A/N: Brandon, a bit of logic back atcha, dude - not all words can be translated. Sometimes a word will have nuances or deeper meaning that can't be captured in another language. The HighBreed word friblet is such an example.
"Everything all right, Professor?"
He didn't recognize his own voice as he softly said, "No."
Pressing his hands to his forehead, Utonium closed his eyes and tried to restore some semblance of order to the riot of thoughts and emotions coursing through him. Nausea gripped him at the thought of what Mandy had just told him.
"Sir?" pressed Morton. "What happened?"
"The Fusion Dexter. It tunneled under DexLabs and captured Dexter and DeeDee."
Morton paled. "Are they okay? Are they back home?"
He nodded, not opening his eyes as he tried to combat a headache. "Th-they're alive. Dexter . . . he almost didn't make it. Ben . . . Ben said he'd been tort– oh, god."
Doubling over in his seat, Utonium tried to steady his breathing, leaning heavily on his knees. He was shaking and shaken, and he had never felt sicker in his whole life. He wanted to scream. He wanted to panic. He wanted to hold his son and reassure himself that Dexter really was alive. Hurt, terribly hurt, but alive. So far from home, though, he could do little more than blink back his tears at the pain and longing that threatened to overwhelm him. Like any other father he had made his fair share of mistakes, but had never experienced such a sense of failure before. Despite the logical part of his mind telling him otherwise, his emotions won out and it felt as if he had completely abandoned his children. A warm hand gripped his shoulder and Morton leaned close.
"When did this happen?"
"Eight-" He choked slightly, hardly able to believe it. "Eight earth days ago."
Morton frowned. "That's why they haven't called."
"We have to get back, Chip. I know Mandy hasn't told me everything, but I can't stay here."
"What about the HighBreed?"
"I'm useless to them now," Utonium replied, knowing it was the truth. He might be able to work while exhausted, but there was no possibility of relying on his work when he was this frantic. He stood up, not exactly steady. "I have to go see Reinrassig."
"I'm going with you, sir. You're in no shape."
The HighBreed Supreme was already aware of the situation thanks to General Shaan. Sympathetic and distressed when Utonium told him details of what had happened, he could tell immediately that the Professor would not be able to accomplish anything more for them. Not at this stage. Utonium needed to be back on earth with his child. Reinrassig was disappointed – he would have liked nothing more than to shower every honor on this man for all he had done, but in the end the only payment Utonium asked of the people he had fought so hard to save was to go home.
A battle cruiser, one of the fastest in the HighBreed star fleet, was ordered prepared and Reinrassig promised it would be ready to take Utonium home within a day. The trip to earth would be a matter of going from jump gate to jump gate, and it took longer to move in and out of a solar system than it took to travel thousands of light-years. After a bit of consideration, Reinrassig ordered his friblet Jernrassic to accompany the humans. Utonium tried to thank him, but the Supreme would not hear of it in light of what they owed him.
Utonium shocked the staff at the medical center as did his best to tie up loose ends. His arrival on Darama had been unexpected and his departure was even more so, and to the surprise of many HighBreed, they were sorry to see him leave. There were hasty good-byes and promises to continue research on both sides. He didn't even stay to see if the initial round of serum worked. All he could think of was Dexter and the terror and pain he must have felt and must still be feeling. He had to be wondering where Utonium was, why his father hadn't returned, why he had been abandoned, and it was that thought more than any other that filled the Professor with despair.
Jernrassic turned out to be a wise choice of escort. Not only was he good company, but as the son of the HighBreed Supreme he was entitled to a protective convoy of ships. The size of their small armada afforded them priority in the interstellar transit lanes, cutting the journey back to earth by more than a quarter of the amount of time it took to get to the HighBreed home world. He took quite a shine to the Morton, probably because Utonium was so distracted that he could barely carry on a conversation. He took it upon himself to show the sergeant as much of the ship as he was allowed, including the bridge and weapons systems. Proudly he brought word to Utonium that Dangarin was cautiously optimistic of a cure having been found, and Utonium could not help but smile at his understated jubilation.
It was Chip who first realized the duplicity of the Plumbers. Jernrassic was showing him an observation lounge where the plasma windows allowed an unobstructed view into deep space. The ship had been forced to drop out of hyperspace due to strong stellar winds in the immediate area and Jernrassic was showing his human friend the various star clusters and nebulas visible in this sector.
"Any pulsars?" wondered Morton, whose knowledge of science was very limited, though he could appreciate the beauty of what he was being shown. He asked only because he remembered Max mentioning the neutron stars being the cause of so much trouble.
