It was supposed to be a family road trip.
“To a giant hole in the ground?” Kaede asked skeptically.
“It’s not a hole in the ground!” Kaede’s dad insisted. “It’s a cany—”
Kaede held out a picture. “It’s a giant hole in the ground,” she teased.
“Hole.” Kaede pointed. “Ground.”
Kaede’s dad smirked at her from the driver’s seat. “Where’d you get such a smart mouth, anyway? You watch too much TV.”
“You’re on the TV,” Kaede retorted.
Kaede’s dad laughed at that. After all, she couldn’t be the only one accused of having a smart mouth.
Because it was supposed to be a family road trip, naturally the first place they stopped was Barnaby’s apartment.
“What are we doing here?” Kaede asked, confused, when her dad pulled up in front of the unfamiliar building.
“I just need to check on something first.” Her dad grinned. “Come on!”
Kaede tried not to blush like a complete dork when it turned out they were bursting in on Barnaby’s super cool, super ultra-modern apartment. Barnaby himself was typing furiously on a console that flashed up on the wall on the biggest monitor Kaede had ever seen, while what sounded like a really dramatic opera scene in Italian belted over the speakers.
“I knew it!” Kaede’s dad turned off the stereo and dragged Barnaby half out of his chair by the elbow.
“What are you doing here?” Barnaby looked as surprised by the sudden visit as Kaede was. “Aren’t you supposed to be on some kind of family vacation?”
“Which, of course, you took as an opportunity to immediately start dwelling and obsessing!” Kaede’s dad retorted.
“I was researching!” Barnaby insisted. “We still don’t know where Ouro—”
“There was opera,” Kaede’s dad countered. “That officially qualifies as obsessing.”
Barnaby scowled at him. “I happen to like opera,” which Kaede found to be so cool, even though she would have declared opera to be about the least cool thing in the world before she’d become a Barnaby fan.
“No one likes opera!”
Barnaby made a face like that statement hurt his brain. “Of course, some people like opera!” he was half shouting now. “Why else would it exist?”
“So crazy, obsessive people like you can obsess more,” Kaede’s dad retorted ridiculously. “Come on, let’s go.” He pulled Barnaby to the door.
“Go? Where are we going?” Barnaby noticed Kaede for the first time when Kaede’s dad pulled him in her direction. “Oh. I’m so sorry. It’s nice to meet you again, Kae—”
“You’re coming with us!” Kaede’s dad announced gleefully.
Kaede gaped. She didn’t feel too embarrassed by it, though, because Barnaby gaped, too.
“How does that even make sense?” Barnaby finally demanded.
“Well,” Kaede’s dad stroked his beard like he’d come to a deeply thoughtful conclusion, rather than just diving in like a blind idiot the way he always did, “I obviously can’t leave you alone for two weeks. So you’ll just have to come with us.”
Kaede’s head kind of hurt at the illogic of it all. But another part of her was doing a crazy, fangirl happy dance at the thought of two whole weeks on the road with Barnaby Brooks, Jr and how much she’d be able to gloat to Jane when she got back to school. Kaede, wisely, held her peace.
Barnaby opened his mouth to protest, recognized the “Earth logic shall not pass!” expression on Kaede’s dad’s face, and sighed wearily. “Am I at least allowed to pack? A toothbrush, maybe?”
Kaede’s dad’s face broke into a shit-eating grin. “You’re the best ever, Bunny!” he cheered and gave Barnaby a squeeze that made Barnaby’s ribs creak.
And that was how, though Kaede’s dad’s sheer hardheadedness, she ended up on a family-plus-hunky-superstar road trip. Kaede’s dad clearly had taken special classes to put her in embarrassing, awkward (and – okay, fine – kind of awesome) situations. There was no way anyone could be that naturally gifted.
About five minutes out a Sternbild, it was mutually concluded in a thoroughly sophisticated and democratic matter that they would not be listening to any music on the stereo for this road trip.
The debate went something like this:
“What is this?!”
