Hey Arnold was created by Craig Bartlett and is owned by Viacom Inc. No infringement on their property is implied, nor should be inferred.

Thundercats was created by Ted Wolf, All related indicia, including the names Cheetara and Tygra belong to Time-Warner Inc. No infringement on their property is implied nor should be inferred.

The Punisher was created by writer Gerry Conway, and artists John Romita Sr. and Ross Andreu. Wolverine was created by Len Wein and artist John Romita Sr.; both characters belong to Marvel Comics Inc. No infringement on their property is implied nor should be inferred.

The characters Batman, Robin, and Alfred were created by Bob Kane, and are the property of DC Comics who in turn is owned by Time-Warner Inc. No infringement on their property is implied nor should be inferred.

I also make reference to the 1966 Batman television show, which was produced by Greenway Productions/Twentieth Century Fox Television. No infringement on their property is implied nor should be inferred.

Transformers, and the character name Tracks, is the property of Hasbro Inc. and Takara/Tomy Ltd. of Japan. No infringement is implied nor should be inferred.

The lyrics of the theme song Transformers (1984-1987) were written by Ford Kinder and Ann Bryant, with the music being composed by Johnny Douglas and Rob Walsh. No infringement on their property is implied nor should be inferred.

The Battle Beasts toy line was created by Takara/Tomy Ltd. and was also marketed by Hasbro Inc. as an entity separate from the Transformers line in North America. No infringement on their property is implied nor should be inferred.

I have no idea who owns Monty Python's Flying Circus, however no infringement on their property is implied, nor should be inferred.

The title of this chapter comes from the song "Grazin' in the Grass" composed by Harry Elston, and performed by The Friends of Distinction.

Like Mother

Chapter Eight: Grazin' In the Grass

In between licking the sweet icing of Arnold's black forest cake off of her fingers, Helga wondered, "Have you ever noticed that we will do things in Miles' bed that we won't in our own?"

In the growing darkness, Arnold craned his head towards his wife with a funny look as he pinched off another bite of mangled cake and pushed it into his mouth. "I don't want to sleep rolling around with crumbs in our bed, do you?" Before she could answer, the clever man held a stemmed cherry just below his wife's lips. "Best for last." First he traced them with the cold, sweet object as she licked, and tried to grab it with her teeth, only for it to be pulled away at the last second.

Helga growled as she grabbed his hand playfully. "Will you please stop teasing me?"

Knowing his wife's deep, dark secret, Arnold tickled her side until she was forced to release his arm. "I still can't believe that the all powerful Helga G. Pataki is ticklish."

His wife corrected with a good-humored push, "Shortman! I'm your problem now, remember?"

Rising to get a kiss for payment, Arnold held a bright red cherry just above her mouth, and then asked slyly, "Do you want this?"

The woman growled, and then pulled his hand towards her moist red lips demanding, "Give it to me!"

"Ah, ah, ah," Arnold said suggestively, "You know what you have to do first."

Helga kissed his lips once more, allowing them to linger a little longer than usual and then the mischievous man finally relented and popped the red stemmed fruit into her hungry mouth. "You sell out for so little."

The woman laughed loudly. "I didn't used to be so easy, Football Head, you should be more grateful."

Chewing her juicy, hard earned reward, Helga placed her head back down on her husband's warm chest. "I assume that call this afternoon was from your agent. When does your promotional tour start?"

Twining their legs together, Arnold replied, "They won't decide until the first edition is fully printed, but it'll be some time in the summer of next year for sure. Jason is supposed to get back to me when it does so that we can square things away with the legal department, plan signings at bookstores, book talk show appearances, and other public relations duties."

Helga sighed as she rubbed his stomach. "I know it's a way off, but I still dread it."

Arnold kissed Helga's forehead, gently caressing her naked shoulder. "I know, I do too, but I won't be away for long, and I have to do it, it's in my contract."

Helga nestled her head back into the crook of Arnold's shoulder, but much closer, "I know you have to go, it's just that the kids miss you so much when you have to leave on business and they worry about you."

Arnold turned to face her worried eyes. "What about you, Sweetheart?"

Helga smiled sideways, tenderly brushed away the hair on his forehead, and declared lovingly, "Three guesses, Stupid."

Arnold's gaze softened and after kissing her sweet lips once again, he observed, "I worry more about how all of you are while I'm gone." Then he added with hope, "I might be able to get the publisher to hold off my tour until summer, and if I can, I want you to go with me, Pop Tart." With a clever smirk, he related, "I'm quite sure that my adoring fans would love to meet the real life wellspring of never ending torment that inspired this book."

Helga's eyes cut upwards towards her wary husband who seemed to be expecting light but well earned physical punishment, but to his surprise, Helga's eyes brightened, then abruptly fell. "I'd love to go with you, but it can't work because we always go to the beach house with Phoebes, 'Ger, and Kyo in June, and that uses my two vacation weeks. I really want to make sure we all to go together next year because the kids will be turning eighteen and it'll be the last time we will all be there when they are still, well, kids." Sighing, and resigning herself not to go on the trip even though she wanted to, Helga rationalized, "Besides, I can't just leave 'Liz with my patients like I did today either, it's unfair, she needs her vacation time too." With concern Helga also noted, "Her mother's health isn't getting any better and she may have an emergency that she'll need to go take care of for an unknown period of time." Helga added, "Even if I could go, I'd still have to get 'Gert and Miles ready for college, and we can't simply leave them here alone with the house can we?" Helga's voice trailed off.

Arnold shrugged, "I'm sure that you and Elizabeth could work something out, you're both not as busy in the summer when school isn't in session and we have several months to plan and see if we could do this." He thought, and then made a compromise. "I'll talk with Jason and see what I can do, we're not completely in the planning stages yet, but I bet I could hold off the trip to accommodate you." Brightly Arnold added, "If you're worried about Miles and Gertie, even our kids couldn't accomplish the task of completely demolishing the house." When Helga gave Arnold a look, he offered other conjecture. "It will do them both a world of good to be here by themselves to take care of the house, plants, and pets. Phoebe and Gerald could check in on them if needed, and I think it will be a nice way for them to get used to not having us around to bail them out of trouble all of the time, just like being grown up."

Helga gave her husband a look. "We've been playing house for over twenty years and I still don't feel grown up."

Arnold grinned widely. "Well, as close as they can get to being grown up then." Then his face turned sober. "I still can't wrap my mind around the fact that Grasshopper and the Big Guy will be in college this time next year."

Helga nuzzled closer to her sweet mate, and sighed. "It seems like only yesterday we were bringing them home for the first time and as soon as we've turned around they're going away." Helga said with a hint of loneliness, "The house will be so empty and quiet." Hating to do so, the wistful mother also made an admission. "We've both invested a lot of time breaking them up, but I'll miss their little piss fights." Arnold gave Helga a strange look. "They make Slam Jam look like croquet and its entertainment that you can't buy a ticket for." When she saw the look her husband gave her, Helga innocently asked with a small shrug. "What?"

The only thing he could offer was verification on the observation he made earlier in the afternoon. "My God you're a sick woman, Helga Shortman." Then Arnold rolled his green eyes. "Anyway, you're worrying needlessly about missing the kids at college, because I'm more than sure that you'll have to referee several arguments over trivial things on the telephone at some point." Soberly he ended, "Trust me."

The knowing man grinned as his voice trailed off. "You know, if things get bad enough to where you get really lonesome for profanity being screamed around here, I guess I could yell using Miles' name in vain, slam the kids' bedroom doors shut, and work the word ass in between every other word for ya'."

Helga shook her head with a small laugh. "It just wouldn't be the same."

Arnold chuckled wickedly, held his wife a little tighter, and kissed her forehead. "You know, if our empty nest would be so terribly lonesome for you, we could always try for another couple of kids."

With that, Helga and Arnold both burst out into insane laughter together at the prospect of something so ludicrous at this stage in their lives together.

As they settled, Arnold's nose brushed against Helga's sweet smelling hair, inhaling as deeply as could be allowed while he loosened his grip on her shoulders allowing her to move her head lower to rest on his torso. Arnold comforted, "Well, look at it this way, at least they'll both be home for holidays, also breaks, and you haven't even pondered the positive possibilities for the kids' departure."

Helga nuzzled his chest, and placed her hand over his heart, her warm fingers feeling every light thump in his throat. "Such as?"

Arnold made note, "Well, we can sleep in late on the weekends."

Helga scoffed, "Like you'd ever let anything like that happen."

He forwarded, "We can go back to Paris, and try again."

"Skip on down." Helga dryly retorted with more than a hint of disappointment as she remembered the hellish fiasco that their honeymoon was. Nothing went according to plans on it, and the cursed excursion could have easily been valid grounds for divorce between less secure couples.

Arnold stroked the side of his wife's hip and whispered into her ear seductively, "We won't have to worry about sneaking around to get up here for playtime as much."

Helga rose on one elbow, and gave him a sideways smile while smoothing back the wild blonde hair threatening to enter his eyes with her smooth palm. "I like the sneaking around, Football Head, it's part of the thrill!" She ended with a peck on his lips.

"You still hungry?" Arnold asked toying with the ends of Helga's soft locks twisted in his fingertips.

Helga looked upwards, smiled, and then lightly pinched Arnold's stomach. "You just want an excuse to go get, and eat most of yet another slice of cake."

Arnold looked at her incredulously. "How did you know?"

She rose on one elbow staring down into his gorgeous green eyes shaking her head, "Because I know you, Bucko."

Arnold rose, stretched, and as he pulled the cut off sweat pant shorts he borrowed from his son's wardrobe up onto his hips, he said as he turned and winked. "I am so glad that you do know me, Bucko."

Listening to the sugar whore gallop down the steps in what sounded more like a controlled fall, Helga turned in bed to lie on her back while tugging the sheets a little higher up on her body, and then placed her arm behind her head. As she relaxed, she gazed up through the skylight past the slight glint of light from the hallway below that reflecting off it. The last of sunset was waning, and since the bedroom was dark, she could see the hint of a star, despite the glaring lights of the modern city that tended to drown most of the ancient heavens from human sight.

She was so happy where she was now and couldn't possibly imagine life without Arnold or her wonderful children; but Helga never thought she would ever wind up being the wife of Arnold Shortman despite her fanciful childhood imaginations of such.

Then again, life seldom unfolds the way any of us plan.

Helga tried not to let it, but her mind wandered off, and as usual, it settled on the past.

If things happened the way she expected and wanted back then, everything would have been so different now.

Where would she be, and what would she be doing?

What would their children have been like?

She felt guilty for pondering what never had a chance to be because in a way, she felt it betrayed her husband, but to forget would be a disgrace too, and Helga couldn't bring herself to do it.

It was spring, she had just turned eighteen, and Helga was so in love with him that she didn't know what to do.

Horses bathed in moonlight nickered behind them tied to the low hanging branch of a tree as they browsed the tender green grass that sprouted from the latest spring showers with their soft, warm, velvety lips. There was a feast for the couple's senses smell in the sweet cool air of night which mingled with that of earth, grass, horses, and each other as they lie tangled together in the bright, chilled moonlit night as newborn lovers.

It was their first time alone together under the stars like this, and her first time with someone like this. If she had known how good it felt to finally let go and truly become a part of the man who owned her heart and soul; she would have long before now.

She would have rather died than exist in this mortal plain without this man, but ofcourse there were always inconvenient potholes deeply set in the in the road on Helga Geraldine Pataki's highway of love.

"You should know by now that you don't need to worry about my parents liking you." Humorously, Helga related, "Miriam's liked you from day one and Willie's pretty much quit threatening to kill you every time you come over." Helga added, "All Jess and Cody have ever done is talk about how cool you are, so you're safe now because you have everyone snowed."

