Chapter 9: The Kids Come Out of the Closet

Angelwood Academy

Bellwood, California

Monday, December 9th, 2000

Gwen Tennyson stared at the empty space where Ben just was. At the space he'd left behind as he spun around and ran away from her. She didn't register the words he'd said until after he'd said them.

"We aren't together. I guess we never were."

Gwen jerked her head up towards him and tried to say his name, to say something, but now after she'd said all those other words, now her throat decided to close up on her.

But only her.

"Gwen!" She heard someone call out behind her. Someone she knew even before Olivia got there and pulled her into a hug. She always gave the best ones just because she was so tall.

Second best….

"What happened? Are you alright? Do you want me to go get Marci?" The questions came just as fast as the other girl could run. And not just from her.

"What was his problem?" Another of the girls asked. Gwen knew her name, she knew that she did, but she couldn't remember it. It was as gone as everything else.

"Boys," the other one said, her nose in the air but her eyes staying on Gwen. Gwen felt sick, and dizzy, and Ben was gone. But his ring was still there lying on the floor, and…

Her legs gave out on her when she bent down to pick it up, and Olivia let out a small cry when Gwen fell onto her knees and pulled her along for the ride as she picked up the plastic Kangaroo Kommando decoder ring again. The one that he threw at her. It felt like a wrecking ball smashing into her when it hit her chest, but it was even heavier now as she picked it up.

Heavy in all the ways it wasn't when she put it on his finger to begin with all of those years ago.

And she wasn't the only one who remembered that day. "He threw away your ring?" Olivia asked, as horrified as she would have been if Ben was hers.

"Your ring?" The third girl asked, her mouth an O. "Isn't he your - ?"

Gwen made a horrible little noise, and Olivia's arms tightened around her, holding her steady as her whole world got pulled out from under her.

"Oh, please. Like Gwen Tennyson would ever do something that scandalous." The second girl shut that open-ended question down with a disgusted snort.

"It's just an old toy," Olivia lied. Gwen wondered how her friend could pull it off so cleanly. "Something from when they were kids. Gwen found it in a cereal box when Ben was into that cartoon, and she didn't want it, so she gave it to him."

Liar, Gwen thought. Olivia had been there when Gwen had given it to Ben. She'd been her maid of honor even, back when they'd both thought it meant she was made of the stuff.

"Boys," the second girl sighed again like that explained everything. And more than Gwen could when the two finally went away after they heard the bell and Olivia gave her a look. "Gwen, what happened? He's Ben! He's your Scruffy a-and..."

"I don't know," Gwen whispered.

And it turned out that she could lie after all.

- o - o - o - o - o -

3:17 PM.

The whispers had followed Gwen around all afternoon, a noise that she couldn't ignore or block out and buzzed around like a nest of wasps. Marci and Olivia were twitchy but they stayed close, trying to keep her from the worst of it. But they couldn't stop everything.

Innocent questions. "I heard you and Ben had a fight, are you okay?" To the less innocent questions that bordered on hurtful. "Did you get fed up with him following you around everywhere finally? I mean, that was weird..."

The words that brought it all to a head - the ones that were even worse than the question that a girl named Lacey who'd moved to Bellwood two years ago, who didn't know her and Ben as well as some of the others asked her, "I heard about the fight from Paulette. So, since you and Ben 'aren't together', do you think he'd like to be my date for Marci's New Year's party?"

Those words made her forget all about getting her biology books from her locker, but they were still better than what she heard Nadia say when she was rushing for the door after last Bell.

"I guess that home's not so sweet in Alabama after all," the Russian girl sneered as she went by. Gwen flinched at the barb and refused to make eye contact, pulling on every lesson she had so she didn't rush her mother's car, but she couldn't help slamming the door behind her as she got in.

"Gwendolyn!" Her mom sounded as surprised as she felt awful. "What happened?"

"Nothing," Gwen said as a lifetime of lessons kept her head up as she put on her seatbelt, but it couldn't keep her from blinking away tears. "They're just jerks."

"And you let them get away with that?" Her mom asked, her voice still light. Then the frown came as she craned her head. "Or Ben? Where is he anyway? We're going to be - "

"He's not coming," Gwen said, her head finally bowing as she felt for the empty space over her heart. She knew her mom, she knew the woman would argue about it, so she cut her off at the pass. "Mom? I don't feel good. Can we just go home?"

"You want to skip karate?" She reached over and put a hand on Gwen's forehead. "Hmm, well maybe you should. You're a touch warm. Do we need to stop and pick up some medicine for you?"

"No." Somehow Gwen managed to pull her legs up onto the seat and curl herself against them. It gave her something to hold onto, and something to hide her face in. "I just want to go home."

"Honey, did something happen at…" Her mom started, and Gwen shook her head against her legs. Her mom thankfully left her alone after that, starting the van again and taking them out of the school parking lot. Gwen didn't lift her head at all. She'd been stared enough at today, endured enough whispers. She couldn't take looking out at the buses and the other cars with parents and kids and seeing them watching her still.

When they got home, mom sent her upstairs with a gentle pat on the back. "You go ahead and lie down, honey. I'll call your Sensei and let him know you won't be coming, and then I'll bring you something to eat. Do you think you can handle some soup?"

Three steps up the stairs, Gwen managed a slow nod without turning around. Mom went into the kitchen and Gwen walked to her room.

She should have changed out of her uniform into something else, but once her bedroom door was shut, Gwen just leaned up against it and shut her eyes as she tried to get her breathing under control again. It was only when she wrapped her hands around herself and felt an unfamiliar lump in her shirt pocket underneath her sweater that Gwen could bring herself to move again.

It wasn't supposed to be like this, she thought. She was too hollowed out for tears or even let out a whimper. Too overwhelmed by this mess of a day.

Ben had taken off his ring and thrown it at her. The ring he'd worn since they were eight years old. Gwen went over to her desk and stared at herself in the mirror built into the frame at the back of it. Someone she hardly recognized blinked and looked back at her.

She turned away from the mirror with a shake of her head and pulled her jewelry box out of one of the bottom drawers. With the latch snapped open and the lid pushed back, she stared down at the contents and finally let out a miserable sniffle.

There, on top of all the other earrings and bangles and necklaces that her mother and her daddy had given her for social events and presents over the years was another Kangaroo Kommando decoder ring, secured to a leather string necklace and folded with care.

She set Ben's ring next to it, hating that they were a matching set again. Not wearing it to school had been a choice - a choice she'd made this morning because it had seemed like the right thing to do.

Gwen closed the lid and left it on the desk.

She trudged over to her bed, collapsed on top of the comforter in her rumpled clothes, curled in on herself, and did what she hadn't been able to do since Ben left her. She cried.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Friday, December 13th

She had karate after school, but Gwen just didn't have the heart for it. Monday had been a wash, but she knew that she couldn't try the 'not feeling good' excuse again. So when Wednesday finally came around, and it felt like every second that lead up to it was both painfully slow until they all rushed by at once, she'd gone to the dojo hoping to get back to some semblance of normal. It hadn't lasted. As soon as she saw Ben, all of the energy she'd had just evaporated. So did Ben's, and worse, everyone else saw it too.

Everyone in that dojo, their Sensei included knew that something was wrong, and it took everything she had to pair off with someone else and push through the session with sheer grit. Every so often she'd glance over to peek at Ben, wondering if he'd be watching her.

He hadn't. Not once, in the entire class. As soon as they were done, he raced to change. By the time she grabbed her bag and came out again, he was long gone. She couldn't deal with another karate class like that. So after the last bell rang and she stopped at her locker to drop her books off, Gwen pulled herself into her mom's van and said that she needed a break from it for a while. Her mom looked at her for what felt like forever before finally giving a crisp nod. It was fine with her, mom told Gwen, but she would be the one calling the dojo and explaining that to her teacher. Ordinarily, that might have made Gwen buckle. Instead, she mutely nodded and made the call as soon as they got home, telling her Sensei that she would be taking the rest of December off. He was just as intense on the phone as he was in real life, but he never said anything disapproving. He just told her that if she was coming back in January, he expected her to be focused, not like she'd been on Wednesday. All the while, the back of her head itched from where she could feel her mom staring at her.

