd been a second slower that day…

Or today.

That was the only reason that the monster was in a cage now with its left shoulder wrapped tight in bandages. "I hope that hurts every time it rains, too, you bastard." Maybe the thing even heard him. He hoped so as he watched it turn and glare at him through the observation port.

Somehow that made it all the more satisfying when he saw the same green goop hit the thick glass that filled the viewport. This time Hallam didn't jump. Neither did Albright. "You've seen one of these before."

It wasn't a question.

"We thought we were done with them. Whiskey Tango isn't going to be happy," Albright said, his voice heavy.

Jonathan didn't even ask. Code-names or not, it was always easy to tell when someone was talking about a commanding officer, and whether or not they respected them. The best officers were the ones that people almost thought of as their fathers. That was what Jonathan always heard and Albright did.

It came through clear even with his kit on. The kit that neither he nor his men seemed to be in any hurry to take off. Not with an alien right here.

Here, on Jonathan's base. Here, in his city, his home with his family just a few miles away...

A family he'd never spent so much time with as he had over the last year while he was recovering and getting this base ready. A year of frustration and confusion because he never got a straight answer for why he was here as he felt his career stall out.

Which should have been horrible, but getting the time with Matthew that he wished he had with Michelle and Elias when they were little felt so good. Getting a year with them now. A year when he could tuck them in even if his baby girl rolled her eyes every time he did and his boys attacked him with pillows every chance they could.

And his wife….

He'd spent more time with Nadia now than he had since they met, and every day was a new adventure. Even the fights didn't matter so much when she was more than just a picture in his wallet. When she was a kiss in the morning and more at night, her voice soft in the dark….

There was nothing soft in the light that flooded the corridor as someone opened the door at the other end for four more men dressed in the same gray jumpsuits as Albright. None of them were carrying their fancy rifles now, just a thick metal cylinder of the stun batons that scuttlebutt spent the last ten years swearing that they were about to get. Batons held by burly men who looked like they could barely wait to use them. After today, he was almost tempted to let them, but some part of Jonathan remembered the oaths he swore and that this was his prisoner.

The rest of him just remembered his family, but he blocked the way anyway. Or he did until he felt a gloved hand take his shoulder. "This is why we're here, Colonel…." Albright said, his voice soft.

"I know," Jonathan said as he swallowed that bitter pill and stepped aside and told his men to do the same with a nod as he watched the big man join the rest at the cell door.

"You are being held under the terms of the Treaty of Washington and the Galactic Code for crimes against sentience," Albright intoned as he banged his hand on the thick steel door. "Get on the ground and do not resist. No harm will come to you." There was a moment's hesitation before he nodded and pushed open the door.

The five hurried in after that, their batons ready and every move after was careful and professional. The Plumbers were the best of the best after all.

It still went to hell four seconds after they opened the door. "Get back on the ground! Get back on the - arghhhh!"

It wasn't Albright. That was all Jonathan knew as the scream turned into something almost inhuman as it went on and on as the cell flashed like lightning as more bodies hit the ground and the walls. Then another Plumber was there, the face of his mask bubbling and melting away under green slime as he desperately crawled through the open door.

A door that the Plumber was only half out of when something caught his leg.

There wasn't time for thought after that. Not as Jonathan threw himself across the ground like he was sliding for home again. There was just the hand that caught his like a vice and the terrified eyes on the other side of a visor as they were both dragged back in by something that let out a guttural series of clicks on the other side. It was something that didn't belong on this Earth, even if it was one of his men once.

Something that sounded like it was laughing as it broke the leg it was holding onto.

"Shoot it!" Jonathan hollered at his stunned guards as the hand he was holding onto with everything he had went limp, but he didn't let go. Not even as the thing inside tried to drag them both back in. "Shoot! It!"

The words cut through the shock and all of the conventions in the world. The roar of two M16s opening up in the hall cut through everything else….

- o - o - o - o - o -

" - happened!?" Jonathan didn't mean to snap at the man who was sitting on the floor next to him. He just couldn't help it when his ears were ringing and he'd just seen three good men taken to the infirmary and one….

No, he didn't have any tact left.

