After Chad had told her, after he held her close to pretend for one last time that she was his, after he saw her walk away…after all that, he felt empty. He didn't feel angry, and not even that hurt, just vaguely sad, and very, very tired. For a long time he just stood, rooted in place. He didn't know how long. Eventually he decided he should go lie down, and he trudged upstairs to his room. But as he reached out to push open his door, the cuffs that dangled at his wrist reminded Chad of its presence and he decided he should do something about removing them. He turned down the hall and punched in the code to his parents' barricaded lair, and once inside it wasn't too difficult to find a laser cutter which made quick work of the cuffs. While he was there he thought that perhaps he heard something from outside, but the walls were fairly soundproof and he didn't really care. He made sure to put everything back where he found them (his parents were always very strict about that) before leaving the hideout, returning to his room and falling face-down onto his bed.

Lying there he found that although he was tired, he wasn't sleepy, and his mind wouldn't stop playing his last interaction with Cree over and over again. He wished his brain would stop.

He opened his eyes and immediately saw the stuffed turtle. He lifted it from the nightstand and squeezed it gently. It was then that the wave of pain, sadness, and bitterness rolled in, flooding him entirely. He clenched the small toy in his fist, rose from bed, and then threw it from his window with all his might. Then he collapsed back onto his bed, fiercely wiping away his tears.

I should never have told her.

But no. He was glad he did. He knew it, even then as he said it at perhaps the worst possible moment, in the least romantic way, that he was doing the right thing. A weight had lifted from him as soon as he said the words—the weight of a year and more's worth of fear, bitterness and sadness. Of course a lot of the sadness remained. But he realized then that the flash of bitterness he felt just now was the last of it. Even if things didn't end the way he wished it would, even if she didn't love him in return, at least now he had told her, and she knew.

Chad sat up suddenly, regretting his thoughtless action of casting Speedy away. While Cree didn't realize it, that toy turtle meant more to him than he was willing to admit. He rushed out the door.

---

Back at Chad's house, Cree pounded on his front door. Then noticing the doorbell, she rang it in a more civilized manner. Still no answer. She tried to peek into the window, but all she saw was a clean, empty living room. She rang the doorbell again, this time repeatedly. He couldn't be out, could he? I was just here. She sighed and took out her phone. She called him but got his voicemail.

Cree frowned impatiently. How am I supposed to throw myself at him if I can't even find him? She paced back and forth then walked around to the backyard. There she looked up to his bedroom window. He could be in there…. Scanning the area, she cursed the lack of trees near his window. There was, however, a rose trellis on the side of the house. She tested her weight on it and found it less than satisfactory. She frowned pensively, looking up again at the second story window.

That was when she remembered her jet boots. Duh, of course! she laughed to herself. Just as she was about to armor up, she heard the window open, and she looked up to see something small fly out of it.

What was that? She walked over to the shrubbery to investigate. After some searching, she found it. Speedy.

"Aw, poor Speedy, what..." She looked up at the window, Chad's window, and realized what must have happened. She stared at the small toy in her hand, her eagerness to see him suddenly replaced with doubt. When she heard footsteps approaching, she made an attempt to hasten away.

"Cree?" Chad asked in surprise as he came near.

She stopped and glanced back at him. "Hi. Chad." She made an attempt to hide the plush toy behind her, but he had already seen it.

"I...uh... You found Speedy."

"Yeah, I saw him fall." She cradled the rejected toy in her hands.

"He…uh, fell out the window," he said, and she could see he was lying. "What are you doing here?"

Cree found herself unable to state her true purpose. "I…left my bike." Sure enough, her transmogrified bike-turned-aircraft was still in his yard, off to the side. She had forgotten about it completely after Chad's admission. She approached it, pressed a button under a hidden panel, and it reverted to bike form. She continued to hold the plush turtle.

Chad watched her from a distance. "Cr…. I…. Actually…I threw Speedy out the window," he admitted.

She looked at him.

"I was angry. I'm sorry."

