Chapter 3: Two a.m.

Ben's House

Bellwood, California

6:17 pm, September 22nd, 2000

"- and I think that I've got her comfortable now, but - "

Sandra knew that she was babbling into the phone at her ear, but she couldn't make herself stop as she sat there in her hallway with the wall at her back and her face buried in her knees. She couldn't even though she was just waiting for the woman on the other end of the line to pounce like she always did.

Like she always used to.

"Sandra! Sandra!" Natalie called out from the other end of the line. "I'm sure that you're doing everything you can." Those were words that Sandra was sure that she'd heard the other woman say hundreds of times over the years, but for once there wasn't an edge of judgment behind them.

Not when they sounded almost as frantic as Sandra felt. And almost as desperate when her sister-in-law added, "I just heard the garage door go up. Are you sure that Gwendolyn doesn't want us to come and get her? Frank and I can be there in ten minutes."

Sandra should have laughed at that because even on a good night, it was a twenty-minute drive and it was rush hour now, but she knew that wouldn't matter tonight. It wouldn't for her and Carl either. Not if Ben was sick at their house.

Despite everything else, she'd never doubted that Natalie loved her daughter.

"Let me check," Sandra said, her mouth dry as she pushed herself back up and it stayed that way even after she turned and knocked at the door she'd settled beside. "Gwen? Honey?" She called out just so her niece would know that she was there before she walked into her son's dark room.

It made so much sense to put her there when her niece could barely move from the cramps and the bathroom was right next door. Besides, it was where Gwen spent most of her time anyway when she was over, and Sandra knew from when it was her time of the month that being somewhere familiar and comfortable helped so much.

And Gwen had certainly made herself that as she laid there in Ben's bed. Sandra was halfway in before she could see anything more than the long red hair that was spilled out over the pillows because her niece had cocooned herself so deep under her son's covers.

It made so much sense, but now...

But now Sandra couldn't see her face. Not even after she circled the bed. Not when Gwen had it buried into the pillow that she had her whole body wrapped around as another cramp tore through her.

Ben's pillow, Sandra saw as she squeezed the portable phone she was holding just as hard.

Ben's and not any of the ones that she'd brought in just for this. Just so Gwen would have something that would help hold the heating pad in place. And she didn't let go of it either, not even after the cramp passed and Gwen let her head fall back against the ones she was lying on, her face pale and sweaty.

Sandra wasn't sure that hers had any more color in it as she perched on the sliver of bed that Gwen left in front of her but if she did, the girl didn't notice. Not when she wouldn't open her eyes, but Sandra asked anyway. "Gwen? Pumpkin? Your mom's on the phone. Are you sure - ?"

But Gwen was shaking her head before Sandra even got the whole question out before she buried her face in her cousin's pillow again and let out a muffled, "Wanna stay here."

"Okay," Sandra said finally as she sat there for who knew how long. Then she said it again as she lifted the phone back up to her ear. "Natalie?" she asked, her voice hollow, "She - "

"We heard," Frank answered instead with a sigh. Sandra wasn't surprised to hear his voice. Not when she could almost see him standing there in their kitchen, fresh from work and with his glasses pushed up as he pinched his nose like every Tennyson man did when something was going on that they couldn't do anything about. "Just - just tell her that she better take it easy tonight and that I'll hide all of her books if she even thinks about gymnastics tomorrow."

Sandra laughed along with him as she reached over and rubbed Gwen's hip because they all knew her so well and loved her so much. "I will."

"I think that she's earned a spa day on Sunday if she's up to it," Natalie added a moment later after she took the phone back and Sandra couldn't help smiling again because the words were so her. They were practical and controlled and a bit spoiled. Her mother's daughter, no matter how much the woman swore that she wasn't when they first met.

And then that shell cracked with her voice and the woman that she always hid underneath slipped through. The one that it seemed like only Frank ever saw. Frank and Verdona back when their mother-in-law started calling the woman Lili, and right now she reminded Sandra why. "And tell my Silly Bean that we love her?" There were tears in Lili's voice as she said it, and more when she added, "And we love you, too, Sandra. Thank you for being there for her."

The line went dead then, but it didn't matter. Not when Natalie sounded just like her daughter had when -

When -

"I will," Sandra swore again to the dead line before she hung up, her eyes locked on her niece as the girl just lay there, hugging her son's pillow like it was her only lifeline. Or like it was -

"I'll be right back! I just want to make sure that Ben leaves you alone tonight," She promised as she dropped the phone and bolted for the door before she could finish that thought. Not when it was impossible. Not when it was -


The memory of her mother's voice echoed in her head even as her niece's call of "A-Aunt Sandra!" filled the room behind her, and she closed the door behind her on both of them as her hand went for the little cross that hung that around her neck again like it had too many times when she was little.

It was something that she never quite managed to take off even though it never helped. Not then, and not now. It didn't even slow the storm of her thoughts as she made her way back downstairs where her husband and son both were.

And her hand slipped away as they stared at her with eyes that she couldn't meet as they looked for answers that she didn't have.

She knew that she said something as she stared at the dinner that was waiting for her, for them, but for the life of her, she didn't know what. Not when her mind kept replaying everything that she saw upstairs until she was sure that she was going to pass out. Until -

You have to breathe, girl, Sandra heard the woman who was everything that her mother wasn't saying again. She didn't even know how many times Verdona told her that back in the beginning when Carl was away, finishing the last few weeks of his degree and working two jobs while she was in a strange house that ended up being more of a home than hers ever was.

A house that always came with -

The tea was right where she left it from last time, and the smell of rose and chamomile that were mixed in with the green leaves took her right back to another kitchen as Verdona taught her and Natalie both how to mix it. She taught them about so many kinds of teas, but this one was special. This one helped with even the worst days.

But it didn't do a thing when she heard a chair get pushed back as Ben declared, "I'll be right back."

Somehow Sandra didn't scream or spin around or grab for her son as he started for the stairs. Somehow even managed to keep her voice steady as she said, "I just got her comfortable and she needs to rest, Ben. I'm going to make her a cup of tea and - "

And if anyone else saw her hand shake as she reached for the teapot, they kept it to themselves. Which made it all the more shocking when she heard her husband say, "He can take it up."

She swallowed down her cry of Carl!, too, as she spun around and stared at him, but he didn't look up from his dinner. Not even as her eyes flickered towards their son as he stood there, bouncing on his feet with his eyes locked on the stairs and the girl who was waiting at the top of them.

"I don't - " Sandra said, her voice strangled as she rubbed her arm.

This time Carl did look up, his dark eyes meeting hers just like they had months ago and in this very same room as he asked, "Is there any reason he can't?"

"I - " Sandra started because he knew better than anybody that there was, but if she said it, it would be real. So she bit back the rest and shook her head instead.

- o - o - o - o - o -

It should have felt like a miracle that Ben waited until the tea was done before he disappeared upstairs, and it did for the first few minutes. Minutes that Sandra spent poking at her plateful of spaghetti and burned franks that didn't taste like anything as she waited for the shouting that she was sure was coming. Shouting that would end with Frank and Natalie coming over anyway, and then this wouldn't be her pr -

And the shame of that thought made her put her fork down. The shame and the silence.

"You should eat," Carl murmured across from her even as he did the same thing.

Sandra just nodded as she gave into every urge she had and stared at the stairs. Anything that she might have said was lost in the quiet that filled the house instead of the noise that was always there, but especially when Gwen was over.

God, she didn't even know how many Fridays went by with her niece here over the last few years or how many times she'd played ref between her son and her niece as they talked about their days and did their best to top each other. She could almost see Ben now, his hands flying as he said something impossible and Gwen's face getting red as she told him just that before they both disappeared up the stairs and -

And -

"What do you think they're doing up there?"