“What cool people listen to, dad!”
“It sounds like a cat in a blender!”
“Hey! I’m not listening to this crappy, oldie music!”
“Oldie? This song is a classic!”
“Oh my god! I’m falling into a coma right now!”
“I brought some—”
“No! We are not listening to opera!”
“So, no music?”
Let it never be said that they weren’t all adults, even if Kaede technically wasn’t.
Kaede learned two important things that afternoon:
1. Kaede’s dad drove like an old man.
2. Barnaby drove like an even older man.
“He’s only doing it because you’re in the car. Don’t believe any of this,” Kaede’s dad insisted. “He nearly gets me killed on a daily basis. You should see him on that motorcycle.”
Barnaby snorted. “Wimp.” A semi passed him on the left.
Kaede gave her dad a suspicious look.
Kaede’s eyes narrowed.
“He’s a maniac!”
“Oh, look,” Barnaby said. “The world’s largest ball of string.”
When Kaede had first learned that Barnaby would be joining them on this road trip, she’d thought that maybe she’d get a really cool autograph out of the deal.
She didn’t expect to get a picture of her and her dad looking really bored while Barnaby smiled in front of the world’s largest ball of string.
“It’s traditional on road trips,” Barnaby instead after he’d thanked the nice elderly couple who’d agreed to take their picture. “I always wanted to go on a traditional road trip, you know. But after my parents… It just never happened.”
Kaede’s dad gave his shoulder an affectionate pat.
“I can see why you’re partners now,” Kaede said.
Kaede’s dad leaned over the back seat to look at her.
“He’s as big a dork as you are.”
“Hey!” Kaede’s dad complained.
“Hey!” Barnaby complained at the exact same time.
When Kaede’s dad had abducted Barnaby to come with them, he obviously hadn’t thought about the sleeping arrangements. At all.
“Hey, Kaede, you can sleep with daddy again, just like when you were little! Won’t that be great?”
“Perv!” Kaede screeched at the top of her lungs. “No way!”
Kaede’s dad looked baffled by this reaction.
Barnaby snorted, and Kaede took some reassurance in the fact that at least someone understood why Kaede’s dad was the most clueless dad in the whole world.
Kaede’s dad suddenly looked murderous. “No way are you sleeping in the same room as my daughter!” He turned suspicious eyes on Barnaby.
Kaede didn’t want to admit that the thought had crossed her mind. On the one hand, that would be the most awkward thing ever. On the other hand, Barnaby was really, really hot. Especially in all his swimsuit photo shoots.
It was a dilemma.
“Don’t be stupid,” Barnaby glared at Kaede’s dad. “That would be inappropriate.”
Kaede’s dad looked baffled. “Then what are we…?” he began.
Kaede snatched one of the motel key-cards from his hand. “I get my own room,” she announced. “Duh!” And stalked across the hall.
Kaede’s dad slowly worked this out. “But…if you get your own room, then that means I’m sharing with…” He pointed cautiously at Barnaby.
“Good job, old man. I see senility’s only half sunk in yet.”
Kaede’s dad made a face that no sane person would ever make upon the realization that they were spending the night with Barnaby Brooks, Jr.
“You’d better not snore.” Barnaby snatched the other key-card from Kaede’s dad’s hand. He had what looked suspiciously like a smile curving the edges of his lips, though.
“You’re driving this morning,” Kaede’s dad announced at breakfast in the sleazy diner the next morning. “I need to sleep, since someone snored all night long.”
“I do not snore!” Barnaby huffed.
Kaede’s dad leaned in and yawned very pointedly right in his face.
Barnaby scrunched up his nose and waved a hand in front of his face. “And at least I don’t have morning breath,” he retorted.
“Morning breath!” Kaede’s dad sputtered in outrage.
“People are looking at you two,” Kaede complained and poked the remains of the greasy eggs on her plate with her fork.
She didn’t really know that, of course. She was too afraid to look.