"Is there something you need to talk to me about, honey?" Her mom asked her gently, standing by the stove as she minded the tea kettle. Gwen set the cordless back on its charger and tried to ignore the question. "I know that something's been bothering you since Monday. I just don't know what. I wish you could talk with me about it."

Those words were an invitation and also a plea. Gwen didn't dare, though. Not after everything that her father had said over the summer.

God, she could still feel the hum of her drumming in her hands and hear the last few notes of Ben's guitar echoing in her ears, and that wasn't anything compared to the feel of the peck that her Scruffy had pressed into her cheek after they got done playing for their friends at the talent show. It was better than the cheers and the silver medal that was pinned to her chest.

It was a quiet drive because her mother stayed behind to help clean up - she would have, too, if it wasn't for the test she had the next day. A test that would have kept her from the show altogether if she hadn't promised she'd spend the rest of the night studying - not that Gwen noticed. Not when it felt like she was flying the whole way as her hand kept drifting back to her cheek.

No, the day felt better than that. It felt like magic.

She never even noticed that her daddy was being even quieter than normal. Not until they got home and he coughed out her name just as she reached for the door handle. A cough that he repeated because in her mind she was already up the stairs and it wasn't so she could study or get changed or wash off her face paint. No, she had a bag full of all the Polaroids her mother had taken. A bag she needed to sort through so she could add the best to her photo album before Marci called so they could crow about her win.

But it wasn't the cough that stopped her. It was the look that her daddy gave her, his face red and his eyes unfocused because he'd already taken off his glasses and he was busy shining them like he always did when he was nervous, but usually it was just a few quick swipes. Now he did it for what felt like forever before he looked at her.

And then he started talking…

"You're growing up, honey. Soon, you won't be a young lady anymore. You'll be a young woman. I wish you wouldn't, but you will. And when we grow up, our feelings change." That hadn't been what twisted her stomach in knots, though. It was what he said after, as he reached up and brushed his thumb over her cheek. "And I'm not saying this just for your sake, but for Ben's. He's growing up, too. I'm glad you two have stayed friends, but things will be different when you leave junior high. Things that were okay when you were little aren't okay now. You wouldn't want to give anyone the wrong idea. So maybe this year, you could spend a little less time with him, hm? Before people start talking. You don't need that kind of gossip following you into high school and neither does he."

It was the kind of thing that her mother and her mormor were always going on about and if either of them had said it, Gwen wouldn't have given it a second thought, but it wasn't. It was her daddy and -

And up to then, she hadn't much cared what people thought. Sure people talked, but life was just better when she was with her Scruffy. She teased him, he teased her right back. She trusted him more than she trusted anyone. It was only after her dad had said those words that Gwen suddenly started taking a closer look. Began to feel self-conscious about it as she sat there during lunch and listened to all of the girls in her class gossip about boys - even Olivia and Marci - while Ben went off with the other boys instead of staying with her as they did dumb boy things together like shove each other for no reason or stupid tricks that almost always got one of them hurt, not that that stopped them.

Dumb boy things that always seemed to happen in front of their picnic table. Things that always ended with screaming and giggling and somebody getting chased. Mostly by him because her Ben was a Doofus and he always grabbed whatever book she was reading or some of her lunch and -

And it was almost normal. It was almost what they did together for their whole lives, but…

But…

But it was like their hugs. Ben was always hugging her. He had for as long as she could remember. He'd even done it when he was covered in mud, but it felt different now that she was thinking about it. Different enough that she couldn't help squirming away from him as her Daddy's words filled her ears again even though Ben looked so hurt and confused when she did.

Which was nothing compared to how he looked a few days ago when she'd torn his heart out before he threw it at her. And hers…

Hers raced as she remembered all the other looks he gave her in class and at karate and everywhere else. Little ones that she could have sworn that she caught him giving her more and more over the last few months. Little ones that made his mouth do something that wasn't the smirk that she was used to. The smirk that always made her grin because it meant that he thought of some game they could play or some new kind of trouble he could get them into.

He wasn't looking at her like that when she caught him now, but she still wanted to grin even as their gaze bounced away from each other. She wanted to, but she couldn't. Not even when she watched his face burn with a brush so bright that she should have teased him for days over. Not when she had her daddy's words in her ears. Words that seemed so silly when he said them, but now…

But now her Scruffy could make her stomach do flip-flops with just a touch and his looks left her a stammering mess in front of the whole class and -

- and now she saw the looks that they got when she did. The smirks that weren't a thing like Ben's…

"I'll figure it out, mom," Gwen said as she spun away from the memory of those looks, her face hot again. She might have run for the safety of the stairs and her bedroom if she wasn't a Larrson and a Tennyson, but she was. Not much, not as much as she should have been, but it was enough that forced herself to stop and look back over her shoulder so she could say, "Ihavesomehomeworktodo. Comegrab mefordinner?"

Gwen saw the disappointment on mom's face as the rush of words hit her, but she could live with that. She was almost used to it by now and the sigh that she got didn't cut anywhere near as deep as the thoughts that were running through her head.

Thoughts that didn't stop even as her mother said something that Gwen didn't catch before she gave her a nod that she did. Thoughts that followed her even as she disappeared upstairs with her bookbag. Her books were poured out onto the bed and she tried to get through her math, but it was a waste of time. The only problem she could focus on was one that she couldn't solve.

Ben was braver than her. She knew he was. He always had been. He was the one who charged up to people and dogs and everything else. He was the one who always wanted to play in the woods no matter what their parents said and he was the one who led the way to Grandpa's when they were little and ran away.

He was always so brave just like she was always the only one who could make him stop and think, if only for a second. She was the only one who was strong enough to tell him no when he got too crazy and somebody had to. Nobody else could say that. Not their teachers or her aunt and uncle. Not even her mother or her mormor or her morfar. Not even Grandpa.

Gwen just never thought he'd be brave enough to actually say what he had and she never knew that doing the right thing would hurt so much.

"I don't love you," she whispered the words again as she tapped her pencil against her notebook, just running over the moment that she realized she'd lost him over and over again as the sun set and her room got dark…

She was just about to turn on her desk lamp when there came a knock at her bedroom door. Gwen looked up, expecting to find her mom or her dad there to call her for dinner, but neither of them filled up so much of her doorway, and neither of them grinned so wide when they saw her. "Grandpa?"

Her Grandpa Max, dressed in his usual red Hawaiian shirt, smiled from where he was leaning up against the doorway. "Hey, pumpkin. Hitting the books on a Friday night? That's a little extreme even for you." She got up and raced over to him, and he pulled her in for one of his hugs that was strong and warm and went on forever.

But of course it did. Grandpa always gave the best hugs, and she sank into it eagerly.

He must have noticed how long she kept it going for because he chuckled lightly and patted her back. "Gwen, I just saw you two weeks ago. I didn't realize you missed me that much."

She sniffed once and pulled back, smiling at him. "Sorry. It's just a good surprise, I guess."

"Well, how about an even better surprise?" Grandpa teased her. "I got permission from your mom and dad to take you out for dinner tonight. There's a barbecue place about half an hour away from here next to a little wooded area, and it's a great night for stargazing. I've got the telescope loaded up if you feel like coming along."

"That sounds great!" Gwen cheered. She loved going on little surprise trips with Grandpa. Sometimes he came over to visit for an afternoon on the weekends or for dinner, but he saved his Rust Bucket Excursions for special occasions. The sudden thought of who else had gone on with them before put a damper on her high spirits. "Um. Grandpa? Ben - Ben isn't coming along, is he?"

There was something that passed behind Grandpa Max's eyes, but it was gone too fast for Gwen to figure out what. He gave his head a shake with another one of his patented smiles. "Not this trip, honey. It's just you and me tonight."

She didn't know how she could feel relieved and hurt at the same time, but somehow Gwen found a way to manage it. At least the smile came easily enough. A Lady always smiles, even when she doesn't feel like it, was one of her mom's old lessons. Sometimes Gwen didn't listen to that one. Tonight, she did.

"Great." She said, giving one last look at her desk. She passed over the homework without a care, but she stared at her jewelry box for a good two seconds before breaking away from it. "Let's go then."

- o - o - o - o - o -

The fries they cooked at the barbecue place Grandpa picked out were made from whole potatoes shoved through a honeycomb slicer, long and thicker than anything McDonald's ever had. They came out crispy on the outside and steamy on the inside and tasted better to Gwen than the coleslaw or even the smoked chicken she ordered.

