COURTING DISASTER

By Eric "Erico" Lawson and Shadows59

Chapter Four: The Kids Face the Fantabulous Revenge of Marci Hunter

Angelwood Elementary

September 15th, 1995

12:07 am

" - mommy got me a whole new dress just for tomorrow!" Marci said with a grin over the lip of the plastic tea cup that Olivia brought for them to play with today. The rest of the tea set was set out between them on top of the picnic table, the one that was right under the tree and the bestest place in the whole school.

Especially today.

"...19, 20! Ready or not, here I come!" She heard him shout as he shoved away from the flagpole. Twenty seconds was the longest she'd ever seen Ben stand still for the whole time she'd known him and he made up for it now as he charged across the schoolyard under Marci's glare.

Not that he cared, the dummy!

"How rude," Amanda sniffed from her spot at Marci's left, her dark brown hair catching just a bit of the breeze as she lifted her nose after the boys who were hiding under their table screamed and ran the second he got close.

Close enough that Marci knew he saw her glaring and what did he do? He just grinned at her as he went running by. "What do you expect?" Marci said, the words only jumbling a little around her missing tooth, but she was sure she said them just like her mommy did as she put her cup down. "They're boys!"

That just got nods and sighs from the other four girls who were sitting on the table with her. "We should just ignore them," Blair sighed as she picked up the teapot and refilled everyone's cups. "And everyone who plays with 'em!"

Which only meant one person in their class. Only one who counted anyway, Marci thought even as her eyes brushed over Olive Oyl as she raced back towards the flagpole. Brushed over and forgot even as the too tall girl screamed and laughed as Ben somehow caught her just before she was safe as she looked for someone else.

Someone that Marci swore she wasn't even going to think about because she was just the worst, the traitor, and who cared about her when tomorrow was going to be so good? "We're all coming early tomorrow, right? Mommy said we should 'cause Mrs. Edith is teaching us herself and - "

"Where are you going?" A voice cut in even as more boys screamed off in the distance. A voice that made Marci jump even before she saw the two green, too wide eyes staring at her from over the lip of the table.

"Nowhere with you, Gwen!" Blair shouted before Marci could as Donna answered with a squeal, "Cotillion starts 'morrow!"

And the way Gwen's eyes lit up at that. "You're going to "tillion, too?!" She said it with a gasp as she bounced on her toes. "So are me and my - Ben!?" The last was a squeal as she just disappeared in a blur of motion that made Marci scramble towards the edge of the table so she could see.

She was sure there would be something like the boogeyman or aliens and her eyes burned at the thought even as she saw something so much worse! "Gotcha!" Ben said with a laugh as he hugged the redhead girl tight from behind even as their tumble through the leaves on the ground stopped. "This is hide 'n seek, Gwen! You made it too easy today!"

Even Gwen caught his laugh and giggled as she spun in his arms so she could give him a shove. Just a little one. Nothing like the one she gave Flint last week and made him run off crying after he grabbed her just like that. "No fair! I was talkin' to Marci! Not playing!" The words came with a pout as she stood back up, her face as red as her hair or the leaves that were mixed in with it now.

A pout that didn't last long when Ben blinked and bounced back up, too. Not in the face of his grin. "'Bout what? Something fun?"

"Not for you, Ben!" Marci snapped back as she wrinkled her nose at him. He might be in her class and wear the uniform, but there was a reason that the teachers always sighed when they saw him before school or after lunch. A reason that just started with the leaves that were all over his shirt and ended with the mess of his hair. "You're too - too scruffy!"

"I AM NOT!" The boy shouted right back as his face went red and then his eyes darted over. "What's scruffy?"

"It means messy!" Gwen squealed out as she glomped him and forgot all about being mad in the delight of the new word. "And you are!"

"I am not! Stop it!" Ben said like it was the end of the world, but he didn't push her away, even as everyone else picked up the word and the giggle fit.

Everyone but Marci, who kept glaring even as she sat back on her heels and crossed her arms. "And that's why you can't come tomorrow! Either of you! Cotillion is fancy!"

And neither of them were even close. Not with leaves in their hair and dirt on their knees and elbows and noses. More on Gwen, because at least he was wearing pants and was a boy. Not that Gwen ever remembered that she wasn't. Not when she'd run across the playground with all the other boys or climb the jungle gym with them until Mrs. Anderson reminded her that she was wearing a skirt. 'Specially not now as she grabbed the table and scrambled up. "Can too!" Gwen shouted, her face burning red again as her eyes narrowed and she stomped her foot. "You're just being mean!"

"Nuh uh!" Marci shouted right back as she jumped up to her feet because she had, and her next words only caught a little as she added, "And you started it!"

"Did not!"

"Did too!"

