"Aren't you cold?"
He didn't look up. There was no mistaking that accent, though he was surprised that Dexter would come out here, especially at night. The steady wind was pretty cold and humid and it carried the promise of rain later on, but he didn't want to go inside just yet. Going inside would require him to face people and events he just wanted to ignore right now.
Well, some people.
Sitting in his cousin's room in the hospitality wing of DexLabs, he had listened to Kevin and Gwen for over an hour. Kevin had done most of the talking as he disclosed the series of events that had led up to Ben waking up in Medical. An argument, a battle, an explosion had set into motion the chain of events that had hurt Ben, and now continued to hurt him. As far as he could tell, Kevin told him the whole, bitter truth, sparing himself nothing. At first Ben had been incredulous and curious, but as the tale wound on and on and the details intensified, he had fallen silent, all the way to the end where Kevin finished with a simple, heartfelt apology. He had not responded, trying to fathom the depths of his distress.
His friend had done this. After Ben warned him, Kevin had chosen to ignore him. He needed time to grasp the enormity and cost of . . . all of this.
Realizing Dexter was waiting for a reply, Ben Tennyson looked up from the courtyard he'd been staring at and with a little shrug said, "Not really."
"Do you want to be left alone?"
Dexter smiled slightly and carefully worded his next question. "Do you mind if I sit with you?"
Ben smiled for real, and since his stock reply still worked, he said, "Not really."
Climbing the last few steps to reach the landing, Dexter swung his legs over the wide wall of the mezzanine and sat looking out over the large quad at the front entrance of DexLabs. Ben knew his friend had not been here since last summer when Mandy had held a rally for Earth's Combined Forces. He smiled faintly at the memory. This was where he had first met – and offended – the young genius sitting next to him. It was strange that he had managed to make it a habit of blundering into the best things in his life: the Omnitrix, Julie, Dexter . . .
Dexter scooted forward to imitate Ben's stance and dangle his legs over the rail, not in the least intimidated by the great height. A faint, shrill cry reached their ears, carried by the wind, and Dexter looked back at the building he owned and smiled faintly.
"The peregrines must be back," he surmised. "There's a pair that decided the ductwork above the rear service entrance was the perfect spot to nest. They always yell at the delivery trucks. They're a source of great intrigue and entertainment for my employees. They even gave them names."
"What did they name them?" asked Ben, happy to talk about such simple things.
"Benedick and Beatrice. They reign supreme over the campus," said Dexter, gesturing grandly across the expanse of his small kingdom.
Like the falcons, they fell silent for a while, listening to the wind and the faint sounds of the city. Dexter gazed across the wide boulevard at his rival's property, a road most people referred to as the 38th Parallel since it divided DexLabs from Mandark Industries. Mandark's corporate headquarters was placed far back from the road and shielded by a wide patch of maple trees that just darkened the view. Ben glanced at his companion, wondering at the irony the Boy Genius presented. Dexter had isolated and insulated himself from the world even as he threw wide the doors of his corporation and brought the whole world to him, while Mandark had gone out into the world and locked the doors firmly behind him.
"How'd you escape your watchdog?"
"I doubt I have. Security is watching us now, I'm sure. Since I initiated the Invasion Protocol they've been particularly neurotic. I'll have to come up with new ways to escape them. Besides, they know you won't let anything happen to me."
He smiled a little. It was the truth. He had put himself in the line of fire for Dexter before and he would do so again without hesitation. "Thanks for finding me," Ben said quietly.
"I thought you might need company."
"I kinda expected Kevin to come looking for me."
"I think he might have. His guest badge won't let him out here at night, however."
"I have to go."
"Please don't shut us out, Ben," pleaded Gwen, laying her hand on his arm. "We failed you. We know that. Give us a chance, please."
He covered her hand with his own. "I need to think. I'm going to go for a walk."
He paused, wondering why his name was so difficult for Kevin to say at times, and glanced behind him. The older teen was struggling to find the words to express everything he was feeling, trying desperately hard to say how sorry he was for so many things.
"Don't go far," he finally begged.
"When you're ready, Ben, I'll tell you my part in this, and Dad's."
"Soon. Right now I just . . . need to think. Talk. Figure out what the heck it is I'm feeling."
"What do you feel?" Dexter asked softly.
Ben shifted, looking for the right word to describe the sense of pain in his breast. "Betrayed, I guess. No, that's not right. Let down."
"Disappointed?" suggested the redhead.
He nodded and sighed. "Yeah. I know Kevin didn't mean for the gun to do that. It's just that . . ."
"He still did it. He disregards and disrespects you, though if push came to shove he would defend you."
"Yeah, and complain about it every second. How hard is it to listen when I tell him something? Everything is a fight with him lately. Ever since this winter. Why does he think that he knows so much more and better than me?"
"Because you follow the rules and Kevin chooses to break them, and at times he does so just for the sake of being defiant. I think he's jealous of you."
"I know he's jealous of you."