The question just slipped out and she felt her face go red as her eyes flew back to her plate as her bear of a husband let out a huff of a laugh. "If Ben's smart," he stated, "he's staying out of Gwen's reach, but you know him." It should have been a tease, but the words felt like somebody was sitting on Sandra's chest as Carl's face burned red when he realized what he just said. It stayed that way, too, as he pushed away from the table. "Let's go - "

"I'm going to start the dishes," Sandra blurted out before he could finish and she didn't know why. Not anymore than she could meet his eyes as he spun back around. "You made dinner."

It was their oldest rule and it was enough that it made Carl sink back down into his chair as she gathered everything up and filled the sink. The sink and not the dishwasher because she needed time to think and the noise of everything clinking together as she washed them meant that she didn't hear the silence that still filled the house.

The mindless motion helped a little, but nowhere near as much as Carl did a few minutes later after he got up and started drying by her side. He didn't say anything, but he stood so close that they couldn't help bumping against each other, and just knowing that he was there - that he was with her - helped until they ran out of dishes.

The TV helped after that, even if there wasn't any more bumping.

Not when Sandra leaned so heavily against her husband that she ended up using his lap as a pillow with Carl stroking her hip as they watched channel after channel rush by. It was the biggest TV in the store and they got all the channels that she was never allowed to watch when she was growing up, but none of them were worth stopping on tonight.

Not as the clock kept ticking and the silence kept growing.

Carl didn't even stop for his sports show and she didn't say a word as they rushed through the music channels. It didn't seem like they'd stop for anything. That they'd be here "-forever -" Steve Tyler suddenly sang out, the word filling the living room. And just the sound of his voice made Carl pause as he kept singing, "Every moment spent with you is a moment I treasure…"

They'd been to too many Aerosmith concerts. That's all Sandra could think as she stared at the music video. And even if they hadn't, the song was the only good thing about the movie that Ben dragged them to just a few weeks ago.

Them and Gwen, who was the one he sat with.

Who he sat with in the back with as he made them go up a few rows and - and the boy and the girl in the music video didn't look a thing like the two upstairs, but Sandra felt her heart race anyway as she watched the Steve Tyler's daughter and some actor kiss on the glowing 55" TV that almost looked like a movie screen as they sat there in a room every bit as dark as the theater was.

Dark enough that anything could have happened, right behind their -

"Carl ?" Sandra asked, jumping as the TV suddenly turned off. Then she looked up and saw her Honey's Bear's jaw clench as he stared at the blank screen.

Then he took a deep breath and her hand as he looked down and gave her a wan smile. "Come on," he murmured as he gave her a tug so he could get up and then another as he helped her to her feet.

"You're ready for bed already, Sailor?" Sandra heard a woman who sounded a lot like her tease. But when that woman said it she had a smile on her face that promised so many things. It wasn't the sickly thing that she felt on her face right then.

And Carl never laughed as hollowly at those words as he did then, either, his hand never leaving hers as he led her up the stairs. Up the stairs, but not through Ben's door.

No, they just stood there and stared at the closed door as the quiet that drove her crazy downstairs somehow became something worse. It became the black thing that she always felt when her mother was telling stories about bad boys and girls and what happened to them until she couldn't help herself. Until she forgot every promise she'd ever made to her son and her hand flew for his doorknob.

"Ben?!" She almost shouted as she shoved the door open, her eyes flying for the window that she was sure would be wide open and the shape on the other side that would just be dropping out of view as it took her son and niece away forever. "Gw - ?"

The worst part was that the window was open.

Just a hair. Just enough to let whatever scent was left in the extinguished stick of incense that somebody put on the sill drift out of the room while the two kids slept together in Ben's bed. Sandra wanted to cry or scream when she saw them, but she just stared at them instead. She stared with tears dripping from her eyes as she covered her mouth so they wouldn't hear.

She had to. She couldn't bear it if she woke them up right now.

Not when they both looked so cute. Ben was on his back with his arms thrown wide as he snored away. He hadn't even gotten changed yet, much less taken a shower. He was still covered in grass and mud stains, and it should have driven Gwen crazy because she always took after her mother when it came to things like that.

Not that her niece was complaining now. Not when she was using her cousin's chest as her new pillow, and if the covers she was still under kept her from getting as close as she might like, she was still too close as she let out the soft snore that she always made when she was warm and safe.

No, Sandra couldn't wake them up. Not when this was the most relaxed that she'd seen either of them since they got home last summer. Since before that. It seemed like it had been years since she saw Ben actually rest when she checked on him instead of looking like he thought he'd have to be up and out the door at any second. And from what Natalie said, Gwen was barely any better even though it didn't make any sense.

"They look so peaceful," Sandra murmured into her hands as she blinked away tears because they looked like they didn't have a care in the world.

Not even Furry Freddy managed that trick anymore.

"Yeah," Carl agreed, his voice catching, which made it all the harder when she swallowed and started around the bed so she could reach her niece. "Sandy Bear?"

"We can't leave them like this," Sandra answered, her hands fluttering at her stomach because they couldn't. Not when they were both shivering from the night's chill because neither of them was under the covers. Ben didn't have any as he laid on top of them and Gwen was so twisted up under them that her whole back was exposed.

And even if they weren't both shivering, it would still be wrong. Her Ben still needed to get cleaned up and Gwen's borrowed too-big t-shirt and the spare pair of boxers that Sandra found in her drawer just weren't enough.

Even with the covers between them, it wasn't right.

"Carl?" She asked, surprise stopping her hand just inches from her niece's shoulder as her husband spun around on his heel and left her standing there. He was back before she could make herself cross that distance. Surprise and curiosity as she heard him dig something out of the linen closet in the hall.

It was something that turned out to be an afghan. It was an old blue and green handmade one that Verdona gave them the day that they moved into their first apartment. It was one that they cuddled under together so many times.

And she just stood there and stared as he put it over the kids now.

Maybe if she didn't, maybe if she'd paid attention to them instead of the lump in her throat and the tears in her eyes as she stared at her husband she would have seen Ben's face twisting in a nightmare before he bolted awake.

Carl did. Carl always paid attention to things like that, and that was why he was already reaching for their son and calling out, "It's okay, Ben!"

But even her Honey Bear's attention didn't stop their son from gasping for air. Or from pulling his cousin closer as he opened his eyes so wide that they almost seemed to glow green as they caught the light from the hall. Eyes that darted around like he saw monsters everywhere in the dark as he fought for breath.

The only thing that hurt more than seeing him like this was that it wasn't new. "It's okay, Ben! Everything's okay. Go back to sleep," his father said, the words coming out like a lullaby as he brushed his fingers through the mess of their son's hair.

And this time, it worked. "D-dad?"

- o - o - o - o - o -

"I think that he's out again," Carl finally whispered, and just in time. Sandra could see the tension fill Gwen's shoulders in the few moments Ben was awake even if she wasn't. It was a tension that disappeared as Ben snores joined hers again, and the sound of the two of them together sounded like music as Sandra shut the window while her husband finished smoothing out the Afghan. "At least that one wasn't too bad…"

"No," Sandra whispered, agreeing just because he needed to hear it. All of their son's nightmares sounded the same to her, and they always made her feel sick as she wished she could find something that would make them go nothing she did - not the nights she spent sitting in this room or all of the tea in the world - did even half as much good as niece did just by being here. That thought kept running through her head as she stared at the two on the bed. At her son and the girl he pulled towards him even though he didn't know where he was.