If Ben had been there, he would've gnawed an entire turkey leg on his own, with the fries, and then tried to eat some of hers as well. He would have -

Gwen caught herself then when she felt her smile start, and shoving that thought away took everything she had. She tried to keep all of that off of her face, too, but something must have slipped through because Grandpa laughed over his plate of chicken gizzards and smoked brisket and pushed the rest of his fries towards her. "I get the feeling you'd steal them anyway. Your grandma always used to," he said fondly, and then he let out a little sigh that she could have sworn was a laugh, the jerk. "I'm just sorry that they're not organic and fat-free like you wanted."

"So am I," Gwen said with a sigh of her own even as she fought down the urge to lick her fingers because she was a lady. Fought it and lost. "How did you find this place? I didn't even know this was out here!"

"Too many years of being on the road for my job." Grandpa conceded. He looked like he was going to say more, but then he got sad and shook his head, changing the subject. "So. Christmas is coming up soon. Is there anything in particular you want, or should I just go with my best guess?"

She gave it about two seconds' thought. "Best guess. You give good presents, grandpa. As long as it's not some new recipe." She still shuddered whenever he mentioned his octopus casserole surprise. Just thinking about it made her nose wrinkle enough that he saw it and laughed a little.

"Fair enough. I haven't decided what to get Ben yet either. Maybe I'll get something the two of you can share - like those kayaking lessons up in Oregon last summer you got from my old friend Jesse." Her face fell a little at the reminder of who she was trying to forget about for one night, and he corrected himself a heartbeat after. "Or maybe I'll get the two of you something different this year. I still have some time, after all. Sorry, Gwen. I didn't realize that would be a sore spot for you."

She shrugged and nibbled at his basket of fries so she wouldn't have to say anything right away. It left her thirsty, though, and she finished off the rest of her orange soda, giving the cup a dirty look. "I'll be right back, grandpa." He waved her off and she got up from their table, moving across the room to the soda machine.

Another song from the jukebox nearby kicked on, a melody that wasn't entirely country this time. Gwen half-listened to it as the opening spun into the lyrics of a woman singing, sounding almost heartbroken.

"Here you come again, just when I'd begun to get myself together…" And somehow that was all it took to get her thinking about Ben again. About how heartbroken he'd been when she refused him. When she tried to play off everything they had as just…friendship. How destroyed he'd been when he realized she wasn't wearing his decoder ring on a necklace that day.

How she wished she could kick herself for not wearing it. She didn't even know why she didn't and she'd give anything if she could just go back and -

But she couldn't. She scowled to keep from crying and slammed the cup against the dispenser, watching more orange soda flow into her cup and over the ice.

"All you gotta do is smile that smile, and there go all my defenses. Just leave it up to you and in a little while, you're messing up my mind, and fillin' up my senses…"

It didn't matter what Ben thought. It didn't matter what she thought, Gwen told herself. It couldn't happen. Better that it hurt now, better for him to move on. It was better that she buried those burning embers before anything caught fire. If she kept telling herself that, if she kept remembering all the things her mom had told her about being proper and keeping up appearances then maybe someday things would feel normal again. Maybe she could be in the same room with him without feeling like there was a wall between them, and they could carry on a conversation like other cousins did.

Maybe.

Just not now.

She went back to the table and sank back down in her chair, not feeling much like eating the rest of the food in front of her. She just sipped her soda and stared at the wall behind Grandpa Max, letting the words from that woman's song rattle around in her head and feeling Grandpa watching her the whole time.

He didn't pry, not there in the middle of the restaurant. "Guess my eyes were bigger than my stomach. You going to need a doggy bag too, Gwen?" She managed a weak smile as she nodded, and bless his heart if he didn't leave it there, just smiling back. "Sit tight. I'll go get us some to-go boxes for the rest. We'll have a midnight snack for our stargazing tonight." And then he headed for the counter, leaving Gwen alone with her thoughts again.

"Here you come again, and here I go…"

- o - o - o - o - o -

6:45 PM.

The Rust Bucket was parked in a grassy field with a mess of trees 100 yards away. Mountains around them blocked out so much of the glow of lights that never went away when she was home, which made the stars so much brighter even before Grandpa Max started putting his telescope together. And after he had - after he put the little battery-powered camp lantern out, too….

Even with her heavy coat and gloves on, it still felt like Gwen was alone with the universe.

Almost alone. "That's got it," Grandpa said, peering into the lens one more time before stepping away with a smile as he turned off the camp lantern. "I've got Mars dialed in. Care for a look?"

She did, even if the small size of the telescope meant that the planet wasn't much more than a red smudge of reflected sunlight in the darkness. "That's something, all right." She mused. Things like outer space weren't quite her usual fancy, but she could appreciate it. It brought up another thought that brought nothing but new pain, and she pushed it down and away, trying to forget about it.

Grandpa somehow knew exactly what was on her mind, though. "I'll have to remember to do this with Ben later." He mused. "He loves stuff like this."

He would, Gwen knew. Ben could be bored to tears over most things at school, but when it came to space exploration, he didn't forget a thing. Their teachers barely talked about it or the aliens that were a part of so many of the games that they played at school, but it didn't matter. Every space probe, every lander, he'd go on all day if nobody stopped him. God, she still remembered the time that they'd met an actual astronaut and she knew that if it wasn't for the line behind them that her Doofus would still be talking to that poor man. It was mortifying and so cute and -

And she stiffened up and looked over to the two lawn chairs set up for them so she could stare at the man who took them. Grandpa had a thermos of coffee down by his feet, the worn plastic lid with its handle in his hand as he watched her with the same sad little smile that he'd had then.

It was a smile that she didn't understand then or trust at all now.

"Did mom ask you to talk to me?" Gwen demanded, suspicious and a little bit angry that this was all some kind of setup.

"No." He shook his head, only his outline visible in the starlight.

"Though your mom did say she was worried about you, I didn't bring you out tonight because she asked me to. This was my idea." Gwen digested that and grandpa waited before adding, a few seconds later, "Funny enough, your aunt and uncle were worried about Ben's behavior the past few days, too. But you know how he is." Grandpa Max let out a weak laugh. "Trying to get a straight answer out of him when he doesn't want to give you one's next to impossible."

Gwen did know that. "So you decided you'd try to get one out of me?"

"I'm not trying anything." He replied, calm as he always was. "If you say it isn't my business, then I'll leave it at that and we can just spend the next hour looking at planets and stars. Or if you don't, Heaven knows there's more food to eat if you want. But I only needed to watch you for five minutes to know that there's something tearing you up." He took a drink of his coffee and let out a sigh. "I'm listening, Gwen. If you want to talk about it."

Her first reaction was to deny that anything was wrong, of course. It's what she'd been doing all week, after all. She opened her mouth to deny it, and…stopped.

Maybe it was because she'd been denying this all week and it hadn't gotten any better. Maybe it was because she hadn't been able to get a good night's sleep since Ben walked away from her, and she was definitely tired. Or maybe the things she didn't dare talk about with others in the light of day were easier now in the middle of nowhere, in the dark. Maybe it was because this was Grandpa, and he'd never once judged her.

Maybe it was all of those things stacked on top of each other, a weight that finally broke her down. She trudged away from the telescope, too exhausted to look up at the stars. All her thoughts were down here on earth.

The lawn chair barely moved under her weight. She let her head drop back and stared up at the sky full of stars. "What do you want to know?"

"What happened, Gwen?"

"We had a fight."

"I figured that part out, pumpkin."

"I got scared." She confessed. The words poured out of her like poison drawn from a wound. "Ben, he…He said…"

He told me he loved me. He was so brave. Why couldn't I be?

"I panicked." She went on. "I said something horrible back to him. I hurt him. And I can't take it back. I don't know how to fix this, grandpa."

"What did he say that scared you?" His voice was soft in the dark, barely any louder than the soft breeze that didn't even move her hair.

The question made her crack out a laugh that hurt as soon as she made it. "It doesn't matter. It can't happen." She whispered. "It's for the best. Isn't it?"

She drew her legs up and pulled them to her chest. And even though she didn't dare say what the fight was over, directly, she worked up the courage in the dark with only one person listening to allude to it. "We're already weird. We're already freaks. I'm not as brave as he is, I can't…No."