She gazed at the turtle. "That's okay. I mean, you must..." She couldn't bring herself to say the words "hate me now." Her heart felt like a heavy burden in her chest.

"Could I...have him back?"

She peered up at him. "You still want him?"

He met her eyes. "Yeah."

Her heart instantly felt lighter. She could feel tears welling up in her eyes as she smiled. "I didn't come back here for my bike."

He looked at her, confused.

"I…well, I mean…." It's now or never, Cree thought to herself.

Chad continued to watch her.

"I…. About earlier, when you…when I—" Dammit, why is this so hard?

"You don't have to say anything," he interrupted. "It's okay."

"But I—" She stopped and sighed, wondering how many times Chad had tried to tell her how he felt but got tongue-twisted and gave up. It's just…if only he weren't staring at me like that with those eyes….

Cree opened her mouth to try again, but then suddenly pointed behind him. "What's that?"

"Huh?" He turned his head.

She leapt forward determinedly and caught him in her arms, holding him tight. Several hundred heartbeats later, (probably less than three seconds in real time,) Chad asked, "What are you doing?"

"I'm hugging you." Her eyes were shut tight and the right side of her face was squashed against his chest.

"Oh. Uh, why?"

Cree laughed, feeling much better. "You really are dense, aren't you?" She lifted her head and pressed her lips to his.

---

Stunned couldn't even begin to describe how Chad was feeling. Cree had pinned one of his arms to his side, and the other was hanging uselessly like a slab of dead meat. But of course the weirdest part of all was the fact that she was kissing him. He wished he could kiss her back. He wished he could move—something, anything, but his mind was spinning so much and his heart was pounding so hard he thought he might pass out.

Chad didn't know how long it was before Cree pulled back, but when she did, he tried not to gawk at her.

He clearly didn't succeed, because her glowing expression quickly turned bright red when she saw his bewilderment.

"Oh! I'm sorry—I should have given you some kind of warning." She began to move away.

It was right then—and he thanked God for it—that he regained movement, and he held her tight, preventing her escape.

"N-no, stay," he stammered, internally cursing his awkwardness. But something else was going on inside him; it was warm and dizzying and slowly spread throughout his entirety.

Cree was blushing even more now, but looked directly into his eyes.

Then they just stood there staring at each other for who knows how long, smiling like idiots. It was as if, for the first time, they finally understood each other.

---

As Abby was getting dressed in the morning, she paused just before she put on her usual blue and white shirt. She reached for her birthday present from Cree and put that shirt on instead. She looked at herself in the mirror. Then she pulled the braid from behind her and shook out the plaits. She stared at her reflection.

I hardly recognize myself.

She looked like a teenager. She was a teenager.

Abby sighed and turned away from the mirror. It's not a crime, growing up.

Her cell phone rang, and she checked who the caller was before she answered it. "Hey, Mo, how're you holding up?"

"Huh?" Maurice asked through the phone.

Abby laughed a little. "Cree told me about the break up."

"Oh, right, well, I was kind of surprised, but other than that it's fine."

"Good. So what's up?"

"Well, basically I'm calling to…I don't know, see if we can have a talk," Maurice said somewhat hesitantly.

"Like we're doing now?"

"I was thinking more of a face-to-face one."

"Oh…sure, why not?"

"Great. How about now?"

Abby frowned. "You aren't right outside, are—" she began when the doorbell rang.

A moment later she was opening the door to let Maurice in. "You are such a cliché."

He began a laugh, but then he stared at her. Abby suddenly remembered her change in outfit and hair. Stupid. Boys are so predictable, she thought, though she could feel herself blushing.

"You look really pretty." He sounded almost shy. "Are you…going somewhere?"

"No," she answered quickly. "I was just trying something different."

Maurice continued to stand awkwardly until Abby said, "Come in." He did so, but then stood indecisively in the living room. He glanced towards the kitchen and then the dining room.

"What's the matter?" Abby asked.

"Nothing…it's just this whole house reminds me of teen meetings."

"I know what you mean; Cree was having them all over the place. Let's go someplace else."

