Chapter 6: Everything You Ever

Bayshore Mall

Bellwood, California

7:26 pm, November 17, 2000

Gwen Tennyson never thought that her life could be like this.

"- mean, it was fun and all, but honestly, we could have brought the Gremlins!" She half-listened to her best friend babble at her side like Michelle had been since they sat down. She wasn't even talking about anything. They weren't making plans or comparing grades. Not that they ever did, but still…

"Why didn't we?" Gwen asked because this just wasn't how her life went. Not since even before Marci forgot that they were friends. Not when she spent every day being pulled in a hundred different directions by her mother and school and everything else that was supposed to give her a good future. Not when she had a mind that wouldn't stop even when it drove everybody else crazy. Including her.

She wasn't supposed to just sit down and hang out. Honestly, fighting alien monsters made more sense.

"What?!" Michelle gasped as she sat up from the bench she'd been stretched out across so fast that the borrowed phone in her hands almost went flying. "And let them watch Football?! The only thing that the Colonel ever did right was when he - "

And Gwen laughed because it was so easy to see Mr. Hallam doing just that. He'd probably say it in the same tone her daddy used when he pulled her close and told her 'It's just your brain, sweetheart, it's too big for this little world of ours' when she'd been younger. It even helped a little.

But only a little.

It wasn't until that first summer with Ben and Grandpa Max that she realized how wrong he was. The world was so much bigger than either of them ever imagined. And stranger, between heroing and aliens and magic.

And the people. Especially the people.

"Soccer," Gwen broke in because she couldn't help herself. Not with Michelle. Not with the best friend that she never thought she'd have again. Not when she never cared if her mind was racing along a hundred different pathways. Heck, she cheered them on in so many ways, even when only a quarter of those hundred pathways were focused on her right now. "And shush."

The rest were on the boy who was using her lap as a pillow. The boy who drove her crazy for years, who was the only reason she survived that first summer even with Grandpa's help. That summer and every year after, even though he'd never let her live it down if she ever told him as much.

Ben, her Doofus, and the boy who still drove her crazy….

"Soccer?! American swine!" Michelle gasped again as she stuck out a tongue stained blue by the smoothie that was still tucked between her and the bench. A smoothie that was the twin to the one by Gwen's hip. Then the tongue and the olive-skinned girl both disappeared as she flopped back against the bench's armrest and muttered in words that tasted like cheese and bread as fresh as her mouth. "Shouldn't let you go either, Crazy Girl. Not when we were only there for a half-hour before Football made you into a hooligan, too. And a hussy!"

"Am - !" Gwen started to say, started to deny, but - God, she'd run out onto the field and glomped Ben in front of everyone! He'd almost - she'd almost let him…

Even thinking about it made her cheeks burn as she looked down at his lips. And somehow Michelle had known she'd end up doing it again because she'd grabbed her hand and hadn't let go for the rest of the after-game ceremonies. If Michelle hadn't kept her weighed down like an anchor…

It hadn't mattered that Ben was soaked in sweat from running all over that field chasing that black and white checkered ball. It hadn't mattered that their parents, hers and his were there, or that half the town had been watching. If her brain hadn't caught up at the last second she would have…

Have…

Even now, after they'd broken away from everyone else, parents and kids both, her head was still humming. So many of her thoughts were all geared towards the boy whose head was lying on her lap with his team's green windbreaker open just enough to show off the MVP medal he was still wearing around his neck.

And she didn't know what looked better. The gold on his black shirt or how warm it made her feel as she watched it rise and fall with his every soft breath as he slept and what was wrong with her?!

She still didn't know how to deal with all of it, so she shoved it all back and just focused on how good it felt to be here, with him.

With them.

"Hussy!" Michelle hummed again before she settled back into her spot on the bench at Gwen's feet and her game of Tetris. Not that she paid the falling blocks any real attention even as she dominated the game and punished the buttons on Gwen's phone at the same time. "I remember when you two used to have actual shame."

"Used to?" Gwen answered from the little enclave in the wall behind the bench that Ben pulled her up onto because of course he couldn't just do things like everyone else did. Not even sit down or get comfy.

Which he so was. It was written all over his face as he laid there, sprawled out all across the bricks as he used her lap as a pillow. A lap she really should be reminding him was hers with words or a shove, whichever would be funnier because he wasn't going to learn his lesson any other way.

She should….

"Did you even wash your hair?" She grumbled instead, her voice soft as she brushed her fingers through the brown mess again. He'd sworn he had before he'd fallen asleep that he got one in the locker room when he got changed and she didn't see any more mud or grass stains on him anymore, but it was Ben. She would be amazed if he even stayed under the water long enough to get wet.

And some small part of her wished that he hadn't even done that much even though he was beyond gross.

Some small, sick part of her. The same part that made her just be his pillow to begin with and made her watch his lips quirk up as she tried to fix his hair. Lips that she used to swear were just made to aggravate her and that was still true.

But they were good for kissing, too, and she just wanted to...

Her only saving grace was that they'd found a quiet bench in the mall between two bushes so at least no one could see her like this. Not unless they walked directly past anyway, but it was Friday night and the place was crowded and she felt every eye that glanced over. She couldn't count the number of meets and recitals and tournaments she'd been in, but even though almost everyone smiled when they were spotted she'd still never felt more on stage.

At least none of the faces she half-saw belonged to any of the kids she'd seen in the wild party that was still going on in the Mr. Smoothies outside. Kids she couldn't help staring at as she tried to put faces to the stories that she'd dragged out of Ben over the years even though she was supposed to be a hero and it would be so wrong to hex them for it now. Even Cash and JT.

Especially Cash and JT, who she used to think were so funny when they made her Doofus's life hell…

"One little pimple won't hurt," she muttered to herself as she smoothed down his hair and wished it would work on her stomach, too. One little pimple each that wasn't even on their faces because they were - whatever they were now with her Doofus. They were every bit as insulting at the party as they used to be, but Ben was laughing now when they did it and when he insulted them back Cash snorted grape smoothie out of his nose like it was the best thing ever.

Boys.

Boys who weren't Marci. They wouldn't go running to their parents or Uncle Carl and Aunt Sandy just to get them in trouble if they saw them now. Saw them like the old couple who just happened to walk by. Gwen watched the old man smile and whisper something to his wife from the corner of her eye. Whatever it was, it must have been something good because it got his arm swatted before they walked away smiling.

Just walking. Gwen told herself as she studied the curved line of Ben's lips instead of worrying because they weren't her parents' friends. She knew most of them from all the dinner parties that she'd sat through in her best dresses and brightest forced smiles even though she just felt like a trophy herself when her mother introduced her.

Which she never did today, no matter how many times Ben said her name because everyone wanted to know it after the show she put on. He told them all of the names, too, that he'd ever called her - all but the most important - and she never realized that she had so many. Dweeb, Nerd Queen, even Little Miss Perfect slipped out of his lips once before he caught himself and she should have been furious.

But it was so hard to get mad when all she heard was the 'my' he started each name with and all she saw was the way his eyes lit up every time he looked at her.

The jerk.

If it wasn't for that, maybe they'd still be outside and he'd be on his third smoothie as he partied with his friends instead of being here with her.

Maybe, if she wasn't so selfish. If she didn't need more than him just being around her like they were just friends. Just cousins. Maybe, if she didn't need to feel his hand in hers. If he didn't need to feel his lips against hers so bad ever since there was just grass under her knees.

Grass and him.

And maybe, if Michelle hadn't just rolled her eyes when she caught them in the corner that they'd found and snorted before she dragged them in here even after Gwen swore that she was okay now.

Dragged them here, into a mall that was just a couple of miles from Ben's house. She wasn't worried about any of her parents' friends finding them because none of them would be caught dead in a mall, but her aunt and uncle's….

She almost bumped her Doofus to make him open his eyes and look, too, at the old couple that she might have recognized but she didn't. She knew him and she knew he'd know just as much about his parents' friends as she did and worse, he'd probably just laugh if she asked because she was being ridiculous.

Everyone. He almost kissed her in front of everyone! He almost kissed her in front of their parents and she -

She….

Gwen wished that they were still outside because then there might have been a breeze that would cool her off as she tried to make her brain stop. Just a little one. One that would leave her looking as cool and collected as the boy on her lap.

Who was she kidding? It would take a hurricane to do that because nobody was as good at not worrying as her Doofus.

She wanted to glare down at him for leaving her to do it alone, especially when she heard the content little noise he made as her fingers traced the part in his hair, but she didn't. Both because he looked comfortable and because it would do less than nothing until he opened his eyes.

And he hadn't done that since he finished his smoothie ten minutes ago and stretched out. The last time she'd seen them they'd been glittering at her surprised squawk after he decided that her lap was a pillow and he'd stayed there no matter how many times she jumped at the attention that they were getting.

Not that he was the only one keeping her here. Not after Michelle plopped down on the bench and almost right on top of Gwen's feet without even a sorry. Feet that were still turned and pinned between her best friend's hip and the back of the bench.