And she kept staring even after Carl took her hand and led her out of the room.

It didn't matter that he closed the door behind them. Not any more than it did him leading her down the hall so they could start doing all of the other things that they needed to do before bed. Not as more and more thoughts kept flooding in until she was finally in her bed and he was wrapped around her, his bare arms holding her tight as his pajama-clad legs wrapped around her bare ones.

"It'll be okay," Carl promised, his stubble tickling the nape of her neck as he kissed her while his hand slipped under her half of the pajamas and over the little silk boxers she had on so he could trace circles around her belly button. "You'll see. This is all just…"

Her husband's voice trailed off then as she caught his hand. Caught it and squeezed it, her fingers slipping between his because that was the only way she had enough courage to ask, "What happened with you and Ben after Gwen let me in? I could have sworn…"

Her dry tongue tripped over those words. Words that she couldn't take back. Not now, even though that was all she wanted to do because they gave away everything. Because they made everything real and she couldn't deal with that.

She couldn't, but she had to know. She -

"He freaked," Carl admitted with a sigh as he rested his chin on the top of her head and he drew shapes into her stomach with his free hand. "Even worse than just now. I don't think I've ever seen him like that before."

Sandra just hummed because that much was obvious even with the door closed. That much and nothing more as she turned so she could kiss the arm she was lying on before she pressed on. "B- but I thought I heard him saying something…."

Her husband went so quiet after that until he blew out a breath that played in her hair before he admitted, "He thought it was his job to take care of Gwen, not yours, but you know how he gets..."

"Our little hero," Sandra whispered through tingling lips as he told her what she already knew.

They'd been together for so long that Sandra didn't need to see her husband's face to know how it twisted at those words as she went still. She stayed that way, too, even after he kissed the nape of her neck again and whispered, "Don't worry. I told him to leave it to the experts. Why?"

Sandra never lied to her husband. She'd broken so many of her parent's rules, but never that one. It was the only one that she never wanted to break, but she came so close now as she just shrugged because she didn't have the words anyway as she stared out at nothing.

Nothing but the wall and the two who were on the other side.

"Sandy Bear?" He whispered, his hand going still, but that was as far as he pushed her.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Carl never really had the chance to do anything more. Not when he had the same knack that every Tennyson did when it came to falling asleep. It didn't matter where they were or what was going on, they could always drift off.

Even at school, unfortunately. Especially at school.

But Carl could do more than that. It didn't matter what kind of day she had. Once she was in his arms and she heard him start snoring she'd be off, too. It was just one more reason why she loved him and one more way that he never let her down.

Not until then.

It didn't matter how warm he was, Sandra spent the night watching their clock slowly roll through the hours as sleep stayed far, far away. Her only comfort was the feeling of his arms around her and when he finally rolled over onto his back at about two…

She just wanted to follow him. She started to. She even had her head settled on his chest before she remembered who else she'd just seen laying just like this.

Sleep wasn't even a memory after that. She didn't even bother with her slippers or a robe or even a light. She just padded through her home in the dark, memory guiding her every step.

Memory and the soft sound of sniffling that she heard after she passed the bathroom, which made her rush into her son's bedroom again. That was how she found out that she wasn't the only one still awake. "Gwen?" She whispered so she wouldn't wake Ben up and she was glad that she forgot to pull down the blinds before, so at least she had some light as she hurried around the bed.

Just enough that she could see that her husband wasn't the only one who moved in his sleep and how her niece was the little spoon now. Which was something she tried so hard not to think about, but of course that just meant that it was the only thing on her mind as she knelt and reached for the girl's clammy forehead. "Are you feeling okay, honey?"

Gwen looked up bleary-eyed as the starlight caught the wet tracks on her cheeks. "Why did I yell at him?" Gwen asked back, her voice low and rough from crying as she held onto Ben's hand like it was her only lifeline. "I didn't mean to. He was just being - "

" - a doofus?" Sandra finished with the insult that she always hated, but she said now just for the chance that she'd see a smile. She always did when she slipped up, but not tonight. Tonight Gwen just let out another little sob as she nodded even as her head sank back down against her cousin's arm.

She wasn't anywhere near as bad as she was in the bathroom, but she barely even seemed to feel it when Sandra brushed her hair off of her damp forehead and kissed it. "It's just hormones, Sweety. That's all. He understands and if he doesn't…"

The threat was right there. The one that she was sure would have bolted Ben awake and sent him running out of the room while Gwen laughed.

If only the redhead had been awake so she could hear it, but she'd already drifted off again. She'd fallen asleep even with Ben snoring right in her ear and the guilt that filled her face just a moment ago slipped away like it never was, and the peaceful look that replaced it…

It stayed even after another grimace twisted Gwen's face again a moment later. Sandra stared at them both even as she realized it was well past time for more Motrin, but…

But she just didn't have the heart. Not when sleep always helped the most anyway and especially not when they looked almost like puppies as they laid there all curled up together. So sweet and so innocent…

For now.

They were both growing up though. She knew that they were and even if she didn't, Gwen more than proved that just a few hours ago and Ben's voice had been breaking for months now. Soon, they'd be teenagers with everything that came with it. Soon, this would be trouble.

If it wasn't already.

Sandra still didn't know. Not like Carl did when he settled things for himself hours ago by getting that afghan and putting it over them. He couldn't have been any clearer if he yelled.

He thought that they could be cute for a while longer.

She would have given anything if it was as easy for her, or if Ben would just wake up and freak out like he should. But if her son was bothered that he was sharing his bed, he sure didn't show it. Not any more now than he did when they were little and she found them tangled together like this all of the time. If anything, she would have sworn that he was smiling when she looked up at her precious baby.

Babies. And one of them was hurting.

Gwen was under two blankets with Ben curled around her and she was still shivering just like Sandra's left her sometimes when they were at their worst. When they meant that she barely got out of bed, much less….

"You poor thing," she whispered as her heart twisted at the thought of braving school and karate when she felt like that and she couldn't. "What were you thinking?"

She wanted to blame Natalie, but she knew that the woman would have let her daughter stay home for this. She already showed that she'd come running, and if she knew Natalie at all, then she knew she was waiting by the phone even now.

Any mother would be. Even Sandra's.

No. This wasn't Natalie's fault. Sandra just couldn't figure out why Gwen hadn't just said something. Even if she didn't know what was going on with her body - which Sandra couldn't make herself believe, not when her niece was smarter than all of them - her cramps and headache must have gotten worse all day. but she kept pushing herself anyway. Sure, their Pumpkin was a perfectionist, but she could have missed one day of school, one karate class, one night of hanging out with -

"No," Sandra murmured as she sucked in a breath. Her hand froze as she looked at her son when he shifted and tightened his hold around the red head's middle and then back at Gwen, who sighed like she belonged in his arms…

And that was when Sandra stopped lying to herself. "No, you couldn't, could you?"

Gwen put up with all the pain because she thought seeing Ben was more important. She endured everything until she couldn't. Until it was too much even for her.

Sandra couldn't even remember the last time she'd seen Gwen cry, but she was sure she'd remember the sight of Gwen sobbing on the floor for the rest of her life. She didn't even make it back to the tub or the toilet after she slammed the door on her cousin. She was just crumpled there, leaning against the wall with her pants and underwear tangled around her knees and if the reason wasn't obvious at a glance then Sandra might have joined her even without the cramps.


Except it wasn't just the cramps or the pain that came with them. Not when Sandra knew her niece, who she'd watched argue with her parents and her gymnastics coach as she hobbled along on an ankle that was the size of a melon just because her team needed her to do one more run for the trophy.

