Chapter 8: Lost in the World

Thunder filled the air even though the sky was a clear blue over Alan's head.

Of course, it wasn't the thunder from the storms that his dad told him about in stories that made it seem like his dad had gills if they were even half-true. No, this was the familiar thunder of feet racing across concrete that had every bit of heat that the sun had in it today. And it was a heat that Alan stole right back as he sat there, leaning against the chain-link fence with his legs drawn up and his eyes on the four-color alien invasion splashed on the pages in front of him as everyone else cheered and jeered and trash-talked, as lost in their game as he was in his comic.

Or they were until the noise on the court somehow got louder as everybody started screaming, "Get him! Get him!"

- o - o - o - o - o -

Nobody was screaming now.

No, the night was dead around him and quiet except for the soft sniffling and the softer words of the girl in front of him. The girls that Alan left there, one in the other's arms, as he nodded dumbly, got up and turned away.

After everything that happened today, he was almost amazed that his feet still worked as he turned and stumbled through the clearing in the woods around him. There wasn't even a moon in the sky that he could see and he didn't have anything like a flashlight, but it didn't matter. Not now.

Not that his whole body lit the way as he stumbled across the clearing on feet that weren't his. Feet that were stone and fire instead of skin now, just like the rest of him, and he didn't know how. He didn't even know why it didn't hurt when the flames that wouldn't stop burning against the dark charcoal his skin had become. Flames that didn't even hurt and why didn't it hurt?!

He didn't know.

He just stumbled towards the boy with the messy hair and the bright green jacket with the number 10 printed on his upper arms in bright white. It was the boy his age, Ben - his name was Ben. Alan held onto the split-second introduction he'd gotten for all it was worth as he stumbled across the wet leaves towards him.

Leaves that burned under Alan's touch.

- o - o - o - o - o -

"Guys, guys!" Alan yelled as he looked up at all the yelling kids that surrounded him, the mix of English and Spanish swears made his face burn as his shout got lost in with all the rest.

Or it did until he stuck his fingers in his mouth like he'd seen his mom and dad do hundreds of times and blew a whistle every bit as loud as they could. It was a piercing thing that made the mob around him take a step back and cover their ears as they spun back towards him again. "Alan!" Anthony shouted the second the piercing shriek stopped, his hands dropping and his eyes so wide that the whites of them looked like lanterns on his coal-black face. "Tell this cheating 'esse' - "

"Who are you calling a cheater!" The other boy shouted right back, the basketball still in his hands and his dark eyes afire like they always were because none of this was anything new.

"Miguel..." Alan sighed as he made a show of lifting his comic again because who wouldn't rather read about Ultra-Man and the Kangaroo Commando fighting off an alien invasion?

"Ha! What'd I tell you?" Anthony crowed as he reached for the basketball. "The Little Man knows that I - "

"- still need somebody to tell you what the charging circle is?" Alan finished with a grin that his comic couldn't hide. Not from his best friends or anyone else.

And it was worth it just to see both of their mouths drop that wide open.

- o - o - o - o - o -

But it wasn't the boy that Alan was staring at, even if he was the one he was sent to get.

No, it was the thing at his feet. The impossible thing with a squid head that was wrapped up tight in the roots like all of its friends. Roots that Alan watched erupt out of the ground not a moment ago and he didn't know how and he didn't dare look back.

"What?" The boy in front of him asked without turning around as he knelt on the ground next to the tree. As he knelt right where the rifle that the thing had been holding was swallowed up by the ground just like all the other guns that the aliens brought like it was nothing.

He knelt there like the whole thing was nothing and out of all the impossible things that Alan saw today, somehow that was the biggest.

Ben. His name was Ben, Alan remembered. And it was so normal that he still didn't believe it. Not any more than he could forget it when it rhymed with the redheaded girl's who told him it to begin with when she sent him over here.

"Gwen," Alan started, his tongue feeling thick as he stood there, his head swimming as the fires on his body flared brightly. "Gwen said that we need to - "

"Yeah," Ben bit out, his eyes still on the flip-phones in his hands instead of the alien in front of him. The one he'd pulled out of his pocket before and the one that he'd found in the leaves when it let out a siren that sounded like something out of Space Pirates.

Ben said the word, but he didn't get up. No, his thumb hovered over the green and black hourglass symbol on the phone's screen for another moment before his whole body tensed like he was about to toss both of the phones away before he caught himself and hung his head. "He's not coming."

- o - o - o - o - o -

"Who?" A woman's voice called out from behind Alan not a minute after he'd gotten comfortable again as everybody else went back to their game. A woman that he knew even before she repeated herself. "Who am I to have the only boy in America who'd rather be the ref than Jordan as a son?"

Alan didn't jump at the sound of her voice or turn when she sighed. He didn't even look up from his comic or the game that he was half watching from over the top of the page, but he smirked anyway. Even if he did bite it down because nobody cool grinned for their mom. "Who else gets to tell Jordan what to do?"

"Me," his mom said as she poked a couple of fingers through the gap in the fence and ruffled the tight curls of his hair.

"Mom!" Alan didn't squeal, but he did jump away from her hand. Not that it helped. Not when everybody who was still waiting in the schoolyard saw. Especially Miguel and Anthony. "I just got it - !"

"Oh hush, Alan Albright. It didn't kill you. Now come on, I've got a surprise for you."

"You do?" Alan asked, the teasing cat-calls behind him forgotten as he shoved his comic back into his backpack with all the others, tossed it over his shoulder, and jumped to his feet. The fence only took a second more. A second he shouldn't have taken, not when the gate was just a few feet away, but when he saw the smile on his mom's face he knew it was good. "Did my game finally come?"

"You'll have to beat it out of me," his mom said, her grin getting wider as Alan just snorted because he didn't think that anyone in Oakland could. Not even with the bad knee that was the whole reason she wasn't in the army anymore.