"None in this sector," said the HighBreed. "There is a cluster of them in Darama's sector."
He leaned on the window, gazing out into the vastness. "Can they really mess up communications as bad as Max made out?"
"They can." Jernrassic turned and looked at Morton intently, anxious to convey what he knew. "There has not been any reports of abnormal or elevated activity from the ones by Darama in many cycles."
He frowned. The Professor had filled him in about the conversation with Max Tennyson. "But he said . . ."
"I even consulted our scientists. There has been no unusual activity from the pulsars. Nothing that would affect communications or cause a blackout in my home system or on any of the normal channels between your planet and mine."
"But Max . . ."
Had Prior lied to Max about the message not arriving? Max would have known if communications had been disrupted. But if Max had lied, he must have known about Dexter being attacked almost a week ago. He had known . . . and hadn't told the Professor. Had Max cut off their communications?
"Crud," breathed Morton.
"Indeed," agreed Jernrassic, sounding exactly like his father.
He was still for a little while, trying to decide what to do. Ultimately there was nothing else for it.
The Professor had to know.
"Max, this is just me speaking, but I would strongly recommend you don't come back to DexLabs unless specifically invited," Shaan said over the interstellar link.
Max Tennyson sighed, looking his age. "Pat figured it out."
"He's a genius. I'd watch my back."
"Has he been in contact?"
"Not with us. He had the HighBreed Supreme confirm his suspicions for him. Shockingly, he doesn't trust the Plumbers now," he snapped, his voice dripping with sarcasm and anger.
"He's no fool, either," muttered Max knowingly.
"To put it mildly." Demanded Shaan, "What were you thinking? Were you thinking?"
"If I had told him, he would have left immediately."
"Of course he would have! Max, his son was kidnapped, tortured, and almost died as a result of massive physical trauma. What would you expect of the man?"
"Exactly that. The HighBreed would have died without Utonium's help! I couldn't let him leave yet."
Shaan sighed. This type of conduct was so typical of earth's Magister. "You don't know that, and who are you to make that decision for him? He set them on the right course to find the cure. They would have managed it."
"How many more would have died waiting for the HighBreed scientists to catch up to him?"
"And if Dexter had died, would it have been worth it?" challenged the General. "This is why your sons didn't talk to you for almost ten years! You're so focused on the big picture that you lose sight of the little details that make up the picture. These are people, Max! Dexter is a child! You didn't see what that monster did to him! I did! He's lucky to be alive and when he needed his father, you decided on your own what fit your personal agenda best and kept him away. You're so bent on reaching the goal that you don't think about who gets trampled underfoot."
"We can't afford to lose the Highbreed star fleet."
"But we can afford to lose the creative genius that's given us the weapons to stand our ground against Planet Fusion? And I'm not talking just the earth, Magister, I'm talking almost a dozen planets with billions of lives on them that owe their continued existence to the Null-Void laser. Are the HighBreed more important than Dexter and all those systems just because they have a fleet? Are you serious, Tennyson?"
A sigh escaped Max. For a long moment there was silence as he remembered a similar anger aimed at him from his sons and in more recent years, his grandson. It was the same argument, and Shaan was right as Carl and Frank and Ben had all been, only on a grander scale. "You're right. I do get too focused on the outcome. Don't take this out on Prior, Neel. He was acting under my orders."
"Gilhil – and whatever I decide to do to him – is not your concern. He may have been acting under your orders, Max, but he has sense enough to know when to refuse an order. He's done it in the past without consequences. My real concern here is the fact that you chose to override me." It was the Plumber Licentiate talking, not the Major General.
"I take it I'll be hearing from Licentiate Ayat."
"Count on it in the very near future."
"I was trying to save a vital ally, General."
Shaan let out a long, tired sigh. "So was I, Max. So was I."
They stepped off the helicopter named Night Flight Alpha and onto the helipad atop DexLabs. It was late at night even though their internal clocks thought it was morning. To Utonium's surprise, General Shaan stood next to Mandy as she waited to greet him and Morton. Their arrival on earth was so abrupt that the helicopter barely made it in time to meet them at the Air Force base where the HighBreed shuttle had set them down. There had been no fanfare and no welcoming except a few startled Air Force officers on duty.
"How is he?" demanded Utonium. He didn't care about anything less.
"I spoke to Buttercup half an hour ago," Mandy said, not in the least put off by his brusque tone. "He's asleep on your bed. He's got about thirty percent of his hearing back and he can talk in whispers. He's been in your quarters since Seventy-Seven let him up long enough to see Tennyson off the other morning. I had to send him to Banff. The Royal Canadian KND were getting their butts handed to them."