No, pain never stopped Gwen. Not even for a second, but that was just a part of the whirlwind that she was going through then.

One that Sandra couldn't help with, either. Not any more than Ben's nightmares. Not even for a second. Not even after she dropped to her knees so she could hold Gwen tight and rock her just like she used to. Not that it helped. Not when her niece was the closest to broken that Sandra had ever seen anybody be.

Or she was until she heard her uncle shout her cousin's name.

That was when Gwen just stopped. Stopped and looked so furious that Sandra was just waiting for the explosion. Especially after they both heard Ben shout that. They were words that Sandra was sure would send the redhead up and out the door even in her condition just so she could say what she thought about being taken care of, but she didn't. No, Gwen just froze, her mouth wide and face wet as she sat there. Then her lips curled up in the biggest smile Sandra had ever seen and everything else was easy after that.

For her anyway. For Sandra...

"You were so brave yesterday," she whispered finally, her voice shaking. "Both of you."

Not that either of the kids heard her. They didn't even shift in their sleep. Of course not, they were Tennysons.

Which was the whole problem.

Her knees ached, but Sandra still didn't move because it would have been so easy to keep thinking of them as kids even after today just from how they looked lying there together. It would have been easy even though Gwen was only a couple of inches shorter than her now and Ben was right behind.

They were both still all knees and elbows after all. Knees and elbows that found every knick-knack and shelf even though karate and soccer taught them to keep track of their bodies above everything else. Scrawny knees and elbows, too, just like the rest of them no matter how much they ate.

But Gwen was still getting curves, even with that. Curves that Sandra couldn't ignore now. Not when Ben had his arm wrapped around her waist. And she wasn't the only one changing. That was obvious from before when Gwen had been using his shoulder as her pillow. Shoulders that Ben would spend the next few years growing into if he was anything like his father.

No, she couldn't lie to herself anymore. They were almost teenagers, almost adults instead of her babies now, even if they would always be that, too.

Adults who she was already so proud of.

Sandra had known for years that her son dreamed of being a superhero like the ones in his comics. The only time he ever got in trouble at school – aside from sleeping or not paying attention because it all moved so slow for him – was when he stood up for someone else. She could see him becoming a police officer or a soldier no matter how much it worried her just so he could keep helping people.

Keep being the hero.

And even if he couldn't - even if he had to do something else because that was just the way life worked - it wouldn't matter. He'd still be a good man and a better husband.

He'd more than proved that tonight and her niece...

Gwen needed to help people almost as much as Ben did. She'd heard enough stories from her and Ben over the years that she knew that school wasn't as easy for her as Ben or Natalie thought, but she never let that stop her. She even knew that she tutored some of the kids who bothered her, and she was always the first to help in karate or gymnastics. It was almost enough that she'd think that Natalie was right and her niece would end up being a lawyer like her father and grandfather or a doctor like her uncle.

Almost, except for the fact that she spent just as much of her day moving as Ben did and it was so hard to see either of them being happily trapped behind a desk.

Which was a bigger problem for Ben than Gwen, admittedly. No, hers was that she had so many demands and expectations forced on her that she lost herself in them, but Sandra knew that the second Gwen figured out what she wanted there would be no stopping her.

And nothing ever stopped Ben.

The thought made Sandra's heart pound in her chest as she looked at the two of them. Did Gwen know who she wanted already? Did Ben? Were they already too late?

Honestly, Gwen was everything Sandra had ever hoped that Ben would find. She was smart, caring, clever, and was willing to fight when she had to. She had the focus Ben didn't, while Ben had the impulsive nature that her niece needed. He was the only one she'd ever seen who could drag the girl out of her books just like she was the only one who could get him to pick one up. They balanced each other so well, made each other better, and she knew that they were already best friends.

"If you weren't cousins…"

But they were.

Sandra stared at the two of them lying side by side and just for a second she saw them. Them in another bed, a narrower bed with -

"No," she whispered as closed her eyes tight and tried her best to shake the thought out of her head because what she saw was the last thing that any of them needed.

She wished she could be happy for them, that she could give them her blessing, but all she could do was give them both a quick kiss because she needed answers and they weren't in this room. Gwen barely moved, but Ben scrunched up his face in protest when he got his and buried it deeper into her hair. It was a move so adorable that Sandra wished that she had her camera even though they were family and it was wrong.

It didn't feel wrong.

She didn't know what to do, but she never had. Not when it came to raising Ben. Neither did Carl. The only thing either of them had ever been sure of, parenting-wise, was that they didn't want to be theirs. Carl forgave his father years ago for all the time away. He forgave it, but he'd never forgotten it. He swore he would always be there for his son and he always was while Sandra...

Sandra's parents had been there too much. Her mother and the Reverend told her what to wear, to think, to do. She felt smothered every day until she finally got away and she never looked back. She promised herself that she would be Ben's friend, not his warden.

Not his judge.

It was such an easy promise to make, especially when they had Verdona there. Verdona, who answered all of their questions in those long-ago days in her kitchen as she taught Natalie how to cook and, Lord, the arguments those two had while she was doing it...

Arguments that Sandra remembered mainly for the after when Verdona found her hiding in the roses outside from the memories that wouldn't go away. Memories that looked so different as the woman showed her that she could still be herself and a part of a family just by being her. By being the kind of woman who would take in two pregnant girls that she'd barely known just because their sons were crazy enough to fall in love with them.

Verdona and Max both because, for all of his faults, he still met them with a smile when he finally came home from work and found two strangers living in his son's rooms. Rooms that were empty when he left.

Somehow, the two of them managed to make that little house a home until they were ready to go out and make their own right before -


Tonight wasn't the first time that Sandra found herself wondering what her mother-in-law might have said about everything that happened since she passed. She hoped that the woman would be proud of them, but honestly…

Honestly, she didn't have a clue what Verdona would have done if she'd found Ben and Gwen like this. Her memories just fell short. There would be no convenient advice from the sassy Irish woman she had loved so dearly.

And no one else's ever measured up.

Not when Verdona made being a mom look so easy. Almost as easy as the idea that all they had to do was the opposite of what their parents did to them and everything would be perfect. It was such a good dream…

One that died the first time Ben started howling in Sandra's arms and it never got any easier after that.

Sandra hugged herself as she wandered into the room across from her son's that Carl claimed as an office after Frank got his. They said it was Carl's office, even though they used it more for storage when the art gallery that she sometimes worked at needed the space while they were putting together a show than anything else.

There wasn't any of that in there tonight, though, Just a rarely-used desk and a couple of dusty bookcases that made Frank's office look all the better. She tried to tell herself that it was because nobody in this house were readers. Not when Carl and Ben both preferred working with their hands and she -

She only ever really collected one type of book.

They were just as dusty as everything else now, but she could still read the names on the spine. Spock, Martin, Latham, and more. They were all the names that promised the answers to all the questions she had. They promised the perfect way to raise her son and she'd read every one, done the exercises, and thought that she was making herself into everything that her parents weren't.

Except she wasn't. Not when Ben kept acting up and acting out. So she got more books, did more exercises, and rearranged their lives over and over as they tried to get it right. She wasted months trying to make him stop calling her mom because some book said that he would be happier being her equal.

She tried to make her son stop calling her mom. What was wrong with her?

But she kept trying, sure that the right book was out there, that one day they'd make this room into the nursery it was always meant to be once she got it right. It wasn't until last year when Natalie lost -

Sandra always wanted more children. As many as Carl still did even if he'd stopped talking about it a long time ago as she tried to figure out the whole parenting thing, but she knew what was on his mind after That Woman showed up at their front door with the surprise because she felt the same thing.

