January 1, 2000
"I still can't believe you got your Dad to drive us here on New Year's Day! If he's anything like the Colonel, he was planning to spend the day watching football, right?" Michelle was smiling as they walked away from the ticket window towards the exhibit area. She'd happily agreed to keep Gwen company for this trip, and they were both looking forward to some uninterrupted time to hang out.
"Yeah, if I hadn't found out the sports bar was inside the convention center, Dad would never have even considered taking me. That, and knowing I'd have a friend with me while he was watching the games. Thanks again for coming!" Gwen told her Bestie for the hundredth time.
"Like I've been saying, Crazy Girl, someone has to keep you from going completely off the rails, and I'm the one to do it."
"You owe me, though!" Michelle laughed back.
Gwen was looking around for the Sumo Slammer exhibit as they walked into the main conference hall, the reason for coming to the convention to begin with. "There it is" she said. She patted her fleece jacket pocket again to make sure she had the card. Ben's prize gold Slammer card, his precious. The creators of the movie and game franchise were here, signing autographs, and she thought he would be thrilled to see their signatures on it for his birthday!
Well, she had thought that, up until midnight last night. It took less than a day to make her question everything she thought she knew about her cousin, and what they meant to each other. Just one impulsive act by him. Because she pretty much pushed him into it. He stole my first kiss! She still couldn't stop thinking about that - it did happen, after all. As much as she ignored him that morning, she couldn't change it. What did it mean to him? He didn't say anything about it afterwards, and it wasn't like him to be so good at hiding his thoughts. At least she thought so. She thought it was just part of her game, but he didn't act like that. Gwen flashed back to the couple of times she kissed his cheek or hugged him when she wasn't trying to get him to blush - Christmas Eve, the night after she decked Sean and Flint, the day he met Michelle. Why did she do those? What did Ben think they meant, and was that why he had been so twitchy lately?
Michelle saw the exhibit, and the ridiculous line in front of it and groaned, snapping her back. "I don't know what you were thinking, Crazy, that line must be 40 minutes long! You owe me double!"
"Do not! You wanted to come, remember? 'Of course I'll go with you, Gwen, how often do we get a day together on our own?'" Gwen sing-songed, trying to sound happier than she felt. She didn't really succeed. She saw Michelle give her a sideways look.
Michelle just grumbled "You so do. And I'll collect!", as they got in the back of the line. "You're sure this will be worth it?"
"I think so" Gwen replied, with some hesitation. Up until she woke up she was. Now, she didn't know, for the first time since... since the last week of June. She couldn't help a little shudder at the memory. Since July 3rd, though, she would have been sure, until... How could last night erase everything since then?
She was spending an uninterrupted day with Michelle. She knew that was worth it. She should focus on that for the rest of the day. They hadn't been able to hang out since Christmas break started. She'd been looking forward to it for days, almost as much as spending New Year's Eve with Ben. She could feel that thought make her stomach twist.
Once they got their place in line, they had the same thought. Gwen said "So how was Christmas?" at the same time Michelle asked "What did you do for Christmas?", and they both laughed. Michelle said "You first", and waited for her friend to answer.
"The usual, I went to church with my Mom and Dad early on Christmas Eve, and we had dinner. Mom wasn't feeling great, so we went to bed a little earlier than usual." Her Mom was actually grieving about Kenny, so was her Dad, and they focused on that. Gwen did, too, but it didn't affect her as hard as her parents, and she understood. No reason to bring that up now. "But she was fine on Christmas morning, and we got up and opened presents, had brunch, and ... " she hesitated a little "... Ben's family and Grandpa came over for dinner around 2. We opened presents between families, and just hung out. It was OK, they didn't leave until maybe 9:30 that night." Why didn't she tell about how she laughed and had fun with her Doofus, playing his new Sumo Slammer game and watching cheesy Christmas movies? Or how this year was way better than the train wreck last year. Except for when he tried to protect her from the argument. That was so swee- . She forced herself to stop that thought.
Michelle asked "So what's your favorite present?", and Gwen had to think a little about that. She knew what it was, nothing else she got came close, really, but she wasn't sure if she should say. Not with how she was thinking now? Did it mean what she thought it did? Ben said it was a reminder of summer trips, but was there more to it for him? It was so confusing!
Maybe if she talked about it, it would help her sort it out? She decided to tell Michelle, maybe even the whole story. If she couldn't tell her best friend... Well, not about the watch and magic stuff. Or letting Ben rest his head on her lap. Not today.
The quickest answer was to show her, so Gwen reached for the chain hidden under her fleece collar and said "This!", as she pulled the charm out from under the pullover. Michelle took a sharp breath and squealed "That's so pretty! Let me see.", and she leaned closer and Gwen let her hold it. She couldn't stop a little smile while Michelle oohed and ahhed over it. Even the teenage girl in line behind them showed some approval.
"Who gave it to you, your parents, your Grandpa or the other grandparents?"
"None of them," Gwen said, with a shy smile, and wondered if she would guess. There really wasn't anyone else, though.
"Not Ben" Michelle muttered, then saw Gwen start to blush. "No way! Did he really?!" she gasped.
"Uh huh" was all Gwen could say, and felt her cheeks burn, but her smile got bigger despite herself.
"Look at you smiling like the Cheshire Cat! I wouldn't have guessed he'd think of something like that."
"Doesn't seem like his style. That's a little, personal, for a gift from a cousin." A pause. "Then again, you two aren't typical cousins."
"What does that mean?" Gwen growled, feeling a little defensive. He was still her Doofus. Wasn't he?