The two were nose to nose when the table shifted again. "Don't yell at my Gwen!" Ben shouted, his face dark as he stood at her side like he always did. Stood at her side and found her hand even as all the girls Marci thought were her friends backed away even before Mrs. Anderson shouted, "Benjamin, Gwendolyn, Marci! What do you three think you're doing?"

Marci blinked when she heard her name shouted, too, and felt her lip quiver as they all spun around because it wasn't fair! It wasn't fair that she was in trouble, too, or that they got to roll around in the dirt with nothing more than the teacher sighing their names as she picked the leaves off of them, or that the three got marched back inside even though lunch still had ten minutes left.

Or that Ben and Gwen got to sit together while she sat all alone and sniffled just 'cause they always got to since forever and ever ago and the teachers always liked the red head best.

"Is Cotillion really fancy?" she heard Ben mumble from across the room as he shot a look at her. One that was dark for a whole new reason before he slumped down in his desk. "I don't wanna be fancy! You said - "

"You're not fancy, Ben!" Gwen said right back from her seat behind him. A seat she was half draped over as she brushed dirt and leaves from his collar and giggled again. "You're scruffy! My scruffy!" Even with the lights off, Marci could see them glow as she said it, and she saw the look she got a second later from the girl who used to be her best friend and best dolly for a whole week. And all Marci could do was glare.

None of it was fair, but at least she knew Gwen was fibbing and she wouldn't have to look at either of them tomorrow!

- o - o - o - o - o -

Halvarrsen Etiquette and Dance Studio

Saturday, September 16th, 1995

9:54 A.M.

Mrs. Edith Halvarrsen had seen quite a lot of young girls come through the doors of her studio. The ballet program had always been the main draw, and she had other teachers to help her with that, but she was especially proud of the Cotillion program. It was the one she still taught herself.

There was something so very refined about it, even in the junior program. The pageantry. The formalized patterns of behavior. The script of the dances. In ages of refinement long past, Cotillion referred to the formal outings where young women entered the halls of high society.

Now, it was more of a glorified excuse to teach manners and ballroom dancing, and occasionally etiquette. Edith did her level best to try and drill the more old-fashioned ways into the heads of the girls who came through her doors. Her program was famous for turning out not just impressively refined young women, but debutantes. And she would have loved to do the same for gentlemen as well, but most parents of young boys, even in the circles her name was frequented, found it less deserving of their son's time compared to their daughters.

That was why she had been so thrilled when Natalie Larr- sorry, Tennyson had called and said that would it be all right if there was a tagalong to her daughter Gwendolyn? There was a cousin exactly her age she apparently did everything with, and given how exhausted the poor woman sounded, there had been some fights about the matter of her daughter coming to Cotillion if it meant her cousin Benjamin wasn't there as well. Mrs. Halvarrsen had laughed at that, more than was polite, but she happily agreed to it. At last, a young man who could be used as a dancing partner! Those were always in such short supply, she even agreed to waive half of his sign-up fee, provided that he stayed the entire time that Gwendolyn did.

It was only a little white lie - especially when Elna's donations covered both their tuitions easily enough that the fee she charged Natalie was more for show than anything else - and an easy enough decision. That's what she told herself anyway, until she saw a silver minivan that was new enough, but decidedly not up to the standards set by all the other cars in the parking lot, pull up.

"There's always someone who needs directions," Edith sighed even as she looked for one of her assistants even as she kept greeting her students and their parents because learning was best done by example and so she could see just how much work she'd have ahead of her.

She had no idea until she saw the driver's door open and heard a little boy wail - "I don't wanna! I look fancy!" - from somewhere inside even before the woman in the driver's seat could slip out and she didn't know how the boy managed to make that word sound dirty either, but he did.

"Ben!" The woman called out, her voice a mix of frazzled and embarrassed as she looked back before she slammed her door and hurried around to the one on the side as Edith blinked at the sight of her.

Blinked and whispered "Lydia!" Under her breath. She wasn't a snob and she opened her doors to anyone who wanted to learn, but honestly. It was bad enough that the woman's dress looked like she'd gotten it from the mall, but her hair? Who ruined blond hair as long and as lovely as that by putting a blue streak in it that ran from behind her ear all the way down?

Not a lady, that much was certain.

Lydia, the dear woman, was instantly at her side. "Yes Edith?" She asked, and Edith didn't have to do more than turn her gaze out and nod for her assistant to catch sight of the silver minivan and then catch on. "Ah. Right. I'll take care of it." Edith meant to thank her, but she was distracted by the sight of a set of familiar eyes underneath a perfectly styled head of red hair.

