author's notes: i should put a quasi-spoiler warning for the movie, Operation: ZERO here, since this fic takes place right after it, though i don't think the spoilers are all that big. however, for those of you who didn't see it, i should explain: the main baddie, Grandfather, comes into power in a convention center where all the villains are gathered. he starts turning everyone into zombies, (well, senior citizombies, to be exact) and when Chad sees this, he freaks and runs. which is perfectly fine, i would have done the same, except that he ditches Cree in the process, and for that, i am ashamed.

also, i should mention that since i'm trying to follow canon in this fic, Cree and Chad aren't dating. but that doesn't stop this from being a Cree/Chad fic. XD

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It was over, and the world was safe again. Relatively speaking. Chad didn't feel safe at all, just…contemptible. When he was there in the convention center, when he saw everyone getting transformed into zombies like that, the only thing on his mind was "I've got to get the hell out of here!" and he ran. Well, flew would probably be more accurate. And he didn't stop for hours and hours. And then he hid like a coward, out there in the middle of nowhere, far away from anyone and anything.

But really—it was the only intelligent thing to do, wasn't it? He knew he could never defeat Grandfather, what was the point of hanging around just to turn into another one of his minions? That's what he reasoned to himself, again and again, as he huddled alone, safe, and completely wretched.

But then it was over. The ominous green haze that had descended upon the entire world seemed to flush away, and everything was normal again. Finally he emerged from his hiding place, stunned. He had avoided it all. He was safe, and he hadn't done anything. Someone else had saved the day, and now he could reap the benefits.

Chad knew that he should have felt happy. So why did he feel so despisable?

He dawdled on the way home. His parents were there when he arrived, his mom was cooking dinner; his dad was reading the paper in the living room. They acted as if nothing had happened. The only thing his mom said to him was "Wash up, dinner will be ready in twenty minutes."

Did they see me run? Do they know their son is a coward?

They should have run too. They should have realized that was the only logical option.

Dinner was quiet as usual. Dad talked about work; Mom complained about the neighbors. Same as always.

Chad excused himself from the table as early as possible and went to his room. He almost regretted having finished his homework already. He made an attempt to study for next week's history exam, but he couldn't concentrate. He practiced the violin, but his timing was off and it kept sounding off-key. After multiple tunings, he gave up and decided to call it a night.

He should have known he wouldn't be able to sleep. He should have known that when he finally did sleep, he would fall into nightmares of zombies, chasing and cornering him….

He was exhausted the next day at school. Perhaps it was his paranoia because of the lack of sleep, but it felt like everyone was whispering about him. Wuss. Gutless. Coward.

By the end of the day he was more than ready to slink away from everyone's accusing eyes, back home where he could hide from everything again. But of course it was then that he encountered the person he wanted to face least of all.

She stood between him and the exit, an expression of barely contained wrath in her eyes. Her lips were pursed, her head lowered, her arms crossed unyieldingly. A thousand suns were nothing compared to the aura of fury that surrounded her.

"Hi…Cree," Chad faltered, pretending not to notice her rage.

"Is that all you have to say?" she demanded.

He paused. "Um…nice weather we're having?"

She grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and shook him. "I ought to pound your skull in for ditching me like that!" she roared.

"If it's any consolation, I ditched my parents too."

She ignored his words. "How could you do that to me?"

"Running was the best option…it was the only intelligent thing to do." He was repeating to her what he had been telling himself all this time.

"Intelligent? So now you're calling me stupid for not turning tail like you?"

"No, I—"

"I was zombified the minute you left!"

"I'm sorry—"

"And all you have to say is—"

"I WAS SCARED, ALL RIGHT?" he finally shouted over her. "I was terrified! I couldn't think straight; I just knew I needed to get away!"

Cree was silent after his confession. The anger in her eyes was ebbing, being replaced with something else, something worse. "I was scared too," she said softly. "So scared I couldn't even move." She loosened her grip on his shirt and lowered her eyes. "You…you could've at least taken me with you."

