Chapter 31: There is No Defense
The Rising Phoenix Dojo
2:58 pm; May 27th, 2000
The last time Ben felt like this he'd been in an arena with Kevin chained to his wrist and home was just a dot in the sky he wasn't sure he'd ever see again.
The dojo was so much smaller than that starship was and the mat in the middle was no deathtrap, home felt just as far away as he listened to the crowd all around him. One that made the same noise he still dreamed about sometimes as he watched a boy who was tall and muscled like that psycho had wished he was when he wasn't a mutant stalk across the mat.
He watched and his hand ached for the Omnitrix even before he saw the boy's smirk, but there were too many people around. People that he almost forgot about as the hulk's hand blurred forward in a punch and there wasn't anything he could do. He just sucked in a breath that stank of chalk and sweat as the boys kneeling on either side of him and the crowd all gasped. Someone did more than that, a woman who made a sound that almost sounded like his name before they bit it off. He couldn't help flinching as he watched that meat locker of a fist coming.
He flinched, but his Dweeb didn't.
The boy was huge and strong, but Gwen was a blur of white and red on the mat as she sidestepped his fist and then caught his arm before he could stop his punch. After that, there was just the shock that filled the boy's eyes for the split second before she had him flipping through the air. The only noise louder than his shout was the sound of a whistle that sounded almost before he landed on the mat. That and the sound of the crowd as the referee let the little tin thing drop from his lips so he could say, "Point. Victory goes to the Rising Phoenix Dojo!"
Ben let the roar wash over him as he sagged back against his heels. The noise that had his parents' mixed in with it and felt his stomach clench at the sound of their voices - especially after the way his mom just laughed and his dad ruffled his hair when he asked them if they really wanted to come - and a part of him wondered if they'd be cheering as loudly in a minute. Just a part, though. A small one that barely mattered as he watched Gwen stand there, looking so sweaty and fierce that he just wanted to -
"Stop it," Ben grumbled and shook his head like he was WIldmutt and the thought was a bad guy on his back that he could shake loose Not that it helped. Not now or ever. No, the only thing that washed his grin away was when the Dweeb let her hand drop so she could hold it out for the boy who was still lying at her feet on the mat.
And the look on the guy's face when he saw her do it…
It wasn't angry. If it was, Ben would have been on his feet in a heartbeat. No, it was so much worse. It was the wide-eyed stare. One that was just awed and didn't go away even as she pulled the boy up and he made his way back to the guys from his dojo, his eyes on her the whole time like -
"Ease up on the death glare, Shorty," Paul murmured beside him as the lanky blond boy bounced an elbow into Ben's ribs. One that shattered that train of thought with one that was so much worse. "I thought he was going to try something, too, but… Well, we warned him not to go easy on her just because she's hot."
"As if!" Ben snorted, the words just slipping out and making Paul snort back a laugh. One that made Ben's hands tighten into fists and he didn't even know why. Not when the boy wasn't anywhere near as big a jerk as Ben used to think and what did it matter to him anyway if he thought that Gwen was hot or that the lug across the mat couldn't stop looking at her? His Dweeb wasn't…
He didn't know and he didn't have a chance to find out before another voice cut in. "Is there a problem, gentlemen?"
"No, Sensei!" They said together as they turned to the man who was dressed in a gi just like theirs, except his belt was still a plain white one. Not that there was any doubt about who was the master.
Or who didn't buy a word as the man just stared at Ben for a moment that went on forever. One that was all the worse for the three wrinkles that the stare left in his brow until Ben finally let his hands relax. It was almost a relief when Sensei sighed and clasped his hands behind his back, but none of the wrinkles went away as the man said, "Tennyson-san, if I'd known…"
It was only the first and most important lesson Ben had learned at the Dojo that kept Ben from flinching when he heard the rumble that should have come from a thunderstorm, not that it kept him from smirking as he jumped to his feet or stop his mouth from saying, "Don't worry, Sensei. I've got this."
Another wrinkle appeared at those words as Paul snorted at his side, but Ben didn't care. Not after a year and a half of practice and more bruises than he could count just so he'd be ready for today and most of them were from the girl who was waiting on the mat, who he'd show just how good he was now if Sensei would ease up for even a minute...
"You've only had your green belt for a month, Tennyson-san," Sensei said, his words cutting through the daydream that followed Ben ever since their last birthday and saved him from the heat he could feel building in his cheeks at the thoughts. "And we've already earned the gold. There would be no shame in stopping now if - "
"I'm ready, Sensei," Ben said instead of the words he wanted to as the joke and the daydream both vanishing as he bowed again just so no one could see the panic in his face. Stop? After all of this? When they had the whole summer still in front of them?! He had to show her. He had to!
The world seemed like it just went away as he focused on the man even though Ben could still hear the cheering and the people talking from the stands that were usually folded up all around them was quiet enough that he heard the man let out another sigh that sounded like it could have come from a tea kettle before he stepped aside. "Very well. You have earned the chance. If this is what you want, I will not stop you."
Sensei didn't say anything more after that, which was good because Ben wasn't listening. He barely remembered he should bow again before he rushed the mat before he could change his mind. A rush that turned into a stumble as he watched his Dweeb pick up her water bottle from the floor by the mat and took a swig even as she pulled her bare foot close to her butt in a stretch that stole away all his brags he had ready and left him stammering the lamest thing ever instead. "G-good fight."
God, where was old squid-face when he needed him? Having his arm sawed off would be less painful.
"Thanks," Gwen said as her smile turned into a full grin as she ducked her eyes and her cheeks flushed even as the bottle shot back up to her lips. Lips that tasted like cherry and -
Stop it! Just stop it! New Year's bad!
Five months! That's what Ben told himself as he tried to look at anything that wasn't her. Not that it helped. Not when even the paintings on the walls had splashes of red and green that just reminded him of her. Reds and greens and the same shade of pink that he'd seen on her finger and toenails the moment he saw her kick off her shoes before the tournament started. A color he knew she hated and that she'd only put on today because she was a Dweeb and she was being a pain before she even started smirking when she saw him staring.
Like he saw her doing now around the top of her water bottle, and even her smirk looked -
Stop it! It was Gwen! Bossy, know it all Gwen. His cousin. She was his sweaty, gross dweeb of a cousin. It was beyond sick and nail polish didn't change anything. Neither did lip gloss. Ben told himself that over and over again every time he was with her now, but he never listened. He knew that if he told her that she'd just smile at him and lift her chin and say Now you know how your teachers feel, Doofus!