Why her?

She'd been so jealous when Natalie showed up after her doctor's visit even as she cheered. Sandy closed her eyes as the old guilt washed over her because Natalie reminded Sandra of her mother since the day Frank introduced her; the plans, the need for control that was always there, but after Verdona….

After Verdona, just talking to the woman was enough for Sandy to feel like she was trapped again with all the little comments that never ended. Not just at her, but at Gwen, too, as Natalie did all the things with her that she swore she hated when she was growing up. But Gwen did so well and Ben…

Ben always got talked about like Sandra didn't know she was screwing up things with him. From his school and the doctor and even from Max, even if he hid it better, but none of them were as relentless as his aunt. There were so many that she couldn't even look at the woman anymore and then Natalie dared to show up on her driveway just so she could brag…

But she didn't. Her sister-in-law looked as stunned that day as she did when she was clutching onto Frank as he told them about Gwen all those years ago, and the way she looked at Sandra as the words slipped out of her mouth. Like they were still the sisters they swore they'd always be back when they were both pregnant and alone with the only family that would take them.

And then the phone call after…

Kenneth would have been a beautiful baby, and Sandra still had nightmares that started with Frank's broken voice on the telephone and ended with her watching Natalie collapse after the funeral as she just stood there; frozen and useless.

After that, the fighting didn't matter. It just looked stupid and petty.

Especially their endless and nasty war over who was the best mother. They'd fought over that for eleven years, but neither of them even thought about Ben and Gwen after the funeral. At least Natalie had an excuse. Sandra never even realized that the kids disappeared until the next day when Carl mentioned how cute they'd looked when he found them asleep together on the nursery floor.

They were just kids and they had to face that horrible day all alone.

Sandy couldn't even look at the room across from Gwen's, not even after a year, and she didn't know what made Ben and Gwen go inside. She didn't know why, but she knew that they must have been so scared and confused and no one even remembered to check on them.

She wanted to be a rock for her son - and Gwen, too. Someone they could both depend on, but she wasn't. She wanted to be the perfect mother, but she wasn't even a good one.

So she went to the books again so she could find some way to fix things, to make things better for the kids. That was when she finally saw how many there were and how different they all were. She never realized how many times she and Carl had rearranged their lives because of them until then.

No wonder Ben acted out. All the changes must have been so confusing. Heck, they confused her. No wonder Ben worshiped his grandfather. No one ever doubted where they stood with Max.

It took her a long time to admit it, but when she did she put the books away after that and did the best she could without them. She barely even thought about them until now.

Ben needed them to be rocks now, but she still had no idea what she should do. She hadn't touched the books in a year, but right now she wanted to tear them all off of the shelves and dig through them until she found an answer. Her fingers itched as she ran them across their spines.

"Do you think that they'll help this time?" Carl asked behind her. His voice was rough and she knew it wasn't all just because of the hour even before she spun around. He was standing in the doorway with his arms crossed as he glared at the bookcase with bloodshot eyes.

"No," Sandra admitted with a sad little laugh. She didn't even have to open one to know that they wouldn't. She didn't have to, but her fingers traced the names anyway. She could almost guess what the books would say just from the color on the cover. The ones in red would say that her parents were - that they should separate the kids. The one with the yellow would say that it wouldn't work, that separating them would just make the problem worse because they would find a way to see each other and start resenting their parents. The pink would say not to worry, it was a natural crush and that it would go away…

"I wish you would throw them away, then."

"I will," she promised. She made that promise every time he asked, but she still couldn't quite manage.

"You know, you're a good mom without the stupid things," her husband said and she flinched at the words.

"Liar," she whispered, miserable and alone.

And then she wasn't. Then Carl's arms were around her as his lips found hers. Kisses don't lie, she remembered some poem saying and it was always true. Or at least they were with her husband because she felt his whole heart in the warmth of his lips.

His heart and his faith in her. The faith she knew she'd never live up to, but she'd never stop trying either.

That kiss was all Carl said about the horrible word that slipped out of her mouth and it was enough that she wanted to hide and marry him all over again all at the same time even as he went back to what mattered with a murmur, "Forget the books. What do you think we should do?"

"I don't know," Sandra bit out, pushing out of his arms because the weight in his eyes was just too much. If it wasn't for the kids across the hall, she would have screamed. She was so close anyway. "I don't know! I can already hear the jokes. If people found out, they would have a miserable time. And they're family. We can't -" Her voice broke and the rest of her followed because she couldn't finish that sentence. Not after what she'd seen how they acted yesterday. "They could be so happy together."

Carl was there in a flash to hold her as she cried out eight hours' worth of confusion, but he'd always been her rock. One that didn't move except so he could stroke her hair until she was done and she could look up at him again. "Ben acts so much like you."

"He acts like his Grandpa," Carl said as his hand froze and there were years worth of pain in those words. The one thing Carl wanted was to be as close to his son as he always wished he could have been with his father. He wanted it, but it never happened.

She shook her head as much as she could considering she had it pressed against his chest. "He looks up to Max, but everything he did yesterday he learned from watching you." Taking the tea to Gwen, carrying her gym bag, helping her up the stairs...

Carl had done all that and more for her over the years. Ben usually made faces or ran away when it happened, but he proved last night that he was paying attention.

More than she was, anyway. She knew something was wrong with Gwen the moment the girl walked through the dojo door but she didn't get sick with worry until after Carl saw Ben helping her up the stairs. They were arguing whether they should take her to the hospital when Ben came charging back down. He said something to them, but he said the words so fast that they came out in a jumble. Not that the words mattered. Not when the panic in his eyes was enough.

It was a panic that she'd seen before, even if Carl always denied it. Even now, as she gave him a look. "Please, I was never like that."

"You were. You were even worse," Sandy said with a small laugh as she rubbed his chest. "Ben didn't punch a nurse. You did."

"Man was a jackass," Carl grumbled, and it didn't matter that the kids were asleep. Nothing could have stopped her from laughing out loud at the look on his face or kept her from hugging him just because he was still mad about it thirteen years later. It'd been only a few weeks before Ben was born and just after they lost -

Everything was so much harder after they lost Verdona. Maybe if she'd been sick it would have been easier, but she wasn't. It was just one bad wire and…

And just like that, everything changed. If it hadn't, maybe she would have remembered that spotting was normal. Maybe they wouldn't have panicked. Maybe she wouldn't have been almost hysterical by the time they got to the hospital and maybe Carl wouldn't have needed his brother's help after just so he wouldn't have an assault charge on his record...

Maybe. Sandra didn't know. It was all just a blur of her being in bed and - and she didn't handle it any better than Gwen did today. Not really. Then there was a blur of the ambulance and being in a wheelchair as doctors shouted questions at her. Questions that went right over her head in her panic, but Carl was right there. Except he wasn't. She spun around and saw him on the other side of the door trying to get past a nurse who was holding him back. The thought of facing whatever was happening by herself was too much and she just lost it.

One second Carl was arguing with the man, the next the man was on the ground and he was kneeling next to her and hugging her as hard as he could. She never loved him more than she did right then, and she was sure that she looked just as relieved as her niece did last night.

Carl didn't, though. He didn't look anywhere near as bashful back then as he did now. Not even when the police showed up as he let out a grumbled, "But he almost did. Ben tried to shove me out of the way when he heard Gwen..." He finally admitted as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I think he would have taken a swing next if I didn't get him to calm down.

Sandra laughed and leaned up and caught his lips. "And you think he doesn't take after you." He smiled and kissed her back. When they broke apart she sighed, pressed her forehead against his, and whispered. "I'm sorry I didn't listen when you told me months ago."