Guilt crushed down on him, a hundred times worse than before. "I'm sorry." He wished more than anything that he could turn back the clock to that one crucial moment. If only he had turned and grabbed her, he could have saved her. Then maybe he wouldn't feel like such a worthless coward.

"No," Cree said, brushing off his apology, "I guess I'm really just mad at myself for not running when I should have." She released him and turned to walk away.

"I…." He followed after her. "Let me make it up to you."

She looked at him with doubt, and just a little scorn.

"Let me…." He thought hard. "Let me carry your books for you."

Cree let out a short laugh at his lame offer.

"I'm serious. Let me do something. Anything. Just name it and I'll do it."

She stared at him long and hard with an expression he couldn't read. Finally she slipped off her backpack and held it out to him.

He took it immediately, shouldering the heavy bag with relief, almost gratitude.

They walked to her house together, and Cree filled him in on how the situation with Grandfather was dealt with. Chad privately thought that perhaps the zombification had addled Cree's mind, as her tale involved tapioca factories, zombified hamsters, and launching the Moonbase from the Moon. Of course he didn't inform her of his suspicions.

Once at her house he returned her backpack. "If there's anything else—"

"You know, I've been wanting to upgrade my OS."

"Sure, I can do that for you," Chad agreed readily. "When would you like to?"

"Now is good for me."

"Oh…um…." He thought of his violin lesson in half an hour.

"Unless you don't want to," Cree said indifferently, entering her house.

"No—now's fine." He could cancel his lesson. It would be worth it if Cree forgave him. "Do you have an external drive to back up the data on your computer?"

"No," she answered simply.

"That's okay, you can borrow mine. You do have the upgrade, right?"

"No," she repeated.

"Oh…okay. I'll bring that too, then. I'll get those things now and be back in a few."

"Okay, see you then."

Chad returned not long afterwards with the required hardware and software and got to work upgrading her system as Cree watched with initial interest, but by the end she was uninterestedly flipping through a magazine.

"Okay, it's done," he finally said as he rebooted her machine.

"Wow, great!" Cree said, immediately settling down to customize her newly-upgraded machine.

"If there's anything else you need help with, let me know." Chad said, this time with less enthusiasm than before.

"Okay, I will," was her somewhat ominous reply.

While Chad wasn't usually a stickler for such things, he couldn't help but notice that Cree didn't thank him. He didn't resent it, but it made him uncomfortable.

What have I gotten myself into?

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The next day, Chad was eating his lunch and browsing his English notes at the school cafeteria. He smiled and greeted Cree when she came and sat next to him, but it soon faded as she held out a five-dollar bill to him.

"I'm not in the mood to wait on the lunch line. Would you get a pizza and a diet Coke for me?"

He stared at her.

"Unless you're too busy?" Cree asked with an innocence that Chad could see right through.

"No," he answered calmly, taking the bill and standing. "I was just thinking that diet sodas are actually really bad for you."

"Hm, I guess you're right, better make that a water, then. I'll hold your seat for you, okay?"

"Thank you," Chad said deliberately, and walked to the long queue.

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As the days passed, Cree asked Chad for several more favors, including help with her research paper, borrowing class notes, advice and help with further computer upgrades, even mowing her lawn. All these things (with the exception of the lawn) Chad would have been happy to help with if it weren't for the constant vibe that all these things weren't favors, but acts performed in order to redeem himself, and that's what he felt increasingly bitter about.

After a week he was done with it. He had been washing her bike (which was twice the work, really, because he had to clean it in both its regular form as well as its transformed mode) when he finally threw down the water hose and sponge. He would confront her and ask point blank—"Do you forgive me or not? Or do you just plan on using me as your errand monkey for the rest of your life? I'm not going to do it anymore. I don't care if you're still angry at me."

But then he suddenly remembered that look in her eyes, just as she was confessing her fear back then. She never said the words, but he could see them in her eyes: "Why weren't you there when I needed you?" And then he remembered it was that betrayal that he wanted to atone for.