"Natalie. So good to see you." Edith greeted the daughter of her old friend with a beatific and immaculate smile, sliding up and holding out her hands palms down. Natalie grasped Edith's hands in her own and smiled back at her. A shift of movement led her to look down at Natalie's side, and there was a beautiful little girl with hair an even brighter red than her mother's, and sparkling green eyes that were looking all around. "And this must be Gwendolyn."

The girl swallowed then as she huddled close to her mother's leg and her gaze met Edith's for only a moment even as she waved a hand. "Hi!"

The word was barely more than a squeak that made her mother frown, but Edith was long practiced at this. "That simply will not do, Gwendolyn. Ladies don't say 'hi.'" She said as she tried for stern, but it was almost impossible when those eyes somehow got even bigger as Edith reached for the hem of her skirt and curtsied to the both of them like the girl was the Queen of England. "We say that it's a pleasure to meet you. Which it is."

Her knees ached a little at the gesture, but it was worth it just to see the girl's jaw drop at the display and watch Gwen take a step away from her mother so she could grab the hem of her own dress and make her own shakey attempt at the move and words. There wasn't a soul hardhearted enough that they wouldn't smile at the display. She just wished she kept the girl's attention for longer before she darted back to her mother's side and she started looking this way and that again.

"I can't tell you how much we've been looking forward to this." Natalie said to her as she brushed a hand over her daughter's hair in a vain attempt to make her stop fidgeting and looking around. "Thank you for accommodating her cousin, I know it had to be difficult…"

"Nonsense." Edith dismissed her concerns, taking another look at Gwendolyn, who wouldn't hold still. To be fair, all of the girls (And the only other boy in the class aside from Gwendolyn's still-absent cousin) were all a little nervous as they'd come in, but she wasn't acting at all like the bright and contienscious girl that Elna had promised she was.

"Where's Ben?" Gwendolyn asked in a voice that was nearly a mumble, and she turned her head and looked around so fast that it made her hair spin around.

"They should be here, Gwendolyn." Natalie said soothingly, and looked around herself while she kept speaking. "You know Ben lives a little farther out from here than we do…"

Edith felt a tiny shiver run down her spine, stuck in place from those two simple words. "Ben?" She said, already turning her eyes towards the parking lot where she'd sent her assistant to look in on the van and the woman who didn't seem to belong, a woman who'd had a child that she had called…

"BEN!" Gwen yelled, and took off running, paying no attention to her summer dress or her mother's (shout) loud gasp after her. Edith's face strained as she maintained her composure in the face of what would undoubtedly be the most problematic class she'd ever taught. Because of course the granddaughter of her dearest friend was the cousin of the scruffy-haired boy who fidgeted in a suit and bow tie he looked ready to tear off the moment he could.

Natalie let out a little gasp as her daughter glomped onto the boy with the uncombed mop of brown hair on his head, and Edith bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling as Lydia was stymied and left staring as Gwendolyn pulled back from the hug, talking a mile a minute and grinning like the eager and outgoing girl her mother had said she was. She didn't wait to even say hello to the blond-haired woman with the running stripe (Her aunt?) before she was dragging the boy behind her. Strangely, while he was still blushing and embarrassed, his protests had gone silent.

"That must be her cousin." Edith surmised, and Natalie nodded her head in surrender.

"That's Benjamin." She confirmed, with (a sigh) a louder exhale of air than normal even as her lips twitched up. "But he prefers Ben." They both fell silent as Gwendolyn and Ben came close enough that they could make out the conversation.

"...know why you're so embarrassed, we wear uniforms at school all the time! Besides, I think your bowtie's cute!"

"Gwen!" Ben whined, and fingered the offending garment, but he didn't tear it off either. They came to a stop next to them, and Ben waved shyly at Gwendolyn's mother. "Hi Aunt Lili."

"Hello Ben." Natalie replied, and motioned to Edith. "This is Mrs. Halvarrsen. She'll be your teacher. Please be respectful, and try to be the little gentleman I know you can be. All right?"

His blush increased and he ducked his head. "Okay, okay." He grumbled, but when Gwen squeezed his hand, his scowl softened.

"We're very happy to have you, Benjamin." Edith greeted him. "Cotillion is a time-honored tradition, you know. It may not seem important now, but in a few years, you'll be very glad you were here. You'll be so popular with the girls."

His blush came back in spades right as the blond-haired woman came up, laughing at his reaction. "Girls won't always be gross, Ben. After all, your cousin's a girl and you get along fine with her."

"Gwen's different." Ben muttered. "She's my Gwen."

Edith raised an eyebrow at that, but neither of the mothers seemed particularly surprised or worried by the possessiveness in his words. And Edith herself doubted that instinctive reaction when Gwen immediately pressed into his side, grinning.

