Chapter 4: Moments of Gold and Flashes of Light
Gwen Tennyson's House
6: 38 pm; October 28, 2000
" - much fun it is watching you freak out like this!"
"Shut up!" Gwen snapped back at the open phone that was lying on her desk. Or she tried to, anyway, but there were too many butterflies in her belly and they stole away all her fire. Stole it and dropped it all off in her cheeks even as she fumbled with the knot of the bright purple sash around her waist again because it wasn't perfect and everything tonight had to be!
She just wished that everybody else got the message.
"Nope! Not after you yawned your way into wrecking the curve again today in math," Michelle cooed in French as Gwen finally got her sash right. The tone of her best friend's voice should have been lost in the sound of all the others and the high-pitched screams around her, but somehow that just made it worse because she was acting like this around people! "Which I don't think you could do right now if you tried. Quick, what's four plus four?"
"You tell me, you butt!" Gwen shot right back in the same language because she didn't know. Not right now, not when she forgot about the sash so she could smooth out all the impossible wrinkles in the dark purple spandex of her unitard. The new one that she told her mother was a little too big, but the universe hated her today so of course the things came back no matter how many times she pulled at the fabric. They were almost as bad as the tingles in her fingertips. The ones she was sure weren't mana and almost hoped was a heart attack because that would be easier. "You're not helping!"
"Who said I was going to help?" Michelle shot right back with a giggle. One that faded into a sigh. "Okay, okay. I'm only teasing you because I wish I was there."
Gwen gave the innocent flip phone an ugly look as she looked at her sneakers for a long, hopeful moment before her hand went for her dance shoes instead. Her sneakers would be so much more comfortable, but -
But maybe... "So you can do something useful?"
"So I can see what color your face is, you hussy!" Her so-called best friend said with a cackle that would have been at home in any of the bad guys' mouths, and Gwen's sneaker was flying even before the kissing noises started.
"Hate you!" Gwen shouted as the shoe missed her phone by that much, and only because Gwen didn't know what she'd do without it. The girl on the other end, though…
"I heard that! And you've got to calm down, Gwen. Tonight was your idea!"
"And you were supposed to talk me out of it!" Gwen groaned as she collapsed into the chair she'd pulled in front of her dresser so she could use the mirror as she got ready. Only now she used it so she could bang her forehead head against the wood a couple of times. "I don't know what I was thinking."
Besides the fact that this would be the first night that she'd have alone with her Doofus in weeks. Like that was important!
"Who knows what's going on in that brain of yours, Crazy Girl? I sure don't, but it's probably something about making your first - "
"Michelle!" Gwen hissed as she sprung up and grabbed her phone even as her eyes shot to the closed door just a few feet away. A door she was sure was going to get kicked in even as her mind filled her best friend's bedroom room with everyone that she ever knew or met and she could see them all gasping at the words.
Everyone. Her parents and Ben's. So were Michelle's and her brothers. Even the nice woman who always kept an eye out for the good stuff at the bookstore. Heck, she even saw Clancy there, and the only thing that was weirder than his bug face was that he was standing there with her morföräldrar.
But nothing she imagined was as bad as the high-pitched shriek that erupted from the phone. "What are you doing over there, you little Goblin?! You know that I'm on the phone, are you spying - ?!" that was almost as loud. The rest was a little softer. Soft enough that her words were almost lost in the somewhat quieter noise, but not enough to hide the hurt in them. "Sorry, Elias was just being a twerp and - and you need to stop worrying. I can barely hear you and nobody else is paying any attention to me right now. I wouldn't do that to you."
"I know," Gwen said again with a miserable groan as she buried her face and phone in her arms and tried to remember how breathing worked. "I just - "
"Michelle!" Another voice cut in, distant and harried even in the hummus taste of Arabic. "Michelle, are you up there? Your guests are here and you need to - !"
"I know, Mama!" Michelle shouted back before the woman could finish and then she let out a groan of her own. "I've got to go."
"I know," Gwen echoed back without opening her eyes. "See you soon?"
"After all that work I better! And tonight's not going by without me seeing that mystery costume of yours. Just remember that it's just a - " And then the French disappeared without a thought and English came roaring back as Michelle shouted, "Hey! Hey, I saw you, Jacobs! Those are for the brats, so put them back before I make those bones - !"
The rest was lost in a shout that made Gwen spring back up and eye her phone as the line went dead. "And you call me crazy," she murmured because it was easier than finishing getting ready as she put her chin on her arms. For just a moment, she let herself imagine staying there and letting the night slip by, but only for a second. It was all she ever managed before a lifetime of words that always started with 'a lady doesn't' echoed in her ears.
They echoed, but for once they weren't what made her push herself back up. No, it was the time that was shining so bright on her phone.
The one he made for her years ago. Not that it mattered, not when she could still see how nervous he was when he gave it to her and hear all the insults he sent her way as he did like she couldn't see right through them.
Insults she'd be hearing again if he saw the same dopey grin that she did in her mirror as she remembered her favorite birthday. The same one that everyone would be seeing tonight if she - "Nope! Nopenopenope! Not going there!" She said as she grabbed the last bit of her costume off of its peg in the wall by her mirror. The most important part.
The cat face-shaped one she'd gotten in New Orleans that always seemed silly and sublime all at the same time when she wore it so she could kick butt. And it still did as she traced a gloved finger over the light purple design that surrounded the eyeholes of the mask.
Sometimes she was sure that there was power in that design. Maybe she wore it at first just so she could show up her Doofus just once that first summer, but now…
Now she put it on and it wasn't like Gwen Tennyson went away and Lucky Girl took her place, but there was still a change. There was still a hero grinning back at her in the mirror. One who never got nervous about anything. Not even about tonight.
Or the little metal tube that was sitting there on her dresser in front of her, mocking her.
It had taken her an entire Saturday afternoon and four different stores in the mall just so she could find the right shade of purple that would match the highlights on her mask with the girl who just hung up and who teased her without mercy during.
Not the gloss or balms she'd been using for as long as she could remember either because Ladies didn't have chapped lips, even if it was always fun trying new flavors. Fun for her and Ben, too, now as she tried not to blush as she remembered his new favorite game, but that was for kids. And she wasn't. Not anymore. That was why she was here in her bedroom, staring into the mirror over her dresser and -
And it felt like magic as she picked the tube up.
No, it felt like the moment just before she said the words when the world around her hummed with potential or the second after her Doofus brought his hand down on the Watch when the world burned bright with green light and she wondered which alien he'd chosen…
"Overdramatic much?" Gwen asked herself just like he would. "It's just lipstick, you nerd. It doesn't mean anything!"
Except it did. It meant even more than the spells she knew that would do pretty much the same thing. Glamours like the one that was hiding the big red spot on her forehead that she just had to get today, but that wasn't real. Not like the cool metal tube she picked up.
Which didn't make any sense, but it didn't keep her from fighting a grin as she twisted the tube and imagined what his face would do when he saw her looking like a wom -
That train of thought shattered with the shout that she'd heard too many times over her life and the sounds of elephant feet charging up the stairs. Sounds that gave her just enough time to shove the tube away before her bedroom door slammed open.
And a superhero charged in.
Not the alien ones she'd seen so many times over the years, or the one with the brown and tan costume she was expecting. None of them wore capes. The cape itched at her brain and it wasn't because of the comics she'd stolen when there wasn't anything else around and there was only so long she could stare at trees as Grandpa drove. No, she could just remember being in this room before as she tied a cape just like it around her neck, back when her room was huge and there was a stool by her bed so they could clamber into it while they played…
A cape Ben shared, but that was all. He always kept the rest of the blue and white costume for himself. Her favorite shade of blue, she realized with a start as she stared. Only…
Only Ultra Man's costume wasn't anywhere near as tight when he was four! It was tight enough that she could see the body he usually hid under the baggy clothes that he loved. The one she usually only felt and…
And it wasn't the body she remembered from when they went to the future, the one that was all muscles on top of muscles, but it still made her bite the lip that she never got a chance to paint because she could see the start of it under the spandex that was every bit as tight as hers.
She saw it and it stole away everything else as she finished her spin on her chair so she could face him as her heart pounded right over the sound of the words that she should have said, that any real lady would have. The demand to know what he was thinking, barging into her room like this when she could have been getting changed!
Like she just was. If he'd done this two minutes earlier he would have seen...
And that thought brought a fresh heat all its own. One that she knew would have made even her Doofus jump and scramble away when it sank in what he'd just done. Not that it seemed like that would happen any time soon as he yanked her door shut behind him and stared at her room through his visor like he'd never seen it before. "Gwen?"
His name was right there on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn't say it. Not his real one and all the others she called him, but she couldn't say them. Not as she sat there and stared for an endless moment until she finally heard a voice squeak out, "U-Ultra-Man?"
It was her voice, her so-called genius brain finally realized. Even if it did sound just like those girls in all the cartoons that he made her watch with him. Girls who made her roll her eyes because they should have been able to save themselves like Lauren Spade always did instead of waiting for some dummy, but the Cat's Meow never had to deal with her Doofus and -
And she couldn't do this! Not tonight! Not if he was dressed like that!
Gwen wanted to scream, to run and hide as all the nerves that even another night spent in the woods with her spellbook couldn't burn away came roaring back. She would have given anything if she could just forget all about Halloween even though she knew he would never forgive her and Michelle would never let her live it down. She couldn't, though. Not even if her panic left her knees just as tied as his costume left her tongue. Not that it mattered when his head spun around before she could do anything. "There you are!" He started, relief filling his voice.
Too much relief. Enough that she wished she could see more than a hint of his eyes through the blue plastic of his visor when he saw her as she watched his mouth drop. For a second she was sure that she'd made a mistake wearing her costume even though they talked about it and he said -
"Wegottago!" He said and he held out his hand even as he shook off whatever it was that caught his tongue.
"What's going on?" She demanded. Her stomach fell even as she pulled on her mask and tried not to be glad that she had something hiding the flush she could feel as she took his hand even though now so wasn't the time. At least he wasn't wearing the Watch, she thought even as he started for the wrist where it should have been before he made a face. "Is it - ?"
The words Hero Time didn't get past her lips. They never had a chance before her bedroom door swung open again, and her daddy stuck half of his body inside. He was wearing a black cape and false vampire teeth and he waggled his eyebrows behind his glasses before spouting off, in the most embarrassing way possible, "Bleh bleh bleh!"
"Daddy!" Gwen shrieked as she spun around again, only luck keeping her in her seat as she jumped. "What're you…"
"What, I can't scare my little girl on Halloween?" He sniffed, dropping the cape and the arm he'd been holding it up with back down, and smirked.
