Ben stared around at the cleared-out office. Somehow, he didn't think he was ever going to get used to thinking of it as his office. It had always been Max's. It didn't matter that the torch had been passed.
There was a knock at the door, and Ben turned to see his grandfather standing outside, holding a gift bag.
"Max, sorry," Ben said. "I didn't see you."
"It's okay, Ben," Max insisted, walking inside. "I haven't been here long."
Now, with his grandfather actually here with him in the office, it felt even stranger. In fact, it was wrong. Ben was supposed to be out there in the field, going hero and fighting whatever threat Max told him about. He wasn't supposed to be giving orders; all he was supposed to do was find the bad guy and stop him. He wasn't ready for this; he wasn't supposed to be the leader.
As he usually did, Max picked up on Ben's thoughts and asked, "Worried about the new job?"
Ben laughed nervously and rubbed the back of his neck. "A little, yeah. I'm not sure I'm ready for this. Except for the whole Highbreed war, I've never been the one calling the shots, and even then, it wasn't official—Kev, Gwen, and I were on our own. The only paperwork I had to worry about was my homework."
"You'll do fine," Max insisted, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I wouldn't have asked you to do this if I didn't think you were ready. And it's not like I'm not going to be around to help you."
Ben managed to smile in relief and nodded. It didn't relieve his fears completely, but the affirmation did help him feel a little better about this. "Thanks, Grandpa."
"Well, now that we've got that settled," Max said, putting the gift bag on the desk and pushing it toward Ben, "I brought an office-warming gift."
Ben had an amused smile as he began to lift the jar out of the bag. He'd had long experience with his grandfather's taste in everything strange, so he was ready for just about anything he was about to pull out.
But nothing could prepare him for the sheer horror that he saw. Covered in wrinkly pink skin, the thing sat floating in a yellowish brine. Its eyes were closed, thankfully, but any comfort it offered was negated by the fact that its mouth was partially open and its tongue was sticking out. It was like looking at a nightmare personified, and the thing was mocking him. Ben couldn't even find it in him to fake a smile as he stared at what he was reasonably sure was some kind of creature from the depths of hell.
"…What is it?" Ben asked when he could finally form words.
Max seemed completely oblivious to Ben's speechless horror as he cheerfully explained, "It's an irradiated fetal pig specimen. A friend of mine gave me that when I first became head of operations on Earth—for good luck. I've had it through all of Vilgax's attacks, the Highbreed war, and now the Hive. I figured it could probably do some good for you."
This was what Ben was afraid of hearing. This wasn't some bizarre, on-a-whim gift that Max hadn't realized Ben wouldn't appreciate. This was some bizarre, completely sentimental gift that Max knew Ben would appreciate—at least the sentiment, if not the pig itself. There was no way he could get out of accepting this gift without it having a hint of an insult behind it, and after the huge argument they'd gone through over Elena, Ben couldn't risk fighting with his grandfather again.
"It's great, Max," he lied. "Thanks."
Max grinned, which made it even worse. "Well, I'd better get back upstairs. I'll leave you to set up your office the way you like."
He left just as the others came in, and Ben set the jar back on the desk. It didn't take long to notice his friends had arrived—Kevin was drumming on the empty shelves.
"Old man's moved everything out?" he noticed.
"Pretty much," Ben answered with a shrug, reaching for his keys. "Ready to go?"
"Long as I'm not the one paying, fearless leader," Kevin said.
Gwen rolled her eyes. "He already ate a slice of cold pizza on his way down here."
"It was only half a slice," Kevin pointed out.
"Ben," Elena interrupted, pointing in the direction of the jar. "What's that?"
Gwen and Kevin turned their attention to the desk. Their reaction was a lot more immediate and direct. Gwen recoiled while Kevin swore.
"What the hell?" Kevin asked. "Is that a pig?"
Ben threw his hands up in the air. "At this rate, I'm just glad it's not lunch."