"And he's my Scruffy!" She declared with a delighted squeal and another hug as the boy groaned but didn't push her away. The noise made Edith wince and Natalie share an exasperated look with the blond woman who came rushing up and had the grace to look embarrassed even as she rolled her eyes. It should have been enough to set any Larrson off. Edith couldn't even imagine what Elna would have done if someone made that expression at her, but Natalie just sighed and smiled a little with the patience that only sisters shared.

So, perhaps the children really were cousins who acted more like close friends. Edith thought as she shook her head.

"I am certain that you will both learn a lot while you're here." Edith concluded, smiling at the children's mothers. "We'll be done in an hour and a half, if you have some other errands to run."

"Thank you, Edith." Natalie said, turning to Ben's mother, and the two gave Edith one last smile before turning and walking back to their cars. "Sandy, did you hear back from Max?"

"Yes, he's already got the barbecue pit started in our backyard. We just need to pick up the..." And from there, they were too far out and Edith was too distracted by the next people in line. By then, Lydia had returned, and after Edith waved the next girl into the building, she looked over to Lydia.

"My apologies. I made a wrong assumption." She said, and then took another look at Ben and Gwendolyn as they walked inside, still holding hands. "Could you keep an eye on those two for me?"

"You think that they're trouble?" Lydia asked in sotto voce. Edith watched them, trying to shake off the unease in the back of her mind.

"I'm not sure what they are."

- o - o - o - o - o -

"She's making all this up." The words were just a mumble as Ben stared at the mix of forks and spoons that were lined up around the plate in front of him. Marci glowered as she looked across the long, rectangular table that they were all sitting at while Mrs. Edith went over what all the little forks and spoons and knives meant, and what the difference was between the 'finger bowl' of rosewater that had been brought out to them first versus a bowl of clear broth. Ben had made the mistake of drinking a spoonful of the first, and the face he'd made had made everyone laugh. Even Gwen. It was too bad that it hadn't poisoned him. If it had, he would've left and then Marci could have been enjoying Cotillion instead of hating how Ben and Gwen were hogging all the attention. Again!

"She is not." Gwen whispered back, and looked down the table to where Mrs. Edith was sitting at the end, taking a moment to pause after she finished the first round of the explanations.

"Now, young ladies and gentlemen, I am sure that some of you have heard the saying, 'start on the outside and work your way in.' While that is generally true, there are occasional exceptions, as evidenced by the oyster fork, cake fork, and dessert spoon. When we get together again next week, there will be a quiz on these." The old woman's smile didn't break a bit as she looked down the table and locked her eyes on Ben. "But at least young Benjamin will never mistake his finger bowl of rosewater for a cup of broth again." There was a low titter of laughter while Ben blushed and looked down at his place setting, but he stopped looking so hurt when Gwen reached up and patted his shoulder.

Marci fumed even more at that. This was supposed to be special, and those two were ruining it! Heck, she could have put up with just having Gwen there if only Ben wasn't around! And Mrs. Edith had made it a point to single him and the other two boys out and to thank them for joining as well. That wouldn't have been so bad, really, because right after that she said hello to Marci in front of everybody as well, because Mrs. Edith knew her mommy.

The problem was that she knew Gwen's mommy, and was even friends with Gwen's grandmother. It was the first day of class and Marci was already behind. And Cotillion was just the start! This was the beginner's classes, and if she did a good enough job, then she could be invited to be a part of Mrs. Edith's ballet class as well. And sure, there were other dance programs in Bellwood, but Mrs. Edith's was the best. And mommy had always said that Hunters are always the best. So she had to make a good impression here. And Gwen should've been trying to make a good impression too, if she cared about anything besides showing off for her stupid cousin!

Mrs. Edith clapped her hands twice and Marci startled, looking up to the head of the table where the silver-haired woman stood up. "One last thing before we move to the ballroom for our dance lesson. When we stand up from a formal dinner party, it is considered polite for all the gentlemen to stand any time that one of the ladies does. No matter the reason." She glanced down the table expectantly, and Marci realized she was waiting for Ben and the other two boys to catch on.

Ben got up first with a small yelp, but Marci was sure that had more to do with Gwen pushing him than him being smart enough to get it himself. Or maybe she'd pinched his arm. Mrs. Edith didn't see it though, she just smiled more and gave him a nod.

Like he was special.

"Very good." The older woman said, when the other two were finally up on their feet again. "Now, let us adjourn. Come along, everyone! Today we are going to practice ballroom dancing by studying one of the classic forms; The Waltz!" All the girls in their class brightened up at that, even Marci, because who cared about silverware and place settings when they could be dancing?