While Kaede’s dad took a nap in the backseat that morning, Kaede got to sit up front next to Barnaby. It was somehow both amazingly cool and amazingly lame at the same time.
“You whistle. Opera.” Kaede blinked at him in disbelief.
Barnaby gave her a mischievous look but stopped whistling.
Twenty miles later, Kaede caught him looking back at Kaede’s dad in the rearview mirror and smiling softly to himself.
“You have got to be kidding me!” she exclaimed in horror.
“What?” Barnaby asked her innocently.
“Do you think you’re actually subtle?”
Barnaby’s cheeks flushed. “Kotetsu’s never noticed.”
Kaede pressed one palm to her forehead. “That’s not actually any indication of subtlety.”
Barnaby started smiling goofily to himself again. He looked almost as ridiculous as Kaede’s dad just then.
It was a revelation in some ways. Kaede had noticed the signs of it before, but she hadn’t really connected the dots in her mind. Now, though, it was inescapable:
Barnaby Brooks, Jr was human.
And silly sometimes.
And embarrassing sometimes.
And sometimes not cool at all.
And still gorgeous and a hero and everything else.
And hopelessly smitten with Kaede’s dad.
Kaede didn’t know how to feel about any of that.
wut wud u do if ur mom started dating kevin? Kaede texted Jane later that afternoon after her dad had woken up, and they’d switched drivers.
WUT?!?!?! was Jane’s eloquent reply.
It was probably a bad analogy anyway. Jane’s mom and Kevin from biology weren’t secretly superhero partners behind Jane’s back, for one. Also, the idea of Jane’s mom and Kevin dating was laughable.
Of course, Kaede would have thought the idea of her dad and Barnaby dating was laughable, too, until this morning.
wut if u liked a guy but he wuz into ur mom? Kaede tried again, in more general terms.
haz driving w/ ur dad made u crazy? Jane asked.
It was a good question. Kaede considered it.
barnaby’s w/ us
That effectively rendered Jane unhelpful for the remainder of the conversation. Somehow, Kaede ended up promising to get Barnaby’s autographic for Jane. Kaede was going to have him sign the picture of the giant ball of string, in revenge.
If she could look Barnaby straight in the eye long enough first.
“They’re showing old reruns of Hero TV!” Kaede’s dad enthused when they got to their motel rooms the next night and he turned on the TV. “Marathon time! I’ll order the pizza.”
Kaede tried to make her escape, but it was too late.
Kaede’s dad caught her by the elbow. “I never got a chance to tell you about the time I met Mr. Legend, did I?”
Barnaby groaned, and he tried to make his escape.
Kaede’s dad caught him by the elbow, too, and yanked them both back onto the bed with him to watch campy old reruns.
“I can go get the pizza instead,” Barnaby practically begged.
Kaede’s dad slung an arm firmly around his shoulders and then caught Kaede in the same grip on his other side. “Ooh! This is a great episode. It’s his year two record. He didn’t break that for seven more years after this.”
Kaede and Barnaby exchanged despairing looks. Kaede felt an odd affinity for Barnaby just then. After all, they both loved her dad, even though he was completely hopeless, and as a result they’d both sit through old reruns of Mr. Legend all night.
And they’d both complain about it, but if the way Barnaby was leaning into Kaede’s dad just slightly was any indication, he was secretly enjoying himself just as much as she was.
Of course, they were both way too cool to admit it.
Kaede’s dad found a national park for them to plod around in on the fourth day. “It’ll be just like camping out!” he enthused.
“How is that a good thing?” Barnaby asked skeptically.
“You’re such a city boy,” Kaede’s dad teased and used his thumb to wipe away the tiny dab of sunscreen Barnaby had accidentally left on the tip of his nose. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
They walked around through a bunch of trees, which Kaede’s dad took excessive pictures of. Every so often, Barnaby stopped to snap a picture, too, although those were all inevitably of Kaede’s dad.
