Chapter 5: We'll Have a Good Time Then

Part 1: With the Silver Spoon

Angelwood Academy

Bellwood, California

3:17 pm, November 17, 2000

"Pacing isn't going to get her here any faster," Michelle finally sighed when the sound of feet crunching through leaves was finally just too much. Feet that finally, blessedly stopped and she enjoyed the silence for a few blessed seconds before she added, "Neither will glaring at your phone again."

She felt the look that got even with her eyes closed because it prickled more than the weathered picnic table she was using for a beach chair. It wasn't the good one that was back under the trees with all the shade, but there wasn't any way Gwen was going that far away from the road. Besides, it wasn't all bad. The sun felt good as she laid there and tried for calm.

One of them had to be, after all, and that was what big sisters did. Her mama was always clear about that. We have to be brave, Habibti. We have to be brave for -

For -

"Where is she?" A worried whisper cut through the quiet.

"What are you so worried about anyway?" Michelle burst out, calm and the sun both forgotten as she shoved herself up so she could stare at the girl who'd finally stopped pacing. Except Gwen was still driving herself crazy as she stood there by the foot of the table, all but vibrating as she fretted at the phone in her hands.

If it was her goblins, Michelle would have known just how to handle this, but Gwen wasn't like her brothers so she couldn't just yell at the redhead. Not when she'd yell back and she'd do it in just as many languages. So she scooted across the table instead, splinters be damned, and pulled her best friend back for a hug as she teased, "I know that Watch Boy's probably getting all sweaty by now and you wanna be there so you can drool, but why are you freaking? My maman's been way later than this!"

She'd once been so late that Michelle watched the sun set from the school steps with Elias back when he was still the baby in the family. And they probably weren't going to get picked up today by a private in a Humvee who was so keyed up from the red alert that she didn't find out about for another three days that he barely said a word, so it was all good, wasn't it?

Well, it would have been for her.

"I know, but it's mom," Gwen said those last two words like they explained everything. Which they kind of did. Two seconds with Mrs. Tennyson explained so much about where Gwen got her intensity from, but this…

"So?" Michelle asked as she perched her chin on Gwen's shoulder so she could get a look at her best friend's face and spy on the phone in her hands because this was too much even for Crazy Girl. This wasn't her freaking over being late or missing her Watch Boy's game even though she was. This felt bigger.

Big enough that it made Gwen's lip quiver before she shook her head and whispered, "It's nothing."

"You're dialing pretty quick for nothing," Michelle pointed out as she pushed herself off of the table, all without letting go of the girl in her arms. The butterflies in her stomach wouldn't let her do that anymore than they would just sit there anymore and the Colonel was right about one thing. It was always better to keep moving.

That was it, though. Everything else she'd learned from her maman.

Especially how a good hug could get anyone talking, and that was a skill that she used to the fullest now. It even worked. "It's just that the last time this happened…." Gwen started before the phone's endless ringing stopped with a click and the moment was gone. So was Michelle's nose, almost, as Gwen shoved the thing against her ear. "Mom, are you - ?!"

"This is Natalie," she heard Mrs. Tennyson say even with Gwen's head in the way, and even with the distance and the speaker making her sound tiny, her voice was still as prim and proper as a General's wife. She didn't even say her last name like she couldn't even imagine someone calling her and not knowing it. "I can't come to the phone right now, but if you leave a message - "

"Mom, it's me, Gwen," Gwen said like the beep that followed was a starting gun. "Where are you?! Please call me back, I - I'm just..." The last was a whisper that just faded off before she closed her phone and rubbed her eyes.

"We can call Maman," Michelle offered in a worried whisper as she hugged the redhead closer. "You'll have to deal with the Gremlins, but she'll come back and - "

That was when a honk called out and cut her off. Not the one she heard every day when the parking lot was packed with parents all trying to pick up their kids and go as fast as possible. Not when that line cleared out five minutes ago.

Which meant…

"Haqar!" Michelle spat out without even looking because that was all she ever gave that sort when they honked or whistled like they'd never even seen a girl before. Usually, Gwen didn't even give them that much.

Usually.

Today, though, there was literal death in those emerald eyes as her best friend's head whipped up and she screamed, "Shut up! We're thirteen, you - !"

"Don't stop now, Crazy Girl!" Michelle cheered after the girl stopped dead in the middle of her rant because it was always adorable seeing what tripped her up and amazing when she got going again. "Those pigs don't care about five years, so don't you dare worry about six weeks!"

Or it was adorable until she saw the redhead's mouth drop as her face went pale, and that was when Michelle realized that whoever honked hadn't driven by. "Allah," she whispered, her knees weak as she finally looked up as the squeal of brakes filled the air.

She wasn't stupid. Her maman and the colonel both told her about what she should do if anything like this happened. And if they hadn't, then base security had when they sat down with her the second the Colonel got his last promotion and once a month after that because she was his daughter and that always made her life harder, but that was just talk.

It wasn't the scuzzy, ancient beige painted RV that she saw stopping now not ten feet away, its wheels almost brushing the sidewalk. Her mind filled in stories for all the scratches and dents that whoever owned the thing never had. Stories that vanished with a gasp when she saw the shadow of whoever was driving get up through the blue-tinted passenger window. The huge figure left the engine running as he disappeared into the back. "Come on," Michelle whispered, her mouth beyond dry as she backed away because everything about this screamed trouble.

So, of course, Gwen slipped out of her arms and started walking towards the RV, her mouth making a soundless word as tears filled her eyes.

But she only made it a step though, before Michelle caught her arm with both hands. "What is wrong with you?!" She hissed. "This! This right here is why I call you Crazy! Even Matthew knows that there aren't any puppies or candy inside and he just turned five!"

The panicked ramble and the drag both lasted all of four steps before Gwen dug the heels of her Mary Janes in. "It's the Rust Bucket! Well, the Rust Bucket II a-and..." She shouted back like the words meant something. Her words weren't panicked, not at all, but they didn't seem right either. They almost sounded stunned as she kept her eyes locked on the RV like she was sure that the old thing was going to disappear and all of this would be a story for next Halloween.

"So someone made the sequel to something that sounded bad to begin with! So what?" Michelle demanded, her heart in her throat as she looked up at her best friend's face and prayed that any of this was getting through, but Gwen…

But Gwen, the sweet, silly, brilliant, and crazy thing wasn't going to listen to any sense today. It was written all over her face that she was going to get in that thing even though it probably meant that she'd be running from some psycho with an ax before dark if she was lucky.

So Michelle did the only thing that she could think of. The bravest, dumbest thing she'd ever done.

"Fine!" She said as she forgot all about being nice and just yanked.

"Michelle!" Gwen shrieked as she was pulled almost off of her feet. Usually, that was one of her favorite sounds in the world because she loved it when she teased the control out of her Crazy Thing - the only better things were the sounds of her little brothers' snores and the floor creaking late at night when the Colonel came home - but now…

Now the sounds of Gwen's feet kicking at the dry leaves were even sweeter as Michelle dragged her back towards the safety of the school. Maybe if she'd been wearing her sneakers instead of the Mary Janes that dress code demanded because they had to be proper ladies she even would have made it.

Maybe, but Gwen was wearing the same kind of shoes and they didn't slow her down once she got her footing again. Her footing and her voice as she cried out, "Michelle, it's my - !"

"Stranger Danger! How have you never - ?!" Michelle screamed back at the same time, her heart hammering as she tried for another yank, but Gwen was ready for it now. Ready in all the ways that a blue belt and a gymnast and god knows what else she'd learned could be and -

"Girls?" A man called out before either of them could finish. "Is something wrong?"

A voice that was almost as familiar as the big man she saw looking at them both through the open side door of the RV with a grin that his bushy white beard couldn't quite hide. Not when it was as bright as the Hawaiian shirt he was wearing.

"No," Gwen said as she pulled free again, her hair and clothes a mess from the wrestling match, but for once it didn't look like she cared. Not as she put her hand on her hip and fought back a smile as she gave Michelle a look. "You know how people get, Grandpa."

Those words took forever to sink in as she stared up at the man's face again and saw the wrinkled map of it as he walked up.

A map that she knew, even if the bags under his eyes weren't anywhere near as big back then. "That's your g-Grandpa Max?" God, he was the only person that she heard about almost as much as Watch Boy and it took her until she saw those wrinkles get deeper as his grin got wider before she remembered her manners. "I mean, Mr. Tenny - "

"Mr. Tennyson is what they call my sons. I don't mind Grandpa Max if you don't," His beard hit some of his smile, but nothing could hide the sparkle in his eyes as he said that. Or the way those sparkles went supernova when he turned to Gwen and opened his arms wide. "Hey Pumpkin. Surprise."

The last thing that Michelle saw before she buried her burning face in her hands with a squeak was Gwen glomping her Grandpa and she stayed there even as more voices came. Ones that sounded like her history teacher and the nice lady who worked in the office if they came from a Peanuts movie. And she didn't move even after the voices stopped and she realized that they were waiting for her to say something. "Yes, I know him. I just… I'm sorry."

If Allah had any mercy in him, that would have been that and she would have been all alone when she opened her eyes again, but of course he didn't.

Seeing Crazy Girl still there and smirking at her wasn't bad enough either. "Stranger danger?" Her grandpa asked as Michelle looked up. And up. And up.