He nodded, for once not caring about the KND, and moved to walk past them. Shaan reached out and stopped him.
"I know what Max did," he said, not looking at the Plumber. "I know he knew what happened to my son and didn't tell me."
"Pat," he repeated quietly. "Max wouldn't let Gilhil tell you."
"He lied to me, Neel. Right to my face. My son could have died, and Max Tennyson lied to me." He finally looked at the General, and in those dark he saw such remorse that he knew Shaan had been as ignorant of this betrayal as he.
"He didn't want to risk distracting you from the task at hand. He thought it was the right thing to do."
Utonium stared at the Army officer. "For him, maybe."
"He was . . ." Shaan hesitated, knowing Utonium had no taste for what he was about to say. "He was thinking of the HighBreed."
"He must have been. He certainly wasn't thinking of me or Dexter. Since when have the Plumbers had the authority to decide what's best for me and mine, General?" he demanded savagely, giving vent to his anger. "After all we've done for you, this is the thanks we get?" Shaan wisely remained silent and Utonium shook off his hand. "Excuse me."
He stalked off, leaving them behind. Morton and Shaan sighed in unison.
"Sucks to be you, General," muttered Mandy as they watched the Professor head for the elevators.
Shaan grimaced. "Yeah. It's going to suck worse to be Prior Gilhil once I'm done with him."
"The Appoplexians have asked for a representative to help them negotiate a trade agreement with the Pisccissians. The last time the Appoplexians entered into negotiations, they were at it for twenty-two months and ended up with a war instead of a treaty even with assistance. I think Gilhil just volunteered."
"What about Max?"
"He's got to answer to someone less impartial than I am right now. I've got a lot of damage control to do and a lot of fires to put out yet."
"Fires or infernos?"
The doors closed on the elevator.
Their suite here in DexLabs – larger even than the house in Townsville - was dark and quiet when he entered. Only the light in the hall by the bedrooms was lit and he stepped from the bright corridor into twilight. He had the oddest sense of disorientation. It was more than the after-effects of space travel. He had never before experienced so quiet a homecoming. Normally the girls would be squealing and tackling him from all sides and Dexter would quietly wait for his hug. It felt as if he was stealing back into his own life.
A soft meow greeted him and he looked down to see Dexter's Ragdoll cat, Einstein. Usually Utonium was leery of cats, having been kidnapped and brainwashed by malevolent Persian when the girls were quite young, but Dexter adored this beast and the Professor had gone to great lengths to make friends. To his surprise, he was quite happy to see the feline as Einstein wound between his feet, purring.
"Einstein," he said softly, leaning over to stroke the soft fur. Einstein immediately flopped down and rolled over, begging to have his stomach rubbed. "How are you, boy?"
"Hey, cat, where you at?" called a quiet voice. He looked up quickly as Buttercup stepped around the corner. "Einst-Professor!"
For one glorious moment she stood still, astonished and delighted to see him, and it suddenly struck Patrick Utonium that Buttercup was beautiful. All his daughters were lovely, but Buttercup was the only one of the three that remained unconscious of her looks. Blossom was so very pretty and Bubbles could not get cuter if she tried, but Buttercup . . . A month-long absence and his complete exhaustion had wiped away any paternal bias Utonium harbored. She looked just as she always did, but it was as if he was seeing her for the first time and she was so beautiful that she took his breath away.
And then his arms were filled by his beautiful, ecstatic daughter. Her powerful arms held him tightly, lifting him off the floor briefly, and he felt tears sting his eyes that had nothing to do with her iron grip around his middle and everything to do with the fact that she was trembling.
"We've been so worried," she whispered, her cheek resting on his shoulder. "We didn't hear from you in so long and Dexter's been a total mess and we couldn't get anything from the Plumbers until Mandy got hold of General Shaan and I gotta call Blossom and Buttercup back from patrol and-"
"Shh," he said, stroking her glossy hair. "Shh. Just a moment." He pulled back, cupping her face in his hands to get a good look at her and give her a chance to calm down. Her green eyes were bright with unshed tears, and her expression was torn between joy and worry. "Buttercup, you were there, weren't you? In Pittsburgh?"
She nodded and swallowed. "Yeah."
"I only got bits and pieces of what happened. Tell me. Please. While Dexter's asleep."
"We better sit down."