"Nothing bad!" Michelle rushed to say. "I've just never met cousins that were as close as you two are, is all." Gwen relaxed a bit and went back to a tight smile. "Come on, Crazy Girl, you can't show me that without telling me some details. Spill!"
"It's a charm I got on our first summer trip with Grandpa, but when I got it it was just a dull red, and it wasn't a necklace. I couldn't find it for a couple months, I thought it was lost. I thought maybe he was pranking me by taking it from my room last July, after we had to come home early, but I wasn't sure."
"Why'd you do that? I thought you both loved those trips?"
"That's a different story" Gwen said, and she couldn't keep some sadness out of her voice. She saw the questions in Michelle's eyes, but this wasn't the right time to explain, so she brightened up and kept going. "Doofus polished it, and got a gold chain to fit, and gave it to me before Christmas." Her smile wouldn't go away even if she tried. She thought that would be enough explanation, but Michelle thought otherwise.
"Yeah, that's the story you tell your parents. Tell me the rest..."
Gwen sighed. It was a good story. It was her best Christmas, why not say so? "All right. He gave it to me on Christmas Eve. We were having the most fun snowball fight behind my back yard, we must have been running around the woods for half an hour! We stopped to rest at a clearing, and just watched the snow fall for a while." She paused, remembering the moment, how he... Nope, definitely not telling that detail. Still, she enjoyed the memory of their quiet time, especially how Ben didn't act like his usual hyper self, even when she put her hand on his hair. That should have made him jump away. It just occurred to her to wonder why he acted so out of character. The only answer she could come up with was because she asked him to. And he went with it. She finally noticed Michelle looking at her funny.
"Still with me Crazy?"
"Yeah, sorry. In the summer I made a comment about how he had his watch to remind him of our trip, and I wished I had something like it. I didn't think he even remembered that. And then he gave me this really badly wrapped box, only Ben could have made a mess like that!" She giggled at that, and saw Michelle's eyes get a little bigger, like she was surprised at the giggle, and went on "He even pranked me by putting the necklace box inside a Sumo Slammer game box." That made Michelle giggle. "I know! I couldn't believe it! When I opened it and saw what it was - that was a real surprise. You're kind of right, I never expected something like that from him. He put it on for me, and I've had it since."
Michelle grinned and said "Aw, how sweet!" and Gwen ducked her head.
"And that's why he didn't want to give it to me with everyone watching!" as she started to put the Keystone back under her pullover, then decided to keep it out. And if Michelle asked why she looked away, that was all the answer she needed to say. Even if it wasn't the main reason.
"Hang on, you said you went to bed early on Christmas Eve. When..."
Oops! Slipped up on that bit. "Mom and Dad went to sleep early."
"And you didn't! You snuck out with him, didn't you, Crazy! The things you do because of that boy... I have to re-think my impression of him!"
Gwen's face fell a little. "You don't like Ben?"
"I didn't say that! I don't really know him outside of what you've told me. You have to admit, he was acting like a jackass when I met him."
"Michelle!" Gwen said with another giggle. She still wasn't used to the colorful language her friend liked to use. "You're right. But he was only teasing! You know that, right?"
Michelle shrugged. "I guess. Maybe if you told more about him. Without making it sound like he's your much younger cousin." Michelle finished with a smirk. "What do you like about him?"
Just like that, Gwen stopped short. That was what she was struggling with. Or was it? She could go on for a while describing what she liked about her Doo- Ben. But they led to how did she feel about him? And she didn't know! She thought she did, but then it changed. And she didn't know why! Was it really just because he kissed her? Because she let him sleep in the same bed and they ended up cuddled together? Because she liked doing both? Didn't she? And why was she telling Michelle about Christmas Eve anyway?! What was wrong with her?!
"I... " and words wouldn't come. Michelle got a scared look and said in a low growl "What's wrong? Did he..." and Gwen cut her off.
"No, he didn't... I'm sorry, I can't talk about it. I shouldn't have said all that. I don't mean to be... Can we talk about something else? Please?!" Gwen said almost in a whisper. She felt tears welling in her eyes, and she didn't want to cry here.
They were almost at the booth, and she couldn't say why but she still wanted to get the card signed. If nothing else, her Dad would throw a fit if they came all this way today without the autographs. Michelle gave her the funny look again but said "OK Crazy Girl. I'll let it go for now."
Gwen brushed her eyes and gave her friend a grateful smile, then got the card out and handed it to the booth attendant. Once it was signed, she stashed it back in her pocket and looked back at Michelle. She grinned at Gwen and said "All right, that's done. Let's get something to drink and sit for a while. I've been standing too long, my dogs are killing me." as they walked away from the exhibit. The food court was close by, and Michelle said "Look, there's a Smoothie King! We always drive by that one at home, but I can't convince my Mom to stop in. Have you had one?"
Gwen replied "Yeah, a few" through a small smile as a dozen memories flashed through her mind. Most of them were happy, a few were a little tense after he got pretty banged up from whatever bad guys they fought...
They got to the counter to order, and without doing more than glance at the menu board, Gwen told the teenage boy taking orders "Can I have a medium lavender and lemongrass, please?" She turned to Michelle with a smirk saying "I'll get yours, since I had to drag you with me", but her friend had a look of mock horror on her face.
"Lavender and lemongrass?! For real?! You do not really like that! How can you even gag that down?" she said, then broke out in giggles. Gwen just added a weak attempt at a frown to her smirk "Just order something!"
Michelle told the boy "A medium strawberry and banana." and giggled a little more.
They waited for their drinks, and found a table.
Before Michelle said anything, Gwen started "Your turn! Tell me about your Christmas."
Michelle smiled bigger and said "Well, ..."