She had meant to ease his apprehension with lighthearted jest, but when Billy frowned, Helga did too. Why he had chosen this very moment to be so insecure was completely beyond her, especially after what had just transpired. Billy opened his mouth to interject, but Helga was determined to quash his insecurities and refused to allow him to get a word in edgewise. "It's not like it would matter in the first place anyway, because all that matters is what I think of you." With a justified huff, Helga made her feelings clear so that there would be no misunderstandings in William's mind. "As you well know, I honestly don't give two shits about what anybody says about me or us being together, Bill."

Helga assured Billy with great irritation as she stretched out over the rough, horse hair ticked blankets and under the woolly white sheepskin that comprised their roughly made bed, "That snooty bunch from society hill running their mouths isn't any big surprise, but I can't believe some of your friends have said about us being together." Reasonably, Helga added, "I know that what happened to the Indian peoples by the hands of white men was beyond unjust, but I can't help any of that." The flummoxed girl flung a hand up and explained beautifully, "The Pataki family was probably in Hungary treating each other like crap when the abuses of your people were taking place, so we didn't have anything to do with it!"

After a chuckle at Helga's theories about genealogical social functionality married with her studies on psychology, Billy had to say realistically, "I know, I don't like it either, but we can't control what they say and people are always going to find a way to express their opinions regardless of whether you want to hear them or not." He said with a truthful air, "You're going to find ignorance no matter where you go. You're white, so it's easier for some people to label, and blame a color than to deal with an individual person."

Helga eyed Billy with suspicion and then said in a manner not unlike her father, the late Big Bob Pataki, "That's deep, Bill, you're makin' me think." She paused, and was barely able to keep a straight face as she added, "I don't like it." Billy laughed as his lover muttered bitterly, "If nothing else, our relationship has taught me that the good 'ol racism door swings both ways, Kemosabe." Helga kissed Billy's cheek, "When I say that though, I don't lump your family in with them, they've been nothing but good to me."

"I know." The boy she adored held her closer, mumbling into the sweet smelling hair on the top of her head. "I feel the same way about your family too, but I still don't like it when Martin calls you my squaw though."

Helga dismissed her boyfriend's brother for his benign trespass. "Awww, Marty's just teasing, he's only doing what older siblings are supposed to do, which is annoy the living hell right out of you." She then offered an example brightly. "Take Olga for example." Helga then settled down, and draped her arm across Billy's chest. "It's those other ignorant ass people and their unwanted comments that I could do without."

Thinking of something Helga said a few moments before, Billy burst out with insane laughter and Helga wondered, "I don't like the sound of that, what?"

Billy chortled, "I was just thinking."

Helga guffawed. "I knew I smelled somethin' a'burnin'."

Billy scowled at his girlfriend's appraisal of his intelligence, and now determined to irritate her in return, the clever boy continued. "You know, Ms. Pataki, Two Shits' would be a great Indian name!" Billy folded his hands behind his head and shrugged, "I'll tell grandpa that's what your new name should be when you become Sicangu Oyate, Helga Two Shits."

Dryly, Helga stated, "You are so not right, Billy!" Then despite her attempts at remaining straight faced, she started laughing too. Smiling wickedly, she curled her long seductive leg over his, and pointed her index finger into his chest. "At least our detractors can't call me your nickname in the halls of Roosevelt High like they do you, Mr. William Deer with Horns."

Billy then playfully grabbed his girlfriend's hand, kissed it, and gave his own clever retort. "They would if they knew the naughty girl that I met tonight, Miss Pataki!"

"Hey!" The girl justifiably punished him with a hard punch in the ribs with her tough knuckles. "It takes two to tango, Bucko, and don't act like you didn't want it!" Helga said with a naughty tone as she tenderly rubbed the sore spot on his chest with her warm, gentle fingers.

Billy buried his face in her neck and snorted as a bison might, in turn, Helga laughed loudly while attempting to push him away. Using a heavy, extremely bad imitation of a Native American accent, Billy commented, "Are we on warpath, Two Shits? We make heap good medicine tonight, and then you go upset the great spirits once more." The boy laughed as she cut her fiery blue eyes at him. "I'll guess I'll just have to learn to live; and get along with you, 'Ol Betsy, and the Five Avengers now."

Helga mildly threatened, "You'll do well to remember that in the future, Dances With Doo Doo."

Billy held Helga's arms fast before he declared, "I still like the name I came up with for you, though."

As Helga playfully struggled against his light grip, she threatened, "Call me it again, I dare you!"

Unable to resist, Billy wondered, "Or else what?"

"Or else I'll go find that rattlesnake we blundered into today and let it bite you square on your sweet little ass!" The girl warned as the boy laughed, and she placed yet another kiss on his lips.

"I have a sweet little ass?" Billy asked with surprise.

"Oh, yeah!" Helga answered slyly with a light, playful slap on the area of interest. "It's a nice 'un."

Billy kissed her temple. "You screamed like a little girly girl when that tiny garter snake was in the bushes when we first met, but I still can't believe you weren't afraid of that rattler."

Helga looked at the boy in surprise. "I was!" She held up her thumb and index fingers in a wide comparison of size above their heads. "That damn thing had a head the size of a cathead biscuit, but wigging out, and jumping around would have made it strike, and you were the person closest to it." The girl dismissed, "Besides, the snake quit rattling, uncoiled, and went away after it saw we weren't going to bother it."

Helga added with a grudge carried over from stumbling into one of their holes and breaking her leg a couple of years ago, "Anyway, 'rattlers eat prairie dogs like popcorn, and I hate freakin' prairie dogs! They're the filthy, disgusting overgrown cousins of city rats!" Helga scoffed, "I wish rattlesnakes had wings so that they could fly, and then they could gobble up pigeons too."

Billy smiled. "I'm glad you didn't kill it."

Helga laced her fingers in his, "The rattlesnake is chief of its tribe and your grandfather would have been extremely displeased with us if we killed it."

"He's crazy nuts about you, Pataki." Billy said with a smile. "You're the first white person he's ever taught to speak Lakota, and you listen to his stories like they're new, even if you've heard them before."

"I like his stories, and love him too, your whole family, Bill," Helga said with heartfelt affection. "It's the first time I've ever had anything like this before in my life and I have you to thank for that."

Billy remarked, "Sometimes I think they all like you better than me!"

Helga lightheartedly observed as she looked away sighing wistfully, "I can see that."

"Booger!" After playfully pushing Helga, the smitten boy fumbled around in his discarded pants pocket to pick out the second most interesting thing they found that day while on their last adventurous ramble through the land around the Rosebud Sioux Reservation.

It was a spear point grey in color, but when they washed the black Dakotan earth away with water from his canteen, the grey stone was marbled with a mineral bluish in color. After some additional scrubbing, they found that interlaced in the chert was quartz, and that a tiny, clear crystal geode pocket was inside.

Billy handed the ancient stone implement to the love of his life with a promise. "I know you said I should keep it because I found it, but I'm going to make a necklace out of it for you, so don't argue." The boy dipped his head downwards, and kissed his beloved Helga. "It'll give you luck this summer during the Olympic trials, not that you need it, I know you're going to make it."

Helga took the ancient point, and turned it in the moonlight, the small crystals inside glinted and sparkled with a brightness that imitated the stars hanging above their heads. It sounded cheesier than any romantic line delivered in the history of either cinema or literature, but Helga truly meant it when she said, "I can do anything with you behind me." Glad to have been given it, she said modestly, "I know better than to argue with you, Bill, so thank you ahead of time."

Actually, Helga wanted him to offer the point to her again, but she didn't wish to be rude or greedy earlier in the day. The thoughtful girl abhorred out and out selfishness, but old habits were hard to break, so true to form, she always wanted tangible bits and pieces of the men she loved as souvenirs and now was no exception.

Helga's eyes drifted away from the boy that owned her heart now, to think upon the one who once did. Billy smiled at the fond, faraway expression on her face, and cuddled his lover closer. "Arnold?"

Not even bothering to deny it, Helga blushed, then blustered, "I-I'm sorry, Bill, I,"

Billy shushed her with complete understanding and a gentle finger stroking her chin. "Don't be." Then he added genuinely, "It doesn't bother me at all, I don't expect you not to think of him from time to time, he was a big part of your life even though he didn't really know it." The boy continued cautiously. "Actually, I can't believe that you didn't bind, gag, toss him into the back of your Haul Away trailer, and then drag him with you from Hillwood as much as you told me you loved him." The boy said wickedly, "It wouldn't be that surprising a thing for you to do after you did all that other crazy crap for, to, and centered on him."

Actually finding some humor in being caught out; Helga looked upwards and had to agree. "Yeah, I know. I really did think about kidnapping him, but I don't think that would have worked out so hot." Billy laughed as Helga expressed with shame, still feeling like a coward despite all the years that had passed, "I do regret not telling Arnold goodbye when we left, but I've always had trouble with expressing my feelings though, especially properly."

Billy said with a sarcastic, incredulous tone, "Oh, noooooooo, Helga, not you!"

Helga eyed her handsome boyfriend with an evil look and then sighed while toying with his black hair, tenderly brushing some errant stands out of his eyes. "You know that I love you more than anyone else in the world, but sometimes I just wonder where he is, or what he's doing."

Billy wondered with no jealousy or malice in his voice for the boy whom his girlfriend was once so enthralled. "Do you still love him?"

Helga retorted immediately, "I love you, Bill!" With her eyebrows turned downwards, "You know that!"

Choosing not to delve any further, Billy wondered, "What did you ever do with that little gold locket you showed me?"

Helga shrugged. "I couldn't bring myself to just throw it away, so I buried it behind the barn at home." Then she eyed Billy with suspicion. "Why do you ask now?"

Billy smiled sideways. "I'm just making sure I don't have any competition for your love, Miss Pataki." Then the gifted charmer admitted, "To tell you the truth, I kinda' feel sorry for your poor little football headed love god."

The girl looked at her sweetheart incredulously and took the bait. "Why is that, Tatanka Manure?"

The boy cracked a gigantic smile and gripped his lover tighter. "Because, Arnold Shortman doesn't have the slightest clue about what he's missed out on." He whispered slyly into her neck as he gently kissed it, "He can't ever have you back either because you're my girl now."

Helga popped up from Billy's arms, grateful he didn't give her another excuse to lightly chastise him again to reward him with a long kiss. "You better believe it, Bucko." She traced his chin with her finger while gazing down into his deep brown eyes lovingly. "Heart and soul."

The boy smiled even wider as he stroked his hand down her side, then hip, "So you're not kidding around about what we've been talking about?" Still surprised that he had convinced her to agree to such a crazy idea so easily, Billy had to ask again, just to make sure he wasn't dreaming. "You're really gonna' keep your promise?"

With earth shattering certainty that nothing in this world could possibly interfere with their best laid devices, Helga said resolutely, "I promised you that we'd get married right after graduation, and I meant it." With that, the two gazed at each other, and Helga melted into Billy's arms once more with a contented sigh.

Changing the subject, Billy remarked, "I can't believe we've got to go back to Sioux Falls tomorrow," Adding with regret, "I still don't have enough money to buy you an engagement ring yet, but I'm almost there." Not able to hold off from telling her any longer and knowing if she found out from a secondary source it would only make Helga angrier; wisely, Billy braced himself for a mighty tirade. "Just so you'll know, I'm taking a second job in Brandon starting this week, it'll be a pain in the ass, but the money's really good. I'll work on the weekends, and it's not that far away."