"Since when have you and Ben ever cared what anyone else ever thought about you?" Grandpa countered. "Would you have ever gotten him to take dance lessons with you if you did? Or done karate together? Or started a band?" She could feel the smile in his voice, but she couldn't match it. Gwen shut her eyes, feeling miserable all over again. Even in the dark, keeping her eyes closed was the only way she could ever hope to keep on talking.

"This is different." She got out in a quaver. "If we…You'd hate me. You'd think I was sick. I did the right thing. I did."

Grandpa Max didn't say anything, and Gwen thought he was getting ready to yell at her. She had nightmares about her mom finding out and yelling at her. She heard him move and tensed up, bracing to be pulled to her feet and hauled back into the Rust Bucket for the ride home.

She wasn't expecting his warm hand to settle onto the top of her head, and she snapped her eyes open to look at him as he knelt in front of her.

"If it was the right thing to do, Gwen, then why are you so broken up about it?" He asked, and smiled in the dark. "There is nothing you could ever do, honey, that'd make me hate you. I'm your grandpa. Unconditional love's part of the package. I'm there for you no matter what. And I respect that you still want to work this problem out yourself. Okay. Just let me offer one piece of advice, as someone who's had a long time to think over his own regrets. All right?"

It was so unlike what she'd been expecting that Gwen mutely nodded, waiting.

"There were times in my life that I found myself struggling with what other people expected of me, and what I thought was right. There were too many times I didn't listen to that voice inside of me and pushed things back. Because it's easier just to go along with expectations. It's easier to worry about what others will think and act in ways that'll keep them from looking at you funny. But there's times that doing what really matters, and reaching for what's really important, means standing up against that current. To not get swept up in what other people want you to do. Maybe if I'd been stronger, I would've done things differently. I would've had fewer regrets now than I do."

He let that sink in, then pulled his hand back and stood up. "Seems to me that whatever you're thinking so hard about is another hard choice. And I don't need to know what it is, exactly. It's something you'll have to figure out yourself. You're a smart girl, you don't need an old man like me confusing things more. Just remember that I'll love you no matter what you do. And that sometimes, the best things in life are worth fighting for. Even if you get a little bruised for it. Okay?"

Gwen sniffled and wiped at her eyes. "Okay." She got out. Grandpa watched her for a bit more before he nodded, accepting that she'd heard and understood him.

"Do you wanna go back home, or do you wanna stay out here for a while longer?" He questioned.

"Can we stay out here and just watch the stars?" She hesitantly asked.

"Of course we can. You don't even need to use the telescope if you don't want to." He went back to his lawn chair and settled in with a sigh. "I'll just warn you, if we stay out here for too long, I'll have to break out some hot chocolate to warm back up again."

The joke finally got a giggle from her. "If you have to." She said.

"My, how gracious of my granddaughter to allow me the privilege of hot chocolate." He teased her. But he stayed quiet after that, content to sit next to her and watch the sky. She sat in the dark and the quiet, still thinking through things. But maybe less panicked than before.

If only just a little.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Tuesday, December 17th

There were only three more days before the winter break started, and while their teachers tried to keep everyone focused on their end-of-semester exams that were spaced throughout the week, it was a wasted effort. No, everyone was preoccupied with Marci's upcoming New Year's party, and who would be going with who for what was turning out to be the biggest event of the school year. Not even homecoming had been as exciting as this was.

Gwen didn't pay much attention to it herself. She'd shut much of it out because kids kept making snarky comments about her and Ben, which just made her hide into herself even more. And she was still sorting through everything. Everything everyone said and could say, but even with Grandpa's words in her head now she couldn't process it. And she'd been trying for days.

Maybe if she'd just told him. Maybe if she hadn't beaten around the bush, then -

Then all of a sudden, a question from Marci stopped all of her thoughts cold. She felt faint and spun around with her ears suddenly ringing, and it wasn't from the bell in the hallway. "What?" She got out, blinking rapidly.

Marci stared back at her, confused. "I said, I was thinking about asking Ben to be my date for my New Year's party."

"Why?"

"Because he's a nice guy, and I've maybe wanted to get to know him better for a long time now," Marci explained, twirling a lock of her hair around her finger as she did. Gwen just stared at her and Marci huffed a little. "Well, it's not like the two of you are together or anything, right?"

"No," Gwen said, frozen to the spot as the ringing in her ears rose for a bit before dying down again. "We…aren't together."

"I told people that." Marci rolled her eyes. "A lot of the girls have been getting really nasty the past week, but I told them they were wrong." She must have seen something in Gwen's face because she stopped and frowned a little. "They were wrong…weren't they, Gwen?" That ringing only got worse, and Gwen made a face before pushing it away.

"As if. If you can put up with him, go ahead and try." Gwen snapped out, almost immediately regretting the words as soon as they were said. Marci blinked a couple of times and then smiled, patting Gwen on the elbow.

"Thanks, bestie. I think I will." And she scooted past Gwen before she could do more than choke out a small noise that made no sense at all. Still rooted to the spot and too scared to chase Marci down and stop her, Gwen turned around to see her friend prance over to Ben with her arms wrapped around her history book and tap him on the shoulder. Ben turned away from his locker and listened as Marci chattered away at him. Gwen saw the moment when the girl popped the question and asked Ben - her Ben - to be her date for her party. The boys gathered around Ben stood up a little straighter, and the ringing came back worse than ever as Ben stood there, surprised by the offer.

For a second, he stared at Marci, and then jerked his head up, looking past her. Ben's green eyes caught hers and bored into her, and Gwen's heart thundered in her chest. Something she'd never seen before was in his eyes, and it scared her. She didn't know what to do with it. So she turned around and hid away, the ringing dying down as she held her breath and listened.

"Okay. Sure." Gwen heard him say, right before a cheer rose up from the other kids in the hall and that same droning noise filled her head again. She slammed her locker closed and walked away, unable to look back as the noise chased her away. It stayed with her all day until right at the end of school, when one of the boys, Derrick from the soccer team, some part of her vaguely recalled, cornered her as she was putting stuff away and asked her with a stammer if Gwen wanted to go to Marci's party with him.

She said yes, and later that night as her mom pressed her for details, couldn't remember why.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Gwen's House

Wednesday, December 25th

Christmas this year was at Gwen's house. It had been the tradition for the Tennyson family to change houses between years, just as it was a tradition for her mother to play the piano when it was their turn while everyone else sang carols - badly. There were cookies, Grandma Verdona's recipe, and Aunt Sandra and Uncle Carl were still wearing their terrible holiday sweaters, and Grandpa Max grinning like a loon as he handed out presents from the chair set up next to the tree while he wore his Santa hat.

It should have felt normal. It should have looked normal. But it wasn't. Not when Ben barely even looked up from his presents. Not when he didn't try to steal the best of hers or tug at the ribbons in her hair.

Not after she flinched away when he tried. She didn't even think he realized what he was doing until she jumped and saw the look on his face when she did even though she didn't mean to. It was just that his fingers…

God, his touch was like electricity against her skin, and she didn't know how to explain it as everyone stared at them. It was all she could do to keep his name from being a gasp. Or a cry as she watched his ghost of a smile disappear and take what little bit of joy that she had felt with it.

After that….

After all of the presents had been opened, Ben started organizing his stuff and taking it out to his mom's van. Grandpa had gotten him the new Sumo Slammers game and smirked at him when he was on his second trip. "Can't wait to open up that new game and try it out, I'll bet. Why don't you take it upstairs and play with Gwen first?" His gift to Gwen last Christmas, after all, had been a Gamestation to match Ben's so they wouldn't have to drag his between their houses anymore.

Ben froze in place for a second and Gwen's smile was a little more strained. He finally started moving again and Gwen shook her head, still wearing the smile she didn't feel. "Maybe later, grandpa." Her mom couldn't tell the difference. The way Grandpa blinked back at her, she knew that he had. "I'd better give him a chance to practice for a few days before I stomp him. He'll probably bring it along to Marci's party anyways." It was a cheap deflection and one that Ben would've had a comeback for if things were normal. As things stood, he let it slide and moved on.

Ben's mom jumped on the opening anyhow. "Oh, Max. I don't know if Ben told you yet, but Marci asked him out. He's her date for her party."