Gwen forced herself to take a closer look, no matter how much she was clearly disgusted. "I think I'm going vegetarian. Did Grandpa give you this?"
"Yeah," Ben sighed. "He said a friend gave it to him a long time ago for good luck. He's had it ever since he became leader, so he wanted me to have it."
To Ben's surprise, Elena picked up the jar and examined it closely. "I think I know which friend it might have been. Dad mentioned once that when he was still in training, he and your grandpa had to go to Nevada to get help on a case that crossed jurisdictions with the local police."
"What did your dad say about this guy?" Ben asked, honestly curious about who else would willingly keep something like that around.
"That he was pretty much exactly like Max," she replied, setting the jar down. "Down to the grasshoppers in the fridge."
"Well, that's appetizing," Kevin deadpanned. "Anyone up for bacon?"
Gwen elbowed him, and Ben and Elena agreed it was fully deserved.
Elena watched Ben out of the corner of her eye as he spoke to the supervisor in Berlin. To most people, he looked completely calm and in control—standing tall and unflinching, his voice steady, and his words diplomatic. But Elena knew him better. Though she'd been away for a long time, she still recognized the same restrained fury that he'd had as a kid when he was telling the coach about the treatment she had been getting from some of the rest of the soccer team. She caught the tightness of his jaw as he held back the words he really wanted to say and the way he held himself completely straight and tall to keep the adults from seeing him as a small, scrawny kid. She held back a smirk. Ben had managed to get those kids kicked off the team. She could have handled it on her own, of course, but she never forgot the way he stood up for her to the other kids and to the coach. It was just the way he was standing now.
"All right, I understand," Ben said at last. "Thank you."
And here came the storm, Elena realized. Sure enough, Ben smashed down on the key that ended the video call and kicked at the desk a few times. When she noticed he wasn't burning out his rage, she quickly got up and headed over to him, gently pulling him away from the desk.
"You're going to break something if you keep that up," she pointed out.
"Keeps me from breaking her neck," he growled.
If there was one thing Elena knew as well as everyone else on the team, it was that Ben didn't go around making threats like that unless he really meant it or he was incredibly stressed. Either way, he needed a break. With a few quick keystrokes, Elena set everything on automatic and said, "Come on, let's get out of here."
She led him to the office, which was still about as empty as it was when Ben got it. That sparseness made it all the easier to forget the one, incredibly disturbing decoration, and when Elena saw the fetal pig at eye level with her, she immediately got into a fighting stance before realizing what it was.
There was a barely suppressed snicker behind her. Rolling her eyes, Elena turned to see Ben trying to hold back laughter and failing miserably.
"That thing is hideous and you know it," she drawled.
Ben was smiling as he said, "No argument." At least, Max's gift had done some good.
As Elena moved the jar away from the door to avoid scaring off anyone else who needed to get in there, Ben wearily made his way over to the desk but didn't sit down. He didn't look like he was about to break anything, but Elena felt better putting him in a room where the only things he could break were easily replaceable or—in the case of the pig—something they all wanted the chance to throw out.
"So what was that about back there?" she asked. "You don't get pissed off like that."
"Supervisor Koch," Ben answered, practically spitting the name out with disgust, "called to tell me that half her team resigned. Apparently, they didn't feel comfortable with the planet in the hands of someone who almost destroyed the universe once because of reckless mishandling of Level 20 tech." He held up the Omnitrix with the same violent motion most people would hold up a middle finger. "And it's not just Germany. Other outposts feel the same. They think I'm just getting promoted because I'm 'the Galvans' Golden Boy' and Max's grandson."
"What?" Elena asked in disbelief.
"So they're filing a formal complaint with the superiors off-world," Ben finished. "To try and get a formal investigation."
"That's ridiculous," she insisted. "Ben, you just saved this planet, and not for the first time. You've saved the whole galaxy. If that doesn't qualify you for the position, I don't know what does."
"No, you're wrong," he argued. "I'm not qualified. I just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up with this thing stuck to my wrist."