And it was just too much. "I'm sorry! I know I should have known! Crazy Girl's room is full of pictures of you and - and we've met before at her karate tournament, it's just that - " She cared way more about watching her Bestie kick butt again back then than him. Kick butt before she left, and when she came back…

"I'd tell you to hush," Grandpa Max told her with that smile still on his face. "But I've seen what you do to people who won't listen, so…."

"Grandpa!" Gwen groaned as she buried her face in his side and he put an arm around her like this was all normal. And maybe it was. They sure acted like it was. They acted just like she did with her grandparents, except…

Except when she was with them, she never felt adrenaline and years of worry mixed with mortification that turned into tears. Tears that Michelle couldn't stop. Not even when her Crazy Girl cried out her name.

And not when she felt arms as big as houses go around her shoulders and behind her knees as they picked her up just like the colonel used to. The shock of it startled a squeal out of her as she wrapped her arms around Grandpa Max's neck, but that just made her cry harder into his shoulder as he carried her into the RV like she was an egg. One that he tucked her into the dinette that was just inside. Even his voice was gentle as he murmured, "I'm just going to go get your backpacks and we'll be off."

Which was a lot more gentle than Gwen, who just jammed herself into the booth next to her and hugged her hard as her Grandpa stepped away.

Yelling would have been easier.

"I-I knew it was your Grandpa, Crazy Girl," Michelle finally whispered, her voice cracking, but she wasn't going to let that stop her. Or make her let go, which was even more embarrassing than the flaming heat that she felt in her cheeks, but at least her olive skin hid most of that and let her hold onto some of her dignity.

If she was as pale as her best friend…

Especially the bit she saw right before she buried her face deeper into the soft sweater that covered Gwen's shoulder as the girl reminded her that she was just another goblin, "Uh-huh. Stranger Danger, huh?"

A sweater that Michelle almost tore again as she shoved herself up and wiped her eyes with the sleeve of hers. "Shut up! Maman and the Colonel made me sit there, too, when they were talking to Elias and Matthew about it and - and it's your fault anyway! Your grandpa didn't look like Santa in any of the pictures I've seen!"

Especially not a Santa who looked like it was Christmas morning and he just finally got back home….

"That's why I told you to shave!" Gwen pushed herself up and shouted over Michelle's head, which only got a booming laugh back from outside that made her drop back down onto her butt and grumble. "I hate that beard. And you, for scaring me like that. Still waiting for the why, too."

Michelle giggled at that. One that was almost a tense as her Crazy Thing was as she finally broke down. "Okay, Maman. Je pouvais pas te laisser t'accaparer cette espèce de film de la semaine que t'essayais de nous faire," she said with all the dignity that she could manage. Dignity that couldn't survive this, not even in their secret language as she admitted, "J-Je pouvais pas te laisser te faire kidnapper toute seul."

Those words were so embarrassing even in a whisper aimed at her feet because she already knew she was an idiot, but she braced herself for all the teasing she knew was coming anyway. She should have known that was impossible. That nothing could save her from her Crazy Girl, or the full body hug that almost knocked her into the side of the RV.

Which was everything Michelle knew it would be, and still so much better than the noise Gwen made that she knew meant that it would only be a second before they were both disasters. Disasters that she just barely avoided by adding, "Even if I couldn't save your tights," she said as she glanced down again. She'd ruffled the rest of Gwen's clothes and the run Michelle saw on the black pair her best friend was wearing wasn't much. She had pairs that didn't even have knees, but she knew her Crazy Girl.

And she didn't disappoint.

"You jerk!" Gwen gasped and the face she made when she finally saw it was good, but it turned into gold when it made the proud girl get up and run for the back of the RV.

"It makes you look stylish!" Michelle shouted after, the words half-lost in her giggle as she fell back in her seat as the sound of drawers being yanked open and slammed closed filled the cramped RV.

"Liar!" Gwen cried out, almost in a panic. "I don't have any spares here anymore either! I'm going to have to - "

"Don't you dare! You'll blind the refs with those pale sticks that you call legs!" Michelle teased out before she finished with the coup. "But I bet you your biology notes that Watch Boy is going to love seeing them."

"Michelle!" Gwen squealed at the thought, as she dashed into the back and yanked a curtain closed with a last "Hate you!"

Which meant no one saw Michelle when she collapsed against the huge side window so she could make her still racing heart slow. No one but Gwen's grandpa, who she forgot all about until he cleared his throat from the doorway behind her.

"And here I was sure that Ben was the only one who could get under her skin like that," Grandpa Max said behind her, making her jump and spin around in her seat just in time to see he was wearing a smile of his own. A smile that not even her maman would have if she knew that the name was already stuck in Michelle's head, much less the Colonel, but she couldn't call him anything but Grandpa Max now. Not after what he said and not when she already knew one Mr. Tennyson. Besides, something that formal so didn't fit the man who was standing there with his arms full with backpacks that were as colorful and rhinestone-filled as the school would allow. "Maybe I should kidnap you two more often. It's a heck of a show."

"Grandpa!" Gwen shouted, her voice cutting right through the curtain. "Behave!"

"Ignore her," Michelle said with an airy wave and so much more bravado than she felt as she watched him laugh again as he closed the door behind him and set their backpacks down. Maybe if she felt a little braver, she wouldn't have blinked up at him as he stood up again and added, "But just so you know, I'm allergic to chloroform, so…."

"Michelle!" Gwen shouted and that more than anything finally broke the tension in her chest.

That and watching Grandpa Max's smile turn into a full grin, which was as big as the rest of him. "Now I see why Crazy Girl's getting so tall," she teased. Or tried to, until she saw his smile melt away. "Not that it matters! I mean, I know that all the jerks in school are going on about it even though she could so kick their butts, but I figure that as long as I'm still taller than Watch Boy and way more mature than either of them - "

"You wish!"

"Are too! By ten whole months and don't you forget it!"

"It's not that," Grandpa Max said, his grin coming back at the fight like it was something he'd heard a thousand times before and he loved every minute of it as he took a step towards the front of the RV before he hesitated and changed his mind and went back to the fridge instead. He came back with two bottles of water in his hands and more wrinkles around his eyes and mouth as he sat down.

Michelle took the bottle he offered, but she didn't open it. She didn't dare. Not when she knew she'd spill it all over herself with the way that day was going and she couldn't handle that. Not right now. Not when her hair was right there and so much safer to play with. Especially the one strand that was always dangling down her front now, and the weight of the charms woven into it felt so good when she tugged on them.

"Those are pretty. Where did you get them?"

"Crazy Girl made them for my birthday," Michelle said with a relieved smile as she pulled the colorful things out so she could show them off like they deserved. There were seven of them, four purple and three blue and all with little squiggly designs carved into them. They were only a little smaller than the matching hand-carved rock charms that were dangling from the zippers on the backpacks behind her. Only someone as crazy as her would make them by hand out of her rock collection instead of just buying something.

Crazy and wonderful and they weren't even her real present.

She'd never thought of hair beads before. Not anymore than she did that anyone would want to wear a matching set, even if her Crazy thing had left hers at home that day. Best of all, the man across from her noticed them and gave them an appreciative hum. "I'm guessing that you're the reason her hair is braided now, too? Her mother tried a few times when she was little, but..."

"I've been teaching her." Michelle nodded as she ducked her head and bit her lip as she tried to imagine that fight. Especially since she sided with Mrs. Tennyson for once. How couldn't she? Who wouldn't want to play with that hair?

And there were only so many days she could look at the practical and boring ponytail her best friend had it in before that. Even the loose plait she'd let Michelle make today during lunch was so much better. Or it would have been if she'd just run when she was supposed to because it was falling apart now and they didn't have time to do it again. Which was why she added, "The basics anyway. She won't learn the fancy stuff, though. I think she wants to, but she just goes on and on about not having time..."

"Small steps," Grandpa Max interrupted as he looked back over his shoulder with a dry chuckle and a knowing shake of his head that proved beyond anything else that the man was her Crazy Girl's grandpa without him having to say anything else. But he did, with a sigh as he turned back. There was something else in his eyes when he did, though. Something that didn't wipe away his smile, but nested in his eyes in a way Michelle couldn't understand until he said, "Her grandmother wore hers the same way..."

"I know. I've seen her pictures," Michelle said with a little nod as she hugged her legs close because there weren't many and Gwen always got weird when she brought them out. "She seemed cool."

Grandpa Max just nodded again, his eyes on the water bottle he was fidgeting with. "She was. I wish that you could have met her."

"I bet she would have had a blast at my party last week," Michelle said into her knees. She meant it as a joke, but her voice betrayed her and she couldn't make it stop as she remembered the two empty chairs that nobody talked about - not even her Gremlins - and that she knew she should leave alone, but her mouth wasn't listening. "You would have, too, I hope after she made me save you a chair and everything since you were supposed to be there."

Which wasn't exactly true, but she'd been right there when he'd called and Michelle couldn't make her best friend choose. Not after she'd seen that usually serious face light up and then fall as she realized…

And in the end, it didn't even matter.

"I know," Grandpa Max said, his smile freezing as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I'm sorry. I meant to, and I still have a present for you somewhere in here, but I got tied up in - "

"Kansas. I know." Michelle finished in a small voice because the words might not have been exactly the same, but they were all things she'd heard before. "But it was party central. She went all out."

God, maman tried, but she never had a birthday party like that. There was a whole afternoon of karaoke and costumes. Real karaoke, not just the little speaker and the tapes that she had at home, and even if she couldn't keep a straight face when it was Crazy Girl's turn - not even for the duets - being there with her as they wore electric blue and green wigs and dressed like something out of an anime….

