A/N: This is the last chapter. Thank you everyone who read or reviewed Pipeline. Most of all, thank you to lightningbird for betaing and the many reviews!
Of all the stories (of varying states of quality and completion) I've written over the years, this has become one of my favorites. Kevin's a hard character to let go, which is funny, because I didn't give him much thought before I started writing this. Until I started working on this story, I'd never heard a character's voice so distinctly in my head.
I don't know if I'll ever write these characters again, but they've always been dear to me.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. If you have time, please review!
They couldn't wait around forever. Even though it killed them a little bit more inside each time they had to leave, there was much to be done. So they found themselves taking shifts at Ben's bedside during the day, and then hanging around as a group during the night.
When it was his turn, Kevin let himself look at Ben—really look at him. It felt too awkwardly personal in front of the others, so he hadn't really glanced at his friend other to make sure he was still breathing before. He wasn't sure how to look at Ben without getting some weird or mushy look on his face, so he tried not to look at him as much as possible.
It occurred to him that the entire situation just seemed wrong, especially the fact that Ben was so still. That was the thing with Tennyson—he was loud and constantly moving, even in his sleep. He was always humming or tapping his foot, or drumming his fingers on the table, sometimes all at once. And even though in recent months Ben had been… off, for lack of a better word, he was still Ben underneath all of the stress and the pressure. But the absolutely still form on the bed just didn't match up to Kevin's memory of Ben.
He could never understand why people in books and movies always seemed to talk to unconscious people. He always thought it seemed silly, even now that he found himself in that very situation. But the silence was deafening, so Kevin justified it by telling himself that he was only doing it to fill the empty space rather than pour his heart out or make himself feel better.
"So, um, hi," he blurted suddenly, unable to handle the dead air any longer.
It felt too intimate, sitting right next to Ben like that. What was he going to do next—hold his hand? It felt like it was something he was supposed to do, but that wasn't Kevin, and that wasn't the way he worked. So he just talked.
"I'm here," he continued. "Y'know, if that means anything to you, or if you can even hear me. I'm here, and I'm not going anywhere."
The silence didn't feel so unnecessary anymore, though he wasn't sure why. He almost laughed at himself—was he really here to get something off his chest? No, not really. After all, he needed Ben to respond. He wasn't going to tell Ben what he had told Professor Utonium when he was like this. He wasn't going to do that unless he knew he had Ben's full attention; they owed each other that much.
This felt stupid. Ben was going to wake up, even if it took a little while. There wasn't a question about it, not in Kevin's mind. Sure, he had been worried that first night, but nothing had changed, and no news was good news, right? This wasn't like Buttercup; he didn't have to recite a monologue about brotherly love and all they experienced together because Ben was going to wake up and be fine. As touching as Ace's speech to his dying wife had been (and as much Kevin would never, ever forget it), he refused to believe for a moment that Ben was on his deathbed.
If he didn't acknowledge the fear, than it didn't exist, right? He suddenly wondered who had taught him that along the way. Was it the injured boy in the bed, or was it his painful, angst-filled childhood? Could he really keep blaming how messed up he was on half-remembered experiences and dreams?
The truth was, he couldn't handle himself without Ben. He was so used to the way things were that he refused to acknowledge that he was frightened for his friend. Without Ben, would he be headed back in the wrong direction again? It scared him more than anything else, because just that thought made him feel selfish.
As he left for lunch, he passed Dexter. They didn't say hello, nod at one another, or even wave, but they made eye contact, and Kevin figured that was good enough. He certainly wasn't going to let Dexter know what was worrying him. They were getting along for Ben's sake, but they'd never be friends. Their egos would never let them get to that point.
The next time he visited, he stayed silent the whole time. Ben didn't care about the mushy stuff. He was going to wake up soon, and things would be back to normal.
While he still couldn't get over how awkward it felt to talk to someone who was unconscious, he found himself occasionally speaking to Ben anyway. "Look, I've got some stuff I need to say to you, and we've got to talk. You promised, remember? I'm only saying this stuff once, so you better be awake to listen to it."
The next time, he started to inwardly panic.
"Listen, man, this is getting ridiculous. You're usually the first one to start nagging about 'contributing to the war effort,' and while I understand that you just got the crap beaten out of you, I don't think there's any reason you should still be sleeping. So wake up, dumbass," he said, but it didn't come out as forceful as he would have liked.
"Please," he begged, his voice cracking as the silence became too much to bear. "You promised, Ben," he added sadly. "You promised."
Could they—Gwen, Dexter, and Julie, and all the other people he found himself interacting with at the hospital—could they see how bothered he was? He certainly hoped not. He could barely admit to himself that he was falling apart, that this failure—the fact that he couldn't save Ben—was too much.