Well, her knee and him.

But it was her limp that kept him from just grabbing her hand and dragging her down the sidewalk or just running ahead, even though that was all that he wanted to do. Especially since he could tell it was hurting her bad today. Bad like it only got when she'd been doing everything on it that the doctor told her that she couldn't anymore. Not that it kept her from grinning so big at her joke that she was glowing, or from wearing one of her good dresses. Not the fancy ones, but the yellow one that she pulled out of the closet whenever she felt like dancing even though it was short enough that it showed off the scars that she got when her helicopter was shot down and the surgeries after with her every step.

He didn't know why she was wearing it, but if she could ignore the stares and the pain, then so could he.

"I bet it did!" Alan said as he danced around her as they went past the little two-story houses with their smaller yards that filled the neighborhood as fast as she could manage. It was the only thing that kept him from exploding until they were almost in sight of theirs. Especially when her grin got wider with every step. "Man, wait until you see how much better Space Pirates IV looks on my PC than it does on Miguel's lame Gamestation, mom! You're not going to - to - "

The rest was lost, choked off when he saw the big man sitting on the steps of their porch. A man who Alan hadn't seen in months and who looked so tired as he leaned back on his elbows with his face raised to the sky and his eyes closed. He wasn't even in uniform for a change. He was just -

"Dad?" The name was just a whisper. One that didn't carry to anyone but his mom, who leaned in close behind him.

"I know. He just showed up at the door a few hours ago and I decided to keep him," his mom whispered into Alan's ear as Alan just stood there, frozen, because it couldn't be real. Not when his dad just called from Ecuador yesterday. Not when he hadn't been home in months. "Surprise."

Which wasn't a big enough word for it. Nothing seemed real right then. Not the ground that wobbled under Alan's feet or the sudden tears that flooded his eyes as his father started and his head swiveled right towards them.

And Alan could have sworn that he'd never seen any grin as wide as his Dad did when he saw them standing there. It was a smile that showed off every tooth as he jumped to his feet and it still didn't seem real. It couldn't be.

Nothing was except for the hand that his mom put on his shoulder and the kiss she pressed into his hair.

"You run, Alan, and don't you ever - !" she shouted after him with a wet laugh as she gave him a little shove that was all it took to get him rushing to his dad's open arms so fast that he felt like he was flying.

- o - o - o - o - o -

" - stop!"

Alan didn't feel like he was flying now. Not as his words came hot and the branch he'd put his hand on paid the price, the leaves going up and the bark shriveling under his touch as he tried to find his balance as they made their way deeper into the woods and away from the road he thought he'd seen when he'd been…

Been….

"Ben…" Gwen called out from behind him, her voice sharp and Alan's ears - the ears he couldn't even find - paid the price. But he wasn't the only one.

"Hey!" Ben shouted as he spun back around towards the girl. "I'm just trying to - to - " The girls and seeing the other one flinch away stole all the fire out of Ben's words as she shrank into the green jacket that was wrapped around her shoulders.

And the fact that Ben did it without a word the second he saw her stole the fire away from Alan's. Literally, in his case. The bright red flares he'd seen erupting from his arms and chest died down as he rubbed his face. "I told you. I wasn't at your house, man. I don't even know where it is."

"But - " Ben started, his wide green eyes darting back towards Alan.

"Ben…" Gwen said again, and for a second she sounded just like Alan's -

- o - o - o - o - o -

" - Mom for a minute, okay, buddy?"

"What?" Alan asked as they all sat there together on the bench that his mom put on every porch they ever had and looked up at his dad in surprise, and he knew he wasn't the only one.

But his mom hid it better. He could barely hear her joy melt out of her voice or the worry that took its place as she put a hand on Alan's shoulder. "I knew something happened out there. Why else would you be home today, Luther?"

"Nothing happened," his dad said as he held his hands up. "And I didn't know that a man needed an excuse to come see his family."

"But you said you were just out doing patrols," Alan said as he frowned in thought because he knew his dad wasn't lying, but he could feel the tension pouring off of his mom behind him and he had to say something. "And that doesn't sound hard."

His dad just laughed next to him. It was a big, deep laugh that would have spilled him off of the bench if it wasn't for the arm he had around Alan's shoulders. The laugh was real, but the tears he wiped around probably weren't, "Oh Lord," his father hooted, "I can't wait to tell the Old Man that you said that. Not hard."

Alan gave his dad a shove that didn't move him at all. "You said it was just recon and you've done that a bunch of times! What happened?!"

"Nothing much," his father admitted as he ruffled Alan's hair, his smile fading a little but not the wrinkles around his eyes or mouth. Wrinkles he'd had before, but Alan didn't remember seeing so many the last time the man was home. Or his dad ever looking so haunted when their eyes met. Not that he got a good look. Not when his dad settled back on the bench with a sigh as his eyes went to the sunset. "Honestly, the mission I'm on now is harder."

"What is it?" Alan asked, leaning in despite himself as his father's mouth turned into a line, which wasn't new. It wasn't like he heard much about his dad's job. Not like the other kids in his class. Not when the hardest thing in the world was getting Miguel's to stop complaining about his.

"It's nothing for you to worry about, Alan Davis Albright, " his mom started. And then they felt the bench shift under them as his dad gave him a look. One that his mom met as she crossed her arms. "Unless it has something to do with that fancy briefcase that I wasn't supposed to see in our closet?"

"Deja Jordan!" His father snapped in a tone that would have sent Alan running if his mom had used it and if it wasn't for the panicked bluster that filled he saw filling his dad's eyes as he met hers. "I oughta put you over my knee right here and now! What did I tell you about snooping?"