She didn't have a clue when Gwen set it all up, but it was amazing.

Even some of the nicer jerks from the base and class who showed up said so, too, but it was just the two of them unless you counted Watch Boy, which she didn't. Much, but Ben was a lot more fun now that she knew that he wasn't quite as much of a jerk as she thought after Crazy unleashed the full power of her puppy dog eyes so he'd let them make him up like David Bowie.

And then she found out why the crazy thing got all giggly when she saw him bring in his guitar. That was when she finally understood why he was worth all of the trouble.

If every boy could play like that….

Michelle knew that some of it must have shown on her face because Grandpa Max's face twisted into something that was almost a smile. "I don't - I don't suppose you have any pictures?"

"Did I - " Michelle started because she had a whole roll of them. And there were so many more on Gwen's phone that it was ridiculous and amazing. Pictures she knew that Grandpa Max would love because the Colonel had, too. And from his shirt. And the stories. She'd heard so many stories about the man in front of her. Stories you only tell about family, which she wasn't. Not really.

Except in the ways that mattered.

"She talks about this RV all the time, you know," Michelle said suddenly as she looked around and swallowed the lump in her throat. She didn't even know how many stories she heard about being here, and they weren't all about the summers. It explained a few things, like how a girl who didn't have any brothers or sisters could still share a bathroom and a tent.

Which was a skill that got put to use just last month in Michelle's backyard. She'd done before with her brothers whenever they started whining too much about the Colonel being gone, but never with one of her friends and they never had an actual fire, but Gwen built one like it was second nature so she could make smores for the goblins and it was all peppered with stories about -

"And you. She won't stop talking about how great you are unless you're cooking," Michelle said, her fingers digging into the plastic water bottle as his smile got bigger and then the rest came out in a rush before she lost her nerve altogether. "And I don't see it. The man she talks about would be here."

"I - " Grandpa Max said, rocking back as his already sad smile faded. "There's nothing wrong with my cooking."

Maybe there was, maybe there wasn't but it was such an obvious dodge that Michelle just ran right over it as she let her legs drop. "I mean, you missed my birthday, but I can deal - but you missed hers, too, and then you just disappeared after you brought her home this summer and who does that?!"

Nobody. Even the Colonel tried when he deployed - that's what her mama always said when he finally called hours or days late - and he wasn't just driving around in an old RV and seeing the country after he retired. Michelle tried to see the man that everyone went on and on about in the one in front of her now. She tried and tried.

Maybe she saw his shoulders fall a little as she glared at him. Maybe he even looked ashamed as he repeated the "I - "

Maybe. But if he did, she didn't see it. Not when the world went gray.

"Gwen's always looking for you!" The words were a hiss as Michelle smacked the table, which was sturdier than she would have imagined. "Do you even know that she got her blue belt back before school started? Because she was looking for you through the whole ceremony, too! And- and what about when she was making that computer thingy for her science fair project? Do you even care that she's going to state because of it? Or that she almost lost her eyebrows because you weren't there to help her wire it all together like you said you'd be? And what are you even doing here today?! Her mom was supposed to pick us up and she wouldn't answer the phone and - and you should have known how crazy that would make her!"

"I just wanted to surprise her," Grandpa Max said, his voice hollow and his eyes wide and stunned.

"Sur - ?! You've been gone since this summer! Since even before that and - "

And that was as far as she got before she saw Gwen push open the curtain with a "Michelle, it's okay," and maybe it would have been if she didn't look so resigned as just stood there with her hair loose, her arms around her middle, and her legs bare under her skirt for what seemed like the first time ever.

As bare as the pain in her emerald eyes.

"No, it's not!" Michelle cried out as she bounced to her feet and jammed her finger at the blurred form of the man in front of her. "I know that you have a job that needs doing, but we matter, too, and - and where have you been?!"

It was supposed to be different now. Her maman promised it would be the second they found out about the base, but -

"He's been out saving the world," Gwen said - like now was any time for jokes, especially the kind that got her nicknamed Crazy Girl to begin with - as her voice finally cracked with tears. "That's what's important. That's - "

Michelle watched Grandpa Max move at that. He was even faster than she imagined a man as big as him could move and for all that Gwen had grown over the last year, she still almost vanished when he pulled her into his arms. And for all his size, his voice sounded so small as he mumbled, "You mean so much more than that, Pumpkin," into Crazy's Girl's red hair as he rocked her. "Seeing you here, seeing you happy and safe, that's what's important. You and your cousin both. I'm sorry that I haven't been around much, but - "

"It's okay, Grandpa," Gwen said, her voice raw as she hugged him back tight, "It's okay. We understand."

"The little spitfire over there is right, You shouldn't have to," Grandpa Max whispered into her best friend's hair and there he was.

The man Michelle heard so much about.

And the one Michelle never believed existed. Not any more than Santa. Not really, but seeing him, seeing them in front of her. Seeing just how much the old man loved her Crazy Girl as he hugged her close and...

And Michelle knew that it shouldn't have hurt so much. It shouldn't have made her heart twist until it squeezed tears from her eyes as she thought about everything that she'd just said. She didn't mean to. Not at a man just met. She didn't even know where most of it came from and now it blew up in her face again just like it had with Watch Boy. She watched them both as her eyes filled for as long as she could stand before she slunk her way to the side door with the last shred of her dignity. And then even that disappeared when she heard, "And where do you think you're going, young lady?"

Michelle's hand froze on the handle at those words and she hung her head. "I'm on Strike Two already," she said through a throat as tight as the grip she had on her beads as her heart raced in her ears and she felt like she was going to be sick. "So I'm going to go while Crazy's still talking to me. I'd say tell Watch Boy that he'd better kick butt, but I'm - "

But she wasn't the one anyone was waiting for anyway and she'd already ruined their day enough.

"Michelle," Gwen whispered, her eyes wet for the third time in as many minutes, but that wasn't what stopped her from just running all the way home.

No, it was the big arms that swept her up again and pulled her close. "I don't think that a girl who's willing to pull my granddaughter away from kidnappers has anything to be sorry about."

"Mr. Tenny - Grandpa Max!" Michelle whined at the words the man murmured into the top of her head. The only thing that let her keep any of her dignity was the strong shoulder that she buried her face into. "Man, no wonder Crazy Girl is always talking about getting these," she said into the red horror of his shirt, laughing and sniffling all at the same time as his hug made her feel like she was walking on the moon.

The only thing better was the one that she got from her Crazy Girl when she joined in a second later. "You are such a dummy," Gwen sniffled into the back of her neck, "Thank you."

And that was that.

Mostly, except for the hand that caught hers after the tears finally stopped. Caught her and dragged her up upfront where she was shoved into the passenger seat because her Crazy Girl never took no for an answer. Not even about a seat that was covered in bits of shiny duct tape and should have been torture sitting in, but when she leaned back….

"Right?" Gwen grinned at her as she wiped her eyes and settled behind her Grandpa's seat so she could run a hand over the vinyl there like it was gold. Then she sighed. "But if you think that this one is good, you should have sat in the real one."

"Hey now," Grandpa Max broke as he joined them and ran a loving hand over the dash as he sat down behind the wheel. "This Old Girl might not be as broken in, but she has just as much heart."

Which just got the sniff it deserved. "She better have plenty of go, too, Old Man, because we're already late and you know how my Doofus gets."

"Oh, she'll make do," Grandpa Max said and Michelle watched the two of them share the strangest smile as he reached for the gearstick and his finger brushed the covered button on the side of it.

"Grandpa!" Gwen squealed as her hands shot out so she could catch his arm before he could flip the cover up. Then she laughed and leaned over so she could bury a kiss in the man's short white hair as she looked over at Michelle with glittering eyes. "Maybe later. I think that we freaked out Michelle enough for today. And you know that my Doofus will throw a fit if he wasn't here for the first time."

Michelle didn't get it at all, but the last bit of tension in her broke as Grandpa Max let out a belly laugh as he gave his granddaughter a look in the rear-view mirror and put the RV in gear. "The Gwen I knew would have done it just for that, Pumpkin. I warned you that dating would change you."

"It has not!" Gwen all but howled, but her face glowed with joy.

And then it burned as Michelle leaned back and scoffed, "Watch Boy nothing. I know how you're going to get, Crazy Girl if you miss seeing your boy toy running around in those short shorts of his!"

She couldn't help it, even if that was something she couldn't imagine saying in front of an adult - much less her best friend's grandfather - but it was so worth it just to see where Gwen got her wild blushes from, even if Grandpa's Max's tanned cheeks did hide it a little better.

Her favorite scoreboards...

- o - o - o - o - o -

Part 2. Little Boy Blue

Monroe Middle School's Soccer Field

4:28 pm

Ben hated the scoreboard right now, and he didn't watch as another number flipped over under the wrong school's name, tying everything up.

He didn't look up. He barely heard the last of the announcer's echoing call or the cheers that were coming from the wrong side of the field. Not any more than he did the sweat that was soaking his jersey or the ache in his palms and knees as he pushed himself up off of the grass.

"Two goals," he heard Jacob groan from the goal as he did the same thing. "We were ahead by two goals!"

Ben knew why they weren't anymore. So did the coach, who stormed back and forth just on the other side of the white line that marked the edge of the field as he yelled at all of them, but his glare stayed on Ben. His and everyone else's.

"Get your head out of your ass, Tennyson!" Cash panted from just a few feet away on his right. The last time Ben had seen his old bully's face that red was after he'd made him eat dirt and somehow his glare was even darker today. "Because I don't care how much Kung Fu you know. If we lose this you're getting another swirly."