Helga growled, "Are you nuts? You are gonna' kill yourself, Bill!" His training nearly complete, Billy winced at his future spouse's irritation with him and began thinking of ways to make amends with little success. "School and two jobs? I don't need or want an engagement ring, I keep telling you!" Then she said with more ire, "Just when am I supposed to get to see you?"

Trying to get the focus off of him in the argument, Billy struck back with a corresponding point. "You're a fine one to talk about killing yourself, Pataki, college courses, training runs, and making top times in heats while in school; with a job of your own? I don't get to see you as much as I'd like to either."

Instead of taking Billy's bait into the digression of a larger argument, the smarter woman looked down into his eyes and couldn't have been more sincere when she begged truthfully, "Bill, please don't do this to buy me a ring, you are all I need."

Helga knew peace, happiness, contentment, and security in his arms, that was more than enough and she didn't need an expensive token from him to prove it. In retrospect, Helga felt that she should have told him that instead of what she did. "If you're so worried about tangible tokens of love, I'll have the necklace, silly boy."

Billy smiled. "I know, but I want you to have something more," Billy searched for the correct word, "traditional that represents how much I love you." Billy noticed Helga's expression of worry worsen on the side of anger, and he added hastily, "I'm not just doing this for a ring either, I need this extra money for college and, because well, you know." Billy looked away from her in needless shame and knowing the financial situation his family was in, Helga didn't pry so as to spare his feelings.

"I love you so much, Bill, I'd do anything for you." William looked away from her, but Helga rose on an elbow, and lightly cupped his cheek with her hand, bringing his complete attention back to her. "Anything. Don't you realize that?" Helga nestled back into his arms in worry for his welfare hoping he'd recognize the genuine offer of financial help without actually coming out and offering it to spare his pride.

"I know you do, and you do too much for me and my family as it is." Billy said with a kiss on her forehead as worry furrowed his brow. In turn, Helga sighed and nestled closer to Billy, not knowing what to say in the midnight silence.

He said it was for his relations and school, but as time progressed, Helga knew that Billy worked like a dog not only to help feed his family, but also to earn money for a damned engagement ring that she didn't want or need just so he could prove something to people who didn't matter.

The irony was that even though he had eventually earned enough money to buy a ring, Billy never got a chance to.

When Bill was killed in a motorcycle wreck on the way home from his late night job caused by a worthless drunk, the spear point necklace was the only material thing Helga had that Billy gave her.

The day of his funeral, Helga sat in the evening darkness of her room alone and swore on the necklace he made her that she would never love another man again as long as she lived.

No one else except for Billy's grandfather knew of their plans to elope when they graduated, and after Bill's death, there was no need to divulge it.

For Helga, there were no self indulgent tears, no outward mourning, and no goddamned weakness either.

She was a Pataki and Pataki's were strong.

They kept their hurts to themselves.

The only allowance she made for herself in Billy's passing was staying home a week from school, and the main reason Helga did that was to keep people from asking her dumbass questions she didn't want to answer, or endure their well meaning attempts to help her with "her grief". After getting a gutful of that useless shit at home, when she finally returned to school, friends, family, and extra curricular activities slowly fell by the wayside as she wrapped herself up in her studies, work, training runs, and track competitions.

The only person she would talk about Billy to at all was Eyes in Clouds Rising, his grandfather, and all too soon, even that outlet was spent when her departures from home got longer in duration while she was taking her college courses and out competing for medals.

Helga was kidding herself on the last one, because she didn't care about competition anymore and her athletic endeavors served no purpose other than to help her run, literally, from facing her loss.

When she eventually became famous, Helga was woefully unprepared for just what that entailed.

Complete strangers came out of the woodwork to either ask for money or invade her private life, and in the beginning, fame was a mere inconvenience, but as time wore on, and she gained more notoriety, Helga had come to hate almost every single second of the spotlight.

After working so hard to get the success she thought she wanted, as it turned out, Helga found she was completely miserable. Privately, she wanted out, but that was an afterthought as she had virtually signed away her life via contracts. Added to the legally binding agreements she made, she also had many people depending on her success too. Helga felt she owed so much to the people that helped her get to where she was, so she sucked it up and kept up appearances for their sakes.

Helga did relish the tiny bit of good her celebrity could do for Billy's people and charities, but for the most part, she felt like a jackass while smiling falsely for photos, waved half-heartedly for parades and personal appearances, and grinned absentmindedly for cereal boxes and the covers of vacuous magazines that she wouldn't read, much less subscribe to, even if her life depended on it.

Helga drew the line at a stupid doll in her likeness, but she still prostituted herself nearly non-stop hawking hamburgers, sneakers, soda, sports cars, and just about any other consumer goods her agent could wheedle a promotional contract out of for her to sign.

The result of such, Helga was a multi millionaire before the age of twenty-two, but instead of enjoying the fruits of her hard work like anyone else might, she struggled with the feeling of a growing emptiness inside. As such, Helga spent more than a few sleepless nights wondering who she was, if she lost her way, even worse, if she had, could she find her way back.

Despite her unhappiness, and the promise to never love again, there was even better news as Helga found herself dating a rock star she knew from her childhood, after him, a string of handsome but banal movie stars, and lastly, Alan Redman, a billionaire media mogul and sports photographer who offered to buy her the world if she would simply call herself his.

When none of those romantic relationships turned serious, despite the fact that they did end amicably enough, cheap tabloids still relished accusing her of being a heartbreaker, a gold digger, and other foul things that were not so. Helga would be a liar if she said the indictments did not hurt, but the truth of the matter was that Brian, Alan, or any of the others could never be the man that Billy was, so it was all too easy to keep her promise on his spear point.

As far as the simple reminder of her loss of him went, it suffered benign abuse during hundreds of practice runs.

It survived some low life in Rio de Janeiro who tried to snatch it off her neck while she was competing for the second time in the Olympics.

Her necklace endured hundreds of people pushing her in crowds, one temporary confiscation during an airport security check, and sheer boredom with its removal for study during boring classes. Each careless occasion a perfect opportunity for the necklace to be lost and never seen again but by the quirks of mercy or fate Helga was able to keep her hands on it.

When she moved back to Hillwood City to continue her college education though, the one time that she had taken the necklace off for the evening was because she didn't want to lose it, and yet again, the irony was too painful to ponder.

Before the flames spread to the floor her apartment was located on, Helga was able to fight her way past the firemen holding her back and race upstairs to save her cat, Jett, but that was it.

Afterwards, no one believed her when she said it, but Helga truly didn't give a damn about her lost furniture, her clothes, or even the four stupid gold medals and the stinking bronze one that the hot flames melted into an ugly, misshapen lump.

Helga could say with her hand on any stack of religious material one might offer that she would give anything to have gotten that exquisite spear point tied by an inexpensive leather shoelace back when it happened.

Not a simple piece of jewelry, the spear point was a comfort and served as a reminder of the good memories she had of Billy. Added to that, the necklace reminded Helga where was headed during the darker days, when her self doubts nearly overpowered her and all she wanted at times was to join him in the spirit world via her own devices.

Through his last gift to her, Billy reminded her to keep going, giving her a tangible reminder of why she couldn't ever yield to the bad things that happened because then she'd miss out on all the good.

Helga owed him so much, grateful for the time they did have together and all that he taught her, yet she couldn't even thank him for it.

Then after the fire, she didn't even have that to remember him by, and when it was gone, Helga had nothing left of him.

It was as if Billy had died once again.

Though she did not put it together in her mind over the years that she had religiously worn it, when it was destroyed, Helga realized that the necklace was the physical representation of her grief over the loss of Billy. When it was gone, for first time since he died, Helga finally permitted herself to grieve for his loss.

A strange twist of fortune, how providential it was that she did it wrapped tightly in Arnold Shortman's strong, comforting arms as she wept.

With time, the man that she was so terrified to say goodbye to when he was a twelve-year-old boy had become a good friend, and not long after, they were nearly inseparable. Helga had been alone for so long that she didn't appreciate how much she needed companionship, or recognize just how much she missed it until Arnold came back into her life.

They enjoyed happiness, shared old mutual friends once more, and it was so wonderful having someone to be so close to again.

Thank goodness it was him.

More time passed, and Helga Pataki flatly refused to fall in love with Arnold Shortman again, stubbornly fighting both her instincts and the dire urgings of her aching heart every inch of the way tooth and nail.

Eventually, the stress of their wordless denials reached the breaking point, a forgone conclusion; she and Arnold had a terrible fight which evolved into an airing of the truth of their shared feelings for one another. In the process, Arnold helped her understand that Billy wouldn't have wanted her to be alone or give up a chance to be happy, no more than she would have wanted him to.

Arnold told Helga that she had a lot to offer and that she should share herself with someone, confessing wholeheartedly that he wanted first consideration if she would have him.

So when it came down to it, Arnold Shortman, unlike all of the other men who tried to claim her heart, had all too easily managed to knock all of her protective walls down; and made her break her word to Billy never love another man again.

Thank God.

A few months later, when Billy's grandfather died, she took Arnold with her to South Dakota to meet her family, pay respect to her old friend; and his wonderful family as well.

Helga was so afraid that Billy's family would think less of her for being with someone that was not their son and brother. To Helga's surprise and relief however, they all welcomed her as a daughter and sister that had been away for too long a time from home with open arms, and seemed to like the man she had chosen to give love another try with.

Even though many years had passed since then and she was happily married to Arnold now, Helga would always keep a warm place deep in her heart for Billy.

It was only proper, for no matter what, she would always love him.

With that, Helga hurriedly swiped a tear away from her eye with the back of her hand when she heard Arnold coming back up the steps.

"Oh you're getting heavy, JJ!" Gerald said with a smile as he hoisted his five year old nephew up onto his shoulders for a ride. "Pretty soon you'll be giving me piggy back rides!"

Phoebe doted on the little boy too as she handed him a small foam basketball to dunk into the basket of the goal that hung from the garage. "Well look at how much you've grown, and all in one night!" The little boy laughed as Phoebe tickled his stomach while he held onto Gerald's head.

JJ held the ball out over Gerald's head, and pushed it over the edge of the metal hoop.

"Alright!" Gerald encouraged. "Two more points for Doctor JJ and my patented Gerald Johannsen sky hook!" Gerald grinned as he put the tiny boy down on the safe pavement as Phoebe clapped and cheered.

The boy instantly ran over to her, slapped her outstretched hand, and latched onto her leg tightly asking with his killer grin and easy charm, "Can I please have a cookie, Aunt Phoebe?"

Phoebe stroked the little boy's head lovingly and wanted to cave in to his request right then, but responsibly she answered, "You'll have to ask your mother first and if she says yes, then you may."

JJ ran to the arms of his mother and began the process of negotiating for sweets as she was helping clear away one of the picnic tables.

After she sent her darling son after his easily won cookie, Timberly heard, "Here, let me take that, Aunt 'Tim." Kyo said with chivalrous concern as he took a heavy looking platter of food away from his aunt, and pulled a chair towards her with his foot. "You really should be resting instead of working so hard."

"Oh, good Lord." Timberly sighed, and picked up a smaller bowl of food walking up the back steps towards the kitchen with her nephew. "You sound just like John, 'K, but I have to move or my muscles will cramp, and let me tell you, in the vernacular; cramps really suck."

Gerald caught Kyo's eye, winked, and tapped his watch in a silent exchange. Noticing it, Timberly asked, "What's that about?"

Kyo's face turned red, and it grew deeper as he replied with a smile. "You were busy with JJ when I told everyone that I'm going to go pick Gertie up at work and bring her back with me." Checking his own watch, Kyo related, "Her shift at the comic shop ends at nine and I don't want to be late."