"I don't know, Luther Dean," his mom shot right back, her voice just as firm as ever but her eyes glittering like she was holding back a laugh with everything she had, "I must have missed it when you surprised me this afternoon by showing up acting all smooth instead of telling me what was on your mind. And it wasn't like I could go get our son looking the way you left me after."

"Suppose not," his dad said, his lips quirking up as he reached past Alan and brushed a curl back behind her ear. Then it all went away like the morning dew before Alan could demand that they just stop before they started kissing again as the man sagged there on the bench without saying another word for what felt like forever before he sighed, "It's a hell of a world."

And that was enough. "Go read your comics, Alan," his mom murmured.

"But - !"

"Listen to you mother, son. And find me some more Ultra-Man, I'm behind," his father said as he pressed a kiss against Alan's forehead. A kiss he was too old for, but Alan didn't complain.

He just stared until his mom cleared her throat and he kept listening even as he went inside. The last thing that he saw was her sliding close and his dad putting his arm around her as she said, "I always knew that you Rangers were just glory hounds, Luther. I've known it since I was flying in supplies for your needy asses, but you better enlighten me about what kind of damned fool thing that they want you to do now."

"This time," Alan heard his dad say, his voice heavy as it followed after him before it was cut off by the closing door, "it's not me that they - "

- o - o - o - o - o -

" - want to get her caught?!" Ben snapped the second after a blacked-out helicopter flew by so low and so fast that it kicked up a storm of leaves that still didn't match the frantic energy of his hands as he demanded, "So whack the Watch again or whatever you did that got it stuck and time out!"

"What are you talking about!" Alan snapped right back. And then he looked at the third person there and the only one who made sense as he waved his hands up. "What is he talking about?"

But Michelle - and that was one name he knew he'd never forget - jumped when he did and Alan just felt like a heel because his dad never talked like that around a girl. Not even tonight when his mom came storming into the house shouting the worst things over her shoulder at him or after that when she came charging downstairs with her shotgun in her hand even after he screamed at her not to as he shoved Alan up towards her and tried to cover them both with his body as their front door disappeared.

You run, Alan. And don't you ever -

"The Omnitrix times out unless you do something to it," Ben said a second later after his voice hitched as he looked at Michelle, too. Maybe he stopped snapping after that, but he didn't make any more sense than he had since Alan met him. "So do it already so you can change into somebody like Blitzwolfer or Wildmutt. They would be perfect right now. Not Heatblast! Even Mr. Baumann could see him."

"I don't - !" Alan blurted out but froze when he heard his voice start to carry and saw how everything around them got brighter because he got mad enough to flare up and he made himself stop. A few deep breaths had the glow around him dying down again, and he shook his head. "The Omni-huh? Listen, man. I don't know what the hell you're talking about! Who's Wildmutt? And what watch?!"

Ben got such a twisted, irritated look on his face when he said that. He pointed at Alan's left shoulder. "That! That Watch right there!" The boy snapped, his hand shaking as Alan's went to the metal band that was set into the rocky and burning stone there and the dial on it. It was just a little smaller than the coasters his mom made him use and the furthest thing from any watch that he'd ever seen, but something about it made Ben wince when he touched it. "That's the Watch. The Omnitrix! That's the thing that changed you into a Heatblast, an alien like Blitzwolfer, Wildmutt, and all rest and I know because it's - it used to be mine! But if you've got it now then you're going to listen to me, so hit the darn thing already!"

"My Nana's right about you - " Alan muttered everything but the last word she always said - the one she always muttered and his mother always snapped at her for saying in front of him - as he stared wide-eyed at the crazy white boy in front of him. Then he slowly moved his hand up and did what he was told even though he knew what would happen and it sure wasn't going to be anyone telling the time, slapping the glowing green and black hourglass inside the circle with the palm of his now rocky, burning hand.

And nothing happened.

Nothing but the woman's voice he'd been hearing since this started calling out, "Max Tennyson is three hundred, fifty-seven feet and two inches south by southwest."

It was almost worth it just to see the look on Ben's face when he heard it too.

"It has a map?" The boy grumbled like he was betrayed as he glared at the thing and didn't blink. Alan didn't think he breathed for a couple of seconds, not until he sucked in air and stormed over. Alan jumped back a step and Ben glared at him. "Stop - !"

"Don't touch me! I - !"

- o - o - o - o - o -

"I told you to stay down, Alan!" his mom hissed at him, her voice as tight as her grip on her shotgun as she leaned against the wall by his open door as he dared look up from the other side of his bed. The wall that she had to lean on because it was the only thing keeping her up as she stood watch at his bedroom door. He didn't know how she was doing it. Not after the sun had mostly set outside and the power had gone out.

The power and her knee after she tripped on the stairs as they rushed up them.

He knew how much it hurt her when it did. He'd helped her before. Helped her to her bed before he got her medicine. The stuff made her sleepy and loopy, but it was the only thing that even touched the pain until her muscles relaxed.

There was nothing relaxed about her now as they both listened to the chittering sounds that were coming up the stairs. They were sounds that didn't come from people, even though Alan was sure that was what he saw in the split second between their front door getting kicked open and his mom unloading her shotgun at them over and over until the gun was empty.

The gun, but not their house. The sounds started after that. Clicks and hisses that were broken by the creak of floorboards downstairs as his mom shoved the hot gun into his hands as his dad disappeared down the hall. The gun and a box of ammo, some of which he dropped, but his hands were still steadier than hers as she wrapped them around her knee until he was done reloading.

Now she just stood there, listening as hard as he was to the sirens in the distance that he already knew wouldn't help as the sounds got closer and closer until the bottom step squeaked…

Then the whole house shook with thunder - and not from downstairs.