Maurice was expecting her to open the door and go outside, but instead she ascended the stairs. He was admittedly surprised when she walked into her room, and even more so when she opened her window and climbed out of it. He stuck his head out the window to see her scaling the shingles of the roof.

"Where are you going?"

"Here," she answered simply, settling on the apex of the roof.

He eyed her quizzically, but clambered out the window. Abby had made it look much easier than it actually was. Finally he reached the crest where Abby was and sat beside her, slightly out of breath.

"So you come here often?" he asked.

"Sometimes. The view's not as nice as the Treehouse's, but it's not bad."

"Yeah," he replied, gazing at her in the morning light.

"Do you miss it?"

"Miss what?"

"The Treehouse. Being in Sector V. Being an actual operative, rather than a covert one."

Maurice studied her, wondering why she was asking this question now. Does she have some kind of ulterior motive for asking it?

She turned to him. "I'm sorry. Do you not want to answer that? You don't have to."

"No—I…I just don't really know…." He thought. "Yes. I do miss it. I miss being able to just go out on missions, not these stealth ops like now." He wondered if she were judging him as she silently nodded at his response.

Then she spoke. "I miss my friends. I wonder if I'll be able to be friends with them before they turn thirteen."

Maurice was silent. He had made the choice to leave his sector long before his thirteenth birthday. He had lost his friends long ago, and turning thirteen didn't bring much in terms of reconciliation.

"At least I have Cree," she said with some solace.

Again Maurice had no idea what to say. To be honest he was a little surprised that Abby was so close to Cree in spite of all she had done against the Kids Next Door. Having no siblings himself, he probably would never fully understand them.

"So how did your Dad's party go last night?" he asked, changing the subject.

"Fine, other than the fact that I had to make the dessert and finish the appetizers because Cree totally ditched me to run off with Chad."

"Run off with Chad?" he questioned at her choice of phrasing.

"Yeah. You do know they're dating now, right?"

"Cree and Chad?" Maurice asked, stunned. "You're kidding."

"No, it's true."

Maurice shook his head in disbelief. While he didn't care for Cree romantically at all, he couldn't help but feel somewhat affronted that she had moved on so quickly. That does explain the cheery break up. "Damn that Chad," he said with a wry smile, pinning him as a scapegoat easily. "He's trying to make me look like a fool or something. He always hated me."

But in reply Abby shook her head with a distant smile. "No, you've got it backwards; he didn't always hate you, he's always loved Cree."

Maurice studied her, noting the affectionate tone and suddenly remembered her own relationship with Chad. Does that mean they broke up? Is she heartbroken? "And what about you?" he asked tentatively.

"Me?" She turned to him. "I love Cree, too. She is my sister, after all."

He frowned at her. "You know that's not what I meant."

Abby focused elsewhere again. "Hmm." She smiled secretly.

He grumbled to himself. She's going to make me ask her directly. Well, I will. "Are you in love with Chad or not?"

She laughed outright. "In love with Chad? You've got to be kidding me. I mean, he's a nice guy and all, and a good friend, but damn, is he needy. I don't know how Cree can stand it."

Maurice sighed silently in relief. "Good."

She shot him a look. "That Chad's needy?" she smirked.

"Stop purposely misunderstanding me. You know what I mean."

"I don't know if I do." Her tone was suddenly serious. "After all, you've been on a covert mission for so long, most of the words out of your mouth are lies. How am I supposed to believe a word you say?"

"Well, I—" Maurice began defensively before he slumped and looked away. She was right, after all. He did spend so much of his time lying; even he sometimes forgot what was true anymore. He had given his life to the Kids Next Door Organization. Only now was he beginning to regret it.

"Say it and I'll believe you," Abby whispered.

"Huh?" He turned to her.

"Say the words, and I'll believe you—just this once." She held him in her steady gaze.

He returned her gaze, trying to read her. Is she really saying what I hope she's saying? He opened his mouth and hesitated before murmuring, "I…like you a lot…more than a friend…I—"

Abby smiled, having finally heard what she had been waiting for: pure, simple, unrehearsed truth. She moved closer to him. "Me too."