"Really?" Grandpa was surprised. "I hadn't heard. Did you say yes, Ben?"

Ben scowled a little. "It's no big deal, it's just a stupid party."

"He said yes." Aunt Sandra half-whispered as Uncle Carl chuckled and reached out to ruffle Ben's hair. Ben lunged out of his reach first and ran for the door, which got a laugh out of his parents and Gwen's for his reaction.

"Of course, getting that much out of him was like unsticking the superglue lid. Don't worry, dad. Ben and I will be having a chat about what's appropriate behavior for a date like this." Uncle Carl added, and Ben's face withered even further as he walked outside.

No, this wasn't like any of the other Christmases at all. Gwen looked at the pile of gifts in front of her and felt utterly trapped as her daddy and Ben's talked all about Ben going out with Marci.

It was almost a relief when her mother finally cut in with, "Well, Ben's not the only one. Gwen was asked out, too. What was that boy's name again, honey?" Her mom asked, and Gwen blanked out for a bit before grabbing some of the abandoned coffee mugs scattered around the low table covered in wrapping paper. She had trouble remembering his name, and it came out unwillingly. Derrick, she answered in a quiet voice. Or at least she hoped she'd said it out loud.

"I'll go ahead and get started on cleaning up the dishes." She said. Her mom started to get up to help her, but Gwen waved her off. "No, it's okay, mom. I can do this on my own." Thankfully, her mom and her aunt didn't force the issue. Though she caught Grandpa keeping an eye on her as she slipped into the next room with five empty mugs dangling from her fingers. It made her walk even faster.

It was quiet in the kitchen at least. The action of opening up the dishwasher and loading the morning's cups into it was repetitive, but at least she didn't have to deal with Grandpa looking at her like she'd made a mistake or hear about her mom or Ben's gushing about that stupid party. The thought of it was making her sick, and it was only six days away. Maybe she should just say she was sick and skip out on it.

But she couldn't. She had promised Marci she'd help get things ready for it, and…

More dishes and mugs were dropped onto the kitchen counter next to her, and Gwen jumped almost a foot in the air as she spun around. It turned out to be Ben, who gave her an unimpressed look as he took a step back.

"What are you doing?"

"Bringing in the rest of the dishes, duh." He answered, before turning away and adding in a softer voice, "Grandpa asked me to help out."

"It's not like you weren't trying to rabbit out of that conversation either."

"And you didn't?" Ben countered, making her wince. She gave him a nod and they got to work.

Even though the dishwasher was new and worked perfectly well, her mom still insisted on rinsing off the dishes before putting them in. It was something that she and Ben had done together countless times to help out when he came over for lunch or dinner, but it felt so strange now. There was tension and space between them that had never been there before, and they hadn't done this since their fight earlier in the month. She snuck glances over to Ben and saw how stiff he was standing. His jaw was even clenched up. And she knew it was her fault.

"Why is everything so messed up?" She asked the air and froze when she realized that the words weren't just a thought, but that they'd come out of her mouth. So did Ben, but he recovered faster, taking the plate she'd just rinsed clean of cinnamon roll crumbs and sliding it into the dishwasher's lower rack.

"You know why." He said, and she flinched. There was no heat in those words. No anger. No resentment. And no warmth either, like she had grown so used to. There'd been a smile in his voice for as long as she could remember that was gone now. Just the sense of an absolute that he knew exactly why things were wrong, and so did she. Even if she couldn't admit it.

But she could get angry, and she did. How dare he think that any of this was as simple as he thought it was! He was just a boy, what did he know about her parent's expectations, about what the world expected of them? The next dish she passed over was wet enough to splash him, and he blinked a few times before giving her a dirty look. He didn't say anything, though, and that made her even angrier.

"So. You're gonna go out with Marci." She spat her friend's name out. Her best friend and the girl she'd barely talked to since that day. The girl who'd always been after him and - "Do you even like her?"

She barely recognized the voice that asked that. It couldn't have been hers. Not when it sounded so angry - so hurt - so scared - as her hands squeezed at the wet dish she'd been passing over so hard that it almost popped out of her grip.

For the first time in days she wished she was still in her karate class. She wanted to run through katas - to move until she was too tired to think and know that the room was really moving around her instead of whatever it was doing now.

"Do you like Derrick, or did you just say yes because that's what people expected you to say?" He countered as he grabbed the dish away, finally sounding angry. And his voice rose enough that they both went still and looked in the direction of the living room, waiting to see if they'd been overheard. But their parents and Grandpa Max just kept on talking in the background in muted, happy tones. She looked over to Ben, who seemed both relieved and ashamed before he averted his gaze.

"I - I - "Gwen sputtered before she turned back to the sink and rinsed off the last of the plates and glasses in silence, waiting until Ben had finished loading up the dishwasher before handing him the green box of powdered detergent from under the sink. He filled up the soap compartment, closed the dishwasher's door, and handed the box back before punching in the buttons to turn it on with a little more force than was required.

"I hate this," Gwen admitted as the machine started hissing and filling up with water. "I hate that we can't even talk to each other." She gingerly extended her hand over and touched his elbow to get his attention, but the look in his eyes when he swiveled his head around made her jerk it back suddenly. "Can we still be friends, Ben? I can -"

"Do what? Talk about school?" The words were a tease. She knew that they were. They were just him. They were just the quick wit that none of the other boys in their class ever really managed. Not really. And they hurt, too, but not as much as what he said next even as she opened her mouth. "Help me get ready for the party?"

His voice cracked as he asked that, but not as much as her heart even as her mind raced over all the ways that she could. She could remind him that Marci was even more of a lady than she was and show him how he was supposed to dance with her. For a second she thought about doing just that, because he forgot sometimes. She could him the steps and where he should put his -

His hands. His hands would be on Marci's hip and shoulder if she showed him how to dance right instead of the wild thing that he usually did that drove her absolutely crazy and -

And she couldn't. Ben knew it, too. His entire expression tightened up as he slumped a bit, grabbed the edge of the counter in both hands, and squeezed.

"What do you want, Gwen?" He finally asked her in a tired voice. There were layers of meaning in those words, something that she'd always been jealous of. She could ramble on like nobody's business, but Ben seemed to make a game out of saying as little as he could and packing as much into those few words as possible. Her first flip answer, that she wanted her friend back, got stuck on her tongue as she parsed out all the other questions he'd hidden beneath that first one. And found she didn't have answers for those. Or at least, answers that didn't make her want to run away again.

Ben snorted and she blinked, realizing just how much time had passed while she was thinking. "Right." He said softly, shaking his head and pushing himself away from the counter. Away from her. "Let me know when you figure it out."

He walked back out of the kitchen to rejoin the rest of their family.

It took Gwen forever to do the same.

- o - o - o - o - o -

December 31st

Marci's House

8:34 PM.

Everything was just like it should be.

Marci and Gwen had planned out the party to the last detail, from the time everyone started arriving at 5 to when they would be picked up by their parents around 10. Marci had pushed for a post-midnight party curfew but her mother had put her foot down. They weren't in high school yet, after all.

But Gwen was out on her first date anyway, and everything was perfect.

Like it could be anything less for a Larrson or a lady. Her mother wouldn't hear about it, and neither would her Mormor, who came visiting just for today so she could be there and see Gwen in her perfect dress and shoes and smile. The first two were still perfect now, but the last… The last hurt as she stood there and stared at the party that was happening all around her.

There was pizza and snacks and soda, one of the new James Bond movies going on in the background, the entire entertainment room set aside for dancing with a stack of borrowed CDs, and even personalized party gift baggies full of snacks and widgets that Marci had agonized in putting together for everyone. Bags that were scattered all around the house now as people played and partied and danced.

Enough of them that Gwen almost couldn't see the boy across the room from her through the crowd. Almost, but she'd found him once when he wandered off during a KISS Concert and this wasn't anything compared to that. She'd spotted him the second she got here. Her Ben.

Her cousin, she reminded herself again and again every time she made herself look away.

But her eyes always went back because Ben looked almost as perfect as she did in clothes that almost looked like his uniform, only without the wrinkles that always plagued his clothes no matter what Aunt Sandra or the teachers tried. It was wrong, somehow, and so right all at the same time. Just like it was right that the blond girl who was Gwen's bestie managed the impossible as she hung onto his arm and they laughed with their friends.