He now preferred visiting Ben alone, he decided. There was no reason to pretend if no one was watching. Most of the time, they kept their vigil to an organized schedule of bedside shifts, and the security was pretty tight, so it was usually only the small intimate group of them.
One day, however, he was surprised to see a familiar pink blur along the edges of his vision while he was sitting with Ben.
"Oh," Blossom said flatly as she came in the room. Kevin had never seen anything faze her, not even her sister's death, so it was odd to hear her get caught off guard. He wasn't sure if her "Oh," had to do with seeing him, seeing the sorry state Ben was in, or a mixture of both.
He wasn't exactly sure that she knew, either.
"Um, hi," she greeted, hastily, not really looking at him. Instead, she stared intently at Ben's injured body in the bed.
Truthfully, it made Kevin feel slightly uncomfortable.
She soon made her way to the window, where she set a vase of blue flowers on the windowsill. With her small, capable hands, she rearranged them so that they'd fluff out a bit more.
She's kind of weird, Kevin thought, in a put-together kind of way. He was having a hard time looking at her; his mind wanted to compare her to her dead sister.
The two sisters were all at once surprisingly similar and incredibly different. Where Buttercup's movements and thoughts were quick and impulsive, Blossom's were precise and calculated. There was something in their mannerisms that was refreshingly familiar, though; the way they moved was nearly identical, even if the way they got there was different. They were like two different squares, one made of dots and the other of dashes. Both had four corners and made the same shape, but they had a different way of going about it, a different composition entirely.
She turned to face him. "What?" she said, eyebrow raised.
Kevin blinked. "Huh?"
Blossom wrapped her arms around herself and sat down in the chair opposite him. "You were staring at me," she explained in a thin whisper. Buttercup's electric energy wasn't there, at least not anymore. He always thought it was a Powerpuff thing, but maybe he was wrong. It wouldn't be the first time he misjudged someone. If this war had taught him anything, it was to look beyond first impressions.
"Oh. Sorry," he apologized. "It's just…You're kind of like her. A lot. I guess I never really noticed."
Her pink eyes seemed to fill with a kind of blunt intensity, not unlike one her sister wore. There was a difference, though—where Buttercup's eyes were wild and curious, Blossom's seemed hesitant and hurt. "No," she answered coldly, staring at her feet. "Not really. Not at all."
"You'd be surprised," Kevin commented. The kindness in his own voice surprised him. Why was he even bothering? The girl obviously hated his guts. She reminded him of Gwen, a bit too, but without the excitement for life and learning.
It was kind of scary, actually.
She looked up and glared at him. "And you'd know, because you knew her so well?"
He wasn't quite sure what to say to her. She was obviously still hurting, and he didn't know how to talk to her, how to fix this, without making things worse. "Towards the end… Yeah. I did," he told her, nodding.
Blossom looked like she'd just been punched in the stomach. "And you're saying I didn't?" The accusation hung heavily in the air between them, and while he was determined to keep it from bothering him, Kevin realized that it did.
Kevin shook his head hastily. "No, that's not what I said at all."
"But you thought it," she spat, her words cutting. It hurt a bit when she spoke. Half of the time if Buttercup said something bitchy, everyone knew that she didn't really mean it. She was just impulsive like that, and she rarely thought before she spoke. Blossom, on the other hand, had clearly thought out her words before she said them—and all of the venom behind them was purposeful.
"No," Kevin added quietly. "No, I didn't."
Blossom didn't respond, and it occurred to Kevin that it looked like she might cry, that she'd had the same sad expression on her face since the moment she walked into Ben's hospital room. She pressed her full pink lips together tightly and stared at Ben's still form in the bed.
She seemed to find the words in the angry red gashes and purpling bruises on Ben's face. "I'm getting really tired of losing the people I care about," Blossom finally whispered after a few moments of silence. She pinched her mouth shut, making it very small. He recognized it from her dead sister—Buttercup wore the same look when she was being "regrettably honest," as she'd once described it.
Oh, how he missed her, Kevin realized.
In one sentence, Blossom had summed up what they were all feeling. He spent the next few seconds of silence quietly agreeing with her, feeling heat reach his cheeks in an off sort of prickly flush.
"You're not alone, you know," Kevin admitted. "We're all sick of watching our friends get picked off one by one."
"She was my sister," Blossom said with an icy tone, so snotty that Kevin remembered why he thought of her as the "Ice Queen" behind her back.
"She was my friend!" Kevin exclaimed, surprised that she had pulled the family card on him. "And I didn't know her very long, but that didn't mean that I didn't appreciate her as much as you did, or anyone else." He was getting pissed off at himself, and at her. It was all he could take not to start screaming, but instead he just spoke through his teeth.