Thankfully, their second kiss was much better than their first.

---

"Uncanny Valley?"

"It's that principle that says that the more human something is, the more empathetic we are to it, but beyond a certain point it just becomes freaky," Chad explained.

Cree laughed. "I'm just going to nod at you, okay?"

"It's a scientific theory; it was made years ago by a Japanese robotics expert."

"You are such a geek."

It was a conversation much like all of their others. In a way, their relationship hadn't changed much at all. In others, it was completely different. Like now, as they chatted about little-known theories—that act in itself was just the same as it had always been. But the fact that they were resting on her couch together, Cree leaning up against him, Chad's arm around her—that was new, different, and amazing.

"No, listen—" Chad continued to press his point, "it's like those commercials with those sports' stars heads stuck on kids' bodies—"

"Oh, those are freaky."

"Exactly, they fall right into the Uncanny Valley. Like most computer animated humans—the ones that are trying to look like real humans, like the ones in that Final Fantasy movie, there's something a little off about them, and they end up looking weird and creepy. But if they make them more cartoony, like in The Incredibles, they're not creepy at all."

"Huh. I think I see what you mean. So where do furries fall in this category?"

"Furries?" Chad raised an eyebrow. "And you say I'm the geek."

"Oh, like you don't secretly have a thing for cat girls."

"No, ma'am, I do not," he answered solemnly.

Cree laughed and decided not to press the matter. "Speaking of furries, where's my turtle?"

Chad looked at her, baffled. "Turtles aren't furry at all."

"That's besides the point. You once told me you were going to give me a turtle, and I haven't seen it yet. So where is it?" She crossed her arms and put on a stern expression, which might have been more effective if she weren't snuggled up against him at the time.

"I never said that. You have a terrible memory."

"Yes you did, don't deny it, you said you were going to give me a turtle."

"No I didn't, I asked you what you would do if I gave you a turtle. And besides, it was a metaphor; there was never any turtle."

"What?" Cree asked indignantly. "Metaphor for what?"

"Pfft. If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm not telling you."

She frowned and poked him cruelly between the ribs. "Metaphor for what?"

"Ow! Quit it!"

"Metaphor for what?" she demanded again, her expression turning sinister as she lightened her touch to a tickle.

Chad flinched and yelped, and Cree knew that she had won.

"Okay! I give! Just stop!"

Cree grinned triumphantly and settled back to nestle against him.

He frowned at her unscrupulous tactics. "I'm warning you, it's stupid, but you asked for it." He paused to think of a way to avoid his disclosure, but finding none, continued. "The turtle was a metaphor for me…telling you I loved you," he admitted embarrassedly.

She stared up into his face. "Really?"

"Yeah."

She pondered over this. "That is stupid."

Chad laughed. "I told you."

"But I want a turtle."

"I thought you didn't like turtles."

She smiled, turning to face him and encircle him in her arms. "I love turtles."

-fin-

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---

author's notes: the turtle question, finally explained! hey, i didn't say it would make any sense. but that's what he meant, way back in chapter 13. yes, it is cheesy, which is why i didn't really want to explain it in the first place. XD

some examples to explain the Uncanny Valley were swiped off of Wikipedia.

okay, it's done! it feels kind of weird, finally being finished with this fic. it took me super-long, too. thanks to everyone who reviewed and stuck with me through it all!

and yeah, i do realize that i left out some rather important things, like the fact that Cree never found out that Maurice was lying to her during their entire relationship. i actually did that on purpose, i never planned on her finding out in this fic, because i wanted her to choose Chad on her own, not because Maurice broke her heart. there's also the whole issue of whether or not the teens will continue to fight the Kids Next Door... well, i do have a sequel in mind, but i don't know if i'll ever get to it. if i do, i promise it'll be much shorter than this one! XP

i also have some ideas for some Cree/Chad one-shots which i hope i'll get to at some point.

thanks again for reading!