"You didn't knock!" Gwen blurted out, looking over to Ben who was standing by her window and half outside of it.
"Well, neither did Ben." Her dad pointed out, smirking at catching her out. He could be such a lawyer sometimes. "You didn't yell at him, though." He pouted, and Gwen's heart sank a little as it filled up with dread. He glanced over to Ben and sighed. "Really, Ben. What are you doing? I know you're dressed up like a superhero but do your poor uncle's insurance rates a favor and just use the front door."
Ben huffed and climbed back inside, shutting the window. "Sorry, Uncle Frank. I thought my dad was after me and - "
"Yes, well. I cut him off at the pass." Gwen's daddy winked and sobered up. "I'm not going to yell, but he does have a point, Ben. It's a rule not to go closing doors, and you should know better by now." He looked over to Gwen and she shivered at his owl-eyed stare that looked even bigger through his glasses. "Or my kitten should at least."
"Daddy!" Gwen groaned as that stomach-turning feeling of guilt gnawed away at her even harder, and it took everything she had not to blurt out something more than "I'm not a cat!"
And then Ben took over the talking for them, thankfully. "Okay, fine. But we need to get going, and I knew that my Dweeb was probably up here fidgeting when she didn't have to."
She didn't know how Ben did that, how he just said things so calmly. Like New Year's, after he'd slid the champagne flute out of sight and acted normal for his dad even though they'd just kissed. Or right now, when her heart felt like it would jump out of her chest because she was stuck looking at her dad and feeling like they'd been caught before she could even start her plans for tonight.
"Right. And you were climbing out the window because…?" Her dad asked in a drawl.
"Because it's faster, duh!" Ben said with the smug grin and wave of his arm that always drove her crazy because he only did it when he was lying, but it still made her dad's scowl break as he laughed.
"Well, let's leave the daredevil stuff for your stunt doubles, okay? You ready, Pumpkin?"
Gwen just barely managed to keep from looking for the tube of lipstick that had rolled somewhere on her desk. She swallowed dry and stood up, wondering if her mask did anything to hide how she was feeling. "Y - yeah." She forced up a weak smile. "Nice costume, daddy. The trick-or-treaters are gonna love it."
"Well, I didn't have to try very hard to do better than my brother." Her father said smugly and turned in the direction of a mumbled 'Hey!' from the hall, which meant he didn't notice how Ben grabbed Gwen's hand and pulled her along. Neither did Uncle Carl, who was wearing an ape mask, and the two took to arguing about who had the better costume as they all headed downstairs.
Or he shouldn't have, but she could have sworn that her uncle kept glancing back at them even as he gave her daddy a shove. "Oh, please, Frank. The scariest thing you have to deal with is a client paying late."
And it became more than a glance after Ben took her hand as they reached the bottom of the stairs and started pulling her towards the front door like it was a race between the two. A race that Aunt Sandra stopped dead when she swooned, "Oh, Gwen, honey. You make such a pretty kitty!"
"I'm not - " Gwen tried again.
Not that it mattered. Not when her mother joined in, her hands clasped together. "Frank, get the camera! Mor and Far won't - !"
She started, but she never got a chance to finish. "Sorry, Aunt Natalie, but if we don't hurry up we're going to be late." Ben apologized in a rush. "And the Dweeb here's already eaten up the clock!"
Like any of that would matter to her mom. "Then you should stop talking, Ben," she said with a look all of her own as she pushed the two of them together by the front door and all the Halloween stuff that was piled around it while her daddy grabbed up the camera he'd left on the breakfast bar. "And smile."
Ben's face did something when the flash went off after that - something that made Gwen giggle into her hands - but it wasn't a smile. Neither was the look on her mother's face as her hand went to her hip, but it got them through the next one and the six more after that until both of their moms were happy and her daddy was setting down the camera again.
"Well, you two have fun. Don't forget to call when you're ready to leave!" he cautioned them as he did. "And don't think that I missed that look, Pumpkin…"
Maybe her daddy's words were teasing, but her aunt's weren't. "About that…" she started, her grin fading as she sat down on the couch again, picked up the popcorn, and started poking at the kernels.
"Sandra?" her mom asked.
And Aunt Sandra took a breath and looked up. "Carl and I were thinking that maybe one of us should go with them."
"Mom…" Ben bit out at the same time as Gwen's daddy blinked and asked, "Why? The Hallams will be there."
"So will half of the base," her mom added, just as dumbfounded as she sat down on the couch, too, and reached out with an uncertain smile plastered on her face. "What brought this on? I thought that I was supposed to be the - "
"I just thought that it would be fun watching them trick or treat again," Uncle Carl cut in as he rubbed the back of his neck, which made his gorilla mask bob before he pressed on. "And that it would be safer?"
"Safer?" Gwen asked at the same time as her mom, but she was the one Aunt Sandra looked at, and for a second…
"From what? Elm Street?" He broke in with a snort and a toothy grin that didn't have anything to do with his fake fangs as he sat down next to Gwen's mom and her aunt on the couch. "I mean, my Pumpkin could handle Freddy when she was eight, but if you need her here so she can hold your hand, Carl…"
Her uncle let out a gasp so fake and so loud that Gwen could hear it even through the thick rubber mask he was wearing, but it was her aunt who cried out, "You let her - ?!"
"Not while I was home!" Her mother declared with a glare and swatted at her daddy's leg as he sat down next to her. "Frank!" She started as her daddy put his arm around her shoulders, pulled her close, and then -
"Frank! Natalie!" Gwen heard her aunt laugh as her parents kissed right there in front of everyone! Not that her mother and father cared.
Not even as her uncle added, "Frank, The kids are here! You're going to give them nightmares!"
They didn't notice it when Gwen sucked in a breath, either, as she reached for the old carved rock that was hiding under her unitard and right over her heart. The Keystone of Bezel once let her make leaps that were better than any Olympian and punch like a Heavyweight, but even if it still worked she knew it wouldn't have been enough to make her turn away from the horror.
Nothing but the grip of the boy who put that Charm on a necklace and placed it around her neck in the first place. And he did it with the same hands that took her by the arm now and pulled until they were out of the house, away from their distracted parents, and running down the streets of Bellwood.
Ben's mad dash only lasted for a block, but he didn't let go even when they were walking. His fake smile got replaced with one that was more honest and he did lose a lot of the tension he'd been carrying. "Finally," he muttered, giving her a look. "What was keeping you, anyways? The bad guys would have been halfway to New York if it was Hero Time. Or worse," he said as he shot a dirty look back over his shoulder at her home before it disappeared around the curve of the road.
Just like that, the butterflies disappeared again, and she pulled her arm away as her nose found the sky just so she wouldn't grin as they started their oldest game. "You might just put on whatever's on the floor, Doofus, but ladies take their time so we look our best." Her mother and her mormor both would have been proud of the way she said that, but he just stared back at her as they walked along until she gave in. "Fine, so I was talking to Michelle a little, too."
"Why?" He asked like it was nothing even though they'd almost been discovered by both of their fathers and she just stared.
There were times that she just didn't understand Ben. How did he get so good at hiding everything from his parents and hers? Didn't he ever feel bad?
" - see her in like five minutes? I mean, it's her party that we're going to and..." He said, and she didn't even realize he'd kept talking until he stopped and gave her that look. The one that always came before he rolled his eyes even as he brushed his thumb against hers. "Stop thinking so hard, Dweeb, I can see the smoke pouring out of your ears."
She huffed and couldn't help lifting her chin a little even as she pulled her hand away. "And you could've thought a little more, Ben, before you came running into my room. You know that our parents were never going to let you get away with that!"
He made an irritated noise and stomped a little harder as they made their way down the street. Maybe they should've stuck to the sidewalks, but there were gaggles of kids in costumes and a few parents following after them which made that something that she and Ben didn't want to try for. Sure, they were getting a few dirty looks for it, but at least this way they could talk without being overheard. "Their new rules are stupid. I've barely been able to see you since then."
He really hadn't. As soon as Gwen had gotten back home the morning after that last sleepover, her mom and dad had sat her down and explained how things were going to be a little different because of her stupid body while she squirmed, not able to say a thing back to them to argue against it. Ben had called and told her later his parents had given him one too, and one of the bigger rules their moms and dads had all agreed on was that they couldn't be alone anymore.
Like last weekend, when they'd tried to watch a movie together and Aunt Sandra and Uncle Carl had both piled into Ben's room with them. It had been terrible, every time she or Ben tried to crack a joke or make some little remark about it the two had shushed them. She hadn't been able to cuddle up next to Ben or hold his hand, much less kiss him on the cheek to make him go cross-eyed so she could steal his microwaved popcorn. Which wasn't as good as the popcorn that Aunt Vera had made for them, before -
Just thinking about it made Gwen want to lean against him, but all it took was the sound of the kids in the neighborhood laughing as they ran on ahead and parents yelling at them to slow down to make her pull back away. And he saw her do it, too, because he stopped smiling then, and that just made her feel worse.
"They aren't around now, you know." He pointed out as he kicked at a rock on the road. She was hurting him, and she knew it and she hated it. But if she did what she wanted to do, if she was as impulsive as he was, then somebody would see them and their parents would find out. Who else had hair as red as she did? Who else was wearing a costume like Ben's? And if their parents found out, then…
"I know," Gwen mumbled and reached out to grab at his hand. It was the closest thing to an apology that she had in her right then, as nervous and miserable as she felt. "But it's better than not being able to see you at all…" Gwen murmured, her head down as she grabbed an elbow for the hug that her Doofus wasn't going to give her. Not when he was too busy jumping like his butt just got a thousand-volt jolt.
"What? Why wouldn't you - ?!"
That was as far as he got before Gwen stopped him with a laugh that didn't sound even a little bit funny, so it was completely different from the last time he jumped like that. "Please, Doofus," she said with a smile that matched. "Do you really think that our parents will - ?"
Understand? She tried to ask, but her throat closed around the word as she remembered the look in her aunt's eyes. It was like she knew, but that was impossible!
Gwen knew that it was. They'd been so careful that she knew it was just her mind playing tricks on her again about the last thing that she wanted to think about tonight, but now that didn't mean that she could stop. Not any more than Ben could keep from being a doofus, and he proved it just from the way he snorted at what she asked and the smirk that followed. She'd seen them both before, but they'd never hurt so much back, and all of it filled her voice with a snap that would have made Ripjaws proud. "Just because you don't care if they'll make sure that we never see each other again doesn't mean that I - !"
Ripjaws, but not Ben. "That's what you've been worried about?" he asked with a chuckle like the complete Doofus that he was.
"Ben!" Gwen said as she slapped his chest because it was just too much. She knew he didn't think things through, but hearing him laugh now like she was stupid for even worrying...