Between the two of them, it didn't matter how many times she felt like she was on stage and wanted to bolt. She wasn't going anywhere. Not without magic.

And she couldn't be happier.

Almost.

"Stop worrying, Crazy Girl," Michelle grumbled from under them as she leaned against Gwen's legs as her fingers danced over the buttons on the phone. "Just charge the good folks two bits a gander and remember that I'm your agent, so I get half."

"Two bits a - " Gwen repeated before she shook her head, exasperated and fond all at the same time. "That's it. I am not watching Tracy Ullman with you anymore! Your mom's right about those cartoons that she puts on, they're rotting your mind and I'm already dealing with one that's- !"

"Gwen no worry," Ben mumbled from out of nowhere as her fingers brushed the goose egg that was forming on his forehead again. "Me no brained my damage."

"Ben!" Gwen gasped as she yanked her hand back like he'd just turned Heatblast even though it was too late for it to matter. Not that even his third favorite alien burned as hot as her face felt as he grinned up at her. The jerk didn't even have enough chivalry to open his eyes and catch her for real. Not even as she put her hands on her hips and shot back. "Of course not! Soccer can't knock around the poor little hamster you have in there any worse than you have already."

Even though she'd been sure it had after the first time she saw him stop a ball with his face today. Time stopped then, and the fence under her hands felt almost as cold as the mana around as she got ready to vault it before she realized that he was okay and that he'd caught it with his forehead just like in the pro-games she'd made Michelle watch with her just so she'd understand how the game was played.

"He's a tough little guy," Ben agreed with a smile that was as cocky as any she'd seen after Hero Time just because he knew just what she was doing and why, but he was having so much more fun doing this to her instead of just calling her on it. Enough fun that she really should - "He has to be with you tutoring him."

And the urge to shove him off of her lap was gone as quick as it came. How could she when he said stuff like that?

"Just remember that it's my hard work you're smacking around," she said as she ran her fingers through his hair again even though it wasn't. Sure, she spent so much time helping him with his homework and maybe she explained things better than his teachers did - and she used motivators that they couldn't.

Especially this year - but he was the one who earned the A's and B's he was getting now and she couldn't be more proud of him or believe that he was doing it all just so they could go to school together next year. Just the idea of it….

God, she could barely keep her hands off of him for half a game of soccer, how was she going to survive seeing him in class every day?! He was going to drive her crazy! The Spaz knew it, too. The smug practically oozed out of him as he chortled, "Who's your hero?"

"Shame and modesty," Michelle said with a shake of her head that made the charms that were woven into her hair dance just as Gwen sank her fingers into Ben's again. "You used to have both."

"He so didn't."

"Nope!"

"But you did, Crazy. Now look at you, pawing at your boy in public," Michelle said as she grabbed up her smoothie and took another sip before she made a face and set it down again. "Which is almost as disgustingly sweet as these things. I don't know why you guys like them so much."

"They were better before Deke left," Ben sighed because they were. Gwen was happy that their friend was off working on his art instead of the graveyard shift, but still…

"Ben…" Gwen warned as she saw the smirk start on his face. It was the same one that Deke caught in wood last year, even if he'd done it when Ben was Four Arms.

Not any more than her warning kept him from calling out her bestie. "But the rest of it is all on you, Army Girl. You're the one who talked her into giving in to my manly charms."

Which was the greatest betrayal since Judas and why Gwen could only smile and shrug when Michelle spun around and those dark eyes nailed her to the wall. "He's not wrong."

Michelle let out a humph at that as she threw herself back down, but it wasn't angry even if she was kicking her foot as she laid there with her legs cocked and crossed, her skirt and modesty be damned. The noise almost sounded proud. So did her retort. "I've made monsters. Now I know how Frankenstein felt."

"Who's Frankenstein? That's Animo's - " Ben corrected with a yawn until a swat on his shoulder reminded him that this so wasn't the time for that, even if Michelle didn't show any more sign of noticing than he did of caring.

Neither did Gwen. Not really. How could she, when she was here with her boyfriend and her best friend? She just sat there for a long time, surrounded by them, and wondered if this was what being happy felt like.

Was this what it would always feel like if they just told the truth?

"Ben," Gwen said again because thoughts like that always led to another one. One that was too big for her to put into words, much less deal with alone. For either of them to deal with alone. Not that he was cooperating. "I know that you're still awake, Doofus. You're not snoring."

"Yes, I am," he said, denying the obvious like he always did. "You just don't recognize it because mine doesn't sound like I'm cutting down trees like yours does."

"I only sound like that when you're being annoying." Gwen didn't pay any attention to the little snort that came from her feet. She just kicked the butt down there as hard as she could in the quarter-inch of space she had while she stared at the closed eyelashes in front of her. Eyelashes that made the same, sick part of her brain that sent her hand back into her Doofus's hair wonder if they were as soft as they looked…

Fortunately, she still had some sanity left. Just enough to keep her from checking. And for her to run through all the things that she usually did when he was being like this. Things just started with her pushing him off of her lap and ended with her showing why witches shouldn't be messed with before she even pulled out the magic.

But she'd found a better way to get his attention in the last few months. Ways that were even more fun than yelling and that he'd already told her tasted of cherries and avocados tonight.

Gwen thought that she heard footsteps as she kissed her Doofus, but she didn't care. Not when she finally got some more of what she waited all day for. Not when Ben made that soft little noise against her lips that made her shiver, but she pulled away the second she felt his hand brush her hair, and when she did she was the one smirking because she was sure that she'd won.

Or she was until that noise turned into a snore that made Gwen's jaw drop at the sheer audacity. "I can make you get up, you know."

"Maybe, after a couple of more of those..." Ben murmured back without looking as he puckered his lips.

"Oh no. It's too late for that, Doofus." Gwen's voice was a happy sing-song as she grabbed the Styrofoam cup that she'd set down ages ago and held it not six inches from his nose. Long, long experience taught her that it was just the right height for a truly epic splash that kept most of the mess on him.

It was the same experience that made Ben open his eyes. Just one at first. Just enough that he could peek. Then they both flew open for almost a whole second before he relaxed again. "You won't."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm too adora - !"

Gwen didn't even give him a chance to finish before she flipped the cup. The only thing that happened faster than him bolting up was her bursting out giggling at the look on his face as the last few drops of melted smoothie ran down his nose. And then he was staring at her, his eyes sparkling and evil as he lunged for the cup.

"Don't you dare," Gwen yelled through her giggles as she tried to push him away, "that's blueberry!"

"And it'll look better on y - " Ben started as they wrestled. Started and stopped dead mid-word and mid-grab, and it wasn't because of the swats she was giving him with her free hand or because he was afraid of what her mother would do to them both if he got that gunk on her uniform.

No, it was because of his hand.

Not the one that was frozen in mid-air as he grabbed for the cup. No, it was his other hand. The one he threw out as he lunged for her. The one that caught her knee instead of the wall.

His hand was on her knee.

His hand was on her knee!

Dimly, a voice in the back of Gwen's mind told her that this was hardly shocking. They were always stealing touches after all, even when their parents were right there, and after what just happened a couple of hours ago in front of the whole town…

And she was very aware that - what with them being two teenagers with gag-worthy amounts of tension between them - it wasn't going to take long before one of them pushed for something more. Aunt Sandra's book said so!

It was expected. Welcome, even. And it wasn't even like he'd done it on purpose. It was just an accident that his hand ended up there.

The rational part of her brain said all of that and more, and it was soundly drowned out by the rest of her mind having a breakdown. Because she knew a million reasons that him touching her knee should not be special, and yet...

And yet...

Warmth sparked from where his digits rested on her, branding his fingerprints into her skin with so much heat that she was amazed she wasn't melting- or at least, that her leg wasn't melting. The rest of her was melting along just fine. The touch sent shocks up and down her nerves, rocking up her leg, lighting coals in her stomach, and liquefying her brain.

Just by the brush of his hand on her knee.

Her bare knee.

Somehow she'd forgotten in all the excitement tonight. Her tights weren't much, but maybe it would be different if she'd been wearing them now, if Michelle hadn't put a run in the pair she'd been wearing, or if Grandpa had been home instead of off saving the world so she could have some spare clothes in the Rust Bucket like she used to, or if her stupid school would have just let her wear her Capris!

If! If! If!

Her mind ran wild with them even though she knew that it was already too late for that. All that was left was -

A proper lady - a Larrson - would slap him just for thinking about doing this! No, if he was anyone else she would have done worse than that. She would have put him on the ground like she had Sean and Flint last year. Gwen knew it all the way down to her bones. It wouldn't have even mattered if he still had the Watch. Not when she was a sorceress and she could feel the mana in the air all around her - she could feel it hum like her nerves as it waited for a word. If he was anyone else….

But he wasn't. He was her Doofus.

And - despite everything that her mother and her mormor tried to drill into her head, she was so far beyond caring that it wasn't even funny. Which meant that she was just doomed.