And Ben hadn't looked at her at all since she got here. Not even once. Which was good. It was the way that it should be. Gwen told herself that over and over again, too, just like she had been for weeks now, but today was different.

"Your hair is doing that thing again," Olivia whispered.

And Gwen bit out a word that ladies didn't when she turned and saw her reflection in the glass of the hutch she was hidi - standing beside.

"I hate this," Gwen grumbled as she finally gave up on the elegant waves that washed down her back that her mother and Mormor both agreed looked so good on her at the salon, and just pulled it back into the ponytail that she usually kept in any way.

"Welcome to my world," the tall girl teased with a glance up at her own hair even as she reached out to help Gwen with hers. Except hers was behaving for a change, which so wasn't fair, and -

And the rest of the thought disappeared as Marci's bell-like laugh cut through the room. Gwen's eyes shot back just in time to see the blond hug her Scruffy close…

"Ow!" Olivia said as she yanked her hands back as the static in Gwen's hair cracked. Then she tried for a severe look that was spoiled by her lips twitching as she wagged her finger at Gwen. "Have you been rubbing wool socks on the carpet again? Because I thought that we all agreed that you wouldn't. Not after - "

"No," Gwen swore even as she fought back a grin from the memory of that science class even as she reached up. "I don't know what - "

"- what two girls as pretty as you are doing over here alone? N-Neither do I," Another voice cut in. One that might have been trying for smooth or maybe just teasing until his voice cracked at the end of it and spoiled everything.

No, it wasn't his voice what spoiled everything, but none of had was his fault and Gwen made herself smile just a little more as she turned to her 'date,' as Olivia turned and put a hand on her hip. "I don't know either, Derrick, but you were the one who left us here."

They were the words that Gwen should have said. She'd said so much worse over the years, but she couldn't. It was all she could do just to keep her perfect smile in place as Derrick protested, "For drinks!" As he nodded down to the three water bottles that were tucked in the crook of his left arm. And then he grinned and pulled his right out from behind his back and held out the paper plate he'd been hiding back there.

Gwen stared at it and the single piece of pizza that was piled high with every kind of topping that there was. "I know that it's your favorite," Derrick said, his grin faltering just a little. "I always see you grab it at lunch."

"Yeah," Gwen whispered and she didn't look across the room. No, she just made herself grin and say "Thank you." She even took a bite even though it wasn't the Hawaiian that she loved and somebody else always got for her.

Somebody that she didn't think about. Not now. Not when Derrick was so sweet just for trying. Sweet and smart and nice and everything that her mother could have hoped for. Gwen knew that he was, and if she hadn't, then the way the woman whispered, 'Oh, Silly Bean, he's perfect,' in her ear after her daddy opened the door and they all saw the boy who was standing there in his suit coat and a red rose in his hand.

A rose that he almost shoved into Gwen's from nerves as Gwen was almost shoved into him for pictures as she could just whisper, "Sorry," at him because she could see the shock written all over his face as her mother and mormor did everything they could to embarrass both of them.

But the shock turned into a smile as he looked at her and whispered, "Worth it," right back. They were words that she'd heard so many times before. Enough that Gwen couldn't help smiling back at him.

But that was almost an hour ago. A perfect hour where she did everything that she should, right down to taking a single bite from her pizza and a single sip from her water bottle before she set them both down because that was what ladies did. That was what was expected.

And so was what he said next. "If you're not hungry, then maybe - "he started as he held out his now free hands, his eyes on the couples who were busy dancing over by the stereo. There was so much hope in his eyes. "I know that you can get down," he said, his face flushing.

"I - "Gwen started, her face burning because he'd asked before and she'd said no even though everybody knew that she loved dancing just like she knew that Derrick could, but -

But it was almost a relief when Marci came out of nowhere and grabbed her hand. Grabbed both of their hands. "Come on!" The blond all but squealed as she dragged them away from Olivia and around the edges of the crowd for the hallway in the back.

No, for the door that Blair was guarding. The door that led down to the basement. "What's going on?" Derrick asked as they were all ushered down and the Asian girl closed the door behind them.

"I don't know," Gwen admitted, her face twisting as they went down the stairs. They hadn't done anything with the basement when they were getting ready for the party and it showed when they got down there.

It was the only room in the house that Mrs. Hunter hadn't touched and it showed. It looked like nothing so much as a ski lodge with its wood-paneled walls. It had a billiard table once, but now there was a huge TV for when Mr. Hunter wanted to watch movies with his friends and a poker table he could pull out when he didn't, but neither were set up now.

No, now there were just a dozen kids down milling in front of the blank TV in the space that the table would have gone. A dozen out of all the ones that Marci had invited from school and ballet and her mother's groups. A dozen that Gwen knew even if they weren't her friends. Not really.

There was Amanda and Sara and Rafael and -

And Ben, who looked just as lost as Gwen felt as he stood there in the middle of the room. Ben, who Marci rushed to the second she let go of Gwen's hand. Ben, who stumbled back as he was glomped, but his arms went around the blond's waist anyway as she squealed, "This is going to be so much fun!"

"What is?" Gwen asked, her stomach as tight as her fists as she stood there and stared.

Not that Marci answered with anything but a smug "Sit down in a circle and you'll see! Boy, girl, boy, girl." That got nervous looks from everybody, but they did it anyway as she rushed over to a bookcase in the corner and grabbed something off of it.

Even Ben, even if he was the last one who did. Even if he looked ready to bolt the second Blair brushed his knee because there was enough room. Almost. Gwen shivered as she felt the fabric of Derrick's pants against her knees as she tucked her feet under her and she wasn't the only one, but she was the only one who was staring at the empty spot on the other side of her - of Ben as Gwen finally demanded, "What are we doing, Marci? This isn't on the schedule!"

And Marci just laughed as she came hurrying back. "Don't get me wrong, Bestie. Tonight has been fun, but we're not babies anymore, so…" she declared as she held up the old soda bottle with all of the confidence that she hadn't had a few weeks ago when they saw a bottle just like that on some movie or other when she was spending the night. Only back then, the girl had declared that it was the grossest thing that either of them had ever seen as she hid her burning face behind a pillow. Now…

Now Marci's grin was a wide smirk and a dare in so many ways as she turned her head and gave them all a look as she set the bottle down. "If anyone doesn't know how this works…"

Her eyes flickered towards the stairs as she said it, but nobody moved. Nobody even made a sound. Not anymore than the glass did when it touched the carpet, but Gwen was sure that she heard something anyway even though that was impossible as Marci stood back up with a grin and put a hand on her hip. "We all know the rules to this game, I'm sure," she almost purred, her eyes passing over all of them as she turned and everybody must have seen the same movie because nobody shook their heads, "but I figured that we're not going to do things the usual way. We're better than that."

Gwen heard her say it, and she knew that she should say something because she hated it when the blond said things like that. She knew it, but she couldn't make her mouth work. Not when her whole world shrank down to the bottle in front of her. The bottle that she already knew -

If it was anyone else, they wouldn't have even noticed. But it wasn't and a pair of dancer-thin legs in white tights were suddenly in front of her. Legs that were followed by blue eyes that were pinched with annoyance and worry and a laugh all at the same time as Marci knelt down and declared, "No doing Math, Gwen! That's cheating" as everybody else laughed.

Almost everybody.

"Here's how it works," Marci finally kept going after Gwen made herself nod, the words almost lost in the pounding that filled Gwen's ears. "We spin the bottle like usual. Those of you who came with dates get a choice when it's done spinning. You can either pick whoever it's pointing to or you can choose to pick your date instead. Whoever you pick, you go into the closet for three minutes, no questions asked - but we'll be making sure none of you boys try anything funny!" She warned with a mock glare that got some uneasy laughs. "Girls get to do the spinning, each girl gets one spin. The party's almost over, after all."

Gwen swallowed as the lights flickered around them. She didn't know why and she didn't care. Not when her heart was hammering so hard in her chest as she looked at Derrick and saw him blush before smiling slightly and turning his head away. And then immediately after, her eyes flashed to Ben who was sitting across the circle. He was staring at Marci with his eyes narrowed like she'd grown another head. And then right after, his eyes darted to Gwen. Not for very long. Just enough that she could sense his agitation and see him clench his hands into fists for about half a second before he forced them to smooth back out and press to his legs. And by the way Marci's smile dipped for a moment as she looked over the crowd and then quickly looked at Gwen - she'd seen it too.

