Chapter Twenty-Three: The Time Is Now

Ben Tennyson did not budge from his spot until late that afternoon. When he awoke the room was even warmer than he remembered thanks to the sunlight that had replaced yesterday's clouds. Faint golden light crept in around the heavy curtains, casting the room into twilight and allowing him to see what had roused him. Mr. Green, moving softly, was leaning over Dexter, his hand gently resting on his student's arm as he whispered,

"Dexter? They'll be here in an hour. Let me help you get ready."

Sore and stiff and feeling every shot the Fusions had landed, Ben stirred, blinking owlishly. He'd slept in the chair? Oh, well, at least it was comfortable – or as comfortable as could be managed at the moment. Probably he'd been too zonked for Green to wake him to move to a bed, because he was swathed in blankets with his broken arm propped up on a pile of pillows to reduce the pain and pressure. There were pillows all around him, in fact – behind his head, bracing his knees, turning the chair into as cozy a nest as could be managed. He paused, trying to recall falling asleep. The blankets he remembered, the pillows he did not. His arm throbbed with each beat of his heart and his hand was mottled with bruises and scrapes. That was the worst hurt, though the cut on his head was tender despite having been treated. Gingerly he stretched a little, reaching up with his right hand to rub his face as he tried to straighten his legs.

Mr. Green spotted him coming to life. "Sorry to wake you. How do you feel, Ben?"

"Bushed," he admitted wryly. "Sore." He thought a bit, assessing himself. "Hungry."

"Imagine that. We're going to meet Professor Utonium and the Powerpuff Girls. They're almost back from Florida. One of the choppers just left to pick them up at the airport and they should be here in forty-five minutes or so."

"Oh." He ran his right hand through his dirty hair. "Mind if I tag along?"

Green glanced down at the lump in the bed that was Dexter questioningly. He smiled at the unspoken response and looked at Ben. "Not at all. I hope you'll join us for dinner afterwards, too. Would you like a shower first?"

The mere suggestion was enough to make Ben's exhausted body relax. "Would I!"

Dr. Cardon caught him the moment he poked his head out the door and Ben found himself on the receiving end of another injection and a quick examination. He almost asked about the spider webs Dexter had mentioned, but decided he was happier not knowing. He did not turn down the offer of a pain killer and attended when he was instructed to keep the cast dry. A nurse showed him a shower and told him to call if he needed help, repeating the doctor's instructions to keep the cast clear of the water. She waited outside to collect his clothes and to make sure he followed instructions. His clothes were returned laundered and folded in a matter of minutes. Even his sneakers had been cleaned.

It was difficult to wash his hair one-handed, difficult to step away from the hot water and steam that eased the tension from his aching muscles, and even harder to get dressed but he managed. By the time he was done, Dexter and Green were waiting by the elevator, quietly talking. Dexter was in his usual black-with-lab-coat ensemble minus the gloves. Without that splash of purple to balance him out his red hair shone all the brighter. It took Ben a moment to realize Dexter was not wearing his glasses. The lingering effects of frostbite, Ben figured. Without them, he somehow seemed even smaller and younger than his usual runty self.

"Hey, Dex," Ben said as he hurried down the hall. "How are you doing?"

Even Ben had seen him looking better. Dexter's cheeks and nose and ears were still patchy and red, and beneath the marks of frostbite his skin was sallow. He could not quite cross his arms with broken ribs and both hands in splints halfway to his elbows. He kept his hands raised and resting on his chest to relieve the pressure on his aching fingers.

Dexter gave him a small and weary smile. "I've felt better," he grumbled, and then cheered up a bit as a thought struck him. "At least now I won't have to play piano for DeeDee."

Ben grinned and gestured with both hands. "See? There's a bright side to everything."

Mr. Green's ID badge was of the same superior variety as Dexter's because when slid into the reader, it turned all the buttons red to allow them to access the roof. Ben noticed that the demon was carrying a paper bag, and at Ben's curious look, Mr. Green held it out to them

"Jawbreaker?"