The problem with dancing, Marci found out, was that a waltz needed a boy and a girl to work right, so out of a class of fourteen students with only three of them being boys, that meant that the girls had to wait and stand along the side of the room so they could take turns dancing with the boys. At least it wasn't entirely boring, Marci realized. All three of the boys were embarrassed, what she'd heard another girl at their school say was a 'hot mess' and Ben was the most embarrassed of the three. He was trying, but he managed to step on the foot of the first girl, which was something that Pierce and Daniel didn't even screw up that badly. She hadn't cried but her eyes had gotten wet and her lip had trembled while Ben sputtered and apologized over and over until he finally just backed away, and looked ready to run for it.

Marci was hoping that he would but Mrs. Edith had other plans. The old woman had taken him aside and spoken to him softly enough that nobody could hear, and Ben had breathed in and out a lot and nodded, calming back down again. Then she'd taken Ben back, patted him on the shoulder, and the three boys got to try again with different partners, and this time Ben got to dance with Olivia instead, who towered above him and made his arms stick up even more than usual to hold her. He didn't step on Olivia's toes, but he spent the entire time looking down at their feet and the circles they made while dancing weren't very big.

Marci fumed a little more until she looked over to Gwen further down along the side and realized that for as irritated as she felt, Gwen was a lot angrier. The red-haired girl had her hands down by her waist and she was balling them into fists and letting them go. She wasn't making a face, but she was watching the dancers very carefully. No, not the dancers, she was watching Ben and Olivia. But why?

Marci kept thinking about that until she was called up to dance next, along with Gwen and another girl. She rolled her eyes when Gwen got assigned to dance with Ben, because of course she would be. Let her dance with the scruffy boy, he was doing awful anyways. Marci smiled as she got paired up with Daniel, and he smiled back nervously even as he set one hand on her waist and held her other arm out to the side away from them. Daniel had been doing a little bit better than Ben, and his second dance was actually okay. And Marci had been dancing like this at home with her daddy sometimes when she'd been younger, so it was easy enough to get used to the cadence of it.

Halfway through the dance, with Mrs. Edith playing the orchestra music on an old fashioned record player in the corner of the ballroom, Marci looked over to see how Ben and Gwen were doing, and more importantly to see if he was messing up as bad as he had been before.

Her steps stuttered a bit and she lost track of where she was in her own dance when she saw Ben and Gwen smiling at each other, dancing like they'd been doing it for hours instead of only a few minutes. Daniel hissed her name and Marci flushed and apologized, picking the pace back up to stay in the dance with him. But she didn't stop watching Ben and Gwen. He wasn't looking down at their feet, and he wasn't uncomfortable. Neither of them seemed the least bit embarrassed. They looked like they were having fun. It made no sense to her! How could they be having fun? Dancing was important, that's what her mommy had told her! If she did good here, then she could get into ballet, and if she did good in ballet…

But. At the same time, there was something about how he moved with Gwen that was more. It took Marci a bit to realize what it was. He wanted to dance with her, and it made him dance so much better. Better than even Daniel was doing, and when Marci looked at Daniel's face, she could see how it was scrunched up in concentration. Ben wasn't thinking about dancing, he was just doing it. And Gwen looked so happy as they swirled around the hall, never looking away from each other. It took her a while before Marci realized why, and then she wasn't just irritated.

She was jealous. What did Gwen have that she didn't? If she'd been paired up with Ben, would he look at her like that? Like nothing else mattered?

"Wonderful!" Mrs. Edith exclaimed when she took the needle off of the record, and clapped her hands to end the dance. They all turned to look at her, and the old woman was beaming brightly. "Miss Gwendolyn, young Benjamin, that was very good! I've never had a young man who improved as quickly as you did." She laughed and shook her head. "My apologies, young man. I should have known you just needed a partner you could trust to get your feet under you." Ben blushed again and nodded while Gwen giggled. "Do you think that you could do that well with somebody else?" She asked, and Ben's eyes went wide. So did Gwen's.

"No!" The red-haired girl gasped, and wrapped her arms around one of his. "He's mine!"

A few of the other girls gasped, and Mrs. Edith blinked in surprise before she schooled her features. "Now, Gwendolyn. Everyone here needs to learn how to and Young Ladies should learn to share the gentlemen at a dance, it's only fair." Gwen narrowed her eyes, thinking about it, before Mrs. Edith added, "Tell you what. You let Ben dance with two more girls and I'll let you have one more dance with him before we dismiss for the day."

"...Okay." Gwen pouted, surrendering but not too happy about it. She let go of him and went back to the side of the room with Marci and the other girl while another three came forward for their turn.

Marci didn't pay much attention to anyone else after that. She looked between Ben, who was doing better than before but wasn't very happy while he danced with some girl she'd never seen before, and Gwen, who sat with her back against the wall and her arms crossed while she pouted and stared at the floor. She looked up every so often at Ben, but when he turned to look back at her, she ducked her eyes again.