"Luther!" His mom yelled as something hit the wall that separated Alan's room from his parents. Whatever they'd been fighting about was forgotten in her panic as all of the junk that Alan had hanging on the wall there came crashing down on top of his desk and knocked over his computer. The hallway filled with a blinding flash of red light, one that made his mom an even darker shadow as she grabbed back the shotgun and spun around into the hallway on her good leg ready for anything.

For anything but what she saw.

"Dad?" Alan asked, already pushing himself up even as his mom helped his dad into the room, and that was enough. He knew the man was hurt before he even stumbled through the door.

And it didn't help at all when heard the man gasp, "I'malright, I'malright." Not when the words were as hot and wet as the stuff Alan was sure he'd feel smeared over his dad's chest because he sounded just like everyone in the movies did when they got shot, but there wasn't anything there. Nothing but a hot, "B'stards were sn-sneaking up the back and I had to - had to…. J-just st'nned a l'ttle. Showed 'em thou…"

The slurred words didn't make any sense, but they didn't matter much as Alan helped his mom get him to the bed that was almost too small for him, and just looked ridiculous under his father as he collapsed onto it and almost dragged them down with him.

And the huge, fancy metal briefcase that he had his arms wrapped around didn't help. A briefcase and not the rifle that Alan knew his parents had hidden under their bed. Alan just stared at the silver thing as his mother said, "Luther, no!"

For a second, he was sure that it was because his dad screwed up, even though he never did. Sure until he heard his father suck in a wet breath. "Gotta, Deja. They're here. Gotta…."

The rest was lost in a wet rattle as Alan watched his mom just glare at his dad and his dad…

His dad just looked back at her with something in his eyes that Alan had never seen before. Something that made Alan ask, "Mom?" Alan had seen that look in her eyes before. Sometimes he thought everyone in the neighborhood had, but he'd never seen her turn away like she did then, and he knew it wasn't just because of the noises outside his room. Noises that got louder as the things downstairs got braver. Brave enough to find the step that always squeaked.

But unlike him when he was little, they didn't let it stop them. They were braver than he used to be.

They were almost as brave as his mom sounded as she whispered, "I know." Then she wasn't. Then she was pulling Alan close and kissing his forehead as something wet dripped against his face. "You run, Alan. You run a-and don't you ever stop! We love you," she whispered, her voice catching as she held him for another moment, and then she was gone.

It should have made his cheeks burn because nobody wanted their mom to kiss them. It wasn't like he was eleven anymore, but Alan's stomach just clenched as he watched her hurry back to the door as fast as her leg would let her before he turned back. "Dad?"

"Listn - " Even in the dark Alan saw his dad staring at him, at them both. His mouth fumbling for the words he never had any problem finding before tried as his fingers were over the lock. "Lst'n to y'r mom, Al'n," he said, his words slurring as he finally got the thing open. For a second Alan hoped that there was a pistol inside at least. A golden one that he could use to save them all, but there wasn't.

He didn't know what the thing he saw nestled in all the padding was.

It was just a weird looking black and white cylinder with a raised black disk set in the middle of it and some small pipes coming out of it all set on a wide metal ring. It looked big even in his father's hands as he picked it up, like something that he'd seen Anthony's dad pull out of the cars he worked on. Or it did until he slapped his big hand down on the disk set into the top and a green hourglass burned bright in it after he pulled his hand away.

And the noises downstairs turned into a shriek. A shriek and then the rumble of too many feet rushing up the stairs.

"F'nd - " his father started with a groan as the words slurred before he spat something out of his mouth. After that, the pain that twisted him didn't go away, but he pushed himself up anyway. Up and towards Alan even as he called out, "Find Max Tennyson!"

"Who?" Alan started to ask when a woman's voice came from out of nowhere. "Max Tennyson is one hundred and forty-one miles, thirty-seven -"

The rest was lost in the roar of his mom's shotgun as his dad lurched forward and the thing clicked shut around Alan's upper arm.

"Da - ?" Alan started, but the rest of his question was lost as his father's hand came down again and a blinding flash of sickly yellow light burned everything else away. Everything except the rough feel of his dad's hands around his arms. Hands that didn't let go, not even when the fire started.

"Find Max Tennyson!" Alan heard his dad shout again, his voice cracking with pain and tears running down his face as he somehow found the strength to shove him towards the window.

Towards and through and then the ground was coming right up at him….

- o - o - o - o - o -

Coming at him almost as fast as Ben's hand. "Are you crazy?!" Alan shouted, sure that he'd burn him just like he had his dad...

But the boy with the messy hair just snorted, "As if. You're a hot stove, but I'm only touching the Watch." Ben explained as he stepped in closer, totally unafraid, and started poking at the dial. "Just don't get angry or start yelling or anything and you won't fricassee anyone. So sit down already."

Alan would have even if he didn't say anything. For once he knew just how his mom felt because his knees didn't have anything else left in them either. It was all he could do not to just drop as he buried his face in his hands and tried not to notice the crackle of leaves charring under him or the monsters that could still be after them as he asked, "A-are you guys aliens, too?"

It would make sense. He'd seen them fight.

"Yeah, can't you tell?" Ben asked with an angry snort as he smacked the so-called Watch hard. "What's wrong with this stupid - ?"

No, Alan thought, but he wasn't dumb enough to say it out loud. Not in a night when monsters hid behind masks. Not that he thought that was what Ben was, not as he watched the other boy stop messing with the Omnitrix so he could wipe sweat and dirt from his eyes before he dove back in. "But the way you two were kicking butt..."

"I don't need to be an alien to be awesome," Ben said, still distracted as he pulled at the dial this time. "And as much as my Dweeb acts like she's the queen of planet Nerdia…" The words sounded like an insult, but the way Ben smiled as he said them - it wasn't a big smile, either, which made it seem all the more real - made Alan sure that they weren't. Maybe he would have said more or maybe he was done, but his words finally caught Michelle's attention and he trailed off as she eyed them. For a second, before he jumped away. "Hey!"