"Cool!" Ben dug one out with his right hand and held it up. Dexter stared with much the same horror as when he had discovered such things as carrot and mango smoothies with yogurt existed.

"What is that?" demanded the owner of DexCorp as the elevator moved upwards. He squinted to see.

"Oh, don't tell me," Ben exclaimed hopefully. "You never had a jawbreaker?"

Dexter's acidic look was answer enough. Ben happily slipped into teacher mode and held up his bright, mottled prize. "Behold the jawbreaker, Dex. Layer upon layer of rock-hard sugary goodness." He popped it in his mouth.

"Astounding," was the completely dry and unimpressed reply.

"Want one?" invited Green, enjoying their exchange.

Dexter peered inside the bag suspiciously before he displayed his splinted hands, rather glad he had an excuse not to partake of the cavity-causing bounty. "Save me one for analysis, please, Mr. Green."

"Where'd you get 'em?" asked Ben around his mouthful of candy.

"Jonny," Mr. Green replied, fishing out a small one for himself. There was a range of sizes in the bag, and he fully intended to give the rest away after saving the largest one for Dexter to experiment upon. "This was the reward for returning Plank. I thought I'd share since you gentlemen were key players in his safe return."

"Nice haul," said Ben, impressed. He cast Dexter a sly look. "Kidnapping pays off."

The redhead rolled his eyes, prompting his tutor to say, "Jonny was thrilled to have his friend back."

"How's Sector V doing?" asked Ben, slinging his jacket over his shoulder. He glanced at Green, wondering if Dexter knew the fate of his prototype aeroship at the hands of Number Two.

The physics teacher smiled knowingly. "Relaxing. As much as they can, anyway."

Dexter huffed at the notion of the KND relaxing. Green gave him a very pointed look and huffed right back. Ben pursed his lips, trying not to laugh as his friend was expertly told off without a word being said.

When the elevator doors opened with a blast of hot air, Dexter eagerly hurried out, anxious to see his family. Ben had a sense of déjà vu as he slowly followed, keeping pace with Mr. Green as he looked around at the rooftop helipad. It had only been nine or ten hours since he had last been here. It seemed much, much longer.

"Dexter, stay in the shade!" called Green, nervous as his charge went dangerously close to the edge of the covered walkway. He glanced at Ben, shaking his head. "All he needs now is a second-degree sunburn."

Ben Tennyson grinned, but he also noticed that Dexter obeyed.

"Does he know about the ship getting blown to smithereens?" Ben asked.

"Yes." Green took a deep breath, look more guilty than not. "He took it well when I told him Hoagie's logic behind destroying it and that he was trying to eliminate the Fusion Dexter. Miss April was built just for speed. He would have been more upset if one of the gunships had been destroyed."

"Anything on the Fusion?"

"Nothing," the green demon said bitterly.

A crew chief spoke to Dexter, probably telling him to keep well away from the landing pad, but otherwise people kept clear of their boss. Something in Dexter's tense, restrained body language told Ben that back-up was not only wanted, but needed right now. With a quick glance at the demon he stepped away from Green and stood silently beside his friend. He didn't know what to say so he remained quiet, but he figured – correctly – that it was his presence and not his conversation that Dexter required right now. A little of the steel in Dexter's spine loosened and he slumped the least bit. Ben knew without being told that Dexter was in a great deal of discomfort and he found himself instinctively trying to block the younger teen from any prying, expectant eyes.

"Here they come," said Mr. Green from a few feet behind them. His senses were more acute than a human's because another minute or more passed before Ben could detect the sound of an incoming helicopter. It was the same one he had been transported in this morning, only now he could fully appreciate the sleek black craft.

"Sweet ride," he muttered.

"Mmm," agreed Green, drawing closer and putting his hand on Dexter's narrow shoulder. "Juno is a beauty."

The rotors kicked up a terrific wind that sent their hair and clothes whipping about. The chopper landed elegantly and with far less noise than Ben expected. A minute dragged by, and then the cabin door slid smoothly open and Professor Utonium hurried down the steps.