She shut her eyes and shook her head in disbelief. "You barely even knew her," she scoffed, almost brushing off their friendship as if it was as important as a kindergarten crush.
Kevin had enough of her attitude by this point, and finally cracked. "I was with her when she died!"
Blossom's eyes snapped open, and again she looked like she'd been physically assaulted. Her mouth gaped. "Don't you think I wanted to be? Don't you think I don't know what everyone thinks—that I chose saving everyone else over her? Don't you think I know that?"
Kevin couldn't do more than breathe, all of the wind knocked out of him by her words. How could she think that? He understood the battle between duty and love more than anyone else. "Nobody thinks that, Blossom," he told her, meaning every word of it. "Nobody. I know I don't."
"Y-you don't?" she asked, lip quivering.
"No, I don't."
She sniffed, and pushed away a tear. "I can't… I couldn't cry about it before. I wanted to, but Bubbles needed me, and the Professor was just so upset, and Dexter felt so guilty, and—"
"You needed to be there for your family," he finished quietly, understanding.
She gave him a tight-lipped smile, scaring him a bit with the sad knowing look in her eyes. Whatever she was about to tell him would hurt him, apparently—understanding it would hurt both of them.
"I knew she was dying, you know. The last time I saw her. She was so pale, and so sick... And she just wasn't herself. Everything felt so forced. Buttercup never had to try and act a certain way before… She just felt things, and... I could just tell. You know, the last time I talked to her was almost a week before she died. How horrible is that?"
Kevin replied, "She knew you were doing your best. She wanted you to be able to fight back, especially because she couldn't."
He'd spent quite a bit of time telling Ace something similar, so this conversation was nothing new to him. He could tell that Blossom could sense how removed he was starting to feel from this process, and it only seemed to egg her on even more.
"I wanted to be with her," Blossom insisted. "Even if she wasn't… dying. I should have been there for my sister. For my niece. I should have been there," she said tearfully.
He almost wanted to put a comforting hand on her shoulder, but that would be touchy-feely, so he just kept talking. "She didn't want you to see her like that. It wasn't exactly a nice thing to watch."
Blossom blinked back tears, but they came down anyway. "She didn't—want—me—there! I know that, but…" She was absolutely blubbering now, and the sudden switch from the cool and collected Ice Queen to this sobbing mess of a girl was unnerving. "I should've been there anyway! I should've known that she needed me, that she didn't have long. That if I waited, it would be too late. I should have been there and… said goodbye. Told her what she meant to me. But I didn't!"
Kevin bit his lip, and didn't respond for a moment. "I don't know what to tell you, Blossom."
"She was my best friend, you know—even if I didn't always show it. When we lost her the first time, it was the uncertainty of the whole thing that kept me going. Something in me knew that she wasn't dead, that we couldn't have lost her like that. I knew we'd find her, that someday I'd have the chance to tell her everything. I always meant to tell her that I loved her, that part of me loved when she fought with me because it made me think, that we were better people because we forced each other to work harder and become stronger.
"But then she came back, and she wasn't the same person anymore. She was still the same girl, with the same values, but there was something different about her. She seemed older, maybe more mature, and I guess I expected that when we found her, it would be like she never left. But she had things she couldn't share with me—like Ace, and falling in love. She'd always been rather carefree, but she'd finally accepted that as a way of life.
"And I was angry about it, because I wanted things to be the way they were. The way things had always been. Suddenly, she wasn't around to challenge me, to make me think—I had to be on my toes, all the time, just making sure I was making the right decisions. And I resented her for that, and I thought she wasn't there for me. In reality, it was the other way around. And now I'll never—get that—back," Blossom sobbed, the tears running down her cheeks in streams.
Kevin thought back to the day he'd heard about Ace and Buttercup's engagement, when he'd had a picnic with Ben and Gwen. Oh, how things had changed since then! Things were so different now that it was almost painful.
"You could hear Blossom and Buttercup yelling all the way in the cul-de-sac," Ben said.
"She and Blossom have not been getting along at all," Gwen chimed in. "Blossom's used to being the leader, but some time away from her sisters has given Buttercup some independence, and I don't think Blossom's okay with that."
"It's not her life. I've worked with Blossom before, and I think that's just how she shows love. Dexter said that Blossom was really worked up over Buttercup's disappearance. I think she's really upset that it's so soon…" Ben trailed off.
He suddenly really, really missed Ben. He missed his offbeat wisdom, the way he spoke from experience… And most of all, his insight. Ben was an excellent sounding board because he was honest and a good listener.
And shit, he really needed that right now.
"I really need Ben to wake up," Kevin said, and it was the first he'd admitted it to another person. "What you just said, about Buttercup challenging you? I have that with Ben. And I can't—I won't—lose that."