At least they were alone now, the rest of his men leaving with the last gurney. The one with a body bag that was still under guard, just in case. That was when Albright had finally taken off his gore-covered helmet. His dark skin was ash gray and covered in sweat under it as he leaned back, closed his good eye, and shrugged. "Aliens."

Seconds. It only took seconds.

Jonathan knew that Albright's face had gained a decade since he walked into the room, and it wasn't just because his left eye was swollen shut and dark. No, the years came as he watched his men get wheeled out on gurneys one by one. The fact that two of them should be fine in a few weeks didn't help at all. Not when one was still in emergency surgery and the other…

It was the same look Jonathan saw in the mirror too many times for him to count. That was why he'd waved the rest of his men off and why he didn't say a word to the Plumber until after they had the room to themselves.

A room that still stank of sweat and terror and cordite and worse as he watched Albright lean back against the wall and slid down to the concrete floor. Then Jonathan sank onto it, too, because his first words were as bitter as coffee, but his next were just tired.

"I thought that you Plumbers were the best."

Albright opened his one good eye again and gave him a look that went right through him. "We are," he said, and his face gained another decade. "Nobody human is better."

Jonathan had heard boasts like that before, but he'd seen what these men went up again and he knew it was true. It just wasn't enough.

Those four words didn't need saying. They still sucked the life out of the room anyway and the silence after…

It was only broken when Albright brought a shaking hand up to the black disk in his ear. "Yes sir," Albright finally intoned, his voice as dark as his skin. Then he let his hand drop down to his helmet as he pushed himself back up to his feet. "Whiskey Tango's on his way. And Merlin is on the horn for you in your office, Colonel. It's been secured."

Every word was tight like the man was just waiting for the firefight to start up again just at the name of the man who even four-star generals didn't want to talk about.

It was a name Jonathan had been hearing whispers about for as long as he'd been in the service. Finding out that Merlin was real should have felt like he'd just wandered into a dream, but it didn't. The whole last year did instead, and it was a good one. One he didn't want to wake up from.

Not to this.

But his country - his world - his family needed him. So Jonathan just nodded as he pushed himself back up. "I know. It's time to go back to work."

- o - o - o - o - o -

Author's Notes

Hi and welcome to the double-sized first issue of Breaking Point Rebooted! ! I know that it's been a while, but after the last year… shudder

Anyway, I hope that everyone is doing well. First, I want to thank Zilpa Eden for making the cover to this story. If you like her work, please let her now at deviantart dot com /zilpaeden/art/breaking-point-With-Text-804272042

And just in case anyone missed it or if you just want more to read, Erico has written a few more stories in the LM universe since the last time we were here.

- o - o - o - o - o -

For Fear of Little Men: A century before the events of the Original Series, a slightly younger but still ancient Azmuth remains sequestered in his hidden laboratory and works on his Index and a device to access it. The arrival of a Traveler will change his destiny - and the destiny of the entire galaxy.

fanfiction dot net / s/13777993/1/Little-Moment-For-Fear-Of-Little-Men

In the Face of Extinction: In the late summer of 1952, the world changed forever when aliens came down from the skies and landed in Washington D.C. Jim "Merlin" Huxby, the leader of the Plumbers, struggles to respond to the offers of peace - especially given the price of membership. But he's used to making hard decisions. The stakes are just higher than they've ever been, because this time, he's playing for the species.

fanfiction dot net / s/13939426/1/Little-Moment-In-the-Face-of-Extinction

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: In 1979, a Rookie Plumber is assigned to Whiskey Team under the command of Colonel Max Tennyson. With UFOs on the loose and nuclear missiles going missing, it's up to them to follow the trail and put down the threat. Wherever it leads them. It's time to see if a Marine has what it takes to keep up.

fanfiction dot net / s/13704530/1/Little-Moment-Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot

- o - o - o - o - o -

And also, as a special surprise and an AO3 exclusive that we're releasing today as a thank you for everyone who waited;

Finding Persephone: Even in a world without magic or aliens, some things will never change. Ben and Gwen will always fall in love and they'll always meet Michelle. Everything else, though…

As a warning, this is a college AU and the first explicit fic that we've done. Enter at your own risk.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Well, that's it for right now. Thank you all for reading and we'll see you in the next chapter!

From Erico: Form a line and tell Shadows who missed him. :)