It was almost worth telling her just so he could hear her laugh as she said that. Almost, but it wasn't worth the risk. Not when she didn't like him like that.
The thought made him smile as he watched her run a hand through her sweat-dark hair as she took another drink from her water bottle, one that did things to her throat that he never should have noticed and almost sent him stammering again when she caught him and he just barely covered it up with a snarky "If you need a minute before I kick your butt…"
"Like it'll take me that long to kick yours," The dweeb snarked right back as she let the bottle drop from her lips and ran her left hand through her damp hair. Hair that she'd pulled back into a little ponytail because she couldn't wear her clip in the tournament. One that he would have given up all his comics just to give it a tug, which didn't make any sense and he knew it but he couldn't stop thinking it.
Not that he'd let her know that. "As if, Nerd girl! Get ready to taste mat."
Her mouth dropped and her green eyes glittered even as she gave him a shove. "I think your head got kicked too hard in your last match because you're dreaming, Ben!"
Only a long-suffering groan stopped Ben from saying anything more as Sensei stepped up between them. "Shall we begin?"
Ben nodded to the man and whispered, "Dweeb," as he went to get into position on the mat.
"Doofus," Gwen whispered right back as she set down her water bottle and jogged to her position as Sensei watched them both with a forehead that was nothing but creases now before he bowed to them both before he backed away without giving any of the advice he had in the other matches as the dojo went quiet.
"Get him, Pumpkin!" Uncle Frank shouted with a laugh from somewhere behind Ben. It was the loudest thing he'd ever heard the man, and this time the dweeb wasn't the only one blushing as they stared at each other because their whole family was there, watching. Even Grandpa was here - finally - because somehow they all knew it would end like this.
"You got this, Ben!" His dad shouted and that was even worse. Almost as bad as the fact he knew what their dads would be whispering to each other now and reaching for their wallets while Grandpa just shook his head at them and his mom hid her face in her hands even though they hadn't even started yet.
And his aunt…
Aunt Natalie would just be glaring. Ben was as sure of that as he was that his Dweeb just wanted to disappear as she stood there, her hands twitching at her side, because she didn't need her imagination. Not when they were all right in front of her and she could see everything. Or she did until he stage-whispered, "We can't take them anywhere," as he made a show of rolling his eyes as she shook her head for the audience, but the way her lips curled up into a smile? That was all him.
He told himself that anyway, as his face warmed.
Then their family and the rest of the crowd faded away as the Sensei from one of the other dojos who was here today came up - a built guy with blond hair who looked more like one of the bullies from Ben's school than a man who deserved the name - and looked at them both, but his gaze stayed on Gwen's the longest as he frowned before he shook his head. "Are you ready?"
"Best of three falls wins," he said the words that they'd been hearing all morning. "May the best man win."
"Yes, Sensei," they harmonized the words as they bowed to the man again even as Ben fought down a laugh at the glare his Dweeb sent the wanna-be Sensei, and he almost made her laugh with the face he made as they bowed to each other.
"Begin," the man said before he backed away, and then it was just them.
They'd done this so many times before. In the dojo and their backyards and the park and on more rooftops than he could count late at night when there weren't any more butts that needed kicking and they needed the watch recharged before they got smoothies. They'd sparred with magic and the Watch in the woods and with words for all their lives and he remembered each and every one as he dropped into his usual stance with his arms up and his feet spread wide for balance.
They started slow, just approaching each other with both of them on guard and ready. That was what Ben thought, anyway, even as he felt fresh sweat run down his back as everything Sensei taught him - everything she taught him ran through his head again as he watched her bounce on the balls of her feet with her hands up and ready and her face set. 'I don't watch their hands and feet, Doofus,' she'd told him after the fourth time he'd ended up on his butt in class when he finally knew enough that Sensei let him spar. 'Not in here and not when we're out there. They'd flatten me if I did that. I watch their eyes. Sensei said that you can see what they're going to do in them and he was right.'
And so was she. He didn't end up getting clobbered nearly as often after that. Only…
Only it was different with his Dweeb because looking into the emerald green of her eyes was almost as distracting as her lips. Distracting enough that he didn't care what they said as he watched them. He just stared into the green of them and felt his stomach lurch as he tensed up for a quick punch.
A punch he never threw. He never had a chance. He didn't see her foot coming until it caught his chin and after that…
Ben blinked at the word as he stared up at the rafters and the lights and speakers hidden in them. All the stuff he'd seen too many times already, in this school and his last, as he heard people cheer and laugh around him because gym was always the worst. That's what he thought, anyway, before the ceiling disappeared and worried green eyes took its place as her knees hit the mat at his side.
"Doofus?!" Gwen asked and she sounded just this side of panicked as she reached for him as the crowd groaned in sympathy and two women gasped just to make it worse. No, nothing was worse than the worry he heard in his Dweeb's voice. "I thought you were going to block it! I was just - Are you okay?!"
"I'm fine," Ben somehow got out as he slapped away her hands and rolled away even though his head was still ringing. And then he heard a noise cut through that, one he never wanted to hear as he looked back and saw wet glisten over the green and he made himself grin even though he just wanted to kick himself even harder than the one he just got. "Please. Don't look so smug. You just got lucky, Dweeb!"
"As if!" Gwen shot right back and he knew it was just from habit because the worry didn't go away. Not even when he was back on his feet and the audience cheered just for that, but she finally stopped clutching her hands together as Sensei gave him a nod and let him get back into the starting position before the wanna-be came back up.
This time Ben didn't make any mistakes as he crossed the mat, but he could see her holding back even as he came at her hard and fast with kicks and punches. Ones that were high and low and she danced around them like they were nothing, but she didn't even try to hit him back. Not until it was too late and he had her feet swept out from under her and he followed her down to the mat so he could pin her right. The crowd didn't cheer nearly as loud then, and there were so many more gasps as he stared down at her and watched his Dweeb blink in shock. It was a look that should have been so sweet and just made him want to scream as he leaned up so he could let out a yawn and tell her "If you're not going to even try I might as well nap, Dweeb."
There wasn't any worry left her eyes after that. Just the forest fire as she slapped his chest and growled, "Get off me, Doofus!" He did even though too much of him didn't want to. The part that always missed how warm she was after she went home from the movie nights she called a date once and made him grin now as he held out his hand. A hand Gwen ignored as she jumped back to her feet and glared.
