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Chapter One: Home, again.

August 1998

It was the last day of summer and they were almost home.

Finally.

Soon everything would be back to normal. Gwen watched as the forest turned into fields and then even they gave away to stores and homes. They were all the places she'd camped in, hiked through, or shopped at. It was so familiar that it hurt.

Familiar and safe. She'd lived in Bellwood all of her life and she'd never had to outrun explosions there, or fought. Really fought anyway, with guns and fists. She'd never felt green tendrils wrap themselves around her body or felt terror as they dragged her undergr-

For just a moment she forgot the worn comfort of the Rust Bucket and its lived-in stink that somehow seemed like home, even though it should have gagged her. Instead, she was back in the cramped darkness of the huge Wildvine's mouth, just as the last glimmer of light went away. She didn't scream. She remembered that she didn't. If she did, she wouldn't have been able to hear the heavy hammering noises at the top of the tunnel that she knew - she KNEW was Ben. She waited for him to rip away whatever was blocking the tunnel and jump in after her. It didn't matter how big the alien was; between the two of them it didn't stand a chance. She kept thinking that even as the hammering got quieter.

And then it stopped.

She'd never felt so helpless and alone, but she didn't panic. Not even as the wet stink of rotting plants choked her. Not then, anyway. She couldn't then.

Now... now she just wanted to curl up in a ball and cry or scream. She didn't. She couldn't. Not with Grandpa Max sitting in the driver's seat next to her. She and Ben had been back from space for three days, but Grandpa still looked exhausted. He was so looked so tired and he didn't even know that they...

That she...

That she almost...

Gwen felt her eyes burn and she closed them before any of the tears could slip free. She leaned her head against the window so she could listen to the purr of the Rust Bucket's engine and the sound of the wind instead of the hammering of her heart. The noise helped a little. Being next to her Grandpa helped more. It always did.

Almost always.

She didn't even have to try to remember the look on his face when they got back. His grin was the first thing she saw when the airlock opened and she laughed as he scooped them up in his arms. Grandpa hugged her until it hurt and she didn't care. Neither did Ben. For once he didn't complain or try to squirm away from the hug. He just stood there and hugged back. It almost seemed like Grandpa was going for a new hugging record - not that she was going to complain - when he set them down.

His smile melted away before her feet even touched the ground, and she all the new worry lines that marred his face. Wrinkles she knew she'd made.

He wasn't angry. He never even raised his voice. It would have been so much easier if he had. Instead he stayed calm and reasonable as he used phrases like: 'I can't believe you were so irresponsible,' 'I spent hours looking for you,' and – worst of all – 'I expected better from you.'

Gwen stood there and didn't say a word. She wanted to tell him that she'd left a note, but she knew that Grandpa would have just said that she should have told him to his face. He'd say it even though he had to know that she couldn't. That she knew that if she did, he might have said no and she couldn't risk it.

Not when the Doofus needed her.

She could have said that. She knew that her Grandpa knew that it was true - he'd spent almost as much time over the summer trying to watch Ben's back as she had - but she didn't. She didn't because he didn't say anything she hadn't been thinking since she sneaked aboard Tetrax's ship. It was such a relief to hear someone else say the actual words that she stayed quiet.

But Ben didn't. She expected Ben to gloat like he always did when she got in trouble, so when she saw her cousin open his mouth she already knew exactly what he was going to say. She knew and she was ready to start screaming right back at him.

Except he didn't. Ben didn't gloat or dance around. He didn't even look at her. Instead he tried to stand up for her. Not that it helped, he barely got two words out before Grandpa sent him to the Rust Bucket for his trouble.

But before that, Grandpa had said the worst thing of all to them. "Something could have happened to you."

Ben glanced at her for just a moment, just long enough for her to see the guilt and worry in his eyes, before he turned and stomped into the Rust Bucket. She didn't panic once when any of it happened, but somehow that look...

That was when she had her first full sensory flashback - the thorns at her arms, the air more choking that the vines that surrounded her, and the crushing feeling as the air and light went away.

