Chapter 2: No Superman
Monroe Middle School
4:48 pm September 22, 2000
The crush of bodies around Ben should have been something beyond unsettling, but it wasn't.
Maybe it was because the air still smelled like home and freshly mowed grass instead of burning buildings or alien goop and blood, but Ben was grinning as all the other team's defenders piled around him and Cash after they'd taken the stupid black and white checkered ball deep into their territory.
"Get the ball!" One of the other boys shouted, so frustrated that it made Ben laugh even though it all seemed so tame.
There weren't any of the 'kill the brats' that he heard all of the time. Or Animo's 'Curse you Tennysons!' that always made kicking his butt feel like an old episode of Scooby-Doo before they finally did it for good last year at that old Plumber base. No, none of the half a dozen boys who were crowded in around him were anywhere near as creative.
Not after the Coach blew his whistle at Tony anyway. Not that his insult even made sense. Not when Ben was sure that weasels couldn't do that, but nothing was going to stop him from asking his Dweeb when he saw her again so he'd know for sure.
Of course, none of the other boys were trying to kill him either as they went after the ball, even if his shins couldn't tell the difference. He'd laughed a little when dad took him out to buy shin guards and an athletic supporter after years of Heroing and Karate, but he'd come to appreciate the plastic coverings that went from his knees to his shoes. Their kicks weren't anything like Gwen's were, but they still hurt.
And, just like the bad guys, one of them eventually got lucky, too.
Lucky enough that the ball whistled out of the gap in all their legs, and it went flying out to the side. The huddle broke apart almost as fast as it started, and if Ben hadn't been so jostled, he might've been able to chase after it instead of face-planting into the turf as Fritz and Juan came out of nowhere and proved why they were the Center and the Striker and the stars. The two had the game down and Ben watched almost dumbfounded as his side's defense collapsed in the face of their lightning-fast passes, which only meant one thing.
"Hero time," Ben muttered under his breath as he jumped back up and took off like a shot. The other two boys were fast, but Ben -
Well, he wasn't XLR8 anymore. If he was then he would have just blitzed through the world and made the game about as exciting as chess. The scaly blue guy would have done it without raising a sweat, too, and Ben felt plenty of that soaking his shirt as he went all out. It was so bad that Ben's legs burned as his feet ate up the field, but when Juan heard all the shouts behind him and looked back….
Man, seeing his eyes go that wide was even better than stealing the ball back.
It was a close thing, though, as Ben put on another burst of speed, air hissing between his teeth, and intercepted the pass just before the other boy could leg it out.
Yes. Ben spun around fast and dashed back the way he'd come even fast as a familiar voice yelled from the stands. One that shouldn't have been there, but he couldn't spare a glance even if he wanted to. No, he just had to block her out because this was the drive, this was what was going to seal the deal.
The last Ben had seen, there was maybe a minute left on the clock. Less now. The stopwatch in his head that he'd built over years of minding when the Omnitrix would time out thundered down the seconds as it seemed like everyone on the field raced towards him from nearly every direction.
This was the moment that made sports movies. Ben could almost see the world slow down as he got ready to send the soccer ball soaring through the air for the net even as the stampede closed in. If he made this shot, he'd be…
…be an idiot.
He blinked and slowed up as the goal disappeared behind the bodies in front of him and he heard more feet come pounding up the grass behind. He'd done plenty of things that were more impossible than getting out of this trap. If he poured on the speed, maybe he could even break through. He would have tried it no matter what once, but it didn't feel right. Not when his legs were beyond spent. And when some of these kids who were closing in had been playing the game for years? No, that was just stupid.
Especially since he wasn't out here alone.
"Cash!" Ben shouted, the name almost catching in his throat as he kicked the ball off to the side as hard as he could.
The other team's defenders couldn't react in time. Heck, Cash barely did, his lanky nemesis stumbling and slowing up, but for once he listened when Ben caught his eye and jerked his head towards Shaun, who turned as he realized that something had changed, even if it took him a lot longer than it should have to read Ben's hand signals. The ones that Coach made them all learn and were so much like Grandpa's, but he'd paid attention to this time during practice even if it seemed like he was the only one who did now.
If Gwen was here…
But she wasn't, and Shaun caught on eventually as Cash passed the ball forward. The goalie lunged forward as Shaun's sharp-angled kick sent the ball flying right between his hands and towards the side of the net and the goalpost, and Ben held his breath as he stared.
Don't hit the post, don't hit the post, don'thitthepost…
Ben winced as the whole field rang with the sound of the ball doing just that - before it bounced perfectly.
It was the kind of kick that the stands should have gone wild for and everything that he wished he heard when he was done heroing instead of the screaming and crying that he usually got as people ran or hid and maybe he would have gotten it now if this was an actual game, but it wasn't. There were barely a few dozen people in the stands as they practiced and most of them weren't even paying attention, but the cheers he got from the few that were were still pretty sweet.
Except for the one voice that wouldn't stop as the Coach came jogging up.
"Not bad, Tennyson," The big man with a bigger belly said like he'd seen kicks like that every day as he tucked his clipboard under his arm. "If you do half as good when we do the real thing against Lincoln next week then maybe we won't be completely screwed."
The words were everything that Ben heard after every baseball game and gym class for years, but for once he could have sworn that he saw a smile peeking out from under the man's mustache as he said them. After all those years of trying for even the smallest nods, it just seemed wrong.
But not wrong enough that Ben could help from preening, just a little. "You don't have to tell me, Coach. I know it." The man laughed at that instead of sighing, and maybe that was why he added, "But it was Shaun who - "
"He made the point," Coach allowed as he slapped his hand down on Ben's shoulder. "But you were the one who made the call just like I'm making mine right now. You're switching with Jacob."
"But he - "Ben started as he shot a look back at the boy who was in his spot in front of the goal. Or it was, until today.
"He did his best," the Coach allowed. Then he dropped his voice so that it was just a rumble instead of thundering as the rest of the guys gathered around, "but the last couple of practices proved that you were made to be in the thick of things and he just isn't. Honestly, If you'd shown half as much hustle when you tried out as I've seen over the last few weeks I never would have put you on the goal."
"I - "Ben started, choking as he tried to explain.
Not that the coach gave him a chance before he gave out a back-slap that was hard enough that it would have knocked loose anything smaller than Way Big. "Hell, son, if you keep this up then you're a shoo-in for JV when you get to Jefferson next year."
"Or Arcadia?" Ben asked in a daze, the words just slipping out. They've been doing that more and more ever since he told his Dweeb about his crazy idea about them going to school together. One that he never really imagined would come true until he told her, but he should have known that she would rearrange reality once he did so she could boss him around every day instead of just on weekends and he couldn't wait.
Neither could she. School didn't even start before she had a plan. She didn't even need magic. Just a book list and a study schedule that made his head swim, but he knew his Dweeb, and when she heard about this…
"Those snots?" Coach scoffed, not that it touched Ben's grin at all. Neither did what he said next, but it came close. "Here I am, about to take you all out for Pizza so we can celebrate me finding our new starting Midfielder and then you go and say something stupid like that."
"Starter?" Ben ogled as the pizza got a bigger cheer than the goal and a bigger moan when Ben shook his head as the clock in it kept ticking. "Can't. Sorry."
"What, you got a date, Tennyson?" The man asked as he rolled his eyes and that was enough to set off the rest.
"Like any girl would date a shrimp like him," Cash of all people called out from the crowd with a laugh. A real one, which was beyond weird. They weren't friends. Ben knew that. But the lanky boy wasn't trying to make him eat dirt anymore either. Not now that he lost his place as the biggest in their class and not since Ben saved his butt last year.
Which he paid back now because he wasn't the jerk who shouted, "Give your mom a kiss for me!"
Not that it kept Cash from laughing, but he wasn't the only one. Even the coach joined in at that. That and the gesture that Ben shot back at Juan. It would have gotten him a week's detention before he started Middle School and no one even noticed now as he turned and raced for the woman who was waiting at the fence.
The one that he wished was his Dweeb over him instead of his mom. Not that his Dweeb would have fussed any less when he jumped the fence, but it would have been so different.