Elena fixed a glare on him. "Don't try and say everything you did was just luck."
"Wasn't it?" Ben asked. "The watch could have gone to anyone. And I needed Max's help all summer when Vilgax came after me because of it. I wouldn't have been able to stop the Highbreed war if I hadn't ended up stranded on a desert planet with Reiny and we had to learn to work together—and if he hadn't shown up when he did, I don't know what would have happened! And that's not even touching the huge mess that came with Vilgax and all the others again after."
"You're still the one who did it all," she pointed out. "People change because of you, Ben. You find a way to bring out the best in them. What about the team? Yeah, someone easily could have gotten Gwen to go along with it, but Kevin? He hated you, and now who can tell? And what about sticking up for me and standing by me even when I was still lying to you?" Ben looked ready to argue with her, but she insisted, "You still stood up to everybody else and trusted me, and when anyone else would have killed my dad, you found a way to save him. You put your own life at risk to do that. Koch can call that reckless, but I feel a lot better knowing there's someone who cares about even one life, now in charge of six billion lives."
Ben sighed and lowered his head. "What if I screw up, Elena?"
"Then we screw up together," she insisted. "You, me, Kevin, and Gwen. And you can let Koch know that if the Plumbers lose you, they lose all of us. We're not following anyone else."
Ben managed a small smile and added, "Technically, you're on probation. Your file's still on review for the blacklist."
Elena smiled back. "Then I'll make sure to earn that blacklist."
Ben laughed, and Elena hugged him. She could feel him holding on tight, as if afraid to let go—that if he did, he'd lose her and all the sanity he'd just found.
"Thanks," he whispered.
"You're welcome," she answered, letting go. As they pulled apart, she said, "Now wait a minute."
"Why?" he asked as she went over to the computer.
Elena smirked. "I'm looking up the shipping prices for Berlin. I think Supervisor Koch could use an office-warming gift." Ben looked in the direction of the fetal pig and grinned.
It didn't take long for news to spread among the team, and though Gwen and Elena were hardly what anyone could call friends, Elena wanted to be sure Gwen knew what had happened and everything that was wrong with Ben. Gwen had to grudgingly admit that she was glad Elena had managed to do something to help Ben, but she felt better making sure herself that he was okay. And sometimes, it just meant the little things.
"Ben, we're getting smoothies," Gwen called. "Want…"
She stopped short as she saw Ben asleep, his head resting on the desk. Elena and Kevin were right behind her, so she shushed them before ushering them out of the office.
"He's asleep," she whispered.
"He's been up every night," Elena said.
"And how would you know?" Kevin asked suggestively.
Elena shot him a glare before adding, "He's burning himself out trying to prove himself to the other Plumbers."
It figured. Ben hated it when people underestimated him. "That's Ben for you," Gwen groaned. "Always has to show off. Let's let him sleep. We'll bring him back something."
"Just a second," Kevin said, making a move for the office. Immediately, Gwen threw a shield up between him and the open door, but he held his hands up in a show of innocence. "Relax. I'm just going to grab his keys. About time I get to drive my car, anyway."
The girls rolled their eyes almost in unison as Gwen sighed and lowered the shield. "Fine," Gwen answered. "We'll meet you outside."
It was just the show of trust Kevin was hoping for. It didn't take him long at all to snatch Ben's keys, but before walking out, he made sure to take the jar and set it in front of Ben's face.
About half an hour later, Ben woke to see a fetal pig directly in front of him. He shouted in horror and nearly fell backwards in his chair before screaming obscenities about Kevin E. Levin for a good five minutes.
Ben drummed his fingers on the desk, glaring at the fetal pig across from him. He'd just gotten a message from Internal Review saying they were looking into the matter of his promotion and that he might have to wait a couple of months before hearing the results.
"Ben, I heard from Grandpa," Gwen said, walking in. "Are you okay?"
He shrugged, keeping his eyes on the pig. Raising an eyebrow, Gwen walked over.