It was all Ben could do not to crow because this was every dream he'd had as they went back to the starting positions and he almost danced as he waited the ten seconds before he heard, "Next fall wins! Begin!" He was moving almost before the word even finished and so was she. They charged across at each other and he ducked the foot that shot out at his chin even as he threw every move that he knew as quick as he could.
He felt her hand slap aside his foot a moment before it would have caught her, but she didn't look the least bit worried as she threw an elbow at him. One that would have stolen away every breath he'd ever taken if it hit, but he spun away from it and felt the nearly lethal point of her elbow brush across his chest as he threw a punch. A sloppy one that she didn't even try to dodge and just blocked as she shook her head just a fraction, just enough that he knew she was giving herself the win already.
'Stop acting like you won before the fight's done!' He'd never forget those words even if he couldn't remember when she yelled them at him or why, but he was so glad that she hadn't paid any attention either as he saw her foot come up.
It was worth the jolt he felt up his whole arm just for the look on her face when he caught it and locked it under his arm in a hold she taught him. One that brought him close enough that he could see her gasping for air and the hair that slipped out of her ponytail and fell across her face as she just stood there and stared in total shock as her mouth dropped open as she bounced there on one bare foot.
On toes that were painted as pink as her fingers were as they stood there eye to eye and almost nose to nose and close enough that he could kiss -
The thought only distracted him for the second it took her eyes to go so wide, and then he felt her leg tense in his arm. That was the only warning he got as she jumped and twisted in the air so she could kick free and send him stumbling back. Somehow he stayed on his feet as she landed on hers.
And somehow he knew that wasn't why she had her head cocked now as she just stared at him with a red face from across the mat. He just wished he knew if the corners of her mouth really were twisting up as the crowd went quiet.
It didn't matter. He didn't even try to hide his grin because he knew his Dweeb. Everyone was always telling him that he should calm down, but he knew her, and he knew her temper. She kept it tied down like she did everything else behind a mask made out of snark and superiority because she never let herself feel. Never let herself be anything but perfect and controlled. That was the boring Gwen. The one who rattled off facts and acted so superior...
And the one who was so much fun to bug until she stopped and turned into the Gwen in front of him now. The one who chased after him red faced and screaming because of a stink bomb or a snowcone snowball. This was the her that was still such a nerd and that just made the way that she argued with him every single day of their first summer so much more fun as she said things no one else would ever even think of and made him scramble just to keep up with her.
This was the her that she hid away from everyone else. Everyone but him. The one that didn't worry about what everyone else thought or about being a lady, whatever that meant. The one who looked like she had a fire in the forest of her eyes and the widest smirk he'd ever seen as she launched herself at him again.
And Ben laughed as he charged forward.
He couldn't help it even though it was the dumbest idea he ever had. Even after all his time in the dojo she was still faster than he was and she proved it with every kick and punch she sent his way. All of which was so much more precise than his were and fast enough that he barely blocked them while she danced away from his. She swept for his feet and he jumped over her leg. He grabbed for her arm again and she spun out of reach as the crowd around them got quieter and quieter until they just stopped and all he could hear was the slap of their bare feet on the mat as they moved.
Not like they did here when it was just practice and a game either. No, they moved like they did when it was Hero Time and it mattered.
Faster even. He had to. None of the bad guys they'd gone up against fought like her. Most of them just fought like he used to, all wild swings and charges that only their strength let them get away with. Only old Squidface even came close to the girl who earned the nickname even if she hated being called Honey Badger, and Vilgax was too big. He'd never be as quick as his Dweeb. Quick enough that her foot was a blur as he slapped her kick away a heartbeat before it would have caught his chin again and he felt the force of it in the breeze that played at his hair.
Ben let out another laugh as he imagined them doing this when she had all the charms and he had the Watch's Master Control unlocked again. He kept laughing inside even after she broke the hold that he got on her arm before he could do anything with it because he knew that the jerk he almost grew up into never had. There wasn't any way he could have and been that grumpy if they had because this was awesome and it only got better as it went on.
It was even better than Sumo Slammers, which should have been impossible. He just wished it could have gone on forever.
Not that it could. Grandpa always said that and as hard as it was to just stand there and smile as the man slapped his shoulder this morning as a hello he knew that he was right. Ben knew he was right even before he saw his Dweeb stumble as she spun away and he sucked in air.
They'd been sparring all day as they worked through the tournament, but none of their other matches had lasted this long. Ben had gotten a break while she hadn't and he was feeling the burn now anyways. One that made his arms and legs feel like they were in cement even as he tried to find all the air that wasn't there, but his Dweeb looked even worse with her face so wet with sweat that it was dripping off of her as she caught herself a second before she would have twisted wrong on her ankle and gone down. It didn't stop her from spinning back to him, though - spinning so fast that her ponytail went flying and almost caught her in her chin as she brought her hands up again. Her hands shook from the strain and that was when Ben knew.
He had her. He couldn't believe it. He had her!
Gwen threw another punch at him and it was so slow and sloppy that Ben knew he was right even as he ducked her fist and spun around, and his face split into a grin. He could already feel his tail sweeping her legs out from under her and even if that didn't finish her the roundhouse kick he'd give her at the end of the spin would. He had her! He had her!
Even if he only beat her today, that was all he needed. She'd see that he was more than just her Doofus cousin! She'd -!
It only took Ben a heartbeat to remember, but that was enough. He was only halfway through the spin and too slow to do anything else when he felt her leg sweep his foot out from under him and then her hands were on his jacket before he had a hope of recovering as she pulled him down and somehow got on top as they hit the mat and she sat down hard on his chest and brought her fist up for a blow that never came.
Not before the whistle beat it anyway. "Point. Match! Gold goes to the Rising Phoenix Dojo!"
And Ben wished that Gwen did punch him as he laid there and listened to the crowd cheer and rush to their feet as he just stared up at her and she stared back. "Ben?" she started as he closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the mat and it was almost the same thing.
"B - ?" she started again and then she was just gone as more feet filled the mat.
Feet and words. "Congratulations - !"
"Way to - !"
"You sure showed - !"
Words from the rest of the kids at their dojo. Words she met with stumbled thanks as they slapped her back and acted like this was something new. Like anyone was good enough to beat her if the fight was even a little fair and even if it wasn't usually. Like he'd ever be good enough…. "Damn it!" Ben growled at the thought as he smacked the mat and felt the burning behind his closed eyes.
Burning that no one else saw, but somehow someone heard the words. Either that or Sensei really did have eagle eyes because he heard the man snap, "Benjamin!"
And things got that much worse.