"Weird?" Ben asked. His voice was hesitant, strangled, eager, in a way, but whether that was to pull away or remain where he was, Gwen couldn't tell. She wasn't looking up to double-check. Her eyes remained fixed on the calloused hand on her smooth leg- a hand that always had the audacity to be bigger than hers, but now for the first time seemed strong. Caring.

Then it twitched and every cell in her body jolted with nervous energy at the thought that he might pull away, but instead, he slowly dragged his thumb in a circle on the inside of her thigh because he wasn't any gentleman even if his touch was so gentle.

But it still felt like someone had taken a spoon to her mind and slowly stirred it as she nodded.

So, so doomed.

"Bad weird?" He asked, tentative, nerves clearly getting to him too. And she wanted to put them at ease, wanted to smile, to grin, to tease, but all she could do was stare at his hand, swaying under the small circles of his thumb, trying to make sense why something so pedestrian and expected made her feel like she was a string on the guitar that he loved playing so much. That he played until it screamed.

She felt like she was about to, too. If she didn't snap first. If that was even a bad thing.

"No." Gwen finally answered, feeling like she forced the words out as a gasp, even if she sounded strangely composed to her ears. She raised her gaze to offer him a small, hesitant smile. He returned it, nerves only slightly leaving him because none of this made any sense!

But nothing about Ben did. Not when they were little and not now. Not his comics or his video games. Not the heroing.

Not them.

And that thought made her smile because Ben always did this. He was always at the heart of the insanity in her life and that never changed. Everything else did, but not him and she'd be more lost if he wasn't there. It was the real truth of her life and it was one she clung to until even him touching her knee almost seemed - Not normal. Not yet, but it wasn't scary. It was just new and she always loved exploring new things with him. That thought was almost like a warm blanket.

Then he squeezed and Gwen realized that she still had some limits as he leaned forward for a kiss. "Ben!"

"Sorry!"

And suddenly his hand was gone like she was the one who could go Heatblast as he rocked back. "I... sorry," Ben said again as he shook his head. The last word came out in a croak.

"Don't... I was – it was – I was just surprised. Not.. it felt... not..." Gwen babbled as her heart raced. She reached down to pull the hem of her skirt back over her knee, but she fretted at it instead because she could almost still feel his hand there.

She almost still wanted to.

She didn't understand it at all. She tried to swallow again but there was nothing there. It felt like she hadn't drank anything at all today even though her empty cup that started this all was still sitting on the ledge where she'd dropped it. "Michelle? Can I have some of your smoothie?"

Even her voice sounded wrong.

She saw Ben twitch a little from out of the corner of her eye as she asked and his blush got deeper as he remembered that they weren't alone, but he didn't say a word.

Neither did anyone else.

"Michelle?" Gwen asked again as she looked over. The white Styrofoam cup with its cartoon mascot was still sitting on the bench where the other girl had left it and so was the phone she borrowed when they sat down, but her best friend was gone. She looked up and down the hall, but with the plants blocking her view she could only see a few people and none of them had the olive skin or the curly long dark hair that made her best friend stick out almost as much as Gwen's red.

"Maybe she went to the bathroom?" Ben asked. His voice sounded wrong, too. If someone was playing with the pitch when she was talking then they were playing with the bass when he did. Or they were until his voice cracked.

Usually, it was cute. It still was, but she'd never felt her heart start racing again just from him talking.

She had no idea why either and she couldn't think with him sitting next to her.

"Maybe," Gwen said even though neither of them believed it. Probably. It wasn't like anything much happened in Bellwood. A mugger, a bank robber, a fire sometimes, and maybe a flock of mutant vampire bats every now and then, but nothing big. They barely had to do anything in town even when Ben still wore the Watch, but weird things could still happen. Weird things happened often enough around them before. To them and the people around them.

And Michelle was always around.

"We could go look," Ben said. He sounded more like himself now because this was a crisis, and they both knew what to do in one of those.

Gwen nodded. She probably nodded a little too much. She hopped off of the ledge. And almost face-planted because her knees felt like melted rubber. Somehow she caught herself. Somehow she even managed to squeak out, "I'll go right, you go left. Call if you find her?"

It was an old play that they'd used a dozen times before when they needed to do a quick search. One that they didn't even have to think about or even look at each other for, which was probably why Ben looked so relieved as she watched him start to stand from the corner of her eye as she scooped up her phone.

Started to, but he only made it about halfway before he sat right back down. "New plan. How about I stay right here just in case she comes back?"

"Ben! I know you don't like her, but - " Gwen shouted out as she spun around to glare at him. She was sure that he'd have his homework face on right now. She was ready for that. She was almost hoping for it because it was familiar and safe.

Instead Ben was just sitting there hunched over and looking miserable with his head down and both of his arms wrapped around his middle like he was finally feeling all the smoothies he'd had. Which would be just what he deserved if it wasn't happening right now. "That's not it. So not it. Just let me wait a couple of minutes. If she's not back I'll go look. Okay, Dw-Gwen. Please?"

"No, it's not okay! What's your problem, Doof-'' Gwen started to snap out as her Doofus's face got redder and more miser - No. Not miserable, embarrassed. She stared at him for another second before that brain she was always bragging about finally kicked in and her eyes darted down because she realized that he wasn't holding his stomach. No, he was covering his lap.

No, not his lap. His -

Oh, God.

Her hands went to her mouth as her eyes darted to his lap again before she could stop them and everything that she'd read in the book Aunt Sandra gave her flashed through her head. "Good plan!" She said, her voice was a squeak that barely made it past her fingers before she spun around and hurried away. She was trying to find her friend. That was what she kept telling herself that even though it felt a lot more like she was running away.

Did he get a - Just from touching her knee?

Oh, God.

She couldn't wrap her mind around it. Around any of it. He touched her knee and it felt... not wrong. So not wrong. That had been confusing enough though. Why did he have an...?

A half a dozen stores were behind her before she even realized it and Michelle could have been in any of them. Way Big could have been in them and she was sure that she wouldn't have noticed. The thought almost made her laugh before the name hit her even harder than the alien form could have.

"Oh, God!" What was Ben thinking, calling him that?!

Was his...?

Somehow, Gwen found another bench before her knees gave out. She would have almost called it magic if she felt any mana around her at all. If she could feel anything.

She knew…

From Health Class and Aunt Sandra's book and what little her mom said, but that was different! Those were all just drawings and pictures of strangers. This was Ben!

And he got - Just from touching her knee? Really?

Why did that make her want to smile, just a little? Or look for him? What was wrong with her?

And what was wrong with the air conditioning in here?! She could feel the sweat on her back. It was like she was in the dojo again, or all the worse days of their summers when the Rust Bucket's broke and the only thing worse than the heat was hearing her Doofus -

"Nope!" Gwen gasped as she tried to shake away the thought of him sprawled out and shirtless as he groaned next to her. Not that it helped. Not any more than her pulling on her sweater. The one she wished she could have just taken off, but she'd left her backpack with her parents. Hers and -

"Michelle!" Gwen started, already hating herself as she remembered the girl who walked through hell for her and she'd just been sitting here for who knew how long. This time she was the one who was halfway to her feet before her phone buzzed in the little pocket of her sweater. The one that wasn't big enough for anything else and she still almost fumbled it in her rush. There were just four words waiting for her when she finally got the thing open.

Found her. GLOW Gifts.

Four words that Gwen stared at for what felt like forever before they finally sank in as she dropped back onto the bench. A bench she almost missed, but it didn't matter. She would have sat on the floor if she had to, and it wasn't because she'd gone completely the wrong way even though she should have known.

What was wrong with her?

If she was home, she'd dig into her library or through the internet until she found the answer. She could use her phone, but tapping out the questions took forever and…

And Ben gave her the thing. He made it for her. It just seemed wrong asking about that on it. It almost felt wrong putting it back in its pocket as she remembered all the times he'd sat behind her as she helped him study. It never should have worked, not when having people read over her shoulder always destroyed her concentration, but it was Ben and weird always worked for him. It didn't even matter that she couldn't see his face, not when she could tell when he was following along or getting lost just by the way he was breathing as he held her close.

Not that anyone here was doing that now even though she wished he was holding her now so they could figure this out together. She wished for it just as much as she was glad that he was stores away as she tried to force her brain back to its senses.

Her knee.

Gwen pulled the hem of her skirt up her thigh a little so she could better look at it, but it still didn't look like anything special to her. It was pale and the black material so didn't help, but it wasn't as white as Michelle teased just because she didn't have genetics on her side or the time to sit in the sun. It was smooth, too, as she brushed her fingers over it. Smooth everywhere except for the little scar that she still had from a bad landing when she was eight.

Not that anyone else knew that. Some of the girls in her class loved to show off their legs, but ladies didn't except for during gymnastics and there everybody cared a lot more about what her legs were doing than how they looked from the stands or the judges' table.

