by lighting bird
Last: Fall In
It was pouring rain and windy as he walked up the steep hill to reach the Utonium house here in Townsville. He could have turned into Jetray and flown there so quickly he barely would have gotten wet, but he didn't have the energy or will right now. The rain matched his mood and though he tried, he couldn't quite ignore the cold pressing in around him. With bowed head, Ben Tennyson just put one foot in front of the other, moving on instinct toward his friend's home.
The past two days had been miserable and trying and frustrating and depressing. General Shaan had called on Kevin's Plumber badge, spitting mad that Ben had refused to relay the message from Dexter. He was on Neti VI and trying desperately hard to bolster their defenses. It was only when he was made to understand the Zetak Minor comm officer's combative attitude that the Plumber Licentiate backed down and redirected his wrath where it belonged. There was no denying Shaan was a class act - when he called back and apologized to Ben, he meant every word of it even if the sting lingered.
That was the only spot of decency Ben experienced going to and from Splitsville. Kevin had been insufferable. Apparently Ben not talking to him had not excluded Kevin from talking to Ben and as soon as he detected the silent treatment he was receiving, Levin went out of his way to try to get Ben to respond. At first he had been almost funny and then when his efforts failed he had gotten downright snide. Ben limited his conversation to the issue at hand, unwilling to give the older teen any more ammunition to use against him or to hear Dexter get abused.
After meeting up with their KND contacts, they did find an Infected Zone in Splitsville, though it was very small and centered on an old cemetery. The attack by a flock of Cravens - Fusion Matter infused ravens with snake tails, extra talons, razor-sharp feathers, glowing green eyes, and bad attitudes - had been a welcome distraction for Ben even though as Echo Echo he had sustained a considerable blow to the head in an ugly battle that had lasted almost the whole night through. At least getting knocked silly had been a good excuse for him to sleep on the way home and thus avoid any more barbs from Kevin. If the older teen was concerned at all for him, Ben didn't see it. He was grateful just to lie down on the back seat of Kevin's car and try to sleep without having to engage in a verbal sparring match. He remembered saying goodbye to Kevin when they arrived at his house in Bellwood, but he could not remember if Kevin had responded. Ben had slept the day away, waking up in the afternoon feeling groggy and heavy with a terrific headache, a dead phone battery, and just enough time and money to catch the bus to Townsville to keep his word to Dexter.
And now here he was, slogging up Elm Street from the bus stop. It wasn't that great a distance from here to the Utonium house - just a walk of a few minutes - but in his exhausted and dizzy state it seemed impossibly far away. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his jacket, suddenly stiff and feeling the cold of the wet fabric. He should have worn warmer clothes, but then he hadn't left the house with any other thought in mind except reaching Townsville. Swiping at his nose, he sniffed, water dripping in his eyes and making him blink at the sting. Rain or tears, it didn't matter. It was impossible to get any more miserable than he felt right now. After taking on friend and foe alike, he had come to appreciate that it was a lot worse going up against your friends. At least he knew where he stood with the Fusions, and their hatred was primal and understandable. It was much harder with the people he loved. In his heart he knew he was not a bad person, but right now he needed badly to hear the words. It was like he was falling endlessly and waiting for hands to reach out and catch him.
He was moving up the walkway to the house before he realized he had arrived at his destination. Ben blinked, surprised and confused to find himself facing the cheery red door leading into the home Professor Utonium had made for his daughters. Once upon a time Dexter had found his way here and had been made part of the family. So had Kilroy Green. And suddenly Ben knew exactly what both of them had needed and found here - to hear that they were loved despite their faults and quirks, and to be accepted for what they were and not what they appeared to be. As he raised his hand to ring the doorbell he paused, realizing that like Dexter and Mr. Green, he had already found these things. It was people, not a place, that was home. Dexter asked nothing of him beyond friendship. If not for the Omnitrix, would he and Kevin have even met a second time? And Gwen and Kevin thought Dexter was using him because of the Omnitrix?
He gasped when the front door was abruptly opened, spilling light into the dreary evening shadows.
Wide blue eyes gazed up at him with undisguised relief. Gauging by the redhead's expression, Ben knew he looked a sad sight.
"I've been trying to call you all aft-"
"Sir!" called a sharp voice from the hall beyond Dexter. "Sir, step away from the door! Now!"
"I'm allowed to answer the door, Sergeant!" Dexter growled at his bodyguard, his accent thickening.