The woman nodded with a hand to her warm head. "Oh, so that's what the knucklehead brothers were teasing you about earlier." Fanning her damp skin while rubbing his back comfortingly, Timberly smiled. "Don't pay them any attention at all, 'K," The kind woman waved her hand away, commenting slyly, "They're just jealous she's your girlfriend."

Kyo tried to be polite, and not roll his eyes, but he did say in exasperation, "But Gertie's not my girlfriend."

Timberly said sweetly, but in a meddlesome way, "You two would make a nice couple."

The boy sighed thinking about that afternoon as he placed his overloaded tray of food down on the counter. "I don't think that's going to happen anytime too soon, Aunt 'Tim."

The woman cracked a wicked grin, and questioned with a sly, leading tone, "But you'd like it to?"

Then Kyo took the bowl of potato chips from his tired looking aunt and dabbed her forehead with a cool, damp folded napkin while desperately looking to change the embarrassing subject. "Uh, are you sure you wouldn't like to lie down for a little while and put your feet up? In your um," The boy fumbled for the right word as he held his hand in a demonstrative fashion near Timberly's swollen midsection, "condition, you shouldn't strain yourself."

Timberly sighed and patted the concerned boy on the back as he kindly began fanning her face with a magazine. "Kyo, I'm pregnant, not a hernia patient. I'm perfectly capable of doing some tasks." The woman smiled, "You are a true gentleman, and awfully sweet though." Sensing Kyo's discomfort over Gertie, Timberly picked up the former topic, but with a distinct twist, "So, what else is going on with the stink toot twins other than fighting the football team?"

Kyo had to laugh at the nickname that Timberly had called his best friends since they were toddlers. Miles and Gertie both had a genius for trouble making that tested his aunt's babysitting skills and patience fully when she was a teenager. "Well, Miles got accepted by State, Gertie too, but she also sent an application to Wake Forest University." With a tone that couldn't be mistaken for anything but relief, Kyo smiled. "She was accepted, and Gertie's mom and dad told her to go to Wake if that's what she wanted, but tuition is cheaper here since she's a resident of this state, and 'Gert says that she wants to save her mom and dad as much money as she can so she's decided to go to school at State instead."

Timberly nodded, "Well, Wake is a good school, but that was good of Gertie to do, tuition fees are outrageous when you go to a school located in a state you're a resident of, much less out."

Elated, Kyo gathered, "I guess she, Miles, and me will be spending a whole lot more time with each other this time next year." Timberly couldn't help but notice the boy's wide, almost painful looking smile while he was talking about the girl he was obviously crazy about. "Besides, Gertie found out that she's won a scholarship from State to play women's hoops last week, so that has her locked in there for sure."

Timberly rubbed the small of her back and sat down. "I've seen the girl's highlights on the news, and she certainly deserves one. Has she decided on what her major will be?"

Kyo grinned more widely, but with his eyes rolled upwards. "Pre-Law, Gert's wanting to be a lawyer."

Timberly shook her head and waved her hand downwards. "Oh how apropos for Gertrude Shortman!" The woman said evenly, "That girl could argue with you over the color of white marshmallows." Then the woman asked with great suspicion, "What is Miles' major going to be?"

Kyo shrugged, "He hasn't decided anything, but you know Miles, he'll pick out something five minutes before we're supposed to graduate."

Timberly laughed and waved the boy's indecisiveness away. "Well that's okay too. Miles always lands on his feet and finds his way somehow." She observed cautiously, "That boy has more lives than a six legged cat." Then she began to praise her nephew. "I can't begin to tell you how proud I am of your acceptance into State too, 'K!" The boy nodded, and smiled as his aunt continued, "It's getting harder and harder to get into schools now."

"Well," Kyo began, "I took yours and mom's advice by packing in a lot of extra curricular activities, and I think admissions were kind of impressed with the Hillwood High I.Q. team's first win at Wellington College. Volunteering at the animal shelter and my job at the animal clinic with Doctor Dodson will give me an edge too." The boy added with caution, "At least I hope it will when it comes time for me to try to get into State's veterinary school program."

Timberly nodded and was going to say something, but she was interrupted by the telephone ringing, and any other time Kyo would have let the call go to the message recorder, but this number was extremely special. Nearly ripping the phone off its dock before the second ring could register, Kyo answered with excitement, "Hey, Ducky!" Then he said with a much more settled tone of mild disappointment when the caller spoke. "Miles? Yeah, I know she hates that nickname. Why is your phone coming up with 'Gert's number? Oh. Well I told you you should have gotten a different colored cell phone, Buddy." The boy paused then remarked with mischief, "You have your mother's eyes, and pink sure would look good on you, Shortman." Kyo held the phone away from his ear as a loud voice shouted mild abuse, and Timberly laughed.

After Miles settled down, Kyo said in disbelief, "You're done at nine? How in the world did you manage to swing that? Blackmail? No, I do not want to know what was dead this time. No, I told you not to tell me, oh, God, that's nasty! Yeah, I'm going to go pick Gertie up in a few minutes." Kyo exhaled an exasperated sigh from the pit of his being. "Yeah, there are still ribs left, pork and beef." Kyo renewed his promise. "I told you this afternoon, and fifty eleven times during your break tonight that I was gonna' save you some, didn't I?" Then Kyo growled, "I'm not about to keep her from eating what she wants to, Miles, and you're worrying for nothing anyway because there are plenty of ribs left, trust me!" Then Kyo said in frustration, "Good grief, man, they're just ribs! No, I am not going to hide any for you! Why? Because I, quit doing that! I mean it, stop it!" The boy shouted in both anger and frustration at Miles' kissy noises and his high-pitched I love you, Gerties, "You're an asshole, Miles!" Promptly, Timberly smacked Kyo's arm for using profanity, then the boy simply sighed and darkly said to his friend as he rubbed his stinging shoulder, "Aunt 'Tim just hit me for telling the truth and like Gertie said this morning, I hate you, Miles Shortman, I really and truly do."

Kyo sighed harshly at his aunt who was about to die laughing at the exchange, and then she made a grabbing motion with her hand as the boy gave her the phone. "Hey, Stink Toot! What's shakin', Shortman? I know! I can't wait to see you either, Sweetie! Yes, of course, John will be here, he's at the station now, but he's coming over later, right after he feeds and walks Puddles."

Timberly sighed, "What is it with you kids? The word is pregnant, Miles, you can say the word, it's a perfectly natural medical condition." She gave the phone a strange look then put it back to her ear. "Well why is it so embarrassing to say pregnant?" Timberly's eyes widened as the boy obviously rambled. "Never mind, you can call it the baby thing if you want to, sweetie." She said with her hand on her head with a raised eyebrow. "What was dead? Oh, that ain't right!" Timberly shrugged, "Well, you gotta' hand it to Mr. Chicken's, thirty five years and their quality is consistent after all these years. I can't wait to see you either. I love you too, Honey!" With a wicked smile Timberly ended with, "I'm giving you back to Kyo; you two can finish your lover's spat now."

Timberly handed the phone back to Kyo with an innocent grin and couldn't help but thoroughly enjoy the uncomfortable moment she had created between Miles and her nephew until they began speaking again. "Hey, is Stinki still there? She does? With Joey? That's interesting; I bet the princess is behind that. Anyway, if you would, please tell Stinki that if she and Joey want to swing by to come on. Okay, I'll see you here, Buddy!"

Timberly shook her head and said with concern after Kyo hung up the telephone, "The Shortman sounded a little congested."

Kyo nodded, and said with a warning, "It'll be hard not to, but don't be too shocked when you see him, he's looking pretty bad. Those jerks really did do a number on his face this morning."

Timberly asked with great curiosity, "What was Miles talking about concerning blackmail?"

Kyo grasped his aunt's shoulders with a theatrical flair and addressed her with urgency. "Please just promise me that you will never ever eat anything from Mr. Chicken's House of Pancakes and Halibut," He paused dramatically then added, "I love you too much."

Timberly patted the boy on his shoulder thinking the melodrama was a bit much then assured him, "I worked there when I was your age, so trust me, I know." As an afterthought, Timberly mused, "I don't know which was worse, the food, the manager, the uniform, or that ugly chicken costume." With a wrinkled nose she observed, "No matter how many times you washed or sprayed something on it to kill the stink, that unholy chicken suit always smelled like dirty socks and corn chips."

Kyo laughed while shaking his head while tearing off two long strips of aluminum foil to place food on. Timberly stiffly rose and placed her hand on her aching lower back. "You know what, 'K? I think I will take you up on your offer and go sit down for just a few minutes, okay? Phoebe and Gerald are looking after JJ, and I could use a tiny rest."

The boy turned, "Would you like some help?"

Timberly shook her head, "No, Darling, I think I can manage, but thanks."

While she slowly walked towards the family room, Kyo studied his aunt with worry, but after checking on Timberly one last time to make sure she was seated comfortably in his father's easy chair, the considerate boy ran upstairs to take care of a few last minute things.

While laughs and loud banter rose from the backyard into the open window of the hallway bathroom, Kyo agonized over his appearance doubtful that he could improve it any further. After changing shirts, twice, flossing his teeth and washing his face checking for both blemishes and barbecue sauce simultaneously; he figured he had done as much damage as he could. As the boy stood in the open bathroom with his eyes shut and his hands braced on the sink, his mind was in turmoil.

As he grimaced at what he felt were his glaring shortcomings, Kyo's mind was dragged away from his self deprecating thoughts by, "Son?" Gerald asked with concern, "Are you okay? You didn't eat too much did you?"

Kyo's head snapped up with a questioning look. "No, Dad, I'm fine, thanks for the reminder on the time too." The boy said sheepishly as he had been keeping an eye on his watch to begin with.

"Wait here a minute, 'K." Gerald left the bathroom, and soon re-appeared with a green bottle that had gold lettering on it. "Here, let's put a little of this on you, Buddy." Gerald applied some of his cologne onto Kyo's neck and cheeks with light slaps and a knowing wink. "Your mom loves this stuff, maybe someone else will too." Gerald handed his boy a shiny set of keys. "I wish my car wasn't in the shop so you could take it, but your mom told me to give you these instead." Gerald stated with what sounded a lot like disappointment, "I know it's a station wagon, but girls dig new car smell, so maybe that will cancel the other fact out."

Not even bothering to feign ignorance, Kyo smiled for his father and took the keys to the brand new car that his parents brought home that day. "Thanks, Dad. I hope no one will be offended that I'm leaving for a little,"

The boy was interrupted by the sound of arguing, the reflection on the walls of the flickering light of something burning out the window, and the upset voice of his mother shouting mild profanity in Japanese with a slight southern accent over the sound of a spraying water hose, accentuated by the name, "GERALD!" being bellowed in panic.

Kyo's father ran out of the small room declaring with panic and certainty as Kyo followed to help, "Believe me, son, I wish I could go with you!"

After the situation had been dealt with, Timberly looked at Jamie-O, her three firebug nephews, and then the still smoking picnic table. "Instead of college, you might want to save for funerals, Jamie, because these boys are going to kill each other or themselves before they reach twenty one."

Timberly's husband who had shown up just in time rubbed her wide stomach, and kissed her cheek. "Are you ready for the trouble that two more boys can bring, Darling?"

Timberly pushed her husband playfully and declared, "I might as well be, 'cause they're coming whether we're ready or not." As she rubbed the tight, stretched skin of her stomach through her shirt, the tired woman cautiously added, "It's a good thing that you're a fireman, John." With a playful point, Timberly expounded, "That picnic table could have been a total loss if you hadn't shown up."

Kyo walked back outside with two long strips of aluminum foil as his father, Jamie-O, John, and Timberly were laughing. His mother, Phoebe, was standing with her hands on her hips looking upwards at the three gigantic teenaged boys that towered above her with both mild annoyance, and great humor.