God, it was like his mom didn't even hear the guys laughing as she fussed over everything she was carrying, which was everything that he'd left by the fence so he didn't have to waste time going back to the locker room. Time she was wasting now. "Mom," Ben groaned as he yanked his backpack out of her arms.
His backpack and his team's windbreaker. The one that was somehow too hot and not nearly warm enough as he pulled it on, finally feeling the same wind that caught his mom's blond hair and blew it everywhere. And he pulled it on as quick as he could before she could freak out about him shivering like she did everything else.
He just wasn't quick enough.
"Ben!" his mom gasped as she caught his arm just before he could make it and the marks he didn't even know he'd gotten disappear. Marks that he knew would be bruises tomorrow, and those were just the ones above his knees. "I thought that this would be less violent than Karate! Let me - "
"Mom!" Ben groaned as he slapped her hands away. He didn't need to hear the laughs behind him to know that they were there. "What are you doing here? Where's dad? I thought that he was picking me up!"
Dad was so much cooler about this stuff, which was words that Ben never imagined he'd think even if they were true. Not even the bruises bothered him anymore as long as he got to watch the game, and Ben knew he had more than a few even before he pulled off his shin guards. He didn't pull down his socks, even though he hated wearing them so high. He knew that there was going to be a royal freak out when he did and he could only handle one.
And it so wasn't going to be his mom's.
"He got tied up with another meeting at work," his mom sighed as she made a face at him even as she pushed her windblown blond hair out of it. "I swear, I thought that he'd have an easier time of it once the base opened, but I should have known better. The army - "
"Yeah, yeah," Ben cut her off before they ended up chained to another gate. He didn't have time. Not tonight. Not as he grabbed her by the hand and pulled even though he knew that he'd hear all about it on Monday if the catcalls he heard from the field meant anything as he rushed for the locker room. He had way more important things on his mind than them anyway. The most important thing in the world.
"Come on, the Dweeb's waiting!"
- o - o - o - o - o -
Not outside, anyway. Not when the clock on the dash said that her class wasn't even half over, even though that seemed impossible. And beyond unfair as Ben stared at the wrong side of the Dojo's wall with the rest of the NPC's who were waiting in the parking lot.
Waiting and listening to 'music' that so wasn't helping. "...your own way. You can call it another lonely day. You can go…"
"Mom!" Ben finally shouted as his hand shot for the radio and his eyes stayed locked on the bricks that were mocking him. It was the first time he ever wished that the place had a big window like the gym in the mall just so he could see inside even though the thought made his stomach tight.
As tight as the sudden silence that filled the car. It wasn't the quiet of the radio as he twisted the dial for anything else. No, it was worse than that. It was the kind that came with the itch of his mom's eyes on him as she just sat there instead of saying something or even sighing. Either would be bad, but not as bad as this. This meant that she was probably chewing on her lip, and that meant a talk was coming. One he tried to cut off with a quick, "You know the rules! Playing that many Oldies in a row is cruel and unusual - "
It should have worked. It should have sent her hand flying for the radio like he hadn't been listening to her music his whole life, but it didn't. She didn't even bite back a fake gasp at him calling her old, even though she was unless he compared her to most of the other moms in his class like the other boys did all the time.
And that was the reason he knew what it sounded like when the talk was coming, and she didn't even know about most of the fights he'd been in since he started going to Monroe or why. And she never would if he had his way. Unless she did, and that was why -
"Do you really miss karate that much?"
And his mom must know magic, too, because there wasn't any way that seven little words that he barely heard should have made him jump like that. "Wha -? No!" He shouted, more sure than ever that girls were evil and it didn't matter how old they got.
But most of them didn't make him feel worse just by wincing. Girl magic was bad but whatever happened when they turned into moms was the worst. Especially as he watched her bite her lip before she kept going. "It's just…" she said before she stopped and took a breath. "It's more violent than I'd like, but I really thought that you were enjoying soccer, Ben. But after the way you had me rush here tonight…"
"We ran a light!"
"It was yellow!" Ben shot right back because it was. Mostly.
Just like his mom mostly held back the little noise she made at that. The noise, but not the look he got before she turned and stared at the steering wheel she was squeezing the life out of. Enough of one that he was almost sure she was done until she could read one of her books just from the way her eye was twitching, but he was never the lucky one in the family. "And your father's told me about how you just sit here and stare at the dojo every time the two of you come to get your cousin."
"I'm just waiting for the Dweeb so we can - "Ben started to say before he caught himself because it was the truth. Too much of the truth. Enough that he knew he was dead before he slammed his mouth shut hard enough that he felt his teeth clank together as his mind raced for a way out.
"We've seen you practicing, Ben!" His mom shot back before his brain could even get started as her face spun back to him so fast that her hair hit her in her mouth. "A couple of nights ago I realized I forgot the laundry in the dryer and you - "
She didn't finish. She didn't have to.
"Doing the katas helps me sleep," Ben muttered as he stared down at his hands. Hands that could break boards and had. Hands that could block, too, and -
And punch a crystal into a monster's stomach.
A sliver of one which was all that Diamondhead needed. A sliver that was a seed that he could have stopped even after Vilgax shoved them both through a window and they fell tumbling from the sky together, but he didn't. Not after what he thought Squidface did. Not even when he heard the gaunt monster scream as it grew -
"- okay if you miss it, Ben."
"What?" Ben asked, jumping as he pulled at the windbreaker which was suddenly too hot.
"Karate," his mom repeated as she jumped, too. "It's okay if you miss it." Her voice was so soft, but It still felt like a slap as he realized she wasn't talking about Heroing because duh. Then she let out another sigh as she twisted around so she could look at him, her blue eyes a sad storm as she shook her head. "And it's okay if you want to go back, too."
Which meant she really wasn't talking about heroing, but Ben couldn't help letting out a choked, "Yeah, right."
"I'm not going to lie, I hate the thought of you fighting, and you made a promise when you signed up with the team..." his mom let out a breath at that before she smiled. "But the season ends with November and there's only so much coal Santa can bring you."
Ben laughed at that, he couldn't help it. Not when he deserved so much worse than coal. Then his smile faded as he looked at the squat brick building again. One he might have spent the rest of the night staring at if his mom didn't elbow him and whisper, "You don't have to decide tonight, but why don't you sneak in and see what Mr. Yamamoto has to say?"
"Sensei," Ben corrected without even thinking about it, and even saying that name helped him breathe a little as he nodded. Nodded and reached for the door handle as he turned to his mom so he could say thanks, but she just had to ruin it. "Mom!"
He was out of the minivan like a shot after that with his mom's laugh still in his ears, and the tingle of her kiss stuck on his forehead no matter how much he scrubbed at it. A shot that stopped as he reached the door and turned back. "Thanks, mom."
She didn't hear him. He knew she didn't, but she smiled at him anyway because she was his mom and lame, but somehow he met her grin with one of his own as he went inside. The smell hit him first, just like the first time he walked through the door. It was the smell of sweat and gym clothes and chalk that was familiar since way before his Dweeb tricked him into coming here that first time by being nice. It made his eyes water back then, too, but this time…
This time his eyes didn't stop. Not until he wiped them on the sleeve of his jacket as he took it all in. Even after all these years and all of the junk that Sensei hung up, it still looked like the gymnasium it used to be, right down to the folded back bleachers and the wood court that was peeking out from under all the mats.
And on the mats…
He knew the kids who were all paired up for sparring. Most of them, anyway. There were a few new faces mixed in. New backs of heads anyway. They didn't stick out anywhere near as much as he did since they were all wearing their gis while his was tucked away under his bed at home. Only his wasn't as lily-white as theirs were and he knew he never looked as gobsmacked as they did as they watched the kids who had actual color in their belts cut loose for what was always the best part of the class when the lessons were over and everybody had a chance to show off even a little as they practiced under the eye of the Sensei. All of them hoping for the little smile that they'd get if they did something right and dreading the frown if they weren't, but not today.
Or they should have been anyway.