She pulled her hand back so she could slap him again, only he caught this time. Caught it and used it to pull her closer. Close enough that she had caught herself with her other hand on his chest. Close enough that she could feel his breath on her lips as he could look right in her eyes and declared, "There isn't anything that they could do that would keep me from seeing you, Dweeb."
It wasn't the words that made her freeze. It was the way he said it. The sureness that she hadn't heard in months. It was his hero voice. She'd seen so many people rally towards him when he used it, but she couldn't feel it. Not now. "There's so much!" she tried to say, trying to make him see sense even as she pushed away. It's not like either of us have a car and that's if they're being nice! They could just send me away to - "
"Not a thing," Ben said, his chin up as he reached for -
"Ben, no!" Gwen shouted and this time she was the one grabbing for his hand as he reached for his left wrist like she'd seen him do a thousand times before. Lunging like the Omnitrix was still there instead of in a box somewhere. The Omnitrix and everything that came with it. The everything that made her drag him out of the street and into the trees because she knew that he was just enough of a Doofus to do it if she didn't stop him and she couldn't with people staring. "Don't even think about it! I'm not worth it!"
"Yes, you are," Her Doofus said in the same infuriating tone.
"This isn't a game!" Gwen asked with a stomp of her foot because that was the only thing that kept her from screaming. "This is important!"
She was sure he'd smirk at that. Sure he'd be happy that he won just by making her say it. Not look so confused that he almost went cross-eyed, "Who's playing games?"
"You are!" She shook her head and shoved a hand through her hair. "Why would you even say that?! Is it just because I'm pretty?"
Which sounded like something that Marci would ask, but she couldn't think of anything else.
Especially not when she saw Ben start to smile from the corner of her eye as a car went by. No, he didn't smile. He smirked. The one she was sure he'd been holding onto ever since she dragged him in here and it still drove her crazy. "You are?"
Crazy enough that she couldn't help falling into their old pattern. "Why else would you be dating me?" She asked with a harrumph that was a complete put-on because she knew how he felt. He told her she was months ago. "My personality?"
Which only made her Doofus snicker. "Yeah, your nerd queen charisma swept me off my feet. You got me."
"Oh." Gwen pouted, a twinge of genuine hurt stirring in her chest. One that came with a worry even older than the one about their parents. She knew that Ben didn't mind her blandness, but there were plenty of people at school who'd given her hell for it and -
Ben sighed and somehow made it sound both rueful and fond as he brushed his gloved hand against her chin so she didn't have any choice but to meet his eyes. "Honestly, it's because of the way you pick up a book or a fact or a new kickass move like you just can't help yourself... it's frustrating, impressive, and adorable." He mumbled, lips twitching into a slight smile despite himself. She felt the twinge in her chest shift into a happy flutter even before he added, "Drives me crazy."
Gwen licked her lips and fought down the butterflies in her stomach as she stared at the boy in front of her. The one she never imagined felt any of that. "I - I thought you thought I was boring."
Ben snorted. "The books and the facts are. You're not." He started to flush and quickly put his visor down before she could even see it properly. "Man, you even made math fun a-and you look when you're talking about them…" He trailed off then. Maybe he blushed and maybe he didn't, but she saw him smile as he looked at her.
"And honestly, half the time I don't get why you put up with me." He admitted, visor obscuring his eyes, but the wry turn of his lips was a self-deprecating smile if ever she saw one.
"Well, I manage. Somehow." Gwen's giggle stilled in her throat because Ben should have laughed at that. He might have smirked a little as he reached for the back of his neck, but if he did it was gone as he started pacing. "Ben?" She asked as he crunched dry leaves under his feet. She wasn't hurt as he went back and forth. Not when she figured out a long, long time ago that for Ben, doing things on the move was always easier than doing them standing still just like how teasing him made things easier for her. "I can see that poor, neglected hamster in your head spinning on his wheel, Doofus, so you might as well tell me what scared him."
It got a look, but not the dirty one it should have. It was too soft and he was smiling too much.
"Of course you manage. You just... you just never give up. On anything. Not school, not karate, or magic. Nobody is as stubborn as you," He snickered. It rang hollow as she tried to see the girl that he did. Couldn't he see how much she worried, how much she - "You - " He started, cutting her off before he stopped himself. Stopped and turned so he could look at her fully. And he didn't stop her when she reached up to pull his visor up. His smile was small, but his emerald eyes were warm as always.
"You're so stubborn that you won't even give up on me."
"Ben..." She felt her expression flattened at the very idea even as she reached out for him, but he kept going before she could butt in any more, his words just a nervous rush.
"Even if you get super-obnoxious about it. You actually make me want to be better- do you have any idea how annoying that is?" He glared, teasingly, but there was a hint of vulnerability under it all that slipped right under all of Gwen's defenses and hit her straight in the heart. "And it's not because I want you to be proud of me, even if I…" he said, his voice cracking again, but he didn't look away. "And it's not just so I can be there the next time you go fishing for compliments. It's because I want to be the guy that you see. He must be pretty cool if he has you."
And then the rush of his voice slowed as he looked down at his feet and kicked at the leaves. "I'd do it because it's what you deserve, and not just for always having my back even though there's nobody better. Not even after I turn into the biggest jerk on the planet."
"The only thing I've ever seen is you, you Doofus," Gwen finally got out as she reached up and took his hand and tears filled her eyes again. But this time she didn't try to wipe them away or hide them as she jabbed a finger into his chest. "And stop worrying about turning into Ben 10,000. You aren't going to."
She wouldn't let him. Not when she couldn't stand thinking about him being that sad, that alone. Not when he deserved so much better.
They both did.
"Of course I won't," Ben said, the cockiness coming back as he took her hand and squeezed it. "That's why I'm not worried about what our parents will do. You were kicking bad-guy butt back when all you had were some moves and a mop. Now that you're all Wicked Witch they don't stand a chance. Neither does the future and I don't want to miss any of it. You'd think that a nerd like you would figure out that that's why I lo - "
His last word died in a squeak. Hers as she figured out what he was about to say, then it was her turn to turn away because the word was too big. Too big for her to think about, much less feel. It was like the biggest spells in her spellbook, the ones she couldn't even look at even after her promise. "I like-like you way too much for that, too, and - anditwasn'tallmeanyway!Grandpawasthere,too!" She said, the words a panicked rush that left her mouth dry and her face hot as he just stood there.
But if she hurt his feelings, it didn't show. Not as his smile turned into a grin and he leaned in closer. Close enough that she could feel his hot breath against her bare lips as he cupped her cheek and whispered, "Grandpa pushed a little, to keep me safe. You... you kicked Heatblast's butt with a fire extinguisher five minutes after I got the Watch and you think that I'm a hero? You were awesome since even before you learned magic and I can talk to you and - and if you imagine I'm going to let anyone keep me from driving you crazy then I'm going to tell Sensei you got kicked in the head too hard. I don't care what our parents - what anyone - thinks. You're worth the Watch. You're worth the whole universe, Dweeb, you're - "
He didn't finish. Not with words. Not even with an insult. Not when he found a better use for his lips.
Lips that barely even touched hers before Gwen finally understood why all the women in the movies kicked their foot up when they got kissed. Why they melted.
Which made it all the worse when she heard a shout that she had to push him away as more feet went running through the trees not ten feet away. She couldn't help it even though it hurt. "Sorry," she said in a miserable whisper as the sound of leaves and laughter faded. "Some hero I was. I should have known that I wasn't the only one who used this shortcut. I - "
"Worth it," Ben whispered in her ear after he shut her up with another kiss as he held her close, his hands still around her waist. "Just like you, even if your butt looks huge when you're Lucky Girl."
The words were so out of left field that they took her a second, but when they did her face burned and she slapped both hands over her bottom after she shoved him away. She didn't think he even gave her costume a look all night, but even with his visor on she could tell he was looking now as that smirk came back. "Ben!"
And the jerk just laughed. "What? It does! Here, I'll show you!"
"Ben! Don't you - " she tried to say as he charged forward like he hadn't in months. Not that it mattered, he'd pinched her butt enough during their second summer that she'd never forgotten the look he got when he was about to do it.
She couldn't even yell at him for thinking about it. There wasn't any point. Not when it wasn't his fault that his parents let him have a TV in his room and didn't care what junk he watched on MTV and Cartoon Network. She couldn't even yell at him for assassinating the mood. It would just make him laugh harder.
In the end, all she could come up with was kicking at his shin. Not that he cared. Not when he caught her. Not when he was still laughing as he got close enough that they could kiss again and not when he wrapped one arm around her waist so he could pull her even closer as his other…
His other barely brushed past hers and against her butt before he jolted away. Not just his hand either, all of him. Not that it kept her from jumping and shouting, "You Doofus!" Because his touch felt like fire against her skin. One that felt like it cut right through the thin spandex of her costume and the thinner cotton underneath before he even pinched!
It felt just like the energy that made her hands glow bright with power now.
"That's what you deserve!" Gwen declared, breathless and face hot as she fought down the urge to rub the spot he'd just pinched.
"I'll show you what I - " Ben started to say, not deterred in the least by the magical jolt he just got as he stood up straight again. Or he started to.
"Ben?" She asked as hunched over and grabbed for his cape so he could pull it around him like he was playing Dracula, too, instead of Ultra-Man. She'd never seen him so embarrassed or nervous, which was saying something. He was bad enough that she reached out to the mana around her so she could figure out the spell that she used. Mana that was humming, but it didn't have the feel of being cast. And none of the spells or the wild magic she'd dealt with had ever left his face as flushed as what she saw now in the violet light she was casting. His face was even redder than she'd gotten it back when she used to kiss his cheek just to see it. "Are you okay? What did I - ?"
"N-nothing!" Ben stammered out, his voice cracking as he stammered and reached for the back of his neck. Or he started to, anyway, before the cape started to slip from his fingers and he fumbled for it again. "Shut up!"
"You are so weird," Gwen sighed because he was. And so was she. That more than anything was what let her calm down enough that she wondered if that was why she settled for kicking his shin when she should have aimed his butt. It's what he deserved for pinching hers when she was a lady, and the worst part wasn't even that she let him! No, it was that she almost wished...
God, his doofusness really was catchy!
"Come on, we're going to be late," she said because they were and because she wanted to hold onto some dignity. Not that it helped when she heard her voice and it sounded just like the ones she heard giggling in the bathroom between classes as they talked about boys.
Not that anything as small as her dignity kept her from sinking into his side after he finally let go of his cape and reached for her hand again. After she smacked him first, of course. She had a feeling that it was a good thing he was wearing gloves when they finally found the road again just from the way the light from the next car caught the beads of sweat on his forehead, but she let him take it after that.