"Sorry!" Alan said as he tried to calm the flames again. Which he did, finally, by staring down at the blackened grass by his feet. His flames, but not his mind. "But that weird light the redhead was throwing around…"

"...You heard her," Ben finally muttered after he'd been quiet for so long that Alan was sure that he wasn't going to say anything to anyone but the Omnitrix as he started poking at again. "She's a sorceress. What do you think that light was?"

Magic.

That thought rang through Alan's head like a gong even though it was impossible. As impossible as a Watch turning him into an alien or monsters invading his home….

He tried to think of something to say, but he didn't have anything left. Not to move, not to think. Not even for his parents, even though they needed him. He just didn't have it in him as he just sat there in the dirt and leaves as the whole night finally hit him and it was so much he wondered if he'd ever move again.

Maybe he wouldn't have if he didn't hear a sniffle so soft it was almost lost under the crackle of his flames and the muffled words Ben was muttering as he kept fiddling, but he did and it was enough.

Enough to look up, enough to find Michelle again. Michelle, who still hadn't moved from the place Gwen had put her before she ran off. Michelle, who still had her arms wrapped right around her legs and her face buried in her knees. Michelle, who he owed everything to, and he'd barely said a word to even though -

"Are you okay?" Alan tried to say the words as soft as he could, but she jerked up at the sound of her name and stared at him with blank eyes as a guilty horror cut right through him for not thinking about it, for standing so close to her during the fight when he could have - "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

If he had, if he'd burned her, too…

Michelle let out a watery cough and looked down. "No, but...I'm…"

"It's okay to freak out," Alan said after she trailed off, the words just slipping out, and somehow hearing them said out loud made him feel better until he remembered who he heard them from. "That's what dad always said, but you can't let it kick your butt."

"That's what Grandpa says, too," Ben added in a tone that was softer than the irritated hissing and half-yelling he'd been doing before. His fingers kept up a steady plink-plink on the symbol on Alan's shoulder, and he was working his way up to a scowl again. "Not like I'm going to kick the Nerd Queen's when she gets back."

Alan didn't know if he wanted to yell at the other boy for butting in or hug him, so he settled for "Grandpa?"

Ben's hands stilled around the dial for a second and then his frown cut deeper and his fingers hit harder as he went back to work. "The one you know. Max Tennyson."

"I don't," Alan confessed. He'd never even heard the name before his dad shouted it. Not any more than he knew that the man was old enough to be somebody's grandfather, but if he could help. "My dad, he - he's an Army Ranger. Is your Grandpa in the Rangers too? Was that why my Dad told me to - ?"

"Air Force," Michelle whispered from out of nowhere before she looked over, but her eyes didn't focus on either of them as she stared at the RVs and the night beyond as she pulled at a strand of hair and the beads around it. "Retired. That's what Crazy always…."

The chuckle Ben gave him didn't make Alan feel any better after her voice died out. "He was. And then he got promoted." He finally pulled his fingers back, curled them into a fist, and punched the symbol hard, which only knocked Alan back a little. "Dammit. It won't dial. It won't shut off. I don't know what you did to it, but you screwed it up good."

"You would know, Doofus," Gwen called out, her voice coming from nowhere. The rest of her followed as she slipped out of the shadows like she belonged there. Only the thin white thing she was carrying in her left hand gave her away at all. A thing that she had half-hidden in her black skirt, which - between that and her dark blue sweater - just helped her blend in more. And made her look like the second fiercest girl here as she stood there. Fierce enough that Alan thought that maybe she really was a ninja like she said she was as she put her right hand on her hip and stared down at Ben. "You're the expert at breaking it."

"How - ?" Alan asked, and he didn't even know about what as he watched them glare at each other and wondered when the tumbleweed was going to blow by.

"Every way I can think of," Gwen said in the same tone that Alan's mom used when she caught him reading his comics instead of studying. Only her red hair was longer and danced when she shook her head in exasperation as Ben did what Alan never dared and just smirked back. "But this can't be as bad as the time you took a screwdriver to the Watch face and that was not a suggestion!"

Alan took a step back and covered the thing with his hand, but that didn't stop Ben's eyes from going wide before he started looking around for something on the forest floor. "It might work. And even a Wildblast fusion would be better…"

"No, no fusions!" Gwen said like she was used to bossing people around and being listened to. Not that Ben did. "What did I just say?"

Which only made the other boy narrow his eyes at her. "You're not the boss of me."

"I so am, Mister. That goes with the territory," Gwen shot right back, her eyes flashing dangerously even without the weird violet light that couldn't be magic filling them as she stormed across the few feet between them and jammed her finger into Ben's chest, right over his heart.

Or she tried to, but she wasn't the only ninja here. Ben's hand moved so fast that it was just a blur as he caught hers. Caught it and held it tight as he sucked in a breath. If this was a movie, Alan knew he was about to see some kung fu, but it wasn't. Gwen didn't pull away or anything. She just got closer as all the fire drained away from her face and something else took its place. Something Alan had seen so many times before. It was something that seemed too old for any of them as Gwen leaned her head in until they were touching foreheads and whispered, "I'm okay, Doofus, and so are they. I know they are. So stop being such a jerk."

"You don't know that."

Alan could see just how hard Ben was trying to be tough as he said that, but the way he closed his eyes and sank into the touch gave away the game, and not just to him. He'd seen Gwen move during the fight. He didn't think he'd ever seen anyone move faster until now as she dropped whatever it was that she was holding so she could wrap her arms around the other boy and hug him tight.