They were all paired off or standing in front of the huge mirrors on the side, but nobody was moving. No, they just stood there like so many mannequins and stared even though doing either should have gotten them a sharp word and a sharper scowl. Especially when he saw Mary lean over to the boy she was practicing with so she could whisper something to him despite every rule of the Dojo.
Heck, Ben once had to sweep the whole Dojo twice just for groaning too loud, but this time Sensei didn't say a word even though he was standing only a few feet away from the girl. He was too busy staring at something, too, his face a quiet storm.
And it felt like the old man was sitting on Ben's chest as he moved forward so he could see, too, and he wasn't the least bit surprised when he saw Paul in the middle of everything.
Except the older blond boy wasn't moving like he usually did. No, the tall boy's fingers were always quicker on a guitar than he ever managed in class, but he was better than this and the blue belt around his waist proved it. It should have proved it, anyway, if he did anything but dodge everything that was getting thrown at him, and he wasn't even putting his all into that.
It didn't even look like he was saying anything and that was impossible when the real trick was shutting him up. If he'd been like this when Ben started…
Well, Ben would have asked Paul if his age finally caught up with him or the air was just that thin up there just like he did when they were rocking out together, but not all the babies who joined up had that kind of wit. They didn't have the skills either. Sure, the person he was sparing with might have thrown a punch decent enough that it made Paul spin out of the way, but it threw them enough off-balance that they stumbled forward, too. It was all horrible enough that Ben finally got a look at the new -
Ben didn't know how, but it was. Nobody else had his Dweeb's crimson hair or wore it tied back in a ponytail like hers. Nobody else had eyes that burned like hers either as she caught herself a second before Paul had to.
And it didn't make any sense.
Not that Paul couldn't have done it. He moved when he had to just like Ben did, but Gwen just didn't slip up like that. And she usually didn't move like Grandpa when she straightened back up, either, but she was now. Grandpa on a bad day, too. There wasn't any of the grace or power that always made sparring with her feel like they were dancing even after all the times that she put him on the mat….
Heck, she was so good that even Sensei almost cracked a smile when she got going.
But not today.
Today the only thing that was even close to normal was the look of frustration that filled Gwen's sweaty and pale face as she brought her hands up again and glared at her sparring partner. "Come on," she whispered, her lips just barely moving but Ben had gotten used to reading them a long time ago, back when it was fun to figure out what she was muttering just so he could tell. "If you get us in trouble with Sensei…"
Ben didn't need to hear her voice to see just how mad she was as she said that, even if he didn't know why.
Neither did Paul, and the blond's eyes went so wide as her words sank in and finally stopped backing away so he could take a swing of his own. It was everything that his Dweeb's wasn't, except it was so much less than half-hearted and the kind of thing that his Dweeb could have slapped away or dodged in her sleep.
Except she didn't. She just stood there like she was covered in sludgepuppy, another grimace twisting her face almost as soon as Paul threw the punch and Ben knew that if the other boy had seen it…
But he hadn't. Not with his eyes screwed shut. Ben started rushing forward even though he would never make it in time, but he didn't have to.
The world and everything in it stopped dead at Sensei's single barked command. Everything except for his Dweeb, who gasped at the fist that was frozen just an inch from her nose, and Paul, who gasped as his eyes shot open again and he saw what he almost did. Gwen lurched back, but Paul flew as he stammered. "S-Sensei! Gwen, I'm so - !"
"I'm fine!" Gwen growled out before the blond could finish as she shook off whatever was wrong and spun around so she could do what nobody ever had before. She faced off with the Sensei as everyone else took a step back even though they were ten feet apart. "He was just getting lucky! You didn't have to - !"
"Gwendolyn-san!" The Sensei snapped out, his voice filling the dojo and freezing everyone in their place. Everyone but Gwen, who winced and put a hand on her stomach. Maybe that was what made their teacher soften his voice, but not his tone. That stayed as hard as iron even as he bowed to the boy in front of her. "The fault is mine, Paul-san, for letting this continue. Do not trouble yourself with guilt." He bowed, but his eyes stayed locked on the dweeb the whole time and his words changed to ones to the squid ink taste that the alien bugs in Ben's brain always made the man's native Japanese taste like like. "Mine and yours, Gwendolyn-san! You are not well! You over-train. I've told you that for months now and your performance today proves it. You are done for tonight and if I think that you've done a single kata before we meet again then I'll share my worries with your parents! I will hear no more about it!"
"Sensei!" Gwen protested anyway because she was her and she didn't back down for anyone. "You can't! They'll pull me out!"
"Better that than you getting hurt. Go get changed. You have company anyway." That should have been the second most impossible thing tonight because Ben could have sworn that nobody saw him come in, but it was Sensei and he knew everything.
He even knew more than his Dweeb, and he proved it when she did what he never had to as her head shot around and the look that she gave Ben…
Ben wasn't any stranger to any of her looks. She had a Rolodex of them for him after all. Most of them came with eye rolls, but there was usually a grin hiding under them. Sometimes she went red up to her hair and down to the neckline of her shirt and more than once she'd just stormed away from him, but that hadn't happened in years.
Ben thought he knew them all, but he'd never seen her go so pale before. Pale enough that Ben moved to follow her as she rushed for the girls' locker room before Mrs. Yamamoto came out of nowhere and caught his arm with a grip of steel wrapped in silk. "Give her a moment, Tennyson-san."
"But - " Ben started, his eyes on the door that slammed closed.
"Trust me," the woman said in a tone that reminded Ben that Sensei deserved respect, but Mrs. Sensei was downright terrifying.
Not that the Sensei was any slouch there either as he cut through the whispers that already started with a tone that was somehow thundering even though he barely raised his voice, "Your parents are not paying me so you can stand around and gawk. Show me what you have learned today." And everyone else did just that around him as he went through the crowd like he was a swordfish and they were so much water as he cut through them towards Ben with a gaze just as sharp.
Or it was until he slipped his hands into the sleeves of his gi in front of him and murmured, "Thank you, Wife. Walk with me, Tennyson-san."
"But - " Ben tried again as he watched Mrs. Yamamoto nod and make a beeline for the locker room until he realized that the man was already moving.
"There's nothing to worry about," Sensei said when Ben caught up, but the look in his eyes made the words a lie as his wife disappeared through the door, too. "But best to be sure, and I wished for a chance to speak with you anyway."
"Yes, Sensei," Ben said out of habit. It was hard not to respect a man who could punch through a stack of wood boards in one blow. Almost as hard as it was to ignore the stone his stomach had turned into or the feel of the bare skin under his hand as he itched at his left wrist, but he made himself keep walking anyway.
"Gwendolyn has passed on my invitation to rejoin us?" Sensei asked, even though the words weren't a question.
"Yeah." It took her a few months before she stopped, but he could see it in her eyes every time they picked her up just like he could feel the thump of someone hitting the mat behind them and hear the scramble as they picked themselves back up.
But everybody picked themselves up here, where the fighting was just for fun and bragging rights. Where it didn't matter.
"Good." The corners of the man's mouth went up as he said that. Then his face darkened as his eyes studied Ben. His words didn't lose any of their inky taste as they turned into a soft murmur. It was something he barely even noticed until the man said something that tore Ben's attention away from the door behind them.
"I know a little about why you left. Your cousin has told me some of what happened in Phoenix, and what you both saw on that terrible day. Enough that I know there is a great deal left unspoken."
Ben swallowed hard as his head spun around to the man and his mind raced as he tried to remember what they told to who. Everyone got the same basic story that Grandpa put together, but it was all a mush in his head right now. "I - "
"Don't worry," Sensei said as he put his hand up, "I won't pry, but I want you to know that I will listen if you ever wish to talk. Even if you don't rejoin us." Those were the same words he'd heard from his parents and his aunt and uncle and Grandpa and everyone else enough times that Ben barely heard them now. The next wasn't. Not when he realized where the man was leading him. It was the one corner that all the babies went to when they joined up and everyone else just wondered at. The walls were full of words of inspiration and paintings of everyone that Sensei admired, but this was the only photograph hanging and it was the only one here that the man wouldn't say a word about.