Eventually. The pig.
Which Ben still took as a win, because of course he did. Just like he did when he put his arm around her and she melted against him as he asked, "So, what's this party going to be like, anyway?"
- o - o - o - o - o -
"This - " Ben started as he yanked his visor up. His eyes were wide as they stopped a house away from Michelle's place, and the pile of screaming rugrats that were outside of the decorated-up house and trying to get inside. "This is it?"
Gwen could just nod as she stared at the house that wasn't any bigger than hers but was packed. Not just with more trick-or-treaters than she'd ever seen on her entire street, all crowded around a front door with a supermarket's worth of Jack-o-Lanterns and strings of orange lights all around it.
"I know," she said when she finally found her voice again. Her grin took longer as she grabbed his arm and pulled him towards the crowd that was bigger than she ever imagined would be here. "They usually do this every Halloween, but last year, with the move and all they couldn't, so they went all out this time! Isn't it great?!"
"It's - " Ben started. "it's all little kids…"
He sounded so heartbroken as he said it that Gwen couldn't help bringing her hand to her mouth. "It's Halloween, Doofus," she said into her palm, which was the only thing that kept her voice steady. "Who did you think would be here?"
"I thought…" He said, his green eyes meeting hers and cutting right through her. "I thought we'd have fun, not - " he said, his shoulders falling more as he waved as a bunch of screaming kids raced by. There was even another Ultra-Man in the mix, and he wore the grin that Ben should have had.
"Ben…" Gwen said, her stomach tightened as she bit her lip so she could take his hand in hers. "We will. I prom - "
"Really? Because the only thing dad talked about on the way over was Army Girl's folks and him asking how many adults would be here. He was barely even watching the road. He's probably - " He cut himself off there as she sucked in a breath at the idea of her aunt and uncle showing up, but Ben was the one who sounded panicked as he added, "We'd be better off ditching and hunting down some candy of our own! At least then we'd have some time for ourselves."
And the way he said it, like that was the most important thing in the world….
"But - " Gwen tried to say, tried to explain in the face of a tone that she'd heard a thousand times before when he wanted just one more minute of Hero Time before school or the last bit of ice creamas he hit her with his puppy eyes that not even her mother could say no to. "It'll be - "
"Okay," she said, her voice as small as her nod and the polar opposite of the grin that she got. A grin that didn't fade at all when she glared back. "Okay, but I'm not going anywhere until I tell Michelle!"
If he said anything after that - and she knew her doofus, of course, he said something - it was lost in the noise as she pulled him into the crowd before either of them could change their mind.
Somehow things were even wilder once they got through the front door. From the cobwebs that hung from every wall and the ceiling fans to the oceans of kids who surrounded all the games that the usual furniture was pushed out of the way so they could set them up. It was the kind of place that she knew her Doofus always dreamed of seeing when he was little.
Now it just made him squeeze her hand tighter as she watched the parents that were mixed in with and towering over the crowd. Parents and soldiers, who she knew were volunteering to be here tonight and she could tell for once by their grins as they handed out candy instead of just by their haircuts.
"They were going to do this at the base - " Gwen's nerves made her say and made her stop because she didn't think that her Doofus could hear her anyway and because that was as far as Michelle ever got when they were setting up. Still, if Mrs. Hallam cared about the change; she never showed a sign, even if Gwen knew that her mom would be having a breakdown right now over the chaos.
Especially the mess that the kids were making as they bobbed for apples in a barrel that was set up in front of a Skeleton Drop cloth that they'd hung in front of the hall to try and keep some order. Gwen could only hope that the plastic was doing some good as they went by and got splashed by another Ultra-Man, this one sputtering back giggles and all of four feet tall.
"Do you see her?" Ben shouted in her ear with the desperate edge that he usually only got before a big test.
An edge that Gwen more than felt even as she shook her head and stood there, torn between going for the cloth or through the kitchen, but if anything there were even more kids and parents there, all lined up and waiting to get their faces painted by a pirate. At least she was sure that the woman doing it wasn't a Hallam. She couldn't say the same about the man who was dressed like a Skeleton that stood guard by the apples until he reached out and patted the coughing boy there with his left hand. And he did it with an ease that her best friend's father just didn't have anymore.
But he still had the flat look that she saw in Grandpa's eyes sometimes when she reached for the cloth. "I know Michelle!" Gwen shouted like it was a password. Maybe it was because he just nodded as they dashed through.
And ran right into the back of a Fairy Godmother.
"Sorry!" Gwen said as fast as she could, mortified beyond words as the old woman spun around and almost hit her with her wings. "I'm just - "
"Gwendolyn?" Gwen's favorite Disney Princess asked in surprise from the other side of the woman, her accent fitting her Jasmine costume perfectly.
"Mrs. Hallam?!" Gwen had helped save the world at least four times and she could make reality dance if she knew the right words, but she was still sure that not spinning around and shoving her Doofus away right then and there was the most impressive thing she'd ever done as all the anxiety she'd been swallowing for weeks hit her all at once.
Not that it mattered. Not when the woman was right there! Her dark eyes never left Gwen even as she waved the Godmother away. Neither did her smile, even though Gwen knew how fake it was. She still had nightmares about seeing the same one on her mother's face after a cashier caught her shoplifting.
And that was just a candy bar when she was four!
But the cashier hadn't hugged her then. Neither had her mother, not for what felt like forever after that horrible day. A forever that Mrs. Hallam didn't wait for. "I'm so glad you're here!" The woman lied in a rapid-fire Arabic that Gwen had only heard once before when she'd found the woman arguing with her husband late one night. It was the very first time she came over, she suddenly remembered. Which fit, since this would be her last.
"I can - " Explain. Except Gwen couldn't. Not that she was here with her boyfriend. Not when he was her cousin. Not when she was so nervous and tingly that she couldn't even feel him behind her anymore.
Not that it mattered, not when Mrs. Hallam had to have - "I can't find the witch's eyes anywhere!"
Gwen blinked at that for what felt like forever as she realized how distracted and frazzled the woman was, and then a new pit opened in her stomach. One that screamed that she should turn around even though it would ruin everything even as fresh guilt made her toe the carpet through her shoe. "You can't?"
"No!" Michelle's mom said with a wild shake of her head as tuned and looked out through the kitchen for the game that was set up on the far side of the living room. "No one else has noticed yet, but someone should have found them by now and I thought since you helped set it up…"
Gwen did. She would have had to have gotten hit in the head harder when they were heroes to forget about the absolutely disgusting goop that she'd helped make last night. Something that just started with spaghetti and ended with two green marbles that she'd pocketed because she just couldn't. "Maybe Mr. Hallam…." she started, the words just slipping out as she tried so hard not to look at the boy behind her that she didn't give them any thought. Not until she heard the woman suck in a breath. "Mrs. Hallam?"
"It's nothing, Gwendolyn," the woman murmured as a smile that didn't touch her dark eyes flashed across her face. Eyes that went over Gwen's head as if she could see through the tarp, which maybe she could. Maybe it was just something that moms did. "Maybe Elias… He's been in a mood since he came back downstairs and - "
Relief battled with guilt in Gwen's stomach at that, and squeezed out a "He didn't." And then a "Maybe I can - " help she almost said because that was what heroes did. Even when it was stupid on so many levels. Especially the ones that knew that the marbles were in her dresser at home and that her Doofus was right behind her.
And that thought must have been magic - the darkest kind. The one only parents used - because it drew those dark eyes right back to her. Eyes that knew everything and told her parents -
"Such a good girl. No wonder your mama and papa are so proud," she said in the happy titter of French as she pulled Gwen in for another hug. One that left Gwen's stomach far behind. "Don't worry about it, Little Flea. I'll find them," the woman said as she pressed a quick kiss into Gwen's hair. "Besides, my Michelle is waiting for you downstairs and my Habibi would kill me if I kept you any longer." And then Mrs. Hallam was gone like she was the Genie instead of the Princess. She was only missing the burst of smoke.
And she wasn't the only one who was a master at disappearing.
"Ben?" Gwen asked, her voice cracking with nerves as she turned and found only a hanging blanket behind her. It took two more calls into the stomach-turning certainty that he'd somehow magicked himself away before he lifted the blanket and gave her that grin.
"What? You're not the only magician in the family. I do that at school all the time," Ben said with a way too casual shrug like she couldn't see how bunched up his shoulders were under his cape.
She wanted to kick him and hug him both. She settled for blowing a breath out her nose and grabbing his arm so she could drag him down the hall.
"You never even said what Army Girl's wearing!" Ben said as he hurried after. "How are we supposed to - ?"
"She's a hippie," Gwen said as she rushed for the door just before the stairs and pulled it open both so she could get down the ones on the other side before anything else happened and so she wouldn't have to think about the night she found that out. "Not that it matters. Mrs. Hallam said that she's down here getting more candy."
Maybe it was the candy or maybe it was just the idea of getting out of here, but Ben didn't hesitate for even a second as she led him down the stairs. He did slow down a little when the door closed behind them and cut down on half the noise and ninety percent of the light and that didn't change even after Ben hit the switch.
Despite all the things she'd said over the years, she knew just how smart her Doofus was even before she turned back and saw him scowling at her in the flickering bit of orange light that was coming from the basement. A glare that she smirked and rolled her eyes at. "Come on, you're not scared of a little basement, are you, Ben?" She asked in a sing-song voice. "I can keep holding your hand, too, if you want."
It was such a low blow and so worth every bit of the glare that she got as he pulled his hand free, pushed past her, and hurried down the steps. Only to stop dead in his tracks at the bottom.
Gwen didn't hurry after him.
Besides, she knew what the basement looked like. From the jack-o-lanterns in the corners - jack-o-lanterns that she'd help make and were inspired by all the creepiest things that she'd seen in the two years that they spent heroing like alien bugs and mystical runes - to the strings of orange flickering Christmas lights that were everywhere on the walls and the blacklight that they'd replaced the light bulbs in the ceiling with just so all the bare concrete walls that were never finished and the cobwebs in the corners looked spookier. Even the tables that were covered in pizza and candy were all done up with cauldrons and plastic bugs.
It was the most work she'd ever done. More even than all of her school stuff put together, and it was all worth it the second she saw her Doofus's mouth drop as he pushed up his visor so he could take it all in before he turned back to her. "You wicked witch!" Ben breathed and it was all she could do not to preen.
"I told you that we went all out, Doofus," Gwen laughed as she took the last few steps and threw her arms around his shoulders. "That was the trick and if you're very good - "
She didn't get a chance to say. Not before she jumped as they were surprised by a bright flash of light and then the sound of boots rushing over. "You're here already?! You were supposed to warn me, you stinker!" One of the white blobs that filled Gwen's vision and sounded a lot like Michelle exclaimed.