Ben wasn't even a little bit surprised that the crowd went quiet then. It was Sensei. He didn't even care about all the eyes on him when he finally opened his. Not even his teacher's hard eyes and all the wrinkles in his brow as he glared or the words that followed. Words that were almost a growl and meant for him and him alone as Sensei loomed over. "You fought well. I had almost thought you'd learned to control your anger. There is no shame in being second best, but there is in acting like a child about it. Apologize."
No, Ben didn't care about any of that after the moment that it took him a moment to catch on. A moment and a glance over at his Dweeb, who was standing just a few feet away and not looking at him, not really. Not that it did anything to hide the way her smile had frozen or the hurt in her eyes as she stood there with one hand held high over her head as the other reached up and squeezed at her gi just next to her heart where he knew the charm he'd given her hung.
What was he thinking?
"Gwen," he croaked out as he tried to find the words and push himself back up at the same time. Words that wouldn't come as she just stood there and everyone else stared. "Dweeb…"
And then he remembered what she taught him. The first lesson he ever learned in this dojo and the one he used the most, but he never meant it as much as he did today when he bowed to her.
She didn't bow back. She stared at him, but she didn't bow and he tried to tell herself that she didn't have a chance. Not when Grandpa was just there and pulling her close. "Great match, Pumpkin! You two were better than anything that I saw at the Garden last year!"
"Thanks, Grandpa," Ben somehow heard her say as she disappeared into his arms, but the words sounded so strangled as she did and he knew it wasn't because of anything that their Grandpa had done. The thought made him turn away even as he heard her add, "You said you'd shave!"
He just wanted to disappear as Grandpa's laugh filled the dojo even as the rest of what he said disappeared. The crowd should have been thick enough now that everyone was off the bleachers. He'd done it before, but his father must have picked up something from his Grandpa after all, because he barely made it outside before there was a hand in his hair. "You're not getting away that easy, Sport!"
The words came with a grin even as his dad made a horrible face and made a show of wiping his hand on his jeans. A show that should have sent Ben running and maybe he would have if his mom wasn't pulling him into a hug a second later. "I don't know why you have to leave right now," she said and he heard the tears in her voice.
"The road's waiting, Mom," Ben said the words he heard his Grandpa say every morning when it was still dark out as he tried to squirm out of her arms. It must have sounded better to Grandpa because his mom just hugged him tighter.
Too tight as she kissed the top of his head even though he was sweaty and gross. "You have enough time to come home and get a shower, don't you? And get some snacks? Carl, go find Frank and Dad and tell them - "
"Mom!" Ben groaned because that was the last thing he wanted as he finally pulled free and said the words he knew he had to instead of the real ones. "It's summer!"
And the last thing his dad let happen as he took mom's hand and pulled her close so she could hide her face in her chest and everyone around pretended that they didn't see. "We gotta let him go, Sandy Bear. Or else he'll be living with us when he's forty." The words came with a wink.
One that his mom didn't see as she asked, "So what?" But she nodded into his dad's shoulder anyway before she came up for an avalanche of questions, "You have everything, right? You packed your toothbrush and your summer reading?"
And his mom might be wiping away tears, but that didn't stop Ben from crossing his arms and snorting. "Please. It's summer. I'm not going to be reading. Or brushing my teeth!"
"Ben!" His name should have gotten at least a little smirk because it wasn't often he got both his parents at once, even if he was sure his dad was just putting on a show, but it didn't. Not when he saw his Dweeb just on the other side of the door. The dweeb and Army Girl, who was standing there talking to her just like she was all last night when Aunt Natalie had the brilliant idea to take them all to the most awkward movie Ben had ever seen because the girl wouldn't stop whispering stuff to his Dweeb and giggling every time she looked at him.
Girls were so weird! All of them but his Dweeb. Weird wasn't a big enough word for her.
It should have been the worst and it was until he saw the look she was giving him now. One that was just cold and right up there with the best he'd ever seen while he was kicking bad-guy butt before she put her arm around Gwen's shoulders and turned her back to him.
And he didn't even know what her problem was. That should have been the worst part, not that Gwen let her. Not that he wouldn't even look at him. "I need to go," Ben somehow forced out as his stomach fell to his feet and he gave his parents one last hug because there wasn't any way they'd let him go before he did.
"I guess that your cousin has enough books for both of you," his mom said with another kiss into his hair and Ben just squeezed his eyes shut tight at the touch and the thought. Especially when his mom added, "I'd tell you not to drive her too crazy, but I know that you'll take good care of her."
But he was glad that his mom was there just so he didn't see his dad's face at that. Not when he heard the man make a noise that was as weird as how he was acting around the Dweeb before he clapped Ben's shoulder again. "Give us a call this time, Ben. Give us some clue where you are."
Ben wished he knew, but he just nodded and ran the second he was free. The noise disappeared the second that he got the Rust Bucket's door closed behind him. It should have felt like coming home, but he still couldn't breathe. Not even in the sudden quiet. Not when he saw Gwen come running out of the dojo through the window a second after he did with Army Girl still glued to her side and their families all around them. He saw her and he knew he wasn't safe yet. Not when her face was still twisted with all the stuff he didn't want to face.
He couldn't use the Watch, no matter how good it felt as his fingers moved and he stared at all the ones that went by as he twisted the dial until he stopped at XLR8 and glared for all the time he had before he ran for the one safe space that was left.
The shower wasn't much, but it let him ignore Grandpa when he heard the man knock and call through the door and the Dweeb when she didn't. For once, Grandpa didn't even wait until he was done before he started up the Rust Bucket and got them going, but Ben didn't care. There wasn't any chance he'd slip now. He could have stayed in there until the hot water died and the tank ran dry, but he didn't.
Not when he knew who would be waiting for the next shower, even though it would have been so funny.
But he did drag out drying off and getting changed for as long as possible before he cracked the door and hoped that there was one more miracle coming his way. A miracle where the Queen of the Dorks had gotten over it. There should have been after all the times he saved the day.
But the universe was a jerk and she hadn't. Over course she hadn't.
Gwen wasn't even sulking at the table or on the couch at the back. She didn't even bother to get changed as she stood on the other side of the door with her arms crossed and between her glare and her gi she filled the crowded space as she snapped at him the second he opened the door. "Did you think I would just let you win?"
Ben almost slammed it in her face just so he'd have more time. Only the hurt in her eyes stopped him when he started to. That and how stupid her question was. "What? Who'd want that?!"