She was only ten and she almost…

Grandpa watched them both, his own face going pale, and waited for one of them to say something. He was still waiting, because neither said a word about what had happened to her in Azmuth's laboratory.

And she never would, if she could help it.

In just a bit, it wouldn't matter anyway. It would just be a crazy memory that would fade away as everything went back to normal. Tonight she'd sleep in her own bed instead of a cramped bunk, in her own room where a certain cousin couldn't step on her or kick her in the middle of the night when he had to go to the bathroom.

Normal. She knew that if she opened her eyes she'd see normal people as they walked down normal streets during their normal days.

No more aliens, no more monsters. By Monday the only spelling she would have to do would be in English class. In just a few more minutes everything…

"Gwen?" Max said, his voice was little more than a whisper.

Gwen opened her eyes and held her breath, terrified that she'd let out a whimper, or a cry, or done something to scare her Grandfather. "Yeah, Grandpa?"

If she did, he didn't say a word about it. Instead, he said, "I know it wasn't how you planned to spend the summer, Gwen-"

Gwen almost laughed at the words. She couldn't have imagined this summer, any of it, much less planned for it. No, she planned to spend her summer at Learning Camp. She remembered the months she spent mooning over the camp's brochures; at pictures of telescopes, microscopes and a computer lab fancy enough that she actually drooled, which was all cool, but so not the best thing. No, the best thing was that there was the smallest chance that she wouldn't be called a know-it-all or teacher's pet there just because she liked studying and could follow directions. And after that she'd planned for all the hiking and shopping and reading she could stand in between trips to the movies and beach. That's how she was going to spend this summer, not...

Grandpa must have seen something in her face, because his brow furrowed as lines surrounded his eyes and the corners of his mouth got deeper, "-but I hope that you've enjoyed these last few months."

She looked at the lines on his face, remembering his smile when he told her about the trip months ago. After she'd already planned out so many things to do that she made color-coded charts just to keep track of it all. Her parents had watched her do it, they'd even helped her with her charts, only to dump this trip on her just a week before school ended.

She'd been dying to go to the Learning Camp ...

Not that she wouldn't have loved to spend some of her summer with her Grandpa. She'd scheduled in a whole week in July, and a few weekends besides, but he wasn't the problem. No, the problem was lying down in the back of the Rust Bucket.

Ben couldn't not be a brat for a holiday dinner, how could they expect her to put up with him for three months?

Twelve weeks.

Eighty-four days.

The sheer horror of just how many minutes of HER life she would have to endure in Ben's presence made her want to curl up into a ball and cry. It didn't matter how jealous she'd been last summer when she heard about the month that he'd spent driving around with Grandpa, she was ready to say no.

She was ready to say it every time she saw Grandpa for the last year. She was ready each time she heard him talking to her parents about this summer - about him and Ben being gone for three whole months this time - but he never said a word about it to her. Which was fine. It left her plenty of time to plan out her own summer. She did it to the hour just to make sure that she'd have the best break ever. One that was amazing enough to make Ben beyond jealous when he heard about it.

She was all set to say no. And then Grandpa showed up with just seconds to spare and her 'yes' came out as an excited - and embarrassing - squeal.

That excitement lasted right until the annoying little freak jumped into the Rust Bucket. Three whole months...

The old upholstery on the driver's seat rustled as Grandpa Max shifted. She didn't have to look at him to know how sad he must have looked when she didn't answer. She squirmed in her seat as she tried to think of something to say. She squirmed and felt the one thing she hadn't packed away dig into her leg. Her hand went down and she felt the solid shape of the small leather book in her Capri's pocket. It was as if the book wanted to remind her that it was still there.

Charmcaster's spellbook.

If she hadn't come on this stupid vacation, she never would have seen the thing. She would have spent the summer with her nose buried in a science book or a computer manual until even she was bored. She never would have changed the world with just a word and a thought...