Ben just let out a huff of a laugh as his eyes drifted back to the stands, where he saw Jamie and the guys before with their noses buried deep in their portable Gamestations, but they were there. So was Paul and a few of his friends from the Dojo. Enough that he felt bad for Sensei because the class must have been half empty today.

Or maybe he wouldn't.

Not when he could see his family sitting right in the front row because of course they were. But his eyes weren't on his dad, who was on his feet and waving his arms in a signal Ben didn't understand at all. He wasn't looking at his mom either, who was just hiding her face in her hands. From the fall he just took, Ben hoped, and not because of his crappy playing.

He'd be hearing enough about that on Monday, he was sure of it. Assuming that aunt Natalie didn't give him an earful first because she sure looked like she was about to as she sat there hugging her mom and glared. Only Uncle Frank looked at all calm as he tried to talk his dad back down onto the stands, but that was just Uncle Frank. It didn't matter.

Not as much as the empty seat between the two men. The seat his Dweeb swore she was going to fill today no matter how many times he told her she didn't have to.

The worst part was that he couldn't even be mad at his Dweeb for not coming. Not after all of her stuff that he'd skipped out on over the years. Not after he missed seeing her get her Blue Belt. He deserved -

"Are you even listening, Tennyson?" Ben jumped as his coach yelled so loud that it sounded as if he were screaming right in Ben's ear rather than from the side of the field. Yelled like she should have…

"Fu - !" Ben almost snapped back because what did he care if he got benched for the rest of the game? Almost, before he heard;

"Move that lazy butt, Doofus!" It was a voice he heard all the way from the stands, and one he was sure he could hear from the moon if he had to as his head shot around.

And there she was.

He didn't know why Gwen was running in from the parking lot now after she missed the first half, but it didn't matter. Not when his girlfriend was running towards him instead of even looking at the stands like she was going to join him out here in her school uniform. She dashed for the waist-high fence at the edge of the field that was only there so it could stop people from doing what she was.

As if a fence could stop his Dweeb.

But Army Girl did what not even the strongest chain links could have when she came out of nowhere and caught Gwen around the middle, dragging her back just as the ref reached for his whistle. Dragging her back, but not stopping her from shouting, "It's Hero Time, Ben!"

"Tennyson?" Coach asked, lost, and even that was a shout.

Which made Ben's grin all the sweeter. "You heard the Dweeb, Coach!" With that, he turned and ran for the center and everyone who was already waiting there.

The rest of his team followed a moment later and just a little slower as they kept looking over at the show on the sidelines. "So what's the plan, Tennyson?" Fitz finally asked for all of them.

"No idea," Ben admitted with a smirk and a shrug because plans were never his thing. He never needed them as long as his Dweeb was close by. He just planted his cleats because he was going to move the second he heard the whistle blow. "Just follow me."

- o - o - o - o - o -

And they did.

The score didn't move again for the next half hour, but the ball sure did as the game went all over the field until the midfielder on the other team got a hold of the ball and left his team behind in a wild dash for the goal.

Ben glared at the boy with the 9 on his chest as he raced by too far away for him to do anything about it, but he knew that the kid already had the goal made in his head. It was obvious just from the look on his face. A look Ben saw every time he looked in a mirror, but unlike 9, Ben earned his.

And he knew that he couldn't do it all by himself.

"Cash!" Ben shouted and he almost didn't believe it when he saw the lanky boy standing right where he was supposed to be. Right where Ben waved him not a minute ago.

Everybody was, which meant that they were ready the second the trap sprung and his old nemesis finally used his stealing skills for something good as Cash hooked the ball away with the same move he'd used during way too many lunches, only this time nobody would be tripping face-first into their lunch. Ben almost wished he could see 9's face as it all turned and Cash did the one thing that he never had in all the years he was the bully.

He did just what Ben told him and passed the ball to Fritz so he could do his magic with Juan and the two blazed the path for the goal as the air roared with people screaming their names.

All except for the one voice that was screaming his like she had all of their lives.

It didn't matter how many other people were cheering, nobody was louder than his Dweeb and Ben only got a glimpse of her in the madness as he spun around, but it was a sight he knew he'd never forget.

He'd seen her jump before in karate and gymnastics, but he never saw her hang in midair like she was now, with her long legs pulled up and her feet tucked under her billowing skirt like she was one of the cheerleaders that she usually rolled her eyes at. Except she jumped higher than any of the girls in his school could have ever dreamed as her hands punched the sky and those emerald eyes were locked on him.

And, man, he'd been an alien made of literal fire, but Ben knew Heatblast never got as hot as his Dweeb looked right now. It wasn't even close.

Just like she'd never gotten as close as the boys on the other team who were suddenly all around him as they rushed by in a storm of cleats against his shins and elbows driven into his sides as Coach screamed at him from the sidelines and his Dweeb grabbed the fence again as everything went wrong.

"Aw, man," Ben groaned as he whipped around and saw what he should have from the beginning. "Juan!" He cried out when he saw the boy almost lost in the tangle of the other team's defenders, not ten feet from winning everything.

And his partner in crime Fritz wasn't in any better shape. Somehow the two had gotten separated and were surrounded, which only left….

"Cash!" Ben screamed as he raced down the field, and the greasy-haired boy followed, but he was whole steps slower than he'd been at the start of the game. Everyone was. Ben saw it all in flashes as the countdown started from the stands.

"Ten!"

Which would just mean overtime, but they were so close to the win right now...

"Nine!"

"Tennyson!" He heard Juan shout in a panic as the other team closed in on him like a pack of rabid wildmutts.

"Eight!"

"Go get them, Sport!" He thought he heard his dad from over the noise of the crowd, but he must have been shouting this whole time because his voice sounded hoarse, not that it mattered. Not when he had his whole family watching.

"Seven!"

He didn't turn his head so he could look, but he didn't have to. He could see his dad on his feet as his mom buried her face in her hands and his aunt and uncle…

"Six!"

"Juan!" Ben shouted back, his heart pounding as his mad charge was spotted and two of the boys who were guarding the Striker split off and charged towards Ben. Boys who were so much bigger than he was.

"Five!"

But the boys were always bigger. So were the monsters, and it was so easy to slip out of their grip when they didn't have guns or claws.

"Four!"

Even Juan sounded surprised as Ben moved in the split second before the other boy disappeared in a tangle of arms and legs, but the dark-skinned boy passed the ball back just in time anyway with a wordless cry.

"Three!"

Only he kicked it too hard and when it hit the ground, it bounced high.

Ben saw it come flying at his face like Cash was just dying to give him one more black eye for old time's sake. And he knew from the thunder of feet behind him that he'd never have a chance if he headed the ball and waited for it to come back down.

"Ben!" He heard Gwen shout and he knew that Army Girl was the only thing holding her back even if he didn't dare look. His Dweeb, who never played for overtime. Who always went for the win...

"Two!"

His Gwen, who was the red-headed menace that bullies like Cash only dreamed they were and also the only reason Ben even knew the back-flip that he used now. The one he didn't learn at the dojo.

He felt the ball's impact all the way up to his hip as he kicked it. Then there was the gasp from the crowd screaming as he got so caught up that he forgot all about his landing until he slammed into the ground hard enough that it drove the air out of his lungs, but it didn't matter.

Not when the last thing he'd seen was the goalie diving for the ball and….

"Gggoooaaallllllll!" The announcer's voice exploded from the speakers just a second before the horn that ended the game, but none of it felt real.

Not until the crowd exploded in cheers.

Cheers that just washed over him as Ben let his head fall back into the grass, suddenly too tired to even smile as he just tried to catch his breath. He couldn't even keep his eyes open, but he still saw the stars and sky when he closed them, which always made him think of one man. The only one who wasn't here.

That thought hurt more than anything else, but he was used to it. The explosion of shouts and the ref's whistles that followed a second later, though...

Ben was on his feet with his hand flying for his left wrist before he remembered that there was only skin there even as he spun around and followed all of the stares and pointing fingers, sure that he'd see another monster that needed its butt kicked.

He was even almost right.

There was only a split second of warning and a flash of red and blue flying at him before he was hit. "Youdidyoudidityoudidit! IKNEWyouwould!Whendidyoulearnthatkick?!" Gwen laughed in his ear as she tackled him with a hug that sent them both tumbling back down onto the field.

And she never let him go.

Not even after she somehow ended up on top of him. Ben thought he heard more gasps and more high-pitched whistles as he looked up at her.

Maybe. He didn't know.

Not when his whole world was Gwen as she pushed herself up with a hand on his chest. Not so she could get up. She didn't even try as all of her long fiery red hair draped around them both as she gave him a grin so bright that he could have sworn that she was casting every spell she knew.

He would have sworn, but there wasn't any violet glow in her eyes. It was just her.

"You always have to prove me wrong, don't you, Dweeb?" Ben asked, his mouth dry because he was so wrong before. The way she looked right now?

He already knew that he'd remember it for the rest of his life.

Gwen didn't have a clue what he was talking about. He knew she didn't, it was written all over her face like a picture, but somehow her smile got bigger anyway. "Always, Doofus."

Or maybe she did. She was brilliant after all, and so much smarter than him. Especially now as Ben felt his brains turn to mush as he drank her in.

If it didn't, if Ben was even half as smart as she was, he knew he wouldn't have paid any attention to the weight on his thighs that was pinning him down or how her usually loose skirt that was pulled tight between her legs and across his middle like the belt he never wore as she sat there.