"No, you are not, sir!" insisted Sgt. Morton, stomping down the hall in his big boots. "Not when your sisters aren't here!"
Dexter muttered to himself as he caught hold of Ben's wrist and yanked him inside. He slammed and locked the door, effectively shutting out the cold and rain and the whole rest of the world. Ben closed his eyes as a sense of security that had nothing to do with Morton's role and everything to do with being home washed over him.
"Happy?" demanded the boy, clearly enjoying the chance to lock horns with his head of security.
"No," Morton replied in like tones. He was one of the few people that could give the owner of DexCorp International backtalk and commands and get away with it. Chip Morton had the distinction - unfortunate or otherwise - of being Dexter's particular favorite and he was invariably chosen to shadow his young boss around whenever Dexter ventured beyond the confines of his corporate headquarters. He broke off as he spotted Ben dripping and miserable. Annoyance switched to concern. "Sir, get him inside. I'll find some dry clothes and let your father know he's here."
"Come on, Ben," Dexter said softly, tugging his sleeve. Moments later Ben was seated in front of the fireplace with a blanket draped over his shoulders despite his wet clothes and listening to Dexter as he tugged Ben's soaked sneakers off his feet. "Thank you for getting word to General Shaan. He called yesterday and I managed to walk him and some repair techs through the adjustments on the Null-Voids the Netians are using. They were very relieved. Your cousin called DexLabs looking for you, too. I'll have Mr. Green contact her and let her know you're here. She was worried you might not be feeling well." He set the hightops by the fireplace to dry, somehow managing not to freak out at the mud on his purple gloves, and he gave Ben a concerned look. "She was right."
Ben found himself the focus of all attention as Professor Utonium joined them and immediately kicked up a fuss over his soggy, shivering state. Before he could dodge, the scientist was toweling his hair dry. A small cry of pain escaped him as Utonium rubbed where he'd been hit in the head.
"I thought as much," said the Professor. "Sit still, Ben. Dexter, get the medical kit in my office."
Gentle hands probed the sore area. Ben found himself on the receiving end of a thorough examination as Dr. Patrick Utonium put his first doctorate to work. Dexter stood close by the entire time, silently watching and trying not to show his anxiety as damages to his best friend were assessed.
Asked Utonium, "What happened?"
"Cravens," he muttered, the warmth from the fire going far to relax his tired body. He flinched in discomfort as Utonium flashed a penlight in his eyes. "Over in Splitsville. Turns out they like to drop rocks on people. Big ones."
"Good aim," said Morton in quiet appreciation, setting a sweat suit from his Annapolis days on the floor by Ben.
"I was hard to miss. There were about thirty of me."
"Well, Mr. Tennyson, you have a concussion," said Utonium, sitting back on his heels. "Luckily it's not too severe. Any other symptoms?"
He should have recognized his condition. He'd had plenty of concussions growing up. "Stomach ache. Headache. Tired. Dizzy."
"I'll get you some pain killers, but you're going to lie down and rest. You need to get out of those wet clothes, too. You don't need a cold on top of a concussion."
"Can't I just sit here?" Ben whined, very reluctant to move.
"I'll stay with him," Dexter quickly volunteered, looking up at his father with determined eyes.
There was a pause as Utonium considered. He glanced at his companions, then nodded. "All right."
He roused reluctantly, blinking awake to see Professor Utonium crouched beside the sofa. A faint smile touched the man's lips as Ben mumbled a bit of nonsense and clumsily wiped at his face.
"Sorry to wake you again. I just want to make sure you're getting better, not worse."
"Please don't ask me who was the thirty-fourth postmaster general or who discovered argon gas," muttered Ben. "It didn't come to me in a dream."
Astonished, Utonium exclaimed in a whisper, "Did Dexter really ask you that?"
Ben nodded, and the two of them had a quiet laugh over Dexter's notion of checking Ben's memory. Ben had been forced to remind Baby Einstein that he was supposed to be checking for a concussion, not a brain transplant.
"Only Dexter," said the man, shaking his head in delight. He glanced over to where his ward was curled up on the living room floor beneath a mound of blankets before turning back to Ben. "He was very worried about you earlier. With good reason, it seems."
"Sorry to be a pain."
"You're not a pain, Ben. You've watched over Dexter plenty of times. He's so happy to be able to return the favor." As he spoke Utonium checked Ben for any signs of fever. The medical doctor in him was satisfied the teenager would be all right with a few days of rest, but the father in him sensed a deeper, more painful problem than a concussion. "When did you get hit in the head?"