Marci smiled as she realized why they were acting so funny. Gwen was jealous of the other girls! Because she wanted Ben all to herself! It was too late to do anything this week, the class was almost over, but next week…

Marci smiled to herself and only just kept from laughing and rubbing her hands together, like the bad guys did in the Saturday morning cartoons she'd watched while she was eating her cereal.

She had ideas for next week. She'd show Gwen. She didn't get to hog Ben all to herself just because they were like two peas in a pod. Marci wanted to dance with Ben too! She'd get her chance to dance with Ben and show him that she could be better than the red-haired girl. Maybe even get him to stop spending all his time with Gwen at school even! She'd show them both, and then Mrs. Edith would have to pay attention to her from then on!

It was going to be perfect.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Marci liked Amanda and Blair. Even when they didn't know why she was doing something, they followed along with her. So on Monday when they were all back at school, and Marci started telling Ben how amazing he was on Saturday and how it was nice that there was something that they could all do together, her friends didn't question it. Sure, they looked at each other and were a little confused, but they just played along even though they didn't know why.

Not like Marci felt the need to explain all her plans. She was a Hunter, and Hunters were good at getting what they wanted. No matter what. What she wanted was Ben and Gwen confused and more trusting than usual. They were, at first, and they kept looking at each other. But by Tuesday, when Marci asked (innocently) if they wouldn't mind spending some time at recess practicing the waltz they'd learned last Saturday so they could show everyone how amazing they were, Gwen and her scruffy cousin went along with it. Marci thought that they actually were enjoying it, by Wednesday. And, it was kind of nice having Gwen smiling at her and wanting to be around her again. Even if Ben was always there too. Not that she'd tell Gwen that. Not that she'd tell Ben that she was actually enjoying him being around for once, now that he wasn't always being so gross and immature all the time. But she did like how it felt dancing with him. They all took turns dancing with Ben, and Blair even took the boy's part in the dance so they could get more practice in, which was something Marci absolutely refused to do (Hunter Ladies never pretended to be boys, after all).

Mostly, though, aside from getting better at doing the waltz, Marci was watching Ben and Gwen. Looking for how they danced with each other, and how they reacted when they danced with anyone else. Ben didn't seem to mind a bit when Gwen danced with Blair, and he didn't seem to care anymore when he danced with anyone else besides Gwen. Especially since they'd asked the music teacher if they could take recess in her room so they could dance without anyone else watching, so it wasn't like there were any other boys who could see him dancing and make fun of him for it. Because Marci knew they would. Because they were boys, and they didn't know a thing about the finer things in life.

It still chafed, though, when she watched Ben and Gwen dance together. That was when he relaxed the most. That was when he wasn't just going through the steps. When he danced with Gwen, every time, his smile got a little bigger. And sometimes, he even would say something in a whisper that Marci couldn't hear and she would giggle. One time on Friday, he even tickled her while they were dancing, and Gwen busted out laughing as she squirmed away from him, and then he caught her and hugged her from behind while making bear noises.

Marci had wanted to get them comfortable and relaxed so she could pull her trick on Saturday and get them in trouble. But by Friday afternoon, when her mommy came and picked her up from school, Marci was more than a little jealous of Gwen. Because Ben was a boy, sure, but…

The way he looked at Gwen, and treated her nice, and took care of her...Marci realized why she was jealous. Because she wanted that too. So she changed her plan a little. It wasn't about getting Ben and Gwen into trouble any more, that had probably been a long shot.

But, maybe...Just maybe, she could steal Ben away from Gwen. Then Ben could do all those things for her instead. And besides, Ben and Gwen were cousins. They were family.

If Marci got Ben to start liking her, then they could be sweethearts. And when she lay in bed and snuggled under her blankets painted with unicorns, that thought made her smile as she closed her eyes. It might be nice, having a sweetheart. And Ben might turn out to be a good one. With a little more training.

Then Marci would be the girl that everyone looked up to.

- o - o - o - o - o -

Halvarrsen Etiquette and Dance Studio

Saturday, September 23rd, 1995

10:40 A.M.

The quiz on dinnerware had gone about as well as Marci had expected it to, and like everyone else, she'd been eager to move on to the dancing lesson afterwards. Mrs. Edith must have noticed that as well, because the old woman hadn't done anything more than to sigh softly and smile, without rolling her eyes or shaking her head. Like a real Lady, Marci heard her mommy's voice in her head. They'd moved to the ballroom where instead of going straight into the waltz again, Mrs. Edith had started them off with a new dance that she called the Quadrille, which had them pairing up into groups of four instead of two. Unlike the waltz, they were able to pair up in groups that weren't all boys, so Ben, Daniel, and Pierce each got put into a different square, and to Marci's delight, Gwen didn't get put into Ben's group. But Marci did.