And her legs…

If he was even a quarter as smart as her, he wouldn't have ignored those, too. Long legs that surrounded him that came with knees that were smoother than he ever would have imagined when he brushed his hands over them. Smoother even than the tights that she always wore and some part of him wondered why.

It was a little flickering bit of him that could still think, and even that went out when he saw her suck in a breath when he touched her. One that - If he was even an eighth as smart - he would have realized was no big deal. Everyone breathed, everyone but him right now, and there wasn't anything special about the way his Dweeb was doing it, no matter what his eyes told him or how her grass on her rumbled sweater made it look.

And all of that went double for her lips. Everyone had them, but nobody used theirs as well as Gwen did after she let out that breath with a shaky sound.

Nobody but him.

If Ben was even a tenth as smart as her, he might have even remembered that most of his school was sitting in the stands with his parents and hers before he pushed himself up on his elbows for the kiss his whole body ached for because she was too much right now. Too much of a dweeb right now. Too much of a girl. Too much of Gwen.

And she was beautiful.

For a second he even thought that she wanted it as she let out a gasp that showed off the brilliant white of her teeth before she started leaning back down. Then he watched those hooded emerald eyes go wide with panic before he remembered that they were hiding this as she caught herself and turned away like that would change anything.

No, she wouldn't have done any of this. She was too smart, but Ben did have his moments.

"Ben! Gross!" Gwen shrieked after he blew the loudest, wettest raspberry he'd ever made against her cheek and it was gold. So was her scrambling away as she wiped his slobber off with the sleeve of her sweater.

"What did you think would happen, Dweeb?" Ben asked, his grin wide and daring as he lay there. Somehow he even kept from blushing.

Or wincing as finally felt his body betraying him again and so did his protective gear, even if it did save him from something it was never designed to as painfully as it could. The pain he ignored as he raced through all the Sumo Slammer cards he had and what they did until it faded.

And his Dweeb never knew, thank God.

"That you would be a gentle -" Gwen sniffed and Ben could see her expression change when she heard someone burst out laughing from the stands. And after that...

It was a happy laugh, though, even if it roared like Wolfblitzer and it sounded so different from what Ben was used to. Not that the difference mattered. Not when it gave him all the distraction he needed as he watched Gwen's eyes go wide and her face go as white as the snow in his dreams. It was bad enough that he almost rushed forward to get her out of there. Almost, but he barely shifted his weight before she let out a squeak.

And that was all it took.

Not that he joined in. Ben still didn't do even as much as chuckle. He wasn't that stupid, but he couldn't help grinning at how cute she looked with her face finally burning and her hands flying as she tried to straighten her clothes. And he wasn't the only one who thought so. Not when he heard as much cooing from the stands as giggles.

But there was always somebody who just had to spoil the party...

"Young lady," His coach snapped as he came running up in a tone that meant detention. Weeks of it. Months. Enough of it that even the people in the stands went quiet from the thunder in his voice. "I don't know what you think you're doing, but - !"

The man looked as big as Four Arms right then, Ben faced down them before and his voice only caught a little on the last word as he stepped between them and glared up at the man's face. "She's my - my cousin." It wasn't the word he wanted to use, but it stopped the man anyway as those angry eyes finally found something else to glare at as he mouthed the word. A man Ben wasn't paying any attention to even if he didn't dare look anywhere else as he added. "And she's trouble. Doing things like this is why her parents had to send her to Angelwood, Coach. It was that or juvie."

Worlds of pain. That's what the sound his dweeb made promised when she heard what he said. Pain that was so worth it when he saw the confusion fill his coach's eyes.

"She's…" The man repeated with a frown as he gave them both a look. One that would have made Ben squirm a few years ago, but all that time heroing was good for something. Or it was until he saw those steely eyes look over and his frown got deeper as Coach corrected, "They're not supposed to be out here."

Those words weren't thunder, but Ben couldn't resist smirking anyway as Michelle came running up with the best glare he'd ever seen on her face, and for once it wasn't aimed at him. Not that one anyway, and Gwen's burned hotter under it even before he shrugged and opened his mouth again. "Army Girl's her keeper. She's out on parole."

He knew he'd be paying for that one for the rest of his life the second he saw both of theirs drop at that. And that it was worth every second.

"Yeah..." Coach said, drawing out the word for what felt like forever as he watched Michelle take his Dweeb by the arm and try to tug her away. Try, but Gwen's feet were planted now as her eyes promised enough pain that even he saw it. "Well, we still have some more work to do, Tennyson, but I guess that your little jailbird cheerleader can stay."

"Cheerleader?!" Gwen squawked, her voice making the same noise that the Rustbucket did when Grandpa red-lined the engine and the radiator cap popped right off. It was a look so hot that it took everything that Ben had not to kiss her right then and there even though her glare told him exactly what would happen if he tried. Only the hand that clamped onto his shoulder as he got up saved him. A hand that wouldn't let go as the Coach marched him back to where everyone else was waiting.

And staring. Especially Cash.

If Ben didn't know better, he'd think that old jerk-face was trying to remember something as he stood there with his mouth gaping. He didn't have time to figure out what though. Not before Coach's soft scoffing, "Parole? Cousin? Honestly, Son, back in my day we would have just said that she was Canadian," that made him stumble right there in front of his Dweeb and the whole world.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Except stumbles weren't just stumbles.

Not when Ben was dating a witch who was subtle and quick to anger. And his Dweeb was angry enough now that she somehow managed to not look at him and not stop glaring all at the same time during the handshakes and the speeches after as the refs announced the obvious. Gwen didn't stop even when they brought out the trophy and that was when he knew that if it wasn't for the death grip that Michelle kept a death grip on her arm….

He'd never been so happy that Army Girl was there in his whole life as it sank in that maybe he'd gone too far and he'd teased her too much. Again. But he wouldn't have traded it for anything. Not for a second. Not even after what happened the last time he'd jumped on her buttons like this.

Even if it was before she knew magic….

Magic that he knew that Gwen used when all the noise from the crowd stopped and her hands flew to her mouth. "Oh hell," " Ben muttered as he finally dared look and saw every eye on him. Every eye on the field, every eye in the stands. All of them were frozen.

And then they weren't. It started with Aunt Natalie, because of course it did, as she jumped up to her feet and -

And cheered.

The noise hit him like a truck as everyone else joined in. Even Army Girl. Everyone but his Dweeb, who shoved her hands over her mouth as she burst out with a laugh so evilly gleeful that it made Ben shoot his eyes down just to make sure she hadn't turned his clothes pink again. Or worse. But everything looked normal. "What?!"

Which just set off everyone else on the field. Everyone but Cash, who shook his head before he laughed and slapped Ben's back. "You're still a dumbass, Tennyson!"

Which earned the tall greasy-haired boy the same glare that he'd been getting since the second grade, but didn't answer Ben's question at all. No one did, not until Coach cleared his throat. "If you don't want your medal, Ben," the big man said with a laugh as he held something out. "I'm sure I can find someone else here who will take it."

Ben glared at them all as he walked up because the gold medallion he saw in the man's hand looked way too much like the participation trophies he always got in elementary school like it was his fault that he was always the youngest one there.

And then he read the inscription. Monroe Presidents Most Valuable Player - 2000

"Coach?" Ben asked, his voice cracking as he froze and read it over and over again because it couldn't be right.

"You aren't the best at paying attention off the field, boy," Coach said with a proud grin as he put the red, white, and blue ribbon around Ben's neck and it still didn't feel real. Not even when he felt the weight of it. It didn't sink in until the man gave him one last clap on the shoulder, leaned in close, and whispered, "But we wouldn't have won this year without you. Now, go show that off to that pretty girl of yours because you've earned that, too."

Ben just nodded dumbly as the coach's whistle sounded for the last time and then he was just swarmed by the rest of his team. He felt hands pound his back and ruffle his hair and a dozen conversations start all around him. Conversations that were all drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Not that any of it mattered, even as he stared at the medal. Not until he saw a familiar flash of red hair as his Dweeb pushed herself through the crowd.

That was all the warning he got before her hands flashed for his neck.

But for some reason, she settled for grabbing his medal instead. which just made him tease as she stood there so mad that she was shaking. "Making sure it isn't bigger than any of yours?"

"Shush," Gwen breathed, entranced as she rubbed a spot off with her thumb that he didn't even see. The gold stayed in her eyes even when she looked up so she could meet his eyes again and that was when he knew he was dead.

Or he would have been if Army Girl didn't come in for the save. "You must have both been dropped on your heads when you were little," Michelle scoffed as she stood there with her arms crossed and her eyes rolling.

Ben just snorted at that. He couldn't help it. "Her more than me."

"Well, that's obvious, Watch Boy," Michelle said with her familiar glare as she pulled them both away. But it didn't last long before she sighed. "It didn't hurt your moves any, though, because that was a pretty good game. And a way better after-show..."

Army Girl was just joking. Ben knew she was as he watched the girl let them go so she could pull on a strand of her hair like she always did when she was nervous as she shot a look towards the stands, but it didn't keep him from shooting her a look anyway before he turned back to Gwen, who wouldn't even look at him now as she twisted her hands together. But she didn't slap him or shove him either for any of the things he said.

But she didn't let go of the medal either, or the ribbon that was still around his neck. Not that hero's like him would let a thing like that bother them. Nope. Not at - "So how fast should I be running right now?"

"What?" Gwen asked, her attention flying back to him. Then she ducked her head and hid behind her hair as she realized what he meant. "So fast, Doofus, like always. But not for that."