It didn't matter. Gwen glomped it anyway. "Sorry, I forgot my phone," Gwen giggled into her best friend's shoulder. "Please tell me that you got a picture of his face!"
"Are you questioning my mad skills?" Michelle gasped like she was offended. Then there was another bright flash as her Doofus cried out. "There! Tomorrow every paper in the country is going to have a picture of Ultra-Man's real face! I hope that you're happy, Crazy Girl."
Gwen bit her lip for a second as she waited for her Doofus to explode at that. He never did take getting surprised or teased well, but all he did was sniff and grumble a little at them both. "That's Ultra-Ben. I'm way cooler."
"If you say so, Watch Boy," Michelle shot back as she hugged Gwen so close that they squished the camera that was hanging from a strap around her shoulder between them. "And somehow I knew you'd be a cat, Crazy. Sweet costume, though."
"I'm not a cat!" Gwen gasped. "Why does everybody - ?"
"And her costume isn't that sweet," Ben cut her off way too innocently as he leaned in closer. Close enough that she could have sworn she felt his breath in her ear as he added, "She forgot the tail."
"Ben!" Gwen gasped as she felt his hand brush against her butt again.
Or start too, before she heard something hiss through the air as Michelle snapped, "Bad Superhero!"
"Ow!" Ben shouted as he yanked his hand back. "Who was crazy enough to give you a weapon?"
"Gave me?" Michelle snorted, proud and happy as she waggled the stick with a flat piece of leather on both ends. "I stole this from the Colonel, Duh. Generals like me need it if I'm going to keep all you freaks in line," Michelle cackled, and then there was another smack.
"Freaks?" Ben gasped.
"Freaks who need to keep their fingers to themselves," Gwen added, her eyes locked on his as she poked him in the chest. "That's my butt, mister!"
Not that Ben cared. "I don't see your name on it," he said with a daring smirk that Gwen couldn't stand as it made her squirm like he'd pinched her again anyway.
Pinched her here, in front of Michelle!
It was the heat of that thought that made her look away, one hand brushing against the mark he'd already left on her and the other pushing her hair out of her eyes as she looked for anything else as a distraction before her mind settled on the one word that Michelle said that didn't make any sense.
"G-General?" Gwen asked as she finally saw the helmeted figure who was standing in front of her with black boots, sandy brown pants, and a green top with three stars sewn on the shoulder, and a camera hanging from a strap around her neck. The figure even wore a helmet and looked like she'd stepped out of a movie. Gwen stared and she knew that if Grandpa saw her now he'd say she was gob stopped and for the first time she finally understood what the word meant. "I thought - What happened to being a hippie?"
God, she couldn't stop thinking about that horrible night when Mrs. Hallam asked everyone that or the look on Mr. Hallam's face when Michelle declared just what her costume was going to be tonight. It was a look she'd never seen on her Daddy's face for all the times she'd teased him. She hadn't even felt it on hers when Ben was being his most Ben and that was before Michelle said she'd walk barefoot through every puddle she could find.
"That was just so I could bug the Colonel. Who wants to be that smelly and gross?" Michelle scoffed as she waved it off and tucked the swagger stick back under her arm. "Like I said, I need the stars tonight. Besides, I thought it would be fun if I outranked him for a change, but…."
There was just a flicker of something across the girl's face. Something that might have had her reaching for her hair if she hadn't done it up in a tight bun. "Michelle?"
Whatever it was, it vanished the second Gwen said her name, "It's nothing, Kitty Cat. He's got something more important to do and so do I. Come on, the animals over there will jump their fences if we wait over here anymore."
Gwen heard Ben suck in a breath at that because he was a hero, no matter what he thought, but he stilled when she gave him a look and mouthed the only two words that might as well be magic.
And just like that, Ben - well, he didn't relax, but he did back off.
Not that she had any better idea about what she should do next. She still didn't. Not even as she brushed her gloved hand against her best friend's arm, and the look she got didn't help. Maybe Mrs. Hallam was right and her parents were proud of her, but for all her A's all Gwen could think to say was, "I'm not a cat! I'm a superhero that we saw in New Orleans. She's called Lucky Girl and - "
The words were a babble - one that sounded so stupid now that she was saying them to someone besides her Doofus - but it still hurt when the olive-skinned girl hid a giggle behind her hand and asked, "Lucky Girl?"
"She kicks butt!" Gwen declared, glad for her mask yet again.
"I'm sure she did," Michelle cooed with the tone she usually saved for her baby brother and Gwen could have just died. "But how lucky was she?"
"Super lucky! She had luck-based powers so - " Gwen declared in the face of those twinkling dark eyes. Maybe she couldn't admit just who the superhero here was, but she could -
"As lucky as all that, huh?" Michelle cut in, giggling even before her hand shot out and plucked something Gwen's hair. "I bet she was."
"I - I - " Gwen stammered, sure her face was almost as red as she ran her hands through her hair and over her costume looking for more, but the only thing that she found was every wrinkle her Doofus left in her unitard when he was pawing at her.
And Ben so didn't help. "You have no idea," he sighed, for once it didn't sound like he was teasing.
"One crawdad!" Gwen snapped right back at him. It wasn't even her fault it crawled up his nose! Not really. "And there could be more."
"Crawdads? Oh! I've never heard anyone call it that before!" Michelle cooed with a delighted giggle as she collapsed into Gwen's arms. One that turned into a squeal when she finally leaned back, her dark eyes sparkling and evil. "Now I know why you were late! Are we going to have to have a talk, young lady?"
"No!" Gwen squealed, her face burning because she couldn't take another one. Not after the ones that she already got from her mom and Aunt Sandra. "We just took a shortcut and - " And if she hadn't grown her hair out this never would have happened! Or if she'd worn it in a tight ponytail like she usually did, but that wasn't Lucky Girl and the red of it set off the purples of her costume so well when she let it fall loose down her back.
"Uh-huh," Michelle declared and she sounded triumphant and almost jealous as if that made any sense, but it was almost enough that Gwen spilled everything about everything that had happened, right down to every sweet word her Doofus had said. Especially when her best friend grabbed her hand and pulled like they were going to some quiet corner so she could hear it, but she didn't. She pulled Gwen across the basement instead as she called out, "Hey everybody!"
And there were people there!
Gwen knew that there would be, of course. She'd been there when they'd made the guest list, but she never imagined that there would be so many. More than were in any of her classes. Boys and girls both, Maybe a few were her age but most looked like they were Michelle's, and a few were even older. They were all sitting in a circle around a fake campfire. She didn't recognize any of them, but they were all in masks and face paint, and when she saw all those eyes turn towards her…
Just like in all of her worst days at school when another girl who she thought was her friend had done the same thing.
"This is Rose and Kirby," Michelle said instead of any of the words that Gwen was expecting. Her dark eyes were still glittering as she sat down on an empty pillow. "They're… Well, they're not cool, but if any of you bother them I'll kick your butts back to basic."
"Hi!" Gwen said, her voice too high as she started to wave before she yanked her hand down. Tonight was supposed to be special, she told herself. Tonight they were superheroes and -
And Ben grabbed her other hand before she could finish that thought or sit down. He grabbed it and pulled her back a couple of steps and for a second she was sure that he'd found another leaf and she'd never live this down. Not without magic. Not with everybody already laughing.
And then she realized that he wasn't looking at her at all. No, he was staring at everybody else with a heat that his visor barely hid as he leaned over and whispered in a tone that they'd perfected during too many late nights sneaking up on bad guys. "Are any of these guys the jerks from your school?"
"No!" Gwen fought to keep her voice a whisper as the very idea made her stomach tight. And not just because she couldn't even imagine, because she could. She knew what that look meant. She'd seen it often enough when she slipped up and told him the truth about how 'awesome' her classes really were and she knew what he could do even without the watch even though she didn't need him going all caveman and defending her.
She didn't, but the thought made her stomach flutter anyway as she squeezed his knee until his eyes were on her again so he knew she was being serious when she told him. "No, Michelle and I made sure. They're all from the base and nobody here knows me. Or us."
"Or us?" Ben sucked in a breath at that like she'd just given him the last piece of a puzzle and gave her a look that was annoyed and proud all at once. "You set me up."
"Wasn't even hard," Gwen whispered back with a confidence that she didn't feel until he smiled back. "So stop being a Doofus and enjoy our date."
Their first. And just the thought of it felt so good even as butterflies filled her stomach. Good enough that she almost missed everybody saying hi as she stared at her Ben and watched his stunned look turn back into a grin at the idea. "That's my treat?"
She could barely nod after he said that, and when she could breathe again she realized that most of the hellos that they got as they sat down were half-hearted. Not because the other kids were being mean, but because they were distracted by the candy they were eating or the people they were sharing their pillows with. Just like in school, it was mostly the boys on one side and the girls on the other, but…
But there were a few that were sharing. Like the one girl who was dressed up as a pirate that came back after with a little cauldron full of candy in her hand and -
And she sat down in another pirate's lap!
Gwen waited for the swagger stick to come out again, but it didn't. It was like no one else even noticed as the boy with the flipped-up eyepatch wrapped his arms around the pirate queen. Not even Ben - who of course wasn't paying any attention - or Michelle - who sat back on her hands and looked everyone else over before her eyes settled on a girl who was dressed as a zombie.
"Amy. It's your turn isn't it?" Michelle asked like this was all normal before she threw her head back hard enough that her helmet would have gone flying if it wasn't strapped on under her chin. "And please spare us from anything as sad as Jacobs'."
"Hey!" A boy dressed in an all-black suit with bones printed on it and a skull painted on his face shouted before he threw candy at Michelle over the fake fire. "Screw you, Hallam! Those knights were real!"
"Not on your best day," Michelle shot right back with the candy that smacked her in the chest. "And keep your Twizzler! It's as sad as the Sci-Fi Channel movie you stole your story from. Dudes in metal armor duking it out in the middle of Washington DC? Please."
"They did!" The boy shouted as the candy bounced off of his forehead, outraged as he started to get up before another boy pulled him back down. "I saw them! So did my mom! You can - "
"Dude. Bringing your mom into this is not helping," his friend who was dressed like Zorro said as the catcalls started. "I told you to keep your Renaissance Fair freakout to yourself."
Catcalls that Gwen ignored as she felt Ben's hand go still against her back. "Armor?" She asked, cutting in.
"Yeah!" Jacobs nodded as he gave her a grateful look. "My mom and I were cutting through an alley to get to the Smithsonian when a building just exploded in front of us and all these guys just came pouring out. They were trying to beat the crap out of each other as someone screamed something about the true king returning. It was just like the movies, except they didn't have swords. They had these weird lance things that shot lasers and - Hey!" He shouted as he was buried in an avalanche of boos and candy.