Chad sighed and retrieved the sponge and the hose.

I have to make it up to her somehow.

"Hey, Chad," he heard her voice from above, and he looked up to see her leaning out of a window. "When you're done with that, would you mind taking out the garbage?"

He glared up at her. "Sure," he said through gritted teeth.

If only she didn't make it so damn difficult.

---

He was sitting at her computer yet again when he heard Cree enter the room behind him and close the door. He looked up at her and she smiled at him.

"I've decided," she said, "that after you've finished that, I'll forgive you, and you won't have to do anything else for me anymore."

"Really?" Chad asked, standing.

"Except for one thing."

He eyed her warily. "And that is…?"

Her smile grew roguish as she stepped towards him, placing her hands on his chest. She ran them up to the back of his neck and pulled him towards her, aiming her lips for his.

"This…" she breathed.

Chad woke with a start in his own bed. Just a dream.

"Damn it," he muttered to himself. "Damn it, damn it."

---

It was a windy day. It looked like a storm was coming. Chad wanted nothing more than to get home as soon as possible, but Cree was standing outside the school, chatting with Stacy, and he was carrying her backpack, as he had every day for almost two weeks. He stood some distance away from the other two and had no idea what they were gossiping about, but he heard the words "Teen Tornado" being giggled by Stacy. Chad scoffed. He deserved the "Teen Villain of the Year" Award way more than that loser.

The wind was getting heavier. Bits of leaves and crap were flying in his eyes and getting caught in his hair. "Don't you think we'd better get out of this storm?" he called to them, and just as he said the words he heard a horrible, cracking, breaking sound behind him. He turned to see that a large tree branch had been torn free by the wind and was headed straight for them.

Without thinking, Chad dove forward and just barely had enough time to throw his arms protectively around Cree before the branch hit all three of them, knocking them off their feet.

A second later, Cree was blinking up at him, stunned. He was on top of her, and on top of him was a big old hunk of tree.

"Are you okay?" he asked, barely noticing the sharp pain in his leg.

"Why didn't you save me?" wailed Stacy, ignored and off to the side.

---

"Seven stitches," Chad crowed the next morning at school.

"Okay, I get the point."

"Seven stitches and a ruined shirt and pants."

Cree rolled her eyes.

"Come on, say it already."

"Say what?"

"Say that you forgive me. That we're even."

"Forgive you for what?" she asked.

"You know, for the…convention center," he reminded her uncomfortably.

"Oh, that. Of course I forgive you. I told you. I should have done the same thing."

Chad stared at her. "But…but then you made me do all that stuff…."

Cree laughed guiltily. "I know, I just wanted to see how far I could push you before you finally snapped!"

"What? So then all this time—"

"Hi, Stacy," Cree interrupted.

Chad turned to see Stacy, who was sporting several band-aids and a wrist brace. "Hi, Stacy," he greeted as well, "how are you doing?"

"I'm not talking to you," she said loudly and swept past them both.

Chad shrugged and turned his attention back on Cree. "So if you already forgave me back then, now you owe me for the seven stitches."

"What?" she laughed incredulously.

"You heard me."

"Wait—so you're saying that the only reason you saved me yesterday was so we'd be even?"

"Exactly," he lied. "So if we were already even before I saved you, now you owe me."

"I see. So what exactly do you have in mind?"

The image from his dream flashed in Chad's head, and he grinned.

"What?" Cree asked suspiciously.

He grinned wider. "I'm sure I'll think of something."

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author's notes: ha,Cree wouldn't be conned so easily, but Chad can dream, right? speaking of dreams, his dream sequence was strangely G-rated. gotta keep it clean for the kids, you know. XD

poor Stacy, always the odd girl out. actually, "Stacy" is the only teen girl name that i can remember offhand from the show ("Cavallaro" being the only teen male name i can remember) so that's the name that keeps coming up.