She never would have floated in space; never would have flown between the stars; never would have seen an alien world...

Never got grabbed by whatever gooey alien was chasing her equally gooey cousin that week…

Never saved lives…

Never fought…

Never hurt people for real…

Never felt good about it afterwards...

Never wanted to be sick after she realized how good it felt…

Her fingers traced the outline of the book again as she stared out the window. She could roll down the window and throw the book away. If she did - if she did, she could pretend that this summer never happened. She could pretend that the last three months were as dull as her father thought they would be.

It would be so easy. Except...

She glanced over at her Grandpa. She knew that this summer should have changed how she saw him. Before, she just saw the man who always had some candy for her, who always made time to listen to her, and who was the only one who always made it to her tournaments and recitals. Now she knew that he was a soldier, that he was almost the first man on the moon and that he was the first man to stand on an alien world. She found out he had risked his life so many times to protect everyone and never said a word about it to anyone.

This summer should have changed everything. It didn't. He was her hero before the trip, and he still was. She just never knew how big of a hero he was and it was worth all the craziness in the world to her to find out. "Thank you, Grandpa. It was a great trip."

"You're welcome, honey," he said, and his face glowed at her words. Then the glow faded as he looked over at her. "About before…" she froze, and her grin faded as she waited for him to lecture her again. "About what you did. I just want to say I'm very proud of you."

Gwen just stared.

Grandpa looked at her and some of the lines eased. "You should have told me, but… but I know why you didn't. I wasn't angry that you went. I was angry that I didn't."

"Grandpa," she said, her voice catching.

"I know Tetrax was right, I couldn't have gone anywhere near Incarcecon without having half the world after us, but I should have done more."

"We were fine Grandpa. We handled it."

He never had to know that they almost didn't.

"I know you did," Grandpa said as he glanced at her again and grinned. "I just wanted... I hope you know how proud I am of you. And how much I love you, both of you."

Gwen couldn't find the words, so she just got up, wrapped her Grandfather in a hug and kissed his cheek.

Grandpa Max smiled at her and pulled her into a one-armed hug. "Ben's lucky that he has you looking out for him."

"Wish he would act like it," Gwen said with a frown. He never said a word about her knocking him away from the Wildvine. She didn't plan on it grabbing her instead, but she didn't regret it. She wouldn't have, even if...

It would have been worth it.

And she wasn't waiting for him to say thanks either. She knew better, but she wanted something. Sure, she remembered how happy Ben had been to see her when her and Gluto finally figured out how to get back to the surface and found him in trouble. Again. How he'd run up to her and given her a hug that had surpassed Grandpa's best, but since they'd gotten back to Earth he would barely look at her, much less talk to her.

And when he did, he didn't say anything important. If she had to listen to him go on about his stupid video games or all the cool places they didn't get to see and all the bad guy butt they didn't get to kick one more time she'd scream. She didn't know what she wanted, but she wanted something. Something more than him acting like nothing even happened.

Like she didn't even matter.

But that's all she got for two whole days, even when Grandpa wasn't there and he could have said something. That's all she got until last night, when Gluto didn't reform so they could save each other. It was just her, all alone in the dark and screaming as the vines kept getting tighter. She spent what felt like forever trapped there before she finally made herself wake up.

And almost started shrieking because she could still feel something squeezing her. She didn't know that it was the Doofus, that he'd climbed into the bunk with her and he was hugging her as hard as he could, until she heard his voice whispering in her ear.

As he begged her to wake up and promised that everything was okay.

Or he did until she jerked away from him with her heart still hammering in her ears. He didn't say a word after that. Not even when she buried her face in his shoulder so he couldn't see the tears that were burning in her eyes, or when Grandpa woke them both up for breakfast. He hadn't done anything more than grunt to anyone all day, which was fine with her.

She just wished that he'd been like that for the whole trip.

A trip, she realized, that was almost over, she realized was finally over as she looked out the window and saw a familiar street. They were five minutes from Ben's house, maybe ten. "I better go get him."