She was a better story teller than Bubbles, being able to stick to the facts even if she did have to backtrack now and then and fill in details. Bubbles would go off on tangents that had no point and Blossom had the habit of interjecting her opinion into every aspect of a story. Buttercup just told him what had happened. He was relieved that DeeDee was unharmed and positively sickened to find out they had been betrayed. The destruction of Dexter's laboratory was distressing, but it was her report on the latest Fusion Dexter and his conduct that filled Utonium with apprehension. He could read between the lines far better than Buttercup could, and this encounter was disturbing on any number of levels.
"Ben was with Dexter in the medical ward most of the time. He should probably still be in there but he wasn't sleeping. Seventy-Seven or Dr. Cardon's been stopping by three or four times a day. His gums are still bleeding a bit and now and then he gets a nose bleed, too. He's been having nightmares of that Ur-Dexter. Professor, he was scary. I mean freak-me-out kind of scary."
There was very, very little in this world that could frighten Buttercup, and he took her words to heart.
"It was really weird kicking anything that looked like Dexter into next week. I wanted so bad to go back and make sure that thing was toast, but I had to get them out of there before they got Infected."
He shook his head. "You did the right thing. Thank you. Has he been asking for me?"
"Yeah. He knows you were needed on Darama, but . . ."
"I know, honey. I'm here now."
Hinted Buttercup, "He won't mind if you wake him up."
He smiled and kissed her cheek. "I'll go see him. Let your sisters know I'm home, would you?"
She smiled back. "You got it, daddy-o."
His heart started racing as he walked up the stairs to the second story of the suite. His bedroom door was open and he felt a little pang as the light spilled into the room. Dexter was afraid of the dark. It was one of the few things he hadn't feared until that awful encounter with Demongo last fall. Since then he had needed a light on to sleep. Up until this moment he hadn't considered how terribly sad it was that monsters had invaded Dexter's waking hours as well as his sleep.
Quietly he walked to the far side of the bed and crouched down to get a look at his son. Dexter was fast asleep, his red hair tousled and a faint stain of blood on the pillowcase from his gums. He was very pale beneath dark bruises on his face and somehow he looked smaller than Utonium remembered him being. He was certainly thinner. His mind flashed back the night where Dexter had turned up on his doorstep, shivering from the rain and on the brink of tears. The same pain he'd felt then filled Utonium, only now it was so much more intense and wretched because he had not been here to help.
He reached out and brushed a few strands of hair away from the boy's face, softly calling his name again as he sat down beside him. There was a deep burn on his temple, and the sight of it and the knowledge of what caused it brought tears to the Professor's eyes. Dexter sucked in his breath, stirring. Knowing perfectly well that even at the best of times Dexter would not be able to see to the edge of the bed without his glasses on, Utonium leaned close.
"Dexter, it's me. I'm home."
Dexter blinked awake and squinted. His eyes were still horribly bloodshot, but he looked at the man he called his father with wonder and relief.
His voice was faint and rough and sounded nothing like the boy the Professor had left behind a month ago. He covered Utonium's hand with his own, hardly able to believe he wasn't still dreaming. Dexter slowly sat up, reaching for the person he loved and trusted most. He needed nothing more than this man's presence to know he was safe and all would be well. With a little gasp the Professor bent close, holding him as tightly as he dared.
"I'm so sorry," breathed Utonium, his voice betraying the anguish he felt. "Dexter, I didn't know. I would have come immediately. They didn't tell me. I . . . Oh, Dexter I am so sorry."
Refusing to let Utonium blame himself, Dexter shook his head, reaching one hand up to stroke his father's hair in a gesture he had learned right here, in this embrace. He rested his chin on his father's shoulder, leaning close and giving comfort where it was so desperately needed. Dexter didn't care that his arms ached and his head was pounding any more than he cared if the Professor cried or not. Nothing mattered more than having his father back.
It was a very long time before either moved. Finally Utonium pulled back, still maintaining his hold as he gazed upon this marvelous child. Once upon a time Dexter had set out to change the whole world. He had succeeded in ways he had never imagined. In a rush of affection the Professor realized he ranked first among the things Dexter had changed, even if Dexter had done nothing else than give him that much more to love.
"I won't leave you," he promised. "Ever again."
With complete understanding Dexter smiled for the first time since he had been rescued from his Fusion doppleganger. Softly, hoarsely, Dexter whispered, "I know." Leaning forward, he rested against his father's chest, closing his eyes as he felt strong and loving arms enfold him once more in warmth and safety.
And despite everything that had happened, with that simple gesture all was right in the world once again.
- Fin -