The weirdest thing was it wasn't even that big. It looked like the ones that his school sent his parents just in case they needed to embarrass him somewhere when they only had their wallets and none of those were going yellow around the edges like this one was.
But none of his pictures were in the middle of a jungle either.
"I was barely older than you when this was taken," Sensei said from Ben's side, and for once his voice sounded as thick as syrup as he stared at the photograph.
"This really is you?" Ben asked, barely believing it even after everything his Dweeb told him. And it wasn't just because the kid that she swore was the Sensei had a rifle tucked under his left arm and his right thrown around the man in the middle or because none of them were wearing shirts either.
No, it was because the man in the photo had a grin on his face that Ben couldn't imagine the lines on his Sensei's face turning into. Especially not after he let out a rough, "Yes."
The mystery of it almost made Ben forget about his Dweeb. Especially not now as his Sensei's wrinkles and voice both got deeper as he stared at the photograph and his voice cracked as he added, "Today, tomorrow. It doesn't matter if I'm in a class or not. It is as I told Gwendolyn, I will make the time to listen if you come to me, Benjamin-san. Just as my Sensei made for me. You will always be my student just as I was his."
"Sensei, I - " Ben didn't have words for that. Not when he felt like he was falling again and the only thing that saved him was the first thing he ever learned in this building.
He bowed, and the old man bowed back.
And when Ben straightened, he was almost bowled over by the smile he was getting before the man thumped his back and his words went back to normal. "But until then, congratulations on your success on the soccer team. I am looking forward to seeing what you bring to the team."
"You're going to come?" Ben wanted to ask how when he knew that there'd been a class at the same time. It was hard not to when his Dweeb spent a month trying to figure out how she could be in two places at once before he told her that it was okay. He missed being here when she got her blue belt. He wouldn't keep her from what came with it.
"If I didn't have other responsibilities," The man sighed. Then he got the same look on his face that Ben usually saw when he finally got a move right. "But my granddaughter does go to your school. Julie might prefer tennis, but she has some skill with a camcorder and she's been known to indulge an old man every now and then. And if what she's told me about what she's seen of your practice is true, then we might even win Regional this year."
"We might be in trouble then," Ben said, careful to keep the flush out of his voice and his face because he'd seen the girls in their gym clothes watching sometimes from the sidelines after they were done with their practice. And even if he hadn't, everyone else on the team had no matter how many laps they had to run after, "because Coach just moved me to Mid-field."
Mr. Yamamoto - he wasn't Sensei, not now. Not if he after the way he laughed at that. It wasn't mocking either. Just proud. "Then there is no maybe about - " The man started before his words and his grin both faded away as he looked over Ben's shoulder. Ben turned and saw Gwen come storming out of the locker still in her gi with her backpack over her shoulder, her sneakers on, and Mrs. Yamamoto hot on her heels.
But it was the twin scowls that made Ben reach for the Watch that wasn't there again as Sensei said in a voice that Ben knew wouldn't carry, "Think on what I've said. And keep an eye on her, Benjamin. I'm worried that I wasn't as diligent as I should have been today. She may have injured herself already."
"I will. Thank you, Sensei," Ben said, only respect keeping him there long enough to get all the words out before he raced over.
Gwen's face was still a fury, but somehow Ben knew it wasn't because she was being sent home early. Not when she still looked pale and tired even with her scowl. "I'm fine," Gwen said as soon as he was close enough.
"Like I was going to ask," Ben snorted as he came to a skidding stop in front of her. "But you can stop playing sick. Mom's waiting outside so you don't have to worry about her cooking."
He hoped for a laugh, not for a look that was almost painfully grateful as she bowed her head and reached for the lump of her necklace that was just barely a bump under her gi. "Can't be. You didn't give me the charm for that, Doofus!"
"What can I say, I'm just that good," Ben said before he saw even the ghost of her smile go away as her face twisted in pain as her arms went around her middle. And he heard the last words he ever imagined slip free. "Maybe we should skip tonight. You look - "
"No!" Gwen said in a breathless panic as she reached out and took his arm. "No. I'll be okay. I can feel bad tomorrow. I've waited all week for tonight."
Ben stared at her because he'd waited, too, and not just to find out what flavor of lip gloss she was wearing today. But if she was sick... "Only if you-"
"Trust me. You'll be the second one to know," Gwen said as she pulled on his arm and that settled that.
At least until they got outside where every woman who'd gotten out of their cars so they could talk about mom stuff took one look at them and forgot about whatever it was they were saying, but only his came rushing over. "Gwen? Honey, are you okay? Do you want to - ?"
"I'm fine!" Gwen snapped as she slapped the hand away from her forehead. "I'm fine! Will everyone please just stop asking me?" Gwen almost screamed before she buried her face in her hands. Ben just shrugged and listened to her take deep breaths until she squeaked out, "I'm sorry, Aunt Sandra. Can we just go?"
His mom stood there at a loss and worried at her hands before she finally brushed a hand through her hair and nodded. "Okay, Sweetie," she said with the same tone she'd used on an angry squirrel once as she led them back to the minivan. "So, what are the plans for tonight?"
"I borrowed some new games. I figured I'd humiliate the Nerd Queen a bit more with my awesome skills," Ben said as he pulled open the side door and watched his Dweeb climb in. Climb and not jump. It used to take him days to wind her up to this point when they were ten. Not minutes. The old him would be cackling like a madman right now with this kind of power. Now all he wanted to do was strangle the little jerk because of how miserable she looked.
All the more so as Gwen asked, "Do you have any movies?" And her voice shook just a little.
"No, I thought that you wanted to..." Ben said as he just stared at her and thought about hugging Gwen as he followed her in, or even taking her hand. Not that he could, not with his mom watching.
"You can borrow one of your father's," Mom said. "There should be one or two left that you guys haven't seen yet. Maybe something funny?"
That got a little nod. Just enough that Ben let out a grateful, "Thanks, Mom," as his mom started the engine.
Ben felt all of the eyes on them as they pulled out of the parking lot and he wondered how far they would get before Aunt Natalie heard about this. Then his Dweeb let out a strangled groan and buried her forehead against the back of the passenger seat as she hugged her middle tight. That should have been the worst part and what made him forget all about his aunt and ignore his mother, but it wasn't.
It was the fact that Gwen stayed there.
And Ben still hated himself when he reached over to rub her back because he didn't know what else he should do and that was the only thing that was safe when his mom was watching them through the rear-view mirror, but it didn't feel like anything near enough.
"Hero time," Ben whispered to himself as his chest went tight, the words lost in the sound of the road and his Dweeb's shallow breaths.
- o - o - o - o - o -
"Well, here we are. Don't forget to tip your driver," his mom tried to joke when they finally got back. It didn't matter what the clock in the dash said, the ride home never took so long before. And all the longer after it took his mom saying the words "Honey? We're home!" three times before his dweeb finally nodded. If that was what her head did before she made herself sit back up.
He tried not to notice that Gwen looked a lot paler in the light of the garage than she had at the dojo and her steps were even slower as she made her way to the door inside. Slow enough that Ben forgot all about his usual grumbling as he grabbed her gym bag and followed her to the door even if she was so milking whatever this was.
That's what he told himself anyway when they finally got inside.
"You three are early," Dad said just as he dumped a double handful of dry spaghetti into a pot and dusted off his hands. "Don't tell me, let me guess. Everyone was kung fu fighting and - " The laugh in his voice lasted until he looked over his shoulder. "Gwen, are you - ?"
Ben shook his head and waved for him to stop the second he started asking. Not that it mattered. Gwen didn't even look up, much less explode again. Then he felt a hand on his shoulder and felt the look his mom was giving him even before she said, "Why don't you two go and get washed up? I'll help your father finish and we'll have dinner ready in about twenty minutes."
Ben glanced over at Gwen and she seemed to relax just a little at the news. The sooner dinner was done, the better was always the way he thought anyway. "Race you?"
The words just slipped out, but Gwen nodded and gave him a faint smile anyway. "You're on, Doofus."