"Did the pig file a complaint too?" she asked.
Ben sighed and turned away. "No, the pig's just happy where it is."
Gwen gave the jar a second look. Hideous as the pig was, they were all beginning to get used to it, and that was the scary thing.
"You need to get rid of this thing," she said.
"Thought about sending it to Germany," Ben deadpanned. "But customs would be a nightmare."
"Not to mention what it would look like sending a package with a strange jar of liquid inside," Gwen agreed.
"What did you come in here for anyway?" he interrupted.
She sighed and set the jar down. "We're worried about you. You haven't been acting like yourself. You're moody, stressed—Elena thinks it's burnout."
Ben raised an eyebrow this time. "You and Elena talked? Without arguing?"
Gwen scoffed. "We don't argue! We just…don't agree. On much of anything." Ben snickered. "You know we've never been the best of friends, even before she left. That's not going to change."
"Yeah, that might take a miracle," he agreed.
"But there's one thing we do agree on," she admitted. "We both care about you. And we don't like what this whole internal review thing is doing to you. We just want to make sure you're okay."
Ben had a half-smile. "Even Kevin?"
Gwen half-sighed, half-groaned. "He'd rather keep doing things like leaving irradiated fetal pigs around when you're sleeping, but… Yeah, he's worried too. He won't show it, but…"
Ben nodded. "That's Kevin."
"Right," Gwen agreed. But her own worry was still clear. "Are you going to be okay?"
"Yeah," Ben sighed. "Maybe I don't feel like it right now, but… I'll get through this."
Gwen smiled. "Of course you will. They're not going to find anything wrong. You deserve this job."
"Do you really think I'll be any good at this?" he asked. "This is bigger than anything I've done before."
"Not really, it isn't," she answered. "Getting a bunch of Plumbers' kids who don't even like each other to work together—that sounds like it's a lot harder than dealing with the grown-ups who know they have to at least pretend to get along." Ben snorted and nodded. "I'd like to see the others put that together in time to stop the Highbreed and the Hive."
"Yeah," he agreed. "Considering how Kevin handled Magister Ghilil."
"And how Elena handled Grandpa," she added. "You know how to bring people together and get them to focus on a common goal. It makes people want to follow you. When you walked out, Kevin was still trying to help you."
Ben smirked. "You weren't?"
"Well…" Gwen said hesitantly, "you broke ranks. Technically, you were blacklisted." Ben was smirking even wider. "Kevin guilt-tripped me, okay?" Now, he laughed. "The point is we were still loyal to you. Kevin had to remind me of that. It didn't matter if you were right or if Elena was leading you into a trap." Here, Ben was about to argue, so Gwen glared and said, "It was still a possibility at the time. We knew we couldn't leave you on your own to handle the Hive. No matter who was assigned to this office, you were our leader as far as we were concerned. Grandpa knew that, and that's why he wanted you to lead for real now. You belong here."
"Thanks, Gwen," Ben said, smiling for real now.
"It's the truth," Gwen insisted. "Though, good luck getting Kevin to admit it."
"Oh, I wouldn't even bother," he answered. "Something tells me I'd have a lot worse than a fetal pig to worry about."
Gwen grinned. "Anyway, we're heading to the diner for dinner. Want to come along?"
"Yeah, I'll meet you in a minute," he replied. "Just want to finish something up here."
"Okay," she said, walking out. "See you there."
As Gwen left, Ben took out a notepad and scribbled something down. Getting up, he selected Big Chill on the Omnitrix and flew off, taking the jar and note with him. It didn't take long at all to get to Kevin's place and stuff the pig in the fridge, along with the note saying, "It belongs here," and Ben felt immensely better after doing so. Maybe it wasn't Germany, but this was definitely the next best place to keep it.
Ben 10: Alien Swarm is the property of Cartoon Network. The fetal pig is the property of a rather well-known forensic drama on CBS, created by Jerry Bruckheimer.