Noise that Gwen ignored as Ben poked her leg and she gave him a look because she knew what he was thinking. She knew it and that was why she shook her head as she turned back and asked, "So what are we doing?"
She asked it even as she watched Ben's mouth drop and he turned to stare at her, but it didn't matter if it was the Forever Knights. It wasn't their problem.
"Telling Monster Stories," another girl, who was dressed like Ultra-Woman said as she made a face that was only a little hidden behind her visor. She let her hand and the pack of Twizzlers in it drop back down instead of throwing any. Her look didn't last long after she turned and saw her match in Ben. Then she was all smiles as she leaned forward. It was a smile Gwen tried to match as she dug her fingers into her thighs even though Ben didn't show any sign of noticing. Not that it mattered.
"Real ones," Michelle cut in. "Not like the garbage that Jacobs just tried to play. Anyway, Amy was just getting started when you guys came down."
"All right. You asked for it," the zombie girl next to Ultra-Slut started, and it was almost a relief when she did, even if it did take Gwen a second to stop glaring and listen. " - ened about five years ago during a family trip. We'd been driving all day when my parents finally decided to stop somewhere for the night. It was the best place in town and we still triple-locked the door and shoved a chair under the doorknob. The only reason we didn't move the dresser too was because it was bolted to the floor. That's how bad this place was. So anyway, I was just about to fall asleep when I felt something in my hair."
"Bugs?" Someone asked and a shared shudder went through the group.
"Not unless bugs have fingers," the girl said as she pulled her long hair in front of her and petted it. "I felt them running their fingers through it and then I heard this old lady singing. My only thought was some serial killer had broken in and I was in the middle of a horror movie, but when I opened my eyes there was this glowing white cloud that kind of looked like an old lady floating next to my bed. I start screaming, and so do my parents when they wake up. We didn't even bother to change, we just grabbed our stuff and ran. But sometimes..."
"I swear to God that if you've brought a ghost into my house, Amy..." Michelle cut in as she patted at the tight bun of her hair that slipped out from under her helmet. "Who's next?"
"I - " Someone else started.
Or they did until Zorro cut in.
"Maybe we should let the newbies take a turn," he said. Gwen turned to him in surprise. as he gave Gwen a look and a grin. "What unit's your family with anyway, chica?"
"They're - " Gwen tried as for a story as she squirmed at his attention. Maybe she would have managed it if the boy wasn't looking at her so closely or if her Doofus didn't decide right then to put his arm around her shoulders. An arm she knocked off as she jumped in surprise.
The same surprise she heard in her Doofus's voice. "She's - " Ben started as Gwen tried as hard as she could to give him the look he deserved. The one that wouldn't come while she was biting her lip as she watched Ultra-Slut's eyes go wide from the corners of hers.
"They're not with any unit," Michelle said at the same time from her other side with that sparkle back in her eyes. The one that always made Gwen want to kick her or hide her face. Or both. "They're civvies."
"So the scariest thing that they've seen is their moms running a red light because the ice cream's melting," Jacobs said as he slapped Zorro's chest as everyone else started laughing. "You'll be bored in a day, Pablo."
It was a laugh that stopped dead when Ben leaned back on his hands and said like it was the most boring thing in the world, but his eyes never left Zorro. "We saw a werewolf once."
"B - Kirby!" Gwen hissed, catching herself just in time as everyone else went still. Even Michelle was looking at Ben with her mouth an O of surprise as her heart hammered in her chest because this was just what Grandpa told them over and over again that they couldn't do!
Everyone but Zorro. "Bullshit!"
Ben just smirked at that as he held up his left wrist. "Almost had the scars here that would have proven it, but its claws got caught on the - my Watch."
That was when she should have hit him. She would have, she brought her hand back and everything, but Ultra-Woman leaned forward and asked, "What was it like?"
"It was nine feet tall with teeth and claws this long," Ben said as he held his hands apart a good six inches more than Gwen remembered Blitzwolfen's ever being, not that it mattered. Not as everyone else leaned forward and his grin got bigger. "And its teeth were even bigger when it lunged for my face. Not that it stood a chance. Not after I - " Gwen sucked in a breath at that and came this close to shoving her hand over his mouth and dragging him off when he just deflated. "I - I mean after Grandpa chased it off and..."
"And you still saved my life," Gwen added as she took his hand after his voice faded off. He didn't. Not that day, but he'd done it plenty of other times and it was worth a small lie just to see his face light up as she added, "My hero."
Then the rest of the room just went away because her Doofus was beautiful when he smiled...
"I'm going to hurl," Michelle gagged behind her, and then she giggled as Gwen spun around and pushed her off of the pillow as everyone else stared, which was when she snapped out, "Eyes front people! Who's next? Enrique? Dana? Je- ?"
"Why don't you tell us your great story, Hallam?" Jacobs cut in with a sneer.
"Mine?" Michelle asked as she bolted back up. Then she pulled off her camera and set it down next to her with one hand as she fished in her pocket for something with the other. Something that made her grin like no general ever had as she pulled out a small remote, pushed a button, and cackled as the sound of a wolf's howl filled the basement. A howl followed by a beat. "The creepiest thing I've ever seen is you freaks dancing."
- o - o - o - o - o -
" - my monster mash!"
The most amazing thing wasn't that people actually danced after they threw the pillows off the floor, even though Gwen was sure that they wouldn't. They never did at any of her school dances, even if they were still divided by boys and girls. Of course, they never danced to this at Angelwood.
"It's a graveyard smash!"
It wasn't even that this was the fourth song in a row and no one showed any signs of slowing down.
"You'll catch on in a flash!"
No, it was watching her Doofus moving in the middle of the crowd in front of her. None of the teachers she'd ever had would have described what he was doing as anything even close to dancing. Not when he was so far off of the beat that it wasn't even funny. But it didn't matter. Not when everyone else was dancing the same way even though there were rules.
Rules she couldn't make herself ignore no matter how out of step she was with everyone else. It just wasn't her. It almost made her glad for the space between them. Space which meant that nobody would think that he was with her now even though it was so him that it almost hurt.
"Told you I had moves," Ben said with a smug grin as the music faded away and he got closer. "Do you wanna dance another?" He asked just as the song changed and another voice called out from the speakers, "Boys and Girls of every age..."
"I - " Gwen started, her heart hammering even before he took her hand, and then the next song started.
A slower one. Gwen heard it and felt her body heat up as it went up against every bit of the self-control that she still had left. "I think that I'm going to get something to eat first."
Ben blinked at that. Blinked and ran a hand over the back of his neck. "I guess I'm hungry, too," he finally said, his face not losing any of its glow as he looked around while his body kept bobbing to the music. "What did Army Girl get for grub anyway?"
"All sorts of stuff," Gwen said, her mouth like cotton as everyone around them paired off. "But I just want a water. Getitforme?" She asked, the words rushed because he was still too close. Close enough that she balled up her gloved hands into fists before she could take his and show him what real dancing looked like.
"What do I look like, your slave?" Ben asked as he crossed his arms and faked a glare. "Make me, Dweeb."
Gwen was sure he was ready for a fight, so she did something worse. She stuck out her bottom lip and pouted instead as she brushed a hand over his chest as something cracked in hers and made her voice breathy as she asked, "Please, Ben?"
It was sad how fast he gave in after that but somehow she kept from cackling as he walked away until he was almost out of earshot.
"I'm going to lick the top of your bottle for that!" He shouted as he spun around, louder than any stereo.
"Don't you dare! Gross!" Gwen shouted as she stomped her foot at him while everybody else stared, but he just grinned before he turned around again and walked away. He ignored the confused looks they got, but she couldn't. She felt her cheeks go hot as she retreated to an empty-looking spot by the wall and slumped down against it.
The damp spandex made the chill of the bare concrete feel so good against her back, but it didn't stop her mind from racing. Tonight was so much fun, but it wasn't what she wanted. All the lies, all the work, even telling Michelle their middle names so they could be someone else for just one night...
People who weren't cousins, who could just be together and as close as the teasing voice she heard in her ear. "Having fun?"
"What do you think?" Gwen purred as Michelle sat down close enough that Gwen collapsed against her with a smile that said everything. Everything except the most important thing. "Thank you," she whispered as she took her best friend's hand and squeezed it. "For tonight. For everything."
"You don't have to thank me," Michelle said as she leaned her head against Gwen's and if her helmet hurt a little, neither of them said a word about it. "I wouldn't miss this for the world, Crazy Girl. Not when every time I think I've got your maximum level of insanity figured, you turn around and surprise me." Michelle hummed like this was better than ice cream. "Because this? This, right here, what you're doing now? This is capital C crazy."
"I didn't talk you into anything!" Gwen gasped as she pushed away and tried to stare the dark-eyed girl down. "And I'm not doing anything."
"Oh?" Michelle asked, and looked around with her eyebrows raised in a look that said are you're kidding me right now - better than any words could. "You lied to your parents."
"Which… wasn't ideal," Gwen allowed as she pushed her hair back and squirmed on her butt.
Which only made Michelle smirk more. "You talked me into lying to mine."
"Did not!" Gwen cried out. And then she melted under her best friend's stare. "They just don't know Ben's here with me. That's not a lie." Even if they did ask if she was bringing anyone special…
"And you did it all so you could sit here and sulk!"
"Am not!" Gwen denied as she pulled her hand back.
"Whatever you say," Michelle sighed as she hugged Gwen close again, and Gwen let her even though she could hear the unsaid words tacked onto the end of that. Words she was sure were going to come out when Michelle took a deep breath like she was worried she'd be chased if she said the word crazy again. Which was fair. And so not what came out of her mouth. "Besides I can see why you wanted Watch Boy here so bad. With a butt like that in spandex…."
"Michelle!" Gwen gasped even as her head spun around just in time to see her Doofus leaning over the snack table so he could reach something in the back and his cape crept up on him. Crept up like the flush that made her hide her face in the stars on her bestie's shoulder as she giggled.
She didn't even use words, but it still felt like she'd admitted something dirty with that laugh. Something that made her tingle down to her toes in all the best ways as for once General Patton got smacked. It was worth it just for the look on Michelle's face as she protested, "Hey, I didn't even - "
"You were going to," Gwen said as she looked up enough so she could glare.
"I was," Michelle purred. And then her brow furrowed. "Which is why…" the girl started, the words slow before she took a breath. "I don't get why you're over here if you're having so much fun."
"What?" Gwen asked, her grin freezing on her face. Only years of training kept her moving even a little with the music.