They were neck and neck when they reached the staircase and he poured on the speed even though his legs were sore from soccer. He was at the top in only a moment and he grinned when he didn't see her next to him. "Too slow!" He shouted as he turned, sure that she was only a step or two instead of doubled over on the fifth step up.
"I'm fine," he heard her say as she swayed there, blinking, as he raced back down. "I just sat still for too long after class."
"Are you sure? You look icky."
"I do?" Gwen whimpered as her face fell and Ben felt the panic start. She should have insulted him back, not look like she wanted to cry. They might be together, but she was still Gwen. If she was too sick to even snap at him...
"Not that icky," he said in a nervous babble as he lowered his voice. "I've seen you look a lot worse! Like the time we ran into that nest of Stinkflies outside of LA. You turned so green when we opened the door."
"I almost forgot what that smelled like. Thanks, Ben," Gwen grimaced. Then she closed her eyes and muttered, "They're staring, aren't they?"
Ben didn't even have to check to know that his parents were. "You are acting kind of weird." To them. To him, she was way past weird. If she kept this up, she'd be in freak-out country. Especially when he saw her wince and an arm go around her middle again, just like when -
"It's okay," Gwen whispered. He didn't realize she was talking to herself until she said it four more times and put her foot on the next stair. Still, she wobbled and he grabbed her to keep her from falling. "I'm - !"
"Fine. I know, I know," Ben said, dragging the words out as he wished he could still go Fourarms just so he could carry her up the rest of the stairs. Instead, all he could do was wrap his arm around her shoulders and help her up one step at a time. It took forever before they got to the top and out of his parent's view. "But did you ever think that maybe I'm exhausted and I'm camping right here unless you drag me up?"
His Dweeb didn't laugh at that. She barely even smiled, but that was enough until he got her up the stairs. The hug he got for it the second they were out of sight wasn't a surprise, but the kiss was. "My hero," she whispered when she pulled her lips back. She tried to smile again, but it turned into a wince as she pressed her face into his shoulder and clutched at the back of his jersey.
And hello, freak-out country. "Just tell me what's wrong."
Gwen shook her head again and let him go so she could wobble to the bathroom. "I'll be right out."
Ben stared at the door that closed in his face for another eternity before he finally gave up. Not that he even made it to his dresser so he could get his stuff for a shower. Heck, he barely had enough time to shrug off his windbreaker and kick off his sneakers before he heard a strangled voice call out for him. One he prayed was from his parents even as he hurried back and knocked on the door. "Dweeb? Gwen, are you okay?"
"Get your mom."
"Why?! What's - ?"
"Ben. Please." It was the shakiness in her voice that made him turn and go. He had not heard her sound like that since she got hurt over the summer.
He didn't think XLR8 could have gotten down the stairs any faster than he did right then. "Mom!" He shouted the whole way down. His mother and father were still whispering by the stove when he saw them, but they both spun around when he came running. "Mom,something'swrongwithGwen! Senseisaid -"
It all came out in such a rush that even he barely heard the spaces between the words and he still didn't get a chance to finish before his mom started moving. Either she was a better listener than he'd ever thought or she just heard the panic and decided to worry about the rest on the way because she went running around the counter before he even really started. Ben turned and followed as fast as he could with his father just behind him.
His mom was definitely faster than he gave her credit for. She beat him to the bathroom door by an easy five steps. She stopped by slamming into it even as she brought her hand down in a blur that someone might call knocking. "Gwen? Sweetie?"
Gwen didn't make a sound on the other side. Not like his father did as he stepped forward and brought his foot back, "Get out of the way, Sandy-Bear, I'll - " he started even as Ben's mind raced for the Watch in his closet. A closet he took two steps towards when he heard the door finally open and he spun back around on his heel.
"Aunt Sandy? I - " His Dweeb started, her voice shaking and her eyes wet as she peeked out through the sliver of the open door. She was still in her gi. Ben could see the sleeve of her jacket as she leaned on the doorframe like it was the only thing holding her up, but for some reason he could have sworn that he saw a flash of her bare knee when she opened it a little bit more. A flash that vanished like all of the color that was left in her cheeks when she saw him standing there and shrieked, her voice high and thready, "Go away, Doofus!"
Ben froze as the door slammed shut and blinked as he tried to understand. It wasn't like it was the first time he'd seen her like that, not when the lock for the bathroom in the Rustbucket worked as well as anything else, or that he'd never seen her hurt before, or icky. Heck, they'd seen each other covered in alien pus and there wasn't anything worse than that. "What?"
"I think that Gwen needs some girl time," his mom said after a moment as she turned around, which was the strangest thing ever. The only thing stranger was the flush on her face as she said it and the look she gave his dad when she turned around. It was a look that went on and on before she added, Why don't you two go check on dinner?"
"She needs Army Girl?" Ben asked, dumbfounded at what Michelle could do that he couldn't as he looked to his dad for help.
Not that he got any.
"You heard your mom, Sport," his dad said even though he didn't look any more convinced as he put an arm around Ben's shoulders and led him back towards the stairs.
"But - " Ben said as he pulled against his father's hand, but he wouldn't let go. Not even after they started back down.
Not that they were more than three or four steps before he heard his mom knock again. Knock and whisper, " They're gone, Gwen. I'm coming in, okay?" like he'd gone deaf or something. But even if he had, there wasn't any way he would have missed the sound of the door opening again.
Or Gwen crying.
"Dweeb?" He asked almost at the same time as his mom said, "Oh, honey. I know it hurts, but you're just growing..."
The rest of her words were lost when the door clicked shut again, but the wood wasn't thick enough to hide the shaking sobs that just got louder and louder as Ben stopped dead on the stairs because Gwen was crying. She was hurt so much that she was crying. What did she do to herself?
"Oh, thank God," he half-heard his father sigh before his feet just moved. "Come on, Ben. Let's - Ben?!"
Ducking his dad's arm was child's play as Ben turned and ran back up the stairs. His Dweeb could yell at him all she wanted to, but he couldn't just -
Somehow his dad was faster. Somehow the man caught the back of Ben's Jersey just as reached the top of the stairs. Seams ripped, but it slowed him down enough for the man to wrap his other hand around Ben's arm and spin him around. "I forgot to set the timer, Ben. Go check on the sauce. We don't want burned - "
"Who cares about your stupid sauce?!" Ben spat out as he glared up at the man and tried to slip free, but for once his dad wouldn't let go no matter how much he pulled. "Didn't you hear her?! Gwen needs - !"
He had another flashback to Fourarms as he tried to shove his father out of the way as his dad grabbed him by the arms. His dad didn't look angry, though, just confused. Somehow that was worse. "What's wrong? Why are you acting like this?"
Ben shook his head as he tried to pull his arms free. How had his father forgotten already? What was so hard to understand? "I have to help my Dweeb! She's hurt!."
"Your?" Carl asked before he glanced over Ben's shoulder for a second, and when he looked back he squirmed just a little. "I don't think she is, but even if she was your mother can take care of her."
"It's my job!" Ben snapped as he tried to yank his arms free again when the crying just stopped behind him and he forgot all about fighting as he looked back and his mind raced. It was her stomach, what if she hurt it again? How bad was it this time? Should he try to call Grandpa to get the alien medicine? If he should, then he still had to get by his father because he'd left his phone in his backpack. All of those questions raced through his mind, but there was one thing he was sure of. "I should be helping her, not Mom! It's my job!"
His father eased his grip on Ben's arms and gave his son a look. "What?"
It was the look that did it, that made everything he was thinking slip out. "It's mine! I'm supposed to take care of her!" He didn't even know how many times Grandpa told him that, but even if he hadn't he would have known. He didn't understand a lot about being a boyfriend, but he knew that. He knew that she was his Dweeb. It was one of the few things that hadn't changed in the last three years and the only thing that he knew wouldn't change for another seventeen. Everything else did, but not this.
They took care of each other. She'd look out for him even after he turned into a jerk and he'd take care of her now.
Him, not his mom.