"Okay, then," Marci said through a smile that was suddenly forced. She set the bottle down in the middle of the circle and stepped out, sitting down next to Ben. "Sara, why don't you go first? Spin a winner. Let's make this a New Year's to remember."

Everyone was nervous and on edge as the brunette reached down and set the glass bottle spinning. After enough rotations to have everyone sweating bullets, it slowed down before pointing to Rafael. The boy's eyes went wide as he whispered, "Ah, Dio…" and swallowed. Marci giggled a little and looked over to Sara.

"Okay, Sara. Since you didn't come with a date, Rafi is all yours." Sara, blushing brightly the whole time, got up from her kneel and walked over to the Spanish boy, who shakily took her hand before the two of them started walking for the door to the utility room. They closed it behind them after turning on the light. Marci, the master of setting the mood, pulled out an egg timer and set it to 3 minutes. Utter silence reigned in the basement, everything breathing softly to try and hear what might be going on with the gentle tick of the windup timer in the background.

Gwen wished she had brought her water bottle down here with her. She couldn't speak because her mouth was too dry, and the whole time they all waited her hands gripped at her skirt for the lack of anything better to do. They heard some nervous laughter, some giggling, and then the timer went off in a drone that made everyone flinch as the silence ended.

"Time's up!" Marci announced, strolling over to the door and flinging it open. Sara and Rafael walked out, still blushing, but there was a smile on her face while he rubbed the back of his head. And when they looked at each other…they didn't shy away. There was a look of mutual closeness that hadn't been there before. "Well, looks like you two had some fun."

"But not too much!" Another girl piped up with a giggle. "We hope."

"Um. Y- yeah." Rafael muttered, and Sara buried her face in her hands.

"All right, all right." Marci waved them back to the circle, and Gwen saw that they chose to sit together this time. Marci picked the next girl, the bottle was spun, and the game went on.

The minutes ticked down, and the whole time Gwen realized that Einstein had been right about so much more than math. Time really was relative. When that damn bottle was spinning, it went by at a crawl. And when the next girl and her chosen boy walked into the closet, it blew by at lightning speed.

And then it was her turn.

The lights flickered again as she stared at the bottle and every eye turned towards her. She knew that they were staring even though she couldn't take her eyes off of the faded red label. Not even when she felt Derrick's hand brush her knee. She couldn't make her hand move either. Not until she heard Marci sigh and say, "Go ahead, Gwen," in a tone that could have been mocking or confused or worried, she couldn't tell.

And neither could Olivia, who let out a warning, "Marci…"

A warning that got another spattering of laughs after that as she finally made her hand move. Laughs that stopped as the lights flickered again just as her fingers brushed the cool glass.

The glass that should have been cool, but felt boiling hot as she yanked her hand away. "No."

"But - "Marci started as Derrick sucked in a hurt breath.

"I'm not playing this stupid game," Gwen snapped out as she shoved herself back up to her feet and ignored all of the boos and catcalls behind her as she stormed for the door.

A door that she didn't reach. Not before a hand caught hers again. Caught it and held it tight as it spun her around. "What's wrong?" Marci asked, her voice a whisper and this time there wasn't any hiding the worry in her eyes now as they darted over Gwen's face. Worry that turned to fury as she spun around on Derrick. "Did he -?"

"No!" Gwen gasped out as she caught her friend's arm and pulled her back. "I - "Gwen started before the words all caught in her throat as she tried to explain, but she couldn't. She just couldn't. Not when all she could hear was the sound of her heart pounding and all that she could see was Ben -

Was Ben, who was halfway up to his feet and who had his mouth open in a soundless cry until he saw her looking. Then his mouth slammed shut and all she saw was his hair as he dropped back down to his butt and his eyes went to the floor.

And she didn't know anything could hurt as much as that did. It hurt enough that she barely heard what Marci said in a rushed babble, "-have to play, but we only have a few more rounds left and - "The words were too much. Enough that she just nodded and let the girl lead her back into the circle and when somebody said something she snapped out, "Oh, shut it! She's too good for any of you anyway!"

There were more words after that. Words that were just gone as she sat there. Her heart thundered ever louder in her chest, and more and more she found herself unable to look away from Ben even as Marci sat down, too, and the game started again.

"What do you want, Gwen?" He'd asked her at Christmas. Gwen hadn't had an answer back then. She'd thought about little else in the week between then and now. Everything else had been done more or less on autopilot, going through the motions without any real focus. She still didn't know what she wanted. But she knew that she didn't want this as she watched the bottle spin again and again.

Only once did it fall on Ben, and the withering stare that Marci gave the girl was enough to make the other blond balk and make a safer pick. Gwen's heart was in her throat when that happened, and it didn't get a chance to go very far before Marci leaned in and reached for the Coke bottle.

"And finally, it's my turn!" Marci announced dramatically, making a show of checking her wristwatch and wincing at the time. "And right before we have to get back upstairs for the parents."

No, that little voice inside of Gwen begged. Please no, it said, as she watched Ben finally look up again, his face just empty as Marci set the bottle spinning with plenty of force. Every rotation dug the knife in deeper, making her strain and her knuckles go white as she kept from screaming like she wanted to. Don't do this. Not to him. Not to Ben.

The bottle began to slow down, more ponderous and full of tension than the Price is Right wheel had ever been when she watched it during summer vacations. Every time it got close to Ben, Gwen could hardly blink. Not Ben. Not Ben. Not Ben. She stared at that bottle as if her very thoughts could will it from that terrible fate.

But on its last rotation, when it had only whimpers of that kinetic energy left to it, the Coke bottle denied her wishes as it went past her one last time and almost stopped right before it reached Marci, where another boy was…

Almost, and then, with the last of its energy, it rolled that last razor-thin inch and pointed at Marci's knee.

Ben stared at the bottle with some inscrutable emotion, and Marci let out a squeal of joy as she glomped onto his shoulder even harder. "Talk about lucky! Looks like you're mine after all, Ben!" The blond cheered, pulling herself and Ben up from the concrete floor. She moved with a will, while Ben…

None of the boys had rushed into the closet, but Ben moved like he did when they were going to class. He didn't stop though, or even try to pull away and Gwen felt like she was drowning as she watched them - watched him, not knowing what to do, what to say.

This…this was what everyone expected, Gwen realized. This was what everyone thought was right. If this happened, then the world would go on spinning. And the kids at school would stop gossiping about Gwen and Ben. They would stop looking at her like she was a freak, like there was something wrong with her. Marci tugged on Ben's hand, dragging him step by step towards that open door.

I don't want this, Gwen realized. It was like a whimper at first, small and barely heard in the dark, but a realization that grew stronger with every repetition. I don't want this. I don't want this!

Gwen loved him. She loved her cousin. She loved Scruffy. She loved Ben. It cleared the fog from her mind, but it wasn't enough to unfreeze her from where she was sitting. It wasn't enough to throw the weight of everybody's expectations off, and she screamed and raged inside herself, a tempest boiling over in her heart that set her body trembling even as it didn't move.

What was, what made the boiling pot of her emotions and thoughts and fears finally bubble over and set the stove of her life to hissing was when Ben, in a sudden moment of weakness or desperation, looked back over his shoulder to the circle of kids watching the drama unfold.

He looked at her. Given the gasps from at least two girls there, it had been noticed who he was looking at. It was enough. It was finally enough.

"NO!" Gwen snapped, and her hands tingled a little bit as that word nearly echoed in the dim lighting of the basement. It was startling enough that Marci froze in place, that everyone else stopped moving completely.

Heedless of the whispers that would come from this and the gossip that would come when school started up again, Gwen rose from the ground in a smooth movement that would have made Sensei proud of her readiness and took six brisk steps - two to clear the circle, four to reach Ben - then she grabbed Ben by his free arm and tore him out of Marci's grip.

"Ben is mine." Gwen hissed at her startled friend, and before Marci could make a sound beyond the choked noise she was letting out, Gwen pulled her - Her Scruffy into the closet and slammed the door behind them. She even locked it for good measure.