Ben just blinked at her because he could barely hear anything over all the noise and there wasn't any way he heard that right. "Really?"

"Yeah," Gwen nodded as she gave the medal one more tug before she let it go so she could wrap her hands around her middle. "I was being stupid and we'd be in so much trouble right now if you didn't think quick - and ewwwww - but I was just so excited and you looked so happy and - and - "

"And you couldn't resist my manly charms," Ben teased as the weight broke in his chest and his heart started working again. His heart, but not his brain. "But it's not like you ever could."

"Couldn't miss your stink, you mean," Gwen sniffed with her nose so high in the air that he almost missed the way the corners of her mouth twitched. Some part of him wished that the future would just show up already so that he was the one she was looking up at instead of the sky. The rest of him was perfectly happy with standing on his tiptoes as he took a step towards her and she threw herself into his arms even as she added, "We could smell you over by the bleachers and - Ben, no!"

Her shriek sounded like music to his ears as he tried to wrestle her down to the sweaty left pit of his shirt and she tried to push away. "You think that it's bad over there? Smell the swampfire, Dweeb!"

"Oh, God," Michelle groaned before she grabbed them both by the hand and started dragging them...

Ben didn't have a clue. He didn't look either. Not when he was too busy watching his Dweeb blush and laugh as she called out Army Girl's name and asked for him.

"Since I don't see any fire extinguishers around here," Michelle answered without turning around, "I'm taking you both to the next best thing. Here they are, Mrs. Tennyson!"

"And Ben calls me a wicked witch!" Gwen gasped as she dug her feet in, but somehow it didn't matter. Of course not, Army Girl was fierce. Ben knew that already just like he knew that he didn't want to be anywhere near the stands. He hadn't even dared take a look since his Dweeb came running up. He didn't need to know that his parents were being so - so -

So them.

He just didn't count on his Dweeb knowing it, too. "It's okay, Doofus," she said, her voice low. "I don't think that they figured it out. Mom would have…."

Ben just shuddered as she trailed off there. "Of course Aunt Natalie didn't," he joked. "She'd be wanting me even deader than…."

He didn't say the name. He didn't have to. Not when he heard Gwen suck in another breath at just the thought of that monster and everything he'd done. She never forgot anymore than he did. She didn't screw up like he did either, though.

Or let as many people down.

"Ben…" Gwen breathed his name as she brushed her hand over his arm. "It's not - "

"I know," Ben said as he kicked at the grass and watched it fly because that was better than looking up and seeing the still empty spot in the stands between his dad and hers. "It's not even that. I just wish that Grandpa could have seen me play."

He hated how his voice cracked when he said that, but he hated how whiny it sounded more. That was why he never even thought about it. Not when it just meant a bunch of words coming from people that he knew didn't believe it. His parents were bad enough, but if he had to hear them from his Dweeb, too….

"I always said that you were a Doofus," Gwen shot right as she swatted his arm with one hand and pointed with the other. "Honestly, Ben, how do you think we got here?"

- o - o - o - o - o -

Part 3: And the Man on the Moon

Monroe Middle School Soccer Stands

5:13 pm

" - proud to announce that Benjamin Kirby Tennyson is the Monroe Presidents' player of the year!"

Max would have given anything if he could have just lost himself in the sound of cheers and stomping feet that came with those words. It was what his grandson deserved. Or that he could blame the phone in his hands for how quiet he was when he did join in, but he couldn't help looking over his shoulder at the sea of faces and wondering if any of them were fake.

It was just a quick glance. One he'd made a thousand times before without anyone noticing because he wasn't a rookie, but he still got caught.

"Looking for someone?" Carl asked, catching him even though his eyes were aimed at the field. Max didn't know why he was surprised. Frank might have needed glasses since he was eight, but Verdona always said that it was their youngest who saw everything.

"No," Max lied as he made himself turn his back on the sea of faces so he could look at the man who was sitting off his right straight in the eye. The lie came out easier than the tension in his back. "No, I just can't believe the turnout. Ben must be thrilled."

"He's always loved a crowd," Carl agreed before he suddenly bounced up so he could add his hollering to the noise as Ben finally started to make his way to his coach, and Max's hand shot to the weight at his hip at the sudden move. He couldn't help it.

Not any more than Natalie could keep from begging, "Please tell me that she didn't..." She was two seats away, but even with all the noise Max could still hear the desperation in her voice as she sat there with her face in her hands.

"Don't worry, Lilypad," Frank said, his voice almost as soft as his wife's as he sat at Max's left, but that was just him. Unlike the redhead at his side, his eldest son was beaming as he put his arm around her. "Michelle's got a good hold on our Pumpkin this time. I don't think that Gwen's going anywhere."

And she wasn't, but Max still laughed as he watched his granddaughter bounce in her best friend's grip out on the field and barely twenty feet from Ben, who looked gobsmacked as he walked up to his Coach and took his medal. Max would have laughed even harder at what his daughter-in-law said next, but he didn't live this long by being a damned fool.

Or that's what he told himself anyway, but only the damnedest of fools tuned out his daughter-in-law for even a second when she was on a tear, but he did and Natalie was.

" - charging the field like that? Tackling Ben?! I know that Gwendolyn was excited, but - but they're not children anymore!" She finally stopped for air at that before she buried her face in her hands and groaned. "What are people going to think, Frank?!"

It was as plaintive a plea as Max had ever heard, and made him proud when his son pulled her close and put a calming hand on her knee. Proud until he proved himself a true Tennyson with a murmured, "They'll think that she's taking after you…"

"I never!" The proud woman gasped as she bolted upright, horrified.

And her husband just chuckled at that. It would have been a belly laugh from anyone else, but his oldest had always been a quiet man. "I don't know. I remember a certain someone who acted the same way during my baseball games. Right at the fence and cheering just as wildly."

"Frank!" Lili cried out again as she swatted his hand away. Not that Max was looking anymore. Not when this was between them, but he couldn't help hearing the blush in his daughter-in-law's voice even as she tried her very best to sound dignified, "That's different."

It was, no matter how much Frank teased his wife. Max knew that. Lili must have been eighteen or nineteen then, not almost thirteen. And they weren't cousins. And it wasn't, not that any of his kids knew that yet.

But they almost found out today. They still might if the look Ben gave his cousin when he finally looked up from his medal meant anything. That thought made Max squirm even as Carl sank back down into his seat with all the cheer drained out of him as they watched Ben give his cousin a look, one that made her pull against her best friend's hands and bounce on her toes.

"I don't think that even dad can stop her now, Natalie," Carl started, and Max almost thought that his son paled as his eyes flickered to his sister-in-law, "but there are good scholarships in cheerleading, so..."

"Maybe a Tennyson would lower herself," Lili declared after she made a noise that could have come from the Rust Bucket's radiator after it red-lined, "but a Larrson - "

"Oh, hush, you two. I think that she was adorable," Sandra broke in with a coo and her hands clasped over her heart as the ceremony ended. And then she let out a delighted little laugh that was all the warning that Max needed to let him know that Gwen broke free. This time her charge didn't end in a tackle, which was probably the only thing that saved her mother from a complete meltdown. Just a pulling match that they'd all seen before. It never bothered Max before when they were like this, but Natalie wasn't wrong. He just never let it touch his face. Not even as the blond woman giggled into her hands and added, "They both are. You better be getting all of this on film, dad."

"I am," Max swore as he kept his phone steady on his grandchildren because how could he not? Not when Ben was glowing as Gwen grabbed his medal as she flashed the same smile that made his Verdona - his Starshine - adopt Lili into the family all those years ago. And when he heard the happy sigh Sandra let out as she saw it, too...

It made Max wonder if just maybe the kids telling the truth about their relationship wouldn't be the disaster he imagined. It was a nice thought.

One that he wished lasted longer.

"Max, please!" Natalie begged as she reached across her husband so she could grab his arm and squeeze. "You have to talk to her! She'll listen to you!"

It was the closest to pleading that Max ever heard his daughter-in-law. Close enough that it would have made him grin if he'd heard it about anything else. Now, though… "I don't know about -"

"Leave him alone, Lil," Frank broke in as he pulled his wife back into his arms. "Dad just got home, so let him enjoy the night before you make him try to do the impossible." That got a sputtering that he quieted with a kiss.

It was a quiet that didn't last long before Carl elbowed him and grumbled, "I think that Ben's figured out your surprise, Dad."

"So do I." Max couldn't help his grin at that as he forgot everything else and pushed himself up to his feet. He knew why his grandson hadn't seen him yet. He hadn't had eyes for anyone but Gwen since she got here, but now his head flew around and his mouth dropped into a perfect O of shocked surprise as she pointed

One that Max wished he caught on camera even as he braced himself for the hug he knew was coming as his Sport came charging up with the biggest grin on his face…

- o - o - o - o - o -

"Penny for your thoughts?"

"I'm afraid that they aren't worth that much," Max said as he made himself smile for his boys as they sat down on either side of him, but he couldn't help looking down at the crowd of kids who were at the base of the stands. And at the boy in the middle of it all who kept sending glances up his way that Max could have sworn were nervous.

Or furious.

Max couldn't tell which, but there wasn't any sign of the grin that filled Ben's face before his coach told him to hit the showers.

Neither could Gwen, who was at his side with Michelle at hers. The two of them were the easiest to pick out of the crowd with their uniforms. Ben should have been, too, but he'd changed out of his before the party down there started, and if it wasn't for the green team windbreaker he was wearing he would have gotten lost in the crowd.