Mrs. Edith's assistants were circling through the room after the first demonstration to give corrections and keep an eye on things, and there was a new (old) record playing from her machine in the corner with that trumpet sticking up out of it. The dance was kind of fun, but it wasn't nearly as much fun as the waltz had been. Mrs. Edith had talked about other kinds of dances that they'd learn as well, and most of those were between a boy and a girl also. For right now, though, Marci grinned as everyone kept up the pace in time with Mrs. Edith's called-out instructions and the pantomiming of her assistants, because this dance was hard. The Quadrille kept them bouncing between partners in their square of four, and then she and Ben were back together again, holding their hands up and their palms pressed together as they made a slow circle, stepping in time with the music.

She looked at Ben's green eyes, which were the same color as Gwen's, and that made her blink and look past him. Marci saw Gwen looking over towards them from her own group, and smiled and nodded back at the red-headed girl. Gwen didn't like not being around Ben, but she was holding up better than she had last week. Maybe that was because of all the practicing they'd done at school. Or maybe it was because there were two more people than usual dancing with Ben also. Gwen's face was a little pale, but she mustered a weak smile back.

So she was paying attention. Marci grinned and looked back to Ben. Good. She wanted Gwen paying attention for this.

"You've gotten lots better at this, Ben." Marci said to him with a giggle. Ben blushed under the praise and shrugged as he kept up the dance. "It's been nice, having you and Gwen around doing grownup things at recess. You're not bad for a boy."

"Um. Thanks?" Ben said unsurely. "But we can do other things too. Why don't you and your friends come play tag with us sometime? It's fun, honest!"

Hunter women don't run around like little hooligans, Marci. Marci blinked at her mommy's words and shook her head. "Thanks, but...Don't think I can." Ben shrugged again, and Marci felt a little funny. "Not tag, anyways. But maybe we could do something else?"

They traded partners, and Ben waited until the dance brought them back together again. "Like what?" He asked.

"Oh, I 'unno." Marci drawled, trying for something that she'd seen a woman do on TV once. "I just like being around you."

The Quadrille came to an end, and Mrs. Edith clapped her hands after turning her record player off. "Not bad! Not bad for a first attempt. Dances like this aren't quite as common as they were one or two hundred years ago, but it's excellent practice. You might one day find yourself at a square or a line dance, and no, we will not be practicing those. Still, if you can learn the Quadrille, you should be ready to do those when the time comes. But for now, we have the Waltz to review! Girls, line up along the wall and…"

Marci had been waiting for her opportunity, and now she took it, wrapping her arms around one of Ben's to hold him in place. "Mrs. Edith? Can me and Ben go first? We've been practicing!"

Mrs. Edith blinked, a little taken aback at the offer, and Ben let out a squeak. "Well...I don't see why not. If you've been practicing, I'm rather interested to see how you've improved. Yes, go ahead, Miss Hunter. And young Blair, why don't you partner up with Pierce, and Margherite, you…"

Marci stopped paying attention after that, because she was imagining a little her in her brain that was screaming happily and jumping up and down for joy. She glanced over to Gwen, who had gone pale with her mouth hanging open when she'd seen Marci glomp onto Ben's arm. Now as the assistants shooed everyone who wasn't getting ready for the first part of the Waltz over to the side of the room, Gwen's face was getting redder. And she wasn't watching Ben anymore, Marci thrilled. Gwen was finally watching her.

She'd show the Teacher's Pet. She'd show everyone. If she did this right, Ben would drop Gwen like a smelly towel and then everyone would be paying attention to her. And she'd be the one everyone liked!

They got into their positions, and Marci felt Ben's hand shift nervously on her waist. "It's okay. You can do this." Marci told him with a smile. "You've been doing this. Right? We practiced."

"Yeah." Ben answered. "It's just…" He looked over Marci's shoulder to the side of the room, and Marci knew he was looking at her. Marci harrumphed and tugged on his shoulder and his eyes snapped back to hers. They were blown wide, and she swallowed before giving him a nod.

"It's okay to dance with other people. Mrs. Edith said so." Marci told him. And then the music started, and they started in on the circles.

Marci knew what she had to do, but it was easy to per-cas-tinate and just enjoy the dance. Ben really had gotten better, and Marci realized she liked being held by him. The only problem was that she didn't have all of his attention. He kept looking away from Marci. He kept looking over to Gwen and nibbling his lip, and that made her angry. When she looked over to Gwen, she could see that the redhead's face was going purple and she was standing straight up. And some of the other girls had noticed the glare that Gwen was giving them. Or, giving her. Marci had seen Gwen get angry at Ben before, and she'd never looked that angry even when she was yelling at him. So, she was angry at Marci. Angry enough that if something happened, she might do something that would get her in trouble with Mrs. Edith and the other instructors. Something that would get her kicked out of Cotillion. Just like Marci wanted.