"Yeah," Grandpa Max said, his voice thick as he stared out the window. Then his smile came back, just a little. "Make sure he'd packed all of his socks, will you? Last year he left a pair stuck inside the bunk and I tore the Rust Bucket apart twice thinking a skunk had snuck in."

"Ew!" Gwen said with a shudder. She could so believe it. She'd found the nasty things scattered everywhere over the summer - even under her pillow once and THAT got a scream out of her that brought Grandpa running - and she couldn't imagine how bad one would smell if it had a chance to stew. "I'm not touching them. Not even with the tongs."

Grandpa smiled a little and shook his head. "Just make sure he packed them."

Her hand went to the book in her pocket. "Maybe there's a jinx in here that would give him a normal nose, just so he can find out how gross he is."

"Go easy on him, Gwen."

Her only response was a flash of teeth as she turned and hurried back to the sleeping compartment.

Not that Ben played along. For once he wasn't asleep or even playing his stupid video games. He was just lying on his bunk and staring at the blank ceiling above him. She watched his right hand as it brushed against the Omnitrix on his left arm. He didn't try to activate the alien device, his fingers just traced the dial on the front. It was like he just wanted to feel it, to remember that it was there.

Her hand went back to the book in her pocket as his eyes met hers.

She'd learned so much about her Grandfather over the trip, but that was nothing compared to what she had discovered about the boy lying in front of her. Like how he was at least TWICE as pig-headed as she thought.

And that he was probably the bravest person she'd ever met.

But mostly the pig-headed thing. "Well, you're dressed at least." She allowed with a grumble as she glared at his feet and shuddered. She couldn't believe that he lying in his bunk with his shoes on. Again. The things were nasty even before the summer even started, but after all the goop they'd stepped in...

She shifted in her brand new sneakers - her tenth pair of new sneakers - but he'd kept his no matter how gross they got. If he wanted to wipe them over his blankets that was his problem, or it should have been, but he must have stomped the nasty things all over HER bed as he pulled himself back up to his. "Ben!"

He saw her glaring at his shoes and she waited for him to make some lame excuse or just laugh like he usually did. Instead he just grunted as his eyes went back to the ceiling. Last day, last day, she repeated to herself as her eyes went to her poor bunk.

And went saucer wide when she saw the mess of clothes and comics that he'd dumped on it. She'd heard him going through his stuff after she'd packed up hers, but - "I thought you - You're supposed to be packed up! We're almost back to your house! Haven't you done anything?"

Not that he paid any attention. She had to shout his name two more times before he finally shrugged and said, "It'll only take a second," as he ran his fingers over the watch again.

"Yeah? Well, I hope you're not expecting me or Grandpa to clean this up!" she shouted and shoved a pile of his junk off of her bed.

The clatter of his junk hitting the floor finally got his attention. He rolled out of his bunk and dropped to the floor with a thump in front of her as he snapped, "I'll get it!"

"Sure you will! That's what you always say! I'm so glad that I'll be done with your pigsty soon!"

Gwen almost thought she saw him wince, but the boy just snorted, "Hey, I'm just counting the seconds," as he crossed his arms.

"Well, so am I!"

"I've been counting since I saw you in the Rust Bucket!"

"I've been counting since Grandpa told me about the trip!"

Ben blinked at that. Probably because she'd been told but they'd let her presence be a surprise for him. Not that he let it stop him for long. He took one stomping step towards her and snarled, "I've been counting since you ruined my birthday!"

Gwen huffed at that and took a step forward herself. "I've been counting since YOU ruined MY birthday!" she said and jabbed her finger into his chest. She stood there and glared at him, their noses just inches apart, as she waited to see if he'd dare to say anything else.

She saw his mouth move and...

And they both spun away. Gwen heard the springs of her bunk squeak in protest and more of his garbage hit the floor behind her as she stormed off. He was in her bunk. It must have been too much work for the jerk to climb back up to his own. She gritted her teeth and shouted, "Doofus!" as she stomped back to the front of the RV.