“It’s nice to be out of the car for a while, isn’t it?” Kaede’s dad took a deep, fortifying breath. “Stretch our legs, get some fresh air…”
“I vote we use the hundred-power to just run the rest of the way there,” Kaede sighed. “How much longer are we going to have to drive?”
“With how often the old man has to stop to pi—er, use the facilities?” Barnaby corrected himself at the last minute. It took quite a lot of the bite out of his comment.
“I do know the word ‘piss’,” Kaede informed him. “I’m not two.”
Barnaby looked sheepish at this.
Kaede took pity on him. It was hard not to, when he was so hopelessly awkward. “You are such a dork,” she informed him, and then with a knowing smirk, “just like my dad.”
Barnaby coughed and blushed and picked up his pace to catch up with Kaede’s dad, who seemed to be taking pictures of the dirt beneath his feet. Heaven forbid they forget what the dirt looked like.
Kaede smiled as she watched Barnaby go. He really was ridiculous, if not in exactly the same way Kaede’s dad was. It was cute, almost, how Barnaby didn’t seem to quite know what to do with her. Endearing.
Maybe Kaede could forgive him for being her first major crush and then turning out to like her dad, of all people.
Or maybe Kaede would need to tease him quite a bit more before she was really ready to forgive.
“How is this my life?” Kaede bemoaned to Jane over the phone the next night from her motel room.
“Oh my god! I still can’t believe you’re on vacation with Barnaby Brooks, Jr!” Jane squeed.
Kaede was starting to get just a little bit impatient at Jane’s attitude. Yes, Barnaby was famous and hunky. But, having spent considerable time in Barnaby’s presence, it was hard to connect the ordinary (well, okay, weird and geeky) guy with the posters Kaede had plastered all over her walls. It was like they were two different people – famous Barnaby and real Barnaby – and Kaede didn’t know if she’d ever be able to see past the real Barnaby to the famous Barnaby again.
That wasn’t her real problem, though.
“Are you even listening to me?” Kaede said wearily. “The guy I have the hots for is totally in love with my dad. Do you have any idea how amazingly weird that is?”
“Oh my god, Barnaby could be your new stepdad! Do you think they’ll make out on screen next season?” Jane squeed more.
Kaede made a face. That was all she needed: to watch her dad kissing people on live TV. “Kill me now!” she groaned. No one properly appreciated her preteen drama.
Barnaby, Kaede concluded, was getting less hot each day.
In fact, Kaede thought, watching someone moon over her dad was pretty much the least hot thing ever.
Barnaby blushed and flirted and teased and touched casually, and Kaede’s dad just grinned back at him and blathered on with that smart mouth of his. Kaede had no clue how her dad could possibly still be oblivious to Barnaby’s feelings. They were obvious to a ten-year-old. Literally.
Kaede thought that, just maybe, she was getting over her initial frustration of: But I saw Barnaby first! Actually, her dad had probably even seen Barnaby first; she just hadn’t known it at the time.
But, at the end of the day, Kaede’s dad hadn’t dated anyone since her mom died. Kaede’s grandma had talked to her about that a couple times: How would Kaede feel if her dad started seeing someone again?
Kaede hadn’t even been able to imagine it at the time. Now, she was having to muddle through the idea in the backseat of their endless road trip to the giant hole in the ground.
On the one hand, Kaede loved her dad (even though she would die of embarrassment if she had to say it aloud). Her dad deserved to be happy. Her dad deserved the best. And Barnaby obviously was the best, so Kaede couldn’t really object on those terms.
In fact, if Kaede was honest with herself, Barnaby was pretty much out of her dad’s league, to anybody who didn’t know just how awesome Kaede’s dad was.
And Barnaby clearly did genuinely love her dad and make him happy. So no worries there.
On the other hand, something inside Kaede ached at the thought that her mom might not be the only one for her dad. All these years, she’d been secretly glad that her dad didn’t date anyone else. That made what her parents had special.
A part of her railed at the idea of Barnaby replacing her mom. Barnaby was nothing like Kaede’s mom. If her dad had really loved her mom, wouldn’t he pick someone else just like her?