"They are," she swore into Ben's ear as his face sank into her shoulder and shook. Just once, but it did. Maybe. Or maybe Gwen was the one shaking because her voice was as she added, "He said he didn't get it from your house, and I believe him, Ben. And I know that - that- "

And then Gwen stopped talking as she pulled away from the messy-haired boy she was holding. Not far though. Just enough that she could duck her head and -

"Oh." Alan was beyond glad that he couldn't blush as watched them kiss. It wasn't messy like the ones he sometimes saw at school. It was just a soft thing, but he still squirmed as he looked away. "You two are weird. Just like - "

And the rest was lost as he remembered all the times he saw his mom kiss his dad just like that before….

Reality hit him, but it didn't get a chance to sink its claws into him. Not before the two exploded apart, and they were both watching him, wide-eyed and terrified when he spun around again and he didn't know why. So he just held his hands up. "Relax. I've seen people smooch before."

He didn't like it, but he'd seen it. And even when he was little he never freaked out like these two did. Like they were still doing.

"Are they always like this?" His nerves finally made him whisper to the only person here who made any sense when the two still didn't move. He'd hoped that Michelle would save him again, but the olive-skinned girl just giggled a little at that, then giggled harder and started shaking, and only just managed to clap a hand over her mouth before she broke out laughing.

Sobbing, Alan realized a second later.

She was crying and that made him feel worse. He reached out to pat her on the shoulder and froze two feet away from her. He couldn't touch her. He wanted to, needed to do something to make her feel better because that was what his dad always told him to do. That you didn't make girls cry and you always tried to help them if you did, but he couldn't.

At least Gwen could, even if Michelle startled like a bird before surrendering to the hug. All he could do was burn a little hotter and hope it chased away the chill.

He didn't know if it helped. He knew that Gwen didn't just from the way Michelle tensed up as the redhead said, pulled back, and brushed the hair out of her best friend's face in the quick moves girls always seemed to use on each other when they got stressed.

Or like his mom did when anyone got hurt.

It was almost eerie watching the redhead copy all the same motions, even if she sounded so much more scared and desperate than his mom ever did when she said, "Talk to me, 'Chelle. S't plaît?" But the other girl, the one who looked like she belonged on the cover of Alan's comics about Greek Mythology, just shook her off as more lights lit up the horizon from the road Gwen went to check out.

Blue and red ones that Alan knew. That he'd seen way too many times before in his neighborhood, but never like this. Never enough that they lit up the night like a thunderstorm and he wasn't surprised at all to feel his feet getting ready to run even though they felt like cement blocks on the end of his legs. "Time to go."

He was sure that the others would say something because there wasn't any way that they'd understand. They weren't like his friends, but the redhead just nodded like dodging cops was something that she did every day. It should have been the weirdest thing ever, and it was until Ben topped her when he gave the trees around them a look before he nodded in a direction that looked random as far as Alan could tell, but there wasn't any doubt at all in Ben's voice as he declared like it was nothing, "The road narrows a bit if we swing north and we should be able to get around them there. And if we can't, there are some cabins close by we should be able to duck into until things calm down."

Dodging cops and aliens, first aid, and now breaking and entering. Who were these guys? Alan wondered as he watched Gwen carefully help Michelle back up to her feet. If he wasn't watching so closely, he might have missed seeing her grab something out of the grass as she did it. "What did you find?"

"Nothing!" Gwen said as she did the same little juggling act that girls just seemed to know when they had their hands full. An act that ended with Ben staring at her as she hid whatever she'd picked up behind her friend's back. And it wasn't the little flip phone that her boyfriend gave back to her before they started running. Alan knew that it wasn't. Not when he'd seen a flash of something flat and white.

And he wasn't the only one who saw it.

"You found one of the masks? And it's not fried!" Ben almost cheered, grabbing for it before Gwen could even finish pulling it out from behind Michelle's back. It was the same featureless white one that Alan saw during the fight. The one that all the aliens were wearing, except this one wasn't fried or cracked. There was just the scuff of a footprint on its cheek.

One that brought reality crashing back down. That they might have veered off a little, but the aliens came this way, and if there were more of them out here…

"Why didn't you say something if they were so - ?!" Alan demanded, flames flaring.

"Not here! I picked it up back at the clearing and I was going to show it to Grandpa!" Gwen shouted at him, and then Ben grabbed the mask away. Grabbed it, and - "Ben!"

Everyone took a step back as the boy disappeared the second the mask touched his face and a police officer took his place. "Ew! Gross! It smells like - " the man said, his voice totally different and deeper as he reached for the mask again before he froze when he saw his hands and - despite everything that was going on - he let out a "Sweet!"

"Take it off, Doofus!" Gwen shouted at him. At his chest, her eyes didn't move up at all from where his face had been even though the man's head was a good foot and a half higher now. "We don't know what it's doing!"

"It's like - " The police officer said, not caring at all as he ran his hand over his coat and then his face. And the second his fingers found his chin, there was a flash and another officer was standing there, only this time his skin was almost as dark as Alan's, and the man jumped when he saw his own hands. "It's like an - an IDMask or something. Do I look cool?"

"Dude, you look like a cop," Alan said, and he couldn't help the way his flames flared at the words.

"Huh," Ben breathed as he reached up to his chin again and there was another flash of light. "How ab - ?"

Michelle didn't scream. She just gasped and flinched back like she stepped on a live wire as her eyes got impossibly huge when Ben became another officer. One that Alan didn't know, but he wanted to kill as the girl spun around, buried her face in Gwen's shoulder, and made a sound that nobody ever should.

"Sorry!" Ben said, his hands flying for his face. This time he didn't just touch it. This time he pulled it away and the illusion vanished the second the mask came off. Not that it helped. "Sorry," he whispered again as he let the white mask fall to his side.

It didn't help. Only time did.