And it wasn't like the people who did see her like this said anything. Not Michelle, or Dr. Conch. Not even her mother hardly paid any attention anymore and she saw everything, but Ben must have, she thought as she closed her eyes and traced the same path that he had with his thumb. He'd brushed right over it and -

And just like that, it wasn't her fingers she was feeling. That was when it hit her again. The jolt that shot right through her and made her squeeze her legs together. Just the thought of him….

"God," Gwen breathed into her hands because she didn't know what to do. The scientist in her wanted to find him and see if it would happen again, but if he knew - if he even guessed what he could do to her just with a touch...

Gwen faced monsters and aliens and learned magic by fumbling through a stolen book, but that thought made her sit there and run through every calming technique that Sensei ever showed her until the feeling finally faded and she could face the world again.

Face him….

Gwen's knees were still weak as she pushed herself up and they didn't get any stronger as she made herself walk right back the way she'd come. It was only a few more steps after that when she saw the store that was Michelle's favorite just for all the junk inside. It had a window, one that was covered in posters so she could only see a little of the inside. Just enough that she knew her Doofus's usual luck was the only reason he'd found Michelle in there.

Or he'd actually paid attention when she told him about where she got all the little toys and other junk that filled the bookcases in her room now...

That was the thought that stopped Gwen dead in her tracks. That and the memory of all the nights that she'd snatched back the little Cat's Meow figures that Michelle had somehow found and the little smile that he always got when she did. It was the same one he had today when she tackled him and when he held her knee, she just wished….

It wasn't the smirk he got when he got away with something - she knew that one - or the one he got when he thought he'd won. It was just him being happy. Happy that he was with her and it didn't make any sense.

Of course not - a little voice in the back of her head said with a sniff, one that sounded like it was still ten and sure that the world made sense - he's a doofus.

"Yeah," Gwen whispered back as she hugged herself because it was right. And then she made her feet move because she was Gwendolyn Rose Tennyson nee Larrson and she didn't run from anything. "But he's my Doofus."

That burst of courage got her into the cave-like store where most of the light came from the posters that were glowing with unearthly colors. The place was smaller than the one in the strip mall by her house, but it was even more packed with displays and junk and all the other stuff she kept brushing against because she couldn't get her feet under her. Not when they still felt tingly.

A feeling that only got worse when she heard the dim sound of her Doofus's voice from the back. Not the words, just the tone, and that was enough. "Sorry!" Gwen gasped to the cashier as a cup full of pencils fell, clattering to the floor after she elbowed it right off of its shelf. "Sorry," she repeated, her face aflame as she picked it all up.

The only thing that saved her ego was the fact that the place was almost empty and it got emptier as she followed the sound of Ben's voice to the back. She just heard her best friend's start, too, when he shouted, " Shut up! There's no way that she told you about him!"

There was a snort then. One that shut Ben up and wasn't the maniacal laugh that Gwen still heard in her nightmares, but it didn't matter. Neither did the - "Shows what you know, Watch Boy. Crazy Girl tells me every - " that she heard right before she charged around the last display and found the two of them just standing there.

Not that the adrenaline rush cared. Gwen took them both in. "What's going on?" She asked as Michelle turned her back on the two of them and Ben's wide-eyed surprise turned into a glare.

"I can't believe - " Ben started before he caught himself. Then he rubbed the back of his neck like he was trying to start a fire back there and she held her breath as he took one of his own and met her eye. There was a hint of betrayal in his as he let out a teasing chuckle that she didn't understand until he pointed his thumb over his shoulder. "I can't believe that you told her about Furry Freddy."

"Furry - ?" Gwen repeated, dumbfounded.

"She didn't tell me until after I caught him lying on her pillows. I told you that, too, Watch Boy," Michelle said with an eye roll as she put the Teddy Bear she was holding back with the rest of the ones on the shelf. She sounded so calm, but the way her hands went right to the charms in her hair the second they were empty gave her away. "And honestly, who knew that you'd freak just because I said that cutie-pie needed a friend?"

"He's not cute," Ben protested a little too much. "He's fierce."

"He is so cute," Gwen corrected as she found her feet and used them so she could get close enough to poke his chest. "And I've told you that since you got him, Dummy."

The outrage flared a little brighter even as he took a half-step back and then he smirked. "Not as cute as you must have looked in that yellow dress Army Girl was telling me, Dweeb."

Gwen gasped as she spun around because there was only ever one. A monstrosity of frills and lace that made her look like she was an upside-down match with her hair. "You didn't!"

Anyone else would have backed down. Even her mormor had once. Michelle just sniffed as she poked at another bear. "What are you going to do about it, Crazy Girl?"

There were so many things that she could do, a whole spellbook's worth and blackmail from a dozen shopping trips on her phone, but she had something much worse in mind. "I could show him you wearing the outfit that your Teta sent you."

She said it so casually, which made it all the sweeter when it hit hard.

"Don't you dare!" Michelle shouted as she rushed over and grabbed for the phone in Gwen's pocket.

Or she tried to, but Gwen just laughed as she pulled the phone away, "It's beautiful!" She taunted, glad for the distraction as they left Ben behind. "And traditional!"

"It's hideous! And you said you didn't take any pictures!"

Gwen just cackled at that as they wrestled for her phone. It was a match she could have ended a dozen different ways if she wanted to, but she didn't. Ben did instead when Michelle spun her around and she saw him just standing there and watching them.

Watching with that smile on his face and that was when her courage broke. That was when she grabbed her best friend's arm and ran.

"What the hell?!" Michelle gasped in disbelief as Gwen dragged her to the back of the store, which was every bit as empty as she thought it was. Not even the girl at the register could see them with all the mess in the way and if Ben followed them back, then for once her Doofus was smart enough to stay out of sight as Michelle yanked her arm free and gave her a glare that could have been Army issued as she bit out, "I was just playing, Crazy. You know I don't care."

"I - '' Gwen started as she tried to explain, but there was so much that she choked on the words. All but one. The most important. "He - "

That was the only word she should have needed. Michelle had wormed so much out over her with less over the last year when she was trying to figure out just how she felt about her Doofus. A part of her almost dreaded all of the questions she knew she was about to hear...

"Oh," Michelle said instead. It was all that she said, her face falling as she turned to the wall of novelty sunglasses that someone shoved back here.

"Michelle?" Gwen asked, dumbfounded as she watched the girl brush her fingers over a pair that had frames shaped like musical notes that were as flat as the shrug she got when she asked, "What's wrong?"

"Just play the game, Crazy," Michelle muttered as she looked at the sunglasses as she tried to find the ugliest pair.

Maybe Gwen would have at any other time. Now, though, her mind just raced before she asked the question she knew she should have right from the start. "Why did you run off?"

"You were busy. I didn't even think that you'd notice," Michelle grumbled as she found a pair that was just a boring black, but she slapped them on anyway. "Look good?"

"These would be better," Gwen's throat felt too tight as she poked at a pair that was tinted green and had plastic turtle legs attached to the sides. "And I wasn't - "

They should have been perfect, but all they got was a wrinkled nose and a hard swallow. "They're a little - childish, aren't they? Maybe I want something cool."

"Turtles are never not cool," Gwen said as firmly as she could instead of saying that that was the whole point. "And since when?"

Michelle opened her mouth then and Gwen was suddenly sure that they were about to fight. They'd had them before over little things. They'd gone a whole two classes without talking once just because Gwen said she liked 'Call of Duty' but that fight at least made a little sense. This…

This time Michelle just shook her head hard enough that her birthday presents danced in her hair. "Since you started looking at me like I just kicked your puppy."

The words were as harsh as anything that she'd heard her best friend snap at any of the jerks that they went to school with. The only difference was that those dark eyes never wavered then, but they did now.

And Gwen knew just what to do about it. She was a genius and a sorceress after all. One with enough magic in her that she somehow didn't cry as she hugged her best friend close or after she heard the "Jerk," that was mumbled into her shoulder.

"I so am," Gwen agreed. "Do you want to tell me how?"

That got another headshake. "It's stupid."

"Stupider than Stranger Danger?"

That got a wet sniffling laugh and a glance back the way that they'd come as Michelle pulled away at the boy who was still standing there and trying desperately to look like he was shopping even though Gwen knew he was just dying to come over here and be the hero.

It was only a glance, but she still felt her lips twitch up when she saw him. It was a smile that lasted as long as the look, but Michelle somehow saw it and shook her head again as she pulled off her sunglasses. "You're right, too boring."

"They're not you at all," Gwen said as she hugged her middle because she didn't know what either of them meant and she hated how hard it was to find the right words that would fix this. And she should be able to! What was the point of all of her A's if she couldn't? There were only two words she could think of. They didn't feel anywhere near big enough, but she said them anyway. "I'm sorry."

Michelle sighed as she looked for another pair. "You don't have anything to be sorry for, Crazy. I'm just a little jealous. It's not your fault. Well, not entirely."

"B - but, why?"

And Michelle just stared at her in disbelief. She stared for so long that Gwen squirmed before she shook her head. "Clueless. For someone so smart..."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Gwen asked as her arms went from her stomach to her chest.