"Hey, Ben?" She started out, and he looked back to her. "Does Gwen like you?"

"What?" He blurted out, and missed a step. One of the instructors corrected them and he called out a 'sorry' before finding his feet again. "Of course she does."

"Nooo." Marci sighed, and she squeezed his shoulder again. "I mean, does she like-like you?"

Ben frowned. "What's that mean?"

"Is she your sweetheart?" Marci went on, and now he finally caught on, blushing. "Because I've never seen her say anything like that to you. Or give you a special hug. Or kiss you."

Ben's face was red as a beet, and he looked over to Gwen again. Or he tried to anyways, his eyes shot down to the floor and he shook his head.

"I'm...she...She's Gwen!" Ben stammered out, like that meant something important.

"But I could be more." Marci offered slyly, and she leaned in closer to him. Because she was a little bit taller than he was, it meant she was leaning over him also, and his eyes went wide as she pulled her head down, puckered her lips…

And then Marci Hunter kissed Ben Tennyson, on the cheek, in front of everyone in the class and she felt a tingle where her lips touched his face.

One that vanished as his hand left hers and he shoved her away even as she thought she heard someone shout out her name. And maybe she heard the record cut off and skip as she stumbled back. But mostly she was looking at Ben who was stiff as a statue and staring back at her with those big green eyes of his as she got her feet back under her and…

And he pushed her away! Daddy never did that when mommy kissed him!

Marci felt her mouth drop and hot tears fill her eyes as she tried to figure out why even as she heard the loud footsteps coming towards them a moment before small arms that were full of power ripped her away from Ben and spun her around, and Marci found herself staring into the angry face of Gwen Tennyson, as red as her hair.

"He's MINE!" Gwen shouted, and pushed her hard enough that Marci lost her balance and fell to the floor with a cry. "My Ben! Not yours! Don't you ever do that again!" The girl screamed. Marci's butt hurt from the hard floor and she was embarrassed, and she could see that everyone else in the ballroom was staring at them. Even the teachers were frozen, like they didn't know what to do.

"Gwen, I'm okay." Ben stammered out, and he rubbed at his cheek like it was covered in dirt. That hurt Marci more than anything, and her hurt feelings bubbled up out of her. She'd just...in front of everyone, and it didn't mean a thing to him?! And Gwen got away with saying something like that, and Ben let her? And none of the teachers did anything?

It wasn't fair. It wasn't FAIR!

"Is not!" Marci yelled back, shoving herself off of the floor and hollering back at Gwen with everything she felt as she stomped her foot. "You two aren't mommies and daddies or nothing!"

"Benjamin! Gwendolyn! Miss Hunter!" Mrs. Edith bellowed as she stormed over, and the closest of her assistants finally moved and pulled them all apart. "What in heaven's name has gotten into all of you?" She shook her head widely, exhaled loudly, and gestured to her assistants. "Lydia, Maureen, take them to my office. I'll talk to them. Later. But first, why don't we finish up with another practice round of the Quadrille? With Ben gone, it would be easier to make groups of four again."

Marci felt numb as Miss Lydia led her away, a feeling that lasted as she shuffled down the hall that went on forever and past the chairs that were waiting just outside the office. The ones that the hand on her shoulder guided her right by as she was led into the office like she was Flint and mean so she could sit on the chair on the bad side of the desk.

She didn't do anything more than sniffle into her knees after she pulled herself up into it as she was let go. Not when she knew she'd be left in here all alone even though she didn't do anything like always. Not until she heard Ms. Maureen say from the other side of the open door. "No. You can sit in the chair over there, Benjamin," and the horrible gasps that followed.

Marci's eyes were still wet as her head shot up and she scrambled around so she could look over the back of the seat, not that she could see anything, not until the woman went marching by the door as she pulled a red faced and screaming Ben behind her, but she could still hear everything that happened just before that.

"No! It's not fair! You can't - !" "

"I'm sorry! I'm - !"

Words that disappeared as the woman yelled. "No! That's enough! Proper ladies and gentlemen do not shove!"

There was more after that more that didn't matter. Not nearly as much as the fact that it wasn't just her! Marci's heart raced at the thought. They were in trouble, too! Her heart raced as she knelt there and just listened as Gwen cried and Ben howled as they were pulled apart just like they deserved. Like she always wanted ever since they were little and…

And it didn't help. Not as Marci felt the hot tears finally slipped free as she buried her face in the leather back of the chair and cried with them.