He did it even when he couldn't. Even when all he could do was sit there and watch as Grandpa and Aunt Vera tried to help her after Vilgax attacked them. God, he could barely move after that, barely think, but he was still in the room. He felt so guilty that he thought he was going to throw up, but he was still there. No one chased him away. Especially not her. Not even when her whole stomach was one huge bruise.
How much worse was it this time that she did?
"It's not…" His father started before he shook his head and got on a knee so he could look Ben in the eye like he always did when he got serious even though it never helped. Especially not when he said something stupid like - "We're the adults, Ben. It's our job to look out for you two. Not yours."
Ben finally took his eyes off the door so he could stare at his father. How could he even...? He should have understood. Grandpa would have. Ben tried to put it into words, but he couldn't. Not when he kept looking back at the bathroom door.
Gwen was hurt, and his dad didn't even care.
His dad cocked his head a little to the side as he stared. "You pushed me. You haven't ever... Why?"
"She's hurt," Ben said. He knew his dad wanted an apology, but he couldn't. Not for this. "She needs me and you're - ."
"You'd just be in the way," his father said. He said the words as gently as he could, but Ben still winced. "You're better off out here. Your mom can - ."
"You wouldn't let anyone make you go away if Mom was hurt! I know you wouldn't!" Ben could feel his father staring at him, but it didn't matter. At least he was quiet now, and Ben could finally hear again. He heard his Mom saying something in a low voice that he couldn't make out, but he couldn't hear his Dweeb at all and there wasn't anything worse than that.
Not even what his dad said next.
"See? She stopped crying." It almost sounded like he understood even though he wouldn't let go. "It isn't that bad. I don't think so, anyway, but if it is I'll come and get you. If you really want to help her, then right now your job is to go and check on dinner. I've seen your cousin eat after karate. You know she'll be hungry."
Ben almost laughed at that. Gwen was the only one who could eat almost as much as him, even if she denied it even as she stole most of the food off of his plate. She even did it the last time she had a cold and especially after karate. Or heroing. He stared at his father. He didn't want to go, but... "You'll come and get me?"
His father nodded and held up two fingers. "Scout's honor."
Ben nodded because his father was as much of a dork as his mom and if he said that…
It got him downstairs anyway. He was still useless, but finishing dinner was better than nothing. He heard the timer going off and hurried over to the stove. He knew how to cook with his Dweeb during that first summer with Grandpa Max. The basics anyway. Grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, and anything else that was cheesy and spaghetti wasn't that different no matter how big of a butt she was about it back then.
A butt that he'd more than put up with if he ever wanted to eat anything normal. Of course, they also learned how to ruin a meal together and that was even more fun as he watched her make her puppy dog eyes as he said, 'Oh, you said medium low? We thought you said medium-high. Sorry for wasting all those meal-worms, Grandpa.'
That worked until Grandpa Max stopped asking for help. The summer got longer after that. Or dinner did, anyway.
Not that any of those dinners took as long as this one. He was sure that the timers would never go off, but they eventually did. Ben didn't know how long they rang for either. Not when his eyes stayed on the staircase the entire time, but still, he saved most of the dinner. The sauce was burned to the bottom of the pot and the noodles were overdone, but after years of Mom's cooking, he was used to it.
It still tasted like ash as he poked at his plate and waited.
About ten minutes later Dad came down and filled a plate. Just his Dad. "Your mother will be down in a couple of minutes, Sport. I hope that you don't mind, but she's putting your cousin up in your room for tonight."
"She is?" Ben asked, worried and happy at the same time. He could keep an eye on her there. He could…
"Sandy Bear says that your cousin's not up to the drive home and I'm not going to argue with her. Not about this." His father shrugged as sat down and poked at his food for a long time before he looked up. "Gwen isn't hurt, Ben, or sick. And she's not mad at you. She's just growing up and she's embarrassed right now."
"She's growing up? What does - Oh! Oh…" Ben felt his face flush until he was sure that it matched the sauce he stared at as his brain caught up. A brain that was stuffed full of the lecture he wished he never heard after he made the mistake of repeating a joke he'd heard at school in front of his mom years ago. He didn't even get it before she explained all the reasons why it wasn't funny even after he begged her to stop. It was easily one of the top ten punishments he'd ever gotten, but now…. "I could still do something. What if she needs...?"
He didn't know. Not even after everything that his mom told him about women and their bodies on that horrible day.
Some hero he was.
His father was quiet again after that. Quiet as he kept glancing at Ben until he finally murmured, "Your cousin's lucky that she's got you looking out for her, Ben."
"Yeah, right." Ben finally shoved his fork into the mess on his plate just so his dad would stop even though he didn't taste any of the food.
Neither of them said anything else until Mom joined them. She looked beat as she wandered over to the table as she looked at her plate and the single singed weenie that somehow found its way to the top. "Cajun style?"
One that looked downright raw compared to the blackened blob that his Dad was chewing on, but the man just nodded as he swallowed it down. "It's good. You'll like it."
"In a second," Mom said as she walked towards the kitchen and got a mug that was drying on the counter. "I grabbed one of your shirts, Honey Bear. I'm not even sure which one, but she didn't have anything but her Gi and her uniform and - "
"That's fine," his dad said with a wave of his fork. "She can have anything she needs. You know that."
His mom just nodded as her eyes settled on the ceiling with a look that said her mind was a million miles away. "I lit some incense, too, and hopefully the medicine will kick in soon but you're going to be getting the couch tonight, Ben. Sorry about your game night, Honey."
"It's okay." He put his fork down and shook his head. Incense? Ben wrinkled his nose and knew that he had to get it out of there before Gwen threw it out of the window. "I'll be right back."
His mom shook her head even as she reached for her teapot and went to fill it up. "I just got her comfortable and she needs to rest, Ben. I'm going to make her a cup of tea and - "
"He can take it up," Dad cut in, his eyes never leaving his plate.
"I don't - " Mom said as she glanced at Ben and rubbed her arm.
"Is there any reason he can't?"
"I - " his mom's face twisted after that as she gave in with a sigh. "Okay. You can go, just don't turn on the light. She says she's got a devil of a headache. I can't believe that she went to school today, much less karate. That girl acts too tough for her good."
"It's not an act," Ben mumbled he didn't know anyone tougher. Except for him. And maybe Grandpa. That's why they were heroes. He almost told them that, too, before he just nodded.
The six minutes it took to make the tea went on forever. It was worse than math class and there shouldn't be anything worse than math class. When it was finally done he grabbed the cup. He turned to go, but Mom held up a hand. She hurried over to the pantry and came back with a Kit-Kat from somewhere on the top shelf. "Leave some for her, Ben. I mean it."
It was the most serious he'd ever heard his mom and it didn't matter. Not any more than the hot water he felt slosh on his hand after he nodded and raced for the stairs. Stairs he somehow got up without spilling another drop. At least not until he got to his door and remembered the last thing Gwen yelled at him.
That stopped him like nothing else had today.
"Gwen?" He asked before he peeked inside. The lights were off, but the blinds and the window were open. It didn't let in much light, but there was enough to see his Dweeb lying curled up on her side with all his covers pulled up high and her back to the door. Even her hair was loose now and spilled over the pillows behind her in a crimson wave as she stared at the other side of the room even though the only cool thing over there was the window over his desk. A window that let in the only light in the room as the sun set on the other side.
And was open just enough that the breeze caught what was left of the smoke from the incense stick that she'd already blown out and stuck there. It explained why he barely smelt the gunk, but she'd always had a better nose than him, which explained why he maybe heard a sniffle when he opened the door. But her voice didn't shake when his Dweeb sighed, "I'm fine, Aunt Sandra. The smell was just - And it's not that cold out, but thank you."
"Not Mom," Ben finally said after a beat when he wondered if he even should.
Gwen rolled onto her back and he saw her grin for a second under the moonlight before she let out another squeak and yanked the covers the rest of the way up. "You must be loving this, Doofus," she said, and her voice was only a little muffled. "I'm finally as gross as you always said I was."
"If I thought you were gross, you'd know. I'd look at you and go Ewwww." Gwen pulled the covers back down just enough to watch him with one eye. "Ewwwwwwwwww!"