Behind the regretful boys who were looking down in shame, stood a soaking wet picnic table, with a steaming tablecloth spread over it; and finishing the ensemble was a blackened tiki lamp lying on the grass.

Jamie-O gave his brother a look as Gerald laughed so hard that he couldn't draw breath into his body, and then the disapproving father shook his finger while giving all of his boys a stern look. "JJ is five years old, and he acts like he has more sense than all three of you put together! Now what do you say?"

All three towering boys, who at the moment looked like small children being chided, answered with deep resonant voices, truly sorry for what they had done. "Sorry, Aunt Phoebe and Uncle Gerald."

Gerald, Timberly, and John laughed as they gathered up the extinguished tablecloth to throw away. Phoebe answered the boys gracefully, then said with a joking lilt, "It's okay, I might let you all live this time." The woman then crossed her arms and finished with a wicked lilt, "Maybe."

As Kyo hurriedly gathered some barbecued ribs to take to the owner of his favorite comic book shop, his mother walked over and put her arm around her boy. Kyo smiled and said, "Thanks for lending me the car, Mom."

Phoebe winked, and said with mischief as she glanced at Jamie-O's sons, loud enough for them to hear, "Hurry back, I might have to take some oversized bodies to a desolate road and dump them off a steep, secluded hill."

Phoebe's miscreant nephews scrambled away, and her attention turned back to her son who was laughing at his mother's benign threat. "Isn't that a little hypocritical to your Hippocratic oath, Mom?"

Phoebe's eyes squinted, "Hippocrates never met Jamie-O's boys, son." Phoebe changed the subject like a piece on a chessboard. "So, how many of your friends are coming over?"

Kyo placed a shallow foil tray on the grill and began putting sauce drenched ribs in it. "Miles called a little while ago to let me know he's coming. Stinki said she might be swinging by with Joey, but they're going on a date after she gets off work tonight, so it's nothing definite. Courtney didn't say one way or another when I invited her earlier, but I hope she's coming." The boy's attention turned back to the food he was wrapping up.

Then making an L shaped move on her sweet knight Kyo, his mother commented, "You look nice, 'K."

Hoping she didn't know all his efforts were for the sake of Gertie, Kyo blushed as he folded foil securely over warm, meaty ribs and made a flimsy excuse. "Yeah, I had to change the stains on my shirt and dad put some cologne on me." He looked upwards and slightly shrugged. "I don't know why though."

Phoebe reminded, "Don't forget to take Jay some corn, Sweetie." The thoughtful boy placed two ears of roasted buttered corn in a separate section of foil as his mother cornered his king in check. "You know," Phoebe's voice trailed off, "if you want to take the long way home after you pick Gertie up from work, it's okay. It is a new car, and your father says that the engine should be run to its full operating temperature before being turned off."

The boy answered, "I thought that wasn't true."

Phoebe shrugged, checked around herself for eavesdroppers, and declared checkmate with a kind, encouraging smile along with a whisper and an upwards tilted eyebrow. "It's a plausible excuse to be alone with her for a little while."

Kyo shook his head, embarrassed that even his mother knew he was in love with his best friend, but played it off. "Thanks, but I should be back in less than an hour, the shop will be closing not too long from now and the Shortman isn't going to want to go cruising because she'll want to hurry up and get here for you, Dad, Timberly, and ribs." Kyo motioned to the side with his head towards his ill-behaved cousins, "Not to mention mixing it up with the three stooges over there."

Phoebe, who had the privilege of seeing the secretive smiles and loving glances the girl in question had given her son on numerous occasions over the past few months knowingly assured, "I'm sure Gertie wants to be here for you most of all, 'K."

As he was about to make a denial at such an unlikely sentiment, Phoebe gave her surprised looking boy the best advice she could offer with a pat on the back. "Take a chance and tell Gertie how you feel about her, Sweetie." Her gentle hand caressed his smooth cheek. "I know it is much easier to say than to do, Kyo, but I think that you will be pleasantly surprised." The boy blushed as his mother placed a cellular phone into his hand and whispered, "Do what you want, but don't worry about being in a rush to get back."

JJ, who had been eavesdropping the entire time, blurted out as he grabbed his cousin's hand, "Can I go with you to get Gertie at the comic shop too, Kyo?" The boy was achingly cute, and had his hands placed together in prayer beseeching his favorite cousin to take pity on him. "Pleeeeeeease?"

It was definitely selfish and he did feel bad about it, but despite those sentiments, Kyo still didn't want to take the small boy with him. Kyo knew that JJ would be excited to go see Gertie, and that he would have to watch the kid like a hawk because he wouldn't be able to keep his hands off anything in the comic shop.

Besides that, Kyo wanted Gertie to himself for a little while.

Observing the apprehension in her son's eyes and knowing that he wouldn't be able to say "no" to the little boy himself, Phoebe smiled at JJ and made an artful suggestion. "How would you like to be my special little helper tonight? I need some help taking some of these dirty dishes inside, and tidying up a little bit." Phoebe ended with a promising lilt, "The job pays two dollars if you're interested."

JJ put his finger on his cheek and stuck his tongue out deep in thought, carefully weighing the pros and cons of his options. Wisely the boy queried the most important issue on his mind, "I'll still get to play with Gertie won't I?"

Phoebe nodded. "You had a good nap this afternoon and your mother said your bedtime is a little later tonight, so most definitely!"

The boy's choice was obvious. "I want to work for you then, Aunt Phoebe, because then I can go buy another goldfish." He whispered reverently, "We had to send Neptune to fish heaven in the toilet last week 'cause he was dead."

Phoebe gently took the boy's hand in hers, leading him away to the picnic table and as she did, Kyo called out, "Mom?"

The sweet tiny woman turned, and asked, "Yes?"

The boy answered, "Thanks, I'll be back soon."

Phoebe waved her free hand to the boy in a shooing motion as she mouthed, "Go on." to him, then ran to get another flaming tiki lamp out of the hands of one of Jamie-O's boys before he accidentally burned their house down.

Kyo got into the new car, placed the food somewhere that wouldn't cause harm in the form of stains, started it, and wondered if everyone knowing about his love for Gertie Shortman was a conspiracy.

Consuela gave her employer a good looking over and adjusted some clothing on his chest so that there would be no pinching creases to irritate his skin. While she did, she tried to make sure he had everything that he needed for his evening out with a checklist written out on paper. Thad rolled his eyes at the job Rhonda used to do for him, that his housekeeper had taken over doing as of late, complete with the list recited in confused womanese. "Do you have that beeper thingy on you?"

Thad tested his freedom with her just like he had his wife, and would slip away without the customary checking of what Rhonda jokingly called his "utility belt', but to Thad's chagrin, he found that exactly as his stubborn Rhonda did, Consuela would follow him too to make sure he had everything he needed. As it turned out, Rhonda could do it quite easily, more than able to find breath enough to loudly nag him all the way out the door, sometimes, shockingly, even while he was working with clients. Thad had to chuckle at the idea of the rotund sixty six year old woman who took care of his daughter and house doing the exact same thing as he said with a wry lilt, "Yes, Alfred, I have it."

The woman crossed her arms, and gave her friend a look. "Laugh it up, Batman." Then she gave him a light swat on the forearm, and stuck a cellular phone into his belt. "I swear Mr. Gammelthorpe, you think you have it all under control, but you would have been completely lost without me and Mrs."

The woman instantly looked down regretting her words, and then looked upwards begging forgiveness. "I am so sorry, Thad, I, I didn't mean,"

Thad smiled and put his hand on her shoulder. "Please don't be afraid to mention Rhonda, 'Con, it doesn't hurt to talk about her." His eyes looked down in honesty into her flooding ones, and swore if he didn't quit, his would too; and that wasn't an option right then.

"I miss her so much." The woman silently admitted with a sad sigh as she carefully adjusted his suit from the back so that it would not be wrinkled.

Thad pulled the older woman into his arms, hugging her tightly, with his smooth chin resting on the top of her head. "I do too."

After a few moments, the woman pulled away from her dear friend, swiped away her tears, and then forced a smile as she handed Thad the last article of he needed to put on, a covering for his head. After a few minor adjustments, and a few minutes, he asked in a naughty tone as he adjusted it, "Well, how do I look?"

Consuela replied, "Ready for a night on the town. When do you think you will be returning?"

Thad shrugged, "I don't know. I'm going to go and make sure 'Court gets out of work safely, then I'm going to go visit an old friend, I'll probably be back early if nothing comes up." Thad continued thoughtfully, "Things at the office haven't been as busy lately but if I'm still out and Courtney changes her plans, she'll call you. If she does, please call me on the other phone and let me know, okay?"

"The one in the Shakespeare bust?" Consuela asked with mischief as her second favorite source of worry turned up an eyebrow, and then opened an innocent looking door to leave. "I say it all the time, Mr. Gammelthorpe, but be careful!"

Thad turned, and with a perfect impersonation of Tygra from the Thundercats, he saluted and winked, "As a cat." As an afterthought, the naughty man turned and asked, "You sure you don't want to give this another try?" He ended in a sing song way, "It'll be fuuuuuun."

The white haired woman scoffed while pointing at the door, "The last time I tried that my rear end hurt for a whole week."

Thad looked down, "Yeah, I suppose you shouldn't." Then he looked back up at the woman with a naughty grin and a wicked wink. "You got a crack in it that time."

Trying not to laugh at him, but failing miserably, Consuela shooed the man away with a handkerchief. "Oh, you nasty thing just go, you're going to be late!" As her employer scurried away from her mild punishment, the basement door closed behind him and Consuela walked to the kitchen.

After a few minutes of waiting, and watching anxiously through the window, finally Consuela saw the dim headlight of an old black motorcycle wind through the small gravel road exiting the back property of the Gammelthorpe estate, eventually fading into the distance. When the dark figure completely disappeared, she gathered dishes to wash from the tiny table standing in the middle of the room.

Even when Mrs. Gammelthorpe was alive, the family never ate in the opulent dining room unless there was a party, or Mrs. Gammelthorpe's parents were over, instead choosing to dine at the small four-chair table in the kitchen. As a rule, the Gammelthorpe's requested that extra food be prepared daily for each meal and asked that the staff eat with them if they wished, either from the tiny four seat table or off the counters on the good china, and using the heirloom silver; all of them always treated like family.

No, not treated like, they were family and they would all joke, talk, and have a grand time with each other for hours. That is why everyone on the staff loved the Gammelthorpe household so much and would do anything for them.

Now, it seemed that all of the happiness was gone from the house and Consuela's heart ached because of it as she drew hot water into a sink to soak expensive dishes for hand washing.

She truly meant what she said to earlier when she said she missed Rhonda, for she was one of the best friends Consuela had ever had in her whole life. Rhonda, Thad, and Courtney were the closest thing to family that she had, and the house was quiet and so unbearably empty without Rhonda's presence in it during the day.

Consuela worked for the Lloyd's for years, and had known Rhonda since she was a young child, but when the she was younger; Consuela had to admit that she didn't like Mrs. Gammelthorpe much because she was spoiled, shallow, elitist, and petty.

In fact, she didn't even begin to like Rhonda until that one fateful summer evening.

It was atrocious what happened to her that night, but for all its vileness, the incident also served to force the self-centered girl to look at herself, literally, and see both people, and life in ways that she hadn't ever had reason to before.

After some time to adjust to her condition, Rhonda learned to care, empathize, and to not be so seduced by the superficial, and material. It was cliché, and Consuela had said it many times, but it was true, God did work in mysterious ways. In time Rhonda became a better person because of her terrible experience, and through it found something much more meaningful to live for rather than the latest empty fashionable thing and the approval of others.