"It's all right. I didn't believe it back then either. At most, I thought it was just a crush."

It wasn't. She knew that now. It should have made the decision easier, but it didn't. "It's only been a few hours. I need time to think."

"I've been trying to figure it out for six months and I don't know either," Carl said. He sounded exhausted, and not just because it was so early in the morning. "But we have to do something. I mean, they're already sleeping together and - "

"Carl!" Sandra hissed at him, her face burning as she slapped his arm and her eyes went back to the bed because the kids were just cuddling, not - not that.

"I'm just saying," Carl said as he caught her hand, with the teasing laugh that every Tennyson man she'd met hid behind. "I'm too young to be a grandfather, even if dad does make it look like fun."

"Don't even -" Sandra said, but her heart wasn't in it. She closed her eyes, but the moment she did she saw the two of them again as she had a few minutes ago. They were older and... "I don't want to hurt them if we don't have to. I don't - This summer was hard enough on them. I don't want to put them through that again."

It made her feel sick when she thought about how the kids had acted after that nightmare. She still didn't know what happened, all she knew was that the Rust Bucket was trashed and Gwen was hurt. She didn't know why both kids acted like it was their fault or why they stopped talking to each other, but they had.

They barely ate or slept, and in the end, everyone was terrified from all the nights that were shattered by nightmares and days when they just seemed like they were fading away. It was so bad that the whole family got together to find a way to fix things.

They had. A little too well.

It wouldn't be that easy this time. She knew that not when there weren't two more stubborn kids in all of creation. They couldn't make them play nice when they were little, and there was no way they could keep them apart now. Not if they wanted to be together.

Carl made a face like that like he was reading her mind. "I don't want that either, but we have to do something. We have to let Frank and Natalie know."

Sandy looked away. "Do we?"

"Would you like it if they hid this from us?"

"No. No, but…" Sandra tried to breathe, tried to remember that Natalie wasn't her mother and Frank wasn't the Reverend, but… "We don't have anything to tell them. Not really. We haven't seen anything but a few looks."

The words were desperate, and she didn't like the look her husband gave her after they came out. "I know what I saw." And those words…

Those were the same words she heard her mother say, years ago, before the Reverend sent her brother away for the first time.

"I know, b - but what if we're wrong? They're best friends and Natalie would never let - !" Sandra heard the panic rising in her voice as she saw it all happening again and she tried to stop it before it became anything worse. Her husband's hug helped a little. So did the rough feel of his stubble brushing her forehead, but that didn't stop the chant of mother would that ran through her head. Only time did that. Time that seemed to stretch on forever before she could say, "I can't do that to them. Not just because Ben was worried about his cousin. I need a kiss or love notes or something before we - !"

She wondered if Ben and Gwen had even had their first kiss yet, or if this was still as innocent as it looked, and what she'd find if she searched Ben's room. Or his phone, the one he always had with him. The one he was always looking at when Gwen wasn't with him, and it wasn't any mystery who he was talking to or texting with. It was everything that she'd sworn she would never do, but now she was tempted.

Carl closed his eyes and she knew he was counting to ten. Then to twenty. Finally, he just sighed and she felt him nod. "We can't just ignore this."

"We don't have to ignore it, but there must be a middle ground between letting them do whatever they want and separating them tonight."

Carl let her go so he could start pacing. He always did that when he had to think. He said it helped get the blood moving. She looked at him and realized that he wasn't just trying to make her feel better. He really was still trying to figure things out, even with a six-month head start. It should have made her feel better as she watched him chew on that. "We can give them some new rules."

A part of Sandra recoiled at the very idea. That was the part that wanted a new book in the desperate hope that she could find something that they hadn't thought of, something that would prove her parents wrong. But for once she swallowed it down even though it tasted like bile. "No more closed doors, lights on. That kind of thing?"

It was a good idea. One that could work and it would give them time.

"No more sleeping together?" The love of her life added with a snort. "Yeah. I'm sure we can talk Frank into going along with that without..."

Without blowing everything apart before they knew if they should or not. "They'll hate it."

"Kids need rules to hate," Carl said like he'd heard it before, and she knew it wasn't from Max. Knew it and felt a sad smile spread across her face as he sighed and looked across the hall at the closed door. "Not tomorrow, though. I'm pretty sure that we can let them think that they got one more over on us without too many problems." Then his face twisted in dismay. "But I guess I'll have to give Ben the Talk again."

Sandy grinned with relief because that was all so much better than the words she'd been dreading all her life - that her parents were right. And because it was better coming from him than her. "And I'll talk with Natalie because Gwen should get one, too."

"Watch that grin. I'm sure she'll find some way to make you take care of that for her, too."

"I would," she said, as she scowled up at him and crossed her arms. "In a heartbeat. I'm just glad I was here when Gwen needed me. Heaven help her if I was out and you had to take care of her."

"If you thought I was frantic back when I hit that nurse," Carl shuddered. "I'm going to tell Frank he owes me a steak dinner for last night the next time I see him."


"Fine, two steak dinners." Carl was smirking as he came back over to kiss her again. "Come on. They'll be here in a few hours and you should try to get a little sleep."

She wanted to, she really did, but she knew that if she went to bed now she wouldn't sleep a wink. Even without the worry, there was something she wanted to do first. Something she hadn't done in years. "You go ahead. I'll be there in a few minutes."

He glared over at the bookcase. "You're not going to spend the rest of the night with those things, are you?"

"No. Tomorrow they all go in the trash. I mean it this time." He looked at her and she swatted his arm because she was telling the truth. It wasn't anyone else's marks on paper that she was interested in now. "Go on. I love you."

"I love you, too," he said as he gave her hand one last squeeze and her lips one more kiss. Then he was gone and she was all alone with the quiet again. She closed the door and turned on the light. She blinked at the sudden glare as she made her way to the closet that she never opened. Not since they moved in all those years ago. The boxes inside were right where she left them, unopened and untouched even by Ben, which was a miracle.

Most of them were full of memories and the things that they saved from the house that'd been her home for only a few months and Carl's for barely any longer as he followed his Dad across the country, but they still hurt too much to look at and meant too much to get rid of even after all this time. She still remembered what was in every one, though, which was how she found the small one in the back so easily.

It was covered in a thick layer of dust, but everything inside still looked okay as the weight of her favorite pad sent her sinking into the chair in front of the desk. She had more, ones that were filled with little bits of inspiration and whatever caught her eye, but this one was special. This was the one she filled with all the pictures she couldn't get out of her head any other way and she couldn't stand to lose. Not even the first few pages, which were full of faces that she didn't want to remember and were done in charcoal as black as her thoughts when she made them. Even now her eyes skimmed over all of the faces except for her brother's.

Not the three she hadn't seen in years, but the one she still did. Eric, who Ben always used to say was his favorite uncle back when he was still fighting with Gwen and Sandra always agreed because he was her favorite brother, too, and he always had been. But seeing him like this - seeing him back before their parents found out that he loved in a way that their Book said was wrong and they sent him off like it was something that could be fixed...

She'd caught him back when his smile still lit up a room just like Ben and Gwen's did now and the thought of them losing theirs like he did almost made her throw up. It was as sick as she'd felt back then when she started to fill the book with all the demons that she couldn't let out any other way, back she was sure she'd burn the thing when she had it full.

She'd done it before.

Maybe she would have thrown this one in, too, when she left for college if she had the money for another one after she convinced the Reverend that she'd serve the church best if they used her head for numbers for something besides baking even though she was only a few pages in.

Fresh starts meant so much to her back then.