Please, a pity win was the last thing he wanted. He couldn't believe that she even thought that. Her letting him win would be way worse than her beating him. "When I kick your butt, I want bragging rights." And cheaters didn't get those. This wasn't Sumo Slammers, where those codes were just a part of the game and if she didn't catch on…
Well, she was the brains and she should have thought of that.
The Dweeb's expression changed as she finally settled on an emotion. Too bad for him that the one she chose was angry. "Sure you didn't. That's why you're hiding in the bathroom."
"I wasn't hiding. I wanted to get cleaned up for the trip."
That got a sniff that was almost a snort. "Since when?"
"I'm not a slob, you know."
Her laugh was almost bitter as she repeated, "Since when?" He just kind of shrugged and waited for the next volley, one that didn't come as she just sagged and sounded so much smaller as she asked, "How long are you going to be mad that I beat you?"
He blinked and stared. Girls. "I don't even know what you're talking about."
"Sure you don't, Ben!" She snapped as she cocked her head and squinted at him. "You just wanted to get a shower for the first time ever!"
"I did! And I'm not!" He snapped at her as he waited for her to get mad again so that this would end in a fight where they didn't talk to each other until the end of the day again like they always used to when things made sense. Days even. Maybe even a week where she just ignored him and - and it was too much. "Can't you just let it go?" He asked as he felt himself crumble at the thought. The flat look she gave him was enough of an answer. He sighed. "I was stupid."
She jumped at that. "What?"
"At the end of our match, when I – it was stupid."
"When you tried that spin kick?" He just nodded as his shoulders sagged. Especially after her eyes lit up with confused understanding. "I was ready for it, and you knew it. What were you thinking?" There wasn't any mocking in her voice that would have made getting mad so much easier just honest curiosity. The kind that usually made her nerd out over his math homework until she figured out what he did to it.
"Of course you can't just be happy that I admitted it," Ben grumbled because she had him trapped, so he bit the bullet. "I forgot I didn't have a tail, all right?"
"Well, not since the doctors cut it off," Gwen said as her lips curled into a smile like it was a joke.
"I'm serious. I was going to use it to sweep your feet out from under you and finish with the spin kick. I thought I was… I just lost track of which me I was for a second, all right? Is that good enough?"
Gwen gave him his least favorite look. One that was so worried that it was almost scary. She ran her hand through her sweat-soaked hair again, looked down at the Omnitrix on his arm, and then up the aisle of the Rustbucket. "Maybe..."
He hid the watch behind his back because he knew her. "It was just a mistake. Don't make a big deal out of it."
"We should tell - "
"I'm not bugging Grandpa about it and neither are you!" He almost hissed as he grabbed her arm before she could do just that. "It's nothing to worry about and he just got back."
Those words stopped Gwen dead in her tracks and made her face twist with worry as they both stared at the back of the seat that just about hid the man. Her eyes were so big and miserable when they met his again and she asked the worst question. "If it ever is... You'll tell me, right?"
He wanted to lie. He used to be able to lie to her, back before she looked at him like that, and before the touch of her hand as it found his wrist made his heart race as he nodded because he didn't trust his voice. Not that it stopped her. "Promise?"
Ben rolled his eyes. "Promise."
She nodded and squeezed his arm as she gave him a shaky smile. "It was a good match."
Ben smirked at the words. He couldn't help it. Not when the tension was just gone and he could breathe again. "I almost had you."
"No, you didn't."
Gwen ran her hand through her hair and bit her lip. "It was close," she allowed with a grin.
A grin that he returned. Damn it. "Next time," he promised. "Next time I'll get you." And then maybe...
"No, you won't," she said in the same teasing sing-song tone she'd used right before…
And they froze at the words. Ben felt his face burn as she ducked hers because that was the closest she ever came to talking about New Years'. He watched as a blush filled her cheeks and rushed down her neck until it disappeared under the white of her gi. It was the best one he'd ever seen her make and was the only reason he dared to ask, "Dwe - ?"
Not that she let him get even that far before she spun away and grabbed for the clothes and towel he didn't even notice were waiting on the counter behind her. "I'mgoingtogetready!" she said in a rush as she tried to push past him without touching him in something that looked like a dance that stole his breath and thoughts away until long after the door was closed.
"Ready for what?" He finally asked the door. Not that she answered, she didn't make a sound even as he pounded on it and asked again just so he could annoy her, but she won that, too, when he heard the shower start and he bolted away.
But he didn't run. "Heroes don't," he grumbled to himself as he went up front to ask Grandpa. He wasn't a wuss. He just wanted to know what was going on.
He didn't buy it, but Grandpa Max did.
"I made reservations for dinner tonight," Grandpa Max said with all the excitement Ben didn't even know he was missing until now. "I was trying to figure out a good way to start this year's trip. Maybe make up for..." His voice faded for a second. "And your cousin suggested we go out somewhere fancy to celebrate your first karate tournament together, so we're doing it in style!" That got another laugh, one that didn't last nearly as long as the first before the man looked over. "I hope you know you should be proud that you've made it so far, Ben. I am. The fact that you are the second-best in the whole district isn't anything to be - "
"I'm not mad, Grandpa," Ben somehow just said into the headrest of Grandpa's seat instead of screaming out the words. It was easier than thinking about the girl who was still in the shower behind him or the man in front. The one who should have been there all year and not just today. Who promised...
"Good," Grandpa Max said with a chuckle like the last year never happened and if he was anyone else, but he wasn't. "Anyway, it's a great place, even if we do have to get dressed up. They make some of the best steaks I've ever tasted that weren't homemade. I thought your mother was going to tell you. I asked her to make sure that you packed something nice to wear."
"Dressed up?" Ben asked, but he didn't groan until he looked down and realized that Grandpa was wearing a real shirt and not the Hawaiian one that made eyes bleed. He didn't remember Mom saying anything when they were packing last night, but he had been so glad he was home after the movie and excited about today that he just sort of nodded while she talked.
Grandpa Max sighed. "Please, Sport? For me?"
Ben groaned again and dragged his feet to the bedroom in the back to get changed. He should have known when he opened the closet and found the fancy clothes just waiting for him. A door he kicked before he grabbed the pants and a shirt and slammed it on the tie and jacket. "Steak isn't that good. And they better have fries!"
The jacket was still in there when he got out, but the tie was waiting on the table.