"Dweeb!"

The insult rang in her ears as she collapsed into the passenger seat. She hugged her arms to herself as she crossed her legs and kicked her foot back and forth so fast that it was a blur.

"I heard that went as well as ever," Grandpa Max said and there was an edge of laughter in his words for the first time in days.

Gwen didn't say a word. She just blew her bangs out of her face and tried to figure out what was so funny about the freak being a jerk.

The rest of the ride passed in silence and, all too soon, they were home. Well, Ben's home anyway.

Gwen's foot didn't even touch the dirt before her mom had her swept up in a hug. "Where have you been, honey? We've been waiting here for hours!"

Gwen's stomach tightened. "We're right on time, Mom." She glanced over her mother's shoulder. Her dad was standing just a few paces away, already in line for the next hug, while Uncle Carl and Aunt Sandra stood back by the porch.

Uncle Carl had his arms crossed and didn't say a word while Aunt Sandra had way too big of a smile plastered on her face. "Oh, your mother's just exaggerating again." Gwen would have winced even if her mother's hug hadn't become a squeeze. "We've had a lovely visit. Isn't that right, Frank?"

"Yeah, it's been great catching up with my brother," her father said, his tone as mild as ever even as he grinned at Gwen while her uncle scowled and her aunt brushed her short blond hair back with a hand.

"You must have had so much fun," her mother said as her hug tightened to just shy of crushing before she finally pulled just far enough back to look Gwen over. She tilted her head just a bit to the side and stared. "You look… you look older."

"It's only been three months, Mom," Gwen said as she wiggled out of her mother's vice-like grip and made herself roll her eyes even though...

Sometimes - sometimes after a big fight she just stared at herself in the mirror and thought...

"You know that Gwen was born old, Lili," His father said with a grin as the sun glinted off of his glasses.

Gwen didn't have to make her eyes roll for that. It was almost a reflex now after all the times her father made that joke. So was the happy little squeak she made as he picked her up and spun her around. "How was it, Honey?"

"Good, except for the little freak," she said as soon as her feet were back on the ground.

"Be nice," her mom scolded even as her lips twitched.

Aunt Sandra glared at the two of them. "Where is my Benny?" She took a step forward. "Is he okay?"

"He's fine, Sandra," Grandpa said as he came around the R.V. "They just had a little fight this morning."

"Ben and Gwen?" Uncle Carl said as he tried to sound surprised.

Her father slipped in with a, "Thunderdome," and they both grinned.

Grandpa Max raised his hands. "They got along just fine, Frank." Ben chose that moment to come hop out of the Rust Bucket and it took every bit of the self-control she had to not yell at him again when he bumped into her. "There, see? All limbs accounted for."

They were until Aunt Sandra nearly knocked Gwen and her mother down in her rush to get to her son. Gwen saw her mom scowl, but for once she didn't say a word. Not when watching Ben try to squirm out of his mother's hug was so much more fun. Especially when his face went tomato red as he whispered, "Mom!"

The only thing that spoiled it was the fact that he refused to look at her. And what was the fun of smirking if he didn't see it?

"Ben!" Aunt Sandra said in the exact same tone before she laughed before she looked her son over. And her eyes settled on the Omnitrix a moment before Ben could hide it behind his back. "What's this?"

And Gwen felt her stomach drop. The only thing she'd been dreading was not telling her parents, but Grandpa Max was right; none of their parents would handle the whole 'alien superhero device' thing well. Or 'kick-butt sorceress.'

"A watch," Grandpa Max said and he almost managed to sound as if the watch was the most normal thing ever. "He picked it up when we first headed out."

Aunt Sandra looked at the complicated band on Ben's wrist with more than a little worry. "It looks expensive…"

"Dad," Uncle Carl said, stepping up to take a look. "We told you not to spoil him."