But now she was glad she didn't as she gave Eric's face one more look and promised herself she'd call him in the morning before she turned the page to better memories and happier faces. Faces like her old roommate, Mary, who was the first person Sandra met who wasn't in the church. Mary, who introduced her to her husband and jeans and so many other things even as she scared off anyone who brought a bible around. Her and the rest of the old gang who still meant the world to her even if she hadn't seen them in years...

And the one she still saw every day. Her Carl. Her Rock.

She'd made so many drawings of her husband. Some on the sly when they took that first art class together before Mary arranged his introducing himself to Sandra because he was the most handsome man she'd ever seen and she knew she'd regret it all her life if she let him slip away. Others were from when they were dating, and a couple after they were married at the courthouse with just her brother and his as witnesses and he looked so young in all of them.

Young and nervous once he realized what she was doing, which was always adorable.

That was true for all the ones she'd made of him, though. All of them except for the one drawing that she'd hidden in the middle of her book where he was still young, but not the least bit nervous. Maybe he would have been if he was awake when she sketched him, but she'd done it one night after they…

It wasn't their first time. It wasn't the night that they'd made their son either. She didn't think so anyway, but it was close. She didn't even remember why she got out of bed, but when she got back and saw him lying there in all of his glory she just couldn't resist.

And it was so worth it.

It still was, as she took him in again now. He still made her bite her lip as she looked him over because some things hadn't changed in all these years. And if Ben ended up taking after his father there, too, then Gwen -

That thought made Sandra's smile die and her face burn as she desperately flipped through the pages praying it would go away. Which it did, eventually, as time went by with each flip and new faces appeared. Her new family. The one she married into and who welcomed her with the open arms she never imagined she deserved. Max and Verdona looked up at her the way she'd always remembered them, with warm smiles and warmer hearts. Frank and his quiet grin, Natalie as she rolled her eyes and cupped her full stomach, teasing and stuck up all at the same time, and finally the kids…

She was almost shocked when she saw how few there were of the kids. She was sure that she'd filled up most of the book with them, but there were barely a dozen pages filled with little sketches of them when they were only weeks old. They were sleeping in their cribs, getting baths, crying, and getting dressed, and always together because that was when they were their cutest. They were wide-eyed in all of them as they tried to take in everything. She drank in all of them as she tried to remember when being a mom was easy.

Except it never was.

She knew that the second she found the last thing that she ever drew. It was something that she started late one night when she couldn't sleep and somehow Ben was. It was the only thing she'd ever done that wasn't her catching a moment that she couldn't let go of because it never happened even though she wished with all her heart that it had.

It was a full-page sketch of Verdona holding her grand-babies.

Sandra felt her breath catch as she stared at the drawing. It caught every detail of the kids right down to the ribbons that Gwen used to love having in her hair and Ben used to love tugging on and their toothless smiles as they cuddled the woman who was holding them so close, one in each arm...

The only thing that was missing was her mother-in-law's face. There was just a blank spot where it should have been.

Sandra could still remember the little lilt in her mother-in-law's laugh from an accent that she never managed to entirely lose and the way her hands moved as she cooked, but everything else slipped away. Things like how her mouth turned as she smiled or if she had lines around her eyes when she did were just gone and the worst part was that she never even noticed until she tried to catch them all on paper one last time.

Verdona had taken her in, taken care of her, had been the mother Sandra always wished she had and - and she hadn't been able to remember her face after just eight months! It wasn't fair!

Even now that betrayal made her vision blur and threaten to add more tear stains to that old paper. That betrayal was when Sandra put down her pencils and put everything in the dusty box at her feet. She never thought she would pick them up again until tonight as she wiped her eyes and reached for the little tin box that had her best ones.

But she wasn't there for that empty space, the one she knew she'd never fill. No, she was there for the blank page that was across from it. A page she started to fill with the two faces that she'd only seen glimpses of so far, but she already knew she'd never forget.

How could she? She'd been watching them their whole lives after all. Them and their parents. It was so easy to see the faces that Ben and Gwen were growing into.

Gwen's was a mix of all the best parts of both her mother and both of her grandmothers. Sandra already knew that she would grow up to be proud, strong, and determined and it was so easy to catch that on the paper. She'd almost done it before, plenty of times, but this time…

This time she started drawing what she'd seen while she watched them sleep just a few minutes ago. The strength was still there as Gwen laid there, exhausted in her cousin's arms in another bed. Only now she was older and awake with a smile that somehow shone even in black and white. So did the red of her hair as it flowed over her shoulder like Verdona's had when she let it down, only Sandra made Gwen's mane even longer and wilder as it spilled down the front of her open hospital gown and the too-thin blanket that Sandra remembered all too well.

Ben's was the picture of his father and his Grandfather as he laid there with his arm around Gwen's shoulders so she'd have a more comfortable pillow than what the hospital gave out. He was the gentle giant she always knew her son would grow into, and there was just as much love in his eyes as she saw in both of those men every day. Love and an iron will that was wrapped around a heart of gold, all of which she'd seen in her son already. The beard was new, but it fit him just as well as it did his father back when she first met Carl and before he got the promotion that meant that he had to shave it off. Besides, somehow seeing her son grown and with a bare chin somehow just seemed wrong. Even if it did hide some of his smile as he reached over with his free hand for Gwen's chest….

And the tiny newborn bundle who was snuggled up there in her mother's arms with her eyes closed and her little face all scrunched up as she nursed.

Their daughter, Sandra knew. She knew it from the second she saw this in Ben's room just like she knew that the fine hair that Ben was stroking with his thumb was a brilliant red and that their baby would have his smile, Gwen's nose, and their grandmother's heart shining through her green eyes when she opened them again.

Just the thought made Sandra grin as her pencils caught every detail...

- o - o - o - o - o -

One Week Later

" - guess I'll see you later, Nerdalinger," Sandra heard her son say as she stood there in the open doorway of his room, her heart cracking because real life was never as clean as her drawings.

Crack like her niece's voice didn't. "Only if I step under a ladder, Dork Face." The insults were the only things that hadn't changed, but the way they said them...

Now that she was paying attention, Sandra heard how tender their voices were under the edge they put into the words just like she saw how desperately Ben was staring at his television as the credits from the movie they just watched rolled by. The credits and not the girl who was pushing herself out of the bed they shared while they were watching it.

With the lights on and the door open, but still…

Sandra knew what she saw every time she walked by as they talked and cuddled right through everything. And she knew what she saw now as her son gave it his all to act like he didn't care that Gwen was leaving. Only his eyes didn't get the message as they kept going to his cousin. His hands didn't either, they were too busy strangling the pillow he was holding onto, but he was never the best liar.

Neither was Gwen, who didn't drag her feet or hang her head, but still walked like she was on her way to the electric chair as she went to the spot by his desk where the usually orderly girl just dumped all of her stuff after Karate.

And Sandra wasn't the only one who noticed.

"Are you sure that you don't want me to - ?" Carl said from the other side of the doorway, his voice low and nervous even though Sandra was sure that he could have screamed the question and neither of the kids would have noticed right now.

A part of her still wished that she could pass this off onto anyone else. That was the part that felt the weight of her purse as she slipped it over her shoulder. It was her biggest and the one that both of the men in her life swore could hold Max's RV when she dared pull it out of her closet, but that wasn't why it was so heavy tonight.

It wasn't why she felt sick, her stomach tight with the same anxiety she saw playing in her husband's eyes. Maybe that was why she got the courage to smile and tease, "Do you really want to trade?"