"I swear to God. You have an IQ of ten thousand and - " the girl shook her head again and took a breath. "Do you ever think that I might like a sweetie, too? For someone who's dying to make out with me in front of the whole school? Especially when you two go at it right next to me all of the time?"

"We don't! And he didn't! Not today!" Gwen tried to deny the only part that she could as she made a face and put a hand on her cheek. God, she swore she still felt his drool there like he was Wildmutt all over again. "Trust me, I wish that I had a boyfriend who wasn't that gross, but - "

"Yeah. Right. Blowing a raspberry on your cheek instead was just what he was dying to do." Michelle shook her head as she looked at the displays. "Not even you are crazy enough to think that."

"I'mnotcrazy," Gwen mumbled, her cheeks hot as she kicked at the floor because she knew...

"Not sane," Michelle countered. "No one sane would be talking to me instead of..." Her voice faded away into something so small and vulnerable. "Youdon'tneedmeanymore. Notwhenyouhavehim."

Gwen sucked in a breath as she stared at the sunglasses while her mind raced with all the things that she should say. All the things that she should have said already tonight, but words…

None of the ones that she knew seemed big enough. Not now, not as guilt twisted her stomach as she looked at the girl who was always there for her and she'd barely talked to tonight. Even a 'I'm sorry' seemed like enough. Nothing fit except for the gaudy pair of sunglasses she finally spotted at the top of the rack that was tinted gold and had plastic rays sticking out of the frames so they looked like cartoon suns.

They were every bit as horrible as they looked and earned the horrified gasp that they got as she grabbed them, but they said everything that she couldn't.

"I do," Gwen said simply as she took her best friend by her arm and pulled her back to the mirror. "I'm always going to need you, dummy. Now try these on."

"God, I look horrible," Michelle sniffed like she hadn't heard a word as she stared at the grinning monstrosity on her face. Then Gwen felt fingers brush against hers. "Promise?"

Gwen just smiled with tears in her eyes as she took those fingers and squeezed them. "Forever and ever. Who else is going to save me from kidnappers? Or listen when my Doofus is driving me crazy? Or go shopping with me on Sunday? Just the two of us?"

"I could use more sunglasses," Michelle said as she tapped her chin like that was the important thing. It wasn't, and they both know it. It was clear just by the grin that Michelle fought down for as long as she could before she let out a bell of a laugh and hugged Gwen close, her eyes still on the two of them in the mirror. "Perfect. Get your phone!"

And it was. It was the perfect opening, too.

"You know, Liam would probably think that you look good in those, too," Gwen fished as she took the picture and added it to their collection, but her mind was thirteen miles away. God, had she really been in school with him since Kindergarten? They never really talked much, but he was never one of the jerks and it was so cute every time she caught him staring at her bestie in Algebra. Staring like she so wasn't as she watched Michelle tilt her head like she always did when they finally reached the end of the lunch line and she had to decide. And just like lunch, she ended up shaking her head at the first thing she saw. Which was okay, "And if you don't like him, there is a whole party outside..."

"I wish," Michelle said with a mock glare as she shook her finger. "But somebody has all the boys out there convinced that us Angelwood girls are a bunch of giggling airheads and I want one that will respect me for my mind."

The last was said with her nose high in the air and that was the last thing Gwen saw before the world went dark behind her hands as she remembered. "I wasn't that bad!"

"You were!" Michelle giggled as she grabbed Gwen's wrists and pulled. "I swear that I watched your IQ drop fifty points every time Watch Boy got close today. It was amazing!"

"!" Gwen pouted, her face on fire as she glanced over at her Doofus because if he noticed, too…

Or she tried to before something blue was shoved on her face. Something that a quick look in the mirror proved were the ugliest sunglasses that she'd ever seen and an insult to cats everywhere in the split-second before she yanked them off. "Michelle!"

"Don't blame me. You need all of the help you can get," Michelle said right back as she grabbed the sunglasses away. "It's bad enough that you act like you two are getting ready to give each other forks and spoons like maman and the Colonel did, but - "

"Michelle!" Gwen protested again, her face on fire as she imagined being with her Doofus for sixteen years and she just couldn't. Not when it seemed like so much all at once. Not when it was longer than they'd been alive. But he'd always been a part of her life, hadn't he? He'd been a part of her life almost as long as the journal that she'd scanned into a secret file on her laptop ages ago that nobody else knew about. Not even her Doofus or Michelle. The one full of pictures of white dresses and flower arrangements that she daydreamed about while everyone else was catching up in class.

But hearing it out loud, God, all she could do was hide her face in her hands and whimper, "We do not!"

Not that Michelle cared. Not as she plowed right on. "- but you got lucky today, Crazy Girl, and it isn't helping that you've been staring at him like you want his babies all night!"

Gwen heard a sound come out of her mouth. One she'd never heard before. Not from anyone. She didn't know what it was, but it wasn't a word. Not even a magical one. There weren't any words. Not when just the thought of being their china anniversary was too much. Not when the memory of his hand on her knee….

Babies?

" - zy Girl? Gwen?"

Gwen couldn't even….

" - atch Boy, get over here!"

His babies?! They weren't even thirteen yet! She couldn't! He -

" - don't know! I was just teasing her and - "

His….

His voice was suddenly in her ear. Ben's hero voice. It even had the rumble he only put in it when he was really worried, but he didn't raise it or shout. He didn't need to. It filled her world anyway like the rough feel of his hands as he squeezed hers. "- en? Come back to me, Dweeb."

"Ben?!" Gwen started with a jolt as she saw him suddenly standing right in front of her as Michelle clutched onto his shoulder with worry written all over their faces. She wanted to ask what happened and why he was holding her hands so tight. No, she wanted to pretend that this was a TV show and she could just forget, but she couldn't.

His babies….

"I'm okay," she lied as she rubbed her eyes so she didn't have to see their stares and felt her heart play hopscotch in her chest. "I just got dizzy for a second."

"You and your smoothies! I told you that you should have eaten your lunch!" Michelle snapped in the same tone she'd used when they'd caught her baby brother Matthew using her make-up for fingerpaint. Only this time it was worry that was shining so clear in her eyes as she turned and ran. "Stay here! I'll find something."

Michelle left, but Ben didn't.

He didn't waver at all or let go of her hands because he clearly didn't believe a word she said. Not when he leaned in and kissed her forehead. "You've been overclocking this thing all night, Dweeb, and you've got to stop before the warranty," he joked as she groaned and hid her face in his shoulder because he knew her. She hid her face and her blush, but she couldn't help smiling, too, even though she was mortified. "Do you want to sit down?" He asked when she didn't say anything, but he didn't look the least bit offended when she shook her head.

Her hero.

His babies?

Gwen couldn't help staring at him as she let him go. Not when her mind was buzzing around that thought. Sometimes it was hard enough to imagine them together even when they were making out. Even if he wasn't her cousin, he was still a humongous pain in her butt and she knew that he was the last person that her parents would imagine her with. Or her teachers and not to mention her morföräldrar. Not when manners were something he thought happened to other people and that wasn't even starting with his mouth or ego…

Sometimes, but just sometimes. The rest of the time…

Next year they'd be in high school together. Gwen knew that her Doofus still didn't believe that he'd pull it off, not really, but she did. How couldn't she when she knew him and just how stubborn he could be?

And how stubborn she was.

He'd make it, and then they'd be bored in classes together and she'd be trying to keep him out of trouble as hard as he'd be trying to drag her into it, and between him and Michelle, she'd never have any peace. They'd have fights and dances and games recitals and then they'd be going off to college together and after that….

Most people didn't know. Gwen wished that she didn't. She would have given anything to imagine that they'd have college and then maybe an apartment together instead of what she saw.

Ben 10,000...

She tried. She was doing everything she could to keep that from happening. For Ben and for her, but it was so hard when she could almost see the man that her boyfriend would become as he stood there in front of her even now that he'd taken off the Watch and it wasn't just because he'd finally stopped slouching and wore clothes that fit even though that was a miracle all on its own.

Ben had worn baggy clothes for as long as she could remember, but maybe she'd somehow finally gotten him to listen after all the times they'd been shopping together. Not enough to make him respectable or anything, but he'd traded in his cargo pants for jeans and the mountain of striped white shirts he owned for the black t-shirt he was wearing now. It wasn't the Detroit Rock City one that she'd gotten him last year. That one was gone now, but she'd found another and he wore it just as proudly.

Too proud. It was tight enough that she could see all of the muscles that soccer and karate gave him. She saw them even with his jacket on. A jacket that he never zipped closed because he was evil. And every time she snuck a peek she saw the seeds were all there for him to turn into the mountain of a man that she'd seen in the future. The man that she still sometimes….

Did he ever think about his Gwendolyn, too? Gwen couldn't help suddenly wondering that as she looked at her Doofus. And did they ever think about -?

Gwen didn't know. She wasn't sure if she wanted to know because how do you compete with your future self? And how was she going to survive his when he stole her breath away now?