Time they didn't have as Gwen rocked the girl and whispered into her ear until Michelle finally let go, but even after she did she wouldn't look at any of them. She just held onto the red head's hand as they started hurrying away from the lights.

Their grand escape was just like before as Ben led them deeper into the woods and past a shack with a tall tower that he barely even glanced at. Not when every shadow could have been more aliens coming for them kept them all so quiet after that that Alan couldn't stand it. Not when he was used to hearing so much more than feet running through dried leaves and the crackle of his flames. He didn't even hear them breathing except for Michelle and when he realized that he wasn't, not really….

And that was when he finally had to say something. "You're going to show it to your grandpa? Why?"

It wasn't what he wanted to ask, not really, but he didn't know what else he could say as he watched the light of his flames play in the wet streaks that lined Michelle's cheeks even with her head down.

Or the worry that filled Gwen's face as she looked over at him. At him and not the thing on his arm for once. Well, not for long, and he would have had to be blind to miss how her face twisted when she did look at it, but her eyes didn't stay there long.

"Oh, yeah, He's - " Gwen started before she tripped over her next word like it was one of the roots that kept catching Alan's feet as they went.

"He collects stuff like this," Ben said, the words coming too easy for him. "I can't believe that he wasn't there already. Unless - "

"I would have said something if he was, Doofus," Gwen said as she shot them both a look. "Or if I thought that the officers who were cordoning off the road weren't real. Trust me, I saw Johnson and Flannigan and nobody's going to want to replace them. And even if they did, I don't think that those masks would let the aliens act as freaked out as they did when they were talking about the presents that we left them."

Somehow Gwen even smirked as she said the last bit. It wasn't a big one, but it was enough to make Alan wonder what kind of girl would call alien monsters presents.

Or what kind of girl could wrap them up like she did, with her hands glowing violet as the plants did what she told them. Ninja sorceress is what she called herself before she went running back, and Alan didn't think any of it was made up, but he wasn't the one who asked, "How do you know the police, Crazy Girl?"

Gwen's smile vanished as Michelle pulled away from her at the words, her eyes somehow going even wider as she looked at her friend and she stammered, "I - we - "

But Michelle just hunched over and shook her head so hard that her tangled hair danced until Ben cut in with a simple, "Grandpa knows everybody." And he said it like it was nothing as his hands went to the pockets of his jeans and the phone he stuck there. "And everything except for when to answer the phone."

"Dude," Alan said because he didn't know much about girls, but he knew that you didn't interrupt them - not like that - and because the boy made it sound like his grandfather always answered when he called, which was just ridiculous. As ridiculous as he felt as he pushed himself back up on feet that felt like they were made of concrete, but he had to keep moving. "Maybe he's asleep? He's old, right? I've jumped on my Bomp's bed before and he slept right through it. A phone call's nothing."

The words were desperate as they trailed off, but maybe they helped because something made Ben stop before he ran off and left Alan alone with two girls in the woods that were the furthest thing from home that he could imagine. A night that was full of monsters…

And glared out at as he set his jaw. "Then we have to go wake him up."

"Ben," Gwen started, startled, as she pulled Michelle closer.

"No," Alan said at the same time as he got on his feet and stood tall even though finding Max Tennyson was the last thing his dad told him to do. Even though finding him was their only hope. "No. Some things come before the mission and we have to get the civilians somewhere safe."

He said it because his dad had said that, too. His dad and his mom both, even if she had slapped his dad's shoulder first because he hadn't said civilians.

He was sure that he was going to get smacked, too, because Gwen had that look on her face and he was sure Michelle would, too, as he tried to get up the courage to look at her. Nobody who would stand in front of a cop's gun wouldn't…

But she wasn't glaring at him. She wasn't even looking at him, or anyone else. She'd just buried her face in Gwen's shoulder and Alan's heart cooked with the leaves at his feet at the sight of her.

If it wasn't for him….

But he wasn't the only one who felt guilty, even if Ben didn't go quiet like he did. "What do you think I'm trying to do?" He asked, his hands flying again with frustration before he made them stop. "He's the closest and besides, he's Grandpa."

"We could call - " Gwen started, her words half-muffled in Michelle's hair before she stopped and Alan wondered who could save them from aliens because he sure didn't know anybody like that.

Not even his parents and they were the toughest people he ever knew. Tough enough that they wouldn't care if he woke up screaming right now. They would probably laugh about his nightmare, and not because he had one, but because of the idea that anything could hurt them.

But he didn't wake up and this nightmare wouldn't end.

Not when he was flying as fast as he could for help or after he nosedived right into the ground and not now as he felt his heart shatter into a million pieces because nobody was tougher than his parents, but they weren't enough.

They couldn't even save themselves. They'd just sent him here, into the middle of nowhere. He was as far from home as he'd ever been, and he just wanted to keep running. For home, for Mr. Tennyson, for forever until everything else went away.

It was all he wanted to do, but he kept his feet still because he'd gotten people in trouble because he came here. Good people, brave people who might be a little weird, but that didn't matter. They'd saved him and he couldn't leave them. Not now, but that didn't make things any easier.

"We're on our own, aren't we?"

The words should have sounded small, but somehow they didn't. Somehow they made Ben look at him again, and this time there wasn't something in his eyes that wasn't angry. There was something in them that made the boy lift his chin as he declared,

"Not once we get Grandpa. He'll know what to do."

- o - o - o - o - o -

Find Max Tennyson.

That was the only thought that went through Alan's head as the world sped by beneath him. It was the only thought that he let go through his head as he flew like a rocket from his burning home as he lost track of everything else, even where he was and how long he'd been flying as the sun disappeared...

He flew until he couldn't. Until he became one more thing falling out of the night's sky with only a flash of four figures diving for cover on the road under him before he was lost in the trees. And even then the thought wouldn't stop.