Her husband helped bring down buildings, but his eyes still got so wide at that. Wide enough that she couldn't help letting out a titter of a laugh before she kissed him and followed the girl who finally finished picking up her stuff. The girl who slunk down past them both and down the steps.

And Sandra thought that Gwen was moving slowly before.

It felt like it took forever for them to get into the garage and her minivan. Then it was just a blink of her eye before they were on the road. A blink before they were almost back to Gwen's house and the stress squeezed out the only question she didn't dare ask. "Did you have fun tonight, Sweetie?"

There weren't any good answers to that and Sandra felt her hands go tight around the steering wheel as she wished she could pull the words right out of the air. But that would take a miracle and she didn't ask for one, not tonight.

There weren't any good answers, but she never imagined that the miserable "I guess" that came from the passenger seat would hurt so much. Enough that it took Gwen a whole thirty seconds before she looked up again after Sandra turned. "This isn't - " she started as she stared up at the golden arches of the little fast food place that never took off like it should have instead of the road back to her house. "Aunt Sandra?"

Sandra heard the question just like she heard someone honk behind her as she remembered that she had to park, but none of it mattered. Not now. Not as she forgot everything that she was going to say and it didn't come back. Not even after Gwen grabbed up her backpack and yanked it open for the phone she didn't go anywhere without. "Is something wrong with the van? Grandpa taught me some stuff, but Ben paid more attention. I can call him and - "

"No!" Sandra said, the word too fast and her voice too loud before Gwen could dial. "No," she said again, trying for the calm she needed. "There's nothing wrong with my minivan."

A calm that didn't come. Not when she could see the worry and confusion in Gwen's emerald eyes in the glow of her flip phone, her finger hanging over the familiar glowing green and black hourglass-shaped logo on the screen.

A glow that vanished as Sandra reached over and closed the phone because she couldn't do this if she saw her niece looking at her. You shouldn't do it at all. It wouldn't be your place even if you weren't - her mother's voice said in the back of her head. The one that always made her feel two feet tall and scurrying for a book, an adult….

And she laughed as the thought made her shift against the purse she'd set down next to the door because there wasn't any hesitation in Gwen's voice, just worry and steel. "That's it, I'm calling mom then."

Maybe there were miracles because Sandra couldn't imagine a better opening. Miracles or curses even if the words were meant as a threat.

"I'm okay, Sweetie," Sandra swore as she pushed a shaking hand through her hair before Gwen could dial. And the shaking didn't stop there. "It's just - She's - your mom's - She talked to you, right?"

"About?" Gwen asked, her hand lowering from her phone as her shoulders slumped. Not much. Ladies didn't, but hers did. Just a tad. "Oh. That. I'm doing my best with all of the invitations, but I have a lot of work at school and Ben said maybe he can come over and help Sun - ?"

"No," Sandra broke in before she could finish, and the soft oh that she got back made her feel two inches tall. "I mean, I'm sure that he can, but - " but honestly, she'd completely forgotten about the family reunion that Natalie was planning for Christmas break and the invitations that she swore had to be hand-written. "I swear, I'll never understand - " she started before she swallowed down the rant even before Gwen could even wince.

It would have been safer, though - complaining about how Natalie treated her daughter. Treatment that echoed all the angry, hurt stories that Sandra remembered hearing when they all lived together. Stories that came with promises that Natalie somehow forgot that she'd ever made - but Gwen didn't need safe. Not right now. Neither of the kids did.

"No, it's not about that. I wanted to make sure that your mom talked to you about what happened last week. About - "

And she thought that her niece winced before. "Aunt Sandraaaaa," the girl moaned as she hid her face in her hands.

"This is important, Gwen," Sandra said as she made herself sit still and not run to the landfill and see if she could find the books that the garbage man took away not three days ago.

"She did," Gwen squeaked out from between her fingers, each word more miserable. Miserable enough that Sandra felt guilty at how relieved that made her. "We talked about tampons and - and how ladies don't - don't until they get married and - "

And just like that, the relief was gone. "Good," Sandra whispered even though it wasn't. And then she admitted something she never had before, not even to her husband. "My mother never did."

"She didn't ?" Gwen asked, her shock clear as she peeked through her fingers.

"I mean, she told me about how to - " How to hide what happened. How to clean up after her first period and what she should do for every one after. She had to. Who else would? "But not about the rest. No one did. Not until I met Mary, my roommate in college."

Mary, who laughed when Sandra called her the name that her mother called all the girls who did what she caught her best friend doing one day when she came back to their dorm early. She laughed right through the covers that she yanked up over her head a heartbeat too late and then she looked so sad for Sandra when she peeked out after. "I didn't understand anything that was going on with my body."

Because it was dirty, she heard her mother's voice say as Sandra reached for her purse. As dirty and evil as that, and how dare you show it to a child?

It was just a wisp from the past, but it still stayed Sandra's hand until she heard another scoff, What nonsense.

"Not until she gave me this," Sandra said as she fought past the memory of the woman who brought her into the world and clung to one of the mother that she only had for a few months. It was Verdona's strength that gave her enough to pull out the book inside and shove it into Gwen's hands.

"What is it?" Gwen asked, excited despite herself as she opened her phone again and shined the light over the cover. A cover and a title she knew didn't answer any of Gwen's questions as she read it. Our Bodies, Ourselves. It was a well-worn copy, even if Sandra hadn't opened it in years. She thought about buying a new one, but passing on hers seemed…

She didn't know.

Neither did Gwen, who called her name for a third time as she opened the book and saw the photograph printed inside. This time with a shriek as the redhead slammed the book shut again.


"I know - I know it's embarrassing and I'm the last one that you want to talk about this with," Sandra babbled because she swore that she could feel the heat of her niece's blush even though she didn't dare look away from the steering wheel. "But I just want you to know that you shouldn't be ashamed of anything you're feeling or what your body is doing or what it's going to do. It's natural, and it can be wonderful, and if you or Ben ever have any questions - "

She knew she'd made another mistake even before she heard Gwen stammer, "B-Ben? Why would we - I mean that Doofus - ?!"

And there wasn't an answer for that. None that Gwen could give, and none that Sandra could hear. Not until she knew what she should do, so she settled for a shrug and a weak, "I - I just want you both to know that I'm always here and I love you and nothing is going to change that. You don't have to read the book if you don't want to. I just - "

Made a mess of things, Sandra thought as even those words died away and she pulled back onto the road in the silence that followed. This time she didn't even need her mother to tell her so. The rest of the drive went without a sound until Gwen just shoved the book into her backpack and disappeared out the door without even saying goodbye. She barely even waited until the van stopped in her driveway.

At least it was dark out. At least no one saw it when Sandra let her head fall against the steering wheel when she was alone. "Stupid." She hissed to herself as she took what comfort she could in the cold, hard plastic. What made her think that she could do any of this? That she could ever be there for anyone? "Natalie is never going to - "

She had her eyes closed, so she never saw the shape come rushing around her minivan. Not until it yanked open her door and she felt a sudden hug. "Thank you," Gwen whispered before she was gone again.

It was a hug that might have been just from manners or kindness, but it still got Sandra home, and changed, and back into the arms of her husband as he lay in their bed. The tension that filled his chest and arm told her just how well his talk went. "I'm sure that it wasn't that bad."

"I'm just saying that I hope that you don't like spending time with our son, because I don't think we'll be seeing him again until Christmas," Carl said with a snort and a sigh as she settled against him. "How about yours?"

"I don't know," Sandra admitted as she sagged against his bare chest and thought back over everything she'd said. Everything she could have said better. She thought it all over and finally dared a smile as she listened to his heartbeat.

She didn't know, but for the first time in forever, she had faith.