Breath Gwen knew that she needed so she could tease him. How could she not, when she'd never seen her Doofus as flustered as he was now as he flushed under her gaze, covered himself again, and proved that for all the ways he was changing he still couldn't read her mind. "I should have - About before - I - "

Gwen's heart ached for her Ben even as she grinned into her hand at that. "Do you wanna try again?" She teased. Or she did until he flushed and turned away. Not that she let him get far. "It's okay, Doofus!" She said in a rush as she jumped on his back and hugged him tightly. It hurt a little that he wouldn't look at her, but that was okay. She wasn't sure if she could say what she had to if she did. Not about this. Even if she did have a great view of his ear turning red when she tried anyway, "I know that it's not your fault! I know that it just happens."

"You know - ?" Ben asked, his voice strangled as dared give her a glance.

Strangled, but still too loud. Almost as loud as her squeak because she didn't mean to say that and now he was looking at her and - "I - there was a boy on our last field trip - the bus - he said that the vibrations..." Her throat closed after that, but she didn't have any problem remembering the boy in the back shouting that after he'd been caught with one as everyone else laughed.

It was only now that she realized how nervous that laughter was.

"Yeah. Sometimes that's all it takes," Ben admitted, his eyes flickering up with relief. The relief she tried to mirror because she should have known that it wasn't because of - "But mostly it's just you, Dweeb."

"Wha- ?"

"Yeah, and you have no idea..." Ben said as he rubbed the back of his neck and let out a nervous chuckle. One that warmed her core even as it burned his face. His eyes flickered away again. And then they didn't. Then they looked right into hers. "You don't even have to do anything! It happened just because you were sitting next to me and being a dork about the movie I picked out, and - " somehow he managed to blush and smile at the same time as he kicked at the ground as the rest exploded out of him, "-andi'shappenedwhileyouwereexplainingmath!"

"That's all it takes?" Gwen asked as she hugged the butterflies in her stomach and her eyes wide because it didn't make any sense even though the truth of it was written all over his face. How did he make it through the day? There had to be something. Something that she was missing. Something more. It couldn't just be - "What about when you're actually in math class? Does it - "

"Eww," Ben said, his face screwing up even as he turned around in her arms so he could flicker her nose. "It's not the math, Dweeb! It's just…" He said as she jumped and glared. And then his eyes went wide and he rubbed the back of his neck like she'd seen him do a thousand times before, but the flush and the way he looked away…

That wasn't new either. Just newer, and the room swayed as she realized just how much she'd missed. She was always catching him blushing since they got together, but she just thought he was being a doofus and it was adorable. How many times was it because of this?

And she teased him about it! She teased him about everything, but if she'd known….

Why didn't he just say something?! That was what she wanted to ask, but she didn't. She wasn't brave enough. Not when she knew why. Not when she was doing the same thing now even as she protested, "It's just a knee, Doofus. Everyone has them. You have them!"

She knew he did! She saw them today while he was running around in his shorts.

His short shorts.

And just remember how his legs looked in them made hers wobbly. Was this what it felt like when he was - And was he getting one now and what did he do when he did? And what was she doing that made him -

That made her look down. She didn't even know why, or why it forced a giggle out of her. One she couldn't hide behind her hands before Ben heard it and somehow blushed even harder as he miserably kicked at the ground as he turned away.

"Everyone's got a butt, too, Dweeb, but none of them are as big of one as you, because it's not fu - "

Gwen cut him off then. Not with words, not when he was like this even if it was what they usually did. No, that would just turn into a fight like it always did before she figured him out. So she did the one thing that she knew would make him stop and pay attention. And if it was the one thing she'd been dying to do since she first saw him on the field today….

She kissed her Doofus.

It was just supposed to be a quick peck. Something that would make him stop and realize that she wasn't teasing him. Not at all. It was supposed to be something sweet, like all the other kisses that they'd shared over the last few months, and she remembered them all.

Something proper, even if the boy she was kissing wasn't. Something controlled, even if he never was. Not until now as he went still under her lips.

"Ben?" Gwen asked, surprise making her pull away because he'd never just frozen before. Not because of anything, much less a kiss. And when she did, when she saw him staring at her flushed and his eyes dark. "What's - ?"

That was as far as she got before he grabbed her like he still had the Watch and it was Hero Time, but instead of sweeping her up so they could race off together, he pushed her back against the wall hard enough that she felt the thump ring through her body like a bell. There was even a crash as something hit the floor a second later.

Something she didn't see. Not when she was too shocked to even kiss him back because he was her Doofus and he never had any restraint, but he'd never been like this before. Not unless she'd been teasing him for days and days and she hadn't. Not that it stopped him. Ben's lips just wrapped around her bottom one and…

And he bit her.

Not hard. It was barely more than a nip, but it felt like the short she touched in her Computer Club anyway as an electric shock ran from her lip clear down to her toes.

Toes she curled in her shoes as she felt the heat of his breath fill her mouth. It should have been gross. She should have been shoving him away even as she felt him dig his fingers into her hips so she couldn't wiggle away like this was one of the wrestling matches that they used to have when they were little before he got mean.

He'd pinned her before. Not to a wall, but he had. He'd even held her there as he tickled her until she kicked him, but there wasn't anything ticklish about how he was holding her now, even though she felt like her whole body was covered in goosebumps as his hands found the small of her back so he could pull her closer as hers…

"Ben!" Gwen somehow gasped out from between his lips as her hands found the front of his shirt and just that touch was enough. Enough that Ben pulled away, his eyes still dark, but now he looked as shocked as she felt as he tried to make words. Words that wouldn't matter. Words that Gwen knew shouldn't stop her from shoving him away because she was a lady and her father would never dare do something like this and her mother would never let him and neither should she.

Never…

"Dweeb, I - " Ben said, his voice rough and maybe a little scared because he was a good man even if he wasn't a gentle one in any sense of the word, but his eyes were dark and huge as she pressed her hands against his chest so she could do just that. Pressed close enough that she could feel his muscles under his shirt. Muscles she never admitted that she loved feeling because he had a big enough head already. It was a chest that was made for shoving and she'd proved that so many times already.

It was perfect for - for -

"Shut up, Doofus," Gwen somehow got out as she tangled her hands in his shirt and pulled him back to her lips even though everything she'd ever been taught told her that she shouldn't. That respectable women didn't. Not Larrsons. Not even Tennysons. It wasn't what heroes did either. Surely only villains felt like she did when Ben finally realized what she was doing and kissed her back.

It didn't feel evil though as he stole away all of her control. It didn't even feel wrong. It was just fun like it did when Gwen used to mess with him during that first summer trip. But it was more than that, too. It felt good. So good.

She just didn't know why. They weren't old enough to feel like this, were they? Was anyone?

Gwen didn't know. She didn't know anything except that she wanted more. That she'd wanted this since she saw him on the field today, sweaty and proud and still a doofus. Her Doofus. She heard that every time her heart pounded in her ears, and it was racing now. She could have sworn she felt his, too, in his lips and under her hands and she pulled him closer still so she could be sure as the world hummed around her.

Around them, and if he wasn't touching her - grounding her even as he pushed her against the wall and she knew that if he was even a little taller she'd be on her tiptoes. And if he was as tall as she'd seen him get in the future, she wouldn't even have that. She'd seen Ben 10,000 and Gwendolyn and she could just imagine her future self's feet dangling in the air as he held her up.

Maybe that was why her knee ached for his hand again.

It had since that first touch just like her lips were begging for the kiss she turned away from today and nothing had changed. Not even when she couldn't tell if they'd had one long kiss or they were working on their dozenth. It didn't matter. Not as much as she needed to feel something solid under her.

Feel him, even if his hands were as busy bunched up in her sweater at the small of her back as hers were at his shoulders, but her brain...

Her brain didn't have anything to do with the wild impulse that made her wrap her leg around his hip instead just because she needed to feel him and she never felt so daring.

Not even when she jumped off of a skyscraper.

And somehow she felt the same rush when it turned out that his hand wasn't too busy after all, and when she felt his strong fingers on her bare skin as he caught her thigh as they tangled together even closer. Closer than he'd ever been.

Close enough that she felt everything when she heard a throat clear.

It was such a small noise, but it made all of the fires her Doofus lit in her turn to ice as he let her go. As he spun around and threw his arms wide like that would protect her. It was ridiculous, but it was all she could do not to kiss him again just because he'd tried.

Her hero.

As he kept trying. "We - " Ben started, panicked and breathless. "I was just - "

"I swear that if you say that you were just checking her temperature, Watch Boy..." Michelle warned, her voice wry as she cut him off. Gwen would have glared if she could have if the relief that it was her didn't leave her knees wet noodles. It was only her hold on her Doofus that kept her on her feet as she closed her eyes and wished she was home and headed for the shower because not even karate made her feel this damp and gross everywhere before.

It was enough that she almost hid her face in her Doofus's shoulder before she caught herself because if a kiss started all of that….

And what was that?!