"Brat," Gwen said as she pushed the covers off of her face so she could stick her tongue out at him. Then she wiggled her way up just a little further on the pile of pillows that his mom must have brought in and stacked behind her. She came out of the covers just enough so he could see the too-big shirt that was splashed with a logo of some band called Whitesnake and the head of a lady under it as he sat down on top of the covers next to her.
Her shirt was big enough that he couldn't see a thing under it, but he didn't have to. The nightmares weren't as bad as they had been, but he still saw her face a red mask just like it was now and her stomach covered in ugly purple bruises when he closed his eyes.
Bruises that were all his -
"Ben?" He heard her say from too far away as he tried to make air go into his lungs, but it wouldn't and - and he felt something hot splash his hands, but - "Ben, your fingers!" His Dweeb shouted from somewhere so far away. "Look at me, Doofus!" And he tried, but his eyes wouldn't open.
They wouldn't open, but he could still see fireballs and alien lights and she was go -
"Ben? Ben, I'm right here!" He heard the words, but they didn't seem real. He'd heard them so many times in his nightmares and when he opened his eyes he was all alone. He closed his eyes tighter just in case they were a lie again.
And a lie was better than seeing an empty bed. At least then he'd still have -
Then he felt something pull the mug from his hands, the one he'd forgotten about before fingers took their place even though his were soaked. They were a little rough, but they always were after all the karate, no matter how much moisturizer she used. She said it was worth it if that was the price for breaking boards. He liked it because it gave him so many things to mock her for, or at least it used to. Now it was the one thing about her that his dreams never got right. "Ben, I'm right here. It's okay. You can feel my hands, right? Just focus on my hands. I'm not going to let you go again. I swear I won't."
He forced himself to open his eyes when he heard the shake in her voice and finally sucked in some air when he saw her. He never even felt her move, but now she was kneeling on the bed in front of him with her face just inches away from his. A violet light caught the tears that were glistening in her eyes as she squeezed down on his hands. Pain from the burns he barely felt drained away and filled her voice instead of as she pulled him into a hug. "I won't."
"I know." Neither said another word for a long time after that and when they finally pulled apart their hand immediately found each other again, only now his were steady. She wiped her eyes with her free hand while he brushed pollen away from his. He didn't look at her again, not right away. Instead, his eyes went to the trees around them and he laughed just a little even as he shivered and looked down at the wet spot he'd left on his carpet. "Should I say sorry for spilling your tea or wait for a thank you?"
"Did your mom make it?" Gwen said as she wrinkled her nose and tried for a laugh of her own even as her wet eyes still searched his face.
"She said it would help," Ben said, his heart still too fast until he remembered he still had the important stuff as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the Kit-Kat. "And so would this."
"Where were you hiding these?" Gwen asked like she was about to snatch it away, but he wasn't stupid.
"After twelve years of mom's health food, finding snacks is my job," Ben said with a snark he didn't feel. "Dad said so. Just like - "
" - taking care of me?" Gwen finished, her eyes finally meeting his.
"It's hero work," Ben said, his voice hollow at being caught as he tore the wrapper and broke off a piece because there wasn't any better distraction.
Except against his Dweeb, who was so single-minded that it drove him crazy sometimes. "Yeah, yeah. Mine is worse."
"Your job?" Ben asked as he held out the piece of candy. "What do you do?"
Candy that Gwen didn't take as her hand found his knee instead and squeezed it tight. "Take care of you, duh."
"That's not work. Being anywhere near me is way too cool to be work," Ben said with a wave of his hand. Gwen didn't say a word to that. She didn't even snort or roll her eyes even after his curiosity finally beat everything else and made him ask, "How did you know that junk about your hands?"
"Mom's old psych book," she said finally as she eyed the candy again. She eyed it, but she didn't do anything more than that as her eyes always kept glancing back up at him. "It's like the user manual for Doofuses. And Dweebs." Even in the dim light, he could see her face fall a little more with each glance until she finally curled in on herself and whispered, her voice shaking like she was holding back tears, which was so her and not all at the same time. "I just wish that it said how I could fix everything else that I screwed up tonight."
"You - well maybe a little," he admitted as he slid a little closer. Close enough that he could feel her arm brush against his and he found her hand again, "but that's okay. You can pay me back later."
Kisses would be nice, he almost said, but that just wasn't him. "I have a science project coming up next week and - "
"Nope. Not even a nice try, Doofus."
"My dweeb is so mean to me," Ben sighed because that was a part of this game. Now that it was done, he could go on to what mattered as he glanced down again because he knew what was happening now, no matter how much he wished he didn't.
And his Dweeb knew that he knew. He could tell just from the way she squirmed even if that wasn't why she winced again. "You're so lucky that the only thing you have to deal with is your voice."
"Because that's so fun."
And that was enough to bring her smirk back. "I think it's cute."
"That's because you're evil," he grumbled because he had no idea why no matter how many times she said it. She was the only one who did and she wouldn't spill the why. "Can't you just zap yourself with some magic?"
"I checked. I checked years ago after mom - " Gwen winced again then, but for the first time that day Ben was sure it wasn't because of her stomach. "There are a couple of spells in my book and more were mentioned in my journal, but the woman who wrote it said not to and she probably knew what she was talking about."
"Oh." Ben was sure that there was more to it than that, but he didn't ask. Not after he'd spent enough time glancing over her shoulder at both of the books enough that he knew that the spellbook might be a confusing mess, but it was way more straightforward than the old lady who wrote the journal. She was like his Dweeb and used a hundred words when a grunt would do, but still, "You let that stop you?"
"That and the bright red Do not try! I'm serious! that she wrote every time she mentioned them," Gwen said with the nerdy smile of hers that made him grin back as he held out the bar again. "How many times have I told you that instructions are there for a reason, Doofus?"
"How would I know?" Which earned him that look before she opened her mouth, but she didn't reach for the bar. She just kept staring, the corners of her mouth twitching up at the face he made as he figured out what she wanted. "You must be feeling better if you're milking it like this." The grumbly words came out with a glare, but it wasn't any match for the look she gave him until he fed her anyway. Or he did until she bit down and he felt her teeth scrape against his fingertips. "When did you turn into Ripjaws?"
"I see chocolate; I bite. It's not my fault if your fingers get in the way." Gwen laughed, and it sounded brittle. Like she would crack at any second and even if he was really mad instead of just playing around it never would have lasted against that.
"Do you need anything?" Ben couldn't keep the desperation from his voice even as brought what was left of the bar back to her lips. He didn't even try. There had to be something more that he could do. Something more than this.
If he still had the watch...
Gwen shook her head and finished off the Kit-kat with another wince. Then she rolled over and curled up again, only this time she made his arm into her pillow instead of the lumpy things she'd been lying on before. "I need this," she said with another sigh as she fished out a hot water bottle from under the covers before she put it right back between them with a sigh as she closed her eyes. "I need you to tell me which classes you slept through today so I know which ones I have to help you cram on, and I need you to stop asking me if I need something. I know that you're just being you, but if I hear it again today I'm going to scream."
"Do you - ?" Ben started to ask before she even got the last word out, but she didn't.
"Brat," she muttered, her lips twitching up despite everything she said and that should have been it. Ben was ready for that to be it, except her face was twisting even as he nodded. "A-and- " she started when it just cracked. After that, she moved every bit as fast as he knew she could as she buried her face in his chest and let out a sob that shook her whole body. "And I need you not to go away, Doofus. Please don't go away! I'm sorry I said that! I'm - !"
The words were shaking just as hard as the rest of her as Ben did the only thing he could think of and hugged her tight. Then he leaned down and kissed the top of her head. It wasn't her lips. It wasn't even her cheek, but it was the only thing that he could reach and it always seemed like it helped when he'd seen his father do that to his mom when she was sick. Not that he ever watched for long. Usually, he made the most disgusting gagging noises he could as he left the room because it looked beyond gross when they did it, but now….