Time passed, and young Rhonda got married, but when the Lloyds downsized their home, it also meant that the staff was downsized along with it.

Since she was the oldest by far, Consuela resigned so that the younger staff at the Lloyd household could keep their jobs. Rhonda soon heard about her leaving her parents' service, so she hired her for her own household management and upkeep. Over time she and Rhonda became extremely close friends, as Consuela also did with her husband, Thaddeus.

Pleasantly surprised, as it turned out, working in Mrs. Gammelthorpe's house was a complete joy, and not really like a job at all, but much more like a never ending tea party she was paid to attend. Of course, she brewed the tea and made the cookies, but how many staff are invited to sit and enjoy with the mistress of the home on a regular basis? They would spend hours talking about life in her native tongue while she watched Rhonda paint, fold warm towels together while trading jokes, or sit with crying babies at all hours of the day while worrying about Mr. Gammelthorpe when he was out working late at night.

Now, worrying about precious Courtney and Thaddeus was her main job now because before she passed, she promised Rhonda, without her asking, that she would protect them with her life if need be, and Consuela Acosta was a woman of her word.

She would die before she allowed anything bad to happen to Thad or Courtney, and if something did, she would slaughter whoever did the harm, that is if the others in the house didn't beat her to it first.

Staring aimlessly into the hot water, instead of washing the soaking dishes, Consuela grasped her rosary to solemnly pray.

It was a sin, and in accordance with the teachings of her religion she was supposed to be happy that the people she loved were in heaven, but still she was sad and cried for who they all had lost.

First she prayed for little Artillery, Rhonda, Thad; whose business was so important, and then for Courtney, who was like the little girl she never had.

"Nothing's wrong except for me."

And that was the song that played on a loop inside Courtney's head all evening long.

Losing count over how many times she had done it, the distracted girl put her hand into the pocket of her apron once again to make sure that the business card with Miles' cellular phone number written on it was still there.

Courtney had been a conscientious waitress that evening and done her job well, but she couldn't help but feel obligated to check the clock on the wall to see what time it was while filling glasses with tea, and mugs with coffee. Of course, every time she was caught doing it by her employers, they would just grin really big, like a run over opossum with its mouth agape.

Courtney didn't understand why she was working herself into such a snit over the whole affair anyway. It was just a phone call, all she would do is apologize to Miles for what she had done that day, thank him for the return of her property, try like hell to forget the contents of the shoebox, that insane letter, and allow that to be it.

Was that what she wanted though?

It was just that the more she thought about the letter, its content, and everything else he had brought her; Courtney couldn't help but ponder the possibilities it presented.

Besides, if Miles didn't care anything about her, he wouldn't have written that letter would he?

He wouldn't have brought back the pullover, and he certainly wouldn't have exposed himself as questionably sane with that shoebox full of evidence of his admitted infatuation with her either.

Courtney then entertained the thought of his efforts perhaps being a sick joke, but like scientists say in argument to the theories of creationists concerning the dinosaurs, if Miles were faking, it was an extremely elaborate hoax.

And God Miles was really cute too.

The girl paused with that once forgotten sentiment as she finished topping off the last pepper shaker on the last table of her section.

When she dragged herself back down to reality, she found that the black spice was mounded up over the rim of the shaker. The inattentive girl tried to dash the pepper back into the tiny hole of the large metal box the spice came out of, but in the end Courtney was rewarded with a merciless barrage of violent sneezes.

She covered her mouth, nose, and desperately fumbled for a napkin out of the holder she had just finished filling. When she finally got a napkin started out of the stubborn metal holder, it opened and napkins sprang out of it looking like the mix between an accordion and a jack in the box. In a twist to her earlier profane suggestions to an official of higher learning that day, the girl offered a modest, "Dang it!" as she blew her burning nose and wiped her flooding eyes.

Westley finished locking the doors of the diner and said, "Bless you." For at least the sixth time before the nasal eruptions stopped. "You okay, Girl?"

"Yeah, I'm fine; I just got a little pepper dust in my nose." Courtney answered as she blew her nose and one handedly fixed the napkin holder.

"So," The man declared as he untied his apron, and walked towards the girl with a smile trying to not sound too obvious. "Got any big plans for tonight?" The strikingly handsome man looked upwards, dreadfully unable to pull nonchalant off even if his life depended on it. "Like calling that boy or something?"

The girl raised an eyebrow at him, as the honest man held up his hands. "I know, Nikki told me to ask you in a round about way but I didn't want to insult your intelligence."

Courtney grinned, "Thanks, and you can tell her I'm going to call him after I finish my duties." Then the girl got a quizzical look on her face as she topped off a ketchup bottle. Never having a better opportunity, she curious girl asked, "Why do you call Audra 'Nikki'?"

The woman in back yelled, "Because it's my childhood nickname, and I hate it!" Then she stuck her head out of the doorway with a finger pointed at her husband, "Please don't egg him on."

Westley shot across his wife's bow, "What do you mean egg me on, Nikki? You're at least ten times more annoying than I could ever be, Nikki."

The woman retorted, "You traded every single damn one of my Battle Beasts for a pack of peanut butter crackers when we were in the fifth grade!"

Wes crossed his arms and replied, "You blame me for everything! It was your brother who did that!"

Audra yelled as she drew closer, "The hell he did, you are the biggest liar to ever draw a breath!"

Wes struck a faux martial arts pose. "I know karate!"

The irate woman shot back, "A third degree black belt in bull-"

As yet another childish argument grew exponentially between her employers, Courtney laughed at the quasi angry banter the couple engaged in, knowing they didn't mean most of what was said. She went in back, poured herself a glass of sweetened tea, and after the office door in back slammed, Westley was busy picking a sesame seed coated hamburger bun out of one of the back pockets of his pants. "You're in some kind of trouble now, Buddy." Courtney well noted.

The poor stuck man shrugged with a smile. "At least she didn't stick it where she threatened she would."

"It's a great shortcut to get your fiber for the day if you don't wanna' eat it." The girl grinned as Wes made a face, then shook her head, and went into the break room to give the couple privacy so they could kiss; and make up as usual.

Courtney sat down at the table, picked up the tiny action figure out of the shoebox, and took a sip of her drink. With a sigh of resignation she replaced it, got out her cell phone, turned it on, and checked to see if she had missed any messages. When seeing she hadn't missed a call from her father, or Consuela, and saw that the two people who approached being sort of her friends hadn't called her either; she fished around in her apron, and slapped down the business card with Miles' number on it. With trepidation she looked at it, despite the many signs she had received that day about him, still not sure if she should call it or not.

She was broken from her revelry with a knock on the door and a cajoling voice on the other side of it, "Have you called him yet, Sugar?"

Courtney rolled her eyes as she replied, "No, not yet," With a sigh as she conceded defeat and blew her bangs out of her face. "but you were the tie breaker, and I will in a minute."

The girl whispered to herself, "Or ten." As she worked herself up to call the boy whom she wanted to like, but was afraid to love.

There were two other comic book shops in town, but Atomic Comics was the most popular and Kyo was fairly sure because of his best friend's presence.

Everyone he knew from Hillwood High, from students to teachers, were all in love with Gertie, not only because she treated everyone well; but also because she was bright, funny, and just completely perfectly wonderful in every way possible.

After she broke up with Tim and the scumbag started that awful rumor about her, Kyo couldn't understand why Gertie was so worried about what he said about her because absolutely no one believed it.

When word got out how upset Gertie had been about the entire affair, and that was the reason why she was absent from school, Tim received more than one generous offer to have his ass kicked by various people at school, even by members of his own team and had his Mustang keyed twice. Even though Kyo didn't think the things the kids at school had done to Tim's property was right, still, it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy.

As such, Gertrude Shortman, the de facto matchmaker and unopposed high priestess of Hillwood High, being incapable of doing any wrong whatsoever, was the hot topic of talk in the shop during the entire evening, as was Miles, pertaining to their spirited interaction with the football team.

Gertie had been worried that afternoon about what people thought of her brother and her after their fight with Tim, Todd, and James, but Kyo found Gertie surprised to hear that the violent penance she made the three boys pay for beating her brother up, and treating Courtney Gammelthorpe like crap was lauded.

Gertie had valiantly tried to keep the topic off of both her and the morning's events, but when one of the boys jokingly insinuated that she did all the fighting for her brother that day, true to form, she really talked her brother up to everyone in attendance.

Gertie told everyone that Miles was much better in the martial arts than she was and that he simply didn't get a chance to use any of his skills seeing as James, Tim, and Todd all ganged up on him three to one. When one of the boys insisted that she was being modest, her final argument was that three huge boys against one was a challenge that even the Abdicator would be hard pressed to match, and then Gertie continued joking with the customers as she fulfilled her work duties after changing the subject.

As he watched Gertie, and the others watching her, Kyo thought it was insane how so many guys fawned over his friend. All of that was fine, but there was a boy in attendance that played baseball for Hillwood in their graduating class paying Gertie more due than the others in attendance, and he didn't like it.

Even though the competition paid for his comic books well over twenty minutes ago and should have left by then, Kyo could only gather that he was stalling for time until he worked up the nerve and opportunity to ask Gertie somewhere after the store closed.

As it was at the moment, the baseball player had twenty minutes left to ask Gertie out and despite the fact that Kyo tried not to, he scowled at him. The owner of the shop, Jay, hadn't missed it, and raised an eyebrow at Kyo as he rolled the roasted corn in his hands, methodically chomping kernels of corn off the cob like a starving robot beaver. The observant man then cast the naked cob into a trash can, smiled wryly at the young man, finally cracking a grin as his best customer. In turn, to cover his jealousy, Kyo picked up a comic to thumb through as if he was reading it, still intently studying his rival's subtle behaviors.

Watching the opposition with a growing feeling of nausea, Kyo knew that if he gave another of Gertie's jokes too loud of a laugh, flashed that perfect straight toothed grin at her, or ran his hand through his hair one more time; he swore to God that he was going to blow cat sized chunks.

Completely oblivious to what were the flirtations of her classmate, Gertie simply prattled on about the latest dramas in the comic titles she enjoyed as she bent down to place a stack of comic books on a low hanging shelf. As the baseball player's eyes studied her form in awe, over time, Kyo had begun to notice more frequently than he liked to admit, there was a darker side to the Shortman's allure.

Kyo was disgusted that very time his best friend bent over that evening to put comics on low lying shelves, or leaned down to get something out of a glass case, male eyes always roved over her; trying to glean peeks at what only fantasy could divulge.

Even though Gertie always wore spartan clothing, the woman still had curves that a baggy burlap sack couldn't hide and Kyo couldn't stand the way that boys at school, and there ogled at her like she was a piece of meat or something.

To his relief however, the crisis had been averted, and now Kyo basked in relief, because even though Slugger had finally found the nerve to ask Gertie to go get some ice cream with him after the store closed, she declined, citing she had other plans.

Struck out, "Mr. Baseball" was gone now, but not before he took one last one last look at Gertie through the window with what resembled soul crushing regret.

Sure, Mike Bitting was a really nice guy, everybody liked him, and for being one of the popular sports in crowd kids, he never acted like Gertie's favorite word, but Kyo couldn't help but feel glad he was shot down, and jealous of him all at the same time.

Kyo wished that he could be a little more muscular, or good at some kind of sport, and then maybe Gertie would look at him as something else other than just the quirky best pal that existed in every teen oriented movie known to man.