"We did all of this - " Michelle whispered as she waved her arms wide, "just so you two could - " Maybe a blush touched those olive cheeks as she brought her hands back in and smushed her index fingers together. Then she let them flop to the floor as she banged the back of her head against the cement wall. "But I saw you two dancing. You didn't just leave enough room for the Holy Spirit between you two, you looked like you wanted to fit in the whole heavenly choir. if you've changed your mind…"
"I didn't!" Gwen said as she grabbed her friend and pulled her to the corner of the room. "I mean, I do, but - " she said again, a little calmer. But only a little as she eyed the dancing crowd. Not when watching his mouth drop as he pushed up his visor was so much more fun. "It's just…"
She'd saved the world, how was that easier than just walking ten feet? How was that easier than just admitting -?
"There's a bottle over there if we need something to spin," Michelle cut in with a groan as she waved at an empty water bottle someone had left on the floor, and then she made a face. "But I swear that if I end up kissing any of these losers for you..."
"Don't use me as an excuse to go after Jacobs," Gwen teased because she had to do something to keep from imaging the bottle in her hands and her Doofus sat across from her. It would be so easy to have it stop right where she wanted it to. She wouldn't even need magic….
As easy as the click when the stereo changed CDs and another man sang out, "It's close to midnight…"
"Ew!" Michelle gagged over the sound of the song. "There's one butt I don't want. He's as full of it as his dad, who I don't think has been off of base even once in his life."
"Sure, sure," Gwen nodded. "Play it cool…"
"Hate you!" Michelle said before she shoved herself up and stormed off with a last, "Just say the word, Crazy Girl," tossed over her shoulder like a threat. Which just made Gwen smirk again.
But her smile faded as she watched the couples who were still dancing. Couples who looked so happy together that she was sure that she was going to be sick with jealousy even after she closed her eyes.
She had to. It was hard enough knowing that Michelle was right. That she was -
"They're out to get you," the man on the stereo sang out suddenly. "There's demons closing in on every side - "
Maybe if it was during the summer she could have dealt. She hated the lies, but she was used to them, but it wasn't. After tonight they would be back to barely touching, barely talking all because their parents were still freaking about everything that happened last summer and she didn't know -
"You hear a creature creepin' up behind, You're out of time!"
- know how she kept from spilling the paper plate that was suddenly on her lap off when she jumped at the touch. The tangy scent of warm tomato sauce and pineapple filled her nose before she even opened her eyes and her body betrayed her one more time with a rumble as she looked down and saw the slice of pizza with pineapples and ham piled high.
"Hawaiian?" Gwen asked because it was her favorite. So was the little bag of Skittles that was tucked on the side.
"It's gross, but you like it," Ben said with a shrug as he sank onto the floor next to her with his own junk-filled plate in hand. A plate and two water bottles, one of which he passed over without a word.
"D-did you really lick it?" She wanted to sound angry as she took it and felt the ice-cold water that clung to the plastic soak her gloves, but she couldn't. Not when her words kept tripping over her tongue.
"You know me," he said with a wickedly teasing smile. "I lick everything."
"Trust me, I know," she mumbled as she shook her head and stared at the food. She knew he didn't really. And even if he did it wouldn't matter. Not after all the kissing that they'd been doing. If she wasn't immune to his cooties by now… "But I didn't ask for pizza.."
She had to be. She wasn't immune to anything else he did. Not even the little mock-horrified look he gave her as he scooped up his slice. "But I know you and I don't want you stealing mine."
She so would have, too. She might still. Stolen pizza tasted the best, after all. "Thank you."
He shrugged and gave her a looked lost. "It's just pizza."
"It's not-" Gwen started to snap, but she caught herself because he wasn't the one she was mad at. Her heart pounded in her chest again as she stared at him. "It's - " she tried to find the words, but she couldn't. She stared at him for a moment more, just long enough to finally make up her mind, and then she put her plate on the ground next to her. "I'll be right back."
She stood up and walked away before he could say anything. It only took a few seconds to find Michelle in the middle of a group of girls. Girls who were freaking as Michelle pinched the bridge of her nose. "No. I don't care what you say you saw in the bathroom, Jessica! The ghost lady didn't follow Amy home and she sure didn't bring it here." She shook her head and was about to say more when she saw Gwen. "Hold on. I have to go talk to someone sane. Well, saner." She broke free of the crowd and grabbed Gwen by the arm to drag her to a quiet spot. "What's wrong?"
"I'm ready," Gwen said. Her throat was so dry that it hurt when she talked, and her stomach felt packed with butterflies, but she forced the words out anyway.
The words and all the air in her lungs a second later as Michelle threw away her swagger stick and glomped her so hard that it drove Gwen back a step. "Finally! It'll be okay. You'll see."
Gwen wanted to believe her, but she couldn't. She glanced over at Ben, who was watching them both and starting to look worried. "Did you find one?"
Michelle coughed and wouldn't meet her eyes. "Kinda. It's in the machine."
"Kinda? How do you kinda find a song?"
"Hey, you try to find something Halloweeny! I did the best I could. You can dance to it. Just let me know when."
Gwen nodded and swallowed down a dry nothing as she made herself walk back to Ben. "You've got your thinking face on again," Ben said as he stared up at her with pinched eyes. His plate was on the floor next to hers and there was still a slice of pizza on it. She'd never seen him stop eating pizza before.
"I don't have a face," she said as she squirmed under his attention.
"Sure you do. It's kind of squinty and you get this line between your eyes…"
"I'm wearing a mask," Gwen pointed out with a hand on her hip. She wished that she could be sure that he was making it up. She never saw it in her mirror. Neither did her mother or her Daddy, but they didn't know her nearly as well as her Doofus did and he knew her almost as well as she knew him. She felt her cheeks heat against the inside of her mask again at the idea that he could read her so well. Not that he always bothered, but...
But she was sure that his face didn't give away nearly as much as hers did when she held out her hand. Not that it stopped her. "Come on. One more dance. A real one so you can prove just how good you are."
Ben eyed her hand for a second before he took it and stood up. "OK. But I'm pretty incredible at everything now."
She thought of half a dozen comebacks. Most of them involving his ego and its amazing expansion. Instead, all she said was, "I know."
"So what's the song? More Halloween stuff? Or maybe another techno? That last one had a crazy beat."
"Slow," Gwen said and she bit her lip as his eyes went wide behind his visor.
"S-slow?" Ben asked, and his ego seemed to have left the building a little all on its own with that one word, but it wasn't because he was afraid of hurting her toes. He wouldn't have been looking around if that was it. "Are you - ?"
No. Gwen wasn't, but she wasn't here right now, was she? Neither was Ben. Lucky Girl and Ultra-Man, Rose and Kirby, and maybe that was what made it easier for her to look at him and admit something she'd been holding onto for years. "I want the dance that Lucy stole from me," Gwen said, still just a little bitter about that, and not just because she would have been an awesome flower girl. "You remember how right?"
"Of course I do," Ben said with a nod. "I remember everything that you tell me."
There wasn't anything that she could say to that. None but the teasing, "Good boy," that slipped out of her mouth as her heart pounded with one last burst of nerves as her words got her a raspberry. One that made her laugh as all the butterflies in her belly faded away for the first time in weeks.
Not that Ben knew that, but his glare disappeared with the rest of Thriller as they stepped onto the floor. There were a few surprised grumbles, but they went away, too, as Michelle's voice filled the basement. "That's enough mashing, guys. I think that it's time for something special."
And maybe her Doofus was right and there was a code that all guys knew, or that they just didn't trust girls because they cleared the floor with those words. So did the other girls after a second, but while the guys shuffled their feet the girls all clumped together and started whispering…
It was enough that Gwen would have stumbled if it wasn't for the boy at her side. "Just remember," Ben teased as he followed her out onto the empty floor. "One two three, one two three."
"Who taught who?" Gwen shot back, the words automatic after all the years they've been practicing. Walking should have been, too, but she felt her steps slow under the weight of all the eyes on them...
A weight that vanished the moment he took her hand and spun her around. "Ben!" She gasped in a startled laugh. One couldn't stifle even as she poked his chest with her free hand. "And where did you learn that from, Mister?"
Because she'd never taught him, even if she had spent nights wondering what it would be like if she did. Nights dreaming about him spinning her around the floor and dipping her low...
Them being in costume never crossed her mind, but somehow it fit. So did his flush at being called out as he mumbled, "Mom - she's been watching a lot of dancing shows lately and…"
"Thank you, Aunt Sandra," Gwen giggled and that broke the last of the tension in her chest. She went to take his hand, but she changed her mind and ripped off her gloves first. She stuffed one inside the other and threw them over by their plates. She wiped her palms on her unitard before she curtsied and held out a hand. "My Doofus?"
Ben gave her a very weird look, but he took off his gloves, too. His throw landed right on top of hers. Even a year ago that would have been the start of a contest, but now he just bowed. Not like the movies, but like they were in the dojo. Not that it didn't matter. Not when he took her hand with a "My Dweeb."
She didn't even need to show him where his hands were supposed to go. He just knew, and when he felt it settle on her back as she took his shoulder while the room got warm again. Maybe his hands were a little sweaty, or maybe it was hers, but it still felt so much better without their gloves in the way as she nodded over at Michelle and the music started. "One, tw – " she mouthed just in case as they started, and then she blinked because she knew this song. She knew it and she forgot all about the dance as she spun around on her heel and screamed, "You picked the theme music from Jurassic Park?!"
"You try to find a slow Halloween song you can dance to!" Michelle shouted back as she reached for something by her feet. Probably something that she could throw. Not that she dared.
Not while Gwen glared at her, anyway. And at Ben a moment later when she heard him bite down a laugh. "What's so funny?"
"You just roared," Ben said. "I'm wondering if I should get the lawyers out here."
"Such a Doofus," Gwen grumped, but her heart wasn't in it. Not when she couldn't help grinning at him as he grinned back. It only took a couple of seconds to get back into rhythm. The music wasn't what she expected, but it wasn't all that bad either. He only stepped on her foot once as they moved across the dance floor. Gwen thought she saw some of the other couples come up to join them, but she couldn't tell. She couldn't take her eyes off of Ben's long enough to check.
"Told you I had moves," he teased with his words and his breath as she shivered.
That was all that Gwen could say as the orchestra played on and it was the last thing that he did as they fell into the rhythm together. His smile never left his face either. Not even as their steps slowed with the music and they drifted closer and closer until they were just swaying together in each other's arms. His around her waist, hers around his shoulders.
Her head joined them there a moment later as she closed her eyes and let it rest on his right one. She still had to stoop a little so she could reach it. but it didn't matter. Not as much as the warm strength that she felt through the soft material of his costume under her arms and against her cheek.