Now it was still weird, but it didn't matter. Not when he felt his Dweeb calm down a little more every time he did it until he could finally tell her, "I thought that you were the smart one! Like you've ever been able to get rid of me. How many times have you said that I'm like a tick?"
"Did not!" Gwen gasped as she looked up at him before she let out a wet laugh because she knew just how big of a lie that was and it was as gross as the rest of her.
So was the kiss that she gave him a second later because her face was soaked with snot and tears, but that didn't stop him from kissing her again anyway before he told her, "And ye of little faith. I'll have you know that I slept through all of my classes today! You're not the only overachiever in the family."
"I'm so proud of you," Gwen said, rolling her eyes at that and then the rest of her followed as she went for the box of tissues that were waiting on his nightstand. Then she came back with her knees digging into his side as she poked his chest with a finder. "And don't think for a second that you can stop there, Mister! I want to hear everything. And all about your practice because I saw your socks. You better not be hiding any more bruises from me!" The words were as much a threat as the sniff that came with them. A sniff that somehow flushed away all of her Dweebness even as it made her cheeks red as she grumped, "It's not fair that you're so good right now."
"As if!" Ben said with a laugh as he waited for her to agree and push him away. He hadn't even changed his socks yet much less his shirt and she was addicted to showers. If he wasn't sure that he'd get his butt kicked twice he would have pulled his shirt over her head so she could get the full experience instead of just declaring, "You really are out of it because even I know how sweaty and gross I am right now!"
She made it so easy, too, the way she was leaning in. But she kissed him just as his fingers found the hem of his shirt and after that...
After that, she proved just how much smarter she was than him as she balled her hand up in his shirt and kept it there even after she pulled away. "No, you're not," she said because she had to argue even now as her voice got low and rough, but that didn't explain the look in her eyes. Eyes that almost seemed hooded before they disappeared as she buried her face in his chest and sniffled.
"Dweeb?" He asked, hesitant because he was sure that she was about to drench his shirt again with tears again. Only they didn't come and he barely touched her before she proved just how right Army Girl was about her being crazy as she let out a squeak, turned, and buried her face in a pillow. "Warned you."
"Shut up!" Gwen shot back with a muffled moan as curled up in a ball with her face still in the pillow and her knees tight together and pointing away from him. She bounced like a ball, too, when he started rubbing her back through the covers that separated them when he wasn't running his fingers through her hair like she was the cat that was splashed on all of her best shirts.
Maybe it helped and maybe it didn't, but eventually, she relaxed and a little while after that she finally got over his stink and rolled back towards him with a look that he knew way too well.
It was a look that he almost ignored as he threw one of his own at the door he'd left cracked open just in case, but for once she didn't seem to care and he knew that he'd hear the stair creak if his mom and dad came looking, so he sighed as he stretched his arm out. "Ten thousand pillows behind you…"
"I'm sick!" Gwen declared like he'd forgotten and she somehow stuck her nose in the air as she said it even as she snuggled close.
"No, you're not," he shot her own words right back at her even as a flush filled her face again while she got comfy. One that took forever to fade. "Mom told me all about - "
"School?" Gwen asked as she opened an eye and smirked before he could finish. "That's odd because I'm sure that I know a Doofus who promised that he'd tell me all about his day today, too, and since I'm sick and all…."
"Fine," Ben sighed, not mad at all that she'd won again as he rolled over, too, so he could brush strands of damp hair away from her face. "Well, History was the first class that knocked me out, and I swear that Mr. Pierogi is so old that he probably lived through most of it. I think he thought it was dull the first time around, too, and he wants to share the pain. If the bad guys ever weaponize that kind of boredom we're going to be in trouble."
"His name is Perrotti, and I'm sure that he isn't that bad," Her words came with a soft laugh and a softer slap on his stomach as she closed her eyes and preened under his attention, which just wasn't fair. Not when any of them would have kept him talking, which he did until the words became so much noise and she started making that little wheezing snore of hers that drove him crazy. For a second he thought about the TV that was right there on his dresser and all the games that were just waiting for him. It wouldn't even be breaking his promise to stay if he did play…
But it might have woken her up. So the thought came and went as more words poured out into her hair because that was what heroes did and it didn't feel like work at all. Not really. It was just what his Dweeb deserved.
Besides, she still had a death grip on his shirt anyway, so he just watched over her as the exhausted lines in her face slowly eased away as he held her. Maybe the edges of her lips even curled into a smile when he pressed another kiss into her hair.
Maybe, maybe not, but he was sure that he wasn't moving for anything that she didn't need - not now - so he kept talking even as the world went dark…
- o - o - o - o - o -
The infernal, white cold was gone, but the dark stone of the endless hall that replaced it wasn't any better. Not when the burning torches didn't touch the must or the gloom in the air. No, they just revealed the runes that were carved in every block. Seven repeating runes that weren't the rings in the door, not any more than the temperature was what made the air feel thick and steamy as he sucked another breath through the fabric that covered his shuddering lips, but he knew them anyway even if he couldn't remember why . He knew them and it was all he could do just to keep one foot in front of the other when everything in him screamed that he should run .
Run back, even with the yeti waiting for him.
Run forward, towards the doorway at the end of the hall that didn't seem to get any closer.
The doorway and the room that he knew was waiting on the other side. The one that hid the key to everything that he'd spent his life looking for. Everything that Uncle Frank would have killed for even now, even after the Fountain of Youth made him...
"Wait, Uncle Frank wasn't - " Ben started and startled when he heard his voice because it was wrong even though he knew it.
But not as wrong as the wizened thing in ancient, rusted, and rotting armor that he saw when the endless hall suddenly ended. The thing looked up at him from over the altar he'd been praying at with sightless white eyes. Eyes never moved. Not even as the man stumbled back up to his feet. Somehow he lifted a sword that looked even older than he was, opened his crooked, toothless mouth, and called out, the weight of his words hit like a fist, "B - "
- o - o - o - o - o -
Ben felt something fall on him and he opened his eyes in a panic. He tried to sit up and reach for the Omnitrix, but something was holding his left arm down. He was just about to start punching when he felt a hand grab his arm and someone said, soft and soothing, "It's okay, Ben! Everything's okay. Go back to sleep."
Someone he knew. "Dad?" Ben gasped out as he stared up at his father's shape as it was half-lost in the dark. His father's and not the withered man he'd seen standing over -
"Yeah," his dad said as he smoothed Ben's hair down with his hand. "It was just a dream. Go back to sleep, Sport."
"But - " Ben started as he rubbed at his face with his free hand because this was all wrong. He knew it even before he blinked and saw the top of Gwen's head as she laid there curled up on his arm where she couldn't be! "Dad!" He said in a panicked rush even as he pulled her closer before he realized he shouldn't. That she was sick and he - he was in bed with her and - and his father was right here! "Dad, this isn't - !"
"It's all right, Ben," his mom's voice called out from Gwen's side of the bed.
"Mom?!" Ben wanted to scream as he spun around and saw her standing there, too, in the dark, but a groan came out instead because it was Hero time and - he didn't have the Watch! No, all he had was his mouth and he couldn't think! "No, I was just -! It's all my fault and - !"
"Shhh," He heard his father say as a big hand found his hair again.
"You were just having a nightmare, Honey," his mom said at the same time, her voice sounding like it did when she tricked him into watching a sappy movie with them and the kissing started. And that thought made his stomach drop until she added, "Everything's okay. We're not mad. Just go back to sleep."
"This is a nightmare?" Ben shook his head because none of his ever went like this, but he must be asleep if his mom and dad caught them and they weren't freaking out. And if he was, then "You are lucky," he murmured into his Dweeb's soft hair as he held her close and he could have sworn he felt her smile as she shifted even closer because duh.
I could get used to nightmares like this, he thought, closing his eyes as the warm strawberry smell of her shampoo filled his nose and everything else slipped away again.
- o - o - o - o - o -
I just wanted to thank everybody for all of the reviews that I got for the last chapter. I usually reply to them all, but I've never gotten so many before. I can't tell you what they meant to me when I read them all or how much better they made my day. You guys are just the best.
From Erico: "EEAAAGLEE!"