Or as lost as Ben could get anyway, when he had his arms flying as he argued about something with his cousin and everybody else, which wasn't anywhere near as lost as Max felt. Not that that was new, but he remembered when he could hide it well enough that his kids never even noticed. Now, though….

"It's okay, Dad," Frank said with a sigh as he leaned back on the bleacher behind him like he always did when he was little, not caring at all about the dirt that he was getting on the elbows of his white dress shirt or the way he made an old man jump when he added, "With the money Carl just won off of me he can afford bulk rate for a package deal."

And just like that Max's smile went away as he gave his oldest the look. He knew that this was an old game between the two that started with M&M's when they were little. Usually, he never saw the harm and sometimes he even joined in, but now..."You bet against Ben?"

Alien Warlords quaked when they heard that tone. Max knew they did, he'd watched them do it, but Frank just shrugged and waved it away. "Not that he'd win. That was obvious. I just thought that the Cash boy was going to get MVP. He played better for the whole game." And he never looked so happy that he was wrong before.

Happier than Carl at any rate. "My Slugger was a little off at the start..."

Max had scars from things that were less pointed than the looks he got then. Looks that he shrugged away because what else was he going to do? "You know how it is. No plan survives contact with the California Highway System."

Then it was Carl's turn to squirm even though Max didn't mean it as a shot at his job, but it didn't last long. "You had the girls worried, dad, but if that's all it was," he said, his words guarded even as he made himself grin and wave for the two that they'd left just a few rows down and the two who were still arguing in the field, but based on the looks on their faces as they turned this way they were just about done. And Max wasn't the only one who thought so. "I'll remind Ben that you're an old man now when he gets up here again and - "

"Don't you dare, you whippersnapper," Max said as he gave his boy a shove as he remembered the hug Ben gave him before he was pulled away so he could get cleaned up for his party. A hug that only seemed to last a second, but it still aggravated the ache in his ribs that he'd had for weeks now. It was something else he thought he'd managed to hide, but he wasn't going to let it stop either of his grandkids from giving him another. He wasn't going to let anyone make a big deal of it either, not with his daughters-in-law both watching. The blond and the redhead women were sitting side by side now down in their seats, all their years of fighting forgotten in the excitement of the game that left them looking like the girls he first met.

And just like then, Sandra and Natalie were holding hands and leaning in close like the sisters they always should have been. Except Max didn't have to wonder what they were whispering about this time. Not when they kept shooting worried looks back his way every few words.

"I just needed some air. I'm fine," He told all of them, but he didn't think for a second that it made any difference even before his eldest spoke up.

"Dad," Frank said. A second later as he put a hand on Max's shoulder for the first time in years. "You've lost weight. Are you sure that - "

"Who are all of those kids?" Max cut him off as he waved a hand down at the crowd and tried not to think about the fact that his shirt did feel baggier than it should.

His two boys paused at that as they shared a look as old as they were. "Most of them are from the team or the dojo," Frank finally answered after a look and just a moment's thought. "Natalie could probably tell you everything about all of them, but the only one I recognize is Michelle and that's only because she's over so often that I think Gwen wants to give her my office."

There was a hurt in those words. A hurt that Max knew all too well. "And I only met her once before today,"

"It's okay, Dad." Frank waved it off before he could finish, and his voice only caught a little. "Gwen understands."

Max just nodded even though his Pumpkin shouldn't have had to. "What about the rest? Carl?"

"I don't know all their names either, but Paul's stopped by the house a few times," Carl admitted before the silence could drag on for too long as he pointed at the tall blond boy who looked like he was the oldest one down there. Him and the girl at his side. Not that they seemed to mind as a boy in glasses said something that made Ben laugh and Gwen bury her face in his shoulder. "And you know Jamie and the rest of the Sumo Squad."

"Yeah," Max whispered even though he didn't. He didn't know any of them. He'd missed so much just like he had with his boys…

His boys, who both squirmed in their seats. "You've…" Carl started.

And Frank finished. "You've been gone a long time, Dad." For once, his eldest just left it at that.

It still hurt. "I know," Max murmured and he almost told them why. He always wanted to. He wondered if they'd be proud. He wondered if that would make the last year - the last thirty years worth it.

But he'd sworn an oath.

"And you made Ben's day," Frank added on as his daughter looked up again and gave them all a shaky smile. "But you'd better show up at Gwen's science fair next month or there will be hell to pay." Maybe there was a little jealousy in his voice as he said that, but it was lost in his relief as Gwen caught Ben's arm out of the air and dragged Ben out of the crowd with it as she plastered a smile on her face like them arguing was anything new.

But the guilty look in his granddaughter's eyes when she met his was. And she was the only one who looked at him. Ben didn't. His eyes didn't even come close as he stomped up the stairs with his hands in his pockets, but the look on his face…

It was one Max had seen before on both of his sons. He just never imagined….

"What's this I keep hearing about a science fair, Pumpkin?" Max asked, his voice catching, once they were close enough and he almost wished he didn't when he saw Gwen's face light up and Ben turn away.

"It's nothing, Grandpa," Gwen said, with a proud smile that made those words a lie. "I've just made my own - "

"He's not going to come," Ben said, cutting her off like he always did. With words that Max knew he barely even thought about, but that didn't keep them from hurting. "That's why we should - "

"Ben!" Carl and Frank both shouted before he could finish even though they'd both said the same thing over the years. No, they'd said worse. Not that their glares mattered. Not when Ben wasn't looking at any of them anyway. No, he just shook his head, crossed his arms, and turned his back on all of them.

It was all stuff Max had seen before. The stuff he knew how to handle, but he never got a chance. "It's your party, Doofus. You can't just skip it," his pumpkin said before he could, and when she put her hand on his shoulder…

"Ben?" Max asked as only a lifetime of practice kept his smile on his face. A lifetime that Ben didn't have, and Max didn't know if it was his question or Gwen touching his hand that made the boy wilt so fast.

Max had never seen anyone look more miserable. Not until those green eyes turned to him and his pumpkin asked in a small voice, "Besides, you'll be here tomorrow, right, Grandpa?"

Max would have given anything if he could have just said yes, but he learned a long time ago that he shouldn't make promises that he couldn't keep. "I'm here tonight," he said and he choked on the words that burned as he swallowed them down and made himself smile. "And I was thinking that the three of us - four!" He amended when he saw the olive-skinned girl who was talking to his daughters-in-law even as they spoke. "Four of us would go out. I'd love to get to know Michelle better, Pumpkin, and to hear all about your season, Spo - "

It was the looks that made him stop. Not just the pained ones that Ben and Gwen shared, but the worried ones between his boys. "We can't," Ben muttered as he kicked at the cement bleachers.

"Dad…" Carl said, his voice hurting. "Dad, they're going out with their friends tonight."

"To Mr. Smoothies," Frank added. "They've been planning it for days."

"I could - " Max said as he just stared. "I could drive..."

"Paul already said that he was taking us," Ben grumbled with a look that was so close to a pout before he shoved a hand through his still wet hair and shook his head. "But it doesn't matter. We can hang out with those losers any - "

There were so many lessons that his father taught him. His father and his grandfather both, but neither of them ever warned Max that this would be so hard. "Don't worry about me, Ben," he said as he made himself smile and squeezed his grandson's shoulder, and he almost lost it because he used to have to reach so much further to find it. "Go out with your friends, Sport. You've earned it."

For a second, he was sure that Ben would refuse just because he got that look on his face. The one that said that there wasn't anyone who could tell him what to do. And for a second, Max hoped he was right because he could remember when they both used to fight just to spend time with him. Then the look turned into a hug that didn't last nearly long enough before he sprung away, grabbed his cousin by the hand, and started down the stairs.

But it was Gwen, and when she dug her feet in nothing could move her. "You'll be here tomorrow, right?" She asked again with so much hurt in her voice. Enough that Max saw Ben duck his head and he wished he could do the same. "I'll talk to Michelle and we can all hang out if - "

"Wild horses couldn't drag me away, Sweetheart," Max promised, his voice cracking when he saw the doubt in both of their eyes even as Gwen smiled and nodded….

"I'm sorry, Dad," Frank whispered once the kids were out of earshot. For once there wasn't any anger in his voice. Just a pain all his own as he stared after them.

"They're growing up." Max's voice was barely more than a whisper as he watched them collect Michelle before they joined in with the group that was heading for the gates. Maybe Gwen looked back, but Ben never did. "They're growing up," he repeated, and there wasn't anything anyone else could say to that.

- o - o - o - o - o -

"Are you sure you don't want to follow us home?" Sandra asked, her ocean blue eyes a storm of love and worry as she leaned out the passenger window.

"We could put you up in Ben's room so you can spend the night in a real bed, Dad," Carl broke in from the driver's seat. "I'm sure that he won't - "

"No," Max answered as he kissed his daughter-in-law's forehead. "Thank you, Sport, Sweetheart, but tomorrow is going to be a big day and I want to make sure everything's ready for it." He only had to say it three more times before they finally believed him, but he kept waving until they were back in their minivan and driving away like Frank and Natalie already had.

That was when his smile finally failed him. His smile and his energy both and only a lifetime of practice got him back up into the Rust Bucket's driver's seat as he felt every day he was gone hit all at once.

It was crushing, but the sounds outside were worse as everyone started for home. Or they tried to, but he could hear kids giggling as they ran by as their parents called after them and…

And Max didn't think that he could feel any more hollowed out as his fingers found the sequence of buttons and switches that unlocked all the systems that he didn't think he'd be needing this weekend before he murmured, "Take us home, Girl."