Ben glanced down. Without moving Dexter was straining to reach his father's side. Every line of his body was taut with the effort to remain still. The Professor looked tired and pale and thin – plainly he had not enjoyed a moment of the trip on its own merits, but the shock and strain of finding out what had happened in his absence had taken a heavy toll. He had no eyes for anyone but his son, and his anxiety was written on his face as he looked at Dexter.

Green released Dexter's shoulder and gently urged him forward regardless of the afternoon sun streaming down upon them. Some things were more important than following the doctor's orders. Dexter could not run, but he didn't need to as Utonium hurried to meet him.

Ben felt an odd pang of loneliness as Dexter stepped up to Utonium. The dark-haired man laid his hands on the boy's shoulders, his expression serious as they exchanged a few words. As Ben watched, Utonium held Dexter's hands, tenderly examining the injuries before pulling the boy genius into his embrace. Dexter rested his head against the Professor's chest, placing his splinted hands before him since he was unable to hold onto his father's coat as was his habit. Utonium bent low, pressing a kiss atop Dexter's hair as he held his son close and protective, sheltering him from the sunlight with his body and shadow, banishing fear with his mere presence. For a long moment they stood like that, and Ben found himself suddenly grateful that Dexter had Patrick Utonium as his guardian and surrogate father. He had no notion of what Dexter's real parents were like, but it was evident that the owner of DexLabs had made his choice - and that he had chosen well.

So warm. So fragile. So trusting. So very, very human. Ben's impressions from last night struck him full force as Dexter closed his eyes and ducked his head low against his father's chest. He could not get any closer to the man, but that didn't stop him from trying. Something about his stance, about the way Utonium's large hands held him so tightly, told Ben the true depths of Dexter's distress over the Fusions' assault. He had been attacked in his own home by twisted specters of the people he loved best. Almost any other thirteen-year-old would have panicked and broken. Heck, Ben had wanted to panic. He realized now that Dexter's cool confidence that Ben would save him had commanded the situation in Plutonium's energy cage. Anything less would have been a disaster.

The Powerpuff Girls were waiting impatiently by the helicopter, giving the men in their close-knit family a chance to reconnect. At some unspoken signal from their father they surged forward and surrounded their brother. Utonium stepped back and let his children have a few moments to themselves. There was undisguised relief in his gray eyes as he joined Dexter's watchdogs on the sidelines.

"Professor, I'm so sorry he came to any harm," Mr. Green began, stepping forward.

Utonium waved him off, refusing to let his friend and employee apologize. "No, Kilroy," he said, laying his hand on the demon's shoulder. "We've been expecting this. You did an outstanding job and I want to thank you for watching him. I just wish they had used any other Fusions."

Mr. Green nodded in agreement and understanding. The invaders from Planet Fusion had struck hard and fast and with sickening accuracy. Utonium shifted his attention to the young man standing beside the demon. "Ben . . ."

A quick, strong hug engulfed Ben, a gesture that was as much a way of the Professor conveying his gratitude as it was a show of affection.

"Thank you," the Professor said, his crushing hold expressing all the dread that had been consuming him since Green's first, frantic call about the attack. "For everything you've done for him."

Ben glanced over to where the three superhero sisters were cautiously swamping their adopted brother, and then he smiled at the dark-haired scientist. There was so much relief and gratitude in the Professor's face that Ben felt an impulse to offer comfort and support in return despite the difference in their ages.

"You were right, Professor," he replied with a wry smile. "It's worth the fight."

OoOoOoOoOoOoO

"No, no, no! Dracula says you're doing it wrong! You can't shake no booty in that there apron!"

"Radda. Radda radda."

"Take it from Dracula. No lady gonna take to anything dressed like that. They looking for style. Class. Moves. Y'ain't gonna get no skirt wearin' half a skirt, Rock Man."

"Ra! Radda! Raddara!"

"What Dracula talking about? Dracula talking about this."