"It wasn't all that much, a friend helped me pick it out." Grandpa Max looked so calm that even Gwen almost believed him. She couldn't help staring him, or feeling just a bit jealous. "Besides, can't a Grandfather spoil his grandkids these days?"

"Maybe you should go put it up in your room, Ben."

"He's had it on all summer, Carl."

"Yeah, dad. And look, not a scratch." Ben's words tripped over each other as they came out.

Ben's parents looked at each other for a moment, before his mother finally shrugged. "As long as you take care of it."

Gwen saw Ben grin as she let out a little relieved sigh while Grandpa Max's face stayed exactly the same. She tried to give Ben a little wave, but he still refused to look at her. It was probably for the best. Especially when the words 'alien superhero watch' were still rattling around in her head. If he met her eyes...

"And what did you get, Gwen?" her mother asked.

Gwen's heart froze. Her mind raced even as she watched her mother's eyes narrow. Grandpa Max had got plenty of things for her, clothes and books, but they were all packed up. And none of it was as nice as the Omni…

"Grandpa got me a really cool book," she said and pulled the spellbook out of her pocket. Gwen took a deep breath as her mother took it from her hands and started flipping through it. "We found it in a pawn shop down in New Orleans. Grandpa thinks it's a hundred years old…" She tried to stop talking, but the words just kept coming.

"It's beautiful, honey," her mother said over her as she admired the elegant script and ignored the words. She closed the book and ran her hand across the cover, probably to make sure it was real leather, before she handed it back. "Take good care of it. It's something you'll treasure for years."

"Would you guys like some lunch? Frank? Grandpa?" Uncle Carl asked as Gwen put the book away and felt so much better when it was in its pocket. "We could whip something up, or we could order a pizza? I'm sure the kids have lots of stories to tell."

Stories? Gwen felt a thousand butterflies hatch in her stomach. They had so many and they couldn't tell any of them. Not really. Even on the rare days where they didn't have to be heroes - she'd have to check her diary, but she was sure that there were two or three - the Omnitrix and the spellbook were still there, making sure that even the normal days weren't. She knew that Grandpa could leave out the weird stuff, he had plenty of practice, but she didn't know if she could.

Or if she even wanted to.

Her father saved the day with a shake of his head. "Sorry, Carl. You know how bad traffic is, and I'm sure Gwen can't wait to see her room again."

"And get out of these clothes." Gwen nodded a little too much as she brushed at her blue blouse. "It feels like I've been wearing the same thing forever. Sorry, Grandpa. Maybe we can have pizza..." the word 'tonight' froze in her throat. There wasn't going to be any more 'tonight's.' Or disgusting food for her and Ben to complain about dinner. She'd eat ordinary food when she got home and she wouldn't see either of them...

She felt her Grandpa's arms around her before she could finish the thought. "Don't be a stranger, Gwen," Grandpa said into the top of her head as he pulled her close. "I want to hear all about your first day at school."

"I won't, Grandpa." She buried her face into his Hawaiian shirt and sniffed. "I'll come and visit you every week and tell you everything. I promise."

"I'll hold you to that."

After several long heartbeats she forced herself to let him go. She wiped at her eyes and looked around the yard. A yard that was suddenly missing one person.

"Ben's gone inside," Aunt Sandra said as she gave the house a half-hearten wave. She only met Gwen's eyes for a second before she shrugged and for the first time that morning looked embarrassed. "I think he had to... Well, I'm sure that he'll be back down in a few minutes if you want to-"

"We have to get going," Gwen's mother said in a clipped tone to cut her off. Gwen watched as her father nodded and reached into the open side door of the Rust Bucket for the suitcases that she'd left neatly lined up and waiting at the top of the step.

"Maybe -" Gwen started to say as she glanced up at Ben's house, at the window she was sure was his bathroom, but she felt her mom's arm go around her shoulders and she let herself get led to their car.

"You did have a good time, right Gwen?" her father a minute later as he got in and started the engine.