"That's supposed to - " Grandpa started after he parked and got up. Started and stopped as Ben just looked at him. The man grinned instead of freaking out like his parents did more times than he liked, and nowhere near often enough that he could tell which way that they were going to go. At least that wasn't something he'd have to worry about here. "I like the look, Ben, but some people might appreciate it if you tucked in your shirt and brushed your - "
"If the Pepe le Pew at the counter doesn't like it…" Ben grumbled before Grandpa could finish as he slumped back in the booth and finished wrapping his dark green tie around his arm above the watch.
Grandpa laughed at that as he clapped his shoulder, and the sound of it made Ben relax, even if it wasn't for long. "It's not the waiter you should be afraid of, Sport."
"I'm not afraid of her," Ben mumbled as he looked at the bathroom wall. He stared down monsters, but the sound of the shower running? That made him blush and look away. At least Grandpa didn't see as he made his way to the back so he could get changed, and Ben almost met his eyes when he came back in a suit as the Dweeb rushed by him and the squeak of the curtain on its rod made the same that she did, and he wanted to when he got a glimpse of her blue robe.
A glimpse that only lasted a second before he spun away, but still made his heart pound so hard that even Grandpa heard it. "Everything okay, Ben?" Grandpa asked as he settled down in the booth across from him with worry written in the lines of his face, and there were more than there should have been. More than he'd had last year, Ben was almost sure of it. Those wrinkles were as out of place as the white beard that covered Grandpa's chin now and he hated it almost as much because it just looked wrong.
Not that he knew why he hated it any more than he did why the man wanted to look like Santa Claus to begin with. "I'm just not used to seeing you in a shirt with only one color, Grandpa," Ben said instead of what he wanted to because he wouldn't get an answer anyway. He already knew that. And he wasn't going to answer any more either. Especially about questions that he couldn't. Like why his face burned when he saw his Dweeb in a robe or what he was thinking when he agreed to come when he knew she got a shower every day because she was a girl and…
And he'd have to survive three months of it!
"Hey now! It's not as good as my old one, but I think it's stylish!" Grandpa said as he pulled at the shirt before he poked the tie. "This is a bit much though. I think you had the right idea about this thing though."
"Duh," Ben said, and he felt the sweat between his shoulders as he didn't look at that curtain because he didn't. He so didn't.
- o - o - o - o - o -
An hour later he didn't care about three months or what the dweeb was wearing or anything else because he wasn't going to see sundown. Not when he was too busy banging his head on the back of his seat while his stomach let out a roar that would have sent Animo's monsters running. "What's taking her so long?"
"You're never too young to learn this lesson, Sport, and it's an important one. Women run on different clocks than we do," Grandpa Max started before he looked at his watch and added a muttered, "and restaurants. They aren't going to hold our table forever."
"And for once it isn't my fault." No one liked the truth, Ben knew that even before Grandpa did his best to nail him to the seat with a look. It was the same look he'd gotten when he'd wrapped his tie around his forearm like it was so much tape at Karate, and it got the same smirk.
"I'm going to check on her," Grandpa finally said with another of his sighs.
Ben couldn't help the face he made at that as he pictured the ten minutes that would waste, and he was hungry now. "Leave it to the master." He shoved himself up and ran to the back. Grandpa Max must have been dying of hunger too because he sat back down. Ben went back and banged on the wall next to the thick curtain. "Hurry up, Dweeb! Some of us are starving!"
"I'll be out in a second, Doofus!"
"Ben," Grandpa said in warning.
"I've got this, Grandpa," Ben called over his shoulder as he grabbed the curtain as his stomach roared again because a hungry hero wasn't a hero at all. He was sure that was in the code Ulitmos gave him somewhere. He knew it was, and if it wasn't… Well, one day he'd be the hero to heroes and he'd add it in. "I know you didn't fall in, Dweeb! You're in the wrong room for that so you've got to the count of three to put that stupid book down and - "
"I said I'll be out in a second! Go away!" The Dweeb shouted and he knew he was right and that was why he grabbed the curtain.
"That's it! Three!"
"Ben!" He heard Grandpa Max shout, this time in horror as he yanked the curtain open with all the care he'd had two years ago when everything was normal and he'd had to drag her away from her books or her computer all the time.
"Don't even pretend you're not dre - " Ben started as he looked in and froze because he was wrong. He was so wrong. Not about her being dressed. Thank God. She was sitting on the couch in a powder blue dress that came down to her knees. One he'd never seen before and he couldn't stop looking at even though he'd seen her in dresses before, but they were weird puffy things and her uniform was for school and dull. None of them were like this. None of them made his stomach feel weird and palms sweaty as he stared at her. She wasn't even wearing tights and her legs were as bare as her arms and -
And it was too much! So much that his eyes darted towards hers because that was safe. He could handle her glaring, he had plenty of practice with that. He couldn't handle seeing what she'd done with her hair though. Not just because of the big butterfly clip that she had on the back of her head which should have looked so stupid on her, but it didn't. No, it was just the way that she'd braided some of that red hair into a crown that he knew he'd seen somewhere before - but never like now. Nothing looked as good as the waterfall of red hair that slipped under the braid and spilled free down the back of her neck until it brushed her almost bare shoulders and the thin straps that covered them. Free like she was when they heroed and sparred and Ben felt his mouth drop open as he stared because he'd never…
Never seen anyone look like she did when she spun around with her lips spread in a perfect O of horror. A mouth that looked wrong with red gunk smeared on her lips and the skin around them, but not as wrong as her eyes. Those were lined with something dark and looked like they were different sizes. It took him only a second to see the pencil she had clutched in her hand and the tip pressed against her skin and he asked the first question that popped into his head, the first and most obvious even as he looked at the box by her knees that so wasn't a book. That was the furthest thing possible from a book that held more pencils and brushes and splashes of color. "Is that makeup?"
"No!" The Dweeb shouted in her worst lie ever, but at least it broke her out of her shock. She spun around and threw the pencil at him. It clattered off somewhere in the Rustbucket instead of coming anywhere near him because she was shaking as she jumped up to her feet. When he still didn't move she shook her head and stomped her foot as she shrieked, "What's wrong with you! Get out!"
Ben wanted to. He really did, but his feet wouldn't listen. Even after he heard Grandpa Max shout the same thing as he got up behind him. He couldn't move anything, not even his eyes as he stared at her. Finally, he managed to force out the only word that was in his head. "Why?"
She startled like he had slapped her."Why? Why what? Why bother?"
He just nodded, he didn't have the air for anything else.
"Because for once I wanted to look - " Gwen said, her voice bitter and hurt as her face crumpled and her eyes fell to the floor. Wet eyes. "I know that you think that it's an impossible task, but just for tonight I wanted to look pretty." She shook her head and shoved the box into the small trash can sitting next to the couch. "I know it's stupid."