It was a strength that she knew could have matched her in all of the fancy moves that she'd learned in dance class, but she didn't get spun, she didn't get dipped, and nobody clapped when they were done.
No, she got something better. She got everything that she hoped for, everything that she waited for, and it felt like a fairy tale there in her Doofus's arms.
One that Gwen wished would go on forever as everything else fell away until it was just them and the music. Them and not their masks. They weren't Ultra Man and Lucky Girl or Kirby and Rose. They weren't Ben and Gwen either. No, they were just a boy and a girl dancing.
A boy who brought her pizza and thought she was worth the universe…
And a girl who murmured, "You're worth more," as she lifted her head and did something that she'd been dying to do ever since that day at the lake.
Gwen kissed her boyfriend and she didn't care who saw.
- o - o - o - o - o -
Gwen Tennyson's Room
Three Days Later
But someone had.
Gwen stared down at the proof in her hands. It was hidden in a whole pile of photographs from that night by the evilest girl that she knew. A true villain that she'd spent the last half hour giggling with as they went through them all, including the one of her Doofus's face when he saw what was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. It meant the world to her until she saw the one that was hiding behind it of Lucky Girl kissing Ultra-Man right after.
Of her kissing her Doofus, their arms still around each other as they danced….
"It's not my best work," Michelle sighed with a smug grin from her spot across from Gwen on the bed where she was bouncing on her knees. It was the spot that she'd claimed the second they got back from gymnastics and made a mess of as she dumped out her backpack so she could find the white envelope that she'd hidden inside. The one she'd been teasing all day, but now she was just grinning so hard that she was vibrating as she tugged on the top of the photo so she could look, too. "But honestly, considering what I was working with I think that it's worth a few weeks of - "
"When?" Gwen cut in, her mouth dry as she stared.
"When do you think, Crazy Girl?" Michelle asked, her blackmail attempt already forgotten and the bed shaking as she clambered over. There was still as much confidence in her voice as always, but the way she was combing her hair through her fingers after she sank down beside Gwen gave away her nerves. "Not that I blame you for missing the flash. You weren't paying attention to anything but Watch Boy right then." Nerves that finally found her voice box, too, and wrapped tight around it. "Y-you don't mind, do you? The two of you were just so cute that I couldn't help it."
"No," Gwen breathed out as she brushed a finger across her Doofus's masked face. God, he really was. And now she had proof. She'd always…
"Thank you." Gwen breathed as she hugged the photograph as close as she could without bending it. And then she said it again and again with words that she'd learned because some things shouldn't be cheated. Not even with alien brain bugs. "Merci. Shoukran Ktir."
"I - I know that you can't - " Michelle stammered, blushing as she tried to take the photograph back. "I know that there isn't any trouble with you keeping the rest that I took of your dork, but I was thinking that I'd keep this one in my room so you can see it - Gwen!" She shouted, too shocked to even find another way to call her crazy.
"No," Gwen said as she jumped back up, her face set as she reached for the picture frame that was always on her nightstand. The one that always had photos of them inside. Today it even had another photograph from Halloween. One that her daddy took of the two of them in their costumes, and It wasn't the one where they were striking poses that could have come from one of her Doofus's comics though. No, the one of Him with his arms crossed and his face serious while she crouched next to him with her hands up like she was slashing at the camera was already on its way to her morföräldrar. This one was the one right after when they'd been laughing so hard that they collapsed against each other with her arms catching his shoulder pad while he wrapped an arm around her and leaned his head against hers.
Honestly, they looked ridiculous - especially with the antenna that stuck out of the sides of his visor - and that was the whole reason she asked for it. Until now, it was her favorite.
If the world was fair…
"Crazy Girl?!" Michelle called out as Gwen opened the frame, but this time the shock was gone and there was something else in her voice as she tried to pull the thing away. Something so much worse. "You know… You know I'm with you no matter what, b - but you can't."
"I know," Gwen said, and she didn't cry as she flipped her new photo over and slipped it behind the other so it would be the first thing she saw when she opened the frame again. It wasn't the best hiding place that she'd found, but she couldn't stand putting this under the floorboards with her magic stuff. Not when she felt like crying now as she closed the frame back up. "Not yet, anyway, but if it's here then I'll see it every time I change the front until I can."
"Oh, habibti," Michelle sniffled and it only took a second for Gwen to sink the arms that were suddenly wrapped around her. Arms that weren't the ones she wanted but were still so warm as she sank into them.
"Girls? Dinner's - " her mother called out before Michelle could finish, the woman's voice catching as peeked inside the room. "Is everything okay?"
"We're fine, mom," Gwen said as she wiped her eyes and carefully put the frame back on her nightstand before they all left. It was okay, though, she'd be seeing it again before she went to bed.
She told herself that anyway. She had to. It was -
- o - o - o - o - o -
Merlin's Office, Avalon
02:17; November 1, 2000
"- the best you got?!"
Jim Huxby stared down at the Glasspad that he was holding with both hands, watching the tetramand tear through some of his best men. The alien wasn't a behemoth like most of his kind, but it didn't matter. Not when he had his hands packed with weapons that he wasn't afraid to use. Weapons he kept in hand even as he vaulted over a wall and into a trap as the view changed to a window high over the alien and the woman who was aiming with her sniper rifle...
It was a trap that never got a chance to get sprung.
A blue blur pulled the rifle right out of Swift's hands and left it a disassembled mess at the red-skinned alien's feet before it stoppedand revealed the Kineceleran girl at the heart of it. The dinosaur-like alien's tail wiggled with annoyance as she jabbed a claw up into the other's broad chest and proved that it didn't matter what species they were, women were women. "What did I say about watching your back, Dummy?"
"That's what I've got you for, Short Stuff," The tetramand smirked down at the girl as she shook her head. And then she stopped and Jim knew his drone was spotted even before she pointed. Even if he didn't, even a blind man would have seen the four-armed alien's grin get bigger as he looked up with the near cannon-sized gun that he was hefting in his top left arm following. It was something that they'd salvaged from some slavers a decade ago and even with the antigrav unit at the heart of it, he'd only found a couple of men who could lift it with both of their hands. The Tetramand held it in one without even straining as he called out, "And I got bad news for you, Man, because it's trick-or-treat time and I'm all outta candy!"
Then the screen of the Glasspad burned red and went static as the drone was blown out of the sky. Static that Jim couldn't take his eyes off of. Not when it was real. "That crazy son-of-a-bitch did it."
"Yessir," a tiny little voice called out from the other side of the desk. It was one of the nerds who was always talking even though he didn't ask a question, which was just one of the things he didn't like about them, even if they were useful sometimes.
Not when they took over his pad though, which the Doctor did now as he taped at his glasspad and Jim watched the static on his turn into a biometric view of the two aliens. Most of the data he ignored, but not the readouts from the miracle devices set into their shoulders that were the cause for all of this. "As far as we can tell, the process is completely stable now. With a little more testing, I'm sure that we can even make it - "
"Testing," Huxby scoffed as he turned off the pad and tossed it onto his desk. "We don't have time for testing, Doctor." Not back during the Big One and not now. If what they had wasn't perfect, it would do. Not like the two he'd been watching. Two weren't enough. He was as sure of that as he was of anything as he jabbed his finger down on his desk and the metal that was once an alien ship. "How long until we can have more of the prototypes ready?"
The overpaid lab rat in front of him shuffled his feet like the child he was. "We can have the next units ready in a few weeks, but after that… It'll be months before we can generate enough of the nano-quartz that we need for more unless we can find another ship."
Lord, it was the Big One all over again, Jim couldn't help thinking. Not any more than he could keep from snapping, "And how long would it take if you were out there doing your job instead of standing here, Doctor?"
The man's pale face burned at that and the look the man gave him was almost hostile, but Jim glared down worse before and he would again. It was a glare that didn't go away even after the Harvard man fled either. Months….
He would just have to make do with what he had, he thought as he jammed his finger down on one of the buttons that covered his desk. "I want Albright, Cruz, and Validus in my office in five."
It was well past time that he took the next step with Project: Chimera. Not that things could ever be that simple.
"Sir?" Control called out - one of them anyway - and he didn't need the confusion that he heard in the woman's voice. He didn't have time for confusion. "It's Oh Two-hundred, sir. Albright and Cruz just got back from Brazil with Whiskey Tango and Validus is in Antarctica monitoring - "
"I don't need you telling me what time it is, Control," Huxby bit out. Like he couldn't feel the time in his bones. Like he couldn't feel each and every year that went by since he first sat down at this desk and took charge of the Plumbers. Years that mattered in every way except the most important; he still had a world that needed protecting and miles to go before he slept. Him or anyone else. "Albright and Cruz, then. In three."
He didn't say anything more after that. He shouldn't have needed to. Not when his tone should have said enough. Unfortunately, it never was for some people.
"Yessir," the woman said with the attitude that almost made him rethink ever putting them in the radio room to begin with. "What about Whiskey Tango? Should I - "
"If I wanted to talk to the Colonel…" Jim cut her off before he let go of the button and let the computer finish that job because he had more. "Tennyson," he muttered. NASA was always just shy of being more trouble than he was worth, but this would be a bridge too far. He knew that even if his grandson would be perfect. Hell, he'd probably even be grateful.
And as for his witch of a granddaughter…
"Later," Jim swore, sinking back in his chair as he rubbed his eyes and imagined his bunk for a whole second. Then he picked up his Glasspad again and stared at the data that was splashed across the screen around the aliens and all the messages that were waiting above that. Messages about mission debriefs that needed reviewing and plans that needed approval before he left in a couple of hours for St. Petersburg so he could put out the next fire before it became an inferno.
It was a trip he shouldn't have to take, not with the aliens still running wild, but he couldn't just ignore the fact that Old George was spotted there or send anyone else. Not after he'd done just that in Greece and lost a whole base right after. "If he'd just stayed asleep…."
But the old man hadn't and now all of Jim's nightmares were happening at once.
Nightmares he couldn't do anything about yet, so he sat back and swiped the video back to the beginning so he could watch his best team go through one of their own again. Servantis and his men were always the ones he sent out to deal with the messes that no one else could and he wasn't sure if they ever stood a chance against the red-skinned four-armed giant and the blue blur that was everywhere, but that was always true.
Only now the monsters were on his side.
"Two of them," he almost smiled as pulled his pipe out of a drawer, lit it, and puffed it to life. It still wasn't enough, not against the things that were waiting in the night, but it was a start….
- o - o - o - o - o -
My friend Hapcelion has comissioned fanart of Lucky Girl and Ultra-Ben's dance from Saro. You can see it at twitter dot com / saro_ner915/status/1470413909266169858