Most days he loved to drive, but that night he was just as happy to watch the steering wheel move by itself. The voice commands were just one of the features that the original Rustbucket didn't have and for once he was grateful for the upgrade. "And open a line to Avalon."

The words were barely out of his mouth before the radio hissed, "What's up, Whiskey Tango? How was the game? We're all dying to hear - "

"It was fine," Max sighed before the chipper woman could go any further. "Tell the rest of the girls I have it all taped, but - " His bunk called out to him, but he couldn't go. Not yet. Not after Fort McCauliff. Not until he was sure. "Give me a full update, Control-12."

"Whiskey?" The woman started, confused for a whole second before her training took over and she bit her tongue. When she opened her mouth again she was all business. "All's quiet on the Western Front tonight, sir. See for yourself."

There was a flash of color in front of Max at that. When he opened his eyes again the world on the other side of the windshield was lost in a sea of screens as Avalon hit him with everything. He leaned forward and studied them all while the steering wheel turned this way and that.

Some of the screens were filled with maps of contacts and suspected contacts, but there was nothing new. Neither were the videos taken from drones launched so soon after an engagement that there was still smoke rising in the air as they picked through the debris for clues. There were the talking heads, too, their screens were full of gobbledygook. The best minds in the world and they all looked half lost as they tried to explain things that came from out of it.

There were so many screens, but Max couldn't keep his eyes from drifting to the three on the edge. They were the only live feeds tonight. Live feeds that never stopped of the three Xenocytes that they had as guests. One was asleep in its cell. Another was hunched over a tray and eating, the purple tentacles that covered its head pulled back to show off the mouth that it usually kept hidden. The mouth that was the only part of it that still looked human.

And the third…

He swallowed hard as the third turned and looked right at the camera with its one red eye like she could feel him watching. Then she let out a low guttural growl before the squid-shaped thing that covered her face spat out a wad of green slime that hissed when it hit the thick glass in front of the lens and blinded the camera even though there were a dozen more watching and the feed switched right away.

Not that it mattered. Not as Max leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and squeezed his nose, but the headache didn't ease at all. It hadn't in a year.

"You're supposed to be resting, Whiskey," Another woman broke in and Max couldn't help smiling at the sound of it because he'd heard her in his ears for years now and he imagined that she almost sounded like his Starshine.

And it hurt more than he could say that he didn't know for sure anymore.

"There's no rest for the wicked, Control-1, you know that. Put me through to Whiskey Tango 2. I know it's a thin lead and that the Air Force swears it was just some meteors, but those radar contacts down by Yosemite are the only lead we have right now. So tell him that I want the team ready because we're heading out as soon as I get back."

It would break both of his grandkids' hearts when he headed back on Monday, but maybe it would be for the best. They didn't need him anymore. Not here, anyway. It was a selfish thought, but….

"No sir," Control-1 said, and he could hear the smile in her voice.

"What?" Max jumped at that. Luther Albright was a Ranger before he became a Plumber and the best right-hand man that Max ever had since Wes. He was a man who never turned down an order, and a sudden fright cut through Max's stomach. "What happened?"

"Nothing, Colonel," Control-1 laughed. "He just left me a message in case you called." She didn't even wait for a go-ahead before she started reading. "'You tell that stubborn old goat that I don't care how many medals he has or about the birds on his shoulders. This is the first weekend pass we've had in months and I know he has a family waiting for him because mine is waiting for me! So, stand down soldier, and don't call me until five minutes after the world ends. And you can tell his old goat the same thing after what he just pulled. Whiskey-Tango 2 out.' Would you like me to repeat that, sir? Merlin did. Three times."

"No, but I wish I could have seen Jim's face when you did." Max sighed as he let his head fall back. A part of him wanted to know - had wanted to know ever since he saw the looks on Albright and Cruz's faces when Jim called them into his office that morning right before he headed out. Looks that told him that he should have waited. It was what a good officer did.

But his grandkids…

Now the Rust Bucket seemed all the emptier as he waved his hand and the displays faded away. He wasn't the least bit shocked to see the RV park on the other side as the real world came back, but he was surprised that his spot was still open. He shouldn't have been, not when he paid for it every month, but that didn't always mean anything. Neither did people getting mad at the Old Man of the Mountain. He was sure he'd hear all about it on Monday, but today he let himself relax as his Old Girl stopped. "Just tell Tango 2 that he won if you hear from him again. Whiskey Tango out."

"Roger. Good night, Whiskey. Avalon out." The radio went quiet then. Too quiet, but Max didn't have it in him to turn on the radio or even to go to bed. He just closed his eyes again and….

And he didn't know how long he sat there before he heard a knock at the side door. One that jolted him awake and made him grin as he shoved himself out of his seat. "Pumpkin? Ben? Did you two - " the excitement died down when he saw the white-bearded face that was waiting on the other side of the door in a Yankees windbreaker that was catching the evening breeze.

It was a man that Max knew right down to the cooler he had in his hand. "Duncan?"

RV parks were great for meeting people, but most of them never stayed around for long. A familiar face was always cause for a celebration and there weren't many that were more familiar than this one. "Duncan, come in!" Max made himself say with a laugh as he threw open the door in an act so old it barely took any effort anymore. Especially not now. "I thought you guys were heading out weeks ago. What happened?"

"You know how it goes, Max," the other man answered with a wrinkly grin and a shrug that said everything. And if it didn't, the cooler in his hand did. "Hope you don't mind me stopping by, but Emma's out spending the retirement," he said as he pulled himself in, careful to keep the weight on his good hip, and as Max closed the door behind him he added, "Besides, I couldn't go until we found out who the backgammon king was. Or see if I could finally tempt you into having a can or two with me. I promise that it's not the store junk this time,"

"To tell the truth," Max started, his smile turned real as he looked down at thick white styrofoam that was just big enough for a couple of six-packs. Then he stood aside. "I have something that'll knock your socks off if you mix it in. Just don't mind the mess."

Duncan made a face at that as he went by. "This isn't going to be like that barbecue you made me last time, is it? Because I'm still tasting possum when I burp."

"You sound just like my grandkids," Max happily sighed. "In fact, they're coming by tomorrow and you really should meet them! I know that they'll get a kick hearing about your old Hollywood - " Max knew he was babbling even as he opened a cabinet and reached for the old coffee can that he kept hidden on the top shelf.

It was a can that he never reached.

"- onel!" The CB radio over the dash hissed in a panic. Not the line to Avalon, but the other. The CB radio that he only ever really used on the road so he could get a handle on what was going on even though it seemed like fewer people were on it every day. The kids used to love playing on it, and some of the things that he'd heard them say...

But even they'd lost interest over the summer. There was only one man he knew who still was. He even had a rig of his own at home so he could always talk to his family while they were in the field. "Cruz?!" Max asked after he scrambled up front, the can and everything else forgotten as he grabbed up the mike. "Cruz, this is the Colonel. What's - ?!"

The third man on his team didn't wait for him to finish. "They fou - me, Col - (pop) - nel! The Sq-dheads! They're j-mming everything but (hiss)!"

His words came in a panicked rush of Spanish that cut in and out, and Max thought the frantic popping and clicking that he heard mixed in with them were from whatever was interfering with the radio, but sounds didn't go away even after the static did.

And that was when Max knew.

"The Xenocytes?" He asked, his guts turning to ice as he let go of the button again. He knew that he should sit, that he should hit the autopilot and the jets and call for the cavalry, but the ice-cold realization that he was already too late kept his feet frozen as he leaned against the dash and listened with everything he had.

At first to the static, then there was a click followed by the sound of something slamming shut and heavy breathing. "Col - " Julio started again, but it wasn't his voice that Max was listening to. It was the muffled sound under it that always made Max's heart freeze even when it was just from a thunderstorm.

It was the whimper of a scared little girl.

"Julio? Is that Maria? What's going on?" He asked as he pushed the button and punched the dash in frustration.

"No! It's Julia, Lucia has - !" The rest was lost in a roar of gunfire. A dozen as the little dark-haired six-year-old girl Max met twice and heard almost every night as she talked to her daddy shrieked even as everything else went quiet.

And then she did, too, as her father came back, his voice a broken whisper. "Mother of God. They're still coming and I only have a couple of rounds left. They're…. I don't… I d - 't have any choice. Take care of my g'rls for me, Co - el."

"Julio!" Max screamed into the mike. "Julio, listen to me, man, there's got to be another way out! Julio?!"

He just stood there and listened to the static as the weight of every second of his sixty-two years and the failures in them bowed his head, repeating the name every few seconds.

Until he heard a click of an answer after what felt like forever. "Julio?" He asked, hope surging as he let go of the button.

"No, Tennyson," another voice spat through the speaker. One filled with the hisses and pops of a creature that didn't belong on this world. "There's no escape for any of you."

And that was when Max saw it, the flash of movement from the shadow of the man behind him. A man that he'd completely forgotten and who moved without any of the arthritis that slowed him down to a pained waddle just a minute ago. Which was more than Max could say about his as he ducked and spun as fast as his body would let him, his hand flying for the pistol that was hidden in the dash in the only spot his grandkids never found.

Then a flash of alien red lightning and a clap of thunder filled the Rustbucket before everything went quiet again…

- o - o - o - o - o -

Author's Note

A special thanks to DOLAN_STAP! for helping me with my French.