Putting those thoughts out of his mind for a moment, Kyo reveled in the fact that as it stood now, the store was empty of customers, and it wouldn't be long, just fifteen minutes that seemed to drag into forever, until he would be in a car, driving at night, alone with her.

That was something at least.

As per her duties, and being near closing time, Gertie began turning off brightly colored neon lights twisted into super hero emblems. As she did, Jay addressed his employee with a full mouth, "It's not long until closing, 'Gert, you can go on with 'K if you wanna'."

Gertie joked, "You tryin' to get rid of me, Jay?"

The man swallowed and shrugged, "Hey, I just can't stand another fifteen minutes with you, Kid, I'm sorry." Jay ended with a sly wink at Kyo.

As Kyo blushed, the girl shook her head. "Are you sure?" Gertie picked a couple of comic books off of a rotating, squealing wire rack that read 'Hey, kids, comics!' got out her wallet, and checked herself out. "What if a hundred people come in here at the last minute wanting to clean out their bags?"

Jay laughed, "Girl, please! I can hear crickets chirping out there. Trust me; if anyone else comes in I'm fine, so go on. I know you want to have fun with your friends, and you deserve it after the day you've had today, Punisher."

The girl grinned, and picked a letter jacket with her name embroidered on it off of the back of a wooden chair. "Thanks, Jay; I'll make it up to you, promise." Gertie then pointed to her own cheek with a grin. "You have a little barbecue sauce on you there, Bub."

"Thanks, Wolvie." Jay joked as he wiped his face, and then his attention turned to Kyo. With three long rib bones poking through his balled right fist, he addressed the boy with his teeth bared, "Thanks for bringing me these ribs, 'K!" Then Jay cracked a big smile, pointing towards Kyo with his new mutant enhancements, "Tell your dad he's still the undisputed grill king."

Gertrude laughed loudly at her employer's snarling face and bone claws and then snapped a picture with the cellular phone she had with her as Kyo scoffed. "There's no way I'm about to tell him that! His barbecue ego is about to swelled to bursting now."

Gertie slung on her letter jacket, picked up the gallon of mayonnaise sitting in a chair, and forced it into Kyo's arms with a big smile. "Here, 'K, it's your turn to change the baby." As Kyo gave Jay a strange look at the action and what she said, the man simply guffawed at the expression gracing the boy's face.

Once outside, the girl remarked to her friend, "I thought your mom made up her mind for the last time to buy the convertible."

Kyo laughed and replied, "She did, but after a wreck she saw the victims to in a convertible a couple days ago she changed her mind one last time and decided to go with substance rather than style." The boy shrugged as he placed the mayonnaise container in a plastic bag and secured it in a built in grey mesh cargo net and closed the hatchback. With a hearty pat on the roof, Kyo remarked, "I'm glad she bought this car instead of the convertible, because she would have gotten tired of the sports car in under a week." Kyo shrugged. "Mom needs to haul around a lot of stuff anyway, so the station wagon was the much better choice."

Gertie grinned, thinking that it sounded like Kyo had sold his mother the vehicle himself. "If you keep telling yourself that you'll believe it eventually, 'K."

Kyo opened the door for the girl he adored, muttered, "Tell me about it." and then allowed Gertie to get in, closed the door back, and ran to the other side to get in.

When he got inside, Gertie added, "Well this ride is still extremely nice, and I love the new car smell!" The girl mused as she struggled with the shoulder strap, "Hell, you're lucky, my mom and dad wouldn't even consider trusting me with a brand new car after I hot dogged in the 'Vette."

As Gertie continued repeatedly tugging the shoulder and lap restraint, she was quickly beginning to lose patience and started yanking it violently. Kyo held up his hand, "Wait a second, 'Gert, there's a trick."

He placed his right hand on the seat beside Gertie's hip, and she said as she picked up a folded paper bag, "Here, let me get those."

"Who are those for?" Kyo asked knowingly.

Gertie grinned. "These books are for the ever delightful JJ." Playfully she mused, "Comic books are just like cigarettes, booze, and porn, you gotta' snag 'em while they're young."

Kyo cleverly retorted, "The last three things kind of sell themselves, 'Gert." As she laughed, he observed, "No wonder why that kid worships the ground you walk on."

Gertie grinned, "I'm one hell of a hide and seek player too."

'I wouldn't be opposed to playing hide and seek with you.' The smitten boy thought as he stretched across her to pull the seat belt over her torso and lap with his neck almost touching Gertie's nose. "By the way, Miles called me from Mr. Chicken's House of Death; he said he's coming over when he gets off work."

Gertie picked up only half of what Kyo was saying because she was occupied by the cologne that he was wearing. Unable to restrain herself, she leaned closer to the alluring fragrance, therefore his neck, closed her eyes, took the advice of the elderly bum that lived in the subway car, and breathed deep. God, it was inexplicable how good he smelled, and not only was the cologne delicious, but melded with his own natural scent, it made her want to bury her nose in Kyo's lovely mocha skin and never remove it again.

As Gertie inhaled more deeply, Kyo grasped the seat belt in his hand, gave it two quick tugs, and the belt finally began to slide freely from its housing. "There you go, Ducky." The boy looked at his friend kind of funny because she wasn't paying any attention to him, and the warm breath from her nose was tickling his neck.

"Huh?" Gertie said mindlessly as the boy grinned, and she figured she might as well conjure up with some half assed irritation so he wouldn't think she was weird. "Confound it, Kyo!" The girl exclaimed as the boy laughed loudly at his friend, "Quit callin' me Ducky! I hate that blasted nickname and you know it!"

Kyo nodded as Gertie snapped the metal belt clip into the clasp. "Okay, I promise I won't call you Ducky anymore," The boy paused, and then added, "Ducky."

The girl growled, crossed her arms and made up her mind to not talk to her friend for at least a couple of minutes as he laughed at her like a maniac.

Gertie said in consternation as she looked out of the window and they began to drive away, "Well, at least Miles didn't have to clean up that greasy hellhole he works at tonight. Is Stinki coming?"

Kyo shook his head, and looked at her knowingly. "She said she might show up later with Joey Jackson, but she's got a hot date with him tonight so it's unconfirmed."

Gertie joyously exclaimed, "Crap damn, finally!" Kyo gave the girl a strange look at the newest combination of mild foulness she had put together as she declared with relief, "That was a job getting those two hooked up." Then the girl shrugged. "Now I can find a girl for George Fish to ask to the prom, granted he's a little on the shy side, but a really nice boy once you get him to open up." Gertie opened up a small black note pad secreted in her pocket, and crossed out the names of other clients she had matched up that week and pondered while chewing the eraser of her well worn pencil. "He doesn't know Tracy Gorton likes him; so I think I'll introduce them to each other more formally in Mrs. Paul's math class when I get back to school next Thursday."

Resisting the urge to make a joke about something in Gertrude's methods being somewhat fishy, Kyo looked at her like she was nuts. "From the thickness of that book it looks like you need to rent office space, get another laptop and start charging these people a fee."

Gertie laughed, "I provide a valuable community service and seeing people happy is payment enough for me."

Kyo joked, "You match all these people up, and they never break up but you don't have a boyfriend yourself."

Instantly, Kyo regretted his ill conceived compliment, and wondered if there was a crowbar big enough for him to pry his foot out of his cavernous mouth.

As the drive back to his house progressed in uncomfortable silence, Kyo noticed that every time he looked at his friend, she looked away out the side window. Feeling bad about dredging up bad memories of Tim for her and thinking that she was angry with him for calling her Ducky too, Kyo said with regret, "I'm sorry, 'Gert, I didn't mean to bring up," He paused, trying to think of the right thing to say, "well, you know."

Gertie smiled warmly, and cheerfully waved away Kyo's concern with her hand, "I am so over that jackass, don't worry about it."

Glad of such, but finding it odd, Kyo sighed then brought up his other faux pas, "I also promise that I won't call you that nickname you hate any more if it really bothers you too." The boy rationalized, "I thought you were kind of pretending not to like it because you needed easy excuses to start fights with Miles."

"Jeez, Kyo!" Gertie said as she laughed loudly, bracing herself with her bad hand on her friend's shoulder, grateful that he didn't realize that she was looking at him like a delicious, well seasoned rare steak earlier. "People are going to say that I have you whipped! I don't dictate what you say, and don't apologize either. If you want to call me the 'D' word, then do it." The girl added, "I'll just hate you for it."

Kyo said, "Okay, Ducky."

Then, Gertie just asked out of the blue, "You were going to tell me before Jella and Andrea showed up this afternoon, what did the inscription in that book you gave me today say?"

The boy swerved a little, forcing Gertie to grasp her shoulder restraint and look at him again, this time it wasn't in loving rapture, but wondering if he were going to kill them both. Kyo regained control, swallowed hard, and gripped the steering wheel tightly. He knew he could do this, he wasn't expecting it, so he didn't have time to prepare for, or dread it, but he could do it.

"Well, it said, um," Kyo began to start nervously, but his confession was interrupted by the cellular phone in Gertie's pocket which sounded with a ring tone that her brother paid a ridiculous amount of money for every time it rang.

"Transformers, more than meets the eye! Transformers, robots in disguise! Transformers! Autobots wage their battle to destroy the evil forces of the Decepticons!"

"Oh, for the love of!" As the rest of the theme played, Gertie checked the number and didn't recognize it. She thought about letting the call go to voice mail, but instead the considerate girl erred on the side of helping one of Miles' friends get in touch with him and answered, "Hello?"

The girl had a wide eyed look on her face and she blurted out in surprise, "Courtney?" Gertie looked at Kyo, and he had the same nonplussed expression on his face. "No, this is his sister. Evidentially I mistakenly picked up my brother's phone when we left home tonight. No, no, no, please don't hang up; you're not bothering me at all!" The girl had a funny look on her face, and Kyo swore that Gertie sounded exactly like her mother when she said, "Don't say that about yourself! Why are you stupid, Sweetie?"

Kyo looked at Gertie and held out his hand. "Here, give me the phone, I'll handle her."

Kyo took the phone from Gertie and spoke into it speaking Japanese at first, "Konbanwa, Courtney, nanika atta?" Thanks to disgusting amounts of time spent watching English subtitled anime, Gertie understood a little of what Kyo was saying, but she was mostly lost after, 'Good evening, what's up?'

Kyo then began to converse in English when he had eventually lost his friend. "No, no excuses, Gammelthorpe, you're coming. Yes you are. You're not bothering anyone. Look, if I didn't want you to come over I wouldn't have invited you, besides, my cousins are there, you're a lightning fast runner, and I need people on my side for football or else I'm going to lose badly." Gertie's eyebrows went up when the negotiations turned from gentle cajoling to downright dirty blackmail. "I covered your hind end for extemporaneous speech in Latin during competition when you were so nervous you couldn't stop throwing up. You owe me a huge favor for that, lady, and the Courtney Gammelthorpe I know always pays her debts!"

Kyo listened to the girl protest one last time before he simply said, "Wow, Courtney, I can't believe you agreed to come so easily!" Gertie listened to the panicked voice on the other end of the conversation quickly argue with what sounded like horror. "Okay, I can't wait to see you at the house either! Bye!" Kyo hurriedly turned the phone off before the Courtney could call back.

Gertie daintily took the phone away from her friend with her thumb and index finger, made sure that it was off, and then put it back in her pocket. Facing Kyo, Gertie politely queried, "What in the hell was all of that about?"

Kyo shook his head, "I had to go pick up some more potato chips for the locusts to devour a couple of hours ago and while I was out I went to Courtney's job and invited her to come to the barbecue." Kyo observed, "I swear, that girl has the lowest self esteem of anyone I've ever,"

"No." Gertie interrupted with great suspicion, "The guilt trip you've just over-packed Courtney's luggage for."