"Early yesterday morning."
"You couldn't have been alone in Splitsville. Didn't anyone notice?"
"Not enough to say anything."
"What's wrong, Ben? Something's happened. What is it?"
He sighed, looking for the right words. It was so easy to talk to this man, so instead of trying to be eloquent, he just rambled and trusted that Utonium would understand. "I'm just . . . tired of having to defend myself against people for not being what they want. The Plumbers don't want me except when I'm useful to them. Gwen thinks Dexter's just using me. Kevin said the same thing, then told me to shut up . . . so I did."
"Why would they think something like that?"
He raised his left arm to display the Omnitrix. By the faint light from the kitchen he could see the flash of confusion on the Professor's face followed by a frown.
"They think Dexter only likes you because of the Omnitrix?"
He nodded and shrugged in the same gesture. "Kevin only sees a bank account when Dexter comes up in conversation. Gwen seems threatened by my being friends with him. I think the Plumbers are annoyed because I have more access to him than they do."
"With good reason," Utonium muttered. His frown vanished, replaced by a look of deep concern. "Ben, you know that's not the case."
"Have you told them the things you two have gone through?"
"Yeah. Too often for Kevin's taste."
"Oh." It was Utonium's turn to sigh. "I'm sorry. If it helps, I'm so grateful you took me up on that favor to keep an eye on him. You were exactly what Dexter needed this past summer and he needs you even more now." He smiled, pulling the covers up to keep Ben warm. "Every scientist alive would like to get their hands on the Omnitrix, Ben. Dexter's no exception, but he just wants to get hold of it because you're attached to it."
Settling down amidst the blankets and pillows, Ben returned the smile. Sleep was rapidly overtaking him and he barely noticed when Utonium finished smoothing the covers and stole away. He was almost asleep when he heard movement, and he cracked his eyes open to see a blanket-wrapped Dexter standing beside the couch. Without his glasses on there was no way Dexter was going to be able to tell if Ben was awake or not, so poor was his vision. Ben spared him.
"Ben. I'm sorry."
"Don't be. You're not the problem. They are."
Dexter nodded his understanding and settled on the floor. He leaned against the couch, reluctant to be further away in case there was need. He had sat with Ben all through the evening and late into the night, watching over him and guarding his sleep. Then, as now, words had not been necessary. Ben was not going anywhere for a few days - they would have plenty of time to talk about what had happened. Right now it was enough for each boy to know he had a friend close at hand. Ben loosened one of the pillows under his head and pushed it over toward the genius.
"Go back to sleep. I'll be right here," promised Dexter, taking the pillow.
"Good," he whispered, unable to keep his eyes open another minute.
"They're called Frightening Bugs. They're traveling in a swarm of about twenty. They tend to keep to tree level and can discharge lightening bolts when agitated-"
"Which is always."
"Yes, thank you, Number Four," grumbled Number One, giving his subordinate a scowl. He pushed his dark glasses back into place on his nose and looked at the combat team he was briefing here in the Sector V tree house. Most were KND operatives or veterans of Earth's Combined Forces, plus a few teenagers including Ben Tennyson and Kevin Levin. His sunglasses served their purpose and allowed him to study the two warriors without being noticed. Ben he had no worries about, but he was rather reluctant to rely heavily on Levin. Though Ben hadn't said anything, it was evident to Nigel Uno that there was a considerable amount of tension between the two. Still, there had not been any reports of them not being able to work together as well as ever, and this mission needed them both. "They've ambushed two teams already - one Urban Rangers and one ECF - and destroyed a Providence scout ship." He pointed to a map on the wall. "They've taken up residence here, in the Twisted Forest."
A small groan spread through the room at the mention of the weird and aptly named woodland.
"Your mission will be to find and eradicate the swarm," he said over the voices. Immediately silence fell. "They're Fusion monsters. Concentrated Null-Void laser fire will destroy them. Yes, 292?"
The KND officer lowered her hand. "Anything else we should know about that's been reported in there?"
Number One shook his head. "We don't know. The two teams didn't last very long and had to be airlifted out due to heavy casualties. Keep alert for more than Frightening Bugs. You'll need to stay together and back one another up at all times. Equipment and supplies have been readied by Number Five. Are there any questions?" He looked around but no one stirred. Young though they may be, they were professionals. "Very well. You head out in the morning. Good luck to you all."
- Fin -