"I guess so." She turned around in her seat and stared out the back window for as long as she could. She saw Grandpa waving at them - and her aunt and uncle - but Ben never came back outside. She waved back just as the car turned the corner and they were all gone.

It was over. After three months, summer was over. And she didn't...

"Good," her mom said. "Did you see anything interesting?"

And just like that, the butterflies were back.

The butterflies didn't go away until she finally went to bed. Gwen imagined them asleep somewhere and she wished that she could join them. Instead, she laid there and watched her alarm clock make its slow journey to two o'clock. Her eyes ached with exhaustion, but nothing she tried helped her sleep.

Not even reading. Her new textbooks were waiting for her on her desk, but she gave up after she read the same page from her computer text three times and she still didn't remember any of it. She put down her spellbook even faster. The faded text seemed to dance in front of her eyes before she finally shoved it into her nightstand and turned off the light.

And stared at the ceiling for a solid hour.

There were so many things about her house that she'd forgotten. It smelled so clean that it made her nose tingle. There wasn't any stink of gas – from the Rust Bucket or Ben – and no aroma of fresh octopus or meal worms. There was just nothing with a hint of lemon.

And the bed was way too big. She had room to roll over. She had room to roll over three or four times. She felt lost in all of it. She didn't have the wall to snuggle against anymore. Maybe - maybe in the morning she would talk her dad into helping her rearrange her room a little.

Those things were annoying, but that wasn't what was keeping her up. No. It was just too quiet. There was no hum from the air conditioner or the odd creaks that the Rust Bucket would make all night long. Not that those were the sounds she was missing. She wished they were.

No, she missed the sound of Ben's… Not snoring. Not exactly.

It had been so annoying at first. Grandpa's was so much easier to ignore even though it got a lot louder. Ben's… itched at her. She'd nearly smothered him with his own pillow after the first few nights. Thank God that they'd gotten earplugs…

Earplugs that she'd forgotten about by the third week.

And now, every time she'd almost fallen asleep she realized that it was missing and she woke back up with her heart pounding. It wouldn't settle down, not even after she remembered he wasn't in the bunk above her any more.

Gwen rolled over and screamed into her pillow in frustration.

"Great, just great. Tomorrow I'll have to download chainsaws just so I can get some sleep." She muttered the words just to keep the silence from getting to her.

She thought it did when she heard a soft trilling sound fill the room. Then she remembered her cell phone. Her stomach dropped at the sound. Her parents got it for her for the summer and the only people she could imagine using it now were either Ben or Grandpa.

"Please be okay," she whimpered as she imagined Vilgax attacking Ben's home, or the Rust Bucket. And if it wasn't Vilgax, it could be any of the dozens of other bad guys that they'd stopped over the summer. Like the Forever King, who probably wanted revenge for the way that they kicked his butt just a couple of weeks ago at Mount Rushmore.

As if that wasn't bad enough, she also had visions of what would happen to her if her parents caught her on the phone this early in the morning. Getting grounded the weekend before school started would be so unfair and she knew they wouldn't give her a break just because it was her first night home.

The sheets tangled around her legs as she rushed to get out of bed, nearly sending her sprawling out onto the floor. Some of her luck must have still been with her, because she somehow managed to catch herself and get to the phone before its fifth ring.

She barely glanced at the number before she stabbed down on the talk button. "Ben, is everything all right? What's…?"

"Dweeb." The phone went dead almost before the word ended.

Gwen's jaw dropped as she stared at the phone in her hand. Then she jumped into her bed and snuggled back under the covers. She dialed one on her speed-dial before she buried the phone between her head and the pillow, grinning with anticipation.

He didn't answer for the first dozen rings, and when the phone went to voice mail she hung up and dialed again. She was willing to wait all night if she had to, or at least until his parents caught him, which would be even better. He wasn't supposed to be on the phone any more than she was.

"Doofus!" She giggled when he finally answered and hung up before he could say a word.

She set the phone on her nightstand, sure he wouldn't call again but ready just in case he did, and settled on to the edge of her bed to finally get some sleep.