Or, Kaede thought, maybe that would be even worse. It would be like her mom was replaceable, then. At least Barnaby was different enough that he didn’t fit right into the cookie-cutter hole her mom had left in their lives. Barnaby fit in differently somehow.
So Kaede didn’t know what she thought. She was happy for her dad that he’d found himself the hottest potential boyfriend ever, and she was mad at Barnaby for replacing her mom, and she was mad at Barnaby for not replacing her mom, and she wasn’t mad at Barnaby at all at the same time because none of this was his fault at all. (Plus, Kaede thought that maybe she still had the tiniest bit of a crush on him.)
Of course, she didn’t tell any of this to either of them, because they were obviously having so much fun together on this trip, and she wanted them both to be happy.
That afternoon, when Kaede’s dad stopped to “use the facilities” (Kaede and her dad both snickered at Barnaby’s catch-phrase, which they now both used shamelessly to mock him), Barnaby looked over at her in the backseat.
“How are you holding up?” he asked awkwardly.
“Are we there yet?” she teased and stuck her tongue out at him.
He smiled, and then his expression slowly turned serious. “You remind of your dad too much sometimes.”
Kaede’s heart skipped a beat at that, even though that was absolutely ridiculous. “What do you mean?” she blushed embarrassingly.
Barnaby shrugged and turned back around. He was kind of cryptic, Kaede was coming to realize, about important things at least.
“All right!” Kaede’s dad burst back into the SUV with too much enthusiasm and coffee. “Let’s get this show on the road! This should be our last driving day!”
“It would be half a day if you two didn’t stop for coffee at every rest stop.” Kaede rolled her eyes.
Kaede’s dad just grinned at her shamelessly. “That’s half the fun!” he insisted.
In the side-view mirror, Kaede saw Barnaby roll his eyes, too, and smile.
“It’s…” Barnaby began.
“A giant hole in the ground,” Kaede teased.
“Hey!” Kaede’s dad objected.
“Well…” Barnaby considered. “Hole. Ground. Giant.” He pointed to each of those three features in turn.
Kaede’s dad’s face fell in mock anguish. “Not you, too, my cute little Bunny!” he despaired.
Barnaby’s cheeks flushed, and he headed over to a nearby information placard to read more about the geologic processes that had created their giant hole in the ground. He really was such a dork.
Kaede looked over the vista with her dad for a minute. And then, carefully, she said, “You know, Barnaby would make a pretty cool stepdad.”
Kaede’s dad grinned, but he didn’t turn to look at her at all. “Yeah, that’s what I thought, too,” he agreed sheepishly.
Kaede snorted. “You do know he’s into you, right?”
Kaede’s dad gave her a startled look.
Kaede banged her palm against her forehead. “Oh my god! He’s almost as unsubtle as you are! How can you both be so oblivious? Unbelievable. You’re totally perfect for each other…”
Kaede’s dad grinned wider.
“I’ve just been reading about soil erosion!” Barnaby came back to join them enthusiastically, like soil erosion was exciting or something. Such a dork…
“That’s, uh…great, Bunny.” Kaede’s dad scratched his head and tried to think of something positive to say about rocks.
Kaede elbowed him in the side.
The three of them stood one last time and looked out over the canyon and then slowly, hesitantly, Kaede’s dad’s fingers reached over and intertwined with Barnaby’s. Kaede watched out of the corner of her eye as Barnaby went stiff as a board and then relaxed into Kaede’s dad’s touch, their fingers interlocking and squeezing. Twin, stupid smiles lit up their faces.
“Are we ready to head back, then?” Kaede’s dad finally asked.
Barnaby’s face brightened. “We can stop at the crystal caves and the corn maze we saw advertised on the highway this time!”
Kaede groaned. “Oh my god, I’m embarrassed to be seen with both of you!” But she was smiling, too.
In the end, Kaede had to admit that it really was a traditional family road trip, after all.