The closet was crowded with the folded up table and all the other odds and ends that ended up in here, but there was still enough room for her to pace past Ben, fuming and struggling to piece her thoughts together. Everything had been so clear in that instant, and now - and now -

"Gwen?" Ben finally asked, uneasily as he just stood there.

"Just…just give me a second!" Gwen fumed, still moving, still pacing.

She heard the door handle jiggle furiously as Marci angrily shouted, "Gwen Tennyson, you open up this door this instant, you date-stealing hussy!" It was the angriest Gwen had ever heard her best friend sound, but she ignored her anyway as she focused on the storm in her head and trying to put into words everything she felt.

"What did you mean when you said I was yours?" Ben asked. Of course he wouldn't give her the time to think.

"Because you are!" She snapped back at him, her hands clenched into fists down at her waist. More pounding came at the door, and Ben looked over at it for a couple of seconds before turning back to her.

"Gwen, you just dragged me in here in front of about half of our class. I'm going to need more than that."

"Why?"

"Because you always have a reason for every single thing you do. You always have a plan. But right now, it feels like you're acting like me." Ben folded his arms, refusing to give her any room to maneuver. "So why did you do that?" She chewed on her lip, and Ben raised an eyebrow at her silence. "Was it because you didn't want Marci kissing me like she did when we were kids?"

Yes. "No!" Gwen blurted out.

Ben cocked his head to the side a little. "Was it because you got jealous? You think that because you don't want me, that somehow nobody else can either?"

YES. "NO!"

"Then why, Gwen? Why did you drag me in here and lock the door?!"

"Because I love you!" Gwen yelled at him and went ramrod stiff right after. The ferocity of it had shocked her into silence, and the pounding on the door had stopped too. She'd said it. She'd actually said it, and now that it was out there, it was like a hole had been smashed into the side of a dam. The rest of it came pouring out of her without an end. "I love you. God, Ben." Her eyes burned, and she dug the heels of her palms into them. "I love you, okay? I love you and it's been tearing me apart for weeks now, ever since you threw your ring at me and walked away."

Ben didn't say anything, and Gwen let out a sob. "I should have been braver then. I should have told you the same thing."

"So why didn't you." His voice was flat.

"Because I was scared, Doofus! After what my dad said, after hearing all the whispers and the jokes, I just…I just…"

"You froze up." He said, and she nodded mutely and ashamed. "So what's changed?" He pried, his voice still giving away nothing. No warmth and no outrage. She wanted his love, she could accept his anger, but him giving her neither tore at her in ways she didn't know she could be wounded. "Gwen. What changed?"

She let out another sob, feeling wet tears roll down her wrists from where her hands still covered her eyes. There, in the dark and the quiet of that part of the basement, the answer finally came to her.

"I saw you being dragged away from me, dragged in here," and somehow she knew that if he walked through this door with Marci that she'd still see him every day, but he'd just be Ben. He'd just be her cousin for the rest of their lives and - "- and I didn't want that. I've tried to be who everyone wants me to be, to act the way they want me to, and I can't. I saw Marci dragging you away, and…and it scared me."

"What do you want, Gwen?" Ben asked her.

"You." She finally confessed, cracked clean through with no part of the shell around her heart left intact. She couldn't hide it anymore. "I want you." And she stood there, waiting for him to deny her, to laugh at her, to hurt her like she'd hurt him.

Strong, warm hands wrapped around her wrists and pulled her hands away from her face. Through blurry eyes that she blinked to clear, she saw Ben looking up at her with a gentle smile…and tears of his own.

"You're such a Dweeb." He teased her, and the normalcy of it made her let out a weak laugh that made her crumble all over again. She tipped forward against him, burying her face in his shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her and held her up. "But you're My Dweeb."

"You promise?" She gasped out, still crying.

"Say it again," Ben demanded. Her mouth was right by his ear, and it took almost no effort at all to turn her head to tell him what he wanted to hear. What she needed to say.

"I love you." She whispered. His arms tightened around her, and he sighed as she sank into them.

"I said it first." He had, and she knew that he'd spent the rest of her poking her with that fact. She knew it and she didn't care.

"Jerk," She laughed like she always did and rocked against him. And then she took a shuddering breath because she did and that was why she added, "You did and I'm sorry that -"

"No. No more sorries," Ben said, his voice suddenly soft as he reached up and touched her chin so that she'd look at him. "Just promise me you'll never do that again."

"I don't have the heart to do that again." She promised. She pulled back away from him, smiling through her tears as she reached up and ran her fingers through his hair like she'd wanted to all night. Until no one but her would have ever guessed that a comb had ever touched it and she had her Scruffy back.

Her Scruffy, who finally relaxed as he reached up and brushed her tears away with his thumb. Or he did until some impulse made her turn into his hand and kiss his palm. Ben's eyes got big at her bold move, and there was tension there, like a tightly drawn wire…

Pulled by the moment, both of them drawn by the same desire, Gwen leaned in when Ben did, closing her eyes.

When they had been little, she'd kissed his cheek like his mom used to more than once. This kiss was nothing like those had been. This kiss was more like the kiss they'd shared that one day at school, the day she'd worn white and he'd given her the decoder ring that she wore until it didn't fit. She'd given him one, too, and a kiss that she still remembered after all of these years.

This kiss felt like that one had. Like a promise. It didn't last anywhere near as long as she wanted, even while it felt like it went on for forever. Einstein again, some part of her brain laughed at her.

They pulled apart for air, and after, Gwen was smiling. So was Ben.

"So we're together now?"

"That depends. You were already my Ben. Do you think you could handle being my…my boyfriend?" Gwen asked him shyly.

"I think I'd like to try," Ben answered, squeezing her hand. "But that means you have to be my girlfriend."

She hugged him again, as easy as breathing and way more enjoyable. "I'm more than that." She replied, thinking again of the plastic rings in her jewelry box back home and just what they meant, even if she tried to forget for a while.

"You are." He affirmed because he never did. before he hugged her back like that could keep her from seeing the smile that filled his face, or just how dorky it was.

It was almost as bad as the one she felt on hers because this wasn't perfect. It was just them.

And not even the pounding on the door could change that as it came back stronger than before. Strong enough that Gwen jumped at the sound of it before she pointed out the obvious. "There's just one problem."

"What's that? Them?" Ben snorted, nodding towards the closet door.

"Marci's not that scary."

"She so is," Gwen scoffed. "And no. I don't care about what they think." Not anymore, she said to herself. "But we have to tell our parents about us." Because she wasn't going to pretend anymore. Not for anybody. Not even for her parents, who she knew would have a thousand questions about tonight that she didn't have an answer for. Not any that weren't lies anyway and she didn't know if she could. No even for her Ben, who she knew was coming up with some wild plan just from the look in his -

"So we tell them."

Gwen pulled her head off of his shoulder and looked at him curiously. "Just like that?"

"Yeah." Ben shrugged. "It's no big deal."

"What if they tell us it's wrong? Because we're - ?"

"Let 'em try." He scowled, and the determination there calmed her down somewhat. "If my mom and dad want to fight me over this, then I'll fight them with everything I've got. I'm not giving you up again."

Gwen didn't think that her parents would be anywhere near as understanding, but his never demanded perfection. Aunt Sandra just wanted him - both of them - to be happy. Hers made Ben run away screaming so many times and that was before - before all of this. "Will you…will you help me tell mine?"

The shame came back as the question slipped out because she should have been brave enough to tell them alone. Especially after everything that she just put them both through. "No, never mind. I'll - "

Ben's lips were on hers before she could finish, and his smile stayed even after he pulled away. "Of course I will," Ben promised even as he squeezed her fingers gently. "Isn't that what a good boyfriend does?"

You're more than my boyfriend, she thought as she remembered the rings that were waiting in her jewelry box and what they meant, but out loud she just sniffed and said, "They do, but since I'm stuck with you..."

The words were just a tease. One that he more than met. "You better believe it," Ben told her with the smirk she knew all too well and missed so much over the last few weeks. It was a smirk that slipped only a little as the banging at the door started again and he took a deep breath before he asked, "You ready?"

Gwen could have said something then, but she didn't. She didn't have to. Not now. She just nodded at him, grinned, and gave his hand one last squeeze as she marveled in how right it felt being with him.

Then they took those few steps to the door, unlocked it, and together, Ben and Gwen Tennyson, boyfriend and girlfriend at last, walked out into the world…