Kyo shrugged, "Well, your misguided brother, who is obviously smitten with Miss Gammelthorpe will be there and would that not be a good way for them to get to talk to each other in a neutral, relatively peaceful environment?"

Gertie shook her head, "Miles is so obvious about that girl it's pathetic, but this just in, Kyo," Gertie flung up her hands and sounded a lot like her mother as she yelled, "Courtney HATES Miles! She smacked him around like a pimp's lowest earnin' bitch this morning and told him in front of God and everybody that she wanted him to be dead for crap's sake!"

Kyo raised his index finger in counter point. "So after all of that, can you think a good reason why Courtney would even be calling Miles' cell phone number?" That was a good point that Kyo had brought up Gertie thought, but before she could forward any theories of her own, her wiser friend continued. "Obviously, she's not tickled about the way he's acted towards her in the past, and Courtney may have said she hates Miles this morning, but deep down she didn't really mean it, because she's always had a thing for him, ever since we were little kids; actually."

She did a double take. "What? Well, how do you know?"

Kyo said truthfully, "She told me she did." Gertie's eyebrow rose, and the boy added cautiously, "Well, after I annoyed her enough about it. In American History class Miles sits behind Courtney and I sit next to her, so I can testify that I've seen her check Miles out with a compact mirror more than she does her watch."

Studying the road and Gertie's expression intermittently, to his surprise, his friend's mouth was agape but not a syllable issued forth. For the first time in his life, Kyo figured that Gertrude Roberta Shortman was at a loss for words, an unfathomable condition for the headstrong woman he was in love with, and it was worthy of remembrance.

The only thing Gertie offered in response was a classy, "You've gotta' be shittin' me."

To validate his veracity in the highly unlikely and wholly unexpected state of delicate affairs between Gertrude's sibling, and his own shrinking acquaintance, the young man responded with a calculated affirmation in the affirmative. "I shit you not, Shortman." The boy smiled widely. "Courtney and Miles together at the house tonight should set in motion an interesting chain of events that will be if nothing else, interesting to watch unfold." With a wicked, even wider grin, Kyo announced in a British accent, "And now for something completely different."

Gertie stated with great certainty, "You know Miles is going to crap his pants and act like a complete dumbass when he sees her there don't you?"

Kyo grinned wickedly. "Dinner and a show."

Gertie shook her head and said dryly, "You are going to go to hell and fry when you die, Kyo Johannsen."

The boy shrugged, "I'll save you a seat, Shyster."

Gertie smiled. "Already with the lawyer jokes."

"Hey, 'Con, I'm not coming home right after work like I said I would." The responsible girl explained as she scribbled on a piece of white paper as best she could in the darkness of the alleyway behind her workplace. "I've been made to feel guilty and blackmailed into attending the tail end of a barbecue at Kyo Johannsen's house." After Consuela's response, Courtney blustered into the phone loudly, "How is that a good thing?" After that, Courtney rolled her eyes and asked, "I left a message on his voice mail, but if you would, please let dad know where I'm going to be so the mayor won't send every precinct out looking for me. I should be home before my curfew, but if I'm going to be late, I'll call you, okay?" The girl smiled, "Love you too. I'll tap on your door when I get home." The girl sighed, and sounded exactly like her mother when she replied with an unconscious flourish of her hand. "You worry entirely too much, Consuela; we've got the police and that nut job Monkeyman running around to protect us, what can possibly happen?"

Consuela laughed loudly as the girl looked up, down, and around herself making sure no one was sneaking up behind her, and after an admonishment to be careful, Courtney ended the call with, "Okay, I will, thanks, 'Con."

Courtney balled the piece of paper she wrote on, completely disgusted with her sloppy writing, and threw it down the alleyway without a thought. She couldn't believe it because of the weakness of her throw, but it landed on the roof of the building next to the diner.

Courtney slipped her cellular phone back into her pocket and began the process of removing the T-tops off of her Corvette. After sandwiching the tops between two pieces of stained green foam that had seen much cleaner days, Courtney walked around the front of the car and glared at her headlight doors for their silent rebellion to her will. After hurting her fingers pulling those up, wishing the actuators didn't need replacing, the smarting girl got into the car, started it, and drove slowly towards the Johannsen house thinking of what she should take as an offering.

Her mother always told her that it wasn't necessary, but that it was good manners for someone to take a bottle of wine or a wheel of smelly cheese to a host's house when they were an invited guest. Since she didn't want the reeking stench of stilton in her car for a month, and she was not of legal age, so buying a bottle of booze was out of the question, Courtney settled for walking out of Slausen's with two half gallons of ice cream. One container was packed with a rather common cookie dough flavor, but the other was full of an exotic mix that was varying shades of brown, mixed together with black looking clumps in it called dark chocolate brownie midnight mocha delight, most people liked chocolate, so that's what she bought.

It really wasn't a long distance from there to Kyo's house, but both frozen desserts were already beginning to melt due not only to the residual heat of the day, but also to her surprise, because a lot of kids from Hillwood High were there on dates and they all wanted to talk to her for some unknown reason.

Courtney was extremely embarrassed for the way she had acted that morning, and took the opportunity to apologize for her actions, but she was surprised to find the attitudes of her fellow students were both forgiving and congratulatory. Some of her newest admirers had even offered to buy her ice cream, and some tendered apologies for the way she was treated, or asked her how she came up with what had become one of the most filthy, yet original, and well respected catchphrases to ever infect the already appalling lexicon of Hillwood High School.

Not used to the attention, and wanting to get away before someone else came up to her, Courtney hurriedly pushed the T-tops resting on the rear deck of her car over and wedged the softening containers of ice cream between the tops and the wall hoping they'd be out of the worst of the heat. She knew that if she put the cartons in the passenger area floorboard, the high temperature that poured in from the firewall and transmission housing like a blast furnace from the engine would melt the ice cream between there and the Johannsen house.

In the process of putting on her seat belt and then her keys in the ignition, in the distance, Courtney heard a boy and a girl arguing. She hadn't witnessed the beginning of the disagreement, but Courtney clearly heard the final, unflinching rebuttal of the irritated girl much to her chagrin as her forehead hit the top of her steering wheel.

"Oh yeah? Well you can stick your weenie up your butt!"

Upon hearing loud laughter from the kids gathered around the ice cream shop, and raising her head off the steering wheel with every intention of quickly leaving in discomfiture over the outrageous monster she had inadvertently created that morning, Courtney noticed a familiar boy walking up the sidewalk in the rear view mirror. She knew she should be leaving so she'd get her ice cream to Kyo's, but instead she slowly adjusted the mirror in order to keep track of the young man's movements.

As he stopped and spoke to some people, Courtney stared at Miles intensely and even though his face was swollen, he still cut a handsome appearance, and with a blush, she was of the opinion that the rest of him looked pretty good too.

Dragging her thoughts from the gutter, Courtney realized that the more she thought about it, the reason why he looked so terrible was on her behalf and as she stared at the boy who said he loved her, surprisingly, Miles looked up at her in return and their eyes met for the first time since that afternoon.

Miles' eye contact never breaking hers, Courtney stewed in panic as he politely ended the conversation with the couple he was speaking with, roughly combed his fingers through his hair, and then began to walk towards her car with a cautious gait while smiling. "Oh, God, he knows it's me."

Courtney wondered if she should get out of the car, walk up to him, and apologize to Miles for that morning, thinking in lightning panic of what she possibly could say, each scenario getting not only more lurid, but also ridiculous.

'I'm sorry I hit and wished death on you today. I gotta' warn you that have a hell of a temper, and if we get married someday, I really hope you won't press charges!'

"Hi, Miles, I'm sorry I acted like a complete and total head case this morning." She could just envision herself chucking him on the shoulder and her laugh sounding like a braying ass while adding tastefully, 'but, you know, they don't call me Crazy Courtney for nothing.'

Then, much more seriously, Courtney settled in her mind for staying seated in the car, saying a nice, 'Hi', deciding to let Miles do the rest of the talking. If she could worm in an apology she would be set, this whole unpleasant business would be over, and they'd never have to bother one another again.

Yes, that was the plan.

As the clock in the tower in the court house struck nine fifteen, and as Miles moved closer to her car by the moment, she began to give in to second thoughts, wondering if she wanted to stay there or flee.

Ultimately, her courage failed her, so chickening out at the speed of cluck, and with zeal flagging her like Dominic Distarce; Courtney started Tracks. After racing the engine twice to make sure the engine didn't stall out, she pulled the automatic shift into three, barely checked traffic to see if it was clear, and then peeled out of her parallel parking spot as if she had pole position for the nineteen thirty five Indianapolis five hundred and a green flag.

The kids in attendance outside didn't realize that Courtney wasn't showing off, so as a result, they stood en-masse and howled their approval of the loud squealing tires and thick stinking smoke she and her Corvette left in their wake.

As the teens yelled and cheerfully whooped at Hillwood High's newest wild girl hero, Miles stood on the sidewalk quietly, watching the two round red tail lights fade away into the dark distance, turning back onto Stratford Road to disappear from sight with a frown.

Miles rationalized that Courtney must think he was some kind of nut for her to take off like that and she obviously didn't want a thing to do with him at all.

Despite the fact that she drove away when he walked towards her though, Miles wasn't sorry in the least that he had written his long apology letter to Courtney, and was glad that he had gathered the courage to finally tell her the truth about how he really felt about her.

It just hurt that after everything he did to try to make things better and show how much he cared about her, Miles had to face the painful fact that Courtney would never like him, let alone love him, and it broke his heart. Despite the pain, Miles couldn't blame the girl at all, because if someone had treated him the way he had her, he wouldn't want anything to do with him either.

Miles knew that men were not supposed to cry, and mind you, he wasn't, but there was something other than choking black smoke and tire dust that was making both his eyes sting and nose run. He carefully looked around to make sure no one was watching before he swiped the pooling tears out from under them and then sniffed while gently swiping under his nose with the back of his hand.

After settling a little, his head was throbbing mercilessly, and in that moment, all Miles wanted to do was to go home, crash in his room, pull his sheets over his head, and wish he could fulfill the request that Courtney made of him that morning; but he couldn't even go and do that.

God only knew what was being done to defile it right now by his parents and he did promise to go to that damn barbecue he wasn't in the mood to go pretend he was happy at.

With melancholy resolve, Miles walked into Slausen's to pick up a half gallon of lime sherbet to take to Kyo's. Gertie had the glory of getting to take an entire gallon of mayonnaise there, and Aunt Phoebe and Uncle Gerald might think he were rude for showing up empty handed.

Atop a moonlit rooftop, a dark figure opened a wrinkled a piece of paper reading with both curiosity and mixed emotions.

In the early days of his crime fighting career he made it a point to protect the girl's mother because he had fallen in love with her, but when Rhonda Lloyd got married, to of all people a lowly, questionably sane dry cleaner; he tried with varying degrees of success, to distance himself from the beautiful woman.

Despite his best efforts, Monkeyman never stopped loving Rhonda and even though he had limited his contact with her, he faithfully continued to check in on her to keep her safe, and with the passage of time, that protection extended to her child as well.

One night, not too terribly long ago, he visited the woman he loved one last time to say goodbye to her, devastated to hear she was dying. Needlessly, Rhonda thanked him for everything he did for her over the years and as a last favor; asked that he keep a closer eye on her daughter Courtney, as he did for her once upon a time.

The good man vowed he would, so every time the girl's quitting time came around, faithfully the mysterious man lurked in the shadows, making sure Courtney got into her car safely every night that she worked late.

How could he possibly have refused a request from Rhonda Wellington Lloyd Gammelthorpe?