Blossom sniffed and stood up. "He's not gone, Kevin. Just remember that. Tell him that. I wish every moment of every day that I had told my sister what she had meant to me before she died. She was my best friend, and I'll never get to tell her how much I loved her."
He nodded in response, not quite knowing what to say. Blossom put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "He'll be okay, Kevin, because he has you. He has you, and Gwen, and Dexter, and all of these people who love him."
Kevin looked up at her. "It wasn't enough for Buttercup," he sighed, and while part of him felt bad for saying it in front of her grieving sister, he knew they were both thinking it and it needed to be said.
"Sometimes being strong isn't enough. Being brave, and good, and determined isn't enough. Sometimes things just happen," Blossom whispered sadly, and it occurred to him that he had heard those words somewhere before.
The pink Powerpuff left the room, sketching a wave and a leaving a sincere, "Thank you." It was only when he turned back to Ben that he realized that they were his words.
Blossom was merely echoing what he had told her after Buttercup's death.
Kevin was only half paying attention to what was going on outside. That stupid kid in the orange hat was trying—and failing—to play Frisbee with that little pink dog, Courage. The dog kept running away and hiding in a bush every time the disc came towards him. He covered his head with his tiny paws, fervently shaking his head.
The dark-haired teenager laughed from where he watched by the window. He had needed to stretch his legs a bit, and his broken arm was rather sore, so he'd taken to standing for the past ten or fifteen minutes. "Dumb dog," he snorted, an amused smirk gracing his hard features for the first time in days. "It's just plastic."
"What's… just plastic?" a weak voice rasped from the bed, followed by the slightest of coughs.
Kevin turned from the window without any hesitation. He couldn't stop the grin from spreading across his face when he saw Ben's eyes open, much brighter than the last time he had seen them, the oxygen mask pulled to his neck. "It's about time, Tennyson," he said, but he couldn't hide the relief in his voice. It came out as little more than nervous laughter, but it quickly released the anxiety he'd been hiding away.
Ben laughed, or tried to, sounding as if his vocal cords had been through a shredder and then taped back together. Still, his thin and breathy wheeze was something, and it reminded Kevin that his friend was alive and talking, so he tried not to think about it.
"Here, I should get the doctor," Kevin reasoned, moving to leave.
"No," Ben countered with much more force than Kevin thought he was capable of in his current state. "You've… I've made you wait long enough, Kevin." He sounded out of breath already.
"Ben," Kevin responded quietly, and much softer than he usually let people hear for fear that they wouldn't respect him. "It's okay."
"Really," he insisted, lightly placing the oxygen mask back on Ben's face where it belonged with a foreign and gentle care, working to avoid jostling his fractured collarbone. "It's alright. I can wait."
Ben looked at Kevin's hand touching him and slowly backed down, relaxing back into the bed. He nodded, his lips twisting into a weak smile behind the mask. Kevin returned it as he spun around and left the room.
They didn't smile at each other often. Usually, they just argued, and the extent of their positive interactions with each other consisted of immature jokes, punching each other in the shoulder, and laughing when the other did something stupid. But when they were in battle together, everything changed. They didn't have to say anything to each other; they just got it. They were first and foremost friends. Ben remembered. Ben remembered that something was bothering him, and was good enough a friend to bring it up.
This was like a battle, Kevin understood as he left to get the doctor. He couldn't banish the smile from his face; he was just happier than he'd been in months. They had different lives now, with different friends, ideas, and responsibilities, yet the same all at once. They could be apart for weeks or months at a time and snap right back into their old ways and dysfunctional dynamic without much adjustment. This was going to suck—making sure Ben didn't hurt himself trying to bounce back from his injuries too quickly, but they'd get through it, like they always did.
It wasn't fair, the way they had to learn all of this on their feet. Some of them would survive, and some of them wouldn't. He thought of those who had died—particularly Buttercup and Mac—and realizing that Ben would survive, he felt something foreign to him—hope. But everything was connected in some weird way, and he was beginning to get the feel of it all. This training academy was going to change things, he believed, and as soon as Ben was back on his feet, Kevin decided that he'd do anything and everything in his power to help him get it off the ground.
Oh, how their priorities had changed! There was a day when all they wanted was to get by, to beat the next alien, to save the world. But it was usually some quick and draining thing, not a war.
This was their life right now. They were fighting to stay one step ahead of the enemy. One day when this was finally all over (and yes, he dared to dream of such a day), their priorities would change once more. They'd search for some way to find an element of stability in their changing world, like they had done when the war had started.
But he and Ben were lucky, Kevin thought with a rare and genuine smile. They could adapt.
That's what would save them—and their friendship. And no one, no genius, rock star, or war could get between that.