"I believe he fears the depth of understanding we share. He can't see or understand it, and therefore he feels threatened by you and me being friends. At least he's gotten over the notion that it's the Omnitrix I covet."
"Like he didn't, once upon a time."
"I had to learn how to be a friend too, Ben."
"Yeah, maybe, but it took you days. I've been working on him for years."
"I applied myself. I figured anyone who noticed the Mobius strip in my corporate logo deserved my undivided attention."
"I never really had a lot of friends growing up. I was always on the fringe of things and getting bullied. Even the guys on my soccer team - I never really hung out with them."
"I know the feeling. You want to belong, but you don't know how."
"It wasn't until I came here and joined the ECF and met you that I figured out it wasn't me who had the problem, it was them. I tried being a friend and they just didn't want me or let me fit in."
"The loss was theirs, Mr. Tennyson."
"It's so different now. Now I'm Commander Tennyson."
"For good reason."
"I don't know if Kevin and Gwen got annoyed with me because I wasn't so keen on all the Plumbers business or if it was always being pulled away to help with training and fighting or . . ."
. . . watching over you, his mind silently supplied as he looked at Dexter.
"Maybe it was the respect you were earning and the company you were keeping. From what I understand you've always been a leader, but now the stage is larger and the threat is greater and your authority as a commander exceeds theirs as Plumbers."
Ben stared off into space, seeing nothing. "When things get hot Kevin always expects me to have the answers, to have the next move ready."
"He recognizes that quality within you, at least. You are not afraid to take responsibility. That is why you are Commander Tennyson."
There was a world of truth in that simple statement.
He was glad he couldn't remember the Omnitrix malfunctioning. He was horrified enough just hearing about it and imagining what it must have looked and felt like. To remember it . . .
He walked faster through the corridors, not sure where he was going but determined to get there. Not far from the hospitality wing was the wide stone porch in the front of the building. Access to it was restricted, but to his relief his ID badge allowed him to escape into the darkness. He had no idea of what time it was, but he knew it must be late because in the halls and outside the building the lighting was reduced. The cool wind felt good against his flushed skin. Hanging his head, he tried to sort out the overwhelming confusion of emotions and reactions that he was feeling. His thoughts kept circling back to the same simple question: Why? Why hadn't Kevin listened? Why was it too much to ask for him to heed Dexter's warning about the Null-Voids? Why?
"You're a good leader too, Dex."
A small snort issued from the boy. "I don't know if I lead so much as pave the way."
"Not everyone can do that sort of thing."
Another snort. "Not everyone can afford to."
"And not everyone that can afford to, wants to," he said, thinking of Mandark.
Dexter's voice was very quiet as he admitted, "I have good reason for doing what I do."
"I know," Ben replied, remembering the conversation he'd had with Green the summer before. Dexter looked at him curiously, but did not pursue that thread. Ben knew Dexter could easily guess what he meant. He faced the undersized, delicate teen beside him, realizing something huge: Fuse was afraid of this boy. That was easily as amazing as ten-year-old Ben Tennyson standing against Vilgax and winning. Dexter was afraid of so many things, yet he frightened Lord Fuse. Ben felt a strange rush of pride, glad all over again that he could call Dexter his friend. Despite his arrogance and occasional forays into obnoxiousness, he'd never known anyone that was truer.
"Ben?" asked Dexter, catching him staring.
He smiled. "Big Chill or Jetray?"
The redhead's mouth fell open as he caught on to Ben's meaning. "Oh, no. No, Ben, I can't!"
"Come on, Dex!" he urged, pushing up the sleeve of his jacket to expose the Omnitrix. "Big Chill or Jetray?"
Dexter climbed to his feet, dusting off his coat. "I'm going to get grounded again."
Ben grinned at the whiney voice, knowing how much Dexter loved flying despite the inevitable consequences of something the adults in his life classified as reckless conduct. Since Utonium couldn't bar him from his lab and since he rarely ventured outside anyway, grounding for Dexter meant he had to write massive research papers on subjects he disliked.
"We'll say I kidnapped you."
"Oh, yes, they'll believe that. Mr. Green is going to kill me," Dexter groaned and gave in, throwing his hands up in surrender because he desperately wanted to go flying even though he knew he shouldn't. "Big Chill." He shook his head at his own weakness, looking at once completely hangdog and completely happy.
With a pleased laugh Ben slapped down the control of the Omnitrix, freeing the Necrofriggian. He threw his wings wide and darted into the air, making a quick loop to test the wind before coming to a landing. Dexter turned around and held his arms out, allowing Big Chill's cold, powerful arms to hold him tightly around the middle.
There would be time to think through his feelings later. He would listen to Dexter and he would talk to Kevin and his cousin. Right now, though, he wanted the company of his best friend and the simple freedom of the skies.
Dexter nodded, pushing his glasses back into place before gripping his friend's arms. "Ready."
"Let's fly," he said, and leaped into the night.
- Fin -