"Yeah," Ben agreed. Her shoulders shook once as she finally looked away. He should have stopped right there. He should have turned and let Grandpa take care of her so they could go and eat. That's what he wanted to do. But he looked at her and couldn't. He rubbed the back of his neck and the words just slipped out, "Yeah, it's stupid." He started, and a dozen insults and jokes ran through his mind. Too many for him to even choose from and all of them were better than the words that somehow slipped passed the cotton in his mouth. "Because you're always pretty."
It was one of the things he knew without a doubt that he should never say or even think. Not even as a joke or an insult, and he couldn't play it off as that. Not this time. She didn't leave him enough air. She barely left him enough that he could say the words and he didn't know if anyone else could even hear them.
He wasn't even sure if she did as she just stood there as some of the black stuff around her eyes ran down her cheek as she just stared at him, but there wasn't any hurt or embarrassment in her eyes anymore. Instead, she just sort of blinked and gave him a small, shy smile as she ducked her head and brushed a hand at her hair. "Really?"
Ben looked at her and he could hear his heart pounding in his ears as his eyes went to her redder than normal lips. Then he turned and walked away. He had to. He heard Grandpa Max say something as he passed by, but Ben didn't hear the words and had no idea if they were meant for him or Gwen and the curtain slid shut before he figured it out.
And left him there all alone.
He didn't know how long he stood there with his mind racing, but he couldn't think and the watch didn't help. Not for this, this was more than even the little gray guy could deal with. The not thinking led him into the bathroom, where for the first time in his life he looked in a mirror for something else than to see if there was something on his face. He looked at himself and saw his messed up hair and his untucked shirt. He looked like he always did. Like he always wanted to.
Only now, it wasn't good enough and he didn't know why. It didn't matter. He closed the door anyway before he reached for Grandpa's hairbrush with a shaking hand.
- o - o - o - o - o -
Ben didn't know the dork in the mirror when he was done. Almost done, only the tie wouldn't cooperate, and his fingers felt numb after all the times he fumbled with it until the knot was just a mess. One he forgot about as he heard his Grandpa finally say something loud enough that he could hear through the door. " - wondering where you got the stuff. I won't say a word, but I know that your mother said ladies wait until they're in high school before - "
Ben's fingers froze at his Grandpa's words and the noise that cut them off at the end. A noise that turned into words. "Only if you tell me who taught you how to clean up that mess. It wasn't the Plumbers, was it? " Ones that should have been a joke that ended in a laugh. He could almost hear his Dweeb trying even as she fished for the answers that they both wanted, but the only one who even chuckled was Grandpa.
"You caught me, Pumpkin. There's this species of alien that makes radioactive poop and - " And Ben almost choked even as his Dweeb shouted the man's name. "No, it wasn't the Plumbers. I just have a very evil sister."
"The devil herself." Grandpa sighed at that. He sighed so hard Ben could almost see him shaking his head. "At least the cleaner is better now. She made a heck of a mess when she got back from the war and talked me into… But now's not the time for that story."
The Dweeb made a noise at that as the man waited and Ben leaned closer to the door. "You promise you won't tell my mother?" The words made Ben role his eyes because even after everything else it was still Grandpa and no one kept a secret like him. Not even the beard he was sporting now could change him that much, but he could still hear the doubt in her voice. "Michelle's mom got it for me as a going-away present. Michelle - She makes it look so easy, but..."
"But she's not putting the stuff on in a bouncing RV?" There was another laugh then. A soft one. A real one. The first since the man got back a couple of weeks ago that made Ben wish he could see his Dweeb's face because it must be turning so many colors now. "Don't be too hard on yourself, Pumpkin. I don't think that the dress code is that strict here. Just do me a favor and track down your cousin while I go see if I can save our table?"
"Sure, Grandpa," he heard her say, and this time he knew he wasn't imagining the edge in her voice. Not then, and not when she knocked on the bathroom door a moment after the Rust Bucket stopped rocking after Grandpa got out as she said one word. "Ben?"
Ben felt his stomach turn to lead at his name and the sigh that followed it as he stared at the door for the second time that day and squeezed the tie. "Listen, Doofus. I'm sorry that I - " his Dweeb started and it was just too much. He twisted the knob and yanked the door open so he could get it over with. Her eyes were so wide. Eyes that were hers again, that didn't have any of the goop she'd put around them. It was all gone, except for the red on her cheeks that he didn't think came out of any makeup kit.
That and the emerald in her eyes, which stared at him as she bit her lip.
Ben couldn't even blame her. "Let it out," he muttered as he reached up so he could yank the tie off and the rest wouldn't be far behind. "I know I look like a - "
"Don't you dare!" Her hand was like lightning as it flashed out and caught his wrist and pulled his arm back down, but she didn't let go and she didn't say a word as she pinned him to the spot with her stare. Not about him. Not as she shivered and rubbed her bare arm with her free hand like she was cold even as she squeezed his. "Did you mean it? That I'm… That I look nice?"
He should say no because he didn't say that. That was so much better than what he did say, what he couldn't believe slipped out of his traitor lips. He should laugh, run his hand through his hair until he looked like himself again, and let everything go back to normal.
But he didn't. Like a Doofus, he just nodded and she ducked her head and smiled.
For a second anyway. "Stay right there!" She shouted at him as she spun away and dashed back into the back of the Rust Bucket for her set of drawers that were hiding by the couch. He stared after her, his face burning as he looked down because he couldn't help it. Who looked at girls' butts anyway? And who knew that their cousin's big one always looked the best, and somehow even better now as the clicks from the heels of her shoes filled the RV.
At least she didn't catch where he was looking as she straightened back up. Thank God. He was sure that she did when she turned and he saw her biting her lip, but at least the fire he felt burning in his cheeks wasn't anywhere near as bad as it felt. There wasn't any way she would have kept from saying something if it was. She just grinned and came running back with something in her hands, something wrapped in Sumo paper. "W-what's that?" He somehow managed not to squirm as he asked that and the fire burned hotter, but he couldn't help the stutter.
Her grin turned evil when he did, but she still didn't say a word as she shoved the present into his hands before reaching up and pull at her hair. "A present. Duh."
He shot her a look as she bit back a giggle. A look that would have been so much madder if there wasn't a present right there. One he tore into and blinked at when he saw the shirt it was hiding and the words and white faces splashed across it. "Detroit Rock -" he started, his voice choked as he remembered.