Find Max Tennyson...

- o - o - o - o - o -

"That's it?"

Alan couldn't help the two words that slipped out of his mouth as he followed Ben's pointing finger any more than he could stop the red-faced glare that the red-haired girl sent his way from her spot at Michelle's side before she snarled, "That's our Grandpa's home."

"I know!" Alan said, his hands up even as his eyes darted between the two girls because our Grandpa's? They sure didn't look related. "And it's - " He tried to find a word that would describe the RV he saw. One that was nicer than what Gwen used herself a second ago, but Rustbucket summed it up so well. Especially compared to some of the ones he saw parked down there, even if those were all more to the middle and the one they wanted was right at the edge of the park, and that was the whole problem. "It just looks too easy."

And he couldn't help remembering what his mom said about those.

"He's right," Ben said with a little nod as he let his hand drop as he eyed everyone down there through the bushes that they were hiding behind. Not that there were many people out, not at this time of night. Most of the RVs were lit up by TVs - and it was a relief to see some light that wasn't coming from him - but there were some people out, either walking or visiting or just sitting in lawn chairs and watching the sky. Alan watched him take them all in before he pushed himself up. "So you're all staying here while I - "

"Like hell you are, Doofus!" Gwen snapped, her voice was aflame as she stood up, too. "You are not going down there alone and I'll do so much worse than put you on your butt again if you try!"

"You're not going down there alone either, Dweeb!" Ben snapped right back as the two glared at each other in a way Alan could already tell was just them even before Ben shot a look his way. "Can you keep an eye on Michelle until we get back?"

"Why can't we come with?" Alan blurted out as Michelle sucked in a breath. "I mean, this thing says Max Tennyson's right over there and it's not like the aliens could have taken over everybody down - "

"Alan," Gwen said, stopping him, and he finally saw the fear in her eyes - in both of their eyes that they'd been hiding so well even as they kicked butt. The fear and the fire reflected in them as they looked at him.

Him and the burning alien body he was stuck in. "Oh…"

But Gwen wasn't done. "And I'm not leaving Michelle alone either." And the hurt and the worry showed in her voice, but she didn't back down. Not when Michelle refused to meet her eyes or as Ben glared at her. Not even after that when the boy stopped so he could spin around so he could wipe his hands over his face...

Which glowed when he dropped them again. "The IDmask!" Ben whispered and that was enough to send Alan scrambling for the thing even as Ben did just for the chance to look -

"That's not going to work!" Gwen said. "He's a Heatblast! He'll melt it." And then she took a breath as Alan froze and stared at her. She didn't look away, she didn't even look down, which made the heartbreak in her eyes hurt all the more as she murmured, "I'm sorry, but you will and - " Her voice caught then, and he saw the fear in her eyes she'd been hiding so well, too. "If he is still there, you don't..." Her voice trailed off then, as she reached out and took her boyfriend's hand and for a second it seemed like that was the only thing holding either of them up.

"Okay," Alan whispered. "Okay. I'll stay."

Ben and Gwen both jumped and looked like they were ready to turn around and head off, and she was half a step ahead of him. Ben held her back for a moment, though. He chewed on his lip for a moment, then met Alan's eyes as he started to hold out his hand before he caught himself and it went to the back of his neck instead. "Alan…"

"Albright," Alan said, the first time he'd given them his last name.

"If your dad knew my Grandpa...if you have that…" Ben said with a nod before he hesitated for a bit after he pointed at the dial again, at the Omnitrix, then kept on going. "Your dad was a Plumber. Like Grandpa Max wa...is."

Alan blinked at that. "What's that mean?"

"That nothing's what it looks like," Gwen said darkly, her eyes still on the RV park.

"That your dad's a hero," Ben said at the same time, simply and honestly.

Alan shut his eyes at the words he'd heard people say all of his life. "Was." He mumbled. He knew better than to lie to himself. His parents were gone. His family was gone and he couldn't even do the last thing his father told him to. Not alone. And he wasn't leaving anyone else like that either. "Get going. I'll keep an eye out for trouble."

"Shoot fire into the sky and we'll come running," Ben promised as Gwen nodded and hugged Michelle one more time.

And then they were gone.

Alan tried to find them again after they got done scampering down the hill, but they vanished between some RV's as Michelle sank with her knees huddled to her chest as they waited alone together at the edge of the woods.

"We don't really need them. I'm sure that we could kick plenty of butts if we have to," he said and he didn't know why he was telling her that except for the fact that they were all alone now and he had to say something. "Because you're a pretty good shot and I - " he added before he stopped and struggled for something better. Something besides the fact that she blasted an alien out of a tree that he didn't even know was there and it was the second coolest thing he'd ever seen, but he couldn't just say that!

Not to the girl who saved him twice today. She deserved better…

But she flinched anyway, sending him stammering, "Um. I mean...you were pretty brave back there. You kicked butt. Not like your friends, but…"

Do you want to get out of that hole you're digging? His mother's voice rang out in his head as he watched Michelle curl up even tighter with each word. Put down the shovel first.

"...Okay." Alan scratched at the back of his head, feeling the fire where his hair should have been warming his hand a little. "Sorry. Not used to..." His voice trailed off as he kicked at the ground with feet that weren't his.

"I'm not used to talking to aliens either," Michelle sniffled as she hugged her legs tighter, but at least she smiled a little at him.

"I'm really not an alien," Alan mumbled again, and Michelle raised an eyebrow. "I just...look like one. And have powers like one, I guess." He looked over to where Ben and Gwen had disappeared. "Powers that Ben knows how to use. Who are they?"

"I thought I knew," Michelle told him, her voice muffled by her knees as she closed her eyes and Alan quit talking. He just stood there and kept watch because even after everything he'd lost, he could do that.

It's what his parents would have done.