She didn't know. She didn't have a clue and a part of her just wanted her room and her books so she could figure it out because it was more than the lady in Health Class said it would be, more than her mother warned her about, more than even Aunt Sandra's book promised and if they didn't know…

A chance to think. That was all that she needed, but it wasn't what she wanted. It wasn't what she heard as her heart raced and demanded more, more, more until she buried her face in his shoulder.

God, she should be so much smarter than this, wasn't she?

But maybe Ben needed her, too, because she could have sworn that she felt him lean back against her as she took refuge in his shoulder. Then she didn't have to wonder. Not when she felt his hand cover hers and squeeze as she dug her fingers into his shoulders.

She could have kissed him again for that, not the feel of his touch helped any. Neither did the grass and sweat stink that she breathed in as she tried to get air back in her lungs before the green and blue sparks she saw dancing on the back of her eyelids got any bigger.

It was a whole cake of things she couldn't deal with right now. A cake that was iced with Michelle's teasing, "Feeling better, Crazy Girl?" And when she didn't answer with anything more than a nod her best friend let out a fondly exasperated sigh and added, "You know, I'm starting to think that you two dorks like getting caught."

"As if," Gwen somehow got out while her Doofus just snorted, and she was shocked by how hoarse she sounded even over the racket of her heart hammering in her ears.

That got a laugh that tore at what was left of her dignity as she made herself look up and one look at Michelle proved that the girl wasn't going to let her have the shreds that were left.

Not when she was standing there with a hand on her hip and the same look on her face that she'd had when they'd caught Matthew using her makeup for fingerpaint. It was a look that cut right through Gwen and the olive-skinned girl milked it for all she could before she reached into the plastic bag at her elbow. The one that she didn't have time to get - not when she'd only been gone for seconds - and pulled out a KitKat bar.

"I know that this isn't what you were hungry for, Crazy, but I've already paid for it, so…."

"Shut up," Gwen said, her face burning as she snatched the chocolate bar away with shaking hands that made it take forever before she got the wrapper open, but she needed the distraction of chocolate when she saw herself in the mirror that was hanging on the wall by the sunglasses.

No, she saw a girl that couldn't be her. The Gwendolyn Rose Tennyson that she knew - that everyone knew - would never be the sweaty disaster that the mirror caught with her hair and clothes all a mess and her face aflame. Not even after saving the world. And she never felt more ashamed as she fixed herself and Michelle so didn't help when she gave Gwen a grin that said everything without a single word.

"I'll give you the notes tomorrow." Gwen groaned as she pressed her face deeper into her Doofus's shoulder even though she knew it was too late to hide her embarrassed flush, but at least being behind Ben let her pretend.

Not that he stood there for long. The jerk. One second Ben was her pillar and the next he was gone as Michelle shouted. "Hey!"

Gwen opened her eyes again as she wobbled just in time to watch her Doofus and her best friend fight over the plastic bag on Michelle's arm as he let out a petulant, "I'm hungry, too, and I know that you've got more in there." She should have been mad at him for acting like such a baby, but -

But just the thought made her heart race again as he pulled the bag away and held it close. Twenty minutes ago she never would have known that he was hiding behind it even as he reached inside. She wouldn't have noticed the flush that went all the way to the back of his neck either or the soft sheen of perspiration that made her bite her lip and imagine…

She didn't know. She was just glad that he was as shaken as she was. That they were in this together. There wasn't time for anything else. Not before Michelle started smacking his arm as she shouted, "Those are for Crazy!"

"Ben," Gwen sighed as those words brought her back down to Earth, not that he cared. Neither did Michelle when she added, "Just let him have the candy. I'll pay you - "

But it wasn't another chocolate bar that he pulled out. It was the ugly pair of blue sunglasses that she didn't even realize she wasn't wearing anymore until she saw them in his hand. Not that it stayed there long. "Those are her Christmas present!" Michelle bit out as she snatched them away. And then she gave Gwen a look and declared, "But you're getting them now."

"Michelle!" Gwen squealed, horrified at the idea of wearing those things again in front of Ben.

"Don't you 'Michelle' me young lady!" The olive-skinned girl said in full big sister mode. An act that she dropped with a joyful laugh as she kissed Gwen's cheek, pushed the sunglasses back on, and backed away as the world went blue. "Trust me, you need these. Especially when the day comes that I can make you stand there and watch me get my mack on."

The sunglasses were still her favorite color, but that didn't help. Not when her Doofus just stood there staring at her with his mouth dropped open as she put them on. And it only got worse as his lips slowly turned up into a smirk like they always did right before he started laughing at her.

"They - " Gwen started in a panic, her hands flying up so she could rip them off even though she could see the hurt that filled her best friend's eyes. God, once she would have dared him to say something, but now everything was just too raw. "They're a present! I - !"

Ben's hands stopped her. They fought over the frames for a second before she let him win with a frustrated stomp of her foot. One that was so close to his that he jumped and she felt a little better for it as he pushed the sunglasses further up her nose so he could get the full effect before he said, "I like them. They're almost as nerdy as you, Dweeb."

And then he kissed her again. This time it was soft and sweet and it still left her undone.

None of it was fair. Neither was her breathy, "You do?" as Michelle cooed or him being so sweet. None of it was fair and a part of her wanted to hide until she figured it all out. A small part, a scared part, but the rest of her….

The rest of her knew. Not about whatever it was that just happened. That was too new and raw and her fingers ached for the books she knew she'd be reading as soon as she got home, but about him. About them because there wasn't anyone else she'd rather be lost with than a boyfriend like him and a best friend like her. They were everything that she ever wanted out of life.

Almost.

"Ben, I - "Gwen started, relieved, calm, and sure for the first time in months as she took his hands. There was so much more that she wanted to say before she was cut off by her phone ringing. A phone that she fumbled at three times before she got it out of her pocket and opened it.

"Where are you guys?" Paul asked, his voice almost lost in the music and the shouting around him.

"Inside," Gwen somehow managed to say into her phone, her dry mouth as she stared at her Doofus as he played with her sunglasses, pushing them up and down her nose with a grin that made the next word she said feel even bigger as she somehow added syllables. "Shopping."

Those two sounds felt huge, but they still weren't as big as what she was thinking. But they'd survived Halloween and today and maybe, just maybe….

"The party got to be a bit much, huh?" Paul asked like he completely understood. "We're ready to head out, too, if you still want a ride home."

"I - " Gwen started because it would be so easy to just call it a night, but…

"Hold on a sec?" She asked, hit the mute button, and said the words that she'd been dying to all night. "I want to go see Grandpa."

"Really?!" Ben blurted out, surprise made him forget all about her glasses as his grin got even bigger before he caught it and swallowed it down as his hands dropped. Hands that he shoved in his pockets as he added way too quickly, "I mean, why? We'll see him tomorrow and - "

"Because he's Grandpa, Ben," Gwen admitted, because what else was there to say?

What else except for everything that she really wanted to, of course. It was everything but the one thought in a hundred that wouldn't stop and she couldn't let out. And besides, what she said was true. She didn't know she could miss someone as much as she missed her Grandpa.

And she knew that her Doofus felt the same way just from the way his eyes lit up. "You know he's old and it's almost eight. We'll probably have to wake him up…"

And Gwen just laughed as she took his arm. "Like we haven't done that before."

"Fine, fine, abandon me," Michelle sighed as she put her hand over her eyes before she giggled and reached for Gwen's phone. "Go have fun with the fam, just give me the phone and I'll tell Blondie that he can take me home after he drops you two off at - "

"No!" Gwen shouted in a panic that made the other girl jump before she grabbed both of her hands. "No. Come with us. Please. I know that he wants - "

" - to talk to someone who isn't a complete mess?" Michelle teased. "Okay, Crazy Girl. I'll go spend some more time with Santa as long as you promise that you'll take a breath," she said as she gave Gwen a hug that meant the world and felt so good that not even the sound of a sudden rumble could spoil it. "So tell Blondie that you're calling your Grandpa and - "

"We could walk and surprise him," Ben said from out of nowhere as he gave Gwen that look. Not the one that meant that he was up to something, but the new one. The one that was warm and soft and real. It was the one he got when he just wanted a few more minutes with her. "It's only a couple of miles and I used to do it all of the time."

"Walk?" Michelle groaned and threw her head back in dismay when Gwen finally nodded. Dismay that was broken by another rumble that didn't take her attention off of her boyfriend at all, even if it did wonders for distracting the girl that they were with as she told Paul about the change in plans. "The things I do for you two. And he better have pizza or something because I'm starving."

"Or something." Ben grinned a grin that Gwen couldn't help sharing, even if it was at Michelle's expense.

And Michelle knew it as she gave them both a look and rolled her eyes. "Like what? Anchovies? What's wrong with anchovies? I like - "

"Not as the crust," Ben cut her off, his smirk getting wider as dark eyes shot a question at Gwen. A question she had to answer with a nod while her Doofus just went on like nothing happened. "But the real crime was the pineapples that he put on it for the Dweeb."