It was the first song he ever played for anyone except his parents or for Hero Time and they didn't count. He couldn't believe that she remembered. "Why?"
"Because…" Gwen started and for once she was the one stumbling over her words. "Because I - " she started before her face somehow managed to turn even redder than it had before. Red enough that he could see it on her neck and shoulders even as she ducked her head and said the rest in a rush. "BecauseI'mproudofyou, Ben." One that ended with her darting forward and pressing her lips against his cheek again for the first time since he ruined everything.
And Ben didn't even know how much he missed her doing that until right then as he cupped his cheek in his hand as soon as she darted back. And the fact that she couldn't meet his eyes as she reached for the charm that was hiding under her top didn't change that at all
His heart pounded out four beats before the sound was lost in the noise of him demolishing the rest of the paper so he could get at the shirt inside. It would have only taken a second to change, but she caught his hand again before he could even reach for the dorky one he was wearing. "After we eat, you Doofus!" She said with a bell of a laugh as she stood so close that he would have shoved her away if she was anyone else.
"Oh, yeah," he said back as he gave the shirt another look and set it down like it was glass and did just that, but he never took his eyes off of the thing. "Would I have gotten it if I'd kicked your butt?"
"Such a Doofus," Gwen sighed and rolled her eyes at that before she closed them and tilted her chin up as she leaned in close so he could see the smug. "Maybe. But you'll never know."
"Next time," Ben promised even though it didn't matter. She was proud of him? "You just got lucky."
"That's my name!" She preened as she wrapped his arm around his and tugged. "Now come on, I'm starving and that's a horrible thing for pretty girls."
"For a clown," he shot back, the words coming out too fast. Not that she bought it. If anything she just beamed more at the insult. "You're never going to let that go, are you?" Ben sighed even though he knew the answer. He knew it even before she smirked again and reached for his arm. An arm he pulled back as he faked a glare. "What about me? You never said how good I look!"
"Huh," Gwen said as she stepped back on a heel and tapped her chin. Then her hands moved every bit as quick as they had in the match and caught his tie. Ben sucked in a breath because he knew her and that smirk and he almost shoved her away even as he waited for her to pull it tight and choke him, only she didn't. She just undid the rough knot that he'd managed and her fingers just did something to the stupid thing.
Something that had it looking as good as Grandpa's when he looked down. "How did you do that?!"
"Magic," the complete Dweeb said with another smirk as she gave it one last tug and then let go, but she didn't let her hands drop. She just cocked her head and hesitated for a second, and then he jumped as she reached up and messed up his hair again. "That's better, Doofus," she said before he could catch enough breath for a yell, her green eyes sparkling as she took his arm again and pulled him to the side door. She pulled him and she didn't let go even after her shoes found the concrete. "Not good, but better." She said with another giggle that wasn't mean, just teasing and as warm as she was as they walked across the parking lot together.
No. She walked. She was proud of him and he flew as he held her close. He flew and he never even touched the Watch.
- o - o - o - o - o -
Omake: Finding Fault
"What are you glowering at?"
Kasei Yamamoto tore his eyes off his students and swallowed the curt answer he had ready for anyone who bothered him as he glanced down at the slight woman who was eyeing him even now. Time had taken its toll on her dark hair just like it had his, but an eternity wouldn't be enough to take the edge off of her gaze. She proved that again now even as her lips twitched at her words.
He wished he could grin back as he looked back up just in time to see his second-best student disappear out the door while his best just stood there and watched as another girl held her close. "I knew better," he muttered, glad he'd put his robe back on just because it hid his hands as he squeezed them together as he watched the two Tennysons. The words were in Japanese, but he still whispered them because there were a few around who could speak it.
A few, even if they didn't do it nearly as well as the two he'd spent the morning watching. And the honor of that, at the way that they'd both learned a few words of his home tongue and they did it so well that he would have sworn that they'd lived in the homeland for all their lives…
Only his dignity kept him from blinking away the burning he felt in his eyes when he realized what they'd done all those months ago. And now, because they'd shown him far more honor than he'd had them today. They had every day, as the girl who proved all those who said that she had no place in the art wrong and the boy who couldn't go a minute without the device on his wrist and still never let it slow him down. "The fault is mine."
Her touch was as light as her steps had been as she took his hand and squeezed it. "For what?"
"You saw them," he said, and even in a whisper, his voice thundered at that with frustration. "The way they fought…"
They were his best. Even most of his assistants just saw Karate as a sport and that was okay. That was what they needed, but Ben and Gwen? They were the students he hoped he was when he was learning after he left Vietnam and had to find himself again just like his father had a generation before. They were his best and proved it today, but the way they did it? Especially at the end…
Their moves were so quick and would have been brutal if they didn't match each other so well. He never even guessed that they learned his teachings so well, or that he'd feel sick after seeing the proof. "They're both so competitive. I never should have allowed their match. Not when Gwendolyn should have earned her blue belt weeks ago."
She had her excuses for it. Excuses that he should have seen right through because she'd never begged out of a belt test before, but he was proud, too. "We'd already won the gold. The fault for that fight is mine."
His shoulders slumped under the weight of that. Slumped enough that he heard whispers as some of his students noticed and wondered, but he let their voices be like the rain in the jungle that he still dreamt about.
"A fight?" All but one, the one that always chased the rain away even as she brushed her lips against his cheek to the gasps of their students. Gasps she ignored even better than he did. "That wasn't a fight, you daft old fool," she said with a laugh of a woman a quarter of her years. "That was a dance."
And Kasei sucked in a breath and gave the red-haired girl another look as she chased after her cousin through a crowd of their family and friends just like he had once, decades ago. He looked and wondered…
First of all, I'd really like to thank everyone for all the comments that we got for the last chapter of Little Moments and for the newest chapter of Courting Disaster. That was the most I've ever gotten in a week in all the years I've been writing and I really can't say how much it means that you enjoyed them so much. Thank you to everyone who took the time to leave a review and I hope you'll forgive me for giving a group thank you, but there were just so many. You all rock!
And a special thanks to Hinate, who has re-read and reviewed every chapter of this and CD in the last week and a half. You made my week!
And second, this isn't a commission but Kira0503's drawing is so close to what I saw when I wrote them getting dressed up at the end of this chapter that I can't help including it. I hope that you all enjoy it, too. You can find it at deviant art. Just add /kira0503/art/Ben-10-Another-Wedding-585948847 after the com and please leave her a review if you like it as much as I do.