Ben Tennyson closed his eyes and drew a deep breath, praying the next floor was the one these two wanted as the ancient vampire in the outdated suit began shuffling his feet and gyrating his hams as he gave the rock monster a dance lesson. They had gotten on three floors up and immediately the vampire had laced into the stocky gray monster chef about his poor taste in fashion. The monster could only ignore the insults for so long and had finally snapped back in some garbled speech. Dracula seemed capable of following his grunts, but Ben had no idea of what the long-necked creature was saying. Now they were holding a dance-off in the limited space afforded them and trying to prove that disco wasn't dead. Not yet, unfortunately. He wondered if Dracula's patronage made disco undead.

Was it this elevator? Was it him personally? Did Dexter have clue one about the weirdness that was running around his corporate headquarters? He was beginning to have his doubts.

"Radda!"

They were shaking it between him and the elevator controls, otherwise he would have fled the scene. Then again, he had been here first . . .

His hand strayed towards the Omnitrix. The dancers were too busy ragging on each other's interpretation of the Batusi to pay him any mind as he dialed through the available aliens.

There. Perfect.

Hero time.

"Goop!"

The sudden appearance of what amounted to two hundred pounds of radio-controlled green snot sloshing around and over the dance floor and the dancers put an end to their antics. Dracula bellowed at the state of his cape and how much it cost to have ectoplasm stains removed from synthetic satin. The rock monster let out a long list of mangled expletives that would have fallen on uncaring ears if a Polymorph actually had ears. They could not get out of the elevator fast enough and at the very next floor they spilled out, trampling a short blond boy in a striped shirt that stood in their way.

"Adventure!" groaned the sailor boy, raising his hand and neatly summing up Ben's every attempt to get into Dexter's laboratory.

"En how," he agreed ruthlessly, leaving the blond speedbump in place and powering down the Omnitrix as the doors closed. There had to be another way to get to where he wanted to be.

The first six digits of pi later, the doors opened to reveal the owner of DexCorp International in all his short and temperamental glory. The splints were off of his hands, enforced rest and massive doses of antibiotics had given him a leg up on the bone infection, and while he wasn't entirely better yet, this was the healthiest Ben had ever seen him.

Instantly he complained. "Your elevator hates me."

"You seem to have issues with attributing human emotions to inanimate objects, Benjamin," was the smart-mouthed reply. Hands clasped behind his back, Dexter strode into the elevator even as Ben stepped out.

"I can sense these things. Trust me. It's personal." Ben frowned. "Where you going, Dex?"

"The correct question would be, 'Where are we going, Dexter?' To get chili fries. I'm hungry."

He was so surprised that he squeaked. "Your dad know?"

"He does."

"Oh." That took the wind out of his sails. Then again, chili fries were always a good idea. "You buying?"

"Yes."

"I'm allowed to escort you even with a busted arm?"

"Of course. You've never let such distractions stop you in the past, have you?"

"Good point." Ben joined him inside that accursed elevator. This time he was ready when it zipped sideways.

"Besides, my father knows. Therefore all of my sisters know. And Mr. Green. And Sgt. Morton, and -"

"Therefore Mr. Smoothie is crawling with security and-"

"Everyone they blabbed to. Precisely. It's going to be a zoo. We have to get there before my sisters find out they like chili fries."

"Yeah, I've seen them eat."

"Mmm."

A comfortable silence fell. Ben glanced at his friend. "How are you feeling?"

"Hungry."

"Beyond that."

He did not answer at once, but pondered the question and chose his reply with care. "I'm trying not to feel afraid."

He could appreciate the courage it took to admit as much. "Nothing wrong with being scared."

"Perhaps, but I won't let it limit me."

Ben grinned, feeling oddly proud of his friend. "I defy anything to limit you, Dex."

He watched the boy genius' expression gradually change from acceptance to resolution as he absorbed Ben's bold and defensive challenge to the world. The older teen rightly guessed that few people outside of his family had ever taken up Dexter's banner so readily and so fiercely. Slowly Dexter smirked, returning Ben's look with unflinching spirit.

"So do I."

-fin-