"It's healthy! And tasty!" Gwen protested as they started for the road she'd only ever been driven on before, but that was okay. It felt good walking it with her Doofus.

Better than her bestie looked anyway.

"Pineapple?" Michelle almost gagged before she rallied. "God, I know that Sheep intestine is an acquired taste and neither of you has the guts for Fwerigh, but I'd rather have that than pineapple. Maman put that junk on everything when she was pregnant with Matthew."

Pregnant. Gwen shivered at the word while Ben just snorted, "Sheep intestines? I wish Grandpa stuck with sheep intestines." The words came with a wistful sigh as everything else slipped right by him like she knew it would because he was such a baby sometimes. "It would have been so much better than - "

A baby and a Doofus, but Gwen still felt the corners of her lip twitch as she looked at him as they left the mall with just the fading sunlight to light their way as she wondered for the first time...

Babies...

That thought stayed with her as they left the parking lot behind and trees and homes started to line the road instead, and then she felt Ben's arm finally settle around her waist even though anyone -

But that wasn't going to matter anymore, was it? Gwen realized, and for once she let his hand stay. For once, she didn't fight her smile as she leaned into him instead of pushing him away.

" - sure that you wanna come along?" Ben asked Michelle, their conversation not interrupted for a second during all of that. "Because that's all the normal stuff. We should probably just go home before we find out if he's remembered that it's sea slug season again - "

Gwen could hear the dare in his voice even though it wasn't aimed at her. It was as obvious as the fingers that were tapping out the beat for the Sumo Slammers theme song on her hip and making her melt all over again, but she wasn't going to make it that easy for him. "Doofus - " she started with a glare as bright as the headlights that caught them both for a heartbeat.

"Nope! Nope, that's it," Michelle cried out at the same time as she grabbed Gwen's arm and yanked as another car drove by. "I've had enough! God, it was bad enough when he was just pawing at you, Crazy Girl, but we are out in public and if you're going to keep looking at him like that you should have just gone all the way and kissed him when you jumped his bones at the game!"

People probably heard her shout all the way back at the mall, but Gwen's words barely made it a foot as she looked right at her Doofus and finally put to words the one thought that stayed with her all night. "I wish I had."

"What?" They both asked, but it was her Doofus's face that she watched as he stopped dead in his tracks and his eyes flew open wide enough that they caught the first stars of the night

"I wish I had, Ben," she told him again as turned and put a hand on his heart as the stars came out. "That's what I've been thinking. I wish I had. I wish I could have shown everybody how happy I really was for you today just like I wish that they could have seen how much better you made me feel just by sitting with me. I wish they could have seen just how comfy I was when I woke up with you next to me and all of the nights I woke up after that because you weren't there and I kept forgetting that you weren't supposed to be. God, I wish that they could have watched you buy me my favorite smoothie just because you knew I was thirsty." Her eyes burned and everything went blurry, but she still didn't take them off of him. "I want them to see us."

"They're already making our lives hell," Ben said as he suddenly became responsible. Once it would have made her so mad because she was sure that he just did it to pick a fight. Once, but she knew he'd been worrying about this, too, and not for his sake. Never for his. Besides, this was how it worked between them. "They'll freak..."

"They're already freaking. We've done everything they've ever told us to and - and I don't care if they're happy anymore. I want us to be happy. It's been months and I'm tired of having to skulk around to spend time with you. Let them try to keep me away from you."

And there it was, everything she'd been holding in and her half of the promise he'd made on Halloween.

A promise that he hadn't forgotten either. Not when the memory was written all over her Doofus's face as he smiled and brushed a strand of hair back behind her ear as he asked. "So that's why we're going to Grandpa's tonight?"

"He said he'd be there with us," Gwen said with a single sharp nod, her chin set. And then it eased into a smile. "And it's Grandpa. Duh. I'm not waiting until tomorrow."

Ben chuckled at that and almost sounded serious. Almost, because maybe they weren't ten anymore, but he was still Ben and he proved it a second later when he cupped her cheek and whispered, "Does that mean that next time I kick butt I can just kiss you senseless after instead of - ?"

"Senseless?" Gwen almost laughed at his stealing that line and because what on Earth made her think that watching movies with him was a good idea? She didn't, but she did somehow keep the grin off of her face as she poked his chest. "Don't promise more than you can deliver, Doofus,"

The words were just a tease, but he took them as a challenge because of course, he did. He was Ben and her stomach fluttered as he kissed her again, the touch of his lips promising that he'd always try. That even though neither of them knew what was going on with their bodies or their feelings, they'd figure it out together just like they always had.

The Doofus.

- o - o - o - o - o -

None of his reaction was a surprise, but the glomp they got when they broke apart was as it caught them on the side and almost knocked them over.

"It's about freaking time!" Michelle squealed as she hugged them both before she let go of Ben so she could grab Gwen's arm with both hands and pull her away. "But you had your moment, Watch Boy, so you can keep on walking. It's girl time now!"

Not that Ben let go of Gwen's other arm - not until she gave him a look - and when he did he did it so fast that she stumbled into Michelle, and his smirk after earned him all the dirty looks that he got. "You're going to pay for that, Tennyson," Gwen warned just like she used to when she wanted to pretend he was just another one of the jerks at school who was a last name and nothing more even though they shared it.

Not that Gwen ever really pulled it off or that Ben ever played along. He didn't do guilty either, and he proved it as he let out a cheerful, "Can't wait," put his hands in his pockets and started whistling the theme song for Sumo Slammers as he kept on walking. And the worst part was that all the brainpower it took for her to figure him out and all the times he drove her crazy talking about her butt, she couldn't help looking him over as he walked away...

"I can't believe - " Michelle grumble cut through the sudden fog in Gwen's thoughts.

"You don't have to tell me," Gwen said with a jerk and a heat in her cheeks that left her glad for the fading sunlight before she shouted. "I already know that I'm dating a Doofus!"

And finally hearing those words echo back at her….

Nothing felt better even if the only thing all of that outrage got back was a laugh from Ben. One that earned him a double glare before Gwen let out a breath and leaned in close so she could whisper in French even though she knew that Ben understood every word, but it was still their language. "You know that yours is going to drive you crazy, too, right?"

Michelle just made a noise at that which could have come right out of one of her mother's French movies as she gave Ben another look - one that was all twisted up before it disappeared against Gwen's shoulder. "I know! I know, that why I can't believe that I'm about to ask you this, but - "

"Grandpa might," Gwen admitted in the pause that followed, her face twisting up, too, with guilt as her brain caught up and she remembered what they were talking about before she went just as crazy as her best friend always said she was, "but sea slug's not that bad. It's like sandy peanut butter and - "

"No - And ewww - but… " Michelle said with a wave of her hand as she gave the boy another glare even as her voice trailed off.

"But?" Gwen asked, her stomach tightening because there was no way that question could go anywhere good. Not if it was about why he was being weird, or if it was any of the dozens of questions she knew that their parents would ask and she needed answers for. Questions about their future. "If you're about to say I can do better…"

"I mean, duh, but no," Michelle said with a shudder that ended with a sigh so deep that her shoulders fell by the end of it. Then her fingers found her braided strand of hair again as she looked over, her dark eyes wide. "It's just - "

"Michelle?" Gwen asked when the girl drifted off there as her stomach turned into a knot.

Michelle took one more breath before words just burst out of her. "Liam'sniceandall, butyoudon'thaveanymorecousins, doyou?"

"Michelle!" Gwen squealed as she shoved the girl away. She shot another look at her Doofus, who looked ready to ride to her rescue as he looked back, and she melted all over again. Not that she needed rescuing, but how could she not want to kiss him for it?

"Not that one!" Michelle giggled, her words losing that baguette taste as she caught herself. "Keep him. For the love of God, keep him. On a leash! But you have more, right? Maybe one that's housebroken?..."

"Michelle!" Gwen squealed again as she hid her face in her hands because Ben definitely looked back this time and she couldn't stand how wide his eyes got when he did. "A few. But one of them's married and the rest are - "

She didn't know how to finish that, but it didn't matter. She never got a chance. Not before Ben slammed into her and knocked her right off of her feet and off of the road both with barely a "Get down!" for a warning.

Slammed into them.

"Get off, Watch B- !" Michelle started to scream from Gwen's elbow as they landed hard in the rough grass. A landing that sucked even more as Ben fell on top of them.

"What's - " Gwen started at the same time as she tried to push herself up, but her heart froze even before she got her answer as she watched the night burn orange through broken and skewed sunglasses.

Ben must have shouted something at her as he shoved her back down, but she didn't hear him. She couldn't. Not over the shriek that the thing made as it tore through the air not a dozen feet over their heads. A thing made of fire and the heat that it left behind…

It was so much worse than any of the bonfires that Grandpa made even with Ben shielding her as best he could. It was even worse than the fresh scrapes she could feel on her palms and knees. Scrapes she ignored as the fireball slammed through the trees in front of them because she only saw the thing for a second, but she was sure that she